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.

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Mainz Pedestals For Sale?

12 July 2011

One of the twelve reliefs

Of course, the Mainz Pedestals are not for sale. They are safe in the Steinhalle in the Landesmuseum in Mainz, and although the room itself is currently under reconstruction, there is no reason to despair about the museum’s finances. Nevertheless, here is the text of an e-mail I received this weekend:

Hello

Am Mr Roy and am inquiry into your company about Mainz Pedestals? And i will like you to get back to me with the types,sizes and prices of them so  i can proceed with the one am ordering.And i will like to know if you do Accepts major credit card as the mode of payments,And try and include your contact details  when getting back to me , so i can give you a call as soon as possible,

your Prompts response and assistance will be much appreciated,

Thanks, Roy

I confess that I was tempted to reply to Mr Roy that I would love to buy the famous sculptures.


Looting

11 July 2011

It must have been in the late 1980s or very early 1990s; my girlfriend and I were staying in Osuna in Spain. I wanted to visit Irni, where the Lex Irnitana had been found a couple of years before. We had already met a friendly man from Osuna, who had shown us some ancient finds from his land. We told him about our plan to go to Irni, and I think our host told someone that there were two people from Holland in town, interested in antiquities.

Not much later, while we were eating tapas in a restaurant, a young man asked permission to join us, and told us about his work: with a metal detector, he was searching for antiquities, and he sold them to foreigners. I asked him whether he did not feel guilty, but he said he did not; he had in the past told professional archaeologists about his finds, but they had taken his finds to Madrid. So, he had decided to sell his finds to foreigners. In both scenarios, the objects were lost for Osuna, but by selling them, at least something returned to the region: money. (“For yourself”, I thought.)

He offered his help if I wanted to purchase something, which I declined. Apparently, he concluded that we wanted to go to Irni to dig for ourselves, because next day, when we were there, we found the site guarded by someone with a gun, who continued to keep an eye on us, and cheerfully waved us goodbye when we left.

I mention this, because the argument of the young man has always impressed me. If you find something and decide to cooperate with professional archaeologists, and if your only reward is that they send it to another place, there is no stimulus to cooperate. This is why I think that small local museums, like Rindern and Haus Bürgel, are extremely important. They make people realize that the past is also theirs, and make them more willing to cooperate.


Death in Roman Mainz

16 May 2011

Death statistics for Roman Mainz

If you visit a museum with Roman inscriptions and read the tombstones, you will notice that old people invariably died at 60, 70, or 80. The ancients didn’t know exactly how old they were (except, of course, for that man mentioned by Pliny the Elder, who said he could prove that he was 130 years old – from his tax records).

I wanted to check this, so I decided to look at the inscriptions from a city where many tombstones have been found. Mainz was a logical candidate: its Landesmuseum has a nice “Steinhalle” (hall of ancient stones). Besides, there were legions over here, which – I assumed – must have kept some kind of administration. I expected a more or less regular pattern with similar results for successive years until the late forties, when the soldiers left the army. After that I expected high peaks at 60, 70, 80, and lower peaks at 55, 65, 75.

Tombstone of Gaius Faltonius Secundus

The Epigraphik-Datenbank of Clauss and Slaby offered 2826 inscriptions, of which 245 contained formulas like “MIL LEG XXII PR AN XLVI STI XXI HSE” (= miles legionis XXII Primigeniae, annorum XLVI, stipendiorum XXI, hic situs est, “soldier of the Twenty-second Legion Primigenia, 46 years old, 21 years of service, is buried here”).

As the picture above shows, it did not work out as I expected, but still there is an interesting result. Between 20 and 50, there’s a peak every 5 year. After that, there is only a minor peak at 70. I deduce that the army kept no administration.

Among the other finds: the tombstone of a soldier who must have entered the army at thirteen (no unit mentioned, but a Roman citizen), the tombstone of an officer who served in four legions and apparently served 45 years, and some odd numerals like VL and XLIIX.


Persepolis 2011

19 March 2011

The Cyrus Cylinder in a Crystal Ball

A visit to the ruins of the palaces of Persepolis is always a pleasure and a prerogative. There are two hotels in the close neighborhood, which make it is easy to spend the two days you need without being forced to return to Shiraz. Compared to last year, the visit is even more delightful, because some shops have been reopened and there’s a new, small pub next to the Queens’ Quarters. The old pub, beyond the Treasury, used to be closed but is now a restaurant.

The reopening of the pub was long overdue. You cannot spend several hours on a site without having a cup of tea or coffee. The souvenir shop – well, let’s be honest: most of the objects are crap, and it is only rarely that they are so tasteless that they get a campy beauty of their own. I am glad I saw that replica of the Cyrus Cylinder in a crystal plastic ball. (Interesting question: Shi’ites and Roman Catholics have produced the most beautiful art – how come that in Iran and Italy, they also sell the most terrible kitsch?)

Still, it is better if they sell ugly objects and outdated books than nothing at all. Of course, I would prefer that they had a decent bookshop where you can buy, say, an excavation report (compare the Museum of Tabriz), but crap is at least something. People do take those souvenirs with them, will laugh about them at home, but will also say that Iran is a beautiful country where you can see, for example, the most splendid tile work in the world. They will add that the Iranians are friendly and courteous, that the landscape is incomparable, and that they had a superb holiday. They will show photos, and will convince others that Iran is not the terrible place it appears to be in the western media. This will – I hope – convince others to visit Iran. Postcards may have the same result, and fortunately, they are now for sale.

I will leave it to pundits to discuss the political benefits of people losing prejudices, and just mention that the road to good bookshops and nice souvenirs starts by creating a larger market. Persepolis is back on track.

Yet, much needs to be improved. What greatly disturbed me was “The World Heritage, Introduction Salloon” in front of the entrance. I passed along it, and there were loud sounds coming from it; an English voice explained the significance of the site, making several exaggerated claims. Now I can live perfectly with that; the Greeks believe they’ve invented about every art you can think of, in Syria they claim to be the cradle of religions, and I won’t even mention Israel, so the Iranians may boast a bit too much as well. But what I find unacceptable is the noise. Even when we were watching the Gate of All Nations and the Apadana, we had some difficulty to talk, because of the loudspeakers. I got the impression that no one entered the World Heritage Introduction Saloon, and it is not hard to understand why.


The Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran (2)

31 December 2010
Photo Jona Lendering

Cyrus Cylinders For Sale

The Cyrus Cylinder has become a symbol of Iranian nationalism – for reasons that I already described above. Now, the object is in Tehran: a loan from the British Museum, where it normally is to be seen. This is remarkable, because in the twentieth century, the relations between Britain and Iran have gone from bad to worse, and quite recently, the Iranian Parliament discussed cutting the diplomatic ties altogether. It was no surprise that when the loan was, last year, unexpectedly postponed, the Iranians felt cheated.

There was a reason for this, however: two small fragments of cuneiform texts had been discovered that contained texts similar to that of the Cylinder. Apparently, Cyrus broadcast his interpretation of the conquest of Babylonia widely. The British Museum found the study of these fragments more important than loaning the object to Iran. I do not know why, but at first sight, I get the impression that those Iranians who argued that it was a deliberate act, may have a point. If the study of so many so much more important texts can be postponed (for half a century, a substantial part of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets was ignored), it is indeed rather suspicious that finding two fragments is considered important enough to risk a diplomatic riot.

Many Iranians no longer trust the British and there are wild (but unfounded) speculations that the Cylinder sent to Tehran was a replica. All this shows on the one hand how important the Cylinder has become to the Iranians, and how bad the relations between the two countries have become. Although I came to Iran to attend an engagement party in Isfahan, a visit to this exhibition, with all the political fuzz surrounding it, was irresistible.

A modern Persian carpet showing Cyrus the Great, seen in Tehran.

The museum has taken many security measures: visitors are not even allowed to take telephones with them. No one can say that the Iranians do not treat the object without proper care. After entering the museum, the visitors of the exhibition first arrive in a waiting room with replicas of Achaemenid art and large panels with information about the cylinder. I am aware that Persepolis is quite unrelated to Cyrus, and I am also aware that we have only Darius’ word that Cyrus belonged to the Achaemenid family (Herodotus’ evidence is probably derived from the Behistun text and can be eliminated), but the room is carefully arranged and it’s all nicely done.

After a few minutes, we could leave the waiting room and enter the room devoted to the cylinder itself, which lies in a glass display, together with the two new fragments. The Iranian woman with whom I visited the exhibition, was surprised that the object was so small. After five minutes, we had to leave the room again, as if a new group of people were being allowed to enter. The system is probably designed to manage large numbers of visitors, and I have heard that there have indeed been hundreds of people every day, but when I was there, we were with only five people in the room, and no one entered when we were requested to leave.

What always saddens me, is that that the Tehran museum does not sell any good books. You can get some replicas, but the visitor who really wants to know more, is left disappointed. The current exhibition would have been the perfect moment to change this, but the two small shops outside sell the usual touristy rubbish, including posters and mugs with a false translation of the Cylinder. The hundreds of visitors offered the perfect opportunity to spread good, up-to-date information; why the Iranian archaeological authorities have not seized this chance, I do not know.


The Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran (1)

30 December 2010

The Cyrus Cylinder

“How can you rule a country that offers two hundred types of cheese?”, Charles de Gaulle used to say, meaning that France was insufficiently unified to be governed. His contemporary, Mohamad Shah, faced the same problem: ruling a country with large ethnic minorities, with people on several stages of economic development, with diverse political orientations.

The only thing they shared was a religious orientation: it is possible to interpret the Shi’a as an expression of Iranian nationalism. Iran is indeed Islamic, but under its own conditions, and since the sixteenth century, the Shi’a has been used by worldly leaders to unify the country. The clerics usually supported the Safavid and Qajar dynasties: after all, until the return of the Twelfth Imam, the believers live in uncertainty about the exact nature of the Divine Law. However, the father of Mohamad Shah, Reza Shah, had introduced policies similar to Atatürk’s, in which religion was not to play a role. This way to unify Iran was blocked.

Department of Foreign Affairs

The break was expressed in many ways, including architecture. If you are in Tehran, you can walk from the old Qajar palace to the twentieth-century buildings of the Department of Foreign Affairs: on the one hand the traditional style, with beautiful painted tiles, on the other hand a modern classicism, comparable to Italian architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, using Achaemenid and Sasanian models. The message was clear: there had once been a real Iran, ruled by kings, and Reza Shah was to restore it after many dark centuries of theocratic rule.

Achaemenid Soldier in Reza Shah's Palace

Mohamad Shah had similar ideas and started, in the 1960s, to put forward the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty as some kind of ideal ruler. In 1971, he commemorated Cyrus’ death, with many royals from all over the world visiting Persepolis and Pasargadae. Focusing on Cyrus was clever, because he was well-known: both Greek sources (e.g., Herodotus) and the Bible speak friendly about him. It all seemed to be confirmed by a document found in Babylon, the Cyrus Cylinder. On another occasion I will blog about the Shah’s misinterpretation of this text as a human rights charter; now, I am focusing on the exhibition of the cylinder in the National Archaeological Museum of Tehran.

[to be continued+]