In Exodus 1, a new pharaoh changed the policies of the preceding pharaoh: Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
In the 9th century BCE, a new king emerged who would change the policies of previous rulers and who would launch a strategy that would bring immeasurable suffering to the ancient Near East.
The Neo-Assyrian Empire began with the kings Ashur-dan II, Adad-nirari II and Tukulti-Ninurta II seeking to reconquer territories that had been lost to the earlier Assyrian kings, in a more localized region that was home to many Assyrians. Under the king Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned from 883-859 BCE, the Assyrians would begin to attack and conquer regions much further afield, on their way to becoming perhaps the world’s first true empire.
The kings prior to Ashurnasirpal II had pushed into northern Mesopotamia, Syria and Babylon, but Ashurnasirpal II pushed further in multiple directions. He launched campaigns into Asia Minor, the region of today’s Turkey, and Syria, against the Neo-Hittites and Arameans, pushing past the western banks of the Euphrates River. He reached the Phoenician cities of Sidon, Tyre and Byblos on the Mediterranean coast.
In what would become an Assyrian hallmark, he engaged in extreme cruelty in fighting battles and suppressing revolts. The reliefs in his palace record his behaviors. In one relief he states that “Their men young and old I took prisoners. Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire.” In another, “I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes and others I bound to stakes round the pillar. I cut the limbs off the officers who had rebelled. Many captives I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I consumed with fire. The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.”
In addition to his expansionary military program, Ashurnasirpal II undertook changes in government. He shifted the capital to Nimrud, away from Assur, which remained the center for cultic activity for the Assyrian kingdom. In celebration of his construction of his new capital, Ashurnasirpal II threw perhaps one of the largest parties in human history. He records entertaining nearly 70,000 guests over 10 days.
The image above is of a stele of Ashurnasirpal II holding his staff and sword, from his capital at Nimrud, on display at the British Museum.