Tirhakah: An Archaeological Biography

Now Sennacherib received a report that Tirhakah, the Cushite king of Egypt, was marching out to fight against him. (2 Kings 19:9)

Five Egyptian Pharaohs are mentioned by name in Scripture: Shishak/Shehonq I (1 Kings 14:25), So (2 Kings 17:4), Tirhakah (2 Kings 19:9), Neco/Necho II (2 Kings 23:29), and Hophra/Apries (Jer. 44:30). In this bioarchaeography, we’ll use archaeology to explore the life of Tirhakah, the Cushite King of Egypt.

Tirhakah is identified with Taharqa (ca. 690-664 BC), a king of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt. The 25th Dynasty, also known as the Kushite/Nubian Dynasty (sometimes called the Reign of the Black Pharaohs), was established when the Nubian king, Piye marched north, conquered all of Egypt, and then returned to Nubia. It was Shabaka, however, who established true control over all of Egypt, moving his capital to Memphis and adopting the style of a true Egyptian Pharaoh.1 These Nubian kings from the kingdom of Cush/Kush (modern-day Sudan) unified both Upper and Lower Egypt after a period of disunity and reigned for almost a century.

This granite Sphynx of Tirhakah bears his cartouche its chest and dates to ca. 680 BC. Photo: The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Prince Tirhakah

Statue of Tirhakah. Photo: A.D. Riddle / BiblePlaces.com

When King Hezekiah rebelled against Assyria, the king of Egypt backed the king of Judah’s revolt. The Assyrian king Sennacherib came west to quell the rebellion, taking many cities in Judah, but failing to conquer Jerusalem. Prince Tirhakah was dispatch with Egypt’s army to come to Hezekiah’s aid.2 Sennacherib had already received word of Judah’s alliance with Egypt and sent a message to Hezekiah: “Behold, you are trusting now in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him” (2Ki 18:21).

After conquering Lachish, Sennacherib and his army turned to Libnah, where he received word that Tirhakah had arrived to do battle (Isaiah 37:8-9). The Assyrians attacked the Egyptians, who eventually chose to withdraw to Egypt3, allowing Sennacherib to continue his campaign against Judah. Sennacherib’s annals boast that the Egyptians “assembled a countless force” but that he “fought with them and inflicted a defeat upon them.”4 

These events took place in 701 BC, which has caused some critics to suggest the biblical writers were in error to refer to Tirhakah as the king of Egypt, as he didn’t ascend to the throne until 690 BC, almost a decade later. Kenneth Kitchen responds, “In his biblical occurrences, Taharqa is accorded the title king simply because that title had been his and was universally used for ten years already by 681, when the texts of 2 Kings and Isaiah took their present shape…It is the same as saying today…that ‘Queen Elizabeth (II) was born in 1926’: she was, but only as Princess Elizabeth – which title would not immediately identify her to most people today.”5

Pharaoh Tirhakah

Pharaoh Tirhakah/Taharqa (left) presents an offering to Amun-Ra (seated). This relief is on the Shrine of Taharqa from the temple at Kawa in modern-day Sudan. Photo: Anthony Huan / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
A relief of Pharaoh Tirhakah/Taharqa. Photo: EditorfromMars / Wikimedia Commons /CC-by-SA-4

Tirhakah was 31 or 32 years old when became Pharaoh of Egypt in 690 BC.6 He ascended the throne upon the death of his predecessor, either Shabaka or Shebitku; on the Kawa Stele V Tirhakah states, “I received the Crown in Memphis after the Falcon flew to heaven” (ie. after his predecessor’s death).7 Early in his reign he engaged in significant building projects in the temple complexes of Karnak Kawa, Medinet Habu, and Sanam.8 When Sennacherib was assassinated in ca. 681 BC, Tirhakah took advantage of the confusion in Assyria to launch a series of small campaigns into Palestine and Lebanon. He also undertook a significant campaign into Libya, returning victorious with booty, establishing his reputation in Egypt as a great warrior.9

The Zenjirli Victory Stela of Esarhaddon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In the 17th year of his reign (ca. 674 BC), the Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, invaded Egypt, only to be defeated by Tirhakah’s army. Three years later Esarhaddon returned and successfully conquered Egypt. On the Zenjirli Stela, Esarhaddon declares, “As for Tirhakah, king of Egypt and Cush, From Ishhupri to Memphis, his royal city, I struck him five times with arrow after arrow, a blow for which there is no healing. I laid siege to Memphis, his royal city, and captured it in half-a-day. I tore out the root of Cush from Egypt.”10 The stela pictures Esarhaddon standing victorious over two figures, likely the king of Tyre and Tirhakah’s son prince Ushankhuru kneeling with a rope tied around his neck.

Upon his death, his son Ashurbanipal immediately set out to establish his own control of Egypt, pushing all the way to Thebes and forcing Tirhakah to retreat into exile in Nubia, where he died.11  

Tirhakah’s Legacy

The head of Pharaoh Tirhakah/Taharqa in the Nubian Museum at Aswan Photo: Bruce Allardice / Wikimdedia Commons / CC-by-SA 2.0

Tirhakah was arguably the greatest Kushite kings of the 25th Dynasty. In his National Geographic article, “The Black Pharaohs,” Robert Draper writes about Tirhakah’s legacy: “So sweeping was Taharqa’s influence on Egypt that even his enemies could not eradicate his imprint. During his rule, to travel down the Nile from Napata to Thebes was to navigate a panorama of architectural wonderment. All over Egypt, he built monuments with busts, statues, and cartouches bearing his image or name, many of which now sit in museums around the world. He is depicted as a supplicant to gods, or in the protective presence of the ram deity Amun, or as a sphinx himself, or in a warrior’s posture. Most statues were defaced by his rivals. His nose is often broken off, to foreclose him returning from the dead. Shattered as well is the uraeus on his forehead, to repudiate his claim as Lord of the Two Lands. But in each remaining image, the serene self-certainty in his eyes remains for all to see.”12

Tirhakah’s pyramid in Nuri, Sudan. Photo: Sue Fleckney / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Conclusion

While there is no extra-biblical evidence for the campaign Prince Tirhakah led in coming to Judah’s defense, it is consistent with the known anti-Assyrian policy of Egypt at that time. It is interesting to note that the Bible correctly identifies Tirhakah/Tarhaqa as a Cushite/Kushite king. Despite a brief appearance in the biblical text, archaeology helps us understand the wider historical situation during his reign.

COVER PHOTO: A statue of Tirhakah/Taharqa from the Kerma Museum in Sudan. Photo: tobeytravels / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

ENDNOTES:

1 Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Nubia.” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 19, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/place/Nubia. (Accessed Feb. 11, 2022).

2 Nicolas Grimal, A History of Ancient Egypt. Translated by Ian Shaw. (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992), 346.

3 Ibid, 347.

4 Mordecai Cogan, The Raging Torrent: Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015),129.

5 K. A. Kitchen, On The Reliability of the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 16.

6 Kenneth Anderson Kitchen, The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100-650 BC). (Oxford: Alden & Mowbray Ltd, 1973), 166.

7 Ibid, 167.

8 Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1995), 281.

9 Donald B. Redford, “Taharqa.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt – Vol. 3, ed. Donald B. Redford. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 347.

10 Mordecai Cogan, The Raging Torrent: Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2015),129.

11 Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1995), 281.

12 Robert Draper, “The Black Pharaohs.” National Geographic. February 2008. Online:  https://whbailey.weebly.com/uploads/1/5/7/3/15738528/national_geo_-_black_pharaohs.pdf (Accessed Feb. 12, 2022).

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