From Nineveh to Ni

“I am powerful, I am all-powerful, I am a hero, I am gigantic, I am colossal . . . I am without an equal among all kings,” wrote Esarhaddon.(1) He died after a reign of not full twelve years. “In the twelfth year the king of Assyria went to Egypt, fell sick on the road, and died on the tenth day of the month Marcheswan.” “Esarhaddon exercised sovereign power in Assyria twelve years,” narrates a chronicle of his reign, written more than one hundred years later.(2)

In his lifetime Esarhaddon appointed his son Assurbanipal Crown Prince of Assyria, and another of his sons, Shamash-shum-ukin Crown prince of Babylonia. At a great assembly in Nineveh in -672 Esarhaddon made a proclamation to the governors of the provinces and vassal rulers:

When Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, dies, you will seat Assurbanipal, the Crown Prince, upon the royal throne~.~.~ you will help to seat Shamash-shum-ukin, his co-equal brother, the Crown Prince of Babylon, on the throne of Babylon.
At Esarhaddon’s death the plan of succession went into effect and Assurbanipal, in accordance with his father’s will, assumed the crown of Assyria.

Despite the impression of full manhood conveyed by muscular bodies, heavy-set, and full beards, the Assyrian kings, at least Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and Assurbanipal, must have mounted successively the throne in their primes. The time of the Sargonids, from the beginning of Sargon II’s reign in the year of the fall of Samaria till the time of the fall of Nineveh in the days of Sin-shar-ishkun, successor of Assurbanipal, amounted to only 110 years (722 to -612). They were married early and became fathers in their teens. Being young did not keep them from exhibiting cruelty of character. When Assurbanipal replaced his father Esarhaddon, who reigned but twelve years, he sought out anybody who possibly could have been implicated in the temple assassination of his grandfather Sennacherib and, according to his own words,

I tore out the tongues of those whose slanderous mouths had uttered blasphemies against my lord Assur and had plotted against me, his god-fearing prince; I defeated them (completely). The others, I smashed alive with the very same statues of protective deities with which they had smashed my own grandfather Sennacherib—now (finally) as a (belated) burial sacrifice for his soul. I fed their corpses, cut into small pieces, to dogs, pigs, zibu birds, vultures, the birds of the sky and (also) the fish of the ocean. After I had perfomed this and (thus) made quiet (again) the hearts of the great gods, my lords, I removed the corpses of those whom the pestilence had felled, whose leftovers (after) the dogs and pigs had fed on them were obstructing the streets, filling the places (of Babylon), (and) of those who had lost their lives through the terrible famine.(3)
Immediately upon asserting his kingship, Assurbanipal made preparations for a campaign to recover Egypt. The sudden death of Esarhaddon had given a respite to Tirhaka, and for a number of years the Ethiopians ruled the land unopposed. Assurbanipal in his account of the events that led to his Egyptian campaign narrates how “Tirhakah (Tarqu) without permission of the gods, marched forth to seize Egypt~.~.~. the evil treatment which my father had given him had not penetrated his heart~.~.~. He came and entered Memphis. That city he took for himself.” (4)

There is no word of any resistance on the part of the Assyrian-appointed kings and governors: When Tirhaka “sent his army to kill, to plunder, to despoil” Egypt, they appealed to Assyria for aid. “I was walking round in the midst of Nineveh,” recounts Assurbanipal, “when a swift courrier came and reported to me.” And “my heart was bitter and much afflicted.” There and then Assurbanipal vowed “to make the greatest haste to aid the kings and governors, my vassals.”

For the reconquest of Egypt Assurbanipal relied heavily on foreign troops from his dependencies on the Phoenician coast and the vassal kings of Cyprus.(5)

In the year -667 a great army was assembled and set out on the road to Egypt. “With furious haste they marched.” Assurbanipal did not personally participate in the campaign, but entrusted this task to his generals. “Tirhaka, king of Kush, heard of the coming of my armies in Memphis.” The Ethiopian king sent his men to meet the enemy, but they were no match for the Assyrian army, made up of the assembled troops of a score of nations. Assurbanipal wrote simply: “On the wide battlefield I accomplished the overthrow of his [Tirhaka’s ] army” ; “his fighting men [my troops] destroyed with the sword.” When the news of the defeat reached Tirhaka in his residence in Memphis, “terrible fear struck him.” He made up his mind to flee: “To save his life in a ship he sailed; his camp he abandoned and fled alone.” Tirhaka retreated up the Nile to Thebes (Ni), while the Assyrians took Memphis together with the ships of the Ethiopian fleet. “A messenger of good tidings hastily returned and told me.” For the Assyrians this was an important strategic gain, for it enabled them to quickly press their attack southward; they were joined by the local kings who had been suppressed under the Ethiopian domination.

It took but ten days for the Assyrian-led army to reach Thebes—yet on their arrival the soldiers found that Tirhaka was no longer there. He had forsaken the city and, crossing the Nile, established for himself on the opposite bank a fortified place. The Assyrian generals were content for the time being to leave Tirhaka in peace.


  1. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, II, par. 577.

  2. S. Smith, “The Esarhaddon Chronicle,” Babylonian Historical Texts, p. 15.

  3. Luckenbill, Records of Assyria, Vol. II, pars. 795, 796.

  4. S. Smith, History of Assurbanipal (London, 18~~).

  5. The twenty-two kings on who Assurbanipal called for support for his Egyptian campaign (Cyl. A, col. I, 1. 71) are apparently the same twelve kings from the seacoast and ten kings from Iadnana (Cyprus), named in the annals of Esarhaddon.