Air-conditioning found at 'oldest city in the world'

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The Independent Online

Archaeologists believe they have uncovered the world's oldest city in a remote part of Syria. Dating back to 6,000BC, the discovery is 2,500 years older than any known site and will prompt a dramatic reappraisal of ancient history.

Archaeologists believe they have uncovered the world's oldest city in a remote part of Syria. Dating back to 6,000BC, the discovery is 2,500 years older than any known site and will prompt a dramatic reappraisal of ancient history.

The huge settlement, called Hamoukar, is located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, an area known throughout ancient history as northern Mesopotamia. The city spread over 750 acres and is believed to have been home to up to 25,000 people.

Discoveries so far include living quarters, stone gods, and jewellery. One of the most astonishing finds has been of double-walled living quarters to encourage air flow, suggesting the inhabitants had designed their own air-conditioning system to combat summer temperatures of more than 40C.

Dr Mouhammed Maktash, director of the Syrian-American joint excavation and head of antiquities at the regional museum at Raqqa, said: "There is no question this is the most exciting find I have come across. Of course you can find older individual pieces but there is a big difference between a small village and a city.

"From the beginning we knew that Hamoukar was very old but when we excavated we found things we have never seen before. We have Islamic material, Hellenistic and sixth millennium BC. We have everything here."

The excavators, from Syria and the University of Chicago, have also uncovered porcelain figurines of lions, leopards, bears and horses, together with pottery and 7,000 beads.

The discoveries will prompt a re-think of how mankind developed in the "cradle of civilisation" between the two great Middle Eastern rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. It was here that Babylon and Mesopotamia were established and the oldest known civilisation, the Sumerians, were identified to have lived around 3500BC. But Hamoukar is thought to have been constructed between 6000BC and 4000BC.

At his office at the Museum of Raqqa, 300 miles north-east of the Syrian capital Damascus, Dr Maktash said the discovery would challenge conventional notions of the development of civilisation. "Hamoukar is at least 1,000 years older than Sumeria," he said. "But we don't know who the people were who lived at Hamoukar. If they were here first the big question is: where did the Sumerian civilisation come from - from nothing? It's possible they came from Hamoukar. This will change many things in our understanding of history."

McGuire Gibson, professor of Chicago University's Oriental Institute, said: "We need to reconsider our ideas about the beginnings of civilisation, pushing the time further back. This would mean that the development of kingdoms or early states occurred before writing was invented."

For Dr Maktash, the most remarkable find at is of double-walled living quarters, with a 2in gap between the two walls. "This may have been a means of getting air moved around to keep everything cool. They had air-conditioning systems over 6,000 years ago."

The name too is shrouded in mystery. In Kurdish, Hamoukar means the "man with no ears", or the deaf man, though there is a similar Sumerian word which is thought to refer to an economic or business centre.

Hamoukar is situated in what the Syrians call the gezira, or island, between the Euphrates and the Tigris. It is just a few miles from Tell Brak, a site dating back to the late fourth millennium BC and uncovered before the Second World War by Max Mallowan, the husband of Agatha Christie. Raqqa, where Dr Maktash is based, was once summer residence of Haroun al-Rashid, the caliph celebrated in The Thousand and One Nights.

Syria is a relatively recent destination for archaeologists. While excavations have taken place periodically during the past 150 years, it was the Gulf War and the isolation of Iraq which led to an explosion of interest. With Iraq effectively off limits, and many of its sites damaged, archaeologists have turned to its neighbour. The excavation at Hamoukar, just a few miles from the Iraqi border, shows how amazing the results of this new interest may be.

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