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A City That Goes Way, Way Back

Irbil is a very, very ancient city. From as early the 21st century B.C., Irbil was known by the name "Urbilum."

Today's occupants live above layers upon layers of former habitations. Because the citadel of Irbil has continually been inhabited, it has not been excavated. Much of what we know about Irbil's history — especially its ancient history — comes from external sources reporting on events that took place there. In addition to its valuable strategic location along the Tigris at the foot of the Zagros Mountains, the city was once an important center for religion and scholarship.

From as early as the 13th century B.C. (and probably even earlier), Irbil was known as the site of an important temple to Ishtar, the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of sex and war. She was the most powerful female deity in the Mesopotamian pantheon, and her temples were major social and economic centers, as well as enormous investments of community resources.

In the 1st millennium B.C., Irbil appears prominently in the records of the great Assyrian kings. Between the 9th and 7th centuries, they established an empire that dominated the ancient world, encompassing all of Mesopotamia and Syro-Palestine (an area that includes modern-day Israel, Syria, the Palestinian territories and adjacent regions). The Assyrian kings' reach extended, for a time, into Anatolia (Turkey) and Egypt. The city served as a jump-off point for Assyrian military campaigns to the northeast. A hymn from this period proclaims Irbil on a level with the better-known religious centers, Assur and Babylon. Also, Irbil and its Ishtar temple were home to female prophets, patronized extensively by King Esarhaddon and his mother.

The temple of Ishtar of Arbela was restored and rebuilt numerous times over the millennia. Kings from the 12th century to the 7th century B.C. reconstructed the temple as an act of royal devotion. The city wall and the façade of the Ishtar temple are depicted in a monumental relief sculpture from an Assyrian royal palace at Nineveh, executed when that city was the political capital of the Assyrian Empire. The fragmentary sculpture is housed today in the Louvre, where visitors can see the cuneiform label inscribed with the name of the city amidst the defensive towers of its walls.

After the fall of the Assyrian and then Babylonian empires, Irbil became part of the Achaemenid empire when Babylon succumbed peacefully to Cyrus in 539. The city continued to play an important role, and in 331, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III at nearby Gaugamela to cement his hegemony over the ancient Near East.

Kathryn Slanski is a lecturer in Near Eastern languages and civilizations and the humanities at Yale University and an expert in ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

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Kathryn Slanski