30 April 2010

The church of Mar Jacob

The history of ancient Nisibis, modern Nusaybin in southeast Turkey, is almost a summary of everything there’s to be said about Antiquity. The town is mentioned in Assyrian and Babylonian sources, the Achaemenids waged battle near Nisibis, Alexander and Antiochus III passed through the city, the Parthians, Adiabenes, Armenians, and Romans tried to capture it. Once it had become Roman, it was defended by two legions, and one of the greatest Latin historians, Ammianus Marcellinus, was an eyewitness when the city was finally ceded to the Sasanian Persians. Pagans, Zoroastrians, Jews, Manichaeans, and Christians of almost every type – they’ve all been there.

There’s not much that reminds the modern visitor of the past glory. In fact, it shockingly resembles another city that summarizes a substantial part of world history: Berlin, which is a miniature of the twentieth century and was, like Nisibis today, a divided city. The northern part is Turkish, the southern part is Syrian, and there’s a lot of barbed wire in between (satellite photo). And right there, in the no man’s land, are the remains of an ancient Roman gate – inaccessible.

I wrote a new page about Nisibis, with some photos we made in September 2007; it’s here.


More Ark Stupidity

29 April 2010

The Ağri Daği was called Ararat in the Middle Ages

I already blogged about the stupidity of people looking for Noah’s ark. Whether it exists or not is beyond my knowledge – I just wanted to show that within their own paradigm, these people are incredibly stupid. The Bible does not mention a mountain named Ararat, which is the Hebrew version of the name Urartu. The mountain that is now called Ararat, owes this name to medieval travelers. It’s a well-known error, and if these so-called “evangelical explorers” had actually read the text of the Bible, even in translation, they would have seen it. I suppose they are illiterates.

I asked who was more stupid: the excavators, the people who paid them, the journalists who reproduced this crap, or the authorities who want to make this world heritage? Perhaps the journalists. Whatever the explorers’ errors, at least they did not write that “carbon dating conducted on wood and stone from the site has revealed their age as 4,800 years old”. Radiocarbon dating of stone… yeah, right.

Or perhaps it’s the people who pay the illiterates. Mike Heiser’s entertaining blog PaleoBabble had an interesting post that suggests that it’s the financiers: he quotes from a letter by one of them, who is still missing $100,000 and explains that the objects are outright fakes. $100,000 is a lot of money, but it’s a fair price for the lesson that you must not trust researchers who do not read the sources.

The Stupidity of the Quest for Noah’s Ark

27 April 2010

A modern replica of the Ark

Stupidity is immune to facts. We all know this. Yet, we can still be surprised, even shocked by people’s lack of understanding. Today’s example can be found in this article, about evangelical explorers who claim to have found Noah’s Ark. I will not be argueing that you cannot find what never existed; the historicity of the Great Flood is a matter of belief, and therefore a subject about which I postpone judgment.

But even if we assume that there was a flood, as our evangelical explorers do, and if we assume that there was an ark and that we can find it, even then they are guilty of some very, very grave errors.

“The team say they recovered wooden specimens from a structure on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey that carbon dating proved was 4800 years old…”

So, what does this prove? About nothing, I’d say. What are the facts?

  • The Bible does not mention a mountain named Ararat. It says that “the ark rested … upon the mountains of Ararat” (Gen 8.4).
  • This Ararat is the Hebrew version of Urartu, an ancient name for Armenia.
  • When the Bible was translated into Latin, some versions correctly translated “super montes Armeniae” (Vulgate), others referred to “super montes Ararat”.
  • Western explorers like Marco Polo have read this second version and were the first ones to call the volcano known as Ağri Daği “Mount Ararat”.
  • Eastern believers – whether Christians or Muslims or Jews – have never accepted this identification. Instead, they claim that the summit must be near Cizre, which happens to be the site referred to in the Mesopotamian literature.

Those are the facts to which the stupidity of these “evangelical explorers” is immune. I am shocked that it is possible to be so ignorant. Had they read the original Hebrew, they would have known; and most translations make no mistake at this point. The King James Version has translated this correctly, the American Standard Versian has translated this correctly, the World English Bible has translated this correctly. The French Louis Segond, the Dutch Statenvertaling, Luther’s German translation, they all have translated this correctly.

It is pure stupidity, the refusal to read the actual source, not even in a modern translation, that explains why these people went to eastern Turkey. But they are not the only fools. What to think of the foundation that financed this expedition, “Noah’s Ark Ministries International”? What to think of the journalist who wrote down the crap, and gave it additional credibility? What to think of the “Local Turkish officials [who] will ask the central government in Ankara to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status”? I hope they are immune to this stupidity, but I am afraid that they won’t.


26 April 2010

The southern walls of Diyarbakır

Diyarbakır is best known as the main city of the Kurds in eastern Turkey. Yet, it might be famous as well for another reason: its past. The city, once called Amida, is already mentioned in very ancient Assyrian texts, which is logical, because it controls an important crossing of the Tigris. Much later, the city was contested between the Romans and the Sasanian Persians; Ammianus Marcellinus offers an eyewitness account of a siege.

To be honest, I have unpleasant memories of my visit. I was guiding a group and I knew that on the morning of our arrival, a bomb had exploded that had killed six soldiers; as a consequence, the atmosphere was quite unfriendly, and it did not really help that there’s a military airport next to the town. The helicopters in the air did much to make us feel unsafe, although, of course, we had little to be afraid of. Still, I thought it better not to tell my company about the killing.

Anyhow, the black walls of this Kurdish city are really impressive; I have never seen something like that. If you have a chance, try to visit it. And if you can’t, my photos are now available here.

The Valetta Convention

25 April 2010

The sanctuary of Isis and Cybele, Mainz

As a responsible citizen, I often complain about my government. However, occasionally, things are just done well. The Convention of Valetta, or the “European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage” as it is called officially, is a case in point.

It established a very basic principle: the person who wants to build on a specific site, is responsible for financing the excavation. This has created much clarity. Even though we cannot say that someone or some body “owns the past”, at least it is agreed who pays the bill (and will probably forward it to others).

As a consequence, several important things have happened. In the first place, the developers of great building projects have learned to ask archaeologists to predict how much money they will need. Large databanks have been created, which are valuable scientific projects in themselves. In Holland, the expected weakness (what to do if there is an unexpected, really sensational find for which we have no budget?) has turned out to be less serious than some critics feared.

In the second place, archaeologists have learned to better look at the budget. Which is a good thing, because in the end, you and I have to pay the bill.

In the third place, construction companies have learned that archaeology is intrinsically valuable. They have learned to recognize it as an added value. They invite architects, at a very early stage, to make sure that future visitors are aware that they are on an archaeologically important site. Examples: the way the sanctuary of Isis and Cybele has become accessible in a new shopping mall in Mainz, or the multi-storey car park in Woerden, where you can see some of the finds from the Roman castellum.

In the fourth place -and this is a future development- if finds are shown in situ, museums can concentrate on other activities than displaying objects. They can show the choices made by archaeologists and explain what archaeology and history are really about.

All these changes are, in my view, advances.

Tepe Sialk

23 April 2010

Tepe Sialk

Kashan is best known for the lovely Fin Gardens, which are certainly worth a detour, but people who like archaeology will also be interested in a visit to Tepe Sialk. It’s one of the most important excavations in Iran, because it helped to establish the chronology of the Chalcolithicum. However, the high hill we see today, is younger: it is an eroded ziggurat from the 29th century BCE.

Fourth millennium vase (Louvre)

Some beautiful pottery has been found in Tepe Sialk, which can now be seen in the Louvre and the Archaeological Museum of Tehran. I was surprised to discover that even the Rijksmuseum van oudheden in Leiden, which is not really famous for its Iranian collection, owned a splendid beak pot.

My new page is here. As always, I liked bringing together photos from the museums with photos from the site itself, which I visited in 2004, when the excavations were still going on, and in 2009, when everything was ready to receive visitors.


23 April 2010

Painted decoration of the temple of Düver, Early Achaemenid Age (Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden)

In 2003, we traveled from the northwest of Turkey to the southeast. It’s a long trip along an endless road, and we almost believed we were the protagonists of a road movie. I will never forget the afternoon of the first day, when we crossed the beautiful plain of Sivrihisar. It is impossible to make a photo that catches the impressive emptiness of those fields, which are the heartland of ancient Phrygia.

Today, I wrote a page about the legendary kingdom of Midas and the Achaemenid satrapies, which you can find here.