Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Standard 21st-Century Advice, Royal Wedding Edition

Our contemporaries never, ever get tired of saying this.

Reconstructing the Ishtar Gate

Behold the famous Ishtar Gate from Babylon, built by Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned 605-562 BC) and reconstructed in Berlin's Pergamon Museum. If you're like me, you may have wondered how authentic this is. Because, let me tell you, nothing comes out of the ground looking like this.

Incidentally that is actually just the front part of the gate; the back part was too big to ship to Berlin.

Babylon was excavated from 1900 to 1917 under the direction of Robert Koldewey of the German Oriental Society. In 1912 Koldewey wrote a book about his work so far, which was translated into English and is now free to everybody at I read the whole thing, and my post on the overall story of the Babylon excavations is here.

While I was reading Koldewey's book I paid particular attention to the account of the Ishtar Gate, which gets a whole chapter, with another for the processional way that led to it. That was actually the place where Koldewey began his excavations, and it was fragments of blue enameled brick he found on the surface that made him particularly want to dig in Babylon. I discovered that while, of course, the whole thing did not emerge from the ground intact, quite a lot of it did.

Koldewey's section through the gate. As is often the case with archaeology, we have a very clear idea of the shape of the foundation, and in this case this walls have been preserved to a remarkable height.

But that still doesn't get us to the top; how did Koldewey know what the tops of the walls and towers looked like? So far as I can tell, he did not. Archaeologists can often guess at the height of walls from the amount of rubble, but at Babylon the upper layers had been mined for bricks for 2,000 years, so that would not be very reliable. And sometimes you can tell a lot about a building from particular cut stones or shaped bricks, but that does not seem to be the case at Babylon, where the bricks were all made to standard shapes and sizes.

There are Assyrian reliefs that show Mesopotamian city walls, and some of them look like the walls that Koldewey gave to Babylon, so maybe he got the idea from these. I suppose it is also possible that in the mass of rubble that surrounded the gate there were big chunks of still-mortared brick forming at least one of the crenellations, but if so Koldewey doesn't mention it. (Nebuchadnezzar's masons used a sort of asphalt for their mortar, made with tar that oozed out of the ground over what are now famous oil fields.) Come to think of it, Babylon had miles of walls, so it would not be at all surprising if such a chunk survived somewhere. Perhaps the answer is buried somewhere in Koldewey's final excavation report.

Koldewey did learn in great detail about the sculptures of the gate and the processional way that led up to it, and in fact he found dozens of nearly complete versions. This is a Sirrush, a "walking serpent," the beast sacred to Marduk; excavation photo, drawing from Koldewey's book, and as displayed in Berlin.

Bulls. Notice that these are made of molded bricks, so that all are identical, or at least all the ones walking in the same direction. Koldewey thought that each started with a sculpted original, and the molds for the bricks were made by pressing clay against it. That would be a tricky process, but given that Nebuchadnezzar II built like a madman through his whole long reign, almost all in brick, the brickmakers of his time were probably as expert as any before or since.

And one of the lions from the processional way.

So the reconstructed gate is 90% original about halfway up. Above that it may be largely imaginary, although it is built of original Babylon bricks. The wonderful sculpted animals are as real as anything you see in a museum. I come to the end of this exploration of Babylon feeling reassured more than worried; Koldewey and his crew did an amazing job, and the maps on which all our reconstructions of Babylon are based are as good as it gets. The tops of the buildings are a lot less certain than the bottoms, but that is just always the case in archaeology.


When you feel perpetually unmotivated, you start questioning your existence in an unhealthy way; everything becomes a pseudo-intellectual question you have no interest in responding to whatsoever. This whole process becomes your very skin and it does not merely affect you; it actually defines you. So, you see yourself as a shadowy figure unworthy of developing interest, unworthy of wondering about the world – profoundly unworthy in every sense and deeply absent in your very presence.

– Ingmar Bergman

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Iglesia de la Compañía, Arequipa, Peru

Built by the Jesuits, 1590 to 1698. Above, the famous entrance.


Overall view. The style of this church was very influential, and several others were built in the next century in this Indianized Baroque idiom.

In the cloisters.

Side entrance, now closed off.

Interior, including the gold-covered altar.

Ceiling of a side chapel.

St. James in glory.

Lovely photo from this blog, which has many more images and some history.

Rebels and the American Establishment

Would-be radical rapper and filmmaker Boots Riley explains the ironies surrounding cultural rebellion in America:
“Everybody feels like they’re the exception,” he went on. “There’s a story I tell, which was told to me by Tom Morello,” who was the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, with whom Riley formed a side project several years ago. “Rage were going to shoot a music video for one of their songs, Michael Moore directed it and the idea was they were gonna show up on Wall Street and play loud in the middle of the day, and when the cops came, and when Wall Street people came and yelled at them, even if it got shut down, that would be the video. So they get there, they play the song one time. Tumbleweeds. Play it again. Nothing’s happening — a couple cops talking into their radios. They play it a third time and start hearing a rumble. ‘Are they sending SWAT in?’ And then, from around the corner, they see hundreds of people in business clothes coming closer, chanting ‘Suits! For! Rage!’ They’re fans!” (In the finished video, for the song “Sleep Now in the Fire,” a few men in trading-floor jackets rock out in the crowd.)

In a Lawless Place

In Rio's Favelas, the militias founded to fight the drug gangs look increasingly like them:
In their current form, militias were established in Rio de Janeiro in the late ’90s and early 2000s, under the pretext that they were protecting residents from drug traffickers. Although more civilians are joining, the militias have been dominated by active-duty and retired police officers, who essentially assume control of suburban slums, or favelas, under the guise of defending them.

Once they have a foothold in the community, militia members extort money from residents and shopkeepers (in other words, they demand payments that are partly for protection against themselves). They also control local unlicensed public transportation, since city buses are scarce or nonexistent in remote areas. They offer illegal internet and television connections, charge commissions on real estate deals, and control the supply of gas and water. In the Gardênia Azul favela, for example, militia members collect money from street vendors and even popcorn carts.

It’s a kind of mafia, with Brazilian peculiarities.

One of them is irony. After careful deliberation with their accountants (at least that’s what I imagine), and in the name of business diversification, some militias have entered the field of drug trafficking. Others have decided to work with their former rivals from drug gangs, selling them weapons and recruiting members from their ranks. In 2015, according to the newspaper O Dia, a militia “sold” the area of Morro do Jordão to a drug gang for three million Brazilian reais, or about $800,000. So much for the righteous excuse of vigilante justice.

According to the news website G1, two million people in the Rio metropolitan area live in territories controlled by militias. A 2013 academic report concluded that of the roughly 1,000 favelas in the city, 45 percent are controlled by militia organizations and 37 percent by drug gangs. The main difference is that police brutality is less common in militia-controlled neighborhoods, probably because those groups have strong ties to the official state security apparatus.
Where government cannot maintain order, somebody else will. And it is just a libertarian fantasy that unofficial police forces would be less burdensome than the official kind.

Incidentally, Rio's most powerful militia is called the "Justice League."

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Excavating Babylon

Instead of whatever it was I should have been doing, I spent about three hours this afternoon learning about the excavation of Babylon. I got curious about this because I was looking for reconstructions of ancient cities, and those of Babylon all look pretty much the same.

Here is a nice one by Rocío Espín Piñar. These paintings all look the same because they all follow the original reconstructions made by the director of excavations at the site from 1900 to 1917, Robert Koldewey of the German Oriental Society.

You can get a good sense of Koldewey and his work from a semi-popular book he wrote after the 1912 excavation season, which was quickly translated into English and more recently put online for free. The Excavations at Babylon, translated by Agnes Sophia Griffith, is not a particularly exciting book, but it is concise, well illustrated, and remarkably clear. There are many wonderful plans, like this one of the Southern Citadel.

Koldewey did a good job of telling us both what he thought his team had discovered and how certain he felt about it. Case in point: he identified a building that he thought might be the Hanging Gardens, but admitted this was mainly because the building was unique and he hadn't found anything else that might be the Hanging Gardens. Archaeologists now think it was a granary, and I subscribe to the theory that puts the Hanging Gardens at Nineveh. Koldewey published this photograph of an assortment of small figurines of apes, which says were very common finds in residential districts, while freely admitting that he had no idea what they represented.

While Leonard Woolley's work at Ur is most famous for the artifacts he uncovered, and Henry Layard's at Nineveh is know for the stone reliefs and sculptures, Koldewey's Babylon is known mainly for its architecture.

But then Babylon was a truly extraordinary city. The circumference of its walls was 11 miles (18 km), and this was no simple, single wall; behold Koldewey's diagram of the defenses. The most massive wall was 72 feet (22 m) thick. To excavate this vast site Koldewey employed 250 laborers and a dozen surveyors, and they worked most of the year, not some quick field season.

One of the discoveries Koldewey made was that shifts in the Euphrates River and a rise in the water table meant that the lower levels of Babylon are now under water; notice the water in the bottom of this excavation. Because of that the early Babylon of Hammurabi is still unknown. Across most of the site Koldewey's team reached only the last period of the city's glory, when it was the capital of what we call the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This was the age of Nabopolassar (reigned 626–605 BC) and his famous son, Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562). A few finds were made in residential neighborhoods reaching back to 1400 BC, but in the public areas it's all Neo-Babylonian.

We know a remarkable amount about this period. We have several different semi-official chronicles that give us the view of the ruling families, and also a strange class of courtly tales scholars call "novels" that provide fascinating details about the private lives of kings and queens. (The account of Kings David and Solomon in the Bible is one of these.) There are also tens of thousands of clay tablets, many of them from courts and temples but others from merchants and private schoolmasters. We have thousands of inscriptions. And we have Koldewey's archaeology. Above, reconstructed tile panel from Nebuchadnezzar's throne room.

Conveniently for us, ancient Mesopotamian kings liked to sign their building projects with stamped bricks and tiles; this one boasts of the great building works undertaken by Nebuchadnezzar. So we don't have to guess at who built which phase of the walls or which part of the palace, just dig out a few of the millions of stamped bricks.

This is how Koldewey was able to do such a great job of reconstructing the city that only a few details of his work have ever been questioned; mostly it was just a matter of moving massive amounts of rubble, mapping the walls, and reading the bricks. Above, plan of the sacred precinct, with the great ziggurat called Etemenanki, the Foundation Stone of Heaven and Earth.

Water tunnel. I shudder to think what it would take me to dig out such a tunnel with modern methods and safety standards.

Koldewey's book is of course mostly in black and white, but if you want color photographs of artifacts from Babylon you can find hundreds at the web site of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Like the famous onyx scepter and this tiny onyx turtle.

Glass flask.

Gypsum head of the Demon Pazuzu. Aren't you glad to know about the Demon Pazuzu?

Of course the most famous artifact from Babylon is the Ishtar Gate, shown here as it is reconstructed in Berlin. But that is such a complex tale that I will take it up in a separate post. (See here.)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Yair Dvir, "Living Dead"

Dried chameleon corpse in the Israeli desert. From National Geographic.

Grand Expositions: Paris 1900

Of all the great World's Fairs, the most over-the-top may have been the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, intended to celebrate the achievements of the nineteenth century.

It was held in the same place as the more famous fair of 1889, which launched the great era of the fairs. So the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, loomed over the site.

Notice the huge Ferris Wheel, introduced at Chicago in 1892 and a requirement thereafter.

What made the 1900 fair remarkable was the sheer exuberance of the architecture.

Consider the Chateau d'Eau, the Castle of Water, attached to the Electricity Exposition. This was Art Nouveau taken to its most Baroque extreme.

So much was spent that the fair lost money even though 50 million people attended.

The fair featured the assortment of technological marvels that made these fairs so famous; among other things the first talking movies were shown. (You can see clips at wikipedia.) Rudolf Diesel exhibited his famous engine, and the mass public got their first look at escalators. Campbell's Soup was awarded the gold medal that still appears on some of their labels; I hope it was for preservation technology, not taste. Nested Russian dolls were either (depending on who you believe) sold for the first time or introduced to the west.

But it is the mad richness of the buildings and their scultpures that lingers in the imagination.