Hunting the Lions: The Last King of Assyria, and the Death of the Empire – Part II


The Assyrian empire, with the death of King Ashurbanipal, was collapsing under the weight of politics and war. Kingdoms and leaders previously held in Assyria’s great grasp fell upon the vulnerable empire, retaking land and gaining power.

One can argue that Assyria set itself back during the last years of Ashurbanipal’s life, since much of that period remains silent. With his death, those that ascended the Assyrian throne fared no better and yet worse than Ashurbanipal. With ineffective kings sitting on the Assyrian throne taking turns just as quick as they were seated, once prized holding such as Babylonia quickly slipped away from Assyrian control. This shift in power was a sign to other nations that neighbored Assyria that the time to challenge the former power was now. To hesitate could be costly and problematic if not all was put forth in bringing down their demise. The first of these woes for Assyria started with Nabopolassar, king of Babylonia.

Assyrian relief

Assyrian relief (CC BY 2.0)

Nabopolassar Invades Assyria!

It has been suggested that Nabopolassar invaded Assyria to revert the land back to how it had been; this had largely to do with redrawing the borders between Babylon and Assyria. Battles at the border became so frequent that Assyria started receiving help from the Egyptians and Mannaeans, and because of the strength of arms showing up for the fight, Nabopolassar most likely went on the offensive in order to hastily protect his interest.

Babylonian boundary stone.

Babylonian boundary stone. (Walters Art Museum/CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 616 BCE, Nabopolassar marched his forces out of Babylonia and into Assyria. Once in Assyria, Nabopolassar followed the Euphrates River, where he encountered the Suhi and Hindanu tribes who paid tribute to him.

Three months later the Assyrians prepared for battle in the city of Qablinu. Once Nabopolassar got word that the Assyrians were nearby in Qablinu, he gathered his forces and advanced towards the city where he would do battle against the combined forces of the Assyrians and Mannea. Nabopolassar defeated them and took captive many of the Mannai who had aided the Assyrians in battle. The outcome of this battle relieved pressure off the border of Babylon with Assyria and at the same time secured the city of Uruk.

Afterwards, Nabopolassar plundered and sacked the Mane, Sahiru, and Balihi, stealing their gods and goods, as well as the Hindanu who were deported back to Babylon. On the journey back to Babylon, the combined forces of Egypt and Assyria made an unsuccessful strike at the forces of Nabopolassar near Qablinu. Later that year, Nabopolassar led his forces back into Assyria and did battle against them at Arraphu (modern day Kirkuk). Nabopolassar won the battle, pushed the remaining Assyrian forces back to the Zab River, and took many chariots and horses.

Assyrian chariot, and a royal lion hunt

Assyrian chariot, and a royal lion hunt (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 615 BCE, Nabopolassar attempted to take the old Assyrian capital of Ashur, only to fail and have to retreat to the city of Takrit. Thus, he was now under siege himself by the Assyrian forces that were in pursuit. The Assyrians, even though they were weak, were still able to field an army of considerable size.

The battle for Takrit lasted ten days and in the end resulted in a very important victory for Nabopolassar. It was also probable that during this time, the Umman-manda went down to Arraphu (moder Kirkuk) and took it. This would have meant that the Babylonians were never in control of Arraphu. If the Babylonians were in control of the city, one would expect war to have been declared on the Umman-manda for such an act. It suggests that the Babylonians would have been too weak to hold onto the city of Arraphu anyway, and may have over-extended themselves militarily, abandoning the city and region altogether.

Love, War, and Politics

In the following year of 614 BCE, the Umman-manda attempted to sack Nineveh but without results. They then turned their attentions to the city of Tarbisu, which they captured. Soon after, the Umman-manda moved along the Tigris River until they came to the ancient Assyrian capital of Ashur. The Umman-manda sacked and plundered the city of Ashur and left nothing behind. Nabopolassar rushed his forces to the battle but by the time he and his forces had arrived, it was too late. Most importantly here, Nabopolassar and Cyaxares became allies at the ruins of Ashur. To make this peace treaty and alliance legitimate, a marriage was arranged. Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabopolassar married Amytis who was the daughter or granddaughter of Cyaxares.

An illustration of Nebuchadnezzar II

An illustration of Nebuchadnezzar II (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cyaxares and his Umman-mandan forces returned home for a short time, but in the process gained the relics of Ashur and the surrounding region. Nabopolassar and his Babylonians returned home displeased, demoralized by the destruction and treatment of Assur. But on the positive side, Nabopolassar may have just saved his kingdom from resembling Assur through the alliance that had led to a marriage between Nebuchadnezzar and Amytis. However, it also may be more romanticism than fact, but we should also consider that there is probably some truth behind this.

Map of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

Map of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. (Public Domain)

In 613 BCE, Nabopolassar faced few and sporadic rebellions along the Euphrates River. These rebellions by various smaller tribes were most likely in alliance with Assyria. When Nabopolassar captured Anati on the Euphrates, the king of Assyria marched his forces down the river towards Nabopolassar. Nabopolassar retreated and returned home. Some question why he returned home so rapidly, knowing that Assyria (for the most part) was just a shell of its former glory. The first answer to this question, as some have suggested, may be associated with the Scythians.

Shifting Allegiances

Historians have speculated that either the Umman-manda switched sides for a brief time, or the Scythians still loyal to Assyria came from the west. I suggest it was actually the Egyptians who aided the Assyrians and came down the Euphrates River and made their presence known to Nabopolassar. This is probably why he retreated. The reason for the Egyptians’ involvement is that under Necho II, they controlled and garrisoned the city of Carchemish. A Psammetichus I cartouche and seal were found in a building at Carchemish, as well as one belonging to Necho II.

Relief of Psamtik I making an offering to Ra-Horakhty (Tomb of Pabasa)

Relief of Psamtik I making an offering to Ra-Horakhty (Tomb of Pabasa) (Public Domain)

Carchemish on the Euphrates River was under Egyptian control from 616 BCE to 605 BCE. It would have been easy for the Assyrians to ask the Egyptians for aid and to march along with them down river to stop Nabopolassar.

In 612 BCE, Nabopolassar marched his forces into Assyria while Cyaxares and his Umman-manda forces came from the east to join him. Together they combined their forces and besieged Nineveh. The siege lasted three months until the walls finally tumbled. Once inside, the forces of the Babylonians and Umman-manda pillaged and looted the city, leaving only a broken shell behind, with a dead king inside.

This was not the end for Assyria. The remaining survivors fled to Harran and a new king ascended the throne of Assyria by the name of Ashur-uballit. Afterwards Cyaxares returned to Media and Nabopolassar continued conquering Assyrian territory, reaching as far west as Nisibin. During this time, King Ashur-uballit partially reorganized what was left of Assyria, that being Harran. King Ashur-uballit sent a request to Egypt for aid but at the same time retreated from the area. The Umman-manda were on their way to Harran with the aid of Nabopolassar. The forces of Nabopolassar and the Umman-manda conquered Harran.

Harran, Carchemish and other major cities of ancient Syria (Public Domain)

“Beehive houses” of ancient Harran (in modern Turkey)

“Beehive houses” of ancient Harran (in modern Turkey) (CC BY-SA 4.0).

King Ashur-uballit made his new home with the Egyptians at Carchemish. It was during this time that a throne change took place in Egypt, for Pharaoh Psammetichus was now dead and his son Necho II had become the new Pharaoh. Pharaoh Necho II gave full support to Assyria by moving a large army to Carchemish. However, it was during this move that Necho II stumbled.

King Josiah also proved instrumental, even though it is not recorded on any Babylonian tablet. Josiah did cause some kind of collateral damage to the Egyptians as they were allied to Assyria. Nabopolassar could not thank Josiah enough.

It seems that the seventeenth year of the reign of Nabopolassar is when Josiah king of Judah died. Biblical scripture suggests that a large army tore rapidly out of Egypt to assist Assyria in the aim of re-taking the city of Harran. The Bible gives us a glimpse into the large army that was rushing to assist the King of Assyria. The scripture found in II Chronicles 35:20-21states:

After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Necho king of Egypt came up to fight against Charchemish by Euphrates: and Josiah went out against him.

But he sent ambassadors to him saying, what have I to do with thee, thou king of Judah? I come not against thee this day, but against the house wherewith I have war: for God commanded me to make haste: forbear thee from meddling with God, who is with me, that he destroy thee not.

Necho knew that the best possible route to reach Harran was up past the Mediterranean coast, cutting across Josiah’s newly re-conquered territory (formerly belonging to the Northern Kingdom of Israel) and then northward until reaching the city of Carchemish/Charchemish. From Carchemish, Necho would then go directly east until he reached Harran. Josiah, for the most part, disrupted the movement of Necho’s forces. Necho says: “For God commanded me to make haste.” Josiah’s attack on Necho may have saved Harran from being re-taken by the Assyrians, aided by Egypt. Even though Josiah made Necho stumble before he got to Harran, retaliation from an Egyptian archer put Josiah down. Josiah lost his life supporting Babylonia and the Umman-manda unofficially.

Bronze kneeling statuette, likely of the pharaoh Necho II

Bronze kneeling statuette, likely of the pharaoh Necho II (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Necho II finally led his army to Carchemish to help aid Ashur-uballit in his struggle against Babylonia and the Umman-manda. Nabopolassar came to the aid of Harran and defeated the forces brought across from Egypt. What was left of the Assyrian army along with the Egyptians fled back to Carchemish for the time being, in order to reorganize and in hopes of fighting another day.

As for the fate of Ashur-uballit, the last king of Assyria, his fate remains unknown. Ashur-uballit may have died attempting to retake Harran, but it is also possible that he died in 605 BCE, when Babylonian forces crossed the Euphrates River and attacked the city of Carchemish, led by none other than the famed Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar would extinguish the last remnants of the Assyrian Empire, only to replace it with another version known as Babylonia.

A new empire took the place of the previous. Striding Lion 1 from Processional Way in Babylon, Neo-Babylonian Period, c. 604-562 BC (Public Domain)

Top Image: A once-powerful lion is hunted and lies dead. Assyrian relief, Nineveh, north palace, 645-635 BCE (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


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