The Levant: The Assyrian Annexation

Judaean King Hezekiah and Jerusalem endured a siege led by Assyrian king Sennacherib.

The Levant c. 830 BCE

Tiglath-pileser’s policy was innovative not because he introduced new organizational elements but because he carried through on a large scale an already existing practice: annexation. Over the course of twelve years (743-732 bce) and eight campaigns, several states lost their independence and were incorporated into the Assyrian empire. In 743 bce, Tiglath-pileser marched to the Levant to confront an anti-Assyrian coalition made up of Urartu, Arpadda, Meliddu, Gurgum, and Kummuhu. The submission of Arpadda, the capital of Bit-Agusi, proved particularly challenging. All together, three campaigns against the city are attested (in 742, 741, 740 bce). Only after the third attempt, in 740 bce, did Tiglath-pileser succeed in conquering the town. In Arpadda, the victor received tribute from Gurgum and Kummuhu, which were members of the enemy coalition, from Gargamis and Que, which had perhaps been part of the coalition and, finally, from Damascus and Tyre. After taking rich booty, the Assyrians annexed Bit-Agusi. The new province was named Arpadda, after her capital; the local name, Bit-Agusi, is not attested in the Assyrian texts after this point. The annexation of Arpadda must have put the whole area on the alert, particularly the people of the neighboring states Unqi and Hamat, who must have asked themselves whether it was a special measure or the beginning of a greater enterprise. With a wave of annexations starting in the regions west and south of Arpadda, they were soon to find out.

The campaign of 738 bce was a large-scale operation that resulted in the establishment of three new provinces, Kullania, Hatarikka, and Simirra, districts within the land of Hamat that had plotted against the Assyrians. The rest of Hamat managed to maintain a limited independence as a vassal state. According to a tribute list from 738 bce, all countries located north of the Assyrian provinces Arpadda, Unqi, and Hatarikka, up to the distant Tabalu and Kasku, paid tribute to Tiglath-pileser. So did again Tyre and Damascus, and also Hamat, Byblos, the Arabs, and Israel.

In 734 bce, after three years of absence, Tiglath-pileser marched for the fifth time to the Levant. In Pilistu, the Assyrian army conquered the city of Hazzat (Gaza). From here, Tiglath-pileser marched further southwest until he reached the “Brook of Egypt,” where he set up a stele. Probably in the same year, the submission of the Arabian tribe Mu’na took place, as well as the appointment of Idibi’ilu as a supervisor in the area of the “Brook of Egypt.” According to a tribute list from the same year, Ammon, Moab, and Edom, the Philistian cities Hazzat and Ashkelon, Judah, as well as Arwad on the northern coast, paid tribute after this campaign. Moreover, Tiglath-pileser earned the loyalty of the southern states without annexing them. The entire Levant seems to have been under direct or indirect Assyrian control at this point.

In 733 and 732 bce, Tiglath-pileser carried out two campaigns against Damascus, the strongest enemy in the region, which ended with its annexation. Tiglath-pileser’s opponents were Rezin of Damascus, Pekah of Israel, Hiram of Tyre, and Mitinti of Ashkelon. After the siege of Damascus and the devastation of its surrounding area in the year 733 bce, military actions were undertaken against Galilee and Gilead, ending with the annexation of some territories in Israel. Israel’s southern part, around the capital Samaria, was allowed to continue existing as a vassal state. In 732 bce, the city of Damascus was eventually conquered and the country was annexed. As a consequence of these events, two new provinces were created, namely Megiddo and Damascus. The province Qarninu, whose establishment is not attested, probably originated at this time as well, when Tiglath-pileser conquered territories in the Transjordan area.

Between 740 and 732 bce, a large part of the Syria and the Levant was thus annexed by the Assyrian empire. Newly established provinces included Arpadda (in 740 bce), Hatarikka, Kullania, and Simirra (in 738 bce), probably Mansuate and Tu’immu (in 740/738 bce), as well as Megiddo, Damascus, Qarninu, and Subat (in 732 bce). The formerly independent states of Bit-Agusi, Unqi/Pattinu, and Damascus ceased to exist, while Hamat and Israel suffered substantial territorial losses. The remaining states and city-states submitted to the Assyrian ruler and paid tribute. In spite of all this, the region was not yet defeated completely and the danger of uprisings and the formation of anti-Assyrian coalitions not yet eliminated.

During the short reign of Shalmaneser V (726-722 bce), no annexations took place. At the end of Tiglath-pileser III’s reign, the Israelite territory around Samaria had bordered on the provinces of Megiddo and Qarninu, which had been established on the former territories of Israel and Damascus. The refusal by Israel’s king Hoshea to pay tribute was a risky decision under such circumstances, but apparently, Assyria’s military presence in the new provinces was not yet strong enough to prevent rebellions in the region. Samaria resisted Shalmaneser’s siege for three years until it fell in the fall of 722 bce. When Shalmaneser died in the winter of 722/721 bce, the Assyrian army returned to Assyria, and the annexation and reorganization of Samaria was postponed. Sargon II (721-705 bce), who ascended the Assyrian throne in 722, must have been involved with the conquest in some manner because his annals ascribe this success to him. When the Assyrians left the region, Hamat, followed by the provinces of Arpadda, Simirra, Damascus, and the newly conquered Samaria, used this unexpected opportunity to break away from Assyrian rule. In 720 bce, Sargon II marched to the Levant and reestablished the previous order. The population of Samaria was deported, and some years later (in 715 bce), Arabs and people from Babylonia and Hamat were settled there.

With Sargon II, Assyria’s second extensive annexation phase in the west began. Sargon led half of his campaigns to Syria and the Levant, where the northwestern region, in particular, required his attention. During his reign, the provinces of Samaria (in 720 bce) and Ashdod (in 711 bce) were established. Hamat was annexed in 720 bce, either as a district or as a province. In the north, the provinces of Marqasa (on the territory of Gurgum) and Kummuhu (on the territory of Meliddu and Kummuhu) were created in 711 and 708 bce, respectively, and in 717 bce Gargamis was probably annexed. A province established in 713 bce in the territory of Hilakku and Bit-Purutas was short-lived; in 711 bce, the area was newly conquered, and a new province was created, with Til-Garimmu as its center, which served as a bulwark against the menace of Urartu, Kasku, and Musku. This province, too, was lost at the end of Sargon’s (or in the first years of Sennacherib’s) reign. Whether the provinces of Que and Sam’alla were established by Sargon or by Shalmaneser V is unclear. During the following decades, the political map of the Levant underwent no important changes, but uprisings in the region did not stop and prompted more than ten Assyrian campaigns.

The Levant did not play a special role during Sennacherib’s reign (704-781 bce); his main problem was Babylonia. Sennacherib’s campaign in 701 bce, often referred to as the campaign “against Judah” and attested in the Bible (2 Kgs 18: 13-19: 37, 2 Chr 32: 1-22, and Isa 36-7: 37; also Mic 1: 8-16), was neither a military action directed exclusively against Judah nor as important as the extensive secondary literature seems to suggest. It concerned, rather, an episode within a campaign that targeted Phoenician, Philistian, and Judaean towns. Even if the Judah episode did not end with the conquest of Jerusalem, it was successful: Sennacherib devastated Judah, he conquered Lachish, one of the most important Judaean towns, and handed conquered Judaean territories over to the Philistians. Hezekiah capitulated and paid a high tribute. Jerusalem was not conquered because it was not necessary to do so after Hezekiah’s capitulation. It is not known why Sidon, the Philistian cities (Ashkelon and Ekron), and Judah revolted at that time, but it is clearly that anti-Assyrian sentiments led the political elites of Ekron to ask for help Egypt, an action sufficient to prompt an Assyrian intervention.

Like his father Sennacherib, Esarhaddon (680-669 bce) suffered territorial losses in the northwestern regions as well as uprisings in the southern Levant during his reign. In 677 bce, a campaign against Abdi-Milquti of Sidon took place, which ended with the establishment of the last Assyrian province in the Levant. Abdi-Milkuti had not felt obligated to follow the foreign policy of his predecessor and wanted to shake off the Assyrian yoke. Thereupon, Assyrian troops conquered Sidon, looted and destroyed it, and deported the royal family and members of the elite to Assyria. The territory of Sidon was annexed, and the city was replaced as the capital by a new settlement called Kar-Assur-ahu-iddina, “Esarhaddon’s Harbor.” The new capital was settled with inhabitants from Sidonian cities and deportees from the eastern areas of the empire. In addition, Esarhaddon handed the Sidonian cities of Ma’rubbu and Sariptu over to king Ba’al of Tyre. The well-known treaty between this king and Esarhaddon may have been concluded in 676 bce, after the conquest of Sidon. When in 671 bce, only five years after the treaty, Ba’al betrayed the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon besieged Tyre, accusing the city of having an alliance with the Egyptian ruler Taharqa. The town was conquered and looted and the king of Tyre lost all of his cities. But Tyre itself was not annexed and its king was not deposed.

During Esarhaddon’s reign, the situation in the northwestern areas became unstable under increasing pressure from Musku and Tabalu. The territory of Meliddu, which belonged to the province of Kummuh? u, was lost. The provinces of Que and Sam’alla may have come under pressure as well, when uprisings took place in Hilakku, Kundu, and Sissu.

The most important intervention in the Levant during the reign of Esarhaddon’s successor Assurbanipal (668-631 bce) occurred in the course of his “third campaign” against Ba’al of Tyre, which seems to have taken place between 663 and 657 bce. After the military actions of 671 bce, which ended with territorial losses for Tyre, Ba’al observed the treaty at least until 667 bce, at which point he is still listed among other loyal vassals. But, as in the past, his loyalty did not last for long. Warnings from the Assyrian king did not seem to have impressed him, so Assurbanipal was forced to take harsher measures. Only a siege of Tyre brought about Ba’al’s submission: he handed his daughter, his nieces, and his son over to the Assyrian king along with heavy tribute. However, the city of Tyre was not annexed.

The last known Assyrian intervention in the Levant was a limited military operation in the 640s against Usu (a city on the mainland opposite of Tyre) and Akku, which took place on the march back from a campaign against Arabian tribes. The inhabitants of Usu refused to continue to pay their annual tribute, as the inhabitants of Akku probably did as well. In both cases, the insubordination was punished with executions and deportations. The corpses of the rebels of Akku were impaled and put on exhibit around the town. The survivors were deported to Assyria and incorporated into the Assyrian army.

In spite of a relatively weak Assyrian presence in the Levant, it is remarkable how few uprisings occurred there between the late eighth century and the 640s. The situation in the Assyrian provinces was stable; they served, among other things, as bases for military operations against the Arabs, which took place partially on the land of the Transjordanian vassals, and – in the case of Moab – even with their support.

The Assyrian kings were met with a complicated geopolitical situation in the Levant. A look at the political map reveals that they dealt with the region in different ways. During the course of some 200 years, the Assyrian army campaigned in the Levant sixty-seven times. Although not every state lost its independence, twenty-one provinces were created there, based on the principle of “territorial continuity,” which meant that only provinces whose territories bordered on already existing ones were established. Three of them (Hilakku/Bit-Purutas, Til-garimmu, and Ashdod) were lost shortly after they were created. Tabalu, some Phoenician cities (Arwad, Byblos, Samsimurruna, and Tyre), Philistia (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Hazzat), Judah, and the Transjordanian states (Ammon, Moab, and Edom), as well as some princedoms in Cyprus (Yadnana), remained Assyrian vassals.

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