By the beginning of the 9th century BC, Assyria had recovered from the period of decline endured at the end of the Middle Empire, and was once again looking to expand beyond its natural borders.

To the south beckoned what we would now call Palestine, the region that forms the only land-bridge between Europe and Africa.  Control of the area would give the Assyrians control of the lucrative trade routes between the two continents.  It also seemed ripe for the taking:  with power being shared between the Syrians, Phoenicians and Israelites, who fought each other fairly continuously and to no real conclusion.

The threat from Assyrian was enough, however, to over-ride any petty internecine disputes, so when King Shalmenezer III crossed the Euphrates in 853BC at the head of a sizeable invasion force, the three palestinian-based powers formed a loose confederation to see him off.

After a northwards march that saw the Allied force swell to some 60,000 men in eight different contingents, battle with the Assyrian host was joined near the Syrian city of Qarqar or Karkar (modern day Carchemish).  See Map 1 for more details.

The Battle

We know of Shalmenzer’s invasion and the battle not from the Bible, which doesn’t mention it, but from an Assyrian stele celebrating the King’s achievements.

Unfortunately, the stele records neither a blow-by-blow account of the battle nor a description of the Assyrian invasion force.  What it does do, however, is list in detail the composition of the Allied force, and, according to military archaeologists, without the usual hyperbole associated with such descriptions.

The relevant passage from the stele translates as:

In the eponym year of Dan-Asher, month Aru, 14th day, I departed from the city of Nineveh; I crossed the river the city Qarqar I approached.

Qarqar, his royal city, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire.

1,200 chariots, 1,200 horsemen, 20,000 men of Hadadidri of Damascus; 700 chariots, 700 horsemen, 10,000 men of Irhulina, the Hamathite; 2,000 chariots, 10,000 men of Ahab, the Israelite; 500 men of the Queen; 1,000 men of the Musraean; 10,000 chariots. 10,000 men of the Irqantaean; 200 men of Matinu-ba'li the Arvadite, 200 men of the Usantaean. 30 chariots, 10,000 men of Adunu-ba'li, the Shianian; 1,000 camels of Gindibu the Arabian; 1,000 men of Basa son of Ruhubi, the Ammonite:  these 12 kings he took as his helpers and they came to make battle and war against me.

With the exalted power which Ashur, the lord , had given me, with powerful weapons, which Nergal, who goes before me, had presented me, I fought with them; from Qarqar to Gilzan I accomplished their defeat. 14,000 of their troops I overthrew with arms, like Adad I poured out a flood upon them; I flung afar their corpses, I filled the plain with mighty troops.

Although the stele claims an Assyrian victory, the result of the battle was probably a draw, as the invasion was halted and the Assyrians turned back.  They would, however, return to conquer the region in the years to come.

Assyrian Close Order Infantry

Wargaming QarQar

In wargaming terms, QarQar is a big battle:  with some 100,000 cavalry and infantry fielded in total, along with more chariots than Cecil B DeMille could ever dream of!

In the sidebar, you will find links to allowing you to download pdf's of the true-to-scale army sheet for the Allied and Assyrian armies for Vis Bellica.

The composition of the Allied army is taken straight from the Assyrian annals:  considered by most to be reasonably realistic.  The one change that I have made is to count the number of “chariots” as “chariot crew and runners”.  As chariots were mostly crewed by two (a driver and a warrior) and had a number of runners, for the Vis Bellica army sheets the number of chariot bases is therefore derived from the numbers below divided by three.

As there is no information on the size or composition of the Assyrian invasion force, I have constructed a four-division Assyrian army from the standard Vis Bellica army lists.

Click on the link, below, to get the army sheets:

Army Sheets for the battle of Qar Qar

Player Numbers

Re-fighting QarQar in 15mm with VisBellica true-to-scale will probably require eight “standard” wargame armies:  four Assyrian armies, three Syrian-style armies, and an Israelite army.    It is therefore best gamed as a club “weekend special”, with four or five players on each side.

On the Allied side, one player takes the Damascenes, one takes the Emesians (Syrians from Hamath), one takes the Israelites and one takes the Phoenicians, with the rest of the contingents being grouped under the Damascenes.  A fifth player, if available would be overall commander.

On the Assyrian side, one player takes each of the four divisions, with a fifth player again taking overall command.

The Battlefield

No record of the actual site of the battle exists, but it almost certainly took place in the valley of the Orontes river.  A sensible conclusion is therefore that both sides were marching with one flank anchored on the Orontes (the Assyrian right flank, the Allied left flank), as this would provide a good source of water, navigation and security.  The battlefield should therefore have one border blocked by the Orontes, with the other open to the Syrian tundra. 

The fact that both sides had huge numbers of chariots, and that it seemed to have been a straight-up, face-to-face confrontation, I would suggest a gently rolling terrain of open ground interspersed with rocky outcropping and the odd patch of sparse scrub.  More vegetation can be placed nearer to the river, and imaginative terrain builders might seek to include some irrigated fields and a small village.

The size of the battlefield is really determined by the size of the two armies:  four “standard armies” on each side means a table four times the normal size.  Each side needs to be able to deploy most of their force in a line one or two bases deep.


Apart from the Assyrian siege column, I have not included Train bases for either side.  Considering that the figures below indicate that the daily water consumption of the Allied Israelite contingent alone was in the region of 110,000 gallons, players should feel free to load the baseline of either army with huge numbers of Train bases.

Note the Defeat Conditions that apply for each player’s command.

The Allies

The Allies consist of 8 contingents, led by the Damascene Syrians. 

Each contingent should be treated as a separate entity, with co-operation between them distinctly forced by necessity rather than as a result of goodwill.

Officers and bases should count all Officers and bases not from their own  contingent as ALLY for the purposes of command.  This includes Syrians from different city-states.

This and the size of the army means that the main challenge to players will be command.  They will find that there are simply not enough command points to go round.

The Israelites have the “Big Man Down” defeat condition on their Sub-General.

The Assyrians

The Assyrian force consists of four divisions.  Three divisions are “standard”, the fourth is a Siege Division with smaller numbers of more heavily armed troops.

The Assyrians are outpointed and outmanned, but do not have the same command problems that beset the Allies.


Players wanting to game smaller battles than the one described could field one Allied contingent against one Assyrian division. 

Following on from this, a mini-campaign could be fought, with the surviving forces of the four contingent vs division battles going on to fight each other until one emerges victorious.  If the Allies end up winners, then the game could continue with a falling-out resulting in a general melee between the erstwhile associates.

Gamers of a more strategic or logistical bent could game the whole QarQar campaign. The Allies would start in their respective cities, the Assyrians at the Euphrates, and both sides would move to contact.  A hexagonal grid laid over Map 1 would give the basis for a movement system, with players penalised troops for each hex they spent away from a major source of supply.  Will the Allies manage to join forces successfully, as they did historically, or allow themselves to be destroyed piecemeal by the Assyrian host?

Robert Avery

This article reproduced from Wargames Journal (posted April 2004)