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’.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

History Mystery: The Pagan City Of Temples! part-2

But the Burmese warlord was no magnanimous conqueror, despite his conversion. When he turned his victorious troops north again for the 650 Km journey back to Pagan, he took with him the labour force that was to rebuild his capital; an army of slaves. Atleast thirty thousand Mon villagers made the long march north. So did hundreds of monks and thousands of skilled artisans including stonemasons, potters and architects. As soon as he reached home, Anawrahta put his slaves to work in the rice fields of Kyaukse and on the building sites of Pagan. As the months of captivity stretched into years, a subtle alchemy took place between the two peoples. The slaves began to civilize their masters. The first inscription in Burmese written in Mon characters because the northerners had no alphabet of their won appeared at Pagan in 1058, a year after the fall of Thaton. Later inscriptions on Pagan’s temples, detailing the costs of construction and the builders of each shrine make it clear that some of the skilled Mon workers were being treated as free artisans. Many of the workers chose to stay on in the north after they were freed. Buddhist monks who had been forcibly imported seem to have chosen likewise- attracted, possibly, by the king’s support of their faith, and by the challenge of missionary work among the largely spirit worshipping Burmese.

Shin Arahan, now a close adviser to Anawrahat, travelled the growing kingdom, preaching, converting, planning new temples and setting up Buddhist monasteries and schools. Anawrahta remainded., for the most part at Pagan, directing the construction of its pagodas, monasteries, and the cone topped shrines know as Stupas. As the city grew in prestige, Buddhists scholars, and artisans flocked to it from India, Thailand, and even Sri Lanka. Merchants followed the flow of people up the wide Irrawaddy river, bringing trade and wealth. By 1073 Pagan was so respected as a Buddhist centre that when Sri Lankan king Vijaya Bahu, chose to revive Buddhism he turned to Anawrahta for help. The Burmese king sent monks and in return, Vijaya Bahu gave him a replica of Sri Lanka’s holiest relic: a tooth reputed to be one of the Buddha’s own. After Anawrahta died in 1077, the building continued under his son, Sawlu and Sawlu’s successor Kyanzittha. Kyanittha was responsible for what is still one the wonders of Pagans: The Ananda Temple, a gian building detailed with gold and silver, decorated with statues and glazed terracotta plaques depicting Buddhist parabales.

As Buddhism took hold in the Pagan Empire, it became the dream of thousands of Burmese to build their own shrine. Women took part in these religious and building activities on the same terms as men. Tribal customs and Buddhist doctrine guaranteed their freedom and equality. A while mantle of painted bricks Stupas and temples spread across the country. But behind the devotion to Buddhism, echoes of barbarism remained in the Burmese court, at least. Anawrahata himself had worshiped not only at the shrine of Buddha’s tooth, but also at other altars built to appease the nats. At the start of work on the Ananda, Kyanzittha had a child buried alive to provide the building with a guardian spirit; this was not a Buddhist custom. He dedicated the temple in 1090 by ceremonially executing the architect who had designed it, so that the creator could not repeat or better the design elsewhere.

In the 13the century, the Pagan Empire ended as it had begun – in violence. Three main factors had pushed it to the brink of collapse. First, incessant border wars against outlaying tribes drained the villages of men. Secondly, the obsession with building, and the granting of the best lands to monasteries and temples for their upkeep, deprived peasants of the space to grow crops. Thirdly, the land itself was becoming poorer with every building that went up. The bricks were made of fired clay, and over the years almost every tree in the region was felled to feed the kilns. The result was catastrophic erosion. In the face of growing poverty and anarchy, traders began moving away from Pagan, taking with them the revenue that had been a vital source of the city’s wealth. The end came during the reign of Narathaihapate. Ambassadors from the Mongol Chinese Empire of Kublai Khan visited Pagan to demand tribute. Narathihapate, outraged at being given orders, had the envoys executed.

It was an absurd gesture. The death and the subsequent Burmese raid on a frontier state that had submitted to China provoked a punitive expedition by the Mongols. The Burmese chronicles proudly record that, in 1277, Narathihapate held back the invaders at Ngasaunggyan, about 560 Km north east of Pagan. But they also admit that the Burmese war elephants eventually retreated before mounted Mongol archers. Six years later, in 1283, the Mongol hordes attacked in earnest and defeated the Burmese at Kaungsin, about 440Km north east of the capital. The king and his court fled down the Irrawaddy, abandoning Pagan to the invaders. Kublai Khan’s officers were staggered by Pagan’s magnificence. The Venetian explorer Marco Polo talked to the soldiers when they returned to China. He described the city they had seen.’ It was full of stone towers covered in gold and silver, with bells at the top, so that the wind made them ring,’ he wrote. ‘And truly these towers made one the most beautiful landscapes in the world, for they were finished exquisitely, splendidly and at great expenses. The beauty was not to last, Narathihapate tried to reclaim the throne of Pagan, but in 1287 the Mongols again invaded, and put the city to the torch. Looters stripped the temple of their gold and silver. But the building themselves survived and have been tended by generations of devoted Buddhists ever since.

Monday, March 18, 2013

History Mystery: The Pagan City Of Temples! part-1

On the plain in the central Myanmar (Burma), Stone shrines mark the site of Pagan. They are dedicated to Buddhism- a creed that abhors violence. Many were built by slaves on the orders of a king who condoned the sacrificial murder of his own wife. Early one morning in the year 1044 AD, villagers and courtiersgather in front of a wooden palace in Myinkaba, northern Myanmar. Their ruler, Sokka-te, still new to the throne has been challenged to a duel by his half brother Anawrahata. Sokka-te, confident of victory, accepts the challenge. Of the younger Anawrahata he says scornfully; ‘his mother’s milk is yet wet upon his lips.’ Each of the brothers, armed with a lance, mounts a horse. They charge, thrusting and stabbing. Sokka-te shrieks and falls, transfixed by his brother’s lance. Anawrahata is carried in triumph to the palace of his father.

So, according to a Burmese chronicle, began the reign of one of history’s most unusual converts to Buddhism: a ferocious warlord who enslaved a nearby civilization in order to build a city that was devoted to Buddha, the prophet of gentleness. When Anawrahta came to the throne he believed, like his people, in spirits; entities know as Nats who determined human destiny by controlling the land and the forces of nature. Burmese chronicles record that a Nat appeared to Anawrahta in a dream and commanded him to build monasteries and shrines, to dig wells and ponds, and to construct an irrigation system and grow rice for his people, all in penance for the death of his brother.

In obedience to the spirit’s orders, Anawrahata chose a plain bordered by two rivers, at Kyaukse, about 30 Km south of the present day city of Mandalay, and set to work. He collected forced labour from the nearby villages and hired irrigation experts from the Shan hill tribes of eastern Burma. For three years, tens of thousands of peasants toiled unceasingly in the steam bath heat of the plain. They built dams, dug canals, and changed the course of the rivers as Anawrahta ruthlessly pursued his vision. In the course of the projects, thousands died of tropical fevers and exhaustion.

Finally, the mammoth undertaking was ready. As decreed by his people’s grisly custom, Anawrahta would mark the occasion by offering human sacrifices, one for each dam. The victims, it was believed, would then become nats, the guardian spirits. Chronicle record that a wife of Anawrahta, sister of a Shan chief, offered herself as a single substitute sacrifice for all the dams. Her offer was accepted. She was ritually killed- possibly by having her throat cut and her body was burnt on a huge pyre.

The flooded paddy fields at Kyaukse became the economic powerhouse of Anawrahta’s realm, producing food for the people and a torrent of wealth to swell the royal coffers. Gradually more neighboring chieftains came under Anawrahta’s sway, and his territory spread north towards what are now the Indian and Chinese borders, east in to Thailand, and west to the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, he expanded the town he had chosen as his capital: Pagan, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. The town needed work to turn it into a city. The native Burmese were poor architects and worse artists, but to the south lay a civilization, the Mons, living in a patch work of city states that had been a centre of culture for more than 1000 years. From this centre, in 1056 AD, came a remarkable refugee: a Buddhist mon called Shin Arahan. Shin Arahan was a mon who believed fervently in the traditional creed of his people: an ascetic variety of Buddhism called Theravada. His faith, however, had come under pressure in his homeland, both from other Buddhist sects and from the Hindu influence of India. The final insult came when the Monk leaders agreed to a number of compromises with Hindu Beliefs. Shin Arahan, outraged by the changes, deserted his home and began his journey to Pagan.

Anawrahta was impressed by the power and passion of the monk. Within a year, the king was publicly converted to Buddhism, and ad agreed to invade the Mon territories to help to re establish the supremacy of Theravada Buddhism. With Shin Arahan at his side, the king marched south on one of the most important Mon cities- Thaton, on the coast of the Gulf of Martaban, east of Myanmar’s present day capital, Rangoon. When Thaton fell in 1057 after a three month siege, the other Mon city states submitted without a flight.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

History Mystery: Mari The Lost City Of Mesopotamia! -2

After a short reception ceremony, the envoy followed the king through several halls to courtyard with a decorated alter and walls inset with rectangular columns. From the courtyard two doors opened into a long chamber, the sanctuary, at the back of which was another room containing the sepulcher of the dynasty’s ancestor. Above his tomb was an altar where the reigning king officiated as high priest and god. On the walls, mosaics illustrated New year festivals in which the king stood in for his god and the queen played the god’s consort, acting out a divine marriage ceremony. If their union proved fruitful, it portended a fertile year. The mosaic figures were carved from mother of pearl imported from the Persian Gulf, and were mounted in bitumen on wooden panels. The content of the mosaics would have been familiar to those practiced at Ur- but the artistry would have seemed unusually refined.

The purpose of Mesannepadda’s diplomatic mission was to tighten the bonds between Ur and Mari. Clouds were gathering to the west where the king of Ebla (present day Tell Mardikh) posed a serious threat. This fearsome monarch had made vassals of his neighbors, and had conquered many more distant areas. The king of Mari was clearly anxious to show the importance he attached to the visit of the Sumerian envoy. Offerings from his own treasury had been prepared for burial beneath the new palace’s foundations: copper, gold, silver bracelets, silver pendants, and a series of cylinder seals from the city’s workshops. There were also two statuettes of goddesses sent by a king of Syria, one of ivory, the other silver. Both were naked- shocking to a Sumerian. To this hoard of treasures were added to the cylinder seals and pendants of lapis lazuli from Ur. All were placed in a large jug which was buried beneath the courtyard. The act symbolized for the benefits of the gods, the splendor of the king of Mari, and the scope of his international relations.

 Over the centuries, Mari underwent developments like another city. But even in 2400 BC, a century after the visit of Mesannepadda’s envoy, a Sumerian traveler would have found much to remind him of home. Mari’s narrow, carefully laid out streets resembled those of Ur. Near the palace stood the temple of NInni Zaza a goddess also known at Ur. Through the temple’s entrance hall was something rather less familiar to a Sumerian: a tapering stone set in the middle of the temple courtyard. In Mari, the gods not only took human shape- their presence also dwelt in stone. This belief, shared by Mari’s western neighbors, was alien to the Sumerians. The stone would be regularly anointed with oil, and offerings of sacred cakes would be placed nearby. Two doors led from the courtyard into the shrine of Ninni Zaza, a long, rectangular chamber which was lit with oil lamps. At the end stood a wooden statue of the goddess wearing a horned tiara. Below it vases sunk into the floor received water poured by the priests. Offerings of food were placed on nearby table. On a brick bench facing the entrance stood a host of statuettes carved from white alabaster or limestone. They depicted the notables of Mari, in postures of reverence and prayer. One bore the inscription Iku shamagan, ‘king of Mari’. Others represented Salim, the “king’s Eldest Brother”, Mashigirru, the ‘Country’s Grandee” and lastly the ‘Royal Cup bearer”, Steward of the King’s Household’, and ‘Great Scribe’ (the prime minister, Ipumsaar). The inscriptions were in Semitic language, but the script was Sumerian and easy enough to decipher since the symbols represented concepts as much as sounds.

Religion at Mari differed in some important ways from that practiced at Ur. Images at the cylinder seals found at the site depict the Sun god, patron deity of Mari, at the prow of a serpent shaped vessel brandishing a leafy branch. The god is sailing the celestial ocean which was believed to span the world and feed the Earth’s rivers. He reined the Universe as the master of all life, in particular of plants. In this capacity he was also the patron of ploughmen, and plough was depicted at his side. U’s patron deity, the moon god Nanna, was represented in amore down to earth fashion. Nanna was the highest in a hierarchy of gods; each deity had a particular sphere of influence and wielded his or her power through spirits who fulfilled specific roles.

 But for all the power of the gods, and the alliance with Ur, Mari was soon to fall. Some times between 2350 and 2300BC, the city was destroyed. Historians are unsure of the invader; perhaps the ruler of neighboring Ebla, or perhaps the mighty Sargon of Akkad who, from his capital near Babylon, conquered lands between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean to establish the first Mesopotamian Empire, when Mari became part of this empire, the rebuilding of the ruins began. But Sargon’s supremacy crumbled with in a century, and was eventually replaced by a Sumerian empire based at Ur. Mari’s rulers were vassals to Ur from about 2111 to 2003 BC.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

History Mystery: Mari The Lost City Of Mesopotamia! -1

      When a large, headless statue was unearthed in Syria early in the 20th century, it turned out to be the first of startling series of archaeological discoveries. A palace and temples followed and soon an entire city was brought to light. TELL HARIRI lies on the west bank of the river Euphrates in Syria, 12 Km from the border with Iraq. In the early 20th century, the ruins at the site were considered to be to little interest there were scores of similar sites, or tells, throughout the lands of the Middle East. But in the 1930s, while Syria was a French mandate, a Bedouin foraging among the ruins for a suitable gravestone discovered a headless statue. The statue bore an inscription in cuneiform ancient, wedge shaped writing. Casual digging at the site was hurriedly stopped by the local authorities, and the French archaeologist Andre Parrot was sent to explore the tell. Parrot unearthed a large number of alabaster statues of the period known as early Dynastic III, most of them priests. One bearing a dedication to the goddess Ishtar was inscribed with the name of the king of Mari- a find that unlocked the secrets of the site. Tell Hariri stood on the ruins of the lost city of Mari. The name Mari had already cropped up in the records of the great Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, discovered by earlier archaeologists. Sumer was centered on the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where great cities such as Uruk, Nippur, Eridu, and Ur flourished some 3000 years before the birth of Christ.

      Its people invented writing, and in early texts now known as the king list, they named Mari as one of the dozen or so city states struggling for supremacy between about 3000 and 2300 BC. But Tell Hariri was a long way from the known centers of Sumerian civilization and its discovery revolutionized thinking about ancient Mesopotamia. Clearly its culture had been shared by other peoples living much farther up the Euphrates than had been imagined. While working on the site in 1934, Parrot was visited by Henri Frankfort, a Duch archaeologist then exploring Tell Asmar and Khafajeh, some 400 Km to the east. His findings were strikingly similar to Parrot’s, suggesting that a single civilization spanned the entire breadth of Mesopotamia. Parrot went on to reveal the true grandeur of the ancient Mari. He discovered two royal palaces, one on which fated back to 2500 BC – the time of the Early Dynastic Period- and a haul of inscribed tablets, which helped to build up a vivid picture of the city’s history.

     Mari’s importance stemmed from its key position on the trade route linking Mesopotamia with Syria to the North West. The Sumerian settlements of the delta were rich in agricultural produce, but they needed crucial raw materials from Syria to sustain their city culture. Sumer exported corn, leather, and wool in exchange for scarce building materials such as tone and timber. Silver and lead were brought down fromm the Syrian hills to supply Sumerian metal workers. Copper came from as far away as the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor, and from Magan in the Persian Gulf. As trade expanded, military and diplomatic missions were sent to Mari to maintain links with its supply lines. During excavations of the Early Dynastic places, Andre Parrot discovered a cache of objects, including several cylindrical seals, presented to the local ruler by Mesannepadda, king of the Sumerian city of Ur. The evidence indicated that an important diplomatic mission was sent to Mari in around 2500 BC.

       Mesannepadda’s envoy was a scribe, with him, the king sent a message of friendship to Mari’s ruler, an offer of alliance, and rich gifts, including a magnificent blue Anzu bird pendant of lapis lazli imported from beyond the Iranian plateau and inscribed with the royal sender’s name. The Journey was not difficult, for Ur at that time dominated many of the other Sumerian cities and nobody would have obstructed the Caravan’s progress. As it made its way up the valley of the Euphrates, the envoy would have noticed linguistic changes. But understanding the Semitic tongue was not a problem to Sumerian scholar: Bedouin herdsmen often drove their cattle up and down the valley, and mixed freely with the city dwellers in south. Their language was understood in Ur.

     In the dry uplands of the Euphrates, Mari loomed like an oasis, irrigated by networks of canals leading off the great river. A dyke protected the city from flooding, and ramparts of unbaked brick fortified its walls. The envoy was greeted at the gates by royal officials and conducted to the newly erected palace. In the great visitors’ courtyard, the envoy awaited an audience. At the appointed time, a grouped of dignitaries arrived scribes, army officers, and relatives of the king- followed by the king himself. The king’s costume was no different from that of his entourage, consisting mainly of goatskin from waist to ankle, but he was distinguished by the arrangement of his long hair, plaited in a diadem around his head with a double bun above the nape of the neck.