Hunting the Lions: A Dead King, and a Collapsing Assyrian Empire – Part I


The fall of Assyria was with a whimper and in no way ended with a bang. Instead, it ended in a slow, agonizing death. Ashurbanipal, Assyria’s last great king, ascended the throne only to inherit a storm forming on the horizon. From the time he became king until his death, wars and revolts were commonplace throughout his empire. One could easily speculate that Ashurbanipal in fact died from pure exhaustion due to the series of wars he led. His army was stretched, exhausted, and depleted from conducting military operations.

Sculpture of Ashurbanipal

Sculpture of Ashurbanipal (Public Domain)

The Fall of A King, The Rise of Troubles

Once the great Ashurbanipal died, his successors were not ready for the job and duty to support and defend the empire. His younger son Ashur-etil-ilani (still a young boy at the time), was chosen over Ashurbanipal’s eldest by the chief eunuch, Sin-shumu-lishir. This eunuch is also said to have used a private army from Ashurbanipal’s estate in 631 or 627 BCE, so it appears this man had great influence over the court. When the young king finally took over the throne, he was forced to share power with at least several other people claiming rights to his position. This was because the region and its politics were still very unstable, so he really didn’t have much say in the matter. It should be noted that one of the contenders was Sin-shumu-lishir, the chief eunuch.

A drawing believed to represent Assyrians (a beardless eunuch in middle) (Public Domain)

Out of the many claiming rights to the throne, one was powerful enough to be mentioned in the ever-so-obscure Assyrian tablets that are silent for this period. This man’s name was Nabu-rihtu-usur. Nabu-rihtu-usur rose from obscurity and laid claim to the title of King of Assyria, gaining much support from Sin-shar-ibni, the governor of Te. In addition, many of the Assyrian citizens, including those of the city of Ashur, threw in their support for Nabu-rihtu-usur. It also appears that around this time, King Josiah of Judah rebelled against Assyria by throwing out objects considered pagan. These objects were thought to have had strong connections with Assyria (II Kings 23:12). Josiah then went on the attack, taking back former lands from Assyria that had once been occupied by the Northern Tribes of Israel (II Kings 23:15-20).

When the wars had subsided, the boy king Ashur-etil-ilani, gave property to his chief eunuch (Sin-shumu-lishir) as reward. Not only was this for his loyal support, but the eunuch had also been the commander and chief of Ashur-etil-ilani’s forces, and his military ability in defeating the king’s enemies must have been greatly received. In addition, the eunuch was exempt from paying taxes, as were those of his household and in fact anyone else of power who supported the young king as rightful heir to the throne. It later became evident that the royal house would eventually come under siege by those much stronger and more influential than even the royals were. This led to a total breakdown in royal authority and influence which not only affected the court but the empire as well.

It is said that Ashur-etil-ilani did not last long on the throne. His trusted eunuch Sin-shumu-lishir took control at some point, disposing of Ashur-etil-ilani and taking the throne for himself. He reigned for nearly a year. It could be possible though that Sin-shumu-lishir took over as acting king and was given the title of “sub-king,” until a suitable replacement could be found. The reason for this, some sources indicate, was that that Ashur-etil-ilani and his brother Sin-shar-ishkun were at war with each other over who was the rightful heir. Sin-shumu-lishir could have been left as the acting king until Ashur-etil-ilani had returned from his campaign against his brother, (and no doubt other enemies of Assyria too).

Assyrian statue (CC BY 2.0)

We do know that when Sin-shar-ishkun returned and took the throne, he did so by deposing Sin-shumu-lishir relatively easily. It could have been possible that the Assyrian populace always supported Sin-shar-ishkun over his younger brother because Sin-shar-ishkun was likely to have been the true heir to the Assyrian throne. As to what happened to his younger brother, Ashur-etil-ilani, it is uncertain. It could be speculated that he was killed by Sin-shumu-lishir or in battle against his older brother. The only other alternatives are that he was killed by another enemy or just captured and put in prison and left to be forgotten. At the end of this period, the fact remains that Sin-shar-ishkun became the new king of a decayed body once known as Assyria.

Sin-shar-ishkun became king around 626-625 BCE, give or take five years. Once Sin-shar-ishkun took power as the rightful king in Assyria, he also took the Babylonian crown for himself. At this time, there was no official king in Babylon due to his younger brother possibly taking the title for himself and deposing the then vassal king “Kandalanu.” Thus, Sin-shar-ishkun took the Babylonian title for himself and deposed either his younger brother or Sin-shumu-lishir. It was then that another leader rose up to challenge him for his kingship of Babylon; This challenger was Nabopolassar.

Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia c. 1450 BC

Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia c. 1450 BC (Public Domain)

Nabopolassar Leads Growing Unrest

The origins of Nabopolassar are not known and speculation surrounds him much more than fact. It is said that Nabopolassar may have been the son of Bel-ibni. There is some suggestion that Bel-ibni was a Chaldean and viceroy of the Sealands. This could be possible but I have some doubts. As Bel-ibni was appointed governor of Babylon during the early years of Sennacherib’s reign in around 703-700 BCE, there is too much of a gap in years between Bel-ibni and Nabopolassar. One could speculate that Bel-ibni may have been his grandfather or great uncle, but again this is uncertain. The other possibility is that Nabopolassar was the son of or simply a relative of Merodach-baladan, but that idea needs more evidence. It is also possible that Nabopolassar was an Assyrian general, appointed by Ashurbanipal to look after the region. In any case, Nabopolassar must have had some connection to royalty for such support. One could speculate that he may have been the William Wallace of his day, with no distinct background in terms of nobility at all! Whatever the reason, Nabopolassar became the man to lead the growing unrest, built up due to the Assyrian occupation that controlled all things Babylonian.

Illustration of a Babylonian/Assyrian king.

Illustration of a Babylonian/Assyrian king. (Public Domain)

Nabopolassar gained adherents to his cause. His strongest support most likely came from the shared struggle of the people in southern Babylonia. This region, especially the tribes of Bit-Yakin and Bit-Amukani, had a history of being anti-Assyrian. The reason for this is that the two tribes mentioned above wanted to preserve the independence of Babylon. Because of this, Assyria invaded time after time to smash rebellions. This was not forgotten among the people that occupied the southern portion of Babylonia. Nabopolassar, who gained kingship in the marshlands of this Babylonian region, may also have come from the Bit-Yakin tribe.

Once Nabopolassar established himself as king and declared independence from Assyrian rule, he made plans to recover the rest of Babylonia from Assyria. It could have been possible that Nabopolassar did not intend to expand his borders into Assyria, thus simply claiming the Babylonian throne for himself. However, he chose to invade. Once Nabopolassar decided to go to war against Assyria, he must have known that the only way to win was to invade, defeat, and take Assyria on Babylonian land. Nabopolassar would do just that by attacking Assyrian garrisons stationed there. As soon as Nabopolassar had pushed the remaining Assyrian forces out of Babylonia in 616 BCE, he began his invasion of greater Assyria, planning to extinguish their absolute power forever.

King Josiah and Pharaoh Psammetichus Clash

The next figure on this grand stage was none other than Josiah. Josiah was the king of Judah and had been for quite some time when the events of Nabopolassar’s war began to unfold. One could say that Josiah’s first act of rebellion was re-establishing Biblical Law in the land of Judah. With this, Josiah also instigated a great campaign to destroy and rid the land of pagan idolatry, as well as groves and child sacrifice to the god Molech (II Kings 23:1-37). In doing so, Josiah could be perceived as “throwing off the Assyrian yoke of oppression” that his ancestors had so deeply embraced, in particular, King Manasseh, who originally imported such practices to the people. Josiah would not rid the land of idols until sometime after Ashurbanipal had died. This was probably due to the provincial and regional rebellions that continued post-battle in the weakened land of Assyria. Once Josiah rid Judah of paganism, he looked to the north of his land that had previously belonged to the kingdom of Israel.

Illustration of King Josiah

Illustration of King Josiah (Public Domain)

This northern region was ready to be invaded. Assyria withdrew from the region of northern Israel roughly around 640 BC. I would say that the reason for this withdrawal was due to the wars still taking place within and around Greater Assyria. However, some have speculated that Assyria withdrew from northern Israel (Palestine) due to an agreement made with Egypt. The reason for this is that Egypt won its independence around 649 BC and was, from that moment, an independent kingdom free from Assyrian rule and a force to be reckoned with. Egypt, at this time, was more interested in the coastal region of the Levant. If Egypt controlled the coast, it would control the trade routes and trade cities like those of Phoenicia. This would generate much wealth and at the same time put Egypt in an economically and militarily strategic position. However, Josiah was in the way and had to be removed, or at least be made to submit. The Levant had traditionally belonged to Egypt, and in Egyptian eyes had always been the land of the Pharaohs. In their view, a shepherd king was not fit to rule the land.

King Josiah had to protect his land from invasion. His chosen defense was forts – many forts, and Josiah made sure they were garrisoned with tough Greek mercenaries. Archaeologists say that during Josiah’s reign, he hired many Greek mercenaries to guard his southern border, particularly the area that bordered Egypt. An example of this Greek presence in the service of Josiah is the fort known as Mezad Hashavyahu, which faced towards the Philistine city of Ashdod.

Replica of the Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon (potsherd used as writing surface).

Replica of the Mesad Hashavyahu ostracon (potsherd used as writing surface). (Public Domain)

Nevertheless, these fortifications did not stop Psammetichus from invading. Egypt, for the most part, would come to dominate the region in mainly the coastal parts of Palestine. As for Josiah’s forts, they were most likely a constant nuisance to Psammetichus’ goal of a “total conquest” of the Philistine coast, or what is today known as the Gaza Strip. The city that troubled Psammetichus immensely was Ashdod. The Greek historian Herodotus says it took Pharaoh Psammetichus twenty-nine years to take the city. If these details are true, then the Egyptians’ goal to obtain complete stability remained out of reach for a further three decades.

One such possibility that tripped up the Egyptian advancement may have been the Scythians. The Scythians (according to Herodotus) invaded Palestine to halt the Egyptians advance; Pharaoh Psammetichus met them, gave them gifts and prayers, and sent them on their way. As they left, a number of them decided to venture into the city of Ascalon and plunder the temple of Aphrodite.

Philistine captives of the Egyptians, from a graphic wall relief at Medinet Habu. In about 1185-52 BC, during the reign of Ramesses III.

Philistine captives of the Egyptians, from a graphic wall relief at Medinet Habu. In about 1185-52 BC, during the reign of Ramesses III. (Public Domain)

A curse was swiftly put on those who had carried out this desecration. As for how long the Scythians remained in the area stifling Egypt’s attempt to take control of the region is uncertain.

Top Image: A lion is hunted, and is near death. Assyrian relief, Nineveh, north palace, 645-635 BCE (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


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