Zakhiku: Iraq’s Ancient City Revealed by Severe Drought | Climate crisis

As the climate crisis causes water levels to drop, riverbeds to dry up and glaciers to melt, artifacts such as old warships, an ancient city and human remains have emerged. This story is part of “Climate Artifacts”, a mini-series telling the stories behind the people, places and objects that have been discovered due to drought and warming temperatures.

Around 3,800 years ago, traders in the ancient city of Zakhiku waited for wooden beams, felled in the mountain forests of northern and eastern Mesopotamia – covering what is now Iraq , Kuwait and parts of Turkey, Iran and Syria – float on the Tigris. Once the logs reached Zakhiku, they were collected and taken to warehouses.

From the same mountainous regions of what is now Turkey and Iran, merchants carrying metals and minerals such as gold, silver, tin and copper traveled by donkey or camel ride to Zakhiku. To protect themselves from bandits, they would make the difficult journey in traveling caravans. After selling their wares in Zakhiku, the merchants would cross the Tigris before continuing to the borderlands.

Zakhiku was founded around 1800 BC. BC by the ancient Babylonian empire which reigned over Mesopotamia between the 19th and 15th centuries BC. With only water and soil in the area, Zakhiku was created to take advantage of caravan traffic and a thriving trade route in the Near East, which includes present-day Middle East, Turkey, and Egypt.

The trading post became an important trading town in the region for about 600 years before being hit by an earthquake and later abandoned.

Zakhiku disappeared completely in the 1980s, when – as part of the Mosul Dam project, built under the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein – it was flooded and submerged. Formerly known as Saddam’s Dam, it is Iraq’s largest and most important reservoir of water used for downstream irrigation.

Iraq is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, and its southern governorates, where temperatures exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in summer, have faced severe drought since 2019, forcing farmers to give up their dying cultures. Last December, water was released from the dam to irrigate farmland.

As water levels dropped, Zakhiku emerged earlier this year in the Kurdish region of Iraq. A team of local and German archaeologists stepped in to excavate the site, uncovering new details about the city following a brief initial dig in 2018 that revealed a palace.

“With recent excavations, locals have become aware of Zakhiku; they visit the site…it was shown on local TV…and people are starting to know their story [more deeply] and they are proud of it,” says Peter Pfälzner of the University of Tübingen, Germany, an archaeologist working at the site, known as Kemune.

Zakhiku was originally founded for its location on a thriving trade route traveled by merchant caravans [Courtesy of the University of Tübingen]

A city in an unknown empire

Around 1500 BC. AD, the old Babylonian city of Zakhiku fell with its empire when the Hittites, an Indo-European group of people from Anatolia – present-day Turkey – conquered Mesopotamia, but had no interest in settling a settlement there. new administration.

As the Hittites returned to their northern lands, the Mittani Empire, originating from northeast Syria, took control of Zakhiku.

“It was an opportunity for the Mittani Empire to fill this void [left by the Hittites] to establish a very large and powerful empire,” says Pfälzner, who shared his excavation findings with Al Jazeera.

Few sites with layers or buildings that can be attributed to this empire have been discovered, and little is known about the people who lived in Zakhiku or what the population was like at its height. But the city prospered under its second reigning empire.

The majority of the empire’s population were Hurrians – like the inhabitants of northern Mesopotamia – and settled in present-day Syria and northern Iraq, and spoke a language of the same name.

Infrastructure built during Mittani’s reign and uncovered by archaeologists includes a palace for the local ruler, fortifications to protect the city against any invading force, and a huge public warehouse for goods and crops – all made from bricks molded from mud.

All this seems to have been made possible by the good relations that the local king had with the emperor. According to Pfälzner, Zakhiku was something of a vassal state for the larger empire, with the capital in modern northeast Syria.

The king’s palace was bigger than the houses, with thicker walls, larger rooms, and even sidewalks made of fired, not just dried, mud bricks sealed with bitumen – formed from oil – for l waterproofing.

With so few remains of the Mittani Empire, including its capital, having been uncovered to date, the excavations are cultivating new knowledge about the Mittani culture. “Zakhiku is very important because it opens a big window into what a Mittani town might look like,” says Pfälzner.

A photo of a view into one of the pottery vessels with cuneiform tablets, including one tablet that is still in its original clay casing.
Cuneiform tablets made during the Assyrian period of rule in the city could tell more about the impact of the earthquake that destroyed Zakhiku when it was a city of Mittani [Courtesy of the University of Tübingen]

clay posts

A key feature of Zakhiku was the warehouse which boasted rooms up to 6 m (20 ft) wide and 8 m (26 ft) long and housed heaps of wheat and barley as well as metal and imported wood.

According to Pfälzner, farmers would transport their season’s produce to the warehouse where it would be noted by state workers.

The very size of the halls reserved for public harvests indicates that the city is active and well populated.

Mesopotamia has long been known as the first place where wheat was domesticated around 10,000 years ago, and bread was the staple food of the people of Zakhiku, often eaten with large pots of soups and stews of vegetables, according to Pfälzner.

Sheep, goats, cows and pigs were also kept by each household, providing a regular source of milk and also meat, reserved for special occasions.

The Hurrian language was unknown outside the immediate area, and scribes employed for public functions throughout the state, such as in city palaces or warehouses, were educated in Akkadian, the language and lingua franca les more widespread in the ancient Near East at the end of the bronze. period that extended from 3300 BC to 1200 BC.

Using wet clay, says Pfälzner, craftsmen made square tablets 15cm by 15cm – and while the material was still wet, scribes carved notes onto anything from a log to a newly stored crop to a note destined for another realm before placing it in the sun. to dry.

An earthquake

The Mittani city of Zakhiku met a devastating end when an earthquake demolished it between 1,400 BC and 1,300 BC, according to Pfälzner, collapsing the walls around the inhabitants.

With the buildings so badly damaged, it was impossible to rebuild Zakhiku to its former eminence, and if there were any survivors, they abandoned it.

Around 1300 BC. AD, the native Assyrians of Mesopotamia settled in the same city, building their homes amid the ruins and using any structures still standing from the Mittani period as outer retaining walls.

“They created a new life in the city, it was…really nice to see how things are starting to develop again,” says Pfälzner.

Apart from those belonging to the Mittani period, the cuneiform tablets unearthed after the earthquake will hopefully tell archaeologists more about the change in the city’s regime.

Zakhiku was abandoned by the Assyrians just 50 years after their arrival, between 1270 BC and 1250 BC. They decided to build their new provincial capital, Mardaman, 25 km (15.5 miles) in the plains of Mesopotamia, in present-day Bassetki, a village in Dohuk Governorate.

The commercial center benefits that Zakhiku brought to its inhabitants in the Tigris Valley for about 600 years faded as the Assyrians – who were very careful planners – wanted to exploit the now famous fertile soil of Mesopotamia.

The move to Bassetki was for economic and strategic reasons, according to Pfälzner, since the agricultural areas were smaller along the Tigris compared to the plains fields which would yield greater economic profit.

In February, Pfälzner and the team of archaeologists halted the excavations as the waters of the dam rose again and Zakhiku disappeared under water.

Dr. Bekes Jamal Al Din, director of antiquities at the Duhok Antiquities and Heritage Directorate, which works with archaeologists, told Al Jazeera that the excavations indicate that this region exerted a powerful influence on the Mittani Empire. Yet he acknowledges that learning this history comes at a cost to the country’s water needs.

“We don’t expect the water [in the Mosul Dam] will recede again due to the importance of water to the region,” he says. “But if so, we will certainly start the excavations again, and the results will be beneficial for the history of the region.”

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