The archive from Kalhu: the "Nimrud Letters"

One of the most important finds of the excavations of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq at Kalhu, the so-called "Nimrud Letters" are part of the state correspondence of the Assyrian kings Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC) and Sargon II (721-705 BC). Their contents shed light not only on the history of Assyria in the 8th century BC, but of the entire Middle East.

The contents of waste-paper baskets

In 1952 a team of British archaeologists, led by M. E. L. Mallowan, uncovered more than three hundred cuneiform tablets and fragments at Kalhu, modern Nimrud. They were found in the chancery offices of the so-called Northwest Palace, which had been built by Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) but was in use continually until the end of the Assyrian Empire in the late 7th century BC. Max Mallowan described the circumstances of the find of the tablets in a room designated as ZT 4 by the excavators as follows:

A view of room ZT 4 during the excavations in 1952, showing the brick bench and filing cabinets. From M. E. L. Mallowan, Iraq 15 (1953) pl. IV.1. View large image.

"It would thus seem that these documents are, as it were, the equivalent of foreign office files; but the files did not lie in their proper order; they were merely a part of the accumulated rubbish which raised the level of the site. Indeed, we may look on this collection as the contents of a large number of ancient Assyrian waste-paper baskets which served a convenient purpose as a builders' dump. But although this collection of written material was not in its original place, we may with some confidence assume that it was in this very room that they had been housed at the time when they were written. For when we came to the level of the floor, we discovered a long brick bench and against it two rows of brick boxes with the bricks set on edge, which can hardly have been used for any other purpose than as filing cabinets." (Mallowan 1953: 33)

Most of the letters can be dated to the second half of the 8th century BC and represent the correspondence of kings Tiglath-pileser III and Sargon II with their highest state officials. The majority of the letters, more than 200 texts, was written in the Neo-Assyrian language and cuneiform script while a much smaller group of about thirty letters was recorded in the Neo-Babylonian language and cuneiform script. The letters are currently held in the collections of two museums: half of the find is in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad whereas the other half is in the British Museum in London.

Which king's correspondence?

As a rule, letters of the Neo-Assyrian period are not dated. But due to some historical events mentioned in the letters which are known also from other sources, such as the Mukin-zeri rebellion, the Nimrud Letters can be dated to the reigns of kings Tiglath-pileser III and Sargon II. Some of the letters may belong to the correspondence of Shalmaneser V (726-722 BC), Tiglath-pileser's successor and Sargon's predecessor, but, with the exception of those letters that can be identified as missives sent by Shalmaneser himself during his time as crown prince (then known as Ululayu) to his father Tiglath-pileser, not a single letter can be assigned to his short reign with any certainty.

This letter informs Tiglath-pileser III of the actions of Ionian marauders on the Levantine coast; it is the earliest mention of Ionians in the Assyrian sources. ND 2370 = NL 69 = SAA 19 25, British Museum; photo by Greta Van Buylaere. View large image.

There are ten letters written by the king himself, and these are most likely archival copies or perhaps drafts. Otherwise, the Nimrud Letters represent mail received by the Assyrian king from the highest officials. These provincial governors and high-ranking military officials addressed their king from distant locations within and outside of the Assyrian Empire. Letters from the time of Tiglath-pileser are in the majority.

The Nimrud Letters were published by the late H. W. F. Saggs who had taken part in the 1952 excavations. His final publication of 244 letters appeared only in 2001, fifty years after the find had been made, but Saggs had made available preliminary editions of many of the letters, published in a series of articles in the journal Iraq throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In these articles, Saggs used the abbreviation NL (for Nimrud Letters) and consecutive numbers to identify the letters and, although he himself abandoned this system in his 2001 publication, the NL numbering system is still widely used. A new edition of all the letters is currently being prepared by Mikko Luukko for the State Archives of Assyria series.

The contents of the Nimrud Letters

The Nimrud Letters deal with administrative, political and military matters. Although the letters were found in a secondary position and only very limited conclusions can be made in regard to their original storage and filing, they had obviously been kept for a century, and in many cases considerably longer, after they had originally been received, until the collapse of the Assyrian Empire. While this may indicate that they were considered valuable and useful to their royal recipients in the period following their immediate use as a source of information, the letters had apparently not been deemed directly relevant to the running of the state in 706 BC when Sargon relocated the court and the state administration from Kalhu to Dur-Šarruken. They were left behind in Kalhu which makes it clear that these specific letters were no longer needed for routine consultation.

This letter from 729 BC informs Tiglath-pileser III of the death of Mukin-zeri, his arch rival in Babylonia, and his son: "Mukin-zeri has been killed and Šumu-ukin, his son, has also been killed. The city is conquered." ND 2385 = SAA 19 80, British Museum; photo by Greta Van Buylaere. View large image.

The Nimrud Letters were sent to Kalhu, then the political and administrative centre of the Assyrian Empire, from all parts of the state and beyond. They illuminate the workings of the empire and its internal organisational structure. They document the territorial expansion of the Assyrian Empire under Tiglath-pileser and Sargon and contain a wealth of information on the logistical challenges of running the Assyrian state in general and the army in particular, with the acquisition of horses being a particularly prominent topic. We learn about military encounters, big and small, the fortification of cities, the organisation of the communication network and population management. One letter, for example, mentions an Urartian victory over Assyrian troops (ND 2463 = NL 47 = SAA 19 71) while another gives detailed information about the building of a border fort (ND 2666 = NL 67 = SAA 19 60).

The Nimrud Letters provide us with insights into Assyria's relations with its neighbours, such as Urartu and Phrygia in the north, Elam in the east, the Babylonian cities and Aramaean tribes in the south and the Arabs, Phoenicians and Philistines in the west. One of the most famous letters is ND 2715 (= NL 12 = SAA 19 22). It is a key source for Assyrian trade policy with its Mediterranean partners and shows that the merchants of the Phoenician harbours of Tyre and Sidon were taxed and expected to boycott Assyria's political enemies, at that time the Philistine cities and Egypt. Another letter of key importance is ND 2759 (= NL 39 = SAA 19 152) which deals with Assyria's relations with Midas, king of Muški (Phrygia), one of Sargon's most powerful political opponents. Despite a long history of antagonism, the armies of Sargon and Midas never met in battle and this letter offers insight into Assyria's diplomatic strategies towards Midas which clearly focus on appeasement rather than on provoking open conflict.

But the most voluminous dossier within the Nimrud Letters is a group of more than twenty letters and fragments concerning the events in Babylonia which led to Assyrian intervention and subsequent annexation of the region around 730 BC. In the course of the so-called Mukin-zeri Rebellion, the Chaldean leader Mukin-zeri of the Bit-Amukani tribe proclaimed himself king of Babylon and managed to control Babylonia for three years until the Assyrian army of Tiglath-pileser III finally disposed of him. One of these letters (ND 2494 = SAA 19 129) highlights the Assyrian efforts to win the hearts of the Babylonians after the invasion - unsurprisingly, this emerges as a difficult challenge.

Further reading:

Mallowan, 'The Excavations at Nimrud (Kalhu), 1952', 1953.
Oates and Oates, 'Nimrud: An Assyrian Imperial City Revealed', 2001.
Saggs, 'The Nimrud Letters, 1952', 2001.

Content last modified: 5 Nov 2012.

Mikko Luukko

Mikko Luukko, 'The archive from Kalhu: the "Nimrud Letters"', Assyrian empire builders, University College London, 2012 []

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