Review: Sie bauten die ersten Tempel

15 October 2011


I already blogged about my visits to Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey. It’s an important site from the Early (preceramic) Neolithicum. What it is, we don’t really know, although Klaus Schmidt, the excavator, is pretty sure that the site is religious in nature. In his nice, well-illustrated book, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel (“They built the first sanctuary”), he offers lots of information.

The book is very well-structured. In the first chapter, Schmidt explains how the site was identified. It had already been discovered, but the discoverer had not understood that the big stones on the surface were from the Stone Age. Misidentifying them as Islamic tombstones, he had not realized the site’s significance. Schmidt, who had the benefit of knowing the finds from sites like Çatal Höyük, Çayönü, Nevali Çori, and Gürcütepe, was the first to realize the importance of Göbekli Tepe (“belly hill”).

The second chapter is about the discovery of the Stone Age, from the very moment that archaeologists realized that there had been an age in which people made stone objects, until the present day. It is a very useful and interesting chapter, because Schmidt can introduce important questions and technical expressions.

The third, and longest, chapter consists of a meticulous description of what has actually been found. The five enclosures are mentioned and every pylon receives is dealth with. Those pylons, which represent human figures (ancestors?), were decorated with all kinds of animal figures. Perhaps this chapter was a bit too detailed, but Schmidt did well to separate the description from the identification.

Enclosure C; photo Kees Tol

The fourth chapter deals with the interpretations. Schmidt compares Göbekli Tepe to several other places, without making very strong statements. Nevertheless, I was impressed by his argument that at least one picture does not represent ostriches, but people dancing like ostriches. I also liked the idea that the pictures of animals might in fact be some kind of sign language, although Schmidt does not say that this is the only possible interpretation of the finds. His conclusion is essentially negative: he is certain that these animals were not representation of the hunter’s prey. No one hopes to catch spiders or snakes.

Photo Marco Prins

A predator from Enclosure C; Museum Sanli Urfa; photo Marco Prins

In the fifth chapter, we read about the way this monument was built. A great many hunters and gatherers must have been involved, and the size of the monument proves that they were well-organized. The 2007 edition of the book, which was first published in 2005, concludes with an additional chapter with new finds and further thoughts.

What I like about Sie bauten die ersten Tempel is that it presents scholarship as a puzzle and allows readers to understand the process of acquiring knowledge. There is much room for doubt and cul-de-sacs are not ignored. For example, many animals look as if they are about to attack – but what are they defending? Schmidt admits that he does not know. He calls the building a temple, but immediately stresses that in fact, we cannot really know. This is the way a true scholar must proceed. I like this excellent book and can sincerely recommend it.

Trapezus (Trabzon)

12 October 2011
Photo Ab Langereis

The Hagia Sophia

I was in Trabzon when its football team, Trabzonspor, beat Inter Milan. I have never seen a city that went so completely out of its mind: people honking their cars and even the ships in the port sounding their horns.

It’s an ancient city, originally called Trapezus. It became famous in the Middle Ages, when the Comnenian dynasty of Byzantine emperors settled in “Trebizonde” (as it was known back then) and made it the capital of a mini-empire, after Constantinople itself had been captured by the knights of the Fourth Crusade. In all aspects, Trebizonde had to resemble the real capital of the Byzantine world, which meant that there was also a lovely Hagia Sophia: smaller but more refined than its namesake in Constantinople. You can still visit the place.

There’s nothing left from the Greek and Roman age, but the city has an interesting history. You can read more about it on my new page: here.

Göbekli Tepe

24 September 2011

Göbekli Tepe; two oval enclosures visible

If someone would have asked me which excavations I would have liked to visit, I would have answered, without a monent´s thought, that my favorites would be Jiroft en Göbekli Tepe. Jiroft I will visit, inch’Allah, within a couple of months, but I no longer have to wait for Göbekli Tepe.

It is, to exaggerate a bit, the place where we can see the rise of mankind as a civilized being. Some 12,000 years ago, when the latest Ice Age was over, a process started that is known as the Neolithic Revolution: the rise of agriculture.

Göbekli Tepe proves that, when this process had only just started and mankind still consisted mainly of hunters and gatherers, monumental architecture was already possible. Hundreds of people must have been working on this site, so there must have been some kind of efficient leadership. We can even speak, very tentatively of course, about their beliefs, because Göbekli Tepe is a sanctuary and some of the statues may represent deities or ancestors. We will never be completely sure, of course, but it remains a fascinating thought.

Pylon 12

The first thing we saw was a couple of dromedaries and the caravan in which the German excavator, professor Klaus Schmidt, has his office. We saw Enclosure E (“the rock temple”, but essentially a wide, rocky plain) and Enclosures A, B, C, and D, where tall, T-shaped pylons used to stand in a circle or oval. The satellite photo above shows two of these ovals. They date back to the age that archaeologists call “Preceramic Neolithic A”, or the period between 9500 and 8300 BC.

Several pylons are decorated with arms and must resemble humans. The sides often show animals, like snakes, foxes, and ostriches. These statues are very primitive, but radiate a kind of power that I find hard to describe. This is art, and these pylons show that humans are cultural beings. To quote Schmidt: it is like a theater, and although we can no longer see the play itself and can only see the set, we know that the actors have put on the scene a truly grand play.

The visitor of the world’s oldest known sanctuary will be accompanied by a guard, who will, at the end of the tour, sell a book, Sie bauten die ersten Tempel, written by professor Schmidt. I have now read about half of it and am very enthusiastic about the way he explains everything: very seriously and without unnecessary hypotheses. The guard offered me to ask Schmidt’s autograph; the scholar made it clear that he was actually a bit too busy, which I liked. Academics who waste time giving autographs, are to be treated with some distrust.

Getting there

From Sanli Urfa, where some of the beautiful finds are shown in the museum, it is easy to reach the excavation. Leaving the city center, you take the road in the direction of the suburb of Kara Köprü. At the great roundabout on the city’s northern edge, you take road D400 to the east, to Mardin. You will already have seen the brown signs to Göbekli Tepe. After 13 kilometers, you turn to the left and continue, even when the road is, for a short distance, unpaved. If this doesn’t work, ask directions for Örencik.

SMS from Turkey

3 October 2010

Tarkasnawa of Mira

In 2003, Marco and I rented a car and made a trip through Turkey. As always, we didn’t have time to visit the most important sites (I still haven’t been in Perge or Pergamon), because we lost way too much time on silly trivialities like finding the rock relief of king Tarkasnawa of the Hittite vassal kingdom Mira. It is not terribly important, but it’s mentioned by Herodotus, who believed it to be an Egyptian relief (more…). I think we spent about two hours, searching in vain, before we decided to give up. At that very moment, we spotted the small stairs along the road that indicated the place where we ought to climb to the rock. I will never forget the shout of Marco, who was the first to go up, that he saw the object of our quest.

I most have told this story several times, not ignoring our futile attempt to ask a Turkish woodcutter, who spoke only Turkish, whether he knew the relief. Apparently, my stories must have made some friends curious, because the other day, I received an SMS from two friends who were, at that moment, standing next to Tarkasnawa, and knew they would cause me great joy by letting me know where they were standing.

More here; satellite photo here.

Nemrud Daǧi

13 June 2010

A lion guarding the main altar

Nemrud daǧi is one of the most spectacular ruins from Antiquity. On the top of a mountain, a large tumulus covers and protects the tomb itself; in the southwest and northeast, there are two terraces, dominated by statues of the great gods and king Antiochus I Theos of Commagene.

Did I say “spectacular”? Yes, it certainly is. During our first visit, we were really impressed by the almost magical atmosphere at sunset. It was easy to forget that there were other people. On the other hand, when we arrived on the mountain for a second time, the magic was gone and we found it hard to remember how impressed we once had been.

I reorganized my old pages, put online in 2003, and added photos we took in 2008. There will be additions later, but from now on, the page is here.

Tušpa (Van)

10 June 2010

The citadel

Tušpa was an ancient Urartian fortress on the eastern shore of Lake Van. It is situated on a high and steep rock, several kilometers west of the modern city of Van. Up there, you can see several tombs of Urartian kings, a couple of inscriptions (including an Achaemenian royal inscription), and many buildings from the Ottoman age.

I put some photos online, with a couple of notes. Unfortunately, when we visited the city, the museum was being renovated. The new webpage is here.

Midas: Fiction and Fact

30 May 2010

The so-called Tomb of Midas in Gordium

King Midas of Phrygia is best known from Greek legend: the story about the drunken Silenus, the story about “the Midas touch”, the story about the donkey ears, and several others, including a nice parallel to the Roman story about the Lacus Curtius.

Yet, the Greeks also remembered him as a real king, the first to send presents to Delphi. This Midas had fought against the Cimmerians, had been defeated, and had committed suicide. He is almost certainly identical to the Mit-ta-a of Muški mentioned in the Annals of the Assyrian king Sargon II.

I’ve made a new page, which you can find here.


29 May 2010

A man and a bul on an ivory inlay

I am still moving all kinds of pages that are in the wrong directories if I want to migrate to a CMS, and this time, it’s Gordium‘s turn. We’ve visited the capital of Phrygia twice, in 2003 and 2008, and it remains one of the most impressive sites I know. Imagine a vast plain, with dozens of funeral mounds. The largest of these is called “tomb of Midas“.

Opposite this tumulus is a museum, where you can also see the mosaics from the Phrygian citadel and a Galatian tomb; other objects can be seen in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara – like the finds from the Tomb of Midas. I’ve put it all together on this page, and I added a note on the river Sangarius.

Only thirty pages to go…


25 May 2010

Part of the decoration

About three weeks ago, I revisited Didyma, one of the oracles of Apollo. From my first visit, in 2003, I remember that I was disappointed. It was big, just big, and some parts of the sculpture were nice, but there was nothing really interesting. To be honest, that remains my opinion – even though I am well aware that only the dead and the mad never change their mind. It’s big, yes; the sculpture – see picture to the right – is nice, indeed; but the site is not nearly as interesting as, for example, the oracles of Delphi or Siwa.

Still, I took some photos, and today, I renewed the Didyma webpage. One of the improvements is that I could ask photos from the Louvre and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Nothing spectacular, but at least the webpage is now a bit more complete.

A Sarcophagus from Antioch

23 May 2010

The deceased, pooring a libation

Searching through my collection of pictures, I stumbled across some photos we took about three years ago in the Archaeological Museum of Antioch (which, as it happens, is built on the exact place where the Crusaders, having found the Holy Lance, famously broke out from the besieged city). So here it is, a nice, well-preserved sarcophagus from the mid-third century. Nothing really special, just nice, and evidence that Antioch was still a prosperous town during that age of crisis.

General Update

22 May 2010

Tomb of Amyntas, Fethiye (Telmessus)

Right now, Livius Onderwijs (the school in Holland that owns, owns some 36,000 photos, and although I’m dreaming of make it all available, I first must finish the conversion to a content management system. That will take some time, because the website is not the first priority. Nevertheless, I managed to make some additional stuff available. It’s not worth summing up everything, but you may like the bizarre landscape of Bin Tepe, the tombs and theater of Telmessus (modern Fethiye), and the museum pieces of Laurum (Woerden).

I also put online an article on Polybius that was published earlier in Ancient Warfare magazine. If you have time to read only one article, make sure it’s this one, because the man is really interesting.

The Portrait of Artaxerxes II Mnemon

20 May 2010

Artaxerxes II

Achaemenid art was not very innovative. In the days of Darius I the Great, the basic forms were established, and later artists did not really change these patterns. A king was shown sitting on a throne (example), or killing an animal (example), or sacrificing (example). On seals, there is some variation, but essentially, the Achaemenid artists preferred to emulate good art instead of inventing something new.

As a consequence, they never invented the portrait, and all kings look like Darius, with the same beard. Until now, I knew only one representation of an Achaemenid king by an artist who wanted to show what the ruler really looked like: the portrait of Artaxerxes III Ochus in the Amsterdam Allard Piersonmuseum, made in Egypt. We may perhaps add the Darius III Codomannus on the Alexander mosaic, although I can hardly believe that the Greek painter whose design was used as a model, had really seen the great king.

In the Archaeological Museum of Antalya, I discovered another candidate: Artaxerxes II Mnemon is represented on the tomb of (probably) the Lycian leader Pericles of Limyra. Unfortunately, it is very damaged, but the man clearly has his tiara tied up so that it stands erect. You can also recognize the diadem. Did the sculptor really see the great king?

Xenophon’s Portrait

20 May 2010

Xenophon (Museum of Aphrodisias)

In 1988 or 1989 – I do not remember exactly – I spent a holiday in Andalusia. On my way back, I visited Madrid, where I wanted to see the Lex Irnitana. It’s now in Seville, of course, but back then it was a very recent discovery that would be shown to the world on a worthy location in the Spanish capital. However, I was too early, and ended up in the Prado Museum, where I saw a bust of the Greek author Xenophon.

It has always been some kind of frustration to me that I forgot to take a photo, because I like to add pictures to my articles. I had to use a black-and-white photo, found on the internet, which was at least something, but because someone else had taken that photo, I felt a bit uneasy about copyright. More frustration was to come, because on two occasions, friends visited the Prado, tried to make the photo I needed – and were kindly told that photography was not permitted. I will leave it to others to explain what on earth makes a museum forbid visitors to study, back home, again the objects (mens sana qui mal y pense).

But now, in Aphrodisias, I suddenly saw a herm with, on the one side, Socrates, and on the other side the son of Gryllus. Of course that bust was placed in front of the window, which made photography difficult, but here he is: the one and only Xenophon.

An Ancient Rorschach Test

18 May 2010

A graffito from the Marble Street in Ephesus

The irreverent British comedy show Spitting Image once aired an episode in which Ronald Reagan was unable to remember the name of a new Soviet leader. Fortunately, one of his assistants came up with a plan: a set of pictures, each representing a syllable. The first one was a mouth/throat, the second one a sheep, the third a cook: gorge-bah-chef, “Gorbachev”. However, when Reagan had to read the rebus aloud, he said “Mister Mouth-Sheep-Toque”, adding something like “Mouth Sheep Toque, Mao Zedong, wasn’t he Chinese or something?”

This illustrates a well-known art historical problem: how to interpret a symbol or a drawing? You can go wrong, terribly. An example from ancient history is the little graffito from the Marble Street in Ephesus, which shows a crowned lady, a heart, and a foot. It is often said that this is a road sign, indicating that there was a brothel in the neighborhood.

Last week, I heard the story repeated by a tour guide who took the heart to be a wallet with coins, “no money, no honey”. This is a nice story and the people clearly liked it, and it must be admitted that the ancients did not depict the heart as we do, so it may indeed be a wallet.

However, the problem is that we have no clue whether this interpretation is correct. One argument was that there is a building in the neighborhood that has been identified as a house of pleasure, but this is based on an inscription that refers to a paidiskeion, which can mean brothel, but can also mean latrine – and there is indeed a latrine over there. So, this argument turns out to be invalid. What remains is the picture itself, which can represent anything, although the closest iconographic parallel to the crowned lady is Tyche, who is always shown with a mural crown. If we accept that the woman is indeed the goddess of fortune, we can understand the wallet, but the foot remains a mystery.

Personally, I think that the interpretation of our graffito as an advertisement of a brothel, tells more about modern archaeologists than about the past. There used to be a tendency to regard the ancient Greeks and Romans as sexually less restricted than we are. Every barmaid, every shopkeeper, every woman not working at home was immediately interpreted as a prostitute. I was reminded of a cartoon, called “He had seen enough with the Rorschach test”, which showed a man leaving the psychologist’s office, slamming the door behind him, saying “What dirty a old man, with those filthy pictures!”

Polemo’s Last Words

13 May 2010


The last words of famous people are an interesting subject for a book. Not a book full of quotes – that already exists – but a book that explains why some of them are so well-known. Some are inspiring indeed, like George Harrison’s “love one another”, which summarizes his career pretty adequately. Others are interesting because we don’t know what was meant: did Von Stauffenberg shout something about sacred Germany or secret Germany? Was Goethe seeing the light (“mehr Licht”) or did he say that his bed was uncomfortable (“mir liegt”)? Some were never spoken at all: the man who noted that Casanova had declared he had lived as a philosopher but died as a Christian, was not present – why did he invent it?

We seem to love emotions (Caesar’s disappointed “You too, my child?”) and humor, and are willing to alter the story a bit to create a joke: Vespasian’s last words were not that he feared becoming a god (more…). On the other hand, we do not like obscenities. Although many people believe otherwise, Leonidas’ remark – although technically not his last words – that that Xerxes could “come and take it” did not mean that the great king ought to fight to obtain the Spartan’s weapons (more…), and Socrates’ remark about a cock was not just about a sacrifice (more…).

Laodicea's Syrian Gate

And sometimes, people really make a show of it, like Polemo, the great sophist, or concert orator. These people were incredibly popular and knew how to manipulate the audience by acting as if the world was their stage, all nations were their fans, and they were the greatest actors alive. When you read about them in PhilostratusLives of the Sophists, you get the impression that they were collectively suffering from a histrionic personality disorder.

Now Polemo had had an illness for quite some time already when he ordered his tomb to be build outside the Syrian Gate of Laodicea. When it was almost finished, he announced his approaching death and went to the tomb, followed by a great many people, who saw him entering his tomb. There, he ordered the mason to finish his job: he wanted to die of inedia, not eating and drinking any more. His last words, no doubt carefully prepared, were that the mason ought to hurry a bit, because Polemo did not want the sun to see him reduced to silence.

The place where this pathetic incident took place, is now a parking lot.


12 May 2010

Antonine Nymphaeum

I already knew that the excavations at Sagalassus had produced several quite spectacular results, like that colossal statue of Hadrian that caught the headlines almost three years ago. I also knew the fine website, which proves that Flemish archaeologists know how to explain their results to non-specialists. And I had met one of the excavators some time ago. Yet, although I knew that Sagalassos was special, it was almost a shock to see what it actually was. It’s not another Ephesus, but I would not be surprised if it became one of the main sites in Turkey; it’s certainly better worth a visit than Miletus.

It is hard to enumerate what’s there to be seen, but I remember: a wide paved street, the ruins of the temple of Antoninus Pius, the Lower Agora, the nymphaeum of Hadrian, a small street, a bathhouse, a wall, rock tombs, a Byzantine church, and a partly excavated odium. After a short climb, we reached the Upper Agora, with a splendid nymphaeum from the age of Antoninus Pius, a heroon, the temple of Zeus, the Bouleuterion and the Prytaneum, the library, and the Hellenistic nymphaeum, where you can still drink the water. Finally, there’s the theater – the tenth I’ve seen in seven days.

All sculpture has been removed to the museum at Burdur. As the excavations are still going on – the current permit expires in 2018 – it is not surprising that you cannot buy a guide to the site, but you can buy a useful leaflet at the house of the guard. Here, you can also buy tea or coffee, and have a pick-nick in the shade.

The Letoon

11 May 2010

A Stoa at the Letoon

This afternoon, we visited the Letoon, a sacred place from Antiquity near Xanthus. With an extremely well-preserved theater, a double stoa, a nymphaeum, a Byzantine church, and three temples, this is a very nice site. One can understand why the Lycian League chose this sanctuary as its meeting place.

According to an old legend, told by the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorfoses, 6.317-381), one of the temples is built on the site where Leto and her two children, Artemis and Apollo, had an encounter with a group of ill-mannered peasants. It was a very hot day and everything was dry and dusty. So, Leto, thirsty, requested some water, but those Lycian peasants denied it to her. When she requested a drink for a second time, they used their sticks to make the water of the pool more troubled. Immediately, the gods punished them, changing them into frogs, so that they could continue to pollute the waters and speak dirty language.

The well no longer exists, and we found it easy to imagine how dry this land can be. Near the theater, the soil was full of cracks. On the other hand, near the temples, the changing water-table has created a new pool. The frogs are again there, and their noise is deafening.

Armenian bits and pieces

1 May 2010

Lake Van

Today, several small articles, which have nothing in common, except for the fact that they are somehow related to ancient Armenia:

Nothing terribly important, although I have fond memories of our trip to that part of Turkey.


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.