U Chicago’s Oriental Institute

The eunuchs especially got my attention this time — a little plump, double-chinned, and very dignified in their ancient, stone-carved representation. I’ve visited the Oriental Institute in the past but am each time struck by something different. What a gem — a small museum in a beautiful old building on a tree-lined street in Chicago’s South Side, it houses extraordinary artifacts from the ancient Near East. One impressive section includes material from Assyria’s golden days in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, during which time they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. There is the magnificent lamassu, a simulataneously benevolent and fierce winged-bull-man statue, dramatic hunting scenes, as well as also panels depicting the court. It was the latter, specifically a portrayal from the fortress/palace at Khorsabad of Sargon II’s eunuchs striding behind a royal figure probably the crown prince that caught my attention. They are armed, yet their hands are clearly disengaged from their swords, held in graceful passivity. Eunuchs were often the product of tribute — boys offered from conquered lands and selected to serve in the royal court. As this particular panel demonstrates, they could rise to important positions as trusted attendants. I had the good fortune to run into Matthew Stolper, showing some friends around the museum. Dr. Stolper, Professor of Oriental Studies at Univ. Chicago, has excavated in Iran including Tall-i Malyan, a site that should probably be identified with Anshan (Cyrus’ home of origin) and has recently been working with the intriguing Persepolis Fortification Tablets, enormously helpful for my research on Cyrus the Great. During my ambling visit, staff were setting up tables and chairs for the 30th class reunion of Chicago grads. Amongst these priceless ancient treasures, what a venue in which to celebrate! Dr. Stolper said, “it’s white wine only.”

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