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 the palace was the main feature of the citadel. It was created to,

  • Show the greatness of the king.

  • Restrict and control access to the king.

  • Provide a template for palaces.

There was nothing physically, geographically, or architecturally overshadowing this new palace. It remains a monument to the newfound prominence and assertiveness of Assyrian kingship. It was perched overlooking the river like the old one, but this new one was visible from afar and had 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.

Palace layout.

The new palace was 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. The new palace at Kalhu was made with mud bricks and soft local sandstone throughout, which were decorated with paint and glazed bricks and slabs of Mosul marble. The decoration and reliefs were made with a level of skill unprecedented before Ashurnasirpal II.

Relief of a winged supernatural deity, Northwest Palace, 883-859 BC, Kalhu. Metropolitan Museum.
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The palace was also the template for the palaces built in all provincial capitals. The main palace was called the ekallu in Assyrian, from the Sumerian word for 'big house'. The provincial palaces were also called ekallu like the main palace, and when the king travelled he would stay there, but usually they were occupied by the governors who ruled on 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 design revolved around two main courtyards: the large bitanu (outer) courtyard with offices and storerooms for public affairs, and the smaller babanu (inner) courtyard for residential affairs. The outer courtyard and inner courtyard were connected by a throne room, accessible through a monumental entry in the south wall of the outer courtyard. The south wall had three gates leading into the throne room &emdash; with each gate flanked by colossal lamassu &emdash; and was lined with stone orthostats carved in relief. To the left of these gates was the room containing the Banquet Stele. Overall, the palace had three distinct areas: an administrative wing/courtyard where the palace's income and business affairs were managed; the private quarters/courtyard that housed the royal family; and the state departments to meet with the court and visitors.

Accessing the palace.

The palace had few and easily controllable entrances both from the outside and between 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 thresholds, and at the sides were monumental lamassu and protective spirits. These were thought to offer potent protection.

Living in the palace.

The palace at Kalhu was enormous but was effectively the home of just one family. In 897 BC, the extended royal family was not only relocated but so was the entire royal court, which meant moving hundreds of people from Ashur to Kalhu. This was overseen by Nergal-apil-kumu'a, as was the construction of the palace itself and settling Kalhu with inhabitants.

The new palace superceded the old palace in Ashur in all ways except one: the burial of the king. It was traditional in Assyria to bury the deceased under their home. This was practiced by the royal family as well, with the king and the rest of the royals being buried under the palace. It would seem expected for the Assyrian kings to be buried under their new palaces at Kalhu and elsewhere, but this was not the case. Instead, the Assyrian kings continued to be buried under the old palace in Ashur even when their main palace residence was no longer there. However, Iraqi archaeologists made a shocking discovery in 1989: several underground tombs under Ashurnasirpal's palace in Kalhu that were the burials of royal women and children, including Ashurnasirpal II's queen Mullissu-mukanisat-Ninua. She and the other royal women were buried with rich jewelry, colored garments, and other goods. These reflect the luxury of the court.

The royal court had hundreds of servants serving the royal king and his family as retainers, guards, scribes, scholars, cooks, pastry makers, dancers, and so forth. It was common for Assyrian families to have slaves, even dozens, but the servants in the royal palace were not all exactly salves. Assyrian families sent their sons to enter the palace and it was a great honor, but to qualify for the role they had to be made eunuchs. this made them unable to disrupt the royal bloodline, and also made them ineligible to ever be king as kingship required a male who embodied physical ideals. Eunuchs were depicted as beardless males.

Not all courtiers were castrated, as many were shown bearded. These included sons of foreign rulers or other nobles who either were placed 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 their home countries and were expected to act in the Assyrian interest. This worked very weell and was an important element in keeping neighboring states in line as cooperative parts of the empire.

Room B (Throne Room)

People usually had an 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 footstool. The caller effectively faced his feet when standing in front of the king, making kissing the king's feet much easier. The reliefs of the throne room are case studies in how Ashurnasirpal II demonstrated the organized, micromanaging relationship he had over his subjects; and also the divine, intimate, ordained relationship he kept with his god Ashur.

To show his relationship with his subjects, King Ashurnasirpal II showed various scenes. There were orderly, calm lanes of people delivering 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 any palace visitors saw graphically that losing the king's grace meant being facing death, submission, and crippling 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.

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace relief
Symbolic 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.

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 G

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace ashurnasirpal ii court scene
Court 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 relief
Closeup of British Museum, WA 124564-6. Image by L M Clancy 2009/08/21.

british museum nimrud kalhu northwest palace relief
Formal 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 relief
Formal 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 relief
Formal 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 relief
Tribute-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 ii
Relief 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.

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Relief of a winged supernatural deity, Northwest Palace, 883-859 BC, Kalhu. Metropolitan Museum.

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