Nineveh (Assyrian city of “Ninua”) was an important city in ancient Assyria. This “exceeding great city” as it is called in the Book of Jonah, lay on the eastern bank of the Tigris, along which it stretched for some 50 kilometres (30 miles), having an average breadth of 20 km (10 mi) or more from the river back toward the eastern hills.
This whole extensive space is now one immense area of ruins. Situated at the confluence of the Tigris and Khosr, Nineveh was an important junction for commercial routes crossing the Tigris. Occupying a central position on the great highway between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, thus uniting the East and the West, wealth flowed into it from many sources, so that it became one of the greatest of all ancient cities.
Nineveh is mentioned about 1800 BC as a worship place of Ishtar, who was responsible for the city’s early importance. There is no large body of evidence to show that Assyrian monarchs built at all extensively in Nineveh during the 2nd millennium BC. When Sennacherib made the city of Ninua his capital at the end of the 8th century BC, it was already an ancient settlement. Later monarchs whose inscriptions have appeared on the Acropolis include Shalmaneser I and Tiglath-pileser I, both of whom were active builders in Ashur; the former had founded Calah (Nimrud). Nineveh had to wait for the neo-Assyrians, particularly from the time of Ashurnasirpal II (ruled 883-859 BC) onward, for a considerable architectural expansion. Thereafter successive monarchs kept in repair and founded new palaces, temples to Sin, Nergal, Nanna, Shamash, Ishtar, and Nabu of Borsippa.
It was Sennacherib who made Nineveh a truly magnificent city (c. 700 BC). He laid out fresh streets and squares and built within it the famous “palace without a rival”, the plan of which has been mostly recovered and has overall dimensions of about 210 by 200 m (630 by 600 ft). It comprised at least 80 rooms, of which many were lined with sculpture. A large part of tablets was found there; some of the principal doorways were flanked by human-headed bulls. At this time the total area of Nineveh comprised about 1,800 acres (7 km²), and 15 great gates penetrated its walls. An elaborate system of 18 canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh, and several sections of a magnificently constructed aqueduct erected by the same monarch were discovered at Jerwan, about 40 km (25 miles) distant.
Nineveh’s greatness was short-lived. About 633 BC the Assyrian empire began to show signs of weakness, and Nineveh was attacked by the Medes, who subsequently, about 625 BC, being joined by the Babylonians and Susianians, again attacked it. Nineveh fell in 612 BC, and was razed to the ground. The Assyrian empire then came to an end, the Medes and Babylonians dividing its provinces between them. After having ruled for more than six hundred years with hideous tyranny and violence, from the Caucasus and the Caspian to the Persian Gulf, and from beyond the Tigris to Asia Minor and Egypt, the city vanished like a dream.
Before the excavations in the 1800s, our knowledge of the great Assyrian empire and of its magnificent capital was almost wholly a blank. Vague memories had indeed survived of its power and greatness, but very little was definitely known about it. Other cities which had perished, as Palmyra, Persepolis, and Thebes, had left ruins to mark their sites and tell of their former greatness; but of this city, imperial Nineveh, not a single vestige seemed to remain, and the very place on which it had stood was only matter of conjecture.
In the days of the Greek historian Herodotus, 400 BC, it had become a thing of the past; and when Xenophon the historian passed the place in the “Retreat of the Ten Thousand,” the very memory of its name had been lost. It was buried out of sight, and no one knew its grave. It is never again to rise from its ruins.
Today, Nineveh’s location is marked by two large mounds, Kouyunjik and Nebi Yunus (“Prophet Jonah”), and the remains of the city walls (about 12 km/7.5 mi in circumference). Kouyunjik has been extensively explored. The other mound, Nebi Yunus, has not been extensively explored, because there is a Muslim shrine dedicated to the prophet Jonah on the site.
In the 19th century the French consul at Mosul began to search the vast mounds that lay along the opposite bank of the river. The Arabs whom he employed in these excavations, to their great surprise, came upon the ruins of a building at the mound of Khorsabad, which, on further exploration, turned out to be the royal palace of Sargon II, which were largely explored for sculptures and other precious relics.
In 1847 the young British adventurer Sir Austen Henry Layard explored the ruins. In the Kuyunjik mound Layard rediscovered in 1849 the lost palace of Sennacherib across the Tigris River from modern Mosul in northern Iraq, with its 71 rooms and colossal bas-reliefs. He also unearthed the palace and famous library of Ashurbanipal with 22,000 inscribed clay tablets. The study of the archaeology of Nineveh reveals the wealth and glory of ancient Assyria under kings such as Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.) and Ashurbanipal (669-626 B.C.).
The work of exploration has been carried on almost continuously by M. Botta, George Smith, and others, in the mounds of Nebi Yunus, Nimrud, Kouyunjik, and Khorsabad, and a vast treasury of specimens of Assyrian was exhumed for European museums. Palace after palace was discovered, with their decorations and their sculptured slabs, revealing the life and manners of this ancient people, their arts of war and peace, the forms of their religion, the style of their architecture, and the magnificence of their monarchs. The streets of the city have been explored, the inscriptions on the bricks and tablets and sculptured figures have been read, and now the secrets of their history have been brought to light.
One of the most remarkable of recent discoveries is that of the library of Assurbanipal. This library consists of about ten thousand flat bricks or tablets impressed in cuneiform with a record of the history, the laws, and the religion of Assyria, of the greatest value. These strange clay leaves found in the royal library form the most valuable of all the treasuries of the literature of the old world. The library contains also old Accadian documents, which are the oldest extant documents in the world, dating as far back as probably about the time of Sargon of Akkad.
Some of the tablets found have writings mentioning the possible use of an something similar to an Archimedes’s screw as a process of raising water, together with tablets showing gardens this has raised the possibility of Nineveh being the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
“The Assyrian royalty is, perhaps, the most luxurious of our century … Its victories and conquests, uninterrupted for one hundred years, have enriched it with the spoil of twenty peoples. Sargon has taken what remained to the Hittites; Sennacherib overcame Chaldea, and the treasures of Babylon were transferred to his coffers; Esarhaddon and Assur-bani-pal himself have pillaged Egypt and her great cities, Sais, Memphis, and Thebes of the hundred gates… Now foreign merchants flock into Nineveh, bringing with them the most valuable productions from all countries, gold and perfume from South Arabia and the Chaldean Sea, Egyptian linen and glass-work, carved enamels, goldsmiths’ work, tin, silver, Phoenician purple; cedar wood from Lebanon, unassailable by worms; furs and iron from Asia Minor and Armenia.”
The bas-reliefs, alabaster slabs, and sculptured monuments found in these recovered palaces serve in a remarkable manner to confirm the Old Testament history of the kings of Israel.
In the Bible, Nineveh is first mentioned in Gen. 10:11, which is rendered in the Revised Version, “He [i.e., Nimrod] went forth into Assyria and builded Nineveh.”
It is not again noticed till the days of Jonah, when it is described (Jonah 3:3ff; 4:11) as an “exceeding great city of three days’ journey”, i.e., probably in circuit. This would give a circumference of about 100 km (60 miles). At the four corners of an irregular quadrangle are the ruins of Kouyunjik, Nimrud, Karamless and Khorsabad. These four great masses of ruins, with the whole area included within the parallelogram they form by lines drawn from the one to the other, are generally regarded as composing the whole ruins of Nineveh.
Nineveh is the flourishing capital of the Assyrian empire (2 Kings 19:36; Isa. 37:37). The book of the prophet Nahum is almost exclusively taken up with prophetic denunciations against this city. Its ruin and utter desolation are foretold (Nah.1:14; 3:19, etc.). Its end was strange, sudden, tragic. (Nah. 2:6-11) According to the Bible, it was God’s doing, his judgement on Assyria’s pride (Isa. 10:5-19). In fulfilment of prophecy, God made “an utter end of the place”. It became a “desolation”. Zephaniah also (2:13-15) predicts its destruction along with the fall of the empire of which it was the capital.
From this time there is no mention of it in Scripture till its exemplary pride and fall are recalled in the Gospel of Matthew (12:41) and the Gospel of Luke (11:32).
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