Collapsing Civilizations

4 May 2014

clineCenturies after the destruction of Troy, its mighty walls still stood, eight meters high. Its sanctuaries and well house were recognizable. It is easy to imagine how the shepherds on the plain were impressed and told stories about the ancient city. Once, there had been a terrible war, they will have said, and the warriors had been people of superhuman strength. Not even those heroes, however, could have built the walls: they were not made by men but by gods.

Gods, heroes, and century-old ruins: that was all that a poet like Homer knew about Bronze Age Troy, the background of his Iliad. Other bards sung about Knossos, Mycenae, and Thebes, and in their poems we can also recognize echoes from the fourteenth and thirteenth century BCE. Echoes, only echoes: the poems were largely fictitious. The Aegean Bronze Age civilization was almost completely forgotten.

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J.D. Grainger, The Syrian Wars

28 October 2012

If you read this review to see whether a book is sufficiently good to buy it, read no further: John Grainger’s The Syrian Wars is a good book. It is even an important book, and if I will appear to be very critical, this is because it is worth criticizing.

The nine Syrian Wars, waged between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires over the possession of Coele Syria, are a neglected subject. There were few battles to attract the historians’ attention, but more importantly: Rome was at the same time uniting the Mediterranean, a process that was to have more lasting consequences than the eastern wars. Grainger, however, succeeds in showing that the Syrian Wars deserve more attention. He stresses that the conflict was central to the growth of the governmental system of two Hellenistic states, which he calls ‘competitive development’.

On which foundation does he build his thesis? On written sources and coins, of course, which he treats with great care. However, this also means that The Syrian Wars is essentially a N=1 study, which might be refuted easily. As Grainger indicates, any part of his reconstruction can be challenged by the discovery of new texts. If this happens several times, it will be fatal to his thesis.

When empirical foundations are weak, students of most disciplines invoke comparisons. When they do not have sufficient evidence to build a firm structure, it is useful to tie it to more solid objects. This is why historians of Antiquity are inevitably forced to compare their reconstructions to reconstructions of comparable processes in other pre-industrial societies.

Fortunately, the necessary parallels exist. Competitive development is hardly unique; historians and sociologists have often shown that state formation is usually a consequence of a prolonged military conflict. Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990) is a modern classic. If Grainger had referred to it, his book would have been more convincing, because its thesis would be based on more than one example. N=10 is better than N=1.

The need for comparisons is even greater, because Grainger appears to be unaware of a lot of recent literature. The new sources that might challenge parts of his reconstruction, have in fact already been published. For instance, Grainger’s dates of the Second Diadoch War are based on Manni’s ‘low chronology’ (1949), not on Tom Boiy’s little gem Between High and Low (2007). The relevant new sources are ostraca and cuneiform texts.

Occasionally, Grainger is unaware of new readings of well-known texts. It is strange to see how he antedates the Antigonid invasions of Babylonia to 311, and presents Ptolemy’s naval expedition to the Aegean in 309 as a trick to lure Antigonus away from the eastern theater of war. This leaves the reader with a sense of confusion, because one would expect the two operations to be more or less simultaneous. Fortunately, the problem is only apparent: the Chronicle of the Diadochs (= Babylonian Chronicle 10) dates the Babylonian War to 310/309. Grainger knows the source, but ignores recent scholarship.

This can also be said of his treatment of the reign of Antiochus IV. Fortunately, his treatment resembles Mittag’s beautiful Antiochos IV (2006). Both authors show that the king pursued a policy that is far more rational than the authors of the ancient sources are willing to admit.

Another omission is the set of twenty texts known as the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period. The evidence was known for some time already (seven of these texts were already included in Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 1975). Several statements of Grainger’s are directly contradicted by BCHP. For example, Grayson says that we do not know where crown prince Antiochus was when his father Seleucus Nicator was assassinated. He settles for Ecbatana, but Chronicles BCHP 5, 6, and 7 suggest that the crown prince often resided in Babylon. (Disclosure: I am involved in the publication, preparing the online editions that scholars use to discuss these chronicles.)

Grainger’s discussion of the Third Syrian War ignores BCHP 11, a chronicle that not only proves that the Egyptians captured Babylon, but also offers interesting details about the fights. After an unsuccessful siege of Seleucia-on-the-Euphrates, Ptolemaic heavy infantry (‘ironclad Macedonians who are not scared of the gods’, according to the chronicler) attacked Babylon, which held out twelve days until it fell on January 20. The citadel remained in the hands of its Seleucid garrison, however, and early in February, the commander of Seleucia tried to lift the blockade. He was defeated and the Seleucid troops who had remained in Seleucia, were massacred. We do not know what happened next, but this is important information. Grainger, unaware of this first-rate source, concludes ‘that Ptolemy crossed the Euphrates but did not reach Babylon’.

The real problem, however, is not that Grainger ignores useful comparisons and recent scholarship. The study of ancient societies is complex, no one can know everything, and scholars cannot even establish what they do not know. Ancient history is the discipline of the unknown unknowns. To fill the lacunas in the knowledge of their writers, publishers have boards of editors. If Grainger is unaware of the existence of BCHP – which is, like so many cuneiform resources, only available online – it is the editors’ task to help. This time, however, the board has been sleeping, which may also explain the unusually great number of typos and the unusually poor maps.

All this should not distract us, however, from the simple fact that Grainger has written an important book that no student of Hellenistic institutions or military history can afford to ignore. With a more energetic board of editors, it might have been a good book, but still, Grainger has achieved his aim: to prove that the continuing conflict forced two Hellenistic states ‘to undertake measures to strengthen themselves internally, financially, militarily, politically, by alliances, and by recruiting manpower, so that they could face yet another war which both sides came to anticipate’.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare]

Abusing the Bible

4 July 2012

Marib, capital of Sheba

That was a nice article. Scientists confirmed that there are close links between Ethiopia and groups outside of Africa, which is evidence of long-ago genetic mixing between Ethiopian populations and Syrian and Israeli people. Not surprising, of course. Already in the Naqada Period, merchants sailed from Egypt to Syria and Nubia. They continued to do so for centuries. It would have been real news if there had been no genetic mixing.

Unfortunately, scientists do not like to confirm what is already known. Or, to be more precise: they themselves have no problem with it, because a confirmation is also interesting, but their financers do not like it. So, the article is introduced by referring to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem (1 Kings 10.1-13). And voilà, all journalists copy it, although Sheba is not in Ethiopia but in Yemen. I expect that the scientists involved will, when they establish genetic mixing between the Levant and Belgium, refer to Rhabanus Maurus’ story that Joseph of Arimathea visited England.

Why is the Bible always quoted? If the Thera explodes in 1629 BCE, we get a press release that Moses, during his travel through the desert, followed a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13.21). If scientists tell about lack of oxygen causing people to hallucinate, they refer to Moses on the mountain (Ex. 19.3). If archaeologists find an extremely old sanctuary between Euphrates and Tigris, they start talking about the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2.8-14). The golden rule appears to be: by referring to the Bible, you will attract large crowds, and can look forward to a miraculous multiplication of funds.

Of course the Bible does mention that Moses followed a pillar of clouds, that Moses went up a mountain, and that God planted a garden between four rivers. The theories founded upon these stories may be nonsensical, but at least there are fitting quotes in the Bible. But there is not a single line in the Bible that can be used to bring the Yemenite Queen to Ethiopia. And the medieval legend that is adduced, is precisely that: a medieval legend.

If scientists start referring to the Queen of Sheba for the genetic mixing in Ethiopia, something is very seriously wrong. Quack historians at least quote things that are actually in the sources. Official scientists are not even interested in that.

Meanwhile, in Syria

28 May 2012

Shelled: Crac des Chevaliers

There’s a civil war in Syria. I always feel it is somehow inappropriate to talk about archaeology, classics, or heritage, when people are fighting to survive. Nevertheless, I think it is not unimportant to pay some attention to the damage to the cultural damage. Here is a report by the Global Heritage Network. It’s quite depressing. Below is a quote from page six. After that, there are forty-five other pages.

Sites known to have been affected by the shelling are:

  • World Heritage Site – (parts of the) Archaeological Villages of Northern Syria, in particular al-Bara, Deir Sunbel, Aïn Larose.
  • World Heritage Site – Bosra.
  • World Heritage Site – Crac des Chevaliers.
  • Tentative World Heritage Site – Apamea and the citadel of Qal’at al-Mudiq. Also the town surrounding the citadel, which is known to date from at least the 16th century. Damage has been confirmed at the 16th century Mosque al-Tawhid, and is suspected at the Islamic caravanserai which forms the museum.
  • Tell Sheikh Hamad (Dur Katlimmu) – Assyrian temple collapsed after shell fire and the site was “transformed into a battlefield between deserters and army”.
  • Mosque of Idlib Sermin (Fatimid era).
  • Mosque of al-Tekkiyeh Ariha minaret destroyed.
  • Al-Qusaayr – Great Mosque and Mar Elias monastery damaged.
  • Mosque al-Herak in the Dara’a region.
  • Oldest mosque in city of Sermin.
  • Our Lady of Seydnaya Monastery – Earliest part of monastery dates to early Christian era (circa 547AD) – shell through back wall.
  • Tomb of the Sheikh Dahur al-Muhammad in Rityan, in Aleppo province.

Nahr al-Kalb

30 April 2012

Reliefs of Ramesses II (left) and Esarhaddon (right).

In the thirteenth century BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II left three reliefs on the south bank of the Nahr al-Kalb, north of Beyrut, which commemorated the northern campaigns that culminated in the battle of Kadesh (1274). Several centuries later, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon conquered Egypt, and chose to put a memorial opposite the relief of Ramesses. Ever since, armies have left inscription at the Nahr al-Kalb, a custom known to Herodotus (more).

All in all, there are twenty-two inscriptions and two monuments, with texts in seven languages (Egyptian, Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, and English). Together, they give a nice overview of Lebanese history.

A complete overview is here (and an overview of all Lebanese posts on this blog is here).

Roman Beyrut

30 April 2012

Roman baths

I have now blogged about the new web pages about the Bekaa Valley and the Lebanon, about Niha, about Faqra, and about Machnaqa. There’s a lot more to be written – think of Baalbek, Byblus, Sidon, and Tyre – but for the moment, I will only add Beyrut.

We found it a lovely city, with two beautiful museums (the National Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University) and a couple of ancient ruins, which were not very special. Nevertheless, the city’s history is quite interesting, and some objects from the museums are really important.

My favorite is an amulet from the Louvre, in which many celestial beings are invoked to protect one Alexandra. Officially, she was Christian, so she mentions “the One who sits among two cherubs” and “the One God and His Christ”, but after that, we read about the seven lords of the seven heavens (Marmarioth, Uriel, Ael, Gabriel, Chael, Moriath, Chachth), the beings responsible for the weather (Riopha, Zonchar, Tebriel, Tobriel), the protectors of the sea and mountains (Suriel and Nuchael), the celestial dragon keeper Iathennuian, and a protector of the firmament named Chrara. So much for orthodoxy.

Two new webpages can be found here. Enjoy!


28 April 2012

The high priest Narkisos

Our visit to the temples of ancient Nihata (modern Niha) was one of the highlights of our visit to Lebanon. There are two sanctuaries, an oracle dedicated to the Syrian goddess Atargatis and a smaller shrine for Hadanares, who was comparable to the Baal-Zeus-Jupiter of Baalbek. There are two other temples, never finished, at nearby Hosn Niha.

The site must have been well-known, as it was situated along the main road from Antioch to the south: along the Orontes to Aleppo and Baalbek, and down to Tyre through the Bekaa valley. Many travelers must have seen the shrines of Nihata, and must have stayed there, as it is exactly one day from Baalbek.

My new webpages are here.


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