The End of An Empire

Royal Library of Ashurbanipal was a great library discovered in the ruins of Nineveh in modern Iraq. Ashurbanipal was the last strong king of Assyria with his reign lasting almost 40 years (668 – 637 BCE). Ashurbanipal was a learned man, perhaps the only Assyrian king who could read and write. He built a great royal library which was perhaps the inspiration for the later Library of Alexandria. His library consisted of more than 10,000 distinct texts consisting of 30,000+ clay tablets and numerous wax boards and payrii. He was a strong king and used his wars and threats of war to stock his library with knowledge gleaned from various regions of Mesopotamia. This library is the best source of such classics as the Epic of Gilgamesh (the epic traces its origin to sometime around 18th century BCE) and the creation myth of Enuma Eli. I can imagine the king reclining on his bed with pretty ladies of the harem, enjoying the sweet taste of most expensive wine of the period and reading the epic of Gilgamesh and imagining himself doing the deeds of Gilgamesh.


Library of Ashurbanipal
Library of Ashurbanipal

The alliance of Nabopolassar of Babylonia and Cyaxares of Media was formalized by a marriage between the daughter of Cyaxares, Amytis, and the son of Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar II. It was this Amytis, the legend has it, for whom Nebuchadnezzar II built the Hanging Garden of Babylon, so that she would not miss her native Media. It was this Nebuchadnezzar II after whom Saddam Hussein named one of his Elite Republican Guard Division. The alliance later included the Scythians and Cimmerians. Taking advantage of the internal strife in the Assyrian empire, this alliance of nations that were under the domination of Assyria for a long time waged a war against the Assyrian empire for almost ten years (616 BCE – 605 BCE). This long war included another battle of Megiddo where Necho II of Egypt, who was on his way to assists the Assyrians, defeated King Josiah of Judah. Nineveh, the great capital of Assyrian empire, fell in 612 BCE. The capital of the empire was then moved to Harran that survived a two year siege but fell in 610 BCE. The capital was again moved to Carchamesh. The battle of Carchamesh in 605 BCE finally sealed the fate of the Assyrian Empire. Within 20 years of death of mighty Ashurbanipal, Assyrian empire that had been one of the strongest and greatest kingdom/empire in the greater Mesopotamia for almost 1500 years (21st Century BCE – 7th Century BCE) ceased to exists as an independent nation.


The book of Revelation, verse 16:14-16, implies that the Devil will gathered the Kings of Earth and the whole world into a place called in hebrew, Armageddon or Har Megiddo i.e. the Mountain of Megiddo. Megiddo is a plain in Israel, which was the location of many old Fortresses and consequently many battles. Apparently, the memory of the battles had such an impact that the writers of Bible accorded it the honor of hosting the Last Battle.

Thus it should not come to us as a surprise that the first detailed historical account of a battle was of the Battle of Megiddo which took place in the season of battles (Spring) of 1457 BCE i.e. almost 3500 years ago. The battle was fought between the Egyptian empire under Pharaoh Thutmose III and his vassal states of Kadesh, Megiddo, Canaan that rose in rebellion.

Tuthmose III
Tuthmose III

Forces under Thutmose III that numbered between ten to twenty thousand and consisted of chariots and infantry marched from their border fortresses to first Gaza and then to Yahem. In total, this journey took 22 days (10 days to Gaza, one day rest and then 11 days to Yahem). The opposing forces numbered between ten to fifteen thousand. Battle of Megiddo is the first battle for which such detailed description is provided.

There were three routes to the fortress of Megiddo from Yehem. The northern and southern approaches were easy and the middle approach was a difficult one where in the soldiers could move only in single file. This would make an ambush catastrophic. Thutmose’s generals advised him to take the northern or southern approach. But the “Napoleon  of Egypt” decided that his enemies would also expect him to do the same and thus followed the difficult route. It was revealed then that the northern and southern routes were defended by rebel infantry.

Battle of Megiddo
Battle of Megiddo

Thutmose III attacked next day quickly defeating the defenders who retreated to the city. Here is where the discipline that would be there in a professional standing army (like that of Tiglath Pileser III) was found missing in the Egyptian forces. Instead of pressing their attack to the city, the “army” took to plundering the enemy camp. This gave the defenders enough time to regroup inside the city. The inability to capture the city quickly resulted in a long siege of the city by Thutmose’s forces. The siege took seven months and at the end of it the city fell with plunder of 340 prisoners, 2,041 mares, 191 foals, 6 stallions, 924 chariots, 200 suits of armor, 502 bows, 1,929 cattle, 22,500 sheep, and the royal armor, chariot and tent-poles of the King of Megiddo coming Egyptian’s way. I believe that the reference to royal armor and tent poles implies complete subjugation of the King of Megiddo and may be his execution. There is reference of King of Kadesh escaping but nothing about the King of Megiddo.

The battle reasserted the Egyptian dominance of Canaan and was the first step in Thutmose III extending the Egyptian empire to its greatest extent.

The Might that was Assyria

The Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great of Akkad spanned the Four Quarters of the world. One of the four quarters of his empire was Assyria, the region encompassing northern Mesopotamia on the banks of Tigris river with Nineveh and Ashur being its most prominent cities. Assyria became independent of the Akkadian rule sometime in the middle of 22nd century BC and remained relatively independent except brief span of foreign domination till about 605 BCE when they were finally conquered and assimilated by Cyaxares the great of Media. Assyria was a power to reckon with in the known world for almost 1800 years with periods wherein it was the dominant force in the world. And I am sure very few on this planet would have heard about them.

The Assyrian empire reached its peak under the rule of Tilath Pileser III in the eight century BCE (745 – 727 BCE). In a palace coup, Tilath Pileser III, murdered the existing royal family and crowned himself the king of Assyria. Tilath Pileser III turned his attention to Babylon in the south first. This was followed by conquest of Urartu (Modern Armenia), Medes and Persia (Modern Iran), Hittites and Syrians (Modern Turkey and Syria) and Northern Israel (Modern Israel). Under Tilath Pileser III, the Assyrians conquered most of the world known to them.

Tiglath Pileser III
Tiglath Pileser III

Deportation of native population was one of the tools of subjugation. Thus under Tilath Pileser III and his son Shalmaneser V, the population of Northern kingdom of Israel was deported thus leading to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.


Assyria - Deportation of Jews
Assyria – Deportation of Jews

Innovations in science of warfare

Another reform that was introduced by Tilath Pileser III was the concept of standing army. Traditionally, the armies were conscript armies that fought only during the summer months when the agricultural work was less or when there was an external threat. The conscript armies were little more than farmers with weapons. Tilath Pileser III instead created a standing army that could fight and train year around. The armies lived off the land and were paid by the spoils of the conquests. The standing army enabled campaigns of conquest and required campaigns for their existence. The core of the army was composed of Heavy Infantry, Cavalry and Chariots taken from the native Assyria. There were auxiliaries composed of recruits from the conquered territories. Mercenaries were also part of the army. Assyrians used iron weapons whereas many of their foes still used bronze weapons. The Assyrians built good roads in their empire to facilitate quick movement of troops. Torture and fear was another tool used by the Assyrians to demoralize their enemies.

The title of this post is taken from an eponymous book by H W F Saggs.