Fort Shalmaneser, the royal arsenal

The building called by its excavators Fort Shalmaneser lay along the southern edge of the city of Kalhu. It was built on an impressive scale by Shalmaneser III to act as his royal residence and a repository for his property. Its large inner courtyards were lined with workshops, treasuries, barracks, private quarters and magnificent state apartments decorated with painted friezes and glazed bricks. Among the objects found in the palace's ruins were exquisite carved ivories, military equipment and administrative tablets which document the life of the court and the army.

Shalmaneser's "review palace": a design innovation

Image 1: Plan of Fort Shalmaneser, showing the rooms mentioned in the text. (1). View large image. Photo: BSAI/BISI.

Shalmaneser III undertook a number of building projects in Kalhu, including the ziggurat and its associated temples, and the Governor's Palace. But his most ambitious project was undoubtedly the construction of the complex known to us as Fort Shalmaneser. This modern designation was coined by the excavators as a reflection of the building's function and author, after bricks inscribed with the name of Shalmaneser III revealed him to have been responsible for its construction. Inscriptions from the reign of Shalmaneser refer to the building simply as ekallu ("palace"). Only during the reign of Esarhaddon PGP , who carried out renovations to the palace, was the building given its full name, ekal mašarti ("review palace"). This name was an apt description of the structure, which served a dual purpose as the king's residence and a military arsenal TT , underlining the dual role of the Assyrian king as statesman and warrior. The function of a review palace is summarised in Esarhaddon's description of the ekal mašarti in Nineveh PGP :

The review palace... built to maintain the camp (and) to keep thoroughbreds, mules, chariots, military equipment, implements of war, and the plunder of enemies, everything that the god Aššur PGP , king of the gods, gave me as my royal share... At new year, in the first month, yearly, without ceasing, let me inspect in it all of the thoroughbreds, mules, camels, military equipment, implements of war, (and) all of the captured enemy soldiers. (2)

Image 2: Plans showing the position of the citadel TT  and arsenal TT  in the cities of Kalhu, Dur-Šarruken PGP  and Nineveh PGP . (3). View large image Image: © MESOPOTAMIA, n. 46, p.113, Firenze, Le Lettere, 2011.

Fort Shalmaneser was located in the southeast corner of the city enclosure, well away from the citadel mound TT  which housed the other royal buildings and temples. This became the norm for arsenals in other Assyrian cities. Both Nineveh PGP  and Dur-Šarruken PGP , for instance, contained review palaces located in the southeast corner of the city, away from the citadel and adjoining the city wall (Image 2). Presumably this was motivated by practical considerations: citadels were not big enough to house such large complexes, and the constant bustle of troops and equipment was better suited to a less central location. For security reasons, it may also have been thought prudent to keep the military structure and its troops away from the seat of power on the citadel.

Parades and inspections

The arsenal at Kalhu was built on a massive scale. Its thick walls enclosed an area of about 30 hectares, while the palace itself measured roughly 200 x 300 metres - about double the size of Assurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace. The size was directly linked to the building's function. Shalmaneser had created the concept of a "review palace" as a place where he could attend to important military matters without leaving his capital, or neglecting his other duties. The palace was composed of two principal parts (Image 1). The larger, northern section of the building was centred around four spacious courtyard areas. The southeast courtyard featured a throne dais inscribed with the name of Shalmaneser III, from which the king was able to preside over military parades and inspections. An even larger parade ground was located outside the palace, stretching some 200 metres to the north and 450 metres to the west. It could be accessed at both ends via the outer city wall, making it ideal during the training and mustering of levies TT  which preceded the army's annual campaigns (Image 2).

Pierced copper plates used to make armour, found in Room SW 7 in Fort Shalmaneser

Image 3: Pierced copper plates used to make armour, found in Room SW 7 in Fort Shalmaneser. BM 132699. View large image on British Museum website. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Around the palace's courtyards were numerous workshops, storage magazines TT , and ceremonial and residential quarters. The northwest area of the palace was used primarily for the repair and storage of military equipment, the remains of which have been excavated there. The quantities involved must have been staggering: one clay docket TT  records the inspection of no fewer that 36,242 bows! Some of the workshops in this area were unusually large and were probably used to accommodate chariots. Elsewhere, storage magazines housed booty and tribute TT , as shown by an ivory TT  plaque TT  inscribed with the name of Hazael PGP , king of Damascus, and shells with the name of Irhuleni PGP , king of Hamath - both of whom were defeated by Shalmaneser III. The southwest quadrant of the palace contained four large water jars embedded in a mud-brick bench which kept them cool. The jars were connected to a row of spouts which provided easy access to drinking water for the palace.

The review palace was run by a senior official called rab ekalli ("palace overseer"), whose residence was in the northwest corner of the southeast courtyard (Rooms SE 1-3, 10-12; SW 6; NE 1-2). The decorated apartment was set over two levels, and included a bathroom and kitchen, as well as a well-stocked wine cellar. Excavations of the residence have yielded many fine ornaments, household objects, metal tools and weapons, and even an inscribed clay cylinder of king Esarhaddon.

An elegant royal residence

The southern section of the palace contained a group of state apartments dominated by an imposing throne room (Room T 1) in which the king officiated from atop a carved platform depicting Shalmaneser III and his achievements. The walls of the state apartments displayed painted geometric patterns and scenes of the king and his courtiers, as well as protective magical figures and "fish-men TT ". Glazed TT  bricks were used to decorate external walls and doorways. This part of the palace also housed the residential suites of the royal family (area S), including the queen TT . The apartments, grouped around inner courtyards and beautifully decorated with painted geometric patterns and images of rosettes, pomegranate TT  buds and flowers, hint at the luxury enjoyed by their occupants. Locks separated these private quarters from the more public areas of the palace. The queen's household was supervised by a female official, the šakintu. Legal documents belonging to the šakintu and other members of the queen's household have been found in Room S 10, demonstrating the wealth and power enjoyed by elite women (4).

Tablets, ivories and horse harnesses

A rare ivory statuette carved in the round, showing a Nubian carrying a monkey, oryx and leopard skins and found in the residence of the rab ekalli at Fort Shalmaneser

Image 4: A rare ivory statuette carved in the round, showing a Nubian PGP  carrying a monkey, oryx and leopard skins. It was found in Room NE 2 of Fort Shalmaneser, and probably formed part of the collection of the rab ekalli, the senior official in change of the arsenal. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 60.145.11. Metropolitan Museum of Art OASC licence. View large image on the Metropolitan Museum's website.

Excavations in the palace during the 1950s have uncovered a large quantity of objects, including military equipment such as bronze TT  horse harnesses, weapons and armour (Image 3), ornaments, pottery vessels and cuneiform TT  texts. Some of these cuneiform tablets TT  had been used by occupants after 612 BC to raise the floor levels (Rooms NE 48-49). The texts include records of wine rations distributed to the royal household and court officials. These so-called Nimrud Wine Lists TT  provide valuable information about the composition of the court at Kalhu, which apparently included foreign experts such as Egyptian scribes. Another important group of texts, the Nimrud Horse Lists TT , records details of musters of men, horses and mules, sometimes in very large numbers. Assyriologists TT  have used these lists to reconstruct a picture of the Assyrian army (see (5)).

Among the finest discoveries made at Fort Shalmaneser were thousands of fragments of carved ivory TT , produced by Phoenician PGP  craftsmen. Some of the ivories were discovered in workshops and magazines, where they were stored along with other tribute. Others decorated the apartments of select residents of the palace, such as the rab ─ôkalli, whose living quarters contained a particularly fine collection of ivory carvings (Image 4). Presumably these ivories were used to decorate the residential quarters of the palace at the time of its destruction in 612 BC, and so tell us something about the occupants' personal preferences as well as the high status that they enjoyed. These decorative plaques are now often referred to collectively as the Nimrud ivories TT  and examples are held in museums across the world. Image 5 shows an ivory from Room SW 12 featuring a winged griffin, which is now in the collection of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (6).

Image 5: Carved ivory plaque showing a winged griffin, found in Room SW 12 of Fort Shalmaneser. This object is now in the collection at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery accession number 1965A451.2 (ND 11099). This 2014 photo shows the ivory after undergoing conservation treatment at the museum. View large image. © Birmingham Museums.

Skeletons and squatters

Image 6: Mass burial in room S 42 of Fort Shalmaneser, excavated by BSAI TT , 1950s. These people had apparently been killed during the sack of Kalhu in 612 BC, and were hastily buried when the locals returned to make their home among the ruins. (7). View large image. Photo: BSAI/BISI.

The arsenal continued to be used by Shalmaneser's successors for military and administrative purposes. His grandson Adad-nerari III PGP  (r. 810-783 BC) added to the building, as shown by bricks and thresholds inscribed with his name. However, the court's move away from Kalhu at the end of the 8th century - first to Dur-Šarruken and then to Nineveh, both of which had a "review palace" of their own - diminished Fort Shamaneser's importance. This may account for the dilapidation described by Esarhaddon in inscriptions celebrating his renovations of the palace.

Shalmaneser's arsenal continued to be used until the very end of the Assyrian empire. The city suffered a great deal of destruction during the two waves of Median PGP  invasion in 614 and 612 BC, and Fort Shalmaneser was no exception. Evidence of fire is clearly marked on many of the objects found in the palace; even the throne room was not exempt. It seems that the inhabitants of Kalhu tried to repair the damage after the first attack, and re-buried foundation deposits TT  with apotropaic TT  figurines TT  in an ultimately futile attempt to ward off further misfortune. After the final sack of 612 BC, the locals returned to the city, burying the dead (Image 6) and making hasty repairs to make the building habitable again. That this "squatter" occupation lasted for a significant period of time is shown by the fact that, in places, 2 metres of debris covered the original 612 BC level of the building.

Content last modified: 31 Dec 2015
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  1. Dalley, S.M. and J.N. Postgate, 1984. The Tablets from Fort Shalmaneser (Cuneiform Texts from Nimrud 3), London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq (free PDF from BISI, 123 MB), pp. xii. (Find in text ^)
  2. Leichty, E., 2011. The Royal Inscriptions of Esarhaddon, King of Assyria (680-669 BC) (Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period. Volume 4), Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, pp. Esarhaddon 1:v 42-45, vi 58-61. (Find in text ^)
  3. Reade, J.E., 2011. "The evolution of Assyrian imperial architecture: political implications and uncertainties", Mesopotamia 46, pp. 109-125 (free PDF from Assyrian Empire Builders, 5.2 MB), pp. 113, Fig. 3. (Find in text ^)
  4. Dalley, S.M. and J.N. Postgate, 1984. The Tablets from Fort Shalmaneser (Cuneiform Texts from Nimrud 3), London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq (free PDF from BISI, 123 MB), pp. 9-14. (Find in text ^)
  5. Dezsö, T., 2006. "Reconstruction of the Assyrian army of Sargon II (721-705 BC) based on the Nimrud Horse Lists", State Archives of Assyria Bulletin 15, pp. 93-140. (Find in text ^)
  6. Herrmann, G. and S. Laidlaw, 2013. Ivories from Rooms SW11/12 and T10 Fort Shalmaneser, parts 1-2 (Ivories from Nimrud VII), London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq (free PDF from BISI, 5.7 MB), pp. no. 231. (Find in text ^)
  7. Oates, D. and J. Oates, 2001. Nimrud, An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed, London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq ( free PDF from BISI, 128 MB), pp. 193, Fig. 119. (Find in text ^)

Further reading

Silvie Zamazalová

Silvie Zamazalová, 'Fort Shalmaneser, the royal arsenal', Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production, The Nimrud Project at, 2015 []

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