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May 24, 2021

Rare Photos Taken During the Excavation of the Gate of the Citadel of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin, Iraq in the 19th Century

Dur-Sharrukin (“Fortress of Sargon”), present day Khorsabad, was the Assyrian capital in the time of Sargon II of Assyria. The great city was entirely built in the decade preceding 706 BC. After the unexpected death of Sargon in battle, the capital was shifted 20 km south to Nineveh.

While Dur-Sharrukin was abandoned in antiquity and thus did not attract the same level of attention as other ancient Assyrian sites, there was some awareness of the origins of the mound well before European excavation. Once the European presence in northern Iraq became more substantial in the mid-nineteenth century, archaeological exploration of the site of Dur-Sharrukin was neglected in favor of seemingly more promising sites such as Nineveh or Nimrud. This situation changed in April 1843, when the French Consul General at Mosul, Paul-Émile Botta, who had been excavating at Kuyunjik without success, was approached by a resident of the village of Khorsabad.

The interplay between local mediators and European archaeologists in Layard’s account effectively captures the necessary cooperation which enabled these early discoveries. With this initial excavation, the archaeological investigation of ancient Mesopotamia began in earnest. Unlike Kuyunjik, the Assyrian ruins at Khorsabad were much closer to the surface of the mound, and therefore it was not long before Botta and his team reached the ancient palace, leading to the discovery of numerous reliefs and sculptures. Unfortunately, this excitement was somewhat dulled by the destruction of many of these early discoveries due to sudden exposure to the outside environment. Botta’s consular duties also took up a majority of his time, preventing him from organizing systematic excavations of the site, and local Ottoman authorities grew suspicious of the true intentions behind the excavations, which at this time were technically illegal, as Botta had yet to receive official permission from Constantinople for his work, a common situation with early European excavations.

These difficulties caused formal excavations to cease by October 1843. Still, Botta’s initial reports back to France sparked considerable scholarly interest in the project, and eventually he received more funding and an artist, Eugène Flandin, from France. By spring of 1844 then, Botta resumed further excavations of the site, which required him to purchase the village of Khorsabad itself and resettle it at the foot of the mound. However, this new site was in swampy terrain, and malaria and other diseases were a constant threat to the residents and workers. The extensive finds convinced Botta that he had uncovered the true site of Nineveh, though this would be subsequently refuted by excavations at Kuyunjik by Layard and others. By October of that year, Botta had uncovered enough of the palace to cease further excavations and attempt to deliver some of the findings to France, which required an extensive operation of carts to transport the reliefs and sculptures to Mosul, which were then transported by raft and ship to Basra on the Persian Gulf and then to Paris, where they arrived in 1847. These were the first major Assyrian finds to arrive in Europe, and they fuelled a growing fascination with the ancient civilization which would lead to further excavations.


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