A Tale of Pestilence

In 700 BCE, The Assyrian army commanded by King Sennacherib invaded Egypt.

Before the Assyrians pushed any further into Egypt, the Assyrian army made camp at Pelusium, which is located on the salt flats and flax fields of northeastern Egypt. It was to be an easy victory in Sennacherib’s eyes, for the enemy Pharaoh’s soldiers would not fight for him. The “warriors of the Egyptians refused to come to the rescue,” according to Greek historian Herodotus.

The reason for this is that Pharaoh Sethos of Egypt had distanced himself from the warrior class, holding them with great contempt, and felt that their service was needed no more.

Sennacherib, king of Assyria 705 BCE–681 BCE.

Sennacherib, king of Assyria 705 BCE–681 BCE. (Public Domain)

Herodotus wrote: “After him there came to the throne the priest of Hephaistos, whose name was Sethos. This man, they said, neglected and held in no regard the warrior class of the Egyptians, considering that he would have no need of them.” The reason for this odd and dangerous move was due to dreams and visions of grandeur.

Pharaoh Sethos

As Herodotus mentioned, Sethos was a priest, thus divinely inspired, and felt that the gods were on his side thus he was not needing an army. But reality soon enveloped the Pharaoh. For a brief moment his divine omnipotence was shaken and he was left to humble and lament himself before the god: “the priest, being driven into a strait, entered into the sanctuary of the temple and bewailed to the image of the god the danger which was impending over him.” As the priest bellowed and begged the god Ptah for an answer, as Pharaoh Sethos slept, dreams and visions were bestowed upon him, the god Ptah is said to have spoken with Pharaoh Sethos saying: “that he should suffer no evil if he went forth to meet the army of the Arabians; for he himself would send him helpers.”

Statue of Ptah, Egyptian deity of craftsmen, architects and creation.

Statue of Ptah, Egyptian deity of craftsmen, architects and creation. (CC BY 2.0)

When the Pharaoh awoke from his translucent dream, he stood up with full confidence and walked out of the sanctuary to meet and greet his people letting them know that all would be well.

The People’s Army

The Pharaoh needed an army and his god would provide. However, the army he would have used refused to fight for him and all that was left was the common civilian, people who worked in goods and services.

Herodotus mentioned this event: “Trusting in these things seen in sleep, he took with him, they said, those of the Egyptians who were willing to follow him, and encamped in Pelusion, for by this way the invasion came: and not one of the warrior class followed him, but shop-keepers and artisans and men of the market.”

Pharaoh Sethos had no choice, regardless of what his god said, for the only army around him, was an army of merchants, and it looked as if the Assyrians are set to conquer Egypt.

However, a strange and anomalous incident might have changed history.

Of Mice and Men

Once Pharaoh’s men made camp near the Assyrians, and as the night drew over them, a creature began to stir. It was a single mouse—and then it was thousands of them!

“Then after they came, there swarmed by night upon their enemies mice of the fields, and ate up their quivers and their bows, and moreover the handles of their shields, so that on the next day they fled, and being without defense of arms great numbers fell” -Herodotus

The mice that invaded the Assyrian camp are said to have eaten all the leather they could find, and most likely an unbelievable amount to say the least! However, back in the ancient days, this was doubly damaging: if a mouse had eaten your leather military gear, it was believed to be an omen of bad things to come.

An Assyrian winged bull, or lamassu, from Sargon's palace at Dur-Sharrukin.

An Assyrian winged bull, or lamassu, from Sargon’s palace at Dur-Sharrukin. (Public Domain)

As for the Assyrians, Herodotus explained it well. The Assyrians fled out of Egypt and where they went remains unknown, but it seems possible that the Assyrians made a move to take Jerusalem next, and possibly with the same army, after being resupplied with men and arms.

An Assyrian siege ramp outside of Lachish, now Shephelah Southern District, Israel. Lachish archaeological site.

An Assyrian siege ramp outside of Lachish, now Shephelah Southern District, Israel. Lachish archaeological site. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Army on the Run

The Old Testament book of II Kings 19:35 tells an interesting story that might be somewhat related to the events that happened in Egypt.

“And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the LORD went out, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.” -II Kings 19:35.

Is it possible, that the remaining Assyrian army that fled from Egypt regrouped with other Assyrian forces already conducting war operations against Judah, and marched on Jerusalem together to besiege it? It is very possible, for the events that happened in Egypt are said to have occurred around 701 BCE and events which took place outside the walls of Jerusalem happened around 700 BCE. For when we look back to II Kings 19:35 we notice that the ‘angel of the Lord smote the Assyrians’ killing well over 100,000 of them. It becomes quite possible that when the Assyrian army set camp in Egypt—preparing for the conquest and subjugation of Egypt—that the very mice that ate the leather fixed to the weapons the Assyrians carried, also carried the plague.

Assyrian warriors hurling stones. The carving is from a wall decoration in the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh (early seventh century BCE).

Assyrian warriors hurling stones. The carving is from a wall decoration in the palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh (early seventh century BCE). (Public Domain)

Thus, any remaining Assyrian soldiers that escaped, most likely carried plague with them, and in turn ended up infecting those they encountered like other Assyrian soldiers.

An Army of Plague Bearers?

It becomes quite likely that the account Herodotus told and the account found in the Bible are thus related to one another in terms of biological agents being passed from one location to another through military maneuver. Whatever the case was, concerning Assyria’s march and retreat from Egypt and Assyria besieging Jerusalem, these events should be reexamined, to see if they coincide with one another on a short-term base.

Now, besides the two events matching one another there is another issue concerning these two fascinating events.


In 703 BCE Babylonia challenged Sennacherib’s rule by rebelling. A man by the name of Marduk-apla-iddina, who had taken the Babylonia throne for himself once before did so again. However, Marduk-apla-iddina met defeat and Babylonia was plundered and placed firmly back under Assyrian control.

This event caused another rebellion to ignite in Syria-Palestine when Egypt and Hezekiah of Judah decided to challenge Assyria’s authority by renouncing their own allegiances. Many more would join in this seminal event, such as the Phoenician city-states of Sidon and Ashkelon.

Sennacherib quickly mustered his forces and marched on the region. Sennacherib moved his forces down the coast of Phoenicia and Philistia and defeated, pillaged, took captives and moved on. As each rebellious city was subjugated, the writing was on the wall: rebellion was futile.

As his forces continued to push south they met an Egyptian army heading north to support the Judean rebellion, but met them head-on and defeated them at Ekron. In total, he had taken and sacked around forty-six cities. While the bulk of Sennacherib’s forces were conducting military operations throughout the southern Levant, particularly along the coastal region and inland, he probably sent an Assyrian detachment into Egypt.

Assyrian Archers. Assyrian Relief, South-West Palace of Nineveh (room 36, panel 5-6) ; 700–692 BC.

Assyrian Archers. Assyrian Relief, South-West Palace of Nineveh (room 36, panel 5-6) ; 700–692 BC. (Public Domain)

This Assyrian detachment was conceivably small in size and their mission was likely to chase the fleeing Egyptians back into Egypt. After pursuing the Egyptians from Ekron, they set up camp at Pelusium. The distance between the two is roughly 549 miles (884 kilometers) and it would have taken the Assyrian army a little over a month to reach Pelusium. Given the distance and the events transpiring east of them, this small, perhaps medium sized force was for the most part cut off from the main force, except for communications.

Nevertheless, communications moved much faster by horse than on foot but made little difference, for the Assyrian force stationed at Pelusium (likely awaiting additional supplies and further orders from Sennacherib) was eventually confronted by a force more determined. Thus they were soundly defeated and chased out of Egypt.

What Really Happened?

Herodotus may have been right that the Egyptians soundly evicted the Assyrian force from their lands, but the idea that mice ate the bowstrings and other items for military use seems a bit farfetched but not impossible. What likely happened was that the Assyrian force which had been stationed in Egypt had been there for some time, and because of this, vermin infiltrated their camp, which is not at all uncommon, even today among armies bivouacked in the field for a considerable amount of days.

While vermin are quickly killed and shooed away, the bugs, which use them as a host, are not so easily disposed of. Because of this, fleas and lice could have bitten the Assyrian men. Also, consider that the mice, which began to eat the grain, would also defecate in it, and this too would add to their coming illness. Vermin, bugs, and excrement weakened the Assyrian forces, and as such they were easily disposed of.

Another proposition is that the Egyptians, sensing that they had not the professional, seasoned soldiers at their disposal, decided to round up all the flea-carrying rodents and herded them towards the Assyrian camp. From a tactical stance, Pharaoh Sethos employed an indirect attack by utilizing his men as a ‘fixing force’ (controlling or stopping an enemy’s advance), thus allowing nature and its biological agents to act as the real attack power. The Assyrian forces able to make it back to their main unit would infect their comrades as well.

As Sennacherib and his officers continued to conduct military operations, they gave the order to send a medium-sized detachment to besiege Jerusalem as a show of force. However, the medium force that encamped outside the walls of Jerusalem may have basically been dead men walking. The Assyrian commanders may or may not have taken notice that some men were sick. If so, little could have been done to alleviate their pain, and the sickness spread fast, passing even to the officers in charge.

Unfortunately, the health of the men before the day they died at the walls of Jerusalem is unwritten. However long the Assyrian army had been stationed outside the walls of Jerusalem is also unknown. Eventually, the defenders on the walls noticed one morning that the Assyrian soldiers on the ground were dead. It would have indeed appeared as if a miracle from heaven had happened.

“Sennacherib's Army Is Destroyed” by Gustave Dore, 1891.

“Sennacherib’s Army Is Destroyed” by Gustave Dore, 1891. (Public Domain)

Here and Gone Again

Another interesting aspect of this campaign is that the army that presumably suffered and died from plague or some other type of illness somehow did not spread that vile scourge to the rest of the Assyrian army. For after Sennacherib was done despoiling the Levant he headed home, proclaiming himself victorious, and claiming to have captured 200,150 people. If a major disease did break out in Assyria, it was not recorded in their annals.

Limestone stele of king Sennacherib from Nineveh.

Limestone stele of king Sennacherib from Nineveh. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Furthermore, while the Bible indicates that 100,000 Assyrian forces were dead, the reality is, it was far less. The purpose for the Bible stating that 100,000 men died outside the walls of Jerusalem was likely nothing more than propaganda. While it is true in one dark sense that they did defeat 100,000 troops, this is only true in the sense that the great army of Sennacherib had already taken their fill of booty, had reclaimed their sphere of influence, had left for home with a great number of captives, and as such allowed Judea to continue as a state.

Judean captives being led away into slavery by the Assyrians after the siege of Lachish in 701 BC.

Judean captives being led away into slavery by the Assyrians after the siege of Lachish in 701 BC.  (Public Domain)

However, Judea was now worse off than before.

As for Egypt, they too were able to avoid the full wrath of Assyria, but this would not last. For the next time Assyria invaded, no plague could stop them, and in 671 BCE, they conquered the Egyptians.

Map of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its expansions - dark green shows the empire in 824 BCE, light green in 671 BCE.

Map of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and its expansions – dark green shows the empire in 824 BCE, light green in 671 BCE. (Public Domain)

The Destruction of Sennacherib

In conclusion, I leave you with the famous poem by British poet Lord Byron titled “The Destruction of Sennacherib”, faithful to the Biblical account and a recounting of the history from a romantic perspective:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;

And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,

When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

   Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,

That host with their banners at sunset were seen:

Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,

That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

   For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,

And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;

And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,

And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

   And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,

But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;

And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,

And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

   And there lay the rider distorted and pale,

With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:

And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,

The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

   And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,

And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;

And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,

Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

Featured image: Assyrian relief of a horseman from Nimrud, now in the British Museum. “Battle scene, Assyrian, about 728 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Cam Rea


Boardman, John, I. E. S. Edwards, and N. G. L. Hammond. The Cambridge Ancient History. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C. Volume III, Part 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Bray, R. S. Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease on History. Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 2004.

Herodotus. The Histories. North Clarendon, VT: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1992.

Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs. Woodstock & New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2003.

Madyes: Master of Asia, Historical Enigma

Top Image: Deriv; Man With Cap, Probably Scythian, Bamiyan 3-4th Century (PHGCOM/CC BY-SA 3.0) and Gold Scythian neckpiece (FreeArtLicence)

Madyes, the mysterious Scythian stepped onto the world stage. There is not a great deal of information about him, nor has his name turned up in any of the Assyrian tablets. Herodotus and Strabo are the only two writers who mention him other than Arrian, who refers to him as “Idanthyrsus.”

Herodotus provides the most information about Madyes. Most historians have read and used Herodotus’ work for their research in dealing with this matter. But what if Herodotus was wrong? This would not be a new statement by any means nor is it to meant to demean Herodotus’ work. So let us look at Herodotus’ chronology from the Scythian invasion to the massacre of the Scythians by Cyaxares.
According to Herodotus, Madyes was the son of Bartatua (Protothyes) but there is no concrete evidence for this even though some suggest he is the son of Bartatua and the Assyrian Princess. Unfortunately, no evidence says Esarhaddon handed over his daughter in marriage. That is not to say it is not possible, but it has a high likelihood of being improbable.

Herodotus tells us that Madyes “burst into Asia in pursuit of the Cimmerians whom they had driven out of Europe, and entered the Median territory.” This seems to be true to a certain extent, except for the fact that Madyes drove the Cimmerians from the battle into Europe rather than from Europe into Asia and not in the migratory sense. The sources provided by Herodotus and Strabo, along with Ashurbanipal’s inscriptions, do attest that Dugdammi’s defeat was by an outside element close to his borders and of the same ethnic stock, as both Herodotus and Strabo provide. Therefore, either Ashurbanipal paid for Madyes’ services or it is true that Bartatua married an Assyrian princess to strengthen Assyrian-Scythian relations through Bartatua’s son, Madyes. Madyes would become king of the Scythians and most likely was the nephew of Esarhaddon and cousin to Ashurbanipal, if this is true.

Now, Madyes was not king of all the Scythians, Umman-manda, or Cimmerians. However, it does seem that Madyes had a large army and possibly many provinces. His influence proved effective enough to sway Assyrian politics, as Bartatua had done to a certain degree. After Madyes took his father’s throne, Ashurbanipal may have asked him to deal with Dugdammi. Thus, according to Herodotus, Madyes defeated and chased the remaining forces of Dugdammi out of Asia and into Europe.
Herodotus goes on to say, “The Scythians, having thus invaded Media, were opposed by the Medes, who gave them battle, but, being defeated, lost their empire. The Scythians became masters of Asia.” After Madyes effectively defeated Dugdammi in 639 BCE, he thus sets off to conquer the eastern half of Dugdammi’s empire. The eastern half of Dugdammi’s empire would be the regions of Media and Mannea. Thus, the Scythians under Madyes took full control of Dugdammi’s empire. Therefore, to say, “The Scythians became masters of Asia” is incorrect and correct. It is incorrect to say the Scythians are the masters when they already had been, under Dugdammi, but it is correct to say the Scythians and other nomads have a new master by the name of Madyes.

The Scythians continued to push on conquering, for Herodotus states:

After this they marched forward with the design of invading Egypt. When they had reached Palestine, however, Psammetichus the Egyptian king met them with gifts and prayers, and prevailed on them to advance no further.

When Psammetichus became king of Egypt in 664 BCE, Assyria still held a tight grip over the country, which he was able to shake off over time, allowing him to reunite Egypt. Ashurbanipal could do little about the events transpiring in Egypt, since his borders were already buckling under pressure from systematic warfare with neighboring states. Thus, Ashurbanipal effectively pulled out of Egyptian affairs. Whether he removed Assyrian troops out of Egypt is a matter of debate, for the Assyrian inscriptions are silent on this matter, other than some reliefs that depict the issues going on in Egypt.

Assyrian troops would pull out of Philistia and the northern portions of what used to be the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 640 BCE. With Assyrian troops effectively gone from the region, Psammetichus moved into Philistia around 640 BCE, while King Josiah of Judah pushed north to retrieve the remnants of Israel shortly after 630 BCE. As for the Scythian invasion of Palestine, the year remains uncertain, but some suggest 626 BCE or shortly after.

The reason for the Scythian invasion of Palestine seems to be due in part to the destabilization of the Assyrian Empire shortly after Ashurbanipal’s death in 631 BCE. This led to the rise of his son Ashur-etil-ilani. Ashur-etil-ilani’s reign would be very short and much undocumented. Ashur-etil-ilani would be deposed of in 627 BCE by a usurper named Sin-shumu-lishir, who reigned on the throne for a year or less. With this transfer of power through what looks to be a coup d’état, the Assyrian Empire was fractured and open to foreign conquest.

Egypt at that time had been spreading its sphere of influence throughout Palestine, but how much land they controlled the further they pushed north remains unknown. It seems possible that when Sinsharishkun recaptured the throne in 626 BCE, he sent messengers to the Scythians and Cimmerians to check the Egyptian advancement. But once the Scythians arrived on the scene they were paid off by the Pharaoh, as Herodotus mentions. Another alternative as to why the Scythians may have pressed on into Palestine is that they felt the pressure of the Egyptian advancement northward. Remember, the Scythians had hegemony over the lands to the north of Palestine and felt the need to attack or at least check out their new neighbor. If so, then the Egyptians must have made an impression, for they paid off the Scythians with either a handsome gift or tribute.

Herodotus’ description shows that the Egyptians were weak in terms of military power but were rich in treasure, and therefore were able to bribe the Scythians from pillaging or conquest. In doing this, the Egyptians had exposed themselves, admitting their vulnerability, but at the same time showed their value. Treasure defeated the potential threat and allowed Egypt to carry on unopposed from the nomadic north to fight another day. The amount of money given to the Scythians must have been great, but some decided to pillage “the temple of Celestial Aphrodite” at Ascalon, where “female sickness” overcame some few of the greedy. Those suffering from the curse would be deemed, “Enarees.”

Many do not accept the Scythian invasion of Palestine, finding the “female sickness” too similar to the story found in the book of I Samuel of how the Philistines got hemorrhoids in the same area that the Scythians would pass through later on. Tales can be intermingled over time. Another argument is that the Scythians were Assyrian mercenary troops assigned to certain posts to guard Assyria’s interests and borders. This I agree with somewhat, as indicated earlier, for Assyria had pulled out of the region before the invasion took place, while others just outright reject the whole invasion. However, I do think the Scythians really did invade Palestine, for “female sickness” is our clue.

Female sickness, according to Herodotus created Enarees. The Enarees were women-like men who were soothsayers or prophets who received training from the goddess Aphrodite. These Enarees were not homosexual or transvestite, but rather transsexual, as implied by the Roman poet Ovid. Ovid tells us that these Enarees were young boys who had been castrated and says, “Ah me, that you, neither man nor woman, serve the lady; you who can’t know the mutual delights of Venus! Whoever first cut off a boy’s genitals, that one, who made the wound, should suffer it himself.” Ovid, in book 1 section 8 of the Amores, explains further concerning the process of male to female transsexual gender change. “She’s a witch, mutters magical cantrips, can make rivers run uphill, knows the best aphrodisiacs – When to use herbal brews, or the whirring bullroarer, How to extract that stuff from a mare in heat.” The women are really men, and the urine that mares in heat produced allowed them to look more feminine, as Ovid explains. He tells the men to avoid this, and states, “Put no faith in herbals and potions, abjure the deadly stuff distilled by a mare in heat.” This deadly stuff is mare’s urine. The urine from a pregnant mare is high in estrogen levels and helps males develop female sexual characteristics.
Herodotus is partially right in his statement that the Scythians pillage the temple of Aphrodite at Ascalon. Nevertheless, the temple of Aphrodite Herodotus mentions most likely was the temple of the goddess Atargatis, where emasculation was practiced among the cult followers.
The followers of Atargatis, particularly men, would dance to the music and work themselves into a frenzy of wild behavior. During the music and orgies, from among the onlookers of the frenzy, a young man taken up in the emotions of the frenzy would strip off his clothes, pick up a sword, and make a loud shout in the midst of the crowd, then castrate himself before the onlookers. Then he would run through the streets carrying his testicles in hand and from whatever house he threw his testicles in, he would receive women’s garb to wear in order to join the temple priesthood of Atargatis.
Notice that the priesthood of Atargatis is similar to the soothsayers and prophets of the Scythians. Both are castrated, both dress as women and have woman-like features. Thus, the few Scythians that pillaged the city or temple of Ascalon may not have pillaged the temple at all, but might have been caught up in the Atargatis cult. A few, if not all who were there, castrated themselves and brought the practice home, and Herodotus and many others would describe this later on. Therefore, the Scythian invasion of Palestine is proved by these two descriptions of the adoption of a local religious practice.

Besides the Scythian invasion of Palestine, Herodotus continues to explain that the Scythians went on to become masters of Media for the next twenty-eight years. That rule would end when Cyaxares invited the leaders to a banquet, rendered them defenseless by getting them drunk with wine and massacred them. Afterward, the Medes regained their empire.
Herodotus says that King Madyes reigned for those twenty-eight years, but I doubt it. If Madyes reigned for twenty–eight years, he would have to start at the death of Dugdammi, which was around 640/39 BCE, and when you subtract twenty-eight years we come to either 612/11 BCE as the year of Madyes death. But if we take The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle into account, then Madyes would have to have died much earlier, because the first time we read of Cyaxares is in The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle, and according to its chronology, Cyaxares arrived on the scene in 614 BCE. Thus, Madyes was dead and his reign over Asia after defeating Dugdammi did not last twenty-eight years as Herodotus says. Therefore, Cyaxares was free to go about his business in Asia unopposed as no Scythian threat seems near or far, and it could be argued that the Scythians, who did not oppose Cyaxares, joined his forces.

Whether or not the Scythians controlled the whole of Asia for twenty-eight years is true to some extent if you consider Dugdammi and add the reign of Madyes; then you have twenty-eight years and more. Now, this is not to say Herodotus is wrong, but if one considers that from the time Nineveh fell in 612 BCE to the Battle of the Eclipse or Halys, then you would get twenty-eight years. The notion of the Medes led by Cyaxares conquering a portion of Anatolia while bringing on the downfall of Urartu may in fact have been an invention of Herodotus.

Robert Rollinger’s paper, The Median “Empire”, the End of Urartu and Cyrus’ the Great Campaign in 547 B.C. (Nabonidus Chronicle II 16), makes a great argument that it was not the Medes who made their presence felt in Anatolia, but rather the Babylonians. This is shown in the inscription provided from The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle during the seventeenth year (609 BCE) of Nabopolassar’s reign:

The king of Akkad went to help his army and … [ … ] he went up [to] Izalla and / the numerous cities in the mountains … [ … ] he set fire to their [ … ] / At that time the army of [ … ] / [ma]rched / as far as the district of Urartu. / In the land … [ … ] they plundered their [ … ].

The Babylonians in 608-607 BCE continued to attack Urartu and the surrounding area including eastern Anatolia, and according to the inscriptions, acted alone, without the help from the Medes, during the eighteenth year of Nabopolassar’s reign. Overall, The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle supports a Babylonian domination of the north, including portions of eastern Anatolia. This does not mean that the Babylonians occupied or controlled the lands mentioned;, rather they are the only ones named as having conducted military activities in the areas and having some influence over the regions for a time. At least until the arrival of Cyrus the Great in which the Nabonidus Chronicle mentions that in 547 BCE Cyrus attacked and conquered the Kingdom of Urartu, leaving behind a garrison to watch over his newly acquired territory.
Therefore, I agree with Rollinger’s conclusion concerning Herodotus and the Halys River in which he states, “Herodotus’ image of the Median “Empire” has been modeled to a high degree on the Achaemenid Empire and the Halys border seems to be a much later invention.”

Beside the twenty-eight year domination by the Scythians, Herodotus goes on further to say:

The dominion of the Scythians over Asia lasted eight-and-twenty years, during which time their insolence and oppression spread ruin on every side. For besides the regular tribute, they exacted from the several nations additional imposts, which they fixed at pleasure; and further, they scoured the country and plundered every one of whatever they could.

This description is usual applied to Madyes. However, Herodotus may be attributing to Maydes acts described in the passage carried out by someone else, such as Dugdammi. Assyrian sources remain silent about Madyes and the troubles that came with him.

If Madyes did do the things that Herodotus suggests, whom did it affect? The civilizations of Mesopotamia and Palestine, particularly Judah, seem to have escaped this ransacking. Egypt did pay a fee to the Scythians during what would have been the rule of Madyes. However, if we consider Dugdammi, mentioned in Assyrian sources, then we may have a case, for the Assyrians feared Dugdammi and it seems if anyone could get Assyria to pay tribute, Dugdammi would have been the person to do so. But even the Assyrians mention Dugdammi paying tribute to them. Therefore, I would suggest that the statement made by Herodotus is in fact much broader than he realized. In other words, if you consider the Scythians and Cimmerians from Esarhaddon to Ashurbanipal, you will find these nomadic peoples raiding and pillaging whoever they can whether it is Assyria, Lydia, or others in their vicinity. This is not to say Herodotus is wrong, but rather he is right in one sense and that is the Scythians and Cimmerians did in fact, regardless of the leader mentioned or not, before Madyes, pillage and raid. Madyes is not the pillager who is forcing tribute with ease as Herodotus tells.

As for the Scythian dominion that Herodotus speaks of, I do question whether the Scythians ruled as a single entity. It seems more plausible that they controlled Asia, not as a centralized united empire, but rather as a loose tribal community that goes about their own business, unless an outside element threatens their pastures and way of life. Consider the Assyrian inscriptions earlier in the book: the Assyrians name names, but none of chieftains seem to hold a firm grip on their own people, other than those tribes who are sympathetic to rebellion against Assyria. Once again, the only true Scythian king, according to Assyrian sources, was Dugdammi, but I am skeptical about Madyes kingship over the nomadic peoples.

During the Scythian-Cimmerian presence in Asia, most of the conquered or neighboring peoples would adopt the manners and customs of the Scythians and Cimmerians. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and others may have sent selected trainees to go to the Scythians to learn certain military skills, such as with bows and arrows, much desired by the regional powers, particularly Assyria, and then Babylonia. Thus, Scythianization became the trend from Asia Minor to the Indus valley and from the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf for twenty-eight or more years. Once King Madyes died, Cyaxares hosted a banquet and invited the many Scythian chieftains, possibly in order to debate who should be king. However, the question remains, why did Cyaxares go on to massacre them?

Cyaxares invited Scythians of noble status and possibly many others, including those of non-Scythian birth. Every nomadic nation within the confines of the loosely held Scythian confederation was invited to dine and debate. As for the massacre, not everyone at the banquet was murdered.
I would suggest that the only people targeted were those that supported a continuation of an alliance with Assyria, or would protect Assyria in a time of crisis. This would be due to treaties and loyalty oaths that may have been undertaken when Madyes was alive and Assyria needed extra help in dealing with Dugdammi. The massacre that took place does not mean that Cyaxares hated the Scythian lords, but rather their continued policy of supporting the Assyrians. Remember, Cyaxares had no blood ties with the country, nor treaties or oaths to tie him to the Assyrians. Cyaxares most likely understood that a continued alliance with Assyria was dangerous due to its history of instability with neighboring countries.

There is an alternative to consider concerning the massacre: fratricide. This may be farfetched speculation, but Cyaxares actually may have been killing his brothers or cousins to acquire the throne of Madyes. Therefore, it is possible that the father of Cyaxares was Madyes.

With a weakened Assyria stumbling around due to all the previous conflicts conducted by Ashurbanipal, the time was right for war. Once the personages of power who supported Assyria were removed, Cyaxares drove out the remainder who escaped execution. The forces of Cyaxares must have been in hot pursuit of those who did not yield to his rule. Cyaxares was in charge with no real threat to challenge him since both Madyes and Ashurbanipal were now dead. Cyaxares most likely thanked the gods that these “two birds” had been killed with one stone.

By Cam Rea


Arrian. Anabasis Alexandri (Books V-VII) Indica (Book VIII). Translated by E. Iliff Robson. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 1966.

Cernenko, Dr. E.V. The Scythians 700-300 BCE

Glassner, Jean-Jacques and Benjamin R. Foster. Mesopotamian Chronicles. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

Herodotus. The Histories.

Ivantchik, Askold I. Les Cimmeriens au Proche-Orient

Kristensen, Anne. Who were the Cimmerians, and where did they come from? Copenhagen: Det kongelige Danske videnskabernes selskab, 1988.

Morkot, Robert. Historical Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Warfare. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Na’aman, Nadav. “Chronology and History in the Late Assyrian Empire 631-619 BC.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, 1991: 81:243-267.

Rea, Cam March of the Scythians: From Sargon II to the Fall of Nineveh

Robert Drews, Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe

Saggs, H.W.F. The Might that was Assyria

Stern, Ephraim. Archaeology of the land of the Bible: The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian periods, 732-332 BCE Vil II. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Tsestkhladze, Gocha R. Ancient Greeks West and East: edited by Gocha R. Tsetskhladze. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Dugdammi: The Man Who Shook Assyria

Scythian comb.jpg



In 660 BCE, mighty Assyria was about to be shaken. A Scythian named Dugdammi united many nomadic tribes into a confederation. This nomadic confederation pushed at the borders of Assyria which so frightened King Ashurbanipal that they felt Assyria had finally met its equal.
The Assyrians were already facing problems other than the Scythians and Cimmerians to the northeast of Assyria and to the west in Anatolia. This specific issue was regional and internal. Ashurbanipal had many problems even after conquering or putting down rebellions in Babylonia, Elam, and Egypt. Assyria was not in a position to take on more problems after a failed policy of economic aid to those affected by their own hand, which led in turn to brutish subjugation of the rebels, such as when Assyria sacked Elam sometime around the mid-640’s BCE.

Besides the events transpiring in and around Assyria of a non-nomadic nature, the Cimmerians were on the move again but seemed to be in greater numbers than in the past. Assyria’s new threat was slowly materializing on their northwestern and northeastern border. As mentioned before, these groups were typically unorganized and insufficient to pose a real threat other than hit-and-run guerilla tactics, and on some rare occasions, as you read earlier, joining in a battle. It is possible that this new Cimmerian-Scythian threat was loosely united, but by and large they did not mix, only getting involved in the affairs of the region they jointly controlled or roamed. Assyria at the time had no real control over Anatolia or Media. These two regions could be considered Assyria’s blind spot. In this blind spot, a certain chieftain would rise up to become not only a king of the Cimmerians but also the “king of the world.” His name was Dugdammi.

The origin of Dugdammi is rather vague according to most historians, but we will try to discover the facts. His name in classical Greek was Lygdamis, in Assyrian it was either Dugdammi or Tugdammi. He was either a Cimmerian or Scythian since the names are interchangeable and are practically the same. His story begins around 660 BCE. It seems that the first known attacks from Dugdammi were against Greek coastal cities such as Sardis of Lydia. Afterward, he pushed at the Assyrian empire around 652 BCE. Because of this external pressure, Assyria would be drawn into another war against Urartu and Dugdammi’s forces. Ashurbanipal mentioned Dugdammi in his annuals as “King of the Sakai and Qutu.” The term Sakai (Scythians) was used primarily by Western Iranians to indicate those who spoke in the Iranian vernacular.

Before discussing Dugdammi and his effect on Assyria, we should focus on the various names mentioned such, as Sakai and Qutu.

The term Qutu, also rendered as Quti, Qutians, or even Gutium, is a loosely used generic and archaic expression during this period of Assyrian history that has no real value for identifying a particular people. The term Gutium when used by Ashurbanipal, refers to those who were hostile to Assyria, particularly those who lived along the Zagros Mountains. However, the term was also applied to Manneans or Medes during this period. In other words, the term Gutium indicates anyone who is hostile and lives from east of the Tigris River into lands of Western Iran. Therefore, it seems evident that when Ashurbanipal speaks of Dugdammi, he is telling us that Dugdammi is from the region of Gutium, which could mean that he came from Media or maybe from the province of Mannea. What is certain is that Dugdammi is King of the Sakai, while his base of operations is evidently in the lands of Gutium.

There are two interesting letters given to Ashurbanipal by his astrologer Akkullanu that discuss revelations about the origins of the Cimmerians, Scythians, and Umman-manda:

To the king, my Lord, your slave Akkullanu. Peace be with the king, my Lord, may Nabu and Marduk bless the king, my Lord. March was visible on the path of the (stars) of Enlil, close to the feet of Persee; he/it was drab and pallid. I saw (it) the 26th day of the month of Aiaru, when it had risen strongly. I sent its interpretation later to the king, my Lord.”[If] March approaches from Persee, there will be revolt in the Amurru country, the brother will kill his brother. The sovereign’s palace will be robbed, the treasures of the country will be carried away to another country. The sign of the country is unfavorable. The king of the world will be delivered by his gods to his enemy.” It is a bad omen for the Amurru country. Your Assur gods (and), your god, will surely remove the power acquired by the Cimmerians, so great that it is, and will give it to the king, my Lord.” [“If] the starry Sanuma approaches of the Enmesarra god, the heart of the country will be happy, [the people will increase.”] Sanuma is March. [It is] a good omen for the king, my Lord. “So March rises while changing its color and if its radiance is yellow, the king of Elam will die this year.” “So Nergal is small and pallid at the time of its apparition and that he changes his color strongly like a celestial star, he will be understanding for Akkad. The forces of my army will resist and undo the enemy. The enemy’s army won’t resist against my army. The livestock of Akkad will lie down quietly on grazing. The sesame and the dates will be abundant. The gods will be understanding for Akkad.” “So March is visible in the month of Aiaru, some hostile actions will take place, (there will be) the defeat of Umman-manda.” Umman-manda are the Cimmerians.

What is interesting about this letter is that Akkullanu is referring to the Amurru as Umman-manda, but he goes on to reveal that the Umman-manda is the Cimmerians. But what does this mean? It means that the term Amurru in this inscription tells us that the Umman-manda and the Cimmerians are the same and that they are Amurru. If this is true, then the Cimmerians and Scythians are originally from the lands west of Mesopotamia.

The term Amurru in Akkadian means, “the west lands” or the land west of Mesopotamia which includes the Mediterranean coast. The Assyrians are notorious for using archaic terms when referring to peoples who inhabit certain regions, such as the region of Syria, which would be a province within the lands of the Amurru and over which, as discussed earlier, the Scythians had hegemony. On the other hand, Dugdammi’s title, “King of the Sakai and Qutu” may refer to tribal identity and location of the residence, as previously mentioned. If this is the case, then one should consider that the Cimmerians and Scythians came from the lands west of Assyria originally.

As for the term Umman-manda, the Assyrians and Babylonians have equated the Umman-manda with the Medes as described in the Fall of Nineveh Chronicle. Moreover, the meaning of Umman-manda could be “Manda-host” or “host of the Manda.” It has also been suggested that Umman-manda could mean “Who Knows,” “Barbarous people,” or “Nomads.” Nevertheless, one could say that the term means nothing more than a mixed multitude of uncivilized people from the north.

The meaning of the term Umman-manda has evolved among the regional people that mentioned them. Take for instance the name Tidcal or Tudkhul. Tidcal/Tudkhul is said to be the king of the Hittites, but he is also called king of the Umman-manda or “Nations of the North.” Consider also a much older event in which Naram-Sin, king of the Akkadian empire, defeated the Umman-manda and he states, “the powers of the Umman-manda are struck down.”

So what does this mean? This means from the time the Umman-manda first were mentioned by Naram-Sin up to the time of Ashurbanipal, over a thousand years had elapsed between events. This suggests that the term Umman-manda is generic and does not identify one particular people, but rather a horde of many tribes with various names, and Ashurbanipal’s Umman-manda are the Cimmerians. Therefore, the term Umman-manda was just a Mesopotamian stereotype used when referring to people not native to the civilized powers in the region. The Umman-manda of Naram-Sin and the Umman-manda of Ashurbanipal were indeed two different peoples.

The next interesting aspect of this letter indicates that Dugdammi is not only king but also king of the world, for the letter states, “The King of the world will be delivered by his gods to his enemy.” The Assyrians saw King Dugdammi worthy to hold the title “Sar kissati,” which means “King of the universe” or “King of the world” which is translated as “King of Kish.” This does not mean Dugdammi used the title or even considered the title, let alone even knew about the title, but rather that the Assyrians found him worthy of the title. The meaning of the title “Sar kissati” suggests that Dugdammi controlled regions rather than smaller provinces. In ancient times, this title went to those who controlled vast regions within or outside the boundaries of Mesopotamia. Akkullanu tells Ashurbanipal that he will gain back the power and title once King Dugdammi is defeated. It seems that if Ashurbanipal defeats Dugdammi, he will gain back the respect of his people, as well as his enemy, and in doing so, he will control the four corners of the known world.

Since there could only be one king of the world, Ashurbanipal of Assyria desired such a title. Ashurbanipal was most likely envious that Dugdammi, a man of non-Assyrian birth, held such a prestigious and sacred title. Ashurbanipal desired the title for it meant the defeat of his regional rival and would secure Assyria’s borders. The title Dugdammi holds brings up another question. The title “Sar Kassati,” as discussed earlier, suggests that his domain would have been vast, extending from Anatolia to Western Iran if not further to the east. This would mean that Dugdammi was the first Cimmerian-Scythian king to rule, unlike his predecessors, who were mere chieftains. However, this is only speculation. For how extensive his nomadic empire may have been is a matter of debate, but to the Assyrians it was rather threatening.

Another interesting name comes from the next letter provided by Akkullanu to Ashurbanipal concerning a people known as the Ahlamu:

[“So to him] month of Simanu [the moon] appears (for the first time) on 30th day (of Aiaru), the Ahlamu will eat the wealth of the Amurru country”. [These] omens are bad for Amurru. [Assour, Be] Nabu, your gods, [if hostility,] to the king’s hands, my Lord […] [… the defeat] of your ene[mies[…] […]

Once again, we notice the name Amurru being used that was shown previously to apply to the Cimmerians. Now we have the name Ahlamu added to the list as eating the riches of the Amurru. What is fascinating about this inscription is the Ahlamu are now side by side with Amurru. The Ahlamu were a tribe of Arameans who were semi-nomadic and occupied northern Syria, many times giving Assyria trouble during the reign of Tiglath-pileser I around the 12th-11th centuries BCE. The Ahlamu gave the Amurru people trouble during Biblical times, as well, for the people living within the lands of southern Syria and Canaan or any inhabitant who lived west of the Euphrates River, were considered Amurru by the Assyrians. An example of this trouble is illustrated in I Chronicles 18:1-17, in which King David slew many Arameans. In other words, we have what the Assyrians would consider Amurru, that is Israel, and this is not due to ethnicity, but that Israel lives in the region designated by the Assyrians as Amurru country at the time. But what does this say about the Cimmerians and the Ahlamu? The answer to that question is difficult but within reach. The Cimmerians under Dugdammi seem to have origins in Amurru country, but further investigation is needed due to the wording of the inscriptions.

Now, the letter or inscription you read says, “the Ahlamu will eat the wealth of the Amurru country.” This seems to indicate that the Ahlamu are living within the confines of Dugdammi’s empire and may be hostile to the Cimmerians, as indicated by eating the wealth of the Amurru. The Assyrians would know this due to their vast spy network and hoped the Ahlamu would cause a revolt significant enough to allow the Assyrians to take advantage of the situation. However, only two letters mention the Ahlamu as having a possible effect on the Cimmerians, but nothing more is mentioned other than possible hope. Ashurbanipal’s inscriptions for some time would continue referring to Dugdammi as “the king of Amurru” without mentioning his name:

The king of Amurru will die, his country will be reduced (in size) or again it will be devastated. The experts will probably have something to say about Amurru to the king my lord.

On the 15th day of Tebet, during the middle watch, a lunar eclipse took place: it began in the East and passed toward the West: a sinister omen, whose evil (import) is confined to Amurru and its territory. (Indeed) it portends evil to the king of Amurru and to his country. Since the chief enemy of the king my lord is in Amurru, the king my lord may do as he wishes: the arms of the king my lord shall conquer, the king shall accomplish his defeat. The text of their decision is reliable: Shamash and Marduk are giving into the hands of the king my lord a passage through the land, which you have seized by force of arms, from the upper to the lower sea. From the shore of the sea I lift up my hands toward the king my lord, for you are benign. May Marduk and Sarpanitum intercede for me before the king my lord.

Ashurbanipal must have been happy with his spy’s reports that the soothsayers used to fill the king’s ears with prophetic victory fast approaching. This also suggests the Assyrians may have become strong enough to make a challenge, thus giving Ashurbanipal the confidence to approach his enemy. Whatever reason allowed Ashurbanipal to feel more secure about his position seems to have backfired, for Dugdammi goes on to threaten the Assyrian border along with Mugallu’s son, “ussi.”

The name of Mugallu’s son remains unknown, all that is left of his name on the inscription is “-ussi:” This ussi along with Dugdammi would attack Assyria, but the outcome of the battle remains undecided:

[x x] ussi, his son sent every year, without interruption his heavy tribute and implored [my] lordship. I made him swear by the great gods, my Lords, he (but) despised the oath by their (sic) great gods. He has conferred with Dugdammi, king of the barbarian destroyer? destructive. Assour, great mountain, whose signs / borders don’t change, has it terrace [of] far and burned his body by the flaming fire. Without bow, nor horses, nor [mules], (nor?) his brothers, (nor?) his parent, seed of his father’s house, his great army, the aid of his hands, sent emergency following his own decision of the horses and mules without number in Assyria. Dugdammi, king highlander (?), Gutium, insolent that didn’t know the terror of Assour, has trusted in his own strength and has gathered his army to wage fight and battle. He established his camp on the border of Assyria. Assour, Ellilitu, Beautiful, Nabu, Ishtar living in Arbela […] Blood flowed out of his mouth and its sick tomb. Following it [the fire of the sky has fallen on them (the Cimmerians), and himself, his army and his camp, he burned them. Dugdammi was terrified, he is in a deplorable situation and removed his army and his camp; he came back… in his country. The terror of Assour, of Ellilitu, of Beautiful, of Nabu, of Ishtar of Arbela, gods who help me in striking him and he sent his captains (to establish) friendship and peace. I received [his heavy tribute]. Gold, multicolored clothes […] with great horses […horses of horsemanship of his lordship, military equipment, his heavy tribute, he sent it to me and he has kissed my feet. I made him swear to Assour and Ellilitu not to sin against the borders of the Assyria, and I have reinforced (it) while concluding with him a treaty under oath. He hasn’t respected the bill under oath by the great gods. He has entered in the borders of Assyria with the intention to make pain […]. He sinned against the borders of Assyria on the place of libation; for the establishment […The weapon] of Assour, my Lord has stricken him; he became a madman, and in (his) madness he bit his fingers.

From this inscription, we gather that Mugallu’s son ussi was loyal for some time to Assyria but did go on to join Dugdammi and his forces. Some have suggested that ussi was pressured by Dugdammi’s power. This is plausible, for ussi would feel pressured to make a decision based on the interest of his kingdom, since Dugdammi was a much closer threat than Ashurbanipal. In addition, consider also that ussi, like many others, grew tired of Assyrian dominance that imposed heavy tribute. Assyria would impose heavy tribute as a form of punishment to those that rebelled. It would perpetuate bad feelings, leading to further uprisings as in the case of ussi. Because of this, one could look at Dugdammi as a way out of Assyrian dominance. Dugdammi was not a threat, after all, but a blessing.

The next part of this inscription indicates a cease-fire. Ashurbanipal would impose heavy tribute on Dugdammi. Notice that in the inscription it says divine intervention defeated Dugdammi and his forces. This defeat could have come from another force but it is unclear. It may have been that Dugdammi’s attacker could not beat him and so they had settled for a draw. Had Ashurbanipal really defeated Dugdammi, the title “Sar Kassati” would be his; however, Ashurbanipal did not trounce Dugdammi and the Assyrian soothsayers never mention the title, while the Assyrian spies report only hostility.

These next inscriptions are somewhat similar to the previous one, particularly the next one you are about to read.

Dugdammi, demon gallu, barbarian-destructor […] that doesn’t bring [the yearly tribute,] [has trusted in] his own strength, [covered] the country like an invasion of locusts. He has gathered [his army and] established [his] camp [on the border of Assyria…] […]… the coming down (?) Assour, sin, [Shamash, Ishtar of] Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela […] Blood flowed out [of his mouth;] he is [sick tomb.] […] size, established place (?)] [… the fire of the sky is tomb and himself, [his army and his camp,] it burned [them]. [Dugdammi] [was terrified and] he is put in [a deplorable situation; [he removed his army and his camp,] in Harsale […]… […] (of) his countries rebelled against him and […] he has expired. He was in a bad place and […] [..] he plotted against my gods in the inside of his army. […] theirs. The terror of Assour, of Sin, of Shamash of Ishtar of Nineveh, of Ishtar of Arbela, [gods, my Lords,] that helped me, striking him; his captains (to establish) friendship and peace […] with [great (?)] horses […]horses of horsemanship of his lordship, […]…military equipment, his heavy [tribute,] he sent it to me and he has kissed my feet. I made him swear by the great gods, [my Lords not to sin] against the borders of Assyria and I have reinforced (it) [while concluding with him the treaty under oath. He rejected the treaties under oath by the great gods and [didn’t respect it.] He has entered in the borders of Assyria with the intention (to make) pain. He sinned against the borders of Assyria [on the place] of libation; for the establishment (?) […The weapon of Assour, my Lord struck him; [he became a madman,] and in (his) madness he bit his fingers. […] he has changed and has inflicted upon him a stern punishment. [The moist of sound (body) has been reached of paralysis,] a sharp pain has pierced his heart; […] of him didn’t have, his army […] his penis was claw and was tomb. […His life ended…]

The inscription starts with Dugdammi being described as a “demon gallu” we will address this description later. As for the rest of the inscription, notices that it is a rehash of the previous inscription until you reach the last few portions. These last few lines suggest Dugdammi died in battle, using the imagery of a “pierced his heart” or his “penis was claw and was tomb.” Overall, the message is simple, Dugdammi is dead and shall no longer pose a threat to Assyria, but there is more:

[I have] killed, I have changed [Dugdammi, the king of Ummanmanda, destructive-barbarian…]

And Dugdammi, king of Umman-manda, creation of Tiamat, a species of gallu demon, despised the oath [by the gods] not to make crime, not to sin against the borders of my country; he didn’t fear your great name that the Igigis [venerate.] To magnify your lordship and the power of your divinity […] Following the message of your divinity that you sent: “I will disperse [his] army […] will I hurl down (?)] Sandakkurru / Sandaksatru, son (his), his offshoot that one designated like his heir.” I heard (it) and I have glorified the powerful Marduk.

Dugdammi is clearly dead according to the inscriptions, but another interesting aspect is the insults used to describe Dugdammi by Ashurbanipal. The term “demon gallu” and “Tiamat” as you read are descriptions of Dugdammi’s character according to Ashurbanipal. The term “demon gallu” is in reference to seven demons who love to eat flesh. You could take this meaning at face value, for some Scythian groups such as the Androphagoi and Massagetae, did consume human flesh and it is possible that Dugdammi partook of such a practice. On the other hand, Dugdammi may not have consumed any human flesh, but rather his sword consumed the flesh of the many thousands he and his forces had slain. However, it could be a stereotype, for certain Scythians and Cimmerians may have partaken in the consumption of human flesh, while Dugdammi took no part in, but due to his relation to them, one would think otherwise. Nevertheless, whatever the circumstance is one can agree that the term shows the distaste Ashurbanipal had for Dugdammi and his nomadic forces.

The next term mentioned in the last inscription is “Tiamat.” Tiamat represents the goddess of chaos. According to Babylonian mythology, Marduk slew Tiamat to create order and peace. Ashurbanipal obviously saw himself as being in the same position as Marduk and that something had to be done in order to bring about social order. In other words, this war with Dugdammi was a clash of civilizations in Ashurbanipal’s mind. You have the civilized Assyrians, keeping the peace and stability throughout the known world; while on the other hand, you have the uncivilized Dugdammi and his nomadic forces that represent palpable darkness.

The Assyrian inscriptions do not mention where Dugdammi died or how he died, but the statement is rather clear, Dugdammi is dead for, “a sharp pain has pierced his heart.” According to the historian Strabo, Dugdammi died at the Cilicia gates, but refers to him as Lygdamis and says, “Lygdamis, however, at the head of his own soldiers, marched as far as Lydia and Ionia and captured Sardes, but lost his life in Cilicia.” Unlike Strabo’s account, Ashurbanipal’s letters do not mention where the battle took place but only mention Dugdammi’s death. The inscriptions remain silent concerning a battle or a series of battles that most likely took place. However, the inscriptions do suggest a possible ceasefire at one time before the renewal of hostilities between the two.

The Ashurbanipal inscriptions mention two types of death; one is physical and the other spiritual. For the physical, Ashurbanipal says, “I have glorified the powerful Marduk.” Ashurbanipal claims the kill for himself, while in another inscription provided earlier speaks of the supernatural being responsible for slaying Dugdammi and says, “The weapon of Assour, my Lord struck him.” Regardless of the inscriptions, Ashurbanipal is responsible for Dugdammi’s death. However, it is interesting that Ashurbanipal speaks of himself as the taker of life, while in other he speaks of a god having taken Dugdammi’s life. It seems both are true, but with a twist.

To summarize, it is safe to say that Dugdammi was no friend of Assyria and he held in his grasp a huge nomadic empire that threatened the civilization of Assyria. Before the hostilities began, it seems that a “soft alliance” existed between them, perhaps because Dugdammi had been bought off by Ashurbanipal in preparation for dismembering the kingdom of Lydia. If true, it would have been a great move by Ashurbanipal at the time, but the Cimmerians still proved too wild to control directly or indirectly, and they quickly turned their attention back toward Assyria. This turning could be due to the desperate plea for help of Ardys, son of Gyges, to Ashurbanipal, and his willingness to patch up their differences over past issues.
Ashurbanipal may have accepted the terms, which is a cause for concern. At this point, we could say that Dugdammi was still on comfortable terms with Assyria, but felt threatened and undermined by a possible new alliance between Ashurbanipal and Ardys. The reason Ashurbanipal might have rekindled his trust in Lydia rather than with the Cimmerians could relate to economics and trade.
Lydia had an abundance of natural resources at its disposal, such as gold and silver. Trade routes also crossed through Lydia, making it and a commercial powerhouse for business and trade. The fact is that Assyria needed resources such as iron ore. However, the Cimmerians that lived and roamed in the Anatolian region were also in control of the iron ore. The Cimmerians were bad for business and they had to go. It seems that by making a pact with Lydia there was a chance to squeeze and expel the Cimmerians, as well as to establish trade relations with Lydia.
Earlier we discussed the death of Dugdammi and touched on the inconsistency of the battles, which suggest both Ashurbanipal and Dugdammi could have claimed victory. Both sides suffered heavy losses. However, it does seem that Ashurbanipal suffered most of the casualties in this conflict. Before the events that culminated in the death of Dugdammi, it appears that he took a short break before going on to violate the border agreement. This in turn would have caused upheaval along the borders and within Assyrian territory. In the inscriptions, one could glean from them that Ashurbanipal was quietly saying he was defeated. By invoking the god’s name as the sole benefactor in defeating Dugdammi, it does suggest that an outside element was possibly responsible. This outside element may have been Madys, according to Strabo:
Lygdamis, (King of the Cimmerians) however, at the head of his own soldiers, marched as far as Lydia and Ionia and captured Sardes, but lost his life in Cilicia. Oftentimes both Cimmerians and Trerans made such invasions as these; but they say that the Trerans and Cobus were finally driven out by Madys, the king of the Scythians. Let these illustrations be given here, inasmuch as they involve matters of fact which have a bearing upon the entire
compass of the world in general.

As Strabo suggests, it is quite possible that Madys did defeat and kill Dugdammi (Lygdamis) in Cilicia around 640 BCE if not 639 BCE. Ashurbanipal might have sent envoys to invite Madys to invade the lands of Dugdammi and kill him. The reason could be due to the wars in which Ashurbanipal was already engaged. Ashurbanipal was still intermittently fighting the Scythians and Cimmerians and at the same time having to suppress rebellions in Elam and Babylonia. Because of this, not only was he depleting his forces, he was also overextending his lines of supply and support. This massive onslaught on Assyria meant Ashurbanipal had to find someone to aid him, or hope for something or someone to intervene. He needed something as mighty as Dugdammi’s forces in the north, whether it was by force or influence. Madys was the choice. Strabo also says that Madys drove the Cimmerians out of Anatolia. This could be true, but unlikely. Madys may have defeated the forces led by Dugdammi, but more likely, that the dwindling remainder of Dugdammi’s force simply joined Madys. This region was under Cimmerian control and they probably did not mind being ruled by one of their own kin.

Dugdammi did have a son by the name of Sandaksatru who would succeed Dugdammi after his death. However, nothing is really known about him or where he went. It is possible that Sandaksatru was with his father at Cilicia during the battle, and fled into Europe along with the remainder of the forces when his father was defeated and killed. Nevertheless, the inscriptions definitely make no mention of Sandaksatru’s presence at this particular battle.


Askold I. Ivantchik, Les Cimmeriens au Proche-Orient

Cam Rea, March of the Scythians: From Sargon II to the Fall of Nineveh

Dr. E.V. Cernenko, The Scythians 700-300 BCE

Robert Drews, Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe

H.W.F. Saggs, The Might that was Assyria

Top Image:


By Cam Rea

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


Boardman, John, I. E. S. Edwards, and N. G. L. Hammond. The Cambridge Ancient History. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C. Volume III, Part 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959.

Brosius, Maria. Women in Ancient Persia, 559-331 B.C. . Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Chavalas, Mark W., and K. Lawson Younger. Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques and Benjamin R. Foster. Mesopotamian Chronicles. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

Lipinski, Edward. On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: Historical and Topographical Researches. Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies, 2006.

Olmstead, A.T. History of Assyria. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1975 reprint (1923).

Saggs, H.W.F. The Might that was Assyria. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984.

Zawadzki, Stefan. The Fall of Assyria and Median-Babylonian Relations in Light of the Nabopolassar Chronicle. Poznań: Adam. Mickiewicz University, 1988.

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


Boardman, John, I. E. S. Edwards, and N. G. L. Hammond. The Cambridge Ancient History. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries B.C. Volume III, Part 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959.

Brosius, Maria. Women in Ancient Persia, 559-331 B.C. . Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Chavalas, Mark W., and K. Lawson Younger. Mesopotamia and the Bible: Comparative Explorations. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques and Benjamin R. Foster. Mesopotamian Chronicles. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

Lipinski, Edward. On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: Historical and Topographical Researches. Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters en Departement Oosterse Studies, 2006.

Olmstead, A.T. History of Assyria. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1975 reprint (1923).

Saggs, H.W.F. The Might that was Assyria. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984.

Zawadzki, Stefan. The Fall of Assyria and Median-Babylonian Relations in Light of the Nabopolassar Chronicle. Poznań: Adam. Mickiewicz University, 1988.