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The Daily Star [Libanon]
June 06, 2002
Ancient city comes to light after 4,000 years in the sand
Desert ruin once housed 50,000 souls and has a temple to prove it
Special to The Daily Star
The deserts of Syria may hold many archaeological secrets but one has recently been discovered by a team of American and German scientists. When the Americans started to dig for a temple dated back to 2700 BC, the Germans were more interested in the social, economic and political life of the people in this specific area and time. What they discovered is spectacular.
Now there is empty desert and no semblance of civilization, except for some Bedouin and their herds. But this same spot 4,000 years ago was where the ancient Hurrian civilization had built one of the world’s first great cities. Its name was Urkesh, and it was located in the north of Syria near the borders with Turkey and Iraq.
“The existence of the city of Urkesh was known of about 80 years ago,” said Professor Peter Pfaelzner from the University of Tuebingen in Germany. “In 1948, a bronze lion was found holding a board with cuneiform writings in his hands. The inscription talks about a king of Urkesh who had built a temple.”
Ancient texts mentioning the great city were also found in the area and are now housed at the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Yet the city’s exact location remained unknown. Due to the area’s geology, the American team started searching for Urkesh in the area of Tell Mozan, and they found several seals indicating that at one time, a king had resided exactly there.
These discoveries took place between 1984 and 1995. The team dug further, and this time stumbled on an oval temple.
As a temple doesn’t usually exist by itself it’s supported by a community the German team’s interest was peaked.
“We were mainly interested in the urban structures of Urkesh, how a city of the early Bronze Age might have been organized, what the inhabitants lived on,” Pfaelzner explained. “We suspect that Urkesh was a very important religious, political and economic center.”
Urkesh was divided into two parts: an upper and a lower city. The temple was located in the upper half, while in the middle, dividing the upper city from the lower, the archaeologists found a large space possibly once used as a trading center with houses and storage rooms on the other side.
“The city must have been spectacular. Throughout hundreds of years, the urban planners kept the central place empty, thus emphasizing the visual power of this big temple,” Pfaelzner explained.
The temple was 6 meters high and 20 by 30 meters wide, with towers like those also found in the south of ancient Mesopotamia. Huge stairs led up to the plateau of the temple.
Because of its size and visual impact, Pfaelzner concluded that Urkesh must have been an important religious center.
In the lower city, the German team found 16 different layers dating from 2500 to 1800 BC. The total area is thought to have supported a population of 50,000 at its peak.
“We found houses with skeletons of children,” Pfaelzner said. The mortality rate of children must have been very high, but the archaeologists currently don’t know the reasons.
“It seems to us that children were not considered full members of society, so they didn’t merit being buried in a cemetery,” he said. Hundreds of years later, however, adults were also buried in the houses.
“Apparently, at a later stage, the people didn’t pay much attention to burial ceremonies in a cemetery anymore, and this ritual was lost.”
However, what was more interesting to Pfaelzner’s archaeology team were not the houses, but the storage halls of Urkesh.
“Some walls of the storage rooms in Urkesh were amazingly thick, and the rooms were quite big,” he said. “Therefore, it must have been an important trading center for importing and exporting goods.”
There’s speculation as to what exactly the Hurrians traded, but it’s likely it included metals from Anatolia and maybe clothing from Mesopotamia.
“We even found (precious stones) from Afghanistan,” said Pfaelzner. “They also got other goods from the Balkans and even the Caucasus Urkesh was the first international trading center in the world, and we can prove it scientifically,” he added.
Each storage room was locked by a clay seal which had the name of the owner or of the employee on it. The storage house that Pfaelzner’s team focused on was managed by a man named Pusham.
“This guy Pusham was a little bit messy: Each time he wanted to enter a storage room, he had to break the seal and then later lock it with a new one,” Pfaelzner explained.
“Instead of cleaning the ground and throwing away the broken seals, he just left them there which is very good for us archaeologists.”
The absence of natural disasters in Urkesh’s history means there is plenty of evidence lying undamaged for archaeologists to uncover. “So we have to rely on messy people such as Pusham who leave ‘garbage’ on the ground,” said Pfaelzner.
The storage house was later emptied and closed. Maybe the business failed, or the owner died and the business was shut down. But the city itself was inhabited through the year 1800 BC. Even after the citizens had left their home town, the temple was used for another 300 years underlying once more the religious importance of Urkesh.
The American and German team finished their excavations in 2001, but this summer a team of 35 archaeologists from Tuebingen will return to Tell Mozan to finalize their findings.
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