Decapolis and Capitals

31 August 2009
The ruins of Scythopolis (Beth Shean, Israel)

The ruins of Scythopolis, one of the towns of the Decapolis

Continuing my series of articles on Jordan in Antiquity, I added two articles today: one about the Decapolis and one about capitals. The latter is meant as an addition to yesterday’s piece on the Nabataeans, who tried to stress their cultural autonomy by designing a building order of their own, that was not recognizably Greek. If I wanted to explain it, I needed to show photos of other capitals: the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and so on. For one reason or another, I enjoyed writing this piece of antiquarism.

The Decapolis was part of the original series of Jordanian articles. It was a group of towns in northern Jordan, northeastern Israel, and southwestern Syria. The name suggests that there were ten cities, but there were at least twelve, and at some point even eighteen members of the Decapolis. What they shared, was their (accepted) Greek legacy. This made them completely different from the Nabataeans, who rejected Hellenism.

The Decapolis is here and the capitals are here; and Bill made available a new text by Plutarch, On Tranquillity of the Mind.


The Nabataeans

30 August 2009
Roman coin, commemorating the annexation of Arabia Nabataea (Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen)

Roman coin, commemorating the annexation of Nabataea (Valkhof, Nijmegen)

The Nabataeans were an Arabian tribe that, in the age of the Persian Empire, settled in the kingdom of Edom. The Greeks were unable to conquer them, although they tried in c.312 BCE, and the Nabataeans retained their independence, outside the Hellenistic world. Later, when the Roman commander Pompey the Great reorganized the Near East, they again managed to retain their autonomy.

The key to their independence was, at least partly, their control of the Incense Route: a caravan route through the western part of what is now Saudi Arabia, all the way to Yemen, where spices and incense could be found. As long as they controlled trade, they were left alone. However, once Rome had conquered Egypt, trade was increasingly often conducted by sailors, and Nabataean income diminished. In 106 CE, the Roman emperor Trajan annexed the country of the Nabataeans.

My new page on this subject is here.

Battle of Qarqar (853 BCE)

30 August 2009
Statue of Šalmaneser III from Aššur (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul)

Statue of Šalmaneser III from Aššur (Arkeoloji Müzesi, Istanbul)

I did not intend to write about the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, but when I was again forced to refer to the clash between the Assyrian king Šalmaneser III and a coalition of some twelve Syrian states, this time in a piece on the Nabataeans that I find more important, I decided to put online a page, if only to get rid of it. Of course, when I was occupied with the subject, I started to like it.

Well, “like it”: it remains warfare, which is a dirty job. Šalmaneser himself says that he filled the plain of Qarqar (in northwestern Syria) with the corpses of his dead enemies, that he “made the blood of his defeated enemies flow in the wadis”, that “the field was too small for laying flat their bodies,” that “the broad countryside had been consumed in burying them,” and that he “blocked the Orontes river with their corpses as with a causeway”.

There is some reasonable doubt whether the Assyrians really overcame their enemies. In fact, they appear to have been on the defensive during in the next years. Yet, in 841, they reached Damascus and king Jehu of Israel offered tribute. Qarqar may not have been the decisive Šalmaneser claims it had been, but it surely marked the beginning of the end of independent Syria.

One of the coalition members, by the way, was king Ahab of Israel, who is better known as one of the archvillains of the Bible. During the battle, he commanded one of the largest units. You can read more about the battle here.

Inscriptions from Jordan

29 August 2009
Funeral stone from Madaba (Louvre)

Funeral inscription from Madaba (Louvre)

The regular readers will by now have realized that I am currently focusing on Jordan in Antiquity; I will visit that country in November, in šāʾ Allāh. Before I will put online a page on the Nabataeans, I’ve first made available several inscriptions. The photo to the right shows a funeral inscription now in the Louvre; it is from the tomb of a grandfather and a grandson, and contains an interesting Greek loanword.

Three other inscriptions can be found here; one of them dates -amusingly- from the exactly the beginning of our era, the month of Tebeth of the ninth year of Aretas IV, i.e., the two last weeks of 1 BCE or the two first weeks of January 1 CE.

The Deir ‘Alla Inscription is about eight centuries older. It describes the revelations of the prophet Balaam, son of Beor, who is also known from the Biblical book of Numbers. In the first part, he describes how a group of evil deities wants to destroy the world, and how Balaam is able to avert this danger; a second part describes Sheol, the Underworld.

Meanwhile, Bill has made available uncle Plutarch‘s unfinished declamation On Affection for Offspring.

Edom and Idumea

28 August 2009
Edom and its neighbors

Edom and its neighbors

Edom was one of the Iron Age states adjacent to the kingdom of Judah. It is already mentioned during the reign of pharaoh Merenptah (1213-1203); Edomite nomads were allowed to cross the Sinai and enter Egypt. It is better known, however, from the first centuries of the first millennium BCE, when it was sometimes subject, sometimes at peace, and sometimes at war with the Judaeans. The books of Samuel and Kings are important sources, and so are the Assyrian documents.

During the Babylonian Exile of the Jews, the Edomites conquered the southern part of Judah, perhaps expelled from their own country by the Nabataeans, who were, since the fourth century, certainly in control of the original homeland of the Edomites. The new country of the Edomites is usually called Idumea, and was forcibly converted to Judaism by the Hasmonaean leader John Hyrcanus (r.134-104).

More about Edom can be found on this new webpage.

Plutarch, for a friend

27 August 2009
fictitious portrait of Plutarch

A fictitious 16c portrait of Plutarch

Another “request” item; this time, a real request, from my friend Susan, whose site Elfinspell is a Wunderkammer of mediaevalia and classical Antiquity. So, tracking down a sort-of citation in chapter 5 of Sir John Lubbock’s The Pleasures of Life, another bit of Plutarch: On Brotherly Love; just in English. A French translation is available at Philippe Remacle’s site; neither of us yet have the Greek.

There’s a lot of Plutarch left! Right now, only 40% of the Moralia are onsite (40.2%, to be precise).


26 August 2009
The Jabbok

The Jabbok

Continuing my series on the antiquities of Jordan, here’s the second piece: the Ammonites. According to Numbers, their relation to Israel and Judah was determined by a conflict in the Late Bronze Age, when Amorites took control of the east bank of the river Jordan and founded two small kingdoms in land traditionally occupied by the Ammonites. Moses’ wandering Hebrews expelled the Amorites, and the tribes of Rueben and Gad settled on the east bank, creating a casus belli for times to come. Jeptha, Saul, and David are all credited with victorious campaigns against the Ammonites.

My article is here, and the next piece will be about the Edomites.