The Mozan/Urkesh Eco-Archaeological Park

Theory and General Outline

Giorgio Buccellati


1      The project of an Eco-archaeological Park.. 2

1.1        Presuppositions. 2

1.2        The cultural background.. 3

1.3        The notion of an Eco-archaeological Park.. 4

2      The archaeological component in the High Mound.. 4

2.1        Conservation.. 4

2.2        Site presentation.. 5

2.3        Education.. 7

3      Heritage endangered.. 7

3.1        Degradation of the landscape.. 7

3.2        Impact.. 8

3.3        Remedies. 9

4      The proposed Park area.. 9

4.1        The Outer City.. 9

4.2        Map and topographical data.. 9

4.3        Landscape within the Park area.. 11

4.4        Settlements within the Park area.. 12

5      The proposed narrative.. 12

5.1        Itinerary and narrative.. 12

5.2        Audiences. 13

5.3        First theme: Physical geography.. 13

5.4        Second theme: Human geography.. 13

5.5        “Oases” along the way.. 14

6      Developmental stages. 14

6.1        Public awareness. 14

6.2        Master plans. 14

6.3        Other excavations. 14

6.4        Official involvement of the Syrian authorities. 14

6.5        The idea of a conservancy.. 14

6.6        Develop infrastructure.. 15

6.7        Maintenance plan.. 15

7      Economic impact and sustainability.. 15

7.1        Introductory.. 15

7.2        Workshops. 15

7.3        Visitors centers. 16

7.4        Bed and breakfast.. 16

8      A pre-proposal.. 16


1         The project of an Eco-archaeological Park

1.1            Presuppositions

      The very term “archaeology” evokes a vision of ruins, and when speaking of an Archaeological Park we tend to limit our vision to the monuments as “things” tied together by a modern itinerary that takes a visitor from one to the other.

      I have a different notion for the Mozan/Urkesh Eco-archaeological Park, in two respects. In both cases we are very fortunate in having a uniquely favorable set of conditions that one seldom find at ancient Syro-Mesopotamian sites.

      First, the cityscape of ancient Urkesh is emerging as an organic whole of truly monumental proportions. The royal Palace (2250 B.C.) opens onto a wide open square that remained a privileged space for some 2000 years, without any structural buildup and without any intrusions. On one side, it is flanked by a deep shaft that reaches to the Netherworld (2400 B.C. and earlier), whence the spirits were summoned as if from the depths of the volcanoes the people knew from their northern homelands. On the other side of the Plaza, a large Temple Terrace (3400-1300 B.C.) rose skyward to emulate the peaks of the mountain horizons well within sight to the north. This monumental urban complex lasted some 2000 years, without any damage in its sacral parts, and, once abandoned, it remained intact.

      Second, the modern landscape has remained untouched and offers a sight of the terrain that is pristine and approximates that of ancient Urkesh times. As far as one can see from the top of the tell, and from the full sweep of many kilometers around, one can enjoy a view that is untrammeled by modern accretions. From the south, one sees the imposing backdrop of the Tur-Abdin range, from the top of the tell one can see, on a clear day, as far the Sinjar, the Kaukab and the Jebel Abd el-Aziz.

1.2            The cultural background

      The communis opinio among scholars was, and to a large extent still is, that the Hurrians were late comers on the stage of ancient Near Eastern history. But our excavations at Tell Mozan have abundantly disabused us of this notion. The identification of the site as Urkesh was the first step. Urkesh was known from the myths as one of the primordial cities of the Hurrian pantheon: so, when we first could tie in the physical remains of an actual ancient city with the name, we already could foresee that its origins were rooted in remote antiquity. This was in 1995.

      Subsequent discoveries have shown that indeed the city was a major urban center as far back as 2500 B.C. – one of the largest walled cities of the period; a kingdom allied with one of the most powerful kings of Mesopotamia, Naram-Sin, at the very time when he was otherwise conquering the rest of Syria; a city endowed with some of the most spectacular and best preserved architecture of the third millennium.

      Our most recent work has shown that the core of this city, its high Temple Terrace, goes back even further in time, to about 3500 B.C. Seal impressions and ceramics are unequivocal chronological markers. Given the great cultural continuity, we can reasonably assume that what lurks below is another Temple Terrace, and that it, too, is Hurrian.

      As a result, our whole understanding of the early history of this civilization is vastly changed. The prevalent paradigm in current scholarship is that the Hurrians were late newcomers – a little before 2000 B.C. From our excavations, instead, we now know that they had for certain established a major religious center at Urkesh by the middle of the third millennium, and that most likely they were there already a whole millennium earlier. This explains why they could have had such a significant impact on the later history of the Near East, including the culture that eventually came to find its embodiment in the Bible.

      It has been aptly said that thanks to the discovery of Urkesh, the Hurrians of the third millennium have become, from a mere footnote an important new chapter in Syro-Mesopotamian history. Demonstrably identified as an ethnic group already at such an early period, they stand out because of their uniqueness vis-à-vis the other great ethnoi of the time – the Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Amorites. Here, too, it is our excavations that have brought this to light. We have documented the existence of an extraordinary religious tradition, one that evoked the spirits of the Netherworld though necromantic rites that find a later echo in the Hittite and Greco-Etruscan world and, in different ways, in the Biblical tradition as well. We have started to trace the growth of a socio-political entity that developed along lines quite at variance with those of their contemporaries – rooted as they were in a close ethnic correlation between the rural hinterland in the mountains and few large urban centers  in the plains (of which Urkesh is the only one documentable so far). We have given a concrete space to the homeland of the earliest known documents written in this language, Hurrian, which stands unique in its structure among the languages of the time. It is not just a site that we have been excavating, we have been bringing back to light a new civilization.

1.3            The notion of an Eco-archaeological Park

      It is to highlight this very special historical, archeological and environmental set of conditions that we are proposing the development of an Eco-archaeological Park. The archaeological component is already fully developed in the main part of the tell, the High Mound. The primary purpose of this proposal is to develop the environmental component and, to a more limited extent, the archaeological component of the Outer City.

      An Eco-archaeological Park is meant to provide a frame within which both the cultural and the natural dimension are preserved and displayed. In Mozan there are three concentric areas where increasing levels of danger must be pointed out. (1) The High Mound (about 30 hectares) is wholly protected and already fully developed as a proper Archaeological Park. (2) The Outer City (about 120 hectares) is protected from construction but not from deep plowing, which had already damaged soe of the ancient structures. (3) The surrounding landscape is not protected, and is perilously close to change for the worst.


2         The archaeological component in the High Mound

      In the High Mound we have already completed the core of the system, the “musealization” of the ancient city. This is an innovative approach that blends a number of aspects into a unitary and coherent whole. The system has been described in a number of publications, and here only a few salient points will suffice.

2.1            Conservation

      At the root of the whole project there is a long-standing and successful effort at architectural conservation. The mudbrick walls, in particular, are preserved as they were when first discovered, thanks to a set of protective shelters that adhere closely to the original outline of the walls. This, in addition to preserving perfectly the structure, it renders very aptly the sense of the architectural volumes. Walking through the spaces thus defined, it is like walking through a building recreated on a screen through virtual reality – we like to call this “real” virtual reality.

      We also feel that it is like having two sites in one: when the shelters are open, the document is in the pristine state in which it was excavated (left below); when they are closed, one sees the monument as it was conceived originally in terms of volumes and spaces. The colors in the photo to the right identify different functional areas of the Palace (the service wing in green, the formal wing – still under excavation – in gold). The version with shelters offers, as it were, a “real” virtual reality.


            The success of the system is validated by the excellent preservation of mudbricks that have been exposed now for 16 years. This is even more significant considering the fragility of the material: as is well known, mudbrick exposed to atmospheric agents can easily disintegrate in 2 to 4 years. We have protected the stone and mudbrick walls with a tightly fitted metal structure covered by a well tailored tarp. A series of technical innovations make of this a very effective, totally non-intrusive and relatively inexpensive system.

2.2            Site presentation

      Site presentation builds on this fundamental presupposition – that, through conservation, visitors come in touch with the full archaeological reality, not with a reconstruction as is only too often the case at other sites. The professional archaeologist is presented with a real new type of scholarly publication, an alternative to the standard channels, whether digital or on paper. To see the details of wall construction, of foundations, of sections across deep deposits – all of this offers a very different documentation of what is otherwise available through graphic images and verbal descriptions. In this respect, The Mozan/Urkesh Archaeological Park goes well beyond the aim of presenting the site to the casual visitor, in the interest of tourism: it is a real tool of scholarly communication.

      But it does, for certain, serve the casual visitor as well. In two principal ways. First, I have developed an itinerary that reads like a normal narrative, in the sense that it develops concurrent themes relating to the monuments the visitor sees – the architectural dimension, the archaeological process, the cultural and historical background. One is led to anticipate what comes next, and then to look back at what one has seen already, comparing similar situations, suggesting new questions as one answers earlier ones, showing how deeply integrated with stratigraphy the objects are.

      The second characteristic that distinguishes my approach is the presence of a variety of different panels that allow great fluidity in how the visitor can absorb information. Simple introductory panels to each stop along the way provide a concise description for the hurried. Broad syntheses from high placed vista points afford comprehensive overviews of the wider cityscape and of the history it displays. A large number of smaller panels are placed immediately in front of single points of interest, with explanations that address various situations: I like to think of them as “footnotes” – one can read them or bypass them as one chooses.


      We have already over 200 pages in place, each one produced in English and in Arabic. The full set is also available online at our website, so that visitors can prepare ahead of time if they wish.

2.3            Education

      All of this defines the site as the obvious key component of our Eco-archaeological Park. The extensive signage makes it the target of visits that can be meaningful even when we are not present at the site. In addition, during our permanence at the site for the excavations, we also engage in educational activities, from simple “lectures” to our own workmen, to guided tours for local students and professional clubs.

      We have also completed a poster exhibit on behalf of the American Cultural Center in Damascus, which will then travel to several other  cultural centers throughout the country.


3         Heritage endangered

3.1            Degradation of the landscape

      In contrast with Tell Mozan, other important sites in our general region have already undergone irreversible damage due to a semi-industrial development. It is precisely to help avoid that Mozan might suffer a similar fate that the World Monument Fund listed, in 2006, Tell Mozan among the world’s 100 most endangered sites, stressing that “measures must be taken to protect this extraordinary site and its surrounding landscape from uncontrolled development.” In 2009, the WMF provided, with the assitance of the Kress Foundation, spcial funds to complete major aspects of the site conservation and presentation program, which has yielded important results.

      To best gauge this danger, we must look at what has happened at these other sites. The photos below show three such sites of great historical significance, where the damage has already occurred: Tell Brak and Tell Beydar, where silos have been built on the very edge of the site, and Tell Fekheriyah where a cement factory has been installed on the lower slope of the tell itself.

      Unfortunately, similar examples abund around the world, from Agrigento in Italy to the pyramids in Egypt. At Mozan, we are still in time to prevent fthis from happening, and to protet thereby a major resource for all future generations.

3.2            Impact

      There are two major ways in which such degradation affects cultural heritage.

      The first pertains to aesthetics. Obviously, a landscape in its virgin state, with wide open free horizon, with the view of fields that change dramatically from season to season and with the impressive backdrop of the mountains has an appeal all its own, which is all but lost once obstructed by buildings that are in such stark contrast with the beauty of the surroundings. If we conduct archaeology in a myopic mode, with our eyes fixed only to the ground considered as a reserve of information to be mined by narrow excavation, we do not even see the wider horizons. But visitors whose view of the tell from the road, and of the landscape from the tell, is impaired, will obviously not find the invitation to visit the site very appealing.

      But beyond aesthetics, there is a substantive loss that affects the archaeological dimension as well. The perception of spaces as they were is not just a supernumerary luxury reserved for tourists. It educates our scholarly sensitivity as well. To aim for the human dimension behind the monuments, to seek experience and not just fossils, is as much of a scholarly exercise as the most minute collection of details. The degradation that robs the visitor of the ancient ambiance robs the scholar as well.

3.3            Remedies

      The first, and in my view the most important, course of action that we must take is to motivate the local stakeholders, so that they may understand the value of the territory of which they are the guardians. Theirs is the fruition, first of all, before the tourists’. And we should show that the sacrifices they may be called upon to make are compensated not only by real, if potential, economic rewards, but also by the renewed sense of dignity and pride that comes from understanding the roots of human presence in the same land where they live today. This we have been accomplishing through the archaeological component of the Park, and we can truly say that the local sensitivity is fully awake to these aspects of the problem.

      There is then the commitment to develop a credible and sustainable project that takes into account local conditions and that proposes concrete means of implementation. This is what is proposed in the following sections.


4         The proposed Park area

4.1            The Outer City

      The Outer City plays an intermediate role between the already existing Archaeological Park on the High Mound and the fuller Eco-archaeological Park of the environs. It has not been developed as yet, because it is at the moment considered an agricultural area, and thus we cannot set up permanent signage where the fields are being cultivated.

      It is planned to develop it in a way analogous to the High Mound, with archaeological areas exposed and explained, and with greater reference to the everyday dimension of the ancient city, which is less prominent on the High Mound, dominated as it is by monumental architecture.

      But the major new dimension of the project is, of course, the one that pertains directly to the environment and that will be developed in the larger area of the Park, beyond the specific limits of the archaeological area. To this we turn now our attention.

4.2            Map and topographical data

      The boundaries of the proposed Park are shown in the figure on the following page. They include an area of about 30 km2. The perimeter follows a line that corresponds to modern roads connecting several villages, all of which are listed on the map in Fig. 1 at the end. The chart below gives the distances of these villages from Mozan:






Location and distance to Mozan

Tell Mozan

تـل  موزان

37°N 03' 27.9"

40°E 59' 47.2"

0 m.



37°N 04' 43.5"

40°E 58' 44.8"

2 795



37°N 04' 53.1"

40°E 59' 15.4"

2 742

Surka / al‑Hasbah



37°N 05' 36.5"

41°E 00' 05.3"

3 990

Jamarlu / Juzah



37°N 05' 57.2"

41°E 03' 43.6"

5 426



37°N 05' 27.1"

41°E 02' 27.9"

5 411



37°N 04' 26.9"

41°E 03' 18.5"

5 528

Renko / al‑Hamra



37°N 03' 06.0"

41°E 03' 04.1”

4 913

Topas / al‑Hanyah



37°N 02' 04.7"

41°E 02' 21.0"

4 585

Hajj Nasr

حجّ  ناصر

37°N 01' 33.8"

41°E 01' 28.2"

4 312



37°N 01' 03.2"

41°E 00' 48.6"

4 712



37°N 00' 27.4"

40°E 59' 54.6"

5 567

Sametek Azu

Basrah Tahtany

سامتـك  عـزو

بصرة  تحـتاني

37°N 01' 08.8"

40°E 58' 37.0"

4 624



37°N 02' 13.0"

40°E 57' 35.3"

3 994

Karah Kub

قرة  قـوب

37°N 03' 14.1"

40°E 58' 29.6"

1 963



37°N 03' 53.0"

40°E 58' 38.4"

1 867




The average distance is 4.5 kms. The maximum width (East-West) of the proposed area is 6 kms, and the maximum length (North-South) is 10 kms.

4.3            Landscape within the Park area

      The landscape is still in its pristine state, with beautiful agricultural landscape and rural villages. The only exception is the town of Umm er-Rabiya (see presently). There are undulating fields, with occasional trees, and from everywhere an unspoiled view of the Tell and of the mountains of the Tur-Abdin. From all directions there is a commanding view of Tell Mozan, which rises above the plain the way it wold have in ancient times.

      Each season brings very different views. The beauty of the unspoiled landscape by itself, the alternation of colors and vegetation, the snow – you might almost think you could make it into a ski resort!

4.4            Settlements within the Park area

      As shown in the chart above, there are 16 settlements within the Park area. They are all small villages, except for Umm er-Rabiya, which is a larger belediya, relatively close to the tell. The population of all the smaller villages is Kurdish, while the population of Umm er-Rabiya is Arabic (resettled here from the Tabqa dam area).

      Umm er-Rabiya is on the main road, and it has two large public buildings, the office of the mayor and the school. It does not have any shops or semi-industrial buildings.

      The villages are all small rural settlements, but with all facilities either in place or on their way (electricity, sewers, running water). Most of them have a small grammar school, built very recently.


5         The proposed narrative

5.1            Itinerary and narrative

      As in the case of the archaeological component of the proposed Park on the High Mound, we would develop an itinerary that follows a given narrative, proposing a variety of perspectives that include both an appreciation of the modern rural lifestyle and of the ancient environment as we know it from the study of the bio-archaeological remains at our site.

      The narrative will include modules that would make it possible for visitors to adapt their itinerary to their specific interests and time frame. There would of course be ample descriptive material at each stop along the way, with the same graduated principles adopted for the archaeological component on the High Mound. In this case, however, the itinerary would be developed for vehicular traffic, and there would full fledged kiosks and parking places at each stop, placed on a road that follows a circular path around the tell at a median distance of some four kilometers. Such an unpaved road is currently already in existence, and the place stations along the way where aspects of the ancient environment will be described in some detail – from the human geography to the fauna and the flora and to the geology and the geomorphology. This will also be an appropriate locus for introducing visitors, as they are captivated by the beauty of the landscape, to matters of ancient history and economics that were influenced by the then existing conditions. 

      Needless to say, all signage would be in Arabic and English, but with several summaries in other languages as well. Every panel would be made available online as well.

5.2            Audiences

      We have three major audiences in mind.

      The most numerous would consist of non-specialist adult visitors, and they would in turn belong to three different categories: local inhabitants, other Syrians, foreigners. Our primary effort would be addressed to captivate their interest, anticipate their curiosity, cultivate the desire to ask further questions.

      The second audience are the children, and in this case we would address primarily the local population, encouraging school visits for which we would have material directed to the teachers.

      The third audience are the scholars, who would get a more concrete sense than they can from any publication of the reality of the landscape which provided the hinterland for the ancient city of Urkesh.

5.3            First theme: Physical geography

      Two major theme will be developed.

      The first is the physical geography. With reference to specific aspects of the terrain through which the visitor drives, we will explain how geology has shaped the landscape, and how human adaptation has changed it.

      Using information from our (and other) excavations we will present information pertaining to the ancient flora and fauna, with displays of ancient seeds and animal bones (reconstructing the entire skeleton where available), and relating them to live species present today in the landscape. this will also show how we can reconstruct ancient and changing climate and vegetation patterns.

5.4            Second theme: Human geography

      Building on the information from physical geography, we will deal with the question of ancient human adaptation to their habitat, and to economic means of exploitation of the same. This will also be done with reference to the evidence from the excavations.

      In addition, an important component of the Park will be the ethno-archaeological dimension. In several villages, we will highlight aspects of contemporary rural life that mirror ancient patterns – again, on the basis of the evidence from our excavations.

5.5            “Oases” along the way

      There will be along the way simple resting places, built in the vernacular style of the rural architecture. Besides serving as resting places, they will also provide further means of information, e.g., by having videos and slide shows.


6         Developmental stages

      Several important steps will be necessary to ensure the success of the Park, besides of course a detailed operational proposal and the necessary budget.

6.1            Public awareness

      This we are developing at the local level through the work we have been doing already at the site. We will increase this effort even further, and will also have plans to obtain greater visibility for the project by involving high profiles individuals who will lend their support to making our final goals more widely known (see also below, 8).

6.2            Master plans

      We need to have the local municipalities of Umm er-Rabiya and Hajji Nasr implement master plans that conform to the needs of the Park, by channeling the housing development in the direction opposite to that of the Park. Preliminary informal contact with the local authorities show that there is much enthusiasm for the plan.

6.3            Other excavations

      There are also other tells within the area of the Park, the most important being Hajji Nasr. Should permit be given for new excavations, we would ask the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums to require that they conform to the general plan of the Park, and that they collaborate by providing illustrative material from their work.

6.4            Official involvement of the Syrian authorities

      Through the support of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums, we will need to develop contacts at both the national and the local level so that all proper steps be taken to guarantee the success of the project. If necessary, legislation may be desirable to halt inappropriate building development.

6.5            The idea of a conservancy

      It is not known yet how much of the land is government property and much is private. Local owners seem well disposed to selling, and we would like to propose the idea of a conservancy that would purchase these properties and place them in a public trust, for the purposes of the Park.

6.6            Develop infrastructure

      In the long run, sustainable tourism in the region will have to depend on the development of adequate infrastructure, in particular, hotels. This is obviously not our concern, but I mention it here for a particular reason. At this point in time, we have hardly any foreign visitors – nor, in fact, visitors from western Syria. But I view this as a positive aspect, because it gives us the time to prepare well as best we wish to proceed, without rush. Unquestionably, in the future the situation will change dramatically and then, instead of having tourism dictate what we should be doing, we will offer a well conceived package that reflects a truly archaeological interpretation.

6.7            Maintenance plan

      It is also of fundamental importance that we develop not only structures for the long term maintenances of the Park, but also the personnel. This, too, we have been doing over the years, by training our guards and other local assistants who work with us during the excavation period and who continue in different tasks during the winter. As of last year, we also have Syrian graduates of the Archaeology Programs in Damascus and Aleppo who bring a high level of competence to our program. One small indication of the success of this effort are the highly appreciative comments left in our guestbook by visitors who come during our absence.


7         Economic impact and sustainability

7.1            Introductory

      We expect the Park to generate a long term opportunity for the local village population (also for the neighboring towns of Amuda and Qamishli, particularly the latter with its new International Airport – but this is beyond the scope of our pre-proposal). I will address here three types of services that would cater specifically to the needs of the Park.

      One important aspect of the approach here proposed is to maintain the unique flavor of genuine Syrian hospitality, that comes out especially on a one-to-one relationship. We will, in other words, avoid any crass commercialization that would debase the fundamental welcoming attitude so instinctively rooted in the Syrian spirit in general, and that of our rual population in particular.

7.2            Workshops

      In most villages there will be one type of workshop, catering to different skills, which in large part will echo what we know about ancient Urkesh. Besides the interest in reproducing ancient life styles, there will be the opportunity to sell the products to visitors. Examples include the following activities:

·         plowing, planting and harvesting

·         making of straw wares

·         making pottery vessels that imitate Urkesh wares and shapes

·         making rugs in different sizes and colors

·         carving on stone

·         metal smithing

·         making clothes

·         food preparation

·         mudbrick production

7.3            Visitors centers

      Small visitor centers would employ individuals from the present villages, from maintenance personnel to supervisors (who would for instance man such activities as slides or video shows).

      It should be a priority of these centers to employ local handicapped individuals, as we do currently o our excavation project.

7.4            Bed and breakfast

      In addition to the proper hotels that are beginning to be built in Amuda and Qamishli, I would like to encourage the development of simple but attractive Bed and Breakfast opportunities in the villages. While we would have to guarantee certain minimum standards, we would leave the opportunity wide open for the genuine sense of hospitality that makes such an experience so invaluable for many visitors.


Fig. 1