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The ancient city of Zakhiku, 30km southwest of Dohuk, has endured the ravages of an earthquake, Assyrian conquest and submersion by the Mosul dam built by Saddam Hussein in 1980.
But while other heritage sites like Ashur face imminent destruction due to flooding from another dam under construction by the current Iraqi government, climate change has actually revealed the ancient city of Zakhiku as the waters of the Tigris recede, providing an archaeological boon.
According to Hasan Ahmed Qasim, the chairman of the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization, who has been working at the site for a decade, ever since it was flooded in 1980 the site has re-appeared every few years, usually in November when water levels dropped after the long Iraqi summers. This year, the site remained above water through January and February, something he attributes to the “drought in Southern Iraq drawing unprecedented levels of water from the reservoir to stop crops from drying out”.
While this phenomenon underscores Iraq’s ongoing challenges with climate change, it also provided a unique window of opportunity to further excavate and document the 3,400-year-old Mittani Empire-era city once located on, not in, the Tigris River.
Building on important research work done by Qasim in 2018, the last time the ancient city rose from the waters, a team was quickly put together including the German archaeologists Ivana Puljiz (University of Freiburg) and Peter Pfälzner (University of Tübingen) in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok (Kurdistan region of Iraq) and with funding from Fritz Thyssen Foundation through the University of Freiburg.
With limited time, the pressure was on to excavate and document as much as possible. Working from Qasim’s 2018 documentation of a palace on the site, the team succeeded in mapping most of the ancient city, uncovering a massive fortification with wall and towers, a monumental, multi-storey storage building and an industrial complex. According to the team the extensive urban complex dates to the time of the Empire of Mittani (around 1550-1350 BCE), which controlled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.
“The huge magazine building is of particular importance because enormous quantities of goods must have been stored in it, probably brought from all over the region,” says Puljiz.
Qasim notes, “The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mittani Empire.”
Even though the walls of sun-dried bricks were underwater for the better part of four millennia, they were surprisingly well preserved due to an earthquake in 1350 BCE that effectively buried and protected them with collapsing debris.
The discovery of five ceramic vessels that contained an archive of over 100 cuneiform tablets from the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake struck, have revealed new information about the Mittani Empire.
“It is close to a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades underwater,” Pfälzner says, adding that the Mittani Empire “is one of the least known empires in the ancient near east”, making the discovery of even greater significance. Recent excavation work revealed information about the organization and administration of the empire, namely that it consisted of smaller regional units rather than central control.
According to Qasim, the excavation provided important information on both the Assyrian conquest—achieved thanks to superior weaponry, according to the cuneiform accounts—as well as the Hurrian language, the Indo-European language some say was a precursor to modern Kurdish.
As is often the case in Iraq, the connection between past and present is easy to make: from the Bronze Age conquest of the Mitanni Empire by the Assyrians to the more modern battles between Kurdish peshmerga and Saddam Hussein’s forces. The reason so little excavation work has been done in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, says Qasim, was not just because of a lack of academic and archeological resources in the 20th century and the current one, but also because “Iraqi authorities neglected sites in the Kurdish areas for political reasons”.
Before flooding the ancient site in 1980 with the dam, Hussein’s regime destroyed the local village built on top of Zakhiku, displacing some 40 families to an area 5km away. Today the new village of Kemune, built by the displaced locals whose ancestors passed down stories and legends about the ancient city, is home to around 10,000 people.
But Zakhiku is not unique in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Qasim. “There are more than 100 underwater sites in the Eastern Tigris area,” he says.
And as the area’s academic and archeological capacity grows, he adds, there is “huge potential for archaeological discoveries”.
Many of the treasures from Zakhiku have been cleaned, catalogued and stored in the Duhok Museum, although funding is still needed for further translation and documentation. As for an exhibition any time soon, says Qasim, that will have to wait until site documentation is completed, a task that could take decades.
Meanwhile, the ancient city of Zakhiku, once again submerged but covered in plastic and gravel thanks to a preservation grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, awaits its next above-water appearance. Because of the ravages of climate change, that may happen much sooner and last much longer than expected.