Beautiful, brave, creative, and fearless. In these four words we could sum up everything that queen Semiramis was. But she also deserves to be compared to the greatest conquerors of the ancient world, Alexander of Macedon and Cyrus the Great. Her campaigns took her to Mesopotamia, Syria, and Iran, and all the way to India.
In some legends, Semiramis (or Sammuramat) had for mother a goddess, Derceto. We know nothing about her origins, except that she was most likely Assyrian. She met her future husband, the ruler of the Neo-Assyrian empire, when he was besieging Bactra, the capital of Bactriana. Ninus (or Shamshi-Adad V, who ruled from 824 to 811 BC) had already conquered Babylonia, Armenia, Media, and Egypt when, after an interval of a few years, which he needed to build the great city of Nineveh, he went back to try, for the second time, to conquer Bactriana.
One of Ninus’ officers, Onnes, had sent for his wife, Semiramis, because the siege was taking too long and he missed her. And thanks in large part to her advice and leadership, the Assyrians were able to capture Bactra. At this time Ninus met her, found out that she was very intelligent and beautiful, and told Onnes that he wanted to marry her. Onnes refused, but when Ninus threatened him, he killed himself. Ninus and Semiramis married, and they had a son (Ninyas, or Adad-nirari III). The king soon died, having been wounded by an arrow, and left his wife as queen. At the time it was rumoured that she had murdered him.
Semiramis went back to Nineveh with her husband’s body, stopping in Babylonia to found the city of Babylon, where she buried him in a temple-tomb that she built for him. Then she set out to work, surrounding this city with a high brick wall that was wide enough for two chariots to drive upon it side by side (she even named one of the city gates after herself.) Then she raised the embankments of the Euphrates to keep it from flooding the surrounding area, and built bridges and two palaces. She also built a temple to the god Belus, and ordered the construction of an obelisk, 130 feet tall and 25 feet wide and thick. It was quarried in Armenia, hauled by teams of mules and oxen to the river, and then loaded on a raft which brought it downstream to Babylonia.
But Semiramis did not only want to be remembered for her buildings. She was also a capable ruler of the already large empire inherited from her husband. But then she decided to enlarge the empire that would one day go to her under-age son. So she set out towards Media, leaving behind monuments as she went along, as well as palaces (at Ecbatana). She even drilled through mountains to make roads or to bring water from lakes to cities. She conquered Libya and Ethiopia and stopped by Egypt to make sure it was being managed properly.
In Egypt, she consulted the oracle of Amun (like Alexander the Great would do several centuries later). She wanted to know about her future, and she found out that she would receive undying honour among the peoples of Asia. This turned out to be true, because she was deified after her death and worshiped among the gods and goddesses of the Assyrian pantheon.
One of her greatest enterprises was attempting to conquer India, something that neither her husband nor anybody else had been able to do. India was famous for its wealth, which included all kinds of precious stones and metals. At the time, Stabrobates was the king, and he had a very large army, a part of which fought with war elephants.
Semiramis prepared an expedition of unprecedented proportions, which required much planning. She sent out messengers to the satraps (people selected to rule in her name) of all her domains, telling them to gather brave young men for the army, and after two years’ time to meet her at Bactra. Then she sent large amounts of timber to shipwrights in Phoenicia and other coastal lands, ordering them to build river boats that could be taken apart.
Finally, to make up for the lack of elephants, of which the Indians had many, she came up with a very ingenious plan. It involved making dummies that looked just like elephants, and that would have the Indians worried, since they thought Semiramis had access to none. She had 300,000 dark oxen slaughtered and ordered artisans to sew their hides together in the shape of elephants and stuff them with straw (after allowing the workers to eat the meat). The dummies were mounted on camels and were operated from inside by one soldier each.
Spending two years on all these preparations, she went to Bactriana, where all the forces and supplies converged. She set out on her campaign which was one of the largest ever. According to ancient historians, she had 3,000,000 foot-soldiers, 100,000 chariots and as many men mounted on camels, and 200,000 cavalry. The boats totaled 2000, and the parts were loaded onto camels that carried them overland. More camels carried the dummies of the elephants.
When king Stabrobates heard about Semiramis’ approach, he ordered more elephants to be gathered and trained, and also to enlarge the army, as well as the fleet. And as soon as Semiramis arrived at the Indus river, she had her boats assembled in a hurry and engaged the Indians both on land and by water. She and her Assyrians won the first battle, destroying 1000 of the enemy’s boats and taking 100,000 captives.
Stabrobates then tried to trick Semiramis into crossing the river, by having her believe that his army was retreating in fear. She quickly built a pontoon bridge and led most of her forces to the other side. She had the dummy elephants placed in front, and enemy spies soon took a report to Stabrobates indicating the amazing numbers of “elephants.” But not long after this, some of Semiramis’ troops were caught neglecting their watch duties and, fearing punishment, deserted to the enemy. Among other things, they unmasked the queen regarding the true nature of the animals.
The two armies met, Stabrobates’ cavalry and chariots against the Assyrian “elephants.” At first, the Indian horses refused to get closer and to obey their riders because of the unfamiliar smell of the camels holding up the dummies. So Stabrobates had his elephants and his foot-soldiers advance. The animals soon trampled thousands of Assyrian soldiers; others they ripped apart; and yet others they lifted with their trunks and then slammed on the ground.
Those Assyrians who could, turned and fled. Stabrobates decided to attack Semiramis and first struck her arm with an arrow, then her back with his javelin. The injuries were not very serious, and the queen managed to escape. But when she reached the pontoon bridge, all was confusion. In their eagerness to get across and get away from the pursuing Indians, Assyrian was trampling Assyrian, and many fell into the river and drowned.
When Semiramis saw that most of the surviving Assyrians had safely reached the other side of the river, she cut the ties that held the bridge together. It came crashing into the river, taking with it a large number of Indians. The rest of them were stuck on the other side of the Indus, unable to cross.
Semiramis, having conducted the first known invasion of India, and failed, headed back to Bactriana with the remainder of her troops. But her toils were not over yet. She had to cross a desert region, today known as the Makran (in southwestern Pakistan). This was notorious in antiquity for its heat, and the lack of water and food. This meant that the troops had to carry food and water, in addition to their weapons and other supplies. And even though she probably marched at night, as Alexander the Great would do a few centuries later, many soldiers perished along the way.
When Semiramis got back to Bactriana at last, there was one more surprise waiting for her. Her son had entered into a conspiracy with a palace eunuch in order to depose her. Remembering the prophecy given by the god Amun through his oracle in Egypt (that she would turn into a goddess), she simply handed the crown and sceptre to her son and left, never to be seen again. Her son ruled for almost thirty years, and although his rule was successful, he never equaled any of his mother’s achievements.