Palaces and Temples of the Assyrian Kings


Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.

JONAH, 1:1–2

The name of Nineveh, for anyone familiar with the Bible, once suggested visions of limitless wealth and debauchery set in an exotic oriental landscape. Very little was positively known about the city, leaving all the more room for the imagination. The poet Lord Byron wrote a play about the effeminate Sardanapalus, supposedly last king of Nineveh, while painters including Eugène Delacroix and John Martin illustrated the city’s dramatic fall.

The real, rather than imaginary Nineveh, as revealed by archaeologists, now largely consists of massive mounds of earth overlooking the crowded suburbs of Mosul in northern Iraq. Near one side of the city wall flows the Tigris river; rafts formerly carried merchandise past Mosul down this river, from Turkey towards the Persian Gulf. To the north and east of Nineveh, a rolling plain dotted with agricultural villages stretches towards the mountains of Kurdistan. To the west, low hills flank the Mesopotamian desert, traditionally the home of pastoral Arab tribes rich in camels and sheep. Nineveh owed its importance to its geographical position, as a natural crossroads where people from many regions met to exchange goods and gossip.

The earliest settlement on the site dates back to before 6000 BC, and the town expanded around its great temple of Ishtar, the Assyrian equivalent of Aphrodite, goddess of love, war and irrational emotion. Ishtar of Nineveh was worshipped in many parts of the Near East, and about 1750 BC the king Shamshi-Adad I, after conquering the city, built her a new temple in the fashionable Babylonian style. The temple walls, like those of nearly all Assyrian public buildings, were made of sun-dried mud brick, which requires regular maintenance to remain in good condition. Nonetheless, this impressive building stood for over a thousand years.

The Nergal Gate at Nineveh, built about 700 BC and now restored. The city wall comprised an outer fortification, with stone face and stepped crenellations, and a much higher inner wall of mud brick.

De Agostini/SuperStock.

Part of a stone wall-panel in the North Palace, carved about 645 BC. The rider is King Ashurbanipal; he was accompanied by a pack of hounds, hunting a herd of wild asses.

Trustees of the British Museum.

Despite the wide fame of its goddess, the city of Nineveh was not always the capital of Assyria. It was Sennacherib (r. 704–681 BC), on becoming Assyrian king, who decided to build himself a metropolis that would reflect the extent and variety of what was by then the greatest empire yet known in the region. This empire controlled, directly or indirectly, an area reaching from central Turkey to the Persian Gulf and from central Iran to Cyprus and the borders of Egypt. Not long afterwards Assyrian armies would reach the Nile valley, capturing statues of Nubian kings for public display at Nineveh. The streets of the city were filled with a great variety of people – bearded soldiers and sleek eunuchs associated with the royal court, merchants and mercenaries, farmers and slaves, many of them coming from distant lands and speaking any number of languages.

Sennacherib enclosed Nineveh with a massive defensive wall 12 km (over 7 miles) long, incorporating 18 gates, and divided the city into three parts. The main public buildings, including royal palaces and the temple of Ishtar, occupied a fortified citadel now called Kuyunjik. Another fortified area held the army base and arsenal: this is where today a medieval mosque, once a church, covers the supposed tomb of Jonah, the biblical prophet swallowed by a whale, who urged Nineveh to repent. The remainder of the city included residential and industrial quarters, with a system of roads that were protected against any attempt at encroachment by severe penalties. Nineveh was also at the heart of an ambitious network of canals, based on those that the Assyrians had seen while campaigning in ancient Armenia (Urartu). Nineveh’s canals brought water 50 km (30 miles) from the Zagros mountains to irrigate the royal gardens and the orchards and farmland of the citizens. A stone aqueduct, part of which still survives, was depicted in a stone wall-panel decorating one of the palaces on Kuyunjik.

Sennacherib’s palace, located beside the temple of Ishtar, dominated the city and was known as Incomparable Palace: there had never been anything like it, at least in Assyria. Some 500 m (1,640 ft) long and up to 250 m (820 ft) wide, it was not only a royal residence but also contained government offices. Its principal rooms and courtyards were decorated with stone wall-panels displaying Sennacherib’s achievements, both his victories in foreign lands and the manufacture and transport of colossal human-headed winged stone bulls as magical guardians to protect against enemies, sickness and ill fortune. One wing of the palace contained tall cedar pillars; another was specifically built for the queen. Sennacherib described her as ‘perfect above all women’ and expressed the hope that she and he would live together in health and happiness, an unusual sentiment to find in one of the Assyrian royal inscriptions, which were mainly devoted to accounts of war.

A. H. Layard, the English archaeologist who explored part of this palace during 1847–51, reckoned that he had found 71 rooms, with nearly 2 miles of carved wall-panels and 27 doors guarded by colossal bulls or sphinxes. Among his finds were thousands of clay cuneiform tablets. Sennacherib’s grandson Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) had attempted to create a library containing all the traditional science and literature of Babylonia and Assyria, an endeavour anticipating the great libraries of Alexandria and the modern world. This same Ashurbanipal built for himself another palace on Kuyunjik: carved wall-panels there included naturalistic scenes of a royal picnic and lion-hunt unlike anything seen before.

This great cosmopolitan city flourished for less than a century. The Assyrian royal family, like so many others, was repeatedly divided against itself, and the whole imperial structure became vulnerable to internal and external enemies. In 612 BC, after several years of warfare, an alliance of Medes from Iran, Babylonians and doubtless others combined to capture Nineveh. The bodies of soldiers who died in the fighting are still to be found within the city’s gates. The palaces and the temple of Ishtar, with their monuments of Assyrian conquest, were torched. Survivors who sheltered inside the ruined buildings left only modest traces of their presence, and by 400 BC the Greek soldier Xenophon, passing by, described the city as desolate.

Nineveh later recovered its importance as a market-town, but was eventually superseded by Mosul, which lies on the opposite, western bank of the Tigris. The name of Nineveh was never lost, but it was only in the mid-19th century AD that European travellers and archaeologists recognized how much of the ancient city survived beneath the surface. In the 20th century Iraqi archaeologists worked to restore some of its major monuments, and the walls of the city can still be seen from space.

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