300, Awesome Ancient Women, and the Perils of Historical Fiction

Here’s what I just posted on Huffington Post… and then, here’s the problem with it.

Now if only there were about three hundred more 300‘s. Maybe not in blood and gore but movies with kick-ass women from ancient Persia and Greece. Artemisia Movie 300Then, more people would get what has so captivated me about Amytis, Cassandane, and Atossa. Um… who, you ask?

History, Fiction and Non

Whatever possessed me to tell uber-expert Dr. Amelie Kuhrt that I’ve made Cambyses I a depressed opium addict subject to the clutches of an evil groundsman in ancient Persia?! It couldn’t have been the alcohol — I was drinking tea, she hot cocoa. But what what a thrill to be able to talk nonstop for hours at a cafe in central London with this most formidable scholar of ancient Near Eastern history and literature. Our topics ranged from Cyrus II, Nabonidus (we share a fondness for the much maligned king), and women such as Atossa and Irdabama, to the complex landscape of religion in ancient Babylon and Persia, from food and drink, to clothing and climate.

Iran’s Enduring Natural Beauty

Legend has it that Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for his young wife, Amytis, who was homesick for the mountain home of her childhood. That home? — ancient Ecbatana, modern Iran’s Hamadan, one mile above sea level in the shadow of snow-c0vered Mt. Alvand. Looking at pictures of the place, so unlike what most of us imagine Iran to be, is it any wonder that she’d miss such a place?!

Even before Amytis and Nebuchadnezzar (6th cent, BC), people from Israel’s northern tribes were uprooted from Israel (by conquering Assyrians) and settled in Ecbatana/Hamadan. The modern city contains a structure known as the tomb of (the biblical) Esther and her uncle Mordecai.

Bathsheba’s Breast… Cancer

Cyrus’ daughter Atossa has captivated me for all sorts of reasons, not least: she may be the first woman to have had a mastectomy and survived. Whether she did or didn’t is a matter of some debate. Only a brief note by Herodotus informs us of her condition and treatment. The author of Bathsheba’s Breast, James Stuart Olson, thinks that Atossa feared but didn’t finally have breast cancer. Rembrandt’s mistress on the other hand… Olson tells that the painter used his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, as a model for Bathsheba and painted her with what a modern physician observed appears to be a cancerous breast. Indeed, Stoffels is said to have died after a long illness. We have come a long way since the times of the biblical Bathsheba (ca. 1000 BC), Atossa (ca. 500 BC), and Stoffel’s 17th century Holland. New treatments have lent remarkable levels of survival. But cancer in all its forms continues to be the most dread disease. Even in the face of diminishing resources, the brightest and most innovative minds continue to seek better treatments, even cures, for what Hippocrates (Dr. “Do No Harm”) named for the grasping-clawed crab. “Atossa’s War,” as Mukherjee calls it in his Pulitzer Prize winning Biography of Cancer isn’t over yet.

Cyrus the Great Day

Our relationship with Iran has hardly been comfortable in the past decades, even before the latest bizarrities. Yet just when Americans were donning crazy costumes for weekend Halloween parties, and as surprising as was the snow in New York City, the calendar afforded a day for our countries to find common ground. My article in recognition of International Cyrus the Great Day, which appeared in the Huffington Post, found a second home (in both English and Farsi) on the website of the Iranian organization that first proposed October 29 for such a celebration. Savepasargard.com not only works to preserve the geographical site where Cyrus II established a serene palace with formal gardens (from which we get the word “paradise”) and where he was buried. In the spirit of that visionary leader, the organization also seeks to promote human rights and environmental responsibility. But it was Cyrus’ daughter, Atossa, who settled in to the Brooklyn pub booth with me and my friend, Donna, this weekend as we talked about Atossa’s story of 2500 years ago. More on that to come ~