Both Religion and Royalty Reigned in the Assyrian City of Assur
Known today also as Qal’at Sherqat, the ancient Assyrian city of Assur is located in the Saladin Governorate of modern day Iraq, about 280 km (174 miles) north of the capital, Baghdad. This city was first settled by human beings during the 3 rd millennium BC, and is believed to have been occupied up until the 2 nd century AD. It was, however, during the Assyrian period that Assur rose to prominence, serving as the capital of the Assyrian Empire at various points of time.
The city of Assur was located on a limestone bluff on the west bank of the Tigris River. According to the archaeological evidence, the site was first occupied around the middle of the 3 rd millennium BC. It has been speculated that the original inhabitants of Assur had arrived there from either Syria or from the south. During this time, Assur was a city state, and thought to have been in close contact with the Sumerian city states of the south. Assur was a subject of Sargon of Akkad and his successor. Moreover, during the Third Dynasty of Ur, there is evidence that a governor was sent by the rulers of this dynasty to the city. It may be added that the Temple of Ishtar and the Old Palace belong to this period of the city’s history.
Left, Head most likely of Sargon of Akkad. ( CC BY 2.0 ). Right, King Sargon II. ( CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )
Rise to Prominence
Assur succeeded in obtaining its independence when the south was overrun by the Amorites at the end of the 3 rd / beginning of the 2 nd millennium BC. The city took advantage of its location at the convergence of major trade routes by trading with Anatolia. Tin from the western part of Iran and local textiles were exchanged for copper of that region. Thousands of clay tablets from the site of Kultepe in modern day Turkey provide details about the activities of the merchants of Assur in Anatolia.
Assur became even more prominent when it was chosen by Shamshi-Adad I, a ruler of the Old Assyrian Empire, as his capital. Compared to the other major cities of the Assyrians, such as Nineveh and Nimrud, Assur was smaller and less strategically placed. Nevertheless, the city’s importance lay in its status as a religious center. The land surrounding the city was known as Mat Assur, meaning ‘the land of the god Assur’, thus symbolizing its divine status. In later times, when the Assyrians moved their capital to other cities, Assur retained its role as a significant religious center for them. Although the Assyrian Empire came to an end during the final years of the 7 th century BC, Assur continued to be occupied. It served as the seat of a semi-autonomous governor during the Parthian period. When the Sassanians captured the city during the 3 rd century AD, the city was destroyed, and largely abandoned. Nevertheless, it was still inhabited during the Islamic period, frequented by Bedouins from time to time, and part of it even became a graveyard, which was in use up until the 1970s.
A close-up view of a wall relief depicting the God Ashur (Assur) inside a winged- disc, Nimrud, Iraq. ( CC BY-SA 4.0)
Excavations of the Assyrian City
Archaeologically speaking, not much work has been done at Assur. The first major excavation at the site was carried out by the German Oriental Society in 1903. The excavations ended in 1914, and work continued only during the 1970s and 1980s, this time by the Department of Antiquities and Heritage, Baghdad. The Gulf War interrupted the excavations at Assur, though the work resumed from 1998 to 2002. The eruption of the Iraq War, and the resulting instability in the area has once more caused the archaeological work at the site to cease.
U.S. Soldiers from Crazy Horse Troop, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment provide security for the Provincial Reconstruction Team and representatives of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization visiting the ancient city of Assur, 2008. ( Public Domain )
From ancient documents dating to the 7 th century BC, we are told that the city contained as many as 34 temples, three palaces, inner and outer walls, as well as several gateways. Only a few of these buildings have so far been excavated. In addition to these public buildings, there were also domestic structures. In the northwestern quarter of the site, for instance, many private homes were found to have been spaciously laid out, with family vaults underneath them. Within these vaults, archaeologists have unearthed a number of archives and libraries, containing thousands of clay tablets that provide important details about life in the city. The importance of Assur in the history of the region, as well as of the world was recognized in 2003, when it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Layout of the city of Assur throughout the centuries. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Top image: A photo of Assur. Inset: Head most likely of Sargon of Akkad. ( CC BY 2.0 ). Source: Wikimedia.
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