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Assyrian Agricultural Technology

February 15, 2012

Assyria is famous primarily for its military innovations. Siege warfare, cavalry, and the integration and methodical organization of warfare were all advanced considerably by the Assyrian state in its insatiable desire to conquer its neighbors. What Assyria is not well known for are its civil innovations. Yet, Assyrian armies were sacking foreign cities, the Assyrian homeland was being enriched with various things stolen and looted from other countries. The Assyrians may not have been great innovators, but they were great derivators, taking inventions from various parts of the world and adapting them to their own needs.

Assyria was a land power for sure, which means that its power was at its roots based on agricultural production. As both an agrarian society and a highly militarized state, Iron Age Assyria is not the type of society where one would expect to find much independent thought or innovation in the civilian sector. This is partly true. Few pieces of Assyrian agricultural technology were new. Most were adapted from surrounding cultures. But some great agricultural innovations and feats of engineering did arise.

Modern day farmer’s fields along the Tigris River near Diyarbakır, Turkey.

The heart of ancient Assyria was situated along the Tigris River, in what is now northern Iraq. The Two Rivers were vital to farming in what would otherwise be a desert, but they also carry six times the silt of the Nile River. This means that their river beds are shallower and fill up faster, and therefore the rivers change courses more often. They also flow faster, and the Tigris flows even faster than the Euphrates. While the Nile flooded regularly and predictably and gently inundated Egypt’s fields every year, the shallow beds, fast rate of flow and heavy silt load meant that the Tigris and Euphrates were prone to violent, unpredictable floods that spilled over their banks and washed away fields rather than replenished them.[1]

As a result, systems of levees and canals were built in Mesopotamia from as early as Sumerian times. Canals were used to trap water, which could then be used to irrigate fields. There were no sluice gates to control the water flow, rather, fields were flooded by digging through the canal wall to flood the field, and then shoveling mud into the breach to seal it back up again once the desired amount of water had come through.This meant that each farmer’s field had to directly border a canal. As a result, complex canal systems sprung up everywhere people lived in Mesopotamia. Maintaining the canals was a major duty of government. The nation’s food supply depended on it.

Flood irrigation from canals is still used by many farmers in modern Iraq.

Rivers flooded in the spring as mountaintop snows melted at the sources of the rivers. Canal breaching was done at this time on fallow fields to prepare them for planting. The fields would then be plowed in autumn after a rain. If there were no rains, more irrigation was required. Once the field had dried out enough so that the ground was not wet, but before it was rock hard, it was ready to be plowed.

Plowing was done with oxen, typically four to a plow. The soil was tough enough that the plow required three or more passes for the point to break up the soil create a good furrow. It took three men to work a plow team, to guide the oxen and hold down the plow handles. There was no steering mechanism on plows or any wheels. Once the end of the furrow was reached, the oxen had to be unhitched and the plow turned around, and the oxen re-hitched and the process begun again in the other direction.

A plow team in Egypt’s Old Kingdom. Assyrian plow teams 2,000 years later would not look much different.

At the end of this laborious process came the seeding, usually done in October. Barley was by far the most common crop. Wheat, emmer, millet, flax and onions were also grown in the fields. Seeding could be done by hand, but from the mid 2nd millennium BC mechanical seeders started to appear. These tools resembled plows pulled by oxen, but with a very small blade. Above the blade was a hopper, which fed a chute that ran down behind the blade. As the seeder moved forwards, seed was deposited into the furrows.

Drawing of a relief from Mesopotamia, c. 1500 BC, showing a mechanical seeder. b) indicates the seed hopper while a) indicates the chute.

Once the field had been seeded, it was flooded again up to the height of the furrows. The water leached away salts from the soil on sides of the furrows. The field could be watered several more times during the winter, once a month in January, February and March.

While large waterings were conducted by breaking and rebuilding the canal wall, this was time-consuming and back-breaking labor. Smaller scale watering and the watering of shade gardens was done with a shaduf, a simple counterweight crane used to dip a bucket into a canal or river and lift it up to a field or garden. The shaduf had been in use in the Near East and Egypt for thousands of years as a basic tool of farming.

An Egyptian Shaduf used to water a garden. From the Tomb of Ipuy at Deir-el-Medina, reign of Rameses II, mid 13th century BC. Assyrian shadufs would have been virtually identical.

Harvest time came in April for barley and onions, and in May and June for flax and emmer. Harvesting was done by hand with sickles. Grain was threshed on a threshing-floor by oxen who dragged a threshing-board over the grain. The grain was then tossed in the air to allow the wind to separate the chaff from the kernels. The whole cycle then began anew, with fields being cleared, irrigated and plowed.[2]

This was the cycle of agricultural life in Mesopotamia. It is how the vast majority of the population spent their lives. The cycle of floods and rains, planting and harvest, provided a framework that governed life between the Two Rivers. These practices pre-dated the Assyrian Empire by millennia and they would survive long after it was gone.

Yet, improvements could be made. A major duty of the Assyrian kings was to maintain an effective canal system to enable farmers to water their land. Kings took other measures to boost agricultural production. Tiglath-Pileser I, who ruled from 1115 to 1077 BC, boasted that:

I had plows put into operation throughout the whole land of Assyria, whereby I heaped up more piles of grain than my ancestors. I established herds of horses, cattle and donkeys from the booty which by the help of my Lord Ashur I had taken from the lands over which I had won dominion.[3]

As Assyrian power grew and the population boomed, greater demand for foodstuffs meant that more elaborate irrigation systems had to be constructed. Assurnasirpal II (who ruled from 883 to 859 BC) is most famous for his military conquests, but he also embarked on a major civil engineering project to expand the canal system around the capital city of Nimrud. He dug a major canal linking Nimrud with the Upper Zab River. In an inscription he boasted that:

I dug out a canal from the Upper Zab, cutting through a mountain peak, and called it Abundance Canal. I watered the meadows of the Tigris and planted orchards with all kinds of fruit trees in the vicinity. I planted seeds and plants that I had found in the countries through which I had marched and in the highlands which I had crossed: pines of different kinds, cypresses and junipers of different kinds, almonds, dates, ebony, rosewood, olive, oak, tamarisk, walnut, terebinth and ash, fir, pomegranate, pear, quince,
fig, grapevine…[4]

Assurnasirpal’s Abundance Canal also served to water the king’s royal gardens, full of plants taken from lands he had conquered. He concluded dreamily that “The canal-water gushes from above into the gardens; fragrance pervades the walkways, streams of water as numerous as the stars of heaven flow in the pleasure garden. Like a squirrel I pick fruit in the garden of delights.”[5]

In the late 8th century, Sargon II (who ruled from 722 to 704 BC) built a new capital at Dur-Sharrukin. As part of this new city, he planted an even bigger garden. This urban forest featured thousands of trees, including “2,350 loads of apple trees” supplied by “the people of Nemed-Istar” and “1,000 loads of apple trees” from “the people of Suhu,” along with medlar, plum, quince and almond trees. The garden featured an artificial hill with an altar on top, a pond large enough for pleasure boating, and a pondside pavilion with a columned roof providing shade.[6]

More importantly, Sargon worked to expand the canal system. When his troops marched into the Caucasus Mountains against the kingdom of Urartu in 714 BC, they discovered a new type of water system: the qanat (so called in modern Arabic, also called kerez in Persian). This was a tunnel used to funnel water down from hills to the plains below. They were built by digging a series of shafts straight down from the surface. Tunnels were then dug between the bottoms of the shafts to create an underground tunnel. The first shaft was dug at a water source, a stream or natural well at higher elevations. The resulting tunnel sloped gently downhill, allowing the water to flow down the mountain.

Diagram of a typical qanat system.

Sargon of course devastated the Urartian countryside, but he brought the qanat system back to Assyria, where many qanawat were built and are still in use to this day.[7]

Sargon was killed in battle in 704 BC and succeeded by his son Sennacherib (704-681 BC). Sennacherib began even greater public works projects. He moved the capital again, this time to Nineveh, which he vastly expanded. Nineveh was bisected by the Tebitu River, so to control the river while still supplying the city with water he dammed the Tebitu ten miles upstream from Nineveh and then dug a canal from the reservoir to the city. This allowed flooding to be controlled. The canal was shallower than the river, so water could more easily be used to irrigate the fields by digging out the canal walls and refilling them.

Plan of the structure erected by Sennacherib where the canal separated from the river at Bavian.

To further control flooding, Sennacherib had an artificial swamp created on the northeast side of the city in order to absorb water overflowing the canals. The swamp was also designated a royal game preserve for hunting by the king and stocked with game birds, deer and wild boars. This first stage of construction was completed by 694 BC.

As Nineveh grew, one canal was not enough. More canals were dug, until eighteen canals connected Nineveh to the Tebitu reservoir and other water sources. This in turn created greater demand on the reservoir’s water supplies. To remedy this, Sennacherib’s engineers dammed the Atrush river and built another canal to feed into the Tebitu at Bavian. This canal featured a working sluice gate which according to an inscription “opens by itself, without using a spade or a shovel, and allows the waters of prosperity to flow. Its gate is not opened by any action of mens hands.” This was a huge technological leap ahead of canal banks that were dug through with a shovel and closed by shoveling dirt back into the breach. Now, gates could be opened and closed and water re-routed by mechanical process instead of back-breaking labor.[8]

The course of the new canal required crossing over another stream near the modern village of Jerwan in Iraq, so the engineers built an aqueduct thirty feet high and ninety feet long to bridge the waters. This structure was built of stone and sealed with concrete to prevent the water from leaking. In order to keep the water flowing, the bed of the aqueduct was built on a finely graded slope. The structure was supported by a type of false arch in which stones were stacked in a staggered fashion, appearing arch-like but lacking the weight-bearing properties of a true arch. Sennacherib was very proud of this structure, having inscribed on the aqueduct that “I caused a canal to be dug to the meadows of Nineveh. Over deep-cut ravines I spanned a bridge of white stone blocks. Those waters I caused to pass over it.”[9] This was the world’s earliest known above-ground aqueduct, pre-dating the famous Roman structures by 500 years.

Reconstructed plan of the Jerwan aqueduct, completed in 690 BC.

Artist’s depiction of the Jerwan aqueduct.

The new canal system was completed in 690 BC after fifteen months of work. Just before the sluice-gates were scheduled to be opened in a ceremony at which Sennacherib and priests were to be present to make sacrifices to the river-gods Ea and Enbilulu. Before they could conduct the ceremony, water pressure built up behind the sluices and burst them open. While many Assyrians likely feared that this was a sign of divine disfavor, Sennacherib declared that the gods had been so pleased with the work of the canal that they had opened the gates themselves without waiting for his ceremony.

The ceremonies went ahead as planned, just without the dramatic opening of the canal. Priests offered oxen and sheep as sacrifices, and Sennacherib gave gifts of “linen, and brightly colored garments,” “golden rings” and “daggers of gold” to the engineers, architects and workmen who had built the canal. At the head of the sluice gates at Bavian, he set up six steles with images of the gods carved onto them.[10]

Eventually, the water system of Nineveh featured 150km of canals, aqueducts, qanawat and other water works.[11] Sennacherib summed up his accomplishments in an inscription at Bavian:

At that time I greatly enlarged the site of Nineveh. Its wall and outer wall thereof, which had not existed before, I built anew and raised mountain high. Its fields, which through lack of water had fallen into neglect and…while its people, ignorant of artificial irrigation, turned their eyes heavenward for showers of rain–[these fields] I watered; and from the villages of Masiti, Banbarina, Shapparishu, Kar-Shamash-nasir, Kar-Nuri, Rimusa, Hata, Dalain, Resh, Eni, Sulu, Dur, Shibaniba, Isparrira, Gingilinish, Nampa-gate, Tillu, Alumsusi, and the waters which were above the town of Hadabiti eighteen canals I dug and directed their course to the Khosr River. From the border of the town of Kisiri to the midst of Nineveh I dug a canal; these waters I caused to flow therein. Sennacherib’s Channel I called its name.[12]

Sennacherib also sought to outdo his predecessors in terms of the massive palaces and gardens, including one structure he called the “Palace Without Rival.” This palace was built on a site previously occupied by a palace of Tiglath-Pileser I. By the time of Sennacherib, this palace was 400 years old and in poor condition. Flooding had undermined the foundations and the ground surrounding it was turning into a swamp into which the entire structure was slowly sinking. Sennacherib had the old palace torn down and canals built to drain the water from the area.

Drawing of a relief from Nineveh depicting Sennacherib’s Gardens. An aqueduct resembling the Jerwan aqueduct can be seen in the upper right. Streams can be seen crisscrossing the garden and a small pavilion is situated on top of a hill in the center of the garden.

He then built his new palace, a magnificent building designed to display the king’s power, wealth and dominion over the far reaches of the empire. This structure featured a room filled with “objects of astonishment” as well as “colossal striding lions, such as no previous king had ever constructed before me,” twelve fierce lion-colossi,” “twelve mighty bull-colossi,” and, much more strangely, “twenty-two cow-colossi invested with joyous allure, plentifully endowed with sexual attraction.”[13] This structure featured massive terraced gardens, including a park laid out adjacent to the palace intending to imitate Mount Amanus. Most interesting is the system Sennacherib described for watering the gardens:

I created clay molds as if by divine intelligence for great cylinders and alamittu-palms…In order to draw water up all day long I had ropes, bronze wires and bronze chains made, and instead of shadufs I set up the great cylinders and alamittu-palms over cisterns. I made these royal lodges look just right. I raised the height of the surroundings of the palace to be a Wonder for All Peoples. I gave it the name “Incomparable Palace.”[14]

What is meant by these terms? According to Stephanie Dalley, the alamittu-palm was typically depicted in Assyrian art as having a spiral-like internal structure, and therefore the bronze tree-trunks and bronze spirals indicated that the entire bronze and copper mechanism was in fact an Archimedes screw. This is generally thought to have been invented in the 3rd century BC but if this interpretation is correct the device was used in Assyria long before then.[15] This was a totally new form of agricultural technology, one that would represent a major development if the Assyrians did in fact invent it.

An Archimedes screw-pump.

Yet, the description is still rather vague and open to interpretation. No archaeological remains or artistic depictions of Archimedes screws have been found in Assyria. One drawback is that large bronze screws inside metal cylinders would have been extremely heavy, with some estimates running as high as two or three tons.[16]

Could Sennacherib’s inscription be describing something else less technically advanced? One possibility is that the references to chains and cylinders describe some sort of bucket elevator, which was used to raise water through a cylinder from a lower level of the gardens to a higher level. This of course has no more or less to recommend it than Dalley’s view, and I merely raise it as an alternative hypothesis until something else comes to light.

Dalley goes so far as to suggest that the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon were in fact the gardens of Sennacherib. The problem with the Hanging Gardens is that Nebuchadnezzar’s palace has been extensively excavated and very little evidence of major gardens has been found. Dalley points out that the descriptions of the Hanging Gardens by classical authors contain many features of Sennacherib’s gardens in Nineveh: terraces, a structure built in imitation of a mountain, and Archimedes screws to water the upper levels. Dalley theorizes that the writers who wrote of the Seven Wonders of the World confused Babylon with ancient Nineveh, and were actually describing the gardens of Sennacherib.[17]

This is certainly an interesting hypothesis, but one that cannot be a definitive solution. For one, there is the problem that the gardens of Nebuchadnezzar were described not only by Greek and Roman authors but by Berossus, a native Babylonian who lived in the 3rd century BC and wrote a history of Babylon in Greek. His history has unfortunately been lost, but fragments survive quoted in other authors such as Josephus. Although he did not use the term “hanging gardens”, Berossus recorded that Nebuchadnezzar in building his palace:

Now in this palace he erected very high walks, supported by stone pillars, and by planting what was called a pensile paradise, and replenishing it with all sorts of trees, he rendered the prospect an exact resemblance of a mountainous country. This he did to please his queen, because she had been brought up in Media, and was fond of a mountainous situation.[18]

The second problem is that Sennacherib’s gardens were destroyed when Nineveh was sacked in 612 BC. There is no way that anyone alive or even recently alive could have seen them in the 2nd century BC when people began to compose lists of wonders. It seems rather odd that Greeks of the 2nd century onwards would know many technical details of gardens that were destroyed 500 years prior, and that a native Babylonian would confuse a famous landmark of his own city with the capital of a foreign power that oppressed his city for centuries.

Karen Foster has proposed an alternative theory: that Nebuchadnezzar was copying features found in earlier Assyrian royal gardens. Terraced gardens, irrigation systems and the imitation of the form of a mountain were all features common to the accounts of Sennacherib’s and Nebuchadnezzar’s gardens, and some of these features were also found in later Persian gardens.[19] Without finding definite evidence of the Hanging Gardens, we cannot say for sure. If this were the case, it would truly be a testament to the advanced nature of Assyrian agriculture and irrigation that one of the Wonders of the Ancient World was a direct copy of an Assyrian royal garden.

A set of more recent images of the Jerwan Aqueduct can be found here.

[1] L. Sprague De Camp, The Ancient Engineers (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 51-52; Christopher J. Eyre, “The Agricultural Cycle, Farming, and Water Management in the Ancient Near East,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 180.

[2] Eyre, “The Agricultural Cycle, Farming, and Water Management in the Ancient Near East,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 1, 180-182; H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984), 163-164.

[3] Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria, 162.

[4] Translated in Stephanie Dalley, “Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved,” Garden History, Vol. 21, No. 1. (Summer, 1993), 4.

[5] Ibid., 4.

[6] Dalley, “Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved,” 4-5.

[7] De Camp, The Ancient Engineers, 61.

[8] Thorvild Jakobsen, “The Water Supplies of Nineveh,” in Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1934), 41; Seton Loyd, “The Canal Head at Bavian,” in Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan, 49; Stephanie Dalley and John Peter Olson, “Sennacherib, Archimedes, and the Water Screw: The Context of Invention in the Ancient World,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 2003), 6; De Camp, The Ancient Engineers, 63-64.

[9] Loyd, “Architectural Description of the Aqueduct,” in Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan, 10-20; De Camp, The Ancient Engineers, 63-64.

[10] Jakobsen, “The Water Supplies of Nineveh,” in Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan, 36-41.

[11] Karen Radner, ‘Nineveh, Assyria’s capital in the 7th century BC’, Knowledge and Power, Higher Education Academy, 2011 [] (accessed February 7, 2012).

[12] Jakobsen, “The Water Supplies of Nineveh,” in Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan, 36.

[13] From inscriptions translated in Karen Polinger Foster, “The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh,” Iraq, Vol. 66, Nineveh. Papers of the 49th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Part One (2004), 217; Dalley and Olson, “Sennacherib, Archimedes, and the Water Screw: The Context of Invention in the Ancient World,” 7.

[14] From inscription translated in Dalley and Olson, “Sennacherib, Archimedes, and the Water Screw: The Context of Invention in the Ancient World,” 7.

[15] Dalley, “Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved,” 6-9; Stephanie Dalley, “Nineveh, Babylon and the Hanging Gardens: Cuneiform and Classical Sources Reconciled,” Iraq, Vol. 56 (1994), 46-48.

[16] Dalley and Olson, “Sennacherib, Archimedes, and the Water Screw: The Context of Invention in the Ancient World,” 8.

[17] Dalley, “Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved,” 6-9; Stephanie Dalley, “Nineveh, Babylon and the Hanging Gardens: Cuneiform and Classical Sources Reconciled,” Iraq, Vol. 56 (1994), 46-48.

[18] Berossus fragment in Josephus, Against Apion, trans. by William Whiston, 1737 (, 19.

[19] Foster, “The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh,” 209, 217.

Image Sources: Colorized version of drawing seen later in the article;; Laith Hammoudi/MClatchy Newspapers (; James Henry Breasted, The Conquest of Civilization (New York, London: Harper & Brothers, 1926), 70; Breasted, The Conquest of Civilization, 124;;; Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1934), 48 (A search of copyright renewal records does not indicate that the copyright on this publication was renewed. The work is also available for free online. I believe it to be in the public domain. If this is incorrect, please notify me and I will attend to it); Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan, opp. pg. 8; Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan, 17;; last three images from image plates in Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan.

Article © Christopher Jones 2012.


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