The Oracle of Ammon

28 June 2010

The oracle of Ammon

The oasis of Siwa, some 500 kilometers west of Cairo, deep in the desert, is hard to reach, and no doubt that explains why the oracles by the god Ammon used to be highly esteemed. You didn’t travel such a distance to return with a prediction you might as well have obtained from your local village futurologist – it had had to be something very special. Among Ammon’s devotees were Egyptian kings Amasis and Nectanebo II, the Greek poet Pindar, the Athenian commander Cimon, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, and the Carthaginian leader Hannibal.

Coin from Cyrene showing Ammon (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

I visited the place in January 2008. What I remember best was the mud: it had been raining, which had caused great damage, because the old houses of Siwa are made of dried mud, as is common in the desert. (Many people now live in houses of concrete and bricks, of course, but the old mud houses are the town’s main monuments.) The Siwans complained that this was the fifth heavy rain in five years, and I realized, for the first time, what climate change really means.

Other memories include the women of Siwa, who wore grey burqas, and the purchase of a white bridal gown, decorated with small shells, which must be extremely expensive in an oasis 250 kilometers from the nearest beach. I do not remember how I got that robe through the mud to the hotel, but it was still white as snow, and remained splendidly white, even though I had to take it with me for another two weeks through the desert.

It would be unfair to put online a photo of that wedding gown before its present owner will use it, so you’ll have to settle for a page on the history of the oasis, a page on the deity, and a photo page.


The Battle of Sagalassus (333 BCE)

26 June 2010

The battle site

The capture of the Pisidian town of Sagalassus is not the best-known or most important of Alexander the Great‘s battles, but at least we know exactly where it happened and the site has not changed. It is one of the few places where you can have an idea of the quality of the Macedonian soldiers, who had to fight an uphill battle. These men were strong, really strong.

I put online one photo and a brief explanatory note. Not terribly important, but if you’re interested, it’s here.

Shame, where is thy blush?

28 July 2009
Some historians deserve a box on the ear

Some historians deserve a box on the ear

If we were still lacking evidence that today’s ancient historians are not up to their tasks, the preface of Heckel/Tritle’s Alexander the Great. A New History offers just the proof we needed:

One of the strengths of this volume is that it includes contributions by scholars outside the English-speaking world.

This is overstepping the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Heckel and Tritle are of course right that a scholar ought to read articles written in foreign languages, and they are also right that this is no longer self-evident. But they should be making plans how to reach normalcy again, and implement those plans. Presenting as something special that a team of historians reaches the expected level, is the same as accepting lower standards. Claiming that it is a strength, is just insolent.

Common Errors (20): Hanging Gardens

28 June 2009
Artists Impression of the Non-Existent Monument

Artist's Impression of the Non-Existent Monument

Babylon was the cultural capital of the ancient Near East. Many monuments have become famous, like the Ištar Gate, now in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, and the temple tower named Etemenanki, the “Tower of Babel”. Equally famous are the Hanging Gardens that king Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562) created for his queen, a young lady from Iran who longed back to the mountains of her fatherland.

The Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, are mentioned by several Greek authors: the geographer Strabo of Amasia, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the orator Philo of Byzantium, and Cleitarchus, who wrote a biography of Alexander the Great that is now lost. This book, however, is quoted by the Sicilian historian Diodorus and his Roman colleague Curtius Rufus. So, we have a great many sources, and we get the impression that the complex was about two hectares large, as high as the city walls, and resting on heavy foundations of natural stone.

So far, so good. The problem is that all these sources were written in Greek or Latin. The Hanging Gardens are not mentioned in the thousands of cuneiform tablet from Babylon, not even in the list of monuments that is known as TINTIR is Babylon. Archaeology has not been helpful either: when the city was excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century, Robert Koldewey (1855-1925) was unable to establish the site of the Hanging Gardens, and in the end pointed at the only natural stones he could find. He admitted that he was not convinced himself.

It has been suggested that there must be a misunderstanding: the gardens may have been in Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Although this assumes an error that is as big as placing the Eiffel Tower in Berlin, it is not impossible: Greek authors often confused Babylonia and Assyria. Herodotus of Halicarnassus was even capable of making Babylon the capital of Assyria. An alternative explanation is that the Hanging Gardens are simply a description of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar: we know that it had gardens – so roof garden may have been there too. If this is true, the original mistake may have been made by Cleitarchus, who was not above exaggerating and delighted in stories about wonderful things.

Is Cleitarchus the inventor of the Hanging Gardens? All sources directly or indirectly quote him, except one: Josephus refers to a list of monument by Berossus, a Babylonian author from the third century BCE, who was known to Josephus through Alexander Polyhistor. However, there is something weird with Berossus’ list: it enumerates a series of monuments in exactly the same sequence as the East India House Inscription that is now in the British Museum. The only monument mentioned by Josephus that is not mentioned by Berossus, is the final one: the Hanging Gardens.

The similarity between the Berossus fragment quoted by Josephus through Polyhistor and the East India House Inscription is so striking that it is impossible that Berossus does not quote (a copy of) it. This leaves us with only three possibilities:

  1. Josephus added information from Cleitarchus to information he found in Polyhistor (unlikely: he had no motive for this fraud);
  2. Polyhistor added information from Cleitarchus to Berossus (likely: we know that Polyhistor had a rather loose way of dealing with texts);
  3. Berossus added information from Cleitarchus to the East India House Inscription (which raises the question why the inscription ignores a major monument).

We can not be completely certain, but it seems very likely that the Hanging Gardens are in fact Cleitarchus’ fantastic description of the royal palace in Babylon. All our sources can, directly or indirectly, be connected to his biography of Alexander.


R.J. van der Spek, “Berossus as a Babylonian Chronicler and Greek Historian,” in: R.J. van der Spek (ed.), Studies in Ancient Near Eastern World View and Society, Presented to Marten Stol on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday (2008) 277-318.

<Overview of Common Errors>

Common Errors (16): Persepolis

28 June 2009
The Palace of Darius I the Great: not destroyed by fire

The Palace of Darius I the Great: not destroyed by fire

In the first weeks of 330 BCE, Alexander the Great captured the capital of the Persian Empire, which the Macedonians and Greeks called Persepolis, “City of the Persians”. The living quarters were looted immediately, and when the invaders continued their expedition in early Spring, the palaces were destroyed as well.

Our sources are not in agreement about the way this happened. According to Arrian (Anabasis, 3.18.11), it happened after deliberations; it was a well-planned operation. On the other hand, Curtius Rufus (History of Alexander, 5.7.3-12) and Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 38) say that Alexander was drunk – by no means excluded.

Scholars have so hard been trying to find out what happened exactly, that they ignored a more important question: did it actually happen? The problem is that many buildings were simply left intact: the Gate of All Nations and the Palace of Darius the Great, for example. Of course, the wooden and the limestone parts have vanished, but the gates, windows, and lower parts of the walls are still standing. No traces of vandalism here.

Something else happened in the Palace of Xerxes: hardly anything survived. Fragments of the columns that once supported the roofs of Xerxes‘ rooms were discovered far away: these palaces were the victims of a gas explosion (a “delayed flash-over”, as the fireman I once interviewed on the subject explained). There’s also evidence for arson in the Treasury and the Apadana, the throne room where the Great King received embassies of the various nations. Here, the excavators found a stratum of one to two feet of charcoal: burnt cedar wood.

And that’s the smoking gun. These buildings were extremely significant: the Palace of Xerxes, because he had attacked Greece in 480; and the Apadana and Treasury, the symbols of the ritual of gift exchange that was Achaemenid equivalent of the social contract.

Of course fires are unpredictable, but why, out of a set of twelve momuments, were exactly these three buildings destroyed? It is almost impossible that these buildings, and these buildings only, were destroyed by a random process. The arsonists in Persepolis were not drunken vandals: this was a well-organized action.

<Overview of Common Errors>


22 June 2009
A triere

A triere

My article on Nearchus is several years old, but today, I was able to add a better map. A much better map: the first of several maps made by Google Maps. I’m quite happy with it. A similar map, not yet finished, that will eventually offer links to all photo pages, is here.


5 May 2009
Justinians bridge

Justinian's bridge

Tarsus was the capital of ancient Cilicia and is best known as the city where the apostle Paul was born. At that moment, the city was already fifteen centuries old: it is mentioned for the first time in a Hittite text from c.1450 BCE. It was subjected to the Hittites and to the Assyrians, was occupied by Nabonidus of Babylonia, conquered by the Persians and by Alexander the Great, was part of the Seleucid, Roman, and Byzantine Empires, and was the object of much warfare between the Muslims, Byzantines, and Crusaders.

The site remains occupied to the present day, which explains why there are not many monuments to be seen. Still, there’s a Byzantine bridge, a gate, and a small set of beautiful mosaics, now in the Archaeological Museum of Antioch. My own page is available here.