04 May 2016

Palmyra in Syria – its history and its future

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The magnificent ruins at Palmyra in Syria were severely damaged by IS in October of 2015 as was the museum that housed precious artifacts. The beautiful 1800 year old “Arch of Triumph”was reduced to rubble and the glorious Temple of Baalshamin is now just a pile of stones. These beautiful buildings were the remains of what was a very prosperous trade center during the early part of the first millennium C.E. but the site has a history much longer than that. 

is 2C255FA500000578-3229268-image-a-19_1441888220026 Temple of Baalshamin, before and after

It was once just an oasis in the Syrian Desert 176 miles north-east of Damascus but its water and vegetation drew the caravans that traveled between east and west across the desert. It was called Tadmor (from Hebrew tamar “palm tree”) and is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (II Chron.8:4, I Kings 9:18, and Ezek. 47:19; 48:28) that claims King Solomon built it.  Tadmor is mentioned also in Assyrian literary records as an important trade route between the Euphrates River and the Mediterranean Sea during the time of Hammurabi (ca. 1800 B.C.E.).  The Romans called it Palmyra (city of palms) and Pliny the Elder described it as “a noble city situated in a vast expanse of sand and renowned for its rich soil and pleasant streams” (Natural History 5.88.1). Palmyra’s prosperity grew after Emperor Tiberius (14-37 C.E.) incorporated it into the Roman province of Syria.  Other Roman emperors sponsored the construction of temples and city streets.  The Near Eastern influence is evident in the traditional Greco-Roman architecture because of the multi-cultural community of the trade center.  Inscriptions are in Latin, Greek and Aramaic. The city’s prosperity and importance really blossomed after Trajan, in 106 C.E., re-routed the Silk Road taking its southern branch through Palmyra. In 129 C.E. Hadrian gave Palmyra autonomy and although it was still a part of the Roman Empire, the city became the capital of a Palmyrene Empire that had its own leaders. 


In 270 C.E. Palmyra’s queen, Zenobia, challenged Rome’s authority until Roman Emperor Aurelian forced her to surrender, re-directed the Silk Road to by-pass the city destroying its economy, and ordered Palmyra to be razed to the ground except for the temples (those remained until 2015).

Palmyra was never rich again but the desert preserved the splendid temples.  In the 17th century, British merchants traveled through and published reports and drawings of the still magnificent remains.


Their reports inspired the Royal Society to study the history, architecture, and epigraphic remains of Palmyra and eventually Palmyra became a part of oriental studies at Oxford.  These studies attracted students and travelers from England and beyond.  Interest in the site grew and in 1980 UNESCO designated Palmyra a world heritage site, and in 1999 it was officially protected by the National Antiquities law 222.  But that was not able to keep IS from seizing the site in May of 2015. They began destruction in October because they regarded the temples as pagan and sacrilegious.  They sold some of the artifacts to secret collectors to support the IS campaign.  They executed the 82-year old minister of antiquities and hung his mutilated body outside the ravaged museum

In March of 2016, the Syrian Army took the city back.  The local Syrians vow to rebuild but it will be a long process that must begin with the removal of explosives hidden among the rubble.  The World Heritage Committee will meet in July to discuss emergency safeguarding measures (Bloomberg News, 4/28/16). A search has begun to recover artifacts that were sold. Other help came from the Institute of Digital Archaeology.  They were able to apply digital technology to photos of the “Arch of Triumph” and a scale model has already been built in London’s Trafalgar Square.


Also, although too late to help rebuild Palmyra, archaeologists have now developed an inexpensive 3-D camera that can record ancient sites in case of more destruction.  These cameras are being sent to thousands of sites in danger in the Middle East and elsewhere (Mairi Mackay, CNN, 8/31/150).

For more information see Kristin Romey, National Geographic, 3/28/16); Mike Duncan, Reuters 5/25/15); Palmyra, UNESCO World Heritage Site; and Jeffrey Becker, Art of the Mediterranean, Khan Academy.

31 Mar 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter – The Ancient Roots of the Kurds

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median_empire_map (iranchamber.com)

In Liberated Kobani, Kurds Take Pride Despite the Devastation  (NY Times, 2/1/2015, T. Arango,).

The Kurds have been much in the news lately yet many Americans know very little about this ancient culture.  The Kurds have existed as a society in the Mesopotamian plains and the mountains of the Taurus and Zagros for at least 3000 years. Traditionally they were sheep and goat herders but were known for their military prowess since ancient times and were probably the Kardouchoi that Xenophon speaks of in his Anabasis as those who fought for Persia attacking the “Ten Thousand” Greek mercenaries in 401 B.C.E. Their native tongue is Indo European and it is believed that they are related to the ancient Medes who established an empire in 612 B.C.E. the date that the Kurds claim for their founding. That lasted until Cyrus the Great was able to impose Persian hegemony in 550 B.C.E. Nevertheless, their culture was dominant in Persia until Alexander the Great conquered the Empire in 331 B.C.E.  After that, the Kurds remained as small principalities similar to the other populations of the area such as the Parthians and the Sassanids of Persia, and the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia. It was a Turkish sultan who gave the name Kurdistan (“the land of the Kurds”) to their provinces. In the 7th century C.E., many Kurds adopted Sunni Islam so Arabic is also an official language, yet the Kurds never adopted Arab customs but held fast to their own culture and traditions.

The Kurds rose in political power again as the Ayyubid Dynasty founded by Kurdish soldiers of fortune in the 12th century C.E. They were excellent military engineers and built the citadel at Cairo and the massive defenses at Aleppo.

Citadel_of_Aleppo (wikipedia.org)

They controlled the government of this empire that stretched from the Zagros Mountains through Egypt until the 13th century when Turkish-Mongolian tribes invaded. After that, the Kurds split up into several principalities united by language, culture and traditions and were autonomous but not independent.  In the 15th century, the Kurdish principalities got caught in a power struggle between the Persians and the Ottoman Turks as they each tried to expand their territories.  The Kurds made an alliance with the Ottomans who defeated the Persians and allowed Kurdistan to govern itself for about 300 years (much like the autonomous states of the Holy Roman Empire at about the same time).  In the 19th century, the Kurdish people began asking for unity and independence (just as the French were doing in France and the English and Spanish were doing in the Americas).  But the Ottomans, with the help of some European friends, were able to defeat the Kurdish independence movement because Kurdish aristocracies were reluctant to give up their elite status.  When the Ottomans were defeated in World War 1, the Kurds rushed to the Conference at Versailles to present their claims for the recognition of Kurdistan.  Most were thrilled when the Allied Powers passed the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, recognizing a free Kurdistan, although some Kurds did not think the territory was large enough. 02_kurdistan_sevres_1920 http://edmaps.com/html/kurdistan_in_seven_maps.html

The British and French had been given mandates in the Levant to oversee the development of new states from the defeated Ottoman Empire. But Atatürk won his war of independence for Turkey in 1923 and at the peace conference at Lausanne a new treaty was signed that invalidated the Treaty of Sevres and divided Kurdistan between Turkey, Iran, and the mandates that became Iraq and Syria (similar to the way Poland was divided between Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1772–Poland was re-established after WW I).

Today, about 25-30 million Kurds still live in their ancient homeland, but are kept in a minority status.  _78409411_kurds_map624_kobane http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440

They were allowed some autonomy in Iran, Iraq and Syria but not in Turkey where they are forbidden to wear traditional clothing, denied ethnic identity, restricted in the use of their Kurdish language and are called “Mountain Turks” rather than Kurds.  In response, the Kurds formed an independence party (PKK) and have engaged in armed struggles since 1978 so they are hated by the Turkish government.  In Iraq they make up nearly 20% of the Iraqi population (BBC News, 2/5/16) and are still known for their military excellence but in 1988 Saddam Hussein used poison gas on them in an attempt to extract them from their oil-rich territories. They were given back their autonomous status in Iraq’s new constitution in 2005 and have joined in the struggle against Al Qaeda and IS. In Syria, they are the largest minority comprising nearly 10% of the Syrian population (CIA, May 2015) but Amnesty International claims that the Syrian government persecutes the Kurds. The Iranian government claims to protect the Kurds but recently an Iranian West Asian analyst said that Iran will not tolerate Kurdish independence (Azad News Agency, 2/17/2016).  Kurds have become an important ally for the U.S-led coalition forces in the war against IS, but Turkey is an ally too, so hostilities against Kurds from their neighbors could cause problems for the coalition.  So the Kurds are in a difficult position again and  even though they are a legitimate and ancient society, they may never gain the independence that they long for.

03 Mar 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter – Food Traditions

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roman food 1

Food is not only necessary for life, it is also associated with our social, political and cultural traditions.  People like to eat together. Dinner at home is the gathering of the family. Friends meet for lunch or dinner. Some foods show class identity: wealthy people eat caviar or escargot, the poor eat hotdogs. Many cultures and religions forbid the consumption of certain foods: most Buddhists are vegetarians, Jewish law forbids consumption of pork and Americans will not eat dogs or horses.  Specific foods are culture markers.  For example, you can be “as American as apple pie.”  English housewives still tear the loose tea leaves from teabags to make “proper” English tea.  In Japan, the word for “meal” means “cooked rice”, the call to dinner in Thailand means “eat rice”, and the Chinese word for “rice” means “food”.

How does all of this relate to archaeology? Nutrition and the methods to obtain it were factors that drove history.  Human teeth got smaller when we began cooking our food. The first permanent buildings were probably built to store grain. The first attempt at writing was to record food supplies.  If a community could produce a surplus they became wealthy. The very productive towns that were built along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers developed into the first really big cities (the ancient city of Ur had a population of about 60,000).  The surplus encouraged trade which led to the development of travel technologies, money, and the interchange of ideas that eventually spread all over the world.  But the control of food was also the cause of war. The Romans annexed Egypt, a major producer of grain, to guarantee that Rome’s burgeoning population would be fed.  In the 15th century, there was a war between Italian nobles over control of salt, and, more recently, there was a “Cod War” between the United Kingdom and Iceland from the 1950s to the 1970s for control of fishing rights in the North Atlantic (Tom Roston, A Brief History of Food & War, January 11, 2012).

What we eat is recorded in our bones, teeth and hair so food can tell archaeologists where people were born and grew up. The enamel of the teeth of Ȍtzi, the “ice man” who died in the Italian Alps 5300 years ago, indicate that he spent his entire life within a 37-mile range just south of where he died. But new studies on diet reveal that ancient people were often quite mobile. Bone fragments show that ancient societies of the Sahara were made up of many foreigners, debunking the classical theory that kingdoms were always formed by indigenous people (http://phys.org/news/2014-03-ancient-bone-fragments-diet-health.html#jCp

Well-fed people are productive. Roman gladiators ate lots of vegetables and drank a tonic made from ashes to keep essential minerals high (J. Howard, Huffport Science, 10/22/14).  Herodotus said that the population of ancient Egypt was healthier than any other (Histories II, 20-39) and it was the ordinary people, not slaves that built the enormous pyramids. The ancient Chinese ate lots of rice and vegetables and developed many innovative technologies long before any other society. Elite men have always been better nourished than women and lower classes so they lived longer. Good leaders who were able to rule for a long time tended to produce stable governments.  Rameses II ruled ancient Egypt for 66 years providing peace and prosperity.

So the old adage, “you are what you eat” (Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, 1863) takes on new importance as another tool to enhance or possibly change what we already know about past civilizations.

24 Feb 2016

Powerful Women Buried at Stonehenge

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181_1Article from Discovery News by Jennifer Viegas – full link below

The remains of 14 women believed to be of high status and importance have been found at Stonehenge, the iconic prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England.

The discovery, along with other finds, supports the theory that Stonehenge functioned, at least for part of its long history, as a cremation cemetery for leaders and other noteworthy individuals, according to a report published in the latest issue of British Archaeology.

During the recent excavation, more women than men were found buried at Stonehenge, a fact that could change its present image.

Read the full story on Discovery News: news.discovery.com

01 Feb 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter

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Diseases’ Impacts of World History

Disease has plagued humans from the beginning of our existence.  Cancer, including breast and prostate cancer, tuberculosis, sinusitis and dental disease affected the ancients world-wide.  A third of all mummies studied show evidence of clogged arteries. It has recently been discovered that 5300-year old Ȍtzi, the Iceman, had H pylori, a bacterial infection that can cause stomach ulcers and must have made him very uncomfortable (A. Kraft, CBS News, Jan. 7, 2016).  It can be found also in pre-Columbian Mexico so it was widespread.  Diseases that thrive in large populations such as plague, influenza, measles and cholera did not become big killers until the rise of cities where they often determined the political and social outcome of history.

Smallpox has been a major threat and was present at least 5,000 years ago in northern Africa.  It is estimated that at least one third of those infected died of the disease which was not controlled until 1798 when Edward Jenner introduced the vaccine.  Before that, countless millions including many important leaders succumbed to it:  Ramses V of the 18th dynasty in Egypt in 1156 b.c.e., Queen Mary II of Scotland in 1694, the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph I in 1711, Russian Tsar Peter II in 1730 and French King Louis XV in 1774. Documents from India and China show massive infections there also, and it was smallpox that almost completely wiped out the Aztecs, Incas and other Amerindian populations in the Americas after the arrival of Spanish explorers (H. Whipps, Live Science, June, 2008). This event had global significance as the precipitous drop in the indigenous population allowed Europeans to freely occupy the devastated land.

A plague (perhaps Typhoid Fever) caused Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War in 430 b.c.e. It killed nearly a third of the population as well as the brilliant Athenian leader, Pericles.  No other leader was up to the job and the city eventually fell to the Spartans.  Another disease that probably lost a war was cholera in 218 b.c.e. when Hannibal set out to attack Rome with 50,000 troops and animals (Polybius and Livy say 80 elephants).  Nearly half of Hannibal’s troops were lost crossing the Italian Alps (Polybius), probably because the first line would have had the use of pristine mountain streams but those streams would have been polluted by the time the last troops got to them. The war would likely have had a different outcome if Hannibal had not lost so many soldiers (and nearly all of the elephants).

A particularly bad type of malaria probably helped to cause the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century c.e. British scientists David Soren and Robert Sallares have found DNA evidence that reveals malaria as the cause of many children’s deaths (children are especially vulnerable to malaria) around Lugnano, Italy, and Roman writers tell of a pestilence there and that many people died of fevers. The labor shortage left swamps undrained allowing mosquitos to spread so that Rome, a city of millions, was reduced to a town of only a few thousand (A. Thompson, BBC, Feb. 17, 2011) and unable to defend itself from attack.

A very devastating disease, the Bubonic Plague, has been found as early as 5th century b.c.e. in Egyptian mummies (E. Panagiotakopulu, Journal of Biogeography, 2004, 31) and sounds similar to the devastating wave that moved along trade routes from Asia through Europe in the 14th century c.e.  That medieval plague killed at least seventy-five million people signaling the beginning of the end of Mongol power in Asia and ending the feudal system in Europe.  That changed European society and economy and helped to foster an intellectual movement that led to the European Renaissance, the Reformation, and stimulated the scientific thinking that eventually spawned the Industrial Revolution (Whipps, April 2008).

Modern technology makes world-changing diseases less likely to alter history but the HIV epidemic and the recent ebola scare serve to remind us of the power of nature.

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