Unearthing the Past at Ancient Harran and the Wells of Paddan-Aram

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By: Minna Silver

Many know Harran from the biblical story of Abraham and his family’s wanderings. Today the huge tell of Harran, the mound of the ancient city, measures over one kilometre across and is surrounded by ancient walls. Harran lies in southeastern Turkey, near the city of Urfa, in the midst of large green fields irrigated by waters diverted from the Euphrates River, which flows to the west. The Syrian border is just 16 km away.

Satellite image showing the location of Harran.

Satellite image showing the location of Harran.

The ruins of a church can still be traced on the tell, along with the remains of the Umayyad Great Mosque, one of the largest in Anatolia, which rise up from the dust of the ancient city. Outside the walls are the busy streets of modern Harran, crowded by Bedouins selling their goods, the Arabic speaking population is mixed with Turkish speakers.

The Great Mosque. All photos courtesy of Minna Silver and date to 2015 unless otherwise noted.

The Great Mosque. All photos courtesy of Minna Silver and date to 2015 unless otherwise noted.

The Great Mosque.

The Great Mosque.

Harran was a famous centre of caravans in antiquity, also identified in its name Harranu or uru KASKAL-ki, meaning a road. In the Roman times the site was known as Carrhae. Wars between different powers and conquests have taken place here through millennia, forming the layers of destruction debris in the tell. Now a war is also waging nearby, and refugees from Syria have been crossing the border in the thousands. One can constantly hear the sound of air raids taking place in Syria.

Several empires collided here. Bronze Age, Roman and Islamic remains are unearthed, revealing evidence of various empires that occupied the city. But there have also been times of peace, diplomacy and prosperity. Professor Mehmet Önal, who currently leads the archaeological excavations, observes layers belonging to Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, and Mongols.

Professor Mehmet Önal at Tell Harran, 2014.

Professor Mehmet Önal at Tell Harran, 2014.

The famous temple of Sin, a Moon God, gathered people from ancient Mesopotamia to Harran for worship. The origins of the temple have been traced to trade contacts between Harran and Ur in Southern Mesopotamia inhabited by ancient Sumerians, who revered Sin and who had commercial contacts with Harran already in the 3rd millennium BCE. The surrounding green plain of Harran is agriculturally rich and holds numerous smaller tells that elucidate northern Mesopotamian culture, its life and pastoral movements, which are echoed in the Patriarchal cycles.

Panoramic view of the Harran plain.

Panoramic view of the Harran plain.

Camels at the foot of the tell.

Camels at the foot of the tell.

But Harran may reveal an unknown past since the site was also the final capital of the entire Assyrian empire under Ashur-uballit II (611-610 BCE) who tried to resist invasions by the Babylonians and Medians. In addition, the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus (556-539 BC), began the first archaeological excavations at the site by restoring the Temple of Sin. These were continued over two thousands years later by British soundings during the 1950s, followed by Turkish excavations led by Dr. Nurettin Yardimci, and currently by Professor Önal from Harran University.

Excavations on the southern part of the tell.

Excavations on the southern part of the tell.

Excavations on the southern part of the tell.

Excavations on the southern part of the tell.

Professor Önal is now concentrating on two locations, one on the eastern side of the Great Mosque, and another on the slopes of the southern hill, where remains of ancient houses from the previous Turkish excavations can be seen. There Early Bronze Age pottery, the so-called metallic ware and plain simple ware, from the 3rd millennium BC, have been encountered as well as terracotta figurines.

Flocks near Jebel Bishri near the Euphrates.

Flocks near Jebel Bishri near the Euphrates.

Grazing near Tell Fidan.

Grazing near Tell Fidan.

Leaving the green plains of Harran by continuing to the south down the Balikh River as far as to the confluence of the Euphrates in Syria, one encounters the long table-like ridges of Jebel Bishri. Traditionally this area was populated by pastoral nomads of West Semitic origins identified with the Amorites and later with the Arameans. Ancient Tuttul, identified as Tell Bi’a near Raqqa (now the capital of ISIS), beneath the mountain of Jebel Bishri at the confluence of the Euphrates and the Balikh, was an important part of the ancient Amorite kingdom of MAR.DU-ki.


(Animation showing a flight from the Euphrates Valley to Jebel Bishri, by Markus Törmä for the Jebel Bishri Project.)

During the second millennium BCE an ancient tribal route led from Mari, another powerful Amorite-ruled kingdom on the Euphrates, up to Harran. According to the Mari texts, donkey sacrifices were carried out for the signing of a treaty that took place in the temple of Sin with the king of Harran and leaders of the Amorite tribe of bene-yamina (“Sons of the Right Bank”) or Benjaminites.

Ancient Mesopotamian literature was actively studied in the plains of Harran. Sultantepe, to the north of Harran, is one of the ancient sites on the plain. A joint British-Turkish expedition in the 1950s revealed cuneiform tablets dating from the Neo-Assyrian occupation. Among these were fragments belonging to a version of the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh.

Sultantepe.

Sultantepe.

Mudbrick houses below the site of Sultantepe.

Mudbrick houses below the site of Sultantepe.

Iron Age pottery can be still seen in the surface of Sultantepe today, and the mud-brick houses at the foot have not changed their Mesopotamian appearance for thousands of years. The Neo-Assyrian archives at Nineveh included a so-called ‘Harran Census’ that reported on the prosperity of the region. The census provides us with valuable evidence that the plains were growing wheat, barley as well as vines. More recently there has been an addition of corn and cotton.

The Biblical Paddan-Aram (Genesis 25, 28), “Aram of the fields”, or Aram-Naharaim, has been associated with the area of Harran and was the source of wives for the Patriarchs Isaac and Jacob. The etymology of Paddan-Aram, has been even identified with Tell Fidan[1], a site littered with Bronze Age and Iron Age pottery.

The site is a double tell and today we find bubbling springs and wells now employing irrigation techniques. Mothers and sisters sit on the slopes of Tell Fidan, and one has found a head of a Bronze Age female terracotta figurine. This instinctively brings to mind the biblical account of Rachel hiding the home gods.

Head of an ancient figurine from Tell Fidan.

Head of an ancient figurine from Tell Fidan.

Women sitting on Tell Fidan.

Women sitting on Tell Fidan.

Ancient West Semitic traditions live here in myths, memory, and present-day life, intermingling with the history of the Amorites and Arameans. Egeria, an early female Christian pilgrim, in her travel account to Harran in the 4th century AD, records a beautiful story of her pilgrimage to the churches and wells in the plain. She visits Harran and Paddan-Aram and sees the biblical world and the stories of the Patriarchs as if they had taken place yesterday. So do we.

Minna Silver is Adjunct Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Oulu.

[1] This was pointed out to me in 2015 by Joseph Stepansky.

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