Khinnis Rock Reliefs

Alternative Names

Bavian; Khinnes; Khannis; Hinnes; Hemus; Khuns


690 BC

MMM Documentation Dates
Fall 2013
Site Type
Rock Reliefs and Tombs
Nineveh Governorate

    The complex of Khinnis, ancient Khunusa, is located about 60 km northeast of Mosul near the village of Khinnis in present-day Iraq, where the Gomel River flows through a gorge. According to the site's cuneiform inscriptions, this massive complex was created by the Neo-Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 BC) at the head of the northeast canal that supplied water to Nineveh and surroundings. The reliefs—including the main panel, gate monument, rider relief, and stelae reliefs—are carved on the side of a narrow cliff face on the right bank of the Gomel. The modern name of the river echoes the ancient Greek name Gaugamela, south of Khinnis, where the famous battle took place.

    In addition to the Assyrian reliefs, several later tombs were dug into the face of the cliff at Khinnis, in some cases damaging the original reliefs.

    The main archaeological features at Khinnis include the main panel, the gate monument, the fountain, the rider relief, and stelae reliefs.

    The Main Panel

    The largest panel is sculpted in relief upon the smooth limestone surface of the cliff; the whole scene was enclosed by a “frame” over 8.5 m high and 9 m wide. It shows the Assyrian king twice, facing both left and right to worship the god Ashur and his consort, the goddess Ninlil. The two deities are represented facing each other and standing on mythical hybrid animals. They both wear the horned headdress typical of Mesopotamian gods. In his left hand, Ashur holds a rod and a ring encircling a small figure of the king, while in his right hand he holds a sickle sword. Ninlil holds a rod topped by a palmette as well as a ring encircling the king’s figure. Her left hand is extended forward towards Ashur; remains of several bracelets decorated with flowers appear on her left and right wrists. In addition, the goddess wears a necklace decorated with flowers. Both the god and the goddess wear elaborated earrings. Behind each god stands Sennacherib, raising one hand close to his face in an act of worship while holding a scepter in the other hand. The king wears the classic Assyrian royal headdress and robe. Resting on the cornice above this panel and facing the river are the remains of two recumbent sphinxes, which must once have supported statues or the columns of an additional structure. At some point after the Assyrian period, chambers were carved into this panel, perhaps in order to use it as a burial site. The entrance to the two largest were decorated with columns, which have since broken away. Inside these tombs, and dug into their walls, are troughs of a type in which corpses could have been placed.

    The Gate Monument

    The “Gate Monument” was carved into a natural outcrop of rock at the canal’s head, located to the right of the main panel described above. The monument has collapsed and fallen into the river, but much of it remains above the water's edge. Reliefs were carved on two rectangular faces: a larger, main panel on the front, consisting of two registers, and a smaller panel on the right side. According to Walter Bachmann's reconstruction, the upper register of the front shows two deities, Ashur and Ninlil, standing on their associated animals (a lion-griffin and a lion, respectively). They flank the figure of Sennacherib. In the preserved portion of the relief, the king faces Ashur and performs a gesture of worship. The lower register shows a long-haired hero, depicted frontally, holding a sickle sword in his right hand and a small lion in his left. On each of his sides, a large lamassu stands in profile, with its head turned across the monument's corners (the leftward lamassu’s body is now almost completely gone). The entire scene, in particular the hero holding the animal, is similar to reliefs found at Neo-Assyrian palaces (cf. 'facade n” of the palace at Khorsabad).

    The relief on the monument's side is now partially submerged in the river. The composition, featuring Sennacherib and the gods, is laid out symmetrically. Similar to the main panel, the king is depicted on both sides of the frontal relief; however, only one deity—most likely Ashur—is represented here. The three figures are shown frontally, standing on pedestals of the same type and height. Although the central figure of the god is slightly larger, both the god and the king hold a mace in their right hands, resulting in a general similarity in the appearance of the deity and the earthy king. The pedestal upon which the king on the left side stands can still be seen; nothing remains of the other two pedestals. The scene is flanked by frontal images of lamassu, continuous with their profiles on the monument's front face.

    The Fountain

    The fountain, “excavated” by Austen Henry Layard in the mid-19th century, comprises a series of basins cut in the rock and descending in steps to the stream were recovered to the right of the main panel. It appears that the water was originally led from one basin to another through small channels, the lowest of which was decorated with two lions in relief. The fountain most likely dates to the Neo-Assyrian period.

    The Rider Relief

    Another important monument at the Khinnis complex is the 'Rider Relief,' to the left of the main panel. Here, a man on a horse is depicted at the center of an oblong panel about 4.2 m high x 6.7 m wide. The relief has suffered badly from re-carving, the digging of later tombs, and natural processes. Thus, any comprehensive description of its various components must rely on the drawings and photographs of early travelers and archaeologists—especially those of Layard, T. S. Bell, King and Bachmann—as well as more recent reconstructions.1

    In addition to remains of a man on a horse, which still can be seen on the panel, the available records suggest that the relief was carved in at least two phases: a Neo-Assyrian phase and a later (most likely Parthian) phase to which the rider figure is dated. Of the Neo-Assyrian phase, there are remnants of the feet and clothing of a large figure facing left; the figure can be identified as an Assyrian king (probably Sennacherib). The most distinctive detail shown in the early photographs and drawings is the tassel of the king's dress, which slants down from back to front—a standard feature of royal ritual dress. Remains of a second large figure on the left side of the relief, facing right, were recorded as another king of the same dimensions as the one on the right; thus, two kings were shown facing one another as on the main panel. Historical photographs indicate that at the top left-hand corner of the panel, two small figures with their right arm raised were depicted standing on animals proceeding leftward; fragments of a third such figure are also evident (see Walter Bachmann's photograph). To the right of the processing figures was an animal with a curled horn, and slightly further right, perhaps the raised arm of another human figure.

    The rider that is now the most conspicuous subject of the panel is shown in a three-quarter view with the left shoulder visible. Around his neck, he wears a torc with two complete spirals and parts of the third. Folds of clothing flow down from both shoulders toward the waist. The rider's right arm is missing, but it could have been bent as it is shown in Layard’s drawing, in which case he could have been holding a lance; part of this presumed lance seems to have survived in the roughly horizontal feature at the base of the horse's neck. The rider’s right leg seems to be indicated by a line of breakage extending down fully across the horse’s shoulder. To the right, two straight parallel bands cross the horse’s body, slanting down and right. These might be the edges of a strap attached to a saddlecloth or a decorated breastband. Part of the horse’s eye can be made out, while the end of its muzzle is defined by a patch of plain background just to the right. The horse’s raised left foreleg emerges from behind the breast. The right foreleg is better preserved; it extends forward horizontally before bending at the knee toward the ground. The Rider Relief combines two traditions, Parthian/Sasanian and Greek. This suggests a possible date for the relief around 331 BC, when Alexander the Great fought the Battle of Gaugamela just south of here. 

    The Stele-Shaped Reliefs

    Distributed across the upper part of the cliff, on both sides of the main panel, are eleven stele-shaped niches, each more than 2 m high. Some of these are easily accessible, while others are so high up in the face of the cliff that they are almost invisible from below. Each of the niches shows the relief-carved figure of Sennacherib in an act of worship along with sacred symbols above his head. These symbols are arranged in four distinct groups; the first consists of three tiaras representing the gods Ashur, Anu, and Enlil, and an altar on which stands a staff ending in the head of a ram, representing the god Ea. The second group includes a crescent, symbol of Sin, and a winged disk, the symbol of Shamash; the third includes a pedestal on which are a trident and three staffs, representing Adad, Marduk, Nabu, and Nergal, respectively. The fourth and last group contains a flower and seven stars, symbolizing the goddesses Ishtar and Sebitti.  

    At least three of the reliefs are accompanied with inscriptions (nos. 4, 7, and 11). These so-called Bavian inscriptions are of particular importance because they confirm the dating of the Khinnis monuments to the reign of King Sennacherib and shed light on his hydraulic achievements, as well as his military campaigns in southern Mesopotamia (see 'Inscriptions').

    Later Tombs

    Around the 4th and 5th centuries AD, tombs were dug into the Assyrian reliefs at Khinnis. Three of these were hollowed into the rock within and around the field of the rider relief. The one on the left has small windows on either side of the entrance. Although they are now irregular in shape, it is likely that the entrances and the windows were once set within arches. According to Bachmann's drawing, the tombs of the rider relief consisted of interconnected chambers stepping up from right to left; the chambers have curved ceilings, like low vaults, and contain rock-cut troughs. These tombs are presumably contemporary with those of the main panel.

    • 1. Reade and Anderson 2013.

    'Description & Iconography' general sources: Layard 1853, 207–216; Bachmann 1927, 1–22; Reade and Anderson 2013, 97–122.

    At least three of the rock-cut stelae bear inscriptions: nos. 4, 7, and 11. While no. 4 is accessible from the foot of the cliff, the other two are higher in the cliff and thus invisible from below. Although all three are damaged, they appear to have borne similar inscriptions, allowing scholars to restore the text to some extent.

    These so-called 'Bavian inscriptions' first describe the accomplishments of the four hydraulic systems of Sennacherib, and in particular tell about the construction of the northeast system and the sculpted monuments that adorned it; they then report about the flooding of Babylon and its devastation in 689 BC.

    'Inscriptions' general sources: Grayson and Novotny 2014, 310–317 (no. 223); see also 'Sennacherib 223' (

    During the Neo-Assyrian period, the monumental complex at Khinnis was an important political, religious, and spiritual site. The position of the reliefs in the steep rock directly over the water appears to be more closely related to the setting at the head of the canal rather than to visibility, suggesting that the monument should be considered according to its religious context. The king's worship of the deities, thematized throughout the reliefs of this grandiose monument, suggests the celebration of his control over water sources and the possession of the natural landscape.

    In the post-Assyrian period, the site appears to have remained an important political and religious spot. During the Parthian/Sasanian period, new reliefs were carved into and near by the Assyrian panels. Furthermore, the site was used as a burial place, where later tombs were dug into the Assyrian panels damaging the original reliefs. It is plausible that these tombs were then used as monastic cells during the fourth and fifth centuries AD, thus carrying with the sacred and religious nature of the Assyrian site.

    Today, Khinnis is a famous cultural and natural site of importance to both scholars and local communities. The Assyrian people of Iraq view the Khinnis complex as a part of their historical identity and culture. 

    Among the early travelers to describe the site of Khinnis was Austen Henry Layard, who visited in the mid-19th century.1 At this time, Layard drew the reliefs, copied the inscriptions, inspected the later tombs, and conducted some “excavations” near the entrance of the gorge and in other parts of the narrow valley. He recovered the remains and foundations of stone structures from under the thick mud disposed by the Gomel River. Higher up the gorge, he also noted 'the fountain,' a series of basins cut in the rock and descending in steps to the stream. In addition to Layard, T. S. Bell—an artist sent by the Trustees of the British Museum and who drowned in the Gomel—visited the site in 1851, providing drawings of the Rider Relief. In 1905, L. W. King photographed the monuments at Khinnis after clearing some vegetation. In 1909, the site was visited by Gertrude Bell, whose photos show more vegetation flourishing. Walter Bachmann studied and photographed the Khinnis complex in 1914, publishing his results in 1927.2

    • 1. On early explorations, see the overview in Reade and Anderson 2013.
    • 2. Bachmannn 1927, 1–22, pls. 2–24.

    Bachmann, W. 1927. Felsreliefs in Assyria, Bawian, Maltai und Gundük. Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichung der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 52. Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs.

    Bell, Gertrude. 1911. Amurath to Amurath. London: Dutton.

    Boehmer, R. D. 1997. “Bemerkungen bzw. Ergänzungen zu Gerwan, Khinis, und Faidhi.” Baghdader Mitteilungen 28: 245–249.

    Grayson, A. Kirk, and Jamie Novotny, eds. 2014. The Royal Inscriptions of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (704–681 BC). Vol. 2. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

    Jacobsen, Thorkild, and Seton Lloyd. 1935. Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan. Chicago: Oriental Institute Publications.

    Hallo, William W. 2003. The Context of Scripture. Vol. 2, Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World. Leiden: Brill.

    Layard, Austen Henry. 1853. Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon. New York: G. P. Putnam.  

    Reade, Julian E. 1977. “Shikaft-I Gugul: Its Date and Symbolism.” Iranica Antiqua 12: 33–44.

    Reade, Julian E. 1978. “Studies in Assyrian Geography I: Sennacherib and the Waters of Nineveh.” Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale 73: 47–72.

    Reade, Julian E., and Julie R. Anderson. 2013. “Gunduk, Khanes, Gaugamela, Gali Zardak - Notes on Navkur and Nearby Rock-Cut Sculptures in Kurdistan.” Zeitschrift fűr Assyriologie 103: 69–123.  

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