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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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This capital of the Assyrian empire could boast of the remotest antiquity. Tacitus styles it, "Vetustissima sedes Assyriae;" [the most ancient seat of Assyria;] and Scripture informs us that Nimrod, after he had built Babel, in the land of Shinar, invaded Assyria, where he built Nineveh, and several other cities, Genesis 10:11 . Its name denotes "the habitation of Nin," which seems to have been the proper name of "that rebel," as Nimrod signifies. And it is uniformly styled by Herodotus, Xenophon, Diodorus, Lucian, &c, ‘Η Νινος , "the city of Ninus." And the village of Nunia, opposite Mosul, in its name, and the tradition of the natives, ascertains the site of the ancient city, which was near the castle of Arbela, according to Tacitus, so celebrated for the decisive victory of Alexander the Great over the Persians there; the site of which is ascertained by the village of Arbil, about ten German miles to the east of Nunia, according to Niebuhr's map. Nineveh at first seems only to have been a small city, and less than Resen, in its neighbourhood; which is conjectured by Bochart, and not without reason, to have been the same as Larissa, which Xenophon describes as "the ruins of a great city, formerly inhabited by the Medes," and which the natives might have described as belonging la Resen, "to Resen." Nineveh did not rise to greatness for many ages after, until its second founder, Ninus II, about B.C. 1230, enlarged and made it the greatest city in the world. According to Diodorus, it was of an oblong form, a hundred and fifty stadia long, and ninety broad, and, consequently, four hundred and eighty in circuit, or forty-eight miles, reckoning ten stadia to an English mile, with Major Rennel. And its walls were a hundred feet high, and so broad that three chariots could drive on them abreast; and on the walls were fifteen hundred towers, each two hundred feet high. We are not, however, to imagine that all this vast enclosure was built upon: it contained great parks and extensive fields, and detached houses and buildings, like Babylon, and other great cities of the east even at the present day, as Bussorah, &c. And this entirely corresponds with the representations of Scripture. In the days of the Prophet Jonah, about B.C. 800, it seems to have been a "great city, an exceeding great city, of three days' journey," Jonah 1:2; Jonah 3:3; perhaps in circuit. The population of Nineveh, also, at that time was very great. It contained "more than sixscore thousand persons that could not discern between their right hand and their left, beside much cattle," Jonah 4:11 . Reckoning the persons to have been infants of two years old and under, and that these were a fifth part of the whole, according to Bochart, the whole population would amount to six hundred thousand souls. The same number Pliny assigns for the population of Seleucia, on the decline of Babylon. This population shows that a great part of the city must have been left open and unbuilt.

The threatened overthrow of Nineveh within three days, was, by the general repentance and humiliation of the inhabitants, from the highest to the lowest, suspended for near two hundred years, until "their iniquity came to the full;" and then the prophecy was literally accomplished, in the third year of the siege of the city, by the combined Medes and Babylonians; the king, Sardanapalus, being encouraged to hold out in consequence of an ancient prophecy, that Nineveh should never be taken by assault, till the river became its enemy; when a mighty inundation of the river, swollen by continual rains, came up against a part of the city, and threw down twenty stadia of the wall in length; upon which, the king, conceiving that the oracle was accomplished, burned himself, his concubines, eunuchs, and treasures; and the enemy, entering by the breach, sacked and rased the city, about B.C. 606. Diodorus, also, relates that Belesis, the governor of Babylon. obtained from Arbaces, the king of Media, the ashes of the palace, to erect a mount with them near the temple of Belus at Babylon; and that he forthwith prepared shipping, and, together with the ashes, carried away most of the gold and silver, of which he had private information given him by one of the eunuchs who escaped the fire. Dr. Gillies thinks it incredible that these could be transported from Nineveh to Babylon, three hundred miles distant; but likely enough, if Nineveh was only fifty miles from Babylon, with a large canal of communication between them, the Nahar Malka, or Royal River. But we learn from Niebuhr, that the conveyance of goods from Mosul to Bagdat by the Tigris is very commodious, in the very large boats called helleks; in which, in spring, when the river is rapid, the voyage may be made in three or four days, which would take fifteen by land. The complete demolition of such immense piles as the walls and towers of Nineveh may seem a matter of surprise to those who do not consider the nature of the materials of which they were constructed, that is, of bricks, dried or baked in the sun, and cemented with bitumen, which were apt to be "dissolved" by water, or to moulder away by the injuries of the weather. Beside, in the east, the materials of ancient cities have been often employed in the building of new ones in the neighbourhood. Thus Mosul was built with the spoils of Nineveh. Tauk Kesra, or the Palace of Chosroes, appears to have been built of bricks brought from the ruins of Babylon; and so was Hellah, as the dimensions are nearly the same, and the proportions so singular. And when such materials could conveniently be transported by inland navigations, they are to be found at very great distances from their ancient place, much farther, indeed, than are Bagdat and Seleucia, or Ctesiphon, from Babylon.

The book of Nahum was avowedly prophetic of the destruction of Nineveh; and it is there foretold that "the gates of the river shall be opened, and the palace shall be dissolved. Nineveh of old, like a pool of water, with an overflowing flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof,"

Nahum 2:6; Nahum 1:8-9 . The historian describes the facts by which the other predictions of the prophet were as literally fulfilled. He relates that the king of Assyria, elated with his former victories, and ignorant of the revolt of the Bactrians, had abandoned himself to scandalous inaction; had appointed a time of festivity, and supplied his soldiers with abundance of wine; and that the general of the enemy, apprised by deserters, of their negligence and drunkenness, attacked the Assyrian army while the whole of them were fearlessly giving way to indulgence, destroyed great part of them, and drove the rest into the city. The words of the prophet were hereby verified: "While they be folden together as thorns, and while they are drunken as drunkards, they shall be devoured as stubble fully dry," Nahum 1:10 . The prophet promised much spoil to the enemy: "Take the spoil of silver, take the spoil of gold; for there is no end of the store and glory out of all the pleasant furniture," Nahum 2:9 . And the historian affirms that many talents of gold and silver, preserved from the fire, were carried to Ecbatana. According to Nahum 3:15 , the city was not only to be destroyed by an overflowing flood, but the fire, also, was to devour it; and, as Diodorus relates, partly by water, partly by fire, it was destroyed.

The utter and perpetual destruction and desolation of Nineveh were foretold: "The Lord will make an utter end of the place thereof. Affliction shall not rise up the second time, She is empty, void, and waste,"

Nahum 1:8-9; Nahum 2:10; Nahum 3:17-19 . "The Lord will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria, and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness. How is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in," Zephaniah 2:13-15 . In the second century, Lucian, a native of a city on the banks of the Euphrates, testified that Nineveh was utterly perished, that there was no vestige of it remaining, and that none could tell where once it was situated. This testimony of Lucian, and the lapse of many ages during which the place was not known where it stood, render it at least somewhat doubtful whether the remains of an ancient city, opposite to Mosul, which have been described as such by travellers, be indeed those of ancient Nineveh. It is, perhaps, probable that they are the remains of the city which succeeded Nineveh, or of a Persian city of the same name, which was built on the banks of the Tigris by the Persians subsequently to A.D. 230, and demolished by the Saracens, A.D. 632. In contrasting the then existing great and increasing population, and the accumulating wealth of the proud inhabitants of the mighty Nineveh, with the utter ruin that awaited it, the word of God by the Prophet Nahum, was, "Make thyself many as the canker worm, make thyself many as the locusts. Thou hast multiplied thy merchants above the stars of heaven: the canker worm spoileth and flieth away. Thy crowned are as the locusts, and thy captains as the great grasshoppers which camp in the hedges in the cold day: but when the sun riseth, they flee away; and their place is not known where they are," or were. Whether these words imply that even the site of Nineveh would in future ages be uncertain or unknown; or, as they rather seem to intimate, that every vestige of the palaces of its monarchs, of the greatness of its nobles, and of the wealth of its numerous merchants, would wholly disappear; the truth of the prediction cannot be invalidated under either interpretation. The avowed ignorance respecting Nineveh, and the oblivion which passed over it, for many an age, conjoined with the meagreness of evidence to identify it, still prove that the place where it stood was long unknown, and that, even now, it can scarcely with certainty be determined. And if the only spot that bears its name, or that can be said to be the place where it was, be indeed the site of one of the most extensive of cities on which the sun ever shone, and which continued for many centuries to be the capital of Assyria,—the principal mounds, few in number, which show neither bricks, stones, nor other materials of building,—but are in many places overgrown with grass, and resemble the mounds left by intrenchments and fortifications of ancient Roman camps, and the appearances of other mounds and ruins less marked than even these, extending for ten miles, and widely spread, and seeming to be the wreck of former buildings,—show that Nineveh is left without one monument of royalty, without any token whatever of its splendour or wealth: that their place is not known where they were; and that it is indeed a desolation, "empty, void, and waste," its very ruins perished, and less than the wreck of what it was. Such an utter ruin, in every view, has been made of it; and such is the truth of the divine predictions!

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Nineveh'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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