Science » Technologies and discoveries
Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov

Mysteries of Hamoukar, world's oldest city

Syrian archeologists unearthed ruins of a city dating as far back as 6,000 years. It might be the oldest city in the world. The find has actually changed the traditional concept of the city appearance and the civilization on Earth. It makes scientists look at the development of the human civilization in a new light, taking into consideration the earlier time period.

Prior to this discovery, the cities dated of the year 4000 B.C. had been found in ancient Sumer (between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, on the present-day Iraqi territory) and in south-eastern Syria under a huge hill near Hamoukar village. The recently-found mysterious city was also named Hamoukar.

Archeologists originally started excavating the site in the 1920s – 1930s. They assumed that it was the location of Washukanni, the capital of Mitanni (ca. the 15th century B.C.) that still has not been found. But at that time they did not discover any features of settlements and discarded ‘the Washukanni theory’.

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Several years later scientists became interested in the place again. It was not for nothing, since it is located at one of the most important ancient transport corridors – the road from Nineveh to Aleppo, along which wayfarers and merchant caravans used to travel. Such a position was very advantageous - it stimulated the development of the city. Indeed, researchers discovered features indicating its existence in the mid-4th century B.C.

At that time new cities started to emerge in South Iraq, and their colonies were established in Syria.

This time archeologists were firmly resolved to dig up the mystery in the proper sense of the word. A special American-Syrian expedition was formed to survey Hamoukar. It was headed by McGuire Gibson, a leading expert with the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The expedition started in November, 1999. They needed time to accustom, settle, prepare the excavation site and hire locals for hard labour.

The first thing to do was to compile a comprehensive map of the place, only after that archeologists started their laborious work. It was necessary to survey the territory very carefully (almost with a magnifying glass) and gather various smithereens. Such research would give the whole picture concerning the size and the form of the settlement.

The first settlement they discovered was dating back to 3209 B.C. and occupied 13 hectares. It gradually increased up to 102 hectares, and afterwards it became one of the largest cities of that time. Taking into consideration the finds, archeologists defined other excavation sites. In the eastern part of the settlement they unearthed a building where pots were made. The main find was a large settlement to the south of the hill. A more thorough investigation showed that the territory was occupied from the beginning of the 4th century B.C. If all the settlements found by archeologists were considered as one city, its area would reach 250 hectares, which is hard to believe. At the time when the first urbanized settlements appeared, such a big city was a real megalopolis for the Ancient times.

Scientists used satellites to find out more. Satellite images gave them a new idea when they discovered a dark meandering line 100 meters away from the hill, at the northern and eastern sides, though on the earth a small slope alone was discernable. It resembled a city wall. Further research showed that the wall could be located nearer to the hill and instead of the slope there was a ditch supplying the city with water.

Three zones were excavated. The first one was a trench, 60 meters long and three meters wide, located along the northern hill slope. Digging in stages enabled archeologists to discern different epochs, for every stage was four-five meters lower than the previous one. The lowest layer showed that the city was 6,000 years old.

The next layer yielded walls of several houses made of clay bricks and also a huge wall (possibly a city wall) four meters high and four meters thick. The ceramic remains found under it dated back to the mid-4th century B.C. Then goes the layer dating as far back as 3,200 years B.C. This ceramics is associated with peoples from South Iraq, which evidences the interaction between Syrians and Mesopotamians at that time.

These houses are followed by more modern buildings of the 3rd millennium B.C. There are houses of burnt stones and wells there. Right above one of the houses there is a much later building of the mid-1st millennium, and a modern cemetery.

Another excavation zone abounded with smithereens. They laid it out in lots five square meters each and dug up the ground carefully. Archeologists discovered houses with well-preserved clay walls. Inside there were ancient things covered with a thick layer of ashes. It made scientists’ work daunting – it is hard to find burnt debris in floor rifts, on uneven surfaces and in pits.

Soon the source of these abundant ashes was discovered. In a room they unearthed remains of four-five slabs made of clay bricks; they got half-scorched when a furnace was stoked. Around slabs there were remnants of barley, wheat, oat and also animal bones. Thus, slabs could be used to bake bread, brewing, cooking meat and other food.

The ceramics found there astonished scientists with its diversity: big pots for cooking usual food, small vessels and fine vessels which walls are as thick as an ostrich egg shell. In houses they also found statuettes with big eyes; perhaps they were gods of the mid-4th millennium B.C.

But the fullest picture of the society of that time was offered by 15 stamps in the form of thoroughly-carved animals. All they were found in one pit, supposedly in a grave. There they also found a large number of beads of bones, delft, stone and shell, some of which were so small that scientists assumed that they were not necklaces, but they were entwined or sewn in clothes.

Stamps are carved of stone in the form of animals. One of the largest and most beautiful ones is made in the form of a leopard whose spots are made with small needles set in drilled holes. Archeologists also found a stamp that is no less beautiful than the one with a leopard. This stamp is made in the form of a horned beast, but unfortunately, horns are broken. Big stamps are much more diverse, but they are less in number than small ones mostly made in the form of a lion, a goat, a bear, a dog, a hare, a fish and a bird. Bigger and more skillful stamps might belong to influential or rich people, while small stamps might be used by other people to label private property.

In a small pit two meters deep in the north-eastern part of the excavation site archeologists discovered a wall dating back to the 7th century A.D. and a meter lower a building corner fastened by a strut with two niches. The strut was set at the door that leads east. The door post, the strut, niches and the southern wall were covered with lime. As a rule, such struts were not set in private houses, but in temples. Ceramic debris found at the temple dated back to the 3rd millennium, that is the Akkadian period, when governors of Akkad (a state in Southern Mesopotamia) started an expansion on what is today Syria. Since it was the critical period in the Mesopotamian history, the place connecting so many epochs becomes the major aim of an expedition in the next season.

Earlier historians supposed that Syrian and Turkish states started their active development only after the contact with Uruk, an ancient state in Southern Iraq. But excavations of Hamoukar proved that highly-developed societies emerged not only in the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates, but in other areas at the same time. Some researchers even think that the civilization arose originally in Syria. The find has actually changed the traditional idea of the appearance of cities and the civilization on Earth, making scientists to consider its birth and development at a much earlier period of time.

Previously it was believed that the civilization arose in the Uruk period (ca. 4,000 B.C.), but now there is evidence of its existence in the Ubaid period (ca. 4,500 BC). It means that the first states came into being before the appearance of a written language and other phenomena that were thought to be criteria of the civilization birth. Vital ties were formed between various peoples; they exchanged experience. The civilization was developing by leaps and bounds.

Excavations of Hamoukar promise more discoveries, for it is the only place where layers of 4,000 B.C. lie at a depth of two meters from the earth surface or even higher.

Translated by Julia Bulygina