Throughout the centuries, changes in the political structure of Assyrian history have led to different locations of the Assyrian capitol, as with other civilizations around the world. Because of this, Assyria has had four capitols in its past.
The small, self-governing merchant city of Assur was the first capitol of Assyria, which has its origins in the 20th century BCE. It became a territorial power in the 14th and 13th centuries BCE and survived until 605 BCE. The timeframe can be divided into four phases. Phase One, between 1400 – 1200 BCE, was the development of a city-state under the rule of the Mitannian kings to a territorial state known as ‘The Land of the Assur’ in which the “kings claimed equality with the Pharaoh and the Great King of the Hittites” (Postgate, p.247).
Phase Two (1200 – 900 BCE) saw the loss of power of Assur, not to the other neighbouring states such as Babylonia and the Hittite kingdom (who were all very weak at this period), but due to the incursions of Aramaean tribes, who by 900 BC had established minor dynasties throughout most of North Mesopotamia and Syria. It is also been suggested that poor climate may have also been a contributing factor.
Phase Three (900 – 745 BCE): Much of our knowledge of the previous phase comes from the records dated from phase three. These describe how later Assyrian kings describe how their subjects had had to take refuge in the mountains and how their cities had been conquered by newcomers.
Phase Four (745 – 605 BCE) saw the changes that would allow the territorial state of Assur to become a great civilization. The beginning of this was the accession of Tiglath-Pileser III in 745, who conquered and annexed most of Syria and Lebanon, and initiated a policy of expanding the frontiers of ‘The Land of Assur’ which ended with Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal’s annexation of Egypt and Elam, and abolished the intervening local states, thus setting the scene for the succeeding empires of Babylon, Persia and Macedon (Postgate, p.251).
The next capitol was at Tell Leilan, otherwise known as Shekhna in antiquity, and had been part of the Akkadian Empire. When the Assyrian king, Shamshi-Ada I (1813 – 1781 BCE) conquered the region, he revived the long abandoned site and made it the capitol of his kingdom. The name of the city was changed to Shubat-Enlil, which translates as ‘the residence of the god Enlil’. Archaeological excavations have unearthed numerous clay tablets recording how the administration of the kingdom was performed.
The city of Nimrud, or Kalhu in antiquity, was the next location of Assyria’s capitol. It was founded in the Middle Assyrian Period, by king Ashurnasirpal II in around 880 BCE. In 867 BCE, Ashurnasirpal II dedicated a new royal palace (known as the Northwest Palace) to serve as a government centre and the royal residence (Porter, p.129), which is located just north of Bagdad in modern day Iraq. This capitol lasted until around 710 BCE.
The final capitol of Assyria was the city of Nineveh, which was located on the eastern bank of the Tigris, from about 710 BCE. Although Nineveh was the centre for the worship of Istar, the goddess of fertility, war, sex and love, the archaeological record shows that Nineveh did not experience a large amount of building programs until the reign of Sennacherib (704 – 681 BCE). Nineveh’s reign as capitol was short-lived, however, as the city was repeatedly attacked by the Medes and finally fell in 612 when the great Assyrian civilization came to an end.
As stated, many civilizations had changed the locations of their capitols following great changes in the political structure of their culture, and the civilization of Assyria is just one example of this. However, each capitol can give us great insight into the great civilization of Assyria.
Oppenheim, A. Leo (1960) The City of Assur in 714 B.C, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, The University of Chicago Press.
Porter, Barbara Nevling (1993) Sacred Trees, Date Palms and the Royal Persona of Ashurnasirpal II, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, The University of Chicago Press.
Postgate, J. N. (1992) The Land of Assur and the Yoke of Assur, World Archaeology, Taylor & Francis Ltd.