When Drought Caused A Reservoir In Iraq To Dry Up, It Exposed A Palace From A Once-Powerful Kingdom

When water levels in the Mosul Dam reservoir fell in 2010, people were permitted the briefest glimpse of something long submerged. Yet it wasn’t until much later that the reservoir had dried up enough to allow archaeologists to finally explore this mysterious find. And so they rushed to do so before it disappeared under the water again.

Even though the contents of the reservoir had first been revealed in 2010, they had disappeared again before experts could examine them. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2018 that archaeologists got another chance to work on the site. Yet even this time around, the archaeologists didn’t have time to explore every corner of their discovery. And it’s impossible to know when the site will emerge again.

The Mosul Dam which held the mysterious discovery is located in Iraq. This is a country known as the “land with two rivers” because of the importance of the Tigris and the Euphrates. These are vital to agriculture, but in recent years have seen their water levels shrinking. Indeed, the reveal at the Mosul Dam was ultimately a mere bright spot within the context of a drought that destroyed crops and lives.

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Iraq is a country with a long and impressive history. Indeed, it was once the home of one of humanity’s earliest civilizations. Ancient Mesopotamia saw huge developments in agriculture, as well as in the practice of writing. And the urban centers of Mesopotamia were the first that we might today recognize as having been cities.

With only 36 miles of coastline, just under two-fifths of Iraq is considered to be desert. Kurdistan is a mountainous area in the north of the country that also stretches into Iran and Turkey. The Tigris-Euphrates river system is a vital part of Iraq’s water supply, and dams are common to help irrigation.

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There are Mediterranean plants in Iraqi Kurdistan. Alpine plants are also common, while certain herbs are known to be present in the region. The dominant plant in the south is the date palm, though the desert itself sees little plant life. Birds are prevalent, as are wolves, jackals and various smaller creatures. Wild cats and swine can also be found in Iraq.

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There is a noticeable difference in climate between the hot, dry lowland deserts of southern Iraq and the cooler, rainier highlands of the northeast. Summer and winter are the only seasons in the south, with only between four and seven inches of rainfall annually. Summer temperatures have reached heights of 123 °F, although winter is significantly cooler.

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The north is cooler than the south, and winters last longer. Irrigation may not strictly be necessary in this area, because rain does fall in the foothills. The mountains there also see snowfall. In the summer, the entire country is affected by a dry wind called the shamāl. This prevents clouds from forming, ultimately exposing the country to strong sunlight. Dust storms are common.

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It was in the 1950s that authorities first considered building a dam over the Tigris River to help supply water to the Nineveh province area. Yet the actual building work didn’t start until the 1980s because of the water-soluble nature of the riverbed. This is made of gypsum and anhydrite, meaning that the site was a potentially unstable place to construct a dam.

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When the dam was eventually built, it became a symbol of power and status for Iraq. Consultants from Switzerland and an alliance of German and Italian firms were responsible for the actual design and construction, which took place in 1984. Two years later, water started to pass through the structure. And since then, engineers have been constantly battling a possible collapse.

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There are caverns under the dam which have been carved by running water. These caverns need to be constantly filled in. By 2016 in and around 105,000 tons of grout had been used in this endeavor. Millions of dollars have been spent on the dam by both the Iraqi government and its international partners. Yet if the dam does break, half a million people could potentially be killed or displaced by flooding.

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The dam plays a vital role in many people’s lives. Not only does it keep in billions of gallons of water that help to irrigate nearby farms, but it also provides electricity to the surrounding area. In fact, the dam’s importance actually made it a key battleground in the fight against Islamic State, which temporarily controlled it during 2014.

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Agricultural land in Iraq is on the decline, and its desert areas are consequently growing. Irrigation may be necessary, but if the practice is utilized excessively it can damage land through poor drainage, which can then lead to salt deposits in the soil. This means that preserving what farmland is left is essential – and that, in turn, means dams are vital.

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The Tigris and Euphrates may have earned Iraq its “land of two rivers” nickname, but over the last few decades the country’s neighbors have also taken advantage of these waterways. Thus, the flow of water into Iraq itself has lessened. Turkey, Syria and Iran have built dams of their own, ultimately diminishing water flow into Iraq over the last four to five decades.

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In the last few years, this blocking of the rivers has been accompanied by a drop in rainfall. This, it has been claimed, is what has led to drought. The amounts of water once supplied to Iraq by the Euphrates have been nearly halved. And years of conflict meant that Iraq didn’t deal with the growing crisis before it reached an urgent point.

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The lack of rain in 2018 meant that water needed to be released from the reservoir of the Mosul Dam to help with drought relief. And it was upon doing so that a staggering discovery was made. With the water levels now low, the remains of a building underneath were exposed. Named Kemune by researchers, it appears that it may once have been a palace. It may be 3,400 years old.

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With the ruins revealed – yet with no way of knowing how long they would be accessible – archaeologists had to move quickly. The team was associated with the Institute of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen. Some members were German and others were Kurdish. Representatives from the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization and Duhok Directorate of Antiquities were also involved at one point or another.

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In the end, the researchers had just over three weeks during September and October to carry out their excavations. During the first part of the dig, the waters were still receding – so more and more of the site continued to be revealed. At one point the ruins reached around 23 feet in height. But then winter began, and with it came the rainfall that would conceal Kemune once again.

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The researchers managed to explore eight of the palace’s ten rooms, eventually reasoning that Kemune may date back to the time of the Mitanni Empire. If this theory was to prove correct, the site would be particularly notable. The Mitanni Empire is quite poorly understood, given that so little research has been done into the civilization.

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When the palace was built, it would’ve been on an imposing terrace that elevated it above the surrounding ground. The river, it’s thought, would have been around 65 feet away. Researchers found walls made of mudbricks, while the floor was made of fired bricks. In some rooms, the walls were plastered. Others had wall paintings.

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It was these wall paintings that particularly caught the researchers’ attention. Indeed, there’s only one other location near Kemune where Mitanni wall paintings have ever been found before. According to one expert, the red and blue designs are an “archaeological sensation.” Indeed, they may well have been common in the Mitanni period, but it seems they are very rarely found preserved.

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It may not be the most well-known of empires, but the Mitanni civilization once spanned parts of what are now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It was one of the great powers of the region – before the Hittites and the Assyrians invaded it. Indeed, it was the Assyrian Empire’s absorption of the territory that led to Mitanni disappearing.

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Today, much of the information relating to Mitanni Empire has derived from a series of letters that Mitanni kings exchanged with the leaders of Assyria and Egypt. On top of that, details have emerged from a limited number of archaeological sites. The most notable of these include Nuzi and Alalakh, positioned in what would have been the edge of Mitanni territory. Tell Brak, located in modern-day Syria, is also important.

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Among the interesting artifacts to have survived from the Mitanni Empire is something you wouldn’t necessarily expect. It’s a guide to training horses – and it appears to be the oldest such manual in the world. Indeed, the Mitanni were great horsemen, and they also led the way in developing a new kind of chariot wheel.

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Mitanni is listed alongside Assyria, Egypt, Babylonia and Hatti as being one of the great powers of its era. The people of Mitanni referred to themselves as the Hanigalbat. The Assyrians, too, used this term for them. But to the Egyptians, they were known as the Metani or the Naharin.

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Another name for Mitanni was the Land of the Hurrians. Indeed, Hurrian was the language spoken by most of its people, despite the rulers coming from further east. These rulers referred to themselves as the Mariannu. They were considered warriors, but they also intermarried with their subjects and took their names.

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The Mitanni capital was called Washukanni, which is thought to have been found on the banks of the River Habur. However, it’s not known for sure exactly where. Some experts think that Washukanni was later built over by the construction of the city of Sikan. This thinking also claims that Washukanni’s ruins might now be covered by a mound in Syria called Tell el Fakhariya.

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There’s also debate about what Wahsukanni means. It sounds similar to “bashkani”, which is a Kurdish word meaning “source of good” or “source of wealth.” But it may also have a connection to Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. Indeed, this would be in keeping with the Mitanni’s Indo-Iranian origins. Ultimately, it’s just one of the many questions to be answered about the Mitanni Empire.

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Control of the Habur, Euphrates and parts of the Tigris apparently helped the Mitanni to consolidate their power. The Egyptians were reliant on artificial irrigation to water their crops, but the lands of the Mitanni required no such intervention. And so, as well as growing crops, they could also breed sheep, cattle, goats and horses.

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Mitanni chariots didn’t use traditional wheels made of solid wood. Instead, they pioneered the use of spoked wheels to create a lighter, faster and more maneuverable chariot. Chariot warfare was common in the time period, so this gave the Mitanni people an advantage when battling against their rivals, like the Sumerians.

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The Mitanni horse-training manual consists of 1,080 lines across four tablets. It opens with a statement that reads, “Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of the Mitanni.” Kikkuli then goes on to explain his methods of training horses in great detail. The manual was discovered in modern-day Turkey.

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We don’t know much about the earlier parts of Mitanni history. And that’s because its culture was destroyed by subsequent invasions and conquests. But the known correspondences with Egyptian and Assyrian leaders do give us the names of some of the Mitanni’s most prominent kings. An example is King Shaushtatar, who would have been in power around 1430 B.C. Shaushtatar is thought to have expanded the empire.

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We also know that there were marriage alliances between the Mitanni and the Egyptians. Pharaoh Amenhotep II of Egypt married a Mitanni princess called Taduhepa, who was the daughter of King Tushratta. The Egyptians then supported Tushratta when a relative of his predecessor challenged him for the throne of Mitanni.

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That rival, however, was supported by Suppiluliuma I, the king of the Hittites. And the strength of the Hittites, at this point in time, was supposedly growing. Egypt decided to leave Washukanni vulnerable to a Hittite attack. Tushratta was eventually killed, and the Mitanni Empire came thoroughly under Hittite rule.

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Suppiluliuma I split Mitanni into two and made it a vassal state of the Hittites. Washukanni was replaced, as each new province had its own capital. One was governed from Aleppo and the other from Carchemish. Yet in spite of the conquest, some of Mitanni still held a certain amount of freedom.

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Later, the Assyrians conquered Mitanni – though again, we’re not sure of the exact dates. Yet by 1245 B.C. we can be fairly sure that the Hittite Empire was declining and that the Assyrians were on the rise. The Hittite ruler Shattuara I was forced to pledge allegiance to Adad-Nirari I of Assyria. Mitanni’s importance faded even further.

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There were Mitanni attempts to revolt against the Assyrians. They even had some success blocking supplies of food and water to the Assyrian army. King Shalmaneser I, however, was ferocious in his defeat of the rebels. Much of the population was enslaved, and what remained of Mitanni disappeared into the Assyrian Empire.

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With evidence of Mitanni so scarce today, the discoveries at the Mosul Dam can be seen to be pivotal. And a set of ten clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing are particular significant. These texts might well reveal new insight into Mitanni life – but they will first need to be translated.

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Some of these tablets have already been translated and have offered clues as to Kemune’s true former stature. It’s possible that it was once a city called Zakhiku, which has been referenced in other writings from the past. If these documents are to be believed, Zakhiku was a city that may have stood for 400 years or more.

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It’s not the first time that the University of Tübingen has played an important role in an archaeological discovery in Iraq. Indeed, the remains of a Bronze Age city were revealed under the village of Bassetki in 2016. These remnants included a palace and other large buildings, a cemetery and an impressive road network.

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