Zakhiku: The ancient city in Iraq revealed by severe drought

This year, the remains of a city that had been drowned in the Tigris River began to surface.

Water levels have dropped, riverbeds have dried out, and glaciers have melted, revealing artifacts such as sunken ships, ruins of an ancient city, and human remains. This is an installment from the miniseries "Climate artifacts," which tells the stories of the people, places, and things that have been unearthed as a result of climate change.

Approximately 3,800 years ago, merchants in the city of Zakhiku awaited the arrival of wooden beams from the highlands of northern and eastern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, and portions of Turkey, Iran, and Syria). When the logs finally made it to Zakhiku, they were gathered up and placed in warehouses.

Metal and mineral traders would travel by donkey or camel from the same mountainous regions in what is now Turkey and Iran to Zakhiku. They would travel in large groups, called caravans, to increase their odds of survival against bandits along the treacherous route. After making a profit at Zakhiku, traders would go over the Tigris to reach the frontier.

The Old Babylonian Empire, which controlled Mesopotamia from the 19th to the 15th century BC, established Zakhiku in 1800 B.C. Zakhiku was founded on the area's water and land to take advantage of a thriving commerce route in the Near East, which included the modern-day Middle East, Turkey, and Egypt.

For 600 years until an earthquake destroyed it, the trade station flourished into a major commercial center for the surrounding area.

In the 1980s, as part of the Mosul Dam project, built by the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the whole town of Zakhiku was flooded and drowned. As the largest and most significant water reservoir in Iraq, it was once known as Saddam Dam.

Farmers in the southern governorates of Iraq, where summer temperatures often exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), have been forced to leave their withering crops due to severe drought since 2019. Iraq is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world. The dam was opened in December of last year in order to irrigate farms.

Earlier this year, Zakhiku in Iraq's Kurdish area formed as a result of falling water levels. After a preliminary excavation in 2018 revealed a palace, a team of local and German archaeologists sprang into action to excavate the site, uncovering new details about the city.

The locals "have become aware of Zakhiku with the latest excavation; they visit the site... it was reported on the local media... Peter Pfälzner, a German archaeologist from the University of Tübingen, argues that the locals' pride in their heritage grows as they learn more about the site's history at Kemune.

As the Hittites, an Indo-European people from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), conquered Mesopotamia around 1,500 B.C., they also brought down the Old Babylonian city of Zakhiku and its empire.

The Hittites eventually left Zakhiku and returned to their homelands in the north, allowing the Mittani Empire to take control.

Pfälzner, who revealed his excavation discoveries with Al Jazeera, explains that "it was the opportunity the Mittani Empire had to fill this vacuum" created by the Hittites' decline.

Little is known about the people who lived in Zakhiku or the population during the empire's peak, and few sites have been uncovered with layers or buildings that may be assigned to this empire. Under its new imperial masters, however, the city flourished.

The bulk of the empire's subjects were Hurrians, who, like the inhabitants of northern Mesopotamia, had made their homes in what is now Syria and northern Iraq and spoke a language with the same name.

Archaeologists have discovered mud-brick buildings from the Mittani era, including a palace for the local ruler, city fortifications to fend off invaders, and a massive public storehouse for trade goods and harvests.

The local king's friendly relationship with the emperor appears to be the driving force behind all of this. Pfälzner claims that Zakhiku, whose capital was located in what is now northeastern Syria, was a vassal state of the larger empire.

The king's palace was more impressive than the homes because it had thicker walls, larger rooms, and pavements made of baked, not just dried, mud bricks sealed with bitumen, formed from oil, for waterproofing.

With so little known about Mittani culture due to the scarcity of surviving artifacts from the empire, the excavation is fertile ground for the discovery of new information. Pfälzner argues that the significance of Zakhiku lies in the fact that it provides a glimpse into what a city in the Mittani Empire may have looked like.


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