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The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

This post is about the famous Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. Our story begins with Sir Austen Henry Layard that was an English traveler, and archaeologist. Chiefly known as the excavator of Nimrud and of Nineveh. Where he uncovered a large proportion of the Assyrian palace reliefs and in 1851 the library of Ashurbanipal. Layard did not really mean to undertake excavations in Mesopotamia, at the least not at first. In 1839 at the age of 22, he had been traveling with a friend to Sri Lanka, from England. They had gone through Turkey and visited Jerusalem, Petra, and other ancient cities. When they finally reached Musol in may of 1840, the archaeology bug bit him. Although only in 1845 Layard is officially beginning to excavate. They were at the site of Nimrud, which he first thought was ancient Nineveh.

Before the first day even ended he found rooms with walls covered with carved inscriptions. As it turned out the room belonged to different palaces. From the inscription, Layard found it was clear that a few of the structures and the monuments at the site belonged to Shalmaneser III who ruled from 858 to 824 BCE. Layard published a book giving it the title ‘Nineveh And Its Remains’, since that’s what he thought he was excavating. However, this had turned out to be an unfortunate choice for the title when the inscriptions from the site were finally deciphered. They confirmed that the site is ancient Kalhu, biblical Calah rather than Nineveh.  The book is about his amazing discoveries at Nimrud, including the black obelisk of Shalmaneser III that mentions Jehu, the King of Israel. And this is what he wrote about the moment of discovery:

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III: ‘Nineveh And Its Remains’ 

“An Arab was sent after me without delay, to announce the discovery; and on my return, I found, completely exposed to view, and laying on its side an obelisk, about six feet six inches in height, terminated by three steps or gardens and flat at the top. I descended eagerly into the trench and was immediately struck by a singular appearance, and evident antiquity, of the remarkable monument before me. We raised it and speedily dragged it out of the ruins” (Ibid, p.245)

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III: What Is So Unique About The Black Obelisk?

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is a black limestone Assyrian sculpture with many scenes in bas-relief and inscriptions. It is the most complete Assyrian obelisk yet discovered and is historically significant because it is thought to display the earliest ancient description of a biblical figure – Jehu, King of Israel. Some scholars think that the inscription refers to another King, Jehoram of Israel. Its reference to Parsua is also the first known reference to the Persians.

It features twenty relief scenes, five on each side. They depict five different subdued kings bringing tribute and prostrating before the Assyrian king. One of those kings is Jehu of the House of Omri. The inscription that appears in the second register from the top is thought to include the earliest surviving picture of a biblical figure. The inscription read:

“The tribute of Jehu, Son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] spears.”

The inscription identifies Jehu as the king who is bowing down and paying tribute, and it identifies Jehu as a successor of Omri, the father of the northern Kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 16; 2 Kings 9-10). This inscription confirms the existence of two biblical kings of Israel.

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III: But What Is The Context For This Event?

The stele describes how Jehu brought or sent his tribute in or around 841 BCE. Jehu severed Israel’s alliances with Phoenicia and Judah and became subject to Assyria. So the context of Jehu’s submission was just after Shalmaneser defeated Hazael, the king of Syria (2 Kings 8:7-15). Notice 2 Kings 10:32, “In those days the Lord began to reduce Israel; and Hazael harassed them throughout the territory of Israel” (Jewish Publication Society). So during the reign of Jehu, Syrian King Hazael was harassing Israel and attacking its land. The time frame lines up perfectly with the biblical account.

Verse 31 reveals why these attacks were coming upon Israel. “But Jehu was not careful to follow the teaching of the Lord, the God of Israel, with all his heart; he did not turn away from the sins that Jeroboam had caused Israel to commit”. Jehu didn’t turn from the sins of Jeroboam. Sure, he did a great work by removing Baal worship from Israel (verse 28), but he kept the two golden calves which were worshiped in Dan and Bethel (verse 29). Even though they were still worshiping the same God, Yahweh, they were not worshiping Him in the manner He commanded.

Because of this sin, God used Hazael and Shalmaneser to correct Israel. Jehu managed to pay off the Assyrians, as did his successor Jehoash and many other Israelite kings, but that only delayed the inevitable. It was only a matter of time until Israel fell into Assyrian captivity. Between 721 and 718 BCE., the kingdom of Israel was taken into Assyrian captivity. From there, Israel appears to have disappeared from history.

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III: Ending Notes

The Black Obelisk was truly an amazing find. It describes all the military campaigns Shalmaneser III conducted. And because it is written in cuneiform, deciphering the inscription was one of the very first steps for decoding the Assyrian language. Moreover, the obelisk mentions events that had a major impact on the Geopolitical situation in the Fertile Crescent at the time. For example the Battle of Qarqar. About this battle, I have a separate post that you’re more than welcome to read about.

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Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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