Nineveh—Nahum 2

The Bible mentions the city of Nineveh 17 times. According to Genesis 10:8-12, it was one of several cities founded by Nimrod or Ashur. Later the Assyrian king Sennacherib ruled from it (2 Kings 19:36; Isa. 37:37). However, Nineveh figures most prominently in the prophetic books of Jonah and Nahum. During the early eighth century BC, Jonah preached to its inhabitants, already infamous for their brutality. Surprisingly, and much to the prophet’s dismay, the Ninevites and their king repented and fasted, sparing the city from destruction. In fact, Jesus Christ uses the repentant population of Nineveh as an example for Israel to emulate (Matt. 12:41; Luke 11:30-32). The prophet Nahum, on the other hand, observes the destruction of Nineveh in late seventh-century BC and mocks the doomed city for its many acts of evil after it reverted to its sinful ways. Such wickedness returned in earnest during the rule of Tiglath-pileser III, an Assyrian king who sacked several cities in Israel, deported some of its population, and made Judah a vassal kingdom (2 Kings 15:29; 16:7-10; 2 Chron. 28:20). His Assyrian successors were likely even worse.

Nineveh is located on the east bank of the Tigris River, where it meets the Khosr River near the modern-day city of Mosul in Iraq. At its height during the seventh century BC, Nineveh covered 1,852 acres and was dominated by the towering mounds of Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunis. The city’s strategic location at a vital ford of the Tigris enabled it to control a major trade route. The walls of Neo-Assyrian Nineveh were about 7.5 miles (12 km) in circumference, enclosing the two mounds and the land between them. The high wall boasted numerous towers, and between 14-18 gates provided convenient points of entry. The city had a population of up to 150,000 inhabitants during the seventh century BC, making it one of the world’s largest urban centers up to that time.

Nineveh has a rich early history with various Mesopotamian civilizations attested in several occupational levels reaching back thousands of years. Various Assyrian kings constructed or repaired temples and city walls as well as oversaw rebuilding efforts after a severe thirteenth-century BC earthquake. After the death of Sargon II in 705 BC, his successor, Sennacherib, established Nineveh as one of the great cities of antiquity and a magnificent seat of Assyrian power. Sennacherib built a new “Palace without Rival” on Kuyunjik with more than 70 rooms paneled with stone slabs covered with reliefs depicting his exploits. Highlighted among them was the conquest of Lachish in Judah, which fell in 701 BC. The images of the Lachish panels, apparently recorded on-site, portray the siege and fall of Judah’s second largest city (2 Kings 18:14-17; 19:8; 2 Chron. 32:9; Isa. 36:2; 37:8) and show Judeans being led into exile.

Sennacherib also rebuilt several temples and other public buildings, as well as prepared extensive royal gardens and supervised monumental water projects, including dams, aqueducts, and canals. Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian ruler, restored Sennacherib’s palace and built his own on Kuyunjik, decorating it with the most exquisite sculptures ever found in Assyria. They depicted lion hunts, military campaigns, and gardens. His most significant contribution was his massive library of Mesopotamian literary and historical cuneiform texts that he carefully collected, copied, and curated.

After Sennacherib’s death ca. 627 BC, Assyria went into sharp decline, and the once seemingly unassailable city fell to the Medes and Babylonians in 612 BC. Both the Bible (Nahum 1:8) and later sources assert that flood damage to a section of the city’s defenses assisted its capture and fiery destruction. Excavators have uncovered dramatic evidence of such destruction, as prophesied by Nahum and Zephaniah (Zeph. 2:13), at the Halzi Gate. They discovered the smashed and burned skeletons of scores of Nineveh’s defenders beneath the once formidable gateway (Nahum 3:1-3).

Although Westerners have known the site of Nineveh since the Middle Ages, Paul-Émile Botta first excavated it in 1842. British diplomat Austen Henry Layard conducted extensive work at Nineveh from 1846–1851 and recovered much of the plan of the “Palace without Rival.” Work continued under Layard’s able assistant Hormuzd Rassam, who uncovered the north palace of Ashurbanipal with its lavish panels and library of 24,000 cuneiform tablets. The library included the first known copies of the Babylonian creation account and flood story.

Subsequent excavations by British and Iraqi scholars have revealed Nineveh’s early history. Deep soundings at Kuyunjik yielded material remains dating back to the seventh millennium BC. The site appears to have enjoyed nearly continuous settlement up until the Islamic period. Excavations by David Stronach (1987–1990) revealed further destruction by the Medes and Babylonians in 612 BC. The modern city of Mosul is currently encroaching the site. After the Iraqi army recaptured Mosul from ISIL forces in 2017, archaeologists discovered a previously unknown Assyrian palace beneath the destroyed shrine to Jonah on Nebi Yunis. They suggest that the Assyrian king Sennacherib constructed the royal complex, which includes monumental architecture and inscriptions, and that his successors Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal refurbished it before its destruction in 612 BC.


Layard, Nineveh and Its Remains: A Narrative of an Expedition to Assyria during the Years 1845, 1846, & 1847.

Petit and Bonacossi, Nineveh, the Great City: Symbol of Beauty and Power.

Russel, “Nineveh, The Great City,” 150-170.

Russel, The Final Sack of Nineveh: The Discovery, Documentation and Destruction of King Sennacherib’s Throne Room at Nineveh, Iraq.

Stronach and Codella, “Nineveh,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, 144-148.

Stronach and Lumsden, “UC Berkeley’s Excavations at Nineveh,” 227-233.