Water, Gods and Kings. The Neo-Assyrian Canal and Rock Reliefs in Faida (Kurdistan Region of Iraq)

The Northern Assyrian Irrigation System and its economic impact on the Nineveh hinterland

The Governorates of Duhok and Ninawa in Iraq host the most unique branched and monumental irrigation system ever built by the Assyrians in the core of their empire (fig. 1). Between 703 and c. 688 BC, the Assyrian king Sennacherib created in four stages a ramified network of canals to water Nineveh’s extensive hinterland and bring water to his ‘Palace without Rivals’ and royal parks on Nineveh’s main upper town (Morandi Bonacossi 2018).

Fig. 1. Northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, with the Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project region and major Assyrian sites indicated (map by A. Savioli).

Until a few years ago, the Northern Assyrian Irrigation System and the other hydraulic networks in the imperial core had been explored only anecdotally or on the basis of cuneiform inscriptions (Bagg 2000) or remote sensing  images (Ur 2005). Ongoing field investigation of the Northern Assyrian Irrigation System in the Duhok region of Iraqi Kurdistan by Udine University’s Land of Nineveh Archaeological Project (LoNAP) has made it possible to carry out a systematic geoarchaeological field study of this 347 km long network of canals and offtakes (fig. 2) dug into the earth and hewn into the bedrock, canalised rivers and wadis, earthworks, weirs and stone aqueducts, with regard to their construction techniques and the impact of the introduction of gravity irrigation on the Assyrian agricultural economy in the hinterlands of Khorsabad and Nineveh.

Fig. 2. The Northern Assyrian Irrigation System (map by A. Savioli).

LoNAP fieldwork and computer simulations based on an ASTER digital elevation model of the study region have revealed (fig. 3) that large, high-productivity irrigation basins were formed in particular by the Maltai and Faida canals (nearly 3000 ha) and the canals of Sennacherib’s stage 4 (Jerwan-Mubarak: 10,430 ha and Jerahiyeh-Piruzawa-Ba’dreh: 4,851 ha). An estimate of the overall surface area made available for intensive cultivation based on gravity irrigation in the entire Nineveh hinterland gives about 300km2, to which approximately 4 000km2 of dry-farming land in the wider northern part of the ‘Assyrian Triangle’ (corresponding to the hinterlands of the Assyrian capitals Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh) may be added. Even if this figure should be halved – since Neo-Assyrian legal texts show that cereal cultivation was based on a fallow system in which at least 50% of the arable land was left fallow every year (Morandi Bonacossi 2018: footnote 39) – an overall surface area of 2150km2 was potentially available for crops in the region, of which about 150 km2 could have been used for intensive irrigation agriculture, and the remaining land devoted to extensive dry-farming.

Fig. 3. Natural hydrography map of the northern part of the ‘Assyrian Triangle’ showing canals in Nineveh’s hinterland, areas that could be irrigated by feeder channels, and Neo-Assyrian sites (size proportional to site extension). Relief map and analysis based on ASTER GDEM V2 (mapmaking by Alessandro Perego).

In the centrally planned imperial landscape created by the Assyrian rulers of the ninth to seventh centuries BC, canals (and rivers) may have also been used as waterways for the transportation of staple food and other materials to the capital cities. The low-friction bulk transport of goods via barges on rivers and canals would have been cheaper and faster than overland transportation by means of caravans of pack animals – and, making use of the Nineveh and Nimrud (Ur and Reade 2015) irrigation systems, would have enabled the more effective transport to the capital cities of the cereals produced in their hinterlands.

In the northern part of the ‘Assyrian Triangle’, an integrated and centrally planned landscape was thus imposed, based on the creation of massive irrigation infrastructures (the Northern Assyrian and the Nimrud irrigation systems) and the intensification of settlement. This branched network of canals had a twofold strategic role. On one hand, it allowed for increased agricultural productivity in the countryside around the capitals and the establishment of a solid local economy based in their immediate environs. On the other hand, it determined the creation of an efficient network of mid-distance waterways for the low-cost transport to the capitals of bulk food items produced in their hinterlands.

Lastly, the excavation of extensive irrigation systems across the Assyrian homeland was associated with the ideological marking of the newly engineered landscapes with commemorative monuments such as impressive rock reliefs, rock steles and royal inscriptions placed at symbolically charged locations. Throughout the Northern Assyrian hydraulic system, massive rock reliefs were carved along the canals or at their heads in Maltai, Faida, Shiru Maliktha, and Khinis, while cuneiform celebratory inscriptions marked the Khinis canalhead, the Jerwan aqueduct (Jacobsen and Lloyd 1935) and possibly also the other four aqueducts discovered by LoNAP along the Khinis canal. These monuments were part of a ‘signature landscape’ characterised by the ideological transformation and royal commemoration of the Assyrian countryside that was marked with the rulers’ signature and that profoundly modified the space of the empire’s core area, along with the mental and symbolic perception the people had of this newly built imperial landscape.

The Faida canal and rock reliefs

The Faida canal is part of the Northern Assyrian Irrigation System and is located at the western foot of the Chiya Daka hill range, east of the village of Faida, about 12km as the crow flies to the south of the western outskirts of Duhok (Morandi Bonacossi and Qasim 2022). Archaeologists have known of the Faida canal since 1973, when the British archaeologist Julian Reade visited the site and discovered three rock reliefs carved along the canal’s east bank (fig. 4). The rectangular bas-relief sculpted panels had been almost entirely buried by the deposits of soil and colluvial debris eroded from the side of Chiya Daka hill; only the upper part of the sculpted panels emerged from the debris that filled the canal. In 2012 the LoNAP team surveyed the canal and discovered six new reliefs.

Fig. 4. Map of the Faida canal with rock reliefs (map by A. Savioli).

The situation of constant risk to which the Faida reliefs are exposed due to weathering, karst phenomena, the expansion of local productive activities, vandalism and illegal excavations is an example of the serious general conditions of the Duhok Governorate’s entire vast patrimony of rock art (Morandi Bonacossi 2021). Due to the increasing threats endangering the unique Faida rock art complex, in 2019 a rescue project was launched by the joint Kurdish-Italian initiative to salvage the Assyrian canal and its reliefs co-directed by Bekas Jamaluddin Hasan and Daniele Morandi Bonacossi. The goal of the project is the comprehensive archaeological investigation of the canal and rock art complex and its recording with state-of-the-art methods and techniques, including laser scanning, remote sensing and UAV technology. Moreover, a project has been implemented for the site’s protection and safeguarding and the reliefs’ monitoring and conservation.

The Faida canal can be clearly traced from satellite images and on the ground for about 10km (fig. 5). Its width varies between 3 and 4.20m; this shows that Assyrian hydraulic engineers adjusted it according to the hillside topography. The canal’s intake works were fed by a cluster of karst springs and wells and the canal was equipped with several overflows, which allowed the draining of excess water caused by heavy rain during the winter-spring season. Its slope gradient is 0.063%, i.e. about 0.6m per km, which is a relatively slight incline that must have determined a fairly slow and well-controlled movement of water.

Fig. 5. The Faida canal seen from a drone (photograph by A. Savioli).
Fig. 6. View of reliefs 6 and 7 and the canal bed from a drone (north to the left; photograph by A. Savioli).

Excavation of the canal has hitherto brought to light thirteen impressive sculpted panels that make the site of Faida an extraordinary and unique monumental complex without parallels in ancient Near Eastern rock art. The panels have slightly different dimensions; the frames surrounding them vary from 1.25m to 1.62m in height and from 4.30m to 5m in length. Some panels occur in pairs placed side by side (fig. 6), whilst others are isolated. Like the four panels in Maltai, the Faida reliefs portray the Assyrian ruler represented twice, at both ends of each panel, in front of the cult statues of seven divinities standing on pedestals resting on striding animals (figs. 7-8). All reliefs represent a worship scene of divine statues by a king. With the only exception of the right-hand king figure, the figures are shown in profile facing to the spectator’s right and thus look in the same direction as the current flowing in the channel. From right to left, the deities wearing horned tiaras can be identified as follows. Ashur, the main Assyrian god, on a mušḫuššu-dragon and a bull followed by his spouse Mullissu, represented with the same proportions as Ashur’s figure, sitting on a decorated throne carved with two registers of apotropaic creatures supporting it and held up by a lion. The third divine figure is that of the moon god Sîn standing on an abūbu-deluge monster, followed by Nabû on a mušḫuššu-dragon, the sun god Shamash on a harnessed horse, the storm and thunder god Adad standing on an abūbu-lion symbolising the flood and a bull, and, finally, Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, on a lion.

Fig. 7. Relief 8 (photograph by D. Tagen).
Fig. 8. Composite drawing of the Faida reliefs (drawing by E. Girotto).

The reliefs were designed to evoke a scene comparable to cultic performances in the temples, where, as attested by letters of the time of Esarhaddon, statues of the king were set up on the right and left sides of the deity to guarantee his ongoing adoration. The veneration scenes carved along the canal course were transported from the secluded temple environment into the open countryside with the aim of commemorating the construction of the new irrigation landscape created by the king in his role as a mediator between heaven and earth and promoter of local fertility and abundance.

The chronology of the Faida carved panels

In all panels, the god Ashur stands on the mušḫuššu-dragon, like Marduk, the supreme god of Babylon. The transfer of Marduk’s theology to Ashur by Sennacherib after his destruction of Babylon in 689 BC, his re-organization of the cult of Ashur and his temple in Ashur and the construction of the bīt akītu in the same city represent a terminus post quem for dating the Faida panels depicting Ashur and his son, Nabû, on the mušḫuššu. This dating of the Faida reliefs is further corroborated by the king’s labān appi hand gesture with a cylindrical object held to his nose. As shown by Reade (1977: 33–35), the labān appi gesture with the king holding to his face an enigmatic object is clearly Babylonian in origin and has been introduced to Assyria during the reign of Sennacherib.

King Sennacherib was thus the ruler who ordered the execution of the Faida reliefs, although it is possible that also Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal were involved in the carving of the numerous rock panels discovered at the site.

The conservation and protection of the Faida canal and reliefs and the creation of the Faida Archaeological Park

Due to the severe threats endangering the archaeological site, the joint Kurdish-Italian Faida project has implemented a series of measures to preserve and protect the entire archaeological complex, make the carved panels safe for an outdoor display, and start a monitoring program for the analysis of their surface deterioration. To this end, thanks to funding made available by ALIPH Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, in collaboration with the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities, an area of over 102 ha was identified as a fully protected area (core zone) where only research and monitoring activities are permitted. Furthermore, a restricted area of c. 16 ha was designated so as to protect the most endangered area from illicit activities and was fenced.

Furthermore, a team of conservators and geologists developed a conservation strategy for the reliefs. So far seven out of thirteen reliefs were targeted for the implementation of all conservation interventions necessary to conserve the panels’ stone surfaces and consolidate them. Systems of regulatory barriers to divert surface runoff away from the reliefs were built on the hill slope above all reliefs and six temporary sheds were constructed to protect the conserved reliefs from solar irradiation, wind-blown rain, and wind. A monitoring system was implemented to track the degradation caused by their outdoor display.

A parallel programme of community engagement activities and outreach has been started involving many school classes, university students and the inhabitants of the nearby modern town of Faida.

In October 2022 the first stage of the Faida Archaeological Park was opened allowing for the first time the local population and Iraqi and foreign tourists to enjoy all the cultural, spiritual and social benefits offered by this impressive archaeological site.At this stage, trilingual information panels (Kurdish, Arabic, and English) located along the touristic path explain the canal and rock reliefs to visitors and are complemented by a virtual tour of the site.

Since its inauguration, over 4,000 national and international visitors had the opportunity to see for the first time the Assyrian rock reliefs of Faida.


Bagg, A. M. 2000. Assyrische Wasserbauten: Landwirtschaftliche Wasserbauten im Kernland Assyriens zwischen der 2. Hälfte des 2. und der 1. Hälfte des 1. Jahrtausends v. Chr., Mainz am Rhein, Philipp von Zabern.

Jacobsen, T., Lloyd, S. 1935. Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Morandi Bonacossi, D. 2018. Water for Nineveh. The Nineveh Irrigation System in the Regional Context of the ‘Assyrian Triangle’: A First Geoarchaeological Assessment, in: H. Kühne (ed.), Water for Assyria, Studia Chaburensia 7, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 77-115.

⎯ 2021. Faces in the Stone. Rock Art in the Duhok Region (Kurdistan, Iraq): A severely Threatened Cultural Heritage, in: R. Giovannelli, L. Milano, C. Tonghini, A. Traviglia (eds.), Stolen Heritage, Venice, Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 35-78.

Morandi Bonacossi, D. and Qasim, H.A. 2022. Irrigation and Landscape Commemoration in Northern Assyria. The Assyrian Canal and Rock Reliefs in Faida (Kurdistan Region of Iraq). Preliminary Report on the 2019 Field Season, Iraq 84, 43-81.

Reade, J. E. 1977. Shikaft-i Gulgul: Its Date and Symbolism, Iranica Antiqua 12, 33-44.

Ur, J. 2005. Sennacherib’s Northern Assyrian Canals. New Insights from Satellite Imagery and Aerial Photography, Iraq 67, 317-345.

Ur, J. A., Reade, J. E. 2015. The Hydraulic Landscape of Nimrud, Mesopotamia 50, 25-51.


Daniele Morandi Bonacossi is Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Udine. He is Director of the Italian Archaeological Mission to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq – Land of  Nineveh Archaeological Project.and Co-director of the Kurdish-Italian Faida Archaeological Project (Iraq).

Bekas Jamaluddin Hasan is Director of Antiquities & Heritage of Duhok, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Francesca Simi is Research Fellow at the Department of Humanities and Cultural Heritage of the University of Udine and vice-director of the Archaeological Project Land of Niniveh and of the Kurdistan-Italian Faida Archaeological Project

Citer ce billet
Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, Bekas Jamaluddin Hasan and Francesca Simi (2023, 19 mai). Water, Gods and Kings. The Neo-Assyrian Canal and Rock Reliefs in Faida (Kurdistan Region of Iraq). ArchéOrient - Le Blog. Consulté le 16 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/bd35

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