Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city*

Much as I’d love to go to Nineveh, that great city, the security situation in Iraq at present does not allow it so I’ve had to make do with the wonderful exhibition at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden.

Rijksmuseum van Oudheden

In its heyday, of all the cities in the ancient Neo-Assyrian empire, Nineveh was the greatest and the most populous. It has had a lasting impact on western consciousness, particularly on account of Biblical references, especially relating to Jonah, and its semi-mythical status.

Etching of Jonah made by Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert between 1548 and 1552, Rijksmuseum.

Situated on the east bank of the Tigris River and encircled by the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Nineveh was located at the intersection of importants trade routes crossing the Tigris on their way between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. It was the capital city of Assyria’s most powerful kings and the hub of the Neo-Assyrian Empire at its height.

The area of Nineveh has been settled since the late neolithic period, around 6,000BCE and there has been a city there since at least 3000BCE. During the Old Assyrian period (around 1800BCE), the city was known as an important centre for the worship of Ishtar, the ancient goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility, war and power.

The expansion and embellishment of Nineveh as a royal city began in 705BCE on the accession of King Sennacherib, after the death on the battlefield of King Sargon II – ‘The Unfortunate’. This is when Nineveh turned from a primarily religious centre into a royal capital.

The walls of the palaces were clad in limestone panels with reliefs depicting kings and other important men, battle scenes, gory scenes of the execution of prisoners and, less gorily, daily life.

Much of what we know about the rulers and events in the history of Nineveh, the names of kings, information about great battles, building projects and religious life, comes from the contemporary texts, written on clay and stone in cuneiform. Many texts are yet to be deciphered, but the epigraphic habit of the Assyrian courts has yielded important information.

Clay cylinder describing the construction of the palace of Sennacherib, 704-681 BCE, Nineveh.

Mud brick from the ziggurat of Nimrud, inscribed with the name of King Shalmaneser III, 859-824BCE, Nimrud.

Even the limestone floor tiles from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (9th c. BCE) were covered with text, here, an ode to the king.

The exhibition at the RVO has sections on different aspects of Nineveh; its wider historical and cultural context, biblical references, it rediscovery by western explorers (although it was long known about by Arab scholars), the construction and expansion of the city, trade, religion and daily life.

There is also an extensive section on Nineveh’s more recent history. When daesh invaded the city of Mosul in 2014, one of their stated aims was to destroy the ancient city. In early 2015, the group began posting films of artefacts, sculptures and even parts of the city wall begin destroyed. The two Iamasi below are similar to those featured in one particular destruction video posted by the terrorists.

Replicas of two Iamasi from Nimrud (the originals are in the British Museum).

This part of the exhibition examines the evidence for recent destruction and the response of the international community of archaeologists, heritage experts, scientists and digital imaging experts in their efforts to record and retain as much information about the city as possible, even in the face of its destruction.

Mosul and Nineveh

This has included the use of satellite imaging, 3d printing, digital photography, CGI and even the use of small drones, used to investigate, among other things, a series of underground tunnels dug by daesh fighters, which unwittingly uncovered new discoveries of antiquities.

I’ve posted a little film about this last initiative on youtube but don’t expect too much quality-wise. It was just me pointing my camera at the projection on the wall. It’s an interesting watch nevertheless.

 

The exhibition ‘Ninevah – Heart of an ancient empire‘  is on at the Rijksmusem van Oudheden in Leiden until 25th March 2018.

*Jonah 1:2

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