The ancient Assyrian royal city of Kalhu

The archaeological site of Nimrud was known in antiquity as Kalhu (biblical Calah). It is located just to the east of the Tigris PGP  river, in what is nowadays northern Iraq, some 30 km (roughly 20 miles) south of the the modern city of Mosul. Although Nimrud is now a peaceful archaeological site in the countryside, in ancient times Kalhu was a huge and bustling city. It served as the capital of the mighty Assyrian empire for nearly 200 years, from the early 9th to the late 8th century BC, but was also inhabited for many centuries before and after. In this section of the website we explore the ancient history and geography of Kalhu.


Kalhu: from prehistoric settlement to royal capital

The site's strategically important location ensured that it was inhabited long before its heyday as royal capital in the 9th and 8th centuries BC. While we know very little about Kalhu's earliest days, the city enjoyed a prominent status during the 2nd millennium BC, when it served as a provincial TT  capital - a role which it would keep until the final days of the Assyrian empire.

Kalhu, the imperial capital of the 9th and 8th centuries BC

Early in his reign, Assurnasirpal II made the decision to move his court from the empire's traditional capital, Assur PGP . He set his sights on the ancient settlement of Kalhu, which he transformed into a fitting symbol of Assyrian power and wealth. The city served as the seat of kingship for the next 150 years.

Kalhu from the 7th century BC to the post-Assyrian period

From the end of the 8th century BC, Kalhu no longer served as a royal capital. However, it continued to thrive as a centre of learning and scholarship, as well as the seat of provincial administration. The city's was destroyed by Median PGP  invaders in 612 BC, but its ruins provided shelter to local people into the Hellenistic TT  period and beyond.


Assurnasirpal's Northwest Palace

Early in his reign, king Assurnasirpal II commissioned a huge new palace. It comprised administrative and military wings, an official reception area for visiting dignitaries, and private quarters for the royal family and their domestic staff. Each area had a distinctive decorative scheme that reflected its purpose in Assyrian state-making.

The ziggurat and its temples

The northwestern part of Kalhu's citadel TT  mound was home to a temple precinct dominated by the ziggurat TT , an imposing stepped structure attached to the temple of Ninurta. Two further temples have been uncovered in the area in addition to Ezida, including the ancient temple of the Kidmuru PGP  which long predated Assurnasirpal's rebuilding of Kalhu.

The god Nabu's temple of scholarship

Ezida, the temple of the god of wisdom, was at the opposite end of the royal citadel to the palace, next to the governor's residence. It gained in importance over the 8th century and king Sargon II PGP  remodelled it to reflect a close, triangular relationship between deity, royalty and scholarship. Royal āšipu-healers led scholarly activities in the temple, including the development of a large library of learned works.

The Governor's Palace

This beautifully decorated building lay not far from Nabu's temple Ezida. While it may not actually have served as the governor TT 's residence, the many tablets TT  which were kept here provide evidence of the important administrative role which it played until at least the end of the 8th century BC, whenSargon II moved the royal court to Dur-Šarruken PGP . The building continued to be used until the destruction of Kalhu in 612 BC, and afterwards by squatters into the Hellenistic TT  period.

Fort Shalmaneser, the royal arsenal

Built by Shalmaneser III in the southwest corner of the city of Kalhu, this "review palace", as it was known in antiquity, combined the functions of a royal residence and a repository for the king's property, including booty, tribute TT  and military equipment. Unlike Assurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace, it was decorated not with carved reliefs TT  but with painted friezes and glazed bricks TT . Excavations of the palace have yielded a great quantity of decorative objects such as the famous Nimrud ivories TT , as well as administrative tablets which help shed light on the day-to-day realities of the court and the army.

nimrud at oracc dot org

Content last modified: 18 Dec 2019.

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The Nimrud Project at / Content released under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence, 2013-14
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