"how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in!" - The Fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE

10 August 612 BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire ended when the city of Nineveh on the river Tigris fell to a coalition of various Indo-Iranian tribes under the Babylonian King Nabopolassar.

“And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness. And flocks shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations: both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds: for he shall uncover the cedar work. This is the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! every one that passeth by her shall hiss, and wag his hand.“ (Zephaniah 2:13-15)

The imagination of the English Romantic painter John Martin of the Fall of Nineveh from 1828, who was quite fascinated with the burning and destruction of ancient sites anyway.

It is probably characteristic that the first true empire the world has ever seen is, at the same time, one of the cruellest. Assyrian history stretches back a very long time to the days of the Mesopotamian city states around 2,300 BCE and remained a relatively stable conglomerate when things went a bit topsy-turvy in the region and Mesopotamia entered a Dark Ages-period. After 912 BCE, the kings of the Neo-Assyrian Empire began to grab their neighbours’ parcels with a vengeance and only a hundred years later, the dominion of King Tiglat-Pileser III stretched from the Mediterranean Sea almost to the Persian Gulf across the Middle East and over the next decades under Sargon II and Ashurbanipal, the empire of the Assyrians incorporated Egypt, the whole Levant, half of Asia Minor and ended in the hinterlands beyond the Euphrates, controlled by the best-equipped and drilled army in the world and dozens of subjugated peoples who sweated as slaves under the Assyrian thumb while the kings’ halls in Nineveh were adorned with scenes of slaughter and cruel repressions, just to make a point towards foreign ambassadors and rebels. 

The Assyrian army in action

Assyria had grown from more or less feudal arrangements into an almost completely militarised state. Those who weren’t in the army served in the king’s well organised bureaucracy and while Nineveh and other major cities grew into centres of civilisation on war loot, goods and people, the empire was forced to lead one war of conquest after another to sustain itself and repress rebellions in their own backyards on a permanent basis. When Ashurbanipal died in 627 BCE, it was clear that the Assyrian Empire was completely overstretched and had become simply unviable. With Babylon as the wild card in the heart of Assyria, an alliance of Babylonian princes and nomad tribes, Medes, Persians, Scythians, Cimmerians, some of them nominally subjugated and tributary to the king, some not, was formed. In 616 BCE, the allied army lead by the Babylonian Nabopolassar invaded the Assyrian heartland, Aššur fell in 614 and Nineveh after along siege and vicious house-to-house fighting in 612. The city was sacked, put to the torch and had been never rebuild.

A dying lion, hunted down by Assyria's last king Ashurbanipal, a relief from his palace in Nineveh

The last Assyrian king is mentioned in 609 and the Assyrian Empire was history. The Babylonians followed up, only to be incorporated into the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great a few generations later that was based on far more civilised terms than its predecessors. Nineveh itself was never quite forgotten, though. While the Assyrian lingua franca became the Aramaic court language of the Persian king of kings, the old Assyrian capital was chiefly remembered in the Scriptures as a bit of a counterpoint to wicked Babylon while Classical authors barely knew the place at all. Excavations of the site began in 1847 and, ironically enough, the ruins of Nineveh received less damage during the two world wars when the place, strategically favourably placed on the river Tigris, served as British base camp, than they did during the archaeological exploits of the late 19th century. Recent developments in the region around Mosul, though, unfortunately threaten the site with complete annihilation.

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