Archaeology

4,000-Year-Old Mesopotamian City Discovered In the Shadow Of Ur

A 4,000-year-old urban settlement has been discovered on the road to Ur in modern Iraq. Researchers suspect the discovery represents a lost Mesopotamian city capital that was founded on the ashes of the collapse of ancient Babylonia in the middle of the second millennium BC.

According to the Middle Eastern news site,  Al-Monitora joint team of Russian and Iraqi archaeologists discovered the site on 24 June 2021 in the Tell al-Duhaila area in Dhi Qar Governorate, around 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the ancient city of Ur site.

The Dhi Qar Governorate in southern Iraq is perhaps best known as the backdrop for The Battle of Dhi, fought between Arab tribes and the Sassanid Empire around the year 623 AD. However, long before the Muslim invasion of the territory known today as Iraq, ancient cultures built thousands of ziggurat temples, sacred burial sites and proto-cities across the Mesopotamian delta. This is one of them, but it is perhaps more “important” that all the others.

The Fall of Nineveh, by John Martin depicts the The Battle of Nineveh (circa 612 BC). In this battle the combined the forces of Medes and the Babylonians rebelled against the Assyrians, laying waste to one of the greatest Mesopotamian cities ever built. The fall of Nineveh led to the destruction of the Neo-Assyrian Empire over the next three years. ( むーたんじょ / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

“New” Mesopotamian City: A Key Cradle-of-Civilization Site?

Ten international university research teams began this research project in  southern Iraq  in 2019. Their discovery of the ancient urban space in the shadow of the famous city of Ur expands an already heavy archaeological excavation schedule in this region. The head of the Russian excavation, Professor Alexei Jankowski-Diakonoff, told Al-Monitor of than there exist more than “1,200 archaeological sites” in this part of the Mesopotamian delta alone, which is a recognized “cradle of civilization.”

Perfectly exemplifying the importance of this discovery, an article in  The Art News Paper  explains that “ten university teams” are set to travel to the Dhi Qar region in October this year to conduct the next phase of excavations. But why is this site getting such attention above the other 1,200 sites on the dig list? The answer is because it is located so close to the city of Ur, the important  Sumerian city-state  in ancient Mesopotamia.

And why is Ur such a big deal? It was mentioned in the  Book of Genesis  as the legendary birthplace of the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam  Abraham (Arabic: Ibrahim) , and, it creates a small fortune in tourist dollars.

Being located so close to Ur, this latest Mesopotamian city site is being deemed as potentially more “important” than the other 1,199 sites. How sites in Iraq are graded for “importance,” however, is something we will return to later.

An enthroned Sumerian king of Ur, possibly Ur-Pabilsag, with attendants. (Michel Wal /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Oldest Evidence of Silt Agriculture in Mesopotamia?

So far the archaeologists at the ancient settlement have unearthed “an oxidized arrowhead, traces of stoves and clay camel statues dating back to the early Iron Age, including an oven,” according to Al-Monitor. And again, highlighting the scientific significance of the site, Prof. Jankowski-Diakonoff told journalists that it demonstrates “the first development in  agriculture using silt  in Mesopotamia.” He said is it an ancient storehouse of archaeological materials “preceding the emergence of the  Sumerian civilization .”

If all that were not enough to warrant immediate funding, initial research at this site suggests it might be the “capital of a state founded following the political collapse at the end of the ancient Babylonian era [around the middle of the second millennium BC], which caused the systematic destruction of the Sumerian civilization s urban life,” according to Jankowski-Diakonoff. The researcher is convinced further excavations might reveal artifacts with “cuneiform writing in an undisturbed archaeological context”, which the scientist says, “would be extremely important”.

Restored Sumerian temple ziggurat at the Ur site in Iraq, which makes a lot of money from tourism. It is hoped that latest major Mesopotamian city recently discovered not far from Ur will be just as lucrative. ( homocosmicos / Adobe Stock)

Defining “Importance” In Iraqi Archaeology

Amer Abdel Razak, the antiquity director in Dhi Qar, told Al-Monitor that the site is an “extremely significant archaeological site ahead of the Russian team’s arrival in Iraq” in October. However, “October” hinges on a new round of funding, and that depends on a chain of people demonstrating the sites importance to people further up the Iraqi state money tree. Sumaya al-Ghallab, head of the Committee for Culture, Tourism and Antiquity in the Iraqi parliament told Al-Monitor that he petitioned for “the necessary funds and protection for excavation teams.”

What then must happen to secure the October dig? This is to ask, what constitutes “importance” in Iraqi archaeology? A  Vestnik Kavkaza  article quotes Karrar al-Rawazeq, an archaeologist and member of the Muthanna antiquity rescue team, saying  Exploration and excavation works in the area will yield economic and cultural benefits only if the site was turned into a tourist and investment destination, which would attract  funds and tourists .”

And therein lies our answer, deflating as it may be. This site is liable to be excavated not because of its archaeological, social or religious “importance,” but because the surrounding land would support a carpark, visitor’s center and ticket stall. Just like Disneyland.

Top image: The so-called Abraham house at the Ur archaeological complex in southern Iraq is said to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic). The “latest” Mesopotamian city discovered near  Tell al-Duhaila is less than 20 miles (31 km) from Ur.      Source: Aziz1005 /  CC BY 4.0

By Ashley Cowie


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