Sargon II of Assyria

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Sargon II (r. 721 BC-705 BC) was an Assyrian king. He took the throne from Shalmanassar V in 722 BC. It is not clear if he was the son of Tiglatpilesar III or a usurper unrelated to the royal family. In his inscriptions, he styles himself as a new man, rarely referring to his predecessors, and he took the name Sharru-kinu, true king, after Sargon of Akkad, a mighty king who had been found in a wicker basket, a child of a temple prostitute and an unknown father. Sargon is the name given by the Bible.

Beset by difficulties at the beginning of his rule, Sargon made a pact with the Chaldean Marduk-apla-iddin. He freed all temples, as well as the inhabitants of the towns of Assur and Harran from taxes. While Sargon was thus trying to gain support in Assyria, Marduk-apla-iddin conquered Babylon with the help of the new Elamite king Ummanigash and was crowned king in 721.

In 720 Sargon moved against Elam, but the Assyrian host was defeated near Der. Later this year, Sargon defeated a Syrian coalition at Qarqar, which gained him control of Arpad, Simirra and Damascus. Sargon conquered Gaza in Palestine, destroyed Raphia and won a victory over Egyptian troops. On his way back, he had Samaria rebuilt as the capital of the new province of Samerina and settled it with Arabs.

In 717 he conquered parts of the Zagros mountains and the Hittite city of Carchemish on the Upper Euphrates. In 716 he moved against the kingdom of Mannai, where the ruler Aza, son of Iranzu, had been deposed by Ullusunu with the help of the Urartians. Sargon took the capital Izirtu, and stationed troops in Parsuash (original home of Persian tribe, on lake Urmia) and Kar-Nergal (Kishesim). He built new bases in Media as well, the main being Harhar and Kar-Sharrukin. In 715, others were to follow: Kar-Nabu, Kar-Sin and Kar-Ishtar, all named after Babylonian gods and resettled by Assyrian subjects.

The 8th campaign of Sargon against Urartu in 714 is well known from a letter from Sargon to the god Ashur (found in the town of Assur, now in the Louvre, Paris) and the bas-reliefs in the palace of Dur-Sharrukin. The campaign was probably motivated by the fact that the Urartians had been weakened by incursions of the Cimmerians, a nomadic steppe tribe. One Urartian army had been completely annihilated, and the General Qaqqadanu taken prisoner.

The Cimmerians were mentioned a number of times in letters by the crown-prince Sennacherib, who ran his father's intelligence service, that unfortunately cannot be dated exactly, but are believed to have been composed before 713. The letters relate how Sargon crossed the upper and lower Zab and moved over the mountains of Kullar in the direction of Lake Urmia, crossing the country of Zikirtu, whose ruler Metatti had fled to Uishdish, the provinces of Surikash, Allabria and parts of Parsuash. The reliefs show the difficulties of the terrain: the war-chariots had to be dismantled and carried by soldiers (with the king still in the chariot), the latter describes how ways had to be cut into the intractable forests.

After reaching Lake Urmia he turned east and entered Zikirtu and Andia on the Caspian slopes of the Caucasus. When news reached him that king Rusas I of Urartu (730-713 BC) was moving against him, he turned back to Lake Urmia in forced marches and defeated an Urartian army in a steep valley of the Uaush (probably the Sahend, east of Lake Urmia, or further to the South, in Mannaean country), a steep mountain that reached the clouds and whose flanks were covered by snow. The battle is described as the usual carnage, but King Rusas managed to escape. The horses of his chariot had been killed by Assyrian spears, forcing him to ride a mare in order to get away, very unbecoming for a king.

Sargon plundered the fertile lands at the southern and western shore of Lake Urmia, felling orchards and burning the harvest. In the royal resort of Ulhu, the wine-cellar of the Urartian kings was plundered; wine was scooped up like water. The Assyrian host then plundered Sangibuti and marched north to Van without meeting resistance, the people having retreated to their castles or fled into the mountains, having been warned by fire-signals. Sargon claims to have destroyed 430 empty villages.

After reaching Lake Van, Sargon left Urartu via Uaiaish. In Hubushkia he received the tribute of Nairi. While most of the army returned to Assyria, Sargon went on to sack the Urartian temple of the god Haldi and his wife Bagbartu at Musasir (Ardini). The loot must have been impressive; its description takes up 50 columns in the letter to Assur. More than 1 ton of gold and 5 tons of silver fell into the hands of the Assyrians; 334,000 objects in total. A relief from Dur Sharrukin depicted the sack of Musasir as well (that unfortunately fell into the Tigris in 1846 when Botta transported his loot to Paris). Musasir was annexed. Sargon claims to have lost only one charioteer, 2 horsemen and three couriers on this occasion. King Rusa was understandably despondent when he heard of the loss of Musasir, and fell ill. According to the imperial annals, he took his own life with his own iron sword, like a pig.

In 713 Sargon stayed at home; his troops took, among others, Karalla, Tabal and Cilicia. Some Mede rulers offered tribute. In 711, Gurgum was conquered. A rising in Ashdod, supported by Judah, Moab, Edom and Egypt was suppressed, and Ashdod became an Assyrian province.

In 710 Sargon felt safe enough in his rule to move against his Babylonian arch-enemy. One army moved against Elam and her new king Shutruk-Nahhunte II (Shutur-Nahundi); the other, under Sargon himself, against Babylon. Sargon laid siege to Babylon, and Marduk-apla-iddin fled. He was finally captured in the swamps of the Shatt-el-Arab (though as he seems to have proven a thorn in the side of Sennacherib later on, this might not have been quite true). Southern Babylonia, settled by nomadic Aramaic tribes, was conquered and turned into the province of Gambulu.

After the capture of Marduk-apla-iddin, Babylon yielded to Sargon and he was proclaimed king of Babylonia in 710, thus restoring the dual monarchy of Babylonia and Assyria. He remained in Babylon for three years. In 709, he led the new-year procession as king of Babylon. He had his son, crown-prince Sennacherib, married to the Aramaic noblewoman Naqi'a, and stayed in the south to pacify the Aramaic and Chaldean tribes of the lower Euphrates as well as the Suti nomads. Some areas at the border to Elam were occupied as well.

In 710, the seven kings of Ia' (Cyprus) had accepted Assyrian sovereignty; in 709 Midas, king of Phrygia, beset by the nomadic Cimmerians, submitted to Assyrian rule and in 708, Kummuhu (Commagene) became an Assyrian province. Assyria was at the apogee of its power. Urartu had almost succumbed to the Cimmerians, Elam was weakened, Marduk-apla-iddin was momentarily powerless, and the Egyptian influence in Syria was temporarily waning as well.

Sargon preferred Niniveh to the traditional capital at Ashur. In 713 he ordered the construction of a new palace and town called Dur-Sharrukin (House of Sargon, Khorsabad), 20 km north of Niniveh at the foot of the Gebel Musri. Land was bought, and the debts of construction workers were nullified in order to attract a sufficient labour force. The land in the environs of the town was taken under cultivation, and olive groves were planted to increase Assyria's deficient oil-production. The town was of rectangular layout and measured 1760 by 1635 m. The length of the walls was 16,280 Assyrian units, corresponding to the numerical value of Sargon's name. The town was partly settled by prisoners of war and deportees under the control of Assyrian officials ,who had to assure they were paying sufficient respect to the gods and the king. The court moved to Dur-Sharrukin in 706, although it was not completely finished yet.

In 705, Sargon fell in a campaign against the Cimmerians, who were later to destroy the kingdoms of Urartu and Phrygia before moving even further west. Sargon was followed by his son Sennacherib (Sin-ahhe-eriba, 704-681 BC).

Under his rule the Assyrians completed the defeat of the Kingdom of Israel, capturing Samaria after a siege of three years and dispersing the inhabitants. This became the basis of the legend of the Lost Ten Tribes.


See also: Sargon of Akkad


Preceded by:
Shalmaneser V
King of Assyria
722–705 BC
Succeeded by:
Sennacherib

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