A brief history of Nineveh

Reconstruction drawing of NinevehReconstruction drawing of Nineveh
Excavation of a lamassu (a winged bull), from 'A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh' (1852)Excavation of a lamassu (a winged bull), from 'A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh' (1852)

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

In an age when Alexander the Great had yet to be born and the Roman Empire did not yet exist, an empire arose in the Near East with imposing cities and stately architecture: the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the depths of Persia (Iran) and from Turkey to Egypt. Its nucleus lay in present-day Iraq, and around 700 BC, that was where its legendary capital lay. This was Nineveh: with a population of over 100,000, it was for some time the largest and most important city in the world.

The impressive capital of Nineveh

Illustrious kings such as Sennacherib and Assurbanipal commissioned monumental palaces, temples, and libraries in the city, each one decorated with superb reliefs. Lush gardens with waterfalls made the city an awe-inspiring oasis that was fully the equal of Babylon. In the hustle and bustle of the small streets, craftsmen and other residents rubbed shoulders with merchants from all corners of the empire and beyond. With its lush parks full of trees, plants, and animals, the city was a wonderful green oasis.

Destruction and rediscovery

In 612 BC Nineveh was razed to the ground by the Babylonians and other enemies of the Assyrian Empire. The ruins were scarcely inhabited in the centuries following this devastation. The nearby city of Mosul took over the role of key regional centre, and Nineveh sank into oblivion. It endured in legends passed down in works by classical authors and the Scriptures, but even the city’s former location was a mystery until the 19th century. Purposeful digging started in 1842, and not long afterwards, successive archaeologists – from countries including Britain, France, Iraq, and the United States – set about researching the history of Nineveh.