The ancient empire of Mitanni may be unfamiliar to many, but it played an important role in biblical history and even impacts the debate over the correct date of the exodus. Now, the remains of an ancient Bronze Age city emerging briefly above the depleted waters of a reservoir are giving a fascinating glimpse into Mitanni civilisation and perhaps biblical history.

Mittani was once the dominant Mesopotamian power in the area of modern northern Iraq. One of its major cities, Zakhiku, was located on the Tigris River, but its remains have been covered with water for decades. Archaeologists were given an exciting although high-pressure opportunity to study Zakhiku when it was exposed for seven weeks in January and February 2022 because of an extreme drought.

The city was submerged in 1985 due to the construction of the Mosul dam which caused the Tigris River to fill the reservoir and cover the city. No excavations had been done in the area before its flooding.

Since then, the only time the water receded enough for any excavation was in 2018. During the short dig, a palace was discovered with interior walls up to 6.5 feet thick, decorated with bright painted murals and plastered structures. Because of this previous discovery, archaeologists were anxious to have the opportunity to explore more.

Mitanni is mentioned in the Bible’s book of Judges. In standard dating, the Mitanni kingdom ruled the northern Tigris-Euphrates region from before 1600 BC until about 1350 BC when it was overtaken by the Assyrian Empire. It became a weakened province of Assyria for about a century before fading from the historical record.

Mitanni’s history makes a strong argument against the late exodus date (also known as the Rameses exodus date) in the 1200s BC since there is good evidence that Othniel, one of Israel’s first judges, was fighting against a Mitanni invasion in Judges 3. A Rameses exodus date would put the judge Othniel in the 1100s BC, about two centuries after Mitanni ceased to be a strong kingdom, thus showing that the Exodus must have been much earlier.

Little is known about the details of Mitanni’s history since none of its native historical records have been found so far. Most of what we know of its history comes from the reports of neighbouring kingdoms. This recent find may begin to change that.

During the few weeks they had for study, the researchers succeeded in largely mapping the city and uncovering some massive buildings, such as a vast fortification with walls and towers that surrounded the city. The walls of the fort were made of sun-dried mud bricks and some stood several meters in height. The area was extremely well-preserved despite being underwater for 40 years, due to an earthquake in 1350 BC which provided a protective covering of rubble.

Before the water levels rose again, the excavated buildings were covered with plastic sheeting and gravel fill to protect them from further damage. The city is now completely submerged again. Perhaps in the future the lost city of Mitanni will appear again.

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Patterns of Evidence