Architecture (Part 11): Assyrian Palaces

Temples with & without ziggurats were built at Assyria.  But by the late Assyrian period, palaces were much more important & more numerous, emphasizing the monarchy’s importance.

In the 800’s BC, Ashurnasirpal II restored & enlarged the city of Nimrud, and had a palace built within its walls.  The north-west wing was the most public, and at the north was a large public outer court. A suite of apartments (including for the women) was on the east side, and a series of large banqueting halls on the south side.

This would become the traditional Assyrian palace plan.  Palace remains at Nineveh, Nimrud and Kouyunjik, built during the 700’s & 600’s BC, have similar plans, and are built on elevated platforms, surrounded by terraces.

Ashurnasirpal II’s palace.  Three huge doors on the outer court’s south wall led to the throne room, which was long & narrow, and ran nearly the whole width of the courtyard.

A flight of steps led to the palace, and the main entrance was guarded by lamassu – winged stone bulls made of stone.  They protected the gates from evil, with a lion’s fierceness, an eagle’s far-sightedness, a bull’s strength, and a human’s intelligence.

Lamassu at the palace entrance (destroyed by ISIS in 2015).

Below is a drawing of what an Assyrian palace may have looked like. This palace has an elevated, buttressed terrace, a flight of steps lined with carved figures as homage to the king, an open upper storey to admit light, and a roof ridge with battlements.

Assyrian bas-reliefs depicted powerful, life-like men and animals. The sculptors were knowledgeable of anatomy & movement, and how to carve it; at the same time they stylized the subject for ornament.

Orthostats (large stone panels) were arranged in tiers on high walls, and as friezes on low walls.  Fierce beasts, bulls, griffins and lions were common subjects.  Sometimes the king was shown killing them, to demonstrate his bravery, and symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.

Pavement slab from the North Palace at Nineveh.  The outer border is decorated with a pattern based on the lotus flower, similar to Ancient Egyptian ornamentation.  Narrow bands of circular rosettes divide them from the inner border of stylized flowers, and another stylized flower in the centre.

Sculptured ornamental border from Nineveh.  It depicts lamassu and stylized plants, which are perhaps a sacred tree.  Borders of flowers & animals were sometimes painted on ceiling beams, with gilding & precious stones to add richness & contrast.

Sculpted panels in the ruins of the Palace of Nineveh show some of the architectural details made by the Assyrian builders (or possibly Greek builders).  On of these details was voluted capitals (capitals with a spiral, scroll-like ornament on top), and they looked similar tot he Greek Ionic & Corinthian capitals, which also had volutes.

An Ionic capital on the Treasury Building (Washington D.C., USA).

The Obelisk of Divanubara (Nineveh, c.800 BC) was built with sun-baked and kiln-burned bricks.  It tapered towards the top, with stepped layers on top.  Carvings and inscriptions showed that it had a funerary purpose.

Obelisk of Divanubara.

Neo-Assyrian Glazed Terracotta Tile from Nimrud (Kalhu), Iraq, c. 883-859 BC

A clue to the colour scheme of an ancient palace:

This glazed tile was found by the excavator Henry Layard at the Assyrian city of Nimrud. Along with the stone reliefs, it was part of the decorative scheme of the royal palace, although few examples survived Nimrud’s destruction in the seventh century BC.

This example depicts an Assyrian king, possibly Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BC), accompanied by his bodyguard and attendants. It was probably part of a sequence showing the king as triumphant warrior and hunter. Such tiles provide a clue to the kind of colour scheme used for the relief panels. The decoration was executed in yellow, black and green (perhaps originally red) paint. These were made from natural materials.

It is likely that most major Assyrian buildings had paintwork at least in the reception rooms. Ashurnasirpal recorded that he had represented his triumphs in paintings. There were murals on the walls above the carved stone panels and the ceilings were also painted.

Glazed bricks are mentioned first in the second half of the second millennium BC when the mastery of the mechanical properties of glass had become known.

Relief of an Assyrian eagle-headed protective spirit from the Temple of Ninurta in Nimrud. Across the body runs Ashurnasirpal’s “Standard Inscription”, which records some of the king’s titles and achievements and is repeated on many of his stone reliefs. The cuneiform inscription was cut after the figure was carved, as some of the details of decoration on the dress have been chiselled through.

Neo-Assyrian Stone Relief from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud (Kalhu), Iraq, c. 883-859 BC

A Protective Spirit:

This relief, carved on alabaster, was one of a pair which guarded an entrance into the private apartments of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BC), at his palace in Kalhu, the capital of Assyria. The protection of the entrance to a building using magic was a long-standing tradition in Mesopotamia. Images of supernatural creatures were sometimes buried under doorways or set up at the entrances of palaces and temples. Their magical strength was intended to frighten away evil demons.

The figure of a man with wings may be the supernatural creature called an apkallu in cuneiform texts. He wears a tasseled kilt and a fringed and embroidered robe. His curled mustache, long hair and beard are typical of figures of this date. Across the body runs Ashurbanipal ‘Standard Inscription’, which records some of the king’s titles and achievements and is repeated on many of his stone reliefs. The inscription was cut after the figure was carved, as some of the details of decoration on the dress have been chiseled through. The significance of the goat and giant ear of corn that the figure carries is not known.

This relief is currently safe and sound in the British Museum.


Ancient Worlds - BBC Two 

Episode 2 “The Age of Iron”

In ancient Assyria, lion-hunting was considered the sport of kings; a symbol of the king’s ability to guard the nation.

Numerous carvings from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (in Nineveh) have been found, depicting the king hunting and killing lions. The hunting scenes, full of tension and realism, rank among the finest achievements of Assyrian Art.

Assurbanipal (668-627 BC) -also known as Ashurbanipal- was king of of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. He achieved the greatest territorial expansion of the Assyrian Empire. Toward the end of his reign, however, the empire had grown too large and too difficult to properly defend. The Assyrian Empire was already crumbling toward the end of his reign and, with his death, fell apart completely.

The king was a great patron of the arts. He established his famous library, the Library of Ashurbanipal, of over 30.000 clay tablets at Nineveh.

The British Museum, London, UK


An Assyrian King Taking A Swim in the Euphrates

This Neo-Assyrian relief from the North-West Palace at Nimrud, dating from c. 865-860 BC, depicts Ashurnasirpal II and his army crossing the Euphrates River.  He is depicted wearing an Assyrian helmet while using an inflated animal skin as a flotation device. Horses swim next to him while his dissembled chariots are being carried across the river in small boats called coracles.

Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 884-859 BC) was the third king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. His father, Tukulti-Ninurta II, led many successful military campaigns and left his son the means to equip a formidable army.  Ashurnasirpal II was known for consolidating the Assyrian Empire through ruthless conquest and the cruel punishment of his enemies. He led his army on successful campaigns across the Euphrates and all the way to the Mediterranean. He was also famous for his magnificent palace at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) whose wall reliefs depicting his successes, like the one pictured above, are on display in museums around the world. This relief is currently located at the British Museum.

A close-up image of the “Standard Inscription” of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II. This is part of a wall relief that depicts an Apkallu (a protective spirit or sage). The Apkallu’s left hand wears a bracelet with a “rosette” and holds a bucket (banduddu in Akkadian). A part of a sword with two lion heads is also seen. This inscription tells us the king’s title and achievements and is repeated on almost all wall reliefs at the North-West palace. Neo-Assyrian era, 865-860 BCE. From the North-West palace at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu; biblical Calah), northern Mesopotamia, Iraq. (The British Museum, London).


The Hanging Gardens of Babylon… In Assyria?

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is believed to have been built by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 600 BCE for his Median wife who missed the lush green hills of her homeland. The Hanging Gardens was considered to be one of the distinguishing landmarks of the city of Babylon, and many Roman sources exist attesting to their beauty. However, no extant Babylonian texts or texts contemporary with the reign of Nebuchadnezzar ever mention a garden, and no definitive archaeological evidence for a garden has ever been found in the site of Babylon.

Due to the lack of definitive evidence, scholars have debated whether the Hanging Gardens of Babylon actually existed or if it was simply a poetic creation. However, a new theory by Stephanie Dalley of Oxford University states that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon did exist, just not in Babylon. Dr. Dalley proposes that the Hanging Gardens was actually built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704-681 BCE) in the city of Nineveh, and that the legend simply became attributed to the wrong king and the wrong city over time.  

Keep reading

A hand of the Goddess Ishtar (Inanna). This is a decorative element of architecture which was used in temples and palaces. It is inscribed with cuneiform inscriptions and was found in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II to commemorate the new foundation of God Ninurta’s temple at Nimrud, the Assyrian capital. Reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE), Nimrud, Mesopotamia, Sulaimaniya Museum, Iraq.


Ancient Worlds - BBC Two 

Episode 2 “The Age of Iron”

Ashurnasirpal II was king of Assyria from 883 to 859 BC.

During his reign he embarked on a vast program of expansion and his campaigns brought Assyria great wealth and led to the establishment of the New Assyrian Empire, one of the Near East’s major powers.

He is perhaps best known for the brutal frankness with which he described the atrocities committed on his captives. The details of his reign are known almost entirely from his own inscriptions and the splendid reliefs in the ruins of his palace at Calah (or Kalhu, now Nimrud).

The annals of Ashurnasirpal II give a detailed account of the campaigns of his first six years as king and show him moving from one corner of his empire to another, putting down rebellions, reorganizing provinces, exacting tribute, and meeting opposition with calculated ruthlessness.

A raid by Ashurnasirpal II on a kingdom in what is now south-easter Turkey netted the following plounder:

40 chariots complete with trappings and horses, 460 horses, 2.000 cattle, 500 sheep; silver, gold lead, copper and iron in varying but large amounts; fine linen, various pieces of fancy furniture including ‘couches made of ivory and inlaid with gold’, the ruler’s sister, the daughters of his nobles 'and their rich dowries’ and 15.000 subjects who were 'snatched away and brought to Assyria’ as slaves. The king also imposed an annual tribute of sheep, grain, gold and silver. And these were the proceeds from just one of fifteen victims in that year’s campaign season.

Pictures: The powerful Assyrian army and its vast empire

Assyrian Jewelry Chain (Grave Goods), from Ashur, Middle Assyrian Period, c. 14th-13th Century BC

Currently located in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.

The ancient site of Ashur, dating to the 3rd millennium BC, is located on the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia. It was the first capital of the Assyrian Empire and remained so from the 14th to the 9th century BC until the reign of the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC), who moved the capital to Kalhu (modern Nimrud). The city survived the fall of the Assyrian empire in the 7th century BC, and it flourished again in the Hellenistic and Parthian periods until the 2nd century AD.

Ashur also served as the religious capital of the Assyrians, named after Ashur, the head of the Assyrian pantheon in Mesopotamian religion. He was the Mesopotamian equivalent of the Babylonian god Marduk.

A map & more about Ashur…