This article was first published in the June 2004 ABR E-Newsletter.
What ever became of the so-called lost twelve tribes of Israel? In the Book of Kings (2 K 17: 6), we are told that during the reign of Hoshea a three-year siege was concluded against the capital city of Samaria. The mass deportations that followed were recorded in both the Bible and the annals of King Sargon of Assyria.
The Bible records that the survivors were taken away and resettled in Halah and Habor, on the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. The fate of these survivors is obscure. But it was the policy of the Neo-Assyrians to resettle civilian populations in other portions of the empire, these areas themselves having been previously depopulated following their conquest. The Assyrian kings also recorded the employment of captives in the construction of large-scale building projects. We can be sure that this was the case at Dur-Sharrukin, or the city of Sargon, modern Khorsabad.
The last chapter in the history of the kingdom of Israel had begun prior to its final reduction when the Assyrian empire pushed its conquests southward. The climactic events were set in motion in 722 BC when King Hoshea decided to test his mettle against the Assyrian colossus. He schemed with the king of Egypt and ceased payment of his annual tribute to Shalmaneser V. Hoshea was shut up and bound in prison (2 K 17:4), and Samaria put under siege about the year 722 B.C. It was left to Sargon II to carry out the final defeat of the city (Miller and Hayes 1986: 336-37). One of two Assyrian inscriptions dealing with the event describes the aftermath:
I besieged and conquered Samarina.
I took as booty 27,290 people who lived there.
I gathered 50 chariots from them.
And I taught the rest (of the deportees) their skills.
I set my governor over them, and
I imposed upon them the (same) tribute as the previous king
(Shalmaneser V). (ANET 284-5)
The number of deportees probably reflects the total taken from both the district of Samaria and the city itself. This marked the end of the Northern Kingdom. Though Sargon did not carry away the entire population of Israel, his actions were sufficient to put an end to its existence as a political entity and resulted in the annexation of the territory into the Assyrian Empire, which was renamed Bit-Humri (House of Omri).
Credit for the modern discovery of Dur-Sharrukin belongs to Paul Emile Botta who was appointed French Consul in Mosul, Iraq, in 1840. He had already taken a keen interest in the ancient mounds when he began soundings at Kuyunjik, ancient Nineveh. He was having little success there when one of his workmen reported that ancient sculptures had been found at Khorsabad, about 12 miles northeast of Kuyunjik. In 1843 he began excavations on the building now known as the palace of Sargon II. His success was immediate and rivaled those of Layard two years later at Numrud. He was assisted by an excellent draftsman by the name of E. Flandin, who recorded the large number of reliefs and other sculptures uncovered by the expedition.
After the initial campaigns by Botta, Layard had occasion to examine the site on two visits in 1846 and again in 1849. What he found at the site was a rapid depletion of the exposed remains. He remarked that since Botta's departure the chambers had been partly filled up by the falling in of trenches; the sculptures were rapidly perishing; and shortly, little will remain of this monument. On his second visit he continued in the same vein: of those reliefs which had been left exposed to the air after Botta's departure scarcely any traces remained (Albenda 1986: 28).
Botta dug the site until 1848, when he was reassigned to an obscure post in the Levant. He had by that time established that Kuyunjik was not the ancient city of Nineveh as originally thought.
In 1852 Botta was replaced by Victor Place and it is to his principle assistant Felix Thomas to whom can be credited the only surviving records of the major finds of the French expedition during that and the following years.
By the end of 1853, Place calculated that he had cleared 209 chambers, grouped around 31 courts, in addition to three temples and a small ziggurat. The circumference of the city walls were traced, in some places 24 meters thick on stone foundations with seven gateways, three of which had sculptured portal figures and 1 almost fully intact. The gate he numbered 3 on his plan had vaulted archways decorated in colored glaze.
By 1855 Place was ready to return to France when a disaster took place. The sculptures were transported safely as far as Baghdad where 235 cases were loaded on to a large country boat and two rafts with the destination of Basra. Near Kurnah, where the Tigris and Euphrates join together, the convoy was attacked by hostile tribesmen. All five vessels were overturned. Nevertheless, some 80 cases escaped the shipwreck, as well as two large sculptures now displayed in the Louvre. Fortunately, an earlier shipment sent by Botta had arrived safely with two winged-bull figures, which are today displayed in the British Museum. With the conclusion of Place's work at Khorsabad, European involvement came to an end.
Excavations were revived some 70 years later by Edward Chiera, a scholar of ancient Near Eastern languages at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. His first season of exploration took place in 1927. After several seasons of work directed by Henri Frankfort and Gordon Loud between 1929 and 1934, work ceased and had not been renewed at a large-scale as of 1986.
In summarizing work at the site, Loud recounted that so complete was the removal of possessions or so thorough the pillaging at the time of abandonment that there remains practically nothing in the line of inscriptions or utensils whereby the buildings can be identified. Literally miles of walls forming groups of meaningless rooms are neither gratifying nor very instructive (Loud 1938).
A unique aspect of the site noted by Loud was the one-period nature of its deposits. No previous occupation was found at the site and only remains of squatters followed what appeared to be a complete and peaceful abandonment of the city. The average depth required to trace the buildings at Dur-Sharrukin was only about 1.50 meters. This made excavation relatively simple, but the city was denuded of whatever objects once adorned the architecture there. The excavator estimated that the city was occupied for only a year or two.
Since inscriptions indicate that construction of the city took eleven years to complete and was inaugurated with a great banquet feast accompanied by music and celebration, why would it be left vacant so quickly and thoroughly? What role did Israelites play in its building?