The jewel of the Assyrian Empire was the capital city of Nineveh. Halfway between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas, astride the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent, the mighty fortress city was the center of a feared military state. From her position on the upper reaches of the Tigris River, Nineveh extracted tribute from other famous cities to the south—Sippar, Babylon, Kish, Nippur, Lagash and Ur. By 700 B.C. Assyrian kings, rich from East and West trade and ambitious from far-flung conquests, sat in state in Nineveh, city of 71 palace halls. Around them they built massive stone walls manned by armed soldiery.
Sculptors carving panels for the Palace of Sennacherib or the Temple of Ishtar might pause to watch the most disciplined troops in the world as they marched out through the gates of Nineveh onto the imperial highways leading toward the subjugated territories of Babylon, Syria and Egypt. Civilians, too, traveled the Assyrian roads—provincial governors, diplomats, envoys from client states, traders. Mailmen, bearing tablets of dried brick with impressed cuneiform characters, conveyed messages to and from the farthest limits of the empire.
Looking inward from the top of the ramparts, the sentries had a marvelous panorama spread before them. The city lay along an axis paralleling the Tigris, while a tributary stream, the Khoser, bisected it laterally. Near the western wall rose the heights of Nineveh, a rocky plateau 90 feet above the plain and a mile long, the summit of which gave a commanding view to the walls and beyond on every side.
The heights belonged to the kings and gods of Assyria. At the northern end stood the Palace of Ashurbanipal, at the southern end the Palace of Sennacherib, and between, the Temple of Ishtar and other public buildings. Here the king of Assyria took his ease, ruled his realm, and performed his religious duties to the tutelary deities of the nation.
The area below the Khoser was for the most part given over to the rude dwellings of the common people, the warren of humanity to be found in any metropolis, ancient or modern. A feature of lower Nineveh was the reputed Tomb of Jonah, who preached repentance to its inhabitants after his adventure with the whale.
Thousands of people thronged the streets of Nineveh. Nobles in brilliantly dyed gowns of linen and cotton contrasted with the roughly clad lower classes. Hard-bitten veterans of sanguinary battles swaggered along swinging their swords, fingering their daggers, jostling past meditative priests of the Ishtar cult. Merchants called out their wares from the stalls, most of them Arameans, the masters of finance who controlled the trade of the Fertile Crescent. Suddenly a buzz of excitement would begin. The crowds would separate on either side of the main thoroughfare, and the king would ride through surrounded by his flashing retinue of officials, secretaries and guards. He was on his way to war or hunt, to palace or temple.
The Assyrians were able to build solidly because, unlike the Babylonians who had no material better than the clay of the low-lying Plain of Shinar, they quarried stone in the foothills of their mountains. They put sturdy foundations underneath their main buildings, although they still tended to use brick for the superstructures. Like the Egyptians they had no labor problem because their victorious armies kept them supplied with forced laborers.
The majestic Palace of Sennacherib, rising several stories on the heights above the Khoser, had hundreds of rooms—from the imperial living quarters to the mint where bars of silver from Cilicia were coined into shekels. The arsenal of the palace was filled with weapons of iron, the metal that turned the tide toward the Assyrians in so many conflicts with foes who had not yet emerged from the Bronze Age. The Assyrian military used iron not only for daggers, spears and arrow tips, but also for the devastating war chariots that created havoc on the battlefield and for the towering siege engines that battered down fortifications in places as far apart as Babylon and Egypt.
Assyria was more than the Sparta of the Middle East. Even King Sennacherib, who carried fire and sword to the very hearths of his enemies, enslaved multitudes, turned the waters of the Euphrates across the ruin he had made of Babylon, and left his name as a byword for inordinate cruelty—even this stern monarch furthered the development of a high culture. The oldest surviving aqueduct is the one Sennacherib ordered constructed to bring fresh water from the mountains into Nineveh.
His grandson, King Ashurbanipal, became one of the memorable patrons of all time, a Louis XIV of antiquity who bestowed pensions on writers, artists and scholars. This monarch gathered a splendid library of 40,000 clay tablets and employed an academy of scribes to edit them and to record for posterity everything from primeval legends to medical prescriptions. Ashurbanipal's editors, among their other gifts to humanity, produced the definitive text of the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, doing for the earliest of all heroic poems what the classical Greeks were to do for Homer.
The most magnificent achievement of Assyrian culture was in the field of art—the carved figures with which sculptors decorated temples and palaces. By filling open spaces with scenes of battlefield and hunting ground, the Assyrians bequeathed a rich legacy to archaeologists.
The sport of kings in ancient Assyria was not horse racing. It was the lion hunt. The rulers of Nineveh furiously pursued the big cats through the hills above the Tigris River, finding a unique thrill in the dangers of the chase. It is still possible to feel that thrill, across the chasm of time, by following a royal excursion into Assyria's lion country. The shouts of the beaters echo from the thickets where they are flushing the lordly quarry. The hunters surge forward tense with expectancy and raise an excited shout at the sight of a tawny coat.
The place of honor belongs to the king, who meets the charge of the lion head-on with his lance or fires arrows from his chariot while his charioteer guides a triad of foaming horses across the plain.
This picture of the Assyrian lion hunt is still fresh and clear because it still exists—in stone. Assyrian sculptors portrayed the royal huntsman at every moment of the action, beginning with the pursuit and ending with the kill.
Sometimes the hunt is depicted from the side of the hunted, for the Assyrians regarded the lion as a gallant foe worthy of a monarch's lance. There is empathy, almost sympathy, in the way the artist's chisel captures for all time a split second of violent action—the snarling lion at bay, the wounded lion turning savagely on its pursuers, the dying lion making one last convulsive swipe with its massive paw.
The masterpiece of the genre, and one of the finest objects in the entire gallery of animal art, is "The Dying Lioness" from Nineveh, now in the British Museum. The observer feels a thrust of immense power in this work as, mortally wounded and paralyzed by arrows, the lioness raises herself on her forepaws in final, agonized defiance.
Tableaux like these adorned buildings throughout the Assyrian Triangle, the natural fortress formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Zab Rivers, the base from which a fierce, aggressive people overran most of the civilized world from the Persian Gulf to the Nile.
The first Nineveh scholar was Sir Austen Henry Layard, amateur antiquarian anxious to find evidence of the city mentioned with grim maledictions in the Old Testament. Layard was 22 when he left London in 1839 for a job in Ceylon. Fortunately, he broke his journey to explore the Middle East, and, with financial assistance from the British consul in Constantinople, began to dig along the Tigris in 1845. How Nineveh was retrieved from the rubble of two-and-a-half millennia is the story of Layard and his lions.
Across the Tigris from modern Mosul he made one of the most dazzling strikes in the history of archaeology. The spades of his workmen turned up the foundations of great buildings, giant stone figures of winged lions and bulls, thousands of feet of carved alabaster friezes, countless artifacts of bone and metal, and the collection of "books" in the Library of Ashurbanipal.
Layard's examination of the evidence revealed to him one basic motif of Assyrian art: the lion hunt. The motif seems to have fascinated Assyrian artists as much as the dangerous sport fascinated Assyrian kings, and the scene is portrayed over and over, with adept variations and developing technique, on the panels from Nineveh. Subsequent study has only reinforced Layard's conclusion that "the triumphs of the king over this formidable animal are deemed no less worthy of record than his victories over his enemies."
Layard fastened on the essential fact that the lion symbolized Assyria in its combination of courage, violence and sovereign disdain for any adversary that stood in its path. The lion roamed the hills and plains while lesser beasts fled before it. Just so did the Assyrians roam the Middle East, forcing capitulations from neighboring peoples.
But history played a sardonic trick on these masterful conquerors. They shook the ancient world; they created a terrifying reputation among the nations; then they simply disappeared. The very location of their capital city passed out of memory after the year 612 B.C.—after it was stormed by a coalition of enemies, sacked, burned and leveled to the ground.
So Nineveh lay, buried in rubble and time, ignored, forgotten, lost, until Henry Layard raised it from the dust.