Urkesh: The Forgotten City of the Mysterious Hurrian Civilization

Excavations in Urkesh. © Archaeological Institute of America

Way back when, the ancient city of Urkesh was a large center for the ancient Middle Eastern Hurrian civilization. The city is known in mythology as the house of the Primordial God. Very little is known of Urkesh and the mysterious Hurrian civilization, because the ancient city had been buried underneath the desert sands for thousands of years and has been lost from the pages of history.

Still, during the 80’s, archeologists did find Tel Mozan – a hill under which there were ruins of an ancient temple, as well as of a castle. Ten years later, researchers came to the fascinating conclusion that Tel Mozan was in fact the lost city of Urkesh.

Located in the region of North Syria, near the borders of Turkey and Iran, the ancient city of Urkesh was a large Mesopotamiam city which flourished between the years of 4000 and 1300 BC. This is one of the earliest-known cities in history.

The City of Urkesh

Urkesh was once a large political and religious center of the Hurrians, built on the trade routes between Anatolia and the cities of Syria and Mesopotamia, connecting the Mediterranean with West Iran. Urkesh was also the capital of a kingdom which had control over a plateau with copper deposits, which made the city powerful and wealthy.

The Fascinating Hurrians

Before, knowledge of the Hurrians was limited to ancient legends and a small amount of artifacts of unknown origin. Recent excavations showed that the Hurrians not only influenced the language, culture and religion of later civilizations, but it is also possible that they aided in the development of neighboring Mesopotamians, which at that time were just starting to create their first cities. The most distinctive trait of the Hurrians was their language, absolutely unique and not like any of the known languages in history.

Excavations in Tell Mozan

Exploration of Tell Mozan began in the 80’s, but only ten years later archeologists were able to confirm that it was actually the city of Urkesh.

A staircase discovered at Tell Mozan. Met Museum
A staircase discovered at Tell Mozan. Met Museum

Excavations unveiled not only adobe constructions, but rare stone buildings as well – a monumental ladder and a deep underground shaft – „transition into hell” – which was related to religious rituals.

There were also monumental public buildings in Urkesh, including a large temple and a castle. A lot of them have been dated back to the Akkadian period (2350-2200 BC).

Ancient Press

During the excavations, a large amount of seals and stamps were discovered. Around 150 of them contain inscriptions. Besides that, cuneiform tablets from the old Akkadian period were found – they are mostly administrative documents, scholastic texts and even pieces of the Sumerian dictionary.

A lion and a stone tablet bearing the earliest known text in Hurrian. Wikimedia Commons
A lion and a stone tablet bearing the earliest known text in Hurrian. Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of clay impressions with illustrations of the royal family unveiled important information about the history and life of the city. The writing tablets from the castle uncovered not only the name of the city – Urkesh, but the names of its rulers as well, King Tupkish and Queen Uqnitum. It is written in the documents that one of the daughters of Naram-Sin – the King of Mesopotamia – lived in Urkesh.

There were possibly only several Hurrian cities in South Syria. And even so, the Hurrians have created a civilization which influenced the whole Middle East.

The urban style of the Hurrians is based on ethnic identity on a larger scale, rather than territorial placement. The cultural uniqueness of Urkesh is explained in part with its geographic location – it united the potential of the plateaus with the opportunity to use less-accessible resources of the highland.

This contributed to the formation of fascinating religious and political traditions, as well as protection from the aggressive expansionism of the Akkadian King Naram-Sin, who was believed to be a God. Urkesh was the only city in Syria which was not overrun by him.

It is believed that many more treasures lie hidden in the deeper layers of the Tel Mozan hill. Unfortunately, excavations were suspended in 2011 because of the war in Syria and the location is off-limits to foreign archeologists.