King of Assyria
Empire Builder. Ashurnasirpal II, son of Tukulti-Ninurta II (890–884 b.c.e..), was the founder of a revitalized and expanded Neo-Assyrian Empire. He was renowned for his military might, conquests of foreign lands, hunting, and building activities—all aspects of the ideal Assyrian king. He was a master of military tactics, and his annual campaigns caused fear and destruction to those who opposed him. Conquered peoples were forced to pay tribute and contribute men to his corvée (forced labor service imposed on conquered peoples). His campaigns are documented in inscriptions and in monumental reliefs that decorated his palaces. By the end of the seventh century b.c.e.., his successors dominated the entire ancient Near East, from Egypt to the land of Urartu in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south.
Ideology of Empire. During the tenth century b.c.e.., one of the predecessors of Ashurnasirpal, Ashur-dan II (circa 934–912 b.c.e..), developed the ideology of Assyrian rule, claiming that his imperial conquests were but a resumption of control over territories that rightly belonged to the Assyrian realm. Thus, all opposition to Assyrian rule was characterized as revolt. Ashur-dan campaigned as far as the mountains to the north of Assyria and to the northwest into Anatolia, a source of crucial metals. In the west, his forces waged war against the Aramaeans, and in the east they fought for control of the Zagros foothills. They also made forays into Babylonia. Ashur-dan set a pattern that was followed by succeeding Assyrian kings. Conquered regions were incorporated into the realm; tribute was imposed; alliances were established; and new fortified centers were constructed.
Northern Campaigns. Ashurnasirpal continued his predecessor’s practice of regular military campaigns, mounting at least fourteen major incursions during his twenty-five-year reign. He received huge amounts of tribute, both from defeated cities and as gifts of homage and friendship from those not wishing to oppose his might. The king’s campaigns took him to the north into southeast Anatolia, where he pacified and plundered the opposition. One of the local rulers who had formed an alliance with Ashurna-sirpal’s father was assassinated in 879 b.c.e.., and Ashurnasirpal avenged the murder. He made the local leaders pay tribute and took several princesses into his harem as well as their dowries. Assyrian colonists were settled in southeast Anatolia. In the city of Tushan, Ashurnasirpal erected a stone statue of himself and had it inscribed with a list of his northern conquests. As a result of his northern offensive, many of the small states in the regions of southeast Anatolia, Upper Mesopotamia, and northern Syria provided rich gifts and manpower to the Assyrian king for the duration of his reign.
Southern Campaigns. Ashurnasirpal encountered opposition from political centers to his south. Uprisings occurred in cities in the Babylonian region, submissive since the time of his predecessors. The first rebellion occurred in 883 b.c.e.. The king put down the revolt and exacted heavy tribute, but he had to return to the area in the next year. A revolting city was captured; its walls were razed; and the city was plundered. Revolts continued to occur in the following years, and according to the annals, when the area was finally pacified, heavy tribute was imposed.
Western Campaigns. Ashurnasirpal campaigned to the west four times. When his troops reached the Euphrates they crossed the waters on rafts. Many cities submitted without a fight and offered lavish presents. When he reached the Mediterranean he ceremonially washed his weapons in the sea. He was regaled with exotic presents from the Phoenician cities, including monkeys and sea creatures as well as rare woods from equatorial Africa. The king cut down tall trees and transported them back to Assyria for use in constructing temples.
Building Activity. Much of the wealth Ashurnasirpal received from his campaigns was invested in building up the city of Kalhu (modern Nimrud), originally inhabited in the third millennium and enlarged by Shalmaneser I (circa 1273 - circa 1244 b.c.e..). Ashurnasirpal rebuilt the city, employing large numbers of laborers from the Assyrian corvee and deportees from conquered territories. Hundreds of acres in size, the city was surrounded by a mud-brick protective wall. For the new city Ashurnasirpal had a canal dug, a zoo created, and orchards planted with a wide variety of imported, native, and exotic trees and vines. Ashurnasirpal built an enormous palace as his primary residence, as well as a temple, other palaces, and a ziggurat dedicated to Ninurta, the city’s patron deity. He also constructed or rebuilt new temples for many other gods of the realm. The city remained the capital of the empire until the end of the eighth century. To celebrate the rebuilding of his capital Ashurnasirpal threw an enormous banquet, inviting dignitaries from regions as far away as Iran, Anatolia, and Phoenicia. Inscribed on a royal stele, the record of the celebration describes with great relish the elaborate preparations for the event and the choice foods that were served. After a long list of dishes prepared for the banquet, the king presented a list of his honored guests.
The North-West Palace. Today, Ashurnasirpal’s primary residence, the largest and most important palace built on the site of Kalhu, is called the North-West Palace. Rooms in the palace were found lined with large stone slabs bearing reliefs and inscriptions praising the exploits of the king. Originally painted in bright colors, the reliefs depict royal campaigns, hunts, and rituals. Huge, winged, human-headed bulls and lions symbolically protected the entrances to the palace and its doorways. In 1989 an archaeological expedition conducted by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage uncovered within the palace the tombs of three Assyrian queens who lived in the eighth century b.c.e.. The spectacular finds in the tomb chamber include jewelry, vessels, and ornaments, many made of gold.
Mogens Trolle Larsen, The Conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an Antique Land, 1840–1860 (London & New York: Routledge, 1996).
Samuel M. Paley, King of the World: Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyria 883–859 B.C. (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1976).