Nimrud: History, Treasure & Destruction

Instructor: Bailey Cavender

Bailey teaches High School English, has taught history, and has a master's degree in Anthropology/Historical Archaeology.

Nimrud was a major city in the Assyrian Empire. Located in modern Iraq, the city was destroyed numerous times. Archaeological excavations on Nimrud ran from the 1840s to the 1950s, yielding discoveries that included the Nimrud ivories.


The ancient world had several empires that have gone down in history as major and influential. One of these empires is the Assyrian Empire, which became powerful in the Middle East over 500 years after the Babylonian Empire collapsed. The Assyrian Empire was in power between 883 and 612 BCE, and included modern Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. The Assyrian Empire had several capital cities, and one of those cities was Nimrud, also known as Kalhu and Calah. The ruins of ancient Nimrud are in modern Iraq and have a modern town and village nearby. Both became part of military action when the ruins were destroyed by ISIS in 2015.


Located in Northern Iraq, Nimrud was a city that no one seemed to remember. Centuries earlier, however, Nimrud was a well-populated and thriving city, one of the more important in the Assyrian Empire. Nimrud was very a well-placed city; historians believe that it sat right on an ancient trade-route between the original capital of Ashur and the city of Nineveh. Nimrud was built on another, earlier city that had fallen into some disrepair. The king decided to rebuild the city bigger and better than before. From the art and ruins discovered there, he succeeded.

The Assyrian Empire moved its capital several times, depending on what each emperor wished. As a result, Nimrud was the capital of the Assyrian Empire between 879 and 706 BCE. Even when it was not the capital of the Empire, Nimrud was still an important city. The royal family had a palace there, and it was the site of the Great Ziggurat, a temple that is shaped like a tower. Although many of the kings of Assyria were buried at the traditional capital city of Ashur, many queens were buried in Nimrud.

When the Assyrian Empire was destroyed in 612 BCE, the city of Nimrud was left empty and largely ignored.

Archaeological Discoveries

In the 1840s, a team of archaeologists went to the Middle East to find archaeological evidence that supported the stories in the Bible. When English archaeologist, Sir Austen Henry Layard, discovered an ancient city, he thought it was the Biblical Nineveh. His discoveries, and the unearthed city, gave people information about an often-forgotten ancient civilization.

The work of archaeologist, William Loftus, also shed light on the city and the Assyrian Empire. Many of the artifacts that were found told scholars about life in the Assyrian Empire, something that we didn't really know much about before that time. Full of beautiful works of art, the city became most famous for the treasure that was found there, particularly the ivory.


Archaeological work on Nimrud revealed that the city was full of priceless artifacts, including gold, silver, gems, and most famous, what people today call the Nimrud ivories. The Nimrud ivories include carved heads that were probably parts of furniture, beautifully detailed boxes, and other carved figures. Layard and his team found many of these artifacts, while William Loftus, who replaced Layard in 1854, found many more. The Nimrud ivories are also called the Loftus ivories today, in his honor.

Although many of these artifacts were taken to England, excavations were stopped until the mid-1900s, when Max Mallowan (husband of the famous author Agatha Christie) began working there with a team. This team found more examples of the Nimrud ivories than the other teams had; their finds helped scholars get more ideas of how the ivories were used.

Example of Nimrud ivories found by Max Mallowan
Example of Nimrud ivories found by Max Mallowan

Originally, the ivories were covered in gold and used for decoration. When the Empire fell, the gold was taken, but the ivory was left behind, even though ivory has always been something of value. Because many of the ivories were found in wells, some have argued that these pieces represented a hated nation, so they were thrown down the wells to be forgotten. Of course, this had the opposite result, as the ivories were preserved for future study. Historians say that there are three different styles of carvings used in the ivories - Phoenician, Assyrian, and Syrian - all found in the city.

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