Babylonian Soldier.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire at its greatest extent of power.

The so-called ‘Chaldaean’ dynasty of Babylon inaugurated by Nabopolassar has also been designated the dynasty of Bit-Yakin or the Third Dynasty of the Sealand. It was not, however, the first occasion the southern tribes had dominated the whole of southern Iraq, for Nebuchadrezzar I, Eriba-Marduk, and Marduk-apla-iddina II had each, for a time, united the leading families against their more powerful northern neighbours. Nabopolassar, aware of the dangers of any lack of central control, followed up the unity shown against their former enemy Assyria with a new alliance with the Medes before taking his army further afield. The treaty arrangements were perhaps intended also to guard the eastern frontier of Babylonia, and were sealed by the marriage of Nabopolassar’s eldest son to Amytis of Media. At an early stage Nabopolassar began renovation work on the palace, ziggurat, and walls of Babylon to make the city of Babylon the capital of the newly independent state. His son Nabu-kudurri-usur (Nebuchadrezzar, Biblical Nebuchadnezzar, classical Nabuchodonosor, ‘O Nabu, protect my lineage’) was present at the foundation ceremonies and soon thereafter was proclaimed ‘the chief son, the crown prince’. Since there was no principle of dynastic succession in Babylonia, the king by this means indicated his wish and brought the crown prince into public affairs. They were together in operations near Harran before the king departed from the field, more from the need to have a responsible member of the ruling family in Babylon than necessarily because of the king’s ill-health or old age, as Berossus later surmised. Meanwhile the prince led his own army into the mountains of Za[mua], seizing forts, setting them on fire and gaining much loot from a three-month campaign, the aim of which might have been to thwart incursions from Elamite territory. Then, while his father marched to Kimuhu (Samsat) on the upper Euphrates, setting up garrisons against expected Egyptian attacks, Nebuchadrezzar remained at home. If he were the author of a letter reporting the king’s earlier operations with the Medes in the Harran area, he was active in raising support from the temple authorities for these operations. The Babylonian Chronicle affords a precise and reliable source for the major events until 594/3. The Egyptians soon retaliated, besieging the Babylonians who were garrisoning Kimuhu, thus preventing their use of Carchemish as a forward base, and pressing the Babylonians to withdraw from Quramati and posts further south on the Euphrates.

In 605 B.C. Nebuchadrezzar took personal command of the whole army and marched direct to Carchemish, where the Egyptians had fallen back from Quramati. Near his objective he crossed to the west bank to cut the Egyptians off from their direct line of retreat and force them out to battle. The tactic worked and a contest ensued in which the retreating Egyptians were completely overwhelmed. Those who escaped were overtaken in the Hamath area and ‘not a single man escaped to his own country’. If the primary aim was the annihilation of Necho’s forces this was successfully brought about in the victory in August, enabling the Babylonian king to impose his hold swiftly over the former Assyrian provinces and vassal territories in the west. Sensitive opinion there, as in Judah, advocated submission (Jer. 25: 1 – 1 4 ; 36: 29; 46: 1-12). These operations were notable for the presence of Greek mercenaries on both sides, attested by finds from Carchemish, pottery evidence from a fort at Mesad Hashavyahu on the Mediterranean coast, and the statements about Antimenidas, brother of Alcaeus, fighting for Nebuchadrezzar. As far as the Egyptian border, hostages were taken as pledges to the new regime, among them Daniel and his companions from Judah.

Nebuchadrezzar, as crown prince, was still in the west when, according to the Babylonian Chronicle, Nabopolassar died in his twenty-first regnal year (8/V/605). Berossus records that when Nebuchadrezzar shortly after heard the news, he arranged affairs in Egypt and the remaining territory. He ordered some of his friends to bring the Jewish, Phoenician, Syrian, and Egyptian prisoners together with the bulk of the army and the rest of the booty to Babylon. He himself set out with a few companions and reached Babylon by crossing the desert.

This rings true, for he reached Babylon in less than two weeks and ‘sat on the royal throne’ on i/vi/605. The phrase implies that he took it in his own right and was supported by the agreement of the leading tribes and palace officials. There is no basis for the view that the date of the succession was made retrospective, for documents were dated in Babylon by his accession within twelve days. Nor is there any indication of schism following the introduction of the new regime, for Nebuchadrezzar was sufficiently confident of his position to return to Syria (Khatti) almost immediately. If the procedures adopted for the coronation of Nabopolassar were used, the new appointment may have involved a double ceremony within the palace and before an assembly of the princes and palace officials who made their loyalty oaths outside for public acclamation. In Khatti the Chronicles record Nebuchadrezzar’s intentions almost annually for the next ten years: ‘he marched about victoriously’, an expression implying the regular enforcement of law and order in the dominions he had inherited from his father rather than specific military mopping-up operations. In his first year this required a six months’ absence during which ‘all the rulers of Khatti came before him and he received their heavy tribute’. Among these was Jehoiakim of Judah who entered into a vassalage he was to keep for three years. Ashkelon presumably refused to pay tribute, for its king was captured and thereafter Babylon reinforced key places to the south such as Arad (level VII) to thwart any possible Egyptian response. Judah was allowed to reinforce its own southern border and thereafter ‘the king of Egypt did not march out of his country again because the king of Babylon had taken all his territory, from the Wadi of Egypt (Nahal Musur) to the Euphrates River’ (II Kings 24: 7). Opposition in the west was, however, not fully overcome, for in the following year the Babylonians had to call up stronger military forces and siege equipment for use against an unknown city. A seventh century Aramaic letter found at Saqqara is an appeal from one Adon to his overlord in Egypt for help, since Babylonian forces had reached Afek. Their ultimate target is not specified and has been variously judged to be Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod, Lachish, or even Sidon or Tyre. Nebuchadrezzar sought to eliminate pro-Egyptian support in the coastal cities, and ‘the hostile alien king’ named in his Wadi Brissa and Nahr el Kelb inscriptions could well have been a dependent of the pharaoh from whom he took timber in the Lebanon for his works in Babylon during these early expeditions there.

During 601 B.C. the Babylonian garrisons in Khatti were reinforced, but towards the end of the year word reached them that Necho II had called out his army. In the month of Kislimu (December) Nebuchadrez zar took personal command of the Babylonian army, which clashed with the enemy south west of Pelusium on the road from Egypt to Gaza. In an open battle, favourable for the manoeuvring of chariots, cavalry, and archers, both sides ‘inflicted a major defeat on each other’. Losses were so heavy that the Babylonians had to devote the whole of the next year to re-equipment and retraining at home. Though the Egyptians may have penetrated as far as Gaza, the battle effectively ended any Saite control by land in Asia.


At the outset of its dominion over Egypt, the Saite dynasty was fortunate in being able to regard with some equanimity the power of Assyria in Western Asia. In a sense Necho I and Psammetichus I were puppet princes, owing their positions to the backing of Ashurbanipal, but the client character of Psammetichus’ relationship with the Assyrian king after the first few years of his reign seems never to have been more than nominal, and possibly even less than that. It has already been suggested that the supposed Assyrian presence in Egypt was negligible; it is by no means unlikely that in the course of Psammetichus’ reign Egypt became in the eyes of the Assyrians a support and buttress in the west, a potential ally in the expected trouble brewing to the east in Babylon. On the basis of Egyptian records, and in the absence of contrary evidence from Assyrian and Biblical sources, most of Psammetichus’ reign represented a time of peace vis-a-vis Asia. The sole records to the contrary are contained in two passages of Herodotus, one of which (11.15 7) states that the Egyptian king laid siege to Ashdod, the Philistine city, which fell after twenty-nine years. The other passage (1.105) tells how Psammetichus turned an invasion of Scythians away from Egypt by presenting them with gifts and entreaties. The lack of confirmatory evidence of any kind has generally led historians to throw doubt on both of these occurrences, but there is some reason to believe that there was Egyptian activity in Asia, at least towards the end of Psammetichus’ reign.

In the Babylonian Chronicle for 616 B.C. there is mention of an Egyptian army allied with an Assyrian army in pursuit of the Babylonian king, Nabopolassar, as far as Gablini on the Euphrates. In this mention can be found the first positive evidence of the Egyptian involvement in Asiatic politics since the start of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty – an involvement on the side of Assyria which would in due course develop, at times promisingly, but ultimately, disastrously. It is easy to find in the actions of the successive Egyptian rulers a foolhardy attraction towards the complicated politics of their Asiatic neighbours, but it should be remembered that for one thousand years Asia had been the source of repeated danger for Egypt. The lesson, which had never been learned, was that small-scale intervention in the affairs of the small states of Palestine and Syria provided no long-term solution for the aggressive intentions of the powerful empires which lay further east. Egyptian activity in Asia Minor attracted hostile attention; it was no effective deterrent. During the Twenty-fifth Dynasty the threat was Assyria; during the Twenty-sixth Dynasty it became Babylonia.

Although the evidence is so slight, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, towards the end of Psammetichus’ long reign of fifty-four years, a distinct change of policy led the Egyptian king to take vigorous action in Asia Minor in. alliance with the Assyrians. This active policy was continued by his successor, Necho II, who became king in 610. The Babylonian Chronicle records that late in that year the Assyrian king, Ashur-uballit II, together with a supporting Egyptian army, abandoned Harran before the advance of Nabopolassar’s forces. No doubt the Egyptian army had been sent while Psammetichus I was still alive, but its ignominious withdrawal probably took place after the new king had assumed the double crown. In the following year Harran was retaken, Ashur-uballit again receiving substantial Egyptian help; but neither Babylonian nor Egyptian records provide any information about the immediate sequel of this action. The presence of Egyptian forces in Asia may be explained on the grounds both of possible treaty obligations towards the Assyrians, and of the defence of a recently established Egyptian hold over Phoenicia and Lebanon, the only positive evidence for which is the doubtful siege and taking of Ashdod, mentioned above, and a reference on an Apis stela of Psammetichus’ fifty-second year to chieftains who pay taxes to Egypt, and who seem almost certainly to have been Levantine.

Necho’s own appearance in the field at this time, unmentioned in the Babylonian record, is supported by the Biblical accounts of the attempt made by Josiah, king of Judah, to obstruct an Egyptian advance to the Euphrates which may possibly have formed a prelude to the successful Harran campaign of 609. The opposing armies met at Megiddo, the site of a famous victory by Necho’s illustrious predecessor, Tuthmosis III, in 1481 B.C. Josiah was killed, his army defeated, and his son and successor, Jehoahaz, replaced after a reign of three months only, by his own brother Jehoiakim. Necho is said to have secured this change, taking Jehoahaz captive to Egypt, and extracting a substantial tribute from Judah. Attention has been drawn to the relatively generous attitude of Necho towards Judah in comparison with the subsequent severe treatment meted out by the Babylonian king. Apart from the fact that the Egyptian king did not seek to establish an empire in the conventional sense in Asia Minor, he had far more to gain in his expected confrontation with Babylon by retaining an undestroyed state of Judah with a compliant king. For a few years, therefore, Necho may have been able to maintain a general, but loose, control over a large part of Asia Minor, extending from the Mediterranean as far eastwards as the Euphrates in the north at Carchemish, including Judah and possibly some of the former Assyrian tributary states lying between. At Carchemish in particular there are some traces of Egyptian occupation during Necho’s reign.

While the nature and extent of Necho’s Asiatic empire are matters wholly of speculation, it is at least possible to discern good reason for the presence of an Egyptian army in Western Asia at this time. The sudden collapse of the Assyrian domination after 609 resulted in a serious void of power which threatened to be filled by the aggressive forces of Babylon. Egyptian arms had overcome a Babylonian force in 609; the opposition therefore could not have seemed invincible. Subsequent events were to some extent encouraging. In 606, to counter aggressive moves in the region of Carchemish, an Egyptian army laid siege to, and captured, the town of Kimuhu, south of Carchemish, with its Babylonian garrison, and later in the year the same, or another, Egyptian force left Carchemish, crossed the Euphrates, and defeated the Babylonian army at Quramati, forcing it to withdraw. These provocative acts stimulated the Babylonians into quick and decisive action. The Babylonian Chronicle describes, in its laconic manner, the campaign in which the crown prince, Nebuchadrezzar, destroyed the Egyptian army in comprehensive manner. Early in 605 he led his force north, crossed the Euphrates, and engaged the Egyptians who were encamped at Carchemish. His victory was complete, and he followed it up by destroying a second Egyptian force at Hamath, to the south west of Carchemish. The massive defeat of the Egyptian forces led to the rapid abandonment of Asia Minor by Necho, and to the occupation of the whole region by the Babylonians.

Whether or no Necho himself led his army in this disastrous campaign, its outcome surely convinced him of the futility of trying to maintain an Egyptian imperial presence in Asia. In the aftermath of Carchemish Egypt was spared an immediate attack on its eastern frontier by the death of Nabopolassar, which brought Nebuchadrezzar back to Babylon to claim his throne. The Babylonian king, however, campaigned regularly in Western Asia in the following years, and Necho wisely seems to have refrained from engaging in ill-considered interventions. A letter from the ruler of a Phoenician city requesting help against the Babylonians, and invoking some treaty between his city and Egypt, almost certainly belongs to this time. Necho in the meanwhile reserved his forces for the inevitable assault by Nebuchadrezzar, which came eventually in 601. The Babylonian record describes the encounter, presumably on Egypt’s eastern border (although no exact location is given): a bitter battle took place in which both sides inflicted heavy casualties on each other, and the Babylonians were obliged to withdraw to Babylon. To that extent, therefore, the encounter may be counted an Egyptian victory, for Necho had successfully preserved his kingdom from invasion with all its dread accompaniments.