Sargon's descendants – the Sargonids, as they are sometimes called – governed Assyria in unbroken succession for almost a century (704 – 609 B.C.), bringing the Assyrian empire to its farthest limits and the Assyrian civilization to its zenith. Yet the wars of Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, which through the inflated language of the royal inscriptions look like glorious wars of conquest, were, at their best, nothing but successful counter-attacks. At the end of Sargon's reign the Assyrians ruled, directly or indirectly, over the entire Fertile Crescent and over parts of Iran and Asia Minor. They had a window on the Mediterranean and a window on the Gulf; they controlled the entire course of the Tigris and the Euphrates as well as the great trade routes crossing the Syrian desert, the Taurus and the Zagros. Supplied with all kinds of goods and commodities by their subjects, vassals and allies, they lived in prosperity and could have lived in peace, had it not been for the increasingly frequent revolts provoked by their oppressive policy and encouraged – at least in Palestine and Babylonia – by Egypt and Elam. The conquest of Egypt by Esarhaddon and the destruction of Elam at the hands of Ashurbanipal were therefore neither long-range razzias in the traditional style nor the fruits of a planned strategy: they were defensive measures taken by these monarchs to put an end to an unbearable situation; they represent the final outcome of long and bitter conflicts more imposed upon Assyria by her enemies than desired by her. In this endless struggle the Assyrians used up their strength, ruined their own possessions and failed to pay sufficient attention to the capital event which was taking place during that time behind the screen of the Zagros: the formation of a powerful Median kingdom, the future instrument oftheir downfall. About 640 B.C. when total victory seemed at last achieved, when Ashurbanipal rose in triumph over all the foes of Assyria, it suddenly became apparent that the colossus had feet of clay.
As implied by his name, Sennacherib – Sin-ahhê-eriba, ‘the god Sin has compensated (the death of) the brothers’ – was not Sargon's first-born son, but for some untold reason he was chosen as his legitimate heir, brought up in the ‘House of Succession’ and entrusted early with high administrative and military functions, especially on the northern frontier. He was thus well prepared for his royal duties when in 704 B.C. he ascended the throne of Assyria.1
Throughout his reign the northern and eastern frontiers, once the theatre of so many of his father's wars, were comparatively calm. Sargon's victories in Kurdistan, in Armenia and in the Taurus had struck such damaging blows at Urartu and Phrygia that they were no longer to be feared as potential aggressors. Moreover, these two nations were under attack by a new enemy: the Cimmerians (Assyr. Gimirrai), a warlike people from southern Russia, which at the end of the eighth century had crossed the Caucasus and entered Western Asia.2 Already during the last years of Sargon's reign the Cimmerians, established in what is at present the Republic of Georgia, had risen in revolt against their Urartian suzerain and inflicted upon him a crushing defeat.3 Now they were pushing forward along the southern shore of the Black Sea, in the folds of the Pontic range, harassing both Phrygia and her western neighbour, the young and fabulously rich kingdom of Lydia. At the same time other Cimmerians were penetrating the north-western corner of Iran, making alliance with the Mannai and the Medes. Sennacherib was no doubt informed of these events, but he was unable to intervene in these far-away regions. The four campaigns he launched to the north and the west were of medium scale and medium range; they were directed not against the Cimmerians or the Medes, but against restive vassals: princes of the central Zagros, city-chiefs of Kurdistan, rulers of Cilicia – probably supported by Ionian troops4 – and one of the kings of Tabal.
In reality, the attention of Sennacherib was almost entirely absorbed by the extremely serious rebellions which had broken out in the Mediterranean districts and in Babylonia as soon as the news of Sargon's death was made public. In Phoenicia and Palestine Egyptian propaganda had persuaded Lulê, King of Sidon, Sidka, King of Ascalon, Ezekiah, King of Judah, and the inhabitants of Ekron to sever their links with Nineveh. In his fourth year of reign (701 B.C.) Sennacherib went forth to chastise the rebels. Lulê fled to Cyprus, Sidka was carried away to Assyria, an Egyptian army sent to the rescue of Ekron was defeated, and in all these cities more friendly rulers were put upon the throne. Then Sennacherib attacked Judah, besieged and captured the strongly fortified town of Lachish5 and sent an army against Jerusalem. Here must be placed the dramatic scene described in the Second Book of Kings.6 Over the wall of the sacred city three of Ezekiah's officials parley ‘in the Jews’ language' with three dignitaries of the Assyrian court – the turtânu, the rab-shaqê and the rab-sharish. The Assyrians mock the Jews, who trust ‘upon the staff of this bruised reed, Egypt’, promise ‘two thousand horses’ if they capitulate and finally resort to threats. But Ezekiah, encouraged by Isaiah the prophet, stubbornly refuses to open the gates of Jerusalem. A compromise is reached; the Assyrians withdraw and the city is spared, but at what price! Ezekiah has to give 30 talents of gold, 800 talents of silver, ‘all kind of valuable treasures as well as his daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians’, not counting several cities cut off from his land and given to the Philistines. It has long been thought that later in his reign Sennacherib had launched a second campaign in Palestine and, from there, planned to invade Egypt. He had already reached Pelusium (Tell el Farama, thirty miles east of the Suez canal) when his camp was ravaged ‘by the angel of the Lord, who went out at night and smote one hundred fourscore and five thousand’, says the Bible, ‘by a legion of rats gnawing everything in the weapons that was made of rope or leather’, says Herodotus, or, as Berossus tells us, ‘by a pestilential sickness’ killing ‘185,000 men with their commanders and officers’.7 However, this episode is very controversial and rejected by most scholars.
In Babylonia the situation was far worse than in Palestine, and the war against the Aramaeans and their Elamite allies went on during most of Sennacherib's reign.8 In 703 B.C. a year after he ascended the throne, Sargon's old rival, Marduk-apal-iddina (Merodach-Baladan), left Elam, where, it will be remembered, he had taken refuge, and assisted by Elamite officers and troops raised the entire Aramaean population of southern Iraq against the Assyrians, entered the capital-city and proclaimed himself King of Babylon. A few weeks later the King of Assyria led his armies against him. Defeated under the walls of Kish, the Chaldaean escaped and hid ‘in the midst of the swamps and marshes’ where he could not be found. Sennacherib plundered his palace, captured innumerable prisoners, deported 208,000 persons to Assyria and gave Babylon a king of his choice, Bêl-ibni, ‘the son of a master-builder’ who had grown up in Nineveh ‘like a young puppy’. But three years later Merodach-Baladan reappeared in Bit-Iakin, his native country, and stirred up enough trouble to provoke a second Assyrian intervention. Bêl-ibni, more than suspect of collusion with the rebels, was taken away and replaced by Sennacherib's own son, Ashur-nadin-shumi. As for Merodach-Baladan, he refused to offer battle:
He gathered together the gods of his whole land in their shrines, and loaded them into ships and fled like a bird to the (Elamite) swampland of Nagite, which is in the midst of the sea.9
Six relatively peaceful years elapsed. Then in 694 B.C., under pretext of capturing the Elamite cities ‘on the other side of the Bitter River, whither the people of Bît-Iakin had scattered before the mighty weapons of Ashur’, Sennacherib organized a formidable combined land and sea operation aimed at securing for the Assyrians an access to the Gulf through the hostile Sea-Land.10 A fleet of ships, built at Nineveh by Syrian craftsmen and manned by Phoenician and Cypriot sailors, was sent down the Tigris as far as Upâ (Opis).11 There it was necessary to change rivers, probably because the Tigris in those days emptied its waters into extensive swamps and its lower course was not navigable. The ships were therefore carried overland to the Arahtu canal and continued their course on the Euphrates, while the army advanced on dry land. The meeting-point was at Bab-Salimeti, near the mouth of the river. The Assyrian troops embarked, crossed the head of the Gulf, landed in Elamite territory, conquered a few cities and returned loaded with spoil. Of Marduk-apal-iddina there is no longer question and we know that he died in exile. But the Elamites immediately retaliated. Hallushu (Halutush-Inshushinak), their king, invaded Mesopotamia, took Sippar. The Babylonians then seized Ashur-nadin-shumi and handed him over to the Elamites, who sent him to Iran where he disappeared, probably murdered.12 Hallushu put on the throne of Babylon one of his favourites, soon expelled by the Assyrians and replaced by Mushezib-Marduk, a Chaldaean prince chosen by the local population. Again, there was a general upheaval of the inhabitants of Babylonia against the Assyrians. In 689 B.C. they used the treasures of Marduk's temple to buy the help of the then new King of Elam, Umman-menanu (Humban-nimena). A great battle took place at Hallulê, on the Tigris. Described as a victory in the Assyrian records, it was in fact a near-defeat.13 Blind with rage, Sennacherib avenged himself on Babylon and dared to accomplish the unthinkable: he destroyed the illustrious and sacred city, the second metropolis of the empire, the ‘bond of heaven and earth’ which his forebears had always treated with infinite patience and respect:
‘As a hurricane proceeds, I attacked it and, like a storm, I overthrew it… Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare and with their corpses I filled the streets of the city… The town itself and its houses, from their foundations to their roofs I devastated, I destroyed, by fire I overthrew… In order that in future even the soil of its temples be forgotten, by water I ravaged it, I turned it into pastures.
‘To quiet the heart of Ashur, my lord, that peoples should bow in submission before his exalted might, I removed the dust of Babylon for presents to the (most) distant peoples, and in that Temple of the New Year Festival (in Assur) I stored up (some) in a covered jar.’14
The great gods of Sumer and Akkad could not leave such a crime unpunished. Eight years later in Nineveh, on the twentieth day of Tebet (January 681 B.C.), Sennacherib, while praying in a temple, met with the end he deserved: he was stabbed to death by one of his sons or, according to another version, crushed by the winged bulls that protected the sanctuary.15
Brutal and cowardly – most of his wars were fought by his generals – Sennacherib has been severely judged. Yet let us give him his due: the king who destroyed Babylon did an enormous amount of constructive work in Assyria. Not only were temples and public buildings erected or restored in several towns and colossal hydraulic works undertaken throughout the country, giving a fresh impulsion to agriculture, but the very old city of Nineveh (Ninua), hitherto a simple ‘royal residence’, was enlarged, fortified, embellished and turned into a capital-city worthy of the vast empire it commanded. Within a few years its circumference passed from three to twelve kilometres, embracing two separate boroughs now represented by the mounds of Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus, opposite Mosul, on the left bank of the Tigris.16 The outer wall, made of great limestone blocks, was ‘raised mountain high’, while the inner wall was pierced by fifteen gates leading in all directions. The squares of the town were widened; its avenues and streets were paved and ‘caused to shine like the day’. In the northern part of the city (Kuyunjik) stood the old palace, but it had been neglected, and an affluent of the Tigris, the Tebiltu river, had ruined its foundations. The monument was torn down, and on a large terrace thrown over the Tebiltu was built Sennacherib's magnificent abode, the ‘Palace without a Rival’:
‘Beams of cedar, the product of mount Amanus, which they dragged with difficulty out of (these) distant mountains, I stretched across their roofs. Great door-leaves of cypress, whose odour is pleasant as they are opened and closed, I bound with a band of shining copper and set them up in their doors. A portico patterned after a Hittite palace, which they call in the Amorite tongue bit hilâni, I constructed inside for my lordly pleasure.’17
Enormous copper pillars resting on lions of bronze were cast in moulds ‘like half-shekel coins’ – a technique which Sennacherib boasts of having invented – and adorned the palace gates. Protective genii of silver, copper and stone were set ‘towards the four winds’. Huge slabs of limestone sculptured with war scenes were dragged through the doors and made to line the walls. Finally, at the side of the palace was opened ‘a great park like unto mount Amanus, wherein were planted all kinds of herbs and fruit-trees’. To increase the vegetation in and around the town, water was brought from far-away districts by means of a canal cut ‘through mountain and lowland’, and the remains of a remarkable aqueduct visible near the village of Jerwan testify to the veracity of the royal annals as well as to the ability of the king's engineer.18 Proud of himself and of his work, Sennacherib liked to be portrayed on the hills of his own country, of this ‘land of Assur’ to which he was fanatically devoted. At Bavian, near Jerwan, at Maltai, near Dohuk, and on the Judi Dagh, on the Turkish-Iraqi frontier,19 can still be seen, carved in the rock, the gigantic image of the ‘mighty king, ruler of widespread peoples’, standing in front of the gods whom he had so gravely offended.
The murder of Sennacherib plunged Assyria into a violent, though fortunately short dynastic crisis, and Esarhaddon* had to conquer by the sword the throne he had legally inherited.20 He was Sennacherib's youngest son, borne of his second wife, the very influential Naqi'a/Zakûtu and the fact that he had been chosen as the crown prince aroused the jealousy of his brothers. In the opening chapter of his annals Esarhaddon tells how their slanderous accusations turned his father's heart against him to the point where he was obliged to leave his own country and seek refuge ‘in a hiding place’ – possibly Cilicia or Tabal. The parricide is not mentioned, but it is clear that Sennacherib was dead when his sons ‘butted each other like kids to take over kingship’, thereby losing popular support among the Assyrians themselves. Encouraged by the gods, the exile hastened towards Nineveh, determined to claim his rights to the throne. The usurpers had deployed their army in the steppe to the west of the Tigris, blocking the road to the capital-city; but no sooner did Esarhaddon attack than their soldiers deserted to him, while the people of Assyria came to meet him and kissed his feet. Making his own army ‘jump over the Tigris as if it be a small ditch’, he entered Nineveh, and in March 681 B.C. ‘sat down happily on the throne of his father’. The wicked brothers had fled ‘to an unknown country’, but the officers who had assisted them were put to death, together with their progeny.21
The first act of the new monarch was to atone for Sennacherib's sin by rebuilding Babylon. The gods in their anger had decreed that the town should lie in ruins for seventy years, but the priests found an easy way of overcoming this difficulty: ‘The merciful Marduk turned the Book of Fate upside down and ordered the restoration of the city in the eleventh year’, for in the cuneiform script the figure 70 becomes 11 when reversed, just as our figure 9 becomes 6. All the people of Kar-Duniash could then be summoned to ‘carry the basket’, and in due course Babylon was not only rebuilt but ‘enlarged, raised aloft and made magnificent’.22 Although the great city was probably not as thoroughly destroyed as Sennacherib would have us believe, the work of restoration occupied the whole reign, and it was not until the accession year of Ashurbanipal (669 B.C) that Marduk and the other gods of Akkad could return from Assur, where they were held captive, to be reinstated in their temples. This act of justice won Esarhaddon the friendship of many of his Babylonian subjects: with the exception of an abortive attempt made in 680 B.C. by Merodach-Baladan's son to capture Ur, there was no serious trouble in southern Iraq during the rest of the reign, and indeed the Babylonians themselves repulsed the Elamite Humba-haldash when in 675 B.C. he invaded their country23 In that other troublesome area of the empire, Phoenicia, Esarhaddon proved that if he could forgive he could also punish. Abdi-Milkuti, King of Sidon, who revolted in 677 B.C., was caught and beheaded; Sidon was ‘torn up and cast into the midst of the sea’, its inhabitants deported to Assyria and its territory given to the rival city of Tyre.24 These drastic measures ensured – at least for a while – peace on the Mediterranean coast and left Esarhaddon free to deal with the serious problems that had arisen along the northern and eastern borders.
At the beginning of his reign another nomadic people from southern Russia, the Scythians (Assyr. Ishkuzai), had crossed the Caucasus and joined the Cimmerians already established in Asia Minor, Armenia and Iran.25 The arrival of these warlike tribes, with which they were closely related, gave a new impetus to the predatory activities of the Cimmerians. In 679 B.C. they suddenly broke through the Taurus mountains, threatening the Assyrian garrisons in Tabal and causing some unrest among the vassal rulers of Cilicia. Esarhaddon swiftly counter-attacked, ‘tramped upon the neck’ of the Cilician rebels and ‘cut with the sword’ Teushpa and his hordes, forcing them to retreat beyond the Kizil-Irmak river. Cimmerians and Scythians then fell upon the kingdom of Phrygia, which they overthrew three years later with the help of the Urartians. Happy to see this human flood diverted from his own kingdom, Esarhaddon made peace with the Cimmerians, gave an Assyrian princess in marriage to the Scythian chief Bartatua (the ‘Protothyes’ of Herodotus) and repelled a weak attack from Rusas II of Urartu. On the eastern side of the Armenian massif, however, the repeated efforts made by the Assyrians to obtain tribute from the Mannai – now under strong Cimmerian and Scythian influence – met with failure, despite claims to the contrary in the royal inscriptions. To the south-east of Lake Urmiah the vast Iranian plateau was occupied by the Medes, in theory under Assyrian control but in fact independent, and this was the time (c. 680 B.C.) when Khshathrita (‘Phraortes’), son of Daiakku (‘Deioces’), was uniting their numerous tribes under his authority. Esarhaddon did all he could to prevent the development of a situation whose immediate effect was to cut down the supply of Median horses to the Assyrian Army and whose remote consequences were perhaps dimly foreseen. Several raids of cavalry were launched across the plateau as far as the desert to the east of Teheran, and three important princes of the Medes, who had begged Esarhaddon's help against their own vassals, were placed under Assyrian protection and imposed regular tribute. Farther south a series of successful operations in the central Zagros and an alliance sealed with the Gambulû – an Aramaean tribe settled on the left bank of the lower Tigris – aimed at forming a barrier of buffer states between Elam and Mesopotamia; but Esarhaddon struck an even greater victory when, after the death of Humba-haldash, he succeeded in putting on the Elamite throne a prince friendly to Assyria: Urtaki (675 B.C.).
While obtaining by a remarkable combination of force and diplomacy a precarious peace in Babylonia, in Phoenicia and along the 2,000 kilometres of his northern and eastern frontiers, Esarhaddon was preparing for his great project: the conquest of Egypt.26Already in 679 B.C. he had captured the city of Arzani ‘on the border of the Brook of Egypt’ (Wadi al ‘Arish, in the Negeb). Then he had endeavoured to win the friendship of the Arabs, by now settled in large numbers in the Syrian desert, since without their cooperation no large-scale military campaign in the south-western regions of the empire could be undertaken. For example, he had given back to its former ruler, Hazail, the stronghold of Adumatu (al Jauf) which Sennacherib had conquered, together with his gods, and when a certain Uabu (Wahab) revolted against Hazail's son the latter received full military support from the Assyrians.27 Finally, in the spring of 671 B.C., when he felt all the frontiers secure and the Arabs friendly or neutral, Esarhaddon led his army into Syria, the first step on the road to Egypt. An attempt was made to besiege Tyre, whose king had revolted, but the city resisted, and no time was wasted in trying to capture it. Marching southwards, the Assyrians reached Rapihu (Tell Rifah, south of Gaza) and crossed the Sinai desert, where they saw, among other dreadful things, ‘two-headed serpents whose attack spelled death’ and ‘green animals whose wings were batting’. After fifteen days of considerable hardship they entered the green land of Egypt.
Despite the strong resistance offered by the pharaoh Taharqa and his army, the conquest of this vast country took surprisingly little time:
‘From the town of Ishhupri as far as Memphis (Mempi), his royal residence, a distance of fifteen days (march), I fought daily, without interruption, very bloody battles against Tahasqa (Tarqû), King of Egypt and Ethiopia, the one accursed by all the great gods. Five times I hit him with the point of (my) arrows (inflicting) wounds (from which he should) not recover, and then I laid siege to Memphis, his royal residence, and conquered it in half a day by means of mines, breaches and assault ladders. His queen, the women of his palace, Ushanahuru, his “heir apparent”, his other children, his possessions, horses, large and small cattle beyond counting I carried away as booty to Assyria. All Ethiopians I deported from Egypt – leaving not even one to do homage (to me). Everywhere in Egypt, I appointed new (local) kings, governors, officers, harbour overseers, officials and administrative personnel. I installed regular sacrificial dues for Ashur and the (other) great gods, my lords, for all times. I imposed upon them tribute due to me (as their) over-lord, (to be paid annually) without ceasing.’28
But Egypt was not to be an easy prey. Two years later, Taharqa came back from the south, where he had fled, recovered Memphis and fomented a rebellion against the Assyrians in the Nile Delta. Esarhaddon was, once again, on his way to Egypt when he fell sick in Harran and died (669 B.C.).
Three years before, in May 672, in the presence of the Army and nobles of Assyria, foreign ambassadors and representatives from subject countries, he had solemnly proclaimed his son Ashurbanipal the legitimate heir to the throne and appointed another of his sons, Shamash-shum-ukîn, viceroy in Babylonia. That same day the vassal princes had signed a long and detailed treaty of loyalty to the crown prince, copies of which have been found at Nimrud.29 Even Esarhaddon's mother, the Aramaean-born Naqia-Zakutu, had thrown the weight of her influence into the balance and obtained from the Babylonians and their future viceroy an oath of allegiance to the future ruler of Assyria.30 Esarhaddon, the brave and wise king who left nothing to chance, had ensured that no dynastic crisis would follow his death.
The change of reign took place smoothly, and the two princes sat upon their respective thrones: Ashurbanipal in Nineveh one month after his father's death, Shamash-shum-ukîn in Babylon one year later. The empire, however, was not divided. In all probability, the purpose of the arrangements made by Esarhaddon was to satisfy his Babylonian subjects by granting them sovereignty, though it had been made clear to all concerned that Ashurbanipal took precedence over his brother. The latter had full authority within his own kingdom; the former held sway over Assyria proper, the distant provinces and the vassal rulers, and was responsible for the conduct of war and the foreign policy of the empire as a whole. It was perhaps an awkward solution, but it worked perfectly well for sixteen years.
With the crown of Assyria Ashurbanipal* (668 – 627 B.C.)31 inherited the task, interrupted by his father's death, of repressing the Egyptian revolt.32 The commander-in-chief (turtânu) was at once dispatched to that remote country with a small army corps which met Taharqa and his troops in the plain south of Memphis. The Assyrians won the battle and recovered the city, but Taharqa escaped them as he had escaped Esarhaddon's army. Ashurbanipal then ordered the formation of a larger armed force composed of Assyrians, Phoenicians, Syrians and Cypriots, but also of Egyptian soldiers recruited in the Nile delta. This army left Memphis and began marching towards Thebes (Assyr. Ni’), but it stopped on its way when the news broke that the princes of Lower Egypt were about to revolt:
All the kings… talked about rebellion and came, among themselves, to the unholy decision: ‘Taharqa has been driven out of Egypt, how can we, ourselves, stay?’ And they sent their mounted messengers to Taharqa, King of Nubia, to establish a sworn agreement: ‘Let there be peace between us and let us come to mutual understanding; we will divide the country between us, no foreigner shall be ruler among us!33
Betrayed by one of them, the conspirators were captured. Some were executed and others – notably Necho, King of Sais – were sent to Nineveh. The Assyrians knew that they could not proceed with their long march leaving behind them an ebullient Delta. Moreover, they were now some two thousand kilometres away from their homeland, in the heart of an unknown and hostile country with utterly foreign languages, customs and religion and which, in any case, they could not rule directly for a lack of administrators and troops in sufficient numbers. The only solution was to forgive and indeed cajole the kings of the Delta and win them over to their side, hoping that their hatred for Taharqa the Kushite (i.e. the Sudanese) would do the rest. Ashurbanipal, therefore, released the prisoners and put his stake on Necho, whose ancestors had reigned over the whole of Egypt. He sent him back to Sais, ‘clad in a brilliant garment’ and loaded with rich presents.
Two years elapsed, during which Taharqa died in exile. In 664 B.C, his son Tanutamûn (whom the Assyrians called Tanda-mane) entered Thebes amidst rejoicing, then sailed down the Nile to Memphis, in the vicinity of which he hit a thin screen of enemy troops, mostly Egyptians, and easily beat them. Necho was killed in the skirmish; the other kings of the Delta took refuge in the marshes whence they could not be dislodged. It was then that the large Assyrian army, stationed somewhere south of Memphis, began to move and march on Thebes. Entering that great and beautiful city at long last, they ransacked and destroyed it ‘as if by a floodstorm’ and carried away ‘booty heavy and beyond counting’, including two tall electrum-coated obelisks, each weighing almost thirty-eight tons. The metropolis of Southern Egypt never recovered from the devastation.
Although the inscriptions of Ashurbanipal are written in the first person, it is very unlikely that he visited Egypt. On the other hand, it seems certain that on two occasions he intervened personally in Phoenicia: in 667 B.C. to ‘put under his yoke’ Iakinlu, King of Arvad, who forced foreign vessels to unload their cargo in his own port instead of the Assyrian port, then in 662 B.C. against Ba'alu of Tyre who refused to continue paying tribute. Tyre which, like Arad, was built on an island but much closer to the Lebanese coast was reputed impregnable: it was besieged, reduced to famine and obliged to surrender. Similar tactics were probably used against Arvad, bringing the same results. Yet the rulers of these two cities were treated with astonishing leniency, no doubt because Ashurbanipal, whose army was fully engaged in the Egyptian venture, could neither afford to lose his Phoenician vassals nor spare troops for other fronts. He merely received the homage of the rebels as well as their presents and their daughters for his harem. For the same reason, he remained deaf to the calls of Gyges (Gugu), King of Lydia in western Anatolia – ‘a distant country whose name the kings, my fathers, had never heard’ – harassed by the Cimmerians. Gyges defended his kingdom alone and proved his success by sending two prisoners of war to Nineveh.34
The victory over Tanuatamûn and the Phoenicians gave Ashurbanipal a few years of respite during which he was able to devote his attention to the northern and eastern frontiers. The chronology of the reign is extremely uncertain, but it is probably between 665 and 655 B.C. that must be placed the campaign against the Mannai and the Medes described in the royal records, perhaps the alliance with Madyes, chief of the Scythians, which was to prove so useful a few years later, and the war against Urtaki, King of Elam, ‘who gave no thought to the good done to him’ by Esarhaddon and ‘overran Akkad like a dense swarm of grasshoppers’35 and was repelled. It seems that the alliance of the Cimmerians with the king of Tabal, their victory over Lydia and the death of Gyges killed in the battle, as well as their foray towards Mesopotamia, checked by the Assyrians, took place between 650 and 640 B.C.
Shortly before the middle of the seventh century the gods, who had always stood at Ashurbanipal's side, suddenly seemed to abandon him. About 655 B.C. Psamtik (Psammetichus I) – possibly a son of Necho – raised the flag of independence in the Nile Delta and, with the help of Ionian and Carian mercenaries, expelled the Assyrians from Egypt, pursuing them as far as Ashdod in Palestine. We owe this information to Herodotus,36 for there is naturally no mention of this disaster in the cuneiform records, except for a passage in the ‘Rassam cylinder’ where Ashurbanipal states that Gyges ‘sent his force to the aid of Tushamilki, King of Egypt, who had thrown off the yoke of his (Ashurbanipal's) sovereignty’. In other times an army would have been sent against Psammetichus, and Egypt would not have slipped so easily out of Assyrian hands. But it so happened that the bulk of the Assyrian army was engaged in a fierce struggle with the Elamites, and Ashurbanipal had to give up Egypt in order to save Mesopotamia. The King of Elam was then Tept-Humban (the Teumman of Assyrian inscriptions), a usurper who, six or seven years before, had seized the throne, obliging the sons of Urtaki to take refuge in Nineveh. War broke out when Teumman demanded their extradition, which Ashurbanipal refused. The Elamites attacked, aided by the unfaithful Gambulû. Driven back into their own country, they were defeated at Tulliz on the Kerkha river. Teumman was killed in the battle; his head was cut off and triumphantly taken to Nineveh, where – as shown in a famous bas-relief – it was hung on a tree in the garden of the royal palace.37 The Gambulû were punished, and Elam was divided between two members of the Urtaki family: Humbanigash and Tammaritu. There, as in Egypt, the Assyrians would not or could not put the vanquished country directly under their rule, and the half-measures they adopted left ultimately no choice but withdrawal or utter destruction.
This episode of the Elamite war was hardly concluded when Babylonia revolted. For sixteen years Shamash-shum-ukin had behaved as a faithful brother, but gradually the virus of Babylonian nationalism overtook him and he came to think that, after all, Babylon was as much entitled to world domination as Nineveh. In 652 B.C. he closed the gates of Sippar, Babylon and Barsippa to the Assyrians and contrived a huge coalition comprising Phoenicia, the Philistines, Judah, the Arabs of the Syrian desert, the Chaldaeans of southern Iraq, the Elamites and even Lydia and Egypt. Had all these peoples attacked simultaneously, Assyria would have been overwhelmed. Fortunately, the plot was discovered in time. In a strongly worded proclamation Ashurbanipal warned the people of Babylon:
‘Regarding the empty words which this false brother told you, I have heard all that he has said. They are nothing but wind. Do not believe him… Do not, for a moment, listen to his lies. Do not contaminate your own good name, which is unsullied before me and before the whole world, nor make yourselves sinners against the divinity.’38
But the Babylonians refused to listen, and the King of Assyria marched against his brother. For three years, says a Babylonian chronicle, ‘the war went on and there were perpetual battles’.39 In the end Shamash-shum-ukin lost hope; the legend has it that he set fire to his own palace and perished in the flames (648 B.C.).40 Sumer and Akkad were pacified and Ashurbanipal put on the throne of Babylon a shadowy figure called Kandalanu, of obscure origin.41 Soon afterwards, he proceeded to punish the other rebels and became at once entangled in a war against the Arabs,42 who had not only lent their support to Shamash-shum-ukin but were continuously raiding the western vassal-states. It was a difficult war, waged against elusive enemies fighting bravely and vanishing in a dreadful desert ‘where parching thirst is at home, where there are not even birds in the sky’. Yet, here again, the Assyrian Army accomplished marvels: Uate' and his allies, the Nabataeans – who already dwelt around the Dead Sea – were defeated; Abiate' and his Qedar tribe were surrounded, cut off from water wells and forced ‘to cut open their camels and drink blood and filthy water against their thirst’. Another Uate', son of Hazail, was caught and, a ring in his jaw and a collar around his neck, was ‘made to guard the bar at the east gate at Nineveh’. The booty taken in this campaign was such, says Ashurbanipal, that:
Camels were bought within my country for less than one shekel of silver on the market place. The sutammu-workers received camels and (even) slaves as a present, the brewer as baksheesh, the gardener as an additional payment!43
The Arabs subdued, Ashurbanipal sent his troops against his former protégé the King of Elam, who had accepted bribes from the rebellious King of Babylon and given him assistance. The vicissitudes of this long Elamite war, and the plots and revolutions which brought three princes in succession to the throne in Susa, are wearisome details that have no place here.44 Suffice it to say that in 639 B.C. the Assyrians won the last battle. The entire land of Elam was devastated and its capital-city thoroughly plundered. This, incidentally, was mere retaliation, for among the spoil were found ‘the silver, gold, property and goods of Sumer and Akkad and of the whole of Babylonia, which the former Kings of Elam had carried off in some seven raids’. The ziqqurat of Susa was destroyed, its sanctuaries violated, its gods taken captive or ‘thrown to the winds’. The vanquished Elamites were even chased beyond the grave, and their country symbolically erased from the map:
‘The sepulchre of their earlier and later kings who did not fear Assur and Ishtar, my lords, and who had plagued the kings, my fathers, I destroyed, I devastated, I exposed to the sun. Their bones, I carried off to Assyria. I laid restlessness upon their shades. I deprived them of food-offerings and libations of water.
‘For a distance of a month and twenty-five days’ journey I devasted the provinces of Elam. Salt and sihlu (a prickly plant) I scattered over them… The dust of Susa, Madaktu, Haltemash and the rest of their cities I gathered together and took to Assyria… The noise of people, the tread of cattle and sheep, the glad shouts of rejoicing, I banished from its fields. Wild asses, gazelles and all kinds of beasts of the plain I caused to lie down among them, as if at home.’45
Thus were avenged countless insults and settled a three-thousand-year-old quarrel between Elamites and Mesopotamians.
Shortly after the sack of Susa Ashurbanipal celebrated his triumph. From his sumptuous palace at Nineveh this learned, magnificent and ruthless monarch could contemplate ‘the whole world’ prostrate at his feet. Three Elamite princes and a ‘King of Arabia’ were, literally, harnessed to his chariot. His treacherous brother had met with a death appropriate to his crimes, and he himself governed the Babylonians. The proud merchants of Tyre and Arvad, the stiff-necked Jews,46 the restive Aramaeans, had been subjugated. The Mannai had been ‘smashed’ and the Cimmerians kept at bay. The rulers of Tabal and Cilicia, at first hostile, had brought their daughters to the royal couch. For having aided Psammetichus, Gyges of Lydia had seen his country set afire by the wild warriors of the north and lost his life, but now Ardys, his son, was asking as a favour to bear the Assyrian yoke. Nineveh was overflowing with the booty taken in Memphis, Thebes, Susa and countless other cities, and the ‘great name of Ashur’ was respected and feared from the green shores of the Aegean to the burning sands of Arabia. Never had the Assyrian empire looked so strong, the Assyrian might so invincible. And yet how many shadows were there to this dazzling picture! The rich land of Egypt lost for ever; Elam conquered but turned into ruins; Babylonia devastated and, with the exception of a pro-Assyrian party of unknown size, inflamed with hatred for the Assyrians; the Phoenicians enslaved and losing their maritime and colonial empire to their Greek rivals; the vassal princes unreliable; the Assyrian army tired and depleted by a century of hard and bloody wars; the frontiers brought back from the Nile to the Dead Sea, from Mount Ararat to the first folds of the Taurus, from the Caspian Sea to the Zagros range; and beyond the Zagros, doubtful allies – the Scythians – and redoubtable foes – the Medes. The Assyrian empire, despite appearances, was weaker than it had ever been, and many must have thought secretly what the Israelite prophets dared to proclaim:
And it shall come to pass
that all they that look upon thee shall flee from thee,
and say: Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?…
There shall the fire devour thee;
the sword shall cut thee off,
it shall eat thee up like a cankerworm…
There is no healing of thy bruise;
thy wound is grievous:
all that hear the bruit of thee shall clap the hands over thee:
for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?47