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March/April 2015


it opened new doors—literally, in one case. Although Grana-

da’s archeological museum has been closed for decades, she

brushed this inconvenience aside and arranged to view pieces

she had heard about from colleagues: alabaster jars trans-

ported to Iberia all the way from Egypt to serve as burial

urns in a Phoenician cemetery. One jar even bore the jowly

visage of Bes, the ancient Egyptian deity invoked to safeguard

mothers, children and households.

London’s British Museum presented an opposite challenge.

With holdings so vastly numerous, so encyclopedic, many antiq-

uities remain out of sight,

including, it turned out, a

uniquely intimate banquet relief

of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal

and his consort. Depicting the

couple on their thrones, each

raising saucer-shaped drinking

cups to toast his victory over

the Elamites, this gypsum-ala-

baster sculpture is one of the

few images to show Assyrian



bashing heads,

hunting lions or casting baleful

gazes upon their subjects.

(Nonetheless, the severed head

of the vanquished Elamite king

dangles from a nearby pine

tree, somewhat spoiling the

moment of repose, at least to modern eyes.)

“This stone panel was shrouded in gloom,” said Aruz,

“but I immediately realized we had to have it.”

On Samos, the otherwise unassuming antiquities collec-

tion revealed another astonishing lode. “What is amazing

here is that you

walk into a place

that is almost never

visited and it is absolutely

packed with Near Eastern arti-

facts,” the curator observed. Virtually all of them landed

on the island as votive offerings for the temple sanctuary of

Hera, the Greek goddess of women and marriage (and the

wife of Zeus). Phoenician merchants, Greek mercenaries in

the Assyrian army, emissaries and pilgrims from around the

Near East and the Mediterra-

nean flocked to the sanctuary,

known as the Heraion, and

their donations beseeched the

goddess’s favor.

As a result of such diffuse

origins, some items on Samos

are like detective mysteries

waiting to be solved. A bronze

equine chest plate, or frontlet,

depicts four female figures and

three feline heads. An inscrip-

tion in Aramaic describes it

as a gift to the ninth-century


king Hazael of Aram-

Damascus. The funny thing

is that an identical inscrip-

tion turned up on a matching

bronze blinker, used to shield a horse’s eyes, discovered some

325 kilometers across the Aegean in Eretria, north of Athens,

where it had been a dedication to another Greek sanctuary, that

of Apollo, god of the sun, arts and prophecy. Aruz concluded

that both items probably originated in the same set.

An unflinching chronicle of conquest, this nearly panoramic bas-relief depicts

the victory of Neo-Assyrians over the Elamites in about 653


at Til Tuba,

now in Iran. Inscribed only a few years after the battle on limestone panels,

each taller than a person, in Nineveh’s Southwest Palace, it uses more than a

dozen sequential scenes, some of which are explained in cuneiform captions,

to tell the story of the battle.

Why a beast sacred to a

Babylonian deity, and likely

crafted in Babylon, ended up

presented to a Greek goddess

more than 1500 kilometers

west remains both an enigma

and a symbol of an era of

cultural cross-pollinations.