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The Second Coming of Saturn Part 6: Urkesh

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by Derek Gilbert

In 1984, a husband and wife team of archaeologists began work at a site in northeastern Syria that should be far better known than it is. Their discoveries could be the link between the earliest post-Flood civilizations, the mysterious “sons of God” mentioned in Genesis chapter 6, and the myths of Greece and Rome.

Urkesh (Tell Mozan) in northeast Syria, a Hurrian city more than 7,000 years old

Tell Mozan is an archaeological site that rises about seventy feet above the surrounding plain in northeastern Syria, very close to the border with Turkey. Its location in the southern foothills of the Taurus Mountains was strategically located on a trade route that brought valuable raw materials like stone, timber, copper, and silver through the Mardin Pass to the cities of southern Mesopotamia.

In ancient times, the city was called Urkesh. It was occupied from at least 3500 BC until the rise of the Assyrian kingdom toward the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. What makes the city so fascinating and relevant to our topic is the spiritual significance of Urkesh. About the time the city was founded, a raised terrace was constructed and a building with a niched exterior wall, a style common in Sumerian cities of the day, was built on top of the terrace. Like buildings of similar style in Uruk, it was almost certainly a temple.[1]

What’s unique about Urkesh is that, unlike nearby neighbors in northern Mesopotamia, it never fell under the political or cultural control of Uruk. For example, Nagar (modern Tell Brak), about thirty miles south of Urkesh, had grown into a major city during the fourth millennium BC with megalithic buildings dated to as far back as 3800 BC. Contrary to what was believed after the spectacular discoveries of cities like Ur and Uruk a century ago, recent research at sites like Tell Brak and Tell Mozan has led scholars to conclude that northern Mesopotamia was where the earliest large-scale urban civilization developed in the ancient Near East. Not surprisingly, with growth comes competition; mass graves found in 2010 suggest that many of Nagar’s citizens met violent ends in four separate events between 3800 and 3600 BC. This may be evidence of failed insurrections by local residents, but it’s also possible that they were victims of the expansionist policies of Uruk; it’s known from pottery finds that an Urukean colony was established in the city around 3600 BC.

The Bible tells us that Erech (“Uruk” by a different spelling), Babel, and Accad were the power base of history’s first would-be empire builder, Nimrod:

The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. (Genesis 10:10–12)

Based on the mass graves at Nagar, it appears that the kings of Uruk did not tolerate dissent. Historically speaking, the Uruk period, between about 3800 BC and 3100 BC, is the logical time frame for Nimrod’s reign. Genesis 10:8–12 gives an accurate capsule summary of his career.

Accad, usually spelled “Akkad” outside of the Bible, was the city from which Sargon the Great conquered all of Mesopotamia around 2334 BC, making him the first Semitic ruler of the ancient Near East. That city hasn’t been found, but it’s believed to have been on the Tigris River near modern Baghdad, and may be hidden beneath Baghdad itself.[2]Sargon is also credited with being the world’s first empire-builder, but that’s because historians generally don’t believe that Nimrod was a historic character. (Sargon is one of the candidates put forward as the basis of the Nimrod “legend.”)

Calneh likewise hasn’t been found, but the name may be a misreading of a Hebrew phrase that simply means “all of them.” So, the original sentence might have read, “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar.”[3]

From there, we’re told Nimrod went to Assyria, or northern Mesopotamia, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen. While those cities may not have been founded by Nimrod (for example, archaeologists believe Nineveh was occupied as early as 6000 BC), the Genesis account does fit the general story of an empire-builder from Sumer who expanded his kingdom along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which is exactly what’s revealed by the archaeology of the fourth millennium BC. Armies traveled north and west from Sumer to impose Uruk’s will on the cities of what is now northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. Although not confirmed, the mass graves at Tell Brak could be evidence of this, but the destruction of nearby Hamoukar was definitely the work of Uruk’s military. Archaeologists call the battle of Hamoukar the “earliest evidence for large scale organized warfare in the Mesopotamian world.”[4]

Clay bullets fired from slings at ancient Hamoukar (credit: U. of Chicago)

The attack was brutal. Using clay bullets and “cannonballs” fired from slings, thousands of which have been uncovered at the dig,[5] the Urukean army breached the ten-foot-thick walls of Hamoukar, overwhelmed the city’s defenders, and burned the prosperous city to the ground.[6] It appears that Hamoukar was quickly rebuilt and settled by colonists from Uruk, possibly to take over the city’s profitable obsidian trade, which is indicated by the workshops for fabricating obsidian tools just outside the city walls.[7]

This is consistent with what little we know of the character of Nimrod. However, the point of this brief rabbit trail is not to document Nimrod’s political and military exploits, but to highlight the remarkable fact that Urkesh, a thriving religious and economic center just thirty miles north of Nagar, at the time of the violence there and the destruction of Hamoukar, remained independent and untouched by the military might of Uruk.

So, it appears that copper, a strategically important metal, was either brought through Urkesh, with the Hurrians there acting as middlemen between miners in the Taurus Mountains and the powerful Uruk state, or the rulers of Uruk opted to bring copper down the Euphrates via a longer route that meandered through Turkey and Syria to the west of the Khabur Triangle. The question is: Why?

We can only speculate. We do know that every city in the ancient Near East had a patron deity. In Uruk, it was originally Anu, the sky-god—the one who was deposed and castrated by Kumarbi. According to the Sumerian poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, Enmerkar, the second king of Uruk after “the flood swept over,” whom I have argued elsewhere was the biblical Nimrod,[8] built a magnificent temple in his city for the goddess Inanna. She’s better known to us as Ishtar, the biblical Astarte, and Aphrodite and Venus of the Greco-Roman world. Enmerkar’s apparent motive was to show his rival, the lord of Aratta, that he and his city were Inanna’s favorites. In the tale, which preserves the broad outlines of the Tower of Babel story, Enmerkar pressures Aratta into providing the materials needed to build the E-ana(“House of Heaven”) for Inanna and, most relevant to our study, to expand the temple of the god Enki at Eridu, the E-abzu (“House of the Abyss”). Following Egyptologist David Rohl,[9] I believe the E-abzu at Eridu was the historic Tower of Babel.[10]

Scholars don’t agree on the location of Aratta, with guesses ranging from Afghanistan to India to Armenia. On the basis of the name alone, Armenia makes the most sense; the ancient kingdom of Urartu, centered on Lake Van and the nearby mountains of Ararat, seems to fit both the general description of Aratta and the presence of Urukean outposts in the region to access raw materials. However, other geographic clues in the texts, such as placing Anshan in southern Elam (western Iran) between Uruk and Aratta, confuse the issue, so the matter of Aratta will not be settled soon.

The point is this: The powerful kingdom of Uruk, presumably at its peak under Nimrod/Enmerkar between 3500 and 3100 BC, extended its control well into Anatolia to the north and west of Urkesh, and even set up an outpost just thirty miles south at Nagar, but it never tried to move against Urkesh itself or establish control over the key Mardin Pass just twelve miles north of the city.

Likewise, when Sargon of Akkad established himself as the first Semitic ruler of a pan-Mesopotamian kingdom nearly a thousand years after the end of the Uruk period, neither he nor his successors led a force against Urkesh, even though Sargon or one of his successors found it necessary to conquer nearby Nagar.[11] Instead of conquest, the Akkadians opted for alliance; cylinder seals at Urkesh reveal that Tar’am-Agade, a previously unknown daughter of Sargon’s grandson Narām-Sîn, was married to the endan (Hurrian for “king” or “ruler”) of Urkesh in the late twenty-third century BC.[12] In fact, a new palace for the reigning endan named Tupkish was built next to the city’s temple around 2250 BC,[13] at the very height of the Akkadian Empire.

The armies of Akkad reached Anatolia to the northwest, overwhelming the powerful Syrian states of Mari and Ebla on the way. Akkad sent expeditions as far south as modern Bahrain and Oman. It seems probable that the Akkadians could have taken Urkesh if they’d wanted to, but, for some reason, they didn’t want to. Was it because of cultural and ethnic links between the rulers of Urkesh and the miners who controlled the supply of copper and silver in the Taurus Mountains? In other words, did Sargon and his successors, like Nimrod before them, figure it was easier to cut a deal with the Hurrian rulers of Urkesh than to risk alienating their kin in the mountains and losing a key source of those metals?

Since writing hadn’t been invented yet in the fourth millennium BC, we’ll never know for sure. Based on the archaeological sites scattered across the landscape from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, and from the Zagros Mountains in Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, it appears that the proto-Hurrian people, called the Kura-Araxes or Early Transcaucasian culture, migrated during the second half of the fourth millennium BC from their original homeland on the Ararat Plain, on the border between modern Armenia and Turkey. They traveled northward across the Caucasus Mountains into Georgia and the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan; east and south into Azerbaijan, northwest Iran, and the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and Syria; westward into Anatolia; and southwest to the Mediterranean coast of Syria and Lebanon, reaching as far south as Bet Yerah on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee by about 2850 BC. Meanwhile, the Semites and Sumerians along the Tigris and Euphrates dominated the bulk of the Fertile Crescent from the Zagros to the Anti-Lebanon mountains, or what comprises western Iran and most of Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Jordan today.

Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati, who’s devoted more than three decades of her life to excavating and interpreting the finds at Urkesh, describes the region controlled by the Kura-Araxes people, the proto-Hurrians, as the “Outer Fertile Crescent.”[14] Urkesh is unusual not only because it either resisted or escaped being dominated by powerful southern kingdoms and maintained its Hurrian identity for more than two thousand years, but also because it is the largest and oldest city that can be positively identified as Hurrian.

And, finally, to get back on point: The temple atop the hill of Urkesh was dedicated to the city’s patron god, Kumarbi.

The temple, sitting nearly ninety feet above the plain,[15] would have been visible for quite a distance. In majesty and splendor, it may have rivaled the Great Ziggurat of Ur, which wouldn’t be built for about another fifteen hundred years, around 2100 BC.[16] The importance of Urkesh in Hurrian religion was preserved in Hittite-language copies of older Hurrian myths that name it as the city of Kumarbi—texts copied by Hittite scribes two thousand years after the temple was constructed on top of the elevated terrace above the plain.

What was it about Kumarbi or the temple that preserved and protected Urkesh for more than two millennia? Perhaps it was the Hurrian belief that their chief deity was, like his father Alalu, a denizen of “the dark earth”—the underworld.

Next: The ritual pit for summoning the god of the netherworld.

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[1] Marilyn Kelly-Buccellatti, “Urkesh: The Morphology and Cultural Landscape of the Hurrian Sacred.” in P. Matthiae and M. D’Andrea (eds.), Ebla e la Siria dall’età del Bronzo all’età del Ferro, (Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei: Atti dei convegni Lincei 304, Roma: Bardi Edizioni), pp. 109–110.

[2] Christophe Wall-Romana, “An Areal Location of Agade.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 49, No. 3 (1990), pp. 205–245.

[3] William F. Albright, “The End of ‘Calneh in Shinar.’” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3, no. 4 (1944), pp. 254–255.

[4] Owen Jarus, “New Discoveries Hint at 5,500 Year Old Fratricide at Hamoukar, Syria.” The Independent, Oct. 23, 2011. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/history/new-discoveries-hint-5-500-year-old-fratricide-hamoukar-syria-2088467.html, retrieved 2/11/21.

[5] William Harms, “Evidence of Battle at Hamoukar Points to Early Urban Development.” University of Chicago Chronicle, Jan. 18, 2007. http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/070118/hamoukar.shtml, retrieved 2/12/21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Richard E. J. Burke, “Uruk’s Monstrous Crime at Hamoukar.” Raising Up Pharaoh, Oct. 10, 2015. http://www.raisinguppharaoh.com/2015/10/24/65-uruks-monstrous-crime-at-hamoukar/, retrieved 2/11/21.

[8] Sharon K. Gilbert and Derek P. Gilbert, Giants, Gods & Dragons (Crane, MO: Defender, 2020), pp. 37–58.

[9] David Rohl, Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation (London: Century, 1998).

[10] Gilbert & Gilbert (2020), op. cit.

[11] Federico Buccellati, Three-dimensional Volumetric Analysis in an Archaeological Context: The Palace of Tupkish at Urkesh and its Representation (Malibu, CA: Undena Publications, 2016), p. 186.

[12] Ibid., p. 20.

[13] Ibid., p. 3.

[14] Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati, “Trade in Metals in the Third Millennium: Northeastern Syria and Eastern Anatolia.” In P. Matthiae, M. Van Loon, and H. Weiss (eds.), Resurrecting the Past: A Joint Tribute to Adnan Bounni(Istanbul: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut, 1990), p. 120.

[15] Giorgia Buccellati and Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati, “Between Heaven and Hell in Ancient Urkesh,” Backdirt175 (2007), p. 67.

[16] “The Ziggurat of Ur.” British Museum, http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/ziggurats/explore/zig.html, retrieved 5/18/21.

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