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

Water, the Gods, and Us

Water. Out of the great rivers long ago, mermen of a kind — the Seven Sages — emerged. It was they, ancient Mesopotamians told, who brought the gifts of civilization to humankind. But water was also the amniotic soup of chaos. Only after a god-hero split the sea monster Tiamat in two was life on earth possible at all. With Hurricane Sandy churning up the coast, a steady rain muddles the surface of our central Virginia pond. A heron stands on the water’s edge perfectly still.

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.

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.

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.”

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.