The Battles for Mosul – Then and Now

By Neil Earle

Note Mosul in the far north of Iraq. Click to enlarge.

As this dramatic and dangerous battle for Mosul shapes up in our daily news, Christians are asked to cry out for the people trapped inside this dangerous zone. Let it be so. It seems intriguing that Mosul is located in “Ninawa” or Nineveh Province in the extreme north of Iraq. Here is the modern name for the ancient capital city of Assyria, a name that leaps out at readers of the Bible.

“Archaeology 101”

Stationed at Mosul is 1820, the English consul Claude James Rich explored and wrote about the mounds across the Tigris which he suspected might be ancient Nineveh. In 1845 the energetic Austen Henry Layard identified the site and uncovered the vast remains of the capital city of the Assyrian kings outside Mosul. He thus informally began the science of archaeology. The Assyrians in the defenseless flat plains in what is today northern Iraq saw themselves as targets of fierce tribes to the north and east. Their key city of Nineveh more than once suffered from ruthless tribes the Bible labels as Urartu, Elam and Media. Like the ancient Romans back in Italy, in Northern Mesopotamia it was often a matter of arm yourself or get smashed.

Old Assyria, the region that appears to history about 2000-1750 BC, was more interested in Mammon than militarism. “Located on the Tigris in the very [heartland] of Assyria,” writes Professor Marc Van De Mieroop of Columbia, “Ashur was the central point of a network that traded tin from the east, textiles from Babylonia, and silver and gold from Anatolia” (A History of the Ancient Near East, ca 3000 to 323 BC, pages 89-90). The flat plain around Nineveh near modern-day Mosul was good for raising sheep but poorly fitted for agriculture. With few resources, no ports and no defensible borders, early Assyrians were forced to expand, sending trading companies into modern-day Turkey, 1000 kilometers from home or down south into prosperous Babylon and on to the Persian Gulf.

At least three Biblical prophets – Jonah, Isaiah and Nahum – dealt extensively with the Assyrians, both as instruments of God’s wrath and as originators of an impressive and highly advanced civilization. Here is a culture which contributed the 360 degree circle, latitude and longitude, and medical schools. The famous Nimrud Lens artifact indicates a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy. Since merchants and exporter-importers need reliable information, Assyrians early preserved careful chronological data. But even more intriguing for Bible students are at least seven interactions between Assyria and ancient Israel which enliven the Old Testament text. Portrayals of the Assyrians in books such as First and Second Kings dovetail very well with the historical record.

Read on. Here is a fascinating story of Biblical history and archaeology.

Book details God saving Jerusalem from Assyrian King Sennacherib in 701 BC.

The New (Neo) Assyrians

Assyria was around so long that historians divide the Empire into two parts – Old Assyria and the Neo or New Assyrian Empire. The New Assyrian period stretches from 900-612 BC when aggressive and expansionist Assyrian kings sought to extend the borders of the empire by military conquest. Sometimes expansion has a defensive basis to it – as is argued for America’s War of 1812 or Mexican War – but the story of this period is one of Assyria’s armies relentlessly perfecting the arts of war until what is called “imperial overstretch” set in, leading to Nineveh’s utter collapse in 612 BC.

It was during this era that Nineveh reached the heights alluded to in the book of Jonah, a city of “three day’s journey” – the three days needed, perhaps, to encompass its suburbs and outlying districts. If ancient historians are to be believed, the city stretched over 1800 acres and was enclosed by an inner wall 7 miles around. It was intersected by 15 huge gates protecting an area that held 18 canals and fed by at least one aqueduct some 25 miles way. This was a colossal city with construction feats that rivaled the later Roman Empire.

According to his own detailed records, in 853 BC, the energetic Shalmaneser III, pushing west, encountered an alliance of twelve kings led by the rulers of Damascus and Hamath and “Ahab the Israelite.” Shalmaneser was stopped at the battle of Qarqar in 853, a key event for dating Biblical chronology. Ahab is cited as possessing the strongest Allied force at Qarqar – 2000 chariots and 10,000 infantry. For Bible readers this dovetails nicely with Ahab’s affinity for fighting in chariots (1 Kings 22:34).

By 841 BC Shalmaneser was back again, initiating Round Two of the Israelite-Assyrian encounters. At Mount Carmel where Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal, Shalmaneser paused to receive tribute (he stated) from “the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon and from Jehu the son of Omri.” Jehu is pictured on a most famous column at the British Museum called the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser (859-824 BCE). Omri was Ahab’s father but the dynasty was extirpated by this same Jehu (see 2 Kings 10). Though some now dispute the Jehu claim on the monument, the depiction of a Middle Eastern king kneeling before his Assyrian master is striking indirect testimony to some details of Biblical history. (Another inscription from Iraq in 1967 mentions yet another Israelite king, Joash, from about 796 BC.)

Visitor contemplates Obelisk of Assyrian Shalmaneser (859-824) at British Museum.

Prophets Jonah and Isaiah

Assyrian was about to reach her imperial peak. The crowded 700s BCE feature forays into Palestine, with the prophet Jonah representing an Israelite response at the command of Yahweh, God of Israel. The great love of God for all nations, even mighty Nineveh (Acts 10:34, was the reason for Jonah’s summons to repent. Surprisingly, the king of Assyria did repent, something which Jesus noted favorably in the Gospels (Matthew 12:41). In 1820 Claude Rich was told that the second largest tomb outside Mosul was named “Yunas” – after the prophet Jonah (Halley’s Bible Handbook, page 365).

Remember, Assyria had hostile neighbors to the north and east. A total solar eclipse followed by flooding and famine in 763 may well have rattled the Ninevites enough to heed a dire prophetic warning (Wiseman, New Bible Dictionary, page 826). Researchers note how Assyrian policy was intentionally cruel and ruthless in the 800s but softened somewhat in the 700s with deportation the favored Assyrian tactic. Perhaps Jonah had a lasting impact (3:8 – note “turn from violence”). In the words of one writer: “God wanted Israel exiled, not destroyed.”

Round Four comes with the writings of the prophet Isaiah whose whole first chapter might be summarized as “The Assyrians are coming.” Isaiah 7-12 is a complex set of scriptures with the Assyrians ever ready to move in on the petty princes around Palestine. Isaiah 10:5 gives us the dramatic explanation, “Ah, Assyria” (or Ha!). Here the prophet shows that (astoundingly) Yahweh will use Assyria to punish Israel but then will deal with them in turn. This process began in 721-718 BCE when the Assyrians deported the northern nation of Israel. Tiglath-pileser III shifted tactics from the clumsy 4-wheeled Egyptian chariot to the maneuverable two-wheeled variety. Many Assyrian monuments depict their love for the war-horse. Isaiah captured the well-equipped Assyrian cavalry in a swiftly-moving pen-portrait (Isaiah 5:27-29). By 733 these invincible legions had already removed some of the northern Israelites into captivity – the “light affliction” of Isaiah 9:1.

The climax of this dramatic era came with Round Five: Assyria capturing the northern Israelite capital of Samaria in 721-718. Some 27, 290 people were deported, according to the records of Sargon II (733-716). Round Six comes as almost an anticlimax to this uprooting of the northern Ten Tribes. This left Judah and Jerusalem as a bare remnant (Isaiah 1:9; 2 Kings 17). King Hezekiah in Jerusalem foolishly joined an anti-Assyrian rebellion and provoked a well-documented attack on the cities of Judah by King Sennacherib in 701. One important monument for Bible students is the detailed relief back in Nineveh of the siege of Lachish, a city that guarded the southern approaches to Jerusalem (Isaiah 36:2). When Lachish fell, Jerusalem was next and “somehow” the capital eluded capture.

The Unseen Hand

That “somehow” enshrines one of the best tales of deliverance in Bible history, one which points to an Invisible Hand guiding events behind the scenes. Returning to Assyria, Sennacherib listed the fortified cities he captured – Sidon, Joppa, etc. This “Taylor prism” in the British Museum reads: “As to Hezekiah the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities…I drove out of them 200,150 people…Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” What is happening? Did Hezekiah escape? Both 2 Kings 19:35 and Isaiah 37:36 state Sennacherib suffered disaster outside Jerusalem. As Jack Finegan wisely states: “It is hardly to be expected that Sennacherib would record such a defeat” (Light from the Ancient Past, pages 211-213). Well put. Round Seven was a disastrous setback for Assyria but a divine deliverance for the Jews in Jerusalem.

But Assyria’s Empire was not yet done. Around the 620s BC a Jewish prophet named Nahum detailed four specific prophecies about the fall of Nineveh that were delivered in blistering style. The Assyrians had indeed made their mark. They had shown the world how to do empire, how to build a hemisphere-wide economic network but their time could not last forever. “Imperial overstretch” – holding down such vast territories – characterized the 600s. But Nahum was right. Nations were closing in for the kill. Nahum wrote that Nineveh would fall quickly, that its leaders would be captured in a state of drunkenness, that the river Tigris would flood the city and a fire would burn the remains. Most striking of all, Nahum recorded that the city would be buried: “I will dig your grave…you will be hidden” (Nahum 1:14; 3:11).

That last was amazingly accurate. For 1500 years Nineveh virtually disappeared from view until a French consul uncovered Sargon II’s castle in 1840 outside Mosul.

Assyria: “The Work of My Hands”

So why this fascination with a long-dead empire? For one thing the discovery of Assyria virtually launched modern archaeology. For another, the Biblical intertwining and interconnections are fascinating to say the least. And for another there is what could be called the “New Testament side” of this subject. How ironic that the same prophet who warned of Assyria’s demise, also included an oracle that predicted a godly future for the once-towering Empire. “Blessed be Assyria, the work of my hands” it says in Isaiah 19:25. The God of the Bible ultimately loves all people and all nations (Acts 10:34). It is indeed striking how the scattered remnant of the Assyrian population which lived along northern Iraq and the borders of Turkey and Armenia are today considered to form one of the oldest Christian bodies. Known mainly as the Assyrian Church of the East, there are many lively offshoots. Their history dates back to First Century Christianity, connected by the trade routes from Antioch in Syria where believers were first called “Christian.”

That story of missionary expansion east of the Roman Empire is summarized in The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. Many Assyrians did live on, to be superb evangelists while persecuted by Arabs, Turks and others. Some became part of the Royal Assyrian Legion under the British period in Iraq (1919-1933). Today, in danger from Kurdish extremists, Sunnis and Shiites, many have fled to the Western world. The Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East sits in Chicago, not Baghdad (Jenkins, page 24).

Isaiah could not have known how far his vision would reach. From Assyria the Rod of Anger to Assyria My Inheritance. What a story, encompassing both Testaments and it is not over yet. As the latest siege of Mosul tells, some people have a genius for survival. We wish them well.