Assyrian civilization

city of Assur

A reconstruction of the city of Assur, the ancient of Assyria, which was excavated by the Germans Koldewey and Andrae. It was bounded on the east by quays that stretched for nearly half a mile along the river Tigris. Excavations show that the Sumerians settled on the site of Assur before 3500 BC.

Vases found at Assur

Vases found at Assur.

Dur Sharrukim

Dur-Sharrukim, the great city built by Sargon II about 12 miles from Nineveh.

An Assyrian carving of a winged beast

An Assyrian carving of a winged beast, with the body of a lion and a human head, from Dur-Sharrukim.

Palace of Sargon II

The entrance to Sargon ll's palace at Dur-Sharrukim, guarded by magnificently carved winged beasts like the one shown earlier.

In the early nineteenth century little was known about the fabulous civilizations of Mesopotamia. People knew, of course, that long before the Greek and Roman empires – even before the pyramids were built in Egypt – a great civilization had been centred on the rivers Tigress and Euphrates. But no doubt as they looked at that region as it was then, a desolate, lawless outpost of the corrupt and feeble Turkish empire, they found it hard to believe that this land ad ever seen the gorgeous palaces and cities, magnificent libraries, and high degree of culture associated with the names of Babylonia, Sumer, and Assyria.


Then a series of expeditions to northern Mesopotamia suddenly laid bare the glories of the ancient Assyrian empire. The treasures of another world were revealed for posterity. The men who made these immortal discoveries were the Frenchmen Paul Botta, the Englishman Henry Layard, and the Germans Koldeway and Andrae.


The search begins

Paul Emile Botta was the French Consul at Mosul in northern Mesopotamia. He was determined to uncover what, if anything, was left of the ancient Assyrian civilization. In particular he wanted to find the great Assyrian capitol Nineveh, which, according to tradition, was buried under great mounds of earth just outside Mosul.


In 1842 he began to excavate a massive mound called Kouyunjik. His results were disappointing, but one day an Arab who had been watching Botta with his workmen told him that in his own village, 14 miles north, people kept finding carved stones and clay bricks covered with mysterious marks wherever they dug a spade into the ground. Botta sent a few workmen north to the Arab's village; they found a wall lined with carved stone slabs. Botta joined them and they began to excavate. It was not long before they discovered rooms, halls, and corridors – all part of a huge palace.


Botta was thrilled. He believed he had found Nineveh. But in fact what he had uncovered was Dur-Sharrukim, the palace of Sargon ll, who had ruled over Assyria from 722 to 705 BC. The palace once stood in a great city with seven gates, and was raised 65 feet above the town on a brick platform covering 25 acres. Botta and his companions explored their discovery in amazement. It had 200 lofty rooms built round courtyards, and the inner walls were faced with two miles of sculptures in relief (carving in which a design stands out from the surface), showing kings, gods, and soldiers, fighting and worshipping their god Assur. Enormous winged lions and bulls with human heads guarded the palace portals. Botta had some of the best-preserved sculptures sent down the Tigris and on to France, where they can be seen today in the Louvre in Paris.


More discoveries

It was during Botta's explorations that a young Englishman, Henry Layard, arrived in Mesopotamia in search of adventure. He was fascinated by the country and decided to explore the other great mounds. Sir Stratford Canning (the British Ambassador to Turkey) helped him raise money to pay the Arab laborers, and in October 1845 his little expedition reached the region of the mounds. It was with great difficulty that he persuaded the Turkish ruler Mohammed Pasha to allow him to explore the mound of Nimroud, which he had decided was the most promising site. He engaged local Arabs to work for him, and soon they were unearthing rooms lined with alabaster slabs covered with cuneiform writing, and marvelously carved reliefs of men fighting and hunting lions, riding in chariots, attacking castles with battering rams, and receiving tribute from defeated enemies. Two huge winged animals with human heads, a lion and a bull, guarded the entrance to one of the three palaces, built by King Assurnasipal ll in 879 BC. Layard was determined to send these great stone animals back to England, as well as many sculptured slabs. After endless difficulties in getting them across the sands in a cart drawn first by buffaloes and finally by a crowd of Arabs (encouraged by songs, drums, and fifes), they were embarked on two rafts made of 600 blown-up sheepskins for the long journey down the Tigris to Basra on the Persian Gulf. The lion and the bull are now in the British Museum.


Layard left a fascinating record of his pioneer excavations, but he was hampered by the suspicious Pasha at Mosul and by the Arab's mistrust of foreigners. Nor did the British government give Layard sufficient help or encouragement. But his enthusiasm triumphed over all obstacles, and in the end his Arab helpers shared his excitements and successes, which were celebrated by colossal feasts and music and dancing.


Nineveh at last

After Nimroud, Layard began to dig the mound at Kouyunjik, in 1849, which Botta had abandoned some years earlier. Here at last he found Nineveh, which archaeologists had dreamed of finding for so long. In a month he had uncovered nine rooms of the palace of the great Assyrian king Sennacherib, who made Nineveh his capital at the height of Assyria's power between 705 and 681 BC. Gradually the mound revealed its treasures, and the finest Assyrian architecture and sculptures were disclosed; there were huge reliefs in colored marble of battles, fortresses, ships, and bearded warriors, archers, and horsemen pursuing terrified enemies; king rode in chariots with parasols held over them, along palm-fringed rivers full of fish; women and children were led away into slavery; lions, transfixed by arrows, leaped at their hunters in agony and rage.


There was more at Nineveh than palace halls and sculptures, winged lions and bulls. The most interesting discovery of all was the royal library of King Assurbanipal, Sennacherib's grandson. Thousands of clay tablets and cylinders were found, all covered with cuneiform writing. Scholars set to work to find the key to this writing. In 1857 they succeeded – Babylonian and Assyrian could be read.


An earlier capital

Assur, the ancient capital of Assyria before Nineveh, was excavated by the German archaeologists Koldewey and Andrae in 1903. They discovered palaces, temples (including the great temple and ziggurat of Assur, the chief Assyrian god), and many graves containing pottery, jars, and clay tablets.


Assyria was a country that contained quarries of limestone, alabaster, and stone. In architecture and sculpture Assyrians could build and carve works capable of lasting millennia. The Babylonians in their stoneless country could not. Part of the architectural grandeur of ancient Assyria remains intact today, while the sun-dried bricks of Babylon have long since crumbled to dust.


A reconstruction of the city of Assur, the ancient capital of Assyria, which was excavated by the Germans Koldewey and Andrae. It was bounded on the east by quays which stretched for nearly half a mile along the river Tigris. Excavations show that the Sumerians settled on the site of Assur before 3500 BC.