ancient Ninua, one of the noted sites of antiquity, situated on the east bank of the Tigris River, close to the confluence of the Tigris and the Khosr Rivers (36°24′N, 44°08′ E). Distinguished by the tall mounds of Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus and the remains of a roughly rectangular perimeter wall that is about 2 km wide (1 mi.) and 5 km (3 mi.) long, the visible ruins of Nineveh are currently invested on all sides by recent additions to the city of Mosul, in modern Iraq. While the core mound, known today as Kuyunjik, may have been occupied almost continuously from the seventh millennium down to early Islamic times (when the focus of settlement moved to the site of medieval Mosul on the opposite bank of the Tigris), Nineveh's reputation principally rests on its role as the last great capital of the Assyrian Empire. In particular, Nineveh's destruction at the hands of the Medes and Babylonians In 612 BCE still stands as a vivid paradigm for a sudden fall from unrivaled wealth and dominion.

Exploration and Excavation.

The first European traveler to take note of the location of ancient Nineveh was Benjamin of Tudela, the Spanish traveler and rabbi, in the twelfth century. Others who commented on the site in succeeding centuries included the Danish scholar Carsten Niebuhr, whose visit took place In 1766. The earliest detailed examination of Nineveh is owed to Claudius James Rich, whose admirable map of the site was completed In 1820. Twenty-two years later, Paul-Émile Botta, the consul of France at Mosul, opened the first trenches on Kuyunjik with little success. Then, following a prior period of concentration on the Assyrian remains at Nimrud, Austen Henry Layard began his own excavations at Nineveh In 1846. [See Nimrud.] Before he left Nineveh In 1851 to take up a career in politics, Layard had revealed a good part of the plan of the Southwest Palace, “the palace without a rival” (Luckenbill, 1924, p. 96) of the redoubtable Sennacherib (704–681 BCE). Within this structure he revealed close to 3 km (2 mi.) of carved stone reliefs, including those depicting Sennacherib's spectacular siege and capture of the Judean city of Lachish. [See Lachish; and the biographies of Botta and Layard.]

Layard's work on behalf of the British Museum was subsequently taken up by Hormuzd Rassam, his resourceful assistant, beginning In 1852. Rassam succeeded in discovering the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, where he not only excavated sculptured slabs depicting memorable lion-hunt sequences, but also a substantial portion of the twenty-four thousand cuneiform tablets that make up the so-called Library of Ashurbanipal (an invaluable resource on ancient Mesopotamia, variously composed of archival documents, manuals, and cultic literary works). [See Cuneiform; Tablet; Libraries and Archives.] The year 1852 also saw the completion of a further exemplary survey of Nineveh (by the trained cartographer Felix Jones). It was, in addition, the approximate moment when it first became possible to affirm the long-suspected identity of the site on the basis of excavated cuneiform records. Among other excavators who worked at Nineveh in the latter part of the nineteenth century, it is impossible to pass over the name of the gifted cuneiform scholar, George Smith. In 1872 Smith electrified Victorian England by discovering the greater part of the Babylonian account of the Flood among the tablets excavated by Layard and Rassam. [See Babylonians; and the biography of Smith.] Charged with the task of finding the missing portions of the story, he effectively achieved this aim within days of reaching Nineveh in the spring of 1873. Tragically, however, he was to die of dysentery soon after the end of his 1876 season. He was no more than thirty-six years old.

Subsequent British excavators include R. Campbell Thompson, who was at Nineveh In 1904–1905 and from 1927–1932. While Campbell Thompson did much to explore the poorly preserved remains of both the Nabu temple and the adjacent Temple of Ishtar (where he discovered the magnificent copper head that has been variously ascribed to either Sargon of Akkad or Naram-Sin), he also elected to introduce a sounding through the deep prehistoric strata of Kuyunjik in the course of his final season. This last, pioneer endeavor was supervised by his assistant, M. E. L. Mallowan, whose account (Mallowan, 1933) duly provided the first available overview of the early pottery sequence in northern Mesopotamia. [See the biography of Mallowan.]


NINEVEH. Plan of certain main elements of the city in the seventh century bce. The terrain outside the city wall was marked by the presence of substantial moats and ditches, especially to the east. (Courtesy D. Stronach)

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Each of the more recent excavations at Nineveh—beginning with those of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage from the second half of the 1960s onward and ending with those of the University of California at Berkeley between 1987 and 1990—have been shaped, at least in part, by the rapid post-1960 growth of the city of Mosul. Expressly, it was the pressure posed by a series of new building projects that persuaded Tariq Madhloom of the Department of Antiquities to devote a good part of his own efforts between 1965 and 1971 to the task of precisely locating, and then restoring, critical portions of the walls and gates of Nineveh's Neo-Assyrian defenses. In a direct complement to Madhloom's work, one of the main concerns of the Berkeley team, led by David Stronach, was to learn more about the nature of Nineveh's extensive lower town, especially within its still largely undisturbed northern sector.

Early Nineveh.

While little is yet known in any detail about Kuyunjik's very earliest phases of occupation, the site seems to have been closely related to innovative developments in southern Mesopotamia during the Uruk period (c. 4000–3000 BCE). There are also indications that the subsequent Ninevite-5 settlement (c. 3000–2500 BCE) was at least as large as any that had preceded it. However, the original, enduring fame of Nineveh stemmed from the repute of the city's time-honored diety, Ishtar of Nineveh. In an allusion, for example, to an event that had taken place five hundred years before his own reign, Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria (c. 1813–1781 BCE) boasted in an inscription that he was the first monarch to renovate the Temple of Ishtar “since Manishtushu, son of Sargon, king of Akkad.” [See Assyrians.]

Later Nineveh.

Beginning in the reign of Shalmaneser I (1273–1244 BCE), a number of Middle Assyrian, and then Neo-Assyrian, rulers chose to erect a royal residence on the high summit of Kuyunjik. Elsewhere, the flat ground directly to its north appears to have become the hub of a sizable lower town from at least the beginning of the first millennium BCE. The principal expansion of Nineveh is directly related, however, to a somewhat later sequence of events: to the ignominious death In 705 BCE of the father of Sennacherib, Sargon II, and to Sennacherib's subsequent decision to move the capital from Dur Sharrukin (Khorsabad)—Sargon's newly created and patently inauspicious seat of government—to the long-hallowed “eternal foundation” of Nineveh (Luckenbill, 1924, p. 94). [See Khorsabad.]

As can be gauged from Sennacherib's successive building inscriptions, the main axis of his palace eventually came to measure a remarkable 500 m in length. Among this structure's many “objects of astonishment” (to use Sennacherib's own phrase; see Luckenbill, 1924, p. 97) certain of its tall columns were supported by resplendent bronze lions, each cast in a striding but at the same time weight-bearing pose. The city as a whole was expanded to include an area of 750 ha (1,852 acres) and its imposing double walls came to cover a distance of some 12 km (7 mi.). While the massive inner mud-brick wall is likely to have been at least 25 m high, the less lofty outer wall would have presented a gleaming facade of finely dressed limestone masonry, capped by continuous stone crenellations. No fewer than fifteen city gates pierced this circuit. Of these, the Nergal Gate in the north wall was the most sumptuously appointed. Guarded by giant winged colossi, it stood on the course of a paved royal road that led southward to the palace mound of Kuyunjik. [See Palace.] At the same time, the northwestern portion of the lower town appears to have included both a crowded industrial quarter not far from the Sin Gate and, just inside the Mashki Gate (at a point closer to Kuyunjik), a more affluent district distinguished by spacious courtyard houses.

With the death of Sennacherib, the pace of construction slowed considerably. Esarhaddon (680–669 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (668–627 BCE) both continued to build on Tell Nebi Yunus, the second mound of Nineveh, where Sennacherib had already founded an imperial arsenal. However, much of this later work was never finished and, when it came to the construction of Ashurbanipal's extensive North Palace, toward the north end of Kuyunjik, it is perhaps telling that no attempt was made to replicate the 40-ton monolithic winged bulls of his grandfather's time. Conversely, the quality of at least a part of Ashurbanipal's relief sculpture, and most especially that depicting the great lion hunt (see above), can be ranked as unsurpassed in the history of Mesopotamian art. An informative relief from about 645 BCE, which shows a royal park watered by a tall aqueduct, also provides one of several indications of the keen delight that Sennacherib and his successors took in providing Nineveh and its environs with parks, gardens, and even nature reserves. It demonstrates as well the singular feats of engineering, including dam and aqueduct construction, that made such choice amenities possible. [See Aqueducts; Gardens, article on Gardens in Preclassical Times.] As has been recently pointed out, in fact, the true locale of the famed Hanging Gardens may not have been Babylon but, given the nature of the extant evidence, Assyrian Nineveh (Dalley, 1994).

Biblical References.

Many of the biblical references made to Nineveh can be seen to reflect either changing historical circumstances, competing religious messages, or descriptive matter that ranges from the legendary to the real. In Genesis 10:11–12, Nineveh is listed as one of the major cities of Mesopotamia that owed its foundation to Nimrod, the great grandson of Noah. The erstwhile glory of Nineveh is perhaps best reflected, however, in the Book of Jonah (where, as an object of god's grace, the city is said to have been spared, not overthrown). In a reference to the exceptional size of Nineveh, it is said to have taken “three days' journey” to cross it (Jon. 3:3). This is known to be hyperbole and, on the evidence of the three-day period Jonah is said to have spent in the belly of the great fish, a formulaic use of the number 3 can be assumed. On the other hand, the ingathering of people and livestock that would certainly have occurred at the time of the siege of Nineveh could perhaps have brought the city's suddenly swollen population to the figure of “six score thousand persons” (together with “much cattle”) that is specified in Jonah 4:11. Apart from the fact that Muslim tradition places the tomb of Jonah on Tell Nebi Yunus (“the mound of the prophet Jonah”), Jonah's connection with Nineveh is also recalled in Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:30, 32. These last passages assert that the inhabitants of Nineveh, the “men of Nineveh” to whom Jonah had preached, would arise at the Last Judgment to condemn the generation of Jesus.


NINEVEH. Entrance to the recently excavated Halzi Gate. Located at the south end of Nineveh's long eastern wall, this gate was narrowed to a width of two meters in anticipation of the final Median and Babylonian assault. The gateway was nonetheless forced and the bed of the roadway (beneath the horizontal scale) was strewn with the heaped remains of those killed in that constricted space. (Courtesy D. Stronach)

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Other biblical references to Nineveh are of a more historical nature. These include two that allude to Sennacherib residing at Nineveh (2 Kgs. 19:36; Is. 37:37) and another that records his assassination by his sons at the same location (2 Kgs. 19:37). Of most interest, however, is the “vision of Nahum” in which the overthrow of Nineveh (at the command of, in this case, a vengeful and wrathful god) is “foretold.” Despite having been written well after the event, most probably in the Achaemenid period, the Book of Nahum carries the impact of an eyewitness account of the city's terrible fall. To begin with, the forceful image of the “myriads of slain” and the “heaps of corpses” that resulted from the sack of “the bloody city” (Na. 3:1–3) can be said to have found an all-too-realistic counterpart in the outstretched, tangled skeletons that came to light during the recent excavations at the Halzi Gate (Stronach, 1992). In additions, an insistence on the key role that water was made to play in the events that accompanied Nineveh's destruction (Na. 2:6) is not only echoed in other sources (see below), but would seem to stem from a detailed knowledge of the physical nature of the city's devastation.

Other Literary References.

The Babylonian Chronicle indicates that Nineveh fell in the high summer of 612 BCE following a siege of three months. The same source also relates that Nabopolassar (625–605 BCE), the victorious king of Babylon, held court in the palace at Nineveh before returning to his homeland with ashes collected from the ruins of the Assyrian capital. [See Babylon.] Herodotus is less informative. He refers to the march on Nineveh of Cyaxares, the king of Media (1.104); promises to relate in full the details of the fall of Nineveh (1.106); and, in the end, neglects to do so. According to Diodorus Siculus, writing in the late first century CE, Nineveh fell in the third year of a prolonged siege, when the Euphrates River rose in flood and breached the wall of the city (Diodorus 1.27.1–2). [See Euphrates.] In reality, however, neither the Tigris nor the Euphrates (invoked in obvious error) would ever have been in flood at the height of summer. Indeed, in following the details of Nahum's account, which mentions the opening of “the gates of the rivers,” the dissolving of “the palace” (an expression best taken to refer to rather less-vaunted structures at the level of the plain), and a degree of flooding that turned Nineveh into “a lake” (Na. 2:6, 8), it is preferable to suppose that the various sources for such an inundation consisted of the waters of the Khosr (which could have been effectively undammed upstream and redammed within the limits of the city) and the discharge of a number of Nineveh's still-operative canals. In sum, Nineveh was not only overthrown, it was also afflicted, after its fall, with many of the almost ritual terms of destruction (e.g., flooding and the removal of ashes) that Sennacherib had imposed on Babylon seventy-seven years earlier. Yet, the city of Nineveh did rise again (if never to its previously exalted status), especially during the last few centuries BCE and the first centuries CE, when it is known that a limited Hellenistic occupation was followed by an interval when both the Parthians and the Romans left a definite imprint on the site.


NINEVEH. Detail of a number of tangled skeletons on the partly cobbled roadway of the Halzi Gate. Those cut down at this spot recall Nahum's image of Nineveh's “myriads of slain” (Na. 3:1–3). (Courtesy D. Stronach)

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David Stronach and Kim Codella