Nineveh: Echoes of Assyria’s Might Aidan Syto Dr.





Nineveh: Echoes of Assyria’s Might

Aidan Syto

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Dr. Kent Bramlett

La Sierra University












Of the ancient world, no other civilization impacted and
transformed the Fertile Crescent in the same way as the Assyrian Empire had. Although
Assyria has arisen around the second millennia BCE, it did not rear its full
aggression and dominion as an ancient power until around the 9th
century BCE, a few decades after the division of Solomon’s kingdom into the
nations of Israel and Judah. On the eastern banks of the Tigris River and
intersected by the Khosr (Khawsar) River was the ancient Assyrian city Nineveh,
now in the same area as modern-day city Mosul in Iraq. Nineveh originated as a
center of worship to Ishtar around 1800 BCE but would be later converted into
one of Assyria last great capital city and a thriving ancient metropolis
rivaling Jerusalem. The view of the remnants of Nineveh’s gates and walls
nearby Mosul seem to reflect upon the ancient destruction of Nineveh suffered
from the Babylonians and Medes in 612 BCE, the once greatness of Assyria
reverberating through centuries. Archeological information and historical
significance found at the Nineveh site, although difficult to preserve due to
its proximity to an expanding city, gave a clearer view of the Assyrian empire
and many of the great Neo-Assyrian rulers, namely Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal.

A city steeped in biblical and modern day cultural significance, Nineveh’s
archeological history continues to enrich and deepen our understanding of
ancient Assyria.

The very first establishments
where the city of Nineveh was founded on was a humble town most likely settled
around as far back as the New Stone Age. Some evidence of Copper-Stone Age
pottery and clay sickles seem to suggest there had been a connection between
the North and South Tigris-Euphrates valley. Archeological excavations at the
Nineveh site have produced some pottery originating from around the 4th
millennium of the Uruk style which was a southern region of Babylonia. The similarity
in material culture before the 2nd millennia is significant since it
indicates a general period of economic growth across Mesopotamia before both
Sumerian and Assyrian cultures diverged completely.

Around the 8th
century BCE, Assyria began to truly expand architecturally starting with the
reign of Ashurnasirpal
II. The Assyrian Monarchs following him continued to set up temples dedicated
to Assyrian deities such as Ishtar, Ashur, and Nabu. Around 700 BCE, one
of the most famous Assyrian rulers, Sennacherib totally revamped Nineveh to its
height of greatness. Based on archeological excavation and record of the site’s
remains, the city of Nineveh was once bordered by large walls approximately 150
feet wide and nearly seven and a half miles long. Embedded within the city
walls were 15 gates somewhat equidistant to each other along the city’s
perimeter. Around the city walls had also been an outer rampart and moat as
additional defensive attributes. The many gates interspersed throughout the
walls consisted of some parts stone and mudbrick with several of the entrances were
guarded by lamassu, giant stone beasts. The erection of these protective
Assyrian deities, in the appearance of winged bulls with a human’s head, are
attributed to Sennacherib. Some of the most
characteristic remains of the Nineveh site are two distinct mounds, the Quyunjik (or Kouyunjik) which
was the acropolis and Nabi Yunus, a shrine to the Prophet Jonah.

data of the city’s dimensions seems to disagree with some biblical accounts,
namely the account of Nineveh in Jonah, which will be discussed further whether
or not it puts the identification of the site to question or if it is simply a
matter of biblical interpretation. Another significant note about the Mesopotamian
culture in the ancient period was the great importance their mythology and
liturgy placed on the concept of the city as a tenet of civilization. In the
Babylonian creation account, the Enuma Elish, the creation of the city preceded
“even before the making of the world itself and mankind when the land was only
sea” (Rivaroli 199). So in a way, when a king such as Sennacherib rebuilt or
established a city ritually he took on the ideological role as a god of
creation. Over a period of 13 years (702-690 BCE), the refounding of Nineveh
was chronicled in many royal inscriptions describing the process of construction
as well as Sennacherib’s reasons for the rebuilding. New streets, municipal
spaces and a palace was constructed in Nineveh’s 1,800-acre area. Splitting the
city in half the river Khosr, which is a tributary of the Tigris, flowed in the
middle of the city itself although water was transported via aqueducts and
canal systems throughout Nineveh from highland areas. Archeologists estimate
around 100,000 people lived within Nineveh at its height.

According to the
archeological record and excavated remains, Nineveh’s greatness came to a close
following the death of Ashurbanipal around 627 BCE. As Assyria’s once widely
feared might was crippled by internal strife and civil war, the Babylonians and
Medes who once were subservient to the empire lay waste to the Assyrian capital
in 612 BCE. The Ninevites were decimated and the once glorious city was brought
to the ground, never to rise again to its former splendor. After the massacre,
records indicated flooding damaged and covered up the city’s ruins. Unlike
many other notable archeological sites, Nineveh was covered under mounds of
earth and debris and so it was not as easily accessible and previously
unexplored and so it was unknown the types of structures that were present on
the site initially. To further compound the difficulty of the initial excavations,
very little was known about the ancient Assyrian Empire at the time.

Beginning in 1820, the archeologist Claudius J. Rich was the
first to begin to survey and map the site of Nineveh and his work was finished
and later published by Felix Jones. Since that point multiple excavations of
the site had occurred. In 1842, French Consul General at Mosul at the
time Paul-Emile Botta attempted to begin excavating the site. Sir Henry Layard excavated and uncovered the palace of
Sennacherib from 1845 to 1851, bringing back to England thousands of cuneiform
tablets and stone bas-reliefs from the Great Library of Ashurbanipal. Another
archeologist Hormuzd Rassam worked on the site in 1852, but not until the early
1930’s was the temple of Nebo uncovered by R. Campbell Thompson. Thompson’s
excavation on behalf of the British Museum led to the discovery the site of the palace
of Ashurnasirpal II. Returning in
1931-32, Thompson along with Sir Max Mallowan excavated through the Quyunjik’s top
shaft down around 90 feet above the ground. Restoration of Sennacherib’s throne
room began around 1966 to preserve the adjoining chambers filled with winged
bull statues and orthostats that had not since been discovered. On the walls of Sennacherib’s great palace were
embellished murals of detailed battle scenes and Assyrian scenes of conquests extolling
the success and strength of his army. Heartless inscriptions found at the side
also described his capture of Babylon and how “its inhabitants, young and
old, I did not spare, and with their corpses I filled the streets of the
city.” As famously recorded in his palace murals as well was the
subjugation of Jerusalem and King Hezekiah “…of Judah who had not
submitted to my yoke…him I shut up in Jerusalem his royal city like a caged
bird…His cities which I had plundered I had cut off from his land.” 

Along with archeological discoveries of
Nineveh’s temples and palaces, the gates and walls were also a massive
archeological undertaking. Tariq Madhloum, on behalf of the Iraqi Department of
Antiquities, had thoroughly uncovered the awe-inspiring Shamash Gate spanning
two moat-lengths and connected by a series of archways cut from the natural
sediment itself. Composed of mud and burnt brick, the structure bore the stamp
of Sennacherib and was bolstered by six towers. These
walls surrounding Nineveh city encompassed an area of an approximately
12-kilometer circumference. As far as human remains that were uncovered, some
skeletal remains of strewn bodies were excavated corroborating the same time
period as the destruction of Nineveh at the sword of Babylon.

Among some notable
artifacts from Nineveh is a realistic bronze sculpture
originating from the 3rd millennium BCE, predating Nineveh’s age of
prosperity. The sculpture from is a life sized representation of the head of a
bearded Assyrian ruler thought to be the well-known king Sargon of Akkad. Much
debate has been brought up owing to its metal work and style which scholars
argue originate from a much later period, the Akkadian period (2330-2150 BCE).

If the bust does come from a later time period, it may be a depiction of a
different monarch, but authorities contend that due to advances in Mesopotamian
metallurgy at the earlier time period, it could very well be Sargon of Akkad.

Additionally, inscriptions indicate that Sargon’s second son constructed the
temple at Nineveh which housed the bronze sculpture and so it would make sense
for him to have placed such a monument to honor his father.

Nineveh as the last great
capital of the Assyrian empire, played a significant role in certain parts of
the Old and New Testament biblical account either as historical reference or
representation for Assyria as a vessel of retribution of the Israelites. One of
the first references to the city is as early as in Genesis 10:11 which
describes Nimrod who went to Assyria to establish Nineveh. Ancient Israel in
the Old Testament was seemingly constantly under threat of Assyria and often
were subjugated to their militaristic wrath. Destruction such as the Assyrian
attack on the Northern kingdom of Israel left the biblical writers with a kind
of reverence if not fear of the Assyrian empire. The prophet Jonah, first
mentioned in 2 Kings
14:25, invariably felt terrified at the prospect of calling on the
citizens of Nineveh to repent at the command of God. It was only at the second time
Jonah was called to deliver the message to the Ninevites (after a brief stay in
the digestive tract of a great fish according to the biblical account) that a
description of the Assyrian city was given. “…Now Nineveh was an
exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into
the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and
Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God. They
called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least
of them. (Jonah 3:3-5 ESV).” The archeological findings of the Nineveh site
indicate the approximate breadth of the ancient city was about a mile long and
so to traverse across the entire city would have only been a matter of a few
hours. The modern day Mosul in comparison might take around a few days to get
around on foot considering it’s the second largest city in Iraq, but as for the
biblical account of Nineveh’s size most likely the biblical author is making a
hyperbole. Another interesting take is perhaps it was written as a three day’s
journey in keeping with the same three days that Jonah spent swallowed up by
the fish which rerouted him towards Nineveh.

Another Old Testament reference
to the great Assyrian capital is when the Hebrew prophets foresaw the
destruction and demise of Nineveh. From Nahum 2:8-10, “Though Nineveh
of old was like a pool of water, now they flee away…She is empty, desolate, and
waste! The heart melts, and the knees shake; Much pain is in every side, and
all their faces are drained of color.” The account from Nahum gives such a
detailed prediction of Nineveh’s downfall that it was taken as a biblical myth
until the archeological evidence was available to confirm such destruction of
the city. Both accounts of Nineveh provide a contrast of two typical instances
in which the archeological data can serve to either support or give more clear
insight into the Old Testament. In much the same way Schliemann erroneously adhered
to literary accounts over the archeological evidence in his quixotic quest for
Troy, when studying archeology that has biblical significance it is important
not to over-represent the text and take each description literally. Rather the
biblical descriptions of Nineveh should serve to corroborate the excavation of
the site and not the other way around. On the other hand, in the instances that
the archeological data points to a different historical explanation from the
bible, it should not automatically discredit the significance or authority of
biblical text.

Unfortunately, due to the political climate in Mosul,
Iraq of recent years and today not much attention or resource has been diverted
to full restoration or preservation of the remaining vestiges of Nineveh.

Although some critics may not take much significance from the biblical accounts
of Jonah in Nineveh, the current state of Mosul is all too real to ignore. A military
coalition in Mosul has been trying to fend off the Islamic state from control
of the city as innocent civilians either are forced to flee or remain in
imminent danger. Although Nineveh as an archeological site has a long history
of intermittent excavations, there still remains much to unearth at the site.

Those who are advocating for continued excavation of the site are concerned
that without organized effort to categorize and preserve the previous finds, it
would be futile to continue. The ancient site is a target to looters as well as
depredation from the expanding city developments. Many historians are concerned
that an encroaching Mosul could eventually re-bury Nineveh forever.

A non-profit organization concerned with archeological
conservation called the Global Heritage Fund created a report in 2010 called “Saving
Our Vanishing Heritage” and included Nineveh among the 12 leading sites in
imminent threat of irreversible damage. Although only few people live near the
site itself since it is mostly ruins, even these ancient remains could
disappear entirely if not properly restored and protected from weathering.

Considering the war-torn Mosul and its people, this archeological conservation
is not the foremost concern as resources and attention are rightly focused on
safety and protection for the modern-day city first.


Still even before war had stricken
Mosul, the Nineveh site has been marred by looting and vandalism.  Stolen
remains and rare artifacts have appeared on black markets and many original
ancient reliefs have been vandalized. Improper excavations of the area from
looters hoping to find rare items endanger the integrity of the site along with
urban developments and pipelines being dug up in the areas previously held by
the site. As reported by the GHF, “without proper roofing for protection,
Nineveh’s ancient walls and reliefs are becoming more and more damaged by
natural elements every day. Exploration of the city is an important objective
at this time, but preservation measures would go a long way as well.” There has
been some good news surrounding Nineveh. As for the Nergal
Gate on site, two winged stone lamassu have been restored and a site museum run
by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities had been established, although in 2016
ISIL had damaged those lamassu and bulldozed through the Nergal Gate. Later on
in early 2017 though, the ruins of the Nabi Yunus shrine were liberated from
ISIL control and relinquished to the Iraqi locals once more.