Atlantis on the Tigris: The fall and rise of Zakhiku, the ancient Iraqi city uncovered by drought

Iraqi underwater city
4 min read
16 June, 2022
Sustained periods of drought have ravaged much of northern Iraq's ecosystem. But in a stunning recent excavation, archaeologists discovered a 3400-year-old city previously submerged underwater, that was once the epicentre of the Mittani Empire.

As the tide of war in Iraq recedes, the crippling effects of climate change are taking centre stage.

One unanticipated upside of extreme weather events in the country – from blood-red skies, and desert sandstorms to intensifying drought – is the buzzworthy discovery of hidden archaeological riches.

The underwater Mitanni Empire-era city, 30 km southwest of Dohuk, Zakhiku, is the newest discovery that German and Kurdish archaeologists announced in late May.

"An earthquake in 1350 BC is believed to have reduced the ancient city to rubble, and in the mid-80s the megapolis sank underwater due to rising water levels owing to the construction of the Mosul Dam"

The site first became visible last year after Iraq’s government released water stored in the Mosul Dam reservoir, responding to peaking demand for water in southern Iraq, one of the areas hardest hit by global warming. 

As the waters of the Tigris river shrivelled to a record-low, the Mitanni Empire crown gem, Zakhiku, was revealed. 

An earthquake in 1350 BC is believed to have reduced the ancient city to rubble, and in the mid-80s the megapolis sank underwater due to rising water levels owing to the construction of the Mosul Dam [1981-84].

This time around, archaeologists organised quickly to conduct a 40-day joint Kurdish-German excavation mission; racing against time before water levels crept back up.

An aerial view of the newly found ancient city of 3,400 years from the Mitanni Empire period in Semel district of Duhok [Getty Images]
Zakhiku was an important urban centre that is thought to have played an important role in connecting the centre of the Mittani Empire – which was located in modern-day north-eastern Syria  to its eastern border [Getty Images]

Four years prior, in 2018, deteriorating drought conditions led to the discovery of the Mitanni-built palace of Kemune which lay north of the newly discovered city. The palace was the third discovery of its kind but is the only Mitanni site located near the empire’s urban heartland. 

At the time, archaeologists at the University of Tübingen, in collaboration with the Kurdistan Archaeological Organisation, uncovered 22 ft high external walls and inside them richly coloured murals.

As for the latest discovery, archaeologists recovered ceramic vessels and a valuable cache of 100 cuneiform clay boards, towers, the ruins of fortified walls and a multi-story warehouse where goods from across the region are likely to have been stored. 

Peter Pfälzner,  a Tübingen University archaeological professor involved in the project, described the survival of unfired clay artefacts as a near miracle. 

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So, who were the Mitanni? Where did they govern, when, and how? Historians trace their ascent to ca. 1500, and the borders of their Kingdom extended across modern-day northern Syria and Iraq.

Historians have described the Kingdom as a formidable political and military power, whose society is said to have been feudally organised. Extant records have also shown that intermarriage between Mittani rulers and Egyptian pharaohs was commonplace. 

Speaking to The New Arab’s (Arabic-language) sister publication, Al-Araby al-Jadeed, professor of history at Al-Mustansiriya University, Ali Al-Nashmi, said that details about the Mitanni Empire’s capital – including the official language and script used by its Indo-Aryan society – remained hazy.

The absence of historical records has and continues to cast mystery over the empire’s genesis and political and social history. Nevertheless, some historians believe that the demise of the Hammurabi Babylonian dynasty paved the way for Mitanni rule. 

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A junior professor from the University of Freiburg involved in the excavation mission, Ivana Puljiz, believes that the newly found clay tablets could help plug these historical gaps to reveal greater detail about the Assyrian conquest of Mittani.

Commenting on the content of the cuneiform texts, Puljiz said that “we do not yet know what is written [...] but we hope that they provide information about the beginning of Assyrian rule in the region”. 

In conversation with Live Science, Puljiz added that the city’s location, perched on the Tigris River, also offers clues about the empire’s commercial innovation and growth due to its assessed control of the waterway. 

The revealed "lost" city is a monumentally important event for not only Iraq but also archaeologists worldwide who can decipher and assess newly surfaced evidence about one of the most important commercial, political and military centres of the Mitanni Empire.

Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq's ancient history and contemporary political scene