At the end of the 8th century BC, Sargon II (r. 721-705 BC) moved the seat of royal power from Kalhu to his recently completed new capital, Dur-Šarruken (modern Khorsabad). Although Dur-Šarruken was abandoned by the court after Sargon's death, Kalhu never regained its capital status. Nevertheless, it continued to serve as provincial capital and an important centre of learning until the very end of the Assyrian empire, and was occupied into the Hellenistic period and beyond.
After the ominous death of Sargon II on a battlefield in Anatolia - where his body was lost forever - his son Sennacherib made the decision to move his court away from Dur-Šarruken and its ill-fated associations. He didn't, however, return to Kalhu, which had served as the Assyrian royal capital since the reign of Assurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 BC). Instead, Sennacherib chose the ancient city of Nineveh (modern Mosul) and renovated it extensively. As a result, Kalhu was no longer the administrative centre of the empire, but it remained one of Assyria's key cities. As the seat of the governor of the province of Kalhu, it must have continued to house local administration, even though such records from the 7th century have not been found.
The city had for some time represented an important centre of scholarship, and this role continued into the 7th century. It was home to many prominent scholars, some of whom acted as senior advisors to the Assyrian king. The temple of Nabu housed an impressive collection of literary and scholarly materials which were used by the king and his scholars to aid his decision-making and guide his relationship with the gods. Even after the court moved permanently to Nineveh, many of these men, such as Nabu-zuqup-kena, spent at least some of their time in Kalhu. This is clear for instance from the colophons (scribal postscripts) of many cuneiform tablets, which record Kalhu as the place where they were written.
In addition, the city of Kalhu was the location of important state documents, including perhaps the Succession Treaties of king Esarhaddon (r. 680-669 BC). These documents record a series of loyalty oaths in which Assyria's vassals swore to uphold Esarhaddon's succession plans. The treaties were destroyed by looters in Nabu's temple in 612 BC, but it is unclear whether they were originally stored there. However, the temple was certainly used to safeguard the three seals of the god Aššur which were impressed on to the treaties alongside the seal of the king - a sign of Ezida's continued importance in the 7th century.
Much of the building activity now naturally focused on Nineveh, particularly during the reign of Sennacherib who carried out no new work at Kalhu. His son and successor Esarhaddon, however, took a great deal of interest in the city. Around 672 BC, towards the end of his reign, he rebuilt part of the city wall and made significant improvements to Fort Shalmaneser. He added a new terrace and created an impressive new entrance consisting of a vaulted ramp which led from a newly-rebuilt postern gate directly into the palace through a series of painted rooms. Inscriptions on both sides of the gate commemorated this construction work, as did clay cylinders which were perhaps originally deposited inside Fort Shalmaneser's walls (Image 1).
It is possible that Esarhaddon's activities at Kalhu were intended as a prelude to reclaiming it as royal capital. There is some, albeit very limited evidence, that he may have lived at Kalhu briefly towards the end of his reign: a partially preserved letter mentions that the king's courtiers "are all in Kalhu", perhaps indicating that the court had moved there from Nineveh (SAA 13: 152). While Esarhaddon's successors made their home at Nineveh, some at least continued to carry out building repairs at Kalhu. The last king to do so was Sin-šarru-iškun (r. 624-612 BC). His reconstruction of the temple of Nabu was violently undone when the city was sacked and most of its buildings put to the torch by Median invaders in 614 BC, and again two years later.
The fall of the Assyrian empire at the end of the 7th century BC represented a major historical and political break, but in some ways life in Assyria continued as before. After the city's destruction, the locals returned to make their home among the ruins of the citadel mound and Fort Shalmaneser, presumably because their walls offered a degree of protection. However, archaeological evidence shows that living in the city was far from safe: the Medes' first attack in 614 BC was followed by another in 612, and there is evidence that the occupants of post-Assyrian Kalhu suffered further destruction from unknown attackers on several occasions. The "squatter occupation" of the city's monumental ruins probably did not last long, as the material remains from this period, such as pottery, look no different from those of the late Assyrian period - clearly, they were not in use long enough for changes to appear.
However, this did not spell the end of the city. There is some evidence of occupation and rebuilding during the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid periods in the 6th to 4th centuries, but unfortunately no written sources have survived to help us understand what was going on in Kalhu at this time. In 401 BC the Greek soldier and historian Xenophon passed by the city (which he calls Larissa) and reported that it was all but deserted, with only the dilapidated ziggurat providing refuge to the local people (Anabasis III:4).
By far the most extensive remains come from the Hellenistic period, when a succession of small settlements sprung up in the citadel area. The village was destroyed in a fire but its inhabitants left behind coins, pottery and numerous other small finds (Image 3). These have enabled the excavators to date the village community to c.250-140 BC, and to build up a detailed picture of daily life in Hellenistic Assyria. We know, for example, that members of this community lived in small houses whose rooms were arranged around a small courtyard - much like the palaces on whose ruins they stood. And the ovens in which the villagers baked their bread resemble the ovens which are still used today, more than two millennia later.
Content last modified: 31 Dec 2015.
Silvie Zamazalová, 'Kalhu from the 7th century to the post-Assyrian period', Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production, The Nimrud Project at Oracc.org, 2015 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/nimrud/ancientkalhu/thecity/latekalhu/]