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ANE – Mari / 1

Original Date
May 29, 2009

The Story of Mari Discovery

Excavations at ancient Mari (Tell Hariri) began in 1933–4 under the leadership of Andre Parrot, with a French team. A huge palace was discovered in 1935, and large numbers of cuneiform tablets rapidly began to appear (Margueron 1997, 143) [1] . By the onset of World War II, the majority of known Mari archives had already been found, though Parrot took up work again after the war and continued until 1974. In recent years, excavations have been led by Jean-Claude Margueron, and the site is still not considered closed.

Ancient Mari - Tel Hariri Site

Tells such as that of ancient Mari are regularly called “cities,” but this term demands careful qualification, inspired partly by what we know and partly by what we do not. The site of Tell Hariri is enclosed by a mound in the form of an arc that represents about one third of a circle, roughly three to four kilometers from the modern channel of the Euphrates, within the flood plain of the river. Almost all of the cuneiform tablets found at Mari come from the reigns of the kings who ruled there during the last half century of its existence, conventionally dated to the early eighteenth century BCE. Much of what has been discovered within the existing site for that period served royal and ritual purposes: the main administrative palace and a subsidiary palace dominated by the royal harem, various temples, and large residences occupied by key Mari officials. Even after centuries of use, portions of the tell appear never to have been built up, and no proper residential quarters have yet come to light. Future excavations always yield new finds that embarrass those who argue from silence, but at this point, it seems that the “city” of Mari cannot be assumed to have housed a large population within its walls, beyond the significant number who depended directly on the king.

The Texts and Their Publication

The cuneiform texts from Mari reflect this public and royal setting. The overwhelming majority represent the palace archives of Zimri-Lim, the last king of Mari, who inherited significant numbers of tablets from his predecessor, a rival from a completely separate dynasty and region. Most of the texts reflect practical use rather than scribal training, and so we have little classical Mesopotamian literature and few lexical collections or texts from specialized scribal ruminations on divination or incantations. Instead, we find two main types among the roughly 20,000 registered tablets and fragments: administrative documentation reflecting the daily affairs of various palace agencies and an unprecedented collection of letters. The detailed evidence for royal administration by itself would make the archives an important discovery, but it is the royal correspondence that is unique among cuneiform finds. With over 3,000 letters included, the sheer number is remarkable, but it is their range of interest and origin that represents their particular historical value. We have exchanges between kings of Mari and other rulers or towns and thousands of reports from high palace officials, district governors, generals, tribal leaders in royal service, diplomats and envoys on royal missions outside the kingdom, and miscellaneous others. There are letters between officials and even some intercepted enemy messages. Some missives are terse and purely informational, but many are more conversational, sometimes even verbose, to the modern reader’s pleasure. From the sum of them it is possible to glean knowledge of widely diverse aspects of Mesopotamian society, with the advantage of historical coherence. The voices are distinct, but they speak out of a single brief period, in which their varied experiences were ultimately interlocked.

Although most of the Mari tablets were discovered decades ago, their impact has been spread over the years of their gradual publication, so that new evidence continues to become available, as if from recent excavation. Even now, far fewer than half of the Mari documents have been published, and much important material has yet to emerge. There have been two main generations of Mari scholarship, and any use of Mari evidence must give special attention to the more recent work, whether textual or archaeological. After the initial discovery of the tablets in 1934, their publication was entrusted  first of all to the venerable Assyriologist Francois Thureau-Dangin, whose leadership soon passed to Georges Dossin. Most of the Mari texts available to the public before 1980 were published by Dossin and his colleagues through a period roughly contemporary with the excavations of Parrot.

Impressive as were the tablets made available by 1980, they still represented only a small fraction of the whole, and after a transition aided especially by Maurice Birot, the baton was passed to a younger generation. In 1982, a new research team was formed under Jean-Marie Durand. This change of leadership not only reinvigorated the publication process, but also introduced a completely fresh analytical perspective, driven especially by Durand and Dominique Charpin.

The twenty years of Mari research since the early 1980s have produced a deluge of new texts and interpretive comment, and more evidence awaits publication. Much of this new material has not been digested by the larger circle of Mesopotamian specialists, not to mention scholars outside this field, and one goal of my project is to help extend the impact of the new research.

The published texts themselves are scattered through a variety of venues that reflect the long history of work on them. Early discoveries by Thureau-Dangin and then each team that succeeded him were often presented in individual articles that can be difficult to track down. Dossin initiated thefirst regular series of volumes devoted to Mari texts, entitled Archives Royales de Mari (ARM), which now includes up to volume XXVIII.

As work on the texts was revived under Durand’s leadership, and Mari’s historical situation became clearer, the earlier categories became increasingly problematic, and Durand has undertaken new classifications. In recent years, Mari tablets have been published in smaller blocks, especially in the series Florilegium Marianum (FM). Durand has recently completed three volumes that present new renditions of all of the Mari letters published before his leadership, with translations and notes for new readings based on fresh collation (direct examination) of the tablets. These appear as volumes 16–18 of the series Litteratures Anciennes du Proche-Orient (LAPO), entitled Documents ´epistolaires du palais de Mari, I–III. Obviously, any serious use of the written evidence from Mari calls for a working knowledge of French.

A Very Short History of Mari

Mari (modern Tell Hariri, Syria) was an ancient Sumerian and Amorite city, located 11 kilometers north-west of the modern town of Abu Kamal on the western bank of Euphrates river, some 120 km southeast of Deir ez-Zor, Syria. It is thought to have been inhabited since the 5th millennium BCE, although it flourished from 2900 BCE until 1759 BCE, when it was sacked by Hammurapi.

Discovery and excavation. Mari was discovered in 1933 on the eastern flank of Syria, near the Iraqi border. A Bedouin tribe was digging through a mound for a gravestone that would be used for a recently deceased tribesman, when they came across a headless statue. After the news reached the French authorities currently in control of Syria, the report was investigated and digging on the site was started on December 14, 1933 by archaeologists from the Louvre in Paris. Discoveries came quickly, with the temple of Ishtar being discovered in the next month. Mari was classified by the archaeologists as the “most westerly outpost of Sumerian culture”. Since the beginning of excavations, over 25,000 clay tablets in Akkadian language written in cuneiform were discovered.

Mari has been excavated every year since 1933 (except for the period 1939-1951). Less than half of the 1000 by 600 meter area of Mari has been uncovered as of 2005. Although archaeologists have tried to determine how many layers the site descends, it hasn’t proved possible. According to French archaeologist André Parrot, “each time a vertical probe was commenced in order to trace the site’s history down to virgin soil, such important discoveries were made that horizontal digging had to be resumed”.

Mari had been inhabited since the 5th millennium BCE, but the real significance of the city was during the third and second millennia BCE. The inhabitants of Mari were a Semitic people, thought to be part of the same Eblaite and Akkadian migration. The city flourished since it was strategically important as a relay point between Sumerian cities of lower Mesopotamia and the cities of northern Syria. Sumer required building materials such as timber and stone from northern Syria, and these materials had to go through Mari to get to Sumer.

Under the rulers Yahdun-Lim (reigned c. 1820–1800 BCE.), Zimri-Lim (reigned c. 1780–1760 BCE.) and their kin, Mari came to play an important role in commerce, acting as a “middleman” (to use Avraham Malamat’s term)  between the Mesopotamian cities to the southeast (such as Babylon and Ur), and cities to the west, in Syria, northern Canaan and even the Levantine Coast. Cuneiform tablets recovered at the Mari palace mention locales as far afield as Hazor, in northern Israel, and Kaptara (Crete).

After a period of eminence beginning 2900 BCE, Mari was destroyed around 24th. century BCE. This destruction brought a period of relative decline in importance in the region and the city was reduced to no more than a small village. Historians are divided when it comes to who destroyed the city; some name Sargon of Akkad (who stated that he had passed through Mari on his famous campaign to the west), while others say it was the Eblaites, Mari’s traditional commercial rivals.

The status of the city was revived again under an Amorite dynasty. The second golden age commenced around 1900 BCE. Two significant archaeological discoveries were made that dated back to this period. The palace of  Zimri-Lim, a king of Mari, contained over 300 rooms. The palace was possibly the largest of its time, and its reputation in neighboring cities and kingdoms was well-known. Supposedly, “King Yahmad of Aleppo and the King of Ugarit both expressed their desire to visit the palace”[who?] to see its splendor for themselves. The state archives were also built during this time. From the archives over 25,000 cuneiform tablets have been taken. The tablets, according to Andre Parrot, “brought about a complete revision of the historical dating of the ancient Near East and provided more than 500 new place names, enough to redraw or even draw up the geographical map of the ancient world”.

Mari was destroyed again around 1759 (1760) BCE by Hammurapi, sixth king of Babylon. This is known from the numerous state archives tablets that recount Hammurapi turning on his old ally Zimrilim, and defeating him in battle. After this destruction, it was inhabited sporadically by Assyrians and Babylonians, but the city remained a village until the arrival of the Greeks, and vanished from history thereafter.

Location of Ebla, Ugarit.and Mari

Economy, Culture and Religion. The growth of the city from a small village to an important trading center was due to its diverse economy in the ancient world. The city came to control the trade lanes between different regions such as western Iran, Mesopotamia, Carchemish, and parts of Anatolia. Cities that Mari is confirmed to have traded with include Ur, Aleppo, and Ugarit. The cargo brought through the city grew to include dates, olives, pottery, porcelain (some kind), grains, timber, and stone. Trade might also have occurred with the nearby city of Terqa, but excavations of Terqa are relatively recent and not all results are published.

The citizens of Mari were well known for elaborate hair styles and dress, and were considered to be part of Mesopotamian culture, despite being more than 150 miles upriver of Babylon. It is theorized by some that Mari functioned as a trading outpost for southern Mesopotamia.

The inhabitants of Mari worshiped a vast array of Sumerians gods and goddesses. Dagon, the deity of storms, had an entire temple dedicated to him, as did Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, and Shamash, the Sun god. Shamash was believed to be all-knowing and all-seeing, and in many seals he is seen standing between two large doors. According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, these doors are between Mount Mashu, and are the eastern doors to heaven. Through Mari’s extensive trade network, Sumerian gods and goddesses were taken to non-Sumerian cities such as Ebla and Ugarit and incorporated into their native religions.


[1]  J.-C. Margueron, Recherches sur les palais mésopotamiens de l’Âge du Bronze, Paris, 1982


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