Drought unveils long lost palace built by mysterious Middle Eastern empire

As the waters of the Mosul Dam reservoir on the Tigris river in Iraq receded due to a severe drought last year, German and Kurdish archaeologists were provided a rare gift as an ancient Mittani Empire palace rose from the depths.

Ancient palaces are common finds in the Middle East, but the Mittani Empire is one of the most mysterious and little researched kingdoms. So when the waters unveiled the palace, researchers jumped at the chance to perform an emergency excavation to document what is left of it.

Based largely in Syria, the Mittani Empire existed form the 15th to the 14th century BCE and stretched into Northern Iraq, where the Mosul Dam Reservoir is located. So little is known about the Mittani Empire that we still don’t know the exact location of the capital, although we do know it was called Washukanni.

Built in the 1980s, the Mosul Dam Reservoir has flooded the location of the palace, known as the Kemune Palace for decades. That is, until 2010 when it was spotted.

When a drought revealed the Kemune palace again in 2018, archaeologists Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim and Dr. Ivana Puljiz led the excavation team. The project is being spearheaded by the University of Tübingen and the Kurdistan Archaeology Organization along with the Duhok Directorate of Antiquities.

“We discovered the site of Kemune already in 2010 when the dam had low water levels; even at that time we found a Mittani cuneiform tablet and saw remains of wall paintings in red and blue,” Qasim said. “But we couldn’t excavate here until now.”

Upon approaching the palace from the river, the team found a terrace wall of mud bricks that resemble palatial steps leading up the hillside to where structures used to be.

Image via University of Tubingen

Miraculously, the team found cuneiform tablets that were still intact and readable even though they are made of clay and have been under water for a long time.

Unfortunately, some of the murals were not so lucky as the team found many of them in fragments splashed with fading colors.

Image via University of Tubingen

Despite that bad news, the discovery is still monumental because it offers us a glimpse into the lives of a people that very little is known about.

“The Mittani Empire is one of the least researched empires of the Ancient Near East,” Puljiz said. “Information on palaces of the Mittani Period is so far only available from Tell Brak in Syria and from the cities of Nuzi and Alalakh, both located on the periphery of the empire. Even the capital of the Mittani Empire has not been identified beyond doubt.”

“The find is one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the region in recent decades and illustrates the success of the Kurdish-German cooperation,” Qasim observed.

The researchers gathered much information about the palace and the Mittani Empire, as Dr. Puljiz further explained in a University of Tübingen publication:

As Ivana Puljiz of the Tübingen Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) reports, the site shows a carefully designed building with massive interior mud-brick walls up to two meters thick. She says some walls are more than two meters high and some of the rooms have plastered walls.

“We have also found remains of wall paintings in bright shades of red and blue,” Puljiz says. “In the second millennium BCE, murals were probably a typical feature of palaces in the Ancient Near East, but we rarely find them preserved. So discovering wall paintings in Kemune is an archaeological sensation.”

Dr. Ivana Puljiz discusses what she found in the video below:

Puljiz went on to describe the Kemune palace ruins and provided an update on the cuneiform tablets.

The palace ruins are preserved to a height of some seven meters. Two phases of usage are clearly visible, Puljiz says, indicating that the building was in use for a very long time. Inside the palace, the team identified several rooms and partially excavated eight of them. In some areas, they found large fired bricks which were used as floor slabs. Ten Mittani cuneiform clay tablets were discovered and are currently being translated and studied by the philologist Dr. Betina Faist (University of Heidelberg).

One of the tablets indicates that Kemune was most probably the ancient city of Zakhiku, which is mentioned in one Ancient Near Eastern source as early as the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1800 BC). This indicates the city must have existed for at least 400 years. Future text finds will hopefully show whether this identification is correct.

Frankly, I had never heard of the Mittani Empire until reading the news of this spectacular find. We all know about the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the Persians and other great empires that show up in history textbooks. But we never learn about this empire that existed for hundreds of years and had a clear influence on the region. Now we can learn more because of the work done by this research team.

It makes one wonder if there are more amazing archaeological finds waiting for excavation underneath the surface of other dam reservoirs. We are certainly still finding sites in the ocean to study.

Here’s a video featuring a 3D look at the Mittani palace via YouTube:

Featured Image: University of Tübingen

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