The Lost City of Mari (a.k.a. Tell Hariri)

Palace of Zimri_Lim in the ancient city of Mari
Palace of Zimri_Lim in the ancient city of Mari

In 1933 one of civilization’s oldest cities was found in the Syria desert by chance. It turns out that a group of bedouin nomads were looking for a particular gravesite within the vicinity and stumbled upon an ancient, headless statue. Not knowing exactly what it was that they had found, the bedouins told the locals of their find. Soon word of the headless statue and other artifacts began to spread, which ultimately reached the ears of archaeologists in Paris. With the help of the Louve Museum, a team of archaeologists and historians of ancient history were sent to the site to begin a dig. What they discovered at the site now known as Tell Hariri was the ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Mari.
Founded sometime around 2900 BCE, Mari was first ruled by the Sumerians and later the Akkadian kings until the year 1761 BCE when it was conquered and more or less destroyed by the Babylonian king Hammurabi (the same who is famous for establishing the first written code of laws). Hammurabi’s burning and knocking down of the city’s protective walls forced many of the residents to abandon much of Mari, turning it into little more than a small village by the time the Assyrians ruled the area. Over time, the major parts of the city began to accumulate dust and eventually were buried and lost to the sands of time.

"The Singer" from the ancient city of Mari.
“The Singer” from the ancient city of Mari.

Anzu_bird_MariIt was only in 1933 that a team of archaeologists led by the Frenchman André Parrot began in earnest to excavate and study of the site. What they found was remarkable: the ancient palace and library of Mari’s last king, Zimri-Lim, houses, streets, pottery and vases that once contained wine and perfume, and, probably most important of all, nearly 20,000 cuneiform tables containing all sorts of information from ordinary market transactions to the death sentences for treasonous soldiers.

One of Parrot’s more interesting finds at Mari were several objects with cylindrical seals from a certain Mesannepadda, king of the Sumerian city-state of Ur. Dating back to 2500 BCE, the objects were brought to Mari by one of Mesannepadda’s scribes with a message of friendship and an offer of an alliance between the two cities. A beautiful Anzu bird, associated with the hurricane deity Ningirsu, was part of the many luxurious gifts that were also given to Mari’s king. Evidence was also uncovered that showed Mari’s king reacting favorably to Mesannepadda’s envoy and sending gifts of his own.

The History of Ancient Mari

Statue of an ancient governor of Mari
Statue of an ancient governor of Mari

The name Mari was already relatively well-known in old Mesopotamian documents, especially those that were recorded by the Sumerians. Ancient Sumer was less a state and more of a loose confederation of city-states with a common culture, language and religion. The area of greater Sumer contained many of the fabled cities of Mesopotamia that we know of today including Eridu, Ur, Uruk and Nippur. Mari though is less well-known due to it being on the periphery of Mesopotamia and the other city-states of ancient Sumer. This made the city an important trading hub as it was the link between Sumer and the relatively far away areas of the Mediterranean, Anatolia, Egypt and beyond. It was from these areas that the primarily agricultural Sumerian city-states obtained raw materials such as stone, metals and wood. As this trade expanded, diplomatic as well as military missions were dispatched from the cities of greater Sumer to Mari to help maintain these vital supply lines and commerce routes.

Man from Mari
Man from Mari

Like all things, Mari’s initial years of prosperity came to an end sometime between 2350 – 2300 BCE when archaeological evidence shows a great destruction of the city occurring. It is not known with certainty who the actual conquerers were, though many believe that it was perhaps Sargon of Akkad, founder of Mesopotamia’s first empire. Once Akkadian control had been established, Mari seems to have gone through a rebuilding process with prosperity and trade returning to the city. Akkadian rule though was short-lived and by 2100 BCE, Mari was ruled by a Sumerian dynasty from the city of Ur. The later’s rule also didn’t last for too long as nomads from the Syrian desert began to encroach on Mari and took it over. Then, in a striking move, one of these nomadic princes marched on Ur and with the help of the Elamites, put an end to Sumerian rule in Mesopotamia once and for all.

These new rulers became known as the Amorites and under them, trade and prosperity returned to the region. They also made Mari their capital and built many monuments, temples, palaces and civic works projects for the good of the city and its people. It was at this time that Mari also became well-known for the quality of its crafts and metalwork.

To the east in Mesopotamia proper, the Assyrians were gaining power and under their king Shamshi-Adad, established their power base in the city of Ashur. Wanting to control Mari’s trading empire, Shamshi-Adad first had the city’s Amorite ruler, Yahdun-Lim, assassinated. He then put his own son Yasmah-Addu on the throne, but the later proved to be a weak and incompetent ruler. With the death of Shamshi-Adad, Yasmah-Addu was easily deposed and Mari was taken over by a usurper, Ishar-Lim. This though proved to be an opportunity for the legitimate heir and descendent of Yahdun-Lim, Zimri-Lim, to return from exile and take his rightful place as king of Mari, which he did in 1775 BCE.

Zimri-Lim proved to be more of an enlightened ruler than many of his predecessors. He expanded the royal palace which became, at least according to several ancient sources, one of the wonders of the world. The newly revitalized palace was a fortress-like structure whose single entrance was flanked by two large towers overlooking a large courtyard lined with palm trees. Known as the “palm court,” this area of the palace became Mari’s and the region’s main administrative center.

The palace of Mari's "Palm Court"
The palace of Mari’s “Palm Court”

The walls were covered with elaborate paintings depicting the deeds of Mari’s kings as well as depictions of daily life in the city. One even depicted the King of Mari praying to some sort of deity associated with the Moon.

Painting from the palace of Zimri-Lim.
Painting from the palace of Zimri-Lim.

Nearby was also a temple and a shrine to one of the city’s patron deities. The palace also contained several apartments for the king and his family with kitchens, baths and latrines with running water and sophisticated plumbing. There were also special quarters for the servants and other attendents as well.

The most valuable find, at least in terms of gaining knowledge of Mari’s past, were the nearly 20,000 cuneiform tablets found in the palace’s library. Recorded by multitudes of scribes, these clay tablets provide a wealth of information about the city’s daily life and administration. There are letters to generals, from wives to their husbands who have gone into battle, tax and census records as well as correspondence with foreign kings and other city-states. Many of the tablets are concerned with various nomadic groups who were launching raids against Mari and the lands within its vicinity. According to the records, these raids seem to have been the most pressing concern for many of Mari’s rulers.

In the end though it was not groups of raiders or foreign nomads that brought about Mari’s fall but the ascension of a new ruler in the city-state of Babylon, Hammurabi. A onetime close ally of Zimri-Lim, Hammurabi, once he established control of central and southern Mesopotamia, turned his attention to the profitable trade routes of the west, of which Mari was the prime beneficiary. In 1759 BCE, Hammurabi marched on Mari and defeated Zimri-Lim, making him one of his vassals. Zimri-Lim seems to have been spared at first but about two years later, Hammurabi marched on Mari again, this time putting it to the torch. Zimri-Lim disappears from the historical records and was probably killed. This was the city’s death knell from which it never recovered from. Thus the old and prosperous city of fell into ruin, with time burying it under a heap of sand until it was discovered by a band of bedouins in the 1930s.

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