Do not leave the path


Ancient history

Meet King Tut’s Father, Egypt’s First Revolutionary

Picture of damaged bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten in German museum Neues

Sometimes the most powerful commentary on a king is made by those who are silent. One morning in Amarna, a village in Upper Egypt about 200 miles south of Cairo, a set of delicate, sparrowlike bones were arranged atop a wooden table. “The clavicle is here, and the upper arm, the ribs, the lower legs,” said Ashley Shidner, an American bioarchaeologist. “This one is about a year and a half to two years old.”

The skeleton belonged to a child who lived at Amarna more than 3,300 years ago, when the site was Egypt’s capital. The city was founded by Akhenaten, a king who, along with his wife Nefertiti and his son, Tutankhamun, has captured the modern imagination as much as any other figure from ancient Egypt. This anonymous skeleton, in contrast, had been excavated from an unmarked grave. But the bones showed evidence of malnutrition, which Shidner and others have observed in the remains of dozens of Amarna children.

“The growth delay starts around seven and a half months,” Shidner said. “That’s when you start transition feeding from breast milk to solid food.” At Amarna this transition seems to have been delayed for many children. “Possibly the mother is making the decision that there’s not enough food.”

Until recently Akhenaten’s subjects seemed to be the only people who hadn’t weighed in on his legacy. Others have had plenty to say about the king, who ruled from around 1353 B.C. until 1336 B.C. and tried to transform Egyptian religion, art, and governance. Akhenaten’s successors were mostly scathing about his reign. Even Tutankhamun—whose brief reign has been a subject of fascination since his tomb was discovered in 1922—issued a decree criticizing conditions under his father: “The land was in distress; the gods had abandoned this land.” During the next dynasty, Akhenaten was referred to as “the criminal” and “the rebel,” and pharaohs destroyed his statues and images, trying to remove him from history entirely.

Opinion swung to the opposite extreme during modern times, when archaeologists rediscovered Akhenaten. In 1905 Egyptologist James Henry Breasted described the king as “the first individual in human history.” To Breasted and many others, Akhenaten was a revolutionary whose ideas, especially the concept of monotheism, seemed far ahead of his time. And the archaeological record has always been thin enough to allow for excavations of the imagination. Dominic Montserrat, whose Akhenaten book is subtitled History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt, noted that we often take scattered evidence from ancient times and organize it into narratives that make sense in our world. We do this, he wrote, “so that the past could be held up to the present, like a mirror.”

That modern mirror of Akhenaten has reflected almost every identity imaginable. The king has been portrayed as a proto-Christian, a peace-loving environmentalist, an out-and-proud homosexual, and a totalitarian dictator. His image was embraced with equal enthusiasm by both the Nazis and the Afrocentrist movement. Thomas Mann, Naguib Mahfouz, and Frida Kahlo all incorporated the pharaoh into their art. When Philip Glass wrote three operas about visionary thinkers, his trinity consisted of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Akhenaten. Sigmund Freud once fainted during a heated argument with Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung about whether the Egyptian king had suffered from excessive love of his mother. (Freud’s diagnosis: Akhenaten was oedipal, almost a thousand years before Oedipus.)

Archaeologists always tried to resist such interpretations, but key pieces of the puzzle were missing. Much study of Amarna has focused on elite culture: royal sculpture and architecture, and inscriptions from the tombs of high officials. For years scholars hoped for the opportunity to study the burial places of common people, knowing that Amarna’s brief window of existence—17 years—meant that a cemetery would provide a rare snapshot of everyday life. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a detailed survey of the surrounding desert finally located evidence of four separate cemeteries.

After the discovery, archaeologists and bioarchaeologists spent nearly a decade excavating and analyzing the largest of these cemeteries. They collected a sample of skeletons from at least 432 people, and their findings were grim. Of the burials where age at death was known, 70 percent of the individuals had died before reaching 35, and only nine appear to have lived beyond 50. More than one-third were dead before they turned 15. The growth patterns of children were delayed by as much as two years. Many adults had suffered spinal damage, which bioarchaeologists believe is evidence that people were being overworked, perhaps in order to build the new capital.

In 2015 the team proceeded to another cemetery, to the north of Amarna, where they excavated 135 bodies. Anna Stevens, an Australian archaeologist who directs the cemetery fieldwork, told me that excavators soon noticed something different about these burials. Many of the bodies appear to have been buried hastily, in graves that contain almost no goods or objects. There isn’t evidence of violent death, but family groupings seem to have broken down; in many cases it looks as if two or three unrelated people were tossed together into a grave. They were young—92 percent of the individuals in this cemetery were no older than 25. More than half died between the ages of seven and 15.

“This is very clearly not a normal death curve,” Stevens said. “It may be no coincidence that this area had the king’s limestone quarries. Is this a group of workers who are being conscripted on the basis of their youth—and effectively being worked to death?” In her opinion, one thing is clear: “It absolutely dispels any lingering sense that Amarna was a nice place to live.”

For Akhenaten, Amarna represented something pure and profoundly visionary. “No official has ever advised me concerning it,” the king wrote proudly of his founding of the brand-new capital city. He chose the site, a broad stretch of virgin desert above the east bank of the Nile, because it was uncontaminated by the worship of any god.

Picture of limestone stela with Akhenaten and Nefertiti and three daughters under the sun god Aten.

He also may have been motivated by the example of his father, Amenhotep III, who was one of the greatest builders of monuments, temples, and palaces in Egyptian history. Both kings were part of the 18th dynasty, which came to power after defeating the Hyksos, a group from the eastern Mediterranean that had invaded northern Egypt. The forefathers of the 18th dynasty were based in southern Egypt, and in order to drive out the Hyksos, they incorporated key innovations from their enemy, including the horse-drawn chariot and the composite bow. The Egyptians professionalized their military, and unlike most previous dynasties, the 18th maintained a standing army.

They were also skilled at diplomacy, and the empire eventually stretched from current-day Sudan to Syria. Foreigners brought new wealth and skills to the Egyptian court, and the effects were profound. Under Amenhotep III, who ruled from around 1390 to 1353 B.C., the style of royal art shifted in ways that would be described today as more naturalistic.

Even as Amenhotep III welcomed new ideas, he was also looking back to the distant past. He studied the pyramids of kings who had lived more than a thousand years earlier, and he incorporated traditional elements into festivals, temples, and royal palaces. He continued to worship Amun, who was the patron god of the city of Thebes. But Amenhotep III also began to emphasize Aten, a form of the sun god Re, portrayed as a solar disk, that recalled older patterns of worship.

The king’s son took the throne as Amenhotep IV, but during the fifth year of his reign he made two momentous decisions. He changed his name to Akhenaten—Devoted to Aten—and he decided to move the capital to the site now known as Amarna. The king called his city Akhetaten, or Horizon of the Sun Disk, and soon this stretch of empty desert became home to an estimated 30,000 people. Palaces and temples were built quickly, at astonishing scale—the Great Aten Temple, the city’s largest ritual complex, was nearly a half mile long.

Meanwhile Egyptian art was also being revolutionized. For centuries strict traditions had defined the correct subject matter, proportions, and poses of paintings and sculptures. Under Akhenaten, artisans were unleashed from these guidelines. They created lifelike, fluid scenes of the natural world, and they began to portray Akhenaten and his queen, Nefertiti, in unusually natural and intimate poses. Often the royal couple would be shown kissing and caressing their daughters; one scene even featured the king and queen about to get into bed together. The portrayal of Akhenaten’s features seems designed to shock: massive jaw, drooping lips, and elongated, otherworldly eyes.

In the king’s vision, religion became radically simplified. Egyptians worshipped as many as a thousand gods, but Akhenaten was loyal only to one. He and Nefertiti functioned as the sole intermediaries between the people and Aten, taking on the traditional role of the priesthood. Nefertiti was named co-regent, and while it’s unclear whether she wielded political power, her religious and symbolic status was highly unusual for a queen.

All of this must have threatened priests of the old order who served Amun. After a few years at Amarna, the pharaoh ordered work crews to gouge out all images of Amun in state temples. It was an act of unbelievable boldness: the first time in history that a king had attacked a god. But revolutions have a way of turning against their greatest enthusiasts, and this violence eventually would consume Akhenaten’s own creations.

I arrived at the site of the Great Aten Temple one day just as Barry Kemp found a piece of a broken statue of Akhenaten. Kemp is a professor emeritus from Cambridge University who directs the Amarna Project, and he’s worked at the site since 1977. He’s spent more than three times as many years digging through the city’s ruins as Akhenaten spent building it.

“This is beautifully made,” he said, holding up the piece of carved stone statuary, on which only the king’s lower legs were visible. “This is not accidentally damaged.” Amarna archaeology has a forensic quality because so many artifacts were deliberately destroyed after the sudden death of the king around 1336 B.C. His only son and heir was Tutankhaten, no more than 10 years old, who soon replaced the “Aten” in his name with the title of the god that his father had hated: Tutankhamun. He abandoned Amarna and returned to the old traditions. Tutankhamun died unexpectedly, and soon the head of the army, Horemheb, declared himself pharaoh—possibly the first military coup in history.

Horemheb and his successors, including Ramses the Great, dismantled Amarna’s royal buildings and temples. They destroyed statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and they omitted the names of the heretic king and his successors from official lists of Egyptian rulers. This act of damnatio memoriae was so successful that it was one of the reasons Tutankhamun’s tomb escaped significant looting in the Valley of the Kings. Tut’s tomb may even contain further secrets—during the past year archaeologists have been investigating signs of possible hidden doorways in two walls of the burial chamber. In pharaonic times generations of looters usually combed through such tombs, but Tut’s was largely left intact. People simply forgot that it was there.

AKHENATEN’S NEW CAPITALEgypt’s two primary capitals in centuries past were the strategic and religious centers of Memphis and Thebes. But Akhenaten built a new capital, Amarna, on an isolated patch of desert, signaling a break from Egypt’s religious and ideological past.


They also forgot most details of Amarna life. Kemp’s recent excavations have shown that the Great Aten Temple was destroyed and rebuilt sometime around Akhenaten’s 12th regnal year. The piece of statuary that he showed me dated to this event—it had been shattered at the command of the king himself, not his successors.

“It’s an odd thing for them to have done, from our perspective,” Kemp said, explaining that Akhenaten used such fragments as the foundation for a new, revised temple. “The statue is no longer needed, so they reduce it to hard core. We have no commentary on what’s going on.”

But other evidence is often remarkably intact. Ancient settlement sites were usually located in the Nile Valley, where millennia of floods and habitation destroyed original structures. In contrast, Amarna is situated in the desert above the river, where drinking water had to be hauled in. This was why the site was uninhabited before Akhenaten, and it’s why it was abandoned so completely. Even today you can still see the original brick walls of Amarna houses, and broken pottery is everywhere. It’s possible to visit the 3,300-year-old building where the famous painted bust of Nefertiti was excavated by a German archaeological team in 1912.

Kemp told me that he was originally attracted to Amarna by the intact city site, not the outsize figure of Akhenaten. He believes that too many modern characteristics have been ascribed to the king, and in Kemp’s opinion, even the word religion is “mischievous” when applied to ancient Egypt. Like most scholars nowadays, he does not describe Akhenaten as a monotheist. The word is too charged by subsequent religious traditions, and during Akhenaten’s reign most Egyptians continued to worship other gods.

Nevertheless, Kemp can’t entirely resist speculating about the king’s character. He’s impressed by the changeability of Akhenaten’s mind and by his ability to force workers to carry out his whims. At the Great Aten Temple, Kemp showed me traces of several large mud-brick offering tables that would have once been heaped with food and incense as part of rituals. The number of these tables is staggering—more than 1,700. “It’s an insight into his mind, a man with a rather obsessive literalist mind,” Kemp said. He once wrote: “The danger of being an absolute ruler is that no one dares tell you that what you have just decreed is not a good idea.”

This lack of accountability probably also inspired artistic freedom. Ray Johnson, who directs the Chicago House, the University of Chicago’s research center in Luxor, believes that Akhenaten must have been “wildly creative,” despite his obsessive and despotic tendencies. “The later artistic representation at Amarna is so beautiful you could cry,” Johnson said. “Akhenaten rejected his own early exaggerated art style for a much softer naturalism later in his reign. The representations of women in particular are incredibly sensual.

Johnson has recently pieced together broken wall reliefs and statuary from collections scattered all around the world. Digitization makes work like this faster. Johnson showed me a virtual “join” in which he had matched a photograph of one fragment located in Copenhagen with another in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “They’re 4,000 miles apart, but I realized that they join,” he said. The connection reveals a surprising scene: Akhenaten performs a ritual not with Nefertiti, but with Kiya, another wife, who didn’t have the status of queen.

A small number of scholars are involved in such work, and the ones I met seemed to have a softer view of Akhenaten, perhaps because of intimate contact with the art. This proved to be the king’s most lasting legacy, at least until his rediscovery in modern times. His city and his ritual practices were quickly abandoned, but the Amarna artistic style influenced subsequent periods. Marsha Hill, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told me that handling Amarna’s sculpture fragments makes her feel more positive about Akhenaten.

“Everybody likes revolutionaries at some level,” she said. “Someone who has a real good, strong idea that makes it seem like things are going to get better. I don’t see him as destructive. Of course, it didn’t work out. It usually doesn’t. Steam builds up under the ground until it explodes, and then you have to put it all together again.”

This story appears in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

‘Invaders of Obscure Race?’ Understanding the Hyksos

By: Anna-Latifa Mourad

From the time of the first pharaoh, ancient Egyptian civilization saw over a thousand years of unbroken development, with dynasty after dynasty of divine kings building pyramids and overseeing the growth of a rich culture. But after this ‘classical age’ of the Old Kingdom, toward the end of the third millennium BCE, Egypt faltered and splintered into separate realms. Then, in the early second millennium, it experienced something unprecedented: foreign rule by the ‘Hyksos.’ Their origins and impact on Egypt are deeply controversial issues, clouded by the bitterness of Egypt’s own memories.


The term ‘Hyksos’ has its origins in the works of third-century BCE Egyptian priest, Manetho, quoted by later writers like Josephus. Despite their late date, these Greek works formed the basis of inquiry into the Hyksos for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries CE. Thus, we learn that

… unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force they easily seized it without striking a blow… Their race as a whole was called Hyksos, that is ‘king-shepherds’…

Manetho, Aegyptiaca, frag. 42, 1.75-83

The Hyksos apparently destroyed cities and temples, massacred locals, and placed one of their own as king and founder of the Fifteenth Dynasty. Tribute was levied from the Egyptians, and the citadel of Avaris, fortified with both men and high walls, was built in the Delta. The Hyksos became associated with ruthless invaders who forced control over Egypt.

Egyptian Records

Agreeing with Manetho’s perception are texts from the Seventeenth Dynasty (contemporary with the Fifteenth, dating ca. 1650-1550 BCE), and from the subsequent Eighteenth Dynasty. A leader from the southern city of Thebes, Kamose, evidently mounted a campaign to expel the foreigners from Egypt. He designates the Hyksos king and his people as an ‘Aam’ group who had desecrated the land. Their king was titled ‘heqa ny Retjenu’, ‘ruler of Retjenu’, and his city, Avaris, was described with high walls and harbours docked with 300 cedar ships filled with a plethora of goods including gold, silver and ‘all the fine products of Retjenu’. Around a century later, Queen Hatshepsut is quoted as having restored what was destroyed during the Hyksos period when the Nile Delta was occupied by the abominable ‘Aam’ people.

Such texts link the Hyksos with (1) the ‘Aam’, (2) Retjenu, and (3) a fortified city, known as Avaris, in the Delta. But who were these Aam? Where was Retjenu? And is there truly a city by the name of Avaris?

The term ‘Aam’ is a well-attested ethnonym that labels individuals from the Levant, the area that currently incorporates Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Translated by Egyptologists as ‘Asiatic’, the term first appears in the late Old Kingdom, becoming more frequent from the second half of the Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1900 BCE) in texts naming newly migrated northeasterners as well as those of mixed Egyptian-Levantine origin (see Figures 1-3).

Figure 1. ‘Aam’ men in a procession of Asiatics. The first on the right is labelled ‘heqa khaset’, ‘ruler of a foreign land’. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).

Figure 1. ‘Aam’ men in a procession of Asiatics. The first on the right is labelled ‘heqa khaset’, ‘ruler of a foreign land’. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).

Figure 2. ‘Aam’ people in a procession of Asiatics. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).

Figure 2. ‘Aam’ people in a procession of Asiatics. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).

Figure 3. A ‘Aamet’ woman with the Egyptian name Senebheqa. Stela of the Egyptian ‘overseer of the treasury’, Senebsuma, Dynasty 13. After H. de Meulenaere, ‘Les monuments d’un haut dignitaire de la 13e dynastie’, CdE 40 (1985), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).

Figure 3. A ‘Aamet’ woman with the Egyptian name Senebheqa. Stela of the Egyptian ‘overseer of the treasury’, Senebsuma, Dynasty 13. After H. de Meulenaere, ‘Les monuments d’un haut dignitaire de la 13e dynastie’, CdE 40 (1985), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).

The Aam are also recorded to have come from Retjenu, a toponym which remains unidentified. Egyptian texts do, however, suggest that it is located in the Levant, possibly north of modern Israel. So, if Kamose’s stela refers to a ‘ruler of Retjenu’, how is this associated with the Hyksos and Manetho’s ‘king-shepherds’? Here, Manetho’s translation can be explained as a garbled reading of an Egyptian title used for foreign lords, ‘heqa khasut’, or literally ‘ruler of foreign lands.’ The title was not only used for the Hyksos but it is also attested for a range of individuals from the Levant as well as Nubia (see Figure 1). What distinguishes the Hyksos is that they used this title while ruling parts of Egypt. In other words, they defined themselves as both rulers of Egypt, as well as rulers of a foreign realm. But how were they able to do so? What led them to become such powerful rulers?

The Discovery of Avaris

In recent decades, significant data has emerged from excavations at a site located in Egypt’s northeastern Delta: Tell el-Dab’a (see Figure 5). Explorations by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Institute of Egyptology at the University of Vienna have revealed the remains of a harbour city dating from the First to Third Intermediate Period. Spanning an area of approximately 1200 hectares, the site features administrative districts, palatial complexes, cemeteries, temples and residential sectors that were occupied during the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. These occupations included widespread cultural remains that are not wholly Egyptian. Due to the magnitude of this settlement as well as its remains, the city is now identified with Avaris, capital of the Hyksos.

 Figure 5. Map of Tell el-Dab’a. After M. Bietak, ‘The Impact of Minoan Art on Egypt and the Levant: A Glimpse of Palatial Art from the Naval Base of Peru-nefer at Avaris’, in J. Aruz et al. (eds), Cultures in Contact. From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, 2013), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).
Figure 5. Map of Tell el-Dab’a. After M. Bietak, ‘The Impact of Minoan Art on Egypt and the Levant: A Glimpse of Palatial Art from the Naval Base of Peru-nefer at Avaris’, in J. Aruz et al. (eds), Cultures in Contact. From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, 2013), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).

The identification of Avaris has helped illuminate the nature and rule of the elusive Hyksos. Contrary to Manetho, the evidence from Tell el-Dab’a does not point to a sudden invading foreign force. Instead, it suggests that Egyptians founded the site but that foreigners were present from the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom. By the late Twelfth Dynasty, the variety and number of foreign elements increased. Vessels imported from the Levant are found in Egyptian temples and tombs, burials began to include non-Egyptian, Levantine traditions, and houses were designed with Levantine features. The inhabitants practiced both Egyptian and Levantine customs, signifying that they were (a) a largely Egyptian populace heavily influenced by the Levant; (b) partly of Levantine origin but influenced by the Egyptian culture (‘Egyptianised’); or (c) a mixture of both.

This ‘heterogenous’ character evolved into the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Dynasties. The population grew, displaying both hybrid elements that merged Egyptian and Levantine features, as well as completely new and innovative creations. Pottery of Levantine style was locally made. Temples following Levantine architecture were built and utilised for non-Egyptian rituals. Trade flourished with the Levant, Cyprus and Nubia. By the Fifteenth Dynasty, Tell el-Dab’a was a thriving commercial hub that was controlled by an elite with close ties to the Levant, if not of Levantine origins. Inhabited by a multicultural populace, the metropolis progressed from a harbour town under Egyptian rule to an independent centre and capital of the Hyksos.

Understanding the Hyksos Period

Recent excavations and studies agree with the picture painted by the remains at Avaris. The Twelfth Dynasty itself was likely established and secured with the help of Levantine warriors. Trade and diplomacy ensued as Egypt imported a variety of goods from its northeastern neighbours, while Levantine sites, such as Byblos, Sidon, Ashkelon and Tell Ifshar, also received Egyptian commodities. The Levantine elite was even involved with the Egyptians in an expeditionary venture in Sinai that spanned over 20 years. Such demand for and persistence of Egyptian-Levantine relations led to the growth of Tell el-Dab’a’s commercial significance, its lords steadily gaining power and wealth.

These developments not only affected the elite. Finds throughout Egypt point to an increasing number of Asiatics and individuals of Asiatic origin working and residing across the land (see Figure 3). By the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, many had already been in Egypt for over 100 years, occupying various positions within Egyptian institutions, industries, and households. Migrations into major sites as Tell el-Dab’a also continued as Levantines sought opportunities in the land of Egypt.

As such, the rise of the Hyksos can no longer be seen as an invasion by an ‘obscure race.’ There was no invasion; rather, people gradually and peacefully entered Egypt throughout the Middle Kingdom. By the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, native Egyptian administration had weakened, control over the Delta was lost and Egypt became fragmented. In turn, this allowed Tell el-Dab’a’s increasingly rich and powerful lords to become independent, establishing the Fifteenth Dynasty. As they provided prosperity and security, the population of their capital increased, the settlement expanded, and additional sites in the Delta were developed, their inhabitants also bearing mixed Egyptian-Levantine traits. The Hyksos became a formidable force in the Mediterranean, managing both local and regional trade across land and sea.

It is, therefore, no surprise that such a force would come into conflict with other emerging powers in the fragmented land of Egypt, particularly one in the south at Thebes. Ultimately the Thebans were victorious, their succeeding rulers misrepresenting the defeated enemy. The Levantine-influenced Hyksos as well as their ‘Asiatic’ people became the scorn of Egypt: the first ‘foreigners’ in Egyptian memory to rule their land, and the first to evidently do so with the support of both locals and foreigners. Despite attempts to cloud their reign, archaeological and historical inquiry will continue to illuminate the true nature of the Fifteenth Dynasty and its cross-cultural attributes, enhancing our knowledge of Egyptian-Levantine affairs, and strengthening our understanding of the Hyksos.


Ancient Mayan Superhighways Found in the Guatemala Jungle

Ancient Mayan Superhighways Found in the Guatemala Jungle – Seeker

An ancient network of roads that stretched over 150 miles has been discovered in the jungle of Guatemala, according to high-tech scanning carried out in the area.

Used by the Maya for travel and transporting goods, the causeways were identified in the Mirador Basin, which lies in the far northern Petén region of Guatemala, within the largest tract of virgin tropical forest remaining in Central America.

Also known as the Kan Kingdom, El Mirador is considered the cradle of Mayan civilization. Prior to its abandonment in 150 A.D., it was the largest city-state in the world both in size — 833 square miles — and population. It boasted the largest known pyramid in Central America, and was home to at least one million people.

Researchers have known about the presence of these roads since 1967, when British Mayanist Ian Graham published a map of Mirador showing causeways crossing the swamp regions. Now laser-based remote sensing has been used to map the area, providing new insights into the massive system of superhighways.

The Light Detection and Ranging tool, known as LiDAR, is capable of penetrating the thick jungle vegetation at a rate of 560,000 dots per second, producing detailed images that mimic a 3-D view of the scanned areas.

“LiDAR uses laser pulses that bounce from the Earth’s surface through leaves and back to a computer mounted in a plane,” said Arlen Chase, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is working on the project. “While most people felt the technology would not be successful based on past experiments in Central America, we became convinced by 2006 that it could be used to determine what was on the ground in terms of Maya sites under the jungle canopy.”

Researchers with the Mirador Basin Project, which is led by archaeologist and anthropologist Richard D. Hansen of the University of Utah, have so far scanned and analyzed more than 430 square miles of the basin.

“The results were beyond our wildest expectations,” Chase said.

LiDAR-derived images accurately portrayed structures, agricultural terraces, pyramids, canals, corrals and a network of 17 roads.

Hansen, who has been excavating causeways since 1990, has found detailed evidence of the roads’ construction, destinations and locations.

“With the LiDAR technology, we have been able to investigate the incredible size and complexity of these causeways,” he said, revealing that the Maya rivaled the ancient Romans in road construction skills.

LiDAR was capable of penetrating thick jungle vegetation at the northern Guatemalan regions where the roads were detected. Credit: FARES 2016“These causeways are 130 feet wide, up to 20 feet high and in some cases they extend as far as 25 miles,” Hansen said.

The first building of the causeway between Mirador and Tindall and Mirador and Nakbe dates to 600 and 400 B.C., while other causeways date from 300 BC to 100 A.D.

“The creation of these causeways allowed unification of what appears to be the first state-level society in the Western Hemisphere,” Hansen added.

According to Hansen and colleagues, the sophisticated system of corrals, or animal pens, that was identified through the LIDAR scans may have been established first by the inhabitants of Mirador.

This would suggest that meat production in the Mirador Basin existed at an industrial level, with transportation relying on the superhighways.

“The causeways allowed transport of food, materials, tribute, rulers, armies and all the trappings of political, economic and social complexity,” Hansen explained. “The system is similar to the autobahn system in Germany, or the freeway system in the U.S., and allows unification, homogeneity of society and permits the administration of centralized government.”

LiDAR image showing features and causeways within the Guatemalan forest. Credit: FARES 2016.The discovery of the ancient network of roads will provide the Cuenca Mirador researchers with more Maya sites to investigate. Hansen and his colleagues believe the new findings may help to understand why the Mirador Basin civilization declined after 150 A.D.

The collapse is being investigated by a variety of researchers from 34 universities and institutions from around the world.

The Mirador Basin is currently being considered for protection by the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala as a wilderness area. The site lies in the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which is considered one of the environmental and cultural lungs of the Americas.

Neolithic Man’s Face Reconstructed

LONDON, ENGLAND—The face of a man who lived 9,500 years ago in Jericho, near the Jordan River in the West Bank, has been reconstructed based on a scan of his skull, according to a report from Seeker. The “Jericho Skull” is one of seven discovered by archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in 1953 and is now housed at the British Museum. It consists of a face modeled in plaster over a man’s skull. “He was certainly a mature individual when he died, but we cannot say exactly why his skull, or for that matter the other skulls that were buried alongside him, were chosen to be plastered,” says Alexandra Fletcher of the British Museum. “It may have been something these individuals achieved in life that led to them being remembered after death.” The 3-D reconstruction of the man’s face was produced using a micro-CT scan of the skull, which detected the structure of his face bones. The scan revealed that the man had broken and decayed teeth and a healed broken nose, and that his head had been bound from a young age to alter the shape of his skull, which suggests that he had elite status.Jericho skull facial reconstruction

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

We all know the story of Noah’s Ark. Ever since George Smith’s 1872 translation of Babylonian texts similar to the Biblical Deluge (see “George Smith’s Other Find” below), we’ve also known about echoes of the Genesis narrative in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian texts. A recently translated Old Babylonian (c. 1900–1700 B.C.E.) tablet has literally reshaped our vision of the Babylonian vessel used to weather the storm and builds bridges across the floodwaters dividing the Biblical and Mesopotamian accounts of the flood.

The Babylonian Flood Tradition

Babylonain flood traditions have been familiar material for BAR readers since the early days of our magazine. Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s 1978 feature “What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood” introduced the Sumerian Flood Story, the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Atrahasis Epic:

The Babylonian flood stories contain many details which also occur in the flood story in Genesis. Such details in the story as the building of an ark, the placing of animals in the ark, the landing of the ark on a mountain, and the sending forth of birds to see whether the waters had receded indicate quite clearly that the Genesis flood story is intimately related to the Babylonian flood stories and is indeed part of the same “flood” tradition. However, while there are great similarities between the Biblical and Babylonian flood stories, there are also very fundamental differences, and it is just as important that we focus on these fundamental differences as on the similarities.


The Babylonian accounts differ from each other. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Enki tasks Utnapishtim to save the world from the flood, and for his good deed, he is granted immortality (and subsequently, Gilgamesh’s envy). Later discoveries revealed that the account was an abridged and modified version of the Akkadian Atrahasis epic, a similar flood myth that was copied and adapted for centuries in the ancient Near East. Memories of an antediluvian (pre-flood) period were preserved throughout Mesopotamia: The Sumerian king list includes antediluvian kings, and reliefs of antediluvian sages known as apkallu figures (winged genies) lined the walls of Assyrian palaces and remain one of the most iconic forms of Mesopotamian art to this day.

How to Build an Ark

With such a well-documented Mesopotamian flood tradition, why is this newly translated cuneiform tablet making waves in our understanding of the Babylonian flood myth? The so-called “Ark Tablet”—a cell-phone sized piece of clay inscribed on both sides—is essentially an ark builder’s how-to guide, according to its translator, British Museum scholar Irving Finkel. Enki gives Atrahasis instructions on how to build an ark, but the resulting boat isn’t what you’d expect. According to Irving Finkel, this boat was round. In an article in The Telegraph, Finkel writes:

The most remarkable feature provided by the Ark Tablet is that the lifeboat built by Atra-hasıs— the Noah-like hero who receives his instructions from the god Enki—was definitely, unambiguously round. “Draw out the boat that you will make,” he is instructed, “on a circular plan.”

The text describes the construction of a coracle or gufa, a traditional basket-like boat that would have been familiar to Mesopotamian audiences. Of course, this is no average coracle—Atrahasis is to build a boat with a diameter of close to 230 feet across and 20-foot-high walls. The boat is made out of a massive quantity of palm-fiber rope, sealed with bitumen. This isn’t exactly the same ark that Noah built—or Utnapishtim, for that matter:

Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI, 54-65On the fifth day I laid out her exterior. It was a field in area, its walls were each 10 times 12 cubits in height, the sides of its top were of equal length, 10 times It cubits each. I laid out its (interior) structure and drew a picture of it (?). I provided it with six decks, thus dividing it into seven (levels). The inside of it I divided into nine (compartments). I drove plugs (to keep out) water in its middle part. I saw to the punting poles and laid in what was necessary. Three times 3,600 (units) of raw bitumen I poured into the bitumen kiln, three times 3,600 (units of) pitch …into it… Genesis 6:14-15Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.


The Animals Went in Two by Two

At first glance, it would seem that the Ark Tablet, while extremely descriptive in its instructions—it features twenty lines just describing the waterproofing of the vessel—is describing an ark narrative that differs more from Noah’s than its other Babylonian counterparts. However,according to his Telegraph article, Finkel was shocked by the rare cuneiform signs sana in the passage describing the animals on the boat. Sanais listed in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary as “Two each, two by two.” Compare this with the Biblical text:

And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.”

The cuneiform wedges were pressed into Babylonian Ark Tablet a full millennium before the Genesis narrative was written down, but the two bear a strong thematic resemblance in their treatment of the animals. However, this tablet describes how to build an ark, and the resulting vessel couldn’t be much more different from the Biblical boat. Would a round gufa-style boat weather the Deluge? Irving Finkel points out that a pointed ship may be easier to sail to a particular destination, but Atrahasis’s ark had nowhere to go—it merely needed to support its human and animal occupants for the duration of the flood. He toldThe Guardian:

In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it. But the ark didn’t have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It’s still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods.

George Smith’s Other Find: The Babylonian Flood Tablet

Originally published as the sidebar to “The Genesis of Genesis” by Victor Hurowitz in Bible Review‘s anniversary issue. Click here to read the full article in the BAS Library.

In 1866, George Smith, a British bank-note engraver, wrote a letter to the famed Assyriologist Sir Henry Rawlinson, asking if he might have a look at the fragments and casts of Assyrian inscriptions in the back rooms of the British Museum. Rawlinson agreed—thus initiating what would become an unusually fruitful friendship between an eager amateur and the man who had deciphered cuneiform.

Smith so impressed Rawlinson that the latter hired him in 1867 to help catalogue the museum’s cuneiform inscriptions, including those excavated by Austen Henry Layard at Kyunjik (ancient Nineveh) in the 1840s and 1850s.

In the accompanying article, Victor Hurowitz describes one of Smith’s most significant discoveries: the Babylonian poem Enūma Eliš. But Smith’s most famous “find” in the British Museum store rooms was undoubtedly the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its dramatic account of a Great Deluge that threatened to wipe out humankind.

In his popular book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, Smith described the discovery: “I soon found half of a curious tablet which had evidently contained originally six columns of text; two of these (the third and fourth) were still nearly perfect; two others (the second and fifth) were imperfect, about half remaining, while the remaining columns (the first and sixth) were entirely lost. On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean [Babylonian] account of the Deluge.”

According to a later source, Smith then “jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.” The British Museum has dubbed Smith’s Tablet 11, shown, “the most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia.”

After he calmed down, Smith scoured the museum’s holdings for further fragments, and soon found that his Flood tablet was the 11th tablet in a 12-tablet epic poem. On December 3, 1872, he presented his findings to the newly founded British Society of Biblical Archaeology and speculated that more of these tablet fragments remained buried in the sands of Nineveh.

Soon after, Edwin Arnold, owner of London’s Daily Telegraph, proposed that his paper sponsor renewed excavations at Nineveh, with Smith at the helm. Smith, and the museum, agreed.

Smith later wrote, “Soon after I commenced excavating at Kouyunjik, on the site of the palace of Assurbanipal, I found a new fragment of the Chaldean account of the Deluge belonging to the first column of the tablet, relating the command to build and fill an ark, and nearly filling up the most considerable blank in the story.”

The copies of the Gilgamesh Epic discovered by Layard and Smith came from the world-class library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.). The tales of Gilgamesh, the bold warrior-king of Uruk, are much older, however; many of them date back to the Sumerian period (third millennium B.C.E.). In the Old Babylonian Period (early second millennium B.C.E.), the various adventures of Gilgamesh were strung together in a cohesive narrative, which was rewritten many times. By the 12th century B.C.E., an 11-tablet version of the epic had emerged. In the eighth century B.C.E., a 12th tablet describing the death of Gilgamesh was added to the series.

The Flood story does not number among the original Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh. Rather, it was inserted into the narrative in about the 12th century, and thus appears only in the 11- and 12-tablet versions of the tale (called the Standard Babylonian versions).

According to the tale, after the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, a disconsolate Gilgamesh searches for ways to live forever. His quest leads him, on Tablet 11, to the immortal Utnapishtim—often referred to as the Mesopotamian Noah, because he saved his family from a devastating worldwide Flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he, too, was once a mere a mortal and a king, of Shuruppak-on-the-Euphrates. In his day, five of the gods plotted to send a Flood to destroy humankind. One of the gods, Ea, surreptitiously informed the king, whispering, “Quickly, quickly tear down your house and build a great ship, leave your possessions, save your life … Then gather and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature.” Utnapishtim finishes the ship and loads his family and animals just in time: “Ninurta opened the floodgates of heaven, the infernal gods blazed and set the whole land on fire. A deadly silence spread through the sky and what had been bright now turned to darkness. The land was shattered like a clay pot. All day, ceaselessly, the storm winds blew, the rain fell, then the flood burst forth, overwhelming the people like war … For six days and seven nights, the storm demolished the earth. On the seventh day, the downpour stopped. The ocean grew calm. The land could be seen, just water on all sides, as flat as a roof. There was no life at all.” The boat runs aground on Mount Nimush. Utnapishtim sends out a dove, which flies right back, having failed to find land; he sends a swallow with similar results. Finally, he sends a raven, which never returns. The waters have begun to recede.

The gods convene and offer Utnapishtim and his family immortality. Having heard this tale, Gilgamesh recognizes he has little chance of being offered the same, and he returns home to Uruk to die.—Molly Dewsnap Meinhardt

Passages from Gilgamesh come from Stephen Mitchell’s new translation Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Free Press, 2004).

Third Gender Figures in the Ancient Near East

In the ancient Near East, there was a social standard by which men were ideally expected to behave. In the 21st century CE, expectations still exist, albeit in different forms. Normative masculinity through ancient Mesopotamiatypically concerned male-female interactions. In sexual intercourse, for example, the male was the active person and initiator, with the female as the passive recipient. Another important characteristic was that of descendants. Males, as progenitors of family lines, were expected to have virility, prowess, and strength. Naturally, then, normative masculinity afforded men important social and economic posts in cultic and government organizations. Furthermore, each characteristic of normative masculinity was performed in the public domain, rather than the domestic setting which tended to be regarded as feminine.

Alabaster Relief of an Assyrian Royal Attendant

According to a recent argument by Ilan Peled, author of Masculinities and Third Gender, men with normative masculinities attempted to maintain clear, distinguished differences between men and women by institutionalizing non-normative men as third gender figures. This allowed those of normative masculinity to define “clear social markers of rules of conduct and normative behavior patterns” (Peled, 294).


Before the kalǔ, the Sumerian gala worked as a “chanter of laments” and was not associated with any particular deity. Simply working as a professional lamenter categorized him as feminine because laments were typically performed by women. During the Old Babylonian period, the role of the gala expanded, became a synonym ofkalǔ, and was incorporated into the cult of Ishtar. The kalǔ, like the gala in the Sumerian period, was considered a singer and was in charge of many rituals related to music and song. Beyond association with cult practice, association with Ishtar reinforced the gender ambiguity of the kalǔ. In Lady of Largest Heart, a composition for Ishtar, we read a revealing characteristic about her: “Turning a male into a female and a female into a male is yours” (Sjöberg, 190). This perceived ability is important because it demonstrates how the kalǔ were institutionalized into religious practice and ritual of Ishtar in order to maintain strong social distinctions between men, women, and the third gender, characterized as ambiguous, like Ishtar.



Like the kalǔ, the assinnu may be understood as ambiguous as a result of being institutionalized into the cult of Ishtar, a gender-ambivalent deity. Throughout texts referring to the assinnu, the figure is often represented as being a passive male, at one point “listed among a group of female cultic attendants” (Peled 2016: 283). As mentioned above, the male was supposed to be sexually active while the female took on the passive role. Because of the assinnu’s passivity, he was categorized as a third gender figure.

The kurgarrǔ was often associated with the assinnu, gala, and kalǔ. In the case of the kurgarrǔ, though, he is often represented with weapons, especially daggers and swords. Some scholars consider this evidence of apparent self-mutilation or castration; yet, as Peled notes, references to actual self-mutilation never occur. Thus, according to Peled, kurgarrǔ were part of the cultic performance for Ishtar as militant and masculine. The kurgarrǔ can be considered a third gender figure due to his involvement in the cult of Ishtar and association with other third gender figures.


lύ-sag and ša rēši are synonymous terms for the same figure: a palace attendant typically in charge of women’s quarters within a palace. They were permitted to do so because they were castrated and eunuchs. Attestation of this figure as castrated is only apparent, though, in the Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods. While they functioned in the same manner prior to these periods, evidence of castration is lacking. Somelύ-sag / ša rēši even acted as military commanders. As eunuchs, though, they maintained some masculine gender identity. For virility could still be maintained were the castration only partial. Even so, the consequences of castration meant they were not considered normative in regard to masculinity, hence their institutionalization in royal bureaucracies as military commanders or people in charge of women’s quarters.


Unfortunately, there is not enough textual evidence to provide a complete image of third gender figures. However, a few others may be worth mentioning: girseqû, a childless male figure within palace administration; tiru/tīru, likely a childless castrate and part of palace bureaucracy; SAG-UR-SAG, “effeminate cultic personnel similar to theassinnu… after the end of the Old Babylonian period the office of the SAG-UR-SAG ceased to exist” (Peled 2016, 267); and pilpilû, a member of the Ishtar cult with feminine traits.

Men throughout the ancient Near East were marginalized by men of normative masculinity for improper adherence to the social order. As Peled notes, ”

Members of the third gender were not excluded from mainstream society because of their peculiarity. On the contrary, they were invented and re-invented each period by hegemonic [or normative] masculine men of their own society…, social anomalies who constituted an integral part of their society. (Peled, 294)


Alexander in the East




Alexander the Great never reached his goal of conquering all the inhabited earth. This was simply beyond his army’s endurance. But he did get as far east as ancient Bactria, in modern Afghanistan. More than two thousand years later, archaeologists have begun to recover evidence of Greek settlers Alexander left behind at a village called Ai Khanoum. Unfortunately, much of what remains in this remote area of war-torn Afghanistan is being looted from the site and plundered from museums. The tale is nonetheless heroic, even if it ends in tragedy.

History, it is said, is a huge mirror, a reflection of who we were and are. If so, archaeology is the painstaking recovery of pieces of that fragile looking glass, and the life of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) represents but a tiny sherd of that mirror.1

Archaeologists have turned up Alexander’s traces in Egyptian temples, Apulian vases, Etruscan reliefs, Pompeian mosaics, Gandharan sculptures and medieval medallions—as well as in a village in Afghanistan. Perhaps someday they will “unearth” his image from the remains of the opulent Alexander Suite in Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City.

Over and over, succeeding generations of Greek heroes, Roman imperialists, saintly medieval kings and modern totalitarian dictators have recognized reflections of their own glory in Alexander’s grand, panoramic career.2


The Alexander I see was neither a ruthless monster nor a poster-boy for world peace and brotherhood.3 He was cultured and charismatic but also cunning and cruel. He grew up in a dangerous world of war and intrigue that gave no quarter to real or imagined weakness. His native Macedonia in northern Greece embraced the old warrior code of Homer’s Iliadand Odyssey: No challenge went unanswered, no insult passed unpunished. Men fought hard, hunted recklessly and drank epically—monarchs most of all.

Macedonian kings did not order their armies into battle; they led them. Alexander, like his father Philip II, bore the conspicuous scars of brutal combat as badges of leadership. A mutilated eye, arm, collarbone and leg distinguished Philip among friends and foes. Alexander endured wounds to the head, neck, shoulder, chest, thigh, leg and ankle. Never safe, the threat of assassination also haunted these restless heads of state. Alexander witnessed the murder of his father during a royal procession in 336 B.C.; in later years, his mother, two wives and son would also be killed. Every one of Alexander’s relatives died at the hands of assassins.4

Although bred for battle, Alexander nonetheless received the finest education possible under the tutelage of the philosopher Aristotle. The young heir-apparent proved himself a devoted student of Greek culture, and as king he was a lavish patron of the arts. He built or refurbished many shrines and temples, founded cities (usually named Alexandria) and vied to outdo the deeds of his avowed ancestors, both mortal and divine: Zeus, Herakles, Achilles.

That Alexander set out to conquer Greece’s traditional enemy, the Persian Achaemenid Empire,a should come as no surprise. The conquest of Persia had been his father’s unfulfilled dream, and the promise of gold and glory fired the ambitious young king’s imagination. But the magnitude of Alexander’s successes—the swiftness and decisiveness of his victories—remains shocking even after 23 centuries.

Backed by a shaky coalition of Greek city-states, Alexander led an army of 37,000 troops against Persia in the spring of 334 B.C. He soon rocked the cradle of civilization with astonishing victories: the Battle of Granicus in 334, the Battle of Issus in 333, the Siege of Tyre in 332 and the Battle of Gaugamela in 331. In just four years, Alexander overran and occupied the rich territories of the modern Middle East, including Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The Persian “King of Kings,” Darius III, lay dead, his palaces plundered and his armies—which had always outnumbered Alexander’s—scattered. At the age of 26, Alexander had become the mightiest, wealthiest and most celebrated conqueror of all time.5

But he did not stop there. Although his army was anxious to return home to Greece, Alexander decided to push ever eastward toward the fringes of the then-known world. How he drove his men through the hardships to come remains a mystery of military science.

For the next three years (329–327 B.C.), Alexander’s forces struggled desperately to win control of Bactria, the harsh, inhospitable region of modern Afghanistan.6 At times, weather seemed the Greeks’ worst enemy. A lack of provisions and waist-deep snows in the Hindu Kush mountains compelled the men to eat their baggage animals raw; howling blizzards in the Pamir Mountains actually froze many Greeks where they stood or slept. In summer the burning plains of Bactria claimed more lives than any battle fought by these long-suffering troops. Dehydration and brackish water debilitated everyone, including Alexander.

Superstock, Inc. The idealized image of Alexander is captured in this Roman marble bust (compare with photo of mosaic from Pompeii’s House of the Faun).

All the while, the local peoples put up fierce resistance. First led by Bessus, a kinsman of the dead King Darius, and later more ably by one of Bessus’s generals named Spitamenes, the native populations engaged the Greeks in a new style of warfare—the hit-and-run guerrilla combat that still works so well in Afghanistan. In 328 B.C., while Greeks back home gathered to celebrate the 113th Olympic Games, Alexander’s army competed in a much grimmer contest 3,000 miles away. They stormed mountain fortresses and chased mobile insurgents all over the region. The Greek soldiers faced stern opposition, with enemies coming at them from all sides; it was like trying to put out a forest fire that kept breaking out in different areas. In an essay on Alexander, the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46–120 A.D.) chooses a different metaphor:

But if the spirit of Alexander had not been great, had not drawn strength from virtue, had not defied Fortune, then would he not have wearied and given up marshalling and arming his troops, besieging cities, chasing down subjects in numerous revolts, desertions, and riots, pursuing faithless kings to Bactra, Maracanda, and Sogdiana as if he were cutting off the heads of the Hydra which always grew back in renewed wars.7

Under the strain, some of Alexander’s men became mutinous and the king himself cracked: He murdered a Macedonian general named Cleitus the Black—who had once saved his life in battle—simply for insulting him at a dinner party.8

To retain control of the region, Alexander settled his men in military colonies at strategic points in Bactria. These soldiers lamented their orders, which required them to spend their careers living so far from the sun-splashed beaches and balmy climate back home in Greece. In 327 B.C. Alexander finally enjoyed a change of fortune. Spitamenes’s own exhausted troops (or his unhappy wife, as one source reports) betrayed him and delivered his head to the Greek camp.9 Seizing the moment, Alexander married the daughter of a captured Bactrian leader, Oxyartes, to win favor among the disheartened locals. His young bride, Roxanne, may seem a romantic figure, but she was a mere pawn queened by her father and husband in a move toward peace in central Asia. Leaving behind 13,500 reluctant soldier-settlers to garrison Bactria, Alexander headed east once again.

Photograph by Sharon Suchma, courtesy of the American Numismatic Society The ancient Greek silver decadrachm shown here was minted in 323 B.C. (possibly in Babylon) and depicts a mounted Alexander charging an Indian war elephant (compare with photo of medieval miniature). During the Battle of the Hydaspes River, many of the wildly trumpeting elephants panicked, trampling Porus’s foot soldiers, while Macedonian archers picked off his cavalrymen. The Indian rajah’s defeat was devastating; his casualties have been variously estimated at 12,000 to 23,000 men. Yet Alexander saluted his foe’s bravery by magnanimously permitting Porus to continue to rule—under Greek control, of course.

In 326 B.C., Alexander’s troops encountered yet another hostile world in northwest India. The monsoons swamped the invading army and made the five great rivers of the Punjab nearly impassable. On the far side of one of these raging torrents, the Hydaspes River, the forces of a defiant rajah named Porus lay in wait. His elephant corps, the panzers of the ancient past, complicated Alexander’s task immensely but did not stop the Greeks. Alexander outmaneuvered the Indians, ferried his main army across the river under cover of rain and darkness, and overwhelmed Porus with a surprise dawn attack. After a harrowing fight punctuated by the screams of trampled men and trumpeting elephants, the Indian forces collapsed and Porus was captured.

Unexpectedly, Alexander rewarded the rajah’s bravery by restoring his throne, a rare outcome indeed for an ancient battle. Many historians consider the Battle of the Hydaspes to be Alexander’s greatest victory and compare it to the Norman invasion of Britain or (conversely) the Allied landing at Normandy.10 It turned out to be the last major battle of Alexander’s career. Soon thereafter his weary Greeks begged to turn back. Alexander’s personal goal, reaching the end of the inhabited earth, obviously lay far to the east across the Indian subcontinent, well beyond the limits of his army’s endurance. Grudgingly, the 30-year-old king settled on a less grandiose plan: He would build a fleet and subdue the Indus Valley as far south as the Indian Ocean, then divide his forces and return by land and sea to Babylon.

Still leading by fearless example, Alexander suffered grievously during these last campaigns. Attacking the town of Multan in India, he was the first man over the wall and sustained a life-threatening arrow wound to the chest. Afterward, on his arduous trek westward across the bleak Gedrosian Desert, the king refused water in order to share the suffering of his men. This march cost many lives and left a rare stain on his exemplary record of logistical planning.11



Undaunted by torrential monsoon rains, Alexander crossed the Hydaspes River in 326 B.C. to take on the elephant-mounted troops of the Indian rajah Porus—a scene captured in the medieval miniature shown here (compare with photo of Greek silver decadrachm). Alexander displayed his tactical genius during the battle, confusing Porus with feints and mounting an attack on the Indian army’s flanks.

Some modern scholars insist that these hardships drove Alexander to despair, even dementia.12 He put to death some of the high-ranking officials in his imperial government, ordered the Greeks to worship him as a god, mourned excessively the death of his dearest friend, Hephaestion, compelled many of his generals to marry Persian noblewomen and dreamed of improbable conquests across Africa, Asia and Europe. Although his body was battered by war, his mind raced ahead to envision a supranational world under his divine power. Then, swiftly and unexpectedly, Alexander sickened and died in Babylon, probably the victim of either typhus or malaria.13 He was only 32 years old. According to tradition, his final prophetic words were, “I foresee a great funeral contest over me.”

Alexander had single-mindedly carved out an empire ranging from the Adriatic Sea to the borders of India. His ambitious generals gradually killed off all the conqueror’s kinfolk, including Roxanne and her royal son Alexander IV, so that the empire could be whittled into new dynastic kingdoms: Antigonid Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, Attalid Pergamum, Diodotid Bactria and others. Alexander’s remarkable conquests and untimely death gave birth to a new epoch, called the Hellenistic Age (323–30 B.C.); its civilization has generally been considered more like ours than any other in history. We can see in that ancient world similar patterns of imperialism and colonialism, and a comparable array of social and ethnic tensions. Then, as now, economies boomed, scientific discoveries dazzled the public, cults and astrology flourished, and people sought personal liberation. According to one modern scholar, the Hellenistic Age confronts us with “an overpowering sense of déjàvu.”14

Phototgraph by Sharon Suchma, courtesy of the American Numismatic Society East meets West on the two sides of the silver tetradrachm shown here, minted in the Bactrian city of Panjhir around 145 B.C. The obverse is inscribed with Greek writing and a helmeted bust of Menander, a Hellenistic Bactrian king who converted to Buddhism in the mid-second century B.C. The coin’s reverse is written in the local Kharosthi script—which uses an alphabet derived from Aramaic—and depicts Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, hurling a thunderbolt.

There is, however, one notable blind spot in this mirror of history. We can see with some clarity the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions of Alexander’s old empire, but the eastern edge has long eluded us.15 Ancient texts tell us simply that Alexander’s legacy in Bactria and India was a troubled one. After Alexander’s death, the unhappy Greeks who had settled in Bactria tried to pack up and leave their posts, but they were compelled to stay under penalty of death by Alexander’s generals, among them Seleucus, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty. In 318 B.C., further east, Greek settlers assassinated Porus (the rajah whom Alexander had conquered and then returned to power), leaving Seleucus little choice but to trade India back to the natives for 500 war elephants. The literary sources tell us little more; they provide only a fantastic image of Greek merchants and mercenaries adrift in central and south Asia—a land beyond history where fierce griffins flew, strange rivers oozed oil and honey, native peoples ate their aging parents, and giant ants heaped up mounds of gold. Ancient geographers and poets wrote of a thousand lost cities in this neverland of monsters and missing Greeks. In the 13th century A.D., Marco Polo sought the lost cities in vain; Chaucer imagined one of their kings, Emetrius, as a man who rode a splendid steed “like Mars,” attended by an entourage of lords, lions and leopards.
When Englishmen arrived in the 19th century to play out the infamous “Great Game” between Czarist Russia and British India, they found the hoary ghosts of Alexander and his army everywhere in Afghanistan. Tribesmen in remote valleys claimed to be the direct descendants of the ancient Greeks; even the ancestors of their horses, it was said, had been sired by Alexander’s famous steed, Bucephalus. Lakes and towns bore many variations of the ubiquitous name Iskendar (Alexander), as did such leaders as Sha Sikander Khan. These tireless legends even trickled into Rudyard Kipling’s tale “The Man Who Would Be King.” Not long ago, a Tadjik native told me about an amateur archaeologist who took a skull he had found to a local museum. “Alexander’s,” the man proudly informed the curator. Pleased by the museum’s eagerness to display his find, the man quickly returned with a smaller skull. “Alexander’s, too,” he reported, “only a little younger!”

Alexander himself will never be found in Afghanistan (the king’s mummy, with one head only, was actually entombed in Alexandria, Egypt). But what of his lost colonists in the Alexandrias of central Asia? What became of the Greeks forced to build a new life in that far-off land?

Superstock, Inc. The towering mountains of the Hindu Kush overlook the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan, where Taliban soldiers recently reduced most of the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan to rubble (see John C. Huntington, “The Buddhas of Bamiyan”). Alexander’s troops faced punishing weather and terrain as they made their way through narrow mountain passes. (Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, had conjectured that the ends of the earth should be visible from the peaks of the Hindu Kush.) Alexander moved on, conquering Bactria and sweeping into the Punjab, finally reaching the Indian Ocean near the modern city of Karachi, Pakistan. The Greek conqueror then returned westward through Persia and Mesopotamia, where he died suddenly in Babylon in 323 B.C.

The scientific search for them began in earnest with the foundation of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in 1922. Alfred Foucher, a French expert on the Greco-Buddhist art found in Gandhara, guided this mission in the belief that Alexander’s colonies in Bactria were the obvious missing link in the evolution of Greek-style art in ancient India (See Rekha Morris, “Imagining Buddha”). Hellenistic cities must have survived in central Asia long after Alexander was gone, but where were they? Foucher excavated in vain. No traces of Greek cities or monumental art turned up anywhere in Afghanistan, forcing the exhausted archaeologist to declare 20 years later that he had been chasing a “mirage.”16 Others continued the search until finally, in 1961, the mirage lifted and revealed a significant piece of the mirror of history near a village named Ai Khanoum.

On a royal hunt in a remote corner of his realm, King Muhammad Zahir Shah of Afghanistan spotted a strange outline in the dry soil between two rivers. Looking down from a hillside at this confluence of the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) and Kochba rivers, the king could see traces of a well-planned ancient city: A wall and defensive ditch stretched from the hill to the Oxus, broken only by a gateway leading to the main street inside the settlement. The shapes of many large buildings bulged underneath the thin carpet of dirt, and at least one Corinthian column rose up like a signpost of Hellenistic civilization. Here, at last, was Alexander’s elusive legacy in the East.

In 1965, the DAFA commenced full-scale work at Ai Khanoum that continued until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During those years, under the very fortunate direction of French archaeologist Paul Bernard, archaeologists wrested the remarkable story of Hellenistic Bactria from the ruins of Ai Khanoum.17

The Greek founder of this colony, which may have been called Alexandria Oxiana,b was a man named Kineas, whose fourth-century B.C. shrine and tomb stood in the heart of the city. Kineas may have been one of Alexander’s soldiers, sent to settle this strategic fortress on the frontiers of Bactria. There are indications of an attack on the site soon after Alexander’s demise, perhaps part of the disturbances that took place when Greek settlers attempted to abandon Bactria. Fifty years later, under the aegis of the Seleucid dynasty, a major building phase began. True to Greek cultural traditions, the later citizens of the city enjoyed a large theater, a gymnasium with a pool, and quantities of olive oil and wine. Papyrus for writing was transported from Egypt.

The Archaeology of Afghanistan Inscribed at the base of the funerary monument of Kineas, the founder of the city of Ai Khanoum, are five Delphic maxims (shown here, compare with photo of confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers)—exhortations to follow certain ethical behaviors at each of life’s stages. A high premium was placed on preserving such Greek values in imperial backwaters like Ai Khanoum. The philosopher Clearchus made a special trip to Delphi to make a transcript of the maxims and carried them all the way back to Ai Khanoum to inspire the city’s inhabitants.

These ancient Greeks built large, luxurious private homes and a great sprawling palace. Their Greek names and political titles appear on tombstones and government records. To preserve Greek values in this alien land, an Aristotelian philosopher copied the Delphic Maxims in Greece and carried them all the way to Bactria. An inscription found at Ai Khanoum explained to the colonists that these maxims were the wise counsel of earlier Greeks as codified by priests at the sacred site of Delphi. Their closing lines convey the idea of this Hellenic creed “blazing from afar”:

As a youth, be self-controlled.
As an adult, be just.
As an elder, be wise,
As one dying, be without regrets.18

Ancient Ai Khanoum must also have been visited by numerous itinerant merchants and nomads, from both East and West. Archaeologists have found a few ostraca (texts inscribed on potsherds) in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew that the Persians used for administrative purposes. (Aramaic also influenced the development of contemporary Indian scripts, such as Kharoshthi.)

What of the Bactrians themselves, the natives who fought Alexander and outnumbered the Greek immigrants? Are they reflected in the mirror of history as equal partners at Ai Khanoum or as an exploited underclass? The archaeological record reflects a picture that is disturbingly similar to the ghettos and barrios of our own cities. The Bactrians (ancestors of today’s Tadjik peoples) huddled in single-room houses—well away from the guarded mansions and public buildings of the Greek ruling class. Some Bactrian names appear in lists of the city’s officials, but only in the very lowest ranks and always under Greek supervisors.

Coins minted at Ai Khanoum and other Bactrian sites give us the first real evidence of cultural integration. On these coins, the Greeks introduced images of native deities and even inscriptions in local languages. Square coins, like those favored in India, were also minted. The more valuable the coin, the more purely Greek it tended to be, and some of this money was precious indeed. The largest gold and silver coins ever minted in the ancient world came from the Greek kings of Hellenistic Bactria.

The Bactrian kings condensed as much information as they could onto these portable billboards: royal names, titles, portraits, regalia, religious patronage, dynastic connections and military victories. Their coin inscriptions reveal that new dynasties continued to arise in Bactria. In about 250 B.C., the region rebelled against the Seleucids and established itself as an independent Greek kingdom under Diodotus I and II, an ambitious father and son who fell in turn to Euthydemus I and his family. This next dynasty flourished and carried Greek power back into India, retracing and then surpassing Alexander’s original conquests. One Euthydemid king, Agathocles, honored Alexander’s memory with a special coin. In the second century B.C., the usurper Eucratides—the first Greek king to call himself “the Great”—defeated the Euthydemids, but was then assassinated by his own son around 150 B.C.

All of this in-fighting weakened Hellenistic Bactria. As a result, 200 years after the reign of Alexander, the Greek settlements along the Oxus River were overwhelmed by nomadic invaders from the north.19 The settlement at Ai Khanoum was among the first to be abandoned, its inhabitants fleeing into the mountains or moving south into India.

Paul Bernard Archaeological excavations (the outlines of the ancient city near the confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers can be seen in this photograph, compare with photo of Kineas funerary monument inscription) have revealed that Ai Khanoum’s colonists also took these maxims seriously and built institutions—a large theater, palace library and gymnasium—that fostered traditional Greek mores.

Lost for 2,000 years, these Hellenistic settlements are vanishing once again—this time, forever.20 In war-ravaged Afghanistan, the tangible traces of Alexander’s legacy are being systematically destroyed. Ai Khanoum lies looted, its buildings cratered into a lunar landscape by clandestine digging, its treasures trucked away for sale. Artifacts excavated by the DAFA and “safely” stored in the National Museum at Kabul have also been plundered; some of these antiquities are now being publicly auctioned on the World Wide Web to collectors in Europe and America.21 So once again the fragile mirror of history has been shattered; its sherds swept up by the greedy among us. We may at least be grateful to archaeology for providing us with a fleeting glimpse of a tumultuous era hauntingly similar to our own.

I dedicate this article to the unsung heroes of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage.

Frank Holt, a professor of history at the University of Houston

Mysterious civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ were wiped out by ‘world war zero’ 3,000 years ago

  • Theory proposes Luwian-speaking kingdoms joined to form a coalition
  • This coalition then attacked and destroyed the nearby Hittite civilization 
  • Researchers say Egyptian text describing ‘Sea Peoples’ is about Luwians
  • The Luwians were later destroyed in battle with Mycenaean kings at Troy 

More than 3,000 years ago, the flourishing Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean suddenly met their downfall.

The Trojan War erupted as one of the final events culminating an era of chaos which one archaeologist has named ‘World War Zero’, plunging the region into a Dark Age soon after.

And, it was all begun by a mysterious and powerful civilization which came to be known as the ‘Sea Peoples,’ a new theory suggests.

More than 3000 years ago, the flourishing Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean suddenly met their downfall. The Trojan War erupted as one of the final events culminating an era of chaos which one archaeologist has named 'World War Zero,' plunging the region into a Dark Age soon after

The new ideas presented by Luwian Studiespropose a scenario that could explain the fall of the Bronze Age around 1200 BC, and the events leading up to the Trojan War.

In the new scenario, it’s argued that the many Luwian-speaking petty kingdoms and western Asia Minor, a peninsula also called Anatolia, joined together in a coalition to attack the neighbouring Hittites.

As these Luwian kingdoms spoke a common language, they can be discussed as a single civilization, Eberhard Zangger, head of the Zurich-based non-profit, explained to New Scientist.

‘During the second millennium BCE people speaking a Luwian language lived throughout Asia Minor,’ Luwian Studies explains.

‘They were contemporaries, trading partners, and at times opponents of the well-known Minoan, Mycenaean, and Hittite cultures of Greece and Asia Minor.

When the Bronze Age drew to a close, the Greeks lost the art of writing for many centuries. But, the Luwians maintained this for roughly half a millennium, the researchers say.

Texts from the Luwians were discovered in the 19th century, before the Mycenaean, Minoan, and Hittite documents.

Hittite texts reveal that the Luwian coalitions occasionally grew powerful enough to attack the empire.

The new theory suggests the Luwians did so once more, roughly 3200 years ago, converging upon the capital Hattusa from both land and sea.

Later Egyptian texts describe raids on Cyprus and Syria by the ‘Sea Peoples,’ and the researchers suggest these mysterious attackers are actually the Luwians.

Attackers set fires to temples and palaces, and drove out the ruling class until the Hittite civilization ‘vanished into oblivion for three thousand years,’ according to the proposal.

The massive Luwian civilization then ruled a territory from Northern Greece to Lebanon, they say.

In the new scenario, it’s argued that the many Luwian-speaking petty kingdoms and western Asia Minor, a peninsula also called Anatolia, joined together in a coalition (red) to attack the neighbouring Hittites (green). The new theory suggests the coalition converged upon the Hittite capital Hattusa from land and sea

Shortly after, the Mycenaean kings in Greece banded together to destroy the Luwians, who could not defend their large territory. The Myceneans built a large fleet and attacked the port cities of Asia Minor, which were easily destroyed

Shortly after, the Mycenaean kings in Greece banded together to destroy the Luwians, who could not defend their large territory.

The Myceneans built a large fleet and attacked the port cities of Asia Minor, which were easily destroyed.

Then, the two armies gathered before Troy.

The subsequent battle – the infamous ‘Trojan War’ – ended in the complete destruction of the Luwian coalition, and the fall of Troy.

But, the victors were met with their own chaos in the years to follow.

Kings returned home from war to clash with the deputies who had since assumed their roles, and some didn’t return at all.

Few kings were able to resume their claim to the throne, and ‘traditional Mycenaean kingdoms existed next to areas of anarchy,’ the researchers explain.

Eventually, a civil war tore through the civilization, and the Mycenaean Era was brought to an end.

A Dark Age began soon after.

The researchers from Luwian Studies say this scenario could explain the sudden end of the Late Bronze Age, but not all archaeologists agree with the concept of a ‘lost’ Luwian civilization, New Scientist explains.

And, some debate the ‘World War Zero,’ narrative, and explain that that many archaeologists have become skeptical of the ancient narratives which describe ‘approximate historical truth,’ like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

‘Archaeologists will need to discover similar examples of monumental art and architecture across western Anatolia and ideally texts from the same sites to support Zangger’s claim of a civilization,’ Christoph Bachhuber, of the University of Oxford, told New Scientist.

Though it’s been met with some criticism, archaeologists say the research will bring the Late Bronze Age era of western Anatolia into the light for future studies.


Josephus on the Essenes

Steve Mason argues that the texts of Josephus cannot be relied upon to support the conclusion that the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the inhabitants of Qumran.

Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian, politician and soldier whose literary works provide crucial documentation of Roman Palestine in the first century A.D. At age 29, he was appointed general of the Jewish forces in Galilee. He was eventually captured by Vespasian, who was at that time the supreme commander of the Roman army. Josephus capitulated and sought to ingratiate himself with the Roman general, eventually becoming part of the imperial court in Rome. He was an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Roman army in 70 A.D. He spent the rest of his life in Rome pursuing his literary career, the surviving results of which comprise a vital source of historical information.

Josephus’s commentaries on the laws and characteristics of the Essene community have been invaluable to scholars studying ancient Jewish laws and customs. They have also been the subject of much debate, particularly as they pertain to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Researchers have relied heavily on Josephus’s works as they try to determine who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, who inhabited Qumran, and whether or not the authors of the scrolls and the community at Qumran were in fact one and the same.

Professor Steve Mason asserts in his article “Did the Essenes Write the Dead Sea Scrolls? Don’t Rely on Josephus” (BAR, November/December 2008) that the texts of Josephus cannot be relied upon to support the conclusion that the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the inhabitants of Qumran. So what does Josephus have to say about the Essene community? Following is a translated excerpt from The Jewish War, in which Josephus provides his main description of this fascinating group.

This deliberately literal translation of the Greek is from Steve Mason, Flavius Josephus: translation and commentary, vol. 1b: Judean War (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

The Jewish War, Book II, Chapter 8


119 For three forms of philosophy are pursued among the Judeans: the members of one are Pharisees, of another Sadducees, and the third [school], who certainly are reputed to cultivate seriousness, are called Essenes; although Judeans by ancestry, they are even more mutually affectionate than the others. 120 Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character: 121 without doing away with marriage or the succession resulting from it, they nevertheless protect themselves from the wanton ways of women, having been persuaded that none of them preserves her faithfulness to one man.


122 Since [they are] despisers of wealth—their communal stock is astonishing—, one cannot find a person among them who has more in terms of possessions. For by a law, those coming into the school must yield up their funds to the order, with the result that in all [their ranks] neither the humiliation of poverty nor the superiority of wealth is detectable, but the assets of each one have been mixed in together, as if they were brothers, to create one fund for all. 123 They consider olive oil a stain, and should anyone be accidentally smeared with it he scrubs his body, for they make it a point of honor to remain hard and dry, and to wear white always. Hand-elected are the curators of the communal affairs, and indivisible are they, each and every one, [in pursuing] their functions to the advantage of all.


124 No one city is theirs, but they settle amply in each. And for those school-members who arrive from elsewhere, all that the community has is laid out for them in the same way as if they were their own things, and they go in and stay with those they have never even seen before as if they were the most intimate friends. 125 For this reason they make trips without carrying any baggage at all—though armed on account of the bandits. In each city a steward of the order appointed specially for the visitors is designated quartermaster for clothing and the other amenities. 126 Dress and also deportment of body: like children being educated with fear. They replace neither clothes nor footwear until the old set is ripped all over or worn through with age. 127 Among themselves, they neither shop for nor sell anything; but each one, after giving the things that he has to the one in need, takes in exchange anything useful that the other has. And even without this reciprocal giving, the transfer to them [of goods] from whomever they wish is unimpeded.


128 Toward the Deity, at least: pious observances uniquely [expressed]. Before the sun rises, they utter nothing of the mundane things, but only certain ancestral prayers to him, as if begging him to come up. 129 After these things, they are dismissed by the curators to the various crafts that they have each come to know, and after they have worked strenuously until the fifth hour they are again assembled in one area, where they belt on linen covers and wash their bodies in frigid water. After this purification they gather in a private hall, into which none of those who hold different views may enter: now pure themselves, they approach the dining room as if it were some [kind of] sanctuary. 130 After they have seated themselves in silence, the baker serves the loaves in order, whereas the cook serves each person one dish of one food. 131 The priest offers a prayer before the food, and it is forbidden to taste anything before the prayer; when he has had his breakfast he offers another concluding prayer. While starting and also while finishing, then, they honor God as the sponsor of life. At that, laying aside their clothes as if they were holy, they apply themselves to their labors again until evening. 132 They dine in a similar way: when they have returned, they sit down with the vistors, if any happen to be present with them, and neither yelling nor disorder pollutes the house at any time, but they yield conversation to one another in order. 133 And to those from outside, the silence of those inside appears as a kind of shiver-inducing mystery. The reason for this is their continuous sobriety and the rationing of food and drink among them—to the point of fullness.


134 As for other areas: although there is nothing that they do without the curators’ having ordered it, these two things are matters of personal prerogative among them: [rendering] assistance and mercy. For helping those who are worthy, whenever they might need it, and also extending food to those who are in want are indeed left up to the individual; but in the case of the relatives, such distribution is not allowed to be done without [permission from] the managers. 135 Of anger, just controllers; as for temper, able to contain it; of fidelity, masters; of peace, servants. And whereas everything spoken by them is more forceful than an oath, swearing itself they avoid, considering it worse than the false oath; for they declare to be already degraded one who is unworthy of belief without God. 136 They are extraordinarily keen about the compositions of the ancients, selecting especially those [oriented] toward the benefit of soul and body. On the basis of these and for the treatment of diseases, roots, apotropaic materials, and the special properties of stones are investigated.


137 To those who are eager for their school, the entry-way is not a direct one, but they prescribe a regimen for the person who remains outside for a year, giving him a little hatchet as well as the aforementioned waist-covering and white clothing. 138 Whenever he should give proof of his self-control during this period, he approaches nearer to the regimen and indeed shares in the purer waters for purification, though he is not yet received into the functions of communal life. For after this demonstration of endurance, the character is tested for two further years, and after he has thus been shown worthy he is reckoned into the group. 139 Before he may touch the communal food, however, he swears dreadful oaths to them: first, that he will observe piety toward the deity; then, that he will maintain just actions toward humanity; that he will harm no one, whether by his own deliberation or under order; that he will hate the unjust and contend together with the just; 140 that he will always maintain faithfulness to all, especially to those in control, for without God it does not fall to anyone to hold office, and that, should he hold office, he will never abuse his authority—outshining his subordinates, whether by dress or by some form of extravagant appearance; 141 always to love the truth and expose the liars; that he will keep his hands pure from theft and his soul from unholy gain; that he will neither conceal anything from the school-members nor disclose anything of theirs to others, even if one should apply force to the point of death. 142 In addition to these, he swears that he will impart the precepts to no one otherwise than as he received them, that he will keep away from banditry, and that he will preserve intact their school’s books and the names of the angels. With such oaths as these they completely secure those who join them.


143 Those they have convicted of sufficiently serious errors they expel from the order. And the one who has been reckoned out often perishes by a most pitiable fate. For, constrained by the oaths and customs, he is unable to partake of food from others. Eating grass and in hunger, his body wastes away and perishes. 144 That is why they have actually shown mercy and taken back many in their final gasps, regarding as sufficient for their errors this ordeal to the point of death.


145 Now with respect to trials, [they are] just and extremely precise: they render judgment after having assembled no fewer than a hundred, and something that has been determined by them is non-negotiable. There is a great reverence among them for—next to God—the name of the lawgiver, and if anyone insults him he is punished by death. 146 They make it point of honor to submit to the elders and to a majority. So if ten were seated together, one person would not speak if the nine were unwilling. 147 They guard against spitting into [their] middles or to the right side and against applying themselves to labors on the seventh days, even more than all other Judeans: for not only do they prepare their own food one day before, so that they might not kindle a fire on that day, but they do not even dare to transport a container—or go to relieve themselves. 148 On the other days they dig a hole of a foot’s depth with a trowel—this is what that small hatchet given by them to the neophytes is for—and wrapping their cloak around them completely, so as not to outrage the rays of God, they relieve themselves into it [the hole]. 149 After that, they haul back the excavated earth into the hole. (When they do this, they pick out for themselves the more deserted spots.) Even though the secretion of excrement is certainly a natural function, it is customary to wash themselves off after it as if they have become polluted.


150 They are divided into four classes, according to their duration in the training, and the later-joiners are so inferior to the earlier-joiners that if they should touch them, the latter wash themselves off as if they have mingled with a foreigner. 151 [They are] long-lived, most of them passing 100 years—as a result, it seems to me at least, of the simplicity of their regimen and their orderliness. Despisers of terrors, triumphing over agonies by their wills, considering death—if it arrives with glory—better than deathlessness. 152 The war against the Romans proved their souls in every way: during it, while being twisted and also bent, burned and also broken, and passing through all the torture-chamber instruments, with the aim that they might insult the lawgiver or eat something not customary, they did not put up with suffering either one: not once gratifying those who were tormenting [them], or crying.153 But smiling in their agonies and making fun of those who were inflicting the tortures, they would cheerfully dismiss their souls, [knowing] that they would get them back again.


154 For the view has become tenaciously held among them that whereas our bodies are perishable and their matter impermanent, our souls endure forever, deathless: they get entangled, having emanated from the most refined ether, as if drawn down by a certain charm into the prisons that are bodies. 155 But when they are released from the restraints of the flesh, as if freed from a long period of slavery, then they rejoice and are carried upwards in suspension. For the good, on the one hand, sharing the view of the sons of Greece they portray the lifestyle reserved beyond Oceanus and a place burdened by neither rain nor snow nor heat, but which a continually blowing mild west wind from Oceanus refreshes. For the base, on the other hand, they separate off a murky, stormy recess filled with unending retributions. 156 It was according to the same notion that the Greeks appear to me to have laid on the Islands of the Blessed for their most courageous men, whom they call heroes and demi-gods, and for the souls of the worthless the region of the impious in Hades, in which connection they tell tales about the punishments of certain men—Sisyphuses and Tantaluses, Ixions and Tityuses—establishing in the first place the [notion of] eternal souls and, on that basis, persuasion toward virtue and dissuasion from vice. 157For the good become even better in the hope of a reward also after death, whereas the impulses of the bad are impeded by anxiety, as they expect that even if they escape detection while living, after their demise they will be subject to deathless retribution. 158 These matters, then, the Essenes theologize with respect to the soul, laying down an irresistible bait for those who have once tasted of their wisdom.


159 There are also among them those who profess to foretell what is to come, being thoroughly trained in holy books, various purifications, and concise sayings of prophets. Rarely if ever do they fail in their predictions.


160 There is also a different order of Essenes. Though agreeing with the others about regimen and customs and legal matters, it has separated in its opinion about marriage. For they hold that those who do not marry cut off the greatest part of life, the succession, and more: if all were to think the same way, the line would very quickly die out. 161 To be sure, testing the brides in a three-year interval, once they have been purified three times as a test of their being able to bear children, they take them in this manner; but they do not continue having intercourse with those who are pregnant, demonstrating that the need for marrying is not because of pleasure, but for children. Baths [are taken] by the women wrapping clothes around themselves, just as by the men in a waist-covering. Such are the customs of this order.

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