Nineveh was an Assyrian city on the east bank of the Tigris River, opposite modern Mosul in Iraq. The Ḫosr River, an offshoot of the Tigris, ran east through the city. Although inhabited for millennia, Nineveh gained notoriety primarily during the seventh century B.C.E., when it served as the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire at the time it exercised hegemony over much of the Near East, including the Levant. The city was renowned in biblical memory for its immense size and its wickedness.

History Nineveh was inhabited almost continuously from deep in prehistoric times, perhaps as early as the seventh millennium B.C.E. in the early Hassuna period. Excavations in the Ishtar Temple reveal an important cult center from the middle of the third millennium. In the ensuing thousand years Nineveh remained significant enough to merit mention in sources from such rulers as Shulgi of Ur (late twenty-first century B.C.E.) and Shamshi-Adad of Assyria and Hammurabi of Babylon (both eighteenth century B.C.E.). During the height of the Middle Assyrian period in the fourteenth century B.C.E., Nineveh served a crucial role in the empire’s expansion to the northwest. The city appears to have grown to a stature second only to the imperial capital at Ashur.

The Neo-Assyrian kings of the first millennium B.C.E. similarly valued Nineveh, culminating in Sennacherib’s promotion of the city to serve as Assyria’s administrative capital shortly after his assumption of the throne in 705 B.C.E. Though his successors continued to govern from there except for a brief foray to Calah during the end of Esarhaddon’s reign, it is Sennacherib who is most closely associated with the city, and for good reason. Sennacherib floridly declared Nineveh “the exalted cult center, the city loved by the goddess Ištar in which all the rituals for gods and goddesses are present; the enduring foundation and eternal base whose plan had been designed by the stars of the firmament and whose arrangement was made manifest since time immemorial” (translation following Grayson and Novotny, 37 and passim). He greatly enlarged the city in both size and prestige, sponsoring numerous building projects such as a 12-kilometer city wall, multiple palaces including the famous South-West Palace, and several temple restorations.

Nineveh was by far the most important city in Assyria, and the entire ancient Near East, through most of the seventh century B.C.E. The Babylonian Chronicle dispassionately reports Nineveh’s destruction in 612 by a Median-Babylonian alliance led by Cyaxares and Nabopolassar, narrating their march to Nineveh and overthrow of the city. The event signaled a watershed moment in ancient history; it is from this moment that historians mark the end of the Assyrian Empire and the rise of Babylonia. Nineveh’s downfall merited colorful, and wildly erroneous, descriptions by later classical authors such as Xenophon and Berossus. Herodotus refers to having composed a lengthy account of the city’s demise, but if such a narrative ever existed, it is unfortunately no longer extant. In the centuries following the defeat Nineveh was sporadically reoccupied, but it never regained anything like its former status.

Archaeology Excavations began at Nineveh in 1820 and the site has been excavated intensively, if intermittently, since 1842. Many renowned Mesopotamian archaeologists have been involved with the site in the last two centuries, most famously Austen Henry Layard, who guided excavations from 1847 to 1855. Layard initially discovered Ashurbanipal’s library and unearthed numerous reliefs now on display at the British Museum; his first excavation account, Nineveh and Its Remains (1849), remains a captivating and informative work. Since its first excavation Nineveh has offered extraordinary finds, including tens of thousands of inscribed tablets, numerous wall reliefs, colossal statues, the famous “Head of Sargon,” and more.

Nineveh’s size after Sennacherib’s promotion of the city is staggering. He constructed a wall, the ruins of which are still visible, running 12 kilometers around the city. The fortification actually consisted of an inner wall, named “Wall Whose Brilliance Overwhelms Enemies,” and an outer wall, named “Wall, Terrorizer of Enemies.” He records the inner wall as being 40 bricks thick (approximately 15 meters) and 180 rows high (approximately 25 meters), dimensions consistent with archaeological findings. He does not record the dimensions of the outer wall, made of stone rather than brick, but based on the remains it is estimated to have been about 11 meters thick and 4.5 meters high (Grayson and Novotny, 17 n. 42). Outside the outer wall was a moat (whether it was filled with water or dry remains a matter of debate) about 55 meters wide. To exit and enter the city he installed 18 gates in the city wall, each with a name that praises a deity and/or identifies the pertinent area inside or just outside the gate. Outside the city Sennacherib oversaw a vast canal system that helped irrigate a garden, a game park, and the extensive orchards and fields cultivated in the surrounding region.

Kuyunjik and Nabi Yunus Two tells within the city wall have been the target of most of the excavations at Nineveh. Most prominently, the mound Kuyunjik rises 25 to 30 meters above the surrounding area and encompasses 45 hectares adjacent to the long western city wall. The Ḫosr runs to the southeast of the tell. Kuyunjik served as the religious and administrative center of the city. Several temples lie on the tell, including the Ishtar Temple (Emašmaš), the Nabu Temple (Ezida), and others. The Ishtar Temple served as one of the major cult centers of Mesopotamia for nearly two millennia, until the destruction of Nineveh. Several rulers of the Middle and Neo-Assyrian empires recounted their renovations to the temple in annals.

Kuyunjik also features an abundance of palaces, most notably the South-West Palace, christened by Sennacherib the “Palace without a Rival.” Situated just inside the wall and south of the Ishtar Temple, the South-West Palace was an impressive edifice even in Middle Assyrian times, but became truly massive when enlarged and adorned by Sennacherib during the first half of his reign. Dozens of rooms and courtyards have been excavated in an area of some 6,000 square meters, and much of the palace remains below ground. Although a lack of small objects betrays substantial looting after the sack of Nineveh, a vast number of large artifacts were found in the palace, most of which have been removed to various museums, especially the British Museum. Most striking among the finds are several reliefs, most over 6 meters high, portraying various scenes from Sennacherib’s military campaigns, as well as a number of colossal figures of creatures such as bulls, lions, and spirits. Second in size and stature among the residential buildings is the North Palace, which served as the House of Succession (bīt ridûti) for Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and probably Ashurbanipal, before the latter tore down the old structure and rebuilt it from scratch for his own residence. The latter building has been only partially excavated, but it appears to have measured about 125 meters by 250 meters in a roughly rectangular shape.

The second tell within the walls of Nineveh, Nabi Yunus, is more modest in size than Kuyunjik and much less extensively excavated. The tell, located about a kilometer southeast of Kuyunjik and also adjacent to the city wall, encompasses 15 hectares and rises about 15 meters above the surrounding city. The primary structure excavated on Nabi Yunus was the “Review Palace” (ekal māšarti) or arsenal, a large building in which military exercises took place. The site is better known for the Christian shrine, and later mosque, erected there, which included a sepulcher traditionally held to contain the remains of the biblical prophet Jonah (Nabi Yunus being Arabic for “the Prophet Jonah”). Unfortunately, in 2014 the Islamic State (ISIL) declared the mosque a site of apostasy and destroyed it. Fortuitously, however, when Iraqi forces drove ISIL from Mosul in 2017 archaeologists discovered an Assyrian palace underneath the site of the mosque. Preliminary reports indicate that the palace is decently preserved, but as of the time of this writing excavations have not begun and the future of the site remains uncertain.

The Library of Ashurbanipal Most significant among the finds at Nineveh—and arguably among the finds anywhere in the ancient Near East—was the “Library of Ashurbanipal.” Layard began uncovering tablets in Ashurbanipal’s North Palace in the late 1840s and in the ensuing decades over 30,000 clay tablets were unearthed there and in the nearby structures. The texts proved crucial to the continuing decipherment of cuneiform, and they also introduced us to some of the most famous literature of Mesopotamia. For example, in 1853 Hormuzd Rassam discovered a copy of the famous Epic of Gilgamesh, including a version of the flood myth paralleling much of the Noah story in Genesis, which was translated and published by George Smith in the 1870s. The circulation of this story sent shockwaves throughout the world as both conservative biblical interpreters and those advocating the mythic nature of the flood story immediately appealed to the story to back up their positions.

But literary texts constituted only a small portion of the library. Among the thousands of discrete texts were divinatory, medical, lexical, administrative, and many other genres of text. Although the label “library” appears to be appropriate—there is ample evidence that Ashurbanipal, who celebrated his own learning, including his literacy, deliberately sought to collect all sorts of texts from throughout the empire to have at his disposal—many details of the library elude us. We do not know how many total texts there were, or even how many discrete texts we now have, given that most of the extant tablets are broken and many probably belong to a single work. Moreover, given the habits of nineteenth-century archaeology, the find spots of the texts are largely unknown. Most were discovered in Ashurbanipal’s palace, but several clearly emerged from the nearby temples, so one cannot be certain of the precise nature of the various collections. Nevertheless, we do know that several Assyrian rulers actively collected tablets, culminating in Ashurbanipal’s voracious acquisitional habit, which ultimately led to a spectacular discovery that essentially birthed the discipline of Assyriology.

Nineveh in the Bible Nineveh appears seventeen times in the Hebrew Bible and twice in the New Testament: Gen 10:11, 12; 2 Kgs 19:36//Isa 37:37; Nah 1:1; 2:9; 3:7; Zeph 2:13; Jon 1:2; 3:2, 3 (twice), 4, 5, 6, 7; 4:11; Matt 12:41//Luke 11:32 (cf. 11:30).

The two references in Genesis occur in the odd tangent about Nimrod, the “mighty hunter before the LORD” (Gen 10:9), in the Table of Nations. The narrator states that after founding the first four cities of Mesopotamia, Nimrod “went into Assyria, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir [alternatively translated “Nineveh, broadest of cities”; see Sasson 2010, 72], Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah” (10:10–11). Its mention as the first of the Assyrian cities is consistent with its genuine historical preeminence, at least during the zenith of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Given this preeminence and the unequaled geopolitical influence of Assyria through much of the period of the divided monarchy, it is surprising that the Deuteronomistic History mentions Nineveh only once. After the famous showdown between Sennacherib and Hezekiah in 701 B.C.E., reported almost identically in 2 Kings 18–19 and Isaiah 36–37, Sennacherib “went home, and lived at Nineveh” (2 Kgs 19:36//Isa 37:37). At Nineveh, unbeknownst to the biblical storyteller, Sennacherib had an enormous set of reliefs created that portrayed the Assyrian victory over Lachish, one of Hezekiah’s major cities. The reliefs were uncovered by Layard in the 1840s and brought to London, where they have been displayed in the British Museum ever since. The immensity of the reliefs and their position in Sennacherib’s throne room demonstrate that the conflict with Judah was significant to the Assyrians.

Nineveh’s major biblical appearances are in the Minor Prophets. Zephaniah—a book whose composition is difficult to date, though it is set during the reign of Josiah, which spanned the period during which Nineveh fell from greatness and was destroyed—includes a note about Nineveh’s coming desolation among a section of oracles against the nations (2:13). More saliently, Nineveh is central to a pair of prophets, Nahum and Jonah. The former introduces itself as “an oracle concerning Nineveh” (1:1). Most commentators treat Nahum as a genuine late-seventh-century B.C.E. work, composed in the years preceding Nineveh’s downfall, when Assyria’s specter constantly hung over Judah. Loathing for Assyria pervades the entire brief book: Nineveh is referred to as “city of bloodshed” (3:1) with numerous evils recounted—“For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (3:19). The prophet gleefully pronounces the city’s imminent doom: “I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle. Then all who see you will shrink from you and say, ‘Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?’ Where shall I seek comforters for you?” (3:6–7).

Many Bible readers remember Nineveh more sympathetically, because the city is portrayed much differently in its most celebrated appearance in the canon. Nineveh features in the book of Jonah, a short tale dated by most commentators to the postexilic period, at least in its current form. The opening of the book again points to Nineveh’s debauchery as Yahweh instructs Jonah to “go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me” (1:2). After Jonah flees and undergoes his ordeal with the great fish, Yahweh again instructs him, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (3:2). He complies, the Ninevites repent immediately, and Yahweh decides not to punish the city. Most critical commentators view Jonah as fiction and do not mine the book for historical information. But Nineveh’s enormity is clearly important. It is referred to as “that great city” three times (1:2; 3:2; 4:11), as well as “an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across” (3:3). The abrupt conclusion to Jonah also notes that “more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons” inhabited Nineveh. The latter number may indeed be low—some Assyriologists venture estimates as high as 300,000 or even 700,000 for the population of Nineveh at its floruit—but the biblical number “nevertheless must have been beyond the comprehension of a Jerusalem citizen, whose city expanded to 24,000 souls after the fall of Samaria” (Sasson, 312). The text also features a curious reference to an unnamed “king of Nineveh” (3:6), a nonsensical (and unparalleled) phrase since the city would not have had its own king—this would be comparable to referring to “the President of Washington, DC.” Many commentators take this as a simple anachronism in a book composed long after Nineveh’s doom, but others consider it a literary feature intended to emphasize the genre of the book as akin to a folk tale. Some suspect that even the selection of Nineveh as the story’s setting may simply be a wordplay resulting from the cuneiform sign used to write the name of the city, which involves a symbol of an enclosure with a fish inside. This may be, but it is at least equally plausible that Nineveh’s renowned size and prominence as the Assyrian capital determined its use in the story. Needless to say, nothing resembling the city-wide repentance is documented in any Assyrian historical sources.

Nineveh’s role in the Jonah story also occasions its brief appearance in the New Testament, in the parallel passages of Jesus describing the sign of Jonah (Matt 12:3942; Luke 11:29–32). When the Pharisees ask for a sign, Jesus declares that “the people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!” (Matt 12:41).

Nineveh and Babylon The relative paucity of mentions of Nineveh in the Old Testament is highlighted by the approximately 250 references to Babylon, the other great Mesopotamian city during the period of the divided monarchy. A few factors account for this. First and foremost, Nineveh rose and fell primarily during the seventh century B.C.E., a time of fluctuating fortunes, but survival, for the small Judahite kingdom. Although caught between the warring great powers of Egypt and Assyria, Judah somehow persevered from before Sennacherib’s promotion of Nineveh to a few decades after Assyria’s downfall. On the other hand, the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar overthrew Jerusalem, and much of the population transplanted to either Egypt or Babylon. Many of those responsible for the biblical text not only viewed Babylon as the archetypal enemy because of this, but also may have had ancestors who lived, or even themselves lived, under Babylonian rule.

In addition to this, in the Persian period and later the histories of Nineveh and Babylon were frequently conflated (see Van De Mieroop). Many classical historians routinely confuse the two, often writing anecdotes about Babylon that clearly applied to Nineveh. This can be seen even in the work of the Chronicler, who records that the king of Assyria “took Manasseh captive in manacles, bound him with fetters, and brought him to Babylon” (2 Chr 33:11). This is undoubtedly inaccurate; Manasseh’s captivity occurred shortly after Sennacherib ravaged Babylon and there would have been no reason for the Assyrian ruler to hold him there. Rather, foreign kings would have kept such prisoners in the capital city, at Nineveh. There is no obvious reason why the Chronicler would have deliberately changed this detail, so it most likely was a simple error. The conflation of Nineveh and Babylon can also be seen in two deuterocanonical works of the Hasmonean period.

Nineveh in the Apocrypha Nineveh appears three times in Judith and eighteen times in Tobit, both works composed in the last few centuries B.C.E. Judith opens by setting the stage in “the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh” (1:1). Nebuchadrezzar is twice more placed in Nineveh (1:16; 2:21). Historically, of course, it was his father Nabopolassar who destroyed Nineveh and ended the Assyrian Empire; Nebuchadrezzar was a Babylonian ruler who had nothing to do with the city. Why Judith places him in Nineveh remains a mystery—it would be odd for the narrator not to know that Nebuchadrezzar historically ruled from Babylon as this fact was well known, especially among the Jews for whom Nebuchadrezzar held a special place among villains. It could be that the narrator simply did not care about such details, or it could be a deliberate note to the reader not to worry about such matters in the story.

Nineveh factors more heavily into the story of Tobit, who is presented as a Naphtalite exiled to the Assyrian capital during the final days of the Northern Kingdom. Tobit, too, is so riddled with anachronisms as to be devoid of historical value (although at least the kings mentioned in the story—Shalmaneser, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon—actually ruled Assyria), though it fascinates as a late drama set in this era. Nineveh’s reputation for depravity again shines through. As Tobit lies on his deathbed, having endured a tumultuous life and emerged prosperous at the end on account of his piety, he instructs his son Tobias to depart the city where he spent most of his life, even citing the prophecy of Nahum, described above: “I believe the word of God that Nahum spoke about Nineveh, that all these things will take place and overtake Assyria and Nineveh. … On whatever day you bury your mother beside me, do not stay overnight within the confines of the city. For I see that there is much wickedness within it, and that much deceit is practiced within it, while the people are without shame” (14:4, 10).

Bibliography

  • Christensen, Duane L. Nahum: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, esp. 52–64. Anchor Bible 24F. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Collon, Dominique, and Andrew George, eds. Nineveh: Papers of the XLIXe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, London 7–11 July 2003. 2 vols. London: British Institute for the Study of Iraq, 2005.
  • Grayson, A. Kirk, and Jamie Novotny. The Royal Inscriptions of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (704–681 BC), Part 1, esp. 16–22. The Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period 3/1. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2012.
  • Layard, Austen Henry. Nineveh and Its Remains: The Gripping Journals of the Man Who Discovered the Buried Assyrian Cities. New York: Skyhorse, 2013. Originally published London: John Murray, 1849.
  • Reade, Julian. “Ninive.” In Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, vol. 9: Nab—Nuzi, edited by Dietz Otto Edzard, 388–439. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998–2001.
  • Reade, Julian. “The Ishtar Temple at Nineveh.” Iraq 67 (2005): 347–390.
  • Robson, Eleanor. “Reading the Libraries of Assyria and Babylonia.” In Ancient Libraries, edited by Jason König, Katerina Oikonomopolou, and Greg Woolf, 38–56. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Russell, John Malcolm. Sennacherib’s Palace without Rival at Nineveh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Sasson, Jack M. Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretations. Anchor Bible 24B. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Ussishkin, David. The Conquest of Lachish by Sennacherib. Tel Aviv: Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, 1982.
  • Van De Mieroop, Marc. “A Tale of Two Cities: Nineveh and Babylon.” Iraq 66 (2004): 1–5.

Andrew Knapp