Kalhu (also known as Caleh, Calah, and Nimrud, in modern-day northern Iraq) was a city in ancient Mesopotamia that became the capital of the Assyrian Empire under Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 884-859 BCE) who moved the central government there from the traditional capital of Ashur. The city existed as an important trade center from at least the 1st millennium BCE. It was located directly on a prosperous route just north of Ashur and south of Nineveh. The city had been built on the location of an earlier business community under the reign of Shalmaneser I (1274-1245 BCE) but had become dilapidated over the centuries. Ashurnasirpal II ordered the debris removed from the crumbling towers and walls and decreed a completely new city should be built, which would include a royal residence greater than that of any previous king. The Assyrian Empire was ruled from Kalhu from 879-706 BCE, when Sargon II (reigned 722-705 BCE) moved the capital to his new city of Dur-Sharrukin.
The great kings of Assyria continued to be buried at Ashur, but their queens were buried at Kalhu. Tombs of the queens of Ashurnasirpal II, Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sargon II, among others, have been uncovered at Kalhu. The city is widely known as Nimrud because that is the name 19th and 20th century CE archaeologists gave to it, believing it was the city of the biblical king Nimrod mentioned in the Book of Genesis. The city is mentioned specifically in Genesis 10: 11-12 as "Calah" and Nimrod is mentioned earlier:
And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city (Genesis 10: 8-12).
Ashur (Assur), in the biblical text, would be the son of Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah and so Kalhu, if one accepts the biblical narrative, would be one of the first cities built after the Great Flood. Whether it in fact was, and whether there even was a Great Flood, is not as important in this regard as the fact that the narrative refers to Kalhu as “a great city”, which attests to its fame and importance long before Ashurnasirpal II made it the capital of the Assyrian Empire, whether one accepts the date of the Book of Genesis’ composition at c. 1400 BCE or even the traditionally assigned date of 1272 BCE.
The New Capital
When he ascended to the throne in 884 BCE, Ashurnasirpal II instantly had to attend to revolts that had broken out across the empire. He ruthlessly put down all rebellions, destroyed the rebel cities and, as a warning to others, impaled, burned, and flayed alive any who had opposed him. He then secured his borders and expanded them through campaigns that filled the royal treasury with booty. Having secured his empire, Ashurnasirpal II turned his attention to his capital at Ashur, which he renovated (as he also did with Nineveh and many other cities during his reign). Ashur was among the most prosperous of the Assyrian cities and had been the capital of the Assyrian Empire since the reign of Adad Nirari I (1307-1275 BCE). Once he had added his own adornments and improvements to the great city, Ashurnasirpal II now felt it was time for a change in its status. The residents of Ashur were proud of their city and of their prestige as citizens of the capital. It has been proposed by a number of scholars that Ashurnasirpal II wanted a completely new city, with a new population, that he could call his own in order to elevate his name above his predecessors and rule over a populace devoted to him, rather than to their city. This is only one theory, however, as it is not clear what exactly motivated him to move the capital from Ashur. He chose the ruined city of Kalhu and his inscriptions read:
The former city of Caleh, which Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, a prince who preceded me, had built, that city had fallen into decay and lay in ruins, it was turned into a mound and ruin heap. That city I built anew. I laid out orchards round about it, fruit and wine I offered unto Assur, my lord, I dug down to the water level. I built the wall thereof; from its foundation unto its top I built and completed it.
The new city of Kalhu covered 360 hectares (890 acres) with a surrounding wall of 4.6 miles (7.5 kilometers). When it was completed, Ashurnasirpal II re-located an entirely new population (16,000 people) within the city’s walls and took up residence in his new palace. According to the historian Karen Radner:
Kalhu's most impressive building at the time of Ashurnasirpal was certainly his new royal palace. At 200 metres long (656 feet) and 130 metres wide (426 feet), it dominated its surroundings and its position on the citadel mound led to its modern name, the Northwest Palace. It was organised around three courtyards, accommodating the state apartments, the administrative wing and the private quarters which also housed the royal women. Here, several underground tombs were uncovered in 1989, including the last resting place of Ashurnasirpal's queen Mullissu-mukannišat-Ninua, the daughter of the king's cupbearer, one of the foremost officials at court. Her rich burial goods give a vivid impression of the luxury in which the king and his entourage lived (1).
Ashurnasirpal II wanted his new city to be the grandest and most luxuriant in the empire. Ashur was long known for its beauty, and the king wanted his city to be even more impressive. He created a zoo (thought to be the first of its kind) and botanical gardens that featured exotic animals, trees, and flowers he had brought back from his military campaigns. In his inscriptions he writes:
I dug a canal from the Upper Zab [River], cut it through a mountain top, and called it Patti-hegalli. I irrigated the lowlands of the Tigris and planted orchards with all kinds of fruit trees in them. I pressed wine and offered first-fruit offerings to Assur, my lord, and to the temples of my land… The canal cascades from above into the gardens. The alleys smell sweet, brooks like the stars of heaven flow in the pleasure garden.
When the city and gardens and palace were completed and fully decorated with the reliefs lining the walls of its corridors, Ashurnasirpal II invited the surrounding population and dignitaries from other lands to celebrate. The festival lasted ten days, and his Banquet Stele records that 69,574 people attended. The menu from this celebration included, but was not limited to, 1,000 oxen, 1,000 domestic cattle and sheep, 14,000 imported and fattened sheep, 1,000 lambs, 500 game birds, 500 gazelles, 10,000 fish, 10,000 eggs, 10,000 loaves of bread, 10,000 measures of beer, and 10,000 containers of wine. When the celebration was done, he sent his guests home “in peace and joy” after allowing the dignitaries to view the reliefs in his new palace. His famous Standard Inscription told again and again of his triumphs in conquest and vividly depicted the horrible fate of those who rose against him. The inscription also let the dignitaries from his own realm, and others, know precisely who they were dealing with. He claimed the titles “great king, king of the world, the valiant hero who goes forth with the help of Ashur; he who has no rival in all four quarters of the world, the exalted shepherd, the powerful torrent that none can withstand, he who has overcome all mankind, whose hand has conquered all lands and taken all the mountain ranges” (Bauer, 337). His empire stretched across the territory, which today would comprise western Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and part of Turkey and, after his party guests were gone, he settled into his new palace to rule.
Kalhu as Capital of the Assyrian Empire
Kalhu continued as capital under the Assyrian kings from its inauguration by Ashurnasirpal II in 879 BCE until Sargon II built his new city of Dur-Sharrukin between 717-707 BCE and moved the capital there in 706 BCE. The kings who ruled from Kalhu following Ashurnasirpal include:
- Ashurnasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser III (reigned 859-824 BCE) who continued improvements upon the city which included the temple complex and Great Ziggurat of Kalhu.
- Shamshi-Adad V (reigned 824-811 BCE) under whose reign civil war broke out in the empire; Kalhu was successfully defended against the rebel faction.
- The regent Shammuramat (reigned 811-806 BCE). Better known as Queen Semiramis, Shammuramat held the throne for her young son Adad Nirari III who then reigned from 806-782 BCE and built his own palace at Kalhu. At this time, Ashurnasirpal II’s palace was transformed into an administrative government building.
- Shalmaneser IV (son of Adad Nirari III, reigned 782-773 BCE) about whom little is known beyond references to his Urartu campaigns.
- Ashur-Dan III (younger son of Adad Nirari III, reigned 772-755 BCE) under whose reign the plague struck Assyria and Kalhu was depopulated.
- Ashur-Nirari V (youngest son of Adad Nirari III, reigned 754-746 BCE) whose reign was marked with unrest and stagnation. The military by this time had become more powerful than the throne and provincial governors were operating with an alarming degree of autonomy. In 746 BCE Ashur Nirari V was assassinated at Kalhu in a coup by a usurper named Pula who then reigned as Tiglath-Pileser III.
- Tiglath-Pileser III (reigned 745-727 BCE) is recognized as one of the greatest kings of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. From his capital at Kalhu he re-organized and re-vitalized the empire, created the first professional army in the history of the world, and re-structured the government as well as expanding the boundaries of the empire considerably. He added to Kalhu by building the Central Palace and renovating the temple.
- Shalmaneser V (son of Tiglath-Pileser III, reigned 727-722 BCE) who continued his father’s policies and under whose reign a number of campaigns were launched but not successfully completed. His reign was ended abruptly in a coup which brought Sargon II to the throne.
- Sargon II (reigned 722-705 BCE) may have been Shalmaneser V’s younger brother. He brought the Assyrian Empire to its greatest height as a political and military entity. He also improved upon Kalhu through building projects but had a whole other capital in mind. Shortly after assuming the throne, he decreed a new city should be built as the capital of the empire (perhaps to separate his reign from those of his predecessors). His city, Dur-Sharrukin (“Fortress of Sargon”), was constructed between 717-707 BE and he moved into the palace in 706 BCE. He was killed in battle the following year, and the capital was then moved by his son, Sennacherib, to Nineveh.
Destruction & Discovery
After the capital was moved from Kalhu, it continued on as a provincial capital but had lost its prestige. The city remained a royal residence for the kings when they visited the region, and archaeological evidence suggests that it continued in this capacity until the fall of the Assyrian Empire. The kings who came after Sargon II all ruled from Nineveh but still valued cities like Kalhu and Ashur. Sennacherib (reigned 705-681 BCE), Esarhaddon (reigned 681-669 BCE), and Ashurbanipal (reigned 668-627 BCE) all seem to have considered Kalhu respectfully. After Ashurbanipal’s death in 627 BCE, the empire began breaking apart. Kalhu was burned in 612 BCE, along with Ashur and Nineveh, by the invading coalition of Persians, Medes, and Babylonians. The city was sacked and the ruins were left to sink into the earth.
The city lay buried for 2,000 years until, in 1820 CE, Claudius James Rich of the British East India Company visited the site and wrote a description of it. This description attracted the attention of the archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who began excavations at Kalhu in 1845 CE. Assisted by Hormuzd Rassam, Layard uncovered the Northwest Palace and a number of temples. Layard was under the impression that he had discovered Nineveh, and so his published account of the excavations, in 1849 CE, was titled Nineveh and its Remains and, owing to Nineveh’s fame from the Bible, the book became a best seller. The success of the book sparked further interest in Mesopotamian history as a means of corroborating biblical narratives of the Old Testament, and so further expeditions were sent to the region in search of other cities mentioned in the Bible. It was around this time that archaeologists recognized that the site was not Nineveh and began referring to it as Nimrud.
The archaeologist William K. Loftus took over from Layard and Rassam in 1854-1855 CE, discovering the famous ivories now known as the Loftus Ivories and (also, more accurately, as the Nimrud Ivories) as well as the Treasures of Nimrud, an assortment of gold jewelry and precious gems. Excavations continued, at intervals, up through the 1960’s CE, and many of the most important and best known Assyrian works of art displayed in museums today come from Kalhu. Ashurnasirpal II’s reliefs in the British Museum line the walls there, as they once did the grand palace, and the ivories are on display in museums from London to Iraq to the United States. Equally important are the so-called Nimrud Letters, which were discovered in the ruins of the palace in 1952 CE. These letters constitute the royal correspondence during the reigns of Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sargon II and were most likely stored in the palace after it became an administrative office. Due to the conflicts in the region in the past decades, no further archaeological work has been done at Kalhu, even though it is suspected that there are more artifacts buried in the sands there.