A dig house used by T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and Leonard Woolley when they excavated Karkemish in 1913. Photo: Dan Thompson
For generations of archaeologists, Karkemish has seemed like a dream site — both in terms of its huge archaeological potential as well as its elusiveness. Although the ancient city, referenced in the Bible, has always been well known by scholars, its location was a mystery until George Smith identified it in 1876. From then until 1920, a number of teams excavated the site, including a British Museum-funded team that involved T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), before war and conflict again put it out of reach.
In 2011, however, for the first time in close to a century, a team of archaeologists returned to Karkemish with an integrated long-term research strategy. Today, the joint Italian-Turkish team, led by Nicolò Marchetti of Bologna University, is in its second season of excavation at the site, where it hopes not only to study the city’s ancient history and urban layout but also to conserve the archaeological site as a tourism destination and park.
Project director Nicolò Marchetti surveys the main excavation area. Photo: Dan Thompson
Last month, Marchetti and his team hosted Dr. Dan Thompson, GHF’s Director of Global Projects and Global Heritage Network (GHN), for a week-long visit to witness first hand the research being carried out and to discuss Marchetti’s goal of creating a national park that covers the archaeological site and the natural beauty of the nearby Euphrates River. GHF has provided support for planning at Karkemish, whose rich ancient history and setting make it a strong candidate for eventual UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.
Situated at a strategic crossing point along the river, Karkemish is perhaps most famous as the site of a battle in 605 B.C. that saw the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies fall to the Babylonians. Its lengthy history as a city, however, is what makes Karkemish one of the most important archaeological sites in the Near East. During the Late Bronze Age it occupied a key role in the Hittite Empire, and though its size before that is debated, many believe it was a major city dating all the way back to the Early Bronze Age. The city was also the seat of an important Neo-Hittite dynasty during the Iron Age three thousand years ago.
A joint Turkish-Italian archaeological team is in its second season of excavations at Karkemish. Photo: Dan Thompson
Today, Karkemish is located along the border of Turkey and Syria, with about 55 of the site’s 90 total hectares falling within Turkish territory. The site is separated into inner and outer regions by massive earthen ramparts and is closely neighbored by the cities of Karkamış (Turkey) and Jarabulus (Syria). Although Marchetti estimates that only 5 percent of the site has been excavated, findings have included remains of defensive structures, temples, palaces and numerous basalt statues and reliefs.
As with the majority of the developing world’s cultural heritage sites, conservators at Karkemish face a number of challenges. Although the area was deemed officially cleared of mines in 2011, it remains sensitive to war and conflict, particularly given recent events in Syria. In addition, despite Marchetti’s team’s efforts to counter the toll taken by decades of neglect on the site’s exposed features, degradation has occurred. Finally, planning for the site must take into account the development of the two nearby cities, whose expansion could threaten Karkemish.
The citadel mound of Karkemish as seen from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Photo: Dan Thompson
As one of the primary sites taught to archaeology students in Turkey (along with GHF project sites Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe), Karkemish is already well known regionally. With continued excavation and proper conservation, it has the potential to be developed into a global tourism destination, providing an economic boost to the area’s poor, rural communities.
Click here to explore Karkemish on Global Heritage Network (GHN)