With the rise of higher criticism of the Bible in the 19th century, many scholars claimed that the Bible was not reliably historical, but should be merely seen as myths and legends. The Bible mentioned several different kings of Assyria, but there was no evidence that Assyria ever existed, therefore people thought they could not trust the Bible.
However, soon after, Henry Austin Layard, who became known as, The father of Assyriology, went to Ceylon in 1839 to work with his uncle on his tea plantation, but got stuck in the Middle East with no money, where he had incredible adventures. He worked as a spy for an ambassador of Britain, when he met up with a French archaeologist who was searching for the location of the ruins of Nineveh. On the first morning of digging in 1845, he dug up ten slabs at Calah, believing it was Nineveh. Instead, it was the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. He dug and discovered all the wall reliefs displayed in room 7.
The following Assyrian kings are represented in the British Museum:
1. Ashurnasirpal II (883 - 859) - (room 7)
Ashurnasirpal II reigned at a time of rising Assyrian power, as the Assyrians began to expand west to conquer the Aramean tribes around the Euphrates and reached the Mediterranean. They took tribute from the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon and received homage from Hittite king at Carchemish. They expanded northward, subduing Armenia and Commagene, and to the Zagros mountains in the east. Ashurnasirpal rebuilt the ruins of Calah (also known as Nimrud), using 50,000 prisoners, as his administrative capital. This was a time of rising power. The Assyrian Empire began to expand west to conquer the Aramean tribes around the Euphrates and reached the Mediterranean. They took tribute from the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon and received homage from Hittite king at Carchemish. They expanded northward, subduing Armenia and Commagene, and to the Zagros mountains in the east. The continual pushing west eventually brought her into conflict with Israel, during the time of King Omri. Ashurnasirpal rebuilt the ruins of Calah (also known as Nimrud), using 50,000 prisoners, as his administrative capital. There is a stela depicting Ashurnasirpal II in room 6.
2. Shalmaneser III (858 - 824) - (room 6)
Shalmaneser II organized the administration in the lands his father, Ashurnasirpal, had conquered. He also extended the borders of the empire so he ruled from Urartu in the north, to the Persian Gulf, and from Media, to the Syrian coast and Cicilia (Tarsus). He conquered Carchemish in 857 BC.
In 853 BC he fought against an alliance of ten kings at Qarqar. This alliance included Benhadad of Syria, with 1200 chariots, 1200 calvary and 20,000 infantry; as well as Ahab of Israel, with 2000 chariots and 10,000 infantry. Assyria boasted of a great victory, but in reality it was more of a stalemate, as their expansion was halted for five years. The battle is recorded on the Kurkh Stela of Shalmaneser III in room 6.
By 842 BC, the anti-Assyrian coalition had broken up, so Shalmaneser besieged Damascus, but failed to conquer it, Hazael was king of Syria at this time. He took tribute from Tyre and Sidon, as well as from Jehu of Israel (2 Kg 10:32), which is recorded on the Black Obelisk in room 6. The battle of Qarqar is also depicted on the Balawat Gates in room 6.
Jehu had purged the house of Ahab, leaving Israel weak. Shalmaneser also overran Armenia and Tarsus, conquering mines in the Taurus Mountains. The king of Babylon became subject to him.
3. Tiglath-pileser III (744 - 727) - (room 6) and (room 8)
Pul usurped the Assyrian throne, taking the name Tiglath-pileser III and reigned for eighteen years. He reorganized the army, his aim was to make western Asia one empire to secure trade for merchants of Nineveh, especially from Egypt. He established a vast empire and deported conquered peoples and thereby established strong central administration.
Rezin (the last king of Syria before it was incorporated into the Assyrian empire) and Pekah, king of Israel wanted Jotham of Judah to join a coalition against Assyria (2 Kg 15:37). Both Jotham and his son Ahaz of Judah refused, so Rezin and Pekah came against Judah (2 Kg 16:5-9), Edom also rebelled. Ahaz's response was to submit to Tiglath-pileser (1 Chr 5:26), and ask for help. Isaiah exhorted Ahaz not to bow to Assyria, but Ahaz did not take any notice (Is 7). Ahaz took the treasures of the temple and king's house and gave them to the king of Assyria. Ahaz became a vassal of Assyria and had to adopt Assyria's gods (2 Kg 16:10-16).
In 743 BC, in response to Ahaz's request, Tiglath-pileser marched into Northern Syria, conquering Hamath and extracting tribute from a number of major cities, including Damascus (2 Kg 15:29).
In 738 BC, Pul took 1000 talents of silver as tribute from King Menahem of Israel, becoming the first Assyrian king to be mentioned in Scripture (2 Kg 15:19).
In 732 BC, he conquered and destroyed Damascus, taking the people captive (2 Kg 16:7-9). He also invaded northern Israel taking people from Galilee and Naphtali captive to Assyria (2 Kg 15:29-31), leaving only the land around Ephraim. This was the first deportation from the northern kingdom. This plundering of Israel is depicted in the Astartu tablet in room 6. Pekah was assassinated, and Tiglath-Pileser placed Hoshea on the throne of Samaria as a puppet-king.
In 728 BC, Tiglath-Pileser marched into Babylon and was made king of Babylon.
4. Shalmaneser V (726 - 722)
Shalmaneser was the son of Tiglath-pileser and continued fighting in the west and made Hoshea of Israel one of his vassals (2 Kg 17:3). Hoshea rebelled by refusing to pay tribute, expecting help from Egypt (2 Kg 17:4), so Shalmaneser invaded Israel, and besieged Samaria (2 Kg 17:5-6) but died during the siege in 722.
5. Sargon II (721 - 705) Fall of Samaria - (room 8)
Sargon seized the Assyrian throne and finished the job of capturing Samaria, claiming credit for the victory. He took 27,290 people from Israel into captivity. They were carried away to the upper Euphrates and Media, losing their cultural and religious identity. He built himself a palace in Khorsabad, tem miles north east of Nineveh (room 8), while Calah remained the military centre.
At this time Hezekiah of Judah rebelled against Assyria (2 Kg 18:7). His reforms, by clearing out the idols and return to worship of Yahweh would be seen by Assyria as rebellion.
In 717 BC, Carchemish, the Hittite capital was captured. Also a revolt in southern Palestine was suppressed and Merodach-Baladan of Babylon was driven back to the Persian Gulf.
In 705 BC, Sargon was murdered and succeeded by his son Sennacherib.
Sennacherib was an able soldier who restored the capital to Nineveh. In his first years, he had to suppress revolts which broke out at the time of his father's death as well as a revolt by Merodach-Baladan in Babylon, who asked Hezekiah of Judah for help (2 Kg 20:12-19).
In 701 BC, Sennacherib invaded Philistia and Judah to bring his rebellious vassal Hezekiah back under Assyrian control. He took forty-six walled cities of Judah and 200,000 people captive (2 Kg 18:13). During the siege of Lachish (2 Kg 18:14-16), Sennacherib sent messages to Hezekiah, who paid tribute, 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold, even stripping the gold from the door of the temple, but this was not enough. Jerusalem was besieged by Sennacherib's Tartan (the second in command of the army), who mocked the God of Hezekiah (2 Kg 18:35, 19:10). Sennacherib said that "He had shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem as a bird in a cage", and demanded his surrender. Sennacherib himself did not come against Jerusalem, he was busy fighting other battles, such as Lachish. The Assyrian account of this campaign is recorded on the Taylor Prism in Room 55.
Through Isaiah, God promised deliverance. Hezekiah sought God and God delivered Judah from the hand of Assyria (2 Kg 18:17 - 19:36, Is 36-39). When there was a rumour that Tirhakah of Ethiopia was coming against Assyria (2 Kg 19:9), they withdrew from Jerusalem. When they returned, God's angel killed 185,000 of their troops (2 Kg 19:35). Herodotus wrote that the Assyrian army was killed by a plague of mice (possibly bubonic plague carried by rats).
In 697 BC, Sennacherib suppressed a revolt in Cilicia, fighting against the Greeks, and conquered Tarsus. In 689 BC, he levelled and burnt down Babylon because of the rebellion by Merodach-Baladan, who was driven out.
Finally, in 681 BC, Sennacherib was assassinated by his sons in the temple of Nisroch in Nineveh (2 Kg 19:37).
He was the last of the strong Assyrian kings. King Manasseh of Judah was present at his inauguration. He was a scholar who collected a huge library of over 100,000 tablets in Nineveh, having his scribes copy the libraries of ancient Babylon. These were discovered in the ninteenth century. He was a keen big game hunter. Ezra 4:10 mentions "the great and noble Osnappur", probably referring to Ashurbanipal. His had a cruel war policy and repopulated Samaria with Babylonians. The prophet Nahum probably prophesied against Nineveh during his reign.
During the 640's, he subdued rebellions in Babylon. Then in 663 BC, he continued the suppression of the revolt in Egypt and conquered No-amman (Thebes) (Nahum 3:8). Assyria now came to its greatest territorial extent, ruling most of the fertile crescent, from southern Egypt, north to the mountains of Armenia, and east to the Persian Gulf.
During his reign, Assyria began to be weakened by internal strife, and Nabopolassar of Babylon as well as others began to rebel. After 626 BC, the death of Ashurbanipal, Assyria rapidly declined.