Physical and Cultural Landscapes of Assyria


Jason A. Ur. 2017. “Physical and Cultural Landscapes of Assyria.” In Blackwell Companion to Assyria, edited by Eckart Frahm, Pp. 13-35. Oxford: Blackwell. Copy at
Physical and Cultural Landscapes of Assyria



The history of the land of Assyria is, to a considerable extent, the story of a continuous attempt by individuals, communities, states, and empires to define their places in their landscapes.  In basic economic terms, people had to feed their families, which meant adapting to the possibilities and limitations of climate and environment for agriculture and animal husbandry, and sometimes extending them.  Even for the elite elements of society, the environment was a critical variable in how palace walls were decorated, how gardens and parks were created, and how tribute was collected.  Climate and environment played important roles in determining the scheduling of royal campaigns and in which directions they went.  The limitations and fluctuations of climate were a major concern in Assyrian temples as well, as priests and kings attempted to intercede with the gods for the favorable growing conditions that sustained cities, enabled trade, and revealed to the people the good relationship between the king and the gods.

The physical landscape of Assyria was far from immutable.  Fluctuations in temperature, rainfall, and seasonality took place on yearly, decadal, and even millennial scales.  Its human communities were also responsible for modifications that turned the physical environment into the cultural landscape.  The nature of these cultural changes have much to tell us about past societies.  At one end of the continuum, landscapes were modified by the aggregate actions of their inhabitants, whether they were farmers, shepherds, craftspeople, or traders.  Individuals might have only limited effects on their surroundings within their lifetimes, but their collective actions can leave a tremendous, often unintended, footprint.  The best example of such cumulative action is the tell, the classic form of archaeological site in the Near East, the largest of which grew to 40 m or higher.  Tells formed over centuries or millennia as individual households built, repaired, tore down, and rebuilt stone and mudbrick structures on the same spot (Rosen 1986).  The intention of the builders was simply to provide a physical space for their households, not to create a looming aggregate of decayed mud brick on the landscape; the cumulative result of many generations engaging in this simple domestic behavior, however, had just such an effect.

On the other end of the continuum, landscapes could be modified according to royal will; kings and their planners imposed their particular political, economic, demographic, and cosmological visions upon the surrounding land. The resulting landscape elements were often monumental due to the royal household’s ability to mobilize vast amounts of labor toward its ends. These structures are more difficult to remove, and therefore disproportionately likely to survive to the present than lesser changes.

This chapter reviews the physical environment and cultural landscapes, both emergent and imposed, in the regions of modern northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria that encompass the central part of the ancient “Land of Assyria” (Fig. 1).  Although this geographic designation was only meaningful in the late 2nd and early 1st millennia BCE, in the time of the Middle Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian empires, it provides a convenient geographical framework within which to consider earlier landscapes, especially the Early Bronze Age (EBA) urban phase of the late 3rd millennium BCE.  Geographically, this region encompasses the middle stretch of the Tigris River between the Eski Mosul and the Fatha gorge, its tributary valleys and plains to the east, the Cizre plain in the north, and the Upper Khabur and Sinjar plains, as well as the Khabur river valley, to the west.  These latter areas, while outside of the Tigris Valley “heartland,” were considered by the 1st millennium BCE Assyrian kings to be historically part of the “Land of Ashur,” and were administered as such (Postgate 1992, 1995, Radner 2006, Kühne 2012).

A particularly useful framework for approaching Assyrian landscapes through time is the “signature landscape” concept developed by Tony Wilkinson (2003:11-14).  Signature landscapes describe certain combinations of landscape elements that recur across space and time.  These landscapes tend to be products of either especially powerful state actors, or of particularly durable and widely shared activities that resulted in the deep etching of a suite of features into the landscape.  In both cases, the features survive and sometimes even structure subsequent settlement and land use.  Signature landscapes are generally associated with, but not dictated by, combinations of physical environment and social factors (most commonly economy, political structure, and cosmology).  Here one might consider the lowland irrigation landscapes of southern Mesopotamia, the oasis-based water catchment systems of the deserts, and the terracing and runoff agricultural systems of highland Yemen.  The land of Assyria hosted two distinctive signature landscapes in the Early Bronze Age and Iron Ages under nearly identical environmental conditions, described below.  It is thus an excellent case study in the variable connections between cultural landscapes and sociopolitical organization.

The study of cultural landscapes is made challenging by the divergent histories of scholarship in the eastern (Iraqi) and western (Syrian and Turkish) halves of the Assyrian core.  The Assyrian heartland along the Tigris River is one of the birthplaces of the modern discipline of archaeology, due to the efforts of Layard, Botta, and others in the great capital cities of the empire (Larsen 1996).  These early excavations produced huge volumes of architectural, art historical, and epigraphic data that are still mined today for new insights.  In terms of landscape and settlement studies, however, the hinterlands of the great capitals have been almost terra incognita until very recently.  Early landscape observations were anecdotal and opportunistic, but remain unsurpassed forty or more years after they were made (see especially Bachmann 1927, Jacobsen and Lloyd 1935, Oates 1968, Reade 1978).  The “golden age” of survey archaeology in southern Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Adams 1981, reviewed in Ur 2012) had almost no impact on research in Assyria, which was characterized by a “closing of perspectives” (Liverani 1988:80).  The western half of the Assyrian core, on the other hand, has witnessed an explosion of surveys and landscape studies since the 1970s (reviewed in Wilkinson and Barbanes 2000, Morandi Bonacossi 2000 and below).  At the time of writing, this imbalance in archaeological survey is beginning to be corrected via new projects in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in particular in the hinterlands of Nineveh, Erbil, and Kilizu (see, e.g., Ur et al. 2013, Ur and Osborne in press, Morandi Bonacossi 2012-2013) Morandi Bonacossi and Iamoni in preparation).

Despite these biases within the overall dataset, it is possible to describe general trends in the evolution of cultural landscapes, although some aspects will require ground confirmation in the future when new projects in Iraq and its Kurdistan Region begin to be published.  After describing aspects of the physical environment, this chapter considers one of the most dramatic landscape shifts in the history of the ancient Near East: the transition from the emergent urban landscapes of the late Early Bronze Age (ca. 2600-2000 BC) to the imposed landscape of imperial Assyria in the early 1st millennium BCE.




See also: Erbil Plain
Last updated on 03/06/2021