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Lecture notes

Middle Assyrian period at Assur

There is a large achaeological gap and a gap in historical evidence between the Old Assyrian period and all the way to the beginning of 14th c. With a series of new energetic rulers, Assur started to become an influential politically powerful city at the beginning of 14th c. BC, as from this time on, there is an absolute increase of historical texts from Assur, makes us able to reconstruct the Assyrian dynasty which uninterruptedly continued until the end of 6th c. BC, some 800-900 years. Very interesting is what Walter Andrae and his collegues found just outside the city wall to the south, is like a garden of monuments: the royal stela, and stela of officials, these were monuments of various size and bearing names of kings, as well as the genealogy and functions of the high Assyrian officials, the limmu officials.

So during the same centuries that the Hittite empire in Anatolia enters its prosperous New Kingdom under a set a new genealogy of kings, who carried out extensive building activities in Hattusha, and the Kassites of Babylonia flourished in the South as Kurigalzu undertook the building a whole new capital city at Dur Kurigalzu, and finally the Middle Elamites prospered in Elam and built Choga Zanbil at the end of 14th c. BC; Mittanian threat that had a strong effect on the Assyrians from the North was not there any more, as their kingdom disintegrated just after the middle of the 14th c. BC thanks to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I . The Mittanian kingdom was a kingdom of Indo-European overlords who settled in the Upper Jazirah in mostly 15th and 14th c. and the famous site of Nuzi is pretty much all we know about them.

The Middle Assyrian formed a territorial empire in Northern Mesopotamia, with their center in Assur, especially from the time of the king Assuruballit onwards (1365-1330) and his grandson Adad Nirari I (1307-1275), who had important military campaigns towards south, North and West. In the South they had territorial disputes with Kassites and pushing their boundaries all the way south in the Diyala; while North and West there was the client states of the Hittites, but they were able to go as far as Euphrates incorporating the entire Jazirah, the are between the Tigris and the Euphrates. The empire then, was set on not only the rich agricultral resources of the Jazirah and the commercial control of the East-West/North-South caravans of the Near East, but also on an 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 form of a source of income for the Assyrian palace.

The city of Assur was then the ideological center of this ‘Land of Assur’ that was being created, but not only the city but also the personification of the city-god Assur was the major component of this discourse. The god Assur appears in the myths as a personification of the city itself. Thus they continued to build their capital city Assur, as well as building fortresses and regional centers in the new territories they have acquired. The idea of recording of these military campaigns therefore slowly became the subject matter of monumental art in their palaces and cities, which we will see several examples.

Major building activity is attested at the time of Adad Nirari I; he built a series of quays alog the Tigris, to the East of the citadel. He also rebuilt the palace in the middle of the Northern half of the citadel and overlooking the river. The palace was built on top of the remains of a palace that was probably built at the time of Shamsi Adad but the remains are fragmentary. This new palace of Adad Nirari I was built with an entirely new plan, important for us to see the development of the notion of Kingship in the Assyrian empire: the residence of the King we will see will become the most important complex the ideological center of an empire.

It was built on stone foundations. Since much later a newer palace was built on top of its remains, not much survives but at least we know the plan. It is organized in around 2 major courtayrd comlplexes with varying scale: called babanu the residential court, and the larger and more luxurious one, and bitanu the entrance court. As early as the beginning of 13th c. it displays the major characteristics of the Assyrian royal palace.

What the Assyrian palace brings to the Ancient Near eastern traditions is basicly the monumentalization of the interior spaces of a space which used to have very domestic associations and this is done not only through size but also the treatment of its interior surfaces.

It is really Tukulti Ninurta I (1244-1208 BC) who not only built several buildings on the Assur citadel and changed the townscape drastically but also established a whole another city just a few miles next to assur across the river Tigris, which we will look at. The reign of Tukulti Ninurta is seen as the apogee, the climax of Middle Assyrian prosperity. After his murder a long period of recession followed parallel to other emprires like the Hittites.

City plan

During his reign a deep moat was dug around the fortification walls and its old posterns, which must have been an enormous project.

New palace

Another important urbanscape project was the erection of an artificial terrace to the Northwest of the old city to act as a platform for the building of the New Palace, which was only built by his son Tukulti Ninurta. Unfortunately, again because of later building activities we don’t know much about the buildings on top of this terrace.

New Ištar-Aššurîtu temple

He also rebuilt the Ishtar temple with an entirely new plan and a new epithet for the god, Ashuritu, that of the City of Assur. A smaller shrine of a goddess called Dinitu was added to the complex. Raised cult place, long cella room. Cult image is raised on a podium.


The development of narrative art also owes alot to the second half of 13th c. especially the time of Tukulti-Ninurta, for the basic reason that the military activites of the kings were already being recorded in detail in writing, but as historical events they also slowly developed techniques o commemorate the historical events through visual narratives.

Cult pedestal of the god Nusku (deity of light):

from the time of Tukulti Ninurta I: found in the Ishtar temple in the debris of room 6. It is basically an alabaster stone socle: 3 of them were found in the temple: this one is visually important for us: depicts the assyrian king in two poses, approaching an altar with stylus on it. A specific gesture, meaning obscure. The other has a very interesting register of narrative on its base: 2 groups of people marching gainst each other on a rock landscape. Some specific event being depicted. Historical specifity is introduced.

Sin-Shamash temple.

In their new temple complexes the Assyrians developed the double cult phenomenon, sanctuaries dedicated to double cults, while its architecture developed into a strictly symmetrical arrangement. Temple to Sin and Shamash is one good example. These double cult sanctuaries later became a common feature of the cultic topography of Assyrian cities with double ziqqurats often. This temple only survives in foundations and most of the scholars date it to the time of Tukulti Ninurta based on architectural design, some date it earlier. Two cult rooms room accessed from a shared central courtyard and a shared vestibule section.

Anu Adad temple

Such is the 12th c. BC Anu Adad temple built on a major dominant spot in the Old city with major modifications twice but with a similar idea of a double cult to Anu and Adad, a shared cenral courtyard, and double cultroom in the alignment of the vestibule approach, and the flanking ziqqurats for each deities.

Kar Tukulti Ninurta

Tukulti Ninurta I, then had his major project however elesewhere in a newly founded settlement just across the river Tigris from Assur, and moved not only his royal seat over there into a new palace and also created Kar Tukulti Ninurta as new ceremonial center. Several commemorative inscriptions on alabaster tablets both from Assur and Kar-Tukulti-Ninurta celebrate this major ideological move:

(46-66) At that time the god Aššur, my lord, requested of me a cult centre on the bank opposite my city, the desired object of the gods, and he commanded me to build his sanctuary. At the command of the god Aššur, the god who loves me I built before my city Aššur, a city for (the god) Aššur on the opposite bank, besides the Tigris, in uncultivated plains and meadows where there was neither house nor dwelling, where no ruin hills of rubble had accumulated, and no bricks had been laid. I called it Kār-Tukulti-Ninurta. I surrounded it with two walls, I heaped up heaps of earth in front of the wall and I dug a big moat following the circumference of the wall. In my city Kār-Tukulti-Ninurta which I love I constructed magnificent daises to serve as armchairs for the great gods and goddesses, my lords. I cut straight as a string through rocky terrain, massive and strong mountains. I cut a wide path for two watercourses of life which carry abundance for my city Kār-Tukulti-Ninurta. I transformed its plains into irrigated (fields). I arranged for regular offerings to Aššur and the great gods, my lords, in perpetuity from the fish (lit. ‘produce’) of the waters of that canal.

New foundations: reasons? It becomes a general motive in the Neo-Assyrian period. Several new cities that assyrian founded and moved their capital from one ruler to another. Political reasons? The king releaves himself from the established royal elite system and creates a new fresh political ground, a new arena for his energetic ideas. But also economical and environmental perhaps. Was the palace at Assur ever built entirely or was there a frustration with the Old capital about the available land to build? What was the state of the old mound? Why did he need a new administrative center? What is the relationship between the Assyrian view of historiy and the historicity of the place on the one hand and the virgin soil and its human induced cultivation, cultivation both by means of agricultural and construction-wise, but also the mental construction of a new territory, ne ideological landscape?

In any case let’s have a look at Kar Tukulti Ninurta.

Aerial view – Site plan The site of Tulul al Aqar, 3 km upstream North from Assur was already identified as Kar-Tukulti Ninurta in the early years of excavation (1913-1914) directed by Walter Bachmann, who never published his work and his filednotebooks lost. Survey and excavations resumed in 1986 directed by Reinhard Dittmann. The urban center has a square plan, divided into two halves by a spectacular canal running roughly north-south almost the entire length of the city with a monumental gate at its southern end. Two palaces to its northwest edge one right at the river bank was excavated, while the Assur temple annexed to a ziggurat is also located about in the middle of this western half of the city.

In comparison to Assur the site is enormous 500 ha (ca 1235 acres), almost 5 times larger than Assur. The major buildings that were excavated here were the Palace and Aššur temple-ziqqurat complex. The city is divided several quarters, the rectangular plan city wall encloses only the official royal-administrative quarter, which itself is divided into two by the canal, the major monumental complexes gathered to the West. Several monumental gates.


The North palace is a fascinating piece of architecture with an enormous palace terrace, originally 18 m high, to the south; unfortunately the area between them was not excavated but it looks certain that the two were parts of same huge palace structure. A special section of the palace must have been located upon this terrace: but the terrace is just like a ziqqurat, so monumental so dominant in the townscape. Fragments of elaborate wall paintings on the flanks of the eroded terrace. It was accessed from North through a courtyard. The courtyard was paved with unique rhomboid bricks, and walls were decorated with glazed tiles in green and yellow, with frit panels with palmette motifs. Very elaborate wall paintings from the palace as well. These appear to be innovations, probably due to the new craftsmen that Tukulti Ninurta had brought. Frequently mentioned in the Tulul al Aqar texts are the Hurrian (Subarian) families who were suggested to have been deported from Upper Mesopotamia by Tukulti-Ninurta I, for his massive building campaigns which lasted long periods of time, and these deportees must have eventually been adopted citizens of the city itself.

They found both color plaster paintings in the interior spaces, but also on the outside on the North and South sides of the terrace walls of the palace terrace. The clay was mixed with sand and vegetable matter, and painted on white ground in blue red and black. Stylized sacred tree in the form of palmette. These botanical motifs were dominant rosettes, palmettes and lotus blossoms.

Aššur temple complex:

Also very innovative with a very decent integration of the ziqqurat and the temple complex, the cult room joins the ziqqurat and the cult niche is built high on a podium and also in a sectacular niche built into the ziqqurat core structure itself. The gatehouse is not on the exact axis but from North, direction of the palace, probably opening to that royal quarter, also a gate from East. The vestibule rooms turn in scale like cult rooms.

A very interesting feature of the temple is that the texts found at Kar Tukulti Ninurta mentions a room where Assyrian gods that were worshipped in the city were assembled in the form of votive altars. And the archaeologists now hypothesized that the large oblong room next to the cella (Room 4) was this room. So the temple and the ziqqurat was essentially built for the major god of Assyria: Assur, but its sanctuary also meant for the assembly of all the gods of the Assyrian patheon.

Kar Tukulti Ninurta was abandoned after the death of Tukulti Ninurta I. He was presumably assasinated by one of his sons.

There is one more king after Tukulti Ninurta, who can be pointed out for his military campaigns and buildings as part of this Middle Assyrian dynastic line: Tiglathpileser I (1114-1076) who comes about a century after Tukulti Ninurta, and helps us to understand the uninterrupted dynastic line from the Middle Assyrian LateBronze age kingdom to the Early Iron Age, and the establishment of the Late Assyrian or Neo-Assyrian Empire. The inscripions from his regn are quite abundant and innovative in the sense that the campaigns are arranged fro the first time in chronological order along with the building work. He tehrefore establishes the general structure of assyrian annals which became the essential feature of Assyrian literary tradition. In these inscription he talks about campaigning to Eastern Anatolia, Van, and all the way west to the Mediterranean probably near Lebanon., and also even Babylonia, capturing major cities lie Babylon, Dur Kurigalzu.

But after Tiglath pileser all this prosperity was slowly lost and Assyria shrank to its heartland, mostly due to the Aramaic incursions into Northern Mesopotamia, Syrian steppes, another Semitic but semi-nomadic people.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

The consolidation of the territorial power in Assyria comes only at late 10th and the beginning of 9th c. BC, but as soon as it came, it was the Neo-Assyrian Empire, perhaps one of the most prosperous and well-known territorial empire who controlled entire Northen Mesopotamia and to a certain extent south as well occasionally between the dates 934 and 610 BC. Due to the lack of time we won’t be able to get to Neo-Babylonians, Achaemenids and Persians as I planned: I thin less is more and instead of rushing through what we have, let’s look at things in a rather digestive way.

It is now getting rather late and I don’t want to make this boring with historical info, and I will go right into Nimrud, and make a good introduction to it, and next week we will continue. If you have made the readings you won’t suffer.

Particularly with Assurnasirpal II (883-859). The three kings before him had consolidated the empire with territorial takeover, and Assurnasirpal campaigned mostly towards West and North, especially against the small city-states that formed in the Early Iron Age in North Syria, South-East and Central Anatolia, known as Neo-Hittite, Aramaic and Phenician city states: multi-ethnic. We will turn to them and their architecture, which inherts alot from the Late Bronze Hittite traditions. There was alot of exchange of ideas: evene though the relations were generally hostile.


With this royal prosperity, Assurnasirpal II, built a new city in the heartland of Assyria: ancient Kalhu, modern Nimrud, located on the east bak of river Tigris, up the river to the North of Assur and Kar Tukulti Ninurta. It is one of the very early investigated cities, as you remember from my first two lectures, 2nd one particulary on the rediscovery of the Ancient Near East. The excavations here started in 1845 by Austen Henry Layard. British exacavations were renewed after 2nd world war, then in mid 70s Polish archaeologists dis some work, and recently Iraqi archaeologists are working at the site.

Map of environs and mound It was a basically established already around 1280 BC in the Middle Assyrian period and it functioned as a provincial town, but it was never built in monumental scale. Our knowledge of this period of the site is very very limited, due to the concentration of the excavations on the Neo-Assyrian capital. So instead of staying and building in the older capitals, Assurnasirpal decided to move his royal seat to this town and build it up extensively, in its ideology, it is sort of like a new foundation; considering the amount by which the town had expanded. He also deported populations to the city from the West mostly to use them as workforce for the building activity, and they included craftsmen as well. A huge building campaign that took place around 878 BC after his first military victories.

Town plan At Kalhu he constructed a new city wall, his royal palace known as the NorthWest palace, according to his inscriptions, about 9 temples, of which only three have been identified. The city wall tha is roughly 7 and a half kilometers, encloses a 360 ha site, with a really small scale citadel 20 ha. Today, among these buildings we will only look at the Northwest palace and its monumental relief program. Before moving into that just a few words on the city-palnning issues:

As we have seen in Kar Tukulti Ninurta, the assyrian newly founded towns tend to have these rectangular squarish layouts both in the overall plan and the layout of the citadel. It is interesting that the citadel is always at the edge of the settlement and in some contact itself with the city wall and oftentimes overlooking the river. An especially the kings geberally choose to build their major palaces even more at the edge of the citadel and overlooking the river.

Gardens And the palaces are built on large terrace structures: and probably had enormous royal gardens, and Assyrian kings often talk about their gardens and the exotic plants and animals they bring from furthest lands and plant the trees and keep the animals such as lions.

Banquet stele On a stele called the Banquet stele, I will show you that Assurnasipal says he 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 is found in-situ its original position in 1951 in the Northwest palace, a large sandstone slab, found near the doorway to the entrance to a throne-room. 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. So the King gave this hupe party to all. It gives a full list of the plants planted in the royal gardens of the city, and the entire food items served during the festival and very very valuable for history of botany and gastronomy. He claims to have entertained 69,574 people in this big juicy party. In the centre of it there is a relif of the king in stance and in ceremonial garb standing in front of the symbols of his titulary gods Sin, Aššur, Šamaš, Enlil, Adad and the Sibitti. Around his neck is a string of amulets and in his left hand he grasps a royal mace.

The text is really about the building of the palace and its celebration afterwards. He tells about the 120 course terrace he had his workmen build to act asa base for his palace: and 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 speaks about the royal orchards that he planted in the city, and the canal he built to water them, 42 varieties of fruits in them. He also boasts about his royal hunt of lions and bulls, a typical motif. And finally the festiva that lasted 10 days, all the workmen, officals, inhabitants, guests...

Northwest palace:

Let’s return to the palace. It was built as I said at the edge of the settlement overlooking the river, probably enjoying the fantastic view of the landscape above the entire town. Immediately South of the Northwest palace, there stood the two temple complexes to Ninurta and Ishtar that he had built. And just below the palace there was the impressive quay walls on which the palace rose on its terraces. It was a large palace 200 m N_S and 120 m E-W. The southern limit of the palace could not be determined and not fully excavated, the palace probably extends there. However in N and E, we have the edge of the palace by means of an elaborate monumental wallwith massive buttresses to the North.

In its plan, it followed that new Assyrian plan type of the babanu and the bitanu, two courtyards of different scales and different functions, but the main throneroom acting as the central agent that connected them. Outer courtyard was reserved for the publicaffairs, while the inner courtyard was reserved for the organization of the King’s residence/private chambers. The outer courtyard was accessed through a monumental gateway to the east which has eroded away along with almost the whole courtyard. But what fortunately survives is the South wall which acted as the façade to the throne room. The courtyard had offices and storerooms to its East and West.

The entire south façade was lined with stone orthostats, all carved with relief, in an extraordinary skill, unrivalled before Assurnasirpal. I have already talked to you about the significance of orthostats archietcturally, but in the Neo-Assyrian palace it gains a totally new more decorative function and used in the interior spaces as well. A wall surface that speaks, and tells you a story whereever you go in the palace. The south façade had 3 gates into the throneroom and all of them were flanked by these giant human headed stone colossi. The banquet stele was found in the room just to the left of these gates.

Most of the sculptural program was reserved for the inner court, the babanu.

These giant figures are called limassu figures, that are rather apotropaic, mythical creatures that protect the gates from evil spirits. They also monumentalize all the doorways, they are mostly human headed lions or bulls. Remarkable. They are practically 5 legged creatures not because they are weird and surrela, but just it was a sculptural convention, from the need to show the right leg both in the profile view and the frontal view, caused by the technical fact that they are not carved in the round.

The stone that was used was a soft sandstone locally quarried around in Assyria and nowadays known as Mosul marble since it is so smooth, and very good qulaity but easy to work stone; yellowish-grayis and beautiful warm color. Go see them in the Metropolitan Museum. The relief themselves were painted, as probably the upper portions of the walls too, which the orthostats did not cover, Assurnasirpal also mentions glazed brick decorations.

Generally 3 kinds of subject matter:

1. 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, the good spirits; oftentimes the king performing rituals.

2. The bringing of booty scenes that depict the ambassodors of several different lands bringing their tributes to the Assyrian capital; located mostly on the courtyard and finally

3. Narrative scenes organized in 2 register narratives with standard inscription in the middle, depicting various military campaigns of the king. There runs a standard incription in the middle of all of those reliefs and a repetiotion of the same text that gives the name, titles and epithets of the king, summarized his military achievements, and described the appearance of the palace.

It was also a crucial matter, how these reliefs were distributed in terms of subject matter and their styyle of depiction. The Symbolic scenece of king performing rituals are used to mark important architectural spots, like just behind the throne of the King, or just across the gate from the courtyard into the throne-room, and the like, which then interrupts the general narrative of the room, with its full scale double register depiction. In the throne room identical two scenes are used in these two spots. In these the images of the king and a winged deity are shown twice, symmetrically flanking the stylized palm tree, a sacred tree. Symbolicly represening the king assuring the prosperity of Assyria.

The tribute scene of the courtyard move towards the western end of the wall, where the tributaries are shown in front of the king. In the eastern end they converge at a door, beyond which the enthrone king himself was depicted. So the whole setting is complete and it can be taken as a narrative itself too.

On the other hand, the narrative scenes are more reserved for the throneroom itself, which becomes a very symbolic place for the presentation of the kingship ideology, while the courtyards where the guests were taken into had the tribute bearing scenes. These narrative slabs are 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 has the Standard Inscription carved on it. The subject matter of the narratives include

royal hunts,
royal military conquests,

Attempts have been made to identify each city being depicted in these scenes, from the specifity of landcsapes, and their correlation with the texts. For instance the attack on Carcemish on the Euphrates is identified from the scene showing the Assyrian soldiers floating on the river on ship-skin floats, attacking a citadel by the river which both fits its textual decription from the annals and the actual topography of Carchemish, which is well known archaeologically.

So fascinating is the historical precision: the precision and specifity in these reliefs that make them narratives, a tradition that reminds us back the Akkadian stele of Naram Sin with the depiction of Naram Sin’s vicory over the Lullubi tribe of the Zagros mountains.

Another fascinating aspect of this concern in depicting the foreign landcsapes in such detail is also to represent the terriorial takeover of foreign lands, which were al deliberately different than Assyria, and there is always this air of admiration towards them: they destroy and takeover but also admre them, and incorporate them in their own cosmos of the Assyrian knowledge of the world. S the narrative scenes are like a map of this takeover, which was not necessarily a solely military expedition but also a curious matter for the King to experience all these exotic places. A constant contact with the other, with the foreign land.

So by means of how a military attack is depicted in its specifity, we get the sense of a historical even, commemorated and recorded in its utmost detail. From the inscriptions we know that the king carried with himself arists, who made sketches while the conquest was taking place, to use them later in their visual sculptural narrations.

In the rooms G and H, king is shown pouring libations and doing other ritual activities, and mostly a repetition of the sacred tree scene.


In terms of relief art however, more spectacular remains come fom a separate town, Imgur-Enlil modern Balawat, only 16 km NE of Nimrud, where bothe Assurnasirpal and Shalmaneser subsequently had a palace on which they both worked:

A new foundation: a square layout with the citadel towards its Northern corner but not necessarily on the edge; conventional Neo-Assyrian military settlement. The king used the palace as an occasional royal residence. Temple of Mamu: small temple. A deity associated with dreams and therefore probably oracles.

Mamu temple with the principal shrine at its NW end, a longitudanal cella on its main axis, which was paved. Then the palace probably located further West.

Probably a similar layout and function as Balawat. David Oates thinks that Balawat of the Assurnasirpal’s annals as a departure point towards the SE, with the dream-oracle sanctuary to Mamu, one day walk from Nineveh (where Assurnasirpal claims to have departed his army). Apqu is consdered by Oates as a similar first night stopover for NW campaigns. But the large palaces that were built at these locations is an indication of the importance of this first stopover for the fortune of the campaign.

16 bronze bands that emballished a monumental wooden gate. Each band was decorated with 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. One of the very fine narrative programs of Assyrian art. Lively images of royal military campaigns and delivery of tribute. The subject is the first 11 years of Shalmaneser’s reign.

I would like to mention one interesting scene: often referred to as the campaign to the source of the Tigris. The king goes all the way to Lake Van in E Turkey, rock relief of Shalmaneser being carved, while offerings were made in front of him. Different fishes depicted. Capured cities and conquered landscapes.

Because of the lack of time we are actually looking at the Assyrian kings who had these major building projects. After the end of the reign of Shalmaneser in 840s, Assyria entered into a period of decline, and several scholars have argued about the nature and the causes of this decline which lasted about 100 years in the assyrian heartland, and during those 100 years annals record several revolts and a social as well as political unrest through out Assyria. Actally during this period, the Northern and Western city states and kingdoms of Neo-Hittites and Aramaeans and Urartians prospered, being relieved from the military pressure of the Assyrian army.

Powerpoint presentation

Document IconNimrud-Balawat.ppt

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