Mesopotamian linear barriers


1. Muriq Tidnim (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 1

2. Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon to Kish Wall (conjectural)

Babylonian Line 2

3. Habl es-Sakhar (Nebuchadnezzar’s Sippar to Opis Wall, Median Wall)

Line 3 (uncertain)

4. El-Mutabbaq

5. Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu)

6. Umm Raus Wall (site of Macepracta Wall(?), Artaxerxes’ Trench(?))



Mesopotamia and the Rivers Tigris and the Euphrates

Egypt shows that the conjunction of irrigated lands and nomads produced linear barriers – even if the evidence might seem elusive and inconclusive. Therefore, might also then Mesopotamia, with the similarly intensely irrigated Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, produce evidence of walls in the presence of nomads?

In Mesopotamia, the area of irrigated lands runs along the flood plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates up to, and somewhat beyond, the convergence points of the rivers between ancient Babylon and modern Baghdad. Above that point the alluvial plain peters out and the land becomes too hilly to allow for intense irrigation. From the north-east flows the Diyala River which passes through the Zagros Mountains to join the Tigris, linking the high Persian plateau to Mesopotamia. Around the river was especially valued irrigated land. The area of convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates constituted a constricted land corridor. Local nomads and semi-nomads would have been expected to press particularly hard on the rich and productive irrigated lands of Mesopotamia.

As in Egypt, civilisation, sustained by the irrigated lands of Mesopotamia, came early, in the fourth millennia BC, with the Sumerians. Again, as with Egypt, there is evidence of climate change. In the last century of the third millennium BC the stream flow of the Euphrates and the Tigris was very low, according to analysis of sediments in the Persian Gulf. The end of the Akkadian era, due to defeat by the hated Gutian peoples from the mountainous east in the twenty-second century BC, coincided with a few decades of intense drought which was followed by two to three centuries of dry weather. Ur revived and under Ur-Nammu defeated the Gutians and established the third dynasty of Ur, commonly abbreviated to Ur III, in 2112 BC. The Sumerians initiated a short period of cultural renaissance in a time of constant conflict with the semi-nomadic Martu – more familiar as the biblical Amorites.

Indeed, Ur III may have faced two reasonably distinct threats. From the north-west there was the Martu whose aim may in part have been to gain sustenance for their herds in times of drought. The direction of the threat that they posed would have been through the relatively flat lands between and to both sides of the convergence point of the Euphrates and the Tigris. To the north-east were the Elamites and Shimashki confederation in the highlands to the east of the Tigris. Their lines of attack would have been more focused down river valleys – perhaps the Diyala River flowing through the Zagros Mountains to the Tigris.

Mesopotamian linear barriers

In this early period there is only textual evidence for linear barriers, based on letters that remarkably survive from the third dynasty of Ur. These writings between Sumerian kings and their often disobedient generals and officials, are called the Royal Correspondence of Ur (abbreviated to the RCU). Much of the correspondence in the twenty-two or so surviving letters was about defence against the Martu. There was also information about linear barriers in the year names of Sumerian king lists (Mesopotamian kings named each year of their reigns after some major event).

The Sumerian kings Shulgi (2094–2047 BC), Shu-Sin (2037–2029 BC) and Ibbi-Sin (2028–2004 BC) were mentioned in the context of three walls:

bad-mada/Wall of the Land – The Wall of the Land is known only from one reference in the king lists: ‘Year 37: Nanna (the god) and Shulgi the king built the Wall of the land.’10 Shulgi was on the throne for forty-seven years so the wall belongs to the last quarter of his long reign. This was a time of increasing pressure on central and southern Mesopotamia from the Martu.

bad-igi-hur-sag-ga/Wall Facing the Highlands – In the RCU there are several references to bad-igi-hur-sag-ga – both during Shulgi’s reign and that of his successors, Shu-Sin and Ibbi-Sin. The bad-igi-hur-sag-ga has been variously translated as the Wall, Fortress, or the Fortification facing the highlands or mountains – making it uncertain whether this was a continuous linear barrier. If, however, Shulgi really did build a long wall then he has the distinction of being the first known builder of such a barrier. This obstacle possibly faced a threat coming down the Diyala River as it faced the Highlands, presumably the Zagros Mountains.

Muriq Tidnim/Fender off of the Tidnim – There are three references to Muriq Tidnim, or fender (off) of the Tidnim and Shu-Sin. First, the king lists of his fourth regnal year said: ‘Shu-Sin the king of Ur built the amurru (Amorite) wall (called) ‘Muriq Tidnim/holding back the Tidanum’’ Second, there is an inscription in a temple built for the god Shara: ‘For Shara Shu-Sin built the Eshagepada, his (Shara’s) beloved temple, for his (Shu-Sin’s) life when he built the Martu wall Muriq Tidnim (and) turned back the paths of the Martu to their land.’ Third, the most informative reference to the Muriq Tidnim is in a letter from Sharrum-bani, an official of Shu-Sin. ‘You sent me a message ordering me to work on the construction of the great fortification Muriq Tidnim … announcing: “The Martu have invaded the land.” You instructed me to build the fortification, so as to cut off their route; also, that no breaches of the Tigris or the Euphrates should cover the fields with water … from the bank of the Ab-gal watercourse to the province of Zimudar. When I was constructing this fortification to the length of 26 danna, and had reached the area between the two mountain ranges, I was informed of the Martu camping within the mountain ranges because of my building work.’

In this letter, the construction is described as ‘great’. Whatever the uncertainties about Shulgi’s earlier edifices, it is difficult not to interpret this passage as describing a major continuous linear barrier. In the west the Ab-gal canal is associated with an earlier western course of the Euphrates and to the east the province of Zimudar is identified as being on the east side of Tigris in the region of the Diyala river. A danna is about two hours march so 26 dannas may be over 150 kilometres. Therefore, the edifice appeared to extend from the Euphrates to the other side of the Tigris because its length was much greater than the distance between the two rivers. The instructions to build the walls specifically cite stopping the semi-nomadic Martu from overwhelming the fields by a breach between the Tigris and the Euphrates, showing that irrigated land was perceived as particularly vulnerable.

Analysis – Ur III

In the hillier east controlling access down the Diyala river area there may have been a single fortification, the bad-igi-hur-sag-ga or the Wall/Fortress facing the Highlands, first built by Shulgi, which might or might not have been part of another system bad-mada (the Wall of the Land) built in the flatter west. During the reign of Shu-Sin it seems more likely that a linear barrier called Muriq Tidnim was built from new, or it consisted of earlier lines that were linked and much reinforced including Shulgi’s Wall of the land. This is all speculation but there is good if circumstantial literary evidence that Ur III’s strategy for defence against the Martu involved the construction of what would be the first recorded long continuous non-aquatic linear barriers.

There does seem to be a fairly general academic acceptance that under Shulgi and Shu-Sin long walls were built and their purpose was to keep out nomads. For example: ‘Even as early as year 35 of Shulgi, the (nomad) problem was becoming so grave that Shulgi constructed a wall to keep them (pastoral and semi-nomadic Amorites) out, and Shu-Sin built another barrier, called “fender off of Tidnim,” 200 kilometres long, stretching between the Tigris and the Euphrates across the northern edge of the alluvial plain.’ Also: ‘Yet despite Shulgi’s talents, within a few years of his death in 2047 BC his Empire, too, imploded. In the 2030s raiding became such a problem that Ur built a hundred-mile wall to keep the Amorites out.’

Later Mesopotamia

Looking at later Mesopotamia, after the fall of Ur III, how did it defend itself in times of necessity? What emerges is three intense periods of barrier building: firstly, that already discussed, during the short lived Ur III period; secondly, in the neo-Babylonian period associated with Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BC; and thirdly, later in the fourth century, aquatic linear barriers were built by the Sasanians. There are also a number of major but little studied walls, discussed below, north of the Tigris and Euphrates convergence point, which are not clearly dated.

After Ur III fell to the Elamites and the Shimaskhi confederation, the so-called Amorite dynasty of Isin completed its breakaway. Given that lower Mesopotamia had fallen to peoples from outside the region there was no reason for a barrier between the north and southern Mesopotamia. Also, Martu or Amorite semi-nomads were becoming increasingly sedentarised. Subsequently, the Babylonians of the era of Hammurabi were able to project their power well to the north of Babylon. The Assyrians, coming from the north, had no need for walls around 700 BC to defend Babylon in this region as they controlled the regions to its north and south.

The neo-Babylonians recovered control of their city in the sixth century BC and made it the capital of the region. The second period of major barrier building materialised in this later Babylonian period, associated with Nebuchadnezzar and textually with Queens Semiramis and Nitocris. Nebuchadnezzar II ruled for forty-three years from 604 to 562 BC. The Medes’ conquest of Lydia made Nebuchadnezzar suspicious of their intentions and this led him to strengthen his northern border. Behind the Medes loomed the Persians. This was clearly seen, rightly as it turned out, as a real, unpredictable threat – and one that prompted the construction of a comprehensive linear barrier system. Notwithstanding this attempt, in 539 BC Cyrus the Great led the Medes and the Persians into Babylonia which was absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire.

Linear barriers – survey

There were three lines of barriers at and above Babylon looked at here, starting in the south and going to the north.

Babylon to Kish – Line 1

Two walls of Nebuchadnezzar (604–562 BC) are known from a clay cylinder, dated to 590 BC when relations between the Babylonians and the Medes had deteriorated. (These compose Line 1 and Line 2 in this and the next section.)

Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from near Babylon to Kish – This cylinder is inscribed: ‘In the district of Babylon from the chau(s)sée on the Euphrates bank to Kish, 4 2/3 bēru long, I heaped up on the level of the ground an earth-wall and surrounded the City with mighty waters. That no crack should appear in it, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ A bēru is the distance which could be travelled in two hours so is variable according to terrain. At five kilometres an hour this barrier would be about 47 kilometres long. The problem is that this is considerably longer than the distance between Babylon and Kish – which is little more than 10 kilometres – unless the barrier followed a particularly circuitous route. Also, it would seem a fairly pointless military exercise building a barrier from Babylon to Kish leaving the flood plain open to the east from Kish to the Tigris. Using up the surplus kilometres would take the wall further east to Kar-Nargal, near an earlier channel of the Tigris, hence blocking the land corridor between the Euphrates and the Tigris. No physical evidence of this wall has been identified.

Opis to Sippar – Line 2

The second line ran between the cities of Sippar, above Babylon on the Euphrates, and Opis on the Tigris, the precise position of which has been lost. A number of walls are associated with this location in texts and there is a surviving wall called Habl-es-Sakhar.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Wall from Sippar to Opis – Nebuchadnezzar’s inscribed cylinder described the second wall as follows: ‘To strengthen the fortification of Babylon, I continued, and from Opis upstream to the middle of Sippar, from Tigris bank to Euphrates bank, 5 bēru, I heaped up a mighty earth-wall and surrounded the city for 20 bēru like the fullness of the sea. That the pressure of the water should not harm the dike, I plastered its slope with asphalt and bricks.’ This Opis to Sippar wall would have been about 50 kilometres long. Both the Babylon to Kish and the Opis to Sippar walls were water-proofed by asphalt so they must have been built in proximity to water – possibly water-courses like canals or in flatlands prone to flooding or swamping.

Wall of Semiramis – The geographer Strabo, citing Eratosthenes, when describing Mesopotamia, said the Tigris, ‘goes to Opis, and to the wall of Semiramis, as it is called.’ Therefore, this wall was in the region of the Tigris and the Euphrates’ convergence point. (Herodotus mentioned Semiramis’ works but did not specify a wall. Rather he described levees which controlled flooding.)

Wall of Nitrocris – Herodotus also described a Babylonian queen called Nitocris – possibly the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar and the mother of the Book of Daniel’s King Belshazzar brought down by Cyrus – whose constructions in Babylon were mainly connected with diverting the Euphrates. Nitocris built works in the entrance of the country (which is clearly a description of a land corridor) against the threat of the Medes. ‘Nitocris … observing the great power and restless enterprise of the Medes, … and expecting to be attacked in her turn, made all possible exertions to increase the defences of her empire.’

Wall of Media – In the Anabasis, Xenophon described how he led the 10,000 Greeks back from Mesopotamia. In it he encountered the Wall of Media twice. Here what is described is the second occasion when Xenophon actually crossed the wall itself following the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC. ‘They reached the so called Wall of Media and passed within it. It was built of baked bricks, laid in asphalt, and was twenty feet wide and a hundred feet high; its length was said to be twenty parasangs, and it is not far distant from Babylon.’ Assuming that a parasang is the same as a bēru or a danna, that is a two hours march, then the wall was about 100 kilometres long.

Habl-es-Sakhar – There is a surviving wall in the vicinity of Sippar. In 1867 one Captain Bewsher described the ruins of a wall then called Habl-es-Sakhar – which translates from the Arabic as a line of stones or bricks. ‘The ruins of this wall may now be traced for about 10½ miles and are about 6 feet above the level of the soil. It was irregularly built, the longest side running E.S.E. for 5½ miles; it then turns to N.N.E. for another mile and a half. An extensive swamp to the northward has done much towards reducing the wall.… There is a considerable quantity of bitumen scattered about, and it was probably made of bricks set in bitumen. I can see nothing in Xenophon which would show this was not the wall the Greeks passed, for what he says of its length was merely what was told him.’ The description of the ‘baked bricks laid upon bitumen’ is like Nebuchadnezzar’s description of his wall between Opis and Sippar: plastered with asphalt and bricks.

In 1983 a joint team of Belgian and British Archaeological Expeditions to Iraq investigated the ruins of Habl-es-Sakhar. This confirmed that Habl-es-Sakhar was built by Nebuchadnezzar, for bricks marked with his name were found during its excavation. The team reported that Habl-es-Sakhar is the name of ‘a levee 30 metres wide and 1 metre high which could be followed for about 15 kilometres. A trench across the levee to the north of the site of Sippar revealed baked brick walls (largely robbed) on either side of an earth embankment. The earth core was about 3.2m wide and the brick walls about 1.75m in width. Between the brick courses was a skin of bitumen. On the bottom of each brick was a stamp of Nebuchadnezzar. If the wall extended to the ancient line of the Tigris it would have been nearly 40k long.’

The wall stood astride the northern approaches to Babylon itself. The wall’s function appeared primarily to have been military as it was not well situated to protect land against the flooding of the Euphrates which lay to the south. It is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Habl-es-Sakhar is Nebuchadnezzar’s wall and Xenophon’s Wall of Media due to the location north of Sippar, the details of the construction, and the stamped bricks set in bitumen. This is rather satisfying because a surviving wall has been matched up with literary text.

Umm Raus to Samarra – Line 3

A third line of walls runs from Samarra on the Tigris to Ramadi on the Euphrates which delineated the upper limits of the alluvial plain where intense irrigation was possible. Here the fertile plain is not continuous between the Tigris and the Euphrates but the regions close to the rivers fit the description of valued irrigated land. As the rivers have diverged already significantly in the area of the third uppermost line, compared to the lower two lines, a wall that extended the whole distance would have had to have been much longer. Central sections might also have been purposeless as there was little valued, highly irrigated, land to protect and attackers would not have wanted to stray too far into less fertile land. This area is the site of two walls described in ancient texts and three surviving linear barriers.

Trench of Artaxerxes – In the Anabasis Xenophon described the march along the Euphrates, at the point where canals began, thereby indicating intense irrigation: ‘Cyrus … expected the king to give battle the same day, for in the middle of this day’s march a deep sunk trench was reached, thirty feet broad, and eighteen feet deep.… The trench itself had been constructed by the great king upon hearing of Cyrus’s approach, to serve as a line of defence.’ The trench does not appear to have survived but the site might have been reused to build later walls – the first being the Wall of Macepracta, discussed next, and second the surviving wall at Umm Raus.

Wall of Macepracta – Ammianus Marcellinus, describing the assault in AD 362 by the apostate Emperor Julian on the Sasasian Empire of Shapur II, wrote: ‘our soldiers came to the village of Macepracta, where the half-destroyed traces of walls were seen; these in early times had a wide extent, it was said, and protected Assyria from hostile inroads.’

There is a surviving belt of linear barriers which extends – with long gaps – between the Euphrates and the Tigris. The three walls mark the line where the fertile Babylonian plain peters out. There is the rampart starting at Umm-Raus which extends east from the Euphrates; El-Mutabbaq is a burnt brick wall with towers running west from the Tigris; and between them is a dyke named Sadd Nimrud (also called El-Jalu). Their dating is very uncertain.

Wall at Umm Raus – The wall, running east from the Euphrates, has been described: ‘From Umm Raus we see the wall running inland for a distance of about 7 miles, with rounded bastions at intervals for 2½ miles.… The wall appeared to be about 35–45 ft broad, with bastions projecting about 20ft. to 25ft., set at a distance of about 190 feet axis to axis. At its highest point the mound made by the wall is about 7 to 8 feet high. From the air it can be seen that there are about forty buttresses in all.’

The line may follow that of Artaxerxes’ trench. It is not a brick wall but an earth rampart. It was ‘never defensible, perhaps never finished’. Also: ‘This wall must have been designed … to protect the suddenly broadening area of fertile irrigated land to its south from raids and infiltration; large armies entering Iraq by the Euphrates would not have found it a serious obstacle.’

Again, there is the explicit mention of defending irrigated land. The Umm Raus rampart must date between 401 BC, as it is not mentioned by Xenophon, and AD 363, when a ruined wall was described at Macepracta by Ammianus Marcellinus.

El-Mutabbaq – The modern name, El-Mutabbaq, means built in layers or courses of bricks. This is a massive rampart lying at the boundary of the irrigatel alluvium of the widening Tigris valley south of Samarra and the desert to the north-west. It is about forty kilometres long and ‘has traces of turrets and moat on the north-west side and follows … the natural contours of the land. The rampart was four to six metres high, thirty metres wide at the bottom.’ It is, ‘a mud-brick wall three and a half bricks wide behind which is 10.5m of gravel-packing held in by a small mud-wall. The gravel packing was compartmented by mud-brick cross walls. There are projecting towers at regular intervals and a ditch about 20 to 30m. wide which is now about 2m. deep.’

The following description shows El-Mutabbaq as being designed to protect valued land against a nomad threat: ‘Herzfeld (a German explorer and historian) attributed construction to the threat of the Bedouin invading the fertile area along the Tigris by the river Dujail.’ These walls were seen as intended to stop nomads thereby affirming their ineffectiveness against great armies: ‘Cross-country walls of this type are notoriously inefficient at stopping great armies; this particular example could be outflanked without any difficulty at all. A stronger objection to any theory that it was designed to stop a great army is that it blocks the one route into southern Mesopotamia which, because of natural obstacles north of Samarra, invading armies have preferred never to use.’ The walls were intended to defend irrigated land: ‘El-Mutabbaq was more probably intended to help protect the irrigated land from unwanted settlers and raiding parties coming from the desert.’ There is no consensus as to the builder although they are described as Sasanian. Basically, these linear barriers do not seem to have been examined since the 1960s and remain effectively undated.

Sadd Nimrud – A dyke called Sadd Nimrud or El-Jalu, which is about forty kilometres long, that lies to the west of El-Muttabaq. This linear barrier does not extend the full distance between El-Muttabaq and the Wall at Umm Raus: ‘The fortification in the central area peters out in the direction of Falluja – perhaps as a considerable gap did not need to be defended – as armies could not advance far into the desert away from water.’ No date, other than this possibly being pre-Islamic, has been suggested.

Analysis – three lines at the Euphrates and Tigris convergence point

These three barriers between the Tigris and the Euphrates present a very baffling picture. They follow roughly the line where intense irrigation ceases. Rather than being a single response, however, they seem to be three discrete AD hoc reactions to separate threats to irrigated lands near the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. They can lay claim to being among the longest and oldest walls outside China, excepting certain Roman and Sasanian walls, yet there appears to have been no very detailed study of them. The attribution is generally vague – with comparisons made to features on Sumerian to Sasanian walls, in other words millennia apart. Generally commentators do regard them as forming part of a local response to the need to protect valued irrigated land in the immediate vicinity, rather than as having any strategic purpose to block routes into central and southern Mesopotamia.

Sasanian aquatic barriers

In the early fourth century AD a semi-nomadic people, the Lakhmid Arabs, who were originally from the Yemen, emerged as a serious threat to Sasanian Mesopotamia.

Khandaq-i-Shapur – Arab tradition associates Shapur II (AD 309–379) with a defensive dyke that reputedly ran west of the Euphrates, from Hit to Basra. This barrier is looked at again later when Sasanian barriers are discussed. It is clear however that the linear barrier was built to hinder the nomadic Arab people from the desert. Although this Khandaq is much later than the Egyptian Walls of the Ruler, it throws an interesting perspective on it. Firstly, there is neat symmetry. In the face of a threat from nomadic Asiatics, the response to both the east and the west of the Arabian Desert was to build a moat or canal. Secondly, the historian Yāqūt, writing later in the Islamic period, said that Anushirvan (531–579) who rebuilt Shapur’s earlier work, ‘built on it (the moat) towers and pavilions and he joined it together with fortified points.’ Therefore, this was a continuous fortified aquatic linear barrier. The fact that such a barrier was constructed by the Sasanians perhaps meant that Egypt’s early Walls of the Ruler were also a continuous aquatic barrier, strengthened by forts.


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