They are part of the wealth of stone panels that were excavated in the 1840s. Many of these panels can be found at the British Museum. These rock carvings are from Nineveh, which was once the most beautiful city in the world.
The late Uruk Period is the era that has evidence of occupation on the site as early as 3,000 BC. It was during the reign of King Sennacherib (705-681 BC), the son of Sargon and the grandfather of Ashurbanipal, that Nineveh rose to become the capital of Assyria.
Sennacherib did nothing new by moving the capital. Ashur was the traditional Assyrian capital (from which the name “Assyria” is derived), but the political capital moved to Kalhu in the 800s BC. Sargon’s father, Sennacherib, had built a new capital, Dur Sarrukin, for himself.
Enemies hide in the reeds of a marshland during a battle. British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA
These initiatives demonstrated the monarch’s authority, claiming a new order. These initiatives also served to shift power away from elite families who had gained influence over time.
This could be a bad move. Sargon was killed on the battlefield, and his body was never found. This national catastrophe was likely the main reason why his successor, Sennacherib, abandoned his newly founded city to establish his own grandeur in another place.
Nineveh was then synonymous with Assyrian strength. The Israelite Prophets who had seen their societies suffer under Assyrian invasion could not hold back their joy when it fell to a coalition between Babylonians and Medes, in 612 BC.
The majority of carvings that we know of today are from 19th century excavations at the Nineveh royal palace. flickr, CC BY-NC-SA
Nineveh: The Fall of Nineveh
The book of Nahum in the Bible contains a lengthy prophecy about the fall and destruction of Nineveh. The book of Jonah tells how Jonah was sent there to warn its inhabitants about the consequences of their sin.
Detail of a stone relief on Ashurbanipal’s palace wall, showing a royal hunting scene. British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA
Sennacherib was unaware of all this. He surrounded his city with a massive wall, whose outline can be seen on aerial views. The city was surrounded by two walls, one inner and one outer, which together enclosed an area of more than seven square kilometers.
In Sumerian, the walls were given titles: “The wall which covers evil with fear” and “The Wall that terrorizes evil”. The walls were punctured by 18 monumental gateways, such as the Mashki or Adad gates. Around 612 BC, these gates were narrowed to make them more defendable. The walls and gates of the ancient city were attacked from 2014 by Islamic State.
The cityscape in antiquity would have been dominated by the mounds Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus (probably derived from the Turkish “koyuncuk” or “little sheep”). These earth forms were up to 30m tall and housed ancient Assyrian palaces and temples.
Attendants at a royal hunting. British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA
According to Muslim tradition, the tomb of prophet Jonah is located in Nebi Yunus. Ashurbanipal compiled his collection of cuneiform tablets in Kuyunjik. This is the most important archaeological site for our understanding of ancient Mesopotamian cultures. It was excavated between 1840s to 1930s.
Sennacherib’s inscriptions in clay prisms boast of his beautification, which included magnificent gardens. Stephanie Dalley’s 2015 book The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon suggests that the Greeks mistook one Mesopotamian town for another, and this was the source of the stories of the Hanging Garden of Babylon.
Sennacherib’s aqueduct was built to transport water from the Gomel River to the Hosr River. This allowed wealthy private citizens to have their gardens within the city. This is the only known construction of this type from before Roman times.
Early excavators of Nineveh, like the British adventurer Austen Henry Layard in the 19th century, were able to uncover vast areas but concentrated heavily upon monumental buildings. The early excavators were essentially treasure hunters, with little or no record keeping. This destroyed valuable information.
Relief detail of a man holding ropes, with a hand carrying a log. There are traces of water on the upper edge. British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA
Modern excavations are also slower because they are more thorough and cautious. The result is that most of Nineveh has not been excavated. We know very little about the “lower city” that was located below the mounds. This is where ordinary people live. Much of it lies under modern Mosul, and there is still a lot to be rediscovered.
The written sources give a glimpse of the bustle and prosperity that was once present. In his 2013 book The Ancient Near East Ma,rio Liverani , estimates the city’s size under Sennacherib to be around 100,000.
Assyrian royal texts often emphasize the violent side of the empire. For example, Ashurbanipal reported that at the citadel in Nineveh, he had chained together a rebel with a dog and a bear. (Thankfully, no other details were provided). There would have also been artisans and markets, as well as festivals and diviners.
The ancient city was so well-known that when explorers found the remains in the late 19th century of two spectacular cities near Mosul (which we now know as Dur Sarrukin & Kalhu), they published the findings under the titles Monument de Ninive et Nineveh & its Remains. They thought that they had discovered Nineveh when in fact it wasn’t.