Mesopotamia - Assyria (ca. 2400 BC - 609 BC)


Here we are on the second page dedicated to the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia. On page one we focussed on the early city-states kingdoms of Ubaid (ca. 6500-3800 BC), Uruk (ca. 4000-3100 BC), Ur (ca. 3800-2000 BC), the Akkadian empire (ca. 2334-2193 BC), and concluded with a brief look at the neo-Sumerian period (ca. 2100-2000 BC).

On this page we are going to look at Assyria (ca. 2500-934 BC), Babylonia (ca. 1894-1531 BC), and the later Iron Age (ca. 1300-600 BC) cultures of Neo-Assyria (ca. 911-612 BC) and Neo-Babylon (ca. 626-539 BC).

So let us start with the Assyrian nation-state (present-day northern Iraq). Assyria contributed to the development of architecture, engineering, agriculture, economics, civil service, mathematics, medicine, literature, military technology, law, astronomy and record keeping. After the collapse of the Sumerian third dynasty of Ur (ca. 2000 BC), and after a longish period of flux there emerged two distinct nation states: Assyria in the north (ca. 2025 BC) and Babylonia in the south (ca. 1890 BC). And in 1756 BC Babylon conquered Assyria, but by ca. 1720 BC they were free again and stayed so until the emergence of the Mitanni empire in ca. 1500 BC. However Assyrian kings were nothing if not resilient and there was a resurgence between ca. 1390-1076 BC in which Assyria became again a large and powerful empire able to threaten Egyptian and Hittite interests in the region. During the period ca. 1200-900 BC there was a period of consolidation where the trend was to defend a compact, secure nation with its satellite colonies. Assyria needed less artificial irrigation, supported extensive horse-breeding, and had access to metal ore and lumber, so it is not surprising that it was often involved in conflicts. These long wars helped build Assyria into a warrior society. 

All this provide a solid basis for the re-emergence of a neo-Assyrian empire (ca. 911-627 BC), where Assyria became the greatest empire the world had yet seen. They conquered Aramean, neo-Hittite and Hurrian populations, they defeated Babylonia, they entered into modern Iran subjugating the Persians and pushed into Asia Minor. They also conquered Egypt and parts of ancient Greece (check out this history).

So their empire at its height included modern nations such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Palestine and Cyprus, as well as parts of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Sudan, Libya, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

And the entire empire collapsed in the space of about 20 years, ca. 626-605 BC. It continued as part of Babylonia, then as part of the Persian empire before falling to Alexander the Great in 330 BC.

Let us first look at Assyrian architecture. Assyrians were just one of the peoples occupying the Tigris-Euphrates valley. The scarcity of timber and the lack of good building-stone (except limestone), the abundance of clay, and the flatness of the country, imposed upon the builders restrictions of conception, form, and material. So the poverty of the building materials of this region afforded only the most limited resources for architectural effect. Owing to the flatness of the country and the impracticability of building lofty structures with sun-dried bricks, elevation above the plain could be secured only by erecting buildings of moderate height upon enormous mounds or terraces, built of crude brick and faced with hard brick or stone.

This led to the development of the stepped pyramid as the typical form of Assyrian architecture. Thick walls were necessary both for stability and for protection from the burning heat of that climate. The lack of stone for columns and the difficulty of procuring heavy beams for long spans made broad halls and chambers impossible. The plans of Assyrian palaces (ca. 2500-936 BC) would have looked like assemblages of long corridors and small cells, and not to be confused with the much later neo-Assyrian palaces (ca. 911-605 BC) often seen in the guide books and on the Internet. Neither the wooden post nor the column played any part in this architecture except for window-mullions and subordinate members. It is probable that the vault was used for roofing many of the halls, and the arch was certainly employed for doors and the barrel-vault for the drainage-tunnels under the large terraces. What these structures lacked in durability and height was probably made up in decorative magnificence. Ruins show that the interior walls might well have been decorated with large slabs of alabaster covered with low-relief pictures of hunting scenes, battles, and gods. Elsewhere painted plaster or more durable enameled tile in brilliant colours probably embellished the walls, and, doubtless, rugs and tapestries added their richness to this architectural splendor. There are signs of convex flutings and traces of mosaic in checker patterns and zigzags, formed by terra-cotta cones or spikes driven into the clay, their exposed bases being enameled in a multitude of colours. Although it must be said that many descriptions and artifacts in museum collections actually date from the later neo-Assyrian period.

Equally there are some indications that early Assyrian buildings might have had minarets (tower-like structures) or domes placed on a square base. There are suggestions that private houses might have had several floors, with the ground floor having only a door and no windows. Roofs were flat, with earth supported on strong beams. No remains of internal staircases have been found. It is likely that any urban groupings would have included large open spaces for agriculture, orchards and waste disposal.

Above on the left we have the ancient Assyrian site of Assur (ca. 2600 BC - 1400 AD) one of the capitals of ancient Assyria. In the center we have Nimrud (ca. 1800-612 BC) which was the capital of Assyria from ca. 879-706 BC. On the right we have ruins of the temple of Mugheir in the city of Ur (dating from ca. 2200 BC).

So we have a world where almost everyone is growing, building and sometimes fighting each other - Hittite’s in Anatolia in the north and west were building in Hattusha, the Kassites of Babylonia in the south were building a whole new capital city at Dur-Kurigalzu, the Elamites prospered in Elam and were building Chogha Zanbil, and the Assyrian were creating a territorial empire in Northern Mesopotamia, with their center in Assur. So the Assyrian empire evolved not only because of the rich agricultural resources of the Al-Jazira and the commercial control of the East-West/North-South caravans of the Near East, but also thanks to the economy of warfare, booty and the wealth of the acquired new territories. The cities that were captured were forced to pay tribute annually in the form of valuable gifts, animals foodstuffs, etc., which became an institutionalized source of income for the Assyrian palace.

The city of Assur was the ideological center of this ‘Land of Assur’ and at the same time the city was also the personification of the city-god Assur. As the capital city Assur expanded, and with the building of fortresses in the new territories they had “acquired”, the idea of recording these military campaigns slowly became the subject matter of monumental art in the palaces and cities. Equally the residence of the king becomes the most important building and the ideological center of the empire. Palaces were often built one on another, but we know that they were usually organised around 2 major courtyard complexes with varying dimensions. There would be a residential court called babanu, and a larger and more luxurious court, the bitanu or entrance court. It is with the Assyrians that we see the “monumentalisation” of the interior spaces that normally had very domestic associations. This was done not only through size but also the treatment of its interior surfaces. As Assur expanded so new temples and shrines would be built, e.g. the temple of Ishtar, goddess of fertility, war, love and sex.

Ishtar was the great Mother Goddess, Queen of the Night, and daughter of the sky-god Anu (or moon-god Sin). With time she became an oracle, governed over sex and war, and protected men from evil. She was the giver of life, but also the Destroyer and Queen of the Underworld, and thus also the taker of life. As the moon goddess she governed the waxing and waning (cycle of birth and death) of planets. She would carry a bow and quiver and have a warlike aspect. Her son Tammuz became her lover, and she actually decended into the realm of the dead to rescue him. Death overcame her there, which caused fertility and sexual desire to become dormant - similar to the cycle of annual death, resurrection and marriage found in fertility rituals connected to the agriculture cycle. As Queen of Heaven she rode through the sky at night in a chariot drawn by goats and lions. The zodiac was known as the “girdle of Ishtar”.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh Ishtar attempts to seduce the hero, so she is also the archetype of the Jezebel. Being refused she begs her farther to kill Gilgamesh.

Ishtar is also at the origin of Easter. I read somewhere that her name was on the Statue of Liberty (also known as the Lady of Liberty). She has also been associated with the planet Venus and was known as the “harlot of Babylon”, she was the mother of all harlots!

This is an Assyrian alabaster plaque dating from ca. 1243 BC. It is a cult pedestal showing king Tukulti-Ninurta I kneeling before the empty throne of the fire-god Nusku, occupied by what appears to be a flame (the motif of the empty throne = Hetoimasia)

Another trend started in Assur was the double cult sanctuary where a temple would have symmetrical arrangements with two cult rooms for two different gods, e.g. Sin (moon) and Shamash (sun), and Anu (sky) and Adad (storm).


We will now turn to the architecture and art of ancient Babylonia with its capital Babylon, as an empire emerging from the former territories of the old Akkadian empire. Initially it was overshadowed by the Assyrians, but being well organised and having a well disciplined army enabled them to conquer other city-states and become the major opponent to the Assyrian king. It would appear that the city was sacked several times, e.g. by the Hittites in ca. 1530 BC, and again by the Assyrians in ca. 1347 BC and again in ca. 1235 BC. Looking through its history we see periods of rapid disintegration, foreign domination, military weakness, famine, and revolt (and finally absorption in 529 BC), but on the positive side it was the home to the famous Nebuchadnezzar (ca. 1124-1103 BC). And despite all their problems Babylon manage to make major contributions to astronomy (star catalogues, water-clock), medicine (symptoms, diagnostics, physical examination, prescriptions, bandages, creams, pills), and literature (libraries, literary works).

But what did all this mean in terms of architecture and art? Only a few ruins remain of the architecture of early Babylonia and Kassites (ca. 1531-1155 BC) dynasties. Many Sumerian buildings were rebuilt, and the architecture of new buildings was copied from Sumerian styles. The Kassite royal palace was larger than most earlier buildings. Around 1450 BC a new temple was built at Warka for the worship of the mother-goddess. It was not on a ziggurat, but was small and rectangular. Reliefs in brick depicting huge gods formed a continuous band of decoration on the outside walls of the temple.

Sculpture, during the time of the early Babylonians, was more naturalistic (lifelike) than ever before in Mesopotamia. Although it is not certain, the stone heads that have been found were probably meant to represent Hammurabi (ca. 1728-1686 BC). The king was shown as a bearded man with very large eyelids and wearing a cap (see below). Hammurabi also recorded his famous laws on a large stone called a stela (also below). The laws were written on the lower three quarters of the stone, and the top quarter was carved in bold relief, with a figure of a seated god before whom Hammurabi stood. The scene was intended to give religious authority to the laws.


Now we finally get to the most “recent” and most impressive architecture and art of the so-called neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian empires. And we start with the neo-Assyrian period (ca. 934-609 BC) which was at the time the most powerful state on earth. Some experts suggest it was the first real empire in human history, until its capital Harran was sacked by a coalition including the Babylonians.

There are large gaps in historical evidence between the Old Assyrian period and all the way to the beginning of 1400 BC, but we are able to reconstruct the Assyrian dynasty which uninterruptedly continued until the end of 600 BC, some 800-900 years. For example excavations in the old Assyrian capital Assur yielded more than 16,000 tablets with cuneiform texts and a “garden” of monuments just outside the city with the stela bearing names of kings and the genealogy and functions of the high Assyrian officials.

This stela found in Assur dates from 800 BC and depicts a worshipper before god carrying a bow. The god is said to be Ninurta, “Lord Earth” or the original god of agriculture and rain.

The consolidation of the territorial power in Assyria came only ca.1000-900 BC, in particularly with Ashurnasirpal II (ca. 883-859 BC) and the three kings that preceded him. They conquered the small multi-ethnic city-states that formed in the Early Iron Age in North Syria, South-East and Central Anatolia, known as Neo-Hittite, Aramaic and Phoenician city states. Despite the exchange of ideas, the relationships were generally hostile.

Assurnasirpal II decided to built a new city in the heartland of Assyria (ancient Kalhu, modern Nimrud), up the river to the North of Assur and Kar Tukulti Ninurta. Established ca. 1280 BC Kalhu was a provincial town, but it was never built to a monumental scale.  Assurnasirpal II decided to move his royal seat to this town and build it up extensively, and in many ways due to the extensive re-building it became a new city. He also deported populations to the city mostly to use them as a workforce for the building activity. This huge building campaign took place ca. 878 BC after his first military victories. The new name Nimrud had its origins with Nimrod a mighty hunter and father of Ashur (Assur) the Assyrian hero whose name was used for the Assyrians. 

One of the most important finds in Kalhu/Nimrud were the “Nimrud Letters”, a kind of waste-paper collection of state correspondence of the Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser III (744-727 BC) and Sargon II (721-705 BC). They were found in the chancery offices of the NorthWest palace and consisted of more than 300 cuneiform tablets. This particular “letter” from 729 BC informs Tiglath-Pileser III of the death of Nabu-mukin-zeri, his arch rival in Babylonia, and his son, "Mukin-zeri has been killed and Šumu-ukin, his son, has also been killed. The city is conquered”. Just to highlight the administrative organisation at the time some of the “letters” were archival copies and others drafts and contained a wealth of information on the workings of an empire, e.g. military encounters, population management, construction plans, purchases of horses for the army, trade policy, and diplomatic strategies and deals with political enemies. 

The work included the construction of a new city wall, a royal palace known as the NorthWest palace, and 9 temples (of which only three have been identified todate). The city wall was roughly 7.5 km long (ca. 12 m high) and enclosed a 360 ha site, and including a relatively small scale citadel of 20 ha. The Assyrian newly founded towns tended to have rectangular squarish layouts both in the overall plan and the layout of the citadel. It is interesting that the citadel was always at the edge of the settlement and in some cases in contact with the city wall and oftentimes overlooking a river. And kings generally choose to build their major palaces at the edge of the citadel and also overlooking the same river. Palaces were built on large terrace structures and would probably have had enormous royal gardens. Assyrian kings often talk about their gardens and their exotic trees and plants, and the animals such as lions that they had brought from faraway lands.

This is a “Banquet stele” showing that Ashurnasipal II had brought 47 different species of trees from distant lands and planted them in his garden and gives the name of these species too (it also includes a severed had of one of the kings enemies hanging in a tree, apparently a common practice with defeated enemies). The very long text describes in fascinating detail the ceremonies and festivities celebrating the formal opening of the NorthWest palace in the year 879 BC. It would appear that the king gave this huge party to all. It gives a full list of the plants planted in the royal gardens of the city, the entire food items served during the festival and mentions that he entertained 69,574 people. The text is really about the building of the palace and its celebration afterwards. He talks about the 120 course terrace he had his workmen build to act as a base for his palace, including all of its details. He mentions all the different kinds of trees he had them cut to use as wooden posts and beams in the palace like boxwood, mulberry, cedar, cypress, pistachio, tamarisk and poplar. He also writes about the royal orchards (42 varieties of fruit) that he planted in the city, and the canal he built to water them. He also boasts about his royal hunt of lions and bulls, a typical motif. And finally he notes that the festival lasted 10 days, and all the workmen, officials, and inhabitants were invited.

So the palace was built on the edge of the settlement overlooking the river. Immediately South of the NorthWest palace, there stood the two temple complexes to Ninurta and Ishtar, and just below the palace there was the impressive quay walls on which the palace rose on its terraces. According to excavations the palace was at least 200 m by 120 m in size, defined by elaborate monumental walls. In its plan it followed the new Assyrian plan type of the babanu and the bitanu, two courtyards of different scales and different functions, and they were connected by a main throne room. The outer courtyard was reserved for the public affairs, while the inner courtyard was reserved for the organization of the king’s residence/private chambers.

The entire south façade was lined with stone orthostats, all carved with relief. These wall surfaces effectively tells a story. Most of the sculptures were reserved for the inner court, the babanu. The south façade had 3 gates into the throne room and all of them were flanked by these giant human headed stone colossi.

These giant figures (ca. 3 m high) are called lamassu figures, that are apotropaic (a type of magic intended to “turn away” harm or evil influences), or mythical creatures that protect the gates from evil spirits. This particular one comes for Nimrud, and has been dated ca. 883-859 BC. They also monumentalize all the doorways, with mostly human headed bulls or lions (although it has been mentioned that lion-bodied protective deities were also known as “sphinxes”). It would appear that originally these figures were linked to a female protective deity, thus the idea of warding off evil. Some experts suggest that they combine the strength of a bull, the freedom of an eagle, and the intelligence of a human being.

They are practically 5 legged creatures not because they are weird and surreal, but just because it was a sculptural convention. Given that the figures are not carved in the round they need to show one leg both in the profile view and the frontal view.

The stone that was used was a soft sandstone (yellowish-grayish and beautiful warm colour) locally quarried in Assyria and nowadays known as Mosul marble since it is so smooth, and of very good quality yet easy to work. The relief themselves were painted, as were the upper portions of the walls that were not covered by orthostats. 



Here above we have a selection of carved stone panel taken from the palace in Nimrud.

There was also mention of glazed brick decoration.

On the left we have a glazed brick panel above a portal in Fort Shalmaneser in Nimrud, and on the right a period example of decorated glazed brick.

Generally decoration could take on three kinds of subject matter:

Symbolic and religious figures in which the King is depicted in full scale with the tree of life, signs of the gods or the genii (a guardian or good spirit), and often the king is seen performing rituals.

The bringing of booty scenes that depict the ambassadors of several different lands bringing their tributes to the Assyrian capital.

Narrative scenes organized in two register narratives with standard inscription in the middle, depicting various military campaigns of the king. Usually a standard inscription runs through the middle of all of those reliefs giving the name, titles and epithets of the king, summarized his military achievements, and describing the appearance of the palace.

How these reliefs were distributed in terms of subject matter and their style of depiction was also a key issue. The symbolic scenes of king performing rituals were used to mark important architectural features, e.g. just behind the throne of the King or just across the gate from the courtyard into the throne-room, providing a general narrative with their full scale double register depictions. Symbolically representing the king would assure prosperity of Assyria. The tribute scenes were in the courtyard and the whole setting would have been taken as a narrative itself.

On the other hand, the narrative scenes were reserved for the throne room, and presented the ideology of kingship, while the courtyards where the guests were taken housed the tribute bearing scenes. These narrative slabs were divided into three unequal registers. The wide upper and lower registers depict the continuous visual narrative of the king’s various activities, while the central narrower register had a standard inscription carved on it. The subject matter of the narratives included royal hunts and royal military conquests.

Near Nimrud the kings built another royal palace for occasional use (Imgur-Enlil, modern Balawat) based upon the conventional neo-Assyrian military settlement model, and including a small temple for the deity Mamu associated with dreams (and possibly as an associated oracle). The most important items found there were the Balawat gates, or more specifically a set of 16 bronze bands that embellished a monumental wooden gate.

Each band consists of two registers, decorated with repoussé. Repoussé is a relief technique achieved in metal by beating the metal from the back creating the relief surfaces in front. The subject content is royal military campaigns and the delivery of tributes.

Let us turn our attention to Dur-Sharrukin, the “fortress of Sargon”, the present day Khorsabad. This was the capital of the Assyrian king Sargon II (722-705 BC). The capital city was built between 716-706 BC, and after the death of Sargon II, the capital was moved to Nineveh.

As I’ve already said all neo-Assyrian palaces were designed on the same general principle. In this palace two large and several smaller courts were surrounded by a complex series of long, narrow halls and 32 small, square chambers. One court probably belonged to the harem, another to the king’s apartments, others to dependents and to the services of the palace. The crude brick walls (1.7 km by 1.6 km with 157 towers) were immensely thick and without windows, the only openings being 7 gates. The absence of columns made wide halls impossible, and great size could only be underlined by length, not wide. A terraced pyramid supported an altar or shrine to the southwest of the palace. At the west corner was a temple, the substructure of which was crowned by a cavetto cornice showing plainly the influence of Egyptian models. The whole palace stood upon a stupendous platform faced with cut stone, an unaccustomed extravagance in Assyria.

Here we can see a pair of winged bulls that flanked one of the gates. The drawing give us some idea of the overall size of a gate, and we can just about see the winged bull in place. As we can see the most singular adornments of these gates were the carved “portal guardians” set into the deep jambs. The statues were very bulky, yet minutely wrought in every detail of head-dress, beard, feathers, curly hair, and anatomy.

There is no evidence that the Assyrians ever used columnar supports except in minor or accessory details. There are few halls in any of the ruins too wide not to be spanned by good Syrian cedar beams or palm timbers, and these few cases seem to have had vaulted ceilings. So clumsy a feature as the central wall in the great hall would never have been used had the Assyrians been familiar with the use of columns. That they understood the arch and vault is proved by their terrace-drains and the fine arched gate in the walls of Khorsabad, as well as by bas-reliefs representing dwellings with domes of various forms. Moreover, a few vaulted chambers of moderate size, and fallen fragments of crude brick vaulting of larger spans, have been found in several of the Assyrian ruins.

The construction technique was extremely simple. The heavy clay walls were faced with alabaster, burned brick, or enamelled tiles. The roofs were probably covered with stamped earth, and sometimes paved on top with tiles or slabs of alabaster to form terraces. Light was introduced most probably through windows immediately under the roof and divided by small columns forming mullions, as suggested by certain relief pictures. No other system seems consistent with the windowless walls of the ruins.

The only structural decoration seems to have been the panelling of exterior walls in a manner resembling the Chaldæan terrace-walls, and a form of parapet like a stepped cresting. There were no characteristic mouldings, architraves, capitals, or cornices. Nearly all the ornaments were “applied”, i.e. added after the completion of the structure itself. Pictures in low relief covered the alabaster revetment. They depicted hunting-scenes, battles, deities, and other mythological subjects, and are interesting to the architect mainly for their occasional representations of buildings and details of construction. Above this wainscot were friezes of enamelled brick ornamented with symbolic forms used as decorative motives; winged bulls, the “sacred tree” and mythological monsters, with rosettes, palmettes, lotus-flowers, and guilloches (ornaments of interlacing bands winding about regularly spaced buttons or eyes). These ornaments were also used on the archivolts around the great arches of palace gates.

The purely conventional ornaments mentioned above, e.g. the rosette, guilloche, and lotus-flower, and probably also the palmette, were derived from Egyptian originals. They were treated, however, in a quite new spirit and adapted to the special materials and uses in their new environment. Thus the form of the palmette, even if derived, as is not unlikely, from the Egyptian lotus-motive, was assimilated to the more familiar palm-forms of Assyria.

Most experts think that Assyrian architecture never rivalled the Egyptian in grandeur or constructive power, in seriousness, or in the higher artistic qualities. It did, however, produce imposing results with the poorest resources, and in its use of the arch and its development of ornamental forms it furnished prototypes for some of the most characteristic features of later Asiatic art, which profoundly influenced both Greek and Byzantine architecture.

We close our look at neo-Assyrian architecture and art with a quick visit to the abundant  ruins at Nineveh, a later capital of the neo-Assyrian empire, and for a period of more than 50 years the largest city in the world before being sacked in 612 BC. Today the site consists of two large mounds, Kouyunjik and Nabī Yūnus, and the remains of the city walls. The wall was massive and made of stone (initial 6 m high) and surmounted by mud bricks (another wall 10 m high and 15 m deep). There were 15 monumental gates and many, many 18 m high stone towers. 

Here we have the re-constructed Shamash Gate. It’s location and design suggests that it might have been the most important gate to the city.

Nineveh yielded some of the most iconic artifacts representing Assyria, and in particular the neo-Assyrian empire.

This is the so-called “Dying Lioness”, small limestone bas relief panel from the North Palace in Nineveh (dated ca. 645 BC).

This is a bronze lion weight, one of a set dated from ca. 726-722 BC.


This last section will look at perhaps (in the minds of many) the most symbolic period in the history of Mesopotamia, the short lived neo-Babylonian empire (ca. 626-539 BC). This period produced a great flourish of architectural projects, and progress in the arts and sciences (a kind of early renaissance). Rulers revived the ancient Sumero-Akkadian culture, and revered and preserved ancient artworks from their past glories. And let us not forget that the famous Nebuchadnezzar II was a neo-Babylonian king (ca. 634-562 BC), and built the equally famous (but possibly legendary) “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world).

In many ways their entire culture was influenced by the lack of stone and an abundance of clay. They developed crude bricks to build temples and walls, including developed the buttress for support and drains to carry away the rain. They also developed pilasters and columns, frescoes and enameled tiles.

So let us start this part of our trip with the famous Ishtar Gate, constructed in 575 BC it was the north gate and provided access through the Processional Way (16 m wide, 300 m long), the route taken by statues of deities as they were paraded through the city on special occasions. We know the roof and doors were made of cedar, and we can see that the walls were covered with blue-glazed bricks with alternative bas relief of scaly dragons (hind legs like eagle’s talons and feline forelegs, a long neck, a horned head, a snakelike tongue and a crest) and aurochs (the ancestor of domestic cattle). The gate itself stands 14 m hight and 30 wide. The Processional Way is known to have been lined with walls covered with ca. 120 lions on glazed bricks.

And below we have an example of the tiles used on the Processional wall, and the “striding lions” found on the walls near the gate.

Above I said we would start our trip of the neo-Babylonian empire with the Ishtar gate, and if fact we will also end our trip with the very same gate. How can we go beyond what is considered one of the world’s artistic masterpieces!


Here are a few pointers to interesting news items and resources:

Note: many of these references should be consulted along with those on the page dedicated to Sumer.

News items:


Nineveh was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 BC to 609 BC), and was the largest city in the world for 50-odd years. But the areas was settled as early as 6000 BC, and by 3000 BC it was an important religious centre but until a Neo-Assyrian building spree it remained a provincial town. This report talks of the impressive irrigation system built by Sennacherib in the hinterland to the city. Remote sensing data found 493 archaeological sites with a density of one site per 2 square kilometers. e.g. extraordinarily intense compared to other places in Mesopotamia. On the other hand there were no large urban sites, indicating a low population density (lots of rural villages, hamlets, and isolated farms and a few small towns).    

The Phoenicians

At its height in the 8th to 7th C BC, the Assyrian Empire was the dominant power of the ancient Near East and the largest empire the world had yet seen, spanning 1,500 kilometers in a continuous swathe from Assyria (present-day northern Iraq) to the Mediterranean. As Assyria expanded, the Phoenician city-states of the Levant, precariously located along the edge of Assyrian territory, were compelled to expand and strengthen their maritime trade networks to the west. Examples of these city-states include Sur (Tyre), Sidon, Beirut, Jaffa, Haifa, as well as Tangier, Marseille, Genoa,    Cádiz, Ibiza, and of course Carthage. The mercantile connections they established along the northern coast of Africa and the southern coast of Europe to the strait of Gibraltar and beyond, to the Atlantic, became conduits for raw materials, luxury goods, images, and ideas between the Near East and the Mediterranean.

The Phoenicians, famed for their ships, were enterprising seafarers and master navigators who plied the Mediterranean Sea in swift and sturdy merchant vessels, largely in pursuit of the metal resources of the western Mediterranean. They established trading posts and colonies throughout the area, including Carthage on the North African coast. The raw materials the Phoenicians acquired were transformed into luxury goods that were in demand throughout the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean. Phoenician artisans ably combined elements from a number of cultures, with the most prominent being the use of Egyptian motifs. Phoenician merchants enjoyed a monopoly on trade of the precious purple dye obtained from murex shells (the word Phoenician derives from the ancient Greek word for “purple”). And the Phoenicians introduced their phonetic alphabet, the precursor of the alphabet used today throughout the western hemisphere, across the Mediterranean. Phoenicia’s major cities grew wealthy through trade. Although a range of mountains to the east separated them from the Assyrians, an inscribed bronze band from an ancient gate at Balawat features a scene depicting people from Tyre delivering tribute to king Shalmaneser III (ca. 859 BC to 824 BC) on typically Phoenician boats called “hippoi” because of the horse heads at the stem and stern. Cyprus was rich in deposits of copper, which had long been an important resource for Near Eastern powers. For the Phoenicians it also provided a starting point for routes farther west across the Mediterranean. Of particular interest was the Phoenician colony at Kition (Cyprus). Magnificent gold jewelry from an elite tomb, dating from the end of the 8th C BC, indicates a strong Phoenician presence. Also found at Kition was a stele depicting king Sargon II (ca. 722 BC to 705 BC), testimony to Assyrian interest in the island. Sargon was apparently able to demand tribute from Cypriot kings, though his claims to control Cyprus have been met with skepticism from scholars.

During the early first millennium BC, representations of the Near Eastern goddess Astarte began to appear in various locations across the Mediterranean, carried by the Phoenicians. This goddess would later have a significant impact in the west, where aspects of her persona were adopted into the image of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

The astonishingly broad reach of trade in the period is demonstrated by the large, fluted tridacna (giant clam) shells, decorated with incised human and plant forms. Probably used as cosmetic containers, the shells themselves originated in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. The carving was most likely done in the Levant, and examples have been found in Babylonia, Assyria, Greece, and Etruria. Discovered in elite tombs of the period in Greece and Italy were Near Eastern goods and locally manufactured artifacts with orientalising traits, among them monumental cauldrons with animal-head attachments at the rim.

An important find was the Carambolo Treasure, discovered near Seville. The treasure consists of exceptionally finely worked gold jewelry reflecting both Phoenician and local metalworking traditions.


CDLI is the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, a joint project between UCLA, Oxford, and the Max Planck Institute (the Louvre is also a collaborator). Cuneiform tablets can be found all over the world, and the project aims to capture, persistently archive and provide free Internet access to cuneiform texts.

For example the British Museum holds the so-called Library of Ashurbanipal, with a total of 30,943 tablets. Ashurbanipal (668 BC to 627 BC) was the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911 BC to 609 BC), and he created his library covering both legislation, foreign correspondence, and financial matters, as well as divinations, omens, hymns to various gods, and texts on astronomy and medicine.

There appears to be at least 16 collections. If we just look at one tablet in the Louvre we see that it is to do with a calculation of the potential growth of revenues from milk products over a period of 10 years from a herd of four cows (2050 BC to 2040 BC). It shows that the investor might expect to end with 32 cows and a multiplication by seven on the herd initial value.

CDLI lists a number of related projects, namely:

The Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus

The Database of Neo-Sumerian Texts

The Electronic Tools and Ancient Near East Archives collects out of copyright texts that can be used for teaching and research.

The Mesopotamian Calculator, which provides all sorts of conversions from our decimal system to the Mesopotamian sexagesimal system (50 “digits” with no 0). We always use a fixed system with the 0’s included, whereas they used both a fixed system and a floating system, just leaving off all the 0’s, e.g. the decimal number 60 could be either “1.0” or just “1” but as a floating number it could also mean (60x60)=3600, or 1/60, or even +/(60x60)=1/3600. so not as easy as it looks.

Archemenet, covering the Achaemenid Empire (550 BC to 330 BC), the first Persian empire based in Iran

Ancient World Mapping Center is certainly useful for the geography of the ancient Mediterranean world

Babylonian and Assyrian Poetry and Literature, being read aloud in the original language

Cuneiform Writing (in French)

Ancient Mesopotamia.

And don’t forget there is also an International Association for Assyriology, and the very informative “Mesopotamia” site of the British Museum. 

The Yale Babylonian Collection is one of the largest in the world, with 45,000 items including cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals. Below is one of the tablets (said to date from 2178 BC) of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Babylon was conquered in 539 BC by Cyrus the Great (ca. 600-530 BC) and became part of the Achaemenid Empire (the first Persian Empire, ca. 550-330 BC). The Cyrus Cylinder, a barrel-shaped cylinder of baked clay, amongst other things gave people the freedom to practice different religions (in opposition to the religious persecution of the Babylonian rulers).

“Seven Seas”

This article looks at the origins of the “seven seas. Originally a Sumerian hymn (ca. 2300 BC) to the goddess Inanna, it later became a Roman reference to salt-water lagoons near Venice, before becoming a medieval reference to the Adriatic, Mediterranean, Black, Caspian, Arabian and Red Seas, and the Persian Gulf. Later still it referred to the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans and the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas, and the Gulf of Mexico.


A new chapter opens in the study of the Assyrian empire is about new archeological studies in modern-day Iraq (or more specifically the Kurdish Autonomous Region). This refers to a conference on the topic of provincial archaeology of the Assyrian empire. Mention is made of the city of Erbil, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities (at least from 3000 BC), and the fact that the Assyrian empire rivaled those of the Romans, Egyptians, and Babylonians in terms of its extent, ambition and organisation. Below we can see the 30 m high, oval-shaped Ottoman Citadel of Arbil standing on a tell.


An interesting addition to your reading on Assyria is from Barry Bandstra, who as a professor of religion has put together an impressive “Reading the Old Testament”, and including a Chapter on “The Assyrian Crisis”. This could be read along with “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue. And if you want a more global view of the “Ancient World” have a look at the proceedings of the Max Planck Institute “Melammu”, and in particular Chapter 3 on the Assyrian presence in Syria during the 9th C BC to 8th C BC.


The Hanging Garden of Babylon was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but where was built? It would appear that the garden might have actually been built ca. 700 BC in Nineveh (an Assyrian city and capital of the neo-Assyrian Empire, 934-609 BC), some 400-odd km from Babylon.


This is quite a useful introduction to Mesopotamia.

This site has a focus on art history ranging from pre-history art through to Crete, and including early China, Japan, Mesopotamia, early Egypt, and the Cyclades.

The History of the Ancient World is a great source of articles, video, and news items about social and military history, architecture, economics, politics, daily life, .... of pre-history and ancient China, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Here is a nice introduction to Babylon as the centre of Mesopotamian civilisation.

The Mesopotamian Chronicles are texts from ancient Mesopotamia, and there is also quite a bit on the chronology and kings of the period.

and here are some links to background video material: (to be used as needed)