“The king of Assyria went up against Damascus, and took it, and carried the people of it captive to Kir, and slew Rezin” (2 Kings 16:9)
“His noblemen I impaled alive and displayed this exhibition to his land. All his gardens and fruit orchards I destroyed. I besieged and captured the native city of Reson (Rezin) of Damascus. 800 people with their belongings I led away. Towns in 16 districts of Damascus I laid waste like mounds after the Flood.”
(From: Western Campaign 734-733 B.C.)
“In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria and took... Hazor and Gilead and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria” (2 Kings 15:29)
“Bet-Omri (Israel) all of whose cities I had added to my territories on my former campaigns, and had left out only the city of Samaria.... The whole of Naphtali I took for Assyria. I put my officials over them as governors. The land of Bet-Omri, all its people and their possessions I took away to Assyria.” (From: Western Campaign and Gaza/Damascus campaign 734-733 B.C.)
“And Hoshea... made a conspiracy against Pekah... and slew him and reigned in his stead” (2 Kings 15:30)
“They overthrew Pekah their king and I made Hoshea to be king over them.” (From: Gaza/ Damascus campaign.)
Sombre evidence of the capture of Hazor by Tiglath-Pileser III, king of Assyria (2 Kings 15:29), has been supplied by a layer of rubble at Tell el-Qedah in Israel. In the course of more recent excavations by archaeologists from the Hebrew University, traces came to light of the shattered Israelite fortress which had been rebuilt during the monarchy for defence purposes by Solomon and Ahab on the site of the old Canaanite fort which had been conquered by Joshua. The strength of the keep with its six-foot thick walls was such that it was only surpassed by the famous royal palace at Samaria, now likewise rediscovered.
The apartments in the castle at Razor were covered by a layer of ashes three feet thick, the stones were blackened with smoke, charred beams and fragments of what had been at one time panelled ceilings lay scattered about the ground. By exercising the utmost care the archaeologists were able to salvage from the piles of rubble some precious examples of the arts and crafts of northern Israel: a statuette of a well-groomed young woman and a marble incense-spoon. The greatest thrill was to find among the fragments of broken pottery the name of King Pekah himself, written in old Semitic script. This was the first written evidence of an Israelite king in Galilee.
When the armed hordes of Assyrians withdrew from Palestine they left Israel mortally wounded, smashed to the ground, decimated by deportation, beaten back into a tiny corner of the northern kingdom. With the exception of Samaria all its cities had been annexed and the country had been divided into provinces over which Assyrian governors and officials exercised strict control.
All that was left of Israel was a dwarf state, a tiny pinpoint on the map: the mountain of Ephraim with the royal city of Samaria. There lived King Hoshea.
The southern kingdom of Judah still remained free from foreign domination — for the time being. But it had to pay tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III.
The warlike Assyrian colossus had enclosed in his mighty grip the whole of the “Fertile Crescent” from the shores of the Persian Gulf, from the mountains of Persia to Asia Minor, from the Mesopotamian plain through Lebanon and Antilebanon as far as Palestine. Alone, away to the south-west, the 20 acre royal city of Samaria with its few square miles of hinterland, providing it with corn and barley, was unsubdued.
From this corner a gauntlet of defiance flew through the air to land at Assyria's feet.
After the death of Tiglath-Pileser III Hoshea conspired with Egypt. He refused to pay his annual tribute to Assyria. Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C.), the successor of Tiglath-Pileser III, at once struck back. For when he “found conspiracy in Hoshea: for he had sent messengers to So32 king of Egypt, and brought no present to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year: therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison” (2 Kings 17:4). Part of the organisation of the hated reign of terror — even in those days — was a widespread net of informers and spies.
With the fall of Samaria the last remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel suffered the fate of Damascus, “... in the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away into Assyria” (2 Kings 17:6).
For three years the little mountain fortress withstood the deadly pressure of superior forces with the courage of a lion (2 Kings 17:5).
Cuneiform texts record that Shalmaneser V died unexpectedly during the siege of Samaria. His successor Sargon II33 nevertheless continued the attack. “In the first year of my reign,” boasts Sargon in his annals, “I besieged and conquered Samaria.... I led away into captivity 27,290 people who lived there.”
The discovery of the Sargon inscriptions over 100 years ago is like a romantic tale from the fabulous land of the caliphs. None the less it is a milestone in our knowledge of the ancient world. For it marked the birth of Assyriology, which by its sensational discoveries has for the first time given many Biblical narratives a genuine historical content.
The motor car had not been invented: electric light was still unknown: no steel frames of derricks towered out of the sandflats by the Tigris: Mosul still wore the colourful variegated garb of a city from the Arabian Nights. Bazaars, harems, and a real live caliph were all there. It was the heart of the ancient orient and the year was 1840.
Summer lay like a red-hot breath over the city with its elegant white minarets and its narrow dirty muddy alleyways.
For a European the heat was enervating and unbearable. Paul Emile Botta, the new French consular agent, escaped from the incubator as often as he could to take a ride by the Tigris and breathe fresher air. But soon certain desolate mounds on the other side of the river began to fascinate him more. Admittedly they had nothing to do with the routine duties of a consular agent, but M. Botta was a scholar. He had been carefully following an academic dispute which had broken out over the Biblical name Nineveh. No one could say with any certainty where this city lay in olden times. It was a case of one surmise being as good as another. One suggestion pointed in the direction of Mosul. In the course of his wanderings among the yellow brown sandhills on the far side of the river Botta had repeatedly noticed fragments of bricks. They were only plain looking uncommunicative fragments. Nevertheless he mentioned them in a letter to Paris. In reply came a letter from M. Mohl, secretary of the Societe Asiatique. It encouraged him to examine the terrain a little more closely.
Botta hired a bunch of natives out of his own pocket. In the typical round Tigris-boats they headed up river towards the mounds and prepared to excavate.
This first attempt of a modern European to come to grips with ancient Nineveh and wrest its secrets from it failed to achieve the desired result. Botta ordered digging to begin on several slopes. Some weeks flashed past as the work went busily on. But the result was precisely nothing. Botta saw his money being expended to no purpose and brought his private expedition which had been started with such enthusiasm to a disappointing end.
Perhaps he might have kept his hands off any further researches in this area except that he heard something which spurred him to new activity. In the village of Khorsabad, 7 miles to the north, Arabs working in the fields were said to have found great pillars.
In the early part of March 1842 Botta and his workers were on the spot. They began to excavate, and on the same day they struck stonework, apparently the inner wall of a large building.
Botta was highly delighted although at that moment he had no idea that he was responsible for a historic event of the greatest importance for scholarship. The stonework was part of the first of the gigantic Assyrian palaces which after lying dormant for thousands of years were now to come to light. It was the birth of Assyriology. And the first thing that this new science got itself involved in was — as we shall see in a moment — an erroneous idea.
Once again French scholarship displayed in this case sound judgement. The Academie des Inscriptions, which Botta informed at once, saw to it that the government placed funds at his disposal. It was to begin with no vast amount of money but gold francs were still worth something in the East. The sultan gave the required permission for excavation.
But on the site itself Botta had to endure unimaginable difficulties due to the extremely underhand dealings of the local authorities in Mosul. At one moment the trenches came under suspicion as being military defences; at another the primitive shelters of the members of the excavations were suspected of being army bivouacs. It seemed that by every possible means the great excavation was to be thwarted. More than once Botta had to send an S.O.S. to Paris and invoke the aid of the French diplomatic service.
Despite all this, sections of a huge palace were liberated from the sand at Khorsabad.
Eugene N. Flandin, a well-known Paris artist, who had specialised in antiquities, had been given the assignment by the Louvre which nowadays falls on the official photographer of any expedition. His pencil reproduced accurately on paper all that the ground yielded up. The drawings were collected into a handsome folio and the large volume was adorned with the proud title “Le Monument de Ninive.” For Botta was convinced that he had found the Biblical city of Nineveh at Khorsabad. And that was where he was wrong.
If he had only dug a few inches deeper into the mounds opposite Mosul, where two years'earlier he had given up the apparently hopeless task in disgust, he would in fact have made the discovery of his life. As it happened the credit for discovering Nineveh went to Henry Layard, who at the instigation of the British Government commenced digging in 1845 at the very spot where Botta had given up.
At the first spadeful, so to speak, he came upon the walls of one of the great palaces of Nineveh.
What Botta had excavated at Khorsabad was the great castle of Sargon, the home of Sargon II, king of Assyria. But that did not emerge until later. If Botta had been able to read the tablets which were salvaged at Khorsabad he would never have made his mistake. “Dur-Sharrukin,” Castle of Sargon, was written there in cuneiform, which at that time, 1842, had not yet been completely deciphered. The key to its translation was not agreed on until fifteen years later.
In 1857 Rawlinson and Hincks in England and Oppert in Prance independently of each other produced translations of a Piece of text which corresponded exactly. With that the correct interpretation of Assyrian script was assured.
In October 1844 the tablets salvaged by Botta containing reliefs and historical texts, as well as statues and sections of pillars, started out on an adventurous journey. From Khorsabad the precious cargo rocked its way down the Tigris on skiffs and rafts. At Basra on the Persian Gulf the valuable freight was transferred to the “Cormoran,” which conveyed it to Europe. It made a great sensation in Paris and evoked as lively an interest among the general public as among the scholars.
On 1st May 1847 in the splendid galleries of the Louvre designed by Percier and Fontaine, Louis Philippe, the bourgeois king, handed over to the public with impressive ceremony this collection, which contained the earliest evidence from the realm of Biblical story. With that the first Assyrian museum in the world had been founded.
The mounds of old Nineveh provided the new world with its most extensive collection of information about ancient times.
The story of the discovery of this left a bitter taste in French mouths. When the British began their diggings, the French had also staked a claim on a section of the mounds.
In the British excavation area a vast palace had come to light which had been identified as the historic Nineveh of the Bible. But what might still be lying hidden over there in the French sector? Rassam, one of the members of the British party, decided to take time by the forelock. He took advantage of the absence of his chief, Rawlinson, leader of the expedition, and of the presence of a full moon to make a purposeful excursion into the French reservation. At the first stroke he came upon the palace of Ashurbanipal with the famous library belonging to that monarch, which was indeed the most famous in the whole of the ancient orient. Twenty-two thousand cuneiform tablets found their way into the British Museum.
They contained the essential material for understanding the historical and intellectual background of Mesopotamia, its peoples, its kingdoms with their arts and crafts, cultures and religions. Among them were the Sumerian flood story and the Epic of Gilgamesh.
What had been until then a mysterious sealed chapter of our world's history was suddenly opened and page after page was turned over. Rulers, cities, wars and stories which people had only heard about through the Old Testament revealed themselves as real facts.
We must include among these the city of Erech which is described in the tenth chapter of Genesis as part of the kingdom of Nimrod, the “mighty hunter before the Lord.” About fifty miles to the north-west of Ur of the Chaldees, Professor H. J. Lenzen was the director of excavations which from 1928 onwards provided valuable information. From a pile of ruins, which the Arabs call Warka, he would produce impressive evidence of the ancient city of Uruk, as Erech is styled in the cuneiform texts, including written tablets which go back to the fourth and third millennium B.C. In the course of his investigations the German archaeologist came across the remains of walls which could be credited to the legendary king Gilgamesh. Over five miles in length they afforded their protection to this ancient Biblical city.
Meantime the original starting point of all these exciting investigations and discoveries had long been forgotten. But if it had not been for the Bible perhaps the quest would never have begun.
About the middle of last century, Nineveh, Sargon's castle, and, at Tell Nimrud, the Calah of Genesis which Nimrod built (Gen. 10:11) were all discovered. But it was several decades before the enormous quantity of cuneiform texts was deciphered, translated, and made available to a wider circle. It was not until the turn of the century that several comprehensive scholarly works appeared, containing translations of some of the texts, including the annals of Assyrian rulers well known to readers of the Old Testament, Tiglath-Pileser or Pul, Sargon, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon.
Since then they have become essential features of all national libraries, as well as of universities and colleges. A unique mine of information eagerly studied and used by historians, Assyriologists and theological students — all of them people with a professional interest. But who else reads them or knows about them? Yet they could easily, even taking the reliefs alone, provide a large clear illustrated commentary on the Bible.
The Assyrian documents contain a wealth of interesting and informative details which corroborate the historical truth of the Bible.
Botta found in Sargon's castle at Khorsabad his reports on his campaigns in Syria and Palestine, and his capture of Samaria in Israel.
“... in the first year of my reign I besieged and conquered Samaria.” Sargon II reigned from 721 to 705 B.C. According tc that the northern kingdom of Israel collapsed in 721 B.C. (2 Kings 17:6).
“People of the lands, prisoners my hand had captured, I settled there. My officials I placed over them as governors. I imposed tribute and tax upon them, as upon the Assyrians.” So reads the account of the conquest of Samaria in the annals. The Old Testament describes the uprooting tactics employed in this case too by ruthless dictators, the first large scale experiment of its kind in the world made by the Assyrians: “And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed then in the cities of Samaria, instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof (2 Kings 17:24).
Tens of thousands of human beings were violently driven from their homeland, deported to foreign lands, and their places filled by others dragged from different areas.
The aim of this was clear: national consciousness, and with it the will to resist, was to be broken. The “Fertile Crescent” was ploughed up, its peoples tossed about hither and thither. Instead of a varied range of races and religions existing side by side the result was a jumble.
Samaria shared this fate. Its motley collection of inhabitants became known as “Samaritans.” “Samaritans” became a term of abuse, an expression of abhorrence. They were despised not only on religious grounds but also as individuals: “For the Jews no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9). It was only Jesus told the story of the “Good Samaritan” that he turned this term of abuse into a byword for practical Christian charity (Luke 10:3ff).
The people of the Northern Kingdom and their kings with them disappeared, were absorbed into the population of these foreign lands, and never emerged again in history. All investigation into what became of the ten tribes who had their home there has so far come to nothing.