Climate change is revealing an ancient city in Iraq

The ancient city of Zahiku, 30km southwest of Dohuk, was ravaged by an earthquake, Assyrian conquest and sinking by the Mosul Dam, built by Saddam Hussein in 1980.

But while other sites such as Ashur are facing imminent destruction due to flooding from another dam being built by the current Iraqi government, climate change has actually revealed the ancient city of Zahiku when Tiger waters recede, providing archaeological grace.

According to Hassan Ahmed Qasim, chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeological Organization, who has been working at the site for a decade since it was flooded in 1980, the site reappears every few years, usually in November, when water levels fell after long Iraqi summers. This year, the site remains above water in January and February, something he attributes to “the drought in southern Iraq, which draws unprecedented levels of water from the reservoir to stop the crops from drying out.”

The mud bricks of the Bronze Age buildings are soaked in the water of the reservoir, but can still be easily identified and exposed. Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Although this phenomenon highlights Iraq’s ongoing challenges with climate change, it also provided a unique window of opportunity for further excavation and documentation of the 3,400-year-old city from the Mitani Empire era, once located on rather than the Tigris River.

Based on important research work carried out by Qasim in 2018, when the last time the ancient city rose from the waters, a team was quickly assembled, including German archaeologists Ivana Puliz (University of Freiburg) and Peter Pfelzner (University of Tübingen) in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok (Kurdistan Region in Iraq) and with funding from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation through the University of Freiburg.

Archaeologists and workers are excavating the walls of a large building in the ancient city, which is interpreted as a warehouse building from the time of the Mitani Empire. Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

With limited time, there was pressure to dig and document as much as possible. Working from Qasim’s 2018 documentation for a palace on the site, the team was able to map most of the ancient city, revealing a massive fortification with walls and towers, a monumental, multi-storey storage building and an industrial complex. According to the team, the vast urban complex dates back to the time of the Mitani Empire (c. 1550-1350 BC), which controlled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

“The magazine’s huge building is particularly important because it must have stored huge quantities of goods, probably brought from all over the region,” Puljiz said.

Qasim notes: “The results of the excavations show that the site was an important center in the Mitani empire.”

Although the walls of sun-dried bricks have been under water for most of the four millennia, they have been surprisingly well preserved due to an earthquake in 1350 BC, which effectively buried them and protected them from collapsing debris. .

The discovery of five ceramic vessels containing an archive of more than 100 cuneiform tablets from the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake, revealed new information about the Mitani empire.

Pottery, in which cuneiform tablets are stored, stand in the corner of a room from the Middle Assyrian period (around 1350–1100 BC). Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

“It’s a miracle that cuneiform tiles made of unbaked clay have survived so many decades underwater,” Pfelzner said, adding that the Mitani empire “is one of the least known empires in the ancient Middle East,” making the discovery. of even greater importance. Recent excavations have revealed information about the organization and management of the empire, namely that it consisted of smaller regional units rather than central control.

According to Qasim, the excavations provided important information about both the Assyrian conquest – achieved through superior armaments, according to cuneiform stories – and the Hurrian language, the Indo-European language, which some say is the forerunner of modern Kurdish.

View of one of the wedge-shaped pottery vessels, including a tablet that is still in its original clay bag Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

As is often the case in Iraq, the link between the past and the present is easy to establish: from the conquest of the Bronze Age Mitani Empire by the Assyrians to the more modern battles between the Kurdish Peshmerga and Saddam Hussein’s forces. The reason for so few excavations in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Qasim says, is not only because of the lack of academic and archaeological resources in the 20th century and now, but also because “Iraqi authorities neglected sites in Kurdish areas for political reasons.”

Before flooding the ancient site in 1980 with the dam, Hussein’s regime destroyed a local village built on top of Zahiku, relocating about 40 families in an area 5km away. Today, the new village of Kemune, built by displaced locals whose ancestors told stories and legends about the ancient city, is home to about 10,000 people.

But Zahiku is not unique in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Qasim. “There are more than 100 underwater sites in the Eastern Tiger region,” he said.

After the research team has completed its work, the excavation is covered with a lot of plastic foil to protect it from the rising waters of the Mosul reservoir. Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

And as the region’s academic and archaeological capacity grows, he added, there is “huge potential for archaeological discoveries.”

Many of Zahiku’s treasures have been cleaned, cataloged and stored at the Duhok Museum, although funding is still needed for further translation and documentation. As for an exhibition soon, Kasim says, it will have to wait until the site’s documentation is completed, a task that could take decades.

Meanwhile, the ancient city of Zahiku, again submerged but covered in plastic and gravel thanks to a grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, is awaiting its next look above the water. Due to the devastating effects of climate change, this could happen much earlier and last much longer than expected.

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