28 February 2010

The Unknown God of Palmyra

A new altar, freshly dug up (left), was dedicated in the Palmyrene language "to the One Whose Name Is Blessed Forever". An offering to an unnamed god who was -- and remains -- unknown.

It doesn't look like much as it comes out of the ground but, flip it around 180°, and you have the upper part of an inscribed altar (compare the complete altar, below left, also dedicated to the so-called Anonymous God, now in the Istanbul Museum).

These altars are half-columns with a very small bowl, only large enough for burning incense, while altars dedicated to other gods have space for the sacrifice of bigger and different kinds of offerings (even a garlanded bullock, as pictured at bottom left).
You can see just such an incense offering in the famous fresco from the Temple of the Palmyran Gods in Dura Europos (below, dated ca. 230 C.E.): An officer named Julius Terentius leads the soldiers of the XXth Palmyrenes, a cohort of mounted archers stationed on the Euphrates, in a ritual of bloodless sacrifice. He burns incense in honour of the three cult statues of gods dressed in military costume (Yarhibol, Aglibol, and Arsu), ranged on their pedestals on the upper left side of the fresco. Beside Terentius is the standard bearer of the cohort with the troop colours and, next to him, a seated goddess who wears the mural (city) crown: an inscription identifies her as the gad (Tyche/Good Fortune) of Palmyra.*

So, this is a picture of an incense sacrifice offered to known and individually depicted divinities that took place within the official sanctuary of the Palmyran gods.

All clear and above board.

Whose name is blessed forever, the merciful and good

Worship of the 'Anonymous God' is entirely different. First of all -- and no small matter in a polytheistic religion -- the "one whose name is blessed forever" is never pictured (at least, no image is ever shown attached to this formula). His altars are small incense burners like the one just found by the Italian archaeologists. Hundreds of such altars appear as early as the first century C.E. all over Palmyra. Most are dedicated "to the one whose name is blessed forever". Further epithets are "Lord of the World" or "of Eternity", and "the good and merciful one". Sometimes, the person making the dedication explains that he gives the altar "Because he called upon [the god] and he has answered him.

Why do people bring incense to a god not known to them by name?

Here's why two brothers (named Zabdibol and Moqimu) dedicated an altar to the nameless god in December 188 C.E.:

In thanksgiving every day, Zabdibol and Moqimu, sons of Gadda ... [dedicate this altar] to the merciful, the good and compassionate [god] for the well-being of themselves and of their sons and all their house.**
Nameless he may be, but he has all the best features of a named god -- mercy, compassion, goodness. By dedicating this incense burner and the act of burning incense, the brothers are expressing both their gratitude and honouring the deity.

The cult of this so-called 'Anonymous God', did not take place in any known sanctuary; he had no temple of his own nor did he inhabit the temple of any other god. Rather, the hundreds of small altars dedicated to him could be set up virtually anywhere in the city.

And by almost anyone, it seems: there are incense burners gifted by the city and paid for out of treasury funds -- and it runs right down the social scale to a man identified as a 'butcher' or 'cook' and to dedications made by freed slaves. That may be why nearly all of these dedications are written only in Palmyrene (fewer than 5% are bilingual [Palmyrene and Greek***] compared with about half of the major honorific inscriptions from statue bases and columns).

Some altars are even offered by women. Because the role of women in public life was restricted at Palmyra, the nameless god can best be considered as belonging primarily in the private sphere of religion. This is a god who listens, too, to an individual's prayers -- because he called upon him and he has answered him. That response establishes a personal relationship between the god and his worshippers, a relationship, they hope, that extends to their immediate family. In this sense, they mean 'their house' as almost a residential (rather than genealogical) term.

So it is no great surprise that, among the very first finds from the new middle-class quarter of the city (the South-West Quarter , which we wrote about last week), the Italians uncovered an altar dedicated to the Anonymous God. Still, however personal this worship came to be, a great number of the altars dedicated to the nameless god were found in or near the Efqa spring -- one of the most sacred places in Palmyra from ancient times. There was definitely a need, too, to publicize the worshipper's relationship with the nameless god.

What could be the reason so many men and women worshipped a god not identified by name?

Unknown and Nameless Gods

It may be a case of a foreign god whose name and image is unknown.

At least for the Greeks and Romans who wrote about it, the god of the Jews fits this description. For polytheists, the Jewish god was an unknown god because he could not be called by name and had no image even in the innermost recess of his unapproachable sanctuary in Jerusalem. A god without a name and without an image is an unknown god. Since an unknown or anonymous god is also attested in pre-Islamic Arabia, the nameless god of Palmyra might be thought of as a quasi-monotheistic Semitic trait.

Or it could be a god about whose identity one is in doubt. In ancient religions, it was of great importance to know the right name of the deity. If you erred in invoking the god's name, he might be offended -- with possibly dire consequences. This is a widespread and very ancient fear. Sinuhue, the hero of an early Egyptian tale (ca. 1800 BCE), flees for his life to a foreign country; alone in this strange land, he pleads, "O god, whosoever you are who has decreed this flight, have mercy and bring me home." The same invocation is found in Homer (Od. V 455), "Hear Lord, whoever thou art!"

Ten centuries later, an ancient Roman prayer begins, "Dis Pater, Veiovis, Manes, or by whatever other name it is allowed to address you.... (Macrobius, Saturnalia, III, 9, 10). Even at Athens, altars were erected to placate the unknown god responsible for bringing a plague -- and thus the logical one to end it; as witness St Paul (Acts of the Apostles 17:23):

Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship
Another reason might be that the god is unknown to outsiders but has been revealed to insiders and whose name should not be mentioned to the non-initiated. Complex processes of concealment and revelation are pivotal in the life of many mystery cults. Just like images or objects will only make sense in initiate cults if you have some kind of mental key (which is why we don't understand them), the god's true name will never be known to the profane. Is the turning away from blood sacrifice in the worship of the Anonymous God a sign of such exclusiveness, possibly in opposition to the animal sacrifices celebrated in the temples?

Of course it is imaginable, too, that the Anonymous God is an illusion. His dedications may be indirect ways of referring to a god who is otherwise known. Some think that the Anonymous God is 'really' Baal-Shamin, with whom he shares his main titles (e.g. "Lord of Eternity"); others see him as Yaribol, the ancestral god of Palmyra and protector of the Efqa spring, where so many of his incense burners were found. In any case, the Palmyrans had no difficulty dealing with two 'supreme gods' (Bel and Baalshamin; both 'Zeus' in Greek) whose jurisdictions must have overlapped a good deal. So there's no reason that they couldn't call the same god by different names or titles on various offerings.

Yet there remains something strange about the Anonymous God. While his worshippers must have travelled to places like Dura Europos and further abroad, his cult -- unlike those of other Palmyran gods -- did not travel with them. This implies a strong sense of localism: he always remained close to home, a personal and familial deity. Although his altars were set up in public places, very few of his dedications were translated into Greek. So, what his cult may have offered was not the ritual assertion of civic pride but a strong sense of local identity. Was he, in fact, a middle-class, and hopelessly parochial god?

When the Italians finish excavating the South-West Quarter, we should know a lot more about this unknown god.

We'll just have to sit tight and wait.

* The word gad frequently appears in Palmyrene inscriptions. It can mean 'luck' or 'good fortune' but usually refers to the protector deity of the city, i.e. the gad of Palmyra.

** The Palmyrene formula
appears in such invocations as 'for the life of X and the lives of [his] sons. I find this phrase awkward in English so I used the slightly less accurate Greek equivalent of 'well-being'.

***Translated as Zeus and/or Theos Hypsistos (God Most High), a divine title common among pagans, Jews and Christians.

I have made use of the following resources: K. Dijkstra, Life and Loyalty: a study in the Socio-Religious Culture of Syria and Mesopotamia, Leiden, 1995; L. Dirven, The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos: a study of religious interaction in Roman Syria, Leiden, 1999; J. Elsner, "Cultural Resistance and the Visual Image", Cl. Phil. 96, 2001, 260-304; P.W. van der Horst, Hellenism, Judaism, Christianity: essays on their interaction, Leuven, 1990; T. Kaizer, The Religious Life of Palmyra, Mainz, 2002.


Top left: University of Milan: Progetto Palmira Archeologia

Centre: Fresco of Julius Terentius from the so-called Temple of the Palmyran Gods, Research on Dura-Europos, University of Leicester website

Middle left: Altar dedicated to the 'Nameless god' (Istanbul Archaeological Museum), via BiblePlaces

Bottom left: Fresco depicting Elijah making sacrifice on Mt Carmel, from the synagogue at Dura Europos, via Wikimedia (wrongly labelled as 'worshipping the gold calf").

20 February 2010

"Home Sweet Home" in Palmyra

Until this very year, there was a great unexplored chunk of ancient Palmyra right outside the central city (marked reddish-brown on the aerial photograph, below).

Despite the monuments on all sides of the area -- the Agora to the east, Diocletian's walls on the south, the Transverse Colonnaded Street on the west and, for the whole of its northern length, the Great Colonnade -- this quarter of Palmyra has been an archaeological blank.

Not any more.

A little over two years ago, Italian archaeologists started work in this sector. Zenobia reported on the planned excavations in New Italian Explorations at Palmyra -- and now, here is the latest news on what the team is discovering.

Using the most modern electronic imaging instruments, the archaeologists first brought to light the graphic bones of a residential quarter (below right) -- blocks of stone buildings with columns, pediments, thresholds, and door jambs still in situ. Most of the buildings seem to be modest houses separated by small open areas but one structure is larger and boasts a peristyle courtyard with six columns on each side. Small streets run through the area -- five crossing north/south and one east/west.

An invisible town began to take shape.

Domus dulcis domus

What we are seeing, for the first time, is a middle class Palmyran neighbourhood.

Imagine a precinct something like the Paddington district of London or the Upper West Side of New York (though without high rises and modern transport): close to the central city, but not inhabited by the wealthiest of families. Still, not for the hoi polloi either.

That would be something like Palmyra's South-West Quarter.

This is is where more modest merchants and their wives would have lived, in small but comfortable houses, probably close to their kin and within easy walking distance of local markets. And not very far either from the classier shops and businesses lining both sides of the Grand Colonnade. In short, a bustling neighbourhood: "Home Sweet Home" for a whole community, something completely new, not only in Palmyra but almost unique anywhere in the Eastern Roman Empire.

With that prize in sight, the Italians began digging.

The 2009 Season

The archaeologists set up their tent in the middle of what was a bleak, almost empty space (left).

The first reports of their season have just appeared on their website (in Italian only at the moment; the photo gallery is worth a visit in any event).

They concentrated, first, on the peristyle house. Even before they dug, some of its columns were poking up through the rocky soil (right).

Watching the dig advance (below), we can see that the work crew has opened the inner courtyard (with twelve of its columns still in situ) and begun to clear the associated structures.

The quality of the construction is impressive, with fine blocks of limestone masonry (preserved to a height of two metres [6']), some red-painted plaster floors, and much use of decorative stucco and marble embellishments.

By the end of the season, much more of this urban house has come to light. And that once-bleak field is no longer so empty (below).

In your mind, walk in, walk around. The peristyle house is becoming a living place, not a ruin but a home, and in a neighbourhood soon to be filled with shops and houses, where people lived their lives and told their stories.

Among the finds coming from the peristyle house* is a small altar dedicated to the so-called 'Anonymous God' of Palmyra.

Now, why would people worship and bring sacrifices to a nameless god?

That's what I'll talk about in my next post.

* More precisely, the altar was reused in a Byzantine structure above, but very likely originally was located in the peristyle house.


All illustrations are from the project website or the reports by the excavation direction, M.T. Grassi, Il 'progetto Palmira', in Vesuviana 14-16 January 2008, and in LANX 2 (2009) 194-205. My warm thanks to Prof. Grassi and to Lilia Palmieri, Member of the joint mission and webmaster, for providing the photographs and links.

12 February 2010

Abracadabra, O My Jerusalem

As you may have heard, archaeological excavation in the heart of the Old City has just revealed Jerusalem's main road during the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries).

But let's step back for a moment.

Of course, it wasn't really Jerusalem at that time.

Abracadabra # 1

Some sixty years after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus at the end of the First Jewish Revolt (70 AD), the emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild the city. The imperial initiative was probably a major factor in the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba revolt, which was suppressed in 135 AD. Hadrian's new city was a sharp break with the past. It was named Aelia Capitolina in honour of the emperor (after his nomen gentile, Aelius) and its new chief god, Jupiter Capitolinus, whose temple was built on the site of the razed Jewish temple on the Temple Mount. Those Jews who had survived the massacres and exile were not permitted to settle in the new city or even in its close vicinity. Although we have information about a small Jewish congregation in Aelia Capitolina, the city became effectively pagan.

And pagan it remained until the early 4th century, with the two minority communities of Jews and Christians living somewhere within spitting distance of each other on today's Mount Zion, south of the southern wall of the city.

Abracadabra # 2

The next name change occurred after the conquest of the East by Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, in 324 AD. The pilgrimage of Helena, Constantine's mother, marked the beginning of the project of the discovery of Jesus' Tomb and the building of the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Ascension (but Helena was probably not the force behind, as often claimed, the lavish basilica of the Holy Sepulchre).

Subsequently, the Christian community of Jerusalem grew at an accelerated pace until it reached its peak in the sixth century. A new Christian Jerusalem was designed. The city's name was now 'Aelia', no longer Capitolina, when this pagan part of the name was eliminated, probably during the fourth century. Aelia remained the official name of the city throughout the Byzantine period.

Digging the Byzantine street

In a land where every shovel might unearth something ancient, Israeli law requires the Israel Antiquities Authority to inspect construction zones for ruins before work begins. Now, because of a municipal plan to build an electric cable system, the municipality is renewing the infrastructure next to the entrance to David Street (known to tourists as the stepped-street with the shops), the main covered market which descends from the Jaffa Gate square toward the Temple Mount. Thus, it is now possible for both archaeologists and the public to catch a rare glimpse of what is going on beneath the flagstone pavement.

Over the years, important buildings in Jerusalem have been uncovered or have survived to this day, but this large street from the period when Jerusalem became a Christian city has not been discovered until now. The archaeologists believe the street was the main entrance to the city and linked to various important sites, like the Holy Sepulchre, the markets and residential areas.

Dr Ofer Sion, the excavation director, explains that "Jerusalem has been explored for 150 years but there have never been excavations in this particular area. This is the first time we could start digging down. We knew we needed to find the street, and we waited for the pick-axe to hit a stone. When we heard a stony sound and uncovered half a pavement tile, we realized we were on an ancient street."

That 'ping' came at 4.5 meters (14') below the current street level.

Now they have cleared a 6-metre (20') long section of the wide, white stone street. Dr Sion remarks, "It's nice to see that today's David Street, a bustling market route, pretty much preserves the route of another bustling street, 1,500 years its senior." The section of street passes from the west into the centre of Jerusalem's Old City, and stands upon a large cistern that supplied water to the city's 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants of the time.

The Israel Antiquities Authority said that the excavations confirm the accuracy of the famous Madaba map (below left), an ancient mosaic map uncovered in 1894 on the floor of a church in Madaba, Jordan, and dated to the mid-sixth century AD. The map depicts Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the late Byzantine period.

Abracadabra # 3

The walled oval of Jerusalem is the most prominent site on the map. The city is seen as if from the air and is presented in three-dimensional form with a considerable degree of realism. Note that the map is not orientated north-south like modern maps (and our reconstructed map of Byzantine Aelia, above) but east-west -- so that the position of places on the map coincides with actual compass directions.

The inscription at the top of the mosaic (in Greek; top green arrow) reveals the artist's attitude: the city is called by its old-new name -- 'The Holy City Jerusalem'. By calling the city Jerusalem -- and not its official name of Aelia -- the artist locates himself in the realm of Christian topography and ideology. Although big parts of the map are lost, it seems clear that the depiction of Jerusalem was located in the centre of the map, showing that the Holy City was conceived as the very centre of the Holy Land. This is a Christian interpretation of the concept of Jerusalem as the navel of the earth.

Scholars agree that Jerusalem, as it appears in the map, reflects in large part the actual state of late-sixth century Jerusalem. The churches can be identified by the red roofs that are portrayed on the map. Despite the stereotypical design of the buildings and the selectivity in choosing them (for example, the ruined Temple Mount, the largest structure in Jerusalem -- but sacred only to Judaism at this time -- nowhere appears), it gives a tangible depiction of the city's walls, towers and gates, streets and main buildings.

And thus we find that today's Jaffa Gate (lower green arrow) stands very near to a gate of Byzantine times and that the street just excavated corresponds almost perfectly with modern David street which now runs some five metres above it.

That was the state of play until 633 AD.

Abracadabra # 4

The city was one of the Arab caliphate's first conquests and stayed under Islamic rule until the Crusaders conquered it in 1099.

Arab coins of the late 7th and first part of the 8th centuries have the mint name of Iliya; in other words, the Arabic transcription of Aelia.* Whether or not the name 'Aelia' was abandoned officially, the coinage shows that it had entered into and continued in common speech.

But no one should be surprised to hear that it wasn't that simple. The name of Jerusalem, too, persisted into early Islamic times: a late 7th-century coin issue -- contemporary with other Arab issues using the full Greek names of cities -- is stamped IEROCOLYMWN ('Ierosolymon' in Greek letters), evidence for the Graeco-Latin equivalent of Jerusalem.

Abracadabra # 5

Only in the early 9th century does a coin issue appear with the mint name "al-Quds," "the holy," the ordinary non-official Arabic name of the city in historical texts. That, of course, is still the Arabic name today.

And the beginning of quite another story.

'Abracadabra'', a magical invocation thought to be of Semitic origin. It might (or might not) be derived from Aramaic, meaning "I will create as I speak"; or just possibly (or impossibly) combining the Hebrew words for father, son, and a holy spirit. The only thing known for sure is that 'Abracadabra' first surfaced in a Latin medical poem of the 2nd century AD.

* I am indebted to the lively discussion on the Lt-Antiq. list ("Streets of Aelia Capitolina/Jerusalem"), and especially to Michael Bates, Curator Emeritus of Islamic Coins, The American Numismatic Society, for his post on the early Arab coinage of Jerusalem.

I am also indebted to the excellent discussion of the Madaba map and its relation Byzantine Jerusalem by Yoram Tzafrir, 'The Holy City of Jerusalem in the Madaba Map', at Franciscan Cyberspot.


Top left: © 2010 The Associated Press, via Archaeology Daily News.

Second left: Map of Byzantine Jerusalem from Franciscan Cyberspot.

Middle left: Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images Europe via Zimbio.com.

Below left: The Mataba map from Wikimedia Commons (W:en:User:Brandmeister).

Bottom left: Map of Islamic Jerusalem as it appeared 958-1052 according to Arab geographers, from Wikipedia.

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