Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Ashurnasirpal II is most famous for his grand palace at Kalhu (also known as Nimrud in modern-day Iraq). Taking 15 years to build, he constructed a city enclosing an area of 360 hectares that included his incredible palace, several temples, and a ziggurat. The palace was over 300 meters long and at least 120 meters wide, built around a vast courtyard. Not only was its architecture monumental, but the state rooms were also decorated with stone wall reliefs depicting battles, royal hunts, and cult scenes. Huge human-headed bulls in stone guarded the entrances. Ashurnasirpal II also threw one of the most impressive parties in history to inaugurate his new city. He hosted over 69,000 people during a ten-day festival. The menu for this party still survives. Kalhu would remain the Assyrian capital for 150 years, until the reign of Sargon II.
The treatment of defeated cities would become Ashurnasirpal II’s trademark. He was not interested in having to expend more time in resources on future rebellions and so made an example out of those that rebelled. In his inscriptions he writes:
“I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins… many captives I burned with fire and many I took as living captives… from some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes…”
While his policies were brutal, they were also effective in maintaining control of the population. Ashurnasirpal II led his army on successful campaigns across the Euphrates River and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, where he washed his weapons as a symbol of his conquests (an act made famous by the inscriptions of Sargon the Great of the earlier Akkadian Empire after he had established his rule). Although some sources say he conquered Phoenicia, it seems clear that he entered into diplomatic relations with the region, as he did also with the Kingdom of Israel. Through his ruthless campaigns, the resettlement of populations, and his careful administration, Ashurnasirpal II passed on a political entity that would become the greatest empire the world had yet seen.
The Assyrian army’s most common method of conquest was through siege warfare. They were probably the first military force in history to carry a separate corps of engineers, and they developed a great variety of methods for breaching enemy walls. Their most impressive development was the multistoried wooden towers with four wheels and a turret on top and one, or at times two, battering rams at the base.
These conquered lands were integrated into a system of maintenance of the god Assur, whose sole temple was in the city of Assur, and who functioned as the god for the entire land of Assyria. This unity of vision of a supreme deity helped to unify the regions of the empire. The different gods of the conquered peoples, and their various religious practices, became absorbed into the worship of Assur, who was recognized as the one true god who had been called different names by different people in the past.
The Assyrians also made significant advancements in medicine. They built upon the foundation of the Sumerians and combined the knowledge and talents of those who had been conquered and assimilated. Ashurnasirpal II made the first systematic list of plants and animals in the empire and brought scribes with him on campaign to record new finds. Schools were established throughout the empire, but were only for the sons of the wealthy and nobility.
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