Climate change reveals an old city in Iraq

Deteriorating drought conditions have allowed the 3,400-year-old city of Zakhiku to remain above the water, helping archaeologists study the site.


The ancient city of Zakhiku, 30 km from Dohuk, experienced the devastation of an earthquake, the Assyrian conquest as well as floods due to the creation of the Mosul dam built by Saddam Hussein in 1980. While other heritage sites, such as Ashur, were in danger of imminent destruction due to the construction of an additional dam by the current Iraqi government, the withdrawal of the Tigris water has effectively revealed the ancient city of Zakhiku. A true blessing for archeology.

According to Hasan Ahmed Qasim, president of the Kurdistan Archaeological Organization, which has been active at the site for a decade, the city has appeared regularly since 1980 in November with the drop in water levels after the long Iraqi summers. This year, the city remained above water in all months of January and February due to «drought in southern Iraq that led to unprecedented water being drawn from the basin to prevent crops from drying out;“.

Although this phenomenon underscores the challenges facing Iraq with climate change, it has provided a unique opportunity to further excavate and document the city of the Mittani Empire, once anchored on the banks of the Tigris River and not submerged by him.The mudstone of the Bronze Age buildings is soaked by the water from the basin, but is still easily recognizable and exposed.  Photo University of Freiburg and Tübingen KAODue to the important research work carried out by Qasim in 2018 (the year of the last urban area), it was decided to form a team of German archaeologists such as Ivana Puljiz (University of Friborg) and Peter Pfälzner (University). of Tübingen) in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage of Duhok (Kurdistan Region of Iraq) and with funding from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

In as little time as possible, as much as possible had to be excavated: based on Qasim’s intervention on a building on the site, the team managed to map much of the ancient city as well as discover a massive fortification with walls and towers, a monumental multi-storey building, floors and a industrial complex. According to archaeologists, the extensive urban complex dates back to the time of the Mittani Empire, which expanded between 1550 and 1350 BC. to large areas of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.Archaeologists and workers excavate the walls of a large building in the ancient city, interpreted as a warehouse from the time of the Mittani Empire Photo University of Freiburg and Tübingen KAOIt is almost a miracle that cuneiform clay tablets survived for so many decades underwaterSays Pfälzner. Mittani Empire «it is one of the lesser known empires of the ancient Middle EastWhich makes the discovery even more surprising. Recent excavations have revealed information about the organization and administration of the empire, animated by small regional units rather than central control. According to Qasim, the excavations have provided crucial data both on the Hurricane language, of Indo-European origin and ancestor of modern Kurdish, and on the Assyrian conquest, which according to cuneiform accounts has been achieved thanks to more powerful weapons.

From the Bronze Age conquest of the Mitanni Empire by the Assyrians to the more modern battles between the Kurdish peshmerga and Saddam Hussein’s forces, as is often the case in Iraq, the gap between past and present is easy to bridge. The reason why so few excavations have been carried out in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Qasim says, is not only the lack of academic and archaeological resources in the 20th and 21st centuries, but above all. “the indifference that the Iraqi authorities have reserved to places in Kurdish areas for political reasons“.Ceramic vases with cuneiform tablets in a room from the Middle Assyrian period (1350-1100 BC) Photo University of Freiburg and Tübingen KAOThe flooding due to the construction of the dam in 1980, which the Hussein regime decided, led to the destruction of the village built on the heights of Zakhiku and the expulsion of about forty families in a nearby area. Today, the new village of Kemune, built by local displaced people whose ancestors have passed on stories and legends about the ancient city, is home to about ten thousand people.

Zakhiku is not a unique case in Iraqi Kurdistan: according to Qasim “there are over a hundred underwater sites in the eastern Tigris area. Given the attested potential of the site, the likelihood of getting you increased significantly “Eye-catching archeological discoveriesMany of the treasures obtained have been cleaned, cataloged and now stored at the Duhok Museum, although further fundraising is needed to further the work of documentation. On the feasibility of an exhibition in a short time, Qasim warns that we have to wait for the complete documentary about the excavations, a task that can take decades.

In the meantime, the city’s next surface appearance is expected, submerged again after being covered in plastic and gravel with a conservation grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation. Climate change will bring Zakhiku back to the surface quickly and leave her there much longer than expected.After the research team has completed the work, the excavation is extensively covered with plastic sheets to protect it from rising water in the Mosul Basin.  Photo University of Freiburg and Tübingen KAO

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