BMCR 2022.04.26

Afterlives of ancient rock-cut monuments in the Near East

, , Afterlives of ancient rock-cut monuments in the Near East. Culture and history of the ancient Near East, volume 123. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xxiv, 441. ISBN 9789004462083. €158.00 / $190.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

With the increased realization today that humans have altered and continue to alter the earth irreversibly, it is no surprise that historians and archaeologists are devoting more attention to how our ancestors carved images and texts on cliff faces, changing them permanently. Probably anyone who has ever had the chance to visit such monuments in person will agree that the impression they make is greater than the one objects in museums do. Since they often are in barely accessible places, one wonders how they could have been carved and at the same time is amazed that they survived, sometimes over millennia, while being exposed to the forces of nature and human attack. Once made they cannot be moved, and the natural state of the rock can never be restored even when the reliefs are erased. Clearly the people who commissioned them were aware of the exceptional power of these images; cutting one’s picture or name in living rock is changing nature forever.

Rock-cut monuments probably appear in all parts of the world where suitable surfaces exist, and cover time periods as far back as the Paleolithic. This volume specifically studies materials from the Near East carved in the historical period. It considers evidence from Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran, the Levant, and Egypt; the earliest rock-cut monument mentioned is from around 2000 BC (Anubanini), the latest from the late seventh century AD (Tarāš-e Farhād). The editors are not concerned with the moments of carving, however. Their interest lies rather in the afterlives, the reinterpretations of these monuments in changing contexts after some type of rupture (p. 1). They thus explore the special impression they made on those who encountered them after they had been carved, and some of the contributors take this discussion as late as the 19th century AD.

The book’s title and the editors’ introduction speak of rock-cut monuments, that is, on cliff faces (p. 1), a large and multidimensional topic as there are numerous examples in the regions under consideration, and their purposes and intents are quite varied—some are almost invisible in difficult to access locations, while others are alongside major roads and can be seen by many people. Still, several authors consider free standing monuments (stelae and architectural reliefs), either alongside the cliff faces (Rollinger, and Allen and Carey) or as their sole subject (Adler and Steele). These liberties may water down the editors’ intents to some degree, but they do allow for a more wide-ranging illustration of how people over time reacted to images cut in stone.

How long lasting and multifaceted the engagement with ancient monuments can be is best shown  in the chapters on Iran. Matthew Canepa provides a wonderful study of rock-carved reliefs there, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty in the late 6th century BC and ending with the end of the Sasanian dynasty in the late 7th century AD. He shows how there was a continued use of the same spaces but constant reinterpretations of what already existed, sometimes within the context of epics and tales that were totally unknown to the original carvers. This phenomenon manifested  not as the continuous stream of an evolving tradition, but as multiple moments of reinvention. While the Achaemenids ignored earlier reliefs, for example, the Parthians returned to the sites of Elamite and even older ones to add reliefs of their own.

Lindsay Allen and Maya Carey take this story further, although the focus shifts to manuscript illuminations. While the chapter’s title mentions the 17th century only, it covers much more. It describes how the Sasanian rock reliefs were used in illustrations of the story of Shirin and Farhad in the 15th century and how people living near Persepolis at that time were well aware of the ruins and interacted with them. In the 17th century, when the Fars came under direct control of the new Safavid capital at Isfahan, manuscript painters there integrated small images of Persepolis reliefs into their depictions of scenes from the Shahnama and other heavily illustrated texts. The evidence remains small—nine images in six manuscripts from the same school only—but it shows how Persians and Europeans shared similar interests in antiquities at the same time.

Robert Rollinger elaborates on Achaemenid reliefs and stelae, not as material objects, but as  evidence used by Herodotus in his Histories to make a point about the failure of Persia’s imperial ambitions. The Greek historian contrasts Darius to the by-then semi-mythical Egyptian pharaoh Sesostris and interprets their use of monuments as a characteristic of despotic behavior.  However, while both rulers set up stelae at the edges of Asia, the Egyptian was successful in his military campaigns beyond them, while Darius failed. Herodotus may have seen some of the reliefs in person in western Anatolia and the Levant, but that is irrelevant; the practice of setting them up is more important to him than the actual pieces.

The reinterpretation of a stone monument in a purely textual context, rather than through visual contact, is the subject of the last three chapters of the book. That section starts out with the appearance in Jewish apocalyptic literature of the story that fallen angels, the Watchers, taught both sin and the arts and sciences to humanity by engraving primordial knowledge onto a stone stele which survived the flood. Jonathan Ben-Dov lays out the textual evidence for this account in the Hellenistic period and argues that the way the Watchers were imagined was based on the iconography of rock reliefs the Neo-Babylonian kings in the 6th century BC left in the Levant. The combination of the royal figure and astronomical symbols of the gods led to the idea in Jewish apocalyptic literature that  one of the sciences the Watchers taught was celestial divination. William Adler traces the evolution of this story further by looking at how the motif of the survival of primordial sciences by writing on stelae continued in Byzantine sources through The Book of Jubilees and Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities. He contextualizes this motif within the larger concerns about the transfer of knowledge and the legacy of Second Temple Judaism. Finally, John Steele describes how Josephus’s story that antediluvian wisdom had survived through writing on stelae was quoted by all histories of astronomy produced in Europe in the early modern period, even if its credibility was often doubted. The fact that Josephus provided little detail made many different interpretations possible, and Steele discusses a long list of authors and their use of Josephus’s story. The connection with rock reliefs was long gone by that time, and the story resembles more the ancient Mesopotamian motif of how the reading of inscriptions from before the flood leads to deep knowledge.

The long tradition of rock-carving in Mesopotamia is the subject of the chapter by Karen Sonik and David Kertai, focusing on the practices of the 9th-century-BC Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. They do point out that the idea of carving one’s name and image was an age-old aspiration there, as Sumerian tales about Gilgamesh known from early second millennium BC manuscripts show. The chapter does not really deal with the afterlife of rock reliefs, but rather with the actual carvings Shalmaneser commissioned. These appear regularly alongside earlier ones, especially those of Tiglath-Pileser I from around 1100 BC, for example at the sources of the Tigris at Birkleyn. It seems to me that the special importance of such sites inspired Shalmaneser to return to them more than the presence of an older relief; the inscription makes no mention of Tiglath-Pileser I, in contrast to a statement in Shalmaneser’s annals that he went up Mt. Atalur in southern Anatolia and set up his image alongside one of Anum-hirbe, a king some 1000 years before him. What made this statement possible, of course, was the ability to understand a text written long ago, something the Sasanians, for example, could not do when they saw an Achaemenid inscription.

A similar ability to read an ancient inscription appears perhaps in the chapter by Lorenzo d’Alfonso and Matteo Pedrinazzi on a relief in southern Anatolia at Kızıldağ—this time  a moment of major political and cultural rupture happened between the original carving and its reading, the end of the Hittite empire around 1200 BC. The authors start out by stating that the empire was fully forgotten for some 500 years after its demise and that the relief at Kızıldağ (carved sometime in the 9th century) presents the only exception to that rule. This assertion seems too radical to me; kings of the early first millennium regularly took on throne names of the empire. In any case, they argue that the relief, which bears an iconography that was inspired by Assyrian art of the 9th–8th centuries but a Hittite hieroglyphic inscription that paleographically fits in the 13th–12th centuries, links the two periods. In their opinion a local early first millennium BC ruler, Hartapus, copied an inscription from a second millennium predecessor with the same name. They speculate that the image carved alongside it could have been commissioned by him or alternatively by Shalmaneser III who, as we just saw, left reliefs behind in that general region.

The chapter on Kızıldağ has a “rather tight temporal and cultural range” as the editors acknowledge (p. 2, n. 5). In contrast the only chapter on Egypt, by Jen Thum and Anne-Claire Salmas, has a very long chronological perspective. It discusses three cases of living rocks into which one or more ancient Egyptians carved images and texts, pointing out the importance of their locations, two of them at strategic border locations in the Nile Valley (Hagr el-Merwa between the fourth and fifth cataracts, and Konosso at the first cataract), the third marking the boundaries of the newly built capital Akhetaten. It devotes much attention to the afterlives, however, into the modern period. Unfortunately, that afterlife is primarily based on what European travelers wrote; basically the only engagement of local populations that is acknowledged is their blowing up of some of the Akhetaten boundary stelae, believed to be portals to treasure rooms. It is true that medieval and later Arabic sources about ancient Egyptian antiquities are difficult to access for most Egyptologists and are badly understudied, but they cannot continue to be ignored. This chapter perpetuates the stereotype that local Middle Eastern populations did not care for their ancient past except as a source of wealth and that they needed to be enlightened about them by European explorers.

Felipe Rojas explicitly rejects that stance in his chapter on a colossal relief carved in rock on the outskirts of Antakya in southern Turkey: “I aim to debunk the perplexing, but entrenched notion that European antiquarians were pioneers in the history of interpretation of the monument” (p. 161). He explores how Byzantine and Arabic interpreters assigned the ancient relief talismanic powers. These interactions are as important as those of the so-called European “discoverers” and they illustrate alternative systems of knowledge that we have to acknowledge in studying such remains. They, once again, make us realize how powerful rock-cut monuments are, a power we cannot just consider within the context of what we consider to be scientific exploration.

The volume’s contents are thus wide-ranging and the main message to learn is that ancient rock-cut monuments triggered vivid yet very varied reactions throughout their existence. Their irreversible interference in the natural environment had a special impact on all those who encountered them, and when their original cultural contexts were no longer known, people created new ones. The same can be said, of course, of ruins, such as those of Persepolis discussed in this volume, but of many others throughout the Middle East as well. Our task as historians when we study ancient monuments is to consider all engagements with them, and I would say especially of those people who lived near them and encountered them much more regularly than the foreign explorers who claimed to have “discovered” them. The case of Iran as explored in this book shows how rich that material can be, and even if the evidence for other regions of the Middle East may not be that abundant, it is inexcusable that it continues to be ignored. The editors’ intent to consider the “afterlives” of monuments in this inclusive way is to be praised, and I hope that the chapters that do so successfully will inspire others to pursue the same path.

Table of Contents

Felipe Rojas and Jonathan Ben-Dov, Introduction, p. 1
Karen Sonik and David Kertai, Entangled Images: Royal Memory, Posthumous Presence, and the Afterlives of Assyrian Rock Reliefs, p. 39
Jen Thum and Anne-Claire Salmas, Narrating Temporality: Three Short Stories about Egyptian Royal Living-rock Stelae, p. 69
Lorenzo d’Alfonso and Matteo Pedrinazzi, Forgetting an Empire, Creating a New Order: Trajectories of Rock-cut Monuments from Hittite into Post-Hittite Anatolia, and the Afterlife of the “Throne” of Kızıldağ, p. 114
Felipe Rojas, A Carving in Antioch: History, Magic, Antiquarianism, Archaeology, p. 161
Robert Rollinger, Herodotus and Empire: Ancient Near Eastern Monuments and Their Cultural Recycling in Herodotus’ Histories, p. 186
Matthew P. Canepa, Sculpting in Time: Rock Reliefs, Inscriptions and the Transformation of Iranian Memory and Identity, p. 221
Lindsay Allen and Moya Carey, Éminences grises: Emergent Antiquities in Seventeenth-Century Iran, p. 272
Jonathan Ben-Dov, Neo-Babylonian Rock Reliefs and the Jewish Literary Imagination, p. 345
William Adler, Translatio studii: Stelae Traditions in Second Temple Judaism and Their Legacy in Byzantium, p. 380
John Steele, The Long History of an Imaginary Inscription: Josephus’ Two Pillars in Early Modern European Histories of Astronomy, p. 402