Nimrud Northwest Palace

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on
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Ashurnasirpal II turned the ancient settlement mound at Kalhu into a fortified royal citadel. The citadel was the main feature of Kalhu, and in turn the palace was the main feature of the citadel. There was nothing physically, geographically, or architecturally overshadowing the palace. Like the old palace, it was perched overlooking the river. But unlike the old palace, it was visible from afar. It was a monument to the newfound prominence and assertiveness of Assyrian kingship, with a north-south length of 200 meters and an east-west width of 130 meters. Near the palace, also inside the royal citadel, were shrines of the most important gods of the Assyrian empire such as Ishtar, Ninurta, and Nabu. However, there was no temple for Assur whose only sanctuary remained in the city of Ashur.

The palace (Assyrian ekallu, from the Sumerian word for 'big house') had always been located at Ashur. The new palace was not just a physical move, it was also a novel form of architecture that combined structural and decorative elements from across the empire and served as the definitive model for palaces constructed by all later Assyrian kings, and the palaces built in all provincial capitals. These were also called ekallu like the main palace, and when the king travelled he would stay there, but uually they were occupied by the governors who ruled onn his behalf. This meant that provincial governors had very little opportunity to build their own identity except as the agent of the king.

The palace consisted of two floor plans — the bitanu (outer) courtyard for public affairs, and the babanu (inner) courtyard for residential affairs — connected by a throne room with a monumental gateway for audiences with the king. A soft local sandstone was used, which was decorated with paint and glazed bricks and slabs of Mosul marble. The outer courtyard had offices and storerooms, as well as a South Wall (aka South Facade) that doubled as the throne room's facade. This facade was lined with stone orthostats carved in relief with a level of skill unprecedented before Ashurnasirpal II. The South Wall had three gates into the throne room, each of which was flanked by colossal lamassu. To the left of these gates was the room containing the Banquet Stele. The palace was organized in three distinct areas organized around three courtyards: the state departments to meet with the court and visitors; the administative wing where the palace's income and business fafairs ere managed; and te private quarters that housed the royal family.

Whoever wanted to see the kind had to apply for an audience and wait for the honor of it being granted. Access was strictly governed by protocol. People usually had audience with the king in the throne room, where he sat elevated on top of a pedestal on a high chair with his feet on a foot stool. The caller effectively faced his feet when steanding in front of the king, making kissing the king's feet much easier. While protocol heavily shaped royal encounter, he was also keen to meet with his people in ways that reinforced comunity while hihglighting his superior position. The royal banquet was key. For visitors, the privilege of feastinng with the king did not just meanthe finest foods and wines, but also material beenfit: people were presented with dinnerware as their farewell gift. Its material was a reflection of one's social standing, with gold, silver, brass, and fine pottery. These often accompanied their proud owners to the grave.

The principle of controlled and limited access is reflected in the architecture of the palace. It was dominant over hte cityscape, but had few and easily controllable entrances both from the outside and the different palace quarters. Gatekeepers controlled gateways and doors, which when possible were equipped with bolts and locks. They were also supernatural protections: small statuettes of protective spirits or dogs were under the threshold, and at the sides were monumental lamassu and protective spirits. These were thought ot offer potent protection. Lucky were those whose link with the king was so close that they could hope to bypass these layers easily and have free access to the king. These royal companions held an honor titlee meaning 'he who is close' and were at the top of the court hierarchy. Occupying such a position, they were his preferred choice of envoy. They often had military background, hihglighting the amount of time the king spent with the army, and what a good opoprtunity military campaigns and camp life provided for getting to know the ruler.

The apalce at Kalhu was enormous but was effectively the home of just one family. As the continnuation of the royal bloodline was paramount, he had one queen but many wives and all were his legitimate offpsring. This is different than the otherwise monogamous Assyrian society. In 897 BC the extended royal family was not only relocated but hte entire royal court, which meant moving hundreds of people from Ashur to Kalhu. This was also overseen by Nergal-apil-kumu'a. THe new palace was more monumental than the last in all ways but one: a the old palace the kings had been traditionally buried under the palace, mirroring the tradition among Assyrians of burying their dead under their home. Even with te new paalce at Kalhu, this custom did not change: Ashurnasirpal II was buried under the floor of the old place and his successors conitnued using it at their final resting place. In 1989 just before the gulf war the Iraqi antiquties department found several underground tombs under Ashurnasirpal's palace in Kalhu. These turnd out to be the burials of royal women and children, including Ashurnasirpal's queen Mullissu-mukanisat-Ninua meaning the goddess Mullussu is the one who brings together the people of the city of Nineveh. She is the daughter of the king's cupbearer, one of the most prominent roles; but we do not know if had this because he was the father-in-law, or if he became father-in-law bythis poistion. She and the other royal women were buried with rich jewelry, colored garments, and other goods. These reflect the luxury of the court.

All well-to-do Assyrians had slaves in their family home, evenv dozens, but the royal court had hundreds serving the royal king and his family as retainers, guards, scribes, scholars, cooks, pastry makers, dancers, and so forth. Not all were exactly slaves. Assyrian families sent their sons to enter the palace, it was a great honor, but were made eunuchs. The palace overseer Nergal-apil-kumu'a who oversaw te move from Ashur to Kalhu was a royal eunuch hiself. But not all courtiers were castrated as many were bearded. These included sons of foreign rulers or other noles who either were paced in the Assyrian king's care as an alliance or were captured in battle. These hostages lived as honored members and at least some were sent back to theri home countries and were exocected to act in the Assyrian interest when they regained power. This worked very weell and was an important element in keeping neighboring states in line as cooperative parts of the empire.

The throne room is a meaningful case study in two relationships that Ashurnasirpal II had to convey to visitors. It needed to demonstrate the organized, micromanaging relationship of the king over his subjects; and also the divine, intimate, ordained relationship of the king with his god Ashur.

To show his relationship to his subjects, King Ashurnasirpal II showed various scenes. There were orderly, calm lanes of people delivering many exotic types of tribute, and audiences coming to meet him. There were also chaotic and violent scenes to showcase his catastrophic confrontation against any resistance. These would have been vividly painted, so anyone coming to the palace had ample visuals to terrify them about what it meant to lose the king's grace: a fate doomed with loss of life, submission, and expensive offerings. However, inside these scenes of warfare, the king also showed the war camp. Inside the war camp was total tranquility: there were oracles performing extispicy; animals drinking water; and the king overseeing this exemplary, organized nucleus of Assyrian state power that was on the warpath.

Ashurnasirpal II took a very different approach to showing his relationship to the god Ashur. His move from the old religious and political capital was radical, perhaps even polemic to prevailing religious traditions. The relationship of the king to Ashur was only communicated in one image: an angel-like creature, a winged protective spirit, standing behind the king and guarding him. The king raised his right hand – the typical Assyrian gesture of worship – to do a blessing on a sacred tree. Above the tree is the god Ashur, wearing the fez of kingship and holding the circle of kingship, hovering in a winged disc as a majestic hierophany. The king and angel are duplicated on both sides of the tree, reinforcing this as a timeless and eternal event. This imagery emphasizes that even though Ashurnasirpal II was ruling from outside Ashur, his relationship to the god was as strong as ever. He did not even need the temple there to worship Ashur. Ashurnasirpal II had to ensure broad absorption and acceptance of a new ideology of the priest-king. This single image was depicted at two places in the throne room, and also replicated on portable art such as cylinder seals that copied the distinct image. This dissemination of the image was key to Assyrian society accepting the drastic break in tradition that took the king out of Ashur and out of the god's shadow.

Room B

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace reliefSymbolic Scene. Assyrian, ~865-860 BC. From Nimrud, Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II. Room B panel 23. British Museum. WA 124531. Image by L M Clancy 2009/08/19.

King Ashurnasirpal appears twice, dressed in ritual robes and holding the mace symbolising authority. In front of him there is a Sacred Tree, possibly symbolising life, and he makes a gesture of worship to winged disc containing a god, maybe the sun god Shamash. The god has a ring in one hand, an ancient Mesopotamian symbol of god given kingship. There are protective spirits on either side behind the king.

This symmetrical scene, heavy with symbolism, was placed behind the royal throne. There was another opposite the main door of the throne room, and similar scenes occupied prominent positions in some other Assyrian palaces; they were also embroidered on the royal clothes.

Room G

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace ashurnasirpal ii court sceneCourt Scene. Assyrian, ~865-860 BC. From Nimrud, Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II. Room G panels 2-4. British Museum, WA 124564-6. Image by L M Clancy 2009/08/20.

King Ashurnasirpal is enthroned between attendants and the group is flanked by a pair of winged protective spirits. The workmanship of these panels, a banquet hall, is exceptionally fine. Detailed patterns are represented by delicate incisions on the clothes. There are traces of paint on the sandals.

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace reliefCloseup of British Museum, WA 124564-6. Image by L M Clancy 2009/08/21.

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace reliefFormal Scene from Ashurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace at Nimrud. Room G Panel 6. Assyrian, ~865-860 BC. British Museum, WA 124567. Image by L M Clancy 2009/08/20.

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace reliefFormal Scene from Ashurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace at Nimrud. Room G Panel 12. Assyrian, ~865-860 BC. British Museum, WA 124568. Image by L M Clancy 2009/08/20.

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace reliefFormal Scene from Ashurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace at Nimrud. Room G Panel 10. Assyrian, ~865-860 BC. British Museum, WA 124569. Image by L M Clancy 2009/08/20.

This group of panels shows scenes which alternated along one long wall. In one scene the king appears as conqueror with bow and arrows, flanked by protective spirits. In the other he holds a bow and a bowl and is flanked by human attendants.

Court D

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace reliefTribute-bearers. Assyria ~865-860 BC. From Ashurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace at Nimrud. British Museum, ME 124562. Image © L M Clancy, 2009.

Two of a group of tribute-bearers who were shown on the facade of the throne room. The first one has a turban of a kind worn in northwest Syria, his raised clenched hands a token of submission. The second may be Phoenician, is bringing a pair of monkeys. The Assyrian kings enjoyed collecting exotic fauna.

Room S

nimrud relief king ashurnasirpal iiRelief of Ashurnasirpal II with sword and staff, from his Northwest Palace at Nimrud. Room S Panel 3 (possibly his personal apartments). Assyrian, ~865-860 BC. British Museum, ME 124563. Image © L M Clancy, 2009.

Banquet Stele

Within the Northwest Palace was the Banquet Stele, a large sandstone slab near the entrance to a throne-room. It described in extensive detail the opulent 10-day inauguration of the Northwest Palace in ~879 BC, attended by workmen, officials, inhabitants and notable guests. In the center of the stele was a relief of Ashurnasirpal II standing in front of the deities Sin, Assur, Enlil, Adad and Sibitti. The text tells of 69,574 guests enjoying a dizzying array of luxurious foods amidst gardens whose every plant is listed.

Also, the Banquet Stele lists all the woods used to build a terrace supporting Ashurnasirpal II's palace: boxwood, mulberry, cedar, cypress, pistachio, tamarisk and poplar. There are also descriptions of the royal orchards, its 42 varieties of fruit and its canal irrigation. Boastful depictions of royal lion and bull hunts are also present. Incidentally, this is one of the most extensive accounts of botany and diet in Assyria.