How Did the Ancient City of Nineveh Fall?

Map of Nineveh’s Layout

Among the major events that took place in the ancient Near East, none were more earth-shattering than the fall of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. The demise of Nineveh was so important because it marked the end of the Assyrian Empire, which at its height stretched from Egypt in the west to Persia in the east and included most of Anatolia, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula. The Assyrians ruled their empire with an iron fist and in doing so were able to fleece their subject peoples of their precious minerals and resources, which they then used to build Nineveh and other cities in the Assyrian heartland. Eventually, the enemies of the Assyrians grew tired of the malevolent regime and so came together temporarily to cast off the Assyrian yoke. The great city of Nineveh was destroyed in the process.

The destruction of Nineveh left such a strong impression on the psyche of ancient peoples that it was written about for several subsequent centuries in the Babylonian cuneiform annals, the writings of Greek and Roman historians, and even in the Old Testament of the Bible. Nineveh’s fall was so important because for a time it was the greatest city in the ancient world as it served as a source of inspiration and awe for Assyrians and non-Assyrians alike throughout the region. The workmanship of the city’s temples and palaces was superb and Nineveh boasted of one of the world’s first botanic gardens, which many scholars believe was the inspiration for the fabled “Hanging Gardens of Babylon.” [1] But the details concerning how the city fell are as important to the city’s history as its great monuments. As great as Nineveh once was, it fell victim to a combination of internal problems within the Assyrian royal house and the ever present and large number of enemies the Assyrians managed to create during their brutal reign of terror over the Near East. In the end, the Assyrians’ enemies saw Nineveh as a symbol of their overlords so they wiped it from the face of the earth.

Early Nineveh

Assyrian Relief Depicting the Gardens of Nineveh

Nineveh was located in the middle of ancient Assyria, which was centered on the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia in what would today by the northern part of Iraq. As part of the Fertile Crescent, much of Assyria had good soil that allowed a surplus in crops and exceptional population growth. Nineveh, like many ancient cities, was built on a mound for defense overlooking the Kosr River, which is a tributary of the Tigris River. Although much of Assyria was fertile crop land in ancient times, the area around Nineveh was exceptionally productive, making it an excellent location for a city. [2] For most of Assyrian history, the primary political capital was located in the city of Ashur, but Nineveh’s importance gradually grew until it eclipsed the older city.

Long before Nineveh became the capital of the Assyrian Empire in the early first millennium BC, it was mentioned sporadically in various cuneiform historical texts. There were two notable mentions of the city in the late third millennium BC, the first being during the reign of the Akkadian King Manishutushu (ruled ca. 2269-2255 BC), who is believed to have built a temple to the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, Ishtar, at Nineveh. [3] Nineveh was also mentioned in a text attributed to a king from the Third Dynasty of, Shulgi (reigned ca. 2094-2047 BC), although the reference is short and lacks detail. [4] For over 2,000 years, Nineveh languished as a provincial backwater until the Assyrians invoked their will across the Near East and a particularly energetic king came to the throne.

When Sennacherib (ruled 704-681 BC) assumed the Assyrian throne, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessors by leading his armies into battle and conquering more land for the Assyrian people. But Sennacherib was not content to be remembered as just another conquering Assyrian king, he desired to leave much more for posterity, so after his fifth military campaign he relocated the Assyrian capital from Ashur to Nineveh. [5] Although a settlement already existed at Nineveh, Sennacherib transformed it from a minor religious center dedicated to Ishtar into the premier city of the ancient world.

On the citadel that overlooked the Kosr River, Sennacherib had a palace built – known by modern scholars as the southwest palace to differentiate it from the northwest palace built by the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (reigned 668-627 BC) – which he adorned with the many battle reliefs that are now housed in the British Museum in London, England. Next to the palaces stood the temples of the Assyrians two most important deities, Ishtar and Nabu, the god of writing and knowledge. [6] The palaces and temples of Nineveh must have been a truly impressive sight for any visitor to see, but perhaps the most spectacular sight were the gardens of Sennacherib.

The gardens of Sennacherib were depicted in both pictorial reliefs and a number of texts. According to one text, the gardens were comprised of “every fruit-bearing tree . . . cypress and mulberry, all kinds of trees” that were home to “the birds of heaven, igiru birds . . . wild swine and beasts of the forests.” [7] Sennacherib built Nineveh into what was perhaps the greatest city in the world at the time and his successor Ashurbanipal certainly added to that legacy, but a spate of problems both within and outside of the Assyrian heartland manifested to bring the great city to a sudden end.

Nineveh’s Quick Collapse

1828 Painting “Death of Sardanapalus” By Eugene Delacroix Depicting the Fall of Nineveh

The stable and effective reigns of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal were followed by a short period of instability that was brought forth by court intrigues. Ashurbanipal’s successor was the little documented Ashur-etel-ilani (ruled 627-623 BC), whose short reign led to a succession crisis in the Assyrian royal house. Important members of the nobility opposed Ashur-etel-ilani and eventually usurped the king in favor of a royal eunuch named Sin-shum-lishir (the years of his reign are imprecise). [8] The succession problems in the Assyrian royal house contributed to the decline of their empire and that of their capital city of Nineveh, but the final blow came from outside Assyria.

For centuries, the Assyrians were able to impose their will on the other peoples throughout the Near East through a combination of efficient brutality and superior battlefield tactics and technologies, but by the seventh century BC their neighbors had caught up in most of those categories. In the ancient city of Babylon, a new dynasty of ethnic Chaldeans came to power, which is known by modern scholars as the “Neo-Babylonian” Dynasty, and just to the east of Assyria in Persia, the Kingdom of the Medes was adding pressure. The first Neo-Babylonian king, Nabopolassar (ruled 627-623 BC) was as aggressive as any Assyrian king and by all accounts just as politically savvy. According to the cuneiform historical text known as the “Babylonian Chronicle,” Nabopolassar mustered an army at Babylon in 616 BC and marched north to destroy the Assyrians and Nineveh. Ironically, the Assyrians were saved by their once rival the Egyptians, who led by their King Psamtek I (ruled 664-610 BC), were able to fight off the Neo-Babylonian attack. [9]

The Assyrian-Egyptian victory at Nineveh in 616 BC would prove to be ephemeral for King Sin-shar-ishkun (reigned ca. 627-612 BC) (referred to as “Sardanapalus” in the Greek and Roman histories), though, because the enemies of Assyria smelled blood in the water and were lining up to divide the spoils of the once mighty empire. In order to build an effective alliance, Nabopolassar next reached out to an assortment of Assyria’s enemies who were led by the Medes. The strategy for the final victory over the Assyrians and the destruction of Nineveh involved a classic pincer movement whereby the Neo-Babylonians attacked the city from the south and west while the Medes and their allies converged from the north and east. The victory for the allies was completed in 612 BC, as was the destruction of Nineveh, which is documented in the Babylonian Chronicle:

(Instead) the army of the king of Akkad, which had been stationed in the fortress, inflicted a major defeat upon Assyria. The king of Assyria and his army [turned] and went home. In the month Marchesvan the Medes went down to Arraphu and [. . .] The twelfth year: in the month Ab the Medes, after they had marched against Nineveh [. . .] hastened and they captured Tarbisu, a city in the district of Nineveh. . . From the month Sivan until the month Ab – for three [months . . .] they subjected the city to a heavy siege. [On the Nth day] of the month Ab [. . .] they inflicted a major [defeat upon a g]reat [people]. At that time Sin-sharra-ishkun, king of Assyria, [died] . . . They carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple (and)[turned] the city into a ruin heap. [10]


The classical authors offered a more dramatic version of Nineveh’s fall where Sin-shar-ishkun burned himself alive with all of his material possessions. [11] Nineveh’s destruction was also briefly mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible in the book of Nahum where the prophet states, “Nineveh is of old like a pool of water; yet they shall flee away, Stand, stand, shall they cry; but none shall look back.” [12] Once Nineveh fell, the Assyrian Empire limped on for another three years before it was finally relegated to the dust bin of history.

Conclusion

Many cities have risen and fallen throughout the course of world history, but few have had such a dramatic history as the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. At its height, Nineveh was arguably the most cultured and sophisticated city in the ancient Near East, but a combination of factors led to its quick demise. Dynastic quarrels within the Assyrian royal house precipitated the city’s decline, which allowed for Assyria’s many enemies to ally and eventually siege and sack the once great capital city of Nineveh.

References

  1. Dally, Stephanie. “Nineveh, Babylon and the Hanging Gardens: Cuneiform and Classical Sources Reconsidered.” Iraq 56 (1994)
  2. Mieroop, Marc van de. A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC. 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 2007), p. 3
  3. Mieroop, p. 68
  4. Beckman, Gary. “Ishtar of Nineveh Reconsidered.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 50 (1998), p. 1
  5. Mieroop, p. 229
  6. Novák, Mirko. “From Ashur to Nineveh: The Assyrian Town-Planning Programme.” Iraq 66 (2004), p. 182
  7. Luckenbill, Daniel David, trans. and ed. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. (London: Histories and Mysteries of Man, 1989), p. 177-8
  8. Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East: c. 3000-330 BC. Volume 2. (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 541
  9. Grayson, A. Kirk, trans. Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles. (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2000), p. 91
  10. Grayson, pgs. 92-94
  11. Diodorus. The Library of History. Translated by C.H. Oldfather. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Book II, 27
  12. Nah. 2:6-10

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