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Nineveh was located in the middle of ancient Assyria, which was centered on the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia in what would today by the northern part of Iraq. As part of the Fertile Crescent, much of Assyria had good soil that allowed a surplus in crops and exceptional population growth. Nineveh, like many ancient cities, was built on a mound for defense overlooking the Kosr River, which is a tributary of the Tigris River. Although much of Assyria was fertile crop land in ancient times, the area around Nineveh was exceptionally productive, making it an excellent location for a city. <ref> Mieroop, Marc van de. <i>A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC.</i> 2nd ed. (London: Blackwell, 2007), p. 3</ref> For most of Assyrian history, the primary political capital was located in the city of Ashur, but Nineveh’s importance gradually grew until it eclipsed the older city.
Long before Nineveh became the capital of the Assyrian Empire in the early first millennium BC, it was mentioned sporadically in various cuneiform historical texts. There were two notable mentions of the city in the late third millennium BC, the first being during the reign of the Akkadian King Manishutushu (ruled ca. 2269-2255 BC), who is believed to have built a temple to the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, Ishtar, at Nineveh. <ref> Mieroop, p. 68</ref> Nineveh was also mentioned in a text attributed to a king from the Third Dynasty of, Shulgi (reigned ca. 2094-2047 BC), although the reference is short and lacks detail. <ref> Beckman, Gary. “Ishtar of Nineveh Reconsidered.” <i>Journal of Cuneiform Studies</i> 50 (1998), p. 1</ref> For over 2,000 years, Nineveh languished as a provincial backwater until the Assyrians invoked their will across the Near East and a particularly energetic king came to the throne.
When Sennacherib (ruled 704-681 BC) assumed the Assyrian throne, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessors by leading his armies into battle and conquering more land for the Assyrian people. But Sennacherib was not content to be remembered as just another conquering Assyrian king, he desired to leave much more for posterity, so after his fifth military campaign he relocated the Assyrian capital from Ashur to Nineveh. <ref> Mieroop, p. 229</ref> Although a settlement already existed at Nineveh, Sennacherib transformed it from a minor religious center dedicated to Ishtar into the premier city of the ancient world.