Nineveh Ninwe

A very ancient city in northern Iraq located on the eastern side of the Tigris River, directly across from the medieval and modern city of Mosul. The site owed its earliest development, from ca. 6000 BC, to its position beside a crossable portion of the Tigris (Oates 1968, 52). Nineveh reached its apex in the 7th cent. BC, when it served as the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire under Kings Sennacherib (r. 705–681 BC), Esarhaddon (r. 681–69 BC), and Ashurbanipal (r. 668–27 BC). The rediscovery of its royal palaces played a central role in the development of modern Assyriology. In 1847, a thirty-year old Englishman named Austen Henry Layard began excavations at the site and almost immediately uncovered the remains of Sennacherib’s palace beneath the modern tell called Kuyunjik. Six years later, in 1853, Layard’s former assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, a Chaldean Christian from Mosul, excavated the palace of Ashurbanipal. Recent scholarship has finally given Rassam due credit for this discovery, an accomplishment obscured at the time by British Museum officials, who attacked Rassam as an ‘Oriental’ unqualified to run the excavation (Larsen 1994, esp. 317–32). British archaeologists continued to conduct intermittent excavations at Nineveh over the next century, followed by the Iraqis from the second half of the 1960s. American excavations (1987–1990) found dramatic evidence for Nineveh’s destruction in 612 BC, when a combined force of Medes, Elamites, and Babylonians burned and pillaged the city (Stronach and Lumsden 1992).

In both ancient and modern culture, Nineveh’s destruction has often served as an evocative paradigm for the sudden collapse of a mighty empire. But as stories about the destruction of Assyrian Nineveh percolated in Classical and Near Eastern folklore, the city itself experienced a long, slow recovery, eventually re-emerging as a significant urban center and then bishopric. Under the Seleucids, the city was re-founded as a polis and received ‘at least the superficial forms of Hellenistic city organization’ (Oates 1968, 61). Greek inscriptions and sculptural fragments attest to the strength of the city’s Hellenistic culture as late as the 2nd cent. AD (Reade 1998). Not surprisingly, Hellenistic and indigenous traditions often intertwined or merged (Reade 2001, 198).

By the early 3rd cent. AD, Christianity had established a significant presence in the surrounding territory of Adiabene, which operated as a semi-autonomous kingdom, with its capital at Arbela (modern Erbil), until the Sasanian conquests of the 220s. When and how Christianity arrived in Nineveh remains unclear. Local tradition among the modern Christians of Mosul holds that a monastery dedicated to the Prophet Jonah was built on the tell of Nabī Yūnus during the 4th cent. (Fiey 1965, vol. 2, 497–8). But there is no indisputable textual or archaeological evidence for Christianity at the site until the mid-6th cent., when Aḥudemmeh, bp. of Nineveh, participated in the E.-Syr. synod of 554. Later bishops of the city included the future Patr. Ishoʿyahb III (d.  659) and, briefly, the renowned 7th-cent. mystic Isḥaq of Nineveh (Fiey 1993, 115–16). At some stage before the mid-9th cent., the bishopric was merged with that of Mosul, which appears to have grown rapidly following its foundation as an Arab camp (miṣr) in the 640s.

Nineveh also served as the base for a Syr. Orth. bishopric, closely associated with the nearby Dayro d-Mor Matay (Fiey 1965, 349–53; idem 1993, 239–40). One of the first holders of the bishopric, Mar Zakkay (593–605), distinguished himself as an intrepid polemicist against the ‘Nestorians’ (Fiey 1965, vol. 2, 783; idem 2004, 197–98). After the victory of the Emperor Heraclius at the Battle of Nineveh in 626, the Syr. Orth. expanded their presence throughout the entire region. A Syr. Orth. school established at Nineveh in the early 7th cent. had more than 300 students at its height in the mid-9th cent. (Fiey 1965, vol. 2, 499).

Local Christians recognized Nineveh as the former capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, but their understanding of this past was fragmentary, distorted, and sometimes fantastic. Stories about imperial Nineveh included the aphorisms of the Assyrian sage Aḥiqar and the Biblical books of Tobit and Jonah. Syr. Christians had long been fascinated by the story of the Ninevites’ repentance (Jonah 3:1–10), an episode that inspired a popular memrā by the poet Ephrem (d. 373). Sometime between the late 560s and the mid-7th cent., the Rogation of the Ninevites was adopted as a formal festival of the Ch. of E. to celebrate the passing of the plague (Fiey 1965, 498, esp. n. 5, on the problem of the dating). The Rogation, also known as the Fast of the Ninevites, continues to be celebrated with great intensity and three-day fasts in some E.-Syr. communities today.

The archaeology of Christianity at Nineveh has only recently begun to receive close attention (Simpson 2005). Christian objects found during the British excavations include fragments of a painted stucco cross and a small brass lamp with a cross-shaped lid. Unfortunately, the famous monastery of Jonah, which stood atop the modern tell of Nabī Yūnus, is known only from textual sources. In 701, the ill-fated E.-Syr. Patr. Ḥenanishoʿ was buried in the monastery, and its chapel was restored by the Patr. Sargis (860–72). By this time, the monastery had also become a favorite haunt for the revelries of Islamic visitors, who penned enthusiastic verses about its wine (Fiey 1965, 2, 500). At some point in the 10th cent., if not before, the monastery was transformed into an Islamic shrine (masjad) dedicated to the prophet Jonah (Nabī Yūnus). This mosque remains to this day a much-venerated shrine visited by members of all the religious communities of the region.

Gradually, beginning in late antiquity, the countryside surrounding Nineveh filled with a mixture of villages belonging to either the Ch. of E. or the Syr. Orth. Church, often living in close proximity to local Muslims, Jews, and Yazidis. Many of these villages developed strong local traditions of Christian architecture and scribal activity (Fiey 1965, vol. 2, 354–491). Even in the modern Diaspora, the distinct identity of many of these Christian villages, such as Telkepe and Qaraqosh, has not been forgotten.

See Fig. 91.


  • Fiey, Assyrie chrétienne, vol. 2 (1965), 321–674.
  • Fiey, Pour un Oriens christianus novus (1993), 115–16.
  • Fiey, Saints syriaques (2004).
  • M. T.  Larsen, The conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an antique land (1994).
  • D. Oates, Studies in the ancient history of Northern Iraq (1968).
  • J. Reade, ‘Greco-Parthian Nineveh’, Iraq 60 (1998), 65–83.
  • J. Reade, ‘More about Adiabene’, Iraq 63 (2001), 187–99.
  • S. J. Simpson, ‘Christians at Nineveh in late antiquity’, Iraq 67 (2005), 285–94.
  • D.  Stronach and S.  Lumsden, ‘UC Berkeley’s Excavations at Nineveh’, Biblical Archaeologist (Dec. 1992), 227–33.

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