Lion and Bull

22 March 2010

Bull and lion on a relief from Persepolis.

I usually hesitate to read books about art. Art historians always seem to directly start with the interpretation of the paintings or sculptures. Somehow, they often appear to ignore that beautiful things can also be made to be precisely that: beautiful things. Art is meant primarily to be enjoyed, not studied.

Take the fight of the bull and the lion that is shown so very often in Achaemenid art. I once read that it represented the eternal cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil; I also read that they represent two constellations, Taurus and Leo; and I also read that these two theories are not mutually exclusive. But the truth is that we don’t know what it symbolizes.

Actually, we do not even know what it represents. I once believed that the struggle was equal, until I showed one of these reliefs to a man who worked at a zoo. He told me that the lion had already lost the fight, because this animal kills its prey by attacking its victim’s head. Obviously, that’s not what we see: the lion has leaped and has landed on the wrong place – the bull will escape.

Coin of Mazaeus

I recently told this to someone who had lived in Tanzania. She said that she had once witnessed this very type of fight, and added that the lion always leaps to the lower part of an animal’s back. He will remain hanging over there, until his prey is tired. It is only then that the lion kills its victim. This may be shown on the coin of Mazaeus to the left.

So, next time I have to explain this relief, I will do what I always do: explain why we don’t know.

Meanwhile, I learned one thing else. The astronomical explanation is almost certainly incorrect. The next example of an animal representing a celestial sign is the horoscope at Nemrud Daği, which is four centuries younger. Under the Roman Empire, this type of picture rapidly spread, which is why we’re accustomed to it, but it simply had not yet been invented when Persepolis was built.



21 March 2010

An der schönen grauen Donau

Together with the Rhine, the Danube was the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. Springing from two wells in the Black Forest and emptying itself into the Black Sea, it has a length of 2860 kilometers and is the largest river in Europe. All in all, ten legions guarded the border. As Procopius was to declare in the sixth century:

The Emperors of former times, by way of preventing the crossing of the Danube by the barbarians who live on the other side, occupied the entire bank of this river with strongholds, and not the right bank of the stream alone, for in some parts of it they built towns and fortresses on its other bank.

I have written a small piece on it, which will be expanded when I have some time. You can find it here and that lovely piece of kitsch you’re now all thinking about can be heard here.


21 March 2010
Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe

If no one is interested in your excavation, you can always give your site a different name, like Palmyra, which immediately generates a lot of publicity. Alternatively, you offer an exaggerated interpretation of the finds: you’ve not found a cave with splendid mosaics, but the Lupercal; you’ve not found a tenth-century BCE Hebrew ostracon, but a Biblical text; you’ve not found a villa, but the villa of Vespasian. Or you just recycle some old news, because journalists never check their stories.

That seems to have happened in this article, based on an article published in a Turkish newspaper on either 10 or 17 March. From it, we learn that near Harran, the world’s oldest temple has been discovered. Although the name of the site is not mentioned, it’s clearly about Göbekli Tepe, a very famous site. It’s like claiming you’ve found the Acropolis or the Forum Romanum.

Who is responsible for this piece of archaeological non-news? Of course, Hanlon’s Razor applies and we should not attribute to malice that which can be explained by mere carelessness. Yet, given the fact that archaeologists are well-known for their exaggerations, I am not so sure, and I would not be surprised if someone is misleading us.

Caspian Sea

20 March 2010

The Caspian Sea near Ramsar

As a boy, I was already dreaming of visiting the Caspian Sea. The Mediterranean Sea was far away, the Black Sea sounded even more exotic, but the Caspian Sea – that was at the edges of the earth. Two weeks ago, I finally visited Mazandaran and saw what I had been longing to see for such a long time. The country between the sea and the Elburz Mountains offers a spectacular landscape, but not the almost tropical climate I expected. Yet, there were forests (our word jungle is a loan word from this area) and there were several splendid medieval tombs at a/o Lahijan and Sari.

Because I had no camera with me, I took a photo of the sea with my telephone. I also used the small toy to call a friend in Holland, who could hear the surf, and in return told me the results of the past elections and the soccer matches. In the evening, we had White Fish for dinner. There’s more here.

He shoulda watched where he stepped….

19 March 2010


What’s a poor writer to do? someone, some day, for some reason, will annotate you: and naturally, being long dead, you won’t be up to defending yourself. And so it is with the writer of a biographical sketch of the 19c American general George McClellan, famous for being so cautious not to lose battles that he would have lost the war had he not quickly been replaced by President Lincoln: our anonymous writer had the misfortune to use what was at the time a fairly conventional phrase — but one that in our own age, less attuned to the classics, got him a dose of annotation right between the eyes. I prolly wouldn’t mention any of this if (a) it weren’t a somewhat out-of-the-way place for this item; and (b) if it weren’t considerably better than the corresponding Wikipedia entry, yet very likely at the cost of half the expenditure of time. Jona, you’ve been there, and will doubtless have further, um, annotations on it all.

LacusCurtius offline briefly

17 March 2010

A note to let those of you who use my site frequently know that it’s offline, probably for no more than about four or five days. A computer is being moved, whence a new IP number and the world’s Domain Name Tables have to find it again. (I can’t be reached by e-mail, either.)

Back up 1200 GMT Mar 19; everything back to normal, exactly as before. Turned out to be only two days, nice! (The physical computer had to be moved from one office at the University of Chicago to another.)

Persepolis and Priorities

16 March 2010

Darius' palace used to be accessible

I just returned from Iran. In Tehran, I met a man who told me that he had recently visited Persepolis, and had been a bit disappointed. There were weeds everywhere, the site looked neglected, and there was no path to the rock tombs, he complained. I was surprised to hear this – and not because the third complaint was a bit unfair. (Persepolis is an archaeological site and the construction of a path, even on a rock, might damage what’s still in the ground.) Yet, before I left Holland, I had already read this news article, so the man’s complaint seemed corroborated. Wondering what to expect, I traveled south.

And indeed, the site appears to be a bit neglected. Many sites are fenced off: the palace of Darius, the palace of Xerxes, the Tripylon – all inaccessible. The small restaurant on the edge of the southern terrace (inaccessible since at least 2004) was closed, which is something of a disaster, considering the fact that Persepolis is a very large complex and even a superficial visit takes several hours. When I take a group around, we stay in a nearby hotel and return next day.

The bookshops and souvenir shops were also closed, but I can live with that, although I would have liked to buy a postcard or two. The site also looked a bit dirty, as if the cleaners were on strike. But as long as the site is not damaged, I can live with that too. It will no doubt be temporarily.

All this will of course be hailed with joy by those people who only like to read articles about sorrow & misery in the Islamic Republic. To be fair and balanced, I add that there are now finally fences at the rock tombs, that closing the palace of Darius is due to restoration works, and that the subsite at Istakhr has been made more accessible. As usual, it’s all about priorities.