Jerwan Aqueduct


690 BC

MMM Documentation Dates
Fall 2013
Site Type
Bridges and Aqueducts
Nineveh Governorate

    The Jerwan Aqueduct is probably the world’s oldest known aqueduct. It is located north of Nineveh, opposite to the modern city of Mosul in Iraq. Built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704–681 BC), the aqueduct was highly advanced in its engineering and construction. It carried water across a ravine as a part of the hydraulic system that Sennacherib built to provide water to his capital city of Nineveh.

    The overall height of the aqueduct has been estimated to be about 9 m and its width about 22 m (not including the buttresses). Its total length will have been more than 280 m, thus involving a great mass of masonry. The ashlar blocks from which the aqueduct was constructed are all massive, though they vary in size. At the upper levels, they are 40 cm in height and 50 cm in length and width. Lower down, the blocks are larger, measuring 1 x 1 m and 70 cm high. It appears that the facing stones were worked in situ, given the deep layer of stone chips found at the foot of each façade. This is also suggested by the fact that the mason in many cases adjusted the face of the stone to that of the neighboring one only along the joints and left a rough projecting mass in the middle, thus giving the appearance of intentional rustication.

    Archaeological excavations conducted at the site show that the building process began with the leveling of the terrain in preparation for the aqueduct's foundations. A rectangular bed of rough boulders was laid just beneath the level of the stream. These boulders were covered by a pavement of large stones, laid diagonally to the flow of the stream in order to increase their stability; from this level, the piers rose. The aqueduct’s façades are divided by projecting buttresses into fourteen bays. A large central bay contained the five pointed arches that spanned the ravine; the remains of the two westernmost archespreserved up to six courses highreveal that they were constructed using the corbeling technique.

    In the vicinity of the archways, archaeologists discovered a group of five stepped stones in varying states of preservation. Although their original location is unknown, they seem to have formed one unit of stepped battlement of the type familiar in Assyrian architecture. One of the stones was stepped on one side only, suggesting that it might have belonged at the end of a row. 

    The masonry was built solid from the foundation up to a point slightly below the canal level, where a layer of concrete was spread about 40 cm deep. Over this was bedded a carefully graded stone pavement flanked by a parapet. The concrete does not extend beyond the inner face of the parapet on either side, and the builders made sure to avoid a straight joint between the parapet and the pavement; this precaution will have been taken to prevent the constant weight of the parapet and the varying weight of the water from causing a crack in the concrete, resulting in leakage. In addition, a tilting course was used along the base of the parapet that might have been designed for occasions when the aqueduct was not in use, thus preventing water from collecting and standing at critical points. 

    'Description & Iconography' general sources: Bachmann 1927; Jacobsen and Lloyd 1935, 6–18.

    Several cuneiform inscriptions were recovered at the site of the aqueduct. Some of these are original to the site and were found in situ, while others were reused from other buildings.

    1. Inscription A is the shortest of the inscriptions found here. Its text reads: “Belonging to Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria.”1 Inscription A corresponds to the type of brick inscriptions found in Assyrian and Babylonian buildings. From the content of these inscriptions and their typical location within the fabric of the masonry, it seems likely that they were not intended to be read until the building had fallen into ruin.
    2. Inscription B is the standard inscription of the aqueduct, recording Sennacherib's drawing of water from various rivers and mountains and establishing a bridge of white stone blocks upon which he caused water to pass.2 The inscription was carved in multiple places on the structure, especially on its north side; it appears on every buttress and in every recess, as well as on each breakwater (as is evident from the surviving portion). Because the inscription was intended to be visible, the signs are large and carefully executed.
    3. Inscription C is an abbreviated version of the standard inscription above.3 Like Inscription A, the inscription’s location indicate that it must have been completely covered when the structure was intact and in use.
    4. Inscription D comprises a group of inscribed stones, probably reused from other buildings, that were added to the structure when the aqueduct's southern facade of the aqueduct was strengthened with a new shell of masonry (occurring at an unknown date). These inscriptions, unconnected to one another, are poorly preserved, but several fragments have been transcribed.4

    'Inscriptions' general sources: Jacobsen and Lloyd 1935, 19–30; Grayson and Novotny 2014, 317–326 (nos. 224–228).

    As confirmed by Sennacherib's inscriptions, the aqueduct was constructed to supply Nineveh and its surroundings with water. It was a part of the so-called Khinnis system, which began at a weir across the Gomel River to the north.

    After the aqueduct had fallen into ruins, a small village called Jerwan was built atop the structure's southern portion, to the east of the arches; the village is now gone. The present archaeological site stands as a testament to the world's oldest known aqueduct.

    Austen Henry Layard visited Jerwan in the mid-19th century and described the aqueduct.1 Several other early travelers and archaeologists also visited the site, including L. W. King, who stopped and photographed it on his way to Khinnis in 1904.2 Both Layard and King thought that the ruins were the remains of a road. However, King rightly assigned the ruins to Sennacherib on the basis of inscriptions that he found in the village of Mahad, about 3 miles southeast of Jerwan. In addition to King, A. T. Olmstead apparently passed through Jerwan, describing it as a 'raised stone track along which went the canal.”3 Walter Bachmann systematically surveyed the site in 1914 and recorded the ruins without actually digging.4 In the decades after World War I, several travelers and scholars visited the site, and in the 1930s, the general outline of the aqueduct and the canal’s route was established through archaeological excavations conducted by Seton Lloyd and Thorkild Jacobsen.5 

    • 1. Layard 1853, 216.
    • 2. As noted in an unpublished letter; see Jacobsen and Lloyd, 1935, 4.
    • 3. Olmstead 1923, 332.
    • 4. Bachmann 1927, 32–33.
    • 5. Jacobsen and Lloyd, 1935.

    Bachmann, Walter. 1927. Felsreliefs in Assyria, Bawian, Maltai und Gundük. Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichung der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 52. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs.

    Boehmer, R. M. 1997. “Bemerkungen bzw. Ergänzungen zu Gerwan, Khinis, und Faidhi.” Baghdader Mitteilungen 28: 245–249.

    Grayson, A. Kirk, and Jamie Novotny, eds. 2014. The Royal Inscriptions of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (704–681 BC). Vol. 2. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

    Jacobsen, Thorkild, and Seton Lloyd. 1935. Sennacherib’s Aqueduct at Jerwan. Chicago: Oriental Institute Publications.

    Layard, Austen Henry. Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon. London: J. Murray, 1853.

    Olmstead, A. T. 1923. History of Assyria. New York: C. Scribner's Sons.

    Reade, Julian E. 1978. “Studies in Assyrian Geography I: Sennacherib and the Waters of Nineveh.” Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale 73: 47–72.

    Ur, Jason. 2005. “Sennacherib’s Northern Assyrian Canals: New Insights from Imagery and Aerial Photography.” Iraq 67: 317–345.

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