Nearly Lost from The Pages of History, Mari Is The Oldest Known Planned City in the World
The 7,000-year-old ancient city of Mari (known today as Tell Hariri) is one of the oldest known cities in the world, located on the west bank of the Euphrates River in what was once northern Mesopotamia (now eastern Syria). Thousands of years of erosion nearly wiped Mari from the pages of history, but it was rediscovered by a local Bedouin in the 1930s and since then has emerged from the sands following extensive excavations. It is now recognized as the oldest known planned city in the world, and a powerful center for trade, bronze smelting, and impressive technological and archaeological innovations.
Mari occupied a geographically strategic position in the landscape, i.e. between Babylonia in southern Mesopotamia and the Taurus Mountains, which was rich in natural resources, to the north, in modern day Turkey. As a result of this, Mari flourished as an important city state. It is thought to have been inhabited by people who migrated from the kingdoms of Ebla and Akkad.
Mari’s Colorful History
Mari is located in modern day Syria, close to the country’s border with Iraq, and south to the famous site of Dura-Europos. Whilst it is debatable if the city was first inhabited during the 5th millennium BC or the 3rd millennium BC, it is generally agreed that it began to prosper around the beginning of the latter date. As the city is located between the southern Mesopotamian city states and the Taurus Mountains, as well as the northern part of Syria, Mari was able to control the flow of trade. For example, timber and stone from northern Syria had to pass through Mari to reach the south. In addition, metal ores came from the Taurus Mountains, and some of the city’s inhabitants began to specialize in copper and bronze smelting, thus increasing Mari’s significance.
Location of Mari (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Between 1760 and 1757 BC, Mari was destroyed by Hammurabi of Babylon. The ancient city was only rediscovered in 1933, when a local Bedouin found a statue, and informed the French colonial government about it. An archaeological expedition was undertaken at the site, followed by several more over the decades, all of which were headed by the French. The last expedition had to be stopped in 2012, due to the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War.
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The Planning of Mari
Although only a third of the city has survived (the rest having been washed away by the Euphrates), excavations at Mari have provided us with some information about this ancient site. For instance, archaeologists have discovered that Mari was designed and built as two concentric rings. The outer ring was meant to protect the city from the flooding caused by the Euphrates, whilst the inner ring served as a defense against human enemies. Astonishing architectural discoveries for the age of the site include several palaces and temples in various layers.
It is believed that the city had been entirely planned prior to its construction, hence, it is often regarded as an example of complex urban planning, and the first known of its kind in the world.
The landmarks of Mari, Syria (CC BY-SA 4.0)
As Mari is located on the Euphrates, and relied on trade, it also developed a system of canals, another piece of evidence for urban planning. A linkage canal, for example, allowed boats travelling along the river to gain access to the city, as well as provided water for its inhabitants. Additionally, there was also an irrigation canal for agricultural purposes, and a navigational canal that flowed past the city on the opposite side of the river. This canal provided boats with an alternate route into the city – a straight passage as opposed to the winding Euphrates. The entry points were controlled by the city, and Mari profited from the tolls collected there.
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The Mari Archive
Other historically significant discoveries made by these expeditions include 15,000 tablets, known collectively as the ‘Mari Tablets’ and a number of the city’s religious landmarks. The tablets have proved to be extremely enlightening in that they provide a detailed account of the history, geography, economics, politics, religion, military and social life of Mari and Northern Mesopotamia. A unique set of inscriptions in the collection, tell of prophetic messages that came from persons who had dreams or direct messages from deities. The messages were delivered to local rulers who relayed them to the king.
A tablet of Zimri-Lim (Public Domain)
Devastatingly, war in Syria has not only put a halt on the archaeological excavations, but has also caused damage to the site, in particular from looting and occupation. The impact of this destruction, however, has yet to be fully assessed.
Top image: Mari, Syria - A ziggurat near the palace. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
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