Israel, Regional Power on the Ancient Scene

Credit:, British Museum

In Exodus 2, while Moses lived in Midian, “During that long period, the king of Egypt died.” The pharaoh who replaced this deceased pharaoh maintained the same policies regarding the enslavement of the Israelites. Similarly, the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II ruled from 883 to 859 BCE with great cruelty. During his reign he initiated an expansionary military policy, campaigning in all directions and even reaching the Mediterranean Sea. His son Shalmaneser III inherited his father’s throne and maintained his father’s expansionary military policy and deliberate use of terror.

The Kurkh Monolith Stele of Shalmaneser III, as shown in the above image, was unearthed at Üçtepe, Turkey, in an area formerly known as Kurkh, and records the campaigns of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. The stele is today housed at the British Museum.

The Kurkh Monolith recounts how Shalmaneser III expanded Assyrian territorial control in all directions. Shalmaneser III scored victories in Syria to the west, in Mesopotamia to the south, and won difficult battles against Urartu to the north. After each of his victories he boasts that “pyramids of heads I erected in front of its gate,” and occasionally that “some I fastened alive into these pyramids, others I hung up on stakes around the pyramids.”

Sensing the rising threat, a number of states to the west of Assyria, some often themselves direct rivals, joined together to counter the Assyrian threat. This alliance included the Kingdom of Israel.

In 853 BCE, in the 6th year of Shalmaneser III’s reign, the alliance of states faced off against Shalmaneser III’s army at the Battle of Karkar. The largest contributors to the alliance were Hadadezer of Aram, with 1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalry, 20,000 soldiers; Irhuleni of Hamath and his 700 chariots, 700 cavalry, and 10,000 soldiers; and Ahab the Israelite with his 2,000 chariots and 10,000 soldiers.

There are notable features of this group listed in the Kurkh Monolith Stele of Shalmaneser III. It is the first mention of the Kingdom of Israel in the archaeological record. Additionally, it is the earliest use of the term “Arab” in the archaeological record, with the listing of Gindibu’ the Arabian, who supplied camels.

In the Kurkh Monolith Stele of Shalmaneser III, Shalmaneser III claims to have achieved a great victory. However, the Assyrians would fight over these lands later, and this story was not mentioned in the Bible, so it appears that the result was more likely to have been a stalemate.

Beyond the outcome of the war, the Kurkh Monolith Stele of Shalmaneser III is important in that it demonstrates that by the 9th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel was a significant power player in the region.

In the Bible, the northern Kingdom of Israel had split from the southern Kingdom of Judah. This northern kingdom would have had the larger number of tribes, more fertile land for agriculture and better access to trade routes. The difference between the two sides can be seen today in the greener lands of the Galilee region in the north and the browner, more arid land in the south. This agricultural economic advantage allowed the Kingdom of Israel to emerge as the greater military power of the two.

Within the alliance against Assyria, Israel contributed the largest contingent of chariots. A chariotry is expensive to build, maintain and deploy. It requires material to construct the chariots and dedicated professionals to operate the chariots. It would require a large number of horses, some of which could have been kept at Megiddo, in an area identified as possible horse stalls, or at Jezreel, in large open areas that lacked domestic construction. Thus beyond the outcome of a battle and this first mention of the Kingdom of Israel, the Kurkh Monolith Stele of Shalmaneser III is important in demonstrating the Kingdom of Israel’s power and importance within the region.