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12 August 2011
Syrian city survived civilisation collapse

The site of Tell Qarqur in northwest Syria was occupied for nearly 10,000 years. Archaeologists have determined that 4200 years ago, at a time when cities and civilisations were collapsing in the Middle East, Tell Qarqur actually grew.
     "There was widespread abandonment of many of the largest archaeological sites and ancient cities in the region and also large numbers of smaller sites," said Jesse Casana, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas (USA). At Tell Qarqur and probably at other sites also in the Orontes River Valley, settlement continues, and seems to have probably broadened, he adds.
     Tell Qarqur was occupied between about 8500 BCE and 1350 CE, and only a small portion of the city has been excavated.
     One of the most interesting finds is a small temple or shrine made out of stone that also dates back 4200 years. Casana describes it as a small building with a whole series of plastered basins inside. The team also found large standing stones, bones from baby sheep, stands used for incense, and figurines.
     "At 4200 years ago, there was an abrupt climate change, and abrupt drying, and abrupt deflection of the Mediterranean westerly winds that transport humid air into the eastern Mediterranean region," says Harvey Weiss of Yale University (USA), reducing the annual precipitation across western Asia for about 300 years - somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. The intense drought extended nearly globally, Weiss notes.
     Along with the Mesopotamian and eastern Mediterranean societies that met their demise, Old Kingdom Egypt also collapsed. "A different weather system reduced the flow of the Nile River at the same period," Weiss says.
     Casana cautions that not all scholars are convinced that climate change was the main cause for the abandonment of cities in the Middle East, adding that the way people were farming and using the land may also have played an important role. "There are other scholars who simply think that the decline of these civilisations, at that time, is kind of part and parcel of the story of civilisation itself," Casana said.
     Weiss believes that the Orontes River, on which Tell Qarqur is located, is the key to answering this question, pointing out that other archaeological sites on the river - including Qatna and Nasriyah - also appear to have prospered during this time. "The Orontes River is fed by a huge underground chamber of water, which is called a Karst," Weiss reveals, that continued to flow during this period when rainfall was diminished.
     There are other questions. Before the collapse, Tell Qarqur was within the sphere of influence of a powerful kingdom known as Ebla. That kingdom was destroyed sometime prior to 4200 years ago. This likely changed the way the city was governed and managed - something that future excavations may reveal.

Edited from LiveScience (28 July 2011)

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