3-400-year-old city reappears in Iraq due to drought

3-400-year-old city reappears in Iraq due to drought

Southern Iraq has been suffering from extreme drought for months. Since December 2021, large volumes of water from the Mosul Dam, the country’s main reservoir, have been diverted to prevent crops from being lost altogether.

Due to the low water level, the ruins of a 3,400yearold city that had been lost for decades emerged on the edge of the reservoir.

  • Ratanabá: Archaeologist explains why the legend of the “Lost City in the Amazon” makes no sense

“I saw on satellite images that the water level was falling, but it wasn’t clear when the water would rise again. So we had an indefinite time window,” explains German archaeologist Ivana Puljiz, professor at the University of Freiburg.

2 of 9 archaeologists and workers discover mud walls of buildings in the former city complex of Kemune — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Archaeologists and workers discover mud walls of buildings in the former city complex of Kemune — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Despite the difficulties and urgency, archaeologists knew the site known as Kemune was interesting because they had been there before.

So Puljiz met with Hasan Ahmed Qasim, a Kurdish archaeologist, director of the Kurdistan Archeology Organization, and Peter Pfälzner, professor of archeology at the University of Tübingen, to conduct an impromptu rescue dig.

3 of 9 In the photo, the clay bricks of the Bronze Age buildings appear to be soaked by the water of the reservoir, but could nevertheless be identified and uncovered — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Mud bricks of the Bronze Age buildings appear in the photo soaked with backwater, but could still be identified and uncovered — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

They quickly assembled a team of German and Kurdish archaeologists to document as much of the magnificent site as possible. For seven weeks, between January and February, the team surveyed the Bronze Age city before it was completely flooded again.

During a similar drought in Iraq in 2018, researchers uncovered a fortresslike palace perched near a small hill and bounded by a large wall.

4 of 9 Aerial view of Kemune excavations with Bronze Age architecture partly sunken in the lake — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Aerial view of Kemune excavations with Bronze Age architecture partly sunken in the lake — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

At that time, Ivana Puljiz’s team found the remains of murals in bright red and blue tones, which are considered a typical feature of these palaces.

The fact that the pigments were preserved despite the flooding is “an archaeological sensation,” Puljiz told DW after his visit to the site in 2022.

“Of course we had high hopes,” he said, referring to the new expedition. “Based on what we found in 2018, we knew this place could bring interesting discoveries. But we didn’t know exactly what we would find,” Puljiz explained.

5 of 9 Photo shows large excavated buildings from the Mittani period during surveying and archaeological documentation — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Photo shows large excavated buildings from the Mittani period during surveying and archaeological documentation — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

All the effort was not in vain: during the recent excavations, archaeologists managed to uncover other large buildings, such as a huge fortress with a wall and towers surrounding the city.

A powerful city that ruled the area

The discovery of a large, multistorey warehouse was particularly surprising: “The sheer size of this building shows that it must have housed a huge amount of goods. And they had to be produced and transported there,” Puljiz said. This suggests that the city sourced supplies from the surrounding area.

Puljiz explains that early evidence indicates that the sprawling city complex may be ancient Zachiku, an important center of the Mitanni Empire (c. 1550 to 1350 BC) that controlled much of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.

Not much is known about Zachiku, however. “The name of this city is hardly mentioned in other sources. We are only now gaining new knowledge about it.”

Ceramic vases with over 100 inscriptions

6 of 9 One of the vessels with cuneiform tablets is inspected before it is recovered — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

One of the vessels with cuneiform tablets is inspected before it is recovered — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

According to Ivana Puljiz, despite being made of adobe bricks that have been submerged for decades, the building’s walls and foundations appear to be in surprisingly good condition.

It is believed that a major earthquake that struck the city around 1350 BC

7 of 9 Photo shows one of the ceramic vessels with cuneiform tablets, including a clay tablet still in the original clay lid — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Photo shows one of the ceramic vases with cuneiform tablets, including a clay tablet still in the original clay lid — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

One of the most intriguing finds was the discovery of five ceramic vessels containing more than 100 cuneiform tablets one of the oldest scripts in the world as if they came from some kind of archive.

8 of 9 ceramic vessels in which cuneiform tablets were kept in a corner of a room from the Middle Assyrian period (ca. 13501100 BC) — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Ceramic vessels in which cuneiform tablets were kept in a corner of a room from the Middle Assyrian period (ca. 13501100 BC) — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

Some of the clay tablets were found in “envelopes”, also made of clay. “These massive, unburned clay tablets have been under water for so long and survived. We hope that they can soon be read by a philologist. It’s really a sensation,” said Puljiz.

The clay tablets were made in Middle Assyrian times shortly after the devastating earthquake, when people were possibly resettling among the ruins of the ancient city.

Cuneiform texts can provide information about the end of the Mitanni period and the beginning of Assyrian rule in the region. The Mitanni Empire is still one of the least explored of antiquity.

In its heyday, mid2nd millennium B.C. BC, it stretched from the Mediterranean coast across modernday Syria to northern Iraq.

War hurts discoveries

The Mitanni royalty are believed to have had good relations with the Egyptian pharaohs and Babylonian rulers. But around 1350 B.C. the kingdom was conquered by neighboring Hittites and Assyrians.

The events that led to the fall of the city of Zachiku remain unclear. To learn more about the Mitanni Empire, researchers would need to study the center of the ancient empire — which was likely located in northern Syria, Puljiz explains.

However, the longstanding war in the region made such archaeological excavations impossible.

9 of 9 After the research team’s work has been completed, the excavation pit will be covered over a large area with plastic sheeting to protect against rising water from the Mosul reservoir — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

After the research team’s work has been completed, the excavation pit will be covered over a large area with plastic sheeting to protect against rising water from the Mosul reservoir — Photo: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO

“Without finding texts of note at the center of the empire, it is very difficult to form a picture of how it worked, what held it together, or what the landowners were doing. So far we only have isolated points of light in peripheral areas, like now the old Zachiku. But the central area remains in the dark,” emphasizes Puljiz.

Before the crumbling city was submerged again by the reservoir, archaeologists covered the excavated buildings with plastic sheeting and gravel, hoping to protect them from further damage. With a bit of luck, the lost city will reappear one day.