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Published on 23 October 2011
Report Originally published on Sept 13 2011
Mari, the city of 25,000 tablets and one of the great Bronze Age palaces of Mesopotamia, erodes into dust while it awaits a badly needed rescue.
In its heyday, the ancient city of Mari was the throne of one of ancient Mesopotamia's great kings, located at the western edge of the Sumerian civilization. It played a key role in the trade of goods and information between Sumer and the kingdoms to its west.
It was here that the famous Mari Tablet Archive was discovered, a collection of 25,000 fired-clay tablets inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform, affording archaeologists and the rest of the world with a rich trove of information about lives and business in 2nd century, B.C. Mesopotamia. To look upon its remains today, however, one would see a slow tragedy in the making. Its exposed walls are gradually eroding away, melting back into the natural landscape. Some of its excavated remains are now unrecognizable. The need for better general site management and conservation would be an understatement. What it really needs is urgent rescue.
the Global Heritage Fund, a California-based non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and protection of the world's endangered cultural and archaeological sites and treasures in developing countries. According to the Fund's Global Heritage Network, Mari (or Tell Hariri, the modern name), is classified in the urgent "rescue" category, out of a list of 12 other endangered sites in present-day Syria. This list contains such well-known archaeological and cultural heritage sites as Palmyra, Ebla, and Carchemish. It is based on a recent report by Emma Cunliffe, a 2010 Global Heritage Fellow. All of the sites in the report are considered "at risk". But Mari is assessed at the very highest level.
Says Cunliffe about the remains: "In order to preserve them, finds are removed to museums offsite. The uncovered mudbrick walls are eroding, and large parts of the excavated site are now unrecognizable. Part of the palace [of king Zimri-Lim] was roofed to protect it, but due to the size of the city, it was considered unfeasible to cover it all, and the reconstructions are also eroding."
Located on the western bank of the Euphrates, the city of Mari (see artist recreation, aerial view right) rose to prominence in about 2900 BC. It was important as a stopping or relay point for trade between the Sumerian cities in lower Mesopotamia and the cities in what is today northern Syria. During the following centuries until the 25th century, it was home to six kings, but lost its prominence in the middle of the 24th century when it fell to a violent destruction, reducing it thereafter to a small village. It enjoyed a revival, however, under the Amorites, a Semitic people, around 1900 B.C.
Mari Zimri-Lim Palace corridor. Wikimedia Commons
It was during the Amorite rule that king Zimri-Lim built his monumental palace of over 300 rooms, the remains of which were partially excavated during the 1930's. It was also during this time when the state archives were established. The city was finally destroyed in about 1759 B.C. by king Hammurabi of Babylon, after which it never regained its former prominence.
Ancient Mari was the site of one of the big Mesopotamia digs of the early 20th century.
Mari Zimri-Lim Palace. Wikimedia Commons
Discovered initially in 1933 when members of a Bedouin tribe uncovered a headless statue, French authorities in Syria investigated the site and excavations began in earnest on December 14, 1933 by archaeologists from the Louvre in Paris. The remains of the temple of Ishtar emerged within the first month, followed by many other finds, including over 25,000 clay tablets in Akkadian language written in cuneiform, and much of what remained of king Zimri-Lim's palace, including wall paintings.
Numerous excavation seasons have been conducted since that time, most notably under the great French archaeologist André Parrot. Less than half of the estimated area of Mari has been uncovered to date, and it is still not certain how many cultural layers exist at the site. Said Parrot, "each time a vertical probe was commenced in order to trace the site's history down to virgin soil, such important discoveries were made that horizontal digging had to be resumed".
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