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3,400-year-old city's ruins re-emerge in Iraq after extreme drought

Although it has previously revealed itself on a few occasions, this is the first year that the city has remained accessible through the winter.

3,400-year-old city's ruins re-emerge in Iraq after extreme drought
Cover Image Source: University of Freiburg and Tübingen

An ancient city's ruins re-emerged from underwater in Iraq after authorities drained part of the Mosul Dam reservoir in the country's Kurdistan region to keep crops from drying out amid the nation's worst drought in decades. The sprawling 3,400-year-old city was excavated by a team of German and Kurdish archaeologists early in 2022, in partnership with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok, to preserve the area's cultural heritage for future generations. According to CNN, the extensive city, which includes a palace and several large buildings, is believed to be the Bronze Age city Zakhiku, an important center of the Mittani Empire that reigned from 1550 to 1350 B.C.


Ivana Puljiz, a junior professor in the department of near eastern archaeology and assyriology at the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany, and one of the directors of the project, revealed that the Mittani Empire's territory stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to northern Iraq. According to Forbes, although Zakhiku—which was submerged underwater after the Iraqi government built the Mosul Dam in the 1980s—has previously revealed itself on a few occasions after long, warm summers that cause water levels to drop, this is the first year that the city has remained accessible through the winter. 


Given the unpredictable nature of the water levels, Puljiz and her team hurried to excavate the site when they heard the city had reemerged this year. "Due to the enormous time pressure, we dug in freezing temperatures, snow, hail, rain, even storms, as well as the occasional sunny day, not knowing when the water would rise again and how much time we would have," she said. Thanks to their timely action, the researchers were able to catalog much of the archaeological site, Kemune, before the city resubmerged. During the latest excavation, they were documented multiple structures—including a fortification complete with towers and walls and a storage building multiple stories tall—in addition to the palace that was documented when the city briefly emerged in 2018.


According to researchers, most of the structures were built with sun-dried mud bricks, which ordinarily would not hold up well underwater. However, Zakhiku suffered from an earthquake around 1350 BC, and parts of the upper walls collapsed and covered the buildings. Puljiz revealed that little is known about the ancient Mittani people who built the city, mostly due to the fact that researchers have not identified the empire's capital or discovered their archives. However, this might soon change as certain artifacts unearthed during the latest excavation could help provide insight.


A news release about the re-emergence of Zakhiku states that archaeologists found five ceramic vessels holding over 100 clay cuneiform tablets, dating back to around the time after the earthquake event. The tablets are believed to be from the Middle Assyrian period—which lasted from 1350 to 1100 BC—and could shed light on what led to the city's demise and the rise of Assyrian rule in the area. "It is close to a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades underwater," Peter Pfälzner, professor of near eastern archaeology at the University of Tübingen and one of the excavation directors, said in a statement.


Although the tablets are yet to be deciphered, Puljiz believes they belonged to a private archive. "I am curious next to see what the study of the cuneiform texts will reveal about the fate of the city and its inhabitants after the devastating earthquake," she said. All artifacts that were excavated this year are currently being housed in the Duhok National Museum. Before the city disappeared underwater again, researchers covered the ruins in tight-fitting plastic sheets held down with stones and gravel in the hopes of protecting the ancient site from water erosion and preventing it from disappearing altogether.

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