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'Nineveh - Heart of an Ancient Empire' at The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities

The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities is bringing Nineveh to life for its visitors. Some 2700 years ago, Nineveh was the largest city in the world. The exhibition Nineveh - Heart of an Ancient Empire takes you back to the heyday of the New Assyrian capital in what is now northern Iraq, around 700 BC. You will see more than 250 objects from Dutch and international museums such as the Louvre and the British Museum, including reliefs, statues, clay tablets, and cylinder seals. Of particular interest are the large reliefs from the city palaces and the reconstruction of one of the rooms in the palace of King Sennacherib.

'Nineveh - Heart of an Ancient Empire' at The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities
Nineveh - Heart of an Ancient Empire [Credit: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden]
Reliefs from Nineveh in the limelight

Reliefs play a leading role in the exhibition: not only as consummate examples of craftsmanship, but also as carriers of valuable information about the history of Nineveh and everyday life in the city. Reliefs are images carved in stone in meticulous detail. They were the artworks of the Assyrian royal palaces. Virtually every palace wall was covered with picture stories carved in stone. It is estimated that Nineveh contained over fifteen kilometres of wall reliefs. The panels depict historical and fictional stories, starring the king as the heroic protagonist.

Clay tablets, cylinder seals, and a gold death mask

In the exhibition rooms, besides dozens of reliefs you will find statues of gods and winged creatures, rare ivory marquetry, cylinder seals, glazed pottery, weapons, and a gold death mask. Clay tablets from the first library in the world, the brainchild of King Ashurbanipal, provide an abundance of information about the Assyrians’ way of thinking as well as their language and script.

'Nineveh - Heart of an Ancient Empire' at The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities
Reconstruction drawing of Nineveh [Credit: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden]
Nineveh: capital of an empire

Around 700 BC Nineveh had a population of over 100,000, and was for a time the largest and most important city in the world. Walls stretching for kilometres and punctuated by majestic gates encircled the city with its impressive palaces, temples and monuments, its countless little streets and lush parks. It was from here that the immense Assyrian Empire was ruled, by kings with exotic names such as Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire

In an age when Alexander the Great had yet to be born and the Roman Empire did not yet exist, an empire arose in the Near East with imposing cities and stately architecture: the Neo-Assyrian Empire. It stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the depths of Persia (Iran) and from Turkey to Egypt. Its nucleus lay in present-day Iraq, and around 700 BC, that was where its legendary capital lay. This was Nineveh: with a population of over 100,000, it was for some time the largest and most important city in the world.

The impressive capital of Nineveh

Illustrious kings such as Sennacherib and Assurbanipal commissioned monumental palaces, temples, and libraries in the city, each one decorated with superb reliefs. Lush gardens with waterfalls made the city an awe-inspiring oasis that was fully the equal of Babylon. In the hustle and bustle of the small streets, craftsmen and other residents rubbed shoulders with merchants from all corners of the empire and beyond. With its lush parks full of trees, plants, and animals, the city was a wonderful green oasis.

Destruction and rediscovery

In 612 BC Nineveh was razed to the ground by the Babylonians and other enemies of the Assyrian Empire. The ruins were scarcely inhabited in the centuries following this devastation. The nearby city of Mosul took over the role of key regional centre, and Nineveh sank into oblivion. It endured in legends passed down in works by classical authors and the Scriptures, but even the city’s former location was a mystery until the 19th century. Purposeful digging started in 1842, and not long afterwards, successive archaeologists – from countries including Britain, France, Iraq, and the United States – set about researching the history of Nineveh. The exhibition Nineveh enjoys the patronage of UNESCO.

'Nineveh - Heart of an Ancient Empire' at The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities
Relief with Assyrian soldiers and the wheel of a royal carriage (collection: Musée du Louvre) 
[Credit: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden]
Computer animations and the reconstruction of reliefs

Nineveh devotes special attention to heritage in times of crisis and to ways of preserving the past for the future. In addition to life-sized computer animations of the ancient city, the exhibition also displays a number of reliefs from a palace interior that have been reconstructed with great accuracy using 3D techniques and a projection of the original colours. An international research team (including researchers from Delft University of Technology) relied in part on photographs taken before the recent devastation to create the reconstruction. Two life-sized replicas of winged bulls flank the entrance to the palace interior, so that you can briefly imagine yourself a king in Nineveh.

The exhibition runs until 25 March 2018.

Source: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden [October 28, 2017]

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