140 km south east of Deir Ezzor, 12 km west-north west of Abu Kemal on Syria/Iraq border, on the Euphrates; lies a site of a central importance, Mari, “a unique example of a Bronze Age palace” giving “an exceptionally concentrated picture of Syro-Mesopotamian world in the words” of its current excavator, Jean-Claude Margueron. The finds in Mari have given large contributions to the unraveling of the history of Syria/Mesopotamia region during the early millennia of recorded history. Its excavation rested for many years in the hands of the French archaeologist, Andre Parrot, who supervised the excavations from 1933 to 1974; a remarkable record. Since 1978, excavations have continued under Margueron with the aim of embracing Mari’s role in the wider Euphrates valley.
Mari was the 3rd millennium BC royal city-state par excellence. It controlled access between central and southern Mesopotamia and the drier plains of northern Syria and the upper Euphrates/Khabur system. Caravan routes through Mari also brought tin for the bronze industries to the west. Its key position between the confluence of the Khabur and Euphrates and the cliffs further south at Baghuz explain its choice as the site for a new city built by political decision.
Mari was first occupied at the beginning of the third millennium (2900 BC). Positioned in an area of limited natural agricultural potential, the center based its foundation not only on its trading position but on a sophisticated irrigation scheme. It was surrounded by a circular rampart and ditch (1.9 km in diameter) through which was dug a canal for the dual purpose of water supply and controlling navigation on the river. The late excavations led to development of canals in Mari, including a 120 km navigation link between the Khabur and Euphrates rivers.
The first major period of development (2700 – 2600 BC) saw the construction of a great palace, the temple of Ishtar, Nini-Zaza, Shamash and the terrace area or “Massif Rouge”. Mari succumbed to the Akkadian Empire for a while but re-established its prosperity, its population heavily boosted by the arrival c2000 BC of many Amorites. Mari lost out in the power struggle touched off by the rising dynasty of Babylon. Occupied for a time by the Amorite leader Shamsi-Adad (1813 – 1782 BC), it briefly found its independence under Zimri-Lim (1775 – 60 BC) only to lose it to Hammurabi of Babylon (c1792 – 50) in 1760. Its walls were razed, its temples sacked and the palace of Zimri-Lim set on fire and dismantled. The city was no longer a center of any importance from that time though there are signs of limited re-occupation in the Seleucid and Parthian periods.
The largely mud-brick remains which have been successfully peeled of to expose the preceding layers beneath are difficult to appreciate.
It is the most extensive excavated in the Middle East and was constructed across several centuries. It has 275 rooms covering 2.5 ha. There is a variety of finds in the palace well preserved including the notable statues of Ishtup-Ilum (Governor of Mari) and of a water goddess and an archive of 15000 tablets recording the household accounts of the palace as well as diplomatic and administrative records of the kingdom.
The main gateway to the palace of Zimri-Lim was on the north eastern side of the roughly square palace compound which was originally surrounded by a mud-brick rampart. Many of the rooms were decorated with wall paintings, partly preserved in the Aleppo and Damascus Museums as well as in the Louvre.
The Religious Buildings:
There are also a number of religious buildings around the palace, including the Temple of Lions (c2000 BC) and that of Shamash. In the Temple of Ninni-Zaza (mid third millennium BC) was discovered a remarkably rich trove of statues including that of the singer Ur-Nanshe. Temple of Ishtar (3rd millennium) is typical of Mari in its layout; they’re all very important to inspect.
Tel al-Hariri (تل الحريري), the ancient city of Mari (ماري), dates from as far back as the 5th millennium BC. The city first reached prominence around 2900 BC, and went through numerous periods of prosperity and decline until it was finally destroyed in 1759 BC. It was rediscovered in 1933, during the French mandate period, and archaeologists from the Lourve in Paris were quick to excavate. They uncovered over 25,000 cuneiform tablets in the Akkadian language, which documented the economic and political life of the city. As a result, Mari (ماري) has been one of the most important discoveries in Syria, aiding significantly in constructing the ancient history of the Near East.
During its first period of prosperity, Mari (ماري) was one of the westernmost settlements representing the Sumerian culture. Its location on the Euphrates made it an important transit point for goods being traded between Mesopotamia and northern Syria, delivering vital building materials to the city of Sumer. The city maintained a complex network of canals for both irrigation and transport. Mari (ماري) was first destroyed in the mid-24th century BC, the circumstances of which are not entirely known. It is speculated that the city was destroyed by Sargon of Akkad, another possibility being that Mari (ماري) was destroyed by the rival city-state of Ebla (ايبلا).
The city was later revived by the Amorites, and around 1900 BC Mari (ماري) once again became an important regional power. At this time the royal palace of over three hundred rooms was constructed for the king of Mari (ماري), Zimri-Lim. This was quite possibly the largest palace of its time. In 1759 BC the Babylonian king Hammurabi attacked and destroyed the city, and despite sporadic occupation by Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians, Mari (ماري) never recovered.
Today, the site leaves much to the imagination. While excavations of Mari (ماري) have been extensive, it is challenging to fully appreciate the remains without a knowledgeable guide or at least a guidebook with detailed coverage of the site. Many of the artifacts from Mari (ماري) have been relocated to the National Museum (المتحف الوطني) in Damascus (دمشق), though the museums in Aleppo (حلب) and Deir al-Zur (دير الزور) also include some remains from the site. Some of the most important artifacts, however, are in the Louvre in Paris. Allow at least an hour to explore the site, which includes the extensive palace (covered by a modern roof to protect it from the elements) and numerous temples.
Getting There: Regular microbuses travel from Deir al-Zur (دير الزور) to the border town of al-Bukamal (البوكمال). Tel al-Hariri/Mari (تل الحريري/ماري) is located about 500 meters east of the main road, about eleven kilometers northwest of al-Bukamal (البوكمال). The trip takes at least an hour from Deir al-Zur (دير الزور). Make sure the driver knows where you’re headed, as the site can be easy to miss from the road.