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Ancient Syria


by Peter Kessler, 1 February 2009

Alalakh was one of many city states which flourished in ancient Syria in the third and second millennia BC, the product of increasingly successful attempts at rain-fed agriculture in the north.

Originally known as Alakhtum, it lay at the heart of the fertile plain of Antioch. It is now a nine metre-high mound, or 'tell', called Tell Atchana in southern Turkey, and was built on the bend of the Orontes as the river hooks towards the south-west to empty into the eastern Mediterranean.

Early years

The city was established as a permanent settlement around 3400 BC. The earliest archaeological layer, Level XVII, can be dated to this period.

Lying on the flourishing north-south trade routes, by 2700 BC Alalakh had a king of its own. Although he remained unnamed by the Sumerian scribes who recorded his existence, he was busy adorning the facade of his palace with huge columns built of specially-moulded mud bricks. This was a fashion which had been set by his Sumerian trading clients in southern Mesopotamia, such as those who had already built the colonnades of Warka and Kish.

No further mention of the city is available until it was occupied by Amorites at the start of the second millennium BC. Probably taken over in order to control the trade routes between Sumer and the Hatti in Anatolia, the city gained its second palace at this time, built during the last days of the third dynasty of Ur. Ironically perhaps, at around the same time the entire region went into a climate-induced decline which lasted for around two centuries.

Sinking into obscurity for the duration of that decline, while regional prosperity also nosedived, the city was still known as Alakhtum at least until the eighteenth century BC, as records from Mari clearly show.

At this time the two cities were closely tied, when the powerful king of the city of Alep and the state of Yamkhad sold Alalakh to Mari.

Middle Bronze Age Level VII

Alalakh's first major phase was Level VII (1720-1650 BC). The remains of a palace with frescoed walls, a temple, and a city gate have been revealed from this period.

At this time, Alalakh's kings were still vassals of the powerful kingdom of Alep. This prosperous phase came to an end when the Hittites were attacking many of Alep's vassals in Syria, although the exact circumstances of the city's fall are unknown. It was subjected to a century and-a-half of either abandonment or a great reduction in the standard of living. Written records ceased entirely during this period.

The site of Alalakh
This view is of the Level VII city gate and entrance into one of the guard chambers in what is now Tell Atchana in southern Turkey, formerly the city of Alalakh in Syria

Late Bronze Age Level IV

By the time of Level IV (1483-1370 BC), the city was subject to the king of Mitanni. However, Syria was always a hotbed of political activity, and this period was no different.

Sometime in the early 1480s or 1470s BC, a local dynasty of rulers emerged in Alalakh with a tale of the capture of the city which is probably true but is open to some debate. The archaeological site report revealed that the autobiographical account was discovered at a level which post-dated the recorded event by several centuries. However, tablets which can be dated with confidence support the timescale for the event.

In that account, Idrimi, son of the king of Alep, records that he was forced to flee his homeland. He ended up in Emar, from where he organised the storming of Alakhtum by sea with his band of habiru followers (see sidebar links - many of these were also exiles from Alep).

To legitimise his rule, Idrimi contacted the powerful king of Mitanni and managed to persuade him to accept this new king of the city of Alakhtum, in the state of Mukish, under Mitanni suzerainty. Idrimi founded a successful dynasty of kings which was only ended when the city was captured and destroyed by the Hittites in 1370 BC.

Final phase

They rebuilt the city, constructing fortification walls and a monumental public building in the western section of the city which had walls so thick that later archaeologists initially mistook it for a fortress. The city remained in their hands until it was destroyed for the final time at the end of the thirteenth century BC, possibly by the marauding groups of Sea Peoples who created so much disorder at this time. Level 0 occupation ends with this final calamity for the city.

Alalakh was excavated between 1936 and 1939 by Leonard Woolley, with a second visit in 1946-1949. Oddly, his long-forgotten, ramshackle dig house is one of the most notable sights to first greet visitors. Its positioning probably mirrors similar constructions by the Middle and Late Bronze Age kings, giving them a strategic (and cooling) view across the Amuq Valley.

A new and highly detailed survey and conservation project from 1995 onwards has located what may be the lower town. Estimates suggest that it may be much larger than was originally thought and work is ongoing to uncover it.

Statue of King Idrimi

Statue of King Idrimi of Alalakh (click or tap on image to read more on a separate page)


Main Sources

British Museum

Edwards, Iorwerth Eiddon Stephen - The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume II, Cambridge University Press, 1973

Heimpel, Wolfgang - Letters to the King of Mari: A New Translation, with Historical Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, Eisenbrauns, 2003

Lloyd, S - The Archaeology of Mesopotamia, London, 1984, revised ed

Postgate, J N - Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History, Routledge, 1994

van der Mieroop, Marc - A History of the Ancient Near East c.3000-323 BC, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, 2007



Image copyright © British Museum. Text copyright © P L Kessler based on data from the British Museum and other notes. An original feature for the History Files.