The Empire and the “Upper Sea”: Assyrian Control Strategies along the Southern Levantine Coast

Posted in: ASOR, BASOR, Near Eastern Archaeology, Publications

By: Yifat Thareani, Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, Hebrew Union College


Being the world’s first political rule to adopt an imperial structure – Assyria was a land-locked power with no real maritime experience. Ideologically, the Assyrians believed that the Mediterranean (the “Upper Sea”) and the Persian Gulf (the “Lower Sea”) should be unified under the hegemony of a single Mesopotamian ruler. Practically, the Assyrians realized that dominating the Mediterranean suggested a much wider mobility than that afforded by any terrestrial rule.

Situated astride the west Asiatic highroad, Palestine’s Coastal Plain soon became the target for Assyrian assaults. The via maris that constituted an important passage for movement of people and commodities was decisive for the region’s role. Palestine’s coast stretches over a length of 190 km, from Rosh Haniqra (Ras an-Naqura) in the north to the Sinai Peninsula in the south – a narrow strip of land that is generally divided into northern, central and southern plains.

Historically, Palestine’s coastal communities lived under the dominant presence of the hill country that determined their fate. Unlike the continuous occupation and urban stability seen in Palestine’s highlands – the Coastal Plain was characterized by severe fluctuations of settlement, with the most successful periods in its history taking place under imperial rule.

This study wishes to evaluate the nature of land-based imperial involvement in administering coastal zones through assessing the development methods, structure and administration of Assyria’s imperial rule along Palestine’s Coastal Plain during the eighth-seventh centuries BCE.

The Fertile Crescent during the Iron Age II. (Map by N. Zeevi)

Given that the use of literary formulas and ideological patterns in imperial documents limits our understanding of the reality behind imperial conquest and providing that a rigorous assessment of Assyrian influence in coastal regions requires a long-term view, this paper maintains that aspects of imperial conquest and control affected the archaeological record in identifiable ways. It surveys the settlement pattern and the socio-political organization of Palestine’s coast during the Iron Age IIb-c along three axes: the eve of the Assyrian conquest, the Assyrian conquest and the nature of Assyrian rule. Destruction strategies and the question of deportations are also considered.

Assyrian Conquest of the Southern Levantine Coast

The distinct nature of Palestine’s coast and its alienation from the inland determined the character and pattern of settlement prior to the Assyrian invasion. Extensive excavations and surveys clearly show that on the eve of the Assyrian campaigns the coastal regions were sparsely populated, with less than 40 sites occupied along a 190 km stretch of coast.

The Assyrian expansion toward the west was undertaken systematically in the second half of the eighth century, in the days of Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BCE), when Assyria gradually penetrated and increased its control over the territories west of the Euphrates River. By 734-732 BCE the coastal areas’ first tasted the might of the imperial army with the conquest of northern and southern Coastal Plain. But although the Assyrians forced the surrender of the coastal city-states, in the following century Tiglath-pileser’s successors had to march in his footsteps and re-conquer the coast.

The destruction of Iron Age IIb coastal sites brought horror and fear but the Assyrians were not satisfied with the conquest and destruction of the rebellious coastal kingdoms; they also carried out deportations. Though only a few imperial records refer directly to this strategy and that direct archaeological evidence for the presence of deportees in Palestine’s coastal cities is limited, imperial records describing deportations to other coastal regions imply that this strategy was practiced in the northern and the central Coastal Plain.

Assyrian Control Strategies in Palestine’s Coastal Plain

Ecological subregions in Palestine’s coastal plain. (Map by N. Zeevi)

Once the first stage of territorial expansion was achieved, it necessarily gave way to processes of consolidation through which conquered territories were integrated into the imperial system. The heavy destructions experienced by some of Palestine’s coastal cities were followed by reorganization and physical rehabilitation of these cities. At this point, the Assyrians had a variety of options by which to exert their rule.

The form of imperial domination followed each region’s specific ecology, political structure and ethnic composition – adaptations that may be visible in the local material culture.

Staying loyal to its policy elsewhere, Assyria avoided any difficult integration of the newly created coastal provinces with the interior regions – an approach which would go on to shape the political landscape of the coast in the longue durée: only a few ports and small fortresses and almost no developed hinterland were established by the Assyrian ex nihilo. At the same time, the various ecological sub-regions which comprise this Coastal Plain region were subjected to diverse imperial policies.

Direct Imperial Rule

Exerting direct imperial rule was motivated by the Assyrian desire to control the entire Levant down to the Egyptian border – a strategy which was strongly supported by empire’s ideology and propaganda. The two main direct domination strategies practiced by the Assyrians along Palestine’s coast were annexation and military control.

Annexation – Only a few of Palestine’s coastal territories were annexed by Assyria and brought under direct imperial rule. Acco and its territory were annexed to Assyria in their entirety, as a punishment for involvement in rebellions. Acco then became the seat of an Assyrian governor.

The annexation of Dor derived from its being the only city lying between Acco and Philistia. However, Dor’s exact status in the Assyrian provincial system cannot be fully established.

The situation in Philistia was far more complex. Sargon’s conquest and annexation of Ashdod in 711 BCE created an irregular scenario in which the city became an imperial province ruled by an Assyrian governor side by side with a local king. Economically, it seems that Assyria was not interested in developing or restoring the infrastructures of the annexed territories along the Coastal Plain. Moreover, these territories were heavily taxed and exploited by the imperial bureaucracy.

Military Control – Assyria followed this strategy along Palestine’s Coastal Plain, specifically in the area to the south of the Yarkon. Forts were established along the crucial road that led south from Palestine, in areas that were sparsely settled. These forts served both as communication centers and staging points for Assyrian armies on their way to Egypt.

The local character of the Coastal Plain forts puts into question the extent of Assyria’s direct involvement in their construction and maintenance, implying that these sites could have been manned by Assyria’s local client kingdom garrisons. By contrast, forts and residences located to the south are characterized by an imposition of Assyrian architecture and material culture – expressions that are indicative of the physical presence of Assyrian personnel. This difference highlights the importance to the Assyrians of Palestine’s southwestern frontier, especially the border with Egypt.

Indirect Imperial Rule

Two main types of indirect imperial control were used by the Assyrians along Palestine’s coast: subjugation and collaboration through local proxies.

Subjugation – Assyrian dominance of coastal cities in Phoenicia to the north and Philistia to the south was motivated by the empire’s will to control the trade passing through the Levantine coast. Control strategies here involved legislation, taxing the revenue from trade through inspected harbors, and stationing garrisons and administrators.

The Assyrians’ desire to expand their rule to the west – as far as Cyprus and the Aegean – in order to facilitate transportation and increase the imperial revenue from maritime commerce was challenged by their being a “land-based empire”. It was for these reasons that the Phoenician coastal kingdoms were subjugated to the empire and that Phoenician activities in Mediterranean ports were regulated

A crucial source for understanding the nature of interaction between Assyria and its Phoenician clients is Esarhaddon’s treaty with Baal, king of Tyre stating that the cargo on Phoenician ships belongs to Esarhaddon, king of Assyria and that this restriction is valid in Assyrian territory only, namely the Levantine coast. In the subsequent stipulation Esarhaddon lists Assyria’s ports of trade: “Acco, Dor to the entire district of the Philistines, and to all the cities within Assyrian territory on the seacoast, and to Byblos, the Lebanon, all the cities of the mountains, all (these) being cities of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria”. This indicates that Assyria’s main concern was to protect shipping and secure their import tax on goods entering Assyrian territory through the kāru system.

The most important ports beyond the boundaries of the Assyrian empire were in Philistia. The value of these southern regions stemmed from their locations, lying directly between Assyria’s important southwestern frontier provinces and Egypt.

Peripheral cities such as Ashkelon, Gaza and Raphiah were subordinated rather than ruled directly, in such a way so as to make them buffer zones and economic intermediaries between Assyria on and the Arabian tribes and Egypt. 

Collaboration through Local Proxies – The eighth-seventh centuries BCE brought about the development of the long-distance Arabian trade in the desert frontier zone. Given this region’s economic importance and its proximity to Egypt, it is not surprising that the Assyrians would be interested in keeping the southern border as stable as possible.

The Assyrian desire to control and Arabian trade routes is reflected in treaties signed with local Arab tribes. Arab tribal leaders settled in an urban environment and served Assyrian imperial interests. Nevertheless, these treaties came at a certain price: something was given to the local elites in return for their loyalty. Indeed, Assyrian administrative records describe precious items given to Arab delegations visiting the royal court. These visitors were rewarded or “bribed” with rich garments, footwear and feasting at the empire’s expense. The Assyrians persuaded the inhabitants of frontier and marginal areas to ally themselves with the empire. In this way local desert elites became the focus of Assyrian attention.

Imperial imprints in the southernmost coastal strip can be discerned in the archaeological record, mainly in the form of Assyrian emporia (at Gaza [al-Bilakhiyya] and Ruqeish). The exotic goods which found their way to these emporia and the vibrant commercial activity that took place in such outlying settlements was the driving force of these multicultural hubs.


The imperial spatial control of Palestine shows a high correlation with natural boundaries. Hence, the Assyrian rule of Palestine’s Coastal Plain followed the prior division of the coastal sub-regions and the Coastal Plain was not subsumed into the inland territories.

The diverse approaches taken by the Assyrians along Palestine’s coast: annexation, military control, subjugation and collaboration with local proxies, illustrate how imperial rule could be dynamic and flexible.

In Assyrian eyes, the coast was mainly a military and commercial transitory zone. An imperial desire to strengthen strategic towns and villages drove the Assyrian policy of urbanizing the empire’s frontier through the settlement of deportees in both already-established and new cities. Nevertheless, the pottery and other material culture manifestations are mostly local, with few Assyrian prototypes and imported objects.

This flexible policy that the Assyrian conquest exerted along the Levantine coast is reflected in both the archaeological record and the historical sources. It marked a new phase in the political history of the Mediterranean and determined the nature of land-based imperial powers’ approach to the region for generations to come.


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