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Ancient Near East - Sargon II

Updated: Dec 3, 2022


When Tiglath-Pileser III died, Hoshea at first remained loyal to Assyria, but later on, possibly as part of a general rebellion, he stopped paying tribute. This led to a military campaign in 726 B.C. by Shalmaneser V, who laid siege to Israel’s capital for three years and conquered it just before his death in 722 B.C. His brother and successor, Sargon II, claimed the victory for himself and turned the region into the province of Samaria.

The repercussions for Israel were great. The Assyrians deported a substantial number of people – 27,290 according to Sargon – and settled them in northeastern Syria and western Iran. People from other parts of the empire resettled the region of Samaria, creating a less homogeneous population that was more docile toward Assyria. While the northern parts of the original state, the provinces of Megiddo and Karaim, were left almost unpopulated, Samaria was developed economically through the creation of small villages and agricultural estates. The administration was restructured to fit Assyria’s needs. The capital was rebuilt and, along with a few other cities, it came to be the seat of governors who lived in residences built in the Assyrian style. Fortresses were constructed along the border to protect the province against incursions from the south and east. Legal transactions were now recorded in the Assyrian language and cuneiform script.

The Assyrians developed this region as a buffer state between their empire and the Egyptians and Arabs. During this time, word reached the court that a tribal chief named Merodach-Baladan had seized rule in Babylon. Sargon II left the capital city Kalhu at the head of the army and met the combined forces of Babylon and Elam in battle on the plains outside the city of Dur. Sargon II’s army was defeated by the Elamites and left the field. (The Babylonians arrived too late to have any effect.) With this defeat, he lost the city of Babylon and the regions of the south.

Sargon II returned to Kalhu and set his administration in order. In 717 B.C. he first conceived the idea of his own capital city built on virgin land and commissioned that it be built. The city would become Dur-Sharrukin, a central preoccupation of the king throughout his reign.

In the same year, Sargon II accused the king of Carchemish of intrigue with the enemies of Assyria and invaded the city with his entire army. The city of Carchemish was the capital of a very wealthy kingdom which had long enjoyed prosperity due to its location on a trade route. There was no army to speak of which Carchemish could field and so the city was easily taken. Sargon II sent captives and the massive treasury back to Kalhu. So rich was the treasury in silver that it changed the Assyrian economy from bronze-based to a silver-based financial economy.

The Defeat of the Great Rivals

Assyria was surrounded by a number of great states at its borders: Babylonia in the south, Elam in the south-east, Urartu in the north, and Egypt beyond the Syro-Palestinian region. They were too large and powerful to be completely controlled, or, in the case of Babylonia, special considerations prevented full incorporation into the Assyrian Empire. An acknowledgment that Babylonia had fundamentally influenced Assyria’s culture and religion led to a sense of respect that prevented similar treatment to that meted out to other regions. Furthermore, the extreme south of the region was impossible to control as it was covered with marshes where traditional military tactics could not be deployed. During the reigns of the six major late Assyrian kings, some twenty transactions of power took place in Babylon. The numerous changes show both Assyria’s inability to find an effective way of controlling Babylonia and the strength of local opposition. The king of Elam often supported the opposition, requesting payment for his services.

The North also had a persistent problem. The Kingdom of Urartu had been conquered by Tiglath-Pileser III but never completely so. During the reign of Shalmaneser V, Urartu had risen again and was making incursions into Assyria from bases along the border. In 719 and 717 B.C., Sargon II sent troops to the borders to fight the Urartians who had invaded and instigated conflict among the settlements. In 715 B.C., Urartu mounted a full-scale invasion and took 22 Assyrian cities along the border. Sargon II retaliated by retaking the cities, driving the Urartian forces out of Assyrian lands, and razing their southern provinces along the border. He understood, however, that these kinds of invasions would continue and he would have to repeatedly expend time and resources in dealing with them. Sargon II knew he had to decisively defeat Urartu. The difficulty lay in their strategically located kingdom which was nestled in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains and heavily defended. It was for this reason the previous Assyrian kings had failed to completely destroy them. The Urartian forces were always able to slip away into the mountains after an engagement, regroup, and then return to harass the empire.