Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Khorsabad Palace

Taylor Speer-Sims
March 24, 2012

Khorsabad Palace:
Not So Bad, Actually Fantastic

Sargon II
                                                       Photograph taken by author

            Sargon II of Assyria built a great city that is now located in northern Iraq near the area of Khorsabad. This had been a great citadel where Sargon wanted to plant his capital of his huge empire. Khorsabad had roots in the Assyrian past, but it also had genius in its beauty. New types of decoration had been used that his descendents followed. Two rooms of Sargon’s palace were created for the same king, but for different purposes. Khorsabad had been built for King Sargon, II, but still reigns in beauty.

Khorsabad was the ancient city of King Sargon II. The city’s construction began in 721 BCE and had still technically not been completed when he died in 705 BCE. The Assyrian name of the great city was Dur-Sharrukin, which meant Fort Sargon. One suggestion was that Khorsabad had been most probably built by Sargon’s brother, Sinahusur, who was also his grand vizier (Oriental). But this seems to be because his name had been inscribed on a threshold to one of the houses. There has been no other evidence that he did in fact supervise construction.

            Unlike the lacking of crucial evidence to support Sinahusur supervising the building of Dur-Sharrukin, there is evidence that Sargon himself oversaw the construction. As an authoritarian ruler, he not only directed the way the architecture was laid out, he also directed the actions of the workers. Sargon made sure that the man who he had given charge of the supplies for the new city understood what exactly had been expected. Sargon wrote to the  governor of Calah that they needed “700 bales of straw and 700 bundles or reeds, each bundle more than a donkey can carry. Must be at hand in Dur-Sharrukin by the 1st day of Kislev. Should this be even one day late, you will die” (Sargon).

            It had been understood that Sargon meant exactly what he said. Murder had not been new to Sargon. Sargon II had captured his throne in 721 from  Shalmaneser V in a violent coup (British). He then created his title that would be announced in voice, as well in the stone tablets at the Palace of Sargon. He announced that was “King Sargon, Sharru-Ken the Legitimate King, King of the World, King of Assyria, Viceroy of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, Builder of the city of Dur-Sharrukin” (Inscribed Brick). What had been true of his ascension was also true at his death. The great Sargon died in battle trying to secure his empire.

Sargon had been the king of the Assyrian Empire. This empire had been so large that it encompassed territories that are now within four countries. Located in the current Middle East, the Assyrian Empire spanned the areas from the Euphrates river in Syria, north to Lake Van in Turkey, east to Lake Urmi in Iran, and about 100 miles south of Kirkuk in Iraq. The region has areas of dry rigidity, and as water is a necessity for life, there were fertile lands as well. Two of the main rivers in the area were the Tigris and Euphrates. These two rivers had tributaries that assisted with agriculture in the area, as well as a method for the use of transportation (BetBasoo).

            Transporting grains had not been the only thing that the was shipped down the rivers by Sargon. Assyrian war machines, the men and equipment that Sargon used to create his empire, had also been floated to the furthest regions of the empire so that they could venture further on foot. Assyria had been in the midst of expansion when Sargon took control. Assyrian hegemony of the area had continued to grow with his reign. The Assyrians had been a literate warring tribe (BetBasso).

            Akkadian had been the language of Sargon and his Assyrians (BetBasoo). Cuneiform writing had been carved on stone tablets, as well as on walls. Because literacy was so important the people, they even had a god to writing. Nabu was the principal god of wisdom and writing. Nabu’s full title had been “Lord of the Written Word, Divine Scribe, Wielder of the Wand of Divination, Opener of the Wells, Far Traveler” (Nabu). He had been a very important god to Sargon II, the Assyrian people, and had had a significant impression upon the walls of Dur-Sharrukin.

            Sargon II had been a ruthless leader. He had been literate and worshiped the god of writing. Sargon ruled a vast territory that swallowed up many smaller peoples. The domain had been so large that four different countries today cover the land that had previously been the Assyrian Empire. Sargon’s new city of Dur-Sharrukin had not been fully finished when he was killed in battle. His son, Sennacherib, took the throne and abandoned his father’s new city. The beautiful Dur-Sharrukin had been left empty for thousands of years when it was finally rediscovered (Hirsch). Khorsabad’s Sargon Palace as well as the rest of the city of Dur-Sharrukin had been abandoned, but rediscovered by the world, and this author.

            Khorsabad’s Sargon Palace is the subject of this comparison paper. Two different areas of the palace are compared within this work. These two areas are the great courtyard and room number 7, the throne room. While they are within the same palace, they are actually in different parts of the building, and had been decorated differently. Both have carved reliefs that are discussed, as well as the different meanings and uses. The courtyard may not have been roofed and was open, while the throne room was in the center of the building and had no windows.

            The palace had followed the traditional floor plans of the Assyrian rulers. Carved reliefs were throughout the palace. Outer and inner rooms surrounding courtyards had been the norm. Sargon’s rooms had been extended beyond the protective city walls. There was a lower citadel that led to the ramp of the ziggurat outside the palace central, but within the city walls. Four temples to the central deities were next to the temple of Nabu, who may have been the patron of the city (Magnificently).

Interestingly the Palace of Sargon had differences from previous Assyrian palaces as well. So many fragment pieces had been found that had been painted in several bright colors, that it was generally assumed that the entire palace had been painted thus. Mud bricks that had been used in the buildings still show the rosette decorations .  It had been Sargon’s artists that first used the curls that represented water for all the generations that followed. Another first for Dur-Sharrukin was the carved rosette thresholds. Previous carved thresholds had been inscribed, and this seemed to have been the first city that used rosettes. There had been many of these rosette thresholds afterward.

            It does seem unlikely that the courtyard held a threshold. However, the carpet threshold is currently placed in the entryway to the courtyard indicating that this could have been the location of it originally. This piece is carved in large rosettes with tassels to imitate a woven rug (Threshold Carpet, gypsum (?), 4’ x 5’(?), Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL). While the decoration had been innovative here, the carved thresholds had usually been at the entrances of residences. Perhaps the idea behind the courtyard placement was to give the visitors the idea that they were entering the house of their king.

                                           Looking at the left side of existing courtyard

 Looking at Ride side of existing courtyard

Photographs taken by author

            In fact, the courtyard had been the entrance to the palace proper. Visitors had had to enter through the gateway between two Lamasus (Hirsch) (Lamasus, gypsum (?), 14’ x 25’(?), Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL) . These great giants were 14’ tall and weighed approximately 40 tons (Lamasu). These half man, half winged bulls had been carved and painted in a way that made it appear as if they were looking directly at the visitor. The Lamasus had writing carved below the belly in the front. The backs of both had written prayers to the gods that had been completely covered by the walls originally. The walls had joined up against the sides of the beasts so that only the gods could witness the prayer writings (Hirsch).

            After passing the inspection of the Lamasus, the visitor then entered the great courtyard. Adorning the walls of the courtyard there had been “monumental carved reliefs showing processions of human figures” (Courtyard). Courtyard measurements were “86m x 60m with the walls over 60m tall (Great Courtyard of Sargon II, gypsum (?),Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL). American measurements of 282.15’ x 196.85’ for the courtyard, and the walls were at 196.85’ tall. The people had not been carved to the entire height of the wall, but they were very close. No measurements of the people or animals had ever been noted. These reliefs have Sargon the beneficent, regal ruler accepting gifts from travelers. He was shown to be courteous and welcoming to all. Sargon wanted everyone to know how much of a great guy that he really was. Even his son, the crown prince and his clean-shaven eunuchs, was shown as a tribute bearers.

            The courtyard had been created for everyone entering the palace to believe that Sargon had been the rightful king. He had taken control of the empire by violence. While the Assyrians had been a warrior kingdom, they still would have appreciated bounty. These reliefs were docile in nature and were used as a propaganda pieces because of the extreme size of the pictures. The courtyard had basically been surrounded by billboards of how wonderful King Sargon II was. This had been an outdoor room, so that the sun would have shown down on the king and his kingdom.

            The entire courtroom would have been square, with the two Lamasus indenting somewhat into the area. Each person, animal and Lamasu had been carved very fluidly and lifelike. The hair and beards were curled and extended from the body. More care had been taken in the Lamasu, perhaps because he had been the gatekeeper. Genitalia had been carved on the horses and Lamasu, as well as their rectums. These had been carved so precisely that they withstood thousands of years under the sand. This would have indicated the productive values of the realm to the viewers. The stone colored feathers on the Lamasu had been carved exactly to replicate that of a bird, and would have been painted in antiquity.

                                             Closeup of clothing of one of the Eunichs

                                                             Closeup of the horses

                                                       Closeup of the Crown Prince
Photographs taken by author

            Paint and texture had washed away, but are still visible in photos with red-sensitive characteristics. The color of the stone after centuries is a steel gray, but they had originally been painted in bright vibrant reds, blues and golds. The horses had been dark brown, or maybe black. The clothing of men and beasts included carved tassels painted in gold. The Lamasu is complete only after repair, and is the entire piece of work, but the walls have space above, below and behind the carving. In other words, these were just barely two-dimensional carvings, barely an inch from the wall. They had no background, save the stone.

            King Sargon’s throne room had been completely different. This had been an indoor room that one would have had to been invited into. There had been no windows to this room, so light had to have illuminated the interior by fire. There were no Lamsus in this room. The visitors would have had already passed judgment when they entered the courtyard. Their fate had already been sealed by the gods, and they awaited that of the king within this room. While the propaganda of the courtyard was gigantic, these were large, but different. The throne room itself had also been smaller 45m x 10m (Throne Room of the Palace of Sargon II, 147.64’ x 32.81’ gypsum (?),Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL).
                                                                 The Throne Room
                                                        Photograph taken by author

            The throne room’s walls had been completely carved upon. However, these had been separated into three tiers. The middle tier had writing, which indicated the great warrior deeds of Sargon (Hirsch). The top most portion had obviously been a scene that included people, but had sometime in history been worn off. The bottom reliefs were plain to anyone who could not read cuneiform. The story of Sargon’s exploits had been carved here.

                        Measurements of the slabs themselves are as follows:

A7358 2.535m x 2.76 m this is the groom between two horses (slab on left of the three slabs
A7360 this is the one missing the top halves of the two figures 2.246m wide and only 1.83m high as it is missing some (middle slab)
A7359 2.29m wide and 3.10m tall, this one has the figure of the king holding a lotus blossom with an attendant behind him who is missing his head (right hand slab) (McDonald)

            The bottom tier also tells the story of Sargon, just as the second tier had. While the middle portion was all cuneiform writing, the bottom was of visual picto-stories. The main area had Sargon, himself, riding in a chariot under a parasol. Warriors followed behind. He was leading the way while birds flew above him. His destination appeared in the far right as something like a temple. Fish had been carved beneath the temple, as trees grew further to the right.

            The throne room’s propaganda relief told a completely different story as that of the courtyard. Here, Sargon was not beneficent. He was the ultimate warrior. He took control of ruthless troops that had experience taming others. The true king had reached areas that no other Assyrian ruler had. Sargon had conquered the edge of the known world. He had even conquered the wilderness. This was the room of judgment. “He was no longer Mr. Nice Guy” (Hirsch). Sargon meant to put his foot down on any type of misbehavior. He had been the true king and he was in charge.

            Sargon’s conquering exploits was fully visible in both writing and pictures. The separation of the reliefs had not been measured, but are approximately one-third the height of the wall. Writing took up the entire middle area of the wall, which was about 2.19’ high. Cuneiform words had been carved so that the words protruded from the wall. Letters were sharp, angular, and exact, like the king would have been in this particular room.

                             Detail of the bottom of the Throne Room - Sargon in chariot

Detail of bird and tree

                                                                 Detail of Temple

                                              Detail of Sargon and Slave Charioteer
Photographs taken by author

            The two other sections of the walls had the carved picto-stories. While the top portion has worn away, the bottom is still precise. These pictures protrude about the same as those from the courtyard. However, there is more to these. Not only is the story different, but also the feeling of the piece is also different. These pictures were smooth, and had more articulation in the carving. The horses appear to be so similar that they may have been carved by the same person. “Sargon” has more distinction in his robes and parasol in the throne room than in the great courtyard. Flying birds had been carved in these reliefs. Trees had been placed behind Sargon’s chariot and his troops indicating depth that had been lacking in the courtyard.

            Again, the colors have disappeared from these walls also, leaving the cold color of the stone. This author could gain no knowledge of the original color of the writing either from the museum personnel, or from her photographs. However, assuredly these must have been painted for distinction because they fill the entire section from top to bottom. Colors in the mural pieces did show up in the photographs, however. These too had been red, blue and gold, with horses and human hair as black. Here, there were traces of green that were on the trees, which of course did not show up on the courtroom.

            Sargon II of Assyria created a new palace within a new city that was to showcase his power. Only ten years after its beginning, it fell into abandonment. The great king had died, and his successor left to create his own palace that would remind no one of his father. Sargon took the throne, and died by the same manner. He created a city that told visitors that he was the true king. His story continues today in the murals of the great courtyard and throne room. These two rooms only tell the propaganda story that the builder wanted to be told. But, they were told beautifully.

Originally written for class at American Military University.
Works Cited:

“Assyrian Empire: 900-612 BC, The”. Oriental Institute Museum. N.d. Print Plaque.

BetBasoo, Peter. “Brief History of Assyrians”. April 1, 2007. Web.

http://www.aina.org/brief.html. March 24, 2012.

“Inscribed Brick”. 721-705 BCE. Oriental Institute Museum. N.d. Print Plaque.

McDonald, Helen. “Re: Info on a few of the pieces”, Personnel e-mail to author.  March 16,


“Nabu” Gods & Goddesses: Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses as Archetypes. n.d. web.

http://www.gatewaystobabylon.com/gods/lords/lordnabu.html. March 24, 2012.

Hirsch, Mark. Personal discussion with author. March 15, 2012.

“Lamasu”. Oriental Institute Museum. N.d. Print Plaque.

Sargon II, King. “The King’s Word to the Governor of Calah” n.d. in “Khorsabad” Oriental

Institute Museum. Print Plaque. N.d.

“Sargon’s Magnificently Decorated Palace dominates the Citadel and City”. Oriental

Institute Museum. N.d. Print Plaque.

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