One of the most extraordinary archaeological discovery of the 19th century was the royal palace of Sennacherib in antique Nineveh (today's Mossul in Irak). It is Sennacherib who brought the capital of the Assyrian empire to its pinnacle around 700 BCE. His palace contains 80 rooms, with its walls filled with reliefs. In the throne room itself, was found the relief of the capture of Lachish, the second city of importance in the tiny kingdom of Judea. In one section of this amazing relief, which can be admired today in London's British Museum, we can see the king sitting on an impressive throne, and an inscription next to it, which says: Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, sat upon a throne and passed in review the booty from Lachish. (source: The Ancient Near East, James Pritchard, 1969, page 201). I have seen copies of this text with the mention sat upon his throne, which is a wrong translation.
A throne? His throne? One question immediately comes to mind. Has anything like this ever happened in History where a king goes to a military campaign and brings his throne with him ?!? Here is a mystery to be solved !
Looking at typical Assyrian furniture found in various palaces that have been excavated, it strikes the eye that the throne of Sennacherib stands alone, very special. Look below an extract from such royal furniture.
But there is something even more striking, when we compare this throne to the throne of Tiglath-Pileser III, and to the throne of Ashurbanipal.
We can see that Assyrian kings had "ordinary" throne: basically a highchair with armrests and footrests, like depicted for Tiglath-Pileser III, the great conqueror of the Levant, who reigned before Sennacherib in 745-727 BCE. But, if we assume that Sennacherib made for himself this new spectacular throne, not seen with previous kings, why would Ashurbanipal, Sennacherib's grandson who reigned after in 669-631 BCE, not sit on the same throne of his grandfather??
To resolve this enigma, we must learn from the siege of Lachish, back in 701 BCE. Why did Sennacherib campaign against the small kingdom of Judea? Because, unlike Ahaz the Judean king who paid a tribute to the Assyrian empire, his son Hezekiah took the opportunity of some political turmoil in the Assyrian rule to stop paying... The Bible says: Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. (II Kings 18:13)
Poor king Hezekiah had not much choice. After taking all fortified cities, Sennacherib was now in Lachish, the last city to take before the Judean capital, Jerusalem... Hezekiah wanted to stop the destruction of his kingdom and make amend: And Hezekiah king of Judah sent to the king of Assyria to Lachish, saying: 'I have offended; return from me; that which you put on me will I bear.' And the king of Assyria appointed unto Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. (II Kings 18:14)
In short, Sennacherib put a heavy toll for Hezekiah to pay: 30 talents of gold and 300 talents of silver. This was indeed a big toll. And it was a tragedy for Hezekiah who did not have such amount of gold and silver. He had no choice but find anything he could find in Jerusalem's treasures... And Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the LORD, and in the treasures of the king's house. (II Kings 18:15)
It was truly tragic for Hezekiah because he was a pious king, who had made all the efforts to bring his people back in the path of the Lord, and even carried out a vast religious reform to put down all the shrines erected by his people outside Jerusalem. Yet, the price was too high to bear, and Hezekiah had to do one last effort in such tragic moment with utter destruction looming upon him: At that time did Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria. (II Kings 18:16)
This payment is quite an extraordinary detailed narrative from the Bible. But amazingly, it has archaeological proof! Beside the impressive relief of the siege of Lachish, the diggers in Nineveh found clay prisms, which contained Sennacherib's Chronicles.
These prisms, written in cuneiform characters, were the way for Assyrian kings to record their life and campaigns for the posterity. And here we found echo of the Biblical narrative as follows: As to Hezekiah, the Judean (Jew), who did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities [...] and conquered (them). [...] Hezekiah himself, whom the terror-inspiring splendour of my lordship had overwhelmed [...] did send me [...] 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver,... (source: The Ancient Near East, James Pritchard, 1969, page 200)
As told in the Bible, the drama of the situation can be felt by reading this Assyrian text. And it would have been good if the quantity of gold and silver would have matched! 30 and 300 in the Bible, but 30 and 800 in the prism. Yet, there is a problem. If we assume that ancient kings, like the Egyptian pharaohs, loved to boast their heroic performance (as it served the purpose of securing their throne), one question would be: if Sennacherib really wanted to boast about how much he received from Hezekiah, say 800 instead of 300 talents of silver, why would he not have done this on the quantity of gold, more precious than silver?? Therefore, a much careful look at the text is due.
Looking carefully at the lines 40-43 of the prism, we can spot the word "talent" (circled in blue) and the two numbers: 30 (circled in orange) and 800 (circled in red). Now let's look at the Assyrian cuneiform characters to see how they wrote 30 and 800.
We can see that the number 800 is not the one represented in the prism. Rather the representation there is closer to what the number 300 is. The only difference is that the scribe apparently made one small mistake: he added an extra vertical bar which then corresponds to no number. In fact, there are three versions of the same prism and the writing of this specific number could be read 800 or 300 depending on the artifact. Which version if the original and which ones are the copies, with possibly a copy mistake? Difficult to be sure but we can be certain that, since the 19th century, scores of books have copied the same number 800 over and over again. But if the original version was the number 300, we would have a perfect match between Archaeology and Bible. What a scoop!
Then now: if Sennacherib did not boast over these particulars numbers of the levy imposed on Hezekiah, we can assume that the rest of the text is also most probably true and correct. What does the rest of the text say in the prism? 30 talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of red stone, couches with ivory, "kussiu nimedu" inlaid with ivory,... (source: The Ancient Near East, James Pritchard, 1969, page 201)
What is a kussiu nimedu ? The expression is also found in the actual inscription of Sennacherib on Lachish relief:
Looking at an Assyrian dictionary, one would find that kussiu means chair (the word is similar to kisseh in Hebrew) and kussiu nemedi means a chair with an armrest and footstool, in other word a throne. This is important because it resolves our original question: Sennacherib did not bring his throne with him in the military campaign against Judea but received a throne from Hezekiah as part of the tribute.
Now, why would Hezekiah send a throne, or rather his throne considering the magnificence of this item? The Bible says that the Judean king gave away ALL the treasures he had in the royal house and in the Temple, and this was not enough. He even cut off the gold of the Temple doors (see Biblical texts above mentioned).
One detail from Sennacherib prism is also worth of attention: the text talks about a throne (kussiu nimedu) inlaid with ivory... Ivory comes from elephants, African elephants more precisely. How many Judean kings had trade with Africa? Not so many because they all were in constant wars and conflicts with their neighbours. The only king who had peace and trade from far away was... King Solomon. And the Bible describes to us the throne that Solomon made for his rule. Here is the text in English and Hebrew (important) from I Kings 10:
It is Solomon who made a throne of ivory overlaid in fine gold. Hezekiah needed to send this royal gold, but it was not enough so he had to also take the gold from the Temple doors. The Bible gives a thorough description:
the throne had six steps; Sennacherib is seating on it, with six steps, 3 for his feet, 3 for his body
there were arms on either side: this makes an armchair and thus a kussiu nimedu
two lions standing beside the arms: they are no longer there, at the time of Hezekiah, or were removed as these lions were not part of the throne itself, but "beside the arms"; why put lions? Because the symbol of Judah tribe, the royal tribe, is the lion (the so-called Lion of Judah)
twelve "lions" stood there: this is the translation in English but... the Hebrew text doesn't say lions (which is the word אריות as in the previous mention of two lions) but it say a made-up masculine word that doesn't exist in Hebrew (אריים): this is to allude that there were 12 lions-like entities, which surely refer to the Twelve Tribes because Solomon was ruling over all the tribes of Israel (Unified Kingdom period). The made-up word can thus be interpreted as the twelve lions / tribes of Israel. How does this look on the actual throne? Not lion animals but lion-like men, the tribes, standing and supporting the throne of the king (arms lifted upwards)
Last but not least. If you were Sennacherib, watching your army attacking a very imposing fortified city as Lachish (about 124 dunams meaning around 10,000 inhabitants, 50 meters high compared to the ground, double city walls, double gates) what would you do if you had received the majestic throne from Hezekiah? In the siege of Lachish, psychological warfare played an important role too. So, it is conceivable to believe that Sennacherib sat on this throne, next to his camp on the small hill facing the city and the siege, in full view of its defenders.
What happened next? The defenders would believe that Jerusalem HAD FALLEN ! If Sennacherib was sitting on the throne of Solomon (and of all the kings of Judea since), it must have meant that the great city of Jerusalem had fallen. And there was no messenger to confirm or disprove this belief ! What would the defenders do next? Surrender, so that the powerful enemy would not exact a harsh vengeance. And I believe that this is what in fact happened: Lachish did not fall, as generally believed, but surrendered. On the Lachish relief, we can actually see Judean population coming out of the city gates, quietly with goods on their shoulders, which is a sign of surrender. And we already established that Sennacherib was not cheating History. Indeed, he could have requested his artists not to show signs of surrender in order to boast his military prowess instead, by showing he took the city by force.
Next time you come to Israel, do contact me to visit the extraordinary site of Lachish, where Bible meets History. This story is one of many other ones, known and unknown, that we will talk about.
I wish a happy 2021 to everyone, hoping that this new year would make up for the lost year of 2020.
Tour Guide, Israel
31 December 2020