Achaemenid “Immortals” from Susa

29 March 2009
An Immortal from Susa in the Louvre

An "Immortal" from Susa in the Louvre

The palaces of the Achaemenid kings were often decorated with representations of long lines of soldiers, dressed for a festive occasion: although they carry arms, they have no shields or helmets. They are often – but probably incorrectly-called “Immortals“. In Persepolis, they are carefully sculpted out of stone. In Susa, the soldiers were made from glazed brick, which gives us an idea of the colors.

When Susa was excavated at the end of the nineteenth century, the French archaeologists had a deal that every object made of gold and silver, was to remain in Iran. As a consequence, the reliefs are now in the Louvre in Paris, where they are illuminated by yellowish light, making it difficult to make good photos. Still, if you are interested, go here.

An Egyptian Statue of Darius the Great

28 March 2009
Darius belt

Darius' belt

In 1972, archaeologists excavating the Great Gate at Susa, discovered an unusual statue: it represented king Darius I the Great (r. 522-486), and was made in Egyptian style (i.e., free standing) from Egyptian greywacke, and inscribed with hieroglyphic signs. It is not entirely clear why it was moved from the ancient country along the Nile to the capital of Elam, but a probable explanation is that this happened after 486, when the Egyptians revolted against Darius’ son and successor Xerxes. He reconquered the country and it is possible that he carried off the statue of his father from Heliopolis to Susa.

The statue is not just a representation of the king as pharaoh, complete with the traditional symbolism of the god Hapi “binding together” the Two Lands: on the pedestal are small representations of twenty-four nations that were subject to Darius. This interesting statue can be seen here.

A Beautiful Fresco from Trier

27 March 2009
A philosopher

A philosopher

Among the many delights of the Bischöfliches Dom- und Diözesanmuseum in Trier is a splendid fresco that must be dated to the reign of the emperor Constantine the Great, because his wife Fausta occupies the central scene. The fresco, which once graced the ceiling of a room in a luxurious villa, consists of fifteen smaller scenes: you can see philosophers, erotes, Amor and Psyche, the empress, and three ladies who may or may not be representations of the splendor, education, and elegance that were – according to the imperial propaganda – typical of this happy age.

However, whatever the exact identification of the details, this work of art is completely pagan in nature. The persons who ordered it, were no Christians. You can see it here.

General Update

23 March 2009
The cover of my new book

The cover of Vergeten erfenis, my new book

I am back from Iran, and in spite of an unpleasant incident in Shiraz, I have never had such an easy trip. I even found some time to translate three Dutch articles into English:

  • Maximalists and Minimalists: What to do when archaeology and written sources offer contradictory information? The problem has been addressed most explicitly by scholars studying the rise of Judaism. They distinguish two approaches: “maximalism” means that you prefer the written record and introduce auxiliary hypotheses to explain why the archaeological evidence you need is not there, and “minimalism” is the opposite. The labels can be explained in other branches of ancient history too, like ancient Media and Caesar‘s campaigns in Belgium.
  • Lost Legacy. Eastern roots of western civilization: English summary of my next book, which will appear in a week or two; the original title is Vergeten erfenis. Oosterse wortels van de westerse cultuur and it’s published by Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep.
  • Why the Dutch are Becoming Restless: English summary of my little book Polderdenken, a history of the Dutch consultation culture. This is slowly disappearing – new styles of leadership are being introduced – and this creates unrest.

During the weekend, I added several new brief articles on ancient Iran, which will not surprise the regular visitors of this little blog: the reliefs at Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, the rock tomb at Dukkan-e Daud, the Median fortress at Tepe Nush-e Jan, the excavation of Anšan, and some new photos of Istakhr.

I also wrote a brief review of William A. Simmons’ beautiful Peoples of the New Testament World. An Illustrated Guide (2008), added several links to my list of Google Earth sites, inserted links to the LacusCurtius text of PolybiusWorld History, and uploaded some photos.

Postscript 7 May: The first review of my book is there! I’m delighted. It’s here, and of course it’s in Dutch.

Simmons, Peoples of the New Testament World

22 March 2009

What is worse: six hours of claustrophobia in an Airbus 319 or five hours of exposure to Heathrow Airport? As I recently traveled from Tehran to London and Amsterdam, I might have been able to solve one of the greatest scientific problems of our age, but unfortunately, I was too distracted by the final chapters of William A. Simmons’ Peoples of the New Testament World. An Illustrated Guide (2008). It is a book that I can sincerely recommend.

In twenty chapters, the author introduces the reader to, for example, Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, Herodians, centurions, and scribes. Sometimes, the book becomes a social history of ancient society: among the peoples of the New Testament world are trade guilds, slaves and freedmen, clients and patrons too – the chapters devoted to these classes are particularly strong.

Like biblioblogger Jim West, who recommended this book, I was especially impressed by Simmons’ chapter on the sinners: they were not, as I always thought, people who were unable to live up to Pharisaic standards, but “moral profligates who had, by their lifestyle, effectively rejected their religious lifestyle” (p.108).

It may be helpful here to refer to the vulgar professions listed by Cicero (De officiis 1.150): he sums up all kinds of people who have forfeited claims to respect – people like tax collectors, prostitutes, and gladiator. In Rome, these people were kept at some distance: in the theater, amphitheater, and circus they were to sit on the highest tiers, far away from the spectacle and the senators on the first ranks. In ancient Judaea, the sinners were equally excluded, and Jesus’ sharing a meal with them in the name of God must have shocked Jewish sensitivities as much as the emperor Commodus shocked Roman sensitivities when he presented himself as a gladiator.

Time and again, Simmons stresses the importance of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, the Exile, and the return in the Persian period. He presents this traumatic experience as the background of the emergence of groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Personally, I would have started the book with the Maccabaean revolt, but Simmons has convincing arguments, although he is aware that the names of those groups do not occur in our sources at this early stage and uses careful expressions like “proto-Pharisees”.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from poor editing. On page 182-183, a part of the text appears to be missing; on pages 36-37, a substantial part is printed twice; the little state Chalcis is consistently called Chalsis, adrogation becomes androgation; Cyrus repeatedly captures the city of Babylon in 538 instead of 539; of the seventeen buildings mentioned on the map of ancient Rome on page 226, fifteen were built after the youngest part of the New Testament was written.

Worse is the unnecessary chapter on Roman emperors, in which I counted dozens of factual errors, some of them especially painful in a book on peoples from the New Testament: e.g., the Colosseum was not financed from assets seized by the emperor Titus, but from the silver and gold captured in Jerusalem. I hope that this chapter will be completely rewritten when this book is reprinted.

A reprint, yes. In spite of the disastrous treatment of the Roman emperors, Peoples of the New Testament World deserves to be reprinted, and it may, with a bit more care, become a handbook used on many schools.


15 March 2009
The tell, seen from the west

The tell, seen from the west

The Bronze Age city of Anšan lies northwest of modern Shiraz. With a car, you reach Tall-e Malyan (its modern name) in an hour. I was impressed by the fertility of the wide valley that was once dominated by this city, which was the capital of a kingdom that was sufficiently powerful to be known to the scribes of ancient Babylonia. They called it URU an-ša-an. Dozens of towns appear to have to obeyed the ruler of this city: in 2000, seventy-seven other settlements were known from this valley alone.

All of these belonged to the third millennium, and that is why the discovery of Tall-e Malyan in 1971 was a sensation: it suggested that the growth of urban life (“the rise of civilization”) was not an isolated phenomenon in Iraq, but took place in a much wider area. This idea has in the meantime been corroborated by the excavations in Jiroft and the Burnt City.

Judging from its ceramics, Anšan was founded in c.5000 BCE and destroyed by a great fire in the Middle Elamite period. That the sixth-century authors of the Nabonidus Chronicle and Cyrus Cylinder still identify Cyrus the Great with the title “king of Anšan” does not prove that the town was still/again alive in the sixth century: it is one of those archaisms that are so often used in Babylonian literature (cf. the third millennium names “Gutium” for all countries in the east and “Hanaeans” for Macedonians).

Today, the low hill lies more or less abandoned, although thousands of sherds prove that this must have been a major city once. I spotted one big, artificially cut stone that may or may not have been part of a large wall. The part that has been excavated is now used as a garbage dump.

The Discoverer of Persepolis: Cornelis de Bruijn

15 March 2009
Cornelis de Bruijn: painting by Godfrey Kneller

Cornelis de Bruijn: painting by Godfrey Kneller

Whenever a Dutchman visits Persepolis, he will be pleasantly surprised. Upon entering the big gate he is greeted by a fellow-Dutchman: a man named Cornelis de Bruijn left behind his signature more than three hundred years ago.

OK, that was vandalism – but if anyone would have had a right to cut his name in one of the monuments, it would have been De Bruijn, whose story is part and parcel of the story of Persepolis. He was born in 1652 and became famous with a book on his travels to Italy, Egypt, Jerusalem, the Aegean Sea, and Constantinople. Published in 1698, it soon became a best-seller, and it is easy to understand why: being a trained painter, he could add splendid illustrations. For the first time, Europeans could get an idea of the interior of the Great Pyramid, could see the Column of Pompey in Alexandria, or enjoy a view of Jerusalem or Palmyra, Smyrna or Constantinople.

De Bruijn’s Signature in Persepolis (on the Gate of all Nations)

De Bruijn’s Signature in Persepolis (on the Gate of all Nations)

These drawings were unique, and the book was translated into several languages – unfortunately, not all of them very accurate. The English edition (1702) was based on the French one (1700), and until the twentieth century, you would not be able to find De Bruijn’s book in the catalog of, say, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, unless you knew that the English translator had been capable of mistranslating even the author’s name (Corneille le Brun).

In 1703, De Bruijn left Amsterdam for a voyage that would bring him to Russia, Persia, Ceylon, and Java (where he discovered a small kangaroo-like animal that is still called Thylogale Brunii). It was his visit to Persepolis, however, that made him immortal. In November 1704, he arrived in the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, where he was to stay until January. Although several European travelers had already offered descriptions of the site, none of them spent two and a half months amidst the ruins, became so well-acquainted with the site, or added such marvelous illustrations to his book.

De Bruijn’s account consists of several parts. First, he describes the terrace and its buildings, which can easily be identified with the remains that are visible today. De Bruijn is not always able to interpret the buildings, but recognizes that the rock reliefs belonged to royal tombs. He also mentions the four Achaemenid tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and the Sassanian rock reliefs, which he believes to be representations of the legendary Persian hero Rustam. (This must be information from a local guide.) Next, De Bruijn compares his observations to what is written by the ancient authors. For example, he is able to identify Median and Persian dresses. In the next chapters, he describes the history and customs of the ancient Persians. All this is based on Greek and Latin sources, but he impartiality adds a chapter with the Persian side of the story.

De Bruijn’s Copy of a Royal Inscription (XPb)

De Bruijn’s Copy of a Royal Inscription (XPb)

De Bruijn’s combination of antiquarianism and historiography was later popularized by Winckelmann and Gibbon, but was still rare in the early eighteenth century; in fact, De Bruijn was one of the first to attempt to corroborate a historical account by using artifacts. How innovative this was, becomes clear when we take into account that even today, it is possible to become an ancient historian without taking part in an archaeological excavation.

De Bruijn’s Persian book, published in 1711, was no success, even though the reviews in the Acta eruditorum and Journal des Sçavans were enthusiastic. But the Dutch Republic was involved in the War of Spanish Succession and suffered heavily; few people could afford to buy the book. Worse, people found it hard to believe his story. The painter-traveler died in 1727, bankrupt and forgotten.

You can find a longer biography here.

King Anubanini of Lullubi

14 March 2009

Sar-e Pol-e Zahab (“Sarpol”) is an Iranian town, not far from the Iraqi border, with no particular claim to fame, although you may have heard the name during the final stages of the First Gulf War, as one of the places during Iran’s 1988 counteroffensive against the Mujahedin-e Khalq. I would never have gone there, had it not been for five small, ancient rock reliefs.

The Anubanini relief

The Anubanini relief

The youngest one was made during the reign of the Parthian king Gotarzes I or II, and shows a satrap doing obeisance to his king. It is about twenty centuries younger than the four other reliefs, which commemorate the investitures of four kings of Lullubi. This state was more or less identical to the valley of the river Diyala, north of Baghdad; the kings of Akkad (2335-2154) and the Third Dynasty of Ur (2112-2004) had to fight against the Lullubians on several occasions.

The reliefs are badly damaged but easy to find: go to the place where the main road crosses the river and ask for the girls’ school. From its playground, you will see both the Parthian and the best-preserved Lullubian relief, which shows the investiture of a king named Anubanini (drawing). A second, very worn relief can be found on the west face of the same rock, and the other two reliefs are on the north and south faces of the rock across the river. The Anubanini relief is the most interesting of these: not only because it is well-preserved, but also because it was the model of DariusBehistun relief. Besides, you do not want to miss the multi-decibel entertainment offered by dozens of enthusiastic Iranian girls seeing their first foreigner.

The reliefs are included as #1, #2, #3, #4, and #36 in the Vanden Berghe catalog.

King David’s Shop

14 March 2009
The relief at Dukkan-e Daud

The relief at Dukkan-e Daud

Every day, about 4,000 Iranian pilgrims heading for Kerbala cross the Iraqi frontier at Qasr-e Shirin. They will probably not notice this little relief at Dukkan-e Daud, “David’s Shop”. It shows a Magian or a Zoroastrian priest, and can be found immediately below a Late Achaemenid tomb. The relief appears to be unfinished and I would not be surprised if a fire altar was part of the original design.

Few Iranian monuments will be cared for so much, because the local population believes that the relief represents King David. There may indeed have been a King David in this area, a Jewish smith with several disciples, who may or may not have been buried over here. That’s the story I read about this relief. Others say that the famous king mentioned in the Bible and Quran found his final resting place over here. However that may be, many people have preferred to be buried below the rock, close to this King David, and women present their babies to the ancient tomb.

David’s Shop is about three kilometers east of Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, a bit south of the main road from Qasr-e Shirin to Kermanshah. The relief is included as #18 in Louis Vanden Berghe’s Reliefs rupestres de l’Iran ancien (1984).

Iranian Explanatory Signs

14 March 2009

Taq-e Bostan

Right now, I am in Iran again. It is always a pleasure to meet the people and visit the museums, which have improved considerably during the last years. The small museum at the Hamadan excavations, which was in October still partly closed, is now open again – you can still smell the fresh paint. In the same city, the mausoleum of Bu Ali (or Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, whatever you like to call the great scientist) has been renewed. A bit more to the west, the monuments of Behistun have been made more accessible. The site of the Achaemenid palace in Susa has been improved, the restoration of the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae has been finished, while the restoration of the palace of Ardashir in Firuzabad has advanced substantially since October. The museum at Bishapur is still closed, but the rebuilding and redecoration appear to be almost finished.

All this is of course a great advance, and if I am a bit skeptical about the new explanatory signs, that is just a minor quibble. Still, it is a pity that the explanations are not completely up-to-date. Take, for instance, the sign at Taq-e Bostan that says that one of the reliefs shows king Ardeshir II receiving his investiture from Mithra and Ahurmazda. This is an old theory, but it has been discarded. The king is standing on a Roman emperor, whose face is carefully copied from a coin of Julian the Apostate, who was defeated by the Persian king Shapur II. The crown of the Persian king shown in Taq-e Bostan is identical to the crown of Shapur shown on his coins.

Or take the lion of Hamadan. In 1968, the German scholar Luschey proposed the theory that this was part of a monument dedicated to Hephaestion, the lover of Alexander the Great, who died in Hamadan. This is easily refuted: Hephaestion was buried in Babylon, the Greeks and Macedonians erected lion statues only for soldiers – plural – killed in action (e.g., Leuctra, Chaeronea, Amphipolis), Alexander did not build any monument in Iran, and the lion first stood close to a cemetery from the Parthian age. Because this hypothesis is so obviously wrong, it was never refuted, and it would have been forgotten if it had not been mentioned by Lane Fox in his notorious biography of Alexander, which became a bestseller. Unfortunately, the lion has now an explanatory sign that states as a fact that the lion was erected for Hephaestion – not even Luschey and Lane Fox dared to say that this was a fact, they were careful to say that it was a hypothesis.

Sometimes, the visitor starts to suspect intentional disinformation. In the Tehran museum, an English sign says that one relief represents a member of the ancient Persian clergy, and the corresponding sign in Farsi adds that “back then, the clergy also had great influence”. The lengthy explanatory sign that was recently erected in Gandj Nameh, which made it clear that Darius’ inscription was purely monotheistic while Xerxes’ text was polytheistic, has already been partly removed.

I have heard people say that the Islamic authorities use the explanatory signs for propaganda, presenting the Achaemenid state as monotheistic, with kings listening to the clergy. That the Iranian government presents the past in its own way may be true; it would, in any case, fit a  larger pattern: many – perhaps: most – governments pay only for research they like. In my own country, the Netherlands, there is more attention paid to the semi-legendary Batavians (a tribe on the edge of the Roman Empire that was once believed to be the ancestor of my nation) than they really deserve. Right now, there are at least three projects to reconstruct a ship from the Roman age, while Medieval ships are almost ignored, even though many wrecks have been found, and these ships were the foundation of the Dutch commercial power of the seventeenth century. Similar stories can be told about almost any nation. I would not blame the Iranian authorities for stressing those aspects of the past they appreciate most. All nations do so.

Still, I think that the present accusation is simply unfair. Taq-e Bostan and the lion of Hamadan show that the people who have made the signs, use rather old information. That would also fit a larger pattern; I remember meeting an Iranian professor who had written an article about Alexander but confessed that he had no access to the Latin text of Curtius Rufus, and was glad that he had found it on the internet.

To sum up: it is true that the staff of the Iranian museums and excavations may improve their museums even further by writing explanatory signs that are more up-to-date, but I do not think that they are more biased than archaeologists and historians in other countries. The real problem is that the results of modern Iranology remain locked in western university libraries. Now that is a serious problem, much more important than the explanatory signs. For the time being, I am really glad with Iran’s improved museums, and enjoying them every day.

Tepe Nush-e Jan

14 March 2009
Tepe Nush-e Jan

Tepe Nush-e Jan

The ancient Iron Age settlement known as Tepe Nush-e Jan can be found 75 kilometers south of modern Hamadan. It is often described as a Median town, and perhaps rightly so. However, there is a problem. According to written sources, the Medes were masters of large parts of Iran and Turkey; we would expect to find more or less the same objects in the centers of government, but so far, it has been impossible to identify the objects that represent the Median state. The empire of the Medes is not an archaeological fact (yet), but exists only as something mentioned by Herodotus and texts based (directly or indirectly) upon this entertaining Greek author, like the Biblical book of Daniel.

However, there must have been a Median civilization, and it must have been like Tepe Nush-e Jan, where a fort and a palace with a hall with many columns have been excavated, and a building that is interpreted as an eighth-century fire sanctuary. The walls of the temple, the palace, and the fort are almost eight meters high, and because they are situated on a natural hill that rises about thirty-four meters above the fertile plain, Tepe Nush-e Jan is easy to find.

Xerxes killing a Greek Hoplite

2 March 2009

A couple of months ago, two of my best friends, Marlous and Marco, spent their honeymoon in New York. They visited several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Marco made photos, like this one:

A Persian King Killing a Hoplite

A Persian King Killing a Hoplite

It is an impression of a Persian cylinder seal, which can stylistically be dated to the first quarter of the fifth century. It represents a Persian king fighting against a Yauna (Greek). As Darius is not known to have fought against them -he had generals like Datis and Artaphernes to do that- it must represent Xerxes. The man fallen on the ground must be someone important; perhaps it is Leonidas. Of course it is symbolic – the two probably never came this close during the fight. Still, it brings to mind that, according to Herodotus, Xerxes hated no one as much as the Spartan king.

Seals like these are, except for Xerxes’ claim (in inscription XPh) to have conquered the “Yauna from across the Sea” and a probably unreliable reference to tapestries with scenes from the Persian War in Babylon (mentioned by Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, 1.25), the only evidence for the Persian side of the story. The seals say that the Persians considered it a triumph like any other, and that makes it important.

Besides, isn’t this picture -in spite of the unpleasant scene- beautiful?

850 Ancient Sites on Google Maps

1 March 2009
Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe

What you are looking for, is here.


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