A team of archaeologists in Iraq has come across ancient rock carvings that shed light on the life of Assyrian people in Nineveh, a forgotten ancient city that was once the largest and the most prosperous city in the world. The finding offers a new window into the life of people living in one of the world's most impactful civilizations.
Nineveh was the crown jewel of Assyria, a great Mesopotamian civilization that ruled most of a region that is now Iraq and some parts of Turkey between the 14th and 7th century BC. The city's remains lie in the modern-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. For decades, it was the capital and largest city of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, as well as the largest city in the world.
But there's still much we don't know about it.
Modern archaeology is less about finding big buildings and structures, and more about putting the findings into context. It's a bit like crime scene investigation: you want to trace all the clues to recreate what happened and how it happened -- and the carvings do exactly that.
The 2,700-year-old carvings depict Assyrian military tactics, forests, kings and their courts, mountains, and war scenes. While shedding light on the significance of the carvings, Penn Museum director, Christopher Woods told The Daily Pennsylvanian:
“This discovery adds new data and ultimately advances the understanding of Neo-Assyrian history in ancient Mesopotamia. We are thrilled by the ongoing conservation of this incredibly rare and historic find.”
Nineveh was once the world’s center of attraction
The archaeologists unearthed a total of seven marble slabs that contain the carvings. These were found under Mashki gate, a historical monument that was almost ruined by the Islamic State during their attack on the city of Mosul in 2016. Here are some secret details of the past related to the carvings and the city of Nineveh.
The history of Nineveh begins with the Mesopotamian goddess of war and love, Ishtar. Between 6000 BCE and 3000 BCE, Nineveh was a religiously important place for worshiping the goddess and was even helmed as the “House of Ishtar”. It is believed that around 1813 BCE, Assyrians started ruling the city and the neo-Assyrian kings (912 to 612 BCE) established it as an important trade center.
During the reign of King Sennacherib, the city was declared the capital of the Assyrian empire. To keep the city safe from enemies, Sennacherib surrounded the city borders with walls spanning several kilometers in length. He also built magnificent temples, monuments, grand entrances, gateways, and palaces.
For about five decades, it was the largest and the most spectacular city in the world. Apart from being a hub of Mesopotamian religion and culture, the city was known for being a booming economic center. Interestingly, some historians believe that one of the seven ancient wonders, the Hanging Gardens was also originally constructed at Nineveh.
In his book The A to Z of Mesopotamia, Austrian historian Gwendolyn Leick wrote:
“Nineveh, with its heterogeneous population of people from throughout the Assyrian Empire, was one of the most beautiful cities in the Near East, with its gardens, temples, and splendid palaces"
Sennacherib died in 681 BCE but his architectural and infrastructure-related projects were continued by his sons Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. The latter even built a library that housed 30,000 clay tablets. Since books were not a thing at that time, Ashurbanipal collected every piece of history he could and inscribed all of Mesopotamian history on these tablets.
The recovered rock carvings in Iraq also highlight the fierce military power of the Assyrians. The book Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World written by British author Simon Anglim mentions that since Nineveh was a wealthy and attractive place, the neo-Assyrian kings faced continuous threats from the neighboring Babylonian, Scythian, and Persian forces. They controlled the most feared, hated, and respected army of the time.
Unfortunately, most of the historical sites and museums in Iraq that housed the priceless remains of Nineveh’s glory were looted and demolished by Islamic State terrorists during their multiple attacks on the country. They tried to erase not just Assyrian but Babylonian, Roman, and every other pre-Islamic era artifact that depicted Mesopotamian deities, people, and culture.
Fortunately, they couldn’t get their hands on the marble slabs that were buried under the Mashki gateway.
The end of Nineveh’s glory
Ashurbanipal died in 627 BCE, and after his death, the Assyrian empire started to lose its grip on its vast territories. The rulers who came after Ashurbanipal failed to keep the enemies at bay, and as a result in 612 BCE, the Medes, Persians, and Babylonians altogether attacked Nineveh. They defeated the weak Assyrian rulers, burned the glorious city, and took control of the region.
Soon most inhabitants left and the world’s most happening city turned into ruins. Interestingly, the Book of Jonah which was written many years after the fall of Nineveh, mentions the Assyrian capital as the place that was destroyed at God’s will.
According to both UNESCO and the Global Heritage Fund, the historical sites in Iraq that house the various remains of the Assyrian empire and the Nineveh are still among the most endangered heritage sites in the world.
This further increases the significance of the recovered rock carvings in Mosul. Hopefully, these precious Assyrian reliefs will be protected well, and they will keep reminding the modern world about the lost and forgotten House of Ishtar.
In case you want to take a look at some previously recovered neo-Assyrian rock carvings, you can visit The British Museum or check out their website.