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 has 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 Hatrean 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 singer and wailing woman 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' Hatrean 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.

* 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: The Melammu Project.

**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

15 March 2015


(For Part I, click here)

The Image of King Uthal, the merciful, noble-minded servant of God, blessed by God

King Uthal
Thus reads an Aramaic inscription on the base of the statue of a king of Hatra (left).  Alas, mercy and noble-mindedness are in very short supply in today's Iraq.  King Uthal's monument was among those smashed in the Mosul Museum last week by the thugs of ISIL/Daesh.  All that really matters to those savages is the kick that comes from unlimited violence and the thrill of destruction.  

No atrocity too far in the name of God.

We know almost nothing about King Uthal other than that he was an early Arab king who ruled Hatra.  We don't  even know the dates of his reign.  Sooner or later, of course, with proper study of this and other royal statues, archaeologists would have been able to place him in the right time frame or at least the correct chronological order.  There are all sorts of clues in the statue itself -- the cut and rich embroidery of his clothes, its belt and buckle, the trim of his beard, the conical pearl-encrusted(?) headdress, the shape of his long sword and its pommel, and last but certainly not least, the form and formula of the Aramaic inscription written in the very particular Hatrene script.  Alas, this will never happen now.  His statue is lying on the ground, broken into pieces, as you can see in the video image below (his is on the right).*

Bye-bye King Uthal, whoever you may have been. 

Islamacist Porn

A few words, if I may, about sharing Islamacist propaganda videos.  The jihadists are playing with us when they produce these  films.  The images are meant to shock and enrage while making us feel completely powerless.  These pornographic videos are NOT documentations of acts of violence, they are THE violence.**
After the Mosul incident, it has become clear that ISIS operates like a reality show. The violence is choreographed and planned precisely for the video footage to be produced - a visual spectacle of violence to be shared by us in social media. By sharing these videos, we become ISIS's media outlets who disseminate and propagate their ideology.  We are both the audience and the media for these visual spectacles of destruction....***
Simply put, we are doing exactly what they want us to do by spreading their vile videos.  Thus, please stop sharing; instead, darken your screens for them.  Having said this, why in the name of heaven (you may ask) am I violating my own injunction by reproducing a scene from their rampage through the Mosul Museum?  Because it shows one of those perverts with a hand on his crotch, which really says it all.

And now to work.

Besides the remarkable architecture of Hatra -- which we wrote about in Part I of this post -- the finds from the city include about 300 statues and reliefs, all in a very characteristic local style.  With few exceptions, the statues are somewhat larger than life-size (ca. 1.90m / 6'3") and all were carved to be seen from the front since backs and sides were left only roughly worked.  About half of the sculptures represent gods and goddesses and thus have an overtly religious character.

Of course, the division between religious and secular is largely artificial, reflecting more the way we think than how the ancients did.  The king of Hatra will have held supreme religious authority in addition to his grip over all forms of social and political power.

King Sanatruq II (r ca 205-240/1)
For example, statues of a number of kings show them carrying small figures of deities (left).  Whether this pictures them in the act of dedicating a graven image, or indicates a king's particular closeness to the god-in-hand is not clear.  But it certainly stresses the king's active role in religion.  Some kings are known to have also served as the chief priest of Shamash, the great god of the city. Even without the proof of inscriptions, it's very likely that all kings held this office.

Given Hatra's architecture, one can hardly doubt its overwhelming importance as a religious centre: the huge walled Sacred Enclosure in the heart of the city takes up about one-fifth of the total area within the circle of its defensive walls (see Part I).  Inside this sacred area were the main temples -- a complex of enormous halls covered by barrel vaults (called the Great Iwans).  These were the homes of Hatra's most important deities: Maran ('Our Lord' = Shamash, the Sun-god), Marten ('Our Lady' = Allat) and Bar-Maran ('the Son of Our Lord' = Nergal?).  Another temple in the forecourt of the sacred area was dedicated to the goddess Allat (its entrance -- with the camel mother nursing her calf, and two royal figures on guard -- is pictured above).  Besides the great temples in the centre of the city, many gods and goddesses also received cult in 14 small shrines belonging to different tribal groups scattered about the domestic quarters of the city.  Eight of these shrines were dedicated to a god who looked like Greek Herakles (one of his statues in Part I, lowest left) but worshipped as the ancestral deity of the family or tribe and who was assimilated to Nergal, the Babylonian god of the Netherworld.  When he wasn't looking vaguely Greek, this is what Nergal looked like:

Lady Allat is seated on her throne, looking on with approval. The Hatran Netherworld, though, doesn't look like a place you'd want to visit.

Kings and Queens

About 120 statues of Hatrene kings, noblemen and noblewomen also survive(d) -- and these are the sculptures I'd like to focus on today if only because we can more readily engage with humans than with Nergal and his Cerberus-dogs of death.

What can these upper-crust statues tell us about the social and religious life of the city?

High-ranking military officer
It is striking that there isn't a huge variety in the statues.  Despite the obvious differences of details and gender, the sculptors did not greatly vary pose, costumes, or attributes of the individuals they portrayed. They paid little attention to individual facial features.  These are not portraits. We can't claim to know what any of the even highest-ranked royals really looked like.

Thanks to the inscriptions, however (on 42 statues and 22 bases now missing their statues), we do have some names and dates of local rulers, names of certain officials, and the names of deities.  The inscriptions, too, are quite standardized: about a third simply say "Image of ..." followed by a personal name, and another third also tell us who was responsible for erecting the statue --  family members, or friends, or devoted subjects of a royal figure. A few texts, like that on King Uthal's statue, add some pious thoughts.

Kings and Princes

King Sanatruq I (r ca 128-140)
Twenty-seven life-size statues can be certainly identified as those of kings.  Most come from within the central Sacred Area but some few were found at the city's gates, too. All kings are dressed in sumptuously embroidered long-sleeved tunics with ornate Parthian trousers and elaborately worked belts. Some kings (and only kings) wear diadems or high tiaras. When not carrying mini-statues of gods -- like Sanatruq II (above left) or eagles, the iconic bird of Shamash (below left), their majesties stand with the right hand raised, palm facing outward in a gesture of benediction or prayerful worship. Their left hands either hold a palm branch or rest on a long sword.  In the ancient Near East, worshippers attending sacrifices very often carried palm branches.  In fact, they still do in many Christian churches on Palm Sunday....


Princes (at least five statues) are dressed very like their fathers, in richly embroidered garments, but appear as beardless youths and have short curly hair.  The sons of King Sanatruq I (below) are shown with daggers hanging from their belts.  The better-preserved figure, of Crown Prince Abdsamiya, has his right hand raised and holds a palm branch in his left.  He is wearing an astonishingly rich tunic embroidered with the figure of a goddess holding a staff or standard on his upper body and a rather Greek-looking god below the hips -- perhaps, in a visual pun, it is Bar-Maran, "the Son of Our Lord", just as Abdsamiya is the son of the lord-king.

Princes Nayhara and Abdsamiya

His brother Nayhara's tunic is simpler (though still gorgeous) but note, too, subtle status differences in the accessories worn by the brothers: the crown prince wears a heavier, more ornate necklace and a bigger belt. I imagine that, every time Abdsamiya walked into a room, his younger brother looked pale by comparison.  

So, we are not surprised to learn that Abdsamiya ascended to the throne after his father's death.  Ruling from ca 180-205, he was the king who twice beat off assaults on the city by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (in 193 and 197 CE), as recounted in Part I of this post.  In turn, his son Sanatruq II -- seen above, carrying the statuette of a god -- became king. He had the misfortune to fight against Ardashir, first king of the new Sasanian dynasty, who twice attacked Hatra -- in ca 230 and again ten years later.  The first time, Sanatruq II held the city safe.  The second time, it fell.  As a temple inscription reads: The Fortune of the king [is] with the gods.  Alas, his god could not help him.  He was the last king of Hatra.

King holding eagle adorned with jewellery
That was his fate in life.

His fate in the Mosul Museum was as dire.  Sanatruq's was one of the four king's statues destroyed by ISIL/Daesh in their ignorant and barbaric rampage.  Most of the 27 statues of Hatrene kings are for the moment safe in the Baghdad Museum but the losses in Mosul mean that 15% of the kings of Hatra -- along with the monuments of many of their subjects --  are gone.  Alas! 

And what about their Queens and Princesses?

That will be told in the next post.  This has become too long.

 (Part III: Goddesses and Putative Priestesses, click here)

* For the latest reports on damage to the statues in the Mosul Museum, follow Christopher Jones on his Gates of Nineveh blog (see Sources).

**According to Mosul Eye, the footage in the video published by ISIS last week was shot in July-August 2014 and NOT February 2015.  We must ask ourselves why ISIS chose this specific time to post the video.

*** Quoting Ömür Harmanşah, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago (Facebook, 27 February 2015).

Sources: Christopher Jones, Gates of Nineveh blog, Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 2: the Sculptures from Hatra ; Lucinda Dirven, “Aspects of Hatrene Religion: A Note on the Statues of Kings and Nobles from Hatra,” in The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Leiden, 2008), 209-246; 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; ead. "Religious Frontiers in the Syrian-Mesopotamian Desert" in Frontiers in the Roman World (Leiden, 2011) 157-173 .


Top: Life-size statue of King Uthal, 2nd century CE.  Photo credit: © ARTEHISTORIA

Upper centre: Portal of temple of Allat, in Sacred Enclosure.  Photo credit:

Middle centre:  Relief of the Sun-god (Bar-Maran?).  Photo credit: Amir Kooshanzaman blog.

Top left: Life-size statue of King Sanatruq II. Early 3rd century CE. Photo credit: Iraqi Cultural Center, Washington DC.

Centre: Relief slab picturing the god Nergal with 'Cerberus' and enthroned Allat: Istanbul Archaeological Museum). Städte in der Wüste. Petra, Palmyra und Hatra (Stuttgart 1996) pl. 188. Photo via L. Dirven, "My Lord With His Dogs: Continuity and Change in the Cult of Nergal in Parthian Mesopotamia" (see Sources) Colour Pl. 1.

Second left: Life-size statue of a military officer , (IM 58084), Iraq Museum. Photo credit:ICONMuseum © Photo Scala, Florence.

Third left: Life-size statue of King Sanatruq I. 2nd century CE. Photo credit: © Scala Archives, Florence/ Art Resourse, NY.  Via CUNY Academic Commons.

Below centre: Life-size statues of the sons of King Sanatruq I. 2nd century CE.  Photo credit: Faces of Ancient Middle East (Part 17):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CU6WJpRcF4

Below left: Detail of life-size statue of an unidentified king carrying an eagle (insignia of Shamash).  Photo credit:  Col. Mary Prophit, United States Army, 2010.  Via Gates of Nineveh blog.

08 March 2015


The City of the Sun God

I began writing this post after the Islamicists' rampage through the Mosul Museum, but now news reports are coming in that ISIL bulldozers are also on their way to destroy the ancient city of Hatra some 80 km away.* This has not yet been confirmed, but it leaves me little time to explain just what we shall be losing if it turns out to be true. 

The spectacular ruins of Hatra are located in Jazirah (the area between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris) in Iraq, to the southwest of Mosul.  To get an idea of the site, have a look at this great video produced by UNESCO.  Don't bother with the wishfully anachronistic text; just look.

(Because UNESCO does not allow bloggers to embed videos, I can only link to it, so click on video and then on the direct Utube link).  After which, come back and read the rest....

The fortress city of Hatra arose in the Jazirah desert where it guarded the two main caravan routes connecting Mesopotamia with Syria and Anatolia.  The city was an independent small kingdom (including not only the town but a wide territory around it) on the fringe of the Parthian Empire.  By the first century BCE it had grown into a strongly fortified city, one of several such cities which sprung up in the space between Parthia and the Roman Empire. 
Hatra, Palmyra, Petra and Dura-Europos all made their fortune as trading stops between east and west. These cities were client states of either Rome or Parthia, with Hatra choosing Parthia. The city was ruled by lords, later called kings, who were vassals of the Parthian King of Kings.  Inscriptions refer to Hatrene rulers as 'King of Arab' and the territory is named as 'Arab', with the nomadic population that roamed the steppe known as 'Arabs'. 

Hatra (in Aramaic htr` ) is undoubtedly our best preserved example of a Parthian city.  The city must have been of great strategic importance at the time.  Roman historians tell us that the emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus personally attempted its conquest. 

Trajan, who had planned to extend the Roman frontier up to the river Tigris, marched southwards along the river Euphrates, capturing great parts of Babylonia up to the Persian Gulf and even the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad). On his retreat from there in 117 CE he attacked Hatra.  Dio Cassius (68.31.1) says that the siege failed chiefly because of "the lack of water, timber, and green fodder".  The emperor Septimius Severus met the same fate eighty years later, when the city was under the rule of  the Hatrene king Barsêmías (thus Herodian 3.1.30; probably king 'Abdsêmyâ of the inscriptions).  He laid siege to Hatra twice  (in 193 and 197) without achieving anything.  The position of the city, its strong walls, and the strength of its warriors eventually forced the emperor to withdraw.  It was in the period between those failed sieges at the beginning and the end of the 2nd century that Hatra reached the peak of its prosperity and became one of the most beautiful cities in the East.

Defeat finally came at the hands of Ardashir, who had overthrown the Parthians and founded the new Sasanian-Persian empire.  Even he failed at his first attempt (230 CE) and only cracked it ten years later (240 CE).  The survivors were deported, the city abandoned and never again inhabited.  In effect, we have an entire city more or less as it was when people left it in the middle of the third century.  

Hatra is a unique example of a fortified Parthian city. 

The fortification system is immense. The city was guarded by two concentric and nearly circular city walls almost two km in diameter and 6.4 km (4  miles) in circumference. The outer wall (3m thick and 10m high) was made of clay bricks with 4 gates, 11 bastions, 28 great towers and more than 160 smaller towers. Once any enemy had crossed this first wall, he'd still be faced with a moat and the second wall. In fact, the heavily fortified gates of the second wall could only be reached by ascending up ramps which run parallel to the wall.

In the very center of the city is a huge rectangular sacred area of about 440 by 320 m [1500 x 1000'], surrounded by a massive wall and divided by another wall into an enormous forecourt and a smaller court where the main temples are situated.  Hatra was clearly not only a political and economic powerhouse but also a great religious centre for the desert people living in and around the city. 

All the buildings inside the sacred area are temples characterized by iwans (great halls open to the front and roofed with high barrel vaults).  The striking architectural feature of the iwans, namely the barrel vault, is an innovation which came in quite suddenly in the Parthian period, suggesting a kind of a technical revolution at that time. The buildings display a unique mixture of Assyrian, Hellenistic,  Parthian, and Roman styles.

The main shrine in that central sacred area is the so-called Great Temple (or Great Iwan), an enormous structure with that once rose to 30 metres. This was the home of Hatra's most important gods, Maren ("Our Lord") and Bar-Maren ("the Son of Our Lord").   The square temple of the sun-god Shamash (probably = Maren) was attached to the Great Iwan. Shamash was undoubtedly the chief god of the pantheon as can be read from the legend on Hatrene coins, "Enclosure of Shamash", which suggests that the whole city was dedicated to the Sun-god.  Those iwans and the Shamash Temple were built at the beginning of the 2nd century.

Within the sacred area are three more temples dedicated to other gods and one to Allat, the goddess of the city.  At least fourteen smaller temples honouring a host of different deities are scattered elsewhere throughout the domestic quarters of the city.  Foremost among these gods was a Heracles-figure, who was worshipped in Hatra under the name of Nergal (below left).

Which brings us back to ISIL's barbaric smashing of statues within the Mosul Museum. 

As Christopher Jones tells us on his blog Gates of Nineveh

The damage by ISIS to the artistic legacy of Hatra has been catastrophic.

This tragedy is compounded by the fact that Hatrene sculpture has been chronically understudied. Almost all of it was excavated in the 20th century and the finds never left Iraq.... Very few scholars outside of Iraq have had the opportunity to study the statues.

And now they are gone.

With heavy heart, we follow Christopher and turn to the statues and their fate in Part II of this post.

(For Part II, click here)

* Up to date reports on the Mosul Museum from the blog, Gates of Nineveh -  Part I:  Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 1: The Assyrian Artifacts, and Part II: Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part II: The Sculptures from Hatra.  And on the damage to the city of Nimrud: ISIL 'bulldozes' ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud  (predicting that Hatra would be next).
Sources: 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;    Rüdiger Schmitt on the 'Iranian World: Parthian Hatra' via CAIS/SOAS; Thomas Twohey, on 'Ancient Hatra' via Roman Empire net;

Video Link: HATRA: UNESCO/NHK World Heritage Site Documentary
The partnership between UNESCO and NHK Japanese broadcasting corporation builds on state-of-the-art digital visual and sound processing technologies for the production of short digital TV documentaries on Heritage using Hi-Vision technology as well as quality 3-D moving images and reconstruction images related to the World Heritage Sites. 


Top right: Map of Region.  

Top left: The ruins in 1911 (excavations led by Walter Andrae of the German excavation team working in Assur from 1906 to 1911).  Photo via: CAIS-SOAS.

Second left: Schematic plan of Hatra; after J. Khalil Ibrahim, Pre-Islamic Settlement in Jazirah, Baghdad, 1986, 321. 

Top centre: View of the Great Iwan after restoration.  Photo credit: UNESCO/© Photo Scala, Florence

Second centre:  Detail view of the Great Iwan after restoration.  Photo credit: Dieter Radow

Lower left: Busts of gods and goddesses built into the temple walls.  Photo credit: University of Chicago, Photographic Collection

Lowest left: Statue of Heracles-Nergal.  Photo credit: Wikipedia 

18 February 2015


Continuing my review of Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons (Part I, II

According to Homer [Il. 6, 168-195], when the Greek hero Bellerophon travelled to Lycia in southwestern Anatolia, the king of the country ordered him to accomplish three tasks:

[He] first commanded Bellerophon to kill the savage monster, the Chimera, who was not a human being but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire; but Bellerophon slew her, for he was guided by signs from heaven. He next fought the far-famed Solymi [a savage tribe], and this, he said, was the hardest of all his battles. Thirdly, he killed the Amazons, women who were the peers of men .... 

So Homer already knew of warrior women who were the 'peers of men' (though he located them in Anatolia and not to the north of Thrace and across the steppe, as many later writers did).  In fact, the Bellerophon story -- told as a tale-within-a-tale -- could be an 'echo' from a pre-Homeric epic.  If so, the Amazon myth, too, might date back to an even earlier tradition.  Whatever its ancestry, Homer clearly considered Bellerophon's defeat of the Amazons as equal to his other epic deeds.  Our hero, thus, is monster-slayer, barbarian-slayer, and Amazon-slayer.  

That rings a bell....

Fast forward to Athens, 447-432 BCE.

When the Athenians rebuilt the Parthenon on the Acropolis -- which had been burnt down by the Persians 33 years earlier (480 BCE) -- they decorated its sides with carved marble panels (metopes), each showing a mythological victory over a major enemy. The East side showed the Olympian gods defeating the evil giants and beginning their reign over the world.  On the South (left), Theseus, legendary king of Athens, battled the monstrous centaurs. The North had scenes of the Trojan War, the Greeks’ epic triumph over the Trojans, their ultimate enemies. And the West metope?  The West pictured the ancient Athenians fighting the Amazons. 

They never forgot their war against women.  Almost 100 years later, the orator Lysias began his praise of Athens by citing as first of their ancestors' great deeds their hard-fought victory over the Amazons.  Naming the Amazons as 'daughters of Ares [Mars]', Lysias declared that in ancient times

... they alone of the people round about were armed with iron, and they were first of all to mount horses.... They were accounted as men for their high courage, rather than as women for their sex; so much more did they seem to excel men in their spirit than to be at a disadvantage in their form....

[After enslaving all the tribes in their own country, seeking greater glory, they rode on to conquer Athens].  

They would not return home ... for they perished on the spot, and were punished for their folly, thus making our city's memory imperishable for its valor; while owing to their disaster in this region they rendered their own country nameless.*  

Thus, the great Amazon empire vanished. 

Did the Athenians really believe this guff?  Evidently.  For them, the Amazon invasion of Attica in the distant past was an historical fact. 

Certainly, it was a true enough part of their past for them to commemorate the defeat of the Amazons not only on the Parthenon metopes but, again, on the great shield (above; once an estimated 4 m [12'] high) held by Athena on the massive gold- and-ivory statue of the goddess dedicated in her temple in 438 BCE. 

But, surely, we are not going to believe such an outlandish tale.  Is it really any more than a 'Just So' story? ("Why, Daddy, are women subordinate to men?" "Because our ancestors beat the uppity Amazons, son.") And, just so, the Greek social order re-established its authority.  Thereafter, the tale is endlessly embellished, as only the Greeks could, through their love of story-telling

Or might there possibly be some kernels of truth in it, after all?

Adrienne Mayor, in her new book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, argues that there is real-world history behind the obvious folklore.
Amazons were modeled on stories of self-confident women of [Scythian] steppe cultures who fought for glory and survival and enjoyed male companionship, on terms that seemed extraordinary to the ancient Greeks. 

The popularity of Amazon stories and images suggests that Greek women and men enjoyed imagining heroes and heroines interacting as equals and seeking adventure and glory in hunting and battle.
Among the nomads of the steppes, girls and boys would wear the same practical clothing and learn horseback riding and archery, so that, later, a woman could ride her horse to hunt or care for the herds, or skirmish with enemies, as necessity demanded, alongside other women, or together with men. Scythian society was certainly not female-dominated, but simply woman had a more equal status -- if only because female participation was essential in that harsh, unforgiving landscape.
Self-sufficient women were valued and could achieve high status and renown.  It is easy to see how these commonsense, routine features of nomad life could lead outsiders like the Greeks -- who kept females dependent on males -- to glamorize steppe women as mythic Amazons.

Horse riders, archers, fighters, Scythian women were sexually free, armed, and dangerous.  As The Amazons amply demonstrates, many Scythian graves contain battle-scarred skeletons of women buried with their weapons, horses, and other prestige items. That strong, ambitious women could lead raiding parties was exaggerated in Greek myths into a kind of war of the sexes, pitting powerful Amazon queens against great Greek heroes (like Theseus, Herakles, and Achilles). 

Mayor's book is popular history at its best.  Much of her archaeological evidence is new -- such as her descriptions of  'Scythian' female graves with horses and weapons.  She chooses wonderful illustrations which makes the book enjoyable and easy to read.  However, I am not the only one to notice that she combines testimony from hundreds of years apart without weighing the problems of transmission ... and covers tribes spread over thousands of miles and separated by many centuries as if they were neighbours and could have been known to the ancient Greeks (and Romans).

True, we have to deal with the evidence as we have it.  That means relying on Greek and Latin texts (many fragmentary; more quite late) because the tribes of the steppes left nothing at all in writing.   Perhaps, too, nomadic life didn't change much, even over long periods of time and great distances.

But the Greek view of nomads -- and thus of the Amazons -- certainly did change.  Very early vase paintings show the warrior women dressed and armed just like the Greeks, wearing short chitons (exposing one breast) with crested helmets, breastplates, and large round shields.  That suggests to me that the original stories did not associate the Amazons with Scythians.  By the end of the sixth century, as Mayor convincing argues, the Greeks were becoming more familiar with the nomad groups around the Black Sea and beyond, whose women and men rode horses and dressed alike.  Accordingly, pictures of Amazons melded into Scythian horsewomen and they were now depicted with leggings or trousers, sometimes tattooed, and armed with a full range of steppe weapons: battle-axe, a quiver full of arrows, a pair of light spears, a crescent shield, and a sword.  

In the Greek myths Amazons are always defeated and either killed or, very rarely, domesticated by marriage.  They always die young and beautiful.  Despite their bravery, erotic appeal and prowess, they are doomed.  But a short splendid life and violent death in battle was also the perfect heroic ideal in myth.  Compare the sad fate of Bellerophon whose story began this post: he was thrown by his flying horse, Pegasus, and ended up a blind, lame hermit. 

Stories about Amazons were amazingly popular in antiquity.  Though more than a thousand Greek vases depicting Amazons still survive, that's only a tiny fraction of the Amazon-related paintings and sculpture that once existed.  Only Herakles was pictured more often.  Women warriors undoubtedly fascinated the Greeks and they do not cease to fascinate us today.  The Amazons has just brought them one step closer to reality.

The Amazons:
Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor

Princeton University Press
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 |
ISBN: 9780691147208
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps. |
eBook | ISBN: 9781400865130 |

*Lysias Funeral Oration 2.4-6 (translation via Perseus)


Top: Amazon warriors hunting on horseback.  5th century mosaic from Nile House, Sepphoris, Israel.  Photo credit: 

Upper left: Centaur and Lapith in combat.  From the Parthenon South metopes.  Photo credit: Wikipedia

Second left: Terracotta volute-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water): Attributed to the Painter of Woolly Satyrs, c. 450 BCE.  Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Rogers Fund, 1907, 07.286.84.  On the neck, battle of centaurs and Lapiths; around the body, Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons).  Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Centre: Copy of the shield of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon.  British Museum GR 1864.2-20.18 (Sculpture 302). Strangford Collection.  Photograph courtesy of the British Museum

Lower left: Amazons. Apulia 4C BC. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.  Photo credit: www.maicar.com

Below left: Wounded Amazon.  Roman marble copy (c. 150 CE) of Greek bronze original (mid-5th centur) Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1932.  Accession No. 32.11.4Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

06 February 2015

AMAZONS! (Correction & Part II)

Continuing my review of Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons (Part I, here)

A major correction: Last week, following breaking-news as reported in The Siberian Times, we began our review of Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across The Ancient World by asking: is this face (above) 'the face of a real, once-alive Amazon'?  It may well be.  But, alas, the face recreated by Swiss taxidermist Marcel Nyffenegger was not, as reported, that of the 25-28 year-old tattooed  'Princess Ukok', discovered buried with six sacrificed horses in the Altai region of Siberia, but rather belongs to a 16 or 17 year-old girl who was buried beside a much older man, more sacrificed horses, and two piles of weapons, in an adjacent tomb.  Neighbours to 'Princess Ukok', but not the princess herself.*

Nonetheless, theirs was also a very rich burial with sacrificed horses, and it has the added attraction of lots of battle weapons.

The 16/17 year-old teenager was described as "unusually tall and strong, well-built".  She  was discovered in a double grave alongside and to the left of a male who was about 45 when he died. Very little of her remains were still intact, unlike Princess Ukok who was preserved in permafrost, but it is thought she also once had tattoos on her body.

Remarkably, the pair were equipped and dressed exactly alike.  Both wore elaborate felt caps with earflaps (it was cold in Siberia), and their collars and hats were lavishly decorated with golden leopards, stags, horses, and wolves.

Both were interred in their leather boots and red woolen trousers. Trousers have always been gendered male in greater 'Scythia'.  Typical nomad attire, trousers were practical for horse-riding over long distances and for engaging in mounted warfare.  After all, if you spend day after day on horseback, trousers and seat coverings are essential.

So, the girl's being dressed in trousers must mean that, during her lifetime, she could move more freely, ride horses, and be as active as a man, whether exercising, hunting or fighting.

That she, in fact, did hunt and fight is strongly suggested by her being buried, just like the man, with a complete set of  weapons to hand  -- battle-axes, bows, quivers, arrows, and shields [of which only the shield-boss survived]. An iron dagger lay by her right thigh in an extremely badly preserved wooden sheath, along with remnants of leather belts.  Beside her left thigh was the wooden base of a quiver, with engraved scenes of leopards attacking wild boars. Next to it were found seven bone arrowheads, staffs, and parts of a composite bow.  If Amazons ever really existed, the bow would have been their weapon of choice: it requires less muscle strength to use than spears and swords.  It does demand concentration, good co-ordination of hand and eye, and a precise sense of distance and timing -- all skills which could be acquired through rigorous daily training in childhood.

Was our 16-year old a young Amazon?

The Greek pseudo-Hippocrates [4, 17] - who lived in the late 5th century BCE - wrote about the Sarmatians, a Scythian tribal group famed for their mastery of mounted warfare:
Their women, so long as they are virgins, ride, shoot, throw the javelin while mounted, and fight with their enemies. They do not lay aside their virginity until they have killed three of their enemies, and they do not marry before they have performed the traditional sacred rites

A woman who takes to herself a husband no longer rides, unless she is compelled to do so by a general expedition'.
This could mean that only very young nomad women were ever mounted fighters, while older women with children would ride to war only in emergencies.

Or, as so often with Greek legends, it could be entirely fanciful and mean nothing at all.**

Every steppe warrior -- male or female -- owned several horses.  And even the humblest nomad rider would be buried with his or her mount (Princess Ukok was hardly humble: she had six horses with her in her tomb). 

The young girl and older male in this double tomb also took an exceptional number of horses with them into the next world: nine horses were sacrificed and buried in their grave mound. All the horses were richly adorned with decorative harnesses and other trappings; four of the nine were bridled in death. Seven complete sets of harness were found.

Have we found a real, once-alive Amazon at last?

Now that we have attached the reconstructed face to the right burial (or so we hope!), and the teenager is given her rightful due, we can get back to our main subject and to the postponed review of Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons in our next post:

Part III: click here

*I hope they've got it right this time because the picture (above) still shows her with the blue tattoo that was inked on Princess Ukok's left shoulder.  On the other hand, her cheek in profile has what looks like a pimple, perhaps Mr Nyffenegger's little joke to indicate that she is still adolescent.

** Psuedo-Hippocrates is also responsible for spreading the story that the Amazon had but one breast:  They have no right breast; for while they are yet babies their mothers make red-hot a bronze instrument constructed for this very purpose and apply it to the right breast and cauterise it, so that its growth is arrested, and all its strength and bulk are diverted to the right shoulder and right arm.  Utter nonsense. Adrienne Mayor rightly demolishes this long-lived fallacy.


All photographs and drawings from The Siberian Times, 6 February 2015:

Top: Reconstructed face of "16-year old fighter buried with her weapons and horses." Reconstruction: Marcel Nyffenegger.

Above left: Detailed plans of the burial, with the young girl on the left.

Left inset: Reconstructed felt cap worn by the young girl.

Lower left: Some of the weapons buried with the young girl.

Lowest left: Felt saddle decorations on her horses and plan of the horses' burial.

30 January 2015


Is this the face of a real, once-alive Amazon?  

This woman, whose face can be seen by us for the very first time today, was about 25-28 years old when she died.  Her body was discovered inside a Siberian burial mound (kurgan) a little more than 20 years ago.  She had been placed in a hollowed-out log dug deep within the mound, where she froze into a solid block of permafrost ice.  And that's why she -- and the six chestnut-coloured horses buried with her -- were so amazingly well-preserved.

They had all been alive around 500 BCE -- just about the time when Herodotus [9.27] was writing about the Amazons.  He recorded a speech in which Athenians boasted of the glorious deeds done by their ancestors -- even as the citadel of Athens was burning and the Greek army prepared for battle against the Persians at Plataea in 479 BCE:
It is our belief that we are gathered for battle with the barbarian, and not for speeches; but ... we must prove to you how we ... have by virtue of our valor a hereditary right to the place of honor.

[We have] on record our great victory against the Amazons, who once came from the river Thermodon and broke into Attica, and in the hard days of Troy we were second to none.
Thus, among the examples of Athenian bravery taken from the mythical history of the city, the battle against female warriors, the Amazons, is right up there with the epic of the war against Troy.  In fact, Homer knew of Amazons, too.  In the Iliad (6, 168-95; 2, 811-15), they already appear as a mighty band of warrior women who fight against men, and with whom conflict is dangerous even to the bravest of male heroes.   'Fearless in battle', and the 'equals of men', the Amazons were said to live somewhere to the north and east of the Black Sea, across the Caucasus Mountains and eastwards throughout the vast plains and steppes of central and northern Asia.  This was a world inhabited, in fact, by countless nomadic tribes of many different histories and languages but all sharing a horse-centred nomadic warrior lifestyle with similar weapons, artistic motifs, and burial practices.  To the Greeks, those people were known collectively as 'Scythians' -- and ancient Greek historians, including Herodotus, identified Amazons as one of these real tribes of Scythia. 

Lured on by pastures, [they] live in camps and carry all their possesions and wealth with them.  Archery, horseback riding, and hunting are a girl's pursuits.

One of Herodotus' earliest informants (whose work is almost entirely lost to us) was the poet and miracle-worker Aristeas.  Aristeas had travelled to those distant regions some time in the late-7th century BCE and he was the first to link the Amazons to the Scythian nomads who actually inhabited those lands ... and so began the colourful, intricate, tangled threads of fact and fiction about Amazons and Scythian women, "bow-legged from riding since childhood and scarred by battle, buried with their weapons and horses in the vast landscape" of the steppes.

Princess Ukok's shoulder, with tattoo of a fantastic animal, and a drawing of it.
So, who is this woman who now stares at us from the top of this page,* whose burial was adorned by six sacrificed horses with trappings including bridles made of gold?  She is called 'Princess Ukok', named after the high altitude plateau in the Siberian steppes where she was discovered.  A tall woman (about 5'6"; 168 cm), her left shoulder was decorated with a brilliant blue tattoo showing a twisting deer with extravagant antlers and a falcon's beakMore tattoos ran down the remains of her arm, with images of a mountain sheep and a panther or leopard.  

Princess Ukok's burial is one of more than a thousand ancient 'Scythian' tombs excavated across the Eurasian steppes from Thrace to Mongolia.  In recent years, our understanding of these people has radically changed.  New ways of studying skeletal remains have turned their 'male' and 'female' burials quite upside down.  It used to be simple: burials with weapons and tools belonged to men; spindles, jewellery and mirrors meant that the body was female.  But, really, all we were doing was reinforcing our own gender biases.  Now, thanks to osteological science, we know that, in some cemeteries on the steppes, as many as 37% of tombs with weapons, tools, and armour contain female skeletons. 
The armed women were buried exactly as the armed males were, with similarly constructed graves, sacrificed horses, funeral feasts, food offerings, weaponry, and valuable local and imported grave goods.
Not only that, but their bones and skulls sometimes bear battle scars identical to those of male warriors, with injuries inflicted by battle-axes, swords, and daggers -- bringing to mind scenes of violent battle and hand-to-hand combat.   

Such discoveries are the starting point for Adrienne Mayor's wonderful new book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across The Ancient World.    Mayor takes us on an exhilerating gallop through the archaeological evidence for female 'Scythian' burials with weapons and the scars of war, and of the evidence for the more egalitarian way of life for these horse-nomads in antiquity.

Were the Amazons real?

What do we actually know about this world of warrior horse-women across ancient Eurasia?  Was the Greek story of Amazons inspired by reports of -- and perhaps direct contacts with -- real warrior women among the steppe nomads in 'Scythia'?  

The early Greeks certainly believed that Amazons were real, even if the tribe no longer existed in their own day.  The Athenians portrayed Amazons on the Parthenon metopes when, after they won the battle of Plataea, they rebuilt the temple of Athena.  Little did they imagine that this might have been a most distant echo of the lifestyle of Princess Ukok.

Part II of this post will continue with The Amazons.

The Amazons:
Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor

Princeton University Press
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691147208
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps. |
eBook | ISBN: 9781400865130 |

* The reconstruction was made by Swiss taxidermist Marcel Nyffenegger (below), and published in The Siberian Times, 26 January 2015. Next to hear body was a funerary meal of sheep and horse meat and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold, as well as a small container of cannabis, along with a stone plate on which were the burned seeds of coriander.

Face of tattooed mummified princess finally revealed after 2,500 years


The book under review.  See also my review of an earlier book by Adrienne Mayor,  The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy  (Times Higher Education).


Top left: Reconstruction of face of 'Princess Ukok' by Marcel Nyffenegger.  Photo credit: The Siberian Times 26 January 2015

Second left: Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons). Attic red-figure terracotta bowl for mixing wine and water, attributed to the Painter of the Berlin Hydria.  460-450 BCE.  Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1907. Accession Number: 07.286.86

Third left: An Amazon warrior delivering a Parthian shot. An Etruscan figure from the lid of a bronze dinos or cauldron from S. Maria di Capua Vetere, Capua, 6th century BCE.  Photo credits  http://www.agefotostock.com/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/HEZ-2586947

Centre:  Close-up of Princess Ukok's shoulder, with tattoo of a fantastic animal, and a drawing of it.  Photo credit: The Siberian Times, 14 August 2012

Below left: Red and white sardonyx cameo. First century BCE/CE.  Marlborough Gems, Beazley no. 507.  Photo credit: Classical Art Research Centre

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