Pregnant stone delivers

3 July 2014
The baby stone

The baby stone

Today, I received a message from a friend in Beirut, who recently visited Baalbek. When you arrive to that city, you will pass the ancient quarry, where you will see the largest stone that was ever cut by men. It is called Hajar al-Hibla, the “pregnant stone”. The owner of the nearby souvenir shop greeted my friend with the words that “the pregnant has delivered!”

What had happened? Archaeologists had been inspecting the site, when they discovered a small, straight stone edge. They investigated it, and soon discovered a “baby stone” that is probably even bigger than its mother. Hajar al-Hibla has a length of twenty meters and a height and width of 4½ meters, this one is 5 meters wide; its width is still unknown. No doubt, both stones were cut out for the nearby temple of Jupiter.

The photo above was sent to me by my friends at travel agency Libanva.

PS

Judith Weingarten reminds me of the unfinished obelisk attributed to Hatshepsut. It is 42 m long and 2.5-4.4 m wide. It is even bigger than the stones at Baalbek.


Le Clos de la Lombarde

31 July 2013

House of the Genius

Michel Gybels sent me a nice piece, with photos, of a usually closed excavation in Narbonne (France), called Le Clos de la Lombarde. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered the foundations of houses, workshops, and a bathhouse. Later, the remains of a Christian basilica and a cemetery were excavated as well.

Go here for the story and the photos.


Several new pages

30 June 2013

One of the new Behistun photos

The Livius website was founded, in a different form and on another URL, in 1995: almost twenty years ago. It desperately needs to be rebuilt, using new software. Methodological points need to be explained as well, and I want to use the upgrade to add references to the sources that have in the meantime become available on reliable sites, such as LacusCurtius. I also want to undo the fatal error I described here: obliging to a request by several universities not to add references to secondary literature.

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to upgrade it, and I hesitate to add new pages, because I suspect that work I do now, will have to be done again after the conversion. So, that brings the website to some kind of standstill.

This does not mean that nothing happens. Mr Michel Gybels, who has already contributed to the website before, has sent me pages on several archaeological sites in Asia Minor: Euromos, Alexandria in Troas, Phocaea, Clarus, Labranda, and Magnesia on the Meander. I also added a page on Jupiter Heliopolitanus (the god of Baalbek) and Majdel Anjar, plus new photos of the Behistun relief.


The Tomb of Daniel

16 March 2013

The mausoleum of Daniel, seen from the Bronze Age settlement

We would have expected the tombs of Esther and Mordecai, about which I already wrote, in Susa, but they are in Hamadan. In Susa, though, you can find the tomb of the prophet Daniel, which you would have expected in Babylon.

In its present form, the mausoleum dates back to the twelfth century, with many more recent additions. It is mentioned by the Jewish writer Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Susa in 1167. You will not meet many Jews over there, because the mausoleum is Islamic. A modern wall painting quotes Imam Huseyn (the man who died at Kerbala), who invites Shi’ite Muslims to visit the place: “Anyone who visits my brother Daniel, it is like he visited me.” There used to be another wall painting, showing Daniel in the lions’ den, but it has been overpainted.

But why do Muslims venerate Daniel? After all, the prophet is not mentioned in the Quran. The answer is given by Tabari, a Persian collector of historical anecdotes who lived in the late ninth and early tenth century, and wrote about the Arabian conquests.

The tomb of the prophet

He tells that the Arabs had invaded southwestern Iran (Khuzestan) and started to besiege Susa. The Christian priests and monks insulted their enemy, boasting that the Arabs could only capture the city only if they’d receive support from the devil. However, the city gate collapsed more or less spontaneously, and the Arabs took Susa without much effort. Persian noblemen were executed and the treasury of the church was looted.

Here, the conquerors found a silver sarcophagus with a mummy, which was believed to Daniel’s. A signet ring showing a man between two lions seemed to confirmed this, and when Caliph Umar, who had first ordered the sarcophagus to be buried in the river Shaour, heard about this, he had second thoughts and ordered a decent funeral.

An ancient Christian cult for a Jewish prophet had become an Islamic cult, even though the Quran knew nothing about Daniel. This is quite interesting, because it proves that in the age of the great Arab conquests, the Islamic religion still had to get its own character. I like the idea, proposed by Fred Donner, that it was a kind of ecumenical movement of Jews, Christians, and Arabs who had accepted monotheism. If that was indeed the nature of early Islam, it is less of a surprise to find a Jewish prophet being venerated by Muslims.


The Tombs of Esther and Mordecai

16 March 2013
The mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai

The mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai

There have always been Jewish communities in the Islamic countries. After all, the Jews are “people of the book”, or dhimmis, who are entitled to protection and are not to be forced into conversion. However, there is no denying that the Jewish communities in the Near East are in decline. I am afraid that the beautifully restored synagogue in Beirut will never be used. There’s a famous joke that in Baghdad, there are only two Jews left, who are quarrelling. In Hamadan, a great city in western Iran, there are some thirty Jewish families, which is considerably less than the 3,000–6,000 Jews that used to live there after the Second World War, or the 30,000 mentioned in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, the place is of some significance to oriental Judaism, because in the city center, there’s a small mausoleum, which is dedicated to Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai, the two heroes of the Biblical book Esther. It is a beautiful, small building, made of bricks. Even when you don’t have a Ph.D. in architectural history, you can easily date it to the Middle Ages: it looks like a Seljuk türbe, or tomb-tower.

The two cenotaphs

The two cenotaphs

The two tombs inside the building can be dated to the thirteenth century. They are empty. The Hebrew inscription on the walls inform us that the cenotaphs were built by the mother of two brothers, who had served as physicians at the court of a Mongol ruler.

So, the mausoleum has nothing to do with the two Biblical persons. However, it must be noticed that the veneration of Esther and Mordecai is quite old: it was mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish author who visited Hamadan in the mid-twelfth century. Why the Jews of Hamadan had, by that time, started to venerate the Achaemenid queen and her relative, is a bit of a mystery: after all, the scene of the story is laid in Susa. Nevertheless, it seems certain that the cult of Esther and Mordecai antedates the building of the mausoleum that is now shown as their final resting place.


Lebanon, again

31 December 2012
Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

For the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege to visit Lebanon. Starting in Beirut, where we visited the splendid National Museum again, we embarked upon a very, very leisurely trip around. At the Nahr al-Kalb, we managed to reach the inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, which is covered by all kinds of vegetation, and will soon have disappeared.

Byblos, which I could not really appreciate during my earlier visit because I did not understand its stratigraphy, turned out to be a lot more accessible now that I knew what to expect. It was interesting to think where Wen Amun must have built his tent and where the king must have had his throne.

We proceeded to the Kadisha valley, which is the heartland of Maronite Christianity. Before entering it, we visited Amioun, Bziza, and Aïn Akrine, three sites with Roman temples. In Bsharre (the town of Kahlil Gibran), we climbed to a Phoenician tomb, and had lunch with a view of the snow-covered cedar trees.

Cedar tree

After this, we visited the Bekaa valley and Baalbek. Because we had started early and had slept in a hotel in the valley, we could arrive very early in the morning, and were almost the only people at the site, except for the guards. Returning to our hotel, we passed along Qsarnaba, Niha, and Nabi Ayla.

We also saw the Palestinian refugees who had been bombed away from Damascus – but this is not the place to write about those poor people, who most certainly did not deserve this.

Sidon

Next day, it was raining cats and dogs, but we were in Sidon, where we greatly enjoyed watching how the storm pushed the surf against the sea castle. Some of the waves must have been fifteen meters high and it was really spectacular. The same can be said of the lovely mosaics in the Beiteddin palace. The last place we visited in Beirut was the museum of the American University.

There was a bonus, though: our airplane was delayed and we were unable to catch the connecting flight in Istanbul. So, our trip lasted an additional day, and we saw a snow-covered Hagia Sophia and, in the archaeological museum, the royal sarcophagi from Sidon.

Beiteddin

Beiteddin

I cannot wait to go back to the only place in the world where you can listen to “o come let us adore him” and at the same time hear a mu’ezzin’s call for prayer. My Facebook photos are here and here; and today I added photos of the temples of Aïn Akrine, the rock tombs of Amioun, the Phoenician tomb at Bsharre, the sanctuary at Bziza, and the temple at Qsarnaba. Some older stuff from Lebanon is here.


Bagacum (Bavay)

25 November 2012
Photo Marco Prins

The Basilica

I visited Bavay in northern France several years ago, returning from Saulzoir, where Julius Caesar had once defeated the Nervii. The ruins of Bavay were something of a bonus after a day that had been very well-spent, and we were not in a particular hurry. So, we were too late to see the exhibition, but could take some photos of the forum and the basilica. They were impressive, which comes as no surprise, as Bagacum, as it was called, was some kind of showcase of Roman power.

Although I still hope to see the exhibition, some information is already available here.


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