About Project

In the ongoing archaeological project, we conduct surveys and historical research of the network of Late Sasanian – Late Islamic cities and towns in the land of Arbīl, in northeastern Mesopotamia. About 20 of urban sites from the 6th to 17th centuries, mostly deserted, have been identified in the historic province Adiabene or Hazza, bounded by rivers of Great Zab, Little Zab and Tigris. The archaeological substance of the sites is mostly very well preserved in the relief of the arid steppe environment and can be excellently identified in satellite images of several types. The research of these settlements offers a rare opportunity for holistic study of a medieval urban network dynamics, its resilience, degree of integration and causes of diversity of individual sites. Some specific features of Arbīl city development, studied previously, seem to be more comprehensible in the comparison with preliminary remote sensing, analysis of textual evidence and field observation of sites situated in its wider background.

In the Arbīl region, we closely cooperate with another ongoing survey projects, particularly with Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey (EPAS), directed by prof. Jason Ur from Harvard University, and with Archaeological Survey of Koya (ASK), directed by dr. Cinzia Pappi. The project is realized under permission and supervision of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, State Board of Antiquities and Heritage Baghdad, and regional directorates of antiquities in Erbil, Kerkuk and Mosul.

Methods of implementation

The implementation of the project will be reached by combination of three approaches: analysis of historical texts, remote sensing and archaeological survey.

Textual evidence

Picture of 10th century map of Mesopotamia
Ibn Hawqal´s map of Mesopotamia, 10th century AD.

Medieval texts, particularly the Christian chronicles (such as that of Thomas of Marga) and accounts of the Arab geographers and travellers (Ibn Hawqal, Ibn Khardádhiba, al-Maqdisí, Yáqút al-Hamawí etc.), seem to be a rich source of information for history of individual sites, only partially exploited in several historical topographies so far. The information will be supplemented by data from biographical dictionaries composed by historians interconnected with the region of Adiabene (such as Ibn al-Mustawfí, Ibn Khallikán etc.) in order to understand the position of individual centres in the realm of intellectual interchange (travels of individual scholars to obtain or transmit knowledge in the region of Adiabene). The research is conducted using mostly original Arabic editions.

Remote sensing

Picture of multiple satellite images of Makhmur al-Qadima sites
Makhmur al-Qadima, comparison of the site appearance in the CORONA images taken during diverse missions (from left to right): 28th February 1967, 16th August 1968, 4th June 1970.

Remote sensing, particularly the analysis of the satellite and aerial imagery, has appeared to be effective even during the preliminary survey for the project. It continues to be a decisive approach for study on the inner organism of the abandoned cities as well as of their intra-regional relationships. We mainly rely on the deciphered system of CORONA (operating from the 1960s to the beginning of the 1970s), which recorded the landscape before the recent, large-scale industrial changes and enable basic mapping of archaeological features. Another big advantage of the later CORONA programme is the opportunity to work with stereoscopic images in a high resolution. During the previous project, we substantially enriched our collection of imagery for diverse historical datasets (Luftwaffe 1942, RAF and US Air Force images 1944, U2 aerial mission 1959, declassified spy satellite systems of Hexagon 1972).

More recent commercial sensors have a satisfying resolution (up to 0,5 m), but they often show the Near Eastern landscape already hardly affected by modern agricultural development and explosive urban growth. Since 2015, a detailed mapping of the selected sites using RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system) is carried out.

Picture of prof. Karel Pavelka preparing e-bee for recording at Kona Makhmur


Picture of a broken storage jar on the surface
Makhmur al-Qadima, a broken storage jar on the surface, coming from a small illicit excavation; Early Islamic Period

Archaeological survey and recording of the abandoned town areas is conducted in cooperation with Department of Archaeology of Salahaddin University at Hawler. The realization can pick up the threads of our previous archaeological work (from 2006 onwards). The fieldwork aims on the one hand to rectification of the town plans resulted from the satellite imagery analysis, on the other to obtain data concerning the detailed form of architectural remains, their chronology and their current dangers. Distribution of ceramics and other artefacts identified on surface could be used as a point of departure for considerations about the settlement dynamics, in-site areas of activity and social diversity of the urban areas. The comparison of individual type series of pottery fabrics and wares is the way how to reveal economic ties among the cities. The spatial data are standardly processed by Geographical Information Systems. Due to turning security situation in the region is the proportion of field survey and remote sensing, as well as detailedness of the survey, different for each site. Apart from deserted sites, we involve also the archaeological and architectural survey in living towns, as for example in Altın Köprü (Perdi).

Realizing the importance of the Christian settlement in early Islamic Adiabene, we focus in detail, during the continuation of the project, on regional monastic centres and their role in the socio-economic structures of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. The expansion of smaller towns and other central sites in Adiabene appears to have been an autonomous process stimulated by local monasteries and Christian aristocratic landowners. These relations remain largely understudied.

Picture of Dr Lenka Starková during survey
Dr Lenka Starková during survey at Altın Köprü