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Biblical Archaeology Review 48:4, Winter 2022

Going, Going, Gone: Iraq’s Capital Catastrophe

Assur, the first capital and spiritual heart of the Assyrians—the great Mesopotamian empire that, in the first millennium B.C.E., subjugated much of the Near East, including the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah—is fighting for its survival. The ancient capital, with its extensive remains of palaces, temples, and monumental walls that date back some 5,000 years, may soon be flooded by a lake created by a dam that is being constructed along the nearby Tigris River.

Perched on a high, rocky outcrop on the west bank of the Tigris, about 70 miles south of Mosul in modern Iraq, Assur was the capital city of the Assyrians for more than a thousand years. The city reached its zenith during the second millennium B.C.E. as generations of Assyrian rulers built impressive palaces, thick fortifications, and towering monuments in honor of Assyria’s patron god, Assur. Still visible today are the crumbling ruins of the city’s massive stepped temple (ziggurat) and the three towering arches of an enormous gateway (known as the Tabira Gate), the ceremonial entrance to the city’s sacred precinct. Although subsequent kings relocated Assyria’s capital several times during the first millennium B.C.E. when Assyria was the Near East’s dominant imperial power, Assur remained Assyria’s cultural, spiritual, and geographic center until it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 614 B.C.E.

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