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Falling waters of Euphrates, Tigris rivers reveal submerged archaeological sites

The drop of the water levels in recent years has uncovered many archaeological and ancient sites that were submerged beneath the two historic rivers in Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
Syria archaeology

The decline of water levels at the Euphrates Dam lake in eastern Syria recently revealed a large archaeological burial site

The site, which dates back to the Byzantine civilization in the Raqqa province, stretches over large areas on the eastern bank of the Euphrates Dam (also known as Tabqa Dam) lake, starting from Wadi Sahl al-Khashab and Shams al-Din area in the northwestern countryside of Raqqa until the administrative border between Raqqa and Aleppo.

The drop of the Euphrates and Tigris waters during the past three years has uncovered many archaeological sites that were submerged in the waters of the two rivers that cross through Syria, Iraq and Turkey. 

Water levels in the Euphrates River have reached dangerously low levels in recent years. The flow from Turkey toward Syrian territory is below 200 cubic meters per second, which is less than half the quantity agreed upon between the two countries in 1987.

Abdul Razzaq al-Aliawi, an engineer and former director of Syria’s maintenance department for the Euphrates River, told Al-Monitor, “The Euphrates River bed witnessed six historical eras, including the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Greek, Byzantine, in addition to the Islamic era." Building dams in the first place, he said, was "an unjust decision.”

The Syrian government of Youssef Zain in 1968 built the Euphrates Dam without diverting the Euphrates River to the desert and establishing lakes there. Instead, Aliawi said, "The dam’s lake was formed with a length of 100 kilometers and a width of 8 kilometers and inundated the most prominent ancient sites in the river. Only a few artifacts and monuments were saved.”

As the water level drops, he said, "many cemeteries are located in this area, which is also believed to include [hundreds] of Syriac Christian monasteries. The cemeteries that are still submerged can be seen clearly when it is sunny and the lake water is clear.” A few cemeteries have been found on the right bank of the lake in the western region of Raqqa, he said, but the left bank "is more rocky, making it difficult to carry out digging works.”

In July, the receding waters of the Euphrates River in the city of Anah in Iraq revealed the ancient city of Talbes. Mohammad Jassim, an Iraqi archaeologist, reported the emergence of at least 80 historic sites due to the decrease in the water level of the Haditha Dam.

On June 6, the Department of Antiquities in Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq announced the discovery of a city from the Mitanni Empire, dating back 3,400 years, which emerged when the waters of the Tigris River basin receded.

The director of the Dohuk Department of Antiquities, Becs Privkani, told reporters June 6 that the city, known historically as Zakhiko, was mentioned in Babylonian texts. It includes a palace and several other buildings, in addition to a large fence, he said, and cuneiform texts were also found.

Last year, the receding waters in the Keban Dam lake on the Euphrates River in the Ağın region in eastern Turkey brought to the surface the historical Hastek Castle, which can only be reached by boat.

According to the head of the history department at the Firat (Euphrates) University in Turkey, Korkmaz San, the castle is believed to be a temple dating back to the pre-Christian era. He explained in a press statement at the time that the castle consists of three floors carved inside the rocks, with Greek inscriptions on its inner walls.

Saad Fansa, who worked for nearly 30 years at the National Museum of Damascus as director of the Photographic Archive and the Documentary Archive of Syrian Antiquities at the museum, told Al-Monitor, “The receding water bed of the Euphrates River and the discovery of archaeological sites is not new. Similar sites resurfaced in the 1980s when the dam lake water level dropped.”

He added, “One of the most important sites that was flooded by the Euphrates Dam water when Lake Assad was established was the site of Mureybet, an ancient settlement mound dating back to the Neolithic era. This discovery provided insights on the development of agriculture in the region along with the deification of women at the time.”

Fansa continued, “The Euphrates River crosses Syria and Iraq, the Tigris flows from Turkey to Iraq. Due to the global drought, [submerged] archaeological sites will keep resurfacing in these countries.”

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