During the second half of the twentieth century CE, nine dams were built or were under construction on the Euphrates River. The enormous number of antiquities lost from those projects was offset in part by intensive archaeological salvage efforts. The largest dam in Syria, the al-Thawra (Ar., “revolution”), whose reservoir (625 sq km, or 387 sq. mi.) is called Lake Assad, was constructed at the village of Tabqa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just above it construction of a second, the Tishreen (Ar., “October”) dam, begun in the late 1980s, will be completed by the twenty-first century; its reservoir (70 sq km, or 43 sq. mi.) will extend about 60 km (37 mi.) north, almost to Jerablus (Carchemish) and the Turkish border. During the 1970s in the Lake Assad flood zone, excavations were conducted at more than twenty-five sites; in the early 1990s fifteen sites were excavated in the Tishreen innundation area. The results of those excavations enable the charting of the early trend to sedentarism, the emergence of agriculture, the formation of states, and the incorporation of the Middle Euphrates into empires and world systems.

In the Epipaleolithic (Mesolithic; 12000–8000 BCE) period the cultural sequence is Kebaran, Natufian, and Late Natufian, although there is some question whether the term Natufian can properly be used for Euphrates sites so distant from its core area. The site of Nahr al-Homr, which produced a Kebaran lithics assemblage, is succeeded in the Natufian period at the sites of Tell Abu Hureyra (excavated by A. M. T. Moore) and Tell Mureybet. During period I at Abu Hureyra, in which deposits span 11500–10000 BCE, there were semisubterranean round houses 2 m in diameter. Subsistence was based on hunting, predominantly gazelle, and collecting plants, of which 150 species have been identified. Phases I and II at Mureybet are assigned to the late Natufian and transitional Khiamian, respectively. Subsistence there was diversified: hunting (mainly gazelle) fishing, and gathering.

In the early aceramic Neolithic, the Mureybetian period (8000–7600 BCE)—represented at Mureybet (phase III), Tell Sheikh Hassan (excavated by Jacques Cauvin), and Tell Jerf al-Ahmar (excavated by Thomas McClellan and M. Mottra)—is part of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) culture that is better known in the southern Levant. Although round houses continue to be used, internal divisions made with straight walls begin to be found in some. Rectilinear buildings appear for the first time in history at Jerf el-Ahmar, in phase III at Mureybet, and at Sheikh Hassan. Female figurines are found in stone and clay from Mureybet, and at Jerf el-Ahmar geometrically decorated shaft straighteners and a limestone human head with carefully modeled hair reveal a complex symbolic repertoire.

The degree to which cereals were gathered or cultivated is debatable, depending on how modern specialists define this important transition. Another problematic issue is the extent of sedentarism. In fact, this was the time for the transition to full village life, a process some call neolithicization. Jacques Cauvin, the excavator of Mureybet and Sheikh Hassan, stresses the mental transformation of the society reflected in the new cult of the female deity (represented by the figurines at Mureybet), the new cult of the bull (first observed in Mureybet phase II), and new burial practices. The emergence of agriculture is yet another result of changes in societal organization, according to Cauvin, rather than its underlying economic or technological cause, as postulated by some cultural evolutionists such as Marvin Harris, Elman Service, and Julian Steward.

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) period is known at Mureybet (phase IV), Abu Hureyra II, Tell Halula (excavated by Miguel Molist), and Tell Dja'de el-Mughara (excavated by Eve Coqueugniot). Byblos points and large “naviform” blades distinguish the lithics, and rectangular houses become common. At Halula a PPNB “city gate” and portions of a “city wall” have been discovered. Cereal cultivation and animal husbandry combined to form the full agricultural system that became common to the Near East.

In the Chalcolithic period (5500–3400 BCE), the Halaf and Ubaid cultures, both of which are thought to have had their origins farther east, successively extended across northern Syria. The Halafian is best known from the site of Tell Shams ed-Din Tannira (excavated by Selina al-Radi and Helga Seeden) and is well represented at Halula, whereas Tell ῾Abr (excavated by Hamidu Hammade and Yayoi Koike) provides important evidence for the western Ubaid tradition.

The Uruk period (3400–3100 BCE) in the Thawra and Tishreen dam areas marked what historians refer to as the beginning of civilization and anthropologists call the emergence of complex society and the process of state formation. It was not an indigeneous development in northern Syria but was introduced from southern Mesopotamia. Excavations at the sites of Habuba Kabira South and Jebel ῾Aruda in the Lake Assad region revealed the expansion of Uruk culture far from its core region. These sites have not merely borrowed southern Mesopotamian cultural traits, they are in fact Uruk colonies. Habuba Kabira South was a large fortified city in which residential dwellings are grouped into city blocks. Within Habuba Kabira South, a complex called Tell Qannas (excavated by André Finet) was found to contain back-to-back temples with decorative mud-brick buttressing, one of which has a tripartite layout—both are features of Uruk temples in southern Mesopotamia.

Several kilometers away and 60 m above the river plain, on a spur of the mountain Jebel Aruda (excavated by G. van Driel), was a second, smaller Uruk settlement. It was dominated by two Uruk-style temples (although some scholars question their having been temples), with a tripartite layout, mud-brick construction, and decorative buttressing. Associated with the temples are a number of large domestic structures, tripartite in plan, that are similar to those at Habuba Kabira South. Both sites exhibit typical Uruk, southern Mesopotamian traits, including beveled-rim bowls, jars with nose lugs and drooping spouts, Protoliterate seals and sealings, tokens, counters, and tablets for numeration. Uruk assemblages have also been encountered at Tell Sheikh Hassan, Tell Jerablus Taḥtani, Tell ῾Abr, and Tell Banat.

The discovery of two major and numerous minor Uruk settlements on the Middle Euphrates in northern Syria raised several issues regarding the transmission of cultural ideas and traits to the less developed area (periphery) of northern Syria. Using the core-periphery model popularized by Immanuel Wallerstein, Guillermo Algaze has seen these sites as colonies that were part of a large trading network in which the resource-poor Uruk homeland of lower Mesopotamia exploited peripheral zones for such raw materials as timber and metals. The relationship to local populations is unclear, but a hierarchy of Uruk settlements is thought to have included colonies (Habuba Kabira South and Jebel ῾Aruda), stations, and outposts. Both Habuba Kabira South and Jebel ῾Aruda were occupied for short time spans of no more than 150 years; they were built on virgin sites and after their destruction were never reoccupied. Uruk occupation at Sheikh Hassan lasted for a considerably longer period.

Northern Syria, including the region of the two dams, is thought by some to have undergone a gap in occupation after the destruction of the Uruk colonies and the collapse of Uruk cultures in southern Mesopotamia. Consequently, the introduction of complex societies into Syria in about 3300–3100 BCE was abortive and had no lasting effect on the cultures of the region. Following this scenario, the first indigeneous Syrian states may not have emerged until later, in about 2600 BCE—not along river courses but in dry-farming areas—with the emergence of Ebla and large settlements in the Khabur Triangle, such as Tell Chuera and Tell Leilan. An alternative reconstruction of the period sees a reduced, but unbroken, cultural continuity at sites along the Euphrates in the first half of the third millennium (Early Bronze Age). Tell Hadidi has produced “EB I” and “EB II” material (see below), and some of the strata at Tell Halawa date to the first half of the third millennium. There are indications that a continuous sequence exists at a cluster of four EB sites centered at Banat.

No consensus exists for the terminology of the Early Bronze Age (c. 3100–2000 BCE); the first half (3100–2500 BCE) is often called EB I and II, or sometimes Mesopotamian terms are applied: Jemdet Nasr, Early Dynastic I–III. The second half of the period (2500–2000 BCE) is generally referred to as EB IV; none of these terms are fully satisfactory. The third millennium is well represented by sites in the Thawra and Tishreen dam regions: Tell Hadidi, Tell Habuba Kabira North, Tell Halawa, Tell Tawi, Tell Sweyhat, Tell Selenkahiyeh, Tell Munbaqa, Tell Ahmar, and Tell Banat, including Tell Kabir and Tell Banat North, and Tell Qara Qusaq. At Halawa (excavated by Winfried Orthmann) there was an EB occupation on tells A and B. On tell B, dating to the first half of the third millennium, three phases of a temple, entered from the structure's broad south side, were constructed on a large platform. The orientation changed in a final phase to the structure's broad east side. Three strata of tell A date to the second half of the third millennium; in the earliest, stratum 3, portions of the settlement excavated contained a defensive wall, city gate, domestic dwellings, and a stone, long-room temple in antis (with columns set between two piers) that opened toward the east. A similar structure was found at Tell Kabir (excavated by Anne Porter) in the Tishreen dam flood zone. At Tell Banat (excavated by Thomas McClellan) there are fragments of a public building, possibly a palace, with large limestone column bases. Cemeteries of the period were recovered at Tawi and Halawa; the Hypogeum Tomb at Ahmar (excavated in the 1930s by François Thureau-Dangin and Maurice Dunand) was an elite burial that contained more than a thousand vessels and a rich collection of bronzes. Another high-ranking burial at Banat dates to about 2600 BCE and contained Plain Simple Ware, Euphrates Banded Ware, Metallic Ware, and Red-Black Burnished Ware.

In the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1600 BCE), Old Babylonian texts indicate that Carchemish (which lies at the northern end of the Tishreen flood zone) and Emar (old Meskene) were important centers, but occupation from this period has never been located archaeologically at Emar. Excavations at Tell Qara Qusaq (excavated by Emilio Olávarri and Gregorio del Olmo Lete for the University of Barcelona) show that it was a storage depot in which circular stone-lined silos were found to contain barley, perhaps for shipment to Mari. At el-Qitar part of a structure with orthostat dados was excavated, and there are also occupation layers at Kabir, Halawa, Habuba Kabira North, and Hadidi, with ceramic repertoires produced at the latter.

Large portions of settlement plans for the Late Bronze Age (1600–1200 BCE) have been recovered at Munbaqa/Ekalte (excavated by Dittmar Machule) and el-Qitar/Til-Abnu and a major archive at old Meskene/Emar. Some of these sites may have been destroyed in the Euphrates campaign of Thutmosis III. There were three long-room temples at Munbaqa and three at Emar. Regarding fortifications, at Munbaqa an offset-inset mud-brick city wall was found encased in massive ramparts of river pebbles. Several city gates were excavated, including the northwest gate, in which a mud-brick arch across the passageway was preserved. At el-Qitar two city gates had limestone orthostat piers. Cuneiform tablets have also been found at Hadidi, Munbaqa, Tell Fray, and el-Qitar.

The Iron Age is best represented by occupations at Carchemish and Tell Ahmar (Til Barsip), as well as Tell Jurn Kabir (excavated by Jesper Eidem and Karin Pütt). At Tell Ahmar Aramean stelae were noted by travelers in the late nineteenth century, and in the early 1930s, a major Neo-Assyrian palace with extensive wall paintings was found. Recently, Guy Bunnens has found more Neo-Assyrian buildings, one with a black-and-white checkerboard pebble mosaic, along with a constructed burial vault, cuneiform texts, ivory objects, and Assyrian Palace Ware.

The mountain Jebel Khalid (excavated by Graeme Clarke and Peter Connor) was the site of a major Hellenistic fortress in the third century BCE. During the Roman period, the Middle Euphrates sometimes became the frontier in a long-running conflict between the Roman/Byzantine empires in the west and the Persians (Parthians/Sasanians) who, on occasion, reached Balis (Meskene). Small tumuli from this period may reflect the burial customs of European troops stationed in the region during the Roman Empire. Occupation on this part of the Euphrates was not dense in the Islamic period, although there are surface indications of small villages and farmsteads; the main settlement was Balis, the site adjacent to LB Emar and on the outskirts of the modern town of Meskene. The fortress at Qal῾at Nejim guarded a crossing point in late medieval times.

[See also Carchemish; Chuera, Tell; Colonization; Ebla; Emar; Euphrates River; Habuba Kabira; Hadidi, Tell; Leilan, Tell; Mureybet; Qitar, El-; Ubaid; and Uruk-Warka.]


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Thomas L. McClellan