An Important Source from Babylon: The Nabonidus Chronicle (ABC 7)

21 January 2009
The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle in the British Museum.

The Nabonidus Chronicle is one of the most important historiographical texts from the ancient Near East. It documents the main events of the reign of the last king of Babylonia, Nabonidus. It does so without bias: the king’s defeats are mentioned, no attempt is made to hide the fact that he did not really care for the Babylonian cult. Of course, the text was written during the reign of Nabonidus’  successor, Cyrus, but the chronicle also records how this Persian king kills citizens after a battle. So, although this text is limited in outlook, it is a valuable source.

We learn that during his first regnal years, Nabonidus campaigned in the west, and then settled in Tema, an oasis in the western desert; although no explanation is offered, the consequences are repeatedly stressed: the Akitu Festival could not be celebrated. As the bottom of the tablet is missing, we do not know under which circumstances Nabonidus returned to Babylon, but on the reverse of the tablet, we find the king at home again.

The tablet also describes the rise of Cyrus the Great, who is first presented as the ruler of Anšan who subdued the Median leader Astyages (550); we also learn that Cyrus conquered Urartu in 547; and we read how -in October 539- he outmaneuvered the Babylonians in a battle at Opis, which was followed by the killing of citizens. Babylon is captured, Nabonidus is taken captive, and Cyrus enters a peaceful city. The final remarks of the tablet deal with Cambyses, who appears to have made a mistake during the Akitu Festival.

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

Relief showing Nabonidus, praying to the Moon, Sun, and Venus (Museum of Sanli Urfa, Turkey).

I have put online the well-known edition by A.K. Grayson, with two important changes. In the first place, I have inserted his own “Addenda et Corrigenda”, which are too often neglected by students of his Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (1975, 2000). The consequences are disastrous: it is, for example, time and again stated that the Nabonidus Chronicle dates Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia to 547, which is simply untrue, and was already corrected by Grayson himself.

The fact that almost nobody seems to check the additions and corrections, has allowed an erroneous chronology of Anatolia and Greece to survive for more than a generation. And I am afraid it will continue to bedevil us, because it has been accepted in Asheri e.a., A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV (2008), which may become the commentary on Herodotus for some time.

In the second place, I took the liberty to invite my friend Bert van der Spek, who is one of the authors of the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period, to add several other notes to make the commentary up to date. Of course, they have been indicated, so that no one will be in doubt about the authorship of the comments – they may be Grayson’s original ones, his own corrections, or additions by Van der Spek or myself. (I think that Grayson, who used the second edition of his book to correct himself, would not have objected.)

The text is here.

2001. A Space Odyssey, and Zoroastrianism

6 September 2008

It is probably one of the best-known and most impressive images from movie history: the spectacular rise of the sun and the earth over a moonscape, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. A Space Odyssey. Kubrick seems to have liked the image, because he repeated it several times, with minor variations like the sun rising over a strange monolith or the sun rising over a crescent-shaped earth (video).

Of course, it is not just the image that makes this scene unforgettable. It is the splendid music that really matters and makes the experience, in a word, sublime. This is what makes cinema great, and this is why I went back to see 2001 at least five times.

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (British Museum)

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (this monolith is in the British Museum)

Kubrick’s movies are usually full of little, intellectual jokes. To offer an example from his wicked Doctor Strangelove: if in one scene a group of soldiers is ordered to bomb the “Laputa Missile Complex”, it comes as no surprise that in another scene a Soviet leader is visiting a brothel. And yes, la puta is not only Spanish for “prostitute”, but also a reference to Gulliver’s Travels. I said Kubrick was a bit of an intellectual, didn’t I?

Perhaps, the intellectual joker in Kubrick also accompanied the artist when he created the sunrise in 2001. The impressive music is from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus spoke Zarathustra”), and belongs to a part of that symphonic poem that represents a sunrise. Well-chosen, but there is more to be said.

Strauss’ tone poem was in turn based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s book with the same title. The philosopher was not particularly interested in the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, but merely needed a hero that was older than Judaism and Greek philosophy, and lived at the dawn of history.

Nabonidus, stele from Harran (Archaeological Museum of Sanli Urfa)

Nabonidus; stele from Harran (this monolith is in the Archaeological Museum of Sanli Urfa)

It seems that Kubrick did some research into Zoroastrianism, the religion founded by the real Zarathustra. The alignment of a lunar crescent and the sun is a common theme in eastern art. It can be seen, for example, on every Achaemenid royal tomb, and I would not be surprised if Kubrick knew it. An even closer parallel can be found on two monoliths from Harran, which can be seen in any book on ancient eastern art: the Babylonian king Nabonidus venerating the moon crescent, a planet, and the sun.

Perhaps some of you will object that Babylonian art has little to do with Zoroastrianism, or remark that it is debatable whether the Achaemenids adhered to the teachings of Zarathustra. Of course that’s fair criticism, but as I said: Kubrick was an intellectual and an artist – he was not an Iranologist.