Nineveh was a major urban center in northern Mesopotamia from a very early date: for modern archaeologists, the site gives its name to an important prehistoric pottery style (1985.61.2), and a substantial settlement was already established there by 3000 B.C. However, the city is best known today for its much later role as the final capital of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian capital changed several times in the early first millennium B.C.: In the ninth century B.C., Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.) moved from the traditional capital Ashur to Kalhu (Nimrud); in the late eighth century B.C., Sargon II (r. 721–705 B.C.) founded a new capital city, Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad); and finally, Sargon’s son and successor Sennacherib (r. 704–681 B.C.) moved the capital to Nineveh.
Sargon had spent much of his reign directing the construction of his enormous new capital Dur-Sharrukin (literally “Fort Sargon”), work with which Sennacherib as his crown prince may have been heavily involved (33.16.1; 33.16.2). With Sargon’s death, however, Dur-Sharrukin was abandoned, and Sennacherib began his own, equally ambitious project, transforming the existing city of Nineveh into his imperial capital. The reasons for the move are not fully clear, but it is thought that the manner of Sargon’s death—the king was killed while on campaign, and his body could not be recovered—rendered the new city he had created inauspicious, and that relocation to Nineveh (an already ancient city, again breaking with Sargon’s practice) was therefore essential for the new king’s fortune.
Of Sennacherib’s many construction projects, the most important was the “Palace without Rival,” known today as the Southwest Palace because of its position on Nineveh’s citadel. The Southwest Palace was larger than any of its predecessors, and its walls were lined with stone bas-reliefs throughout its rooms and colossal winged bulls and lions at key gateways, continuing and expanding traditions begun in the ninth century B.C. at Nimrud. Cuneiform documents survive relating to the building’s construction, and the dates of these suggest that at least the bulk of the work was undertaken in a remarkably short period, roughly the years 701–693 B.C.
By the time the Southwest Palace was constructed, the Assyrian empire was at its height, and the reliefs that lined the palace walls depict Assyrian military campaigns across the Near East (55.121.4a,b; 32.143.15). As well as sieges and battles, they show foreign landscapes, and some of the people who made up Assyria’s wider world, albeit generally in the form of enemy fighters or prisoners (32.143.17; 32.143.18). Some reliefs also show episodes taking place within Assyria itself: a famous group depicts the quarrying and transport of a giant winged-bull guardian figure of the kind that had stood in important gateways in Assyrian palaces since the time of Ashurnasirpal II in the ninth century B.C. (32.143.1; 32.143.2). Other reliefs show royal and religious processions (32.143.13). Still others bear magical protective imagery, and some—not made as reliefs to line the palace walls but instead as doorsills—imitate carpets (X.153).
Sennacherib’s son, Esarhaddon, and grandson, Ashurbanipal, both ruled at Nineveh. Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.) added to the Southwest Palace, but also constructed a new palace of his own, today known as the North Palace (32.143.5), which contained campaign scenes as well as incredible depictions of royal lion hunts. Ashurbanipal also initiated an ambitious library project, for which scholars were dispatched to collect and copy cuneiform texts, particularly from the great temple archives of Babylonia. The resulting collection was one of the great libraries of the ancient world, and its rediscovery by archaeologists in the nineteenth century has been key to accessing and understanding ancient Mesopotamian culture and scholarship. In addition to this library, royal annals, often in the form of foundation inscriptions, and administrative texts discovered in Nineveh and the other Assyrian capitals make the Neo-Assyrian period one of the most richly documented in the ancient Near East.
Ashurbanipal ruled the empire at its height, during the brief period when Assyrian control extended even to Egypt. Yet only twenty years after his death, the empire was on the brink of collapse. A coalition led by Babylonia—southern Iraq—and Media in the central Zagros Mountains to Assyria’s east, successfully rebelled and sacked the cities of Assyria (86.11.370a, c–e). The sack of Nineveh itself in 612 B.C. is generally used as an end date for the Assyrian empire, though a rump state survived and was not truly defeated until the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C. From this point on, Babylonia was the dominant power in the Near East, inheriting Assyria’s former empire. Under Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–562 B.C.), the city of Babylon was transformed into a great imperial capital, taking the place of Nineveh.
It has sometimes been assumed that after 612 B.C. Nineveh was abandoned. Certainly the city never regained its imperial prominence, but archaeology has revealed continued occupation and activity at the site into the Parthian and Sasanian periods (1995.366). By the Middle Ages, however, the site was abandoned and buried, and Nineveh was remembered principally through the Bible, and to a lesser extent through Classical histories whose authors lived centuries after the city’s imperial heyday. Visitors to the city of Mosul were aware that the biblical Nineveh lay somewhere nearby, but little more than this was known until the nineteenth century. In 1820, the British East India Company scholar-administrator Claudius James Rich visited the mounds known as Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus and described them in detail, correctly identifying them as those of ancient Nineveh. “Nebi Yunus” means “Tomb of Jonah,” after the medieval shrine to Jonah that stood on the mound’s summit. In the 1840s and 1850s, the first major excavations in Mesopotamia began to reveal the long-forgotten palace sculptures of Assyria. Nineveh was excavated by British and French scholars, and as with the other Neo-Assyrian capitals at Nimrud and Khorsabad, large quantities of sculptures were excavated and shipped to Europe under Ottoman permissions.
When the nineteenth-century excavations were conducted, the mounds of Nineveh lay across the Tigris River from the city of Mosul. Today Mosul has greatly expanded, and the archaeological site lies near its center. In 2014–16, Nineveh suffered badly from deliberate damage, including the destruction with explosives of the Tomb of Jonah shrine, and attacks on the winged bulls and reliefs of the great Assyrian palaces and city walls. Objects in the Mosul Museum have also been damaged or destroyed.