Journey back over 2,600 years with curator Gareth Brereton as we visit the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh.
Discover the sights, shopping destinations, entertainment and local delicacies not to be missed (and the areas to steer clear of).
Historical city travel guide: Nineveh, 7th century BC
The city of Nineveh has recently undergone extensive development to become the new capital of the mighty Assyrian empire. It is now a vast metropolis surrounded by massive walls some 12 kilometres in length that encompass an area of 750 hectares (7.5km2) in size. While official statistics on the population of Nineveh are not available, it reportedly takes three days to cross the city.
This cosmopolitan city is located on the eastern bank of the River Tigris at the intersection of the road which connects the highlands of the north with the prosperous lands of Babylonia and Chaldea in the south.
A veritable paradise on earth, the fertile lands surrounding Nineveh are perfect for growing the huge volumes of staple crops such as wheat and barley needed to feed the population of this colossal city. Benefitting from plentiful rainfall, the city is also situated where the River Khosr meets the River Tigris, which guarantees an abundant supply of water. A monumental aqueduct brings water over a vast distance to feed the city's network of canals. Upstream from the city you will find orchards planted with vines, fruit trees and olive groves.
When to visit
The summer months in Assyria are ferociously hot and are best avoided. Winters are often very wet and the city is transformed into a quagmire. The best times to visit are autumn and spring, when the city has warm days with cool mornings and evenings.
Travelling from the north, the city can be easily reached via the River Tigris using the quppu ferry service, a local round-boat woven from bundles of reeds and waterproofed with bitumen. If travelling by river from the south expect a longer journey as you sail against the flow of the river. Most quppus dock in the city quay.
Thanks to the Assyria royal road network, travelling to the city on donkey or mule is quick and convenient. Major routes include the north-south road from the foothills of the Taurus Mountains down to Babylonia, and the east-west road from the Zagros Mountains to the Levantine coast. Accommodation and food stalls are plentiful along the major routes. Government officials with an appropriate authorisation will be able to stay at the posting stations which can be found every 20-30 km along all major routes.
While Nineveh is huge, it is still possible to reach most destinations on foot. Should you wish to travel by donkey or mule, there are numerous rental places throughout the city. Nineveh and its surrounding area is famous for its network of canals so make sure you take a ride in a guppu boat or one of the local gondolas.
Things to see and do
The city walls and gates
On reaching the city you will be amazed by its massive walls and the 18 city gates, which are flanked with colossal human-headed bulls carved from blocks of gypsum alabaster. They are known locally as Iamassu and are believed to prevent evil forces from entering the city.
The 'Palace Without Rival'
This fabulous palace was built by King Sennacherib at the turn of the century to be a wonder for all people and is not to be missed. Its name, the 'Palace Without Rival', is well deserved, as it covers around 500m x 250m and is situated on a high terrace overlooking the city. The exterior facades of the palace are made from tens of thousands of baked bricks erected on a foundation of limestone blocks which are faced with polished white plaster and capped with blue-glazed bricks. Huge doors of cedar wood are adorned with decorated shiny copper bands while the arches and copings are adorned with colourful glazed tiles.
The palace is formed of several large paved courtyards surrounded by suites of rooms and corridors. Be sure to look out for some of the cast bronze columns with bases in the form of fierce lions. A technological marvel! Visit the in-vogue bīt-ḫilāni room, said to be a perfect replica of a Hittite palace.
Should you be lucky enough to visit the throne room you will be greeted by a towered facade with three entrances flanked by colossal human-headed winged bulls. Beyond the throne room you will find the administrative, ceremonial and domestic quarters of the palace, but these are definitely off limits to visitors.
Grander rooms in the palace are decorated with stone wall panels carved with narrative scenes and protective magical figures, all of which are brilliantly coloured. It is said that if the reliefs were all placed together, they would extend for a length of 3km!
The botanical gardens
The famous gardens of Nineveh are a must for any plant and animal lover. The terraced palace gardens are said to be a replica of Mount Amanus (Ed. in modern-day Turkey) and feature all kinds of aromatic plants and fruit trees. Just outside of the city are botanical gardens with a unique collection of aromatic trees from the land of Ḫatti (Ed. in modern-day Turkey), fruit trees, and trees from the mountains and the lands of Chaldea (Ed. in the south of modern-day Iraq). The gardens are watered by an intricate network of canals. In the game reserves you will find wild boar, roe deer, and if you're lucky, you might even spot a lion! The garden shop is well stocked with flowers from across the empire, as well as a wide variety of cooking herbs and medicinal plants.
This massive temple tower stands proudly on the citadel mound and can be seen from all corners of the city. The tower features successive receding stories accessible by a series of steep stairways. It is built from a core of sun-baked bricks faced with fired bricks that are glazed in different colours. Sadly, the ziggurat is closed to general visitors and only accessible to the priesthood, so you will need to admire its grandeur from afar.
Temple of Ishtar
Dedicated to Ishtar of Nineveh, the goddess of warfare and passion, this temple complex has stood in the same place for over a thousand years. The nearby temple of Nabu is dedicated to the god of literature, scribes and wisdom. Both sanctuaries are notable for their facades of colourful glazed tiles and bricks, interior rooms lined with carved stone wall panels and numerous rich embellishments of gold and silver.
Nineveh's busy cultic calendar sees citywide festivals take place throughout the year. A must for any visitor, these colourful events are a time when the city's devout populace take to the streets to enjoy the festivities and to receive fresh bread, beer, and honey cakes (delicious!)
Nineveh is famous for the spectacular and brutal lion hunts that take place in the game parks located outside the city. By combining sport, ritual and theatre, the Assyrian kings publicly display their valour and military skill as they slay ferocious lions from their battle chariots. The best spot to view the action is the hill beside the hunting grounds – get there early to beat the crowds.
Don't miss the weekly shows of the Epic of Gilgamesh, performed by dancers and acrobats acting out the hero's adventures, and the monthly recitals of the Epic of Creation, with the Assyrian state god Ashur as the lead role.
Sports and exercise
Daily exercise is important. The citizens of Nineveh love to take a stroll along the Tigris in the early evening and children can always be seen running around and playing tag (though note that ball games are not played). Renting a horse can be expensive, but well worth it on public holidays, when racing is permitted in the parade ground below the Arsenal. Fishing is also popular.
The most popular board game is the Game of Twenty Squares (also known as the Royal Game of Ur), over a thousand years old but still going strong! Luxury sets made of gold, ivory and precious stones are available at high-end outlets, but you can just as easily make your own version by scratching the outline on a brick and using pebbles as pieces. It is rumoured that a few years ago some soldiers scratched the board into one of the king's winged bull sculptures. They were punished by being sent to work in the quarries.
Find out how to play the Royal Game of Ur Game.
Some say that the Assyrian war machine is unstoppable, crushing all that stands before it. If you're lucky, you may get to witness an Assyrian victory triumph, as prisoners and war booty are paraded through the city streets. But beware, they aren't for the faint hearted – often the grizzly spectacles end in the severed heads of enemies being displayed on the city's ramparts!
Nineveh is a major centre of trade and there are plenty of shopping opportunities to be had throughout the city's markets. Payment is generally in silver or copper, most larger retailers will also accept grain or dates. Many outlets will accept credit if backed up by a personal seal.
Local crafts can be purchased in the artisanal quarter, located in the north west of the city, best accessed by the Sin Gate or Nergal Gate. Nineveh's bronze workers are renowned for their skill and technological innovations, while Assyrian woven carpets and hemmed garments are highly sought after.
Markets and stalls selling fresh mountain produce and livestock from the highlands can be found in the north eastern quarter of the city, especially along the road that runs from the Halahhu Gate. Exotic merchandise and bulk bargains can be found in the city quay and the surrounding merchants quarter. Look out for goods such as purple cloth and ivory from Phoenicia (Ed. modern-day Lebanon), spices and incense from Arabia, textiles and woods from Turkey and Iran and wine from Syria.
Assyrian literature is famous and includes a wide range of stories, prayers and historical and other texts. While the famous state Library of Ashurbanipal can only be visited by appointment (restricted to established scholars), the city has numerous bookshops.
Food and drink
The lavish banquets held by the Assyrian aristocracy are something to behold. On the inauguration of a new place, thousands of VIP guests flock to the city where they are fed, bathed and anointed to the sounds of music and joyful celebration. Hundreds of fattened oxen, thousands of sheep and vast quantities of game such as deer, ducks, pigeons and turtle doves are served at these extravagant banquets!
Humbler dishes can be found at street stalls located in the markets and by the city quay. On offer are various broths, flatbreads stuffed with mutton and tasty vegetable fillings, cheese, fresh fruit, honey cakes, sweets and delicious dates sourced from Chaldea. Local delicacies include the nutritious snack of crunchy roast grasshoppers served on a stick as well as spiced grilled river-carp.
Craft beer is booming, and new taverns are opening up all over the city, so it's best to ask a local for up-to-the-minute tips, but make sure you sample the local fig-beer. The best drinking spots are located to the northeast of the city and by the city quay, many of which have live music. Taverns located in the merchants' quarter have a seedy reputation and are best avoided after dark. Wine lovers should head to the north west of the city, near the wealthier residences that surround the citadel mound. The local custom is to drink wine from bronze and silver bowls. Look out for the rich reds sourced from the kingdom of Urartu's celebrated cellars.
Loans of silver, copper and barley are available at most major temples, at competitive rates. Try not to default on your loan though – you may be charged with a penalty in excess of 1000 per cent, as well as being subjected to ritual humiliations.
Nineveh has a vibrant economy. For those wishing to buy futures in grain prices or options on temple services, the results of the daily examination of sheeps livers (used to read the future) are published at midday (except festivals days).
Attracted to this wonderful city? Considering investing? Purchasing property is easy. All you need is your personal seal (both stamp seals and cylinder seals are accepted) and at least two witnesses. Payment is generally in silver. You can also buy plots of land and build your own home - but please make sure not to encroach on the Royal Road, for which the penalty is death.
Local laws and customs
Despite its size, Nineveh is a relatively safe place for visitors. Crime and dissent is low as the punishments are severe. Violation of state property, theft and abduction are commonly punishable by impalement! Visitors to the city would be wise to respect local laws at all times!
To discover more about ancient Assyria you can read our Introduction the Assyrians blog.