How a Drought, A River, And a 3,400 Year Old City Came Together

    There are times archaeology has to submit to the needs of people living in the present. No matter how titillating the promises of discovery, resources are lacking and real life is more urgent. But then arises the rare second chance...


    Drought has plagued southern Iraq for years. The once fertile marshlands started drying up in the 1970s. In the years since, farmers had to bring in water for their buffalo herds to drink because the marsh became too salty. Crops suffered. Today the drought has spread north, and Iraq is increasing their supply of imported wheat. 


    Water from the Tigris River offered some relief. But as water levels have fallen, so has the amount of rain they receive. The average temperature is rising, however. In 2020, The Washington Post  reported record highs of 125˚F and 124˚F which beat former highs in 2015. Experts say we are witnessing the desertification of this once fertile region. Many people are fleeing, if they can, to cities like Nasiriyah near the ancient site of Ur.


    Amid this calamity, Iraqis drained the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River earlier this year to help preserve what crops they could. When they did, an ancient city was uncovered. Again.


    The Mosul Dam was constructed between 1981-1984. By 1985 it was in operation, capturing snowmelt from mountains in Turkey and submerging archaeological sites in the area of the Tigris River. But low water levels and drought in 2018 uncovered an ancient palace. Archaeologists quickly determined it was of the Mitanni Empire dating to the Bronze Age, 1550-1350 BC. They were excited to see traces of red and blue wall paintings, since there was only one other site where similar wall paintings had been found. Ten cuneiform tablets were also recovered before the waters flowed back in to submerge the site. 


    But as the Mosul Dam was drawn down again this year, the palace reappeared giving archaeologists another chance to study the site. They found a city not just a palace. Most exciting was the discovery of more than a hundred cuneiform tablets. It will be some time before the writings on the tablets are published. For now the experts have what treasures they could remove, their maps and their notes because once again the site is under water.


    I'm sure the Iraqis are glad there is water to fill the dam. I'm sure the archaeologists are thankful for the miracle of well preserved mud brick and clay buried safely under water since the 1980s. I for one am eager to hear the tidbits that relate to the Bible because I just know there will be some, right?


    The Mitanni Empire ruled in the region of northern Mesopotamia. Its capital is thought to be on the Khabur River in Syria, but there are some who debate this location. Perhaps the newly discovered tablets will settle this. The Khabur is a tributary of the Euphrates. The Mitanni spoke the Hurrian language as well as Amorite. Both the Hurrians and Amorites are mentioned in the Old Testament.


    The Hittites referred to the Mitanni as the kingdom of Huri. While the population of the Mitanni Empire was made up of Hurrians and even conquered Amorites, the ruling class may have migrated there from elsewhere since they spoke an Indo-Aryan language and worshipped early Hindu gods.


    Egypt called the Mitanni Empire Naharin, which is considered to be the Naharaim we recognize from the Bible. Aram-Naharaim was the place Abraham called home. Urkish was even one of the towns situated in their borders.  Abraham went to Haran and lived there. Haran was a Hurrian city and had a shared culture with Sumer, Nuzi and Ebla.


    We know precious little of the Mitanni Empire and its people. We do not even know how the empire began. Scholars guess there was an absence of power in the region which allowed it to form. We know they controlled trade routes, trained horses, were friendly with the Kassites and Kurds, and that their enemies (and sometimes allies) were the Hittites.


    Assyria eventually conquered them. The Hurrian language died out except in the Armenian Highlands near Ararat. The people began speaking Aramaic, the same language Jesus would grow up speaking. With a few changes, I'm sure.


    The Mitanni are not mentioned in the Bible as Mitanni, and yet there are relationships with the history we know. Perhaps the newly discovered tablets will unveil the answers to this mysterious empire. Perhaps we will learn more about their biblical connections, their origin and why they worshipped Hindu gods.


    But while we wait for the archaeologists' reports, let's not forget the people of Iraq. Pray for them as they struggle with rising temperatures, lack of crops, fresh water and the loss of income. I pray most of all for their salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.


    If you'd like to read more about the ancient city, you can read about it here.


    If you'd like to learn more about the ancient region of  Aram-Naharaim, the city of Urkish and Abraham, you will find our book From Abram To Abraham  here.

    Image by Levi Meir Clancy courtesy of Unsplash






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