4,000-year-old city discovered in Iraq

A group of Russian archaeologists discovered June 24 an ancient settlement about 4,000 years old in Dhi Qar governorate in southern Iraq. The discovery was made in the area of Tell al-Duhaila, which is home to more than 1,200 archaeological sites, including the Great Ziggurat of Ur site from the Sumerian era, and the royal tomb. Treasures similar to the ones that were found in the tomb of Egypt’s Tutankhamun’ tomb were unearthed. 

Alexei Jankowski-Diakonoff, head of the Russian excavation mission, told Al-Monitor, “The works started in April 2021, which was the first full round of field archaeological research in southern Mesopotamia. The first two rounds took place in 2019 and 2020.” 

He said, “The discovered city is an urban settlement in Tell al-Duhaila, located on the banks of a watercourse. According to initial speculation, the city could 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 B.C.], which caused the systematic destruction of the Sumerian civilization’s urban life.” 

Commenting on the significance of research in the area, he noted, “Researching the cities of southern Mesopotamia at the end of the ancient Babylonian era — and the Tell al-Duhaila site in particular — opens the secret of an unknown page in the history of the oldest civilization on the planet. The area of Tell al-Duhaila and the ancient city of Mashkan Shabir survived the mass robberies that began in 1991.” 

Jankowski-Diakonoff added, “This site also reveals the first development in agriculture using silt in Mesopotamia. The site contains remains of the material from the period that preceded the emergence of the Sumerian civilization." He expects a real opportunity to “find cuneiform documents in an undisturbed archaeological context, which will be extremely important not only to Russian scientists but Mesopotamian archaeologists as well.” 

The mission also discovered an ancient port where ships used to anchor and the remains of a temple wall about 4 meters (13 feet) wide. “We also discovered an oxidized arrowhead, traces of tandoor stoves and clay camel statues dating back to the early Iron Age,” he said. 

Talking about the history of the discoveries, the Russian archaeologist said, “According to the study of the oldest architectural building in the city and based on the design features and huge construction blocks, the edifice was most likely built during the ancient Babylonian era. It mainly reflects slave culture, the Neolithic period and Early Copper ages.” 

Jankowski-Diakonoff said, “In 2019, the joint Russian-Iraqi mission obtained an official permit from the Directorate of Antiquities within the Iraqi Ministry of Culture to conduct archaeological research at two sites in southern Iraq — in the governorates of Maysan and Dhi Qar, which cover the modern delta area in Mesopotamia, the cradle of the most ancient history on earth.” 

Amer Abdel Razak, antiquity director in Dhi Qar, told Al-Monitor, “The discovered city is located 70 kilometers [43 miles] southwest of the city of Nasiriyah [in the south] in the Sulaibiya depression, which is home to a large number of unexcavated archaeological sites. It is close to the city of Eridu — the oldest and greatest city where kings are said to have descended from heaven, according to Sumerian legends.” 

He said, “The site was discovered before the arrival of the Russian mission. It was registered in the Dhi Qar Antiquity Department as an extremely significant archaeological site." Abdel Razak noted that, despite the hardships and obstacles in working on-site because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Russian mission was able to make important discoveries. 

“Land surveys showed that the site dates back to the ancient Babylonian era. The mission, however, believes that it might go back to more ancient ages given the pottery pieces and statues in the form of camels and other animals that were found on-site,” he said. Abdel Razak added, “Dhi Qar is expecting visits by international universities and museums in October, including 10 Italian, American, French, British and Russian missions that are set to explore this vast area.” 

Gaith Salem, professor of ancient history and civilization at Al-Mustansiriya University, told Al-Monitor, “There are many cities that have been discovered in southern Iraq over different periods of time but there has not been much talk about them.” 

He called for “the development of systematic work within a fixed program to unearth the treasures of history, which are not important only to Iraq, but all humanity.” He said, “This recent discovery is of paramount importance because it introduces the world to one of the Sumerian cities overlooking the seaports. Most cities used to have a view to the sea but have turned today into a vast desert." 

Karrar al-Rawazeq, an archaeologist and member of the Muthanna antiquity rescue team, who participated in several excavations, told Al-Monitor, “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.” 

In this regard, Sumaya al-Ghallab, head of the Culture, Tourism and Antiquity Committee in the Iraqi parliament, spoke to Al-Monitor and called for “securing the necessary funds and protection for excavation teams, and following a strategy for an excavation and research process covering the entire archaeological map in Iraq.” 

by Adnan Abu Zeed

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