Herod the Great’s Tomb May Not Be His

Herod
Wikimedia Commons

Israel is a country filled with ancient sites. One of the more popular ones to visit is the Herodium, the palace of the infamous Herod the Great, now part of a national park just outside Jerusalem. Herod was a lavish builder and created quite the crib between 23-15 BC. The historian Josephus, writing half a century after Herod’s death, says that when the king died in 4 BC, he was laid out on a gold bed in a tomb at the site.

Back in 2007, an archaeological team uncovered a tomb at Herodium and proclaimed they had found Herod’s final resting place. Ever since it’s been a popular stop for tourists who wander about the ruins of the palace, baths, and synagogue of the Jewish king who pledged allegiance to the Roman Empire.

Now another group of archaeologists say that it’s not the tomb of Herod. They say the 32×32 ft. tomb is too small for a king, especially one famous for his grandiose building projects such as the desert fortress Masada and the rebuilding of the Second Temple. Most royal tombs were larger and included coffins of marble or gold rather than the local limestone found in this structure. Royal tombs also had large courtyards in front of them so people could come pay their respects, something lacking in the Herodium tomb.The researchers suggest it was the tomb of one of Herod’s family.

Archaeologists have been quick to discover the tombs of famous people in recent years. The discoveries of the tombs of Caligula and the Apostle Philip have both been disputed. Now it appears that Herod will return to the long list of famous people for whom their final resting place remains a mystery.

Ancient City Of Mohenjodaro May Disappear In Twenty Years

Mohenjodaro
Wikimedia Commons

The remains of the world’s oldest planned city may crumble to dust in twenty years if action isn’t taken, the Telegraph reports.

Mohenjodaro, a 5,000 year-old city in Pakistan, is under threat from extreme temperatures and monsoon rains, which leave deposits of salt on the unbaked clay bricks that were used to create its buildings. That salt leeches out any moisture in the bricks and slowly turns them to dust.

A crew of workmen is coating the ancient structures with salt-free mud, but there are far too few people on the job and very little money.

The Bronze Age city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded around 3,000 BC and shows a remarkable amount of urban planning. There were toilets in every house, separate water systems for drinking and sewage, roads laid out on a grid system, a large communal bath shown in the above photo, and a communal granary. It was the center of the Indus Valley civilization and traded as far away as Mesopotamia, using a set of standardized weights and measures to regulate commerce.

UNESCO officials met with Pakistani archaeologists last week to draw up a plan to save the site, which includes burying some of the most threatened structures. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan’s government, strapped for cash and stuck in a grueling war with the Taliban, will foot the bill.

I visited Mohenjodaro back in 1994 when Pakistan was safer to visit than it is now and found the place to be enchanting. The layout can be clearly seen and it almost feels like you’re in a living city. It would be a shame if such a landmark of human development disappeared.

Egyptian Police Stop Modern Burials Near Pyramid

pyramid
Wikimedia Commons

Egyptian police have stopped an attempt to expand a modern graveyard right next to the ancient site of Dahshur, home of the Bent Pyramid, Ahram Online reports.

The pyramid had already been damaged earlier this year by the encroaching cemetery. Authorities stopped construction at that time, but now new incursions are threatening the site. In the more recent incident, police arrested one man and are looking for three more.

The pyramid, which reopened to the public in 2009 after many years of being closed, is believed to have been built by the Pharaoh Sneferu. It gets its name from the fact that its upper portion slants at a different angle from the lower portion. Egyptologists believe that as the structure was being built, engineers changed their design out of fear that it would collapse. As a result, the bottom part of the pyramid rises up at a 55º angle, then transitions to 43º as it nears the top.

Dahshur is a royal necropolis and several other pyramids and tombs are in the area.

This is just one of a series of incidents that are threatening Egypt’s priceless ancient heritage. Continuing political chaos and a lack of sufficient security are making archaeological sites easy prey for “developers” and looters. Last month an entire museum was looted. Most artifacts were stolen. Those that couldn’t be moved were destroyed, with vandals smashing statues and burning mummies. The economic crisis in Egypt is fueling much of the theft, and a rising Islamist movement that has no respect for pre-Islamic cultures is creating an atmosphere of callousness.

Venice: Grand Vistas And Little Details

Venice
Sean McLachlan

On my first day in Venice I walked the streets without a camera in order to savor the beauties of this unparalleled city. I was leaving the next afternoon so that morning I got up at dawn in order to catch Venice at its abandoned best.

It’s a different city, more peaceful. You can linger on a bridge or take a shot from the middle of a street without getting trampled. You can capture the way the light plays on the water or on the side of an old, crumbling building without half a dozen heads getting into the shot.

Venice has a different character in those early hours. Instead of gondolas, cargo vessels ply the canals making deliveries to this city without cars. The streets are empty but for local workmen cleaning up or getting ready to open up their shops and kiosks. The only other tourists are lone photographers like me. My idea was a pretty obvious one, after all.

The low-angled light makes for some nice play between the tops of the buildings shining golden in the morning and the still-dark recesses of the alleyways and narrow canals. The low-angled light puts faded details into higher relief, like the faded Latin inscriptions on the lintels of church doors or the weathered escutcheons on Renaissance palaces.

%Slideshow-693%The early hours are also the time for visiting the big attractions. There’s something eerie about seeing the Piazza San Marco with only half a dozen people in it. One pair was a newlywed couple. A tuxedoed man was fiddling with the camera while his stunningly beautiful wife, decked out in her bridal gown, gave instructions and adjusted her veil. Beyond them the Grand Canal shimmered in the early light. I’m sure their wedding photo is the envy of their friends.

As stunning as these broad vistas are, Venice rewards a close look. There are details in the buildings and streets that make for great close-ups. In the Piazza San Marco, for example, you have this little bronze figure, one of a set.

At the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica is the square’s most historically important work of art, a porphyry statue of four armored men clinging to one another in mutual defense. I’ve wanted to see these little guys for years.

They’re the Tetrarchs. In 293 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided the empire was too big and had too many enemies for one man to rule. He created the Tetrarchy, with an Emperor and a Caesar for both the West and the East. They were supposed to rule in harmony but of course the rivalry more often than not led to civil wars. In another century the Western Empire was a nonentity, while the Eastern Empire, known today as Byzantium, lived on until the 15th century. This famous statue originally stood in Constantinople but was stolen during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and brought here.

Many people photograph this statue, yet miss something even more interesting a few feet away. On a stone bench at the entrance to the basilica there’s a strange design scratched into the surface. It’s been almost worn away by centuries of bottoms, but you can make out a square within a square, partitioned into several segments. This was a Renaissance board game that people would play while whiling away the hours on the plaza. It’s a reminder of the regular folk who lived in Venice in the shadow of the great rulers, artists and priests.

This fired my imagination. Perhaps some other detail will fire yours: the dusty icons in an antique shop, the mosaic advertisement for a pension set into a street, the half-finished Renaissance fresco in the entryway of an obscure church. When you’re strolling around Venice or any great city, keep an eye out for those little details that catch your fancy as well as the grand views that everyone admires. That way you’ll end up with a photo album uniquely your own.

Could Bahrain Become The Next Big Heritage Tourism Destination?

Bahrain, Dilmun
Desert Island Boy, flickr

The tiny Persian Gulf island nation of Bahrain is home to one of the most mysterious ancient civilizations of the Middle East.

Archaeologists have long known about a civilization called Dilmun. It’s mentioned in many Mesopotamian texts as a wealthy place of “sweet water.” Even the Epic of Gilgamesh mentions it, but all the sources were vague about its location.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that excavations in Bahrain uncovered impressive cities and temples and proved that Dilmun was located there. Archaeologists found that Dilmun had been an important center for the Persian Gulf trade route that flourished between the Mesopotamian civilizations in what is now Iraq and the Indus Valley in southern Asia around 2000 B.C. Dilmun’s trade connections also extended to civilizations in Oman, Turkey, and Syria.

Dilmun owed its importance for being one of the few spots to get fresh water along the route. Ships would stop there to rest and fill up on supplies, and Dilmun became an important player in world trade.

Now the Bahraini government is looking to make Bahrain a destination for heritage tourism. Of the two UNESCO World Heritage and five tentative sites in Bahrain, five belong to the Dilmun civilization. One of the most important, the ancient city of Saar, is now undergoing restoration after a recent excavation. The BBC reports that Bahraini archaeologists have shifted their efforts from excavating more of the site to developing it for tourism and exhibiting the many artifacts they’ve uncovered, such as this seal dug up near Saar.

%Gallery-188932%Saar is remarkably well preserved. The site is encircled by thick stone walls that in parts still stand as high as ten feet, and there are well-preserved foundations of temples, homes with intact ovens, shops, and even restaurants.

The capital of Dilmun was the even more impressive Qal’at al-Bahrain, a town that was occupied from 2300 B.C. to the 16th century A.D. Remains of the city and its port can still be seen today. The most striking building at the site is actually the latest, a fort the Portuguese erected when they were trying to control trade in the Gulf.

Other sites include the Barbar Temple, which dates back to the earliest period of Dilmun and was rebuilt on the same site over several centuries. Bahrain is also home to some 170,000 burial mounds, some of which date back to the Dilmun period. These are collected in what are called “tumuli fields”, where hundreds of artificial mounds cover the remains of this ancient people.

Despite all the excavations, we still don’t know several basic facts about Dilmun, such as when the civilization started and ended, or what language the people spoke. Its borders are equally unclear. It appears that at time Dilmun controlled more than just Bahrain, extending to the eastern coast of the Saudi peninsula.

The modern Bahrain National Museum in the capital Manama has an entire hall devoted to Dilmun. There you can see maps and artifacts explaining the role this civilization played in the long-distance trade in the Persian Gulf. The museum also has exhibitions for other historical periods and a large collection of traditional costumes.