Nineveh and Assyria came to be for Mesopotamian art what Thebes and Upper Egypt were in their time to the Nile Valley, but opposite to Egypt Assyria never subsisted on agriculture: the source of its wealth was always the military booty.
The country was called Assyria because it was dedicated to the god Assur as described in ancient Assyrian texts. The ancient city of Assur teaches us something about the origins of Assyria. Assur was initially considered a mere province of Babylon and totally dependent on it. However, over time Assur ended up being absolutely independent and finally dominated the city of Babylon. Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 BCE) was the first Assyrian king who took prisoner a king of Babylon. A century later Tiglath-Pileser I reached the Mediterranean.
After Assur, the capital was moved further north to Kalakh which the Arabs call today Nimrud. There was located the palace of Assurnazirpal II (883-859 BCE) whose fantastic reliefs were disassembled and today they are one of the treasures of the British Museum. Still further north was the last Assyrian capital, Nineveh near the modern city of Mosul.
Something away from Mosul was Khorsabad the current name for Dur-Sharrukin a expression meaning Castle of Sargon (Sharrukenu). This Sargon of Assyria (not to be confused with Sargon of Akkad who we previously mentioned in a past essay) built on the site now known as Khorsabad, approximately 30 Km north of Mosul, a palace for himself and his family and a city for the officials and the staff at his service. In Khorsabad the palace occupied the center of one side of the square platform, a massive brick foundation which was like a pedestal for both the palace and the city. As in other Assyrian palaces we find here a vivid reflection of the Assyrian history and civilization: everything was enormous.
The palace of Khorsabad covered an area of 10 hectares, had a total of 209 rooms and courtyards, and was nestled in the great citadel next to the eastern wall of Dur-Sharrukin. The palace’s plan included three very different groups of buildings. Upon entering and after passing through the door of the Winged Lions, it was the large main courtyard around which all dependencies were located. At the bottom was located the group of rooms that formed the palace itself. This series of rooms is called serail or seraglio* with its reception cameras, halls decorated with sculptures, women’s rooms, etc. It was the main part of the palace with its throne room or reception hall which opened into a second courtyard. In the eastern part of the large courtyard were common areas such as warehouses, stables, barns and servants’ bedrooms. In the southwest corner of this large courtyard was a group of chambers and small patios. The palace also included a group of three temples dedicated to the patron gods of the king. At the back of these religious buildings was the magnificent seven-story ziggurat. The lower floors of the ziggurat had grooved walls and were covered with stucco painted in different colors. The sanctuary itself was at the top of the ziggurat where the god had his home. All Assyrian royal palaces had this unique religious building attached to the palace’s plant.
The Assyrian royal palaces had no external openings: a huge wall completely surrounded and isolated them. The only opening was the characteristic doors with their winged bulls. All these doors were almost equal: a basal frieze is formed by two winged bulls one on each side of the door. In few human creations it is possible to admire the sense of strength and power offered by these unique Assyrian decorations.
Sennacherib was one of the most powerful and bloody Assyrian kings. In the year 689 BCE in order to suppress a revolt of Babylon he decided to wipe the city from the surface of the earth: Hammurabi’s Babylon then disappeared forever. Sennacherib ordered to build a residence worthy of the power achieved by Assyria during his reign. Nineveh was then considered the capital of the empire. The palace of Nineveh should be the “admiration of nations” and in turn Nineveh was a colossal and unique city with grandiose palaces.
Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh provided many bas-reliefs embedded in wonderful glazed brick walls, mosaics, white inscriptions on turquoise colored background, all these offering a whole group of colorful objects in which the black, yellow, and dark blue colors dominated. Today we know for sure that Assyrian buildings were covered with vaults. The vaults were made of brick, plastered, and painted. At the start of the vault was usually a strip of glazed brick separating the straight wall from the curved cover. A lower strip of reliefs enriched and protected the brick wall. These reliefs were one of the most typical elements of the Assyrian construction. In the chambers of second order, these decorative reliefs were replaced alongside a strip of painted stucco with uniform color or polychrome decorations. These buildings generally had only one story.
We have mentioned the winged bulls or Lamassu* and the reliefs coating the walls. At the gates of the royal palaces the winged bulls seemed to serve as scarecrows or guardians, fierce gatekeepers guarding the entrances. But it is clear that the Assyrian winged bull is the latest evolution of the Mesopotamian bull. In Sumer the bull was the animal associated with Sin the moon-god. As in all primitive peoples it was believed that the moon’s rays going through the soil layers induced the germination of the seeds planted in the field. Once the stem came out of the soil the sun’s rays took care of the seedling like a mother does to her child, but the germinating force was in the moon rays.
So the bull of Sin, the strongest animal, the most masculine of all the wild animals of the delta, was regarded as a symbol of the germinating principle by the early Sumerians. The Assyrians added bearded human face to provide him with intelligence, wings were also added because in the early days of the delta the only available fruit was the date of the palms. The date is still used by the Bedouin to make bread and fermented beverages. Being the palms of different sex (dioecious) at first pollen from the male date palm is carried to the female palm mainly by birds, vultures, eagles and hawks, who when perched on male palm trees in flower got their feathers covered with pollen and then transferred this pollen to the female date palms thus pollinating and fertilizing them. By the fourth millennium BCE it must be noted that years with an abundance of vultures and eagles corresponded to heavy crops of dates and then eagles were considered as agents of the procreation force. For this reason to the human-faced bulls Assyrians added wings… Later a fourth element was added to form the tetramorph*: lion’s claws. In Sumer, as in Assyria, the goddess of war and love was Ishtar whose favorite animal was the lion. Therefore, Ishtar was another manifestation of the procreation force finally synthesized in this animal man-lion-bull-eagle. In Kalakh, Nineveh, and Khorsabad these monstrous guardians recall the famous vision of the four symbolic animals by the prophet Ezekiel, the vision that Christian iconography would later illustrate as the sacred composition of the tetramorph symbolizing the four evangelists in the bull, the lion, the eagle, and the man.
The sculpted decoration of the Assyrian palaces consisted almost exclusively of reliefs. Freestanding statues have been found only exceptionally. Of 116 Assyrian kings only Shalmaneser III and Assurnazirpal II had statues, now stored in the Istanbul and the British Museums.
As we said before, the Assyrian art is mainly represented in their palaces’ reliefs. They constituted an official and carefully censored version of the kings’ lives. Under this dictatorial regime, sculptors (like scribes did in Egypt) were docile performers of directed official propaganda. Assyrian kings were always represented as high and majestic characters, so much resembling each other that archaeologists don’t know how to recognize them when inscriptions are not available. The themes of these formidable propaganda can be grouped into three series: war, hunting and religious ceremonies.
Naturally, war is the issue found most frequently. The sculptors illustrated that same ferocity displayed by the Assyrian kings in their written accounts: the king on horseback or in his war chariot is depicted going through landscapes where all kind of executions, mass killings, and the most horrible torture scenes happen.
Only Assurbanipal (from 668 to 631 BCE) seems to find pleasure in resting after battle and not in the torturing of prisoners. In the palace of Nineveh he ordered a relief now preserved in the British Museum which is known as the famous “Rest under the vine”. Here, Assurbanipal was represented in his garden, lying on a bed with a drink in hand. Next to him sitting on a throne, the queen hears the story of his adventures. This is one of the rare representations of Assyrian women available today. Everything seems to suggest tranquility: trees with profuse foliage, grapes hanging from the vine, birds, sweet music, and attentive servers. However, in the background hanging from a tree it is the bloodied head of the defeated king of Elam.
Hunting was another favorite subject of Assyrian sculptors probably because it was the best training for war. In Nineveh, Ashurbanipal was represented in large friezes hunting lions on horseback or standing on his chariot. These friezes are now famous by the masterpieces of animalistic art they contain: the wounded lioness with paralyzed hind legs, the dying lion, and the lioness in the forest.
Finally there is another type of Assyrian relief: the religious scenes in which kings were often depicted as high priests officiating sacred ceremonies. In Kalakh, Assurnazirpal II was repeatedly represented in monumental reliefs with figures larger than life offering the chalice to the divinity and assisted by luxuriously dressed eunuchs holding his weapons.
Many Assyrian reliefs represented the idea of a magical rite for fertilization. Sometimes the monarch and his assistant wore vulture masks to identify more with the divine fertilizing principle and also appeared bearing a kind of a pinecone (identical to the male flower inflorescence of date palm trees) and touching a stylized tree with curved branches bearing the opened flowers of the female palm.
We still need to refer to the reliefs made in other materials: ivory and bronze. The ivory decorated furniture and various objects of vanity and in these objects Assyrians depicted scenes of war and hunting, but sometimes they include some original themes: a female genie, a cow lactating the calf, female figures. Several museums have also demonic representations in bronze.
But the masterpiece of Assyrian bronzes are the bronze doors of Imgur-Bel (now Balawat) built by Shalmaneser II and completed by Assurnazirpal II. These doors contain a long series of horizontal bands with figures and inscriptions recounting in extraordinary detail the military campaigns of these kings.
Lamassu: An ancient Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human’s head, a body of an ox or a lion, and bird’s wings.
Seraglio: Also called serail is the secluded living quarters used by wives and concubines mostly typical of the Ottoman household. Not to confuse with the term harem which refers to the women themselves.
Tetramorph: (From the Greek tetra, meaning four, and morph, meaning shape). A tetramorph is a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements in one unit. Such composite creatures, often related to elements of the night sky, are found in many mythologies. This simbology was later modified and adapted in Christian art where the tetramorph is the union of the symbols of the Four Evangelists, the four living Creatures derived from the Book of Ezekiel, into a single figure or a group of four figures. Each of the four Evangelists has a creature, usually shown with wings: St Matthew the man, St Mark the lion, St Luke the ox, and St John the eagle. Althouh Tetramorphs were especially common in Early Medieval art, mainly in illuminated manuscripts, they remain common in religious art to these days.
Vault: An architectural element consisting of an arrangement of arches used to form a ceiling or roof. The parts of a vault exert lateral thrust that requires a counter resistance.