Assyrian Art

By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key Assyrian works
  • Define critical terms related to Assyrian works
  • Describe the key aspects of the Assyrian capitals of Nimrud, Dur-Sharrukin, and Nineveh
  • Distinguish characteristics of Assyrian architecture
  • Explain the political elements of Assyrian sculpture

Nimrud and Ashurnasirpal II

Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city located in southern, modern Iraq on the River Tigris. In ancient times the city was called Kalhu. The ruins of the city are found some 30 kilometres (19 miles) southeast of Mosul.

The Assyrian king Shalmaneser I made Nimrud, which existed for about a thousand years, the capital in the thirteenth century BCE. The city gained fame when king Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria (c. 880 BCE) built a large palace and temples on the site of an earlier city that had long fallen into ruins. Nimrud housed as many as 100,000 inhabitants and contained botanic gardens and a zoologic garden. Ashurnasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser III (858–824 BCE), built the monument known as the Great Ziggurat and an associated temple. The palace, restored as a site museum, is one of only two preserved Assyrian palaces in the world. The other is Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh. Nimrud remained the Assyrian capital until 706 BCE when Sargon II moved the capital to Dur-Sharrukin, but it remained a major center and a royal residence until the city was completely destroyed in 612 BCE when Assyria succumbed under the invasion of the Medes.

Excavations at Nimrud in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries revealed remarkable bas-reliefs, ivories, and sculptures. A statue of Ashurnasirpal II was found in an excellent state of preservation, as were colossal winged man-headed lions, each guarding the palace entrance. The large number of inscriptions pertaining to king Ashurnasirpal II provide more details about him and his reign than are known for any other ruler of this epoch.



Black and white photo depicts large sculpture of man-headed winged lion.
Gate Guardians – The Man-Headed Lions: This Portal Guardian (Lamassu) from Nimrud guarded the entrance to the palace at Nimrud.

Portions of the site have been also been identified, such as temples to Ninurta and Enlil, a building assigned to Nabu (the god of writing and the arts), and extensive fortifications. Furthermore, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, discovered in 1846, stands six-and-a-half-feet tall and commemorates the king’s victorious campaigns from 859–824 BCE. It is shaped like a temple tower at the top, ending in three steps.



Photo of black limestone Assyrian sculpture with many scenes in bas-relief and inscriptions
Black Obelisk: The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III commemorates the king’s victorious campaigns from 859–824 BCE.

On one panel, Israelites led by king Jehu of Israel pay tribute and bow in the dust before king Shalmaneser III, who is making a libation to his god. The cuneiform text on the obelisk reads “Jehu the son of Omri” and mentions gifts of gold, silver, lead, and spear shafts. The “Treasure of Nimrud” unearthed in these excavations is a collection of over 600 pieces of gold jewelry and precious stones.



Photo shows detail view of a scene from the black limestone Assyrian sculpture. The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III receives tribute from Sua, king of Gilzanu, The Black Obelisk.
Obelisk detail: Depiction of either Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi, or Jehu’s ambassador, bowing before Shalmaneser III.

Sargon II and Dur-Sharrukin

Dur-Sharrukin, or present-day Khorsabad, was the Assyrian capital in the time of King Sargon II. Today, Khorsabad is now a village in northern Iraq and is still inhabited by Assyrians. The construction of Dur-Sharrukin was never finished. Sargon, who ordered the project, was killed during a battle in 705. After his death, his son and successor Sennacherib abandoned the project and relocated the capital with its administration to the city of Nineveh.



Drawing of the architecture of entrance of Palace of Dur-Sharrukin.
Palace of Khorsabad: Artist’s reconstruction.

Dur-Sharrukin was constructed on a rectangular layout. Its walls were massive, with 157 towers protecting its sides. Seven gates entered the city from all directions. A walled terrace contained temples and the royal palace. The main temples were dedicated to the gods Nabu, Shamash, and Sin, while Adad, Ningal, and Ninurta had smaller shrines. A ziggurat was also constructed at the site. The palace was adorned with sculptures and wall reliefs, with its gates flanked by winged-bull shedu statues weighing up to 40 tons. On the central canal of Sargon’s garden stood a pillared pleasure-pavilion which looked up to a great topographic creation—a man-made Garden Mound. This mound was planted with cedars and cypresses and modelled after the Amanus mountains in northern Syria.



The winged bull figure, known as a shedu or a Photo of a lamassu on display in a museum. Lamassu were a common guardian figure in palace architecture.
Winged bull: The winged bull figure, known as a shedu or a lamassu, was a common guardian figure in palace architecture.

The colossal bull statue (above) was uncovered outside the throne room. It was found split into three large fragments. The torso alone weighed about 20 tons. Since Dur-Sharrukin was a single-period site that was evacuated in an orderly manner after the death of Sargon II, few individual objects were found. The primary discoveries from Khorsabad shed light on Assyrian art and architecture.


Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, and the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Its ruins are across the river from the modern-day major city of Mosul in Iraq.

Today, Nineveh’s location is marked by two large mounds, Kouyunjik and Nabī Yūnus “Prophet Jonah,” and the remains of the city walls. These were fitted with fifteen monumental gateways which served as checkpoints on entering and exiting the ancient city and were probably also used as barracks and armouries. With the inner and outer doors shut, the gateways were virtual fortresses. Five of the gateways have been explored to some extent by archaeologists.

Nineveh was an important junction for commercial routes crossing the Tigris. Occupying a central position on the great highway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, Nineveh united the East and the West, and received wealth from many sources. Thus, it became one of the oldest and greatest of all the region’s ancient cities, and the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The area was settled as early as 6000 BCE, and by 3000 BCE had become an important religious center for worship of the Assyrian goddess Ishtar.

It was not until the Neo-Assyrian Empire that Nineveh experienced a considerable architectural expansion. King Sennacherib is credited with making Nineveh a truly magnificent city during his rule (c. 700 BCE). He laid out new streets and squares and built within it the famous “palace without a rival”, the plan of which has been mostly recovered. It comprised at least 80 rooms, many of which were lined with sculpture. A large number of cuneiform tablets were found in the palace. The solid foundation was made out of limestone blocks and mud bricks. Some of the principal doorways were flanked by colossal stone-door figures that included many winged lions or bulls with the heads of men. The stone carvings in the walls include many battle and hunting scenes, as well as depicting Sennacherib’s men parading the spoils of war before him.



Photograph depicts a stone carving of the king hunting lion from the North Palace, Nineveh seen at the British Museum.
Royal Nineveh carving: The king hunting lion from the North Palace, Nineveh, seen at the British Museum.

Nineveh’s greatness was short-lived. In around 627 BCE, after the death of its last great king Ashurbanipal, the Neo-Assyrian empire began to unravel due to a series of bitter civil wars, and Assyria was attacked by the Babylonians and Medes. From about 616 BCE, in a coalition with the Scythians and Cimmerians, they besieged Nineveh, sacking the town in 612, and later razed it to the ground.

The Assyrian empire as such came to an end by 605 BC, with the Medes and Babylonians dividing its colonies between them. Following its defeat in 612, the site remained largely unoccupied for centuries with only a scattering of Assyrians living amid the ruins until the Sassanian period, although Assyrians continue to live in the surrounding area to this day.

Architecture in Assyria

Assyrian architecture eventually emerged from the shadow of its predecessors to assume distinctive attributes, such as domes and diverse building materials, that set it apart from other political entities.

During the Assyrian Empire’s historical span from the 25th century BCE to 612 BCE, architectural styles went through noticeable changes. Assyrian architects were initially influenced by previous forms dominant in Sumer and Akkad. However, Assyrian structures eventually evolved into their own unique style.


Little is known of the construction of Assyrian temples with the exception of the distinctive ziggurats and massive remains at Mugheir. Ziggurats in the Assyrian Empire came to be built with two towers (as opposed to the single central tower of previous styles) and decorated with coloured enamelled tiles. Contemporaneous inscriptions and reliefs describe and depict structures with octagonal and circular domes, unique architectural systems for the time. Little remains of the temple at Mugheir, but the ruins of its base remain quite impressive, measuring 198 feet (60 m) long by 133 feet (41 m) wide by 70 feet (21 m) high.


Building plans remained rectangular through much of the empire’s history. The fortress of Sargon II (reigned 722–705 BCE) at Dur-Sharrukin, or Khorsabad, was the best known. Consisting of a stone foundation punctuated by seven gates, the fortress housed the emperor’s palace and a ziggurat among massive load-bearing walls with regularly spaced towers.



Architectural drawing of the setup of Dur-Sharrukin.
Reconstruction of the palace of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin: palace with a typical rectangular plan and massive fortified walls of Assyrian palace architecture.

Despite the intended political symbolism of Assyrian superiority, these fortified walls signify preparation for an attack by enemy invaders. Among the ornamental features excavated was a monumental lamassu outside the throne room. After the death of Sargon II, the site was abandoned.



Sculpture of winged lion-headed man.
Lamassu: From Dur-Sharrukin.


Lamassu figures abounded throughout the Assyrian Empire, featuring in the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BCE) at Nimrud. Reconstructions show that they adorned the gateways of the palace, including an entrance marked by a round arch. According to contemporaneous inscriptions, the palace consisted of wood from a diverse number of tree species, alabaster, limestone, and a variety of precious metals. As with Dur-Sharrukin, the palace of Ashurnasirpal II was surrounded by fortified load-bearing walls.

The lamassu was a mythological guardian figure with large wings, the head of a human, and the body of a lion or a bull. Originally a protective spirit to the households of Babylonian commoners, the lamassu was later adopted by Assyrian royalty to protect political and religious interests. In Assyrian sculpture, lamassu figures often bear similar beards and hairstyles to those of Ashurnasirpal II. These monumental sculptures usually appeared in relief form in pairs at major entrances to cities, palaces, or fortresses. Each lamassu directed its gaze toward one of the cardinal directions, which explains why some look straight ahead and others have their heads turned.

Balawat Gates

Builders increasingly used wood, particularly cedar and cypress, in architecture. As a result, much of the architecture has decayed, leaving archaeologists to produce reconstructions for present-day scholars. One example is the Balawat Gates, from the Assyrian outpost of Balawat, or Imgur-Enlil. Two sets were commissioned during the reign of Ashurnasirpal II and one addition set under the reign of his son Shalmaneser III (859–824 BCE). Assyrian inscriptions suggest the gates were made of cedar. Experts estimate that the gates stood over 22 feet high. The metal bands that adorned the gates suggest that they measured 285 feet wide. Lacking hinges, the gates opened by turning enormous pine pillars that rotated in stone sockets. Despite the long-term fragility of wood, the scale of the gates and the mechanisms by which they opened and closed point to the political instability of the time and the need to defend all parts of the empire.



Photo depicting the scale of the gate. A woman stands in the center and is approximately 1/8th the height and width of gate.
Reconstruction of the Balawat Gates at the British Museum: Woman in photograph provides an idea of the scale of the gates.

Artifacts of Assyria

Artifacts produced during the Assyrian Empire range from hand-held to monumental and consist of a variety of media, from clay to bronze to a diversity of stone. While reliefs comprise the majority of what archaeologists have found, existing sculptures in the round shed light on Assyrian numerical systems and politics.

Assyrian Lion Weights


Photograph of three bronze lion weights: small, medium, and large.
Assyrian Lion Weights: These weights represented one of only two known systems of weights and measures in Mesopotamia at the time.

The Assyrian Lion Weights (800-700 BCE) are a group of solid bronze weights that range from two centimetres (approximately 0.8 inches) to 30 centimetres (approximately 12 inches). Admired as sculptures in the round today, the weights represent one of only two systems of weights and measures in the region at the time. This system was based on heavy mina (about one kilogram) and was used for weighting metals. Additionally, they bear inscriptions in Assyrian cuneiform and Phoenician script, indicating use by speakers of both languages. Eight lions in the set bear the only known inscriptions from the reign of Shalmaneser V (reigned 727-722 BCE).

Statue of Ashurnasirpal II


Photo depicts a statue of a king with a long beard.
Statue of Ashurnasirpal II: The king’s beard and hairstyle set him apart from his subjects. He holds a sickle as a form of mythological defence and a mace as a symbol of authority.

This magnesite (magnesium carbonate) sculpture of Ashurnasirpal II (9th century BCE) serves as a rare example of sculpture in the round produced during the Assyrian Empire. The king stands stiffly with a sickle in his right hand (at his side) and a mace in his left, which he holds to his torso. Both objects are symbolic; the sickle was used as a weapon against monsters, while the mace was a symbol of political and religious authority. The inscription on his chest announces his genealogy, titles, and military triumphs. Although the sculpture is stylized, it gives the viewer a glimpse into fashion norms for rulers at the time. The length of the king’s hair and beard set him apart from commoners, who would have found such styles impractical.

Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III


Black limestone sculpture. It features twenty relief scenes, five on each side.
Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III: This limestone obelisk contains 20 registers depicting conquered kings paying tribute to Assyrian power and celebrating the military campaigns of Shalmaneser III.

Erected during a time of civil war (825 BCE), the limestone Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is the most intact Assyrian obelisk found to date. Each side consists of five registers of bas reliefs that celebrate the achievements of King Shalmaneser III (reigned 858-824 BCE). Three registers on each side focus on conquered kings from specific regions paying tribute to the Assyrian ruler. The registers at the top and bottom of each side bear an inscription from the annals of Shalmaneser III, celebrating his annual military campaigns.


  • Nimrud, also known as Kalhu, was the Assyrian capital from the thirteenth century BCE until 706 BCE. Ashurnasirpal II made the city famous when he built a large palace and temples on top of ancient ruins c. 880 BCE.
  • Dur-Sharrukin was a single-period site; therefore, few individual objects were found. The primary discoveries shed light on Assyrian art and architecture.
  • Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, rose to greatness under Sennacherib. He laid out new streets and squares and built within it the famous “palace without a rival”, the plan of which has been mostly recovered.
  • Inscriptions and reliefs produced under the Assyrian Empire depict structures with octagonal and circular domes, which were unique to the region at the time.
  • Massive fortified walls are a common attribute in Assyrian fortresses, pointing to the political instability of the time and the need for architectural defence.
  • Architectural materials in the Assyrian empire were quite diverse, consisting of a variety of woods, stones, and metals.
  • The Assyrian Lion Weights represent the importance of weights and measures and accommodation of more than one language.
  • The Statue of Ashurnasirpal II, the lamassu reliefs, and the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III provide examples of art rich in political and religious symbolism.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike




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Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance Copyright © by Alena Buis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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