The book of Isaiah provides a very brief passage about Sargon II which tells of the Assyrian capture of the Philistine city of Ashdod by Sargon’s commander in chief (20:1). Sargon II is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart around 721 BC. The following verses (v 3-6) contain a prophecy of Egypt’s downfall after an Assyrian invasion and the retreat of their Ethiopian rulers (25th Dynasty). This was less than a hundred years later during the reign of Sargon’s son Sennacherib and grandson Esarhaddon. Although it was his brother Shalmaneser V, who laid siege to Samaria and successfully removed King Hoshea of Israel(2 Kings 17:5-6). Sargon initiated the second stage of deporting the people of the Northern Kingdom into other parts of Assyrian territories two years later (722 BC).
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Sargon II (721-705 BC) reigned during the height of the Neo-Assyrian empire established by his father Tiglath-Pileser III. He was the younger brother of Shalmaneser V, who besieged Samaria for three years. Sargon removed his brother from the Assyrian throne probably after a violent coup. It seemed that no brotherly love was lost between them as his inscriptions described his brother as a godless tyrant. Shalmaneser only reigned for five years and was unpopular because of his taxation and labor policies. Apart from the Biblical passages about his invasion of Samaria, there are few surviving records of Shalmaneser’s reign.
When he became king, he took the name Sargon after the Akkadian king who reigned more than a thousand years before him. It means “he (God) made firm the king” and the change of name was a tactic used by Sargon the Great (2334-2279 BCE) of Akkad to legitimize his own rule.
Assyrian Heartland Rebellion and Other Victories
Whether the rebellion existed during Shalmaneser’s reign or it was the result of the violent removal of the former king, Sargon needed to deal with an uprising early in his reign. He successfully stopped this rebellion and brought about reforms to his empire’s taxation and labor laws.
He continued his father’s policy of expansion with the help of the mighty and professional Assyrian military. His victories included the destruction of Hamath in Syria whose leader Yau-bi’di (Jaubid) rebelled against Sargon along with other kingdoms in the Levant. He also crushed the kingdoms of Arpad, Damascus, and Israel in 720 BC. According to the Annals of Sargon, rebels from other Assyrian territories were resettled in Hamath, Damascus, and Samaria, while the people of these kingdoms were resettled elsewhere in the empire.
A long-time enemy of Sargon was Merodach-Baladan of Babylon. The Babylonian king allied against him with Khumbanigas, the king of Elam. But the Assyrian king defeated the Babylonian ruler and took Merodach-Baladan’s family as captives. He also looted the contents of the palace and destroyed the city of Dur-Iakin. He then conquered the Sumerian cities of Ur, Larsa, Kalu, Kisik, Orchoe (Uruk), and Erikhi.
In his annals, he boasted that he conquered Egypt, Phoenicia, Moschia (in Georgia), Syria, Media, and Elam. He also defeated the kings of Gaza and Cilicia and made the rulers of Egypt, Arabia, Saba (Sheba), and Libya pay tribute to him. The policy of uprooting and resettling rebellious kings and people were repeatedly stated in the Annals of Sargon.
Apart from the superior skills of Sargon’s warriors, the Assyrians also maintained an efficient spy system which ensured they were always one step ahead of their enemies. He used deception to conquer enemies, such as in the case of the invasion against the kingdom of Urartu (Armenia) ruled by King Rusa I. After deceiving Rusa into thinking he was going to attack Media; the Armenian king allowed his army to let their guards down. Sargon then turned his army and attacked Urartu.
The citizens were only spared because of Urartu’s efficient warning system and they fled, taking with them many of their goods. The Assyrians, finding few things to plunder, continued towards the Urartian city of Musasir. They successfully raided the temple of the god Haldi, as well as the palace storerooms.
Sargon had to deal with a rebellion in the Assyrian heartland before he became king and because of this, he exiled the rebels into other parts of Assyria. He was not assured of the loyalty of his own people in the Assyrian capital of Kalhu, so he decided to build a new city with his own power base in Dur-Sharrukin. Its name meant “Sargon’s fortress” and located in what is now modern Khorsabad.
The fortification walls covered an area of up to 3 sq km (288 hectares) and was decorated with the best known Assyrian artworks, such as the Lamassu (human-headed winged bull), alabaster wall panels, and various sculpted reliefs. Today, these are on display in various museums such as the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and Louvre Museum in Paris.
It was supposed to be a political, administrative, and trade center, but it was still dependent on Nineveh for most of its resources. The court was moved to Dur-Sharukkin in 706 BC, but it lost importance after the death of Sargon during the battle of Tabal in 706 BC. His son Sennacherib later made Nineveh the capital of the empire.
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