Iraq’s Capital Catastrophe

Assyria’s ancient capital faces ongoing threats

The monumental Tibira Gate at the site of Assur as it appeared in 2008. The gate was partially destroyed by the Islamic State in 2015 but is now being restored. Photo by the U.S. Army –, Public Domain.

Assur, the first capital and spiritual heart of the Assyrians—the great Mesopotamian empire that, in the first millennium B.C.E., subjugated much of the Near East, including the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah—is fighting for its survival. The ancient capital, with its extensive remains of palaces, temples, and monumental walls that date back some 5,000 years, may soon be flooded by a lake created by a dam that is being constructed along the nearby Tigris River.

Perched on a high, rocky outcrop on the west bank of the Tigris, about 70 miles south of Mosul in modern Iraq, Assur was the capital city of the Assyrians for more than a thousand years. The city reached its zenith during the second millennium B.C.E. as generations of Assyrian rulers built impressive palaces, thick fortifications, and towering monuments in honor of Assyria’s patron god, Assur. Still visible today are the crumbling ruins of the city’s massive stepped temple (ziggurat) and the three towering arches of an enormous gateway (known as the Tabira Gate), the ceremonial entrance to the city’s sacred precinct. Although subsequent kings relocated Assyria’s capital several times during the first millennium B.C.E. when Assyria was the Near East’s dominant imperial power, Assur remained Assyria’s cultural, spiritual, and geographic center until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 614 B.C.E.

Much of this ancient history will be drowned, however, with the building of the Makhoul Dam about 25 miles south of Assur. First proposed by Saddam Hussein’s government two decades ago but delayed because of years of warfare and upheaval, the dam’s construction has taken on new urgency in the face of the increasingly severe and prolonged droughts that have plagued Iraq in recent years. Archaeologists and activists argue, however, that the dam will destroy not only Assur, but also more than 200 other archaeological sites in the region. More significantly, as many as a quarter of a million people from surrounding villages will be displaced by the dam’s construction.

But the Makhoul Dam is only the latest and most serious threat to face the ancient Assyrian capital. In 2015, the Islamic State attempted to destroy many of Assur’s major monuments, including the Tabira Gate, which recently underwent emergency restoration to prevent its imminent collapse. Other sites, such as Assur’s ziggurat, which once stood more than 10 stories high, and luxurious palaces, were constructed almost entirely of mudbrick, which is now degrading much more rapidly as Iraq’s climate worsens. And despite Assur’s importance to the nearby town of Sherqat, which just celebrated the reopening of the site to visitors in April, the site remains largely unprotected and unmonitored, making it an ideal target for potential looters and antiquities traffickers.

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Read More in Bible History Daily:

10 Things to Know About the Assyrian Empire

Ancient Engraving at Its Finest

Joseph and Esarhaddon of Assyria

Read More in the BAS Library:

Grisly Assyrian Record of Torture and Death

Sons of God: The ideology of Assyrian kingship.

Assyrian Palace Discovered in Ashdod

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