Wednesday, March 28, 2012
In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a monstrous creature with the head of a bull on a man’s body. Like many other mythological monsters, the Minotaur had a ravenous appetite for human flesh. He was eventually slain by a worthy hero with the help of a resourceful heroine.
The Minotaur—which means “Minos’s bull”—was born in the palace of King Minos (pronounced MEYE-nuhs) of Crete (pronounced KREET), a large island south of Greece. Some time earlier, the sea god Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun) had sent Minos a pure-white bull to be sacrificed in his honor. When the king saw the magnificent creature, however, he refused to kill it. This angered Poseidon, who arranged for Minos’s wife, Pasiphaë (pronounced pa-SIF-ah-ee), to fall in love with the bull. The offspring of their unnatural mating was the Minotaur. The king imprisoned the Minotaur in the Labyrinth (pronounced LAB-uh-rinth), a maze built by a craftsman at his court named Daedalus (pronounced DED-uh-lus).
In later years, after the people of the Greek city of Athens killed one of Minos’s sons, the Cretan king called down a plague on their city. Only by agreeing to send seven young men and seven young women to Crete every year could the Athenians obtain relief. These youths and maidens were sent into the Cretan Labyrinth, where the Minotaur devoured them.
The Minotaur in Context
Some scholars suggest that the myth of the Minotaur arose out of ancient rituals in which a priest or king donned a bull mask before performing sacrifices. The Labyrinth may have represented the ancient palace at Knossos on Crete, which was a sprawling complex of chambers and hallways. In addition, the tale reflects ancient Greek ideas about women and infidelity. Unlike many male characters in Greek mythology, Pasiphaë does not seek to love the bull, but is forced to do so through the magic of the gods. This reflects the much lower incidence of female infidelity in ancient Greece. However, the child she bears is hideous and must be hidden from the outside world, which also reflects the enormous stigma—social disapproval—that was attached to wives who were unfaithful.
The very first emerald in the universe belonged to Lucifer. According to legend, it was the chief jewel of his heavenly crown, glowing brilliantly in the light of the Lord. But then the Troubles came, and Lucifer the Shining became Satan the Adversary, the prideful Fallen Angel, disgraced in the eyes of God, and cast into Hell. But the emerald did not follow its first master. As Satan was hurled into the burning pit, the stone slipped out of his now-tattered crown, and tumbled to Earth—from which it was born anew.
Wise emerald. For this great stone knows it belongs neither to Heaven nor to Hell. It is an earthly creation, sister to the verdant land and green-shining sea. It’s here on Earth that it began its history, a history of grails, goddesses, and conquistadors, a history that is both true and mythical, sometimes both at once. It has the longest history of any major gemstone. From the very beginning it was clear that the emerald, above all other gems, had a significance that surpassed even its surpassing loveliness. It is of course the symbol of spring, love, youth, and rebirth. But it is so much more. SAY
THE SECRET WORD
The mystery of the stone begins with its name, whose origins lie as deep as the stone itself. The word “emerald” comes to us ultimately from the Sanskrit word marakata, which simply means “green stone.” It’s a stretch, but there it is. The ancient Egyptian term mafek-en-ma likewise refers simply to a green stone, and was used to describe peridot, malachite, and turquoise as well as emerald. This may seem odd to us, but of course, the Egyptians had no way of scientifically determining the composition of a rock. Besides, for the Egyptians, the most important thing about gemstones was their color, which had a high symbolic value in their culture. And green, of course, is the defining characteristic of emerald, just as hardness (not sparkle) is the defining characteristic of diamond.
The “emerald” word traveled along through the Persian zamarrad and Arabic zumurrud through the Greek smaragdos (again meaning simply “green”). The connection between the Sanskrit marakata and the Greek smaragdos can be seen if you look carefully.
From smaragdos, it’s a pretty straight shot to the Latin smaragdus to the Middle English esmeralde. Stop along the way for the Spanish esmeralda and the French emeraude, also the name of that lovely evening perfume. The Germans tried very hard to transform smaragdos into their own language, and for a while were stuck with schmaragt, a word which eventually back-evolved into Smaragd. It may be difficult to pronounce, but it harks back nicely to its Greek roots.
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Sunday, March 11, 2012
In the summer of 1795 a young Nova Scotian boy called Daniel McGinnis landed on one of the many small islands in Mahone Bay. He found signs of human inhabitation and an aged ship’s tackle block dangling from an old oak tree. Under this tree a slight dip in the ground suggested a hole had been dug and refilled. McGinnis excitedly believed he had stumbled across the site of a buried treasure hoard. He raced home to request the help of his two best friends, John Smith and Anthony Vaughan, and the next day they began digging in the hollow. They discovered a shaft 13 feet wide, and four feet down they found a platform of foreign flagstones. Ten feet down they found a layer of supporting log beams, and at 20 and 30 feet they found further platforms made of oak. The three friends realised they would need more manpower and better equipment, and returned home, eager to raise the funds needed for a more ambitious attempt.
Initially they failed, but in 1803 a local doctor called Simeon Lynds heard of Smith’s discoveries on Oak Island and was suitably interested to raise funds from among his friends. The new team dug in earnest and found platforms of logs and clay at ten-foot intervals. By the time they reached the 90- feet mark, the team was removing one bucket of water with every two buckets of mud. Late one evening they found what they thought was the last layer before the treasure. They had the next day off, and spent the time planning how to split their expected wealth. The next Monday morning, however, all but the top thirty feet of the shaft was filled with murky, muddy water. The group tried to bail the water out, but the level remained constant. They tried pumping the water out, but to no avail and abandoned that attempt. In 1805, the group decided to dig another, parallel shaft 110 feet deep, and then tunnel towards the expected treasure chests. But they dug too close to the original shaft, and the wall between the two cracked, filling the new tunnel with hundreds of gallons of water. Out of funds, the work ceased.
No subsequent attempt has been quite so close to rescuing the treasure, but more has become known about the shaft. It was discovered that a carefully constructed underground canal had been built. It ran from the beach, 500 feet away, and entered the shaft’s core. This meant that the logs and clay acted as an effective cork, which, once removed, allowed the water to rush into the chamber. Later efforts to drill into the shaft discovered wood from chest casings, loose metal such as coins, decorative metal chains, a layer of concrete, soft metal such as bullion, and even a piece of parchment with writing on it. This real, tangible evidence of treasure, and the obvious efforts of whoever hid it, has helped to promote and encourage continual efforts to raise the bounty.
The question of who owned the treasure has also baffled interested minds. The suggestion that it is Inca gold, hidden as the natives fled from Spanish settlers, has been mooted. There is the idea that it is a cache of British Army war chests, hidden as their forces retreated during the American War of Independence. However, in 1937, a New England businessman, Gilbert D. Heddon, researched the possibility that the wealth belonged to the well-known privateer, Captain William Kidd. Heddon hoped that by reading Kidd’s history he would find clues leading to details of a shaft’s contents. Like all others, his efforts proved fruitless.
By 1965 Oak Island had turned into a honeycomb of shafts and tunnels, so the American geologist, Bob Dunfield tried a method of brute force to find the treasure. He imported a 70-tonne crane and dug a hole 140 deep and 100 feet wide, but found nothing other than the remnants of earlier searches. In 1970, a new investment group called the Triton Alliance commissioned a complete geological study of the island. The report’s findings have never been released to the public, but it enthused the Triton group enough to excavate the site. They began a project called Borehole 10-X, which found pieces of brass, china and wood cribbing 200 feet down, but the project has suffered numerous problems.
Many locals claim that centuries of haphazard searching have left the island in such a mess that the hidden loot will never be found. Others still believe it might be possible to recover the hoard. But, for now at least, it looks as if the secret treasures of Oak Island are safely buried.
Saturday, March 10, 2012
The mystical figure known as the Queen of Sheba is recorded in the First Book of Kings in the Old Testament. It states that around the tenth century BC a queen of the rich trading nation known as Sheba decided to meet the great King Solomon in person. She did not believe the stories she had been told of Solomon’s wisdom, and brought many hard questions to test him. When his replies met with her approval she gave him plentiful gifts of gold, spices and precious stones. In return, Solomon gave the queen ‘all her desire’, and after their meeting she returned to her own country. The story is repeated in the second Book of Chronicles, and even Christ himself spoke of a queen of the south who came to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Other than this, precious few pieces of historical evidence have survived, but that has not stopped the growth of countless myths and stories. So who was the real Queen of Sheba?
Perhaps the most famous and important extension of her story is that connected with Ethiopia. In 1320 an Ethiopian monk named Yetshak wrote a compendium of legends called Kebra Negast or ‘Glory of the Kings’.
In it, he said that when the Queen of Sheba, referred to in Ethiopian as Makeda, visited Solomon, she was seduced by the great king. Solomon had said that the queen was welcome to his hospitality, but must not take anything without asking. During the night, the Queen suffered a terrible thirst caused by a spicy meal Solomon fed her and she drank the water placed by her bed. The king said she had broken the rules, and must sleep with him as repayment. Nine months later she gave birth to a boy called Menelik. Ethiopians believe that the Queen and her son both accepted the Jewish faith, and that Menelik founded the Solomon Jewish, and then Christian, dynasty in Aksum, Ethiopia.
At around the same time as Yetshak was compiling his tome, other legends were forming in Europe. A thirteenth century story told in the Legenda Aurea stated that the queen was a prophetess connected to the crucifixion of Christ. Over time, she also became an integral part of religious decorations and art. She was often seen as a sorceress, and then a seductress. Strangely, she is also featured as having a secret deformity – French Gothic sculpture often shows her having a webbed foot. In the same way, the Temptation of Saint Anthony by French novelist Gustave Flaubert depicts the queen as a lustful temptress with a withered limb.
This imperfection perhaps arises from earlier Jewish and Islamic references to her. In both the Koran and the Jewish Book called the Targum Sheni, the queen meets Solomon and reveals that she has hairy feet. The Jewish tradition later features her as a demon or seductress, whereas Islamic legend states that Solomon used his magicians’ power to remove her excess hair and married her. Muslims call the Queen of Sheba Balkis, and believe her great nation was based in the Yemen. The Koran describes Sheba as being two gardens, irrigated by a great dam. An advanced level of farming, and good access to Red Sea shipping channels and Arabian camel trains, meant the nation prospered.
Archaeological proof of this occurring in Southern Arabia has been uncovered. The remains of a great dam can be viewed in the Mareb region of the Yemen, now considered to be the capital of the ancient Sheba nation. This dam collapsed in AD 543, but scientists have been able to deduce that it would have been used to irrigate over 500 acres of farm land. In recent years, archaeologists have finished restoring an ancient temple known as the ‘Throne of Balkis’ in the Mareb region. The structure dates from the tenth century BC, so is from the right era to link with what we do know about the queen. Two miles to the east of the Marab region, another ancient building, known as the ‘Temple of the Moon God’, is also being studied. Scientists using radar equipment believe this is an extremely large and elaborate structure, and could yield the answers to many Sheba mysteries. Unfortunately such investigations have been plagued over the years by political indifference and, until these areas become more secure for researchers to study, the true history of Sheba may continue to be obscured by myth and legend.
IN THE 1930S, when air travel was gaining popularity as the easiest way to cross the high altitude peaks of South America, passengers flying over the lofty plains of Peru were greeted with quite a sight. Down on the arid, dry plateau of the Nazca desert, which is about 250 miles south of Lima and covers an area of approximately 200 square miles, was a plethora of massive markings, many in the shape of people and animals, although there were also hundreds of crisscrossing, randomly spaced lines. Locals had always known of the strange marks found on the dusty floor, although it was only now, from the air, that their true designs were revealed. The discovery sparked an interest and a study that continues to this day: people wanted to know why they were there, and what they meant.
The pictures themselves were created using the gravel, soil and distinctly coloured undercrust. Because the area experiences less than an inch of rainfall each year, and the effect of the wind on the surface is minimal, the shapes have been preserved over centuries. There are over 100 outlines of animals and plants, including a monkey, spider, hummingbird and even, it is thought, a spaceman. Countless straight lines form squares, triangles, trapezoids and all manner of strange angles. They seem to run in random directions and to random lengths – one even stretches for nine miles along the desert floor.
Over 3,000 years ago the area was inhabited by a race called the Nazca, who had developed proficient techniques in pottery, weaving and architecture. They created highly effective irrigation systems and successfully grew crops in a harsh environment. It is widely believed that these people were responsible for drawing the lines, although the actual date of the lines’ creation is impossible to determine. A nearby city called Cahauchi, just south of the lines, was recently discovered as being the probable home of the Nazcan line drawers. Experts were able to deduce that the majority of Nazcan people fled the city after a series of natural disasters, with the few native people who remained being exiled or killed by Spanish conquistadors.
But why would a race want to draw pictures that could only be appreciated from the sky? Perhaps the most celebrated theory was the one advanced by Dr Maria Reiche. She tried to prove that the lines correlated to important stars rising in the heavens, and the symbols of animals were actually native representations of star constellations. But her views were not universally supported due to the very fact that the lines cannot be dated. As the Earth’s relationship with the universe turns, any line in any direction will correspond to some astronomical feature at some date. After a lifetime of study and fascination, Reiche died and was buried in the Nazca valley in 1998.
During the 1960s, writers such as Louis Pauwels, Jacques Bergier, and Erich von Daniken famously promoted ideas that the lines were runways or landing strip for alien visitors. Other theories suggest they are an astronomical calendar; that they were used for religious ceremonies; or that they indicated underground sources of water. One expert believes that, before the invention of weaving tools, the lines had men standing along them holding thread, in a version of a giant human loom. But exactly why the images were designed to be viewed from the air has never really been addressed. One quite astonishing theory is that the Nazca people were the original human aviators, and had developed the first rudimentary hot air balloon.
Our understanding of the Nazcan culture has developed with archaeological discoveries, but today the fate of the lines is in serious jeopardy. In recent years, political and advertising agencies have graffitied slogans on the patterns, whilst a recent surge in gold and copper mining in the area is defacing the designs with industrial activities and heavy traffic movements. The expanding local population needs a higher level of basic amenities, which has meant utility providers are now running cables and pipes over the site. Combined with the effects of natural weathering, this means that the most enigmatic and mysterious visual display of an ancient race is under threat of being lost from Man’s history forever.
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
By Robert Draper
National Geographic Contributing Writer
In the year 730 B.C., a man by the name of Piye decided the only way to save Egypt from itself was to invade it. Things would get bloody before the salvation came.
“Harness the best steeds of your stable,” he ordered his commanders. The magnificent civilization that had built the great pyramids had lost its way, torn apart by petty warlords. For two decades Piye had ruled over his own kingdom in Nubia, a swath of Africa located mostly in present-day Sudan. But he considered himself the true ruler of Egypt as well, the rightful heir to the spiritual traditions practiced by pharaohs such as Ramses II and Thutmose III. Since Piye had probably never actually visited Lower Egypt, some did not take his boast seriously. Now Piye would witness the subjugation of decadent Egypt firsthand—“I shall let Lower Egypt taste the taste of my fingers,” he would later write.
North on the Nile River his soldiers sailed. At Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt, they disembarked. Believing there was a proper way to wage holy wars, Piye instructed his soldiers to purify themselves before combat by bathing in the Nile, dressing themselves in fine linen, and sprinkling their bodies with water from the temple at Karnak, a site holy to the ram-headed sun god Amun, whom Piye identified as his own personal deity. Piye himself feasted and offered sacrifices to Amun. Thus sanctified, the commander and his men commenced to do battle with every army in their path.
By the end of a yearlong campaign, every leader in Egypt had capitulated—including the powerful delta warlord Tefnakht, who sent a messenger to tell Piye, “Be gracious! I cannot see your face in the days of shame; I cannot stand before your flame, I dread your grandeur.” In exchange for their lives, the vanquished urged Piye to worship at their temples, pocket their finest jewels, and claim their best horses. He obliged them. And then, with his vassals trembling before him, the newly anointed Lord of the Two Lands did something extraordinary: He loaded up his army and his war booty, and sailed southward to his home in Nubia, never to return to Egypt again.
When Piye died at the end of his 35-year reign in 715 B.C., his subjects honored his wishes by burying him in an Egyptian-style pyramid, with four of his beloved horses nearby. He was the first pharaoh to receive such entombment in more than 500 years. A pity, then, that the great Nubian who accomplished these feats is literally faceless to us. Images of Piye on the elaborate granite slabs, or stelae, memorializing his conquest of Egypt have long since been chiseled away. On a relief in the temple at the Nubian capital of Napata, only Piye’s legs remain. We are left with a single physical detail of the man—namely, that his skin was dark.
Piye was the first of the so-called black pharaohs—a series of Nubian kings who ruled over all of Egypt for three-quarters of a century as that country’s 25th dynasty. Through inscriptions carved on stelae by both the Nubians and their enemies, it is possible to map out these rulers’ vast footprint on the continent. The black pharaohs reunified a tattered Egypt and filled its landscape with glorious monuments, creating an empire that stretched from the southern border at present-day Khartoum all the way north to the Mediterranean Sea. They stood up to the bloodthirsty Assyrians, perhaps saving Jerusalem in the process.
Until recently, theirs was a chapter of history that largely went untold. Only in the past four decades have archaeologists resurrected their story—and come to recognize that the black pharaohs didn’t appear out of nowhere. They sprang from a robust African civilization that had flourished on the southern banks of the Nile for 2,500 years, going back at least as far as the first Egyptian dynasty.
Today Sudan’s pyramids—greater in number than all of Egypt’s—are haunting spectacles in the Nubian Desert. It is possible to wander among them unharassed, even alone, a world away from Sudan’s genocide and refugee crisis in Darfur or the aftermath of civil war in the south. While hundreds of miles north, at Cairo or Luxor, curiosity seekers arrive by the busload to jostle and crane for views of the Egyptian wonders, Sudan’s seldom-visited pyramids at El Kurru, Nuri, and Meroë stand serenely amid an arid landscape that scarcely hints of the thriving culture of ancient Nubia.
Now our understanding of this civilization is once again threatened with obscurity. The Sudanese government is building a hydroelectric dam along the Nile, 600 miles upstream from the Aswan High Dam, which Egypt constructed in the 1960s, consigning much of lower Nubia to the bottom of Lake Nasser (called Lake Nubia in Sudan). By 2009, the massive Merowe Dam should be complete, and a 106-mile-long lake will flood the terrain abutting the Nile’s Fourth Cataract, or rapid, including thousands of unexplored sites. For the past nine years, archaeologists have flocked to the region, furiously digging before another repository of Nubian history goes the way of Atlantis.
The ancient world was devoid of racism. At the time of Piye’s historic conquest, the fact that his skin was dark was irrelevant. Artwork from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome shows a clear awareness of racial features and skin tone, but there is little evidence that darker skin was seen as a sign of inferiority. Only after the European powers colonized Africa in the 19th century did Western scholars pay attention to the color of the Nubians’ skin, to uncharitable effect.
Explorers who arrived at the central stretch of the Nile River excitedly reported the discovery of elegant temples and pyramids—the ruins of an ancient civilization called Kush. Some, like the Italian doctor Giuseppe Ferlini—who lopped off the top of at least one Nubian pyramid, inspiring others to do the same—hoped to find treasure beneath. The Prussian archaeologist Richard Lepsius had more studious intentions, but he ended up doing damage of his own by concluding that the Kushites surely “belonged to the Caucasian race.”
Even famed Harvard Egyptologist George Reisner—whose discoveries between 1916 and 1919 offered the first archaeological evidence of Nubian kings who ruled over Egypt—besmirched his own findings by insisting that black Africans could not possibly have constructed the monuments he was excavating. He believed that Nubia’s leaders, including Piye, were light-skinned Egypto-Libyans who ruled over the primitive Africans. That their moment of greatness was so fleeting, he suggested, must be a consequence of the same leaders intermarrying with the “negroid elements.”
For decades, many historians flip-flopped: Either the Kushite pharaohs were actually “white,” or they were bumblers, their civilization a derivative offshoot of true Egyptian culture. In their 1942 history, When Egypt Ruled the East, highly regarded Egyptologists Keith Seele and George Steindorff summarized the Nubian pharaonic dynasty and Piye’s triumphs in all of three sentences—the last one reading: “But his dominion was not for long.”
The neglect of Nubian history reflected not only the bigoted worldview of the times, but also a cult-like fascination with Egypt’s achievements—and a complete ignorance of Africa’s past. “The first time I came to Sudan,” recalls Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet, “people said: ‘You’re mad! There’s no history there! It’s all in
That was a mere 44 years ago. Artifacts uncovered during the archaeological salvage campaigns as the waters rose at Aswan in the 1960s began changing that view. In 2003, Charles Bonnet’s decades of digging near the Nile’s Third Cataract at the abandoned settlement of Kerma gained international recognition with the discovery of seven large stone statues of Nubian pharaohs. Well before then, however, Bonnet’s labors had revealed an older, densely occupied urban center that commanded rich fields and extensive herds, and had long profited from trade in gold, ebony, and ivory. “It was a kingdom completely free of Egypt and original, with its own construction and burial customs,” Bonnet says. This powerful dynasty rose just as Egypt’s Middle Kingdom declined around 1785 B.C. By 1500 B.C. the Nubian empire stretched between the Second and Fifth Cataracts.
Revisiting that golden age in the African desert does little to advance the case of Afrocentric Egyptologists, who argue that all ancient Egyptians, from King Tut to Cleopatra, were black Africans. Nonetheless, the saga of the Nubians proves that a civilization from deep in Africa not only thrived but briefly dominated in ancient times, intermingling and sometimes intermarrying with their Egyptian neighbors to the north. (King Tut’s own grandmother, the 18th-dynasty Queen Tiye, is claimed by some to be of Nubian heritage.)
The Egyptians didn’t like having such a powerful neighbor to the south, especially since they depended on Nubia’s gold mines to bankroll their dominance of western Asia. So the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty (1539-1292 B.C.) sent armies to conquer Nubia and built garrisons along the Nile. They installed Nubian chiefs as administrators and schooled the children of favored Nubians at Thebes. Subjugated, the elite Nubians began to embrace the cultural and spiritual customs of Egypt—venerating Egyptian gods, particularly Amun, using the Egyptian language, adopting Egyptian burial styles and, later, pyramid building. The Nubians were arguably the first people to be struck by “Egyptomania.”
Egyptologists of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries would interpret this as a sign of weakness. But they had it wrong: The Nubians had a gift for reading the geopolitical tea leaves. By the eighth century B.C., Egypt was riven by factions, the north ruled by Libyan chiefs who put on the trappings of pharaonic traditions to gain legitimacy. Once firmly in power, they toned down the theocratic devotion to Amun, and the priests at Karnak feared a godless outcome. Who was in a position to return Egypt to its former state of might and sanctity?
The Egyptian priests looked south and found their answer—a people who, without setting foot inside Egypt, had preserved Egypt’s spiritual traditions. As archaeologist Timothy Kendall of Northeastern University puts it, the Nubians “had become more Catholic than the pope.”
Under Nubian rule, Egypt became Egypt again. When Piye died in 715 B.C., his brother Shabaka solidified the 25th dynasty by taking up residence in the Egyptian capital of Memphis. Like his brother, Shabaka wed himself to the old pharaonic ways, adopting the throne name of the 6th-dynasty ruler Pepi II, just as Piye had claimed the old throne name of Thutmose III. Rather than execute his foes, Shabaka put them to work building dikes to seal off Egyptian villages from Nile floods.
Shabaka lavished Thebes and the Temple of Luxor with building projects. At Karnak he erected a pink granite statue depicting himself wearing the Kushite crown of the double uraeus—the two cobras signifying his legitimacy as Lord of the Two Lands. Through architecture as well as military might, Shabaka signaled to Egypt that the Nubians were here to stay.
To the east, the Assyrians were fast building their own empire. In 701 B.C., when they marched into Judah in present-day Israel, the Nubians decided to act. At the city of Eltekeh, the two armies met. And although the Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib, would brag lustily that he “inflicted defeat upon them,” a young Nubian prince, perhaps 20, son of the great pharaoh Piye, managed to survive. That the Assyrians, whose tastes ran to wholesale slaughter, failed to kill the prince suggests their victory was anything but total.
In any event, when the Assyrians left town and massed against the gates of Jerusalem, that city’s embattled leader, Hezekiah, hoped his Egyptian allies would come to the rescue. The Assyrians issued a taunting reply, immortalized in the Old Testament’s Book of II Kings: “Thou trustest upon the staff of this bruised reed [of] Egypt, on which if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: So is Pharaoh king of Egypt unto all that trust on him.”
Then, according to the Scriptures and other accounts, a miracle occurred: The Assyrian army retreated. Were they struck by a plague? Or, as Henry Aubin’s provocative book, The Rescue of Jerusalem, suggests, was it actually the alarming news that the aforementioned Nubian prince was advancing on Jerusalem? All we know for sure is that Sennacherib abandoned the siege and galloped back in disgrace to his kingdom, where he was murdered 18 years later, apparently by his own sons.
The deliverance of Jerusalem is not just another of ancient history’s sidelights, Aubin asserts, but one of its pivotal events. It allowed Hebrew society and Judaism to strengthen for another crucial century—by which time the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar could banish the Hebrew people but not obliterate them or their faith. From Judaism, of course, would spring Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem would come to be recast, in all three major monotheistic religions, as a city of a godly significance.
It has been easy to overlook, amid these towering historical events, the dark-skinned figure at the edge of the landscape—the survivor of Eltekeh, the hard-charging prince later referred to by the Assyrians as “the one accursed by all the great gods”: Piye’s son Taharqa.
So sweeping was Taharqa’s influence on Egypt that even his enemies could not eradicate his imprint. During his rule, to travel down the Nile from Napata to Thebes was to navigate a panorama of architectural wonderment. All over Egypt, he built monuments with busts, statues, and cartouches bearing his image or name, many of which now sit in museums around the world. He is depicted as a supplicant to gods, or in the protective presence of the ram deity Amun, or as a sphinx himself, or in a warrior’s posture. Most statues were defaced by his rivals. His nose is often broken off, to foreclose him returning from the dead. Shattered as well is the uraeus on his forehead, to repudiate his claim as Lord of the Two Lands. But in each remaining image, the serene self-certainty in his eyes remains for all to see.
His father, Piye, had returned the true pharaonic customs to Egypt. His uncle Shabaka had established a Nubian presence in Memphis and Thebes. But their ambitions paled before those of the 31-year-old military commander who received the crown in Memphis in 690 B.C. and presided over the combined empires of Egypt and Nubia for the next 26 years.
Taharqa had ascended at a favorable moment for the 25th dynasty. The delta warlords had been laid low. The Assyrians, after failing to best him at Jerusalem, wanted no part of the Nubian ruler. Egypt was his and his alone. The gods granted him prosperity to go with the peace. During his sixth year on the throne, the Nile swelled from rains, inundating the valleys and yielding a spectacular harvest of grain without sweeping away any villages. As Taharqa would record in four separate stelae, the high waters even exterminated all rats and snakes. Clearly the revered Amun was smiling on his chosen one.
Taharqa did not intend to sit on his profits. He believed in spending his political capital. Thus he launched the most audacious building campaign of any pharaoh since the New Kingdom (around 1500 B.C.), when Egypt had been in a period of expansion. Inevitably the two holy capitals of Thebes and Napata received the bulk of Taharqa’s attention. Standing today amid the hallowed clutter of the Karnak temple complex near Thebes is a lone 62-foot-high column. That pillar had been one of ten, forming a gigantic kiosk that the Nubian pharaoh added to the Temple of Amun. He also constructed a number of chapels around the temple and erected massive statues of himself and of his beloved mother, Abar. Without defacing a single preexisting monument, Taharqa made Thebes his.
He did the same hundreds of miles upriver, in the Nubian city of Napata. Its holy mountain Jebel Barkal—known for its striking rock-face pinnacle that calls to mind a phallic symbol of fertility—had captivated even the Egyptian pharaohs of the New Kingdom, who believed the site to be the birthplace of Amun. Seeking to present himself as heir to the New Kingdom pharaohs, Taharqa erected two temples, set into the base of the mountain, honoring the goddess consorts of Amun. On Jebel Barkal’s pinnacle—partially covered in gold leaf to bedazzle wayfarers—the black pharaoh ordered his name inscribed.
Around the 15th year of his rule, amid the grandiosity of his empire-building, a touch of hubris was perhaps overtaking the Nubian ruler. “Taharqa had a very strong army and was one of the main international powers of this period,” says Charles Bonnet. “I think he thought he was the king of the world. He became a bit of a megalomaniac.”
The timber merchants along the coast of Lebanon had been feeding Taharqa’s architectural appetite with a steady supply of juniper and cedar. When the Assyrian king Esarhaddon sought to clamp down on this trade artery, Taharqa sent troops to the southern Levant to support a revolt against the Assyrian. Esarhaddon quashed the move and retaliated by crossing into Egypt in 674 B.C. But Taharqa’s army beat back its foes.
The victory clearly went to the Nubian’s head. Rebel states along the Mediterranean shared his giddiness and entered into an alliance against Esarhaddon. In 671 B.C. the Assyrians marched with their camels into the Sinai desert to quell the rebellion. Success was instant; now it was Esarhaddon who brimmed with bloodlust. He directed his troops toward the Nile Delta.
Taharqa and his army squared off against the Assyrians. For 15 days they fought pitched battles—“very bloody,” by Esarhaddon’s grudging admission. But the Nubians were pushed back all the way to Memphis. Wounded five times, Taharqa escaped with his life and abandoned Memphis. In typical Assyrian fashion, Esarhaddon slaughtered the villagers and “erected piles of their heads.” Then, as the Assyrian would later write, “His queen, his harem, Ushankhuru his heir, and the rest of his sons and daughters, his property and his goods, his horses, his cattle, his sheep, in countless numbers, I carried off to Assyria. The root of Kush I tore up out of Egypt.” To commemorate Taharqa’s humiliation, Esarhaddon commissioned a stela showing Taharqa’s son, Ushankhuru, kneeling before the Assyrian with a rope tied around his neck.
As it happened, Taharqa outlasted the victor. In 669 B.C. Esarhaddon died en route to Egypt, after learning that the Nubian had managed to retake Memphis. Under a new king, the Assyrians once again assaulted the city, this time with an army swollen with captured rebel troops. Taharqa stood no chance. He fled south to Napata and never saw Egypt again.
A measure of Taharqa’s status in Nubia is that he remained in power after being routed twice from Memphis. How he spent his final years is a mystery—with the exception of one final innovative act. Like his father, Piye, Taharqa chose to be buried in a pyramid. But he eschewed the royal cemetery at El Kurru, where all previous Kushite pharaohs had been laid to rest. Instead, he chose a site at Nuri, on the opposite bank of the Nile. Perhaps, as archaeologist Timothy Kendall has theorized, Taharqa selected the location because, from the vista of Jebel Barkal, his pyramid precisely aligns with the sunrise on ancient Egypt’s New Year’s Day, linking him in perpetuity with the Egyptian concept of rebirth.
Just as likely, the Nubian’s motive will remain obscure, like his people’s history.