the resurrection of the layers of Mari, mythical city of Mesopotamia

Mythical and cursed. This is the double epithet of the ancient city of Mari, located on the Euphrates in present-day Syria, not far from the Iraqi border. If we have to summarize its history in a few lines, we will say that Mari was founded around 2900 BC. J. – C. and that it knows a first prosperous period between – 2500 and – 2300, which ends with its destruction by the empire of Akkad. This appoints governors, the shakkanakkus, who quickly rebuilt the city and… gain their independence. “It was a very powerful kingdom, which dominated the Middle Euphrates, emphasizes Sophie Cluzan, general heritage curator at the department of oriental antiquities of the Louvre Museum. Mari controlled the material route ” which linked the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean world. This until 1759 BC. AD, when the armies of Hammurabi of Babylon destroy the city.

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Mari knows a third life, archaeological that one, after its discovery by chance in 1933 when peasants, wanting to bury one of theirs, come across an ancient statue. Syria being at the time administered by France, it is the French archaeologist André Parrot (1901-1980) who is sent there. From the following year, the remains are identified as being those of Mari. “In 1935-36, André Parrot discovered the royal palace – which is the only one from the beginning of IIe millennium that we know in its entirety – and excavate chapel 132 ”, says Sophie Cluzan.

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Located in a ceremonial courtyard, this building is of particular importance in the layout of the palace, because visitors received in the throne room must pass in front of it. No wonder: Chapel 132 was dedicated to Ishtar, goddess of love and war, but also protector of royalty. While excavating it, we find on the ground pieces of frescoes that fell from the wall during the fire that ravaged the city thirty-seven centuries earlier. Precise surveys of these paintings, with indication of the colors, are made. In the 1950s, from these drawings, André Parrot commissioned two large tracings to reconstruct the decorations of the chapel, to illustrate his monograph on Mari.

Fortuitous reappearance

Why talk about it again today? Because everything was gone. Starting with the fragments of the paintings, already in poor condition in the 1930s, transported to the Aleppo Museum in unknown conditions and then stored in the frequently flooded basement of the museum… As for André Parrot’s prints, no one knew where they could be or even if they still existed. Until that day in 2019 when they reappear fortuitously at the Louvre, of which Parrot was the first director, (badly) arranged among documents on Iran. Anecdotal? Not really because, as Sophie Cluzan explains, the original paintings have probably returned to nothing, for specialists “These layers now have the value of originals”.

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