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Terqa
A Narrative

Giorgio Buccellati – January 2009



The Joint Expedition to Terqa
The City Walls
The Temple of Ninkarrak
The House of Puzurum
Historical interconnections


The Joint Expedition to Terqa

     Since 1976, the middle Euphrates site of Ashara, Syria, ancient Terqa, has been excavated by a team of archaeologists under the co-direction of Dr. Giorgio Buccellati and Dr. Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati. IIMAS – The International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies has been the catalyst in assuring continued funding on the one hand and, on the other, a comprehensive intellectual design which associates scholars from different institutions within a well integrated design of research and operation. Participating institutions included the Institute of Archaeology at the University of California at Los Angeles, California State University at Los Angeles, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Arizona and the University of Potiers in France. The site revealed important new dimensions with regard to the critical role played by the Syrian region in the development of early Near Eastern civilization as well as the formation and growth of urbanized centers.

     The Expedition was funded in part by major grants from Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, the Ahmanson Foundation, the Kress Foundation, and the participating universities, and has enjoyed the full cooperation and support from the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums.

     Ancient Terqa, modern Ashara, is located along the banks of the Middle Euphrates river. Bounded to the north by the Khabur plains and on the south by the flat, alluvial plains of Mesopotamia, the region surrounding the city is at the heart of the Fertile Crescent, and a natural bridge between the desert and the mountains, between the north and south.

     It has become increasingly clear that the region, like most of Syria, was far from being only a provincial outpost of the more advanced centers of Mesopotamia; it was, in fact, a complex urbanized, autonomous civilization in its own right.

     The site of Terqa is buried under cultural deposits 60 feet high, and covers 20 acres. Partially occupied by the modern town of Ashara, about one-third of the territory is available for excavation.

     After the first ten seasons, the site has revealed indications of occupation dating back to the Fifth and Fourth Millennia, with a major sequence of cities occupying the tell in the Third and Second Millennia as well as a reduced occupation during the First Millennium.

     Along with its “suburb” of Qraya to the north, Terqa presents the possibility of a complete record of the historical realities and political complexities of the area.
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The City Walls

     If one could typify the impact of the size and scope of the ancient city of Terqa in one image, it would have to be the sight of the massive defensive rings surrounding the city – 60 acres of land surrounded by three concentric, solid masonry walls, 60 feet thick,with an additional 60 foot wide moat encircling the outer ring: these are extraordinary dimensions by any standard .

     So wide were these walls, that the outer ring possessed a passageway to allow for circulation along its perimeter. The date of construction for these extraordinary defenses, supported by Carbon 14 determinations as well as by the ceramic sequences, is indicated at 3000 B.C. for the inner wall, followed in turn by the middle and outer walls at one century intervals. This makes the walls of Terqa among the largest, oldest, tallest and most complex monuments in the Near East.

     The walls themselves were placed on foundation stones and aprons of solid rock which were meant to repulse both human enemies and natural disasters, especially floods. Brought down from the nearby hills ten miles away, these boulders appear today as formidable and effective a barrier as in antiquity.

     The outer moat bed is today dry, but can be clearly traced rising up to the foot of the walls.

     The walls revealed by the excavations stand 15 feet above the modern plain level, and it is estimated that they originally stood over 20 feet high from the ancient ground level.

     These defensive barriers continued to be maintained and repaired until at least the beginning of the Second Millennium.

     Immediately inside the walls, excavations have revealed industrial installations such as large ovens, kilns and storage facilities, and in one area a number of Third Millennium burials.
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The Temple of Ninkarrak

     The Fifth Season at Terqa uncovered not one but four superimposed temples dedicated to the Goddess of Good Health, Ninkarrak. The result of deliberate architectural planning, aimed at preserving as much as possible the footprint of the preceding level, the foundations of the succeeding temples were carefully incorporated around the older walls. Three of these distinct phases have been fully excavated, while a fourth remains to be uncovered. Underneath, there remain more than 50 feet of cultural deposits going back to the Third Millennium, indicating that yet earlier phases of the same Temple may be below.

     The Temple’s entry approach is angled rather than straight, so that a worshipper would have had to turn (to the left) to face the main hall. The main doorway to the cella is decorated with multiple rabetted recesses on the doorjambs and engaged columns lining the walls. Beyond, the large hall contained a central hearth and benches constructed along the sides. At the base of the altar, a beautiful miniature bronze dog was uncovered, its presence a clue to the divinity worshipped.

     To the right of the main cella, a small sacristy, and to the right of the entire complex a large administrative and service complex was unearthed.

     As work progressed, more and more implements designed for Temple use were found scattered on the floors. A surprising find was an elephant rib – not a tusk – lying on the floor of one of the service rooms, possibly implying the presence of live animals. Tablets were found near the cella inscribed with lists of offerings brought to the Temple, seal impressions which had been used to close the lids of jars bore inscriptions of her name, and one clay tablet preserved an ancient hymn to the “Mistress of the Abyss.” Finally, at the very end of the season, within a few feet of the altar, a small bag yielded the ancient Goddess’ jewels, her healing talismans. Thousands of precious stones – carnelians, agates, lapis lazuli, serpentine rock crystals and frit, shells and hematites, shaped into beads. While most are geometrical in form, in a great variety of sizes and shapes, some had been styled into little animals, ducks, frogs and dogs. After cleaning, the more than ten pounds of beads numbered over 6700, and stretched, if strung, for meters.

     Along with this impressive array, eight Egyptian scarabs were found, indicating early Egyptian influence at the site.
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The House of Puzurum

     The village houses of today look much as they did four thousand years ago – at the time of the Temple of Ninkarrak – the end of the 18th century B.C.

     Across the street from the Temple, a small private home has been unearthed with three rooms clustered around a central courtyard.

     The courtyard, then as now, served as the main living area, where most of the activities of the household occurred, including the cooking. The rooms surrounding the courtyard served basically as storage; one room held a pantry, with cooking vessels of many types neatly clustered together.

     A number of clay tablets were found in this house, and they help give some dimension and individuality to the man who enjoyed a modest success dealing with real estate.

     Tablets of his financial activities, mostly contracts of purchases and sales of land, include some involving loans from the Temple Treasury, much as we would use a bank today.

     This small archive of texts name this man as Puzurum and gives us insights into the administrative and banking procedures of the economy and the Temple.

     Contracts were signed at the left of each line by the witnesses to the contract, and they read like the “social registry” of Second Millennium Terqa, signifying that Puzurum had some pretigious associates during the reign of King Yadikh-Abu.

     The tablets themselves were small, pillow-like in shape and easily held in one hand. They were normally enclosed in an envelope of clay, sealed with cylinder impressions and additional inscriptions.

     Broken only in the case of a dispute over the terms of the agreement, or upon repayment of the loans due, the tablets were “supervised” by the Temple.

     When all terms had been completed, the “cashier” would purposely break the tablet and its envelope with a special tool which has left its mark clearly visible, and return the fragments to Puzurum.

     Back in his quiet home near the Temple, Puzurum would store these old “cancelled checks” and records in one of his storage rooms, along with other items of household paraphernalia much as we would use an attic or garage to store old items.

     The tablets were, indeed, found scattered on the floor of this room, along with broken vessels, old but reusable bricks, a wooden door panel and a broken bathtub. At some point, Puzurum’s house caught fire, the roof collapsed, charring the contents of the room.

     It was not rebuilt.

     Both the Temple of Ninarrak and the House of Puzurum are an indication of the scope of this city of Terqa during the Khana period, (1750-1500 B.C.), a little known period in Syrian history.
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Historical Interconnections

     Based on the information provided by the excavations, the two main periods in Terqa’s history appear to be the mid Third and the early Second Millennium.

     In the earlier of these two periods, the evidence comes from the city walls, which predate those found at Ebla further to the northwest and at Mari to the south.

     Located between Sumer and Ebla, Terqa was an important mid-way point for the blending and crossfertilization of the two cultures. The traditional perception regarding this area’s historical events has been that waves of Semitic nomads (first the Akkadians, later the Amorites) entered the urban Sumerian world in successive and relatively late migrations.

     Evidence now points to a vast urban Semitic culture adjacent to the Sumerian, flowering concurrently, the Amorites being the rural populations of the middle Euphrates that expanded towards the steppe.

     The main period of Terqa as shown by the excavations corresponds to the middle Second Millennium, when Terqa was a major center, possibly the capital city of the kingdom of Khana, corresponding to the southeastern portion of modern Syria.

     The tablets found at Terqa have begun to shed some light on this relatively unknown period in Syrian history. So far, a total of thirteen names of kings ruled Terqa between 1750 and 1500 B.C., and some 300 names of ancient Terqan inhabitants, like Puzurum, have been ascertained.

     A precise correlation has been made between Yadikh-Abu and Samsu-iluna, successor to the famous Hammurapi of Babylon. Samsu-iluna recorded a war fought in 1721 B.C. against Yadikh-Abu, whom we now know was king of Terqa during the life of Puzurum. The kingdom of Babylon and the kingdom of Khana were then approximately equal in size and perhaps in power.

     The historical picture drawn by the texts and artifacts makes Terqa a type site for an essential period in the development of the ancient Near East. Since it was at the hub of a large communication network which linked broad areas of the civilized world, it was identifiably in contact with distant lands.

     In the cache of beads from the Temple of Ninkarrak eight scarabs, pointing to Egypt and may be the earliest evidence of Egyptian contact this far east.

     A Hittite stamp seal was found next to an unpretentious child burial in the higher levels of Puzurum’s house. It represents a stylized hare, characteristic of Old Hittite seals from Anatolia, and may have been left behind by Hittite troops as they passed on their way to sack Babylon in 1595 B.C.

     A small but very important find reflecting the scope of Terqa’s international trade connections was indicated by the contents of a jar in the pantry of Puzurum-a few kernels of cloves. Before our excavations, there was no evidence for this spice having been used in the west before Romah times. Most significantly, it was grown only in the distant far East on the Molucca Islands. Long distance trade routes to the Indian sub-continent probably followed the coastline to the East. That a middle class private individual like Puzurum not only possessed this spice but used it (for cooking or medicinal purposes) indicates a high degree of trans-cultural absorption.
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Text by Giorgio Buccellati, 1999.