For all of the attention Nineveh receives in the Jewish Bible, it was not the capital of Assyria until the last few decades of the Assyrian Empire in the seventh century b.c.e.

The earliest biblical reference to the city is in the first few chapters of the book of Genesis, where it is said that Nimrod, "the mighty hunter", founded Nineveh, and also founded Babylon, the nemesis city-state of Nineveh. Nineveh’s ruins are in modern-day Mosul, Iraq.

There the Khosar River flows into the Tigris River, providing natural protection for ancient Nineveh. There are three reasons why the location was advantageous. First, the water of the Khosar could be diverted into the moats that surrounded the massive city walls.

Second, the land around Nineveh was agriculturally rich and productive, just south of the Kurdish foothills. Third, trading paths crossed this area, going north and south along the Tigris River and going east and west following the foothills.

The city was one of ancient Assyria’s four population centers (the others were Ashur, Calah, and Arbela), but before that the city was known for its connection with Ishtar, goddess of love and war. At its high point it was populated by more than 175,000 people, almost three times the size of Calah.

From outside city wall
From outside city wall

The first archaeological records are Akkadian (2400 b.c.e.) and tell of a king named Manishtushu who restored Ishtar’s temple there. Writings tell of other kings who invaded for the glory of Ishtar, 400 years later.

It was not until 300 years later that the city-state of Ashur took the city from the Mittanis and began to forge the fearsome Assyrian Empire. Shalmaneser I (c. 1260 b.c.e.) and Tiglath-pileser I (c. 1100 b.c.e.) made Nineveh their royal residences.

The Assyrians continued Nineveh’s Ishtar traditions throughout all the periods of their hegemony. The city grew in prominence as an imperial center. One of the great Neo-Assyrian emperors, Sennacherib, who nearly conquered Jerusalem about 700 b.c.e., made Nineveh his capital.

He conducted a lavish building program: One of his famous projects was digging aqueducts and canals—one 32 miles long—for irrigating his city gardens and parks; another was building the enormous city walls and gates, which still partially stand.

The emperors that followed him presided over the days of Assyrian glory. A vast cache of tablets from Nineveh’s libraries has been discovered, making Assyrian literature better known than that of any ancient Semitic peoples except the Hebrews.

days of Assyrian glory
days of Assyrian glory

In 612 b.c.e. the Babylonian Chronicle says that a coalition of Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians captured the city and defeated the Assyrian Empire, astonishing the peoples of the Fertile Crescent. Nineveh went into decline, and by the time of the Greek historian Xenophon (401 b.c.e.), the city was unrecognizable.

That Assyria was feared and hated can be seen in many books of the Jewish Bible where the destruction of Assyria is almost gleefully announced. This antipathy toward Assyria is also found most vividly in the book of Jonah, the biblical prophet ordered to preach salvation for Nineveh.

Only when a whale swallowed Jonah did the prophet relent and go. Today the area where Nineveh is buried, Tell Nebi Yunus, literally means "Hill of the Prophet Jonah", and Nestorian Christians first and then Muslims have erected a major shrine in his honor there.