The Destruction Of Nineveh In 612
The capital of the immense Assyrian Empire
The destruction of Yerusalem took place in 587. But twenty-six years previously there occurred the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of the immense Assyrian Empire.
To modern readers of the Scripture this may appear a mere episode of ancient history. But to contemporaries of the event the fall of this city marked the end of a fearful nightmare. At the slightest sign of unrest the vassal states could expect the merciless Assyrian armies to descend upon them. Their methods of repression were well known: they turned the countryside into a wilderness, tearing down and burning cities, decimating the population, and carrying off to remote countries the survivors of the slaughter. 'Over the smoking ruins,' relates one of these monarchs on one of the inscriptions of his palace, 'my face lights up; in the assuaging of my anger I find my pleasure.' The explosion of joy which shook the whole of the Middle East at the news of this liberation can well be imagined. The face of the Middle East was completely changed.
A city of incredible, legendary wealth
It was a city of incredible, legendary wealth. Nineveh should be regarded as the combination of several great cities, each with their own fortifications, citadel, palaces and tabernacles. At about twelve miles from Nineveh stood Our Sharrukin (Sargontown, it might be called, since Sargon, its founder, desired to give it his name; today it is Khorsabad). It was defended by an enclosure nearly four miles in circumference. Nineveh itself was surrounded by a wall nine miles long. Twenty-one miles to the south of the capital was Calah (today Nimrud) where Assurna- sirpal II, Shalmaneser III, Tiglath-Pileser III and Esarhaddon had their palaces, bursting with booty, the spoil from the vanquished nations. Between these immense cities stretched an almost uninterrupted line of small places; tels or hillocks, mark the site of their ruins. By their suburbs and gardens all these urban centres were almost joined together This huge conglomeration stood within an enclosure some fifty-six miles long. In short, the whole thing seemed like an enormous entrenched camp surrounded by fortified towns. 24
Nineveh (Ninua in Assyrian), situated at the heart of this extraordinary urban complex, was a city built on two hills, transformed into citadels which dominated the river on the left bank. The Tigris was confined by brick and stone quays, built by Sennacherib. He it was also who put up formidable defenses on the opposite bank calculated to discourage the hardiest of attackers. A wall three miles long surrounded the city with a ditch behind it; then there were two demi-lunes and finally a double rampart for two and a half miles. Within this great city Sennacherib dwelt in a palace which covered nearly five acres; it was defended by battlemented walls and fortified towers. The royal dwelling was built with beams of sandlewood and cedar, adorned with inlays of ivory. The inside walls were covered with bas-reliefs and inscriptions recounting the sovereign's mighty deeds. Close at hand stood another palace, a marble one this time, in which the treasure was kept. Kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal also lived at Nineveh. Ashurbanipal founded a library there unique for its period. The British archaeologist Layard discovered on its site thousands of clay bricks, copied from ancient Babylonian examples classified and catalogued.
A city, regarded as impregnable, fell
How did this city, regarded as impregnable, fall into the hands of the new Babylonian dynasty in alliance with the Indo-European Medes who had just appeared in this corner of Asia?
Shortly before 612 Nahum the prophet described the collapse of the proud city:
'Woe to the city soaked in blood,
full of lies,
stuffed with booty,
whose plunderings know no end.
I (YAHWEH) mean to lift your skirts as high as your face
and show your nakedness to nations,
your shame to kingdoms.
I am going to pelt you with filth,
shame you, make you a public show.' (Nah. 3:1, 5-6)
The following was the course of events. A few years previously Cyaxares, king of the Medes had tried to seize Nineveh. Attracted by the enormous riches piled up in the city he had laid siege to it. But the Assyrians saved their city with the help of Scythian mercenaries, intrepid horsemen and, incidentally, kinsmen of the Medes.
But this was only a postponement of the evil day. Cyaxares, who was methodical in his plans of conquest, soon returned to the attack; we have evidence of this in the prism of Nabonidus discovered by Fr Scheil. On this occasion Cyaxares formed an alliance with Nebupolassar, the founder of the neo-Babylonian dynasty, which was to play a decisive part in Asiatic affairs and more especially in the Judaean tragedy which was to occur very soon.
Nebupolassar was an ambitious, energetic soldier, probably of Chaldaean origin, who took advantage of the weakness of Ashurbanipal, his sovereign, to seize the city of Babylon and the country of the same name (616). In 615 the new sovereign of Babylon concluded with Cyaxares the military alliance mentioned above. The two warriors, joining forces, laid siege to Nineveh, which fell to them after a long siege in the month of Ab (July-August) 612. According to the historian Abydenus, Sarakos, king of the Assyrians, burnt himself alive in his palace together with his wives and children rather than fall into the hands of the besiegers.
The metropolis of the Middle East was destroyed for ever. An empire which for centuries had terrorized the Middle East disappeared entirely.
A handful of soldiers under the command of Ashuruballit II, the last king, managed to take refuge in the upper valley of the Euphrates at Haran, a fortified city, where they held out for some time.
Nineveh itself, sacked and burnt to the ground, fell into oblivion almost at once. Soon even the site on which it stood was forgotten. Two centuries later the Greek captain Xenophon, at the head of his celebrated body of 'ten thousand', then in retreat, passed near the ruined capital without even suspecting its presence.
'Once Nineveh had fallen Assyria no longer existed,' writes Maspero. In its general sense the remark is true. Nevertheless the death throes of Assyrian power lasted for six years more, long enough to cause Yahudah the worst misfortunes.