Areas of Nineveh


The Middle Assyrian kings had made Nineveh their royal city from 13th century BC. Following a period of decline, Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) and his successors rejuvenated the city, building palaces and temples. In 704 BC Sennacherib made the city his imperial capital. He built a magnificent palace, the "Palace Without Rival" (known to us as the "Southwest Palace"). His grandson, Ashurbanipal, still used that palace. Ashurbanipal also renovated the "North Palace" to be his main residence from 646 BC. The city was ravaged during the catastrophic collapse of Assyria in 612 BC. Graphic illustration of the fierce fighting can be seen in the Halzi Gate excavations. Corpses litter the ground where the citizens tried in vain to flee the carnage, covered in ash and rubble. The city was occupied again in the Hellenistic, Parthian and Sassanian period, although relatively little is known about these phases. Traces of occupation last until the early Islamic period, when settlement switched to the other side of the Tigris, at Mosul. Around 12km of walls enclose the main city of Nineveh. There are two main mounds: Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus. The latter is the location of a tomb said to belong to the Biblical prophet, Jonah. It is also the location of a modern graveyard. This has meant that excavations have focussed instead on Kuyunjik. Four main locations there have yielded tablets: the Southwest Palace, the North Palace, the Nabu temple and the Ishtar temple.

The fact that the Library was the first significant corpus of tablets ever discovered, and that it was so very large, has had both positive and negative implications. It has been crucial to the progress of Assyriology. We could not have dreamed of a more fortuitous discovery. But at the same time, our understanding now of the Library is restricted by the knowledge and expertise of the time of discovery. It is now very difficult to determine when and where each tablet was found. Records and publications do allow some progress to be made, however, and examination of the tablets themselves allows us to push this further.

Much effort has been expended by Reade, Parpola and others to clarify the findspots of tablets from the 19th century excavations. What follows is an overview of their results. There seems to have been some disturbance of tablets in antiquity. Parpola (1986) p. 223 interprets the hoard of tablets found in Inner Court VI of SWP as evidence of an attempt to save part of the library. Two tablets with an Ashurbanipal colophon – one found by Rich in 1810's and one found during recent excavations in Uruk suggest that some Library tablets were taken during or shortly after the destruction in antiquity, and that a cache of tablets lay relatively near the surface in more recent times. It is in any case clear that looting took place at Nineveh in 19th – early 20th centuries, although apparently on a modest scale. King (1914) includes 22 fragments purchased by the British Museum between 1901-13. One was in a longstanding private collection, the rest were thought to be the result of more recent activity. King (1914) p. xvi n. 1 notes that the fragments of Sennacherib's prisms were believed to have come from the principal gate in the North wall, where the locals had recently broken down bull and winged figures for lime. Occasionally, further tablets have appeared over the 20th century. It is unclear when these tablets were discovered.

Further reading

Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor, 'Areas of Nineveh', Ashurbanipal Library Project, The Ashurbanipal Library Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2022 []

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Released under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, 2013.