By: Daniele Morandi Bonacossi
Decades of conflict culminated in the genocidal Anfal campaign waged against the Kurds in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now, the stabilization and autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan have been accompanied by the development not only of political, economic, and social life, but also education, culture, and scientific research.
As a result of the tragic crisis that has blocked archaeological projects in Syria, Iraqi Kurdistan has also become the new center for archaeological research in the Near East. Since 2009, thanks to the liberal policy of openness to foreign missions pursued by the Directorates of Antiquities of Iraqi Kurdistan and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Baghdad, the plains of the Iraqi Zagros foothills have seen numerous excavations and archaeological surveys. For the first time these are coordinated with each other in terms of objectives, methods, and investigation techniques, another welcome innovation in international archaeological research. Iraqi Kurdistan is thus emerging not only as a new frontier in ancient Near Eastern archaeology, but also as a promising laboratory for the development and testing of innovative methods of archaeological research, especially in landscape archaeology and multidisciplinary research.
In this dynamic context, the University of Udine launched in 2012 the “Land of Nineveh Regional Project” (LoNRP), a region-wide interdisciplinary archaeological research project which covers an area of 3,000 km2, straddling the Dohuk and Ninawa governorates to the east of the Upper Iraqi Tigris. This region, close to areas of Anatolia rich in resources, lies at the intersection of important routes linking Iran and Mesopotamia to the Levant and Anatolia, and was the northern hinterland of the last great capital cities of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh and Dur-Sharrukin (better known as Khorsabad). It has never been the subject of systematic archaeological surveys and excavations.
Archaeological research in the “Tigris Triangle” between the Tigris and the Upper Zab owes much to the pioneering investigations carried out in the mid-nineteenth century by P.-E. Botta and A.H. Layard at the sites of Khorsabad, Nimrud, and Nineveh, the great first millennium BC Assyrian capital cities located in the Mosul region. But unlike the area immediately surrounding the Assyrian capitals, the region of Dohuk has long been neglected.
After the first excavations by Layard in Jerahiya and V. Place in Tell Maltai, fundamental but limited field explorations were conducted from the beginning of the last century at a number of Assyrian sites in the region, such as Khinis, Jerwan, Shiru Maliktha, Faideh, and Maltai. These were characterized by aqueducts, monumental rock reliefs, and inscriptions associated with the impressive irrigation system of Nineveh built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705–681 BC) in the hinterland of his new capital city. This research highlighted Nineveh’s agricultural territory and the problem of its water supply, identifying for the first time the important question of how the Assyrian empire’s key economic resources – water and agricultural soils – were managed in the decades of its maximum expansion.
To fill these gaps in our knowledge of the “Land behind Nineveh”, the University of Udine launched a new archaeological project to understand the cultural and natural landscapes of this important region of northern Mesopotamia and to ensure their protection. A regional archaeological field survey is complemented by archaeological excavation of Tell Gomel, near where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III for the third time in 331 BC. This battle paved the way for the final conquest of the Achaemenid Empire and the growth of Hellenism. Excavations at Tell Gomel, occupied between the Ubaid and Ottoman periods, will begin in 2014.
The project is also centered on the Assyrian period. Surprisingly little is known about the hinterland of Khorsabad and Nineveh, which was so important to the livelihood of the imperial capital cities. The project is therefore also dedicated to understanding the imposing, but little known, hydraulic system built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib.
The two survey campaigns conducted were preceded by analyses of remote sensing data, mainly CORONA satellite images. Locations identified as potential archaeological sites were then surveyed in the field. In the Land behind Nineveh 493 archaeological sites were identified, 281 settlement sites, as well as irrigation canals, rock reliefs, funerary cairns, and isolated facilities such as water mills. The region shows a settlement density of nearly one site per km2, a much higher density than that observed in the adjacent regions of the Iraqi and Syrian Jezirah and southern Mesopotamia. The research reveals an extraordinary intensity of settlement in the foothill plains of Iraqi Kurdistan.
But there is a striking absence of large urban centers between the Bronze Age and the Islamic period. Our surface survey identified a limited number of large urban sites, the largest being (at 20 hectares) Tell Gomel. The hinterland of Nineveh, therefore, does not seem to have been densely urbanized, in contrast to the adjacent regions of northern Mesopotamia. The absence of large towns in the Land of Nineveh is probably due to the presence of Nineveh itself as early as the end of the fourth millennium BC. From the Akkadian period in the later third millennium the city became an important center of worship of the goddess Ishtar and, from the reign of Sennacherib, the last great capital of the Assyrian empire. It is therefore plausible that the emergence of Nineveh as a large urban center from the fourth millennium onwards prevented the rise of competing cities.
The Neo-Assyrian landscape revealed by the survey is particularly interesting. Settlement consisted only of a scattered network of nearly 200 rural villages, hamlets, and isolated farms, spread throughout the Nineveh countryside and administered by a limited number of small towns. The majority of small sites were located on the perennial and seasonal watercourses and the massive system of canals and aqueducts created by Sennacherib to supply water to his capital city. He made the foothill plains to the north of his capital city into the granary of Nineveh, and indeed the core region of Assyria, transforming it into an intensive, high-productivity agricultural area based on artificial irrigation – and not only on extensive, but less productive, dry-farming.
After the collapse of the Assyrian Empire following the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC, the region remained a prosperous agricultural and densely settled area during the Hellenistic, Parthian, and Sasanian periods. In the Islamic epoch it was a fertile rural landscape dotted with dozens of villages and water mills for processing the abundant cereal production of the region, by then in the hinterland of the city of Mosul, established beside ancient Nineveh on the opposite bank of the Tigris.
One of the most urgent matters faced by archaeologists in Iraqi Kurdistan is the conservation and enhancement of its rich, unique cultural heritage. The problem is greatly increased by the region’s neglect by the Baathist regime and its current impetuous economic development.
Thanks to funding from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Task Force Iraq), the LoNRP is recording by laser scanning and digital photogrammetry all rock reliefs and monuments (such as the Jerwan aqueduct) that are connected to the Assyrian canal system. This three-dimensional documentation is crucial for designing an environmental-archaeological park of Sennacherib’s hydraulic system which will protect and make accessible the extraordinary rock reliefs of Khinis, Shiru Maliktha, Faidah, Maltai, and Mila Mergi, the Jerwan aqueduct and the entire cultural landscape of the Land behind Nineveh. Integrating field research with preservation and enhancement of cultural heritage makes the region a test bed for new approaches to archaeological research and protection and sustainable management of cultural heritage.
The survey project in the Land of Nineveh and the upcoming archaeological excavations at Tell Gomel promise major steps forward in our understanding of the settlement landscape and material culture of this important region of northern Mesopotamia.
Daniele Morandi Bonacossi is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Art History in the Department of History and Preservation of Cultural Heritage, University of Udine and director of the Land of Nineveh Regional Project.
The Land of Nineveh Regional Project of the University of Udine is extremely grateful to the General Directorate of Antiquities of the Kurdistan Regional Government (directed by Kak Abubakir Othman Zeineddin), the Directorate of Antiquities of Dohuk (directed by Dr Hassan Qasim Ahmad) and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad for granting all necessary work permits and for their unflagging support and encouragement. Essential too, has been the assistance and friendship guaranteed by Dr Abdallah Khorsheed Qadir, Director of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, who has sustained our project from its very beginning in 2011 with generosity and determination.
We owe a special debt to the Italian Ambassador in Iraq, Massimo Marotti, the Italian Consul in Erbil, Carmelo Ficarra, and the staff of the embassy and consular office in Baghdad (in particular Dr Isa Ghivarelli) and Erbil for the unremitting support they have given to our project. Funding for the 2012 and 2013 field campaigns was provided by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Friuli Venezia Giulia Regional Authority, the Udine Provincial Authority, the University of Udine, Informest and a private sponsor (Giorgiutti & Associates Ltd).
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