Ancient Near East - Sennacherib

Updated: Jul 19

During the reign of Sargon II, Sennacherib had effectively maintained the administration of the empire while his father was away on military campaigns. Sargon II trusted his son to handle the daily affairs of the state, but did not think highly of him as a man or future king. He must have openly shared this opinion with others. When Sennacherib came to the throne, the provinces quickly rebelled. As mentioned in the previous episode, Sennacherib seems to have regarded his father with similar disdain.

Shortly after Sennacherib came to the throne, Merodach-Baladan returned to Babylon at the head of an army comprised of his tribesman and Elamite warriors, assassinated the sitting ruler of the city, and again took the throne. Sennacherib had not endeared himself to the Babylonians, and had further insulted them by not visiting the city or acknowledging the chief god Marduk as the god of Babylon after he became king. The Babylonians, therefore, welcomed the arrival of Merodach-Baladan and felt they had nothing to fear from the new Assyrian king. Their confidence was strengthened, in 703 B.C., when Sennacherib sent an army, led by his commander-in-chief, to drive the invaders out of Babylon and restore Assyrian rule. This army was swiftly defeated by the combined forces of the Elamites, Chaldeans, and Aramaeans. But the Babylonians would soon realize they underestimated this new Assyrian king.

In response, Sennacherib himself came sweeping down and defeated the allied force. Merodach-Baladan fled from the battlefield and hid in the marshes of the Sealand, which he knew well. Sennacherib marched the rest of the way to Babylon, and the city quickly opened its gates as soon as they observed the Assyrian king approaching. He arrived and chose to send Babylon a message. The city was ransacked, the palace was plundered, and almost a quarter-million captives were taken prisoner. An Assyrian puppet king, named Bel-ibni, was placed on the throne and Babylon was left in peace.

Merodach-Baladan fled to Elam, but did not remain idle there. He encouraged others to revolt against Assyrian rule. Among these was King Hezekiah of Judah who was told that, if he stood against Assyria, aid would come from Egypt, who was currently under the rule of the Nubians who had created the 25th Dynasty.

In 701 B.C., Sennacherib turned from Babylonia to the western part of the empire which had now rebelled. These small Canaanite and Phoenician states in the area included Sidon and Ashkelon, who were taken by force. Byblos, Ashdod, Ammon, Moab, and Edom then paid tribute without resistance – Ekron rebelled and the Assyrian-appointed king of Ekron was captured, taken to Jerusalem in chains, and handed over to Hezekiah who imprisoned him. Ekron then called on Egypt for help, but the Egyptians were defeated by Assyria who took the city by storm, put to death the leaders of the rebellion, and carried their followers into captivity. Sennacherib then turned on Jerusalem.

“As to Hezekiah, the Jew. He did not submit to my yoke. I laid

siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small villages,

and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps

and battering rams brought near the walls with an attack by

foot soldiers, using mines, breeches, and trenches. I drove out

200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules,

donkeys, camels, and cattle beyond counting, and considered

them slaves. Himself, I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal

residence, like a bird in a cage... Thus I reduced his country,

but I still increased the tribute and the presents to me as overlord

which I imposed upon him beyond the former tribute, to be

delivered annually.'

In truth, however, Sennacherib did not breach the city, and Hezekiah remained on his throne as a vassal ruler. According to the biblical record, 46 cities did fall to Sennacherib, but Jerusalem was not one of them. Further, although Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh was decorated with reliefs depicting his various campaigns and victories, Jerusalem never appears among them. Scholars suspect a plague struck the Assyrian camp which devastated the army, causing him to retract the siege. Whatever happened outside of Jerusalem, the city remained intact and Sennacherib returned to Nineveh.

Sennacherib moved the capital to Nineveh and made it a truly magnificent city. He laid out new streets and squares, constructed parks and gardens, and created a “palace without a rival”, a royal residence consisting of at least 80 rooms. At this time, the total area of Nineveh comprised of about 7 square kilometers (roughly 1,700 acres), fifteen gates were located in its walls. An elaborate system of 18 canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh, and the city enclosed over 100,000 inhabitants, about twice as many as Babylon at the time, placing it among the largest settlements worldwide.

Sennacherib was especially fond of flowers and plants and imported specimens from throughout the empire for his public gardens. It is possible that the garden he built next to his palace was the original Hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

While he was busy in Nineveh, trouble erupted once again in the south. Although Bel-ibni was trustworthy and loyal to Assyria, he was also incompetent, and allowed the southern regions to do whatever they pleased. Once again Merodach-Baladan returned from hiding and began instigating trouble. Sennacherib marched south again to put down the revolts. He sent Bel-ibni back to Nineveh and appointed his own son and chosen heir, Assur-nadin-shumi, to rule Babylon. He then went in pursuit of Merodach-Baladan, equipping a vast army to find and kill the rebel leader, but when they finally located him, he had died of natural causes.

Sennacherib returned to Nineveh but was soon called to campaign again. The Elamites had kidnapped Assur-nadin-shumi and claimed Babylon as their own. Sennacherib defeated the Babylonians, retook the city, and executed the rebels, but their was no word on the fate of his son. He was most likely killed by his captors around 694 B.C.

A Chaldean, Mushezib-Marduk, managed to seize the throne of Babylon and formed another large coalition against Assyria, including Chaldeans, Arameans. Babylonians, and Elamites whose support he bought using the temple treasury. In 691 B.C., the coalition engaged Sennacherib in a major battle, which was probably indecisive, near Halule on Assyria's border. The next year Sennacherib began a 15-month-long siege of Babylon, and when he was finally successful he took revenge for the problems it had caused him. He had spent more time during his reign dealing with Babylon and the Elamites, and expended more men and resources on subduing the city, than on any other campaign, and so he ordered the city to be razed to the ground.

“I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire, the wall and outer

wall, temples and gods, temple towers of brick and earth, as

many as there were... through the midst of the city I dug canals,

I flooded its site with water... that in days to come, the sight of

the city... might not be remembered.”

Babylon was destroyed and the statue of their god, Marduk, was carried back to Nineveh. Sennacherib may have thought that now Babylon would cause him no further problems, but he was mistaken. As in the reign of Tukulti-Ninurta I, the people were outraged by Babylon's destruction and about the plunder of the statue of the god Marduk.

Biblical accounts and Assyrian inscriptions report that Sennacherib was killed by two of his sons, differing only that he was either stabbed or crushed to death by a statue. Whichever way he died, it was thought that he was killed because of his treatment of Babylon. He may have also been killed by these sons for choosing his youngest son, Esarhaddon, as heir instead of them.

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