19 December 2015

Judith's Feast

The Scroll of Judith

You also, son of man, take a written scroll, feed your stomach and fill your belly with what I give you, and it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.  

Thus begins the medieval Hebrew manuscript Megillat Yehudit (Scroll of Judith).*  Beneath the title, in smaller letters, is the instruction: "to be said on Hanukkah."

Okay, I know I'm a little late this year but I'll make it up in 2016. 

Anyway, the feast is real and the date is yours to choose.

In the apocryphal Book of Judith, the beautiful Judith leaves the besieged city of Bethulia intending to trick the invading general Holofernes.  In the Scroll, the city is Jerusalem and Holofernes is the enemy king.  In both versions, he lusts after her body: Come now, lie with me, my sister, for it is a great love I have for you, a love with all its rapture.

Judith takes food with her to tempt Holofernes: a jar of wine, a cruse of oil, barley groats, fig-cakes, white bread, and cheese. The cheese does the trick:  Judith feeds him pancakes with salty cheese; he gets thirsty and drinks too much wine (his heart was merry).  Drunk, he falls to the ground and sleeps.

Then she took the sword and went softly to him, for he was fast asleep. Then she held up her right and her left hand and she smote his head, she smote him and killed him and she cut off his head.

Dead drunk, you might say.  Still, she saved her city and, of course, her virtue, too. And that, they say, is the reason you eat cheese on Hanukkah -- which, I admit, does not make much sense to me.  

In the Scroll's entirely apocryphal story, Hanukkah becomes the feast of Judith:

Then Judith became queen over the land and judged Israel.  Because of this the children of Israel shall make a very great feast in their pots and cauldrons, with pieces of cheese, gladness and feasting, a good day, of sending portions to one another, baked pieces, food from the frying pan [pancakes] and dough kneaded until it is leavened so its glory will grow with honey, all manner of baked goods ... and the drinking was according to the law: none did compel, for thus the Queen Judith had appointed to all the officers of [this] house, that they should do according to every man's pleasure.

From the Scroll of Judith, written by Moses Shmeil Dascola (probably somewhere in the Provence), on the 30th day of the month of Silvan, 5162 [= 1402 CE].*

So, lifting a glass of sparkling wine (none did compel), I wish my readers Happy Feast Days and all the very best in 2016 CE!

*Translated with commentary by my namesake, Dr Susan Weingarten: 'Food, Sex, and Redemption in Megillat Yehudit (the "Scroll of Judith")', in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, Cambridge, 2010, 110-125.


Judith in pigmented plastic, plaster, paint, and steel armature with wheels, by the Polish artist Paweł Althamer. A plaster cast from the face of a living woman is formed into a mask, then embellished with extruded bandage-like polyethylene strips and fixed to a frame.

Photo credit for statue of Judith: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Commissioned by Deutsche Bank AG in consultation with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin.

Photo of the artist (left): Phaidon

09 November 2015

30 September 2015

Happier Days in Palmyra: Part II

      This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr Khaled al-Asaad, a good and gentle man 

Part I, click here

The Peregrinations of a Lady

This funerary portrait of an elegant upper-class woman from Palmyra used to belong to the  wealthy Italian art historian and critic, Federico Ziri. Before it entered Ziri's collection, however, the bust had already passed through the hands of several important French collections. As with so many Palmyran portraits in private hands, there are gaps in its collecting history.  We don't know, of course, when or where the bust was found, dug up and sold.
...illicit digging continues, and almost every traveller buys and removes a few busts and mortuary inscriptions. (John Punnett Peters, in Palmyra in 1889
Our lady's portrait first came to public notice in 1903 when it appeared in the Beirut collection of the linguist and excavator Father Sébastien Ronzevalle, SJ.  Long before the Jesuit father's death (d. January 1937), the bust had resurfaced in the possession of the slightly dubious French architect Émile Bertone, who had travelled to Palmyra in 1898 where he copied and published a mixed bag of inscriptions. He kept the portrait until his death (d. March 1931), when it was sold at the Paris auction house of Clément Platt. Who bought it? We don't know. We know nothing of its fate between 1931 and the 1960s when it entered Federico Ziri's collection (along with another nine Palmyran busts); exactly how and where he acquired the lady's portrait is not yet clear.

Like the vast majority of Palmyran reliefs cloistered in private collections, her portrait had, for all practical purposes, vanished from the world.  Zeri kept the busts in his private villa just outside Rome. The art historian had come to believe that he descended from a noble Syrian family from Homs (ancient Emesa, 160 km as the crow flies across the desert from Palmyra); accordingly, he placed the ten portraits in the entrance hall of his villa -- rather like an ancient Roman patrician's ancestral busts -- so that anyone visiting him would have to pass along them, as if through a guard of honour.  In short, if you wanted to see the lady and her compatriots, you needed a personal invitation.

Ziri's ten busts were finally published in 1986 -- albeit in an Italian learned journal of little international reach. When Zeri died in 1998, he bequeathed the ten pieces to the Museo Gregoriana Egizio of the Vatican Museum, where presumably they will rest until the Day of Judgment. You can now find our lady online with some information in Italian and in English

That being said, the museum's text is brief and not entirely crystal clear.  In fact, it merely whetted my appetite. Who wouldn't like to learn more about this woman's life and death, the clothes she is wearing, her choice of jewels, and even the meaning of her hand gestures?  But, until today -- unless you are sitting in a world-class university library -- finding this out will be a complicated and long drawn-out business, which might even end with your hitting a brick wall.  

Ye Olde Way 

The first question we would need to answer is the date of the  relief itself: when did her family have that beautiful stone carved in her memory? That's not too difficult -- for the bust is a fine example of the early-third century style of Palmyran sculpture; so the memorial was made in the years between ca. 200 and 230 CE. Happily, there is also a woman's bust in the National Museum of Damacus that is nearly a twin of our lady -- and her portrait is precisely dated by its inscription to 226/27 CE.  We can't be more than a decade off from that date.

Our lady is also inscribed with Palmyrene script on the slab above her left shoulder ... and that
text should reveal her name and close family relations. Being outside of my dream library, finding that text proved difficult. I searched on Google by catalogue number and finally tracked her down in a truly obscure academic journal in the middle of a discussion about an ancient Latin inscription from Libya(!). As it happens, the Libyan man's name was also shared by a handful of Nabataeans and Moabites as well as a very few Palmyrans; but only by one female, who turns out to be our lady: her name is Rumai. The name probably comes from the root RWM, meaning 'high' (perhaps in the sense of 'high-born').  Finally, with the help of inter-library loans,* I read the complete inscription:
Image of (SLMT)
Rumai (RWMJ), wife of
Iarhi (JRHJ), son of
(HN').  Alas!
Admittedly, I was not much the wiser.

Although in theory, I was now in a position to winkle out possible family connections, this could not realistically be done outside of my dream library ... so I put that task aside for another time.

Her finery, however, which is carved in very great detail, allowed me to start on the interesting task of comparing her statue with those of other wealthy Palmyran women of her time.  

Beginning at the top: beneath her veil she wears a high rolled  elaborately decorated turban with rosettes and pearls apparently sewn on.  I know of several portraits with similar headdresses, such as this lovely lady (left) now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Both ladies also share the same swept-up hair style. The headdress and hairdo can also be found together on a few other female heads of which I have but dismal black-and-white photographs (e.g. IN 1102, 1099, 1104, in the Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek in Copenhagen) -- all dated on stylistic grounds to ca. 210-230 CE.  So we can be reasonably sure that these particular features were shared by some fashionable women at this time.

Next, Rumai's lovely cloak is adorned with a vertical band of acanthus leaves, a design repeated on the cuffs which also end in fringes (or possibly fur). Ladies' cloaks are rarely embroidered in Palmyra: here, it is the men, not the women, who sport elaborately decorated outer garments, especially (though not exclusively) those wearing Parthian-type tunics and trousers. Besides Lady Rumai  and her 'twin' in Damascus, another exception is the 'Beauty of Palmyra' (illustrated in Part I) whose sleeves are decorated with a pattern that seems to echo her ornate bracelets. There are, of course, a few other exceptionally clad women, but it still holds true that embroidered cloaks are very uncommon on women's funerary busts. 

Then I thought of Bitti, daughter of Yarhai (left).  One rarely thinks of Bitti.  Why not? Because she is one of the very very few Palmyran women who does not wear a veil -- an altogether exceptional group; who are these strange or wanton women? Are they (as some have  proposed) freed slaves, or even eunuchs, or are they merely flappers out for a fling, the better to flaunt their special  hairstyle? I won't get into this question today (though one day, I will) but note that Bitti, too, wears a beautifully decorated cloak.  She is also dated to ca. 230 CE.  It all seems to be coming together nicely.

Now, what we really need in order to progress further is to see all the women who are wearing such decorated cloaks.  And then put that together with all women whose jewellery -- drop-earrings, necklaces, and finger rings -- is similar to that worn by Lady Rumai.  But even a preliminary look at jewellery would take me days ... if not weeks of work; and I'd still be certain to miss a large number of poorly-illustrated busts, as well as those which have never been shown to the public. Honestly, what can we hope to learn from just one portrait, or even a wall full of them? 

Not very much, really.

If Lady Rumai is not to remain little more than a pretty picture, we need a Corpus.

What's in a Corpus?

Palmyran portraits are scattered in public and private collections throughout the world. They are often poorly published, or not at all -- and they have never been catalogued, described, dated, or treated as an entire group. 

That is now about to change. 

The Palmyra Portrait Project***

When Harald Ingholt (Part I of this post) worked out the essential chronology and dating of Palmyran sculpture in 1928, he knew of 524 portraits. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, he found and drew in his diaries almost 1,000 pieces. But today, the Palmyra Portrait Project (PPP) database has recorded more than 2,600 portraits -- far more than anyone ever knew existed --  from museums and private collections around the world.  This includes hundreds of portraits that had briefly appeared on the antiquities markets and then vanished from public view. 

The PPP is preparing a complete research dossier for every single known piece of Palmyran portraiture. Wherever possible, new high-resolution photographs have been made.  That is an essential step: look at the photograph of Lady Rumai at the top of this post: it's the best I could find online, not bad but it blurs some details, such as the round brooch that pins her cloak (next to her left hand). Brooches are an important item of jewellery, usually of gold -- and their shapes and designs change over time; certain designs perhaps are meaningful but we can't know what they might mean until we can compare them all, type by type. 

Portrait descriptions will also include detailed analysis of poses, faces, and attributes (usually, what is held in the hands).  Gender, colour traces, hairstyles, dress, and jewellery are all recorded in minute detail, and made searchable. For the very first time, it will be possible to compare every detail of each sculpture with all the others. Added to the data, of course, are the dated inscriptions as well as all known family relations [So-and-so, the son/daughter, father/mother of so-and-so: up to five generations!] -- and a whole world of new research possibilities opens up. 

Portraits can be compared across and within groups such as priests, women, children, or even those sharing the same attribute. Sticking to women for the moment -- as is the wont of this blog -- did you know that five women hold writing tablets (vs. more than 100 men); who are these ladies? One such woman with a tablet doesn't wear a veil (left); is that significant?  Are there still more ladies with stylus or tablets out there, in less accessible collections? Women sometimes hold keys (men never do): are these the keys to the household cupboard or to the gates of the world beyond?  And who else is wearing any special piece of jewellery that catches your eye?  All of this can soon be studied by date and, if we're lucky, by family connections. We'll be able see how facial features are treated differently over time, and follow changes in fashion and tastes -- hairstyles, beards and moustaches for men and hairstyles, headdresses and jewellery for women. 

Let's say that you'd like to know if the pearls-and-rosette decoration sewn on Lady Rumai's turban is a design that runs in her family, perhaps even a badge of her clan?  We can only study that if we first know who else wears that particular pattern, their dates, and inscriptions (if any) that might lead to other family members.  By this time next year I might be able to tell you.  And then, when I next think about the Unveiled Women of Palmyra, I expect to have a complete picture of all of them before I start to write. What a difference that will make!

Palmyrene portraiture has an inherent logic all its own.  Everyone who studies it has an intuitive understanding of this. It's time we find out more exactly what it is. 

* My warm thanks to Prof. Anna-Marguerita Jasink of the University of Florence, who was kind enough to call it up from the university library in Naples.

** Harald Ingholt (see Part I) long ago divided the known Palmyrene funerary portraits into three distinct chronological groups by taking the small number of dated examples and grouping about them undated reliefs that were stylistically similar. While later scholars have refined Ingholt’s categories, the basic groupings have been maintained. For example, we know that most men before 150 CE are clean-shaven whereas they tend to be bearded from 150-200 CE. Or that, after 200 CE, certain facial features appear, such as unincised eyes and a single groove for eyebrows, as well as the marks of the curved and flat chisel on the necks.  Women in his early group (50–150 CE) wore little jewelry and often held a spindle and a distaff in the left hand. Those in his second group (150–200 CE) wore more jewellery, including necklaces, bracelets, and rings, rarely held the spindle and distaff, and frequently raised the right hand to hold the veil back from the face. In the latest group (200-273 CE), some women display even more jewellery, and many used their left hand to hold the veil. However, it's possible that the amount of jewellery a woman wears correlates better with her family wealth or some other factors than simply with chronology. This is just one of the many conundrums awaiting solution after the Palmyra Portrait Project is fully launched.

*** Under the direction of Dr Rubina Raja of Aarhus University and Dr Andreas J.M. Kropp at Nottingham University.


R. Raja and A.H. Sørensen. Harald Ingholt and Palmyra, Aarhus, 2015; A.J.M. Kropp, 'The Palmyra Portrait Project', Syria 91, 2014, 393-408; M.K. Heyn, 'Female Portraiture in Palmyra' (Case Study VI), in A Companion to Women in the Ancient World, Published Online: 13 FEB 2012; P. Callieri, 'Rilievi funeriari palmireni nella collezioni Ziri', Annali di archeologia e storia antica. Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli 8 (1986) 223-244; F. Vattioni, 'Le inscrizioni sui rilievi palmireni nella collezioni Ziri', Annali 8 (1986) 245-248.


Top: Rumai, wife of Iarhi. Bust of a Woman from Palmyra in the Vatican Museum. Photo Credit: LaurieAnnie.

Left # 2: Bust of a Woman from Palmyra in the National Museum of Damascus, April 2009.  Photo credit: Dosseman.

Left # 3: Bust of Woman from Palmyra (with false Palmyrene inscription) in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Inv. B 8904. Photo credit: UPM .

Left # 4:  Bitti, daughter of Yarhai. Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek I.N. 1053. Photo credit: Colledge, Art of Palmyra, Pl. 91 (via Carnuntum).

Left # 5: Bust of a woman from Palmyra, holding a writing tablet on her left hand. Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo credit: Carole Raddato CC BY-SA (via Following Hadrian: The Ancient People of Palmyra).

02 September 2015

Happier Days in Palmyra

      This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr Khaled al-Asaad, a good and gentle man

The Beauty of Palmyra

When the Danish archaeologist Harald Ingholt was just beginning his third season of digging at Palmyra in 1928, someone offered to sell him this stunning portrait of a woman - and, in accordance with the practices of the time, he bought it on the spot. The bust - or more correctly, half figure - was shipped to Copenhagen where it still graces the New Carlsberg Glyptotek, one of the sponsors of his excavation. 

The most beautiful female bust I have seen thus far, Ingholt said, and, short of a beauty contest between at least six of my favourite female contenders, that probably still remains true. 

The portrait shows a woman who was both wealthy and fashionable: look at the gold-coloured paint which enriches her exuberant jewellery -- imitating golden jewels she must have owned in reality --  and the deep red embroidered sleeves and ruddy dangling beads, red lips, and rouged cheeks (the reds, alas, more visible when she was found than now*). An altogether elegant woman. More the pity that there was no precise provenance: no one knew where the bust was found, nor when the woman had lived....

Until now!

Harald Ingholt's unpublished diary held the secret, only recently teased out thanks to the Palmyra Portrait Project.  One of the goals of the PPP (headed by Rubina Raja of Aarhus University and Andreas J.M. Kropp at Nottingham University) is the transcription, translation and digitalization of all of Ingholt's archives, including his excavation diaries. Thanks to their careful work, we now can place the Beauty in her proper tomb: she comes from the underground house-tomb known as Qasr Abjad, 'White Castle', in the Western necropolis. Sculptural finds from this relatively modest sepulchre date to the late 2nd century CE so the woman whose portrait is our Beauty probably ended her life in the years between 190 and 210 CE.

All this and more in Aarhus (Denmark)

The Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus is highlighting Harold Ingholt's work in its thought-provoking show, Harold Ingholt and Palmyra (until 13 September). The exhibition is based on research carried out within the framework of the Palmyra Portrait Project: their scrutiny of Ingholt's dig diaries has brought to light previously unknown locations of tomb sculpture and new information on his excavations in the city. With his descriptions, sketches and reports, for example, it has been possible to identify some graves whose plans have never been published.

Ingholt carried out three major excavations at Palmyra in the 1920s, finding more than 50 tombs of which 24 could be entered, while the rest had collapsed. Although many of the graves had been robbed long before he got there, he still found a wealth of well-preserved sculptures, sarcophagi, inscriptions and smaller objects. In the mid-1930's, he returned for a brief season to excavate the collapsed tomb of Malkû son of Malkû, son of Nûrbel the doctor, for himself and his sons and their sons. This tomb, in the Southwest Necropolis, founded in 116 CE by the first named Malkû, was used for burials at least until 267 CE according to the last of its 14 inscriptions. This means that Malkû's descendants were probably still being buried in their own family tomb even as the city fought off the Romans and then fell in 272/273 CE.

Adding a Niche

Another long-lived tomb that Ingholt excavated is the subterranean communal tomb of Atenatan also in the Southwest Necropolis.  Atenatan built it in 98 CE, one of the earliest underground house tombs at Palmyra, and it was used for well over a century; and then, in 229 CE, a side niche was built into it by a man named Julius Aurelius Maqqai -- who paid for it, as he boasts, with his own money.  Maqqai had the ceiling of the niche painted and, at some point, three sarcophagi were installed along its walls (left).  Relief figures on the sarcophagi depict Maqqai and his children, wife, and servants.  Ingholt's drawings illustrate the many traces of red and blue colour that could be seen on their decorative reliefs when he excavated the tomb -- something never previously pictured.

As with the 'Beauty of Palmyra', it is now possible to get a good impression of how the sculptures were painted and installed in a tomb in combination with painted ceilings. 

And that's the sort of new insights you'll get if you are lucky enough to visit Aarhus before 13 September.  For those of us who can't get to Denmark, the Museum has published a 68-page illustrated booklet of the exhibition and generously makes it available as a free download.  Click here for Harald Ingholt and Palmyra . There is a huge amount we have still to learn.

In the next post, I'll look at the ambitious Palmyra Portrait Project itself in much more detail.  Their major goal is to build a corpus of every known Palmyran portrait, so that we'll be able to see and compare what is now scattered in museums and private collections around the globe.  The PPP files already record details of over 2,600 portraits -- far more than anyone ever knew existed! In fact, it is now clear that the portraits from Palmyra form the largest Roman-era group of portrait sculpture outside of Rome. As the site itself is now looted and being destroyed, only our knowledge will keep the light of Palmyra alive.

The PPP could hardly be more timely.

Part II of this post, click here.

* Detailed microscopic analysis indicates traces of four colours (yellow and red ochre, carbon black [on the hair] and madder) as well as minute traces of gold leaf. The jewellery would have further glittered with inlaid glass or gemstones as indicated by sunken oval or circular areas. The irises of her eyes were also originally inlaid as shown by circular flat depressions. Full details at Tracking Colour.


Top left: The Beauty of Palmyra, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

All other photographs from the Museum of Ancient Art at the University of Aarhus publication Harald Ingholt and Palmyra

12 July 2015

This Summer, Join a Blogging Research Project

Summer is usually a quiet time for archaeological blogging.  Most archaeologists are away in the field, digging up (what is for us) buried treasure, or in museums learning from previous digs; and universities are closed.  News of recent discoveries rarely seeps out before September when everyone gets back to their desks. This year, however, we've got two great summer stories for you, one of which gives you the chance to participate in a real archaeological research project. 

But first, the hot news from Arles in southern France. 

Extremely rare ancient Roman frescos -- comparable to those found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii and the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale a little north of Pompeii -- have just been discovered in the bedroom of a freshly-dug Roman villa in Arles (Latin Arelate). This is the very first full mural ever found in France in what's known as the Second Pompeian style (starting and ending in Gaul some 20 years later than in Italy, (ca. 70-20 BCE). 

Among the images in the fresco (now broken into more than 12,000 fragments that will have to be pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle) is this extraordinarily expressive face of a young woman with full red lips and dark eyes gazing slightly upwards.

As expert restorers started putting fragments together, they discovered that she was plucking the strings of a  harp.

The lady harpist is painted in expensive Egyptian blue and red vermilion pigments. Even in Italy,  in fact, large human figures painted on a vermilion background in the Second (rather 'Illusionistic') Style, only appear on a handful of sites.  It seems very likely that the fresco-painters came to Arles from Italy.

Although Arles had been a Roman town since 123 BCE, it remained rather small compared to Massalia (Marseilles) -- until the city fathers had the wit, or luck, to support Julius Caesar in the Civil War.  When Caesar emerged victorious in 48 BCE, Massalia (which had backed Pompey) was stripped of its possessions, which were transferred to Arelate as a reward.  This must have been the time when the newly-discovered luxurious villa was built and so very richly decorated.

Now, for the other hot news of summer.

Join an Archaeological Research Project

Fleur Schinning is a young scholar in the Department of Archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She wrote to me last week asking if the readers of my Zenobia blog might be willing to help in her post-graduate research project for Heritage Management.  The focus is on how blogs and social media can be used as tools in creating public support for archaeology. Accordingly, she is comparing a number of blogs from the UK and USA, where blogging seems widely accepted.  As she writes, "I have come across some very interesting and successful blogs, of which your blog is one." 

I am flattered, of course.  She asks me and the readers of this blog to join her in the project.  If you can spare just five minutes to complete a simple anonymous questionnaire to share your thoughts about this and other blogs you read, she would be tremendously grateful.  Click here to get started.

In return, you might win six issues of Archaeology, the very  magazine that was so quick to publish the story of the Roman fresco discovered in Arles (10 July 2015) ... and which supplied the best photograph of the lady harpist.  So you see, 'what goes around, comes around'.  Click here.

My thanks to my Facebook friend, Lynda Albertson, for the heads up on the new Arles frescos.

Sources include INRAP fr: 'Des fresques romaines uniques en France découvertes à Arles';  RFI: 'Rare ancient Roman frescos found in south of France'; Le Monde: 'Des fresques dignes de Pompéi exhumées à Arles'; Archaeology: 'Complete Roman Fresco Discovered in Arles, France'.


Upper left: Arles fresco: detail of young woman.  Photo credit: Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via Le Monde)

Middle left: Arles fresco: the lady harpist.  Photo credit:  Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via Archaeology)

Centre: Arles fresco : decorations around the edge of the bedroom.  Photo credit:  Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via RFI )

Lower left: Fleur Schinning

03 June 2015


C.P. Cavafy's draft of a poem on Zenobia (November 1930)* 
Written on a single sheet, with covering page bearing the title and date:

Side 1 is the text written in black, including two illegible crossed-out words at the end.

Side 2 gives the added text, here written in red, including the line crossed out.

Now that Zenobia is queen of many great lands,
now that all of Anatolia marvels at her,
and even the Romans fear her by now,
why shouldn't her grandeur be complete?
Why should she be reckoned an Asiatic woman?

They'll create her genealogy straightaway.

Two scholars skilled in history
Are taking up the important task
See how they deal with her genealogy
How obviously she's descended from the Lagids.
How obviously from Macedonia 
(four letters crossed out). 

*Translation and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn (Twitter/undated)







Portrait of Zenobia.  Modern mould taken from an Alexandrian tetradrachm (Paris, Cabinet des Médailles n. 3647).  For discussion of why this coin might preserve her true portrait, see the blog post, My Money On Zenobia

04 April 2015

ELEGY FOR HATRA (Women: Last and Least)

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

As of last count, only 13 life-size statues of mortal women are known from Hatra compared to some 120 statues of men. This undoubtedly reflects (I am sorry to say) womens' lower social status in Hatrene society. It seems that, as ever, even a Queen or Princess was first and foremost a female, and thus inferior in the greater scheme of things.  Still, all is not bleak.

Location Location Location 

Not only are there far more statues of men but a great many of them were placed in the most prestigious locations: 77 male statues come from the central Sacred Area of the city where the most important gods and goddesses were worshipped in their enormous temples.  These are statues of kings, princes, and high officials.  Only one statue of a woman made that grade.

The statue of Ebū daughter of Damyōn which has erected for her [the temple of] Bar-Mārēn ['the Son of Our Lord'] the god.*

Her father's name suggests he was a Greek, Δαμίων, an ancestry which might have had  something to do with her singular honour.  On the other hand, he gives no official or cult title nor does he boast of his paternal line (as in Damyōn, son of X son of Y).  This leaves us rather at a loss.  Still, the statue of Ebū (also transcribed as Abu) is exceptionally tall: while precise measurements are lacking, she is clearly well over life-size.  Even more unusual is that her statue was erected and paid for by the temple itself -- one of only two mortals who received this honour** -- presumably in return for some great benefaction.  But what?  We have no idea.

Ebu's elaborate costume demonstrates that her family was very rich. The sleeves of her undergarment appear to be abundantly pleated (silk?) and she wears an ample full-length robe pinned by a broach at the shoulder. Other jewels include a choker around her throat, a heavy necklace, earrings, and bracelets ending in snake-heads(?).  Her pose is typical of female statues with her right hand raised palm outwards either in prayer or respect for the gods while the left slightly lifts the stuff of her outer gown.  She wears a striking and unusual headdress apparently built up of a three-level diadem covered by a raised stiff veil that runs down the back to her waist.

Ebu remains a mystery but we have more information on another grand lady.

Queens and Princesses

Meet Princess Dushfari (left), daughter of King Sanatruq II and Queen Batsimia.  Her mother was Sanatruq's chief wife.  We assume that the king had several wives because Batsimia twice records the fact that she is the mother of the Crown Prince -- a statement that would hardly be necessary if she were the sole wife of the king. 

This means, too, that Dushfari (apparently the only daughter of Batsimia) is the Number 1 Princess of Hatra at this time (238 CE).  Such high rank is in keeping with the size of the statue dedicated in Shrine V, one of the tallest from Hatra (2.10 m/6.9').  It was found along with a much smaller but otherwise almost duplicate statue of her young daughter, Simia (below right).  

Dushfari and her daughter both wear ample floor-length gowns with long, elaborately decorated unbelted chitons above.   

Dushfari's neck is adorned with four necklaces (her daughter three): a short heavy choker, a chain with hanging ornaments, and two longer chain-like metallic necklaces, one ending in a round medallion and the other in a rectangular pendant and medallion.

Such long necklaces with medallions are also pictured on some statues of enthroned goddesses, which surely must be significant.  One possibility is that the princess wears this as a 'badge of office' as priestess of the goddess Allat-Athena who was worshipped in Shrine V (see Part III).  If so, her daughter could be wearing one such chain as a  'priestess in waiting'.  Dushfari's astonishing headdress appears to be some kind of very high diadem but it is more likely that her hair was combed back and coiled high on her head (as in clearer on the simplified headdress worn by Simai) and this then topped by the ornate diadem around which was draped a decorated veil adorned with jewels.  In the middle of the diadem is an oval medallion displaying a god in relief.

Murder Most Foul

This is Abu, daughter of Gabalu, the only statue that we are sure was made to commemorate a person who was already dead.  Abu is seated on a chair placed on a high pedestal; the statue is about 1 m./3' high and the pedestal of much the same height.  It comes from Shrine IV.  A long inscription is written on the pedestal.  It begins much like all the others but adds her death notice:

(This is) the statue of Abu, daughter of Gabalū, which has erected for her Aššā, her husband, the son of Šmešṭayyeb. She died at the age of 18.*

Abu wears gowns simpler but similar to those worn by Dushfari, but they are belted under her breasts which consequently are sculpted as two whirligigs!  Her high conical headdress is made up of vertical levels decorated with large beads and topped by a wide veil that falls down her back.  From her ears hang a magnificent pair of earrings, probably of silver or gold, which contrast a bit with some strings of beads: a pearl(?) choker that looks as if it's really about to choke her, a beaded necklace, a pendant necklace, and a long chain-like necklace ending in a pointed ornament.  She raises her right hand to the gods while her left is busy pulling up the cloth of her gown and holding two flower-like objects.

Poor pale Lady Abu

The proportions of the statue are out of whack.  Her right hand is  far too large, her neck too thick, and she looks almost stunted.  What could have happened to her? 
Our Lord Maren, Our Lady Marten, the Son of Our Lord Bar-Maren, Balshamin and Atargatis, lay a curse on the one who killed Abu and on those who rejoice in the death of Abu, and against the women who filled and poured out the ... of Abu!
What's the ... missing word?  

"Poisoned cup"?  

We'll never know, but it led to the most extraordinary private drama that Hatra has ever left evidence for us to read.

Sliding down the social scale

Needless to say, all women who get statues are members of the elite but not all are from the tippy-top of the social pyramid.  Ladies' statues were found in some of the smaller temples scattered throughout the living quarters of the city.  Four came from Shrine V, including those of Princess Dushfari and her daughter, where Allat-Athena was the main recipient of cult (see Part III) although, even here, more than one divinity apparently was worshipped.  It is  unclear how many deities were worshipped in each of the smaller temples, probably reflecting the multiple guardians of those families, tribes, or clans who contributed to building and maintaining the shrine.  From the little we know, it appears that the Hatrene divine world was not particularly well organized.**  

The headless statue of Martabu, priestess of Isharbel, found in Shrine V (dated 235 AD; no picture, sorry) shows her plainly dressed with a cloth sash girdling her waist. No jewellery is mentioned. The inscription (quoted in Part III) tells us that her paternal grandfather was a priest, perhaps serving the same goddess, which hints that religious offices ran in some minor elite families.  Martabu must be the same woman who dedicated a divine statue in Shrine V which called down blessings (using the formula 'for the life of...') on herself and her boss:

Martabu has sculpted for the life of herself and for Rabta, her superior [chief priest] and for whoever worships [the goddess].* 

The sound of music

Simai daughter of Oge (left), from Shrine I, was in all likelihood also a priestess.  Her statue (damaged around her mouth; no moustaches on girls!) was erected in 235 CE by her husband, himself a priest of the goddess Atargatis.  Simai is also simply dressed, with just a pair of chokers as jewellery.  She carries a tambourine, an instrument probably connected with her religious function.  She could have been one of the religious musicians bound to her vocation by threats of death (Part III).  As for her music, remember Exodus 15.20-21:
Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. Miriam answered them, "Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted

I, Woman, Did This Myself

A statue of Lady Qaimi (also from Shrine V), wears similar loose clothing tied by a single sash at her waist.  Her jewellery is limited to three simple rings on her left hand (right hand  missing).  Her husband is a scribe and probably also a priest in the service of the god Bar-Maren.  Qaimi is shown holding a kithara, a kind of lyre, in her lowered left hand.  The inscription reads:
In Elul of the year 549 (= September 238 CE). The statue of Qaimi daughter of Abdsimia, the wine-seller, wife of Neshraqab, the scribe of the Bar-Maren [the Son of our Lord], which 'Isharbel the Virgin' has ordered her [to make]. And she herself has erected it for the life of herself and for the life of Neshraqab, her husband, and Absa, her brother, and for the life of all personnel of Bar-Maren, both inside and outside, and whoever is dear to them, all of them.
Her simple dress, the musical instrument, and her husband's vocation argue that Qaima is another priestess serving the goddess 'Isharbel the Virgin'. What is remarkable is that she erected her own statue.  Made -- first and foremost -- 'for the life of herself ', she obviously felt the need to justify this act of self-aggrandisement by claiming it was at the explicit orders of the goddess ('She made me do it!').  The goddess' blessing then extends to her husband, her brother, and to all of her husband's colleagues in the religious community of Bar-Maren.  The inclusion of her brother in the blessings opens a tiny window on  Hatrene women's lives: it means that she maintained close relations with the 'house' into which she was born and was not handed over unconditionally to her husband's family when marrying him. 

As a matter of some historical interest, too, this inscription also proves that the ancient Arabs drank wine -- and in sufficient quantities to propel Qaima's father, who was a wine-seller or vinter, into the local elite.   

And on that happy note in these dismal days, Weingarten ("garden of wine") brings this series of posts on Hatra to a close. 

To all my readers Happy Easter, Chag Sameach, or Whatever lifts your boat!

* Ebu's inscription H228; Abu: H30; Martabu: H31.  Translations by Melammu Project and Raman Asha

** The other, also a statue of a woman (whose name is lost), was made by the temple or religious company of Istarbel (H38): The statue of ..., daughter of Bedšā ..., which has ordered for her Iššārbēl the virgin.  Translation Raman Asha

** The deities worshipped in the central Sacred Area -- the triad of Maren ('Our Lord'), Marten ('Our Lady') and Bar-Maren ('the Son of Our Lord'), as well as the goddess Allat, and the god Shahiru (a god of dawn or a moon-god) -- also appear in inscriptions in the smaller shrines.  In contrast, the cults of the many other divinities were practiced only in the smaller shrines.  However, it is entirely possible that many of the deities known from the shrines are named manifestations of the main deities: e.g.Shamash = Maran; Nergal (mentioned in 8 shrines) = Bar-Maran?,  Herakles, in turn, may be another name for Nergal (mentioned in 9 shrines); Allat and Allat-Athena may be another facet of Marten.  Put together in this way, the four deities figure in ca. 80% of inscriptions.  See L. Dirven, 'Religious Frontiers in the Syro-Mesopotamian Desert', In Frontiers in the Roman World (Leiden, 2011), 165-66.

Sources: Shinji Fukai, 'The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art', East and West, 11, No. 2/3 (1960) 135-181; Lucinda Dirven, 'Aspects of Hatrene Religion: : A Note on the Statues of Kings and Nobles from Hatra,', In (T. Kaizer, ed.) The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Leiden 2008, 209-46; ead.'A Goddess with Dogs from Hatra', In Animals, Gods and Men from East to West, BAR IS 2516 (2013) 147-60;  K. Dijkstra, Life and Loyalty: A Study in the Socio-Religious Culture of Syria and Mesopotamia in the Graeco-Roman Period Based on Epigraphical Evidence (Leiden, 1995); T. Kaizer, 'Some Remarks about the Religious Life of Hatra', Topoi 10 (2000) 229-52.


Top left: Statue of Ebu d. Damyoun.  Status: Replica destroyed by ISIS (video 4 April 2015); location of original presumed to be in Baghdad.  Photo credit: U.N.E.D. Archivos Mesopotamia

2nd left:  Mosul marble statue of Princess Doshfari. Iraq Museum # 56752  Photo credit: Iraq Museum 2008 (State Board of Antiquities and Heritage) p. 29.

Right:  Mosul marble statue of Princess Doshfari and white marble statue of her daughter Simia (Iraq Museum 56753).  Photo via: Pinterest: Found on jeannepompadour.tumblr.com 

3rd left: Local yellow limestone statue of Abu, daughter of Gabalu. Iraq Museum # 56730.  Photo credit: Suppressed History Archives (8 March 2015)

4th left: Mosul marble statue of Simai, daughter of Oge.  Mosul Museum # 21.  Status: unknown.  Photo credit: S. Fukai (see sources above) p. 151, Pl. 12.

25 March 2015

ELEGY FOR HATRA (Part III: Goddesses and Putative Priestesses)

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

Three Goddesses and a guy-lion

Allat, the Arab goddess of war, is the central figure on this stone relief from Hatra (once covered with thin sheets of gold or silver). She is flanked by two smaller female figures, most probably her daughters al-Izza and Munat, with right hands raised up, palms forward, in the typical Hatrene manner indicating benediction or respectful prayer.  Although these deities are of Arab origin, Allat is shown with the attributes of the Greek goddess Athena: a gorgon head on her breastplate, armed with a spear, a helmet, and carrying a shield marked with her lunar symbol. The eyes and the costume are rendered in the local Parthian fashion.  

The fascinating thing about this relief is the combination of strong Parthian features and borrowed Greek traits -- the Greek input seen here, obviously, in dressing up Allat as Athena but also more subtly in the bend of her left leg and slight body tilt which breaks the typically stiff  Parthian pose.  Even so, their eyes (once inlaid with white seashells with bitumen-black dots for pupils) are set straight forward.

The goddesses are perched on a lion -- Allat's sacred animal par excellence -- pictured with an extravagant flame-like mane (it's always a male lion) and its tail wrapped, pussy-cat like, around its hind leg.  The association of Allat  with lions was noted by Lucian, a 2nd-century CE Syrian author, in his work on De Dea Syria ('The Gods of Syria', 41).  Lucian describes the temple at the sacred city of Hieropolis where the local goddess (Allat, often identified with a similar, earlier goddess, Atargatis) appears under the guise of Greek Hera: 

The sanctuary faces the sunrise….  In it are enthroned the cult statues, Hera [Allat/Atargatis] and the god, Zeus, who they call by a different name [Baal-Hadad]. Both are golden, both seated, though Hera [Allat/Atargatis] is borne on lions....  
We saw just such an enthroned Allat with her lions on the so-called Cerberus relief (pictured in Part II). 

The relief showing Allat standing with her daughters was found in one of the smaller shrines in Hatra (known as Shrine V) outside of the central Sacred Area, along with three more reliefs of Allat-as-Athena.  Inscriptions from the same sanctuary name the goddess as ˀšrbl and ˀšrbl btlh, 'Iššar-Bel' and 'Iššar-Bel the virgin', harking back to Ishtar,  the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of sex, love, and war, whose symbol, too, was a lion. Two of the inscriptions come from statue bases dedicated by women, one of whom was named as the priestess Martabu: 
In the month Adar of the year 546 (= March 235 CE). The statue of Martabu, priestess of Isharbel, [creator] of the Universe, which [is] erected for her [by] Bara, her son, son of Abdshalma son of Bara, the priest, and his brother has made the [garment?] for the life of themselves and for the life of their sons and for the life of whoever is dear to them. Shabaz, the sculptor.* 
It's very likely that Shrine V was dedicated to Allat in the guise of Iššar-Bel the virgin, where she was visited primarily by priestesses and ordinary women. 

Three more goddesses.  Or are they mortals?

The three female figures on this relief look pretty glum (even by Hatrene standards).  I must admit that they are almost like clones, being of the same height and dressed exactly alike.  All wear bright red diadems in the form of high cylindrical crowns (poloi) over their black-coloured hair.  Long veils hang down their backs.  Each figure slightly lifts her skirt in a typical Hatrene female gesture.  One figure grasps a mirror (or tamburine or perhaps even a plate) in her right hand.  The others hold palm branches(?) with trailing ribbons. 

Are they goddesses, or mortal women?  Or, as I suspect, are they three priestesses engaged in a ritual act that is now entirely unintelligible to us?

Note the red marks on their cheeks.  

We have enough statues of male priests from Hatra to know that they can be identified by a circle incised on both cheeks -- a mark  never found on non-priestly dignitaries but only on statues of priests.  While it is impossible to tell from their statues if the circles are made by scarification, branding, or tattooing, Lucian (De Dea Syria, 59) does say that all devotees of the goddess at Hieropolis are tattooed on their necks or wrists.  In such cases, the tattoo would mark a person as belonging to the goddess.  Temple staff at Hatra may indeed have been considered as the chattel 'property' of a deity.  A kind of sacred servitude surely underlies a law posted at the city gates which threatened with death any female musician and singer of Maren, Marten, and Bar-Maren who leaves the city.*

Not only do the three ladies have red marks on their cheeks but they are not wearing any jewellery other than (as I would argue) the diadem of the goddess they serve. The lines around their throats probably do not indicate multiple necklaces but rather are thin sashes that tied their gowns. 

To see what they are missing, check out the clunky gold jewellery worn by the three goddesses at the top of the post and the bling on this fragmentary figure (left, from Shrine I): a gilded polos topped by a long veil, golden girdle under her breasts, knock-out gold earrings and a heavy gold necklace that would make Cartier blush.  I doubt, too, that real goddesses actually carried their own ritual implements.  If they hold anything, it will be a symbol of authority, such as Athena's spear or this goddess' sceptre. 

Inside the holy shrine

For similar reasons, I suspect that the women depicted on this model shrine are also priestesses and not images of any goddesses themselves.  The altar is in the form of a temple, with four pillars at the corners and four identical female figures between the posts.  The women  wear short coats over their gowns, with open V-shaped neckline, and are girdled by double sashes just under the breasts.  Their hair is parted in the middle and combed back with the ends coiled up high on their heads.  Each figure holds fruit in her right hand and a well-filled cornucopia in her left.  It appears (though I can't swear to it) that they are bare-footed.  Statues of male priests are also usually identified by bare legs and feet.

It seems that no single trait is sufficient to distinguish Hatrene deities from mortals.  In fact, without inscriptions it is often difficult to tell representations of goddesses and mortals apart.

A seated woman (left; from Shrine VI) wears a plain crescent-shaped diadem on her head and a heavy but not ostentatious necklace.  Yet she is surely a goddess for she holds an orb in her left hand, symbolizing her power over the world and, in her right hand, a staff or sceptre now lost.  Perhaps sceptre and orb were borrowed from Roman divine and imperial regalia (but this is just a guess). 

This very goddess appeared earlier this month on the ISIS video recording the jihadist rampage through the Mosul Museum.  Her statue was seen being flipped off its stand and onto the floor, breaking off its head (Gates of Nineveh).  The good news is that the barbarians destroyed a plaster replica and that the original statue (pictured here) is still safe in Baghdad. 

Unlike this next goddess.

She had her head chopped off and stolen during the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003 -- while American troops stood by.  Alas, ISIS is not the only force responsible for the catastrophic destruction of Iraq's antiquities, though it is by far the deadliest.  My picture of the goddess (left) is a composite photograph with her head put back where it belongs:  since the almost life-size statue was too heavy to join the exodus of loot, it was left behind (the sad headless image may be accessed on the CAIS website).** 

Be that as it may, she was once a beautiful goddess, though we don't know her by name (Shrine VII).  Her gown has heavily patterned sleeves and is more elaborate than most worn by other deities.  She also wears a richer version of the same short garment with V-neckline and girdled under the breasts as the priestesses(?) on the model shrine above.  Her head is crowned by a short polos encircled by a laurel wreath and covered by a veil that drops down the back.  Heavy earrings ending in pointed cones hang from her ears.  Her open hands touch what looks like a wreath on her lap; her left hand also holds a palm branch which rests on her lower arm. 

Stuck on the Throne

The absolutely static enthroned figures may most truly 'personify' Hatrene art.  The rules of frontality are completely dominant and any sense of movement or activity entirely absent.  Such rules are never broken ... but they can be made to budge a bit. Standing figures sometimes put one foot forward which does express slight movement.  King Uthal rather timidly does this, and the high-ranking military officer advances a little more forthrightly (both illustrated in Part II).  One of the minor goddesses on the Allat relief at the top of this post lifts her right shoe onto the lion's mane, and all three ladies shift their weight by almost imperceptibly bending a knee -- a pose undoubtedly adopted (albeit hesitantly) along with Athena's own attributes from the Graeco-Roman sphere.

We'll look at this again as we examine the very last group of statues from Hatra -- those of mortal women who are not involved (or at least not overtly involved) in the religious sphere.

Queens, Princesses, Noblewomen ... in the next and last part of Elegy for Hatra.  

So, think with me about this picture (left).  Who is this woman seated on a chair?  She is made of a rough local limestone rather than the more precious 'Mosul marble' (in fact, a finer limestone) used by the better-off.  And she is bare-headed but marked by lunar imagery. 

Your thoughts are welcome as comments.  

Till next week, then.

Part IV: click here

* Thus, in contrast with cities such as Palmyra, there is evidence for a prominent female priestess at Hatra as well as female temple personnel.  Inscription cited from Raha Masha.

**The head was listed by Interpol among the "Top 30 Missing Artifacts" stolen in 2003; and is one of ca. 8,000 objects still listed as missing


Inscriptions from Temple V: The Melammu Project; Shinji Fukai, 'The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art', East and West, 11, No. 2/3 (1960) 135-181; Lucinda Dirven, 'Aspects of Hatrene Religion', in (T. Kaizer, ed.) The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,Leiden 2008, 209-46; ead. "My Lord With His Dogs: Continuity and Change in the Cult of Nergal in Parthian Mesopotamia" in L. Greisiger, C. Rammelt & J. Tubach (eds.), Edessa in hellenistisch-romischer Zeit (Beirut 2009), 47-68; K. Jakubiak,in (L. Dirven, ed.) Hatra: Politics, Culture and Religion between Parthia and Rome, 2013, 91-106.


Top left: Limestone relief of Allat from Hatra Temple V.  1st c CE.  Temple V.  Iraq Museum #56774 Photo credit: Virtual Museum of Iraq

2nd left: Local yellow limestone. Head of a goddess (Tyche?). 2-early 3 c CE.  H. 53.5 cm.  Status: Stolen from Baghdad Museum; still missing.  Photo credit: akg-images

3rd left: Mosul marble high-relief of three goddesses or priestesses.  0.44 high x 0.44 wide.  Mosul Museum # 53. Status: unknown.  Photo credit: Lynn Abercrombie/NationalGeographicCreative

4th left: Ivory(?) fragmentary relief of goddess flanked by bird (eagle) perched on pillar.  Temple I.  Photo credit: CAIS-soas

5th left: Mosul marble model shrine from Temple I.  H. 20.3 cm. Baghdad Museum # 57794. Status: unknown.  Photo credit: Lynn Abercrombie/NationalGeographicCreative

6th left: Limestone statue of anonymous seated goddess from Temple VI.  Status: Replica in Mosul Museum destroyed by ISIS (Gates of Nineveh). Photo credit: ErickBonnierPictures

7th left: Limestone statue of anonymous seated goddess from temple VII.  Status: Head broken off and stolen from Baghdad Museum; still missing.  Photo credit: CAIS/soas

Bottom left: Local yellow limestone female figurine.  Photo credit: via Suppressed History Archives

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