Shalmaneser III and the Levantine States:
The “Damascus Coalition”1
University of Toronto
this paper, I shall quote, from the statement sent to me by Professor
Andy Vaughn when he invited me to participate in a symposium “Biblical
Lands and Peoples in Archaeology and Text”. The goal of this session “is
to promote the interaction between biblical scholars and archaeologists
as well as other specialists in ancient Near Eastern Studies … the gap
between biblical scholars and specialists in Assyriology and other
fields like archaeology continues to grow wider”.
widening gap is certainly a real phenomenon, the main reason being the
astounding increase in data through publications, archaeology, research
in museums and related institutions, and the tremendous increase in
numbers of scholars in the relevant fields.
personal note on this theme, I — like many of my contemporaries — came
to Assyriology from a base in the Hebrew bible. In those days, the
1960s, 1950s, and before, it was generally assumed that an Assyriologist,
an Egyptologist, etc. would have a sound backing in, not only the Hebrew
bible, but also Aramaic, Arabic, “Comparative Semitics,” etc. Today,
this is not the case. During the last few decades it has become apparent
in my lectures and seminars that a number of students go blank when I
make a biblical reference. Also in those days we did not have the
Akkadisches Handwörterbuch or the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary.
the exception of a few polymaths, no one can have the breadth of
knowledge of the Ancient Near East that was assumed until about the mid
1960s. There is just too much knowledge to absorb. Thus the focus of
each one of us has become narrower and narrower. It is very timely to
encourage serious dialogue amongst the many disciplines and
sub-disciplines that have evolved over the last half-century. To use an
analogy, if from this meeting we can begin to stop depending upon
stepping stones to cross the river, and instead begin to build a real
bridge, it will be a major achievement.
chosen to speak upon the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III (858–24 BCE2)
because he was the first Assyrian king to concentrate a large proportion
of his military campaigns on the “West” (eber nāri in Akkadian, which
means “across the river” — the river being the Euphrates). In this paper
I shall use the terms “West” and “Levant” interchangeably.3
sources that we have for early Assyrian penetration into the Levant, and
specifically for Israel and Judah, are the following. There are the
Assyrian Royal Inscriptions that, as is well known, are full of details
about conquests but hyperbolic to the point where one must never accept
their claims at face value.4 Another source, probably more reliable but
exceedingly cryptic, are the Eponym Chronicles.5 The Assyrian calendar
was founded on the eponym system. Each year was given the name of an
Assyrian official, called a līmu. Thus a scribe, at the end of a
document would say līmu of PN. Lists of these officials, in
chronological order, were prepared so that a scribe would know in what
year this particular text was written. Some of these lists add, after
the līmu's name and title, a cryptic entry about what significant event
(usually a military campaign against GN) took place that year which
involved the king. Such texts are called “Eponym Chronicles”. For
Shalmaneser III's relations with the “West” there is really nothing
else. The Damascus Coalition is not mentioned in the ancient
Mesopotamian Chronicles, the Hebrew Bible, or Josephus.
Assyrian Relations with the Levant Before Shalmaneser III's Reign
Tiglath-pileser I (1114–1076) certainly crossed the Euphrates on a
number of occasions. This brought him into direct contact with the
looming threat of the Aramaeans. Indeed on one occasion he claims to
have defeated six tribes of Aramaeans at the foot of Jebel Bishri. But,
as successful as these Assyrian attacks may have been, it did not stop
the Aramaeans for very long. By the reign of Ashur-bel-kala (1073–1056),
the last great king of the Middle Assyrian period, the Aramaeans were
causing serious disruptions in communications between Assyria,
Phoenicia, and Egypt.6
went into decline until the ninth century that saw the emergence of some
great Assyrian kings, notably Ashurnasirpal II (883–859) and his son and
successor Shalmaneser III (858–824).7 These two outstanding monarchs
brought stability back to the region and began the creation of the
Neo-Assyrian Empire, a fact that had great implications for the states
of Israel and Judah.
Shalmaneser III and the Levant
attention has been centered on Shalmaneser III in recent years. A major
reason for this is the publication of the significant Calah inscriptions
copied by Peter Hulin.8 Some other new inscriptions have come to light
over the last decade. An excellent major monograph on this king has been
published by Shigeo Yamada.9 All of these help shed more light on this
topic. In this paper, concentrating on the “Damascus Coalition”, I shall
attempt to incorporate the new material with the old, and see what kind
of picture emerges.
Military campaigns were carried out in each of the 34 regnal years of
Shalmaneser.10 An outstanding feature of these campaigns is the
concentration on two fronts, the North, especially Urartu, and the West.
We do not know how this policy was developed — council of war,
individual decision by the monarch, etc.? However it is clear that there
was a grand design.
historians of ancient Assyria reject the idea that the purpose of the
military campaigns of the Assyrians followed a “grand plan”.11 My view
is that there were such “grand plans”. Here is the reasoning. The
Assyrian state, especially the Assyrian army, was well organized and
regimented. The Assyrians had great knowledge of, and interest in,
foreign lands, their cultures, economies, and languages. It is hard to
believe that they did not, with their disciplined structure and
extensive knowledge of the world around them, have long-range plans to
which the aims of the annual campaigns, barring emergencies, adhered.
such a scenario as the following. One morning Shalmaneser III is woken
by his rab-shaqe (cup-bearer and one of the highest ranking officers in
the army) bearing the monarch's morning bowl of wine and announcing that
it is the fifteenth of Nisan. Still imagining, the king replies: “Fetch
the tartanu [field marshal] and the rab-sha-reshi [chief eunuch, also a
high ranking officer] and the die.12 Time to decide where to lead our
great campaign this year”. Is this scene credible?
Western policy begun by Shalmaneser III would continue, with
interruptions, almost to the fall of Nineveh in 612. The long-range aims
were to profit from the wealth of the Levant and to add Egypt to the
Situation in the Levant at Shalmaneser III's Time
situation in the Levant, specifically in Israel and Judah, when
Shalmaneser III launched his assault, is not for me to describe in
detail. There are many who are experts on this matter and have covered
this topic extensively. Let me just summarize by saying that during this
period most of the Levantine states forgot their bickering with their
neighbours and formed two separate coalitions: the one was in the
northern area where several small states, such as Sam'al and Patinu,
formed a coalition and the second, which is our concern today, was in
the south and I have called this the “Damascus Coalition” or the
“Damascus-Hamath Coalition”. The chief powers in the southern group were
Damascus and Hamath. Allied with them were a number of other states
including Israel, Byblos, and Egypt.
The Damascus Coalition13
Shalmaneser III attempted to move west, across the Euphrates, and then
south along the Levantine coast he encountered something which none of
his predecessors had confronted: the Damascus Coalition. This alliance
consisted of Adad-idri (Hadad-ezer) of Damascus, Irhuleni of Hamath
(these two cities being the leaders), Ahab of Israel, Gindibu the Arab,
Byblos, Egypt, Matinu-ba'al of Arvad, Irqantu, Usanatu, Adunu-ba'al of
Shianu, Ba'asa of Bit-Ruhubi, and “the Ammonite”. According to Yamada,
there are six versions of the sixth campaign (853) in Shalmaneser's
royal inscriptions. To illustrate the kind of differences among them,
let us look at two examples. Some versions include the rulers of
Damascus and Hamath among the “12” kings of the coalition while others
add “12” kings after Damascus and Hamath, thus giving “14” kings. Yet
another version has “13”. The second example is the number of slain
enemy troops. It varies from 14,000, up to 20,500, then 25,000, and
finally the highest number is 29,000.14
Traditionally many of these allies had been bitter foes before
Shalmaneser's invasion. The question, then, is why did they bury the
hatchet at this time and agree to present a united front? Why not, for
example, in Ashurnasirpal II's time? No one, as far as I know, has
tackled this question before.
lack of sources to answer this question, one can only hazard a reason
(or reasons) for this action. My own view — and this may well prove to
be wrong some day as more evidence emerges — is that these states had
been taken totally by surprise by the sudden appearance and overwhelming
power of the Assyrian army under Ashurnasirpal II. The Assyrian army
quickly crossed the Euphrates and thundered up and down the Levantine
coast. After his incursions they, the Levantine states, became more
astute and better informed about the intentions and movements of the
Assyrian army. Receipt of such information would have been facilitated
by the presence in the Assyrian heartland of tens of thousands of
Levantines who had been carried off by Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser
III to work on their building projects and to create new cultivable land
in the Jezirah to provide food for the increasing numbers of
non-productive officials and residents of the Assyrian cities. Zablocka
has estimated that in this period approximately 193,000 people were
carried off from the West, and of these about 139,000 were Aramaeans.15
Eventually some of these families insinuated themselves and rose in the
Assyrian bureaucracy. We know that the Aramaeans were already doing this
in the reign of Shalmaneser III.16 It is impossible to believe that such
people did not, by various means, keep in touch with their compatriots
at home. This, certainly, could have provided a communicative network —
an undercover operation — about Assyrian intentions and movements.
Damascus Coalition made its first stand at Qarqar on the Orontes in 853.
The precise location of Qarqar on the Orontes is still questionable. The
traditional identification of the site is at Tell Qarqur which is just
south of where the main road between Aleppo and Latakia crosses the
location of Qarqar is one of two questions, the second being the outcome
of the battle between the coalition and the Assyrian army. Naturally
Shalmaneser, in his inscriptions, boasts of a great victory for himself.
He had led his army from Aleppo up the Orontes to Qarqar with little
opposition. But at Qarqar he was faced with the coalition which,
according to the Kurkh Monolith (written shortly after the event),
consisted of almost 4,000 chariots, almost 2,000 cavalry, over 40,000
infantry, and 1,000 camels.18
claims to have beaten them and to have slaughtered and plundered as the
enemy fled the scene of battle. One must always be sceptical of Assyrian
claims and the real outcome of the battle at Qarqar is debatable. The
only clear indication that the Assyrian boast is justified is the
statement, in the same Assyrian sources, that after the battle the
Assyrian army proceeded on to the Mediterranean. On the other hand three
further pitched battles were fought with the Damascus Coalition, one in
each of 849, 848, and 845. If the coalition had suffered a setback at
Qarqar, they had not been beaten. In fact it appears that they had
displayed sufficient strength to encourage others to resist the
Assyrians; in 849 and 848 Shalmaneser took goods by force from the
cities of Carchemish and Bit-Agusi across the Euphrates, although these
same states had freely paid tribute in 853 just before the battle at
Qarqar. Thus Assyria did not win a great victory on this occasion but
neither did she suffer a great defeat; the result was uncertain.
unsatisfied with the outcome, concentrated on the Damascus Coalition as
much as circumstances would allow until 845. By this time the states
immediately west of the Euphrates seem to have been thoroughly subdued.
There is no further reference to hostile acts in the region. Thus he was
free to attempt once again the penetration of southern Syria. He amassed
a force of vast numbers (in 845) — 120,000 according to Assyrian sources
—, crossed the Euphrates and claimed a victory over the Damascus
Coalition.19 Was this claim justified? It is a fact that the coalition
is never mentioned again, and four years later, in 841, it had
disappeared.20 But there had been a change of ruler at Damascus between
845 and 841: Adad-idri (Hadad-ezer) was replaced by Hazael. The pact, as
usual in the Ancient Near East, was regarded as a highly personal
affair, and it automatically dissolved with the death of Adad-idri.
Certainly the Assyrians did not push farther into Syria immediately
after the battle of 845. There is, then, no proof for or against the
Assyrian claim to victory in 845 and the dissolution of the Damascus
Coalition may have been an independent development. Whatever the reason,
by 841 the Damascus Coalition was no more and the main obstacle to
Shalmaneser's expansion into southern Syria had vanished.
Hazael of Damascus, in the face of the Assyrian advance, took up a
position on a summit in the foothills of the Lebanon range.21 The
Assyrians gained the fortified position but Hazael escaped and was
pursued and besieged in Damascus. Shalmaneser cut down the orchards and
burned the surrounding country but it is not recorded that Hazael
yielded. The circumstantial detail and absence of bombast, apart
possibly from the large number of troops the Assyrian claims to have won
from the Damascene, leave the impression that this is a reasonably
faithful account of the events. Thus, although Damascus had not fallen,
Shalmaneser could proceed to ravage cities by Mount Hauran and then
erect a stele by the sea upon Mount Ba'li-ra'si, the location of which
is still in question although Mount Carmel is a possibility.22 He
received tribute from Tyre, Sidon, and Jehu (Yaua), king of Israel. In
838–37 he turned his attention to southern Syria for the last time; he
plundered cities of Damascus and received tribute from Tyre, Sidon, and
The Results of Shalmaneser III's Levantine Campaigns: Israel and Judah
clear that Israel volunteered submission to Shalmaneser III, presumably
in 841, since Jehu (Yaua), as is well known, is portrayed on the Black
Obelisk kneeling before the king.24 But there is no evidence that
Shalmaneser entered central Israel, let alone Samaria, at any time. Nor
is there any evidence of contact with Judah.
Eventually Shalmaneser's influence spread as far as Byblos, Sidon, and
Tyre, on the Mediterranean coast, all of which paid tribute in 838 as we
have just seen. Thus he prepared the way for succeeding kings to move
right down the southern Levant, culminating, with many interruptions, in
Ashurbanipal's (668–31) invasions of Egypt. By that time, of course,
both Israel and Judah were under Assyrian control.
detail, Damascus was taken by the Assyrians in Adad-narari III's reign
(810–783) — in fact the officer who led the capture was Shamshi-ilu, the
field marshal.25 After Adad-narari III's reign and the reign of
Shamshi-Adad V (823–11), there was a decline in Assyrian power until the
reign of Tiglath-pilaser III (744–27). Under his leadership Assyria
campaigned once again to the Levant, including Israel and Judah. Indeed
he went beyond these states to enter the Sinai up to the “Brook of
Egypt” This penetration continued farther and farther under the
following Sargonid kings and led to the campaigns in Egypt under
Esarhaddon (680–69) and Ashurbanipal (668–31). All of this activity in
the southern Levant was possible only with a firm Assyrian control over
Israel and Judah, an aim which Shalmaneser III had initiated.
article was originally presented as a paper at the annual meeting
(2002), in Toronto, of the Society of Biblical Literature. The article
keeps the oral flavor of that presentation. I would like to thank the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the
University of Toronto, and generous private donors, who support the
Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Project, whose archives were an
invaluable resource in the preparation of this article. My thanks go to
Grant Frame and Jamie Novotny for reading a draft of this paper and for
offering valuable suggestions.
remainder of this paper all dates are BCE unless specified otherwise.
Assyria's activities in the region of the Orontes river see Grayson,
“Assyria and the Orontes Valley”, BCSMS 36 (2001) pp. 185–87.
Grayson, “Assyria and Babylonia”, Orientalia NS 49 (1980) pp. 170–171;
Van Seters, In Search of History (New Haven, 1983) pp. 60–68; Carena,
AOAT 218/1 (1989); Millard, “Story, History, and Theology”, Millard, et
al. (eds.), Faith, Tradition, and History (Winona Lake, 1994) pp. 37–64;
Van Seters, “The Historiography of the Ancient Near East” CANE 4 pp.
2433–44. For the Assyrian royal inscriptions themselves see Grayson,
Millard, A., The Eponyms of the Assyrian Empire, SAAS 2 (1994).
Grayson, RIMA 2 pp. 5–112.
Grayson, CAH 3/1 (2nd ed., 1982) pp. 238–81 and RIMA 2–3.
8Grayson, RIMA 3 pp. 5–170; Yamada, Iraq 62 (2000) pp. 65–87.
The Construction of the Assyrian Empire: A Historical Study of the
Inscriptions of Shalmaneser III (859–824) Relating of His Campaigns to
the West (Brill, Leiden, 2000). This is hereafter abbreviated as Yamada,
is in itself a phenomenal military achievement.
Grayson, BiOr 33 (1976) pp. 134–38; CAH 3/1 pp. 259–63; Yamada,
Construction pp. 77–224.
one of these dice which has been preserved see Grayson, RIMA 3 p. 155
and Millard, Eponyms, Frontispiece and p. 8 and the literature cited in
the relevant royal inscriptions see Grayson, RIMA 3 pp. 5–179.
Yamada, Construction pp. 143–64.
Zablocka, Tosunki Agrarne w Panistwie Sargonidow (Poznan, 1971).
Grayson, CAH 3/1 pp. 239–40.
17Liverani, Studies Asn. 2 pp. 77, 115; Yamada, Construction pp. 154–55.
18Grayson, RIMA 3, p. 23 ii 90–95.
Yamada, Construction pp. 179–83.
Yamada, Construction pp. 185–95.
Yamada, Construction pp. 185–95.
location question see Yamada, Construction pp. 91–92.
Yamada, Construction pp. 205–209.
p. 149 A.0.102.88. The date of composition is either late 828 or 827.
25See Grayson, RIMA 3 pp. 200–238.