Kurkh Monolith, the first documentary reference to Israel and the Arabs

Portrait of Shalmaneser III in the Kurkh Monoliths/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

One of the most curious, interesting and controversial archaeological pieces preserved in the British Museum is the so-called Kurkh Monolith. It is a fairly large Assyrian stele with inscribed descriptions of King Shalmaneser III. The information provided is essential to know the military campaigns of the sovereign but is also important because it contains the first documentary mentions to the Arabs and Israel, the latter with some controversy, as we will see.

“… I was lucky enough to discover a stone slab with the effigy of an Assyrian king and covered on both sides with long inscriptions in cuneiform characters, less than two feet from its base, which had been deliberately uncovered”. Thus described the discovery of the monolith in 1861 by its discoverer, John George Taylor, an agent of the British East Indian Company and an official of the Foreign Office who combined his administrative duties as British consul in Kurdistan (an ejalate or province of the Ottoman Empire) with his other great hobby, archaeology.

In fact, as vice-consul in Basra seven years earlier, he had already participated in the excavations of Ur and Eridu under the orders of Henry Rawlinson, the father of Assyriology. He was now working in the city of Kurkh, the current Turkish Üçtepe, which his mentor Rawlinson identified with the ancient Tushan although other specialists today consider that it might be Tidu. In any case, on the banks of the Tigris River; there, Taylor stumbled upon the stele in question, a block of limestone 2.21 meters high by 87 centimeters wide and 23 thick with the top rounded.

The campaigns of Shalmaneser III / Image: John D. Croft on Wikimedia Commons

On its forehead is the figure of Assyrian king Shalmaneser III surrounded by four divine symbols: the winged disc that represented Asur, a six-pointed star that did the same with Ishtar, the crown of three horns of Anu and the crescent of Sin. Also, the monarch wears several amulets on his necklace and raises his right hand in a gesture that some interpret as ritual and others as authority.

The rest of the stele is covered with cuneiform signs describing the aforementioned Shalmaneser campaigns in Mesopotamia and Syria. The final part narrates the Battle of Qargar, in which he fought an alliance of eleven kings led by Irhuleni of Hama (a Syrian-Aramaic city) and Hadadezer of Aram-Damascus (another Aramaic state developed around the current Syrian capital), which also included the Aramaic kingdom of Bit Adini, the neo-hitite of Karkemish, the Israelite of King Ajab and an Egyptian contingent sent by the pharaoh Osorkon II.

Kurkh’s Monolith, also known as Shalmaneser’s Stele / Image: British Museum

The clash took place in 853 B.C. in the Orontes valley (the same place where another famous battle was fought, that of Kadesh) and involved tens of thousands of troops and almost 6,000 chariots of war. The Assyrian troops crossed the Tigris and the Euphrates, to advance and take Aleppo, then continuing their expansion to the east. The outcome of the war was uncertain because, in the wake, Shalmaneser boasts of having caused 14,000 casualties to the enemy but we know that the Assyrians omitted defeats in their inscriptions and, in any case, it is significant that the Aramaic kingdoms maintained their independence a few more years.

In other words, many historians today believe that in reality it was an allied victory and a proof would be that Irhuleni later maintained a good relationship with Assyria. But that is secondary. What is truly surprising about the Kurkh Monolith is that, among the coalition members, it quotes the kings Ajab of Israel and Gindibu of Arabia, the latter bringing in a thousand camels. These references have raised dust because they are seminal among sources and have not gained the acceptance of all researchers, given that some doubt the translation.

The text speaks of “A-ha-ab-bu Sir-ila-aa”, which the Franco-German Assyriologist Julius Oppert translated as “Acab from Israel” (Histoire des Empires de Chaldée et d’Assyrie, 1865). Seven years later another prestigious German orientalist, Eberhard Schrader, wrote in his book Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament (Cuneiform Inscriptions and Old Testament) that the name Sir-ila-a referring to Israel was something unprecedented in the inscriptions of the time, something that many took advantage of to question its veracity and propose in exchange that the correct translation for A-ha-ab would be “king”; This is the opinion of specialists such as George Smith and Daniel Henry Haigh or even more recent ones such as Werner Gugler or Adam van der Woude.

Julius Oppert / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

However, Schrader concluded that Oppert was right in arguing that Ahab Sir’lit could be Ajab of Israel if we take into account that in other inscriptions the names of the monarchs appeared associated with their country, something that was even evident in that stele with Ben-hadad of Damascus. But that did not convince the critics, who further argued that the size of Ajab’s forces described in the monolith (10,000 infants and 2,000 war chariots) was excessive for a kingdom of the size that Israel would then be.

An Israel that, at that time, is not named like that anywhere else but as the Land of Omri or even Samaria. Of course, it was not uncommon for the same place to be known in two different ways, so the issue continued to entangle itself, even in the actual stele of Shalmaneser III. The truth is that until then only partial transcriptions of the text were used, and the first complete transcription did not arrive until 1887, the work of the scholar James Alexander Craig. This made it possible to study it further and new theories arose.

Basalt statue of Shalmaneser III / Image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen on Wikimedia Commons

One of them suggests that the scribes might have made a mistake in making the inscription, putting an extra zero in the number of chariots and thus resulting in 2,000 instead of 200, which would be a more logical figure. It would be endorsed by other errors found in the wording, such as having written Gu-a-a (the neo-Hittite city of Que) instead of Gu-bal-a-a (the Phoenician Biblos, then tributary of Assyria), which is a geographical absurdity because the first is very far away, in Cilicia. Of course, it could also have been a deliberate exaggeration to extol the merit of Shalmaneser in facing such a great enemy.

Another considerable misprint would be that, according to the text, the Assyrian king faced an alliance of twelve monarchs when there should be eleven. The difference is that perhaps the scribe confuses his name -it says Ba’sa, the man from Bit-Ruhubi, the Ammonite- with Beth-Rehob, a locality in southern Syria, and Ammon, another located in Transjordan.

What’s the right explanation? Well, there isn’t really one at the moment, as the question remains unclear. Meanwhile, Kurkh’s Monolith is considered to contain one of the first explicit allusions to Israel (along with those of the stelae of Merneptah, Tel Dan and Mesha), perhaps already counting with vassal states such as Moab, Edom and Judah. It is also the first one that refers to the thousand camels of the Arab Gindibu. By the way, Shalmaneser had to renounce moving forward, but in 845 B.C. the Assyrians defeated the coalition and turned Israel into a tributary kingdom to later seize Anatolia, laying the foundations of the powerful empire that would come afterwards.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on September 19, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en El Monolito de Kurkh, primera alusión documental a Israel y a los árabes


Los imperios del antiguo oriente. La primera mitad del primer milenio (Elena Cassin)/The crisis of Israelite religion: transformation of religious tradition in Exilic and Post-Exilic times (VVAA)/The Israelites in History and Tradition (Niels Peter Lemche)/Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History (Trevor Bryce)/The Great Armies of Antiquity (Richard A. Gabriel)/Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser II (Mcadams.posc.mu.edu)/Wikipedia