Arbil, Iraq: a former Assyrian empire cityA new chapter opens in the study of the Assyrian empire
Dr John MacGinnis, a specialist in Assyrian civilisation at Cambridge University’s McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, will fly to the city of Erbil in north east Iraq. En route he will stop off in Turkey where for more than a decade he has been involved in the excavation at the Neo-Assyrian site of Ziyaret Tepe, the ancient garrison town of Tushan.
The capital city of today’s Kurdish Autonomous Region, Erbil is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and has retained its name (variously as Urbil, Arbil and Irbil) for more than 4,000 years. At its centre is a mound or tell that dates back more than 7,000 years. Such mounds, made by the continuous building and rebuilding of mud brick structures, are characteristic of the sites of Assyrian and other ancient near eastern cities.Book launch
In Erbil Dr MacGinnis will launch his latest book Erbil in the Cuneiform Sources, a work documenting the history of this extraordinary city from the first references dating to the third millennium BC up until the time of Alexander the Great. He will also take part in meetings with archaeologists working for the Kurdish Regional Government which is investing substantial effort in re-establishing the cultural and social identity of a region that was for many years closed to outsiders under the Saddam regime and subsequent political upheavals.
“There is a huge amount to be learnt about the Assyrian civilisation from investigation of the thousands of Assyrian sites in north east Iraq, which was the hub of the empire. These sites reflect every aspect of the civilisation – from royal palaces to centres for worship, from farming settlements to fortifications. Some are well known to local people, others have yet to be identified,” says Dr MacGinnis.
The opening up of the Kurdish Autonomous Region – a region roughly half the size of Wales that stretches from the River Tigris to the Zagros Mountains – to archaeological enquiry was one of the key themes to emerge from a conference held at Cambridge University last December. It was the first international conference ever to focus on the provincial archaeology of the Assyrian empire.
Opening up the possibility of exciting new discoveries
The emergence of the Kurdish Autonomous Region brings with it the possibility of the discovery of forgotten kingdoms and lost languages. “I hesitate to mention Indiana Jones – but the excitement that accompanies the chance to explore the archaeology of the area is tremendous,” says Dr MacGinnis.
“In some cases, it’s a question of looking at sites that we know exist and carrying out surveys and other fieldwork. In other cases it’s a question of looking for sites mentioned in cuneiform texts and seeing if we can locate them on the ground. Sometimes, as with Erbil, the ancient name may be preserved in the modern name. In still other cases, it’s a matter of discovering entirely new sites which have never been explored before.”
The Assyrian empire rivals those of the Romans, Egyptians and Babylonians in terms of its extent, ambition and organisation
. Archaeologists have been working on the history of this great civilisation ever since the scholar and traveller Claudius Rich, Resident of the East India Company in Baghdad, measured the towering mud brick walls of Nineveh in 1820, thus laying the foundations for the exploration of Assyria.
Cambridge has a distinguished history in the discipline with some of the most famous names in the field coming from the university. They include CHW Johns, who from 1895 held the University’s first post in Assyriology and went on to become Master of St Catharine’s College, and Professor David Oates, who worked on some of the greatest excavations of the 1950s and 1960s.
The current Eric Yarrow Professor of Assyriology, Professor Nicholas Postgate has worked extensively on the decipherment of Assyrian cuneiform texts as well as directing some of the leading field projects of the past few decades. Dr Augusta MacMahon, the University’s Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern Archaeology, is another key scholar in this tradition, while Dr Martin Worthington is revolutionising the study of Mesopotamian literature by applying principals of textual criticism of the sort which have been applied to classical manuscripts for generations but hardly applied to cuneiform texts at all.
As a centre for scholarship, Cambridge made an excellent base for the first ever international conference to focus on the provincial archaeology of the Assyrian empire. The meeting brought together researchers from Europe, the Middle East and North America to share their knowledge of a wide range of fields. “Feedback suggests that the conference came at exactly the right time in fostering renewed interest in this aspect of archaeology,” said Dr MacGinnis.Continue reading