The Tombs of Esther and Mordecai

16 March 2013
The mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai

The mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai

There have always been Jewish communities in the Islamic countries. After all, the Jews are “people of the book”, or dhimmis, who are entitled to protection and are not to be forced into conversion. However, there is no denying that the Jewish communities in the Near East are in decline. I am afraid that the beautifully restored synagogue in Beirut will never be used. There’s a famous joke that in Baghdad, there are only two Jews left, who are quarrelling. In Hamadan, a great city in western Iran, there are some thirty Jewish families, which is considerably less than the 3,000–6,000 Jews that used to live there after the Second World War, or the 30,000 mentioned in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, the place is of some significance to oriental Judaism, because in the city center, there’s a small mausoleum, which is dedicated to Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai, the two heroes of the Biblical book Esther. It is a beautiful, small building, made of bricks. Even when you don’t have a Ph.D. in architectural history, you can easily date it to the Middle Ages: it looks like a Seljuk türbe, or tomb-tower.

The two cenotaphs

The two cenotaphs

The two tombs inside the building can be dated to the thirteenth century. They are empty. The Hebrew inscription on the walls inform us that the cenotaphs were built by the mother of two brothers, who had served as physicians at the court of a Mongol ruler.

So, the mausoleum has nothing to do with the two Biblical persons. However, it must be noticed that the veneration of Esther and Mordecai is quite old: it was mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish author who visited Hamadan in the mid-twelfth century. Why the Jews of Hamadan had, by that time, started to venerate the Achaemenid queen and her relative, is a bit of a mystery: after all, the scene of the story is laid in Susa. Nevertheless, it seems certain that the cult of Esther and Mordecai antedates the building of the mausoleum that is now shown as their final resting place.


Lebanon, again

31 December 2012
Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

For the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege to visit Lebanon. Starting in Beirut, where we visited the splendid National Museum again, we embarked upon a very, very leisurely trip around. At the Nahr al-Kalb, we managed to reach the inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, which is covered by all kinds of vegetation, and will soon have disappeared.

Byblos, which I could not really appreciate during my earlier visit because I did not understand its stratigraphy, turned out to be a lot more accessible now that I knew what to expect. It was interesting to think where Wen Amun must have built his tent and where the king must have had his throne.

We proceeded to the Kadisha valley, which is the heartland of Maronite Christianity. Before entering it, we visited Amioun, Bziza, and Aïn Akrine, three sites with Roman temples. In Bsharre (the town of Kahlil Gibran), we climbed to a Phoenician tomb, and had lunch with a view of the snow-covered cedar trees.

Cedar tree

After this, we visited the Bekaa valley and Baalbek. Because we had started early and had slept in a hotel in the valley, we could arrive very early in the morning, and were almost the only people at the site, except for the guards. Returning to our hotel, we passed along Qsarnaba, Niha, and Nabi Ayla.

We also saw the Palestinian refugees who had been bombed away from Damascus – but this is not the place to write about those poor people, who most certainly did not deserve this.


Next day, it was raining cats and dogs, but we were in Sidon, where we greatly enjoyed watching how the storm pushed the surf against the sea castle. Some of the waves must have been fifteen meters high and it was really spectacular. The same can be said of the lovely mosaics in the Beiteddin palace. The last place we visited in Beirut was the museum of the American University.

There was a bonus, though: our airplane was delayed and we were unable to catch the connecting flight in Istanbul. So, our trip lasted an additional day, and we saw a snow-covered Hagia Sophia and, in the archaeological museum, the royal sarcophagi from Sidon.



I cannot wait to go back to the only place in the world where you can listen to “o come let us adore him” and at the same time hear a mu’ezzin’s call for prayer. My Facebook photos are here and here; and today I added photos of the temples of Aïn Akrine, the rock tombs of Amioun, the Phoenician tomb at Bsharre, the sanctuary at Bziza, and the temple at Qsarnaba. Some older stuff from Lebanon is here.

Das goldene Byzanz

28 September 2012

Saw and mill

“A series of one thousand years of crime, weakness, iniquity, and lack of character”: that is how Georg Hegel described the history of the Byzantine Empire. This image still exists – if there is an image at all, because the western world has almost forgotten Byzantium. In our schools, there is hardly any attention paid to the medieval empire, and in our daily conversation “Byzantine” is almost synonym to luxury, decadence, splendor, corruption, and overcomplexity.

One example may suffice: during last year’s primaries, the Republican candidate Herman Cain called for abolishing America’s “Byzantine tax system”. As a matter of fact, the Byzantines knew only two taxes: a poll tax and a land tax. Compared to this, Cain’s own 9/9/9 plan was quite, eh, Byzantine.

My fascination for Byzantium started when a friend took me to the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki. Since then, I have visited several other museums, churches, castles, and other monuments, in Istanbul, Greece, Syria, Israel, Italy, and Turkey. I have read several sources and once made a detour to Manzikert. So, it was inevitable that I would visit the exhibition “Das goldene Byzanz” in the Renaissance castle of Schallaburg in Austria, along the road from Munich to Vienna.

I do not regret it. There are beautiful animations, nice models (of a ship, for example), and good maps. The first thing you see is an engine that used a water-mill to saw natural stone. The number of objects is not very large, but they have been chosen well: beautiful busts, icons, and manuscripts.

Not just Byzantine objects, by the way. Sassanian, Arabian, Slavonic, and Turkish objects show Byzantium’s relations to surrounding nations. You will see both objects from daily and courtly life, although the stress is on the latter. (The title “Golden Byzantium” illustrates this.) The final room illustrates Byzantine influence on western civilization, and was the one room that might have been better: there is more to say about the subject and we also must say more about it. The catalog, on the other hand, is a good one.

If I may offer one point of criticism: the castle is a bit too small and dark for this exhibition. During my visit, two groups occupied entire rooms, making it difficult for other visitors to enjoy the many, many beautiful objects, which are certainly worth a detour.

Abusing the Bible

4 July 2012

Marib, capital of Sheba

That was a nice article. Scientists confirmed that there are close links between Ethiopia and groups outside of Africa, which is evidence of long-ago genetic mixing between Ethiopian populations and Syrian and Israeli people. Not surprising, of course. Already in the Naqada Period, merchants sailed from Egypt to Syria and Nubia. They continued to do so for centuries. It would have been real news if there had been no genetic mixing.

Unfortunately, scientists do not like to confirm what is already known. Or, to be more precise: they themselves have no problem with it, because a confirmation is also interesting, but their financers do not like it. So, the article is introduced by referring to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem (1 Kings 10.1-13). And voilà, all journalists copy it, although Sheba is not in Ethiopia but in Yemen. I expect that the scientists involved will, when they establish genetic mixing between the Levant and Belgium, refer to Rhabanus Maurus’ story that Joseph of Arimathea visited England.

Why is the Bible always quoted? If the Thera explodes in 1629 BCE, we get a press release that Moses, during his travel through the desert, followed a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13.21). If scientists tell about lack of oxygen causing people to hallucinate, they refer to Moses on the mountain (Ex. 19.3). If archaeologists find an extremely old sanctuary between Euphrates and Tigris, they start talking about the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2.8-14). The golden rule appears to be: by referring to the Bible, you will attract large crowds, and can look forward to a miraculous multiplication of funds.

Of course the Bible does mention that Moses followed a pillar of clouds, that Moses went up a mountain, and that God planted a garden between four rivers. The theories founded upon these stories may be nonsensical, but at least there are fitting quotes in the Bible. But there is not a single line in the Bible that can be used to bring the Yemenite Queen to Ethiopia. And the medieval legend that is adduced, is precisely that: a medieval legend.

If scientists start referring to the Queen of Sheba for the genetic mixing in Ethiopia, something is very seriously wrong. Quack historians at least quote things that are actually in the sources. Official scientists are not even interested in that.

Nahr al-Kalb

30 April 2012

Reliefs of Ramesses II (left) and Esarhaddon (right).

In the thirteenth century BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II left three reliefs on the south bank of the Nahr al-Kalb, north of Beyrut, which commemorated the northern campaigns that culminated in the battle of Kadesh (1274). Several centuries later, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon conquered Egypt, and chose to put a memorial opposite the relief of Ramesses. Ever since, armies have left inscription at the Nahr al-Kalb, a custom known to Herodotus (more).

All in all, there are twenty-two inscriptions and two monuments, with texts in seven languages (Egyptian, Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, and English). Together, they give a nice overview of Lebanese history.

A complete overview is here (and an overview of all Lebanese posts on this blog is here).

Lebanon and Bekaa

29 April 2012

Natural bridge at Kfardebian

I have been privileged that I have been able to travel through Turkey, Syria, and Israel before I visited Lebanon. Everywhere, you will see the line of mountains that runs parallel to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. In southern Turkey, the mountains are called the Amanus Mountains, which are separated by the river Orontes from the Bargylus Mountains in Syria. In Israel, you will see the Mountains of Judah.

None of these is comparable to the Lebanon, which is much higher. The name, “the white peaks”, ought to have been a warning to us: we optimistically believed we could drive from Byblus to Baalbek, but had to make a long detour because the passes were still covered with snow.

East of the Lebanon is the Bekaa valley, where you will find Baalbek and the four temples of Niha, about which I already wrote something. I now added webpages on the Lebanon and on the Bekaa.

Lebanese Antiquities: A Nation Divided

12 April 2012

The Lebanese flag

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It’s a cliché, but Lebanon is indeed a country of minorities. There have been no censuses since 1932, but it is estimated that about ninety percent of the four million inhabitants are Lebanese Arabs. The remainder consists mainly of Palestinians, who settled in camps like Sabra and Shatila (southern Beirut) after 1948, and Armenians, who fled from the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and live mainly in eastern Beirut.

Tomb of the assassinated prime minister Hariri

Other divisions are religious. Generally speaking, the people of the coast and center are Christians, with the northern part of the country following the Sunnite Islam, and the eastern part (the Bekaa Valley) and the south being Shi’ite. This division is, however, misleading on three points.

In the first place, because these religious groups are divided into smaller groups: the Shi’ites in the deep south are ‘twelvers’ who are waiting for the return of the twelfth imam (among these Shi’ites, Hezbollah finds its supporters), while the Druzes in the central south are an unusual type of ‘seveners’. The Alawis are another offshoot of the sevener Shia. Christians can be subdivided into Maronites and Greek Orthodox, although we also saw a Melkite church.

Tyre; memorial for the Unifil soldiers who gave the last full measure of devotion

In the second place, the geographical division is not as smooth as it seems. For example, although the Bekaa Valley is mainly Shi’ite, the cities of Zahle and Chtaura are Christian. In the third place, some people are pious and orthodox and really define themselves in religious terms, while others are more secular.

So, there’s no denying that Lebanon is a divided country. And it still matters. A man we met in Beirut, presumably Christian, was surprised we had gone to Tyre (Shi’ite), where he had never been. He believed tourists could go there without fear, but he was clearly not interested in going there personally.

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