21 April 2009

Calling All Zenobia Lovers


The 6th century historian Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500-565 CE) tells us that Queen Zenobia built the city on the Euphrates River (below) that even today is known by her name:
on the road to Roman territory, Zenobia, wife of Odenathus, who was ruler of the Saracens in that district, once founded a small city in earlier times and gave her name to it; for the name she gave it was Zenobia, as was fitting.*

If We Don't Act Now, The Waters Will Reach This Level.

No sooner had I written about the city of Zenobia on the Euphrates (Where Did Zenobia Die?) than I received an urgent appeal from Prof. Sylvie Blétry, chief of the French-Syrian Mission, who has been leading the excavations at Zenobia/Halebiye since 2006:

The city of Zenobia, which as Procopius says, was founded by the Queen of Palmyra and refortified by Justinian, is now in mortal danger from plans for a new dam on the Euphrates River. The French-Syrian Archaeological Mission is circulating a petition in the hope of saving this fascinating site. They do not seek to cancel the project (which is needed for the development of the region) but rather to have the dam moved so that it will not drown most of the city.

Don't let Zenobia drown.

Please help by clicking here and signing the petition:

Come on, all you readers. Let's flood their mailbox instead of flooding Zenobia.

Please also forward the petition to as many interested parties as you can.

More information on the site and excavations at the Mission's webpage.

Click and sign the petition here.

The petition is written in English and French, but here is a simple translation of the information you'll need to fill in:

First Name Prénom:
Last Name Nom:
Affiliation Société:
Address Ligne d'adresse 1:
Address Ligne d'adresse 2:
City Ville:
Country Etat / Région:
Code postal:
Comments Commentaires:

Click on 'Envoyer' to send it off.
A million thanks from Zenobia and me!

Click and sign the petition here

*And then, having done a good deed, read on at
Where Did Zenobia Die?


16 April 2009

Zenobia on a new Empress Zenobia

Welcome to Times Higher Education

My review of Empress Zenobia: Palmyra's Rebel Queen, a new book by the Roman historian Pat Southern,* appears today in the Times Higher Education. Here's what I wrote:

09 April 2009

The Lady of the Lionesses and a Pharaonic Wimp

Say to the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of the Lady of the Lionesses [Belit-nesheti], your handmaid. May the king, my lord, know that war has been waged in the land, and gone is the land of the king, my lord, by desertion to the Apiru.
Thus the desperate queen of a small city in Palestine writes to Pharaoh Akhenaten, who was the supreme ruler of the region at the time.*

For, around 1350 BCE, there was unrest in Canaan. Canaanite vassal kings conveyed their fears via letters written on clay tablets to the pharaoh in Egypt, requesting military help. Among the 382 tablets from the imperial archive at Amarna (Akhenaten's capital, about midway between Cairo and Luxor), two rare letters stand out -- both letters from a female ruler, Belit-nesheti, whose name means Lady of the Lionesses.

She wrote to pharaoh about the attacks, counterattacks, and the treachery of native rulers of vassal cities who had thrown her own mini-state into danger at this time. She had paid her tribute to Egypt and, now, as the security situation continued to worsen, she wanted help (or, as another petty ruler put it, O my lord, let my lord dispatch the archers and let them come! )

She needed Egyptian soldiers ... and needed them soon. Nearby cities had already fallen, and this, as she warned pharaoh, was no time for dithering,
I beg the king to save his land from the hands of the Apiru, before it is too late.

The Apiru, Who?

The Apiru mentioned in her letters -- and in many others sent by local kings to Akhenaten -- were a (semi)nomadic people who lived on the fringes of Canaanite urban society. In the cutthroat world of mid-century politics, where Egyptian imperial control was minimal, dynastic rivalries and shifting coalitions left cities vulnerable. The Apiru operated as armed bands outside of the settled social structure, freebooting for their own profit or available for hire. Thus, when a rebel prince sought to grab the throne within his own city-state or when one king tried to overthrow or take over the territory of another king, they seemed easily able to raise a mercenary army of Apiru and use those forces to accomplish their own ends. Clearly, the Apiru who were threatening the Lady of the Lionesses must have been backed by dynasts who wanted to seize control of Belit-nesheti's own city.

Where was the queen's city?

The name of her city is not mentioned in her letters. Presumably, pharaoh's scribes would have known her by name -- and that was enough. Luckily, she mentions two Apiru raids that took place in the area, one on Ayyaluna (biblical Aijalon) and the other at Sarha (biblical Zorah). Both settlements are in the eastern territory of Gezer -- just south of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway in modern Israel, as it happens. In the Late Bronze Age, the city of Gezer controlled large areas in the central coastal plain and the northern lowlands, extending from the Egyptian centre of Jaffa in the northwest to the borders of Ashdod in the south.

Was the Lady of the Lionesses the queen-regent of Gezer, as some historians have assumed? Probably not. She tells pharaoh that two sons of the recently-deceased king of Gezer had barely escaped from the Apiru with their lives -- referring to them in the third person ("they"), rather than the first person ("my sons") as she would if she were their mother. Anyway, it appears that another adult son of the dead king was on his father's throne at this time. So, no queen-regent-in-charge.

Might Belit-nesheti have ruled a neighbouring city?

One Israeli historian, Nadav Na'aman, pointed to Beth Shemesh -- a Late Bronze Age city of about 1,500 souls on the southern border of the Gezer kingdom (some 20 km [13 miles] southwest of Jerusalem) -- as her possible seat. If so, her letters were telling the pharaoh about the dangers facing her own territory. And, given her concern for the two princes of Gezer, that city, at least, must have been an ally rather than a threat.**

In the House of the Sun

The name Beth-Shemesh means "House of the Sun", so the Sun-god was surely the main deity worshipped there by the Canaanite inhabitants (and the nearby Arab village of 'Ain Shems' still preserves the ancient name). Recent excavations at Tel Beth Shemesh, led by Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, may prove that this is, in truth, Belit-nesheti's city.

Figurines and plaques of the Canaanite goddess dressed up as Egyptian Hathor (top left) have been uncovered at the site.

And, just last week, the archaeologists announced an unusual ceramic plaque of a woman in male dress (right and left), suggesting that a mighty female "king" may have ruled the city. The plaque itself depicts a figure dressed as royal male figures (and gods) appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art, and standing on a basket called a neb -- which signifies a ruler or deity. The figure's hairstyle, though, is womanly and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers -- attributes given to women. If they are right, the plaque would depict the only known female ruler of the region: not a queen-regent but a woman who ruled in her own right. Taken together with the evidence of the two Armarna letters, that can only mean our own Belit-nesheti -- the Lady of the Lionesses.

"Obviously something very different was happening in this city," says Dr Lederman.

"There is no evidence of other females ruling a major city in this capacity," Lederman and Bunimovitz agree. "She is the only one."

He was her king, but he done her wrong

... if my lord does not wish to march forth, then let him send one of his [generals] with troops and chariots.

Akhenaten simply refused to apply himself to the task of sending an effective military force into Canaan. Living almost like a recluse in Amarna, the pharaoh had a single fixation --
the Great Living Sun-disc. He was only intermittently interested in foreign policy and the fate of his territorial vassals. So, he never 'marched forth' himself and was just as reluctant to let his army do so. His only irrevocable resolve pertained to his religious program.

Akhenaten did not respond to Belit-nesheti's cries for assistance. The unfulfilled pleas for troops that are so characteristic of the Amarna letters had dire results.

Beth Shemesh was devastated in a wave of violence shortly after 1350 BCE. The ruins of the Late Bronze Age city were discovered in the 2008 archaeological season. Entire walls had collapsed in a massive fire; toppled bricks showed the effects of exposure to the extreme heat of the blaze.

Belit-nesheti and her subjects didn't give up without a fight. Their desperate attempt to defend their city is witnessed by the huge number of bronze arrowheads discovered among the fallen bricks. The capture of Beth Shemesh was apparently preceded by a fierce battle. Belit-nesheti lost that battle. And her people did not even have time to save their belongings. "They left everything in their houses. The site is loaded with finds," said Lederman, adding that the valuable objects found in the destruction level points to Beth-Shemesh as one the most important inland Canaanite cities.

Perhaps Akhenaten did not appreciate the danger or he was ready to risk it. Either way, the troops and chariots never arrived.

This story ain't got no moral
this story ain't got no end
this story only goes to show
that there ain't no good in men

And so the Lady of Lionesses disappeared from history, with just two tantalizing letters written on clay to show she had ever lived.

Until now.

In the Late Bronze Age, Canaan (Palestine) was an Egyptian province governed by Egyptian administrators and garrison troops stationed in a few centres. In the mid-14th century BCE these centres were Gaza, Jaffa, Ullasa and Sumur on the coast, and Beth-Shean and Kumidi inland.

The Amarna tablets were found at the royal residence built by Akhenaten (Amenophis IV) on a previously uninhabited site in Middle Egypt (Tel Amarna). He called the new capital Akhetaten, 'the horizon of the sun-disc'. The central part of the city was occupied by the main religious and administrative buildings. The archive of diplomatic correspondence between the kings of the Amarna period and rulers of the Levant was found in the records office.

** Belit-nesheti's letters are part of the Amarna archives, a collection of letters in the cuneiform script in the Akkadian language (the diplomatic language of the time) and written on clay tablets. Modern science offers a variety of techniques for analysing the origin of objects made of clay, from petrographic analysis to Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA).

Israeli scholars have recently carried out
mineralogical and chemical analyses on the +300 Amarna clay tablets now in museums in Berlin, London, Oxford and Paris, in order to pinpoint their geographic origin. Analysis of one of Belit-nesheti's tablets (EA 273) proves it to have been produced in Gezer. Presumably having no local Akkadian scribe, Belit-Nesheti had to have her letters written at neighbouring Gezer -- which can only have happened if she was indeed an ally of that city. There is evidence, too, that the same Gezer scribe travelled to other allied cities where he wrote letters on behalf of their rulers (Y. Goren, I. Finkelstein, N. Na'aman, Inscribed in Clay: Provenance Study of the Amarna Letters, 2004, 276-279).

On the Apiru, see Norman Gottwald, The tribes of Yahweh (part VIII).

My thanks to Archaeology News Report, first with the news. I have also made much use of their previous report on Beth Shemesh, Archaeology News Report (6 September 2008).


Top left: Ceramic plaque from Tel Beth Shemesh (Stratum IV-III) showing a Canaanite goddess, Astarte?

Right: ceramic plaque from Tel Beth Shemesh,
photo courtesy Dr. Zvi Lederman, Tel Beth-Shemesh Excavations (via National Geographic News) .

Bottom left: drawing of the
plaque found at Tel Beth Shemesh. Credit: AFTAU.

02 April 2009

Vanity, Thy Name is Uppity Woman (Updated)

Her name means "The Beautiful One who has come" -- but apparently she got a little touch-up help from an Amarna-age beautician.

The most beautiful woman in the world, Nefertiti, was made famous by her painted bust in the Berlin's Egyptian Museum. The bust was made with an inner core of carved limestone, which was first plastered and then richly painted. Flesh tones on the face give the piece amazing life.

Yesterday, the journal Radiology revealed that a CT scan had uncovered a hidden face under the plaster.

It was always thought that that the inner limestone was just a support. Not so.

Using the latest computer tomography (CT) techniques developed for medicine, researchers discovered that the core was, in fact, a highly detailed inner sculpture of the queen. And this limestone face differs in small but significant ways from the external plaster face:

The inner face has less prominent cheekbones, a slight bump on the ridge of the nose, marked wrinkles around the corner of the mouth and cheeks, and less depth at the corners of the eyelids.

Dr. Alexander Huppertz, director of Berlin's Imaging Science Institute, suggests that someone expressly ordered the adjustments between stone and plaster when royal sculptors immortalized the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE).

John H. Taylor, a curator for Ancient Egypt and Sudan at London's British Museum, said the scan raises interesting questions about why the features were adjusted.

"One could deduce that the final version was considered in some way more acceptable than the 'hidden' one, though caution is needed in attempting to explain the significance of these changes."

Caution, my foot!

'Beauty of Nile' unmasked -- wrinkles and all

headlines the Independent. The newspaper makes no bones about it: Nefertiti had a facelift. And adds for good measure "Call it ancient world Botox."

Photoshop, Pharaoh Style: New York Times

Nefertiti's Real Wrinkled Face Found in Famous Bust: National Geographic

You get the idea.

A little more seriously, Huppertz suggests "The changes could have been made to make the queen adhere more to the ideals of the time."

Who can help but speculate? And he does: "It is possible that the bust of Nefertiti was probably commissioned (by King Akhenaten himself ) to represent her according to his personal perception."

What husband wouldn't want that, when he's paying for a portrait of His Great Royal Wife?

Possessed of Charm, Exuding Happiness, Mistress of Sweetness, beloved one, soothing the king's heart in his house, soft-spoken in all, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, Great King's Wife, whom he loves, Lady of the Two Lands, Nefertiti.

A Sculptor's Model?

The bust of Queen Nefertiti was found inside the Amarna workshop of the royal sculptor, who described himself as The King's Favourite and Master of Works, the Sculptor, Thutmose.

It was excavated by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1912.* Entries in his diaries show that he was beside himself with excitement when he unearthed his find. "Suddenly we have the most alive Egyptian artwork in our hands," he wrote. "You cannot describe it with words. You can only see it."

He assumed that the sculptor would have taken an original plaster mask of the queen's face and used it as a model for the bust.

Well, maybe.

Nefertiti seems to incarnate an ideal of beauty which we share. But has everyone suddenly forgotten that this is not a finished piece? And perhaps was never meant to be finished? Like many other plaster portrait heads found in Thutmose's studio (as the four here), it shows a keen interest in the individual traits of the living face -- at least in the unfinished state. So, the iconic bust of Nefertiti may well be a sculptor's model -- a piece meant for study and to be copied by apprentices (see now update below).

If Thutmose really took a plaster cast from the queen's own face, it is doubtful (to put it mildly) that he meant to turn that treasure into ... plaster.

Pharaohs didn't do plaster.

At best, this is the starting point for a major piece, not the end result.

The sculptor was surely not prettying up plaster for her husband.

Besides, Akhenaten seems not to have minded wrinkles.

Here she is praying to the sun. Wrinkles are the least of her worries -- pictured, as she is, with an oversized ear, protruding chin, and a thin, stretched neck.

An Uppity Woman

Nefertiti was often depicted on temple walls the same size as the king, signifying her importance. She is shown conducting rituals and worshipping the sun-disk Aten -- a role hitherto reserved for the pharaoh, and yet Nefertiti is seen doing the same. The king as a god himself, as well as the high priest, had always been the only person allowed to communicate with his fellow deities. This changed dramatically after Hatshepsut and when Nefertiti started to address the gods in her own right.

Whether or not she was ever elevated to the status of co-regent, there is much evidence that Nefertiti enjoyed unprecedented power, perhaps equal in status to the king himself.

Not a frail woman

Most impressively, she is shown on a relief from the temple at Amarna (left), smiting a foreign enemy with a mace under the rays of the Aten. Even if her victim is also female, she shares with Akhenaten the serious business of smiting Egypt's enemies. A second stela shows her driving a chariot, another activity normally associated only with the king.

Frailty, thy name is not Nefertiti.

Nor is she a modern cover girl. The Berlin Museum has recently installed a new lighting arrangement for the famous bust. It reveals fine wrinkles and slight bags under the queen’s eyes and on her neck.

Will we ever stop imposing our standards of female beauty on the past?

And now I hope that Egyptology will quit producing so many good stories for a bit. It's more than time that I get back to Zenobia and the 3rd-century C.E.

Update 4 April 2009: New Evidence of the sculpture as a working model.

Having now read the full CT report (again, thanks to Aayko Eyma), one of many interesting observations is the fact that Nefertiti's missing left eye was not, as has been thought, a result either of its long burial or an excavation mishap, but was never put in its socket. The lens of the right eye is a rock crystal inlay (2 mm thick) with a pupil made of black-coloured wax. The left eye, on the other hand, seemed to have never been filled with an inlay and contained no lens and no pupil.

The authors surmise that this was a deliberate omission and shows that the bust was probably just a working model at the time of its creation, serving as a copy model. Thus, the royal sculptor Thutmose may have used it to demonstrate to his apprentices how to make the hollow in which the eye would be set in the carved stone.

* The Egyptian government wants the bust back, claiming that it was deceptively disguised when the finds were divided between the archaeological authorities and Germany in 1913. The Independent story briefly covers this dispute. More at Spiegel Online.

My thanks to Aayko Eyma of EEF-Day (30-31 March 2009) for this 'Breaking News' on the CT scans.


Upper left: Via Associated Press

Upper middle left: Via Welt On Line. And have a look at the extraordinary fine detail of her ear (Bild 4).

Lower middle left: From Wikipedia.org

Right: From TourEgypt.net

Bottom left: From Wikipedia.org

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