The Assyrian Army at War: The Urartu Campaign


Sargon II



Assyrian Soldiers


Urartu Warrior.

Sargon II’s campaign in 714 bce against the kingdom of Urartu on Assyria’s northern and north-eastern frontiers illustrates the military and logistical capabilities of the Assyrian army. Urartu, the most powerful of Assyria’s eighth-century adversaries, enjoyed the advantages of geography, nestled north of the Tigris River valley past the Taurus Mountains in what is now modern Armenia, a land whose rough topography has challenged foreign invaders for millennia. The two states shared hundreds of miles of common border, with the Assyrian capital of Nineveh just 30 miles away from the major mountain pass connecting the two regions.

Assyrian relations with Urartu became increasingly strained as both powers vied for dominance as the region’s new hegemon. Decades earlier, in the 740s and 730s, King Tiglath-pileser III expanded in northern Syria in the west and Media (modern Iran) in the east, threatening Urartu’s flanks. And though Tiglath-pileser never occupied the capital of Urartu on the shores of Lake Van, he did scorch the countryside and dismantle his enemy’s fortifications, bringing the region under Assyrian control. His victory was short-lived, though, as local princes rebelled. Within twenty-five years, hostilities broke out again when Rusa, prince of Urartu, began to threaten the Assyrian northern frontier.

Sargon II inherited the Urartu problem when he came to power in 721. Twice, in 719 and 717, he sent troops north to the region near Lake Urmia to suppress local conflicts backed by Urartu troops. In 715 the Urartu became more aggressive, seizing twenty-two fortified cities from Ullusunu, an Assyrian vassal in Armenia. Sargon responded by quickly retaking the cities, then laying waste to Urartu’s southern provinces. But Sargon realized that small punitive expeditions would not solve his strategic problem for long. The Assyrian monarch would return the following year in strength and finish what he had begun in a campaign that showcased the Assyrian military machine at war. It would be the eighth military campaign of his seven-year reign.

When Sargon set out in 714 bce for the rugged terrain of Armenia he understood the logistical burdens faced by his army. The expedition would march east by north-east and travel over the Zagros Mountains to the land of the Manna, a region just south of Lake Urmia. Sargon needed to re-establish contact with his vassal Ullusunu and establish a forward operating base. But crossing the Zagros Mountains was no simple task. This high, snow-capped range separated Assyria from the region of modern Iran, and the road Sargon travelled snaked through numerous passes and valleys, ascending to snow-covered mountain passes and descending into dense forests. According to Sargon’s own correspondence, this terrain was ‘too rough for chariots to mount, bad for horses, and too steep to march foot soldiers’, forcing his engineers to clear obstacles and lay stone to make a suitable road. In between these steep mountains ran swift rivers that also proved an obstacle. Sargon noted that he forded one wandering stream no fewer than twenty-six times.

Although no records exist for the size of the Sargon’s expeditionary force, it was certainly a combined-arms army of at least 50,000 men, the traditional size of an Assyrian field army. The army moved in column formation, with special scouts sent ahead to reconnoitre the route. While on flat terrain, the king personally led the column from the basket of his war chariot, surrounded by the chariots of his commanders. These machines were followed by cavalry, infantry, engineers, scribes, diviners, interpreters and intelligence officers, and a baggage train consisting of camels and asses. The rear of the column was guarded by light troops, most probably cavalry in open terrain and infantry in rough terrain. Because of this difficult terrain and the unlikelihood of a large chariot engagement, it is possible that the Assyrian chariot arm was very small, serving only as personal transportation for the king and his senior commanders.

When Sargon reached the land of the Manna, he ordered his vassal Ullusunu to provide him with large numbers of horses, sheep, cattle and material supplies. Using this forward base, Sargon first secured his eastern flank by marching east and south of Lake Urmia into Median territory. The Medes were a fierce Indo-European steppe warrior people who specialized in light cavalry and lived in the region of northern Iran. Cousins to the Persians (who would later conquer them), the Median governors submitted to Sargon, providing him with the unique tribute of steppe peoples, including ‘prancing horses, swift mules, camels native to their land, cattle and sheep’. Steppe camels were of the two-humped Bactrian variety and were superior to their southern cousins for cold-weather operations because of their thick fur and underwool and large, snowshoe-like feet. With his eastern flank secure, Sargon backtracked west to Manna.

The direct route between Mannean country and Urartu was a straight shot north-west from Lake Urmia to Tuspar (modern Van) on Lake Van. This route not only went through extremely rough terrain, it also was guarded by a string of strong fortresses controlled by Urartu. Not wanting to march into the waiting mouth of his enemy, Sargon decided to take a more circuitous route around the northern shore of Lake Urmia near Tabriz and then straight west, by-passing the Urartu fortifications. But even this route brought the Assyrian expedition through difficult geography and hostile territory. Checking his siege train, Sargon pushed west and took twelve fortified cities and eighty-four villages. According to the Assyrian king’s own pen: ‘I destroyed their walls, I set fire to the houses inside them, I destroyed them like a flood, I battered them into heaps of ruins.’ Sargon’s strategy was to secure his line of communications and leave no threatening fortresses or garrisons at his back as he marched further into enemy territory.

Meanwhile, Prince Rusa was rallying support from local princes to stop the Assyrian advance well short of its intended target, the Urartu capital on the shores of Lake Van. Rusa knew the direction of the Assyrian advance and he decided to intercept Sargon on a flat valley in the mountains south-west of Tabriz. Rusa’s strategy was to draw the Assyrians through the defile and into the valley and then smash them before they could deploy from column into a line of battle. But unknown to the Urartu pickets, Sargon’s scouts saw the Urartu deployment in the valley.

Choosing not to move his army piecemeal through the defile, Sargon did the unexpected: he moved it directly over the snow- and ice-covered ridge, descended the other side and deployed in the valley. But the forced march over the ridge took its toll on the Assyrians, who were exhausted and running on light rations. Prince Rusa’s troops, on the other hand, were fully deployed and well rested, having arrived several days before. Sargon understood his precarious tactical situation, realizing that the fresh Urartu troops, defending their homeland, might massacre his invading army. With no line of retreat, no reinforcements and an enemy preparing to strike at any moment, Sargon chose to act quickly to gain the initiative. Again the Assyrian king writes of the condition of his troops and his tactical predicament: ‘I could not relieve their fatigue, nor strengthen the wall of the camp … what was right or left could not be brought to my side, I could not watch the rear … I plunged into [the enemy’s] midst like a swift javelin.’

Personally leading a combined chariot and cavalry charge into the Urartu ranks, Sargon rode his war chariot at the head of his bodyguard, a contingent of 1,000 heavy cavalry, straight into one wing of the Urartu deployment (history does not tell us which wing), shattering it on impact. The rest of the Assyrian army, seeing its monarch plunge into battle, quickly followed.

But Rusa’s lines did not immediately rout, and at some point during the battle the Urartu launched a counter-attack. Sargon tells us that Rusa’s warriors:

the mainstay of his army, bearers of bow and lance, I slaughtered about his feet like lambs, I cut off their heads. His noblemen, counselors who stand before him, I shattered their arms in battle; them and their horses I captured, 260 of his royal kin, who were his officers, governors and cavalry.

In the ensuing chaos, Rusa retreated to his fortified encampment. Sargon pursued and surrounded the king’s camp, showering it with arrow and javelin from his light troops. Rusa eventually abandoned his chariot and escaped on horseback, leaving his routing army to be slaughtered by the Assyrians. In typical Assyrian fashion, Sargon ordered a ruthless pursuit which ‘filled the gullies and gorges with horses while they, like ants in distress, made their way over most difficult terrain. In the heat of my terrible weapons, I went after them, filling the ascents and descents with the corpses of their warriors.’

His enemy crushed, Sargon set off for the Urartu capital at Tuspar. The Assyrian monarch’s strategy was now to punish the region that had supported his enemy. He systematically destroyed every fortress, city and town in the path of his march, leaving thousands dead in his wake. When Sargon reached Tuspar, Rusa fled into the mountains, eventually dying the king of a defeated state. Sargon entered the city triumphant, then razed it to the ground like ‘a smashed pot’. During this phase of the campaign, Sargon had conducted military operations in all seven of Urartu’s provinces and captured or destroyed no fewer than 430 fortified cities, towns and villages.

With the Urartu field army defeated and its king hiding in the mountains, Sargon swung his army around the northern shore of Lake Van and headed south toward the ancient city of Khupushkia (modern Sairt). It was here that Sargon ordered his main army home to the new Assyrian fortress of Dur-Sharrukin (Fort Sargon, later Khorsabad), north of the old capital of Nineveh. Sargon stayed behind with 1,000 cavalry and struck out for the fortress city of Muzazira, the religious centre of the Urartu culture. It was here in the temple dedicated to Haldia, the Urartu war god, that monarchs were crowned and the national treasury kept. Sargon led his elite striking force east over a seemingly impenetrable mountain pass and sacked the city, returning home with 6,000 captives and Urartu’s treasures to add to his imperial coffers.

Sargon II, remembered as Sargon ‘the Great’, made the best of a difficult strategic situation when he attacked the Urartu in 714 bce. His campaign was a textbook example of how to conduct a punitive expedition in hostile territory. He shored up his relationship with Ullusunu and made alliances with the Medes, gaining much-needed supplies and protecting his flank. He then built up his siege train and reduced every walled city and fortification in his path. By securing his lines of communication throughout his march, Sargon was able to operate in hostile territory more than 300 miles from his home base. Tactically, Sargon used his combined army to great effect, changing the balance of his army by reducing the number of chariots and increasing his cavalry and infantry to meet the needs of a campaign in rough terrain. Finally, by leading the assault against the Urartu, Sargon demonstrated to his men his own personal courage and sacrifice. Like Ramesses before him and Alexander, Caesar and William the Conqueror after, Sargon led by example and endeared himself to his troops.

Despite the effectiveness of their military machine, the Assyrians were unable to hold on to their imperial possessions. During the seventh century, Assyria faced rebellions by Babylon, the loss of the rich province of Egypt, and the rise of the Medes in northern Iran. Babylon finally won its independence in 626 and, with the help of the Medes, took Ashur in 614 and Nineveh in 612. By 605, the Assyrian Empire had ceased to exist, finally defeated by the next builders of imperium, the short-lived Chaldean dynasty (625–539 bce) of Babylon, a Semitic kingdom that would itself fall to the rise of Persia in the sixth century bce.

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