Xerxes and the Tower of Babel. In: The World of Achaemenid Persia (ed. J. Curtis, 2010) 471–89

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Xerxes and the Tower of Babel. In: The World of Achaemenid Persia (ed. J. Curtis, 2010) 471–89
  44 Xerxes and the Tower of Babel A. R. George Introduction  Among the great sites of ancient Persia the best known to visitors to Iran are certainly Persepolis and Pasargadae in the province of Fars, with their wonderful ruins of stone pal-aces and tombs built by the kings Cyrus and Darius. A less prominent place on the itiner-ary of archaeological sites is occupied by the ancient city of Susa in the plain of Khuzistan. Susa is its Greek name; the Elamites called it Shushun, the Babylonians knew it as Shushin, later Shushi(m) and Shushan, the Achaemenid Persians as Shusha. Its present name, Shush-i Daniel, combines the ancient toponym with that of the prophet Daniel, who (legend has it) saw in Shushan a vision of a ram and a goat that foretold the eclipse of Persia by Alexander of Macedon. Susa is vastly older than Pasargadae and Persepolis: it has a history going back well into the fourth millennium and was the lowland capital of a succession of independent states in the third and second millennia. Among these states was the Elamite kingdom of Shutruk-Nahhunte and his sons, Kutir-Nahhunte and Shilhak-Inshushinak, twelfth-century mon-archs well known as conquerors of Babylon.The French excavations at Susa, led by  Jacques de Morgan at the turn of the nine-teenth century, uncovered the citadel, pal-aces and temples of Achaemenid and Elamite kings. On the citadel (today often termed the acropolis) they also turned up an abun-dance of important ancient artefacts, includ-ing many not of local srcin but from Susa’s  western neighbours in Mesopotamia (Harper 1992). Foremost among these were stone mon-uments of the Old Akkadian kings, Sargon, Manishtushu and Naram-Sîn, published by Fr Vincent Scheil in early volumes of Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse  . The best known of them is certainly the great limestone stele of Naram-Sîn that depicted this king’s defeat of the mountain-dwelling Lullubi people and was srcinally set up in Sippar on the Euphrates (Scheil 1900: 53–55). An added caption in Elamite reveals that Naram-Sîn’s stele was taken to Susa by Shutruk-Nahhunte as spoils of war after his invasion of Babylonia, a period of hostilities that led to the fall of Babylon in 1157 󰁢󰁣. Another famous Babylonian mon-ument found at Susa but srcinally from Sippar is the great stele of Hammurapi of Babylon, inscribed with the laws that so Curtis_Ch44 indd 471 Curtis_Ch44.indd 471 2/25/2010 12:35:57 PM 2/25/2010 12:35:57 PM  472 THE WORLD OF ACHAEMENID PERSIA  impressed twentieth-century Europe (Scheil 1902: 11–162). The probability is that this and many of the other early Mesopotamian arte-facts found at Susa were taken there as booty at about the same time as Naram-Sîn’s stele, during the period of Elam’s short-lived hege-mony over Babylonia.Such booty-taking was part and parcel of conquest. It is well known that Babylonian kings themselves accumulated in and around their palace statues and other objects looted from conquered peoples (Koldewey 1990: 162–169; Unger 1931: 224–228; Klengel-Brandt 1990). The exhibition at the British Museum that gave occasion for the conference whose proceedings appear in this volume included a stone bowl of Ashurbanipal, the last great king of Assyria (668– c  .630). Its inscription shows that it once belonged to the Assyrian king’s palace, but was excavated in the royal treasury at Persepolis (Schmidt 1957: pl. 49/1a–d; Curtis & Tallis 2005: no. 117). It was probably taken from Nineveh as loot when the Assyrian capital fell to the Babylonians and Medes in 612 󰁢󰁣. How it ended up in Persian ownership is a matter for speculation, but its presence in the treasury speaks for the  Achaemenid kings’ interest in the products of Mesopotamian royal power. A still more perti-nent example of booty-taking comes from the time when Babylonia fell under the control of the Persian Empire. Many precious objects  were removed from their proper locations in Babylonia to Persepolis and there also became part of the royal treasury (Schmidt 1957: 57–63). Especially noteworthy are several fine beads, cylinder seals and other votive objects srcinally presented to Babylonian temples by royal benefactors in the seventh and sixth centuries.The eye-catching monuments of third- and second-millennium Mesopotamia from Susa are not the only Babylonian objects that de Morgan found there. Less conspicu-ous as works of art, but noteworthy never-theless, are three objects from a much later period: a damaged clay cylinder (Fig. 44.1) of Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled the Babylonian empire in the sixth century 󰁢󰁣 (604–562), and a marble vase and stone slab bearing labels of the same king’s household (Langdon 1905/1906). Unfortunately no exact prov-enances are recorded but since the cylinder fragment was already discovered in 1900, the citadel is the likely find spot. The citadel of Susa was obviously not the srcinal location of these objects. The vase and slab can be pre-sumed without more ado to have been pillaged from the palace at Babylon, but the pre sence in Susa of the cylinder fragment presents a larger problem. Nebuchadnezzar’s cylinder fragment The principal use of Neo-Babylonian cylin-ders was to bear pious texts reporting royal building work, typically of temples, city walls Fig. 44.1  Nebuchadnezzar II’s cylinder fragment from Susa, Sb 1700. (Courtesy Musée du Louvre) Curtis_Ch44 indd 472 Curtis_Ch44.indd 472 2/25/2010 12:35:58 PM 2/25/2010 12:35:58 PM  Xerxes and the Tower of Babel 473 and other monumental construction proj-ects. These building inscriptions often indi-cate that the cylinders on which they were  written were intended for embedding at reg-ular intervals deep in the foundations and superstructure of the buildings in question.  Archaeology confirms this, for a good few cyl-inders have been found intact in hollow spaces in walls, untouched since their deposit and revealed only by archaeologists dismantling the building.The text written on the cylinder found at Susa records Nebuchadnezzar’s completion of Etemenanki, the ziggurat of the god Marduk at Babylon. This building was the enormous temple-tower that most accept inspired the biblical legend of the Tower of Babel. No spectacular ruin remains of the ziggurat of Babylon, for it was levelled in antiquity, but its foundations reveal it to have risen from a base 90 metres square. Ancient sources allow for approximate reconstructions of how it once looked (Schmid 1990). Just recently a stele of Nebuchadnezzar II came to light that includes a depiction of the tower in profile, which, even allowing for idealization, leaves no doubt as to the building’s general appearance. It was a stepped pyramid consisting of six storeys with the sanctuary of Marduk making a seventh at the summit (see provisionally Schøyen 2007, and my drawing in Levy 2008: 31). At least 12 exemplars of this king’s Etemenanki cylinder have survived, includ-ing that found at Susa (tabulated in Da Riva 2008: 19–20, C41.1–12). None of them is com-plete. The fact that they are all broken can be explained as a result of the building’s even-tual demolition. Three exemplars (now in Philadelphia) were bought from dealers in London and Baghdad in the years 1888–1889 and are without secure provenance (CBS 33, 1125 and 1785). This was a time when people from the villages near Babylon were digging out the remaining courses of baked bricks of the ziggurat’s mantle for use as building mate-rial, and it seems likely that the Philadelphia cylinders came to light as a result of their excavations. Four further exemplars were excavated at Babylon between 1899 and 1913: (a) one at the north-west corner of the ziggu-rat’s mud-brick core, in a pit left by the vil-lagers; (b) another in Homera, the mound of rubble from the ziggurat’s superstructure dumped in north-east Babylon by Alexander of Macedon and his successors; (c) a third (represented by two fragments) in disturbed contexts in the ruins of the palace complex (Qasr, Hauptburg); and (d) a fourth recovered from modern fill in the courtyard of the tem-ple of Ninurta in the southern part of the city (Berger 1973: 295–296; the find spot of the last mentioned is more accurately reported by Koldewey 1911: 31, “im modernen Schutt”).  An eighth exemplar is a fragment that came to light during Iraqi work at Babylon in the late 1970s (Al-Rawi n.d.: 23–24, Babylon 105–A). What was an exemplar of Nebuchadnez-zar’s ziggurat cylinder doing in Susa? The discrepancy between the intended location of the cylinder and its actual provenance is a key issue in this paper, and for that reason I have conducted a statistical analysis of the find spots of 386 cylinders left by Neo- and Late Babylonian kings and other builders. Certainly there are more that have escaped attention and, of course, very many more that remain in situ  , but the figure is an appreciable sample that will give a trustworthy picture. The data of this investigation are too exten-sive to include in this paper, but a brief sum-mary of the pertinent results is instructive. Only 28 (7 per cent) of the 386 cylinders were certainly found at any distance from the build-ings for which they were intended, including Curtis_Ch44 indd 473 Curtis_Ch44.indd 473 2/25/2010 12:35:58 PM 2/25/2010 12:35:58 PM  474 THE WORLD OF ACHAEMENID PERSIA  the four exemplars of Nebuchadnezzar’s zig-gurat cylinder noted above as found elsewhere in Babylon; only 7 of the 28 seem certainly to have been excavated in cities where they did not belong, including the piece from Susa. Most of these 28 are fragments from very dis-turbed contexts and were probably removed there at some later date after the ruination of the buildings in which they had srcinally been buried. Exemplary are the pieces of Nebuchadnezzar’s ziggurat cylinders found in Homera, Qasr (Hauptburg) and the temple of Ninurta. These are best understood as chance survivals of broken pieces dispersed to sec-ondary locations after the demolition of the tower, whether in antiquity or later. Fragments of baked brick from the ziggurat’s mantle ended up likewise strewn all over the city. The demolished remains at Homera were no doubt a resource much used by later builders happy to find there huge quantities of good-quality baked bricks ready-made and waiting, for reuse whole or for recycling as hardcore.Some have maintained that duplicates of cylinders were kept in archives as records (e.g. Ellis 1968: 112–113). The archaeological evi-dence for the retention of archival copies of cylinders (as opposed to draft texts on tablets) in the Neo-Babylonian period is slim, and not at all compelling for the period before Nabonidus (555–539). This king’s antiquarian interests are well known and might have given rise to small collections of cylinders in the tem-ple of Shamash at Sippar and, less certainly, the Hauptburg at Babylon. Nabonidus seems to have worked on the wall that surrounded the precinct of the ziggurat (Schaudig 2001: 474–475; George 2007: 88–89), but there is no reason to believe that he touched the super-structure of the tower itself; that being so, no cylinder embedded in the ziggurat could have found its way into his possession.The data collected in my study of the prov-enances of Neo-Babylonian cylinders indicate that the number of cylinders that appear never to have been put to the use for which they were intended is very small indeed. With specific regard to the cylinder fragment found at Susa, the chances are very remote that it was kept at another location in Babylon, for example in one of the palaces. Very much more probably the cylinder was srcinally embedded in the brickwork of Babylon’s ziggurat and remained there until the surrounding brickwork was dismantled. Consequently it becomes impor-tant to examine how this seemingly insignif-icant object might have found its way from a location inside Etemenanki to its final rest-ing place in Susa. To address this problem further it is necessary to consider the history of Etemenanki. In doing so, the evidence of archaeology, cuneiform documentation and later tradition will be adduced, but it is the archaeological record that is most eloquent. The destruction of Etemenanki The history of the ziggurat of Babylon in the mid- to late first millennium 󰁢󰁣 is known in outline (George 2007). Heavily damaged by Sennacherib of Assyria when he laid waste to Babylon in 689, the tower was partially rebuilt by his successors, Esarhaddon and  Ashurbanipal, and completed after the fall of  Assyria by Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. According to later Greek histor-ians, the structure was levelled by Alexander of Macedon in preparation for a rebuilding that never took place (Strabo, Geographica   XVI 1; Arrian, Anabasis   VII 17). Instead the site lay abandoned until a large building  was erected on it, probably in the Sasanian period (Schmidt 2002: 283–290). Cuneiform records seem to confirm the general truth of Curtis_Ch44 indd 474 Curtis_Ch44.indd 474 2/25/2010 12:35:58 PM 2/25/2010 12:35:58 PM  Xerxes and the Tower of Babel 475 the Greek historians’ assertion but suggest that the work of levelling was prolonged long after the great conqueror’s death. They doc-ument the clearing of debris from the site of Marduk’s cult-centre not only in the time of Alexander but also under his successors: Philip Arrhidaeus, Alexander IV, Seleucus I and the Crown Prince Antiochus (see in more detail George 2007: 91). The levelling of the tower was no small task and must have been undertaken only because the building was already irremediably ruined. The question arises, was it ruined by erosion over time or by a more deliberate aggressor? The answer lies in archaeology. When the levelled stump of the ziggu-rat at Babylon was laid bare by local people in the 1880s, they removed the baked bricks that faced it in order to reuse them, leaving only a mud-brick core surrounded by a pit and surmounted by the vestiges of Sasanian and later structures. The first German expedi-tion to Babylon surveyed the remains in 1913 but it was not until the autumn of 1962 that a second expedition, led by Hansjörg Schmid, examined the pit and core with a modern archaeological eye for architecture and stra-tigraphy. In the summer of that same year the  Assyriologist Franz Böhl published an influ-ential article on the Babylonian revolts led by native insurgents against the Achaemenid emperor, Xerxes I (Böhl 1962). There he asserted that, after suppressing the revolts, the  vengeful Persian desecrated the cult-centre of Marduk and partly demolished it. In this Böhl was relying not on Babylonian or Persian sources, but on the reports of Xerxes’ destruc-tion of Babylonian temples by late Greek and Roman authors, principally Diodorus, Strabo,  Arrian and Aelian. Whether or not Schmid knew of Böhl’s article at the time of his excavation I do not know, but he certainly relied on it when writ-ing up the results of his excavation (Schmid 1981, 1995). He had found stratigraphic and structural evidence for deliberate damage to the ziggurat’s superstructure, and sought to explain it. The damage consisted of an irreg-ular depression in the southern façade of the ziggurat reaching well into the mud-brick core and plunging deep below the height to which the rest of the structure was levelled (Schmid 1995: 76, pls 32–33, plan 6) (Fig. 44.2). Since the damage reached the mud-brick core it pre-supposed the prior destruction at ground level of the baked-brick mantle along a fair stretch of the building’s southern façade and of the three staircases that abutted that façade. This destruction was not the work of natural dilapi-dation but of human intervention. To Schmid it seemed that whoever had damaged the zig-gurat had done so to prevent easy access to its superstructure, and had wanted to render it unusable. In his analysis, the resulting hole had been repeatedly washed by the flood- waters of the Euphrates while the rest of the structure still stood. The annual flood slowly undermined the tower so that, eventually, rebuilding was impossible and it had to be demolished. The srcinal damage that permit-ted the ingress of water would then have pre-ceded the building’s levelling by many years and so occurred well before Alexander’s con-quest of the Persian Empire. Adopting Böhl’s reconstruction of the history of Babylon in the early fifth century, Schmid identified Xerxes I as the culprit.Not long after the publication of Schmid’s preliminary report in 1981, Böhl’s reading of history was shot down. The first salvo was fired by Amélie Kuhrt and Susan Sherwin-White, who pointed out that the accounts of Greek and Roman historians  were tendentious and partisan, in that they Curtis_Ch44 indd 475 Curtis_Ch44.indd 475 2/25/2010 12:35:59 PM 2/25/2010 12:35:59 PM
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