Archive for the ‘Ancient Mesopotamia’ Category

Is It Or Isn’t It? – The Discovery of Nehemiah’s Wall (ca. 5th C BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

Some archaeologists are claiming that this piece of a wall in Jerusalem is actually the wall built during the time of Nehemiah. Whether or not this is accurate may take some more time to determine.

The book of Nehemiah in the Bible describes in detail the construction of a city wall in Jerusalem, located in the ‘City of David’ , as a replacement for the wall which had been previously destroyed by the Babylonians. Although many historians and scholars have claimed for years that this wall would never be identified or found, a team of archaeologists working on a rescue excavation for a collapsing tower have done just the opposite.

According to Eilat Mazar, director of a Jerusalem-based research organization’s Institute of Archaeology, the team found shards of pottery and a number of arrowheads under the tower, which indicate that both the tower and the nearby wall date back to the 5th century BC. Earlier estimates had placed the wall’s construction to sometime during the Hasmonean Period (142 – 37 BC), but the items found there date to the Persian Period, when Nehemiah lived.

The section of the wall that has been dated to Nehemiah’s time is about 30 meters long, and a portion of the tower that measures about 6 x 3 meters has also been dated to the 5th century. Nehemiah’s role in Jerusalem’s history was in his determination to rebuild the city, a century after the city had sat desolate due to the Babylonians’ destruction of the First Temple. Despite the hostility of neighboring people, Nehemiah incited the Jews of the city to action, and the Bible relates how the entire city wall was completed in an incredibly fast 52-day timeframe.

Naturally, skeptics are calling the announced find ‘interesting’, but point out that since the debris and artifacts were not found connected to a piece of the wall structure, the wall could have theoretically have been built later.

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Tomorrow: Seat of the Roman Empire

The Cairo Codex of the Prophets (ca. 897 AD)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

The Codex Cairensis is believed to be the oldest known Hebrew manuscript that has the full text of the books of the prophets from the Old Testament.

According to the production notes at the end of the book, the Cairo Codex of the Prophets – also referred to as the Codex Cairensis or the Codex Prophetarum Cairensis – was composed by a man named Moses ben Asher from Tiberias, “at the end of the year 827, after the destruction of the second temple.” This would place the manuscript’s creation at 895 AD.

The Codex is important for one single reason: it is believed to be the oldest known surviving Hebrew manuscript which contains the entire text of the Nevi’im, or prophets, from the Old Testament. Notably, the Codex contains only those books which belong to the Old Testament prophets according to Jewish tradition and terminology – including Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and most minor prophets with the exception of Daniel; also Judges, Joshua, Kings and Samuel are included as they were considered to be the ‘earlier prophets’.

In addition, there are 13 ‘carpet pages’ – these were an early Medieval version of illuminated manuscript decoration which was often found at the beginning of New Testament collections.

According to tradition, Moses ben Asher put together the Codex Cairensis with punctuation included, though according to some studies done on the manuscript, it turns out that it may actually have been written by a completely different person – for that matter, arguments against its authorship have actually resulted in doubts from the scholarly community as to its authenticity in terms of when it was written!

As for finding the Codex, the pieces of text were located inside of an old synagogue’s Gezina room, which functioned as a kind of storage space where faulty or worn out manuscripts could be placed and later disposed of formally, in order to not profane any sacred documents. Fortunately, as time passed, the Geniza room was walled over and forgotten, sealing the manuscript fragments safely for over a thousand years.

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Tomorrow: Horus of Hierakonpolis

The Female Judge (ca. 722 BC)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

This gravesite has been attributed to either Deborah or the General Barak; there isn’t yet enough evidence to conclusively say whose it is one way or the other.

In chapters 4 and 5 of Judges in the Hebrew scriptures, a story is told of a woman named Deborah. Deborah lived during pre-monarchic Israel, and held a position as both prophetess and judge – in fact, she was the fourth Judge and the only female to have had this position during the Israelite period.

During this time period, Israel’s judges were regarded more as kings than simply people who tried court cases… and although it is unknown as to how a woman came to be in this position, it is evident by the literature that she was greatly respected and honored by the Israelites. Not only that, but as Judge, she also was the official leader of the army – which means that thousands of men had to follow a woman’s orders in battle, something completely unheard of in this patriarchal society.

Although very little is known about Deborah herself, the text explains that she was married to a man by the name of Lapidoth, and that she sat under a palm tree to give her judgments. She was a poet – which was not an unusual hobby, as there are plenty of examples of Hebrew poetry still remaining today – and her eventual legacy was that she became a ‘mother in Israel’, although whether the title is literal or metaphorical is up for debate.

When Deborah came into power as Judge, the nation of Israel had been suffering at the hands of the Canaanites for the past 20 years. The Canaanites had made sure that the Israelites knew their place in society – taking some as slaves, forcing others to work at backbreaking labor, oppressing their religious beliefs, and even taking their women to marry.

Artist Gustave Dore’s interpretation of Deborah, prophetess and Judge of Israel, from the mid-1800s.

Unlike the Judges before her, Deborah was unwilling to allow these atrocities to continue any further, but there was one problem: the Israelites were at a severe disadvantage. Their army consisted of only 10,000 men, whereas the Canaanites had at least 900 iron chariots and tens of thousands more warriors than Israel. However, since she was a prophetess, Deborah was in a better position than the previous Judges – so, she received instructions from God, telling her to instruct the Israelite general Barak to take his soldiers up to the River Kishon on Mount Tabor.

Deborah’s prophesy was that God planned to send the Canaanite general Sisera and his army up to the same place, but that the Israelites would win the battle. According to the text, Deborah relayed this information to Barak, who agreed to trust her instructions – but only if Deborah would go with him into battle! Instead of trusting the prophesy from God that his army would win, he would only trust this woman – something quite unheard of in ancient Mesopotamia.

In retaliation for his mistrust in God, she prophesied that Barak would not achieve the final victory over the Canaanite general, but this would instead go to a woman. As it turns out, Deborah helped Barak lead the troops into battle, which the Israelites won…with the exception of one small thing: they didn’t manage to kill the Canaanite general Sisera. What happened to Sisera is a tale for another day…

The end of the text on Deborah recalls how she gave thanks to God for the Israelite victory, instead of claiming honor for herself. The book of Judges 5 even includes a poem that she wrote, entitled the ‘Song of Deborah’ , which commemorates the Israelite victory on that day.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Bloody Conflict in Ancient Syria (ca. 3800 BC)

By: The Scribe on October, 2007

Mass graves in Syria’s Tell Brak suggest a bloody period of urban conflict… arm and leg bones were separated, and many skulls were detached from the bodies.

At the site of Tell Brak in Syria, several mass graves from approximately 5,800 years ago have revealed the remains of over 60 young adults… and the density of additional bones inside the graves suggest that the final body count will reach well into the hundreds.

During the time when these people died, the city of Brak was expanding at a rapid rate, and with population growth came the development of better technology and more lucrative trade. Naturally, external enemies would have seen Brak as a very appealing target for attack and control. Also, since Brak was one of the earliest urban centers to develop in the ancient Near East, it is entirely possible that there were several warring internal factions – what might be called “growing pains” brought about by urbanization, since it was an entirely new process at this time.

Most of the bodies found represent individuals from their late teens to mid-30s, which would have been the healthiest portion of the population – and it appeared as though the bodies were partially decomposed at the time of burial. Many of the skeleton’s hands and feet had also been removed, and their limb bones piled up inside the mass graves. Most of the bodies’ skulls were also detached.

Since no weapons or goods were found with the bodies, it looks as though whoever killed these people went through the battle area afterward and removed any valuable items – all that remains is a large quantity of broken pottery, over 200 cattle skeletons, and plenty of sheep and goat bones. This evidence suggests that someone had a feast at the time of burial, but whether it was the victors of the massacre or a group of people mourning or commemorating the battle, is as of yet unknown.

Regardless of whether the slaughter happened as a result of internal or external conflict, the battle at Brak was obviously a very serious blow to the local population, and is a clear example of the type of issues people in the ancient Near East faced as urbanization developed.

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Tomorrow: Colombian Quimbaya

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