Assyrian Canals

Irrigation Landscapes in the Heartland of the Assyrian Empire

The kings of the Assyrian Empire, particularly Sennacherib (ruled 704-688 BC), created huge irrigation systems to support their new capitals at Nimrud and Nineveh.  Previous investigations of Assyrian landscapes have been limited to small soundings, opportunistic ground observation, and testimony from local residents, and since 1990 no fieldwork has been possible in northern Iraq.  However, it has been possible to use aerial photography and declassified CORONA and KH-7 satellite photographs to map the traces in a Geographic Informations Systems (GIS) computer program.  This research has identified and mapped over 60 km of canals across a wide swath of Assyria, many of which have never been recognized on the ground before.

The unexpected extent of Sennacherib's canals must be understood within the context of his other actions.  Upon the death of his father, he moved the capital to the newly expanded city of Nineveh.  As known from the Bible and his own inscriptions, he was a very prolific deporter of conquered populations; many of them were settled in his new capital but many others filled in the productive agricultural hinterland of the capital.  It appears that the canals were part of a grand scheme to remake the demography of Assyria: a new capital was constructed and populated, and labor was imported and agricultural infrastructure was created to support it.  Not all of the water went to mundane agriculture; Sennacherib's inscriptions also describe elaborate parks and gardens designed to emulate the wetter landscapes of Anatolia and Babylonia, which were undoubtedly fed by his canal network.

Canals in the Hinterland of Nimrud

The canal from the Khazir/Upper Zab to the imperial capital at Nimrud. See Ur and Reade 2005.


Ur, J. A. 2004. CAMEL Laboratory Investigates the Landscape of Assyria from Space. Oriental Institute News & Notes 2004:6-7. [pdf]

2005. Les imatges per satèllit i l’estructura dels paisatges antics: exemples del Pròxim Orient. Cota Zero 20:129-138.[pdf]

2005. Sennacherib's Northern Assyrian Canals: New Insights from Satellite Imagery and Aerial Photography. Iraq 67:317-345. [pdf]

2007. "Agricultural and Pastoral Landscapes in the Near East: Case Studies using CORONA Satellite Photography," in ArchAtlas, vol. 2.1. [full text]

in press. "Physical and Cultural Landscapes of Assyria," in Companion to Assyria. Edited by Eckart Frahm. Oxford: Blackwell.

in press. The Morphology of Neo-Assyrian Cities.  Submitted to Subartu 1 June 2012. [pdf]

Ur, J. A., L. de Jong, J. Giraud, J.F. Osborne, and J. MacGinnis. In press. Ancient Cities and Landscapes in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey 2012 Season. Submitted to Iraq, 3 January 2013, accepted 27 March 2013.

Wilkinson, T. J., E. Wilkinson, J. A. Ur, and M. Altaweel. 2005. Landscape and Settlement in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 340:23-56. [pdf]

Lectures Available Online

“Spying on the Ancient World: Archaeological Applications of Declassified US Intelligence Satellite Photography in the Near East.”  Presentation and poster at the Harvard University Center for Geographic Analysis’ Workshop on Remote Sensing, Cambridge, MA, February 16, 2007.[video] [slides] [poster pdf]

“State-Sponsored Irrigation Systems in the Assyrian Heartland, 702-681 BC: Reconstructions Using Declassified Intelligence Satellite Imagery and Aerial Photography.” Poster presented at the Harvard University Center for Geographic Analysis Launch Event, May 5, 2006. [poster pdf]

In the Media

"Military surveillance data: Shared intelligence" by Geoff Brumfiel. Nature, September 2011.

Investigating canals across time, from space,” by Alvin Powell.  Harvard Gazette, March 16, 2006.