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Friday, 5 July 2019

Historical Middle East, three: Ritual objects

This is the third in a new (third) series of blogposts based on the Middle East trip that I completed in May and early June. The first post in this series was on orientalist art and the second was on funerary customs.

This is another scattershot post that features photos I took on the trip. I had no idea at the time I was taking the photos how they would be used, and I certainly didn’t think at the time they were taken that I would be writing a series of blogposts of this nature.

I’m just using what I possess. Although it is interesting in hindsight how easy cataloguing the photos was in the event. Finding themes that linked the various photos taken in various museums and at various tourist spots visited during the trip turned out to be quite simple. Once I sat down with an intention to do so, the task was quite straight-forward and the titles for each of the posts in the series quickly came to mind.

In the previous post in this series I talked a little bit about the relationship between the ancient people of the Middle East and their gods. The post you are currently reading will touch on some of the same themes as it will focus on some of the ritual objects that people at the time used to communicate with their gods, and to maintain cohesion in their earthly communities.

Communities that were based on agriculture and that, therefore, allowed for the specialisation of different professions. It is impossible to contemplate the objects that are featured in this post without imagining a number of special craft capabilities that allowed those people – so far back in the past by now it is as though they are beings that belong to a different species – to make the things that you will see in the images that will appear below.

This post differs from the one that came before it in one significant aspect. For the previous post (on funerary customs) it was relatively easy to imagine the meaning of the objects on display. For the current post, however, the distance that time puts between us and the people who made them is so great, and their relationship with the world differs so markedly from our own, that it is often very difficult for a modern human to grasp the significance of the objects shown in the photos that you can see here. I feel a need to apologise for a lack of definition in some cases in what follows, but in many instances there is no more information available in the broader community about the objects shown, than what appears here. This is the nature of the discipline and what is offered therefore must suffice for present purposes. It is better to say, “I don’t know,” than to pretend that you do understand, although in at least one case where there is little certainty about the meaning of an object I have tentatively ventured a theory.

The Ain Ghazal statue in the Jordan Museum (see photo below), for example, has not been properly understood to this point in time. It is dated to 7500BC, so it is Neolithic, and it was discovered in Amman in the 1980s along with 31 other plaster statues. The label in the museum goes on to say: “We don’t know its meaning, but we know that the people who made it were skilled craftspeople living in a thriving village.”


If I were to suggest a meaning I would say that it embodies the dual nature of humanity: good and evil. But this reading is mere conjecture. It is possible to imagine how an object like this might have been used in a ritual if it was accompanied by a narrative and/or by music. Like movie CGI special effects today, the object might have remained hidden until a dramatic point in the story being recited was reached, and then to emphasise something contained in the narrative it could have been suddenly revealed to a gathered crowd.


Made from clay and limestone pebble, the female deities shown in the photo above are from the Yarmukian culture, 8000 years ago. These objects are in the Israel Museum. In ancient times female deities like these and like the figure shown (two images) below were in the possession of people living in the Levant. Eventually these gods were replaced by pantheons (like the Greek and Mesopotamian pantheons) or, to phrase it differently, by families of gods. 

In the end, however, male gods took over and they remain dominant today. In a book that I reviewed on this blog on 22 July 2006 titled ‘The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image’ by Leonard Shlain (1998), I touched on some of the things that changed between the advent of writing and the emergence of solitary male gods. If you get a chance to read the book it will reward your time with some unique insights. I think that the jury is still out on the reason for the replacement of female deities by male ones, but it happened in different places among different people at around the same time. It is reasonable to link the advent of writing to this change.


Discovered in Nahal Mishmar in the Judean Desert, the ritual objects shown in the photo above are made from copper. They were made 6500 to 5500 years ago. These objects are in the Israel Museum.


In the photo above is a violin-shaped female figurine from 6500 to 5500 years ago. This object is in the Israel Museum.

The following objects are Mesopotamian, so they possibly date from 1000 years before Christ, and the first two are in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The third image is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. I didn’t note down the details for the first two, but the third is a wall relief depicting a stylised date palm flanked by protective genies. It is from northern Mesopotamia, 8th century BC. This alabaster object has cuneiform script carved into it.




The photo below shows a limestone Egyptian altar, late dynastic period, 712BC to 332BC. This object is in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. I thought the cruciform trench in the middle of the altar was interesting.


I didn’t note the date of the object shown in the photo below, but it is a basalt stand that was used in a private dwelling to place offerings on. So rites relating to religious observance were not only conducted in temples but also in the home. The sign in the Israel Museum goes on to say, “Household rites, like the rituals held in sanctuaries, were probably intended to guarantee the fertility of the fields and livestock.” So, no-one is sure how such objects as the stand shown below, with its curious face on the front, were actually used, and why.


The photo below shows votive statuettes from Arabia, 4th to 1st century BC. These objects are in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.


The photo below shows a marble head of Zeus that was in the museum near the Temple of Hercules in Amman. It is dated 2nd century AD and was found in Um Qais, a town in northern Jordan. There will be more on the Roman history of Amman in the next three posts in this series. There were a lot of Greco-Roman objects in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


The photo below shows a painting on the wall in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. It depicts the three Marys meeting with the angel Gabriel. Gabriel points to the tomb and you can see the body of Christ in it. In other paintings that depict this scene, Gabriel answers the question of the three women by pointing up into the sky, indicating that Christ has risen to enter heaven.

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