English » Field Projects » Tell Baqrta Project » Textual Evidence

Written by Dr. John MacGinnis

The site of Tell Baqrta lies in the plain of Makhmur, an area of Iraq which until recently had received very little in the way of archaeological attention. We set out here to give a concise outline of the historical phases which we might expect to find represented at the site, concentrating on the ancient Mesopotamian periods up until the coming of Alexander.

Historical Outline

Gutian and UR III Period

The region actually enters history in the Gutian Period (2193-2120 BC) when Erbil (Urbilum) became the objective of a military campaign of a certain Erridu-Pizir, a king of the Gutium who probably ruled in the interval between the end of the Akkadian empire and the foundation of the Ur III state; a more exact placing of this king cannot be given at present. It has been suggested that Urbilum in fact lay within the state of Lullubum but this is far from certain. Nor is it known whether or not Tell Baqrta came within the administrative control of Erbil. Nevertheless it is clear that the site must have been caught up in the convulsions that marked the transition from the Akkadian Empire to Gutian dominance and it is not unlikely that excavation will eventually cast light on this.

Whatever the eventual conclusion, there is no doubt that Tell Baqrta then came under the control of the Ur III Empire. The period of Gutian domination came to an end with the reestablishment of Sumerian control over Mesopotamia. The first steps were taken by Utu-hegal when he expelled the Gutians from the land. His period of dominance was however short lived as he was in his turn ousted by one of his own officials, Ur-Nammu, who thereby initiated the Third Dynasty of Ur and went on to create the Neo-Sumerian empire. Two kings of the Third Dynasty besieged and took Erbil - Shulgi in his forty-fifth year and Amar-Sin in his second year. In addition to booty taken from Erbil itself, an annual tribute was imposed and will certainly have been levied on the whole land; Tell Baqrta was certainly incorporated within the Ur III empire, most likely as part of the province of Urbilum, and will have been affected by this tax.

The fall of the Ur III state led to a major reconfiguration of the political geography of Mesopotamia. In the north the city of Assur regained its independence, leading to the emergence of a nascent Assyrian state. Little is known of the region at this time. Erbil - now written Urbel - will also have regained its independence, at least temporarily, and once again an important question will be to consider whether Tell Baqrta was itself independent, dependent on Erbil, or part of some other political configuration. The site will however have next come within the sphere of the empire of Shamshi-Adad I after he joined up with Dadusha of Eshnunna and campaigned against and took Erbil, an event recorded in stelae of each of these kings. Erbil itself may have previously been part of the kingdom of Qabra though this is not certain nor is it known whether Tell Baqrta also fell within the control of Qabra. In any case when the Turukkean rebellion broke out Shamshi-Adad and his sons were not able to keep hold of the region.

Mitannian and Middle Assyrian Period

Once more, though for the last time, we face the question of whether Tell Baqrta was dependent on Erbil or was the capital of its own polity, but this long history of punctuated autonomy finally comes to an end with the rise of Mittanni and then of the Middle Assyrian empire. To take the first of these, it is not known when the site came under Mittanni domination - though it must be no later than the reign of Saustatar, by which time Arrapha was under Mittanni control - nor is it known at what point control was wrested away by the kings of Assyria. Broadly though it is probably fair to say that Tell Baqrta will have been subject to Mittanni rule over something like 1430-1350 BC. The next change came with the rise of the Middle Assyrian empire in the fourteenth century BC. By the reign of Shalmaneser I (1273-1244 BC) at the latest the region had come to be included within the core territory of Assyria, a situation which then essentially lasted till the end of the Assyrian empire in 612 BC although there may have been occasions, for example during the reign of Aššur-resa-iši (1133-1115 BC), when this control was lost.

Neo-Assyrian Period

The Neo-Assyrian period (1000-612 BC) is likely to have been a highpoint in the history of Tell Baqrta. It is becoming increasingly clear that settlement of the countryside of Assyria was intensified by the importation of colonies of deportees from throughout the empire. Combined with the construction of massive hydraulic projects this laid the ground for an explosion in agricultural productivity. Consequently Tell Baqrta is likely to have become a wealthy regional centre. However this prosperity came to an end at the end of the seventh century BC with the invasion and overthrow of the Assyrian empire. What happened next, in the Post-Assyrian period (612-539 BC), is not known and will be of extreme interest. Firstly, it is not known for sure to which part of the coalition which overthrew Assyria the region of Tell Baqrta was assigned, the Medes or the Babylonians. The latter is perhaps more likely but there is no concrete evidence. Secondly, it is not known what happened to the population of the region. Were many killed? Were they enslaved? Did they join the invading armies? Did they return to their homelands? Did they flee? Eventual elucidation of these questions is one of the key questions in Assyrian studies.

Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Period

Moving on, one event we do know of, from an entry in the Neo-Babylonian Chronicle, is that at the outset of his campaign in 547 BC Cyrus crossed the Zab below Erbil. The army must consequently have passed within the vicinity of Tell Baqrta. Shortly afterwards, with the conquest of Babylonia and the overthrow of the Neo-Babylonian empire, northern Mesopotamia passed into the control of the Achaemenid empire (539-330 BC). This unquestionably included the region of Tell Baqrta, which was probably part of the province of Erbil. Very likely this was a flourishing province but little more is known than that. According to the inscription of Behistun, Darius I chased down and impaled the rebel Shitrantakhma (Titrantaechmes) in Erbil so it is not improbable that Tell Baqrta may have witnessed some of these hostilities. From the end of the 5th century BC the "Passport of Nehtihor", an official permit written on leather in Aramaic, attests to the passage through the region of an official of the Persian magnate Arsames. Around the same time Xenophon passed by on his famous march up to the sea. Seventy years later, as the Achaemenid Empire in its turn came to an end, Guagamela, the decisive battle against Darius III, was fought in the plains northwest of Erbil. Once again Tell Baqrta is not so far away and it must have witnessed or participated in these world-shaping events.


It is interesting to give some thought to the population of the region over this great stretch of time. We have, as yet, no knowledge of the nature of the population prior to the advent of historical sources - this is something upon which genetics might, eventually, cast some light - but as literacy dawns over the horizon of prehistory the first ethnic group whom we know to have inhabited the region are the Hurrians. This is not to say there were not other groups. There almost certainly were. Texts over these millennia relating to the eastern frontiers of Mesopotamia (for instance Ur III administrative documents and the Shemshara archives) contain a large number of personal names whose linguistic affiliation has not yet been established and it is, in my view, probable that parent languages will one be day be recognised and reconstructed for at least some of them. Be that as it may, the Hurrians are the earliest definable group for whose presence in the region we currently have evidence; followed closely by the Sumerians. After this Babylonians, Assyrians, Mittanni, Arameans, Medes, Kurds, Greeks and Persians all played their part in the region. Later on came Arabs, Turks and Armenians. All these will have left their mark.

Detail from the Casco Bay Map of Assyia. Courtesy of Jason Ur, Harvard University.

Identification of Tell Baqrta

A final consideration concerns the identification of the site in antiquity. Textual evidence relating to the plain of Makhmur is scarce but there are some leads to follow; it may of course be hoped that in the fullness of time fieldwork at Tell Baqrta will itself yield material germane to these discussions. Nevertheless, according to our present, somewhat scanty knowledge the two principal towns believed to have been in the region are Sare and Baqar/Baqarru, the former putatively on the Zab at the place (on the northern bank) where the river was crossed by the road from Arrapha to Erbil, the latter halfway between this point and Erbil. This location is strikingly close to the location of present day Tell Baqrta, The closeness of the names is no less striking. I would therefore propose that Tell Baqrta in fact represents the remains of ancient Baqar. Further to this Deller has suggested that Baqara is to be equated with Old Babylonian Qabra, locating it 15-20 km northwest of Altın Köprü. It must therefore be suggested that Tell Baqrta also equates to ancient Qabra. If correct this identification will be of the first importance. Obviously this proposition requires further investigation and a more detailed analysis of the textual evidence will form the subject of my next communication.