Life and Death in Nabada [Preview]

Excavations in northern Syria reveal the metropolis of Nabada, founded 4,800 years ago. Its elaborate administration and culture rivaled those of the fabled cities of southern Mesopotamia

Since the end of the 19th century, archaeologists have strived to uncover the ancient history of the Near East and to trace the regions biblical roots. They focused on the Fertile Crescent between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in Iraq, where lie the ruins of the ancient city-states of Assur, Babylon, Ur and Uruk. The architecture, tablets and other artifacts of these cities illustrate a tumultuous history that began more than 5,000 years ago. Scholars assumed that only here, in southern Mesopotamia, were the earliest centers of power and the origins of civilization. The people of Mesopotamia--such as Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians--invented writing, the wheel and beer; created the first law books; established mathematics and astronomy; and improved ceramic, metal and stone manufacture. Even biblical motifs such as the garden of paradise, the great flood and the Tower of Babel have Mesopotamian roots. When the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605562 B.C.E.) sent the Judeans into Babylonian exile and destroyed the walls of Jericho, he substantially affected the history of Palestine.

Until quite recently, the steppes of northern Mesopotamia (in present-day Syria) were largely neglected. But when the war between Iraq and Iran closed access to southerly sites in the 1980s, archaeologists were forced to pay more attention to peripheral areas. A research team led by Marc Lebeau of the European Center for Upper Mesopotamian Studies and Antoine Suleiman of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (Syria) began to excavate Tell Beydar, a large mound--or "tell"--rising out of the flat steppes near the Khābūr River. The team also consisted of the universities of Leuven (Karel Van Lerberghe), Venice (Philippe Talon), Brussels (Lucio Milano) and Münster (Bretschneider). In these steppes, a tell indicates a long-buried city; after 10 years of intensive research, we can now say that Beydar did not disappoint.

Inside the 28-meter-high circular hill archaeologists found a complex almost as old and large as the citadel of ancient Troy. The city, known in ancient times as Nabada, evidently enjoyed its greatest prosperity during the early Bronze Age, between 2800 and 2200 B.C.E., and the excavation concentrated on this period. Our aim was to understand the birth of city-states--the metropolises that ruled the surrounding countryside and, sometimes, other cities--in northern Mesopotamia. Complex administration, as evinced by written tablets and seals, evolved at this time.

Early in the 20th century German archaeologist Max Freiherr von Oppenheim demonstrated that the vast and now abandoned spaces of northern Syria were densely inhabited in ancient times. He also surveyed some of the more conspicuous circular tells, which cluster around the upper course of the Khābūr River. Such a tell, which he described as "Kranzhügel," or "wreath hill," is surrounded by a ring, the decomposed mud brick of a circular fortification wall. Von Oppenheim suggested that the lower levels of these towns were all created at around the same time and formed a single political or cultural unit, the so-called Kranzhügel culture.

Excavations at Tell Chuera revealed an urban complex dating to the first half of the third millennium B.C.E. Although Chuera is made of sun-dried mud brick, as was common in the metropolises of southern Mesopotamia, its temples were constructed on monumental stone terraces along a procession road.

Who built Tell Chuera or where these people came from remains a mystery. Curiously, Tell Beydar, the only other circular tell to be systematically investigated, is turning out to be quite different.

In Tell Beydar we discerned three main phases of occupation. Researchers date these phases by a combination of techniques: comparing trends in pottery design; measuring the occurrence of radioactive carbon in ashes and other debris of organic origin; and relating names occurring on tablets with those known from other sources. In my view, the dates are uncertain by only about 50 to 100 years, although other scholars differ.

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