Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 2016
David Kertai The Architecture of Late Assyrian Royal Palaces New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 368 pp.; 24 color ills.; 73 b/w ills. Cloth $140.00 (9780198723189)

Rulers of the Late Assyrian Empire (also known as the Neo-Assyrian Empire, ca. 900–612 BCE) constructed monumental royal palaces as part of large state-sponsored building programs at Assur, Kalḫu (Nimrud), Dur-Sharruken (Khorsabad), and Nineveh, the royal centers of the Assyrian heartland in present-day northern Iraq. These structures served as the principal residences of the royal family, as well as the administrative and ceremonial centers of state. Previous studies of this building type have focused largely on the role of their decoration in Assyrian visual culture, exploring questions of narrative, iconography, identity, and royal propaganda with respect to the carved stone reliefs, glazed brick panels, and wall paintings. David Kertai’s The Architecture of Late Assyrian Royal Palaces breaks from this tradition and focuses instead on the architectural principles that shaped the palaces and how these contribute to an understanding of Assyrian kingship. In so doing, Kertai hopes to draw attention to these endangered—and in some cases now destroyed—sites of Assyrian cultural heritage.

For a period of two hundred and fifty years the architectural features of Late Assyrian royal palaces were remarkably consistent. While a number of kings built new palaces that remained in use beyond their reign, only one palace acted as the main royal palace at any given time. Kertai describes this type—what he deems the Primary Palace—as “the largest and most monumental palace within the Assyrian realm at each moment of its history” (2). He identifies only three Primary Palaces over the course of the Late Assyrian period, while classifying the remaining palaces as “Military Palaces” (also known as “Arsenals” or “Review Palaces”) and secondary palaces. Palaces of all three types are included in his analysis.

Chapter 1 states the study’s main objectives and the methodological advantages and disadvantages of the sources (archaeological, textual, art historical). Kertai argues against the concerns of previous studies with morphological typologies and the public/private duality of Late Assyrian palaces (Gordon Loud, Henri Frankfort, and Thorkild Jacobsen, Khorsabad, Part I: Excavations in the Palace and at a City Gate, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936; Gordon Loud and Charles B. Altman, Khorsabad, Part II: The Citadel and the Town, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938, 10–13; Geoffrey Turner, “The State Apartments of Late Assyrian Palaces,” Iraq 32, no. 2 (1970) 177–213; Ernst Heinrich, Die Paläste im Alten Mesopotamien, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984; Peter A. Miglus, Städtische Wohnarchitektur in Babylonien und Assyrian, Mainz am Rhein: Philipp von Labern, 1999, 245–50), and instead reconstructs the function of palatial spaces based on their control of people’s movement and access, as well as their connectivity, within the larger context of the palace.

Kertai reduces the complexity of the palaces by identifying five types of spaces: reception rooms, bathrooms, storage spaces, courtyards, and corridors. The first three were combined to create suites—independent units joined by courtyards and corridors. Kertai presents a new palace-suite typology that is “based on the notion of agglutination rather than size” (11), where each type of suite is defined by its “expandable, functionally significant core” (232). The “Throneroom Suite” consisted of a core of throneroom (the king’s principal reception room), ramp, and internal room that remained consistent, as did its placement at the palace’s main entrance. Additional reception suites included Kertai’s “Double-sided Reception Suite,” whose core consisted of two independently accessible reception rooms, one of which likely functioned as a secondary throneroom, and the “Dual-Core Suite,” whose core consisted of two parallel reception rooms with three aligned interior and exterior doorways, features that made the space more integrated and movement within more fluid. Kertai refers to these three types as the “main reception suites.” Kertai’s fourth type is the “Residential/Reception Suite,” whose core consisted of a reception room and bathroom. Additional rooms could be added with asymmetrically aligned doorways, a less permeable feature that made the suite more appropriate as a residential space; he also argues that the architecture suggests that these suites were used as reception rooms for activities of the state and only secondarily for sleeping. The most monumental “Residential/Reception Suite,” the “King’s Suite,” acted as the threshold between the main reception suites and what Kertai refers to as the palace’s “residential/service area.” Overall this typology’s alternative framework, while resulting in some parallels with previous studies (for example, Kertai’s monumental/residential areas coincide with the public/private areas of previous publications and his main reception suites with the “State Apartments”), allows Kertai to identify meaningful modes of circulation, access, and visibility in the palaces that have not yet been fully explored.

Chapters 2–8 present a chronological development of the palatial building activity of Late Assyrian rulers. In these chapters Kertai successfully synthesizes information from publications of the past one hundred and fifty years, challenges earlier explanations, and offers new interpretations of the material. In the following I touch on points from these chapters that contribute most strongly to Kertai’s concluding arguments.

Kertai’s argument that the spatial organization and decorative scheme of Late Assyrian royal palaces placed the king front and center to visitors is first demonstrated in the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE) at Kalḫu, the first Primary Palace (chapter 2); its linear arrangement positioned the Throneroom Suite at the main entrance followed by the King’s Suite at the threshold to the residential area, while images of the king were strategically placed in the wall reliefs to enhance his visibility and presence (pl. 6c). Kertai refers to two inscribed stelae as additional support, one of which stood in proximity to the Throneroom (“The Banquet Stele”) and a second that was intended for a royal palace but was recovered at an entranceway of the neighboring Ninurta Temple; however, he neglects to mention that both have the image of the king in relief on their surface, which would have enriched this discussion. The same can be said of the reduplicated king’s image on the glazed brick panel that was found near the Throneroom in the Military Palace at Kalḫu (chapter 3). Kertai’s discussion of apotropaic figures at doorways makes an important contribution to his arguments for how art and architecture governed people’s movement throughout the Northwest Palace (pl. 6A), yet in the absence of illustrations it seems to presume a reader’s familiarity with Late Assyrian visual culture. Perhaps an introduction to these figures and accompanying images of preserved reliefs as examples would make his argument accessible to a broader audience.

Sargon II (722–705 BCE) built the second Late Assyrian Primary Palace at his new royal center Dur-Sharruken, “Fortress of Sargon” (chapter 5). Kertai describes the unique arrangement of this palace as a “system of quadrants” (122, fig. 5.4), with the northwestern quadrants forming the “palace proper”—comparable to the Northwest Palace though of greater size—and the remaining quadrants containing an additional service area and temple complex. The introduction of the Dual-Core Suite and the greater number of main reception suites accessed from the palace terrace rather than an interior courtyard increased possibilities for entering and moving within suites, significantly altering modes of circulation throughout the palace.

The new palace of Sennacherib (704–681 BCE) at Nineveh—the third Primary Palace—continued the trend of an increasing number of main reception suites with greater internal fluidity; yet these suites were arranged around internal courtyards in a linear fashion reminiscent of the Northwest Palace (chapter 6). Kertai proposes a revised plan for this palace (pl. 17), arguing that the plans from Austen Henry Layard’s original publications (Nineveh and Its Remains, 2 vols., London: John Murray, 1849; Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, London: John Murray, 1853 ), upon which all later plans have been based with some additions provided by Reginald Campbell Thompson (Reginal Campbell Thompson and Richard Wyatt Hutchinson, A Century of Exploration at Nineveh, London: Luzac, 1929), contradict Late Assyrian architectural principles and have been called into question by recent findings by Iraqi archaeologists (fig. 6.2). Kertai’s consideration of a combined military and residential function for the Military Palace at Nineveh that was rebuilt by Sennacherib makes use of the royal inscriptions and correspondence in an effective manner. In chapter 8, Kertai argues that the palace built by Ashurbanipal (668–631 BCE) at Nineveh, the North Palace, was not intended to be the next Primary Palace, as it has often been treated (the lion hunt reliefs from this palace being a staple of all art-history surveys); rather this function remained with the more monumental Southwest Palace until the end of the empire. Kertai considers the North Palace’s decorative scheme, in particular the royal hunt reliefs, as an indication that it was built to accommodate the ceremonies and celebrations associated with the royal hunt; alternately, rather than speaking to the palace’s purpose, the reliefs were intended to celebrate the king’s victory over Teumman, the Elamite king.

Chapters 9 and 10 reexamine the architectural principles of the palaces in greater detail. In chapter 9, Kertai considers the quintessential features of the five types of spaces and offers new interpretations for their associated installations, including tram-rails, libation slabs, and archival rooms. In the more animated section “Moving Through the Palace,” Kertai argues that the palaces were not designed to hide the movements of or to seclude the king; rather they, along with Assyrian visual culture, demonstrate that the king’s “movement was visible and ceremonial” (204). This argument speaks to Kertai’s goal of enriching knowledge of Assyrian kingship through his study. In addition to reviewing the four suite types, chapter 10 tackles the question of second stories and presents a strong case against their reconstruction based on the architectural principles of royal palaces and preserved archaeological evidence.

The summary of Kertai’s principal conclusions in chapter 11 will resonate most strongly with readers. Kertai argues that the spatial organization and decorative scheme of Late Assyrian palaces consistently prioritized inwardness—“Assyrian rooms were foremost stages intended to be viewed from within” (32)—and the presence of the king, and that movement and access were controlled but not restricted. Changes to the main reception suites stands out as one of the most meaningful developments in palace design, as the suites became more numerous, monumental, and internally permeable. Kertai argues that the change in activity that demanded this development was the increase in the number of visitors—courtiers, tribute bearers, and foreign dignitaries—with the growth of the empire.

The book’s production is of high quality and the series of new site plans, floor plans, and decorative schemes represents a significant contribution in its own right. Considering the importance of the different types of decoration, apotropaic figures, and directionality of figures to Kertai’s arguments for access and movement, the reader would have benefited from larger scale renderings. Photographs of preserved architectural structures and decorative fragments would have also helped to convey the visuality and materiality of these monumental spaces. It is also regrettable that the book is so expensive, which will limit its accessibility.

The Architecture of Late Assyrian Royal Palaces is an ambitious and valuable contribution to the field. Specialists will be most interested, first, in Kertai’s new floorplans and interpretations of functional areas, which are based on the architectural principles of royal palaces and the most recent findings from the field; and, second, in the attention Kertai places on people and practice, making strong use of textual and archaeological sources in considering this less fully understood aspect of the palace environment. While the volume will be most beneficial to those who work in the field of ancient Near Eastern art and architecture, Kertai’s concept of agglutination and a functional core could be useful for architectural studies of building types from other periods and cultures. As expressed in the acknowledgements, it is a hope of the author that this book can help to highlight the immense cultural heritage of the main Assyrian cities that are currently under threat. The Architecture of Late Assyrian Royal Palaces achieves this goal and more.

Kiersten Neumann
Curator and Research Associate, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago