Nineveh was once the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire located in Upper Mesopotamia on the Eastern bank of the River Tigris. The land on which the city once stood now belongs to Mosul, a major city in Iraq. Until 612 BC, it was the largest city in the world, however, after civil war and invasions, Nineveh was reduced to rubble.
In the Bible, Nineveh is first mentioned in Genesis 10, which says, “From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.” (10:11-12) In this verse, “he” is Nimrod, the son of Cush, the grandson of Ham, and the great-grandson of Noah. Older translations of the Bible mention Ashur instead, the second son of Shem, however, it is now generally agreed Nimrod was the founder of Nineveh. According to tradition, Nimrod was also the leader of those who built to Tower of Babel.
Nineveh eventually became the capital of the Assyrian empire and the home of the king, Sennacherib (c.740-681 BC). “So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.” (2 Kings 19:36 and Isaiah 37:37) The king of Judah at the time was King Hezekiah (c.739-c.687 BC), during whose reign the prophets Isaiah and Micah prophesied. During Sennacherib’s reign, he aroused fear in the neighbouring kingdoms, including Judah, however, Jerusalem was delivered from Sennacherib after his sons assassinated him.
The prophet Nahum the Elkoshite predicted the destruction of Nineveh, a city with which God was angry. “From you, Nineveh, has one come forth who plots evil against the Lord and devises wicked plans.” (Nahum 1:11) Nahum revealed God’s commands concerning the city:
“You will have no descendants to bear your name.
I will destroy the images and idols
that are in the temple of your gods.
I will prepare your grave,
for you are vile.” (Nahum 1:14)
In the second book of Nahum, the prophet described the attackers, who would cause Nineveh’s fall, including details about their red uniforms and metal chariots. In Nahum 3, the prophet foretells the city’s sad fate. “Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?” (Nahum 3:7) Nineveh’s end was sudden and tragic, going from the biggest city in the world, to desolation. “He will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert.” (Zephaniah 2:13)
God, however, allowed Nineveh the opportunity to repent. The familiar story, which lacks some credibility (but that’s another story), tells of Jonah son of Amittai who God commanded to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2) As we know, Jonah was afraid and attempted to flee to Tarshish by boat. Whilst he was at sea, a huge storm arose, which threatened to destroy the ship. Knowing the storm was caused by God, Jonah insisted to be thrown overboard to end the storm, where a big fish swallowed him. Jonah is eventually saved and God commanded him a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2)
Jonah obeyed God the second time and travelled to Nineveh, which was “a very large city; it took three days to go through it.” (Jonah 3:3) Jonah proclaimed to the Ninevites, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4) and they believed him, putting on sackcloth and showing their repentance by fasting. Even the king of Nineveh did the same. God, therefore, “saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10)
The fourth book of Jonah tells us there were more than 120,000 people in Nineveh, all of whom were wicked until Jonah’s visit. “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:32) Jesus referred to the salvation of Nineveh during his preaching, explaining that the Son of God has been sent to earth to achieve what Jonah did on a much wider scale.
Unfortunately, although the Ninevites had been saved, the physical city was still reduced to rubble in 612 BC. It is estimated the area was first inhabited as early as 6000 BC and by 3000 BC was an important religious centre for the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. It is not certain when Nineveh was established as a city, however, it was mentioned in texts relating to the reign of Shamshi-Adad I in about 1800 BC. Archaeological evidence reveals Nineveh was extensively built upon during the late 3rd and 2nd millenniums BC, however, it was not until the reign of Sennacherib that the city became truly magnificent. Sennacherib built a “palace without a rival” which was comprised of about 80 rooms. Some believe the palace contained the original Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Sennacherib’s son Esarhaddon (713-669 BC) continued to develop and found new palaces and temples, as did his successor, Ashurbanipal (d.627 or 631 BC). Unfortunately, Nineveh’s status as the greatest city in the world was short-lived after Ashurbanipal’s death. Several claimants to the throne provoked a civil war and countries under Assyria’s control began to rebel, including the Babylonians and Persians. By 612 BC, Nineveh had been sacked and razed to the ground.
Excavations of the ancient city of Nineveh began in the 19th century and the young British diplomat Austen Henry Layard (1817-94) discovered the remains of the lost palace of Sennacherib in 1849. The majority of the surviving elements of the palace have been moved to museums around the world and all that remains of Nineveh is the remnants of the city walls and two mounts, one of which is known in English as “Prophet Jonah”.
The city walls were once 12km in length and contained several gateways. Archaeologists have explored only five to any extent and a little information has been revealed about their purpose. Just for fun, here is a snippet of what they have discovered:
To learn more about the fall of Nineveh read the blog I Am Ashurbanipal
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon