The foundation of the city of Dur-Šarruken offered king Sargon the chance to alter the balance of power within the empire. It also gave him the opportunity for a large scale architectural experiment: the creation of a perfect city.
When Sargon II (721-705 BC) moved the court and central administration to Dur-Šarruken in 706 BC, Kalhu's time as the political and administrative centre of the Assyrian Empire came to an end after more than a century and a half. Kalhu had originally provided a guaranteed royalist power base and a safe haven for the king. But these advantages had long been lost, as the city and its inhabitants had developed an identity of their own, just like the old metropolises Assur, Arbela and Nineveh.
That Kalhu's elite could no longer be seen as unquestioningly loyal to whoever happened to be king became very clear in 746 BC. In that year, a rebellion against king Aššur-nerari V (754-745 BC) started in Kalhu, in the very centre of the Assyrian state. The revolt was successful and eventually resulted in the ascension of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC) to the throne. Having profited from Kalhu's new-found independence from the royal court, he and his chosen heir Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC) had little reason to fear it.
Sargon II, however, faced fierce resistance to his rule after he ousted his brother Shalmaneser in 722 BC and usurped royal power. Rebellions arose in the western provinces but also, and much more worryingly, in the Assyrian heartland. After he managed to crush the opposition in 720 BC, he exiled those of his enemies in central Assyria who had survived. Moreover, he immediately took steps to relocate the court and central administration. The construction of Dur-Šarruken ("Sargon's fortress"; modern Khorsabad) began in 717 BC.
"Sargon, king of the world, king of Assyria (says): 'Because I wanted to, I built a city. Dur-Šarruken (i.e. Sargon's Fortress) I called its name. An ideal palace which in the four quarters (of the world) does not have one rivalling it I built in its midst.'" (Brick inscription from Khorsabad)
The creation of the city of Dur-Šarruken gave Sargon the chance for a fresh start. Like the move to Kalhu some 170 years before, it provided the king with a royalist power base whose carefully selected population was not yet shaped by deeply ingrained patterns of authority and allegiance that the king could not control.
But unlike Kalhu, Dur-Šarruken was an entirely new foundation. It lay on a site that had hitherto been occupied only by a small agricultural settlement called Magganubba. In his inscriptions, Sargon takes great pride in having realised the advantages of the location:
"Magganubba, which lies at the foot of Mount Muṣri and towers above a spring and the surroundings of Nineveh - none of the 350 earlier regents (of Assyria) ... realised its (favourable) location, understood (the benefits of) its settlement or commanded to dig a canal there... I planned and plotted day and night how to settle this city and to build a sanctuary as the seat of the great gods and palaces as the residence of my rule, and therefore commanded their construction." (Khorsabad cylinder inscription, ll. 44-49)
The enormous building project offered Sargon and his architects a blank canvas on which to realise the vision of an ideal city. Dur-Šarruken and its architecture were conceived on the drawing board with far more regard for the geometry of its features than any pre-existing geographical conditions. The city's fortification walls form an almost perfect square (1.76 x 1.635 km) covering a surface of about 3 sq km while the citadel with palaces and temples towers above the lower town on an artificially erected platform.
The vast palace was richly decorated with stone sculptures, most of which were removed from the site in the course of the archaeological exploration of the ruins by French, American and Iraqi teams. But while some of the monumental gate guardian statues and relief slabs are now on display in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, in the Louvre in Paris and in the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago, a great many were unfortunately lost in the river Tigris.
In 1853, and again in 1855, the French excavators loaded the heavy stone sculptures onto wooden rafts and shipped them down the Tigris. But several of these rafts sank, resulting in the loss of two winged bull colossi and hundreds of crates with finds from Dur-Šarruken. This ill-fated episode has a precedent in the time of Dur-Šarruken's construction when some rafts transporting bull colossi sank. However, while the items lost in the 19th century have never been recovered, the Assyrians managed to rescue their sculptures, as a letter from Sargon's correspondence reports (SAA 1 119).
Despite Sargon's claims about Dur-Šarruken's excellent location, it does not in fact occupy a central position in Assyria's heartland. It is situated north of all the major cities at the foot of Jebel Bashiqa on the eastern bank of the Khosr river, a tributary of the Tigris which meets this river just south of Nineveh. Dur-Šarruken's position within the road network was secondary to, and dependent on, its link with Nineveh. One is reminded of the relationship between Paris and Versailles, France's political and administrative centre from 1682 to 1789.
Assyria's 8th century expansion to the Mediterranean coast and across the Taurus had turned Nineveh into the hub of the Assyrian Empire. The western traffic route along the southern flanks of the Taurus, which reached the Assyrian heartland via the ford over the Tigris at Nineveh, was now the empire's most important overland connection. All goods, people and information travelling on this route passed through Nineveh. The choice of Dur-Šarruken as Sargon's new centre took this into account and further strengthened Nineveh's geopolitical importance in the region. The traffic of goods, personnel and information through Nineveh must have increased by a multiple factor.
But Dur-Šarruken existed also at the expense of Nineveh, in a strategy seemingly designed to counter and lessen Nineveh's regional political and economic importance. Most obviously, the new province created for Dur-Šarruken was formerly the eastern half of Nineveh province: the Halahhu region, famous as a destination of deported Israelites after the Assyrian conquest under Shalmaneser V (2 Kings 17:6), formed the bulk of the new province. Dur-Šarruken fed off and reduced Nineveh's economic resources, agricultural lands, personnel and water.
The court moved to Dur-Šarruken in 706 BC with great pomp and festivities. However, Sargon died on the battlefield in the following year. His son and successor Sennacherib (704-681 BC) chose to leave Dur-Šarruken. He moved his court and central administration to Nineveh, the natural capital of the Assyrian Empire. But the experiment of Dur-Šarruken was not completely reversed: the province existed until the end of the Assyrian state and the city retained its role as provincial centre.
Albenda, 'Dur-Sharrukin, the royal city of Sargon II, King of Assyria', 2003.
Battini, 'Des rapports géométriques en architecture: le cas de Dur-Šarrukin', 2000.
Fuchs, 'Sargon II', 2009.
Parpola, 'The construction of Dur-Šarrukin in the Assyrian royal correspondence', 1995.
Radner, 'The Assur-Nineveh-Arbela triangle: Central Assyria in the Neo-Assyrian period', 2011.
Content last modified: 5 Nov 2012.
Karen Radner, 'Dur-Šarruken, the "Fortress of Sargon"', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 [http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/essentials/cities/durarruken/]