Essential Architecture-  Iraq

Ashur (Qal'at Sherqat)




On the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia


c. 100 AD.






City (first capital of the Assyrian Empire)
  Map of Assyrian Empire- Ashur City states of Ashur, Nineveh, Caleh, Arbela, and Arrapkha, Courtesy
  Ashur site plan Courtesy
  Ashur Site Overview from satellite. Plan is still clearly visible.
  Site today- Temple of Anu and Adad on right, Gate top center
Ashur, view to SE from the Ziggurat. 1975 by Giorgio Tonini
  Perspective of Ashur (1385 - 1045 BC) and Model of Ashur: the double temple of Anu and Adad
  Pictorial reconstruction of the reception hall of the Assyrian palace showing some wall paintings.
  U.S. Soldiers from Crazy Horse Troop, 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Ashur and a modern reproduction of the Ashur gate.
  The first capital of a people who named their city after their major god, and who in time built a vast empire which included Iraq, Syria, Anatolia, Iran, Egypt, and part of Arabia.
Assur (today called Qalat Shergat) is 11 kms. to the south of Mosul, near Himrin mountains believed by the Assyrians to be the abode of god Assur. It lies on a stony hill overlooking the Tigris on the east. To the north of it is the river's old course. It was fortified by an inner wall and an outside wall, with several gateways.
It had been a human settlement long before it became a capital, and it was known to have come under the dominion of Akkad, of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and of the Babylonians in the 31st year of Hammurabi's reign.
Assur continued to be the Assyrian capital until Ashurnasirpal (883 - 859 B.C.) removed the seat of power to Nimrud (Kalakh), where his son Shalmaneser III reigned after him. But Assur maintained its religious distinction. Assur overlooking the Tigris Its most striking sight today is the Ziggurat, devoted to the god Assur, as well as the ground temple nearby devoted to the same god and called Temple of the Universe. There are also temples devoted to the gods of the sun and the moon, and one with two towers sacred to Anu, god of the sky, and Adad, god of storms.
The city overflowed its walls, and many buildings were erected beyond them, notably the Akitu temple where the New Year Festivals were celebrated. It was built by Sennacherib on the river bank (now the old course of the Tigris) and had it surrounded by extensive gardens.
  Temple of the Assyrians at Assur as restored by the excavators. Behind the temple court is the holy of holies, and on each side of it rises a temple tower with a winding ascent, after the old Babylonian manner. It was from such towers that the tower architecture of the early world arose, eventually producing our own church spires, of which the Babylonian temple tower was the ancestor.
The ancient city of Ashur is located on the Tigris River in northern Mesopotamia in a specific geo-ecological zone, at the borderline between rain-fed and irrigation agriculture. The city dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. From the 14th to the 9th centuries BC it was the first capital of the Assyrian Empire, a city-state and trading platform of international importance. It also served as the religious capital of the Assyrians, associated with the god Ashur. The city was destroyed by the Babylonians, but revived during the Parthian period in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Statement of Significance

Criterion iii: Founded in the 3rd millennium BCE, the most important role of Ashur was from the 14th to 9th century BCE when it was the first capital of the Assyrian empire. Ashur was also the religious capital of Assyrians, and the place for crowning and burial of its kings. Criterion iv: The excavated remains of the public and residential buildings of Ashur provide an outstanding record of the evolution of building practice from the Sumerian and Akkadian period through the Assyrian empire, as well as including the short revival during the Parthian period.

Long Description

Founded in the 3rd millennium BC, the most important role of Ashur was from the 14th to 9th centuries BC when it was the first capital of the Assyrian empire. Ashur was also the Assyrian religious capital and the place for crowning and burial of its kings. The excavated remains of the public and residential buildings of Ashur provide an outstanding record of the evolution of building practice from the Sumerian and Akkadian period through the Assyrian empire, as well as including the short revival during the Parthian period.

The ancient city of Ashur (Assur, modern Qal'at Sherqat) is located 390km north of Baghdad. The settlement was founded on the western bank of the Tigris. The excavated remains consist of superimposed archaeological deposits, the earliest from the Sumerian Early Dynastic period (early 3rd millennium BC), then the Akkadian and Ur III periods, followed by the Old, Middle and Neo-Assyrian (ending mid-1st millennium BC) periods, and finally, the Hellenistic period and that of the Arab kings of Hatra.

Structurally, the city of Ashur was divided into two parts: the old city (Akkadian libbi-ali, the heart of the city), which is the northern and largest part of Ashur, and the new city (Akk. alu-ishshu), which was constructed around the mid-2nd millennium BC. The major features of the city now visible on-site consist of architectural remains: the ziggurat and the great temple of the god Ashur, the double temple of Anu and Adad, the temple of Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of love and war, the Old Palace with its royal tombs and several living quarters in many parts of the city. The city was surrounded by a double wall with several gates and a big moat. The majority of the buildings of the city were built with sun-dried mud-bricks with foundations of quarried stones or dressed stone, depending on the period. Artistic objects and parts of architectural remains of the city are at present on display in the major museums of the world.

Historical Description

The history of the city of Ashur goes back to the Sumerian Early Dynastic period (first half of the 3rd millennium BCE). Some remains may even date to preceding periods. For this early part the stratigraphic excavation of the temple of Ishtar provided substantial information about the development of the religious architecture. Two of the five major building stages of it belong to this period. During the Akkadian empire (ca 2334-2154 BCE) Ashur was an important centre, and a governor of the third dynasty of Ur (2112-2004 BCE) ruled over the city which had to pay taxes to the central administration in the south. Still, the temple of Ishtar and its findings remain the main archaeological reference point. As an independent citystate Ashur became capital of Assyria and the Assyrians during the 2nd millennium BCE starting with the Old- Assyrian rulers Erishum, Ilushuma and Shamshi-Adad I and thereafter with the Middle-Assyrian kings Eriba- Adad I and Ashuniballit I. From here, the military campaigns of the Middle-Assyrian kings Tukulti-Ninurta I and Tiglathpileser I started and laid the foundation for the territorial expansion of the Assyrian empire to the west, ie Syro-Mesopotamia and the Levant, and other adjacent regions. For the 2nd millennium BCE a systematic building programme is attested for Ashur, culminating in the Middle-Assyrian period, when king Tukulti-Ninurta I not only renovated or reconstructed the majority of the temples (among them the temple of Ishtar), but terraced a large area for the his New Palace (the building was not erected since the king founded a new residential city named Kar-Tukulti- Ninurta, further upstream).

Ashur remained political capital until the reign of the Neo- Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE), who moved it to Kalhu (modern Nimrud). After that, Ashur continued to be an important religious and provincial Assyrian centre even though it had lost its function as national capital. The Neo-Assyrian kings executed restoration work at the main sanctuaries and palaces of Ashur as it was requested by the inscriptions of their predecessors and erected the royal burial place within the area of the Old royal palace. The majority of the private houses and living quarters date to this Neo-Assyrian period and provide important information about domestic architecture and the conditions of life of those parts of the Assyrian society not belonging to the royal elite. Special attention was received by the more than 1,000 inhumations in graves and tombs, mainly located inside the buildings, which provide important information on aspects of burial rites and funerary culture. The site survived the fall of the Assyrian empire in the 7th century BCE, and it flourished in the Hellenistic and Parthian periods until the 2nd century CE. The Parthian palace and a temple close to the ziggurat are architectural testimonies of this period. Presently, residential areas of the Parthian period are being excavated.

Neo-Assyrian Empire

Parthian temple in Assur.

In the Neo-Assyrian Empire (912-608 BC), the royal residence was transferred to other Assyrian cities. Ashur-nasir-pal II (884-859 BC) moved the capital from Assur to Kalhu (Nimrud). Yet the city of Assur remained the religious center of the empire, due to its temple of the national god Ashur. In the reign of Sennacherib (705-682 BC), the House of the New Year, akitu, was built, and the festivities celebrated in the city. Several Assyrian rulers were also buried beneath the Old Palace. The city was sacked and largely destroyed during the conquest of Assyria by the Medes, Babylonians and Scythians in 614 BC.

Persian Empire period

The city was fully reoccupied by Assyrians some centuries later. In the Parthian period, between 100 BC and 270 AD, the city becomes an important administrative centre of Parthian ruled Assyria (Assuristan), and some Assyriologists such as Simo Parpola have suggested it may have had some degree of autonomy. New administrative buildings were erected to the north of the old city, and a palace to the south. The old temple dedicated to the national god of the Assyrians Assur (Ashur) was also rebuilt, indicating the continued occupation by ethnic Assyrians. However, the city was largely destroyed again by the Sassanid king Shapur I (241-272 AD). Some settlement at the site is known from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Assur seems to have been reoccupied by Assyrians once again, and remained so well in the parthian and Sasanina Period. It is occupied during the islamic period until the 14th century when Tamurlane conducted a massacre of indigenous Assyrian Christians. After that there are no traces of a settlement in the archaeological and numismatic record.


Exploration of the site of Assur began in 1898 by German archaeologists. Excavations began in 1900 by Friedrich Delitzsch, and were continued in 1903-1913 by a team from the German Oriental Society led initially by Robert Koldewey and later by Walter Andrae. More than 16,000 tablets with cuneiform texts were discovered. Many of the objects found made their way to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

More recently, Ashur was excavated by B. Hrouda for the University of Munich and the Bavarian Ministry of Culture in 1990. During the same period, in 1988 and 1989, the site was being worked by R. Dittmann on behalf of the German Research Foundation.