Thursday, 4 July 2019

Historical Middle East, two: Funerary customs

This is the second in a third, new series of blogposts based on the trip I made to the ME in May and early June. The first post in the series was on orientalist art.

About 12,000 years ago in this part of the world the first societies emerged that were based on agriculture. People built towns and villages to live in and they raised livestock and grew wheat and barley in the fields surrounding them. They threshed the grain that grew under their care and with stones they ground it to make flour, which they used to bake bread. They milked sheep and goats and put the milk into churns to turn it into butter, or fermented and curdled it to make cheese. They slaughtered animals from time to time so that they could eat meat. They ate and they drank what they and their neighbours produced from the soil or that fell from the sky, and they slept and they dreamed. After they had finished dreaming they woke up in the morning to enjoy again the companionship of their families and their neighbours.

For a Neolithic farmer who knew how to separate the curds from the whey to make cheese, or how to separate the grain from the chaff by winnowing it, the idea of agency most certainly had currency. But his or her knowledge of the world was incomplete. If it didn’t rain the family went hungry. If a cow had problems giving birth to her calf, she could die and then there would be no milk to make supplies for the household. If your daughter was born with an illness she might not live to adulthood.

The gods they invented helped these people to understand the harsh and unforgiving world where, surrounded by anxieties, they lived. They gave their gods the same agency that they themselves had to control their environment. The gods also helped them to control their communities by giving people living in them something to think about that was higher than themselves in the scale of creation; nothing pacifies an unruly neighbour like an irrational fear of a vengeful god you cannot argue with. So religion had two purposes, and they were linked in the minds of the people who were alive at that time.

To maintain social cohesion in their towns and villages, and to make sure they also had good relations with the controlling gods, together these people worshipped their gods and made sacrifices to these imagined beings in the sky whose good offices they hoped could serve to ensure the success of their plantings, the health and productiveness of their domesticated animals, and the stability of their polities. Probably the boundaries that separated the divine and mortal realms were not as clear to these people as they later became. But they knew that if you appeased the gods, who were (like humans) fickle and powerful, then you would prosper.

These people I am talking about lived and died, and when they died they would go (their relatives believed) to a place from where none had ever returned. On earth, people who had known them in life would grieve for these dead ambassadors to the gods. Today people still grieve but the way we commemorate the dead is different from how it was done by our ancestors in what is today Israel and Jordan and Saudi Arabia. We have always believed that it is necessary to perform some sort of rite when a person close to us dies but our ideas about the interior life of the individual are radically different from what was common knowledge in ancient times and so we relate to things like death differently than people did in the past, in the days before psychology was understood and the workings of the brain began to be unearthed by science.

In fact it was only in the final decade of the 18th century that the idea caught on that the emotions derived from inside the mind of the individual, initially in England. Before that they were thought by people to derive from outside the individual, in crowds for example, or though the action of such feelings as desire, which usually had an object to inspire it. Or from the “humours”, which were liquids (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) that were initially catalogued by the ancient Greeks and that were studied seriously for 2000 years but that had no relation whatsoever to the actual workings of the mind. It wasn’t until the science of psychology emerged in the 19th century that the foundations of our own knowledge of humanity were laid, allowing us to understand such things as grief and its operation in the individual.

Still, our ancestors had to come to terms with the matter of mortality: their own and that of people around them. I think it was Nabokov who observed that the human mind is incapable of imagining the void of oblivion with, in the middle of it, a brief span of light and colour that is the only proof of our mortality. I think he is right, and the existence of ancient funerary practices and the artefacts used to carry them out are concrete evidence of the problem he identified last century. Such artefacts are potent emblems of the civilisations that produced them. Into objects heavily laden with signification are concentrated the aspirations and desires of the people who were alive at the time, and so they can communicate to us, in a way that few other things can do, ideas that are remote in both time and space.

This post will look at some of the things that I saw on the trip that reflected on funerary practices in ancient times. I didn’t take any photos of Egyptian artefacts as they are well-known by most people in the community; Jerusalem and Istanbul museums contained a number of such objects. And I don’t pretend to be an expert in Neolithic or Nabataean or Samarian culture: anyone with an internet connection and a browser can discover more even online than will be contained in this post. But the images used here are my IP and I am free to post them wherever I please. In the archaeological museums we visited on the trip we were able to take photographs, which was good for me and good for you (whoever you are who is reading this).

Representations of the dead

The Neolithic plastered skull in the photo below is from Jericho. This artefact is in the museum attached to the Temple of Hercules that you can still visit (or at least the ruins of it) in Amman. The card that accompanies this item says, “It is thought that skulls of ancestors were kept in Plaster to be worshipped by their descendents [sic].” The spelling is not the only thing that needs fixing in this museum. As a general observation the displays didn’t do justice to the importance of the artefacts in them. The signage was often (as in the case with this object) less than satisfactory and there didn’t seem to have been much effort put into understanding what the objects actually signified for the people who made and used them.

The object in the photo above contains an actual human skull that has been coated with plaster. Plaster was used by Neolithic people to make significant objects that we saw in other museums, such as the Ain Ghazal statue that is displayed in the Jordan Museum elsewhere in Amman. In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem there is a figure of a female that is made from pebbles and clay, but the use of plaster (which can be made from a variety of substances, including clay and lime) suggests a sophisticated culture able to support specialised professions. Unfortunately, the label on the skull shown above doesn’t specify the type of plaster that was used to fashion it.

In Istanbul at the Archaeological Museum there is a Yemeni gravestone that is a representation of the buried dating to the time of Christ (see photo below). It is made from alabaster. Like the Ain Ghazal statue it is very beautifully made out of a valuable material.

In Jerusalem, there are likenesses of the deceased dating from 300AD that were made from limestone (see photo below). The label says:
Likenesses of the deceased were commonly erected over tombs throughout the Greco-Roman world. In the Land of Israel, however, the phenomenon only appears in Beth Shean and Samaria. The statues fuse Roman, Eastern, and local traditions: while the hairstyles, the clothing, and the use of the bust format are all characteristic of the Western Roman world, the design of the figures themselves is done in an Eastern style. The names of the deceased are engraved on several statues; some are Greek, and some Semitic, reflecting the mixed population of Beth Shean.


The photo below shows one of a number of Iron age sarcophagi located in the museum near the Temple of Hercules in Amman. They date from 1200 to 900 BC and they were found at Jabal el-quosour in Amman. They are made from terracotta. 

They have similar objects in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (see photo below). There, they are labelled and similarly assigned to the 13th century BC. The label also says they were found at Deir el-Balah, on the southern coastal plain. Elsewhere in the Israel Museum there is a label that says:
Pottery only appeared in the villages of the Middle East some 7800 years ago, thousands of years after the transition to permanent settlements and agriculture. The early potters in this land were members of the Yarmukian culture. They produced a wide range of objects – bowls, cooking pots, jars of various sizes, and miniature vessels – decorated with symbolic motifs. It appears that pottery was used by the Yarmukians for most of their daily activities.

The photos below show the tombs in Petra that were made by the Nabataeans in order to furnish places to bury their dead. The rock is sandstone and is quite soft. Some of the tombs (as shown in the first photo) are very simple and others (as in the second photo) are more ornate. There are hundreds of them in the valley the city was constructed in. The city also contained channels for water and a temple used for religious practices. Petra was revealed to Europeans in the first half of the 19th century after a Swiss explorer managed to convince some locals to show it to him. The Bedouin who still live in the area used to live in the caves but they were relocated to a village by the Jordanian government in the 1980s. The Nabataean kingdom was annexed by the Romans in about 100AD, but by this time they had built their civilisation on the back of taxes levied on imports to Europe of Indian spices. Now, the Bedouin survive by supplying Western tourists with goods and services.

The photo below shows the “Treasury” (al-Khazneh) in Petra. The structure is carved out of the sandstone cliff and legend has it that the Pharaoh (or bandits, depending on which source you use) put treasure in the container at its top. In fact, the edifice was built above tombs that were unearthed in recent years. The Bedouin named the structure but its original signification is lost in time, as is so much that relates to Petra.

Another tomb in Petra is what is called the “Monastery” (see photo below). The Jordanian flag is prominent in this photo as is the red sandstone carving that constitutes the structure, which was built in the third century BC. This place is located at the end of a long and steep series of stairs that takes a good 90 minutes to climb. Donkeys also do the climb with tourists on their backs but we didn’t take this mode of transport to get up to the summit. It was all hard slog on foot and when we got there we had a drink bought at a kiosk. There are couches for visitors to use to relax and recover from their exertions.

The photos below show the interior of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s a working church and has been for 1700 years. Thousands of people visit the building every day to see what is touted as the final resting place of Christ. The photo below allegedly shows the stone where Jesus’ body was anointed before being buried.

The photo below shows the aedicule, or chapel, which allegedly contains the sepulchre where Jesus was buried and from where he is said to have ascended to heaven. Wikipedia says, “The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic Churches all have rights to the interior of the tomb, and all three communities celebrate the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass there daily.” This arrangement has been in existence since the 18th century when a “status quo” was decreed by the Ottoman sultan concerning use of the church by different denominations. 

This decree is still in operation and when we were there a liturgy was taking place, with a black-robed priest swinging a censer filled with smoking incense and, in broken English, urging people to move out of the way as he walked though the heavy crowds of people who congregate near the aedicule. Right in front of the aedicule other priests use metal barriers to control the movement of the crowd, at certain times cordoning off the entrance to the small chapel to prevent people from going into it.

No comments: