About 3,000 years ago during the Iron Age, the Assyrians were a major power in the Middle East and North Africa. Their military might was terrifying. And now, a new archaeological finding reveals more about this fierce but vanished empire's defensive strategies.

Tel Aviv University archaeologist Alexander Fantalkin led a team that found a massive mud-and-stone wall used to defend an artificial harbor on what is today the Israeli coast. Up to 15 feet high and 12 feet thick, it is hundreds of feet long and would have formed a crescent-shaped defense for the Assyrian stronghold (you can see a 3D rendering of it above). It's likely that this wall was built in the midst of several bloody conflicts between the Assyrians and two Israeli kingdoms, as well as Israel's neighbors the Philistines.


The Assyrians produced an enormous amount of monumental art (such as these winged bulls, housed in the Louvre, below) and left behind detailed descriptions of their military triumphs on engraved stone slabs called stele.

Photo by David Monniaux

According to a release about this new finding, the seawall was probably built in the wake of a legendary battle between the Assyrians and a Philistine uprising led by a king called Yamani:

When the fortifications were built, the Assyrians ruled the southeastern part of the Mediterranean basin, including parts of Africa and the Middle East. Assyrian inscriptions reveal that at the end of the century, Yamani, the rebel king of Ashdod, led a rebellion against Sargon II, the king of the Assyrian Empire. The Kingdom of Judah, under King Hezekiah, rejected Yamani's call to join the insurrection.

The Assyrians responded harshly to the rebellion, eventually destroying Philistine Ashdod. As a result, power shifted to the nearby area of Ashdod-Yam, where the TAU excavations are taking place. The fortifications seem to be related to these events, but it is not yet clear exactly how. They could have been built before or after the Ashdod rebellion was put down, either at the initiative of the locals or at the orders of the Assyrians.

"An amazing amount of time and energy was invested in building the wall and glacis [embankments]," says Fantalkin.

Hezekiah's refusal to join the rebellion against the Assyrians didn't do much good. The Kingdom of Judah was later attacked by the Assyrians — with both Assyrians and Israelites claiming victory. (This was after the Assyrians had already sacked Samaria, the northern kingdom of Israel, enslaving all its citizens.) The point is, the Assyrians basically attacked everybody in the area, creating several restless client states like Judah, and it makes perfect sense that they'd need a serious wall like this to protect themselves from all their enemies.

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