Acropolis Northeast - Temples


Four seasons of excavation (1979-1985), exposing 2300 m2, on the Acropolis Northeast uncovered part of a monumental Old Babylonian temple (Weiss 1990, 1985). Its design, decoration, construction and preservation are superb. The tablets and sealings found within this monumental building helped identify modern Tell Leilan with ancient Šubat-Enlil, the capital of Šamši-Adad’s enigmatic Kingdom of northern Mesopotamian. It is likely that this king constructed both this temple and the Eastern Lower Town Palace.

The temple excavation provides new information about religious architecture during the early second millennium BC. It also clarifies the relationship between politics and religion during this period. The spiral, plain and palm columns that ornament the northern and southern façades of this temple illustrate the importation of southern Mesopotamian iconography into northern Mesopotamia in the early second millennium BC (Fig. 1). The temple’s plan, which emphasizes direct access from the southern gateway to the long-room cella, is typical of the grand Neo-Assyrian temples built 1000 years later (Heinrich 1982).

Figure 1.

The Construction History of the Acropolis Northeast Temple

Building Level I: The most recent phase belonged to a “squatter occupation” and included a large brick paving or platform, constructed within the collapsing walls of the Building Level II temple. “Habur ware” pottery lay atop this platform, indicating that this phase dated to shortly after the use of the main temple.

Building Level II: 1500m2 of the Building Level II temple have been retrieved, with an area of at least an equivalent size probably remaining to be excavated (Fig. 2). The northern façade of this temple extended for more than 50 meters. It was decorated by niches and engaged columns arranged in panels, with alternating spiral and plain-faced columns. The western portion of the façade extends across a massive mudbrick platform that predated the construction of this temple, and against which it was built. Portions of this façade still stand to heights of 3m; in antiquity they may have stood to 6 or 7m. Thirty meters of the southern façade have also been excavated
(Fig. 3). Like its northern counterpart, the southern façade was decorated with alternating niched recesses and columns. West of the southern gateway, there is a large empty recess where a statue may once have stood. Adjacent to it and the southern gateway is a mudbrick column sculpted to resemble the dressed trunk of a palm tree. East of the southern gateway was a similar construction, with a recessed niche for a statue and a column that featured another representation of a palm-tree trunk. The foundations of this temple were four courses of mudbrick, upon which the façade walls and columns were set.

The rooms of the Building Level II temple were littered with pottery sherds, animal bones and carbonized wheat and barley seeds. The analysis of the seeds and animal bones, still in progress, will reveal the agricultural practices of second millennium Šubat-Enlil. Cuneiform tablets and seal impressions were also retrieved from several rooms, recording the receipt of commodities important in the temple economy Seal impressions of servants of several kings of Leilan, including Šamši-Adad, Turum-natki, and Haya-Abum relate the use of this temple to these kings.

Building Level “X”: In 1985, excavations south of the Building Level II temple revealed 500 m2 of a monumental building (Fig. 4). It is possible that this construction is part of the southern extension of the Building Level II temple. If this is the case, then Building Level II and Building Level “X” are equivalent and the Leilan temple was extremely large, perhaps as much as 6000 m2. This would make the Acropolis NE temple twice the size of the Sin-Shamash temple at Assur and of the temple at Tell ar-Rimah, and thus one of the largest temples known from Mesopotamian in the second millennium BC, equivalent in size to the temple to the god Assur in Assur. Alternatively, the “Building Level X” construction may have been another temple, which like the Building Level II temple was built partially atop or beside the earlier Building Level III one. It is definitely later than Building Level III, but questions remain about its stratigraphic relationship with Building Level II.

Like the Building Level II temple, Building Level X had poorly built “squatter walls” above and beside the primary, well-built walls of this building. Most of the actual floors of this building had eroded away-and in some places excavations only revealed the foundations of the walls and not the walls themselves. Nine rooms and interconnected passageways were retrieved here. Ash and trash had piled up among the squatter walls. On and among this debris portions of a cuneiform archive had been dumped. This archive contains administrative documents dated with limus from Šamši-Adad’s reign.

Building Level 3: Immediately south of the Building Level II temple and just north of the Building Level X temple, excavations have revealed the earliest second millennium temple in this precinct (Fig. 5). 500 m2 of this building level have been excavated. The Building Level III temple is probably part of a large construction, not all of which was rebuilt in Building Level II. In other words, it seems that Building Level II is a rebuilding of the Building Level III temple, minus the earlier temple’s southern courtyard and side rooms. The northern face of the main east-west wall of the Building Level III temple was ornamented with niches and columns, like the Building Level II example, including both spiral and palm-tree columns.

Figure 2.
Figure 3.
Figure 4.
Figure 5.

Religion, Iconography and Politics at the Acropolis Northeast Temple

What can the Acropolis NE excavation tell us about Tell Leilan in the early second millennium BC (Fig. 6)? In some ways, this building embodies the various strands of ideology that Šamši-Adad used to build his Kingdom of northern Mesopotamia. The Building Level III temple was probably built soon after Šamši-Adad made Tell Leilan one of his capitals. When Šamši-Adad arrived in the Habur Plains it was an area whose inhabitants had strong tribal identities and where pastoralists may have outnumbered villagers (Ristvet and Weiss 2008). Šamši-Adad and other second millennium kings in northern Mesopotamia had to craft an ideology that would appeal to the inhabitants of the region. He did so by stressing his own tribal roots, positioning himself as the heir of the great Akkadian Empire which had ruled this area in the late third millennium BC, and adopting prestigious, southern Mesopotamian symbolism to legitimate his creation of a united northern Mesopotamia.

The construction and decoration of the Leilan Acropolis Northeast Temple stresses southern Mesopotamian iconography. Three of the column types that ornament the temple’s façade illustrate this-the two different palm-trunk columns, and the spiral columns-which might also represent palm trees prepared for fertilization. Palm trees cannot grow in northeastern Syria, where winters are cold. Instead, they are at home hundreds of kilometers to the south, in southern Iraq, where myriad acres of date-palm orchards have lined the Tigris and Euphrates for millennia. In southern Mesopotamia, the bountiful date palm symbolized fertility. Unsurprisingly, temples in southern Iraq have been decorated with palm-trees from about 3000 BC (Weiss 1985). Šamši-Adad may have ordered his architects to copy this style for his temple in Šubat-Enlil; temples with similar decoration were standing at this time in Ur and Larsa. The Assyrian King List records that Šamši-Adad went to Babylon in his youth (Landsberger 1954); perhaps he saw such temples there. The Acropolis Northeast Temple is not the only temple with these decorations that Šamši-Adad had built. He probably also ordered the construction of two other similar but smaller temples, in northern Iraq at Tell ar-Rimah (ancient Qattara) and Bazmusian (Oates 1982: 91; Soof 1970).

The palm-tree columns also echo the exotic wood that had to be brought to the treeless Habur plains in order to construct this temple. As Šamši-Adad wrote to his son Yasmah-Addu, “Send one third of the palms, cypresses, and myrtles to Šubat-Enlil… That which you send to Šubat-Enlil is to be transported by ship to the town of Saggaratum, then from Saggaratum to Qattunan. From Qattunan, let the men of Qattunan take it in wagons and let them bring it to Šubat-Enlil,” (Weiss 1985: 11, ARM 1 7)

The Acropolis Northeast Temple (Fig. 7) emphasized Šamši-Adad’s connection to southern Mesopotamia and his ability to procure exotic, prestigious goods-two traditional practices of northern Mesopotamian kings. At the same time, the layout of the temple was revolutionary. Unlike contemporary southern Mesopotamian temples, it was not laid out on a bent-axis, but used an innovative plan that led directly from the main southern gateway to the sanctuary. It seems likely that Šamši-Adad established this practice; one that continued to be used by Assyrian kings for more than a millennia.

Figure 6.
Figure 7.

Temples, Tablets and Gods

What can the tablets and sealings found in the Acropolis Northeast Temple tell us? The 80 tablets found in the Building Level “X” Temple are administrative notes. Most of these are receipts of beer for the king’s meal; deliveries of grain, fodder, wood and asphalt; and lists of dead workers (Whiting 1990). Although these texts are dated with limus, the Assyrian year dating formula, it is difficult to precisely sequence or correlate them with more conventional dates. They were probably written during the reign of Šamši-Adad or the period immediately after his death (Charpin and Ziegler 2003). Interestingly, there is almost no reference to any temple affairs in them, instead they seem to have come from a royal establishment. Similarly, the sealings found within the temple belong to servants of the Leilan kings. This may suggest that this temple-and its priests-had little independent power.

The Leilan tablets provide little information about the operation, construction or identity of this temple. Luckily, three texts from Mari, a site on the Middle Euphrates that has produced 30,000 tablets for this period, give us some insight into temple construction during Šamši-Adad’s reign (Charpin 1983) (Fig. 8). These texts-which come from the archives of Šamši-Adad’s son-give the dimensions for the sanctuaries of three temples probably constructed by Šamši-Adad: a temple in Kahat (about 20 km west of Tell Leilan), an unknown temple, and the temple of Belet-Apim “The Lady of Apum” in Šubat-Enlil itself (Fig. 9). Belet-Apim was the patron goddess of the region around Tell Leilan, which was known as the “Land of Apum”. Can our temple be the one depicted in this text? The cella and ante-cella of the Building Level II temple differ slightly in design and size from the description of the temple of Belet-Apim. The text may of course refer to the dimensions of the Building Level 3 temple, which has not been fully excavated, or it may refer to another temple that has not yet been found at Tell Leilan. Apum may refer not just to the countryside around the site, but also to the lower town that surrounds the Acropolis-in which case we would expect to find Belet-Apim’s sanctuary there.

So to whom is the Leilan temple dedicated? The most likely candidate is the southern Mesopotamian god Enlil. Šamši-Adad’s special devotion to Enlil emerges from the name he gave to Tell Leilan, Šubat-Enlil “Residence of Enlil”. In southern Mesopotamia, Enlil could grant divine authority to human kings, making him a particularly attractive god for an innovator like Šamši-Adad. Šamši-Adad might have built the Acropolis Northeast Temple as a fitting tribute to a god who had granted him dominion over northern Mesopotamia.

Figure 8.
Figure 9.

Works Cited

  • Charpin, Dominique. 1983. Temples à découvrir en Syrie du Nord d’après des documents inédits de Mari. Iraq45:56-63.
  • Charpin, Dominique, and Nele Ziegler. 2003. Florilegium marianum V: Mari et le Proche-Orient à l’époque amorrite: Essai d’histoire politique. Mémoires de NABU Vol. 6. Paris: SEPOA.
  • Heinrich, Ernst. 1982. Tempel und Heiligtümer im alten Mesopotamien. Deutsches Archäologishes Institut, Denkmäler Antiker Architektur 14. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Landsberger, Benno. 1954. “Assyrische Königsliste” und “ ‘Dunkles Zeitalter’ ”. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 8:31-45; 47-73; 106-33.
  • Oates, D. 1982. Tell al Rimah. In Fifty Years of Mesopotamian Discovery, edited by J. Curtis. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq.
  • Ristvet, Lauren, and Harvey Weiss. 2008. The Habur Region in the Late Third and Early Second Millennium BC. InHistory and Archaeology of Syria, edited by M. Al-Maqdissi, P. Matthiae and W. Orthmann. Saarbrücken: Saarbrücker Druckerei und Verlag.
  • Soof, Behnam Abu. 1970. Mounds in the Rania Plain and Excavations at Tell Basmusian (1956). Sumer 26:65-104.
  • Weiss, Harvey. 1985. Tell Leilan on the Habur Plains of Syria. Biblical Archaeologist 48 (1):5-35.
  • ——. 1990. 1985 Excavations at Tell Leilan, Syria. AJA 94:529-581.
  • Whiting, Robert M. Jr. 1990. “The Tell Leilan Tablets: A Preliminary Report” in “1985 Excavations at Tell Leilan, Syria”. American Journal of Archaeology 94:568-579.