Text #9302"Sennacherib", in .
705 BC–681 BC
Sennacherib is remembered for his military campaigns against Babylon and Judah and for his building programs, notably at his capital Nineveh.
Assyria began as a Bronze Age city-state or small kingdom on the middle-Tigris. The kingdom collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age, but was reconstituted at the beginning of the Iron Age, and under Tiglath-pileser III and his sons Shalmaneser V and Sargon II (combined reigns 744–705 BCE), Assyria extended its rule over Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Syria, making its capital Nineveh, one of the richest cities of the ancient world. The empire’s rise aroused the fear and hatred of its neighbours, notably Babylon, Elam and Egypt, and the many smaller kingdoms of the region such as Judah. Any perceived weakness on the part of Assyria led inevitably to rebellion, particularly by the Babylonians. Solving the so-called “Babylonian problem” was Sennacherib’s primary preoccupation–the refusal of the Babylonians to accept Assyrian rule–culminating in his destruction of the city in 689 BCE. Further campaigns were carried out in Syria (notable for being recorded in the Bible’s Books of Kings, in the mountains east of Assyria, against the kingdoms of Anatolia, and against the Arabs in the northern Arabian deserts. Sennacherib was also a notable builder–it was under him that Assyrian art reached its peak. His building projects included the beautification of Nineveh, a canal 50 kilometers long to bring water to the city, and the “Palace Without Rival”, which included what may have been the prototype of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Sennacherib was assassinated in obscure circumstances in 681 BCE, apparently by his eldest son (his designated successor, Esarhaddon, was the youngest). In Babylon his death was seen as divine punishment for the destruction of that city.
Sennacherib’s grandfather Tiglath-pileser III had made himself king of Babylon, creating a dual monarchy in which the Babylonians retained a nominal independence. This arrangement was never accepted by powerful local leaders, particularly an important tribal chief named Marduk-apla-iddina (the Merodach-baladan of the Bible). Marduk-apla-iddina paid tribute to Tiglath-pileser, but when Tiglath-pileser’s successor Shalmaneser V was overthrown by Sargon II (Sennacherib’s father) he seized the opportunity to crown himself king of Babylon. The next thirty years saw a repeating pattern of Assyrian reconquest and renewed rebellion.
Sargon dealt with the Babylonian problem by cultivating the Babylonians; Sennacherib took a radically different approach, and there is little sign that he cared about Babylonian popular opinion or took part in the ceremonial duties expected of a Babylonian king, notably the New Year ritual. His relations, instead, were predominantly military, and culminated in his complete destruction of Babylon in 689 BCE and even the mound on which it stood by diverting the water of the surrounding canals over the site.
He destroyed the temples and the images of the gods, except for that of Marduk, the creator-god and divine patron of Babylon, which he took to Assyria. This caused consternation in Assyria itself, where Babylon and its gods were held in high esteem. Sennacherib attempted to justify his actions to his own countrymen through a campaign of religious propaganda. Among the elements of this campaign he commissioned a myth in which Marduk was put on trial before Ashur, the god of Assyria–the text is fragmentary but it seems Marduk is found guilty of some grave offense; he described his defeat of the Babylonian rebels in language of the Babylonian creation myth, identifying Babylon with the evil demon-goddess Tiamat and himself with Marduk; Ashur replaced Marduk in the New Year Festival; and in the temple of the festival he placed a symbolic pile of rubble from Babylon. In Babylon itself, Sennachrib’s answer to the Babylonian problem sparked an intense hatred that would eventually lead to a war for independence and the destruction of Assyria.
In 701 BCE, Sennacherib turned from Babylonia to the western part of the empire, where Hezekiah of Judah, incited by Egypt and Marduk-apla-iddina, had renounced Assyrian allegiance. The rebellion involved various small states in the area: Sidon and Ashkelon were taken by force and a string of other cities and states, including Byblos, Ashdod, Ammon, Moab and Edom then paid tribute without resistance. Ekron called on Egypt for help but the Egyptians were defeated. Sennacherib then turned on Jerusalem, Hezekiah’s capital. He besieged the city and gave its surrounding towns to Assyrian vassal rulers in Ekron, Gaza and Ashdod. There is no description of how the siege ended, but the annals record a list of booty sent from Jerusalem to Nineveh. Hezekiah remained on his throne as a vassal ruler.
The Assyrian empire was divided into provinces, each provincial governor being responsible for matters such as the maintenance of roads and public buildings, and for the implementation of administrative policy. One major element of that policy was the massive deportation and redistribution of populations, which aimed to punish, prevent rebellion, and repopulate depopulated areas in order to maintain food production in the empire. As many as 4.5 million people may have been moved between 745 BCE and 612 BCE, and Sennacherib alone could have been responsible for displacing 470,000 people.
Sennacherib made Nineveh a truly magnificent city. He laid out new streets and squares and built within it the famous “palace without a rival”, the plan of which has been mostly recovered and has overall dimensions of about 503 by 242 metres (1,650 ft × 794 ft). It comprised at least 80 rooms, many of which were lined with sculpture. A large number of cuneiform tablets were found in the palace. The solid foundation was made out of limestone blocks and mud bricks; it was 22 metres (72 ft) tall. In total, the foundation is made of roughly 2,680,000 cubic metres (3,505,308 cu yd) of brick (approximately 160 million bricks). The walls on top, made out of mud brick, were an additional 20 metres (66 ft) tall. Some of the principal doorways were flanked by colossal stone door figures weighing up to 30,000 kilograms (30 t); they included many winged lions or bulls with a man’s head. These were transported 50 kilometres (31 mi) from quarries at Balatai and they had to be lifted up 20 metres (66 ft) once they arrived at the site, presumably by a ramp. There are also 3,000 metres (9,843 ft) of stone panels carved in bas-relief, that include pictorial records documenting every construction step including carving the statues and transporting them on a barge. One picture shows 44 men towing a colossal statue. The carving shows three men directing the operation while standing on the Colossus. Once the statues arrived at their destination, the final carving was done. Most of the statues weigh between 9,000 and 27,000 kilograms (19,842 and 59,525 lb).
The stone carvings in the walls include many battle scenes, impalings and scenes showing Sennacherib’s men parading the spoils of war before him. He also bragged about his conquests: he wrote of Babylon: “Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare, and with their corpses I filled the streets of the city.” He later wrote about a battle in Lachish: “And Hezekiah of Judah who had not submitted to my yoke…him I shut up in Jerusalem his royal city like a caged bird. Earthworks I threw up against him, and anyone coming out of his city gate I made pay for his crime. His cities which I had plundered I had cut off from his land.”
At this time, the total area of Nineveh comprised about 7 square kilometres (1,730 acres), and fifteen great gates penetrated its walls. An elaborate system of eighteen canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh, and several sections of a magnificently constructed aqueduct erected by Sennacherib were discovered at Jerwan, about 65 kilometres (40 mi) distant. The enclosed area had more than 100,000 inhabitants (maybe closer to 150,000), about twice as many as Babylon at the time, placing it among the largest settlements worldwide.
Sennacherib was assassinated in obscure circumstances in 681 BCE. An inscription by his youngest son and successor, Esarhaddon, describes how Esarhaddon heard that his brothers were fighting in the streets of Nineveh, hurried back with an army, defeated them all, and took the throne. The inscription does not mention that the brothers were fighting because one of them had just murdered Sennacherib, which is indicated in the Babylonian chronicles, the Bible, and in later Assyrian records. It seems that the murderer was a prince named Arda-Mulissi, the eldest son before Esarhaddon’s appointment as heir; Esarhaddon’s silence on the subject may have been to avoid a perception of instability among the people. To one Babylonian historian, Sennacherib’s death at the hands of his sons was divine punishment for what the king had done to Babylon. Limestone stele of king Sennacherib from Nineveh. Ancient Orient Museum, Istanbul Archeological Museums, Turkey
Professor Simo Parpola, basing his findings on a fragmented letter surviving from that period (Assyrian and Babylonian Letters XI no.1091; Chicago 1911, originally translated by R. Harper), holds that Arda-Mulissi was indeed the brother who killed the King.