MEETING THE ASSYRIAN THREAT

The Battle of Qarqar, by Seán Ó’Brógáín.
Ancient Warfare issue XI-4 explores warfare in ancient Israel and the Levant from the period of 1100 – 700 BC.
You can order your copy here:

https://www.karwansaraypublishers.com/ancient-warfare-xi-4.html

King Ahab of Israel was most probably aware of the re-emergence of Assyria as a great expansionist power and envisaged the need to preserve the available resources and forces of Syria and Palestine for a major united effort to stem the Assyrian tide.

Indeed, it took only about two years for matters to come to a head and for the Assyrian invasion to materialize. In the sixth year of his reign, Shalmanezer in (858-824 bc) began his great war of conquest to subdue the lands west of the Euphrates, after those east ofthe river had been sub- jugated. The strength of the Assyrian war machine can only be guessed, but it was undoubtedly the most sophisticated and complex the ancient world had known to date. This fact becomes apparent from studying the reliefs on the bronze gates at Balawat in ancient Iraq, on which some of Shalmanezer’s campaigns are depicted. They show variously armed corps of infantry fighting alongside chariots with a crew of three and cavalry armed with lance, spear or bow. Some of the troops are cased in heavy armour, others seem to wear no body armour at all. The siege train included, besides the well-known breaching tools and scaling ladders, mobile four- and six-wheeled rams covered with sheet metal and/or hides. Boats, rafts and inflated animal skins served the first line as river-crossing equipment, and schematically laid-out fortified camps serviced the troops on their march.

The Assyrian cavalry appears here already at its fullest development. Its tactical employment was often in mixed units, either with infantry or variously armed horsemen. Experiments in minor tactics included the combat group of two troopers, one an archer and the other differently armed and shielding the archer when shooting his bow, much like the heavy foot-archers who were covered by a shield-bearing comrade.

Mounted troops were introduced to some extent in the Israelite armed forces as well, though they never attained the prominence that chariots retained throughout the existence of the Northern Kingdom. The independent cavalry arm may have evolved here, as elsewhere, out of the out- rider who accompanied the chariots. On some Assyrian reliefs, these appear as couples teamed up with the chariots. Jehu’s words to his lieutenant, Bidkar – ‘when I and thou rode after Ahab’ – have been quoted as proof that in Israel, too, mounted troops may initially have been used as couples fighting in support of one chariot each.

The Assyrian army reached the Upper Orontes Valley but moving southwards found its way blocked by the Syro-Palestinian allied armies, which had drawn up in full battle array on the marches of Qarqar (853 bc). Shalmanezer’s annals have preserved the order of battle of forces allied against him: ‘Hadadezer [Ben-hadad II] of Damascus: 1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalrymen, 10,000 foot-soldiers; Irhuleni of Hamath: 700 chariots, 700 cavalrymen, 10,000 foot-soldiers; Ahab the Israelite: 2,000 chariots, 10,000 foot soldiers; Que: 500 foot-soldiers; 1,000 sol- diers from Musri [either a Syrian state or Egypt]; Arqad: 10 chariots, 10,000 soldiers; Arvad: 200 soldiers; Usanata [Usnu]: 200 soldiers; Shian: 30 chariots, 10,000 foot-soldiers. 1.000 (?) soldiers from Ammon; Gindibu the Arab: 1,000 camel riders.’ In total, the allies mustered 3,940 chariots, 1,900 horsemen, 1,000 camel riders, and 52,900 toot-soldiers.

This list is one of the most illuminating documents on the military history of the period. The Assyrian annalist cannot be suspected of having purposely decreased the size of the enemy’s forces. The relatively modest number of each participant’s contribution to the coalition army must therefore he taken at face value. Of course, these figures do not represent the complete strength of the respective armies, but they serve as a good yardstick as far as the size of the forces engaged in major campaigns is concerned. Incidentally, these numbers compare very well with the actual strength of forces on European battlefields. As far as individual battles are concerned, only nineteenth-century armies were able to deploy larger forces for a concerted effort. Those of the Middle Ages were all smaller.

Another interesting point is the meagre contribution of the Phoenician maritime cities, such as Arvad, and the absence of any mention of others, such as Tyre. As they were chiefly naval powers, they must have alerted their fleets to provide whatever naval support necessary, while their contribution to the warfare on land would have been confined to token forces and monetary contributions to the war effort, like the maritime powers of later ages (such as Venice, or Britain during much of her history).

Ahab, though third on the Assyrian list (which was more familiar with Assyria’s more immediate neighbours), must have been among the prime movers, if not the central figure, of the coalition. Ben-hadad could not have assumed this position so shortly after his crushing defeat by the Israelite king. Although Ahab’s cavalry force, if present, was so small as not to have deserved mention, his was by far the largest chariot contingent. The Israelite chariot corps was 800 chariots stronger than Ben-hadad’s, the next strongest on the list. Interestingly enough, the strength of Ahab’s vehicle force was also 800 chariots larger than that of Solomon, who had the resources of the United Monarchy at his command. Moreover, the capacity of the stables at Megiddo has been calculated at 492 horses, which means that to maintain a corps of 2,000 chariots, twelve other bases with stables of similar capacity were required. Ahab’s alliance with Tyre may explain part of his capacity to finance this expensive force. Another possibility is that part or all of his additional strength should be explained by the inclusion of the Judean chariots in the Israelite ranks, on the basis of the alliance of mutual assistance – defensive as well as offensive – that existed between Judah and Israel at that time. Lastly, it is feasible that by intent or mistake, the numbers in the Assyrian list have been considerably inflated, though not the relative strength of their allocation to each of the members of the coalition.

The relatively small number of Israelite foot-soldiers is easily explained by Ahab’s reluctance to denude his country of all armed forces, leaving them to fight another day if the expedition into northern Syria proved a failure. Besides, he had to leave sufficient forces behind to keep Moab at bay and to guard his borders against the Philistines in the west and tribal incursions from the east. Furthermore, for a campaign of a predictably considerable extent and a complicated logistic nature, Ahab would have used only regular troops.

The logistic effort involved in moving, feeding and maintaining an army of no less than 10,000 men (and possibly many more) and its train over roughly 300 miles was formidable. Comparison with early twentieth- century staff tables proves that, taking the Boer War as an example, a march of this extent took about thirty days. This calculation, however, does not include bullock carts or camel trains, which move at a speed of about two miles per hour and slow up marching columns considerably. The sheer length of the Israelite marching columns comprising the expeditionary force is to be reckoned as about six miles, which necessitated a high standard of discipline with limited means of communication (visual, oral, runner and rider) at the command and staff s disposal. Each horse had to have about four pounds of fodder, if green fodder could not be pro- vided, and each bullock would have consumed about three pounds of fodder for every twenty pounds of its own weight. The Israelite army’s daily consumption of water amounted to an all-purpose average of 110,000 gallons. Although most of the marching was done through friendly terrain, and most of the supplies might have been provided by bases that were established near the march route, the methods and routine employed to safeguard the necessary supply at the right time from the right points, depots and bases meant a high degree of staff routine, the more so as we are dealing with a multi-national and multi-lingual alliance.

In spite of all these handicaps, the allied forces arrived at Qarqar in good order and, whatever their deficiencies in the latest weapons and equipment, they succeeded not only in beating off the Assyrian army, but mauled it so severely that for the time being Shalmanezer gave up any further military designs on Syria and the Palestinian land-bridge. No mention is made of the Qarqar campaign in the Bible, and it is to the credit of archaeological spadework that the Assyrian annals, chiselled in stone and bearing the story of this event, have come to light and to our attention.

That we are dealing within the bounds of contemporary capabilities is aptly proved by the logistic means depicted upon ancient Egyptian and Assyrian pictorial records. Besides, the means at the disposal of Ahab and his allies were not basically different from those of the Roman armies of similar strength, which convened from all over their empire to fight the Jews in ad 67-71 and in ad 122/3-125. Even in much later periods campaigns such as the Italian wars, conducted by emperors from Charlemagne on up to the sixteenth century, entailed the marching of armies over no less distance and including the passage of the Alps with no more (or even less) elaborate logistical means at their command. The Bible, for reasons of its own, takes up the thread of history some time after Ahab’s return to Israel, when he was at the zenith of his might and prestige:

And it came to pass that Jehoshaphat the king of Judah came down to the king of Israel. And the king of Israel said unto his servants, Know ye that Ramoth in Gilead is ours, and we be still, and take it not out of the hand of the king of Syria? And he said unto Jehoshaphat, Wilt thou go with me to batde to Ramoth-gilead? And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, I am as thou an, my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses. (1 Kgs. 22:2-4)

Battle of Qarqar (or Ḳarḳar)

The historical setting and circumstances are clear. Jehoshaphat arrived at Samaria for one of the periodic consultations between the royal partners that had been going on since the conclusion of the treaty of alliance between the two kingdoms during the reign of Omri (?). Since Ben-hadad had not kept the promise given after his defeat at Aphek to restore all the former Israelite towns, and he held on to the northern fringe of Gilead, Ahab proposed to his ally a common effort to retrieve by force what was his by right. Jehoshaphat’s immediate and unreserved declaration of complete co-operation was prompted by three considerations: (1) his confidence in Ahab’s military leadership; (2) his understanding of the importance of regaining the Yarmuk River and the Edrei gap as a border for the security of both kingdoms; and (3) his appreciation of the strategic and economic advantages of holding Ramoth-gilead, which straddled the King’s Highway and the gateway to the rich grain-bearing regions west of the Hauran Mountains and the grazing areas beyond, where the Jewish settlers were always hard pressed by sundry tribes and peoples.

On the eve of the decisive encounter at Ramoth-gilead, which had been occupied by the Damascenes, Ben-hadad had some anxious hours con- templating his past defeats at the hand of Ahab. In briefing his officers, he betrayed his awe of Ahab’s superior military leadership, for he judged him more dangerous than many a troop of soldiers: ‘But the king of Syria commanded his thirty and two captains that had rule over his chariots, saying, Fight neither with small nor great, save only with the King of Israel’ (1 Kgs. 22:31).

When the armies clashed on the following day, therefore, picked chariot troops attacked with the sole mission of hunting down Ahab and killing him. When one of these units attacked Jehoshaphat by mistake, it immediately broke contact when the king of Judah was properly identified. Ahab had been in the forefront of the melee from the start. By chance he had escaped the attention of the units of charioteers sent to trap him. But, while the battle was raging, a stray arrow struck between the joints of his armour and entered deep into his body. Seriously wounded, he was unable to carry on the assault personally. At the same time, how- ever, the Aramean opposition was so strong and resolute that Ahab was afraid of leaving the battlefield even for a short time to dress his wound, in case his action was misinterpreted and led to an Israelite retreat. And the battle increased that day: howbeit the king of Israel stayed himself up in his chariot against the Syrians until the even: and about the time of the sun going down he died’ (2 Chr. 18:34).

By heroically bleeding to death and hiding his mortal wound from the eyes of his troops until evening, and only then collapsing in mortal exhaustion, Ahab had averted defeat. Yet before the armies renewed their struggle on the following morning, the news of Ahab’s death had spread among his troops. In the absence of any other outstanding leader to use this news to create anger and a clamour for revenge, consternation was paramount and the dispirited Israelites and Judeans retreated, every man to his own city and every man to his own country’.

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