Assyria from Space: The Canals of Sennacherib

Sennacherib’s canals stretched across Assyria and transformed its natural hydrological system. Diverted rivers, tapped streams, small gullies, and run-off fed the canals. Lower elevations are green, while higher ones are brown. Source: Jason Ur.
Sennacherib used the labor of conquered, displaced populations like the one in this relief one to dig canals and cultivate fields around Nineveh. Source: A.H. Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, London: John Murray, 1853, plate 22.
Over two thousand years after its construction, a one-hundred-meter-wide canal near Bandwai is clearly visible in the satellite image. Source: USGS/Jason Ur, 1969.
A lone figure stands in the bed of the Bandwai canal seen from space in the CORONA image. Canals in the region ranged in width from five to one hundred meters, with this being one of the largest. Source: Joan Oates. Photographer: David Oates, 1957/1958.

Irrigation played a pivotal role in Assyrian civilization (900-600 BC) in today’s Northern Iraq. The most ambitious canal network of over one hundred kilometers was constructed by Sennacherib, ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 704-681 BC, and was centered on the imperial capital at Nineveh (modern-day Mosul).

The canals had two functions: they brought water to dry areas for subsistence farming, and they acted as symbols of power while irrigating private orchards and gardens of the Assyrian elite.

CORONA satellite imagery allows archaeologists to map the ancient paths of these canals in order to understand their functions in Assyrian society. Due to ethnic tensions, security concerns, and the sheer scale of the canal system, ground surveys of this system have been nearly impossible for decades.  Moreover, because CORONA images were taken in the 1960s and 1970s, they allow archaeologists to see features that have since been erased from the modern landscape by urban development.