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The fall of Nineveh (1)

Map of the campaigns leading to the end of the Assyrian empire. Design Jona Lendering.


After the death of king Aššurbanipal in 631 BCE, the Assyrian empire became unquiet, and the Babylonians seized their independence. For one year (627/626), two Assyrian officials named Sin-šumlišir and Sin-šar-iškun ruled the ancient city on the Euphrates; in the next year, the Babylonian general Nabū-apla-usur, who had been appointed by Sin-šar-iškun, defeated the Assyrians in a battle near Babylon. The Babylonian chronicle known as ABC 2 relates that
on the twenty-sixth day of Arahsamna [23 November 626], Nabū-apla-usur sat upon the throne in Babylon. This was the beginning of the reign of Nabū-apla-usur.
King Nabū-apla-usur is better known under his Greek name, Nabopolassar; his accession marks the beginning of the Babylonian Empire, which was to last until its capital was taken by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in October 539.

Although he had liberated Babylonia, Nabopolassar continued the struggle against Assyria and his contemporaries knew that he would not rest until he had destroyed the capitals of Assyria: the religious center Aššur and the administrative center Nineveh. If he succeeded, the balance of power in the Near East would be seriously endangered; consequently, the Egyptians supported the Assyrians against the aggressors.

In the Fall of Nineveh Chronicle, which is translated here, we can read about the events of these years. On 25 July 616, Nabopolassar defeated an Assyrian force on the banks of the Euphrates, south of Harran. This suggests that Nabopolassar wanted to block the main road between the Assyrian heartland and the territories in the west. However, he was forced to retreat when an Egyptian army (commanded by Psammetichus I?) approached; but Nabopolassar was able to turn his loss into a victory, because his army defeated an Assyrian army near Kirkuk.

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Assyrian soldiers from the Palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh. Pergamon Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Assyrian soldiers from the Palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh (Pergamonmuseum, Berlin)

Next year, we find the Babylonians in the Assyrian heartland, beginning a siege of Aššur. The Assyrians were able to push their enemy away, and the Chronicle does not hide that the Babylonians were in a tight spot for some time. At the end of 615, the Medes, a tribal federation living in modern Iran, intervened in the conflict. The temptation to fish in troubled waters must have been irresistible. The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle mentions that they operated in the neighborhood of modern Kirkuk; they may have taken the town.

In 614, they succeeded where the Babylonians had failed during the preceding year: they took Aššur. Nabopolassar arrived too late to help the Medes, but he managed to signed a treaty with their king Umakištar, who is better known as Cyaxares. The Babylonian historian Berossus (third century BCE) tells us that the alliance was cemented by a royal wedding: the Babylonian crown prince Nabū-kudurru-usur, also known as Nebuchadnezzar, married Amytis, the daughter of Cyaxares' son Astyages. This is impossible (Astyages was too young); probably, Amytis was the daughter of Cyaxares himself.

After a year of inconclusive campaigning, the united Medes and Babylonians laid siege to the Assyrian capital Nineveh in May 612. The siege lasted for three months; in July, the city fell. (It may be noticed that archaeologists discovered the remains of forty of the defenders.) King Sin-šar-iškun, who had once been in charge of Babylon (above), seems to have committed suicide. The looting of the town continued until 10 August, when the Medes finally went home.

The remains of one of the defenders of Nineveh. Photo David Stronach.
The remains of one of the defenders of Nineveh (Photo David Stronach; ©*)

The fall of Nineveh shocked the ancient world. The Jewish prophet Nahum described the Median armies advancing to the city that had once ruled the Near East.
An attacker advances against you, Nineveh. [...]
The shields of his soldiers are red;
the warriors are clad in scarlet.
The metal on the chariots flashes
on the day they are made ready;
the spears of pine are brandished.
The chariots storm through the streets,
rushing back and forth through the squares.
They look like flaming torches;
they dart about like lightning.
He summons his picked troops,
yet they stumble on their way.
They dash to the city wall;
the protective shield is put in place.
The river gates are thrown open
and the palace collapses.
It is decreed that the city
be exiled and carried away.
[Nahum 2.1-7]
Reports of the destruction of the ancient city reached even far-away Greece, where the poet Phocylides wrote that a small city well-organized and built on a steep promontory was stronger than foolish Nineveh (fragment 4).

A wounded soldier is attacked by a vulture. Assyrian relief from Nimrod, British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
A wounded soldier is attacked by a vulture. Relief from Nimrod. (British Museum)

The end of the two Assyrian capitals was not the end of the war, however. A new king, whose name was Aššur-uballit, set up a kingdom in Harran. But he was no match for Nabopolassar, who, according to the Fall of Nineveh Chronicle, 'marched to Assyria victoriously' in the fifteenth and sixteenth year of his reign (612-609). King Aššur-uballit was forced to leave Harran.

He seems to have convinced the Egyptians to support his hopeless cause one more time. A large army under command of Necho II (610-595) advanced to the north. King Josiah of Judah, who had tried to conquer the former kingdom of Israel, tried to resist the invaders; the Second Book of Kings informs us that 

while Josiah was king, pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, went up to the Euphrates river to help the king of Assyria. King Josiah marched out to meet him in battle, but Necho faced him and killed him at Megiddo. Josiah's servants brought his body in a chariot from Megiddo to Jerusalem and buried him in his own tomb.
[2 Kings 23.29-30a]
In June, Necho's men tried to recapture Harran for Aššur-uballit and they may have come close to victory, but they had to raise their siege of Harran in August 609. After this event, Aššur-uballit and Assyria disappear from the historical sources. The Babylonians and Egyptians would continue their struggle in Syria and Palestine. This story is told in the Nebuchadnezzar Chronicle.

>> part two (translation) >>

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