Saving Iraq's Treasures

As archaeologists worldwide help recover looted artifacts, they worry for the safety of the great sites of early civilization.

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The siege of ashur in 614 B.C. was long and bloody. The invading Medes forced the city gates, then fought the city’s guards hand to hand through the narrow, crooked streets until they reached the sacred district high on a bluff above the TigrisRiver. Soon the pyramid-like ziggurats, temples and palaces of the Assyrian Empire’s spiritual center were in flames.


It was a dramatic end to the 2,000-year-old metropolis that once rivaled Athens and Rome in grandeur and importance. Ashur, on the west bank of the Tigris in northern Iraq, was settled 4,500 years ago as a modest trading town run by an entrepreneurial people. They worshiped a pantheon of gods including one whose name they took for their city. These early Assyrians conducted a thriving trade that reached as far as today’s Turkey. Often dominated by foreign rulers, they were typically more interested in profits than politics. That changed about 800 B.C., when the city’s powerful families agitated for military action to protect trade routes threatened by warring neighbor states. With their superior technology and organization—including chariots, iron swords and a permanent army—the Assyrians took back the routes and got their first taste of imperial might.


Emboldened, a string of powerful rulers gobbled up smaller and weaker states, destroying the fortified town of Lachish in Judea after a long siege in 701 B.C., threatening tribes on the Iranian plateau and eventually overwhelming the Nubian masters of Egypt. By the seventh century B.C., the resulting Assyrian Empire encompassed a huge and varied population, the first great multicultural kingdom in history. Though its rulers were often rapacious, the empire was also characterized by peaceful trade, religious tolerance, canny diplomacy and forceful propaganda.


By 863 B.C., Assyria’s capital moved from nearby Nimrud to Nineveh, but kings were still enthroned and buried at Ashur. The old city was a maze of twisting streets with elegant homes hidden behind high windowless walls. Smaller houses crowded up against temples, just as they do against mosques in old Iraqi cities today. There was a sewage system, but “the usual garbage—broken jars or bits of food—was thrown on the streets,” says Peter Miglus, an archaeologist at the University of Heidelberg who has excavated sites at Ashur over the past three years. Ships and barges loaded with grain, wood, stone, leather and wine, brought from all over the empire, crowded the massive quays on the TigrisRiver.


By 700 B.C., the city boasted 34 major temples. The sacred district of Ashur was at the northeast tip, on a spur of rock extending into the Tigris. Here were the ancient sanctuaries of the goddess Inana—the same goddess revered in Uruk—and of the god Ashur. Three ziggurats rose into the sky far above the fast-moving river below. Seen from the Tigris, the city was a dazzling sight. It seemed impregnable, too, located on a high bluff, with two and a half miles of stout walls. Armed guards, wearing the long coiffed beards favored by Assyrian men, were stationed at the city gates.Yet in 614 B.C., the Medes—a people from today’s Iran—attacked the Assyrian Empire and laid waste to fortified Ashur. Many scholars have surmised that the Medes launched a surprise attack on the city when the fierce Assyrian military was fighting elsewhere.


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