Plea for help comes too late

The Times Online recently carried an article by Hannah Devli about a dig in southeastern Turkey under this headline: “Desperate plea for help came too late for ancient Assyrian leader.”

A letter scratched into a clay tablet reveals a desperate plea for reinforcements that came just too late. Alone, petrified and facing almost certain death, the ancient Assyrian leader Mannu-ki-Libbali scrawled a call for help to his commander, but his cry for extra troops came too late.

Soon after it was sent, the ancient city of Tushan was overrun by Babylonian invaders, its temples and palaces pillaged, then torn down or set aflame.

The letter, scratched into a clay tablet in 630BC, may never have reached its intended recipient. But more than 2,500 years later it has been unearthed almost intact by archaeologists, offering an unprecedented glimpse into the downfall of the one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world.

Assyrian tablet with plea of Mannu-ki-Libabli. Photo: Times Online.

Assyrian tablet with plea of Mannu-ki-Libabli. Photo: Times Online.

The archaeologists working at the site say that the author of the letter was a city treasurer who was responsible for building an army to defend the city of Tushan. The article continues…

John MacGinnis, an archaeologist from the University of Cambridge who led the excavation, said: “The letter is written during the process of downfall. The chances of finding something like this are unbelievably small.” Mannu-ki-Libbali laments that he has neither the equipment nor the troops needed for the onerous task ahead. He lists cohort commanders, craftsmen, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, bow makers and arrow makers as essential to building a resistance.

It is apparent that all of the above have already fled the city and that he has been left with a near-impossible task. “Nobody mentioned in this letter, not one of them is there!” he writes. “How can I command?”

He also lacked horses, containers, bandage boxes and chariots.

Expecting the imminent arrival of the Babylonians, armed with arrows, spears, boulders and battle rams, the letter ends with the despairing declaration: “Death will come out of it! No one will escape. I am done!”

Irving Finkel, a British Museum specialist in Assyrian history, said that the tablet captured an epic event. “It has almost a Hollywood quality, this sense of the enemy are coming. I can hear their hooves,” he said.

The Times Online article only mentions Cambridge archaeologist Dr. John MacGinnis as being involved in the dig. Checking on the web I discovered that this project has been carried out by teams from Akron University, Cambridge, Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Marmara University in Istanbul, University of Helsinki, University of Copenhagen, University of Munich, and Sweet Briar College.

The site is known today as Ziyaret Tepe.

Here are some important links:

  • Johannes Gutenberg University (2008 report with photos). It appears that this university is no longer a participant.
  • Ziyaret Tepe website at the University of Akron. There we are told that Dr. Timothy Matney of Akron is the Project Director. This is a nice web site.
  • The Times Online full article is available here.

The cuneiform tablet is now in the Diyarbakir Museum. I had the opportunity to visit this small Museum in 2007.

This photo from the Johannes Gutenberg University shows the “discovery of a rare treasure trove of more than 20 bronze vessels under the paving stones in the courtyard.” Photo courtesy of the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project. This discovery seems to have been in 2008.

Bronze vessels under paving stones at Ziyaret Tepe in SE Turkey.

Bronze vessels under paving stones at Ziyaret Tepe in SE Turkey.

Why is this of interest to our readers? The Assyrians dominated the politics of the Middle East, including Israel and Judah, between 853 B.C. and 605 B.C. Numerous of the biblical kings had contact with the Assyrians. The Judean king at 630 B.C., the time of the cuneiform plea for help, was Josiah (2 Kings 22-23). Josiah was killed at Megiddo by Pharaoh Neco who was on his way to assist the Assyrians at Carchemish in 609 B.C. (2 Kings 23:28-30).

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HT: J. P. van de Giessen, Aantekeningen bij de Bijbel.

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