19 January 2014

Wrack and Ruin in Syria

It's hard to understand the scale and spread of killing in Syria, until you see this map.  

So, Jacopo Ottaviani, a freelance journalist who also describes himself as a map lover, made this map which has just appeared in Foreign Policy magazine:

It visualizes the approximately 74,000 people who died  [in Syria] from March 2011 to November 2013. Every flare represents the death of one or more people, the most common causes being shooting, shelling, and field execution. The brighter a flare is, the more people died in that specific time and place.
Ottaviani's map -- unlike mine -- is animated so you can watch the flares  growing in size and frequency as the fighting spreads from a smattering of towns three years ago to reach the political and commercial capitals of Damascus (= scus, its last letters just seen on the lower-left of the map) and Aleppo -- that most ancient and glorious city now so badly damaged that its battered buildings, debris fields, and bomb craters can be seen from outer space.  Meanwhile, the Death March moved relentlessly on to the borderlands and into the Kurdish northeast.  Growing like a cancer, as Ottaviani puts it.

And then the counting suddenly stops -- at 74,000 deaths, a grim milestone reached in November 2013.  Not because the violence had subsided.  On the contrary, best estimates now reckon more than 100,000 Syrian lives lost.  But because United Nations is no longer updating its casualty figures:
"It was always a very difficult figure," a U.N. spokesman told the Associated Press. "It was always very close to the edge in terms of how much we could guarantee the source material was accurate. And it reached a point where we felt we could no longer cross that line. So for the time being, we're not updating those figures."
Counting or not, the brutal war grinds on.

The plucky independent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) still keeps a daily tally. Today's figures are not yet out but yesterday 194 people were killed; the day before, 201 died.  The reports become almost laconic:
The SOHR received footage of the slaughter of the 3 members of the military intelligence ambushed by the town of al-Husun, initially reported on 12/1/2014. Their throats were slit and their heads cut off by fighters from Jund al-Sham. This was done in the Krak des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage [Site]. The video also showed the summary execution of a man accused of dealing with the Syrian intelligence.
And so it goes.

Krak des Chevaliers is far from being the only archaeological site under fire.  

Spot the tanks 

Moderate to severe war-related damage has been confirmed by satellite images at 10 out of 30 studied sites in a recent survey.

Take Tell Qarqur in northwest Syria (near Hama), for example -- hardly a World Heritage Site but its mound (left) contains the history of 10,000 years of human occupation.  Recent images show pretty clearly what's happening there: tanks are sitting inside bunkers carved into the top of the mound (at the black arrows).  Apparently, the prominent surfaces of ancient mounds built up over several millennia serve as strategic grounds for military installations overlooking the flat surroundings.


Tanks are up on the hilltop citadel that overlooks Palmyra, too.  And, as you see from Ottaviani's map, the fighting has not spared Zenobia's city. I counted over 60 incidents flashing on the map, starting slowly, then one-right-after-the-other, a pause, and it flared up again, rat-a-tat-tat.  Zenobia's blog has been covering the violence in Palmyra since March 2012 but, after a suicide bombing in February 2013, it became eerily silent.  As the map shows, however, there was no pause in the killing.  Nor does there appear to have been a pause in the looting of its archaeological treasures.

Aqma is missing

The limestone funerary portrait of Aqma, daughter of Atelena Hajeuja (left) has just appeared on the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.  She is number 9 on this list published by the International Council of Museums.  Aqma died some time in the middle of the 2nd century CE and her effigy was placed in the elegant Breiki family tomb in the southeast necropolis.  After the Breiki tomb was excavated (1958), her portrait was taken along with those of her relatives to the Palmyra Museum.  If she was stolen, I fear the worst.

Museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors are encouraged not to acquire such objects without having carefully and thoroughly researched their origin and all the relevant legal documentation.... Any cultural good that could have originated from Syria should be subjected to detailed scrutiny and precautionary measures.

Fat chance!  Aqma is probably already hanging on a marble wall somewhere in Saudi or in the Gulf .  The interest such collectors have in the preservation of Syrian antiquities is always in inverse proportion to their desire to flaunt their riches.

The kidnapped Aqma was last seen with her right hand touching the edge of her veil where it drapes over her shoulder -- as if in the act of drawing a curtain around her personal space.*  It is now truly curtains, I fear, for Aqma.

* Quotation from Jennifer Heath, The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics.  Univ. of California (2008) 28.

Sources: In addition to Jacopo Ottaviani's article, 'Death March' in the January 15, 2014 issue of Foreign Policy, I have made use of the Facebook page of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR); Denise Chow, writing for LiveScience on August 19, 2013 , 'Syria Civil War Scars Seen from Space';  Megan Gannon, again for Live Science on January 17, 2014, under the same title.


Top: With the kind permission of the developer, Jacopo Ottaviani, a screenshot of his CartoDB map, the original of which appeared in the January 15, 2014 issue of Foreign Policy

Middle: Military tanks inside bunkers carved into the ancient mound of Tell Qarqur.  Photo credit: Google Earth (view full size image here), via  Live Science, January 17, 2014.

Below: Limestone funerary  relief ca. 150 CE from the Brieki Tomb.  Inscribed "Aqma, daughter of Atelena Hajeula, Alas!"  Her hair is piled up in the ornate Roman style called melon rib, fashionable from the middle of the second century into the third.  Her jewellery was once gilded and other parts were painted, traces of which can still be seen.  Palmyra Museum B  2666/8967.   Photo credit:  Syria, Land of Civilization, Travelling Exhibition 1999, Quebec, Cat. # 334.

06 January 2014

Sex Play in Ancient Canaan (Part III)

(Part I,click here; Part II, click here)

The collection and interpretation of mother-goddesses is just a harmless outlet for the sexual impulses of old men.

Minet el-Beida (Ugarit) Syrian coast, 14/13th BCE. H. 9.2 cm
Thus spoke the great archaeologist Gordon Childe shortly before he jumped to his death from Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains of Australia.  Of course, his insight into the male passion for ancient goddesses had nothing to do with his suicide -- but, still, he knew that his time was running out....

Come on, sailor

I confess that it's easy to conjure up a lascivious fantasy or two about this voluptuous naked lady (left) discovered in Minet el-Beida, the port of Ugarit. 
Ooh baby, ooh baby
You've got me reelin'
You've got me swingin' to your melody
I'm in a hot house
Come on, sailor.
Her hairdo with long Hathor curls falling almost to her pubescent breasts, wide pubic triangle and rounded thighs make an alluring image of femininity.  Perhaps the long-stemmed flowers she was holding in her hands hinted at her heavenly smell.   And standing on a crescent moon that floats above some stars could have promised an otherworldly experience. 

So much for the fantasy. 

Now, back to earth.  Is she, in fact, the Q-goddess, Qedeshet?

L: Tel ed-Duweir, 1300-1050 BCE. H. 8.5.  R: Akko, bronze pendant. ca.1300 BCE. H. 8.3

The Q-goddess

So who, really, is Qedeshet? 

Her name Qdš(-t) simply means 'holy'.  As such, it can be attached to almost any goddess, including the whole of the A-team: Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat.  The question is: did there exist an independent goddess named Qedeshet at all?  She is not known from any Canaanite or Ugaritic texts or inscriptions.  Rather, she only appears as a named goddess in Egypt.  There, she is honoured with such typical titles as 'Lady of heaven' and 'Mistress of all the gods' -- which are not specific to her but could equally apply to any goddess in Egypt.

What seems to have happened is this.  From the late Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1600 BCE) onwards, Canaan was under Egyptian rule. 
Deir el-Medina  (Thebes) 19th Dyn. Qedesh with Min & Reshep
Gods and goddesses moved with the armies back and forth in both directions.  Canaanites were envious (I would imagine) of the power of Egyptian deities and freely borrowed their attributes -- in our case, all those Hathor curls and lily-lotus flowers.  In return, Canaanite gods travelled to Egypt on the backs of soldiers, POW's and slaves. Once installed there, some became very popular with native Egyptians as well and were integrated with interesting local deities (as right, the Canaanite naked goddess with Egyptian Min on her left).  So, when we see a picture of the naked goddess in Egypt inscribed with words such as Qedeshet, lady of heaven, great of magic, mistress of the stars, we wonder if the artists were illustrating the Canaanite Q-lady, or a generic Canaanite naked goddess that had been taken over and developed in Egypt itself.  In other words, when the Egyptians borrowed the naked-female, did they mistake 'holy' for her own name?  In which case, the goddess may have been baptized in Egypt and not in her original Canaanite home.


Minet el-Beida (Ugarit), Syrian coast. 14/13th C BCE.
Meanwhile, back in Canaan, we have seen a considerable variety in the looks of the nude females whether on gold pendants or clay plaques.  The way she is pictured varies tremendously.  As Kim Benzel says, "it is fair to state that the sole common denominator among these objects is their emphasis on nudity."*

At the risk of being vulgar, I would go further: while nudity is certainly important, the pubic triangle is absolutely vital.  The pudendum is almost always inescapably emphatic, not just overly large but often embellished with hair-dots and, sometimes, even with a slit.  Little or nothing is left to the imagination.

You could hardly be more explicit. 

Rings on her fingers, bells on her toes

Tel Batash, Palestine. 14th C BCE. H. 13

Forget for the moment all the supposed fertility and mother goddesses.  Remember what we said earlier (Part I): While there was a multitude of goddesses, there were even more women than goddesses.

What if the naked female is just a woman?  In that case, she is clearly a woman who is visually defined by the pubic area + breasts + prominent face + (in most cases) jewellery.  The jewellery is often profuse,  either pictured as the necklaces and/or bracelets, armlets and anklets worn by females (like the bracelets and anklets on the plaque, left) or it is both pictured and inherent in the object itself as when the pendant is made of gold.  In other words, the image carries -- perhaps it even promotes -- a specific idea of a woman.

Certainly, you can relate the pudendum and breasts to ideas of fertility but then you have to explain away the prominent face and all the jewellery, neither of which has any direct bearing on fertility. But what if the idea behind the image is an expression of female sexual desire? This is what Kim Benzel argues in a refreshing new approach to the nude female pendants and plaques.*  As she says, "In combination (my emphasis), these features seem far better suited to a reading of female eroticism than the ... interpretation of fertility alone." 

Sex in the Raw? 

Tel Harasim, Palestine, LB II. H. 7.7.
Let's get rid of Protestant prudery once and for all.  People in the ancient Near East were far more comfortable with the idea of overt sexuality than those of us still lingering in the Hellenistic or Judeo-Christian traditions today.  Chastity and virginity apparently had no special importance for them and women were not expected to conceal their deepest sexual impulse. On the contrary, sexuality had an unequivocally positive connotation.  Sexual allure (kuzbu in Akkadian) was enhanced by jewellery and facial cosmetics as well as through nudity, and was specifically linked to sexuality -- and not to fertility.  As Benzel puts it,
[I]t is the nude, bejeweled, and beautified body that represents the physical manifestation of eroticism and sexual attractiveness, features and characteristics equated in the ancient Near East with vitality, power, and well-being rather than with indecency and vulgarity.*   
Tel el-Ajjul, Palestine, 1600-1500 BCE. H. 8.0
Benzel thus understands the function of the pendants and plaques as the physical expression of sexual allure, or kuzbu.  This does not, of course, deny other piggy-backing interpretations.  A pendant could also refer to a myth, a goddess, a cult or votive act, in addition to being an erotic item of personal adornment.  The gold pendants were meant to be worn on the body as jewellery, to attract the eye and draw attention to the body wearing it.  The worn surfaces of the clay plaques testify to extensive handling in some related activity.  But, whether precious pendant or cheap plaque, "the primary and most consistent interaction between image and object seems to be one that refers to the elemental aspects of eroticism and sexuality."  The naked female thus represented the ideal of female sexuality.  "I believe," Benzel concludes, "these ornaments represented personal, private, and highly animated expressions of sexual allure, or kuzbu -- images that interacted ... powerfully with the individual bodies they adorned". 

If she is right, the pendants and plaques were ultimately images about themselves: in a sense, they perform sexuality. In doing so, they surely endowed their wearers with similar eroticism and sexual allure.  
Now I'm lovin' and it feels okay
We let our lovin' take us far away
Ooh baby, ooh baby.

* K. Benzel, 'Ornaments of Interaction: Jewelry in the Late Bronze Age', In (J. Aruz, S.B. Graft, Y. Rakic, eds.) Cultures in Contact from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium, MMA, New York (2013) 258-267.

Sources: In addition to those listed in Part I and II, Chaka Khan – Be Bop Medley, lyrics of 'Come on, sailor' via Lyricsfreak


Upper left:  Louvre Museum AO 14716. Embossed gold leaf plaque, 13th C BCE, Minet el Beida, port of Ugarit, Syria: "A few tombs in Ugarit that have survived intact have given up a rich hoard of jewelry. This gold pendant, representing the nude figure of the great goddess of fertility, was part of a necklace consisting of several pieces of gold leaf and carnelian beads." Photo credit: © 2004 RMN/Franck Raux.

Centre: (left)   BM 1980,1214.2266. Terracotta plaque from potter's workshop, Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish), dated 1300-1050 BCE. (right)  Bronze applique plaque cast in mould, from Akko tomb B3, ca. 1300 (stolen).  Drawings after Keel, Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Continuum, 1998, Figs. 69, 70.

Right: BM EA 191, upper register of limestone stele of chief craftsman Qeh.  Naked goddess identified as 'Ke(d)eshet, lady of heaven' flanked by the ithyphallic Egyptian god Min and Syro-Palestinian god Reshep.  Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 19).  Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum.

Lower left 1: Gold pendant with nude goddess, Minet el-Beida (port of Ugarit), c. 14-13th C BCE, Louvre Museum.  Photo credit: © A.K. (Insecula).

Lower left 2: Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.  Terracotta plaque from Tel Batash (Timnah north), 14th century.  Photo credit:  Israel Antiquities Authority, IAA 2001-2232 (© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1995 - 2014).

Lower left 3: Museum Hashephela, Kfar Menachem.  Terracotta plaque from Tel Harasim (near Beth Shemesh), LB II.  Photo cf.: Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess, Fribourg, 2004, Cat. 5-24.

Lower left 4: Ashmolean Museum (number not known).  Gold pendant from Tel el-Ajjul, 1600-1500 BCE.  Photo credit: Eva, Mutter alles Lebendigen, Bibel und Orient Museum, Fribourg (via Doris Wolf: Das andere Aegypten-Buch).

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