Wednesday, May 29, 2013

History Mystery: Amarna Capital Of Heretic Pharaoh -2

It was obvious that Thebes was still too devoted to the ancient gods to allow the new Sun cult to flourish. A new capital was needed, unstained by the worship of other gods, and a place known today as Tell el-Amarna was selected. It was named Akhetaten – ‘the Horizon of the Disc’. The site lay on the east bank of the Nile, at a point where the river’s fierce waters had once gouged out a huge natural amphitheatre – a desert space some 12 km (7 ½ miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) wide, bordered by a wall of cliffs to the east. The northern and southern extremities of the site were marked with inscriptions on stone slabs known as frontier stelae. The engravings are surmounted by images showing the king and his queen, Nefertiti (meaning ‘the beautiful one has come’), making an offering to Aten.

The stones declared the boundaries of the area dedicated to the celestial father. More inscriptions were placed in the cliffs to the east, and on the west bank of the Nile. The cliffs were patrolled, and all newcomers were checked. The soil of Amarna was somewhat above the flood level of the Nile, and therefore infertile. In order to maintain a supply of agricultural produce, an expanse of arable land on the left bank was colonized. Amarna was founded not just as a royal capital, but also as a self-sufficient community. Some of those who accompanied the pharaoh must have been true believers, motivated by faith in his vision. Others must have clung silently to their ancient beliefs. Whatever the background of its people, the original community of Amarna was large enough to form the nucleus of a metropolis which expanded over the years that followed. Surrounded by cliffs and water, the site was had to reach. Transporting large stone slabs for temple-building proved difficult, so to speed things up, only to face the walls. Houses were hurriedly erected with sun-dried mud brick. In the heart of Amarna, the official quarter was constructed, comprising the royal place, the Temple of Aten, and administrative buildings. The house of the vizier, head of the administration, was about 1.5 km (1 mile) from the place, and could be reached quickly be chariot.

The palace overlooked the Nile on one side, and on the other it faced the Royal Highway - a broad avenue running through the middle of the city. The ruins of the place extend for more then 400m (1,312 ft), a labyrinthine sprawl of courts and chambers from which archaeologists has identified the principal areas. A large central courtyard contained colossal statues of the pharaoh and his queen, and led to a harem and an immense throne room containing more than 500 pillars. The king did not live in the place – it was reserved for official functions. His personal residence, a more modest villa with gardens and outbuildings, lay on the opposite side of the Royal Highway. The two complexes, official and private, were connected by a covered bridge across the avenue, and this structure played a vital role in the life of the city. From a balcony in the middle of the bridge, the pharaoh would toss shimmering hoards of gold to his most favoured subjects. It has long been the custom of the pharaohs to reward loyal subjects with gifts. Under the Old Kingdom, the royal bounty often took the form of a stone coffin or a funerary adornment for a tomb. Under the New Kingdom, gifts of gold become more usual – the precious metal satisfied the material cravings of a more commercially minded age. Gold could be used in trade, but it also had religious associations – it was an incorruptible solar substance symbolizing immortality.

An award of the ‘gold or recompense’ was considered the honour in Amarna, and the scene if often depicted in the city’s tomb paintings. The honoured subject is generally shown standing on the Royal Highway at the foot of the palace bridge. The royal family appears above him, and articles of gold are tossed down: cups, bracelets, and heavy necklaces with servants fasten around the neck of the receiver. Ecstatic crowds witness the subject’s day of glory: colleagues, friends and servants – all of whom bow down before their ruler. After the ceremony comes dancing and celebration, and the gifts are taken back to the home of the favoured one. Akhenaten certainly knew how to nurture the faith of his followers.

( Cont....)

Monday, May 27, 2013

History Mystery: Amarna Capital Of Heretic Pharaoh -1

It was a dazzling moment in Egypt’s history when Akhenaten ordered the worship of a single deity – the Aten, or Disc of the Sun. but the old gods took revenge through his successors, who buried the heart of his city beneath a sea of cement. The religion of ancient Egypt embraced a pageant of human and half-human deities, from Isis, the horned goddess, and Osiris, lord of the dead, to hawk-faced Horus, and Thoth, god of intelligence, depicted with the beak of an ibis. Scores of lesser divinities were also worshipped – snake-gods, cat-gods, jackal-gods – in a long tradition derived from ancient cults. Their worship bonded Egyptian society for thousands of years. During the reign of Amenhotep IV (1379-1362 BC) the pantheon was swept aside. The pharaoh ordered that only one god was to be worshipped: the Sun, or more properly, the Aten (‘Disc of the Sun’). The new monotheistic religion was revolutionary, exalting universal harmony, the beauty of nature, and love among all mankind – and represented nothing less than a cultural revolution.

When the renegade pharaoh mounted the throne, Egypt was at the height of its power. Since the founding of the18th dynasty in 1570 BC – the beginning of the era known as the New Kingdom - Egyptian wealth and might had grown immeasurably. The nation ruled the largest empire the world had yet seen, encompassing Upper and Lower Egypt and the greater part of Nubia, beyond the fourth cataract of the Nile to the south. The empire received tributes from subject kingdoms, and Thebes, the capital, become a city of fabulous riches. Much of the wealth reached the priests of the capital’s main deity, Amun – ‘The Hidden One’. The figure of Amun encompassed many divinities, most notably Ra (the Sun), and the gods of war and conquest. His cult was Egypt’s official religion, and his Temple of Karnak at Thebes becomes one of the biggest religious complexes ever built. The priests of Amun wielded immense power – enough to threaten the throne.

By the time of Amerhotep III, decadence was beginning to taint Egyptian society. The empire’s frontiers seemed secure, and warlike skills were neglected. Art had become more mannered, and the religious monopoly of Amun was breaking down. Amid the wealth and splendour of the civilization, a feeling of disquiet pervaded. The name of Aten, Disc of the Sun, first appeared on some monuments as another title for the Sun god, Ra. The cult may have been given royal sponsorship in an attempt to break the powerful grip of the established priesthood on Egypt’s political lift. It was in this setting that the drama of Akhenaten unfolded – a drama which was to shake Egyptian society to its roots.

Amenhotep IV came to the throne in 1379 BC surrounded by all the usual pomp and ceremony of the established cult of Amun – even the name Amenhotep means ‘Amun is content’. But the new pharaoh had a particular zeal for Sun worship. Amenhotep began installing monuments dedicated to Aten in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. This must have stirred a whirlwind of fury among the established priesthood. As the pharaoh’s religious ardour increased, he began closing he temples of Amun and persecuting the priests. The name of the god was obliterated from monuments throughout the country, and Amenhotep decided to take a new name, Akhenaten, ‘He who is pleasing to Aten’.

It was not only the cult of Amun which was disbanded; those of the other ancient deities – Isis and Osiris, Horus and Thoth – were swept away, too. At the expense of a company of gods who had coexisted since the dawn of Egyptian civilization, Akhenaten imposed monotheism: the belief in a single, universal deity. He dismantled an entire universe, leaving the vulnerable Egyptians protected only by the blank gaze of a celestial disc.

The strength of the pharaoh’s religious beliefs suggests some kind of personal revelation. A great hymn surviving from the period, which may have been composed by Akhenatem, reveals a fresh and sparkling vision of the world. It is a paean to the supreme life force, the Sun, and names Akhenaten as the son of the solar divinity – the sole intermediary between mankind and the divine:

‘You arise in beauty in the horizon of the sky, oh living Aten, creator of life… Earth lights up when you appear on the horizon, Aten who shines throughout the day. ‘You chase the darkness and bless us with your rays. The two countries (Upper and Lower Egypt) rejoice. The people awaken, they stand upright. ‘It is you who have caused them to raise… trees and plants grow green. The birds fly from their nests, praising your spirit with their wings. All creatures leap in frolic… ‘No one knows you but your son Neferkheperure Waenre (another name for Akhenaten). You have informed him of your ways and of your power.’

  ( Cont....)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

History Mystery: Babylon the city of Nebuchadnezzar -3

The Babylonians’ religious beliefs were rooted in a tradition which dated back over 2,500 years to the origins of Sumerian civilization. Every Sumerian city was ruled by a monarch – the representative of his city’s god who, surrounded by his court, was also masters of a specific art of the world. The god assured the prosperity of the city by keeping in balance the cosmic forces upon which the fertility of the earth and its occupants depended. Quite how this balance was maintained in the Babylonian scheme of this is not known. But some scholars conclude that, in Babylonian belief, the god shared his power with a mother goddess whom he wed afresh each year. It was at these ceremonies that the king and the high priestess acted out the role of the divine couple.

The mythical son to whom they gave birth personified the new year’s growth of crops. Months later, harvest time heralded to god’s death. Although he was mourned, it was recognized that his death formed an essential part of the natural cycle. The gods were organized into a pantheon, whose purpose was to maintain order throughout the world. Anu, god of the sky, Enlil, god of the wind and atmosphere, and Ea, god of the water, were the supreme gods. Then came Sin, the Moon; Shamash, the Sun; and Ishtar, the planet Venus. Marduk was one of the yound warrior gods.  When Babylon became the centre of the Middle Eastern world, Hammurabi declared that Marduk – as the city’s patron – occupied too modest a position in the pantheon.

 To put this right, he proclaimed that the top three gods had made Marduk their leader. His theologians were expected to justify the proclamation, so they set to work gathering together the oldest traditions about the creation of the world. A long poem was composed which recounted battles between the elemental beings – Tiamat, salt sea, and Apsu, fresh water – and the gods to whome they had given birth. Tiamat, that said, had created an army of monsters to kill the gods and to hurl the world back into primordial chaos. Terrified, the gods refused to give battle until the young Marduk stepped forward as their champion and agreed to defend them on one condition: that they grant him supreme power. After an heroic struggle, Marduk became first among the gods. The other gods survived, but as personifications of Marduk’s many powers. And they were gardeners.

Although no contemporary Babylonian text describing the ‘hanging gardens’ exists, historians such as Diodorus of Sicily rated them one of the wonders of the world. Elaborate gardens with artificial hills, for which water was brought in by aqueduct and raised using bronze Archimedes’ Screw devices, were built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib at Nineveh. Some archaeologists believe that these ‘Hanging Gardens’ of Nineveh were mistakenly attributed to Babylon. Others accept that Babylon also had magnificent gardens, but have not established their location. Traces of a garden have been attributed to a building behind the servants’ quarters. Its rows of vaulted corridors could have once supported plant – filled terraces. But corridors such as these were commonly used in the East for strong barrel- shaped jars. The building more probably contained the palace storerooms. A corner bastion of the palace on the edge of the Euphrates may also have been a retaining wall for a garden. Whatever their location, they were a credit to Nebuchadnezzar’s brilliant reign.

But the brightness of his capital was soon to dim. In 559 BC Nabonidus, the son of a priestess of Sin, mounted the throne as Nebuchadnezzar’s successors. He very soon exasperated Marduk’s clergy by giving preferential treatment to the temples of Sin in Ur and in Harran, in northern Syria. And life under Belshazzar, last of his line, was no easier. He held in contempt the Jews whom Nebuchadnezzar had brought in captivity to Babylon after the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 BC. There were many in Babylon who welcomed Cyrus, the king of the Medes and Persians, as a liberator. In 539 BC Cyrus and hgis army entered Babylon while Belshazzar was enjoying a great festival. The city was so vast that according to the fanciful account of Herodotus, the outskirts were captured without the people in the centre knowing anything about it. At the same time, according to the Jewish prophet Daniel, there ‘came forth fingers of a man’s palace… and this is the writing that was written… Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin… Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians.’ Cyrus declared himself a worshipper of the god Marduk; and one of his first acts was to free the captive Jews in the city. But while the Persians did not destroy Babylon, it had lost its independence for ever. Two centuries later, Alexander the Great established his empire throughout the Middle East, and planned to restore the city to its former brilliance. After his death, however, the idea was forgotten, and the inhabitants of Babylon soon abandoned their home to the plunder and neglect of the next 2,000 years.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

History Mystery: Babylon the city of Nebuchadnezzar -2

Then, in 625 BC, its governor, Nabopolassar, proclaimed Babylon independent and himself king. By making an alliance with the Medes (from Iran) Nabopolassar defeated Assyria in 612 BC and destroyed its capital, Nineveh. When Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar mounted the throne in 605 BC, the entire area known as the Fertile Crescent – from Jerusalem to the Persian Gulf – was his. All he had to do was to eradicate the last pockets of Assyrian resistance and to restore Babylon as a capital worthy of his ambitions. Under Nebuchadnezzar, the city re-emerged as the queen of the civilized world, built along both banks of the Euphrates, with the main buildings on the east bank. A double exterior wall, 18 km (11 miles) long, enclosed an area that was barely inhabited and may have served as a refuge for villagers and their herds in time of war. This outer line of defense was reinforced to the north by the fortress of Babil, which still stands 22m (72 ft) high; it once contained the summer palace of the king. An inner wall, the shape of a quadrangle and surrounded by a canal, protected the main part of the town. This brick rampart consisted of a front wall 6.5m (21 ft) wide, and a second wall more than 3m (10 ft) wide, between which was built a third wall. Each of the city’s eight gateways was under the protection of a different god. The main palace and the main gate – dedicated to Ishtar, the goddess of lo9ve and battle – were also protected by a fortress.

A sacred processional way skirted the fortress and passed through the Ishtar Gate before entering the city. Here, it ran alongside a double wall which defended the royal palace, making it an impregnable citadel right in the heart of Babylon. The construction of the palace was begun by Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar’s father. His living quarters consisted of two large halls and three private rooms, opening onto a courtyard. Nebuchadnezzar kept the palace but enlarged it. To do this he merely added to it four identical ‘palace units’. These complexes stood side by side and were connected by passages. In one of the enormous hall: the throne room. Outside the palace, the processional way continued as for as the Temple of Marduk, patron god of Babylon.

The temple was a square fortress with a central courtyard. In line with its entrance, a door opened into the sanctuary of Marduk. His golden statue was small and light enough to be carried during processions such as the one held at the New Year. Another room in the temple was reserved for Marduk’s throne; another housed the bed intended for the symbolic weddings of the gods; and some rooms were dedicated to lesser gods - for, like any earthly king, Marduk had his court. Alongside the temple, and isolated within a high well, was an immense tower, or ziggurat. It had been built hundreds of years before the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, but had fallen into disrepair. The king ordered in to be rebuilt so that its top ‘might rival heaven’. Nebuchadnezzar’s tower of sun-dried brick rested on a square base and rose like a pyramid some 90m (295 ft) above the city. Its seven stories were crowned with a temple. According to the historian Diodorus of Sicily, in the 1st century BC the tower was an observatory for Chaldaean astrologers from southern Mesopotamia. Herodotus thought it was used for sacred fertility rites. He reported that there was a bed and gold table on the top storey of the tower, but no statue of a god. ‘Only a woman chosen by the god would spend the night alone there,’ he wrote, adding that ‘sometimes the god came into the temple and slept in the bed.’ The French archaeologist Andre Parrot linked the name of Babylon – literally ‘gateway of the god’ – with Jacob’s vision in the Book of Genesis. As Jacob dreamed, he saw a ladder with reached from the earth up to heaven’s gate. Parrot suggested that the Babylonians, too, saw the tower, with its monumental staircase, as a ‘gateway of the heavens’ and as a resting-place between the heavenly home of the god and his earthly residence in the temple.

 ( Cont....)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

History Mystery: Babylon the city of Nebuchadnezzar -1

An immense mud-brick stump in present-day Iraq is all that is left of Babylon’s most infamous building, the Tower of Babel. But the tower was once a wonder of the ancient world, in a great city that surpassed in splendour all others of its time. THE GREEKS DESCRIBED BABYLON’S ‘HANGING GARDENS’ as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Book of Genesis referred to its tower, which soared more than 90m (29 ft) above the surrounding countryside, as the Tower of Babel. For the Old Testament writers this attempt to reach heaven represented the ultimate in human vanity. But there was once good reason for this vanity: the city of Babylon was the pounding heart of an empire which stretched all the way from Egypt in the west to the old kingdom of Elam (south-west Iran) in the east.

 All that remains today of what was once the largest city in the world is dun-coloured field of dried mud ruins. And, until the 20th century, all that was known about Babylon came from the writings of the Greek kistorian Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC) and from Biblical denunciations. ‘Babylon the Great’, thunders a New Testament writer, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.’ Herodotus’s view differed. Around 450 BC the much-travelled historian made the journey from Greece across the mountains and deserts of Syria and down the river Euphrates. What he saw impressed him. He described a vast capital straddling the Euphrates protected by a gigantic rampart so wide that there was enough space for a four-horse chariot to run. He told of walls more than 86 km (53 miles) round, and studded with 100 bronze gateways. Babylon, he wrote, ‘surpasses in splendour any city of the known world’. He also recounted some of the customs of the city’s inhabitants: how, for example, every woman was obliged, once in her life, ‘to reside in the sanctuary of Aphrodite and unite with a stranger’; how auctions of women were held every year, when the most beautiful were acquired by the rich, and the plainer-looking fell to the lot of the poor. But he knew little about the history of Babylon and had not even heard the name of Nebuchadnezzar II, its emperor from 605 to 562 BC. It was not until the start of the 20th century that historians could begin to disentangle fact form fantasy. In 1899, German archaeologists under the architect Robert Koldewey undertook the first intensive exploration Babylon.

 Their excavations continued until 1917. It was delicate work, for the temples, palaces and housed in Mesopotamia – the fertile valley bounded by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates – were built of sun-dried brick, extremely crumbly and difficult to distinguish from the surrounding soil. Nonetheless, Babylon’s high walls, some of them coated with glazed bricks, were finally unearthed. The ghost of a ruined city rose from the dead, and a picture of its history gradually took shape before the archaeologists’ eyes. As the excavation work continued, students of Assyrian history deciphered the thousands of texts that were uncovered. From these they learnt that Babylon was a relatively young city – at least measured against the history of Mesopotamia. The Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk and Nippur, for example, had been founded hundreds of years earlier. In about 2000 BC the Amorites, a nomadic people from the Syrian desert, overran much of Mesopotamia and sounded a series of kingdoms in Ashur an Mari and father south, gained control of the old Sumerian cities, including Babylon. Here, at the start of the 19th century BC, they founded their first royal dynasty. Hammurabi was this first Babylonian dynasty’s fifth king, and his reign from 1792 to 1750 BC was undoubtedly glorious.

One by one he crushed all his enemies, most of whom were Amorites like himself, until he had set up an empire which embraced all of southern Mesopotamia – north into Assyria, westward towards the Mediterranean and southwards to the Persian Gulf. His genius for unification was reflected in his legal code, a concisely written body of common law. No treasures from Hammurabi’s time remain in Babylon itself, partly because its valuables were scattered during the maelstrom that followed. For 1,000 years after Babylon’s founding, the warring peoples who populate the pages of the Old Testament disputed Mesopotamia. The Kassites – from the Zagros Mountains in western Iran – took and held Babylon for four and a half centuries. After that, invading Elamites carried off many of the city’s riches to their own capital, Susa. These included the stele that shows Hammurabi receiving the contents of his laws from Shamash, god of justice. In the 13th century BC Babylonia fell victim, for the first time, to the Assyrians, and from the 9th century onwards it was a vassal state of Assyria. Babylon found its subjugation intolerable. There were several revolutions, and during the course of the 7th century BC the Assyrians destroyed the city twice.

  ( Cont....)

Friday, May 10, 2013

History Mystery: Susa Home of the Elamites Part.IV

This lust for treasure resulted in an invaluable service to posterity. Among the loot was a polished basalt stele, or engraved stone, from the Temple of Shamash at Sippar, north-west of Susa. The stele bears the fullest surviving text of the famous Code of Hammurabi, the most complete collection of laws to survive from ancient Mesopotamia. Hammurabi is shown standing in homage before the seated Shamash, the Babylonian Sun god. Nearly 300 laws – dealing with crime, trade, wages, marriage, and a host of other matters – are inscribed in vertical columns below the figures. The new dynasty abandoned Al-Untash-Napirisha and set up a number of the captured monuments in Susa itself, where new temples were built in a distinctive style. The outer walls were made of glazed and moulded bricks, which depicted royal couples and the guardian spirits of the building. Only fragments of the bricks have been found, but survived intact.

It depicts two figure taking part in a ritual, and an inscription reveals that it illustrates the ceremony of the Rising Sun – Sit Shamshi. The ritual takes place between two temples, probably those of Inshushinak and his wife at Susa. Offerings have been placed around the larger of the temples, beside some raised stones. Trees nearby indicate the existence of a sacred grove. The piece suggests yet more unexpected affinities, in this case with the Semitic peoples of the Biblical lands far to the north-west: Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Though the temples are Elamite in style, the simple raised stones recall those worshipped as idols by the Canaanites. The wooded grove was revered by the Semites, who held all green trees sacred, and a miniature vase in the sculpture is similar to an item found in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Underground tombs beside the temple of the god Inshushinak in Susa contain the cremated remains of the royal dead. Partially burnt furniture has been found in these vaults, but the remains of precious gold and silver leaf bear witness to their original splendour. Statuettes of precious metal have also been discovered. Toys and games similar to modern solitaire had been buried there, too.

Ancient relics from earlier eras have also been preserved: stamp seals and cylinder seals, which were already more than 2,000 years old; and exotic axe heads. These relics, imported from eastern Persia, seem to have been placed in the tombs to reinforce the monarchy’s claim to descent from the woman known as the Gracious Mother, the wife of the first Elamite kin, Kindattu, who had reunited Anshan and Susa at the beginning of the second millennium BC. Safe in the vault, they survived the holocaust to come. At the end of the 12th century BC the Babylonians recovered their supremacy and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Elamites. The ancient civilization crumbled as its enemies set it alight. The scale of the fire is almost unimaginable: a thick layer of ash covers the whole of the site of Susa – a terrible reminder of the size of the conflagration which ended Elam’s most glorious period. Darkness fell over the conquered lands for some 400 years, and Elam never fully recovered. During those years, dramatic changes were to transform the Middle East completely. In about 1000 BC, the plateau was engulfed by a wave of Aryan peoples from the Caucasus, from whom Iran derived it name. The Aryans founded the first Persian kingdom at Anshan. Meanwhile, a new power was rising in Mesopotamia – the empire of the Assyrians. Caught between these two power blocs, Elam’s fallen civilization was doomed.

At the end of the 8th century BC, an ambitious king of Susa called Shutur Nahhunte revived some of the splendour of the metropolis, and for a few decades it citizens enjoyed an uneasy peace through alliances first with Assyria, then with Persia. But it was not to last. In 646 BC, the Elamite capital was devastated once more, this time by the merciless ruler of Assyria, Assurbanipal (669-627 BC). Susa was looted, its royal tombs desecrated, and the images of its gods and kings were taken away. But Susa refused to die. The Persians rebuilt the city in the 6th century BC, and it became the administrative capital of their empire. Later, in 331 BC, it fell to Alexander the Great. It continued its role as a trade centre until gradual decline set in during the late Middle Ages, reducing it into a cluster of deserted hillocks overlooking the barren plain of Khuzestan. But in one way the site preserved its history across thousands of years – it has retained its ancient name, in the form of Shush, from the time of the first written records until today.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

History Mystery: Susa Home of the Elamites Part.III

The records of the master of the house have been found. They mention the royal grants awarded to him, name his farm workers, and list the huge quantities of grain needed to sow his fields. They also reveal his extensive business interest, listing creditors in distant towns. He even had a debtor as far away as Liyan (present-day Bushehr) on the Persian Gulf. Later, other dignitaries set up residence in the quarter, notably Rabibi, a royal chamberlain. His house, fitted out like Temti-wartash’s, offers a delightful insight into daily life. There were classrooms where children learned the difficult cuneiform script of the period. Their exercise involved copying words, written by the teacher, onto large clay tables, stored in holes in the ground to keep them cool and malleable. Family vaults beneath the aristocratic houses have yielded numerous funerary items. To preserve the identity of the dead, portraits modeled from clay were painted and placed beside the corpse’s head.

They obviously seek to capture the likeness of subject – unusual in the Middle East at a time when portraits usually conformed to conventional stereotypes. The most remarkable of them shown a man with a square-cut, fringed Elamite hairstyle. His doleful expression evokes the rough and ready peasant stock of a people living close to the mountains. Women are shown smiling faintly, and wearing their hair plaited in a diadem. Small terracotta figures of naked women, probably from the same period, were excavated from the streets. They were broken when found. Pregnant women probably wore them as a charm, throwing them away once they had delivered their child. Couples intertwined in their beds and mothers suckling babies were also represented – imagery designed to encourage bigger families and, indirectly, a larger city. Susa and Anshan gradually drifted apart, but in the 13th century BC the new Anzanite dynasty restored the union. Its prince3s declared ‘expansionist’ aims.

For hundreds of years, only the Senitic Akkadian script had been used at Susa. But the new kings had their inscriptions drawn up in the language of Anshan, as well as in Akkadian. It was a clear statement of pride in the traditions of the plateau. Little is known about the greatest king of the line, Untash-Napirisha (c.1275-1240 BC), except for his great building programme. He also embellished Susa with masterpieces of metalwork. The most important surviving relic is a life-sized headless statue of his queen, Napirasu. Even without its head, this cast bronze figure weighs 1,750 kg (almost 2 tons) – the largest metal statue ever found in the Middle East. But an even more impressive memorial to his reign is the temple and place complex with he built for himself about 30 km (18 1/2 miles) south-east of Susa. This testament to his majesty was called Al-Untash-Napirisha, nowknown as Chogha Zanbil, with lies on the edge of a plateau dominating the river Ab-e Dez. The approach to the complex was by river, then through the royal gate which also served as a law court (the custom in the Middle East). Within the first enclosure, a number of places were built for the use of the royal family. Below one palace were the tombs in which the king and his family would be buried. Banquets were held at each funeral, and the bodies cremated. Not far from this funeral palace was a temple dedicated to Nusku, the Mesopotamian god light and fire. The high altar of the temple was exposed to the sky – it was possibly a cremation site, and certainly a centre of fire worship.

 Inside the walls of the first enclosure, a second enclosure housed the temples of various Elamite gods, and within, a third enclosure housed the major temples, including the sanctuary of the great gods Inshushinak, patron of Susa, and Naprisha, paton of Anshan uplands. The goddess wives of the two major deities also had temples dedicated to them. They were fully recognized alongside the gods, a tradition mirrored in the mortal world – Elamite women occupied powerful positions in both government and religion. Not long after the construction of Al-Untasha, the Elamite kingdom passed through a brief period of crisis. Then, in the 12th century BC, a new dynasty cast its eyes on distant horizons to restore the realm’s prestige. To the west, the Babylonian dynasty of the Kassites had been ruling for almost 500 years. The new Elamite king, Shutruk Nahhunte, overthrew the dynasty and captured an immense haul of booty. He returned to Susa with statues, monuments, and a host of other trophies.

Friday, May 3, 2013

History Mystery: Susa Home of the Elamites Part.II

Susa’s trading community began to take to the roads, setting up distant merchant colonies; there is evidence that merchants from Susa even reached Egypt. But once again, an era of history ended for reasons that have not been identified. In about 3000 BC Susa and its colonies were abandoned. The abandoned is thought to have been brief. Excavations indicate that the city was soon reoccupied, and began long period influenced at first by the hardy, inventive peoples of the Iranian plateau, then by the sophisticated Mesopotamians. Out of this fertile mixture of cultures, the cultivation known to the Old Testament authors as Elam eventually emerged. Initially, the newly occupied city looked to the upland peoples of the plateau, establishing commercial and diplomatic links with the peoples of the Fars region on the southern heights of present-day Iran.

Among its new trading partners was a flourishing kingdom centered on the neighbouring town of Anshan. Examples of early Elamite writing have been discovered at both Susa and Anshan – distinctive and lively representations of animals impressed on soft clay. The culture of civilization which produced them, known as Proto-Elamite, survived for some 200 years, until a new Mesopotamian upsurge caused Susa to renew its links with the cities to the west. Susa was drawn even more closely into the Mesopotamian fold in about 2300 BC, when the mighty Sargon of Akkad, a warrior king from the north-west, overran the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates and united its kingdoms into a single realm. As a result, the local spoken language was replaced by the Semitic language of the Akkadians. Though politically and culturally part of Mesopotamia, Susa maintained its established trading links. It remained the gateway to the Fars plateau, hub of the well-trodden routes along which merchants carried precious stones and metals from the hills to the plain. These routes were reaching ever deeper into Asia, and craftsmen on the Iranian plateau began to produce chlorite and later alabaster wares which were exported over vast distances. The most characteristic items were glazed seals made of steatite (soapstone) with cut-out patterns featuring a cross, an eagle, or mythological figure.

The seals reached Susa along the westerly routes; they have also been found in the steppes of southern Russia, and even as far east as the fringes of China. Persia’s prosperity was strongly felt by the people of Susa. After their long subjection to Mesopotamia, political and cultural links with the Fars region were restored when the Elamites brought about the downfall of Mesopotamia’s ruling dynasty of Ur in 2004 BC. Susa and Anshan were reunited under one monarch, Kindattu – and the Elamite dynasty began. In about 1950 BC, the ruler’s title of ‘King of Susa and Anshan’ was dropped in favour of ‘Grand Regent’. The heir to the throne at that time was not the king’s son, but his younger brother – the son was the second in line. This sensible arrangement gave the son time to mature, and the in – fighting so often connected in royal houses with the accession of a young heir was thus avoided. Under the new dynasty, a suburb grew up on the northern outskirts of Susa which has been carefully explored by archaeologists. Houses were grouped in blocks, separated by well – defined streets. Each house had a fireplace, used for cooking and for heating in winter. Most of the houses were fitted with latrines with a drainage course to carry away waste water, and many of the inhabitants enjoyed the luxury of a bathroom with a terracotta bath.

One house contained its own private chapel – a tiny sanctuary housing a huge altar, elaborately decorated with reliefs. Tombs were dug underneath the houses, and fitted out with funeral furniture. The home comforts in the suburb of Susa all speak of modest prosperity, but it seems that the area was gradually adopted by a wealthier aristocracy. Funerary vaults replaced the simple tombs, and imposing buildings began to appear. In the 18th century BC, one of the suburb’s housing blocks was transformed into the residence of a high official known as Temti-wartash. Temti-wartash’s house was a palace. After passing through three vestibules, visitors entered a lavishly tiled courtyard. A palatial doorway led to a reception room with an arched roof supported by four rectangular columns, and the rest of the building was laid out around secondary courtyards.

 ( Cont....)

History Mystery: Susa Home of the Elamites Part.I

Between the lowlands of Mesopotamia and the high plateau of Persia, the city of Susa emerged as a cultural crossroads. Here, the skills of those living on the plains merged with the vigour of the mountain people to produce a brilliant new civilization. The ancient Greeks knew SUSA as a royal city of the Persian Empire. Before them, the writers of the Old Testament referred to it as the capital of a land called Elam. But Susa‘s origins date back farther still – back to the shadows of prehistory, to an age before literate civilization began. Today, Susa consists of a number of great earthen mounds situated in the plain of Khuzestan in south – west Iran. Each mound is composed of layer upon layer of mud-brick ruins. Mud-brick is a fragile material, and early archaeological investigations lacked the techniques needed to identify it. In 1897, a French geologist, Jacques de Morgan, embarked on an ambitious programme of excavation, seeking the origins of Elamite civilization. Valuable finds were made, but tones of the precious layers of earth and rubble were simply carted away and disposed of.

What remains today does not give a full picture of the city of Susa, but a series of fascinating glimpses of its gradual evolution. Susa lies on a lowland plain watered by rivers flowing from the Iranian plateau. Although it is in Iran, it is geographically part of Mesopotamia – the broad and fertile valley formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In these rich, alluvial lowlands, the rise of urban civilization began in the 6th millennium BC, when the inhabitants began to control river floods with irrigation schemes. Agricultural yields increased dramatically, and new wealth allowed specialist crafts such as pottery to flourish. Trade expanded, and great works of construction began; the building of temples signals the beginnings of organized religion. More than 5,000 years age, the people of Mesopotamia invented writing, and went on to establish the first recorded kingdoms and empires. By 4000 BC, a major urban revolution was in progress and the foundation of Susa dated back to this time. The city was to become the gateway to the Iranian plateau, a hub of trade routes liking the plains and mountains, for a period of several thousand years. For 300 years after its foundation, Susa developed as the centre of prosperous agricultural region. Funeral items from this early period, excavated from a vast cemetery containing more than 2,000 graves, include copper axes, suggesting an important traffic in the metal.

The plain itself had no copper; it must have been brought from the Iranian plateau. The graves also suggest a tradition of fine pottery. The villages surrounding Susa produced elegantly simple pots painted with stylized birds and animals. During this period, the inhabitants of the city built an enormous brick terrace, 80m (262ft) square, perhaps designed to carry a great temple. The sheer size of the work implies a strong economy capable of diverting a large workforce from food production to construction. It also suggests the existence of a powerful central authority, though no evidence of a kind or ruling hierarchy exists from this time. Stone seals of ownership have been found, so riches are likely to have accumulated in a few private hands. Slim clues like these suggest some kind of civic democracy, but tantalizingly, the evidence stops there. At an unidentified date, the terrace was destroyed. The next stage in Susa’s evolution began in about 3700 BC, when its distinctive local pottery was replaced by plain, mass produced ware which was flooding the Middle East at the time. This sudden new influence can be attributed to the meteoric rise of Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia, where a booming economy began to inspire new forms of art. It was prelude to more significant developments. In about 3400 BC, an age monumental building began at the Sumerian city of Uruk, on the banks of the Euphrates south-west of Susa.

 Local artists of the time often depicted a priest-king figure, obviously the head of a centralized administration. Even more revolutionary, clay tablets bearing a form of written language had appeared. Symbols were used to list possessions or record business deals and land sales. Susa felt the influence of Sumer, and developed in parallel. The city and its surrounding areas created a separate written language, also recorded on clay tablets. Similarly, a king – like figure begins to appear among relics of Susa from this period. The figure is depicted on engraved cylindrical seals which were used as stamps of ownership, much like signet rings, in both Susa and Mesopotamia. Despite this suggestion of a monarchy, the economy does not appear to have been centralized. Private merchants and traders probably controlled most of the wealth.

 ( Cont....)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

History Mystery: Ur The Legendary City Of Abraham Part.V

Separate from the cornfields, were the gardens and orchards, which produced cucumbers, gourds, lentils, melons, onions, and pomegranates destined for the markets and the palace and temples warehouses. Beyond the fertile valleys, sheep and goats grazed in the pastureland that spread along the desert margin. The coarse grasses were not suitable for feeding cattle, so they were fattened on stocks of barley brought from the plain. Official caravans passing through these upland regions to gather tithes went with escorts of soldiers armed with lance and dagger. The routes were well-worm, but raiding tribes from the desert were always a menace. In about 2000 BC, the Amorites from the west and the Elamites from the foothills of Iran to the east descended on the capital in a cloud of destruction. Sir Leonard Woolley’s team unearthed the evidence: temples had been sacked, monuments had been smashed, and buildings had been razed to the ground. Yet Ur not only survived but continued to flourish, although on a reduced scale, into the time of Abraham, who is thought to have been alive in about 1500 BC.

Could this great city really have been the home of Abraham, a Semite always thought of as a tent-dwelling nomad? It Abraham’s family lived in Ur, they can only have done so temporarily – by 1500 BC the city was an age-old metropolis, and its citizens had been living the urban life for more than two thousand years. It is likely that the tribe of Abraham was one among many who drove their flocks from the wastes of Arabia into the fertile plain. They must often have passed through the swarming, urban communities that sprawled before them. Coming from the calm silence of the desert, they would have experienced an acute culture shock as they gazed on the city’s grand palaces, temples, and busy workshops. And Sumerian legend left its mark on the tribe in one immensely significant respect: in the Bible story of the great flood. The Sumerians’ royal chronicles allude to a colossal rising of the waters which once engulfed their land. The flood legend is also at the heart of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a favourite myth of their civilization. Gilgamesh – half-god, half-man was said to have been king of the powerful city – state of Uruk. Part of the epic relates how the gods decided to wipe out mankind in a deluge. Only one faithful believer, a certain Uptnaishtim, was to be spared from the catastrophe. He built an ark and loaded it with the ‘seed of all livings things’. The storm raged for six days and nights, and on the seventh, it subsided. ‘All mankind had turned to clay,’ and the ark lay stranded on a mountain top. Three birds were then sent out in succession, just as in the Bible, to look for dry land. When exploring Ur, Wooolley came upon something which seemed to tie the flood to a specific time and location.

Digging below the royal cemetery he discovered a clear layer of silt 3m (10ft) thick interrupting the continuous evidence of prehistoric human habitation. Broken vessels dating back to about 4000 BC were discovered above and below the silt, but not within it. The clean clay was a flood deposit: the sign of a massive inundation which partially buried the original settlement. Was this evidence of the flood described in the scriptures, a huge deluge that had engulfed the entire valley of the Tigris and Euphrates? Initially, Woolley thought it might be. Today, scholars are more cautious. The inundation was not as extensive as Woolley first believed. Other major floods had occurred at various times in Sumerian history. And since flood myths are found all round the world, it is even conceivable that all date back through tribal memory to the melting of the waters at the end of the Ice Age in around 8300 BC. Cultures as distant as Aztec Mexico and Hindu India speak of a great purification of the earth by water. Whatever the truth, it is clear that the Sumerian myth caught the imagination of the Semitic tribe of Abraham, and helped to shape the from which the Biblical version was to take. Much of modern civilization can be traced back to the inventive Sumerians: the wheel, the plough, patterns of city life and social organization – even the art of writing itself. It seems incredible today that this vibrant culture could ever have been forgotten.

Yet such was its fate. During the course of the 1st millennium BC the centre of civilization in the Middle East shifted from Mesopotamia to the Iranian plateau, where a Persian dynasty with alien gods was building a mighty empire. The ancient cities of Sumer declined. Various rulers of Ur tried to restore the city to some of its former glory – notably Nabonidus, a 6th century Babylonian king who rebuilt parts of the great ziggurat. But Ur was slowly dying and, in about 316 BC, an unexpected event dealt a fatal blow to the great city. The Euphrates, whose waters had so long nourished the prosperity of Ur, changed its course. It started to nun some 14 km (8 ½ miles) east of the city.

Ur was starved of its shipping trade. The canals which had once watered the fields were dry, and the city was stranded like a beached leviathan on a flat desert waste. The remaining inhabitants abandoned the site. Wind and sandstorms did the rest, eroding walls and monuments and heaping up accumulations of dust, until all that remained was a series of gentle hillocks overlooked by a hump-backed monument – a hump which the Bedouins called Tell al-Muqayyar - the Mound of Pitch.