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Nimrud (Kalhu)


The site of Nimrud is located on the Tigris River southeast of Mosul in the north of modern day Iraq. Today the city lies some kilometers east of the Tigris, but in antiquity the river flowed along the northwest side of the acropolis. The site was occupied intermittently from the 6th millennium BC to at least the Hellenistic period, but the most significant period of occupation occurred during the Late Assyrian period, when Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) built Nimrud as the capital of his empire. The city remained the chief royal residence and administrative capital of the Assyrian empire until the reign of Sargon II (721-705 BC), though Esarhaddon (680-669 BC) later rebuilt much of the citadel.

The modern name Nimrud is taken from the biblical account of Nimrod the hunter who, according to Genesis 10:8-12, established the dynasty from which the Assyrians derived. The Assyrians themselves called the site Kalhu (biblical Calah), a name which first appears in texts from the 13th century BC.

History of Excavations

right|300px|thumb|Layard's sketch of the discovery of a collosal stone head (from Oates and Oates, 2001)In 1820 Claudius James Rich, the East India Company’s resident in Baghdad, visited and provided the first modern description of Nimrud, but it was Austen Henry Layard undertook the first large-scale excavations at the site. From 1845 to 1847 and again from 1849 to 1851, Layard, with the assistance of Hormuzd Rassam (who would go on to excavate scores of other Babylonian and Assyrian sites, including Nineveh), uncovered the walls and southern part of the North-West Palace, the Ninurta Temple, South-West Palace, and the Ezida and Burnt Palace (which Layard called the South-East Palace). Layard also found the colossal gateway figures and impressive bas-reliefs that adorned the walls of the Northwest Palace, and the first of the magnificent “Nimrud Ivories.” Layard mistakenly assumed that the site of Nimrud contained the remains of ancient Nineveh, the final capital of the Assyrian Empire, and in 1849 he published an account of his adventures and excavations in Iraq. Nineveh and its Remains became an instant best seller and ignited the Victorian world’s fascination with ancient Mesopotamia.

Shortly after the publication of Nineveh and its Remains, Layard left the excavation of Nimrud in the hands of Rassam. From 1854 to 1855, William K. Loftus took over from Rassam, extending the exposures of the Central Palace, the South-West Palace, the Nabu Temple, and the Burnt Palace. In the burnt palace he found a collection of ivories now known as the “Loftus Ivories.”

Between 1878 and 1880 Hormuzd Rassam returned to the site. Aside from his short excavation, the end of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century saw little serious archaeological work at Nimrud following Loftus’s excavations.

In 1949 the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (BSAI) sponsored renewed excavations at Nimrud under the direction of Sir Max Mallowan. The BSAI excavations continued until 1963 with David Oates and Jeffrey Orchard each succeeding Mallowan as director. The British teams worked on all areas of the acropolis and also excavated in the complex in the southeast corner of the site known as Fort Shalmaneser, where a large number of important ivories were found.

After the close of the BSAI excavations, foreign expeditions were absent from Nimrud for some time, although the Iraqi Department of Antiquities conducted excavations and restoration work intermittently beginning in 1956. As part of the Iraqi project, Muyasser Sa’id excavated another collection of ivories in a courtyard of the Northwest Palace in 1975.

In 1974 foreign excavations resumed at Nimrud. The Polish archaeologist, Janusz Meuszynski, directed excavations on the acropolis palaces of Ashurnasirpal II and Tiglath-Pileser III until 1976. Then, from 1987 to 1989, Paolo Fiorina and an Italian team of archaeologists surveyed the site and excavated at Fort Shalmaneser. In 1989, John Curtis and Dominique Collon of the British Museum continued excavations at Fort Shalmaneser.

Among the most significant recent discoveries at Nimrud are four tombs belonging to the royal women of Kalhu. Excavated between 1988 and 1990 by Muzahim Mahmud and the Iraq Department of Antiquities, these tombs held a remarkable collection of gold vessels and precious stones.

The Structures on the Acropolis

right|thumb|Mallowan's plan of the acropolis (from Mallowan, 1966)Just as the entire city of Nimrud was enclosed by a 7.5 kilometer mudbrick wall with a limestone foundation, the acropolis in the southwest corner of the city was also surrounded by a wall. The eastern portion of the acropolis wall was made of mud-brick, and on the west side, the wall that faced the Tigris had a stone base. Like the city wall, the northeastern portion of the citadel wall was at least 15 meters high. Only one gate in citadel wall was identified with certainty, just north of Nabu Temple in the east. The gate was guarded by a limestone relief of a lion (that is, a figure with lion’s feet) and had an attached guardhouse. There may have been another gate at the south of the acropolis.

'''The Northwest Palace'''

left|thumb|Plan of the North-West Palace (from Mallowan, 1966)For one and a half centuries, the Northwest Palace was the king’s principle residence and the administrative center of the Assyrian empire. The building itself, over 200 meters long and at least 120 meters wide, is the largest and most significant structure on the site. It was here that Layard found the imposing inscribed and painted bas-relief panels that had adorned the walls of the palace. Layard and his successors also found bronze vessels and a number of elaborately carved ivory pieces discarded in wells, and which had once been inlaid into furniture.

The Northwest Palace was probably completed between 865 and 869 BC. Its inauguration was celebrated with a large banquet, a description of which is preserved in an inscription on a large stone slab found in the palace. The text describes the building of the city of Kalhu, the settlement of peoples from all over the kingdom in the city, the irrigation of orchards and gardens in the city, the dedication of temples, and the hunting and capture of exotic animals. Finally, the inscription describes the lavish dedicatory celebration, which was attended by 69,574 invitees from all over Assyria. According to Ashurnasirpal, they were provided with an enormous amount of food, including 1,500 ducks, 500 geese, 10,000 turtle doves, 10,000 loaves of bread, 10,000 jugs of beer, 10,000 skins of wine, and quantities of nuts, sheep, spices, and vegetables. The text concludes with Ashurnasirpal expressing satisfaction in the event: “For ten days I gave them food, I gave them drink, I had them bathe, and I had them anointed. (Thus) did I honor them (and) send them back to their lands in peace and joy” (Grayson 1991: 293).

The Throneroom

Ashurnasirpal also writes that he decorated the palace with images of his achievements: “I depicted in greenish glaze on their walls my heroic praises, in that I had gone right across highlands, lands, (and) seas, (and) the conquest of all lands” (Grayson 1991: 289). Indeed some of the most sensational finds that Layard brought back to London were the enormous bas-relief panels that lined the walls of the throneroom of the Northwest palace. The throneroom itself was the primary reception area in which the king would hold audience with foreign visitors. It was therefore built to impress those visitors with both the power of the king and the might of the Assyrian empire. To that end, the sheer size of the reliefs, which would have stood 2.2 or 2.3 meters (about 7 to 7.5 feet) above the ground level, would have overwhelmed the viewer. But even more significant than the size of the reliefs is the fact that they mark the beginning of a new technique in figurative art in Mesopotamia. Until the start of the Late Assyrian period, commemorative monuments depicted victorious battles using stock characters and frozen imagery. Ashurnasirpal added a new sense of specificity of place, time, and movement to the art form. The throneroom reliefs are therefore there first instance of historical narrative in Mesopotamian art. That is, the reliefs tell a specific story: namely that of the conquest of all the lands of Assyria, and the role of the king as the legitimate head of the empire, maintaining order under the patronage of the god Assur.

Most of the reliefs are divided into two portions, an upper and a lower scene. Between each scene, the same text is inscribed on each slab. This text is called the [ Standard Inscription], and it gives the names and titles of the king, followed by a description of the conquests of the king, and finally a description of the construction of Nimrud and the palace: <blockquote> (Property of) the palace of Ahsurnasirpal, vice-regent of Assur, chosen of the gods Enlil and Ninurta, beloved of the gods Anu and Dagan, destructive weapon of the great gods, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Tukulti-Ninurata (II), great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Assyria, son of Adad-nirari (II) (who was) also great king, strong king, king of the universe, (and) king of Assyria; valiant man who acts with the support of Assur, his lord, and has no rival among the provinces of the four quarters, marvelous shepherd, fearless in battle, mighty flood-tide which has no opponent, the king who subdues those insubordinate to him, he who rules all peoples, strong male who treads upon the necks of his foes, trampler of all enemies, he who breaks up the forces of the rebellious, the king who acts with the support of the great gods, his lords, and has conquered all lands, and gained dominion over all the highlands and received their tribute, capturer of hostages, he who is victorious over all countries. </blockquote> <blockquote> When Assur, the lord who called me by name (and) made my sovereignty supreme, placed his merciless weapon in my lordly arms, I felled with the sword the extensive troops of the Lullumu in battle. With the help of the gods Shamash and Adad, the gods my supporters, I thundered like the god Adad, the devastator, against the troops of the lands Nairi, Habhu, the Shubaru, and the land Nirbu. The king who subdued (the territory stretching) from the opposite bank of the Tigris to Mount Lebanon and the Great Sea, the entire land Laqu (and) the land Suhu including the city Rapiqu; he conquered from the source of the river Subnat to the land Urartu. I brought within the boundaries of my land (the territory stretching) from the passes of Mount Kirruru to the land Gilzanu, from the opposite bank of the Lower Zab to the city Til-Bari which is upstream from the land Zaban, from the city Til-sha-Abtani to the city Til-sha-Zabdani, the cities Hirimu, Harutu, (which are) fortresses of Karduniash. I accounted (the people) from the passes of Mount Babitu to Mount Hashmar as people of my land. In the lands over which I gained dominion I always appointed my governors. They entered servitude. </blockquote> <blockquote> Ashurnasirpal, attentive prince, worshipper of the great gods, ferocious dragon, conqueror of cities and the entire highlands, king of lords, encircler of the obstinate, crowned with splendor, fearless in battle, merciless hero, he who stirs up strife, praiseworthy king, shepherd, protection of the (four) quarters, the king whose command disintegrates mountains and seas, the one who by his lordly conflict as brought under one authority ferocious (and) merciless kings from east to west: </blockquote> <blockquote> The ancient city Kalhu which Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, a prince who preceded me, had built—this city had become dilapidated; it lay dormant. I rebuilt this city. I took people which I had conquered from the lands over which I had gained dominion, from the land Suhu, (from) the entire land of Laqu, (from) the city Sirqu which is at the crossing of the Euphrates, (from) the entire land of Zamua, from Bit-Adini and the land Hatti and from Lubarna, the Patinu. I settled (them) therein. I cleared away the old ruin hill (and) dug down to water level. I sank (the foundation pit) down to a depth of 120 layers of brick. I founded therein a palace of cedar, cypress dapranu-juniper, boxwood, meskannu-wood, terebinth, and tamarisk as my royal residence (and) for my lordly leisure for eternity. I made (replicas of) beasts of mountains and seas in white limestone and parutu-alabaster (and) stationed (them) at its doors. I decorated it in a splendid fashion; I surrounded it with knobbed nails of bronze. I hung doors of cedar, cypress dapranu-juniper, (and) meskanu-wood in its doorways. I took in great quantities and put therein silver, gold, tin, bronze, iron, booty from the lands over which I gained dominion. (Grayson 1991: 275-276) </blockquote> left|thumb|Relief showing Ashurnasirpal and winged genii flanking Sacred Tree (Meuszynski 1981)As the visitor entered the long hall from the large courtyard, which measured 32 meters by 27 meters and could have held up to one thousand Assyrian citizens, he or she would have passed through a corridor between two massive stone mythical creatures that underscored the significance of the threshold. Immediately, he or she would have been faced with a scene on the south wall depicting two images of the king on either side of a stylized tree. Behind the king on either side was a mythological winged genii figures intended to ward off evil. Hovering above the scene is the sun-disk symbol of Assur, the patron god of Assyria. This “sacred tree” scene has a long history in Mesopotamian iconography. Here the king interacts with a emblem well-known to the citizens of Assyria as signifying the providing the land with sustenance. The same scene is repeated in the center of the east wall, that is, directly behind the seated king himself. Thus, the visitor, upon entering the throne room and turning immediately to face the king, would have been presented with the unifying theme of the room itself: the king as divinely sanctioned provider of Assyria.

On either side of the sacred tree relief on the south wall are conventional scenes of hunting, battle, and the collection of captives following the battle. These are conventional images in Mesopotamian art, but here for the first time they appear to relate to historical events. The depiction of battles and conquered cities on the reliefs appears to correspond to depictions of real places and events in the Assyrian annals. Non-Assyrians can be identified by characteristic dress, ornamentation, and facial features. Most of the slabs are oriented so that the king is depicted facing west, that is, facing the visitor so that he faces the physical king in addition to multiple representations depicting the power of the king along the walls. As the visitor proceeds along the throneroom towards the king, he is presented not only with the imposing image of the king, but also the story of the establishment of the Assyrian Empire, and the royal ideology expressing the Assyrian cosmic order. In fact, the reliefs may have been oriented so that they depicted locations within the empire from east to west so that the King literally sat at the geographic and political center of his empire in front of the very scene establishing him as the cultic linchpin of Assyria.

[ Plan of the Northwest Palace Throneroom Reliefs]

Administrative and Domestic Quarters

The northern extent of the Northwest Palace housed the administrative rooms of the palace. Cuneiform tablets that document the administrative and economic aspects of the Assyrian empire were found in rooms throughout this area.

The southern portion of the Northwest Palace constituted the residential quarters, and harem. Deep in a well at the southernmost end of room NN a wealth of small items were found, most notably a large cache of carved ivory piece (including the famous “Mona Lisa of Nimrud”). In the southwest corner of the palace, the tombs of three Assyrian royal women were excavated. These vaulted tombs yielded fine jewelry, gold vessels, and precious stones.


Of the nine temples that Ashurnasirpal II claims to have built nine temples, four have been located:

'The Ninurta Temple and the Ziggurat'

Located at the very northwest corner of the citadel, the main shrine of the Ninurta Temple was entered through an antechamber facing a courtyard to the east. Stone colossi stood at the entrance to the temple, and a two subsidiary shrines may have been located to the south.

The ziggurat north of the Ninurta Temple has a core of mud-brick faced with burnt brick and a base of stone. At the time of Mallowan’s excavation, the height of the ziggurat at the time of excavation was about 140 feet, and would have risen 60 feet higher in antiquity. According to Mallowan, priests of the god Ninurta, a war god, would have ascended the ziggurat using a staircase on its eastern side.

'The Nabu Temple (Ezida)' is located in the southeast portion of the acropolis. The temple had twin shrines dedicated to Nabu, the god of writing, and Tashmetum. In the southwest portion of the temple excavators found a library and several other rooms that housed administrative and business documents.

'The Sharrat-Niphi Temple' was dedicated to Ishtar and was located just northeast of the Ninurta temple.

'The Kimduru Temple' lay to the southeast of Sharrat-Niphi temple.


*Grayson, A. K. Assyrian Rulers of the Early First Millennium BC I (1114–859 BC). The Royal Inscriptions of Mesopotamia Assyrian Periods 2. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1991.

*Layard, Austen H. Nineveh and its Remains. 2 vols. London; John Murray, 1849.

*Mallowan, M. E. L. Nimrud and its Remains. 3 vols. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1966.

*Oates, Joan, and David Oates. Nimrud: An Imperial City Revealed. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 2001.

*Postgate, J. N., and J. E. Reade. “Kalhu.” Reallexikon der Assyriologie, vol. 5, 303-323. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1977-1980.

*Reade, Julian. "Nimrud." Fifty Years of Mesopotamian Discovery, 99-112. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1982.

*Winter, I. “Royal Rhetoric and the Development of Historical Narrative in Neo-Assyrian Reliefs.” Studies in Visual Communication 7 (1981): 2–38.

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