The year is 853 B.C.E. and two massive armies are lined up on an alluvial plain in front of the ancient city of Qarqar, in today’s northern Syria.
On one side are the forces of the Assyrian Empire, a Mesopotamian military juggernaut that has been steadily gobbling up territory across the Middle East over the last few years. Standing between the Assyrians and more conquests is a hodgepodge of Levantine contingents including Aramean foot soldiers, neo-Hittite horses, chariots sent by the Kingdom of Israel and camels led by an Arab ruler, all brought together by this terrifying common enemy.
In today’s complex Middle Eastern scenarios, many experts have interpreted the Abraham Accords, the recent wave of normalization agreements between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, as a nascent axis against another shared adversary from the east – Iran.
Looking back at the past, the events surrounding the battle of Qarqar nearly 3,000 years ago still echo with a message of what can be achieved through unity. They also still carry a warning of what can be lost when that unity falls apart.
‘Ahabbu Sirilayu’ joins the fray
Everything we know about this ancient alliance comes from its fierce opponents, the Assyrians, and particularly from one inscription, the Kurkh Stela, which was uncovered 160 years ago. While it is obviously one-sided, this account has given us a rare window into the history of ancient Israel and its neighbors.
The Kurkh Stela continues to be a source of debate among scholars, particularly for its contribution to the broader discussion on the historicity of the Bible.
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The inscription is one of two twin monoliths found by John George Taylor, a British diplomat and archaeologist, in 1861 at Kurkh, today the village of Uctepe in Turkish Kurdistan. The two monuments, each about two meters in height, display the effigies and tell of the exploits of a pair of Assyrian kings from the 9th century B.C.E., Ashurnasirpal II and his son and successor Shalmaneser III, who reigned from 859 B.C.E to 824 B.C.E. The stelae are both displayed at the British Museum in London.
Shalmaneser’s monolith relates the king’s conquests in the first six years of his reign, ending with the great battle he fought at Qarqar against an international coalition whose members and forces are listed in painstaking detail. Leading the coalition were three figures: Hadadezer, the Aramean king of Damascus; Irhuleni of Hamath (modern-day Hama in Syria) a neo-Hittite kingdom whose territory included Qarqar; and a ruler named by the Akkadian-language inscription as “Ahabbu Sirilayu.”
Scholars today overwhelmingly translate these words as “Ahab the Israelite,” and identify him as the biblical monarch of the northern Kingdom of Israel.
“The chronology is right, it’s exactly the right time, we don’t know of another king named Ahab or another kingdom named Israel, so who else could it be?” says Nadav Na’aman, an Assyriologist and emeritus professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University.
Even more surprisingly, among the junior partners of the coalition, Shalmaneser’s scribe goes on to list a “Gindibu Arbayu” – that is, “Gindibu the Arab.”
This makes the Kurkh Stela an extraordinary document that holds several distinctions: it not only confirms the historicity of a biblical character (actually a rather reviled king in the holy text) but is also the earliest appearance of the Arabs as a people. The text is also considered the oldest known mention of the Kingdom of Israel – though “Israel” as a people already appear in a stela by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah from the end of the 13th century B.C.E.
“Shalmaneser’s account is a rogues gallery of major political forces in the Levant, and this is the first real evidence we have of who was who in the region at the time,” says Peter Machinist, an expert on ancient Assyria and a retired professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages at Harvard University.
During his first years on the Assyrian throne, Shalmaneser had subjugated all the lands to the east of the Euphrates. In 853 B.C.E. he campaigned across the river, taking major cities like Aleppo, and heading toward the Mediterranean before running into his enemies at Qarqar.
“They probably had a few years to prepare,” Na’aman notes. “They must have known of Shalmaneser’s previous campaigns beyond the Euphrates and once he crossed over they realized they would have one chance to stop him.”
So did this unlikely alliance of Israelites, Arabs and other Middle Eastern nations manage to check the Assyrian advance? Well, it’s complicated.
The Kurkh Stela claims Shalmaneser’s forces completely routed their opponents and killed 14,000 enemy troops. “I rained destruction upon them. I scattered their corpses far and wide, and covered the face of the desolate plain with their widespreading armies,” the king boasts. “The plain was too small to let their bodies fall, the wide countryside was used up in burying them.”
In general, ancient rulers would rarely admit defeat in public records and often aggrandized their victories (real or not) through hyperbole, especially in monumental inscriptions, like the Kurkh Stela, that served their propaganda machine.
However Most scholars suspect that the battle of Qarqar was a stalemate for Shalmaneser at best, as in the aftermath the Assyrians don’t record any payment of tribute by the supposedly defeated kings, as would have been standard practice, Na’aman notes.
Later inscriptions from Shalmaneser’s reign show that the Assyrian king clashed repeatedly with the coalition in the same region in at least three campaigns during the early 840s B.C.E., Na’aman says.
“They never pay him anything because he doesn’t succeed to defeat this alliance,” he tells Haaretz. “They managed to hold on for quite a while, longer than anyone else did against the Assyrian Empire.”
Only in 841 B.C.E., after the league of kings had fallen apart (for reasons we shall explore below) did Shalmaneser manage to collect tribute from Aram, Israel and the rest of the region.
Just add a zero
Another element of the Kurkh Stela that scholars find dubious of is the number of enemy troops listed in the account of the battle of Qarqar.
The forces marshalled by the anti-Assyrian coalition were impressive and, if the inscription is to be trusted, Qarqar would have been one of the largest battles in history until then. The allies supposedly could count on tens of thousands of foot soldiers and thousands of horses and chariots, with Ahab alone providing 2,000 of these wheeled war machines and Gindibu contributing 1,000 camels.
These numbers however were likely inflated, either as a result of a scribal error or to aggrandize Shalmaneser’s (alleged) victory, Machinist says.
“What is important is the relative size of the contingents, which shows that Israel played a major role in the alliance and the Arabs too showed up with a pretty serious force,” Na’aman says. This is significant because it suggests that the northern Kingdom of Israel – as opposed to its smaller southern neighbor, the Kingdom of Judah – was a fairly strong regional power that could defend its interests even when they weren’t under immediate threat. After all, Shalmaneser hadn’t directly attacked Israel, and Qarqar lies about 400 kilometers from Ahab’s capital, Samaria.
“Ahab was clearly a great statesman who foresaw the threat posed by the Assyrian Empire and realized he had to work with his neighbors, and that’s why he was ready to send the Israelite army to protect such a distant land,” Na’aman says.
To make a modern parallel, Ahab’s expedition is reminiscent of Israel’s military operations in Syria today. Foreign sources often report strikes by Israel on Iranian targets in Syria to prevent Tehran from gaining a foothold in the region. Similarly, Ahab wanted to prevent Shalmaneser from gaining a foothold in Syria, which he knew would eventually threaten his own kingdom, the historian says.
Speaking of modern connections, it appears that Qarqar – today the village of Qarqur – has retained its strategic importance over the millennia. It has seen heavy fighting during the ongoing Syrian civil war, with archaeologists reporting severe damage to the ancient site.
Going back to the Assyrian invasion, the presence of Gindibu’s camel forces is even more surprising than Ahab’s involvement, scholars note. While we know almost nothing about Gindibu, it is assumed he ruled one of the Arab kingdoms in northern Arabia, which was even further removed than Israel from the theater of operations.
“He was probably part of the spice trade, which was a source of wealth for the tribal Arab kingdoms,” Machinist theorizes. “My guess is that Gindibu was worried about the ties that could have been damaged by the Assyrian attacks and wanted to be sure that his trading partners, who would have included people like Ahab and the Arameans, would remain his partners.”
The alliance collapses
Ahab’s and Gindibu’s foresight was correct, as in the subsequent century the Assyrians would indeed come to dominate the entire Middle East, destroying Israel, deporting part of its population while also subjugating the Arabs and taking control of the lucrative spice trade.
The grand coalition that apparently withstood Shalmaneser’s repeated attacks probably fell apart due to leadership changes and infighting, scholars say.
We know that Ahab died shortly after the battle of Qarqar – probably in 852 B.C.E. and was succeeded by his son Joram. A decade later, the Aramean king Hadadezer, who was likely the other main force behind the alliance, was succeeded by a new ruler, Hazael, who quickly became enmeshed in open conflict with Israel.
We know from both the Bible and archaeological evidence that, under Hazael, the Arameans defeated Israel and occupied large parts of the kingdom. With the alliance effectively buried, all this instability left the door open for Shalmaneser to finally impose some form of dominance over the entire Levant in 841 B.C.E., even though he mostly contented himself with collecting tribute from his new vassals. Assyrian control ebbed and flowed over the following century until finally, around 720 B.C.E., Sargon II conquered Samaria and the Kingdom of Israel ceased to exist, while its neighbor Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, barely survived to tell the tale.
What about the Bible?
In all this story about the epic attempt to resist Assyrian encroachment there is one element that is conspicuously absent: the Bible. The Old Testament doesn’t mention the league of Levantine kings or the battle of Qarqar. In fact, it seems to get several facts wrong.
The Book of Kings (1 Kings 20, 22) describes near constant warfare between Israel and Damascus during Ahab’s time, and claims the Israelite king was killed in battle against the Arameans, while the Kurkh Stela attests that the two kingdoms were close allies. The Bible also names the Aramean king contemporary to Ahab as Ben Hadad, and not as the Hadadezer mentioned in Assyrian texts.
We know from later inscriptions that Ben Hadad was, in fact, Hazael’s successor on the throne of Damascus and ruled about half a century after Hadadezer and Ahab were dead, Na’aman says.
Scholars are divided on how to interpret these apparent contradictions. Some, like Na’aman, see in this confusion evidence of the fact that the biblical history of the kings of Israel and Judah, as we know it, was only put in writing centuries after most of the events it reports. It was probably written in Jerusalem at the very end of the First Temple Period, in the late 7th century B.C.E. – long after the northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen.
While the biblical scribes certainly had access to some earlier oral and written records (after all, the names and chronology of the kings of Israel are quite accurate) they may not have known much about geopolitical events from earlier times, especially if they didn’t involve Judah directly.
“History was written in Jerusalem, not in Samaria, and this led to many things being forgotten,” Na’aman says. To fill in the blanks, the biblical authors may have simply projected back into Ahab’s time some of the characters, like Ben Hadad, and stories of the Israelite-Aramean conflict that actually ensued in a later period, he suggests.
Other scholars, like Machinist, acknowledge that there might have been some confusion on the name of the Aramean king, but don’t see such a stark contrast between the biblical text and the events reported by Shalmaneser. The Bible does mention that, at some point during Ahab’s reign, “for three years there was no war between Aram and Israel” (1 Kings 22:1) and Machinist suggests that the battle of Qarqar may have happened within this window of time.
He also notes that the Bible gels well with the Kurkh Stele in depicting the Kingdom of Israel as a major regional power in the time of Ahab and his father, King Omri. Even as it condemns these rulers for supposedly following idolatrous practices, it acknowledges Israel’s primacy over neighboring Judah, Moab and its strong ties with other nearby kingdoms (Ahab’s wife, the much-maligned Jezebel, is said to be a daughter of the king of the powerful Phoenician city-state of Tyre).
“The Omrides, especially Omri and Ahab, were major players in the politics of the Levant, they were not simple local sheikhs who ruled over a large tribal group,” Machinist says. “The Bible does reflect that in broad strokes even if some of the particular strokes are not what we find in the Assyrian inscriptions.”