|Mari -Where History Began Before History
Story and photos by Habeeb Salloum
Below our Furat Cham Palace Hotel in Deir ez-Zor, Syria's northern farming and oil capital, the Euphrates flowed in all its majesty. As I glanced on the waters of this mighty river which had witnessed the birth of civilization, I felt an emotional pull to explore its buried cultures whose history goes back to over 5,000 years.
I was thinking of Mari whose tablets told the story of humankind long before the monotheistic religions came into existence, when I heard my daughter's voice, "Come! Our driver is waiting. I'm so excited!
I want to see the remains of our ancestors, especially the ruins of Mari." Quickly I joined her for I too was anxious to explore these historic vestiges close to the Euphrates banks - the spots where humans had first laid the bases of our lives today.
Leaving Deir ez-Zor which had for long been considered in the backwaters of Syria but which has today, as a result of irrigation and oil, has become a booming city, we made our way eastward.
On both sides of the road, the irrigated fields of grain, dominated by corn and vegetables, flourished beside white cotton fields, ready for plucking. In places, from high points on the road, the greenery edging both sides of the Euphrates appeared like a string of emeralds hugged by the brownish barren desert.
Climbing on to a desert plateau, we spotted the wind-worn walls of Doura Europos standing before us - at first sight impressive in their size. A fortified town overlooking the lush irrigated Euphrates Valley on one side and the empty desert on the other, it was once a very important economic and cultural centre in the Hellenistic, Roman, Persian and Palmyran periods.
Today, once inside, the remains are disappointing. Besides its still-standing walls and impressive entrance, little remains of the fortress-town. The most cherished relic found in the partially excavated ruins is a large well-preserved coloured mural found in the city's synagogue - now exhibited in the Syrian National Museum in Damascus.
Down again along the fields, we soon reached Mari, known locally as Tel Hariri, some 125 km (78 mi) east of Deir Ez-Zor. Flourishing between 3000 and 2000 B.C., the city was destroyed by Hammurabi in 1760 B.C. In the ensuing years, Mari faded into oblivion and, as the centuries went by, it was totally reclaimed by the desert until discovered by André Parrot in 1933.
Mari has long been famous for its excavated mid-third millennium Sacred Enclosure - a royal palace of 300 rooms, halls with courtyards and a hall for officers, decorated with pictographs - now located in Paris's Louvre.
However, much more has been uncovered, including the Temples of Ishtar, Ishtarat, Ninhursag, Ninni-zaza, Shamash and the Lions; the palace of Shakkanakku; a remarkable water collecting and sewage system, and 20,000 clay cuneiform tablets, dealing with administration, political life of the palace and health. Thanks to these tablets, much of Syro-Mesopotamian history is well documented.
We entered the ruins in anticipation. Before us was a jigsaw puzzle of excavation sites. On a map at the edge of the covered Sacred Enclosure, we could make out some of the excavated spots. Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that, to get a true picture of Mari's history, a guide was a dire necessity.
Group tours have their guides
but if, like us, one is travelling alone a farmer's family on the edge of the
ruins, selling drinks and tickets to the site and, at times, acting as guides,
is a good source of information.
On the other hand, objects of exceptional quality found in Mari which are not in the Louvre Museum in Paris, are kept in the museums of Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor and Damascus. The finds have contributed much to Mari's fame.
In addition to the tradition of great wall paintings, no other place in the Mesopotamian area has produced so much amulets, jewellery, pottery, seals, statuettes of goddess, kings and priests; and art objects of exceptional quality.
The site is not only a gold mine of Middle Eastern history but tells the story of humankind.
This week, Traveling Tales welcomes Habeeb Salloum, a freelance travel writer/photographer who makes his home in Toronto, ON, Canada.
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