Wednesday, April 10, 2013

History Mystery: Nimrud Dagh, A royal sanctuary in Anatolia!

On a desolate peak in southern Turkey, giant statues gaze out across a remote mountain wilderness. Here, the dreams of an ancient king were inscribed in stone. And from here came a god who almost conquered the Roman Empire. Loneley, Bleak, and remote from modern highways, commagene is a place where man is dwarfed by the landscape. Bare mountains rise out of the arid terrain like vast sloping deserts. It is sparsely populated; a few scattered villages provide the only evidence of habitation in this harsh environment, near Turkey’s border with Syria. And yet, on one peak 2000 m above sea level, a mysterious ruin suggests that the region was once heavily populated and powerful.

A conical pyramid of crushed stones stands at the summit, and five colossal statues- the figure of a king among them – are ranged nearby. The giant effigies are flanked by lions and eagles hewn out of the rock. Below them are terraces littered with countless immense carved heads, and a vast altar where sacrificial fires once burned. The pyramid of stones housed the tomb of Antiochus I, ruler of Commagene in the first century BC. Nimrud Dagh, the holy mountain, was his burial place, a testament to his dream of immortality. In ancient times, commagene’s bare landscape was less desolate than it is today. The waters of the upper Euphrates flowed between thickly forested slopes to the east, and its valley was a crossroads for major trade routes leading west into the Taurus Mountains. This great range was a vital source of silver, copper, and leads for the early civilizations of Mesopotamia. The passes across the Taurus range were also strategically important to the imperial powers which swept across Asia Minor in later centuries. Commagene, like the whole of the subcontinent of Asia Minor, was overrun by two mighty empires. First came the [Persians in the 6th century BC; then the Greeks under Alexander the Great in the 4th. These ancient superpowers shaped the development of the remote state.

As Alexander’s realm disintegrated, commagene emerged from obscurity. In about 80 BC the country detached itself from the decaying remnant of his empire and became a new kingdom. When imperial Rome began to annex territories in Asia Minor, Commagene kept its independence through the skilful diplomacy of its great monarch, Antiochus I. The blood of two mighty dynasties ran through the veins of the Commagenian king. On his father’s side, Antiochus traced his ancestry to Darious, King of Kings, one of the greatest rulers of the Persian Empire. On his mother’s side, he was descended from Alexander the great. The monumental effigies surrounding the tomb of Antichus represent his gods and ancestors, and show both Greek and Persian influences. The statues are fashioned in Greek style, bear Greek features, and sometimes represent Greek deities. Yet the clothes and headgear are Persian. The colossal scale of the conception is also in the Persian tradition.

The statues range from 9 meters to 12 meters high; the heads alone are 2 meters tall. Such awesome proportions are alien to Greek statuary, in which sculptors valued harmonious ideals more highly than size. Greek inscriptions composed by the king himself have survived to pass on the meaning of his monumental creation. The sanctuary, the king wrote, was erected in a high and holy place, close to the heavens and remote from the dwellings of mean. The great sepulcher was built to preserve his remains throughout eternity. The effigies of the gods, and the ‘heroic legion of my ancestors’, bore witness to his pious devotion. Antitochus believed that in death he would take his place among the ranks of the gods. His own divinity was clearly a major preoccupation, and many lesser sanctuaries were built throughout Commagene. In each of them, the king is shown engraved in effigy on a great stone slab, extending his right hand towards a deity. The king made elaborate provisions for his worship after death, including the mapping out of the processional routes between the various sanctuaries.

He stipulated that every month, the royal treasury was to finance two feast days: his birthday was to be remembered on the 10th of each month, and his coronation on the 16th. Each feast day, a priest in traditional Persian robes was to adorn the effigies of the King with gold crowns consecrated to the worship of his ancestors. Offerings of incense and aromatic herbs were to be placed on the altars, and sacrifices were to be made. The local citizens and military garrison were to be invited to banquets in honor of the deceased. An abundance of food should be provided, and wine served for a long as the guests remained within the scared enclosure. A new caste of female musicians was to be created to perform at the banquets.

Antiochus obviously foresaw that, over the years, priests might become selfish about the commemorative feasts and perhaps hoard some of the provision for them. Such a grudging attitude was expressly forbidden. Each of the priests could take a share appropriate to their status- but every person present must allowed to enjoy the occasion ‘ without being spied on, eating and drinking to their hearts’ content’.


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