Mithra and Mithras

26 November 2009

Mithras killing the celestial bull. Roman relief from Dormagen, now in Bonn's Rheinisches Landesmuseum.

Yesterday, I received an impressive present: a book on the cult of Mithra(s). Impressive: it measures 50×31 centimeters and was published more than a century-and-a-half ago, in 1847. To be honest, I do not think that Félix Lajard’s Introduction à l’étude du culte public et des mystères de Mithra en Orient et en Occident, is still useful today. Yet, it is a beautiful book, and it is charming to read that it was printed “par autorisation du roi à l’ imprimerie royale”. Such were the courtesies of the ancien régime.

The author has collected all kinds of drawings of Iranian and Roman reliefs, seals, and coins, and tries to trace the development of the cult of Mithras in Iran and the Roman Empire. In other words, we get lots of pictures of oriental and Roman art objects that Lajard believed to be relevant to the study of the mysteries of Mithras.

It is hard not to be impressed by his attempts to get the details straight. He had not traveled as widely as we expect scholars to do, and was therefore unable to decide which representation of a particular relief was the best, so we often get two pictures of the same monument. I was surprised to learn how large the differences between drawings can be.

This late Iranian Mithra shows no similarities to the contemporary western bull-slayer reliefs (Taq-e Bostan)

The problem was, of course, that he had no idea what he was looking for. The decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform, which revolutionized our knowledge of the Near East, took place in 1857, and Lajard still could adduce parallel illustrations that we now know to be irrelevant, or only marginally relevant, to the study of Mithraism.

The main problem, and a problem that Lajard could have avoided, was the assumption that there was a continuity from Iran to the Roman Empire. Of course it would be exaggerated to state there was no continuity at all: the name Mithras is clearly derived from Mithra and one of the grades of the Roman mysteries was called “Persian”. But the cult of Mithras is essentially a Roman phenomenon. With one possible exception, no Mithraic cave has ever been excavated in Iran, nor are there indications that Avestan hymns were chanted in the Roman mithraea.

It often happens that elements from one civilization cross over to another, and it would certainly have been possible for an Iranian god to join the Roman pantheon. But how much that was Iranian was he allowed to take with him? Compare it to Christianity, which is essentially a type of Judaism accepted by Greeks and Romans. Some converts believed that only a couple of ideas were really useful; men like Marcion of Sinope thought that the Old Testament books could be done away with, and that the Jewish context was best forgotten. Other Christian authors, like Irenaeus, stressed the need to keep in touch with the original foundations. The Roman cult of Mithras seems to have originated with a Marcion-like prophet, who took a couple of lose elements and abandoned the rest of Iranian Mithraism.

Bull and lion on an Iranian relief (Persepolis): no connection to the Roman mithraic reliefs.

This is now very obvious, but it has taken some time to get here. The study of the cult of Mithras has for a long time been dominated by Cumont and Vermaseren, great scholars who believed, just like Lajard, that there had been some kind of continuity.

As I said, Lajard could have avoided the mistake. Even the most unattentive reader thumbing through the pages of his beautiful book will immediately realize that not a single element of the Roman Mithras reliefs – all those bulls being killed – can be connected to ancient Iran. Almost all elements of the Roman monuments, like the bull, the snake, the raven, the cup, the raven, the scorpion, the ear of wheat, and finally the twins Cautes and Cautopates, are absent from the Iranian iconography. (The lion may be an exception, but in Iranian art, the animal is either killed by the king or attacking a bull. He is not watching how someone else kills a bull.)

Yet, Lajard put the eastern and western iconography together as if they had much in common. He was essentially assuming what needed to be proven.

And this, it seems, is what happens often to the study of Roman Mithraism, and not just by people studying its origins. People studying its influence make the same error: assuming a continuity from the Roman mysteries of Mithras to Christianity that needs to be proved. I will not digress on this last point; I just refer to Roger Pearse’s interesting blog articles on this subject. I found his most recent installment and this article especially worthwhile, but he has written more articles on Mithras (which I would love to use for my collection of common errors). Recommended.

Why Virgil’s Aeneid is Bad

25 November 2009

Opening lines of Virgil's Eclogues (Vatican)

Behind your verse
so masterfully made
we hear the weeping
of a Muse betrayed.

About half a year ago, I discovered the poetry of a German author named Stefan George (1868-1933). Even though I do not understand everything he wrote, I am impressed by his words. The man, however, was also a proto-Nazi. Yet, George’s political opinions do not really matter to me; art is art and should be judged as art in the first place, and as a political message only after that.

I can also appreciate Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious movie Triumph des Willens and Sergej Eisenstein’s October. I am fully aware of the repugnant political ideologies, but when I see those films, I can somehow dissociate from their messages, and focus on the artistic merits. The same goes for other artists: David was court painter of Napoleon, Raphael and Michelangelo served a papacy that was in desperate need of reform. Yet, their paintings are dear to me, or at least some of them.

So if I can make a distinction between art and political message, why can’t I just appreciate Virgil’s Aeneid, which I just reread, a bit more? I do not find it difficult to admit that his Georgics are among the finest that was written in Latin. The Eclogues do not irritate me either. And yet, there’s something that I find terribly annoying about the Aeneid.

Partly, it’s the use of outdated artistic forms. Those interfering deities had, somehow, a reality of their own in the days of Homer; for him, it was a fact that the gods were present during the fights. For Virgil, the use of the same motifs must have felt empty. As survivor of the civil wars, he must have known better and must have had different ideas, and I think that his contemporaries must have appreciated the divine interventions as a literary jeu d’esprit only.

Another aspect is the ridiculous scene in which Anchises teaches “Roman history in the future tense” (as W.H. Auden aptly phrased it). It was avoidable; the same aim – the idea that all history is just a prefiguration of the coming of Augustus – might have been achieved by mirroring scenes from Roman history in the adventures of Aeneas. The effect would have been less terrible, yes even amusing; now, it is hard to take the poem seriously after the sixth book.

But my main criticism is that Virgil is making his art subject to a political system. I know I am inconsistent: I can ignore the political opinions of Michelangelo, Raphael, David, Eisenstein, Riefenstahl, and George, so why not Virgil? I wish I understood why. Maybe one of the reasons why I dislike Virgil, is that I see my own inconsistency.

The Big Sleep

23 November 2009


“[Scythopolis] had first been settled by Scythians when they invaded Persian Palestine in the 7th century…”

This line is from the book I’m reading, Derks & Roymans, Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity (2009). It contains thirteen essays, including several very good ones, like the one on Ionians in the Archaic Period by Crielaard, and the one on the Frisians, about which I’ve blogged before. I’ve now read eight essays and expect more delights. But the line above came as a shock. As a double shock, to be precise.

First shock: the author of these words, whose name we will discreetly veil over, ought to have known that Scythopolis was not founded by the Scythians. The Asheri/Lloyd/Corcella Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV even calls this idea “absurd” (page 154), and although it is possible that a professional scholar has not read the very latest on Herodotus, this same professional ought to have realized that if your entire evidence amounts to one remark by the Halicarnassian sage, you have no evidence at all (testis unus, testis nullus).

Second shock: Persians in seventh-century Palestine? Someone has been sleeping. And not just someone – a team of two doctores and eleven professores. Even when a book by modern scholars turns out to be acceptable, perhaps even good, there will inevitably be a point where it reminds you of the fact that today’s archaeologists, classicists, and historians are just not up to their task.

Eric Cline, Biblical Archaeology

20 November 2009


Never judge a book by its cover, they say, and indeed, the laudatory quotes on the cover are usually best left unread. But the remark by Aren Maeir, quoted on the backcover of Eric Cline‘s Biblical Archaeology. A Very Short Introduction, that “this book is a gem”, is completely true. Being forced to stay at home by an acute bursitis of the knee, I read it in a couple of hours, and am very happy to have done so.

The book offers two histories. The first half is a history of the discipline, from Flinders Petrie to Albright to Yadin to Finkelstein, with some digressions about archaeolocal methods; the second half is an overview of the way in which archaeology confirms or contradicts the story told in the Bible. The final chapter deals with the notorious frauds of the last years: the pomegranate, the James Ossuary, and the Jehoash Tablet.

I write “contradicts”, but Cline himself writes that “the archaeological findings and the biblical account are asymmetrical”, which is probably a better way to phrase it. Written sources and archaeological finds are two types of evidence, and can be read in various ways. “Asymmetrical” is a nice way to express it, because there is often no real contradiction. We will never excavate the seven walls of Ecbatana mentioned by Herodotus, because it is a fairy-tale motif; that until 2012, we had no archaeological confirmation of Caesar‘s conquest of Belgium, was not worrysome, because his southern campaigns had been confirmed; Israel is not exceptional when archaeology does not say the same as the written sources.

It is for this reason that I was surprised by the title. Israel should not be exceptional and the expression “Biblical Archaeology” ought to be obsolete. “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” is more accurate. Cline is aware of the problem: archaeologists digging in the Middle East are interested in much more than the Bible, which remains an important source among other sources, just like its reliability is one question among other questions. Cline quotes Amnon Ben-Tor, who said that eliminating the Bible from the archaeology of the Land of Israel is like depriving the discipline of its soul.

Cline seems to agree – at least, he offers no criticism. Yet, in spite of the fact that I generally agree with him, I must say that this is simply nonsense. No one is talking about eliminating the Bible, which will always remain a valuable source of information. We are talking about defocusing – other questions are becoming equally important, and we should abandon a name that is obviously misleading. It is just like “Classical Archaeologists” becoming “Mediterranean Archaeologists”: they are no longer only interested in the classical tradition, but have a wider scope.

This is one of the few points of criticism. Another one is the way Cline writes about the archaeological campaigns in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. He writes that “the subsequent demolition and construction projects in the city enabled Israeli archaeologists to make important discoveries as they excavated in areas that had previously been inaccessible to them”. I don’t know whether that’s a euphemism or doublespeak.

But this is about everything I have to be critical about. This is really a nice little book. In 156 pages, Cline offers an extremely useful and readable introduction to Syro-Palestinian Biblical Archaeology, which I can sincerely recommend.

Egyptian Evidence for Babylonian Chronology?

20 November 2009

Hammurabi (left)

I would like to know more about this little news item: a seal of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, found in Egypt. The seal itself is not what intrigues me, it is the reference to a similar seal, which has been discovered (at an unspecified moment) in the tomb of the Egyptian king Khayan.

I am always interested when disciplines interact, but this may turn out to be truly special – at least, if the statement is correct that the Hyksos ruler Khayan was king of Egypt from 1653 to 1614 BCE. (I am not an Egyptologist, and the last time I ventured into the Hyksos age, many dates were still in doubt.)

But if we assume that Khayan’s regnal dates are correct, then we may finally come within reach of the solution of the main chronological problem of Babylonian history, where four chronological systems are possible. According to these, Hammurabi’s reign can be dated to 1848-1806 (“high chronology”), 1792-1750 (“middle chronology”), 1728-1686 (“low chronology”), and 1696-1654 (“ultra-low chronology”).

Now this seal must have been attached to a document or an object sent from Babylonia to Egypt. I do not know how long correspondence was kept in ancient archives, but if the Amarna Letters are a valid comparison, we must think of no more than thirty years. Calculating wildly, I’d say that the year 1653+30=1683 BCE ought to be within the series of regnal years of Hammurabi, which brings us to the ultra-low, or possibly the low chronology.

Again, I am not a specialist, and I may be completely wrong. For the time being, I will cling to the conventional “middle chronology”. Yet, about one thing we can be certain: ancient historians ought to be interested in all ancient cultures. They never have access to sufficient sources to solve even the most basic problems, like the chronology of second millennium Mesopotamia, so they cannot afford to become specialists, studying only one civilization.

Moving (15)

17 November 2009

Taq-e Bostan

If I say that Naqš-i Rajab has moved to this URL, and if I add that Zeugma is now here, and if I mention that the page on Taq-e Bostan can be visited here, you will understand that you have come across a new installment of the highly irregular and highly irrelevant series called Moving Livius.Org. (As always, I have used to occasion to improve the pages. So, you will now also find photos of many mosaics from Zeugma.)

Still 56 pages to go…

Naqš-i Rustam

15 November 2009

Little noticed by the visitors, a couple of eagles guard Naqš-i Rustam.

Naqš-i Rustam, where the Achaemenid kings lie buried and the Sasanian kings proclaimed how they had defeated Roman emperors, is one of the main archaeological sites of Iran. The oldest monument dates to the Bronze Age. No one knows why the people started to make rock reliefs on this site, but I am tempted to think that it had something to do with acoustics: there are not many places with such a beautiful echo.

Four Achaemenid kings (Darius the Great, Xerxes, Artaxerxes I, and Darius II) were buried in the rocks of Naqš-i Rustam. These men were also responsible for several other monuments, like the mysterious structure that is called “Ka’bah-i Zardusht“.

Later, the Sasanian rulers added many reliefs: in chronological sequence, the Investiture relief of Ardašir I, which became the model for several other reliefs; the famous Triumph Relief of Shapur I; the Audience Relief of Bahram II; the Equestrian Relief of Bahram II and the Double Equestrian Relief of Bahram II; the remarkable Investiture Relief of Narseh; the Equestrian Relief of Hormizd II; and finally the badly damaged Audience relief of Shapur II.

I am grateful to the Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian, whose work normally graces the pages of the National Geographic; she allowed me to use a splendid picture of Naqš-i Rustam in the winter.

The Vanden Berghe List

14 November 2009

Ardašir's Investiture, Firuzabad

Louis Vanden Berghe (1923-1993) was a Flemish Iranologist, the founder of Irania Antiqua, the excavator of a/o Pusht-i Kuh in Luristan, and a member of the prestigious Society of Antiquaries of London. He is also the author of a useful list of Iranian rock reliefs, published in Reliefs rupestres de l’Iran ancien (1983). Because I am now changing my pages on Naqš-i Rustam, a site with many Sasanian reliefs, the book is on my desk, and I decided to make it available online. So here it is, with links to photos of the sites.

Dishonest Archaeologists

14 November 2009

Photo montage of a flooded Pasargadae

I already blogged about the recent claims that Cambyses‘ lost army had been found. When I finished my article, I briefly suspected that I had been too harsh in my criticism, and when I found a press release stating that the people who had made the claim were not involved in the project, I initially thought that this was mudslinging among colleagues fighting for a scoop. But it turns out I was too kind: read David Meadows’ article here.

The journalists who swallowed the initial press release, ought to have checked their facts, and the problem is that no one seems to do that any more. We have seen the now notorious Pasargadae Hoax: the Iranian authorities are building a dam in the Sivand (true) and the tomb of Cyrus will be flooded (not true, but you can always make a  photo montage to prove a point). We have seen the press releases by Dutch archaeologists. We have seen the outrageous claims made in Israel, where connecting a find to a Biblical person results in a miraculous multiplication of funds.

I know that there are sincere archaeologists, who really do their best to tell the truth. I also know that there are honest journalists. But archaeology is rapidly becoming a suspect discipline.

Cambyses’ Still Lost Army

13 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Persian soldiers, on a glazed relief from Susa, now in the Louvre.

You can leave it to archaeologists to make exaggerated claims and you can leave it to journalists to swallow the nonsense. The readers of this little blog know that I have introduced the Ctesias Scale to measure poor archaeological journalism. A possible example of wilful disinformation was the announcement, earlier this week, that the remains of Cambyses‘ lost army had been found: go here or here for examples.

The story: in 525 BCE, the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt. After that, he sent an army to the west, to conquer the Oracle of Ammon. It never reached the place, and the Greek researcher Herodotus says that it was destroyed by a violent desert storm. Now, two Italian archaeologists, the twin brothers Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni, claim to have found remains of the army, partly on a sheltered place where people might have tried to find cover against a sandstorm.

There are two reasons to be suspicious.

In the first place, Herodotus is not a very reliable author. Not because he is not interested in the truth: on the contrary, he is certainly one of the most truthloving writers of the ancient world. But it was hard to get correct information, and Herodotus was standing in a tradition that appreciated an artful presentation. So, in his Histories, Xerxes‘ failed expedition is mirrored by the failures of earlier Persian rulers. So, Herodotus says that Cyrus was defeated by the Massagetes (according to Xenophon, Cyrus died of natural causes); that Darius lost a navy in a storm at the Athos; that Darius also lost an army during a Scythian campaign; and that Cambyses lost an army in the desert. These stories are not necessarily untrue, but the repetition makes one suspicious. I would not be surprised if some of these stories were created by Herodotus because he believed they had to have happened.

But even if we assume that Cambyses sent out an expedition to the Oracle of Ammon, there is still a reason not to believe the claim by our two Italian archaeologists. What they have found, or claim to have found, is a set of Persian weapons (e.g., arrowheads), skulls, and bones. Even if we assume that they are indeed Persian, it is a serious logical fallacy to assume that they belong to soldiers of Cambyses’ campaign. The Persians controled Egypt for more than a century (from 525 to c.401) and there must have been dozens of occasions on which soldiers were sent to the west. All these expeditions may have found itself lost in the western desert. What archaeologists can find, is evidence that a Persian army got into trouble; but stating that the finds belonged to a particular expedition is introducing a secundum quid. I think we must be suspicious.


Perhaps this message at Andie Byrnes’ Egyptology Blog may be relevant too; although it leaves the Cambyses story itself unchallenged, it suggests that the Castiglionis are not completely bona fide. That may be mudslinging, but I think that suspicion about the report is completely justifiable.


It helps to check the facts; David Meadows investigated the case. The journalists who swallowed this nonsense, ought to be under orders to read his article.

Libyan Bits and Pieces

11 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Mausoleum F from Ghirza; museum of Bani Walid

Over the years, my friend Marco and I made some 40,000 photos, which we have arranged geographically: there’s a directory for country X, which is subdivided into directories for towns A, B, and C. The names of the photos are usually sufficient to find back what we were looking for. That is to say, over the past two years, I have made it a habit to give them names immediately: usually, that means that during a foreign trip, when we are at our hotel, I spend some time transferring the photos to my laptop computer, and renaming them.

There used to be a time when I renamed the photos after our return to Amsterdam. Sometimes, I was unable to remember what I had seen, or was too occupied with other things. That meant that the photos got names like “toponym_01″, “toponym_02″, and so on. This was less than perfect, and over the past months I have used the late hours of the evening to check the photos again and see if I could be more precise.

Often, I could, and I made some nice discoveries. I now know that we own a photo of a bust of the Greek philosopher Carneades from Munich, plus a photo of its original pedestal, in the Agora Museum in Athens. I like that; maybe, I will put it online, when I feel like it.

Today I put online photos of this funeral monument from Ghirza, which is in the museum of Bani Walid. I had not realized what it was, and I am glad that the photos are now available, next to the photos of the other mausoleums of Ghirza. I also put online the text and translations of three inscriptions from Bu Njem -nothing special. Finally, one photo of the temple of Dolichenus in Lepcis Magna. Not terribly important, but a reminder to myself that I should continue with putting online the Lepcis stuff.

Wiki and Pseudohistory

10 November 2009

It is not uncommon to complain about Wikipedia as a source for poor information. Many of these complaints are justified. There is a lot of humbug, and it often happens that good articles are inadequately improved. At the same time, those who are complaining most, academicians, are the ones who ought to remain silent. After all, Wiki has filled the gap that the universities left open: they have the money, they are funded to serve society, but they rarely made available their knowledge where it matters – online, that is. There’s still no real online edition of, for example, the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions (so I made my own version).

As long as the universities do not make something better, the real question is not whether Wiki is good or bad. It is simply a fact that for hundreds of millions of people, it is the main source of scientific and scholarly information. The real question is how we can make it better, how we can help “good knowledge” defeat “bad knowledge”. Here are two simple solutions, one for Wiki itself and one for academicians.

First, Wiki must start to compete fairly. To understand this, you must know that Wikipedia consists of three levels. The first one is the article you see (like this one); the second level is the page on which you edit an article (like this one); and finally, there is the real code, which normal users will not see. Now at this level, Wiki plays a nasty game. Let’s have a look at the code of two normal links to another website:

The “nofollow” command means that search engines will not follow a link. In other words, while you and I can link to Wiki, it does not link back. You help Wiki achieve good Google ratings, but it does not contribute to yours. This means that when a person writes an article and summarizes a better page, Wiki will be on top, and the better page will be lower on the scales. The nofollow command is, essentially, an anti-competetive practice. It ought to be abandoned, so that better sites can compete more fairly.

Second, open access. The universities have acquiesced in the fact that reliable information is usually stored on pay sites (e.g., JSTOR). As long as this is the case, political activists and other people who are not interested in truth – and there are many of them on Wiki – can refer to online sources and look credible, while bona fide scholars and scientists cannot offer links to publications. Real scholars and scientists are forced to fight with their hands tied, which means that bad knowledge inevitably drives out good.

How to proceed? Perhaps the WWWC can convince Wiki that it is abusing html. I am optimistic, because so far, Wiki has been seriously interested in improving itself. To achieve open access, however, we must expect something of a miracle. Granted, the solution is easy: academicians must simply start to refuse to publish in journals that do not make the research results decently available online within, say, a year. That ought to be simple, but it may be too difficult for those who have, until now, managed to ignore the information revolution we are witnessing.

The Value of History

10 November 2009

9 November 1989

Yesterday, Europe celebrated that twenty years ago, Germany was reunited. Like so many people, I have fond memories of it. I had been in Berlin a couple of months before the Wall fell, and somehow I had sensed that change was in the air. The VoPos had been friendlier than during my earlier visits, at least. On that ninth of November, my girlfriend and I continued to watch TV until after midnight. I have visited Berlin only twice ever since, but on both occasions, I found it a nice city, quite relaxed. In Berlin, the cops aren’t marching, but walking leisurely.

To congratulate my German friends, I decided to post a message on Roman Army Talk, one of the best discussion boards I know. I also wrote that I was happy for the rest of the world, because Berlin had been made/remained the capital of Germany, and its museums had been renovated. I hope to visit them next year.

My friend Christian, who lives in Bavaria, replied to this, saying that modest Bonn would have been a better capital. Germany ought to break with everything Prussian, including its capital. We exchanged several messages, discussing the nature of German history. We touched on familiar questions – is there continuity or discontinuity in German history, and so on. If you’re interested, it’s here, but on this blog, I want to make a different observation.

After several hours, people noticed that what “was gonna be a nice tribute on a joyous occasion quickly became very ugly”. It may indeed have seemed so; Christian and I know each other, and writing to each other, we can leave aside common expressions of politeness like “at least in my opinion”. To outsiders, it may have seemed a bit ugly indeed, and we may have made a mistake by putting it online on a public forum. So, I can understand the criticism.

Yet, I also feel that Christian and I did the proper thing. Too many joyous occasions have been hijacked by people who gave a fixed interpretation of the past. In 1989, the French celebrated the bicentenary of their revolution, presenting it as the breakthrough of the bourgeoisie, the culmination of the French Enlightenment, and the birth of modernity. I remember how this generated many questions; the direct consequence of the Revolution was, after all, a relocation of capital that was beneficial to the aristocracy, not the bourgeoisie, and it was not in France but in Britain that industrialization and modernity started. I am not claiming that this interpretation of the French Revolution is better, or that the French ought not to have celebrated the occasion; but they ought to have presented it as something that was open to debate.

Debate is the proper way to celebrate, because the past has no fixed meaning. I fondly remember the old exposition in the Berlin Bundestag, “Frage an die deutsche Geschichte” (“questions to the history of Germany”; the catalog is still available). That is the way we should handle our past, and the Germans generally do that very well. I already blogged on the remarkable expositions to commemorate the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, in which at least two contradictory signals are given: on the hand, “yes there is something to celebrate, so we organize these exhibitions”, and on the other hand, “no there is nothing to celebrate, just read the catalog”.

There is a deeper point, however: what is the value of the study of the past? What can we learn from it? It has no direct relevance; we are free people, constructing our pasts as a response to the present, and accepting what we want to accept. There is something sad about states offering fixed heritage canons to teach the citizens civil virtues: although, on the one hand, the fluidity of the past allows states to construct these canons, the people are, on the other hand, free to ignore it. Even if, for example, the Shah’s claims about Cyrus the Great, the Greek claims about the uniqueness of their civilization, or the Zionists’ claims about their right to own Palestine, could be substantiated, people can just say no their past and make a clean break. It does not follow from the undisputed fact that women have been repressed since time immemorial, that we ought to continue to deny them their rights; nor does the Arabian influence on European civilization mean that westerners ought to be nice towards the Arabs in particular; and so on.

The past itself can be studied, and I disagree with postmodernists who claim that even the facts are always subjective; but these facts have no fixed meaning, unless we give it to them. The value of history is not the reconstruction of what really happened; nor is it education; the value is the debate itself.

In this debate, we find new methods. To take an example from ancient history: over the past thirty years, we have come to realize the extreme importance of the orality of ancient traditions. As a result, our image of the Median Empire has changed, but that is less relevant than the methodological advance, which is also applicable on other fields of study. If only our intelligence services would have realized what happens when people render information orally, they might have avoided an error or two. Or, to take another example, our political debate would benefit greatly if more people realized the consequences of the Everest Fallacy.

In other words: we can study the past because we enjoy the puzzle of getting the facts straight. The accounts of the battle of Aigospotamoi are contradictory, and it is fun to find a solution. We can try to see a deeper meaning in the past, but this is subjective. We need a story about our past, certainly, but it is as unreliable as our personal memories. The relevance of history lies in the debate itself. We find new ways of thinking. In this sense, but in this sense only, history is still the magistra vitae.

(Of course, Imre Lakatos already said this, back in the seventies. The fact that I still need to write what ought to be evident, is again proof that our universities are failing.)

Two Poorly Understood Sites

9 November 2009

Rujm al-Malfouf

To be honest, I wanted to call this topic “two mysterious sites”, but as we all know, ancient historians must avoid clichés like “mystery”, “lost city”, and “treasure” – that would be the equivalent of “gathering war clouds”, “ghosts from the past”, or “child of nature”. Yet, today I have to introduce two sites that are, well, quite mysterious:

Go there to learn more, and understand less. Two other items: LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer has added an article on Roman fire worship to his Antiquaries’ Shoebox, and on his blog, Bill Heroman refers to a common mistake about the Temple of Herod.

Collected Museum Reviews

8 November 2009

Museum für antike Schifffahrt, Mainz

This little blog now exists for almost two years, and I have written twenty-one articles on museums in Europe and the Near East; Bill has added one article on a museum in the United States. It’s a nice collection, even though many famous museums are still not covered – the Louvre, the British Museum, the Metropolitan, and all museums in Italy and Greece. Yet, it is a beginning, and I hope you will find it useful when you plan a trip; of course, I will continue to update this page, which you can find here.

Tourism and Archaeology in Jordan

6 November 2009

The North Gate at Lejjun

Travel is easy in Jordan. The roads are fine, taxis are everywhere, food is nice, hotels are good, the people are friendly, and they usually speak English. A surprisingly high number of people also speaks Italian. Your cell phone is working, you can read the international newspapers, and many hotels have access to the internet.

Of course there are the usual sources of irritation. Women are gazed after and even married ladies will have to cope with “funny” remarks like “you don’t need sugar in your tea because you’re sweet enough”. You can often see dollar signs in the eyes of the people: you’re expected to pay lavish tips even after you’ve already paid six times the normal price for a bottle of water. And of course there’s the usual hypocrisy – the Petra authorities request visitors to leave the site before sunset “for safety reasons”, while they also allow a spectacle called “Petra by night”, suggesting that it less unsafe than implied. Yet, if you can ignore these things, which are common in the Near East, you will be surprised how easy it is to travel through Jordan.

The Deir 'Alla Inscription, carelessly stored away in the Amman Museum.

The main ancient monuments are Petra, in a landscape full of fascinating, multicolored rocks, and Jerash, which only lacks a romantic setting in the desert to make it comparable to Palmyra. There are several Crusader castles, like Kerak and Shobeq, and religious sites, like Mount Nebo and the “Baptism Site”. In the eastern part of the country, you are able to visit the desert castles from the Umayyad and Abbasid age. So, this country is a garden of delights for archaeologists and historians, and even better: you can take your photos almost everywhere – something that needs a lot of discussion in the museums of Damascus or Cairo.

Yet, tourism is very one-sided. It is a source of income, not of study or inspiration. Jerash and Petra have been designed to enable as many people as possible to visit the sites and leave behind their money, and you will find it hard to buy a good book. I have never seen an inventory of Nabataean inscriptions or the catalog of the museum of Amman – books that you can easily find in, say, Turkey, Syria, or Iran. In the end, the Rough Guide and the DuMont Reiseführer remained our main source of ready reference.

The baths of Gadara

I was particularly intrigued by Qasr Bshir, one of the best-preserved Roman forts in the Near East, and a perfect place to illustrate how the province of Arabia was a net tax-importing province. Any tourist guide would love to use it to explain the mechanisms of Roman imperialism, but in fact, its existence is almost a secret (although it is mentioned in the DuMont Reiseführer). You won’t see a road sign, at least.

There are many examples of this. Tourism is concentrated on several splendid sites, but there is little else. Archaeology is treated as a source of income, not as something intrinsically interesting. And this is a pity, because in this way, the Jordanian people will identify their past with western tourists from whom money can be extracted; they will not accept the past as their own as long as they are unaware that those ancient ruins next to their village are more than just a source of income.

Several causes may be mentioned to explain this attitude. The Hashemite dynasty is young and may want to distance itself from the past, presenting itself as the bringers of prosperity after ages of poverty. And it is difficult to present a “national” past in a country that has a very, very large Palestinian minority. I do not know. Yet, the result is that the past is neglected. To put it bluntly, Jordan is selling its past to westerners. That is not a good thing.


6 November 2009

The Tomb of Sextius Florentinius

It is hard to not to know that Petra is the main archaeological site of Jordan. In Amman, there’s a musical on stage, aptly called “Petra Rocks”; companies call themselves after the Nabataean capital; posters of the town can be seen in nearly every souvenir shop; the famous view of the Treasury is reproduced as a mosaic. I was anxious to visit it, but I somehow did not dare to expect too much of it. I had the same experience during my first visits to Rome, Pompeii, Delphi, Persepolis, Lepcis Magna, Giza, Palmyra, and Nemrud Daği. Perhaps this is one of my minds’ curious strategies to prevent a disappointment.

This time, it turned out to be a wise strategy. Rome, Delphi, and Persepolis will always surpass the highest expectations and a visit to Palmyra, Pompeii, the pyramids, or Lepcis will never become a routine either; on the other hand, Nemrud Daği had no magic left when I arrived there for the second time. I think that Petra will belong to this same category. (I am aware that I am superbly blessed to have had the prerogative to be able to visit and revisit so many sites, and to have a friend with whom I have been able to share so many experiences.)

Petra is interesting and beautiful, but it is not Rome, Delphi, and Persepolis. Situated in a landscape reminiscent of Cappadocia, it is nature, not architecture that makes it special. The many funeral monuments are impressive and some of them are really beautiful, but that is all there is to it. You will never walk through the house of an Augustus, the temple of a Plutarch, or the palace of Xerxes. The site appeals to our sense of beauty and is therefore interesting for art historians and tourists; but to historians and other people interested in the depth of time, it has less to offer.

This does not mean that I am disappointed. My mind’s odd trick had helped me not to expect too much. It’s funny how the subconscious works.

Qasr Bshir

6 November 2009

Leaving one of the most splendid sites of Jordan

A visit to Qasr Bshir ought to be obligatory to any visitor to Jordan. The Roman castle, founded in c.300, is not a ruin, as so often, but is almost intact. It is a square limes fort of about 50×50 meters with four towers, so that it is often typified as a “quadriburgium”. That it is a fascinating place can be deduced from the fact that two young women in our company, who were not known for their great interest in military architecture, were the last ones to leave.

The most amazing aspect of the best-preserved Roman castle in Jordan, however, is that you will be alone. For those who cannot believe that, I will repeat it: you won’t find a soul at a site that is arguably the kingdom’s third archaeological site, after Petra and Jerash.

This is all the more surprising because Jordan’s Castel del Monte is situated almost next to the Desert Highway, the main road from Damascus to Amman to Saudi Arabia. To reach it, go from Qatrana to the north. At your left hand, you will pass the “Petra Tourist Complex” (terrible coffee); after this, take the first asphalt road to the left. It is perpendicular to the highway, leading almost straight to the west. After you have passed the first of two electricity lines, the road turns to the right and winds itself to the northwest. After some eight minutes, you will see the fort to your right. The walk to the castle takes about 15-20 minutes and is easy. Your satellite photo is here.


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