Ex Oriente Lux is a society that seeks to educate people about the importance of the Ancient Near East. Despite numerous research projects in this field, little information reaches the public. Besides, Near Eastern studies are not very well integrated with other fields of Ancient History, like Classics. Ex Oriente Lux seeks to change all that. On March 19th they organized a seminar where four Dutch scholars shared their insights. The seminar revolved around Herodotus and his descriptions of the Persian Empire. Herodotus, who in many cases is our only source on Persian history, is extremely important but also highly contested. To illustrate the problems that come with interpreting Herodotus, the four speakers each focused on one anecdote from Herodotus’s Histories.
Wouter Henkelman – Herodotus’s rationalization of oral motifs
The first speaker was Wouter Henkelman. Henkelman was my tutor during my master studies and we share a common interest in Achaemenid history and the study of folk tales. He introduced me to many of the great discussions on these topics. We lost contact after he moved to Paris, but it was good to hear him speak again. Henkelman belongs to the second generation of what may be called the ‘New Achaemenid’ school. This school, founded by scholars like Pierre Briant, Amelie Kuhrt, Susan Sherwin-White, Robert Rollinger, Bert van der Spek and Henkelman’s own tutor Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, seek to deconstruct the Graeco-centric view of the Persian Empire that is based mostly on Herodotus’s Histories. According to the New Achaemenid school Herodotus, despite the wealth of information that he offers, should be treated as a late, external, and biased source. His claims should be approached with skepticism and information that is not backed up or is even contradicted by contemporary sources should be discarded. In addition, scholars should try to explain where Herodotus got his wrong information from. This is what Henkelman did.
In his lecture Henkelman discussed the story of Cambyses killing the holy Apis calf. Cambyses, the second Persian king and a son of Cyrus the Great, is mostly known for conquering Egypt and for his madness, that led to his untimely death. During his stay in Egypt Cambyses allegedly killed the holy Apis calf when he mistakenly believed that the Egyptians, who were celebrating the birth of this new Apis calf, were really celebrating one of his recent defeats. This anecdote, along with a few others, is often seen as a sign of Cambyses’s madness. However, it should be noted that the vast majority of anecdotes that depict Cambyses as a madman come from, or are ultimately derived from, the work of Herodotus. Besides Herodotus, there is no evidence for the story. In fact, it has now been confirmed, based on contemporary funerary steles, that the Apis bull who died during Cambyses’s reign was not a calf, but already twenty years old. Also, the next Apis bull, who was born during the reign of Cambyses, lived until the reign of Darius. This should have been enough reason to discard the anecdote, but still many scholars try to squeeze in an Apis calf who was both born and slain under Cambyses. This, according to Henkelman, is a sign of the strong influence that Herodotus still exerts on modern scholars. According to Henkelman the anecdote of the Apis calf was a folk tale from an oral tradition that depicted Cambyses as a blasphemer. This tradition was most likely of Egyptian origin, as the Egyptians had had a tradition of depicting foreign invaders as blasphemers ever since the invasion of the Hyksos. This context not only casts into doubt the historicity of Herodotus’s narrative, but also makes it easier for us to understand the story’s significance.
Olaf Kaper – The lost army of Cambyses and the revolt of Petubastis IV
The second lecture by Olaf Kaper was also about Cambyses. Kaper discussed the famous story of Cambyses’s lost army. According to Herodotus Cambyses sent an army of 50.000 men into the Egyptian desert to fight the Ammonians, who were living in the oasis settlements in the western desert. Before the army could reach the enemy, however, a sandstorm struck and wiped away the entire host. The lost army was never found. Of course this is a fantastic story. It has inspired many amateur archaeologists to go out into the desert and look for the army, but nothing serious has ever been found. This case illustrates very well what happens when (amateur) archaeologists don’t properly evaluate the written sources. As some of you may have noticed, the idea that a sandstorm could wipe out an army of 50.000 without a trace is not very realistic. It is more likely that Cambyses’s army was defeated by the Ammonians and that Cambyses and later Darius tried to cover up this embarrasing defeat. The question then arises whom Cambyses was fighting. According to Olaf Kaper a pharaoh named Petubastis IV, who has also left us some limited epigraphic evidence, ruled from Memphis as a pretender rebel during the reign of Cambyses. He apparently had a strong support base in the oasis settlements in the western desert, where he may have rebuilt some temples. Although there is no hard evidence that Cambyses’s army was defeated by the Ammonians, it does seem to be a highly plausible hypothesis.
Caroline Waerzeggers – The Babylonian revolt against Xerxes (484 BC)
The third speaker was also familiar to me. Caroline Waerzeggers was my Akkadian teacher during my first year, until she moved to London and later settled in Leiden. One of Waerzegger’s most important discoveries deals with the Babylonian revolts against Xerxes in 484 BC. Herodotus claims that the Persian king Xerxes, who was widely loathed among the Greeks for destroying the Athenian Acropolis in 480 BC, had stolen a golden idol from the main temple of Babylon. In the process he also killed a priest who opposed him. Later Greek sources add the information that Xerxes destroyed many Babylonian temples, including the so called ‘Tower of Babel’ (Etemenanki). These scattered references led some scholars to believe that there had been a revolt in Babylonia that Xerxes repressed violently. Later on, however, skeptical scholars like Amelie Kuhrt started to doubt this narrative. Kuhrt rightly stated that Herodotus had never claimed that Xerxes destroyed temples and that the depiction of Xerxes as a iconoclast is based mostly on a Graeco-centric worldview. Around 2000, however, Caroline Waerzeggers discovered that there were indeed two Babylonian kings who revolted in 484 BC, during the reign of Xerxes. Moreover, she demonstrated that the temple archives of major Babylonian cities ended abruptly after 484 BC, which indicates that Xerxes probably did target religious Babylonian institutions that may have inspired to revolt. This settles the matter of the historicity of the Babylonian revolt, but it also evokes new questions. Why did the Babylonian priests revolt? Why did Xerxes target the priesthood? What is the nature and the extent of Xerxes’s destruction? And why did Herodotus only tell us about the theft of one golden statue and the murder of one priest, without telling us about the context of the revolt?
Karel van der Toorn – The long arm of Artaxerxes in Elephantine and Judah
The last lecture by Karel van der Toorn combined the study of Herodotus with Biblical studies. These two fields rarely meet, mostly because Herodotus never mentions Jews in his work. He does refer to the ‘Syrians of Palestine’ who, along with the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, practice circumcision, but the Jewish ethnicity is never mentioned by name. According to Van der Toorn this is because the Jews had not yet differentiated themselves as an ethnic group in Herodotus’s time. They, along with the other Semitic speaking peoples from the Levant, were collectively known as ‘Aramaeans’, or ‘Syrians’, and the importance of their former tribal affiliation had diminished. The ‘Syrians of Palestine’, however, did have a peculiar religion that set them apart from the rest. They worshiped a god named Yahweh, who was unknown to other Syrians, although they did not worship him exclusively. The Yahweh worshippers, with the support of the Persian kings, managed to gain control over the area around Jerusalem, where they founded a temple state governed by religious laws. Over time the Yahweh worshippers codified their laws and increasingly started differentiating themselves from neighboring populations by their deviant traditions and their ban on intermarriage.
In order to better understand this proces of differentiation, Van der Toorn discusses the case of Elephantine. Elephantine is an island situated on the Nile river, in the far south of Egypt. There had been a Jewish garrison on the island ever since the early sixth century BC, but Herodotus, who allegedly visited Elephantine, never mentions it. According to Van der Toorn this is because Herodotus did not recognize them as Jews, but instead saw them as Syrians. The Jews of Elephantine at this time also identified themselves mostly as Syrians, as we know from the Elephantine papyri. The Elephantine Jews were in many ways different from the Jews of Jerusalem. They worshipped other gods beside Yahweh, they intermarried with the Egyptians and they had their own temple. Up until the late fifth century BC the Jews lived in relative harmony with their neighbors, but around 400 BC the increasing number of privileges granted to the Jewish community by the Persians, as well as the further codification of Jewish law, caused a split between the Elephantine Jews and their neighbors. The Jews became more isolated and Egyptians and Jews started to distrust each other. It was the beginning of a long history of Egyptian antisemitism.
Besides teaching students about the Ancient Near East, the Ex Oriente Lux seminar also highlighted some methodological problems. Each speaker approached Herodotus from his or her own unique perspective, which led to some interesting insights. While Henkelman focused on the importance of recognizing oral motifs in historiographical works, Kaper emphasized the importance of combining archaeology with good hermeneutics. Waerzeggers’s example illustrated that new evidence may sometimes prove even a seemingly sound skeptical argument wrong and Van der Toorn emphasized the fluid nature of ethnic identities. Coincidentally (or maybe not) these four issues (oral history, interdisciplinarity, paradigm shifts and ethnicity) figure prominently in modern scholarship. Furthermore, the fact that these issues were illustrated through case studies made them understandable to a broad audience.