17 May 2013

"I AM HIYA!" Part 2

More Graffiti in Dura Europos (3rd century CE)

Azzanathkona is coming! 

Who on earth has ever even heard of Azzanathkona? Few of us, I admit, but I did warn you (in Part I of "I am Hiya") that she was coming into the picture.

So, here she is (left) as shown on an altar, seated on her throne and flanked by two guardian lions.  A man (presumably the chap who dedicated the altar) makes an offering -- almost dropping the plate on her head -- while a son or servant leads the cow that will be sacrificed.

This is the only certain portrayal of the goddess Azzanathkona.  Her image is so utterly rare because no other temple dedicated to her has ever been found .  Scholars think that the goddess originally hailed from the island of Anatha (Azzanathkona) in the Euphrates river, very far away to the south.  Another theory locates her home in the middle of the vast Nejd desert in Arabia, where a city named Azzanathkona was said to lie south of the Petra-Ctesiphon trade route.  That mysterious place was last spotted by a sergeant in the Long Range Desert Group, the sole survivor of unit lost in the Nejd in 1942: he told of squat round towers emerging from the sand, of his vehicle's wheels breaking through the ground into an ossuary, and of an obligatory Biblical plague of scorpions.

He was clearly raving.

Centre: T. Azzanathkona; E8: Roman garrison HQ
Wherever she came from, her temple (left, central circle) was one of the oldest in Dura, having been built before 12/13 CE.  While its chapels and shrines were constructed by ethnic Syrians, the goddess was also worshipped by Durenes of Greek extraction, most especially among the women.  Ladies of well-to-do families, both Semitic and Greek,  possessed seats in the front room of the temple (the pronaos) which were passed down from mother to daughter(s).  There, they carried out rites from which men were excluded.  By the time the Romans occupied the city (165 CE), Azzanathkona had become identified with Artemis -- another goddess who often didn't like men poking their noses in.  

It's possible that a more informal portrait of Azzanathkona also exists.  This graffiti (left) comes from a blocked-up doorway in her temple, so it should date from before the  final phase, when the temple may no longer have been religiously functional.  It shows a female figure with an elaborate headdress and what looks like a halo around her head dropping incense onto a burning altar.

Graffiti of all kinds was as common in the Temple of Azzanathkona as in the synagogue ("I am Hiya!",Part I): almost 100 name and remembrance scribbles have been recorded, many of them also clustered around doors and in sacred spaces.  Pictorial graffiti, however, such as this red-painted image, is very much more common in the Azzanathkona complex.  


Around 210 CE, the Roman army walled off the whole north-west sector of Dura-Europos and turned it into a military camp (roughly the area shown on the map at the top).  The temple of Azzanathkona was taken over primarily by the XXth Palmyrenes, a unit of mounted Palmyran archers based in Dura.  The soldiers installed themselves in a suite of small rooms located against the north city wall and which was cut off from the temple courtyard by cross-walls. It is not clear if civilians continued to worship in the main temple but the many military papyri and parchments found in this area  show that these rooms had become a clerical office staffed by military scribes.

Kilroy was here, too.

Painted Rotas/Sator square: T. Azzanathkona
Most of the pictorial graffiti dates from after the military remodelling of the temple. It seems very likely that the military scribes were responsible for most if not all of the names and drawings scrawled on the walls here.  Especially interesting are three so-called Rotas/Sator squares, a palindrome -- that is, read the same forwards or backwards -- formed by the words: rotas/opera/tenet/arepo/sator.  This formula, known from elsewhere in the empire, including centuries earlier at Pompeii, has been interpreted (or misinterpreted) as a magical formula, a hidden Christian text with the letters spelling out pater noster, a Mithraic text, or, inevitably, as a mysterious Egyptian incantation.  Whatever it means, these are among the very rare graffiti at Dura written in Latin: less than 3% compared to about 80% in Greek, and 20% bilingual, Semitic, or pictorial without text. 

When they were not playing with Rotas/Sator squares, the scribes who had taken over these quarters -- and who were meant to be writing up cavalry rosters -- tried their hands at more ambitious drawings.  

A mounted hunter draws his bow on a charging wild boar in an ink drawing on the wall of a small room in the temple.   The bearded hunter wears a long-sleeve tunic over wide trousers tucked into ankle boots.  The hilt of his sword and  scabbard are visible on his hip and a quiver full of arrows hangs on the horse's flank.  The horse is pictured in flying gallop (all four hooves off the ground) confronting the boar which leaps out of a bed of reeds.*  

When the soldiers in the records office were not dreaming of boar-hunting, they set off after gigantic lions such as still lived at the time in the marshes of the Euphrates valley.

On the opposite wall of the same room, a clean-shaven mounted archer aims his bow at an attacking lion.  His horse has a small head and short legs.  The excavators weren't clear if he (or his mates) had never finished the other horse graffiti or if they were just not well preserved. 

The Semitic name written in Greek letters ZABAO YC [= Zabdous] inscribed above the horseman could be the man who made the drawings, or just someone who came along later and put his name on the wall.  VICTOR, I assume, means that the horseman got his lion.  This Latin word was probably added later.

Rites of Spring

When not thinking of hunting or horses, the soldiers unsurprisingly turned their minds to women.

This well-coiffed lady has her curly hair parted in the middle and drawn up into a knot on top.  She wears a gem or metal circlet as a forehead ornament and a necklace of five strands with a tiny gem or medallion on the lowest strand.  She may have been holding a wreath or tambourine in her left hand.

It is possible, of course (as her discoverers would have it), that she is a mythic figure but, having a low mind, I think it more likely that the scribbling soldier was musing about some female musician or entertainer, such as we know were present at Dura. 

In which case, the presence of a naked, winged youth (identified as Amor-Eros) elsewhere on the same wall would make a certain sense.**  

Quite naturally, too, in springtime, a young man's fancy  turns to sport.  Given the roughness of the times, that doesn't mean football but gladiators.

This gladiator from the same room as the above graffiti is provided with Thracian equipment: a beaked helmet with vizor, rectangular shield with convex rim, curved dagger, greaves, and high-laced boots.  This is a pretty accurate picture which suggests that the soldiers of the XXth Palmyrenes had recently cheered gladiatorial combats.  That would not have been at Palmyra (which lacked an amphitheatre), but at Dura, where an amphitheatre was dedicated in 216 CE on behalf of the Legio IV Scythica and Legio III Cyrenaica (located southeast of the Temple of Azzanathkona on the map above).

Worship post-Azzanathkona

The elaborate scene below was drawn in ink on the wall of the clerical department, surely by Palmyran military scribes even though their names are translated into Greek.  The central figure on the pedestal is the Palmyran sun god, Iarhibol (who is named on the base), dressed in formal Roman military attire.

Iarhibol is crowned with solar rays and a halo, and holds a staff in his raised right hand.  The goddess of Victory flies in from his left, holding out a ribboned wreath and a palm frond; from the other side, an eagle flies towards the god with a wreath in its beak.

Below the Victory, a man drawn in a cruder style (most probably a later addition) offers incense.  A painted inscription identifies the intruder as 'Artemidorus, the standard-bearer'; under his feet, by another later hand, is the name (in Latin) SALVIANUS.  The original offerant stands on the god's right: a man dressed in the uniform of a Roman officer who burns incense on an altar.  His name is Heliodorus but someone later scratched the word 'Victor' (in Greek) over his name, probably referring to the god rather than the officer. Behind Heliodorus, a small boy raises a palm frond.  The lad is almost under the hooves of an approaching horse ridden by a Palmyran nobleman.  The horseman wears an Eastern tunic, trousers, and soft boots.  His heavy-bodied horse is fully harnessed, with decorative trappings behind a large quiver, a partly wrapped tail, and two large hair tassels. Was this major figure part of the intended original composition; or not?

Graffiti never stands still. Not only did the standard-bearer Artemidorus elbow his way in, but there is a bull's head with incurving horns to the left of Iarhibol's statue, and some small circles (meant as gold coins?) strewn below the horse.  

So even this ritual scene, so carefully drawn as to suggest veneration, was subject to casual changes.   Presumably, the officer Heliodorus who sponsored the graffiti (or had it offered him by a sycophantic scribe?) did not complain.  After all, graffiti is informal, unplanned, and unpredictable.  Yet, Heliodorus is strikingly similar in appearance and pose to the tribune Julius Terrentius in the fresco of the Temple of the Palmyran Gods, just down the road from Azzanathkona's temple.

That's where we are going in the next post (Part 3).   The graffiti there is even more surprising.

* The inked inscription behind the hunter reads (in Greek) ROUBATHIL leus.  It's not a name or text that I know: if anyone can interpret this for me, I'd be most grateful!

** Sorry, I have no picture of the male nude (not that I'm prudish but no drawing was published). 

Sources (in addition to those listed in Part I) include John Stathatos' post on Azzanathkona, N.J. Andrade, "Imitation Greeks": Being Syrian in the Greco-Roman World (175 BCE-275 CE), 313-15;  J.A. Baird, 'The Graffiti of Dura Europos: A Contextual Approach' in (J.A. Baird & C. Taylor (eds.,) Ancient Graffiti in Context, 59-60; L. Dirven, The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos, 1999; N. Pollard, Soldiers, Cities, & Civilians in Roman Syria, 2000, 44-58;  P.M. Edwell, Between Rome and Persia, 2008, Ch. 4.


Top left:  Altar for Azzanathkona, #600094: Damascus National Museum (50-150 CE).  Via Arachne.

Below left 1: Magnetometry survey superimposed on the plan of the military base.  After 'The Roman Military at Dura'; website of University of Leicester.

Below left 2: Standing Woman or Goddess with Incense Burner, Block E 7 , East Wall, blocked-up doorway in Room W14. Red paint.  B. Goldman, 'Pictorial Graffiti of Dura Europos' (Parthica 1, 1999,19-106; 50, Fig. D2). 

Below left 3: Acrostic Rotas/Sator square from the Temple of Azzanathkona. Paint on plaster.  Photo Credit: Yale University Art Gallery.

Below centre: Mounted Boar Hunter, Block E7, Room W14. Ink on plaster. B. Goldman, 'Pictorial Graffiti of Dura Europos' (Parthica 1, 1999,19-106; 35, Fig. B1b).

Below left 4: Mounted Lion Hunter and Horse, Block E 7, Room W14. Ink on plaster. B. Goldman, 'Pictorial Graffiti of Dura Europos' (Parthica 1, 1999,19-106; 35, Fig. B2b).

Below left 5:  Standing Woman or Goddess, Block E 7, Room W 14. B. Ink on plaster.  Goldman, 'Pictorial Graffiti of Dura Europos' (Parthica 1, 1999,19-106; Fig.52, Fig. D4)

Below left 6: Gladiator, Block E7. B. Goldman, 'Pictorial Graffiti of Dura Europos' (Parthica 1, 1999,19-106; 61, Fig. D21).

Below:  Celebration of the solar god Iarhibol. Ink on plaster or gypsum. Photo credit:  Yale University Art Gallery.  Cf.: B. Goldman, 'Pictorial Graffiti of Dura Europos' (Parthica 1, 1999,19-106; 68-69, Fig. F2).

12 May 2013

Zenobia, last ibis in Syria

From 'red-list endangered' to extinct.

We interrupt our series on graffiti at Dura Europos to bring you a special announcement.  
In the midst of our sadness and grief at events in Syria, comes one wretched extra ill omen (as if more were needed):  the tiny breeding population of the Northern Bald Ibis in Palmyra has collapsed.  This year, only Zenobia (left) returned to the breeding grounds in the Syrian desert not far from Palmyra after the winter's migration to the Ethiopian highlands.

We have been following Zenobia's story from March 2007 (Zenobia's Triumphant Return to Palmyra) with further hopeful updates with the Latest News in 2011 and 2012. 

And then there was one.

This sad report came in this morning from SEO/Bird Life
Only one of the Northern Bald Ibis has returned to the breeding site at Palmyra this spring. Unfortunately, there are no signs of any more birds so far returning from their migration to Ethiopia. The returning female Zenobia was last year paired to Odeinat, the last male, which was fitted with a small satellite tag that stopped transmitting in southern Saudi Arabia in July 2012....

This looks ominously like it may be the end for the relict eastern population of the species, having been rediscovered in 2002 when there were 3 breeding pairs. Despite huge efforts the colony dwindled to just one pair in the past two years and now it seems to just the one bird. 
The Palmyran ibis colony discovered in 2002 never rose above 13 birds. They were the last of a Middle Eastern population that once numbered several thousand; and the bird was classified as critically endangered – the highest level of threat there is.

The northern bald ibis, Geronticus eremita, is a large bird with black plumage that flashes irridescent purple and green when the light strikes it, with a bald red face, red bill and legs, and a strange crest of long feathers on the back of its head, which makes it look as though it is wearing a feather wig. It is usually silent but hisses and grunts (like an angry queen) when at its nest and in display.

Zenobia is now alone; and soon there are none. 


Top: Zenobia the ibis, during satellite tagging at Palmyra in 2006. Photo courtesy of G. Serra (via NATGEO News Watch).

Middle:  Last Syrian ibis among bedouin tents.  Photo credit:  M.S. Abdallah (via SEO/BirdLife).

Below: Northern Bald Ibis.  Photo credit: Brian Stone (via SEO/BirdLife).

06 May 2013


Graffiti in Dura Europos (3rd-century CE)

Who was Mr. Hiya that he dared to scrawl his name at least three times on the door posts and walls of the synagogue in Dura Europos?  A blasphemer?  Or just a little schmuck like men who wrote 'Kilroy was here!', whose fools' names and fools' faces always appeared in public places...?

Kilroy Was Here!

Kilroy first showed up on graffiti left by a mysterious American soldier during the landing in Normandy in 1944 -- or so it was said: no one really knows how the meme began. But thousands of 'Kilroy was here' drawings were scratched and sketched everywhere in Europe during the last years of World War II, especially in newly captured areas or landings, often in the most risky places, and so the phrase became connected with the presence of US troops.  The big Kilroy graffiti fad ended in the 1950s, but today people all over the world still scribble that bald-headed character and 'Kilroy was here' in schools, trains, and other similar public areas.

In short, Kilroy is a pain. 

Graffiti often is. 


Graffiti is defined as any writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed on a wall or other surface in a place where it didn't originally belong.*  It's never part of the intended decoration.  Graffiti ranges from simple written words, especially names, to elaborate wall paintings, and it has existed for millennia -- with countless examples dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and all over the Roman empire.

The mountain of ash that covered Pompeii in 79 CE preserved hundreds, if not thousands of such scrawls (like the section of wall pictured above).  There is even an early  meta-reference in the form of an epigram found on a graffiti-covered wall:
I wonder, O wall, that you have not fallen
in ruins from supporting the stupidities 
of so many scribblers
Pompeiian graffiti runs the gamut of personal names and public inanities (such as declarations of love), but some are more ambitious -- or at least more intriguing -- including scribbled curses, magic spells, alphabets, political slogans, and literary quotations.** One inscription gives the address of a woman named Novellia Primigenia of Nuceria, a prostitute reputed to be of great beauty, whose services were much in demand. Another shows a penis accompanied by the text, 'mansueta tene': Handle with care.

Graffiti needn't be quite so rude, but whatever it may be saying, it is -- in and of itself -- always subversive. Looking back from the remove of two thousand years, however, makes the heart grow fonder: such long-ago scribbles display both an individual identity and the kind of intended social interaction that is seldom visible in the distant past.

The Social Hubbub at Dura Europos

Three separate studies have recently taken up the subject of graffiti at Dura, a much lesser known time and place than Pompeii [some background at Zenobia's Gods at the Crossroads].  Now, what's really interesting is that the three historians approach the Durene graffiti from different angles and yet agree in their conclusions: Maura Heyn sets the scene, studying graffiti in the pagan Temple of the Palmyran Gods, while Karen Stern was looking at the scrawls in the Jewish synagogue just down the road from the Palmyran Gods, and at much the same time Jennifer Baird examined graffiti scribbled by visitors on the walls of private houses.  They agree that such graffiti wasn't meant as desecration: it wasn't even illicit or subversive, but rather, it "...show[s] that the presence of scratching text or pictures into walls was, actually, normal at the site."

It seems it was fairly commonplace to leave your own mark on the walls -- even within a god's temple, or a synagogue, or in someone else's home that you happened to be visiting!

So, let's get down to the nitty-gritty.

The synagogue

Torah Shrine and West Wall of synagogue
 In 1932, excavators discovered the walls of a synagogue's assembly hall, largely intact and adorned with over 70 narrative paintings that included labelled images of Moses, Aaron, and other Biblical figures. Although some figures, such as Moses, Ezra, and Abraham are slightly Hellenistic Greek in style, the rest wear Persian garments, displaying little that is reminiscent of Greco-Roman art.

The surviving graffiti didn't make quite such a publicity splash as the paintings did but they were preserved in the same extraordinary way.  During the last days of the city (see Zenobia on The Death of Dura Europos), as they fought off a fierce attack by the Sassanian Persians, the Durenes dumped a huge mass of sand and earth over all the buildings near the vulnerable western wall, thus burying everything along the inside of the wall.  The result was an extended rampart roughly 20 m (60') wide, with an easy gradient to permit troops to run up to any point on the battlements.  It wasn't quite enough: after a gruelling siege, the Persians took the city in 256/7 CE.  Long after Dura's destruction, the buildings incorporated into the defensive embankment continued to resist collapse. The city's population did not survive the Persian attack, but portions of buildings, such as the inscribed and painted walls of the Temple of the Palmyran Gods and the synagogue walls, did. 

So, who was Hiya?

Top: I am Hiya .Below: I am Hanani son of Samuel
Hiya's first message consisted of two simple words, "I [am] Hiya", scratched into a doorpost of the synagogue (underneath, a second man added his own moniker).  According to Karen Stern,
[t]he Aramaic letters of the text are carved irregularly and largely enough to have been visible from the building's elaborately decorated assembly hall. But unlike other elegantly painted inscriptions from the synagogue that clearly announce the names and donations of esteemed benefactors, the presence of this terse graffito, limited to a pronoun and a personal name, initially appears inexplicable. How, if at all, can we make sense of this crudely carved text, placed so ostentatiously in this sacred setting?
It's hard for us to imagine today that anyone would set his name so blatantly within a place of worship unless he intended an act of impiety or scorn.  Hiya certainly wasn't shy:  two more inscriptions can be attributed to him (I am Hiya, son of ..., and I Hiya, son of ... . (am) their father/chief).  If synagogue patrons or visitors had found these markings intolerable, why didn't they just scratch them out or paint over them?  The fact that they didn't (and no graffiti bear any signs of attempted defacement or erasure) must mean that graffiti represent acceptable acts within the sacred space of the synagogue.  In fact, Hiya was not exceptional: at least 47 examples of such graffiti in Greek and Aramaic survive on portions of the synagogue walls and on fragments of door-jambs and door-frames, often with many different names crowded onto the surviving fragments.   These inscriptions may have been considered unremarkable because they were so common.

Remember Me For Good!

Another common type of graffiti in the synagogue are the remembrance inscriptions. These name individuals who should "be remembered" (dkyr/zkyr lw, or the equivalent formula in Greek mnēsthē: "remember").  One such Aramaic graffito is six lines long (left) and reads:

Aliyah son of ... of the sons of Levi. May he be remembered for good before the Lord of Heaven. Amen. This is a memorial for good. 

A male torso with a circle on the left breast appears beneath the text. Perhaps this is an image of Aliyah, thus doubly ensuring that he will be remembered.

What's the point of all this scribbling?

The synagogue graffiti, cut into the hard-to-carve and friable plaster with a stylus or other sharp tool, do not look very pretty but they are legible at close range.  Anyway, aesthetics are not the point.  As Professor Stern says, "The seemingly slapdash writing,  whether in Aramaic or Greek, should not fool us into thinking that these texts were casual or unimportant." The letters are written large and they were meant to be read by visitors.

In fact, as she reminds us, the underlying hope is that passersby will remember -- or read out loud -- such names that appear in the holy placeIf so, the graffiti are remarkable in a good way, because they let individuals  communicate with the deity and with like-minded devotees at the same time.   In short, they will have served as a type of prayer offered up to the divine:  "I am Hiya! Remember me!" Not for him John Donne's prayer:
That thou remember them, some claim as debt;

I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.
This, then, is what the synagogue graffiti might mean: the act of inscribing one's name and/or requesting remembrance for good is a prayer to the deity in its own right.  At the same time, the audience's response plays an additional role in boosting the efficacy of text or image. 

Perhaps the graffiti artists expected visitors to the building to read the messages out loud in the specific location where they viewed them.  The thick clustering of graffiti around doors and on door-jambs would then make good sense: if a man (and they are all men; no female graffiti have been found) wanted his name to be recited by visitors to give it that extra punch, putting it near the assembly-hall door seems like a smart move.  Engraved, painted or recited names and remembrance requests should be seen, then, as another kind of devotional practice, or prayer, once conducted inside the synagogue -- leaving the surviving graffiti as the only witness to these vanished activities. 

Part II of this post will look at what visitors to the temples of the Palmyran Gods, Aphlad, Azzanathkona, Mithras, and even the Christian church left in the way of graffiti.  Who in Dura's diverse polyglot population scratched their names and remembrance requests in their own sacred spaces?

Kilroy was everywhere.

* Oxford On-line Dictionaries .   While graffito is the correct singular form of graffiti, in practice graffiti may be treated as either singular or plural. 

 **  More history and examples at Wikipedia.  However, their article errs in stating that the earliest graffiti appeared at Ephesus: ancient graffiti begins at least with the Egyptians: it already appeared in the pyramid of Khufu (ca. 2560 BCE); for a more scholarly discussion, especially of Egyptian New Kingdom graffiti, see'An Introduction to Visitors' Graffiti' (The Visitors' Graffiti of Dynasties XVIII and XIX in Abusir and Saqqara by Hana Navratilov).  A fuller discussion of graffiti at Pompeii, 'Reading the Writing on Pompeii's Walls' and some choice examples at Graffiti from Pompeii.  On modern graffiti, see the Graffiti Archaeology Project .  Not least, a new blog devoted to early graffiti is Chloe Ragazzoli's 'Scribbling Through History'.  

Sources.  My sincere thanks to the authors of the three key papers, who so kindly made their articles available: Maura K. Heyn, ('The Terentius Scene in Context', in [L.R. Brody and G. L. Hoffman, eds.] Dura Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, Boston, 2011, 55-67), Karen B. Stern ('Tagging Sacred Space in the Dura Europos Synagogue', JRA 25/1, 2012, 171-194), and warmest thanks to Jennifer A. Baird for helpful links as well as an advance copy of her forthcoming 'Private Graffiti? Scratching the Walls of Houses at Dura Europos' (in [R. Benefiel and P. Keegan, eds.] Inscriptions in Private Places, Leiden).  I have also made much use of Bernard Goldman's 'Pictorial Graffiti of Dura Europos' (Parthica 1, 1999,19-106)  -- with special thanks to Chuck Jones for his help.  


Top: 'Kilroy was here!' Credit: J.-N. L., re-drawn in July 2006 via Wikipedia.  

Centre: Graffiti on a wall in Pompeii.  From Goldman, Pictorial Graffiti, Fig. 17. 

Top left: Graffiti from Dura Europos.  Yale e-catalogue no. 1938.5999.190.  Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.

Middle left: Graffiti on doorpost of synagogue: K. Stern (reference above), Fig. 2.

Lower left: Torah Shrine and West Wall of Synagogue installed at the National Museum of Damascus.  Photo credit:  Yale University Art Gallery.

Lowest left: Alayah, remembrance graffito: K. Stern (reference above), Fig. 6 

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