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Ancient Near East Archives - Page 2 of 4 - varnamvarnam | Page 2
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Tag Archives | Ancient Near East

The Pharaoh's Ship

On Dec 29, 2009, archaeologists found the eighth in a series of lost chambers at Wadi Gawasis in Egypt. Previously seven chambers had revealed pieces of an Egyptian sea faring vessel.

Inside they found a network of larger rooms filled with dozens of nautical artifacts: limestone anchors, 80 coils of knotted rope, pottery fragments, ship timbers, and two curved cedar planks that likely are steering oars from a 70-foot-long ship. According to hieroglyphic inscriptions, the ship was dispatched to the southern Red Sea port of Punt by Queen Hatshepsut during the 15th century B.C. [Archaeologist Kathryn Bards Amazing Egyptian Digs]

This is not the oldest ship remains in Egypt; that credit goes to Khufu’s ship (2500 B.C.E), but then Khufu’s ship probably never sailed.

The ship that was found at Wadi Gawasis was sent to Punt by the female Pharoah Hatshepsut (1508 B.C.E – 1458 B.C.E). But even now no one knows where Punt it. We know that it was south of Egypt, was accessible through the Red Sea and from there Egyptians obtained an alloy of gold and silver, wood, slaves and animals like giraffe and rhino. 

The most important export of Punt was a tree resin  used to make incense. Then incense, during those times, could be obtained from Arabia, Sindh, Baluchistan, Gujarat, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. In fact among all these places, the Arabian one was considered the best. But looking at various other factors, Punt is believed to be in the Saudi/Yemen border or Eastern Sudan/Eritrea area.

The importance of incense during that period can be seen in the story of Queen Sheba who visited King Solomon. She came either from Ethopia or Yemen and bought bales of incense as gift. This is the same queen who had a Duryodhana effect and converted and whose son stole the Ark of the Covenant

Egyptians were known for their land trade, but when the King of Kush became powerful and hostile, Queen Hatshepsut had no option other than navigating the choppy waters of the Red Sea. The design of her ship can be seen in the frescoes of her tomb and based on that archaeologists and ship builders made an exact replica which was the subject of the new PBS documentary Building the Pharoah’s ship. This ship,  made of wood, tied with rope and sealed with beeswax, performed well. It was able to survive a small storm as well.

But then sailing across the open ocean was quite common by that period. A millennia before Hatshepsut, Sargon of Akkad boasted about the ships of Magan, Dilmun and Meluhha lying in his harbor. To prove that ancient ships could do such long distance travel Thor Heyerdahl made a 60 foot reed ship called the Tigris and sailed from the Tigris delta to the Indus delta and returned back to Djibouti. It was in such ships that Queen Puabi got her carnelian beads, Gudea got his wood and the Meluhhans arived to settle in Guabba.

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The Christ in Christmas

During the holiday season, should you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”? It seems some retailers have switched to the politically correct Happy Holidays, resulting in badly written online petitions to the US Congress to put Christ back in Christmas.

But Christ was never there in Christmas to begin with. There is no evidence in the Bible. There is no extra-biblical evidence for a Dec 25th birthday. In 200 C.E. there was confusion regarding Yeshua’s birthday: it could have been 28th August, May 20th, or April 15th.  The popular theory is that Christians appropriated a pagan festival — the mid-winter Saturnalia festival of the Romans.

A new theory suggests that the date of Dec 25 came, not just from pagan traditions, but also from the Jewish belief that creation and redemption happen at the same time.

The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born…and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come. (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)14 Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaismfrom Jesus death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the yearthan from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of Gods redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own too.[How December 25 Became Christmas]

With that note, this blog is taking rest of the year off. Regular programming will resume in January. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

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The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia – Part 1

(Mesopotamia in 2300 B.C.E)

After World War 1, the British Museum and the Penn Museum decided to excavate in Iraq. Since Iraq was under the British mandate, the sites were easily accessible; the only issue was to find the best place to dig. The approval had to come from Britain’s colonial office headed by one Winston Churchill and  Assistant Secretary and Advisor on Arab Affairs, T.E.Lawrence. For the excavation, they picked  Charles Leonard Woolley as the director; Lawrence had worked with Woolley during an excavation in Carchemish, Syria before he ran through Arabia like an Energizer bunny who had drowned a few Red Bulls. One of Woolley’s assistants during the third season of excavations was Max Mallowan, who met his future wife in Mesopotamia –  Agatha Christie[1].

The expedition started work in 1922 and one of their major discoveries was the Royal Cemetery of Ur which belonged to the First Dynasty. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated more than a thousand graves dating between 2600 – 2400 B.C.E out of which seventeen were royal tombs and in one he  found a forty year old, five foot tall woman who was given an elaborate burial. We know this woman as Queen Puabi from one of the three cylinder seals found on her body. She was accompanied in her death by handmaidens and warriors, who were put to death, not by poisoning, but by driving a pike into their heads.

An interesting item from Queen Puabi’s tomb was a cloak of beads, made from carnelian beads (pic), which comes from the Indus region[2]. Thus a queen who lived in Southern Iraq, 4500 years back, was able to obtain beads from the Indus Valley region through the trading hubs of the ancient world.

But there are questions:

  • Who bought these beads to Ur?
  • What do we know about these traders? Were they Harappans or middle men from Bahrain/Qatar/Iran?
  • Can these traders help us in deciphering the Indus script?

Off to Mesopotamia

To put the Indus influence in Mesopotamia in context, we first need to understand the difference between Sumer, Akkad, Ur, Puabi, Sargon, Gudea, and Guabba. A good starting point is 2900 B.C.E when there were many city-states ruled by individual kings who were wealthy enough to import luxury goods and powerful  enough to give offers to their employees which they could not refuse (remember the pike).

Then at some point, the region became divided into Sumer and Akkad, which were not political entities, but collections of city-states speaking two different languages. Out of these two, Sumerian is unrelated to any other language while Akkadian is the ancestor of languages like Assyrian and is related to Hebrew and Arabic. The Akkadians and Sumerians remained in close contact, borrowing words from each other. The Akkadians also adopted the Sumerian script: Sometimes with short inscriptions it is hard to tell if the language is Akkadian or Sumerian. In 2270 B.C.E Sargon combined the region to create the Akkadian Empire[9].

Sargon’s birth story is an interesting one, especially to Indians. His mother, a priestess, conceived him in secret with an unknown father. She then set him adrift in a basket sealed with bitumen in the Euphrates. The river then took him to Akki the gardener who bought him up as his own son. Sounds familiar?

(Copper head from Sargonic Period)

We don’t know how Sargon looked like, but we have a life size copper head of what is most likely his grand son, created using the Lost-Wax method. But it is in Sargon’s time that we hear about Meluhhans, identified as people from the Indus region, for the first time. He boasted about ships from Dilmun, Magan and Meluhha docking in the quay of Akkad[4]. There is also a tablet dating to 2200 B.C.E which mentions an Akkadian who was the holder of Meluhhan ships: large boats that were transporting precious metals and gem stones[10].

There is also a text dating to this period which mentions that Lu-Sunzida, a man of Meluhha, paid 10 shekels of silver to Urur, son of Amar-luku as a payment for a broken tooth. This law seems to be an earlier version of the code of Hammurabi (1792 – 1750 B.C.E), which states that “if one knocks out the tooth of a freeman, he shall pay one-third mana of silver[6].”

When the name Lu-Sunzida is translated into Sumerian it means ‘man of just buffalo-cow’ which is meaningless; the Sumerians don’t have any cultural context for using the buffalo. But the people of India definitely had: the water buffalo is an important concept in Rg Veda (1.164: 41-42)

41 Forming the water-floods, the buffalo hath lowed, one-footed or two-footed or four-footed, she, Who hath become eight-footed or hath got nine feet, the thousand-syllabled in the sublimest heaven. 42 From her descend in streams the seas of water; thereby the world’s four regions have their being, Thence flows the imperishable flood and thence the universe hath life.[HYMN CLXIV. Vi]

This link between Lu-Sunzida and the earliest layers of Rg Veda was noted by Asko Parpola, who suggested that the name could have been a direct translation from Indus to Sumerian[10]. Does this mean that the Vedic people were contemporaries of the Akkadians violating the lakshmana rekha of 1500 B.C.E?

Not so fast. Listen to the explanation for this which is similar to the one which works around the problem of the discovery of real horse bones in Surkotada. According to this explanation, two Indo-Aryan groups — the Dasas and Panis — arrived around 2100 B.C.E from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them. If the Indo-Aryans arrived earlier does this mean that the date of Rg Veda can be pushed to an earlier date than 1200 B.C.E? The theory says, the folks who came in 2100 B.C.E were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later[7][8]. So according to Parpola, the name Lu-Sunzida  could refer to the culture of those early arrivals — the Dasas, Vratyas, Mlecchas — who occupied the Indus region before the composers of Vedas. Thus Meluhha could be an adaptation of the Sanskrit word Mleccha[10].

Following the decline of the Akkadian dynasty founded by Sargon, city states like Lagash in the south gained independence and in 2144 B.C.E, Gudea became the town-king or governor. Direct sea trade, which had been active during Sargon’s time, 150 years back, between Meluhha and Mesopotamia was happening at this time too: Meluhhans came from their country to supply wood and raw materials for the construction of the main temple of Gudea’s capital as well as red stones and luxury goods.

Following the Akkadian period (2300 – 2150 B.C.E), there was a Sumerian renaissance resulting in the Third Dynasty of Ur, usually mentioned as Ur III Empire.  It was during the Ur III period that one of the most famous landmarks in Iraq — the Ziggurat of Ur — was built. The Sumerian King Ur-Nammu who built the ziggurat, which stood in the temple complex of the moon god Nanna, appointed his daughter as the high priestess. This was a practice started by Sargon and it continued till the 6th century B.C.E.

Various city states like Gudea’s Lagash ended with the emergence of Ur III state, but these political changes did not affect trade, which continued as usual with one difference.The direct trade by Meluhhans on Meluhhan ships reduced — there is a decline in Indus artifacts in Mesopotamia —-  instead goods were bought by the middlemen in Dilmun. One reason is that by the time of Ur III the de-urbanization of Harappa was happening. While trade from Harappa declined, trade from ports in Gujarat boomed via the middlemen bringing in various kinds of Meluhhan wood, some of which were used to make special thrones with ivory inlays.

In Part 2, we will look at what these Meluhhans did following the decline of direct trade.

Notes:

  1. This post is based mostly on two papers, [10] Simo Parpola, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig, “The Meluḫḫa Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harappan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia?,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20, no. 2 (May 1977): 129-165 and [11] P.S Vermaak, “Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia,” Journal for Semitics 17, no. 2 (2008): 553 – 570.
  2. References will be published at the end of Part 2
  3. Images from Wikipedia
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Iraq Museum Reopens

Stuff Happens“, that was Donald Rumsfeld’s response when asked about the looting that happened in Baghdad following the US invasion of Iraq. One of the places that got looted was the Iraq Museum which carries artifacts from as far back as 9000 B.C.E. There was the usual mango man (aam aadmi) style looting where people ran into the museum and grabbed random millenia old artifacts, but there was also professional work where they broke through concrete walls.

Initially it was thought that 170,000 pieces had disappeared; soon the number was reduced to 15,000. Eventually it turned out that only 33 pieces were missing. An important object that disappeared was the Warka Vase, which is dated to 3200 – 3000 B.C.E. Then one day a red Toyota stopped by:

“The red Toyota spluttered to a halt in front of the Iraq Museum and three men in their early twenties jumped out. As they struggled to lift a large object wrapped in a blanket out of the boot, the American guards on the gate raised their weapons. For a moment, a priceless 5,000-year-old vase thought to have been lost in looting after the fall of Baghdad seemed about to meet its end. But one of the men peeled back the blanket to reveal carved alabaster pieces that were clearly something extraordinary. Three feet high and weighing 600lb intact, this was the Sacred Vase of Warka, regarded by experts as one of the most precious of all the treasures taken during looting that shocked the world in the chaos following the fall of Baghdad. [The Iraq War & Archaeology]

Finally after 6 years the museum opened, in February. Well, sort of. You can visit if your name is Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. It will take much longer before an Iraqi mango man can stand before the exhibits, look at the cuneiform inscriptions of ancient Sumer, and wonder about the Meluhhans who could read that tablet. Till then even we Meluhhans have to visit it virtually.

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Pavlopetri, Dwaraka etc.

That is the video of a 5000 year old submerged town —- almost a complete town with separate buildings, courtyards, streets and graves — in Greece. Pavlopetri was a harbor town which dates to between the Minoan civilization and the Mycenaean Greek culture, which coincides with the de-urbanization of Harappa.

“This site is unique in that we have almost the complete town plan, the main streets and domestic buildings, courtyards, rock-cut tombs and what appear to be religious buildings, clearly visible on the seabed. Equally as a harbour settlement, the study of the archaeological material we have recovered will be extremely important in terms of revealing how maritime trade was conducted and managed in the Bronze Age.” [World’s Oldest Submerged Town Dates Back 5,000 Years]

Recently The Archaeology Magazine had a feature on 12 great underwater discoveries — of submerged sites, Bronze Age ship wrecks and European ships —- and they left out underwater archaeology in India.

In 2002, in Mahabalipuram, “underwater investigations showed the presence of the remains of walls as well as large stone blocks, which seemed to correspond to the time period of the surviving shore temple. Excavations carried out by ASI in 2005 also revealed the remains of two structural temples, found near the shore temple.” Also after 2004, the “naval diving team, assisting the Archaeological Society of India, also discovered another structure perhaps a temple 100 metres north-east.”

Similarly the ASI conducted excavations near the Dwarkadheesh temple and Gomti Ghat in Dwaraka.They found “a structure of stone blocks with post holes to fit wood”, and “coins, pottery, pieces of bangles and toys”

Previous under water excavations revealed about 120 anchors. These anchors often had three holes of which the upper one was used for tying a rope and the other two holes for holding wooden flukes. The Underwater Archaeology Wing recently found what they call fragments of ancient structures. It is not known of it is part of a wall or temple and so it is classified as part of some structure. One of the structures consists of stone blocks with holes to fit wood and the age of that is unknown.[Dwaraka Update (2)]

Also, a circular wooden structure made of stone and wood was found. Murli Manohar Joshi claimed that finds in Dwaraka were 9500 years old, but science disagreed: some of the finds were dated to 2280 B.C.E.

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