Esarhaddon’s Reconquest of Egypt

Several years after Sennacherib returned from his ill-fated campaign against Judah and Egypt, he was slain by two of his sons while worshipping in the temple of Nergal (Mars).(1) Esarhaddon, his heir, pursued his brothers, but they escaped over the mountains to the north.(2) Then he tried to re-establish the shattered authority of Assyria in Syria and on the Phoenician shore.

“I besieged, I captured, I plundered, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire,” wrote Esarhaddon.(3) I hung the heads of the kings upon the shoulders of their nobles and with singing and music I paraded.” (4) He threatened Tyre whose king “had put his trust in his friend Tirhakah (Tarku), king of Ethiopia.” He “threw up earthworks against the city,” captured it, and made a vassal of its king Ba’lu.(5) He also marched into the desert “where serpents and scorpions cover the plain like ants.” (6) And having thus ensured the safety of his rear and flank along the roads to Egypt, he moved his army against that country.

In the sixth year the troops of Assyria went to Egypt; they fled before a storm.” This laconic item in the short “Esarhaddon Chronicle” (7) was written more than one hundred years after his death; if it does not refer to the debacle of Sennacherib, one may conjecture that at certain ominous signs in the sky the persistent recollection of the disaster which only a few years earlier had overtaken Sennacherib’s army, threw the army of his son into a panic.

Thereafter, “in the tenth year, the troops of Assyria went to Egypt.” (8) Esarhaddon marched along the military road running across Syria and along the coast of Palestine. He conquered Sidon and “tore up and cast into the sea its walls and its foundations.” This ancient Phoenician city was situated on a promontory jutting into the sea. Its king Abdimilkute tried to escape on a boat, but was “pulled out of the sea, like a fish.” (9) The Assyrian king cut off the head of this Sidonian king and sent off to Assyria a rich booty, to wit: “gold, silver, precious stones, elephant hides, ivory, maple and boxwood, garments of brightly colored wool and linen.” (10) He took away the king’s wife, his children, and his courtiers: His people from far and near, which were countless . . . I deported to Assyria.” (11)

Following the fall of Sidon, he “called up the kings of the country of Hatti"—namely Ba’lu, king of Tyre, Manasseh (Me-na-si-i), king of Judah (Ia-u-di), also kings of Edom, Moab, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ekron, Byblos, Arvad, Beth-Ammon and Ashdod, all named by their names and spoken of also as “twelve kings of the seacoast.” (12) Esarhaddon summoned also ten kings from Cyprus (Iadnana)—their names are given, too—altogether “twenty-two kings of Hatti, the seashore, and the islands.” he made them “transport under terrible difficulties, to Nineveh as building material for my palace” logs and beams of cedar of Lebanon “which had grown for a long time into tall and strong timber” ; the vassal kings had also to deliver to Nineveh slabs of stones from the quarries of the entire region.(13)

The king of Tyre “bowed down and implored me as his lord.” He “kissed my feet” and was ordered to pay heavy tribute, and to send “his daughters with dowries.” (14) “As for Hazail, king of Arabia, the splendor of my majesty overwhelmed him and with gold, silver, precious stones he came into my presence” and also “kissed my feet.” (15) Into Arabia Esarhaddon sent “bowmen mounted on horseback” and brought the villages of the desert under his yoke.

The road to Egypt and the flanks having been made secure, Esarhaddon wrote: “I trod upon Arzani [to] the Brook of Egypt.” (16) We had already occasion to explain the geographical term Arzani as the Hebrew Arzenu, “our land” by which the Scriptures (Joshua 9:11, Judges 16:24, Psalms 85:10, Micah 5:4) repeatedly refer to Israel and Judah; by the same term (’rezenu) this land was known to the rulers of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Thutmose and others.(17) “Brook of Egypt,” or in the Assyrian text Nahal Musur, is Nahal Mizraim of Hebrew texts; it is Wadi el-Arish, the historical frontier of Egypt and Palestine. The “town of the Brook of Egypt” in Esarhaddon’s inscription is el-Arish, the ancient Avaris.(18)

It was in his tenth year, or -671, that Esarhaddon entered Egypt: he marched unopposed only as far as a place he calls Ishupri: there he met his adversary, Tirhaka, king of Ethiopia (Nubia) and Egypt. The progress from here on was slow; it took fifteen days to advance from Ishupri to Memphis, close to the apex of the Delta a few miles south from present-day Cairo.

“From the town of Ishupri as far as Memphis, his royal residence, a distance of fifteen days’ march, I fought daily, without interruption, very bloody battles against Tirhakah, king of Egypt and Ethiopia, the one accursed by all the great gods. Five times I hit him with the point of my arrows, inflicting wounds from which he should not recover, and then I laid siege to Memphis, his royal residence, and conquered it in half a day by means of mines, breaches, and assault ladders; I destroyed it, tore down its walls, and burned it down.” (19)

Before we go on to recount the events that followed, we should examine more closely the question which was the “town of Ishupri” that Esarhaddon mentions as the starting point in his confrontation with Tirhaka. Its name was not known from the list of cities compiled from hieroglyphic texts of the imperial age of Egypt, and it intrigued the Orientalists. When their efforts to find its derivation were crowned with success, the solution raised a rather grave question.

Ishupri was understood as an Assyrian transcription of the throne name of pharaoh Sethos (Wesher-khepru-re) and meaning “Sethosville” or the like. The leading German Orientalist Albrecht Alt came to this conclusion,(20) and the solution was accepted by other Orientalists. The question raised by this solution was in the enormous time span between Sethos and Esarhaddon on the conventional time-table. Sethos (in the conventional history Seti II) is placed in the second part of the thirteenth century, and Esarhaddon ruled Assyria from -681 to -668, invading Egypt in -671; in between there lie some five hundred and seventy years. The survival of the name Sethosville (Ishupri) was estimated by Alt as “remarkable,” and even more remarkable (um so bemerkenswerter) is the fact that for these almost six hundred years this locality remained unmentioned in the hieroglyphic texts and appeared for the first time in the annals of Esarhaddon. In his inscriptions he refers to Ishupri not less than three times. How did an Assyrian king of the seventh century come to call a fortress or a locality east of the Delta, possibly at Kantara of today,(21) by the name of an obscure pharaoh of an age long past? Or why did this city name, familiar to Esarhaddon, escape mention in all texts, Egyptian or others, prior to -671? Should it not have been preserved on some document belonging to the king who built it or the following generations, if the city was called after him?

In the present reconstruction Sethos is recognized as the grandfather of Seti the Great; we found him in the history of Herodotus as the adversary of Sennacherib, father of Esarhaddon. He was considered a savior of Egypt and it was therefore only natural to find that a city or fortress guarding the Asiatic frontier was named after him: Esarhaddon on his campaign to recover Egypt, only a few years after the events of -687, called it by the name it then carried “House of Sethos,” or “Sethosville.” Sethos, the adversary of Esarhaddon’s father, could even have been still alive.

Upon seizing Memphis Esarhaddon captured Tirhaka’s queen, his children, the women of his palace, “as well as horses and cattle beyond counting,” and all this he sent as booty to Assyria.

“All Ethiopians I deported from Egypt, leaving not even one to do homage to me. Everywhere in Egypt I appointed new kings, governors, officers.” The word “new” means that the kings and governors had already once been appointed by his father Sennacherib—but Haremhab was not among those who were now re-appointed. The Assyrian king obliged Egypt with sacrificial dues “for Ashur and other great gods my lords, for all times.” He also imposed tribute to the Assyrian crown to be paid “annually without ceasing.” Besides the prisoners of war, Esarhaddon sent to Nineveh also civilians, namely physicians, divination experts, goldsmiths, cabinetmakers, cartwrights, and shipwrights.

Esarhaddon continued along the Nile towards the Sudan (Ethiopia). “From Egypt I departed, to Melukha (Ethiopia) I marched straightway.” (22) He described briefly the march of thirty days from Egypt to Melukha—on none of the existing steles, however, have the details of this part of his campaign remained preserved. Tirhaka retreated before the Assyrian king who already covered an immense distance from Nineveh to the cataracts on the Nile.

Summing up the campaign of his tenth year, Esarhaddon wrote: “I conquered Egypt, Upper Egypt, and Ethiopia (Musur, Patursi, and Kusi). Tirhakah, its king, five times I fought with him with my javelin, and I brought all of his land under my sway, I ruled it.” (23) Esarhaddon called himself “king of Sumur and Akkad, king of the kings of Egypt, Upper Egypt, and Ethiopia, the son of Sennacherib, King of Assyria.”

Egypt reconquered, Esarhaddon returned home. He erected at Sendjirli, in eastern Anatolia, a memorial stele to glorify his lord Ashur by recounting his own mighty deeds when he marched against the enemy “upon the trustworthy oracles” of his lord Ashur.

Not many years passed and Tirhaka again emerged from Nubia and once more took possession of Egypt. Esarhaddon put his army on a hurried march.


  1. II Kings 19:36-37; Luckenbill, Records of Assyria II. 502, 795 & 796. In the Biblical account the temple is identified as that of Nisroeh, apparently the same as Nergal, or Mars.

  2. Esarhaddon’s text runs as follows: “. . . They heard the march of my expedition and deserted the troops who were helping them, and fled to an unknown land.” R. C. Thomson, The Prisms of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal Found at Nineveh, 1927-8 (London, 1931), p. 12. Though younger than his two brothers-parricides, Esarhaddon had been chosen for the kingship by an oracle, and was made crown prince already in Sennacherib’s lifetime.

  3. Referring to his Cilician campaign. See Luckenbill, Records of Assyria II. 516; Thompson, The Prisms of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, p. 18.

  4. Referring to the execution of Abdi-milkuti of Sidon and Sanduarri of Kundi. See Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, II. 528.

  5. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, II. 556.

  6. Ibid., II. 520.

  7. “The Esarhaddon Chronicle” in Sidney Smith, Babylonian Historical Texts Relating to the Capture and Downfall of Babylon, (London, 1924), p. 14.

  8. Ibid.,

  9. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, II, 527.

  10. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria II. 527.

  11. Ibid.

  12. It is worth noting tha Esarhaddon refers to these rulers and to their lands as kings and lands of Hatti, which is nearly synonymous with the designation “the other side of the Euphrates.” Hatti is obviously a broad geographical term. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria II. 690.

  13. Ibid., II. 627.

  14. Ibid., II. 547.

  15. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria II. 551.

  16. Ibid., II. 710.

  17. See Ages in Chaos, Vol. I, section “God’s Land and Rezenu.”

  18. See Ages in Chaos, Vol. I, section “The Location of Avaris.”

  19. The Sendjirli Stele, translated by Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, II. 580.

  20. “Ishupri,” Orientalistische Literarzeitung (1925), Nr. 9/10.

  21. Alt, “Ishupri,” p. 578.

  22. The campaigns of Esarhaddon in Egypt and Ethiopia are recorded on his steles, particularly on that found in Sendjirli; his stele at Nahr el-Kalb, close to Beirut, also describes the campaign against Egypt and the capture of Memphis. Luckenbill,Ancient Records of Assyria, II, Secs. 557ff.

  23. Ibid., Sec. 710.