Extremely rare Assyrian rock reliefs found in Iraqi Kurdistan

A team of Italian and Kurdish archaeologists have discovered 10 exceptionally rare Assyrian rock reliefs at the archaeological site of Faida in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. The reliefs were carved into the banks of an ancient canal four miles long that was dug out of the bedrock in the 8th-7th century B.C. to irrigate fields. Most known Assyrian bas-reliefs were discovered in royal palaces. The last time Assyrian reliefs carved onto rock faces, not on palace walls, were found was 1845. They were discovered by French consul Simon Rouet at the nearby ancient sites of Khinis and Maltai.

The panels depict a ruler, believed to be  Neo-Assyrian King Sargon II (r. 722–705 B.C.), leading a parade of Assyrian deities and animals. He is stands at both ends of the procession (Tablet 1 of the Epic of Gilgamesh: “He walks out in front, the leader, and walks at the rear, trusted by his companions”). The statues of seven Assyrian deities are carried in the parade on the backs of animals. Ashur, head of the Assyrian pantheon, rides on a dragon and horned lion. His wife Mullissu is on a throne supported by a lion. Ishtar, the “Queen of Heaven,” goddess of love and war, is on a lion. Her twin brother the sun god Shamash is on a horse. Moon god Sin is also on a horned lion, and storm god Adad is both a horned lion and a bull. Nabu, god of wisdom, literacy and scribes, is on a dragon. The animals bearing the representations of the gods face right, the direction of the current that flowed through the canal.

Sargon’s new capital, Dur-Sharrukin (modern-day Khorsabad), was 40 miles south of Faida, and the great metropolis of Nineveh (modern-day Mosul), a regionally important center of religious worship and trade since the 3rd millennium B.C. and the largest city in the world with an estimated population of 100,000 at its peak under Sargon’s son Sennacherib, was 10 miles southwest of Dur-Sharrukin. Improving the arability of the area around these important population centers was a priority for Sargon and his successors. Sennacherib would build a canal 30 miles long to bring water to Nineveh, a section of which was built with arches and cement and may have been the world’s first aqueduct.

We’re incredibly lucky the reliefs are still there. The tops of three of them were spotted by British archaeologists in 1973, but constant turmoil between the Kurds and the Iraqi government followed by the Iraq War made further exploration impossible. In 2012, archaeologists took advantage of a small window in the conflicts to discover another six reliefs. Then in 2014 ISIS occupied the area. The front line was 15 miles away from the precious reliefs, but thankfully they were so little known they weren’t subjected to the Islamic State’s greed for looting artifacts and selling them on the antiquities market or destroying them.

ISIS was kicked out in 2017, and in September and October of 2019, the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project (LoNAP) was able to return to fully document the finds.

“The reliefs suggest that politically charged scenes of royal power and its divine legitimacy might have been commonplace,” said Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur, who is researching ancient water systems in the region. The discovery shows that these works of art were “not just in the imperial palaces but everywhere, even where farmers were extracting water from canals for their fields.” […]

The expedition itself used advanced technologies, including laser scanning and digital photogrammetry, to record every detail of the stone panels and their context. A drone provided high-resolution aerial photos that will allow researchers to map the entire canal network.

These unique reliefs are still under constant threat. Looters damaged one of the panels last May in the attempt to steal it. Construction of a stable by a local farmer inflicted further damage on another panel. Increasing development is a major threat as well — the ancient canal was cut through when a new aqueduct was built in 2018 — and erosion is a constant enemy. The canal was cut into a hill and it is entirely full of layers of earth deposited as the hill eroded. LoNAP’s ultimate goal is to preserve the site — reliefs, including those of Khinis and Maltai discovered in 1845, and the canal system itself — as an archaeological park with UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.