Ninveh goes a long way back. The Torah lists it among the cities built following the mabul: From that land [of Nimrod], Ashur [Shem’s second son] went out and built Nin- veh (Bereishis 10:11). Based on the medrash, Rashi explains that Ashur saw that his sons were influenced by Nimrod’s evil plan to build the tower of Bavel. Concerned for their spiritual welfare, he moved from Nimrod and built the town of Ninveh (Bereishis 10:11). Perhaps this is why Hashem chose Ninveh to become a model of repentance to the Jewish people.
A Forty Years’ Repentance
This article will discuss what happened to Ninveh after Yonah induced its citizens to repair their evil ways. It will explore how the city backslid, how the prophet Nochum predicted the city’s doom, and how a particular detail of Nochum’s prophecy is corroborated in ancient historical records.
Nowadays, little remains of ancient Ninveh. The ruins of the city huddle on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in north-west Iraq, far distant from any ocean. Yonah must have traveled inland after leaving the fish’s belly. The ruins are surrounded and dwarfed by Mosul, capital of Iraq’s Ninawa province and the second largest city in Iraq. Archeologists complain that Mosul’s urban sprawl is encroaching onto Ninveh’s ruins and eradicating the secrets buried in its dust.
Included in the ruins are two large mounds named Koujunjik and Nabi Yunus (the Prophet Yonah), both surrounded by the remains of a massive 7.5 mile long rampart that was once topped by a lofty, thick wall lined with defensive towers and massive gates. Later, we will discus how a natural disaster helped Ninveh’s enemies break through the city’s massive fortifications.
On top of the Nabi Yunus hill stands a beautiful shrine erected on what Muslim tradition identifies as Yonah’s burial place, a spot also venerated by Iraqi and Kurdish Jews. In keeping with his story, a whale’s tooth is said to be preserved somewhere on the premises.
Yonah’s burial place is actually subject to controversy. Some Muslims claim that Yonah’s kever is located inside a mosque in the town of Chalchul, north of Chevron, while Jews identify this mosque as the burial place of Nosson HaNovi and Gad Hachozeh. Another tradition places Yonah’s grave in a mosque of the village Mishad near Natzeret Illit.
This last opinion is mentioned by the 12th century traveler, Rav Pesachya of Regensburg, who describes how the mosque’s Arab guard honored Jewish visitors.
“When Jews arrive,” Rav Pesachya wrote, “he receives them pleasantly, saying to them, ‘Yonah the prophet was a Jew; therefore, it is fitting that you eat of his [fruit growing near the grave],’ and he gives the fruit to the Jews.” Mishad is next to the remains of Gat-Chefer, mentioned in sefer Melochim (II, 14:25) as Yonah’s hometown.
The repentance of Ninveh was a passing phase. Last year, we mentioned that Chazal even disagree to the extent of their repentance in the first place. While the Gemara in Ta’anis (8b) cites the people of Ninveh as sincere baalei teshuvah whose example we should emulate, the Yerushalmi (Taanis 2:1) says that “a deceptive teshuvah was carried out by the people of Ninveh” (Pirkei d’Rebi Eliezer). They only returned stolen goods that were publicly visible and kept the hidden items for themselves.
One way or another, Ninveh backslid and reached a point of no return. “He [Hashem] lengthened their [survival] for forty years corresponding to the forty days that He sent Yonah to Ninveh. After forty years they returned to their evil deeds to a great extent and they were buried like the dead in the bottommost pit.”
Ninveh’s Lowest Level
Ninveh reached a material high and a spiritual low during King Sancheirev’s reign. Thanks to the city’s strategic position on the Tigris River, the city became the capital of Ashur’s empire during his rule, replacing the old capital in nearby Kalach. At this time, Ashur became the rod of Hashem’s wrath (Yeshayahu 10:5), exiling the Ten Tribes and attacking the towns of Yehudah. His campaign against Yerushalayim failed when an angel of Hashem eradicated his army in one night and he perished soon afterwards. As sefer Melochim (II 19:36-37) tells us: Sancheirev king of Ashur left, and went and returned, and dwelled at Ninveh. And as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adramelech and Sharatzar his sons struck him with the sword.
Exploring the ruins of Ninveh, archeologists found that Sancheirev had built a massive palace for himself decorated with massive statues weighing up to thirty tons, and adorned the city with myriad carvings depicting his prowess in hunting and battle and with inscriptions that described his true or untrue historical exploits.
An example of the latter is the description of Sancheirev’s battle against Yerushalayim that makes no mention of Sancheirev’s eventual defeat: “Chizkiya of Yehuda who had not submitted to my yoke… I shut him in Yerush- alayim, his royal city, like a caged bird. Earthworks I threw up against him and anyone coming out of his city gate I made pay for his crime. His cities which I had plundered I had cut off from the land.” At this time, Ninveh had over 100,000 inhabitants and numbered among the largest cities in the world.
But the city was on its way to doom. During the reign of King Chizkiyahu’s wicked son, Menashe, the prophet Nochum devoted almost the whole of his sefer to predicting Ninveh’s terrible end:
The burden concerning Ninveh. The book of the vision of Nochum the Elkoshi. G-d is jealous and Hashem revenges; Hashem revenges and is furious; Hashem will take vengeance on his adversaries and He reserves wrath for His enemies… Hashem is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows them that trust in him. But with an overrunning flood He will make an utter end of the place, and darkness will pursue His enemies (1:1-8).
Tzefania HaNovi (2:14) also predicted
that Ninveh would come to a bitter end: And He will stretch out His hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Ninveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness.
Day of Judgment
The day of judgment struck forty years after Yonah inspired the people to repent. In coalition with other nations, the Babylonians, Scythes, and Medes besieged Ninveh for three months and razed it to the ground in about 3318 (447 BCE). Most of its populace was massacred or deported.
An ancient clay tablet called “The Fall of Ninveh Chronicle” (British Museum no. 21,901) describes the four-year campaign against Ashur and Ninveh’s swift defeat in great detail, providing exact dates of many of the events.
“The king of Akkad [Bavel] and his army crossed the Tigris. [His ally], Cyaxares had to cross the Radanu, and they marched along the bank of the Tigris. In the month Simanu [Sivan], on the [missing text] day, they encamped against Ninveh. From the month Si- manu until the month Abu, for three months, they subjected the city to a heavy siege. On the [missing text] day of the month Abu [Av], they inflicted a major defeat upon a great people. At that time Sin-sar-iskun, king of Ashur, died. They carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple and turned the city into a heap of ruins.”
Now this report ignores a detail mentioned in Nochum’s prophecy cited earlier. Nochum had predicted that the defeat of the city would involve a great flood: With an overrunning flood He will make an utter end of the place, and darkness will pursue His enemies (1:8). The gates of the rivers will be opened, and the palace will be dissolved (2:6).
This gap in the historical record is filled by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from Sicily who lived about 350 years after the fall of Ninveh, in his historical work, Bibliotheca Historia. Although he describes the siege with many inaccuracies (such as saying that the siege lasted for three years and that the Euphrates river was involved, when Ninveh is actually on the Tigris), he also mentions that if not for the flood predicted by Nochum, Ninveh could probably have withstood the
gether with all of them.
“The rebels, hearing of the end of Sardana- pallus, burst into the city where the wall was down and captured it, then arrayed Arbakes in the royal robe, saluted him king, and invested him with supreme authority” (Diod. II 27: 1-3).
Never again did Ninveh ever achieve a shadow of its former greatness. Even the small town that sprang over the ruins was eventually deserted. The first person to begin surveying and mapping the ancient ruins was the archeologist Claudius J. Rich in 1820. Later, in 1847, the British explorer, Sir Austen Henry Lavard discovered Sancheirev’s sev
enty-one room palace in addition to a library with 22,000 inscribed clay tablets. European explorers transported the city’s priceless treasures back to Europe with no questions asked.
Nowadays, Ninveh’s archeological treasures are threatened by pillaging, vandalism, and Mosul’s urban development. Last year, the Global Heritage Fund counted Ninveh as one of twelve historical sites on the verge of irreparable destruction and loss. For us, Ninveh lives forever as an example of Hashem’s mercy to those who repent, and His wrath against the city that oppressed His people.