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.

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.