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?

Revision as Revelation

It was only when I began revising an essay that I discovered what it was about. I had thought the piece would be a simple meditation on what I’d learned about Cyrus the Great over these past few years – the sexy “messiah” byline, author of the first declaration of human rights, all that… and how my research led to a more complex portrait of the man and his times. And I guess it was, but only secondarily. Primarily, the essay is about change — how, over the years, changes in my Cyrus project have dovetailed with changes in my own life. I wouldn’t have discovered that without going back to the beginning again.reading-and-writing Suzanne Lilly

A Woman, the Bible, and Babylon, 560 B.C.

These mid-August days, some 2500 years ago, witnessed a violent turn-about in power — regicide followed by a week of king-less days. Imagine for a moment the uncertainty, the chaos. Imagine the mother of the assassinated king. Still alive, for the time being — a foreigner in a court conflicted about its cosmopolitan nature, a court leaning toward xenophobia. She fled.

The overturn of thrones was itself not unusual. But the ripples it sent would wash up against shores for thousands of years to come and as far away as our own. After all, this was Babylon, ancient Iraq, when the texts that would become the Bible were beginning to take shape with the thoughtful care and no doubt spirited debate of exiles far from home, committed to tradition, and dedicated to their God.

Cyrus the Great and the Ishtar Gate

If I had to pick one grand architectural image to go with the Cyrus Cylinder, I think it would be the Ishtar Gate (though built by Nebuchadnezzar II, not Cyrus). Oddly enough, the best place to see the ruins from Babylon of a gate complex named for the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war is in Berlin, Germany. The Pergamon Museum has reconstructed (with some reproduction) a display of the impressive gate. Here’s a great, informative video: Ishtar Gate on YouTube

Cuisine of Ancient Persia

Persian cuisine elevates rice to high art, but it wasn’t always so. When the ten-year-old Cyrus II sat down for his first meal in the palace of his father, Cambyses I, around 568 B.C. he probably didn’t eat rice.

As I researched the foods available in ancient Anshan (probably Tel el-Malyan in the modern Iranian province of Fars) to compose that scene, I was surprised to learn (mostly from a chapter by M. Nesbitt, et al. in Rice: Origin, Antiquity and History) that there is virtually no archaeobotanical evidence of rice in the ancient Near East before the first century of the common era. That, 373 grains, was discovered beneath a collapsed floor at Susa’s Ville Royale II. I say “virtually no” because a preliminary report noted a single grain of rice discovered in NW Iran in what may date to the Hasanlu period (750-590 BC); but the final published excavation report did not mention it.

Our Collective Human Heritage

I know they look boring, but: ancient tablets discovered at Persepolis contain incredibly valuable information not only to scholars of the ancient Near East but to all of us. But they’re most valuable when considered together and publicly available as part of our collective human heritage. The book that I’m writing now has morphed from a scholarly treatment to an ancient Persian soap opera, and these tablets have proved tremendously important all along the way. They provide a window into ancient culinary habits, religious beliefs, the personal relationships of working stiffs as well as the rich and famous, the stuff of craftsmanship, and much more… and all concerning a culture with unparalleled influence in world history. Please take a moment to follow this link, edit the form letter as you wish, and then send it on to your senators. The alternative: individual tablets could be pulled from the public domain and sold into private hands, effectively disappearing… again.

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.

In the Game of Cultural Background: Iran vs. Israel

Referring to the Cyrus Cylinder, Ahmadinejad is reported as saying that it represents the kind of foundation on which people can build a highly developed civilization. So far, so good, as it goes. But he reputedly went on to note the relative lack of such a foundation for the “Zionist regime” — meaning Israel?, Judaism? Let’s see… the Bible?! Not that I believe that we should look to the Bible for a modern nation of Israel, but gosh, in the game of cultural background, I’m afraid he’s going to need a new strategy.

Cyrus’ Problematic History

I finally broke down and went all junior-high with my research — different colored pens for the different accounts of Cyrus’ taking Babylon. The most ancient records are notoriously problematic. Each one has a either a bone to pick or a bridge to sell, and they simply don’t agree on the facts. Did or did not Cyrus engage in a military encounter? When he arrived at the gates, were the Babylonians settling in for a seige, were they partying their brains out oblivious to this Persian from the north, or did they throw open the gates to welcome this beloved new ruler? Though both Herodotus and Xenophon have lots of great things to say about Cyrus, the Greeks finally aim to portray the Persians as corrupt, depraved, or at best weak. They figure that Cyrus took Babylon by force. One (Berossus, a Babylonian nationalist writing for the Greeks) claims that Cyrus flat out destroyed Babylon’s magnificent walls. The Persian side presents Cyrus as a liberator, excelling all others in moral standing, magnanimity, and grace, setting to right the wrongs of the wayward Babylonian king and beloved of the gods. The Babylonians ushered him in with joy. It’s tough to keep track of these different voices and to winnow for a grain of what really happened. In the meantime, it occurred to me that since junior high, computers have really come a long way. So, I put away the colored pens and have begun a file recording the different accounts in different fonts. Among them, Herodotus gets “Algerian,” Berossus is in “Bradley Hand ITC,” and the Nabonidus Chronicle is in “Arial.” Hopefully, this will help. If nothing else, it sure is pretty.