But Miglus and his team, along with Iraqi and other Western researchers, have put together an alternative description of Ashur’s final days. They have found an unfinished tunnel most likely built by the Medes to penetrate the city’s formidable defense; that the Medes had time to build a tunnel suggests the siege was quite long. Based on his excavations, Miglus paints a stark picture of Ashur’s preparations for that siege and its terrifying end. He believes the city’s inhabitants converted the vast palace cellars into granaries, as if to wait out the usurpers, and that Ashur’s final hours were a chaos of street barricades, beheaded corpses and burned buildings.
Unfortunately, the ancient settlement is once again under siege. Two years ago, Saddam Hussein’s government began work on a dam that would flood much of Ashur and all of the valley below, which contains more than 60 important Assyrian sites, most of which have never been surveyed or excavated. The news devastated Miglus, who worked more than ten years to gain permission to dig at Ashur. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. If the dam is completed, the vast lake would lap at Miglus’ research station—now high on a bluff above the Tigris—and Ashur would turn into a few muddy islands poking up from the reservoir. Statuary, libraries of cuneiform tablets, and hundreds of unexcavated buildings will melt into mud if the plan goes forward.
Even so, the huge dam, if completed in 2006 as scheduled, would bring water and electricity to Baghdad. Water in the Tigris is low, the result of a series of Turkish dams upstream that siphon it off before it can reach Iraq. And in this poor region, the construction of the dam would provide hundreds of much-needed jobs.
Before the war, Iraqi officials indicated they would build a cofferdam that would surround the entire site and protect it from the rising water, but the costs for such a project would be enormous. When a Unesco team visited Iraq last November, work on the dam was well under way, with no plans for a protective structure. Donny George says construction has stopped; whether it will begin again no one can say. If completed, the dam’s rising waters will wipe out all traces of ancient Assyria’s heart.