Assyrian Deportation and Resettlement: The Story of Samaria
Deportation of residents from rebellious vassal states was one of the ways Mesopotamian empires maintained control of their territory. This practice was devised, and largely used, during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, especially during the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (745–727 B.C.E.) and the Sargonid kings, and later by the Neo-Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 B.C.E.).
Mass deportations and resettlement of conquered peoples served as a fundamental tool of statecraft, economic organization, and imperial control, in which rivals from the Assyrian core and the elite and craftsmen from defeated polities alike were grouped together and deported. By isolating these groups within larger local populations, the Assyrian kings ensured loyalty to the state and minimized the likelihood of resistance among the common people, who were left without their traditional elite.
The most famous such expulsion was the deportation of the Judahites to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar. This was done in two waves: first the elites were exiled in 597 B.C.E. and resettled in Babylonia, while about a decade later, in 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, including its Temple, and exiled the many of the city’s inhabitants, resettling them in Babylonia as well (2 Kgs 25, Jer 52).
The Assyrian conquests of Israel, more than a century earlier, involved various exiles as well. They began under Tiglath-Pileser III, when he conquered the north and east of Israel in 734–732 B.C.E.:
מלכים ב טו:כט בִּימֵי פֶּקַח מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא תִּגְלַת פִּלְאֶסֶר מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר וַיִּקַּח אֶת עִיּוֹן וְאֶת אָבֵל בֵּית מַעֲכָה וְאֶת יָנוֹחַ וְאֶת קֶדֶשׁ וְאֶת חָצוֹר וְאֶת הַגִּלְעָד וְאֶת הַגָּלִילָה כֹּל אֶרֶץ נַפְתָּלִי וַיַּגְלֵם אַשּׁוּרָה.
2 Kgs 15:29 In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, Galilee, the entire region of Naphtali, and he deported the inhabitants to Assyria.
This left Israel with only its core territory in the Samarian hill country. Not long afterwards, Israel rebelled against its Assyrian overlords, and the kingdom was conquered entirely and, in 722/720 B.C.E., the inhabitants of Samaria were exiled:
מלכים ב יז:ו בִּשְׁנַת הַתְּשִׁיעִית לְהוֹשֵׁעַ לָכַד מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר אֶת שֹׁמְרוֹן וַיֶּגֶל אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל אַשּׁוּרָה וַיֹּשֶׁב אֹתָם בַּחְלַח וּבְחָבוֹר נְהַר גּוֹזָן וְעָרֵי מָדָי.
2 Kgs 17:6 In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria. He deported the Israelites to Assyria and settled them in Halah, at the River Habor, at the River Gozan, and in the towns of Media.
The Babylonian policy was one of organized resettlement, where the social structures of the Judahites were largely maintained in exile, albeit with modifications. They had to reinvent their new home in language, in narrative and in myth; as a coherent group (and due to various other circumstances) they were able to negotiate the disruptive and disorienting experience and to adjust their identity accordingly.
The Assyrians, however, spread their deportees around, with the goal of assimilating them into their new regions and thus making them disappear as separate entities. This helps to explain why many Judahites remained loyal to their collective identities in Babylonia, and eventually returned to their native land, whereas the Israelites who were exiled mostly disappeared, becoming the “ten lost tribes.”
The Exiles Who Came to Israel
Assyrian policy in the Levant from the days of Tiglath-pileser III until its decline completely transformed Levantine societies. As part of their attempt to mix populations, the Assyrians sometimes settled the newly emptied lands with deportees from other parts of their empire. Israel experienced this as well:
מלכים ב יז:כד וַיָּבֵא מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר מִבָּבֶל וּמִכּוּתָה וּמֵעַוָּא וּמֵחֲמָת וּסְפַרְוַיִם וַיֹּשֶׁב בְּעָרֵי שֹׁמְרוֹן תַּחַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּרְשׁוּ אֶת שֹׁמְרוֹן וַיֵּשְׁבוּ בְּעָרֶיהָ.
2 Kgs 17:24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and he settled them in the towns of Samaria in place of the Israelites; they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its towns.
This verse describes how the Assyrians resettled in Israel various foreign peoples, mostly of Mesopotamian origin. This terse description leaves us with many questions: What portion of the local population remained in the country? How many newcomers arrived, what was their status in the new homeland, and how much influence did they have? How did the locals and newcomers interact in subsequent centuries?
Unfortunately, we know very little about the circumstances of the arrival of the deportees settled in Samaria. The Bible offers a list of places of origin, but we don’t know how accurate that list is, or, how and why these peoples were conquered, how many there were, whether they brought any possessions with them, etc. We can say that war, devastation, and a difficult journey across hundreds of miles were their lot. The statues of their gods would have been captured and taken to Assyria, their leaders most probably executed, and their homes confiscated.
Upon arriving in Israel, everything would have been new and to some extent threatening: they would have had to adjust to a new topography, to new flora, and to new neighbors who spoke a foreign language and practiced unfamiliar customs.
The eventual outcome in Samaria is well known: the native and imported populations eventually merged and, by the Hellenistic period, a new, Samaritan, social identity developed. But what do we know about the early stages of this process? The material remains from some of these communities shed light upon this complicated process.
How do we identify communities of deportees in the land of Israel during this period? What evidence do we even have that there were Assyrian deportees here?
1. Writing—Cuneiform tablets were found in Tel Hadid, Gezer, and Khirbet Kusiyah (more on these later), while cuneiform-inscribed objects were found in Samaria and Tel Keisan.
2. Seals—Babylonian-style seals were found in Samaria.
3. Bowls—Deep bowls in local forms exhibiting a specific surface treatment that originated in southern Mesopotamia—wedge-shaped impressions on their internal side with a possible functional purpose. These are typical of the highlands of Samaria, with only a few specimens found at more remote sites.
4. Mesopotamian-style Vessels—Nadav Naʾaman has recently proposed associating the local production of vessels in Mesopotamian style (the so-called Assyrian Palace Ware) with exiles who maintained their ceramic traditions and adapted them to production in local clay. In his opinion, these vessel forms were soon appropriated by local potters, who integrated them into the local repertoire.
5. Behavioral patterns—Given the organized character of the deportations, the forced settlement of deportees who maintained their social structure, and the common tendency in migrant communities to preserve domestic practices, careful archaeological analysis might shed light upon the transformation that took place in the behavioral patterns of the migrants.
In 2018, with this latter point in mind, we launched a new project at Tel Hadid.
A Community of Deportees (Babylonians?) at Tel Hadid?
The site of Tel Hadid, not far from the modern city of Lod, represents one specific community of deportees that was settled by the Assyrians in the territory of the former Kingdom of Israel. Tel Hadid became a “household name” among the archaeological community after a large-scale salvage excavation was undertaken during the 1990s, while preparing for the construction of Route 6, the cross-Israel highway. The earliest remains uncovered date from the Intermediate Bronze Age (2200-2000 B.C.E.) and the latest from the Palestinian village of al-Haditha, which was conquered in 1948. The site is best known for the Iron Age remains that were unearthed throughout the site.
Two cuneiform clay tablets dated to the Assyrian rule over the southern Levant were discovered at the site, attracting scholarly attention. One tablet, found in the courtyard adjacent to a badly-preserved structure, documents a land sale in the autumn of 698 or of 697 B.C.E. The other, discovered on the floor of another structure, documents a loan deal made in the spring of 665 or of 664 B.C.E.
Both documents mention several individuals with Akkadian (most probably Babylonian) and Aramaean names. No local, Yahwistic, name is mentioned. Nadav Na’aman and Ran Zadok, who published the tablets, interpreted this evidence as pointing to the presence of deportees brought to the country by the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the late eighth and the early seventh centuries B.C.E.
In the Gezer District
The two clay tablets unearthed at Tel Hadid belong to a larger Assyrian-related assemblage from the region. The major regional center was Gezer, which was probably conquered by Tiglath-pileser III in 734 B.C.E. and was rebuilt several years later by the Assyrians as a new settlement. A few Assyrian-style architectural elements and an assemblage of Assyrian-style cylinder seals from Gezer are associated with this phase.
Two clay tablets from Gezer deal with land sales in the mid-seventh century and contain Assyrian formulae similar to the ones from Hadid. Among the individuals mentioned in the Gezer tablets, twelve names are Mesopotamian, five are probably Aramaic, one is Egyptian and is Yahwistic—Netanyahu. In addition to these objects, a surface find of a stele fragment was uncovered at Ben Shemen and was associated with Esarhaddon.
The building activity at Gezer and the resettlement of Hadid attest to Assyrian imperial interest in the region. This region is comparable to Megiddo, where Stratum IV, the final Israelite phase, was replaced by a well-planned urban center that was densely populated, perhaps by deportees. Deportees were also settled in the northern central coastal plain, at the western entrance to the Aruna Pass, as suggested by a surface find of a clay tablet at Khirbet Kusiyah.
Corridors to Gaza
Assyria’s building and administrative activity in both the Gezer and Megiddo regions was due to their strategic location in topographic corridors leading to Gaza. Situated near Egypt and on the outlet of the desert trade routes connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, Gaza served as a focal point of Assyrian interest in the southern Levant. The Assyrian kings led military campaigns to Gaza, founded trade centers there, elevated local tribal leaders to positions of power, and exiled thousands of locals, replacing them by deportees brought from the Iranian Plateau and from Babylonia.
The significance of the routes leading to Gaza and the prosperity of the settlements located along them is a prime example of the Assyrian impact on the local landscape. While those regions had previously been dominated by the Israelite court and had served its interests, the Assyrians strengthened their own power rather than that of a local elite.
Thus, depending on what was useful to Assyria, some portions of the fallen Kingdom of Israel were left deserted, while others prospered. The region of Hadid and Gezer clearly belonged to the second group.
Assyrian Economic Interest in Its Provinces?
Assyrian imperial policy has traditionally been viewed in the scholarly literature as multi-layered, aimed at fortifying strategic positions, at economic exploitation of weak neighboring polities, and at securing regions with high economic potential, among other goals. Some scholars have even argued that the Assyrians encouraged the economic development of client polities, using the example of Ekron and its olive-oil industry as a case in point: the sudden emergence of Ekron as the major olive oil producer in the Levant and the general prosperity of the city were explained as the result of intensive investment by the Assyrians.
Others have countered that such a policy of investment is not borne out by textual references, arguing instead that the Assyrians were solely interested in collecting tribute from the client polities while allowing the conquered provinces to decline. Indeed, the idea of encouraging economic growth in client states is somewhat anachronistic, influenced by more recent colonial-era mercantile concepts, and there is truth to the claim that conquered territory was often left crippled and allowed to decline.
Nevertheless, the evidence from the region of Tel Hadid, along with that of Megiddo, suggests that the Assyrian provinces should not be viewed as solely dismissive of conquered territory in its periphery. We should not view these lands in terms a two-dimensional picture of pre-conquest prosperity and post-conquest decline. When reconstruction was of use to Assyria, they did so.
Evidence from the Olive Oil Industry
The corridor to Gaza was not the only thing that interested the Assyrians in this region. The excavations at Tel Hadid unearthed dozens of olive-oil extraction installations, some in clear Iron Age contexts and others stylistically dated to the post-conquest, Neo-Assyrian period. How should we interpret this phenomenon?
Bearing in mind the presence of deportees, the Assyrian administrative system as reflected in the clay tablets, and the historical context as a whole—what we have here is, in my opinion, a provincial economic enterprise. By constructing these olive-oil extraction installations, the Assyrians aimed at exploiting the potential of the olive groves located further to the east, on the highland of the province, for the benefit of the Assyrian empire.
Assyrian Imperial Policy in the Periphery
Undoubtedly, the major goal of the Assyrian kings was to collect tribute from their clients, and those who stopped paying, as Israel did, were destroyed. Major parts of the former kingdom were left desolate. Much of this land was uninhabited, as a result of the Assyrian deportations, but still many Israelite inhabitants who avoided deportation remained, but as they lived in areas that the Assyrians considered unimportant, they were left to languish.
At the same time, the Assyrians were interested in making use of strategically located sites, and even whole regions, with economic potential. To that end, the Assyrians would reorganize the areas according to their administrative needs and with an eye for what would be useful for the empire and its rulers. This included shifting productive areas or manpower from one polity to another, such as the Shephelah from the hands of Judah to Ekron, and investing in certain areas with geographic or resource potential. Thus, strategic areas in Israel such as Tel Hadid, Gezer, and Megiddo flourished in this period, and were filled with Assyrian administrative officials and deportees from Mesopotamia.
Postscript: After the Fall of Assyria
By the late seventh century B.C.E., this entire system came to an end. Internal problems in Assyria and the advancing power of rivals inside the empire (such as in Babylonia) and around it (such as the Medes) led to the rapid collapse of Assyria. We are far from apprehending the impact of this collapse over the inhabitants of the southern Levant, the resettled groups included.
How many of them left with the last imperial agents? Did those who stayed kept their status as “collaborators” with the imperial authorities—this time with the Babylonians? Many more questions will be asked in the coming years, leading to further explorations on the ground.
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Dr. Ido Koch is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, Tel Aviv University, and co-director of the Tel Hadid Expedition. He studies the archaeology of Bronze and Iron Ages Southern Levant. His recently published monograph (The Shadow of Egypt, Jerusalem, 2018) deals with the Egyptian–Levantine colonial encounters during the Late Bronze Age.
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