Discover the Ancient Ruins Found Under the Tigris River

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Updated: August 8, 2023
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Although climate change and global warming affect countries all over the world, Iraq has been hit especially hard. Temperatures are rising twice as fast and annual rainfall is decreasing, leaving the country struggling with many severe droughts. However, the lower water levels of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers during these droughts allowed the secrets of a forgotten civilization to emerge. Join us as we embark on an extraordinary journey to discover the ancient ruins found under the Tigris River!

Rediscovering a Long-Forgotten City

In 2018, a terrible drought in Iraq left the water levels of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers dangerously low. In an effort to help the country, the Mosul Dam Reservoir in the Kurdistan region was drained, providing much-needed water to dying crops. But, as the reservoir’s water receded, the ruins of an ancient city suddenly emerged!

Racing against time, archaeologists diligently worked to explore and map out the newly-exposed ancient ruins before the water covered them once again. They discovered the ruins of a large palace with 22-foot tall walls, some of which were 6 feet thick! Many of the walls were also adorned with well-preserved wall paintings, shining bright with their blue and red hues. The palace, built in two distinct phases, had been used over a long period of time and may hold many of the secrets of the mighty Mitanni Empire. However, before they could evaluate it further, the palace and the rest of the city resubmerged beneath the Tigris River, leaving their mysteries unresolved for the next four years.

In 2022 Iraq yet again faced one of the worst droughts it had seen in decades. So, the reservoir was drained once again, exposing the lost city hidden beneath its waters. A research team of Kurdish and German archaeologists immediately came to examine and map out the city as much as they could, funded by the University of Tübingen. Now that they knew what they were looking for, and due to the amazing speed at which they gathered and worked, the team was able to map out many of the large buildings and uncover hundreds of various artifacts.

View of the Tigris River valley, caves and various cafes right in the river water under awnings, escaping from the heat in the cool

The Tigris River is one of the oldest and most important rivers in the world.

©Inna Giliarova/Shutterstock.com

What Did They Find in the Ancient City Under the Tigris River?

The incredible ancient city under the Tigris River, now called Kemune, was once the bustling metropolis of Zakhiku, an important city in the Mitanni Empire. This ancient empire existed from around 1600 BCE to 1260 BCE, standing mightly alongside other major kingdoms like Babylonia and Egypt. However, as the empire began to decline, the Assyrians took over and the Mitanni people were forgotten. 

During their face-paced excavations, researchers discovered a massive fortification with towers, an industrial complex, and an enormous storage building with multiple stories. The storage building’s enormous size indicates that it once held an astounding number of goods, reflecting the possible size and status of the ancient city and its people.

Even more impressive, however, was how well-preserved the buildings are. The walls — now over 3,000 years old — were constructed with sun-dried mud, which should have been destroyed long ago beneath the waters of the Tigris River. However, an earthquake around 1350 BCE destroyed the upper portions of the walls and they crumbled into rubble. The rubble covered the lower portions of the walls, protecting them from the water.

In addition to the walls and large buildings, the archeology team also found and recovered several ceramic vessels. These contained over 100 tablets, written with cuneiform (the oldest known system of writing). Some of the tablets were still enclosed in clay envelopes, waiting to be read! Miraculously preserved over thousands of years and then several decades underwater, these ancient clay tablets will hopefully shed more light on the people who once lived in this ancient city.

Cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform is the first writing system ever developed. It was created in Mesopotamia by the Sumerians around 3400 BCE.

©Dima Moroz/Shutterstock.com

Who Were the People of the Mitanni Empire?

The Mitanni Empire was one of the greatest nations of its time, founded sometime around 1600 BCE to 1500 BCE in Mesopotamia and Syria. It started in northern Iraq, went through Syria, and reached all the way into Turkey. It stretched for over 600 miles from the Zagros Mountains to the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. The empire was ruled by warriors called Maryannu, which is possibly where the name “Mitanni” came from. The people were Hurrian, and the Hittites called the kingdom “the land of the Huri”. However, the Egyptians translated Maryannu as Naharin and Metani.

The Mitanni Empire thrived between 1500 BCE and 1240 BCE, ruling over the northern Euphrates-Tigris region. It controlled important trade routes up the Euphrates to Carchemish and down the Habur to Mari, in addition to the headwaters at Nineveh and the upper Tigris River

You might wonder, however, why so few people remember this powerful and impressive empire. Well, when the Assyrians took over in the fourteenth century, they destroyed most of the Mitanni cities and their artifacts. Unfortunately, the destruction left very few records from the Mitanni people themselves. In fact, prior to the new discovery under the Tigris River, there were only three main sources of Mitanni history:

  • The Amarna Letters
  • A treaty between the Mitanni Empire and the Hittites
  • An ancient horse manual
Map of the near east circa 1400 BCE.

Map of the near east circa 1400 BCE. The Mitanni Empire had powerful neighbors on all sides, from Assyria to the Egpyt, Hatti, and Babylonia.

©Javierfv1212 / Public Domain – License

Records from the Mitanni Empire

Firstly, much of what we know about the Mitanni Empire comes from the Amarna letters. These ancient correspondences were exchanged between Mitanni rulers and those of Egypt and Assyria. Second, there was a treaty struck between the Mitanni people and the Hittites. These two sources show that the Mitanni Empire was a very powerful and prosperous kingdom. It was even included the “Great Powers’ Club” alongside kingdoms like Babylonia, Assyria, Hatti, and Egypt.

The third record from the Mitanni Empire scholars is rather unique and slightly unusual — it’s a horse manual. However, this isn’t just any old how-to-ride-horses instruction manual, but the oldest horse training manual ever found! Kikkuli, a master horse trainer from Mitanni, wrote the manual back in 1345 BCE on four tablets. From what foods horses should eat to how they should be exercised, the 1,080 lines of this very detailed manual go into every aspect of horse training.

In addition, the manual revealed that the people of the Mitanni Empire were highly skilled with horses. In fact, the Matanni people even invented a new type of chariot — one with wheels that had spokes. These were much faster and easier to steer than chariots with solid wood wheels. As skilled horsemen and charioteers, the Mitanni were able to conquer and spread their empire. 

Assyrian wall relief, Ancient carving from Mesopotamia. History of Iraq, civilization of Sumer.

According to Hittite records, the Mitanni people were excellent horsemen and innovators. The Hittites copied the new spoked wheel design and spread it to other neighboring kingdoms.

©Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock.com

How Did the Mitanni Empire Fall?

As is the case with so many ancient civilizations, there were many different forces that both shaped the Mitanni Empire and led to its eventual collapse. For example, the empire’s complex political and social system was governed through vassals and tributes. There was often a great deal of discord and power struggles between various leaders and factions, which disrupted the empire’s stability. 

In addition, the Matanni Empire was surrounded by many powerful and formidable adversaries. The neighboring Assyrians, the Hittites, and the Kassites continually attacked the empire. These frequent attacks often disrupted trade routes, further weakening the Matanni Empire and its economy. Then, in the fourteenth century BCE, continual Assyrian incursions battered against the already-declining empire, eventually taking over completely.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Sanatkar/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Kellianne Matthews is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on anthrozoology, conservation, human-animal relationships, and animal behavior. Kellianne has been writing and researching animals for over ten years and has decades of hands-on experience working with a variety of different animals. She holds a Master’s Degree from Brigham Young University, which she earned in 2017. A resident of Utah, Kellianne enjoys creating, exploring and learning new things, analyzing movies, caring for animals, and playing with her cats.

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