Friday, November 13, 2015

Misremembering war (II): American as apple pie—but also an ancient pastime

Paul Edgar,

image from
Our memory of the ancient world is normally reduced to scraps of evidence and guesswork. When I refer to the ancient world, I mean the really ancient world – before the Persian and Greek periods. Before Greeks, Persians, and even before Babylonians, the Assyrians dominated the Middle East. Compared to Persia and Greece, we don’t know much about Assyria.
The Assyrian invasion of Judah, however, is unique. We know a lot. Both belligerents left written records of the war, fought around 700 BCE. Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, commissioned art to commemorate the campaign. He also left a siege ramp that you can still climb today and buckets of archeological evidence. We even have a reference to the campaign from a disinterested third party, Herodotus. With all of this information, surely we can ‘triangulate the data’ to discover what happened and why. ...
Sennacherib planned to sack Jerusalem. On the way, he leveled more than forty cities, killing and exiling tens of thousands of Jews. While Sennacherib was in the city of Lachish, wrapping up his siege there and preparing for the final assault on Jerusalem, he sent envoys ahead. His envoys tried a bit of public diplomacy, the first attempt on record. The Assyrian envoys bypassed the Jewish leaders and issued an ultimatum directly to Jerusalem’s residents, addressing the Jerusalemites in their own dialect. The Jews turned down the offer, prayed hard, and prepared for the worst. ... 
Jerusalem is only 30 miles from Lachish, an easy three-day march for an army. An elite unit could walk the distance in less than 12 hours. But Sennacherib and his army never quite made it to Jerusalem from Lachish. His war did not end as he had planned, in the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem. Just as Sennacherib prepared the coup de grâce against Judah, he was derailed by a fuzzy combination of disease, a bribe, worn equipment, and an Egyptian threat. The end of his campaign is the point where the records, ancient national memory, are suddenly distorted. At the moment that matters most of all, the tactical and strategic decision, nothing corroborates. ...

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