Due to persistent drought, the city – which normally hides under water – briefly dried up earlier this year. What followed was a race against time. With result.

If climate change is reflected anywhere, it is Iraq – apart from the poles. The south of the country in particular regularly suffers from extreme drought. Likewise in January and February of this year. In order to at least give the crops on the dry fields another chance, the Mosul reservoir was called upon; Iraq’s most important water reservoir since the 1980s (see box). The water level in this reservoir dropped rapidly. And as the water receded, a large and probably important Bronze Age city appeared in the reservoir.

Mosul Reservoir
In 1981, construction of the Mosul Dam (at that time referred to as Saddam Dam) began in northern Iraq. The dam created a reservoir that was flooded shortly after the dam was completed in 1985. Several archaeological sites disappeared under water, including the city that temporarily rose from the water at the beginning of this year. What makes this city special, however, is that it was never explored by archaeologists – even before the creation of the reservoir.

No free time

Kurdish archaeologists rushed – with some German colleagues – to the Mosul reservoir. And that was the start of a race against the clock (and the water). The archaeologists had a clear goal in mind: to explore as much of this city as possible – before the water swallowed it up again. “Time pressure had no effect on the excavations and our documentation methods,” emphasizes researcher Ivana Puljiz, of the University of Freiburg. “But it did mean we had almost no free time.”

The archaeologists were finally given six weeks. And during that period, they worked very hard. “The biggest challenge during the excavations was the weather. Time pressure kept us digging in cold, snow, hail, rain and even storms. Because we didn’t know when the water level would rise again and how much time we would have.”

Mighty Empire

But the hard work has paid off. Because the archaeologists have managed to map a large part of the city in the short time allotted to them. In addition, a number of interesting finds have been made in the city that hopefully can provide more insight into the still mysterious civilization that ruled large parts of northern Mesopotamia and Syria between 1550 and 1350 BC: the Mittani.

About the Mittani

“The Mittani Empire is one of the largest states to be found in southwestern Asia during the late Bronze Age,” Puljiz says. “It coexisted with the New Kingdom in Egypt, the Kassites who ruled Babylon, and the Hittite Kingdom (covering central Anatolia and northwestern Syria, ed.). The territory in which the Mittani ruled was large, stretching from the Mediterranean coast to northern Iraq. But very little is known about the organization of the empire, as its capital has not yet been identified with certainty and the records are still pending discovery.”


It makes the excavations that have now taken place on the temporary banks of the Mosul Reservoir very valuable. “The excavations indicate that this was an important center in the Mittani Empire,” said researcher Hasan Qasim. And the city can tell us more about this still quite mysterious civilization.

Large buildings

During their excavations, the researchers came across a palace, but also a kind of fortress with walls and watchtowers and an enormous, multi-storey warehouse. “What’s most exciting is that we can now envision what the city looked like,” says Puljiz. “How the city was functionally and spatially organised. What surprised us, among other things, was that we came across huge buildings in various places in the city.”

Remarkably well-preserved walls have been discovered in the city. Image: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO.

Meters-high walls

Many of those buildings still looked reasonably good given the circumstances. Well-preserved walls, some of which were several meters high, were found in various places in the old town. The fact that the walls – made of sun-dried claystone – are still intact after being submerged in water for more than 40 years, can be traced back to an earthquake that destroyed the city around 1350 BC, according to the researchers. During this quake, the upper parts of buildings collapsed, burying – and later protecting – the lower parts.


In addition to the walls, the researchers stumbled upon another spectacular find; five ceramic vases that together housed an archive of more than 100 clay tablets. The clay tablets date from the period shortly after the earthquake occurred. And even then, it is almost miraculous that these clay tablets have withstood their decades of immersion. The researchers suspect the tablets are letters and hope they can tell us more about the city’s demise and perhaps the rise of the Assyrian Empire in the area.

Here you see a vessel filled with clay tablets. One of the clay tablets is even still in its ‘envelope’. Image: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO.


Finally, thanks to the excavations, the researchers believe they also know what the Mittani called this impressive city. “During our excavations, we found an administrative text that mentions the ancient city of Zakhiku. We assume this refers to the site where we excavated.”

It is impressive that the researchers have seen and documented so much in just six weeks. And there was much more to discover, but time was running out; the archaeologists were forced to return the city to the water in February. But not before they covered it with plastic as much as possible. “It is important to preserve our shared cultural heritage for future generations,” said Puljiz. “And archaeological sites in reservoirs are eroding because of the rising and falling water. Eventually such a site will erode completely and all ruins will be lost.” That problem also arises in the case of Zakhiku. “While the buildings from the Mittani period have been well preserved thanks to their size, the overlying layers – without ever having been archaeologically examined – have already been almost completely eroded. We hope to prevent further erosion by wrapping the site with plastic held in place by rocks and boulders.”

After the excavations, the ruins were covered with plastic to protect them from erosion. Image: Universities of Freiburg and Tübingen, KAO.

The city is now completely covered by water again. When it will rise again from the water is impossible to predict. “But I hope we can continue our research in this exciting place someday,” said Puljiz. “There are still so many things to discover!” And not just in this city. Because besides Zakhiku, many more areas fell prey to the water in the 1980s with the creation of the Mosul Reservoir. “Prior to that, the Iraqi government set up a sort of rescue program in which many of these areas were first surveyed by Iraqi and foreign researchers.” Although the existence of Zakhiku was also known, the remains of this city were never examined. And there may be more places that archaeologists – consciously or unconsciously – did not investigate further. “There could be dozens of other important places that we don’t know about yet,” Puljiz thinks.