The Villains Threatening the Cradle of Civilization

Excerpted from Wounded Tigris: A River Journey Through the Cradle of Civilization:

30−32 Shirqat / Assur River miles: 457

Members of the Iraqi army would accompany us now all the way through Salahaddin Governorate. A man from the mukhabarat escorted us from Gayara to Shirqat. He wore a pork pie hat and a polo shirt and had the usual bulge in his belt. His deputy had a beige suit, skinny necktie, and wore a pencil moustache and trilby, like a fifties gangster. It was only after a while that I realized they were trying to look normal. When we had to move by road, our team traveled in a 1980s Kia minibus, because it was cheap and we liked how quirky it was. Inside, ornate tissue boxes were stuck upside down to the roof, in case of emergencies requiring a Kleenex. Behind the driver’s head was a framed picture of the bus itself, parked proudly on a busy street in Mosul. It didn’t go faster than 40 mph and had no working air conditioning, but these failings we could forgive. The military Humvees topped and tailed us in a very peculiar convoy. Occasionally, one of their vehicles would pull up alongside us and a soldier would lean out of a window to hand us fresh fruit or dates.

This happened on blind bends, fast descents, and narrow roads, and I wondered if the biggest threat to our safety here wasn’t overenthusiastic military.

It became great fun to have the army around. There were twelve men under the control of a captain called Saif. Most were from Salahaddin, along with a few southerners, and they had been to war together. They saw their time with us as straightforward, and before long their guard was down. In the evenings, the men smoked shisha and made video calls back to their families. They were eccentric, and only a couple of them looked remotely fit. A few were distinctly out of shape and one, Hamoud, had a belly so big that he’d often stroke it, and say that the enemy always knew he was coming because they’d see his stomach appearing over the horizon.

What Hamoud lacked in athleticism he made up for with his voice, and throughout the nights he sang a series of classic Iraqi ballads. In between, he’d tell jokes about people from the places we passed through. “I knew a man from Gayara once,” he said. “It was 2004, and he decided he needed to make Hajj, so he went to Damascus to get the flight. When he got there, the plane to Mecca was canceled. So he went to the coast, to the nightclubs in Latakia. In one of the clubs he met another Iraqi, who was shocked to see him. Why are you here, he asked the Iraqi? I’m waiting for the flight to Mecca, the man told him. I’ll get rid of all my sins there anyway, so I’m just stocking up!” The soldiers doubled over at this.

On the west bank of the Tigris, less than a mile from where Shirqat collapsed across both sides of the river, a wedge-shaped rocky outcrop pressed the river into a sharp southward bend. The journey there by Kia minibus took less than an hour. Bursts of bottle-green cultivation clung close to the water, and beyond was an ocean of small undulations, barren and beige. At the base of the crag, we arrived at the perimeter walls of a tired-looking building with barred windows and an armed guard. This was the office of Salem Abdullah, archaeological director of the ancient city of Assur, which once thrived on this rock as the first capital of the Assyrian Empire.

A photograph of a view of the archaeological ruins of Assur or Qal'at Shirqat


“View of the archaeological ruins of Assur or Qal’at Shirqat.”

DeAgostini/Getty Images

This was an area rich in history. Thirty miles east was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hatra, a two-thousand- year-old caravan city from the independent empire of the Parthians, and an important juncture on the Silk Road. ISIS had held both Hatra and Nimrud further north. During that time, they released videos from the latter of jihadists blowing up the three-thousand-year-old Temple of Nabu, the Assyrian god of wisdom. Other clips on social media show pneumatic drills and sledgehammers being used on Assyrian friezes, and in Hatra the same methods were used there. UNESCO declared this “cultural cleansing” and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a war crime. Two Humvees and twelve soldiers accompanied us to Assur, but once there they were content to wait at the office and let us wander freely.

“My relationship with this place is above a job,” Salem told me as he welcomed us to the office, lines creasing the corners of his eyes as he smiled. He was born in a village close to Shirqat, and from his house he could see the site. His father worked at Assur, where he died of a heart attack among the ruins, and since 2001 Salem had worked there, too. “It is like family,” he said, speaking in lilting, classical Arabic that even had Salman on the back foot as he translated. “I think of this place like my grandmother. Come, and I’ll introduce you.”

We left the office under a blazing summer sun, stepping over the remains of mud-brick walls and slowly climbing as we crossed the city. A hot wind kicked up ancient soil. The site measured only a square mile, but walking it made it feel larger. Salem avoided the dirt road that cut through the center, instead picking a path straight over the ruins. He wore a button-down shirt and grey polyester suit but scrambled over low walls and trenches with ease. Finally, we stopped at the edge of an escarpment, mopping our brows. The Tigris tumbled by, 85 feet below. To our right a crumbling ziggurat rose from the lip of the cliff. “This area was the temple of Assur,” Salem said, shielding his eyes from swirling dust. “The most important place in the whole city.”

A photograph of the arches of a building in Assur or Qal'at Shirqat,a Unesco World Heritage Site in Iraq.


“Arches of a building in Assur or Qal’at Shirqat (Unesco World Heritage List, 2003), Iraq.”

DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Assyrian Empire grew out of the founding of the city-state of Assur in the third millennium BCE. Assur, the empire’s first capital, was believed to be the physical manifestation of the deity for whom the city was named, and the temple his eternal residence. But it was also a wealthy hub for regional trade, positioned along a main caravan route, and it formed a lucrative trading relationship with Anatolia in what is now Turkey. Much of what we know about the city’s early flourishing comes from a remarkable collection of over twenty-three thousand clay Assyrian tablets discovered at the Turkish site of Karum Kanesh, six hundred miles away. Traders to Karum Kanesh would have followed the Tigris north to Nineveh, then traversed the foothills of the Taurus Mountains. Donkey caravans carried mostly textiles, made locally and imported from Babylon to the south, and tin, which had come through Iran from central Asia. Gold and silver from the sales in Anatolia would return to Assur.

A photograph of the ruins of a ziggurat in Assur or Qal'at Shirqat, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Iraq.


“Ruins of a ziggurat in Assur or Qal’at Shirqat”

DeAgostini/Getty Images

Elsewhere, traders also made purchases of wine. The Assyriologist Karen Radner writes of a contemporary of King Ashurbanipal, who sent four caravan leaders three times a year to Sinjar mountain. In antiquity, this area was famed for its wine and once the goods were sold, wine was bought with the proceeds. Radner says: “The wine was filled into sheep or goat skins. As these skins were traditionally used for buoyancy on keleks, this created a happy dual purpose. The wineskins were bound with logs to create rafts for the return journey to Assur on the Tigris. This was good for the wine, as the river kept it cool and prevented it from spoiling.” Back in Assur, the wine was moved to cellars for the well-to-do in the city, and the logs from the rafts repurposed into timber for construction.

Assur was mostly overlooked by British and French archaeologists in favor of Nineveh and Nimrud.

As well as the caravan route, there was another way called the King’s Road. It ran the length and breadth of the empire and was likely the innovation of Shalmaneser III. Each Assyrian region maintained roadhouses along it to provide overnight accommodation and resupply to messengers and envoys of the king. The closest equivalent is the caravanserai of the Silk Roads. On the King’s Road, however, only travelers bearing the royal seal were allowed access. This system for rapid, long-distance communication between the king and his administrators became adapted and used by subsequent empires and became one foundation of Assyrian power. Despite this, Assur was never a big city. The natural defense provided by the Tigris and another arm of the river to the north in antiquity were supplemented with two layers of fortified walls in the south and west, enclosing a modest but easily protected nucleus. The residents spoke a Semitic language called Assyrian, closely related to Babylonian, and even when King Ashurnasirpal II moved the capital to Nimrud in the ninth century, Assur remained divine and prosperous. That was true right up until the sack of the city in 614 BCE by the Medes, which ultimately brought an end to the dominance of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

A photograph of an Assyrian 14th century B.C. Commemorative tablet about the construction of a private home. It is Dated between 1360-1330 B.C. Reign of Ashur-uballit I and comes from Assur, Iraq.


A photograph of an Assyrian 14th century B.C. Commemorative tablet about the construction of a private home. It is Dated between 1360-1330 B.C. Reign of Ashur-uballit I and comes from Assur (Ashur).

PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As I looked with Salem across the site, the ancient city took shape before my eyes. Ruins coalesced like a blueprint into housing districts, temple walls and occasional monumental buildings. Most dramatic was the ziggurat, which is some 85 feet tall and once stood at least twice as high. More than four thousand years old, it was part of a temple complex dedicated to the god Assur. Its six million mud-bricks were once covered with sheets of iron and lead and inlaid with crystals. Now the great mound looked as if it were melting, with dried mud settled like candle wax around the base. On the side, a large opening led to the interior. Salem was quick to point out that this was not part of the design. Hormuzd Rassam had bored the entrance, he said, to look for artifacts. Layard and Rassam were among the first to dig here, and turned up a life-size carving of Shalmaneser III, surrounded by cuneiform. It was the first ever Assyrian statue to be found.

“Only a fraction of all this has ever been excavated,” Salem said, looking back across the city. His estimate was that 85−90 percent of the site remained unexplored, and he believed there was much still to learn from Assur about the ancient Middle East. “If more work is done here, it will change history. There were 117 Assyrian kings. When these kings died, they were buried here,” he said. But to date only three royal graves have been identified. “Where are the rest?” He paused. “They’re here, under our feet.”

With the exception of Layard and Rassam’s cursory explorations, Assur was mostly overlooked by British and French archaeologists in favor of Nineveh and Nimrud. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century, when a German expedition led by Walter Andrae established the city boundaries by cutting a series of trenches across the site, that more of the city’s structure and life became clear. Andrae and his team were at the forefront of a more scientific approach, and although progress was slow, they caused significantly less damage than their predecessors.

ISIS ran a lucrative trafficking industry, with looted artifacts, jewelry, and more making their way from Iraq and Syria through Turkey or Lebanon to Europe to be sold to Western buyers.

The archaeologists recovered thousands of cylinder seals and baked clay tablets, some carved with cuneiform inscriptions written in the second millennium BCE, which detailed religious rituals, business transactions, and other subjects. Most of these artefacts were shipped to Berlin, where they are still on view at the Pergamon Museum, or to Istanbul, then the seat of the Ottoman Sultan. In recent decades, excavations have been intermittent. “For Iraqis, it’s expensive,” Salem said. “The government can’t afford it.” The last major international-led excavation concluded in 2002. “And here we get to the major issue,” he sighed. “There are many positives to this place, but always there will be challenges in greater numbers.”

It’s proved nearly impossible to secure the site. A mesh fence runs along to the road, but many sections have been flattened or removed altogether. And while a visitor technically requires a ticket, without staff to enforce the rule that system hasn’t worked for thirty years. Instead, residents of Shirqat treat Assur like a local park, wandering in for picnics. “In spring you can’t see the ground,” said Salem.

During the ISIS occupation, Salem and his staff fled, burying their archives in the garden of a friend. Damage to homes and infrastructure in the town was enormous, and many are still deeply traumatized. Salem believed Assur was a source of great pride for most Shirqatis, and that the healing of the site and the population could happen together. “The reason they come here is because they love it,” he said. But they needed educating on how to interact with the site.

There was looting, too. Every time it rained, topsoil was washed away and artefacts—potsherds and even cuneiform tablets and statuettes—emerged from the ground. In 2018, heavy winter rains caused the Tigris to flood and in the aftermath 180 artifacts were revealed, lying plainly in sight.

Shirqatis gathered them and took them to Salem, who made sure they reached the antiquities department in Tikrit. But although Salem believed most Shirqatis respect the site too much to steal, it wouldn’t be difficult to pick up a few things and traffic them on the black market.

ISIS ran a lucrative trafficking industry, with looted artifacts, jewelry, and more making their way from Iraq and Syria through Turkey or Lebanon to Europe to be sold to Western buyers. Salem didn’t want to say more on this but later, in Shirqat, a man who didn’t want to be named told us the trafficking continues, and the same people are still involved. He agreed with Salem that most Shirqat residents understood that their own heritage was tied to the ancient civilizations, and had a sense of the need for protection, but even with a few smugglers, much was being lost.

Alongside Assur, Salem’s role also included managing all the archaeological sites in the Shirqat area, which numbered 274. “In total, we have four archaeologists and nine security guards,” he told me. “Every guard has to look after ten to twelve sites, and the other locations have nothing.” He shrugged and we walked again, now past the headquarters where Walter Andrae had been based. Broken glass and rubble were strewn on the ground, and what remained of the walls were streaked with graffiti. Inside, a single window looked out on the Tigris. When British archaeologist Max Mallowan visited in the 1950s, his wife, Agatha Christie, accompanied him. She saw this window and was inspired to write, said Salem. “If it was up to us, we’d build a monument to her. We love her. She believed in Iraq.”

Assyrian sites, constructed primarily of mud, stand to be lost forever.

To the west, the three broad arches of the Tabira Gate glowed like bronze in the amber light of early evening. The structure is the best-preserved monument at the site, and probably dates to the fourteenth century BCE. One theory is that it was a processional route for people and gods on their way to the ziggurat and temples. Another suggests it was the gate of war, only to be used when the Assyrian army marched out of the city to or from battle. In May 2015, ISIS militants blew a vast hole in the structure. The damage was estimated at 70 percent, but in 2020, after the area’s liberation from ISIS, a joint project between the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, and the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas, known as the ALIPH Foundation, carried out emergency reconstruction work. By the time I arrived, the contemporary sun-dried mud bricks had bedded in nicely.

On our way back to his office, Salem stopped to outline his biggest concern for the site. Twenty-five miles south, the government is planning to construct a new dam at Makhoul. Amid growing fears of dam projects in neighboring Turkey and Iran exacerbating water scarcity in Iraq, Makhoul purports to offer a strategic solution. The Ministry of Water Resources expects a storage capacity of 105 billion cubic feet of water, which will primarily irrigate the surrounding agricultural areas in dry seasons. Originally the dam was proposed in 2002, and when UNESCO named Assur as a World Heritage Site in danger the following year, the agency cautioned that the reservoir could flood scores of archaeological sites around Shirqat. The project was halted by the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the current, revived plan is plagued by the same problems as before.

The Head of Archaeology at the University of Tikrit, Khalil Khalaf Al-Jbory, had been hoping to join us but was pulled away by work. We spoke instead by phone from Assur. The geological foundation of the dam site is soluble, he said, like at Mosul, and sulphur seepage will contaminate the water. He also pointed to what he called a “social disaster,”

with tens of thousands of people facing displacement. Khalil believed that over two hundred archaeological sites were at risk of flooding and infiltration. He had done the work to map these himself, marking their elevation against that of the proposed dam.

Assyrian sites, constructed primarily of mud, stand to be lost forever. In 2002, there were proposals to build a retaining wall to protect part of Assur, but now so little information is available that even those closest to the sites are left in the dark. “The government is not listening to anyone,” Khalil told me. “Not to the academics, or geologists, or anyone. It’s very dangerous, and very risky.” Salem shared similar fears but, perhaps because his employer was the government, he was more considered with his language. He had not lost hope but agreed that Assur’s future was dire unless something could be done to alter the plans. “When I say this is my grandmother, I mean that I also see her wrinkles,” he told me. “She needs help now.”

 A photograph of the book cover Wounded Tigris by Leon McCarron.

Excerpted from Wounded Tigris: A River Journey Through the Cradle of Civilization by Leon McCarron. Copyright © 2023. Published by Pegasus Books.

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