ASSYRIA: FROM VILLAGE TO EMPIRE
Assyria takes its name from the city of Ashur on the west bank of the Tigris in northern Mesopotamia, modern Iraq. The people spoke a dialect of Akkadian, a Semitic language, which they wrote in cuneiform script. Ashur was also the name of the chief god of the Assyrians, who later was associated with the Sumerian god Enlil. The city of Assur was occupied as early as 2600 B.C. During most of the 3rd millennium the Assyrians were subordinate to the Akkadians in central Mesopotamia, and later the 3rd Dynasty of Ur in southern Mesopotamia.
During the Old Assyrian Period (2000-1750 B.C.), Assyrian kings wielded control over all northern Mesopotamia and established merchant colonies in Anatolia to the north. This long-distance trade network of finished products, such as textiles, and raw materials, including copper, tin, gold and silver, is well documented thanks to the survival of thousands of cuneiform tablets found at Kültepe and elsewhere. This prosperous period ended when Assyria was dominated by the Hurro-Mittanians from the north and the Babylonians from the south.
The Middle Assyrian Period (1392-934 B.C.) was a time of conquest and expansion for the Assyrians, first towards the Euphrates and eventually into neighboring regions. They defeated the Hurro-Mittanians, the Hittites and the Babylonians, and even reached the Mediterranean coast. The most powerful kings were Adad-nirari I (1305-1274 B.C.), Shalmaneser I (1273-1244 B.C.) and Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 B.C.).
The arts flourished, as can be seen through excavated wall-painting fragments, relief sculptures on cult pedestals, and especially the glyptic arts, either as seen on stone cylinder seals or their impressions on clay tablets. The seals, some of the most beautiful from the ancient Near East, display a surprising freedom from previous artistic conventions and an exceptional degree of naturalism, especially in the treatment of animals. The end of the period was severely impacted by the collapse of the cultures across the Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age, perhaps precipitated by climate change and mass migrations, including the invasion of the Sea Peoples from Northern Europe. The disruptions were far worse in the Eastern Mediterranean region, but after the reign of Tiglathpileser I (1114-1076 B.C.) Assyria was inundated by displaced tribes of Aramaic speakers from the south and west.
The Assyrian empire reached its zenith during the Neo-Assyrian Period (911-609 B.C.), becoming the most dominant power in the Near East. Successive kings were relentless in their annual campaigns in every direction. The lack of raw materials in the Assyrian heartland served in part the inspiration for this aggression. Vast amounts of treasure flowed into the capitals, as evinced by the surviving cuneiform texts and the rich archaeological discoveries, including ivories and bronzes, many clearly originating from the far reaches of the empire. Control over the territories was in part maintained by mass deportations and resettlement. Aramaic became the lingua franca. Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) moved the capital from Ashur to Nimrud— ancient Kalhu or Biblical Calah—where he built a palace the likes of which had hitherto never been equaled.
The work was continued by his son and successor Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.), who added religious structures to rival any others in Assyria or Babylonia, and most notably built a structure known as Fort Shalmaneser, part palace, factory, warehouse and arsenal. The capital would be moved twice more, first to Khorsabad by Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), although his new city was abandoned shortly after its inauguration when he was killed in battle. His son Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.) moved the capital to Nineveh, where he built a city even larger and more impressive than Nimrud.
The surviving works of art from the Neo-Assyrian period, including the impressive large-scale reliefs adorning the palaces and temples, such as the example presented here, demonstrate the high level of artistic achievement of the period and confirm it as the golden age of the Assyrian civilization.
The empire came under threat in the 7th century B.C. from all corners, including from the Nubians in Egypt, Phrygians in west Turkey, Urartians to the north, tribal peoples united by the Medes in Iran, the Elamites in southern Iran, and the revived Babylonians to the south. The combined forces of Babylonians and Medes sacked the Assyrian city of Arrapha in 615 B.C., followed by Ashur the following year, and Nineveh in 612 B.C. The last Assyrian king, Ashur-uballit II (611-609 B.C.) ultimately moved the capital to Harran and that city fell in 609 B.C., and with it, the Neo-Assyrian empire was extinguished.
THE NORTHWEST PALACE OF ASHURNASIRPAL II AT NIMRUD
Early during the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883- 859 B.C.), the capital was moved from Ashur some fifty miles north to Nimrud, which had previously been only a modest settlement. Ashur remained an important religious center but was soon eclipsed by Nimrud, which became the largest and most splendid Assyrian city. The massive projects included new defensive walls for both the city and citadel, and on the citadel itself, four major palaces, three smaller palatial buildings, approximately five temples, a ziggurat or temple tower dedicated to Ninurta (the patron god of the city), and several residential townhouses. The enormous manpower and wealth was acquired through Ashurnasirpal’s numerous military campaigns.
The new city had a population of more than 60,000 people including the temporary workforce. The Northwest Palace was the crowning achievement, occupying approximately six acres of the citadel. It was the largest and most ornamented building in the Assyrian Empire, surpassing anything that yet existed in the entire Near East.
The Northwest Palace consisted of numerous suites of rooms around several open courts. The largest area—the Central Courtyard—could have held 1,000 people. The enclosed interior spaces were mainly rectangular in form; their maximum width determined by the span of the trees used for roof beams, harvested in Lebanon or the mountains to the north. The rooms served various functions, including residential, ceremonial, administrative, and storage. Sometimes there were burials beneath the palace floors, such as those excavated between 1988 and 1990, which yielded extraordinary gold jewelry and objects. Inscriptions confirmed that those interred therein were the consorts of Assyrian kings.
The walls of the palace were built of mud-brick. Most interior walls were adorned with large stone slabs called orthostats, of locally-quarried gypsum, which were exquisitely sculpted in shallow relief and highlighted with applied pigments. The walls above these 7 feet tall orthostats were painted, their subject matter like that of the reliefs or consisting of ornamental bands of palmettes, pomegranates and other motifs. Glazed brick knobs and plaques, similarly decorated, were inserted into walls above the orthostats.
Major gateways were frequently flanked by pairs of colossal stone figures, typically human-headed bulls or lions. See for example the pair of human-headed winged lions, called lamassu, now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The use of orthostats and monumental gateway figures have not been discovered in any Assyrian palace dated prior to the reign of Ashurnasirpal II, and it is thought that the inspiration may have come from structures encountered within the Syro-Hittite world. Many of the gates would have had large double doors of wood reinforced with bronze bands embossed and chased with fgural scenes, similar to the examples excavated at Balawat, from the reign of Ashurnasirpal’s successor Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.), now in the British Museum.
The scenes sculpted in relief on the orthostats depict military conquests, religious occasions, royal hunts, and courtly banquets, all with the intention of glorifying the King and generating an overwhelming sense of awe in the visitor. By far the most common
subjects are the repeating scenes of a Winged Genius, either human- or eagle-headed, known as an Apkallu, who anoint the sacred tree or the King himself. The Genius was apotropaic in function and created a perpetually-protected space. The frequency in which it appears indicates the high level of superstitious fear that dominated Assyrian religious thought. Cut in a band over most of the orthostats was a cuneiform inscription known as the Standard Inscription, detailing Ashurnasirpal’s lineage, distinguishing his most favored status amongst the gods, outlining his military accomplishments and describing the construction of the palace. Some of the rooms in the palace have orthostats cut with only the Standard Inscription, without sculpture in relief.
The magnifcent, nearly-intact relief presented here from Virginia Theological Seminary, depicting a breathtaking winged Apkallu before a sacred tree, was originally positioned on the south wall near the west corner of Room S (position 14 on the plan). It was originally paired with a mirror image, now missing its half of the sacred tree, that currently is in the Staatliche Museum für Ägyptischer Kunst in Munich (position 15 on the plan).
Room S was one of the most private and sacred spaces in the palace. Located south of the Central Courtyard, it likely served as the king’s reception room, perhaps accessible only to his closest advisors and family as opposed to visiting dignitaries.
The room was lavishly adorned with a complex sculptural program. Reliefs depicting pairs of Apkallus anointing sacred trees covered both long walls and on that to the west. Ashurnasirpal himself was depicted standing on the east wall, holding a staff and a sword hilt, flanked by two armed courtiers. His throne was likely placed in front of his image, to further reinforce his authority and grandeur.
FROM ASSYRIA TO AMERICA: VIRGINIA THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY’S WINGED GENIUS
The Northwest palace was frst excavated by Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) between 1845 and 1851. His work was documented in his bestselling book, Nineveh and Its Remains, published in 1849, as well as later publications including The Monuments of Nineveh. The excavations continued from 1852-1854 under the watch of Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910) from Mosul, the first locally-born archaeologist of the region.
Layard’s excavations were approved by the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Sultan, who gave the British archaeologist the authority to “excavate and export to your heart’s content” (see Saggs, p. 50). The letter further states:
“The British Ambassador has asked that there shall be no obstacles put in the way of the abovementioned gentleman taking the stones which may be useful to him,…nor of his embarking them to have them transported to England. Them sincere friendships which firmly exists between the two governments makes it desirable that such demands be accepted. Therefore no obstacle should be put in the way of his taking the stones which…are present in desert places, and are not being utilized” (From Nineveh to New York, p. 35).
Sir Max Mallowan (1904-1978), husband of Agatha Christie, resumed excavations from 1949-1953. His work significantly expanded our understanding of the palace layout and was sumptuously published in two volumes, Nimrud and its Remains, in 1966. Excavations continued under the Iraqi Department of Antiquities in several campaigns including 1956-1975, 1985-1993, and 2001-2002.
Layard’s discovery of Nimrud generated international acclaim in the mid 19th century. At the time, he mistakenly believed that Nimrud was part of greater Nineveh, hence the titles of his publications. The exquisite ornamented gypsum reliefs with lengthy cuneiform inscriptions, such as the present example from Virginia Theological Seminary, were the treasured finds of the excavation. They were valued for their aesthetic beauty and their historical significance.