Archaeologist Glenn Schwartz has embarked on an
expedition to north-western Syria to study the mysteries of ancient
Tuba, a 4,000-year-old city that suddenly collapsed and later
It's a scenario that has been played out in various
regions of the world over the millennia. Cities and whole
civilisations disappear, some for no obvious reasons.
"The question is, why are these early civilisations
so brittle?" said Dr Schwartz, an assistant professor of Near
Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University. "One reason that's
been suggested lately is the climate change.
"It's been suggested that these early urban
civilisations were so fragile because they placed extensive demands
on their environments, continually intensifying their agriculture to
feed more people. The added stress from a few dry years may have
been the straw that broke the camel's back."
That's just one theory Schwartz plans to
investigate during the first of what will likely be several seasons
of research at Umm el-Marra, the probable site of an ancient city
called Tuba, located to the east of the modern city of Aleppo. Umm
el- Marra was a medium-size city, and archaeological evidence
indicates it was the largest metropolis in the Jabbul Plain, an
intersection of ancient trade routes. Located to the south-west was
the ancient city of Ebla, where Italian excavators in the 1970s
stunned the archaeological world by discovering a sophisticated
urban civilisation, dating back to about 2400 BC, complete with
17,000 tablets inscribed with ancient writings.
That discovery revealed that Mesopotamia and Egypt
were not the only early centres of advanced urban civilisation in
the Near East.
"It completely changed our ideas of what was going
on in Syria in this period," Schwartz said. "It was always assumed
that Syria was not even literate in this period."
Glenn Schwartz, who is collaborating with
archaeologist Hans Curvers from the University of Amsterdam, left
for Syria on 1 May and will return in mid-July. They have worked
together on previous research into the important roles played by
rural towns in ancient civilisation, particularly at the site of
Tell al- Raqa'i, along the valley of the River Khabur in north-eastern
The research at Umm el-Marra is different, since it
deals with what apparently was a political and economic centre, not
a rural community.