A stone corpse — Lieut. Cabane reports a find — a Syrian Tell has important visitors — King Lamgi-Mari introduces himself — professor Parrot discovers an unknown empire — a royal palace with 260 apartments and courtyards — 23,600 clay tablets have survived for 4,000 years — desert police report the “Benjamites” — Rebecca’s home — a flourishing city — and Nuzi...?
“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee” (Gen. 12:1).
The country of which the Bible is speaking in this case is Haran. Terah, his son Abram, his daughter-in-law Sarai, and his grandson Lot lived there (Gen. 11:31).
What was actually meant by Haran was until recently quite unknown. We knew nothing of its early history. All the old Babylonian documents are silent about the middle reaches of the Euphrates — Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers — where Haran once stood.
A chance find led to excavations in 1933, which here also gave rise to a great and exciting discovery and added considerably to our knowledge. They brought the Haran of the Bible and the kind of life lived by the patriarchs quite unexpectedly into a historical context.
On the line between Damascus and Mosul, where it cuts the Euphrates, lies the small obscure town of Abu Kemal. Since, as a result of the First World War, Syria was placed under a French mandate, there was a French garrison in the place.
Over the broad Euphrates plain in midsummer 1933 lay a brooding, paralyzing heat. Lieut. Cabane, the station-commander expected, when he was called into the orderly room, that it was merely another of these quarrels among the Arabs that he was supposed to settle. He had had more than enough of that already. But this time the excitement in the office seemed to be about something different. Eventually he managed to extract through the interpreter the following story: These people had been burying one of their relatives. They were digging the grave on a remote hillside, by name Tell Hariri, when out popped a stone corpse!
Perhaps, thought Lieut. Cabane, this might be something that would interest the museum at Aleppo. At any rate it was a pleasant change from the endless monotony of this God-forsaken post.
In the cool of the evening he drove out to Tell Hariri, which lay about 7 miles to the north of Abu Kemal near the Euphrates. The Arabs led him up the slope to the broken statue in a flat earthen trough which had so upset them the day before. Cabane was no expert, but he knew at once that the stone figure must be very old. Next day it was taken by French soldiers to Abu Kemal. The lights were on till long after midnight in the little command-post. Cabane was writing a detailed report on the find to the competent authorities, to Henry Seyrig, Director of Antiquities in Beirut, and to the Museum at Aleppo.
Months went past and nothing happened. The whole thing seemed to be either unimportant or forgotten. Then at the end of November came a telegram from Paris, from the Louvre. Cabane could hardly believe his eyes and read the message again and again. In a few days important visitors from Paris would be arriving: Professor Parrot, the well known archaeologist, accompanied by scientists, architects, assistants and draughts men.
On the 14th of December Tell Hariri was buzzing like a bee-hive. The archaeologists had begun their detective-work. First of all the whole mound was carefully measured and photographed in detail. Soundings were taken for echoes, specimens of soil were removed and submitted to expert opinion. December went by and the first weeks of the New Year. The 23rd of January 1934 was the decisive day.
As they were digging carefully through the outer crust of the Tell there appeared out of the rubble a neat little figure which had some writing pricked out on the right shoulder. Everyone bent over it, fascinated. “I am Lamgi-Mari... king ... of Man... the great ... Issakkv ... who worships his statue... of Ishtar.”
Slowly, word by word, this sentence rings in the ears of the silent circle as Professor Parrot translates it from the cuneiform. This is an unforgettable moment for him and his companions. An almost uncanny scene and probably unique in the history of archaeology with its surprises and adventures!
The monarch had solemnly welcomed the strangers from distant Paris and introduced himself to them. It was as if he wanted politely to show them the road into his kingdom of long ago which lay in a deep sleep beneath him, and of whose pomp and power the Parisian scholars had as yet no conception.
Carved in stone, a marvelous piece of sculpture King Lamgi-Mari stood before Parrot: a commanding broad-shouldered figure upon its base. But the face lacks that incredible arrogance which is so typical of the portraits of other conquerors from the ancient East, the Assyrians, who without exception look fierce and bad-tempered. The king of Mari is smiling. He carries no weapons, his hands are folded in an attitude of worship. His robe, which leaves one shoulder bare, like a toga, is richly decorated with fringes.
Hardly ever has an excavation been so crowned with success from the word “go,” and the first groping efforts. Mari, the royal city, must be lying slumbering under this mound.
Scholars had for a long time been familiar with the royal city of Mari which features in many old inscriptions from Babylonia and Assyria. One text maintained that Mari was the tenth city to be founded after the Flood. The great spade-offensive against Tell Hariri began.
With considerable intervals the digging went on from 1933 to 1939. For the greater part of the year the tropical heat made any activity impossible. Only in the cooler months of the rainy season, from the middle of December to the end of March, could anything be done.
The excavations at Tell Hariri brought a wealth of new discoveries to a chapter of the history of the Ancient East which w still unwritten.
No one knew as yet how close a connection the finds at Mari would prove to have with quite familiar passages in the Bible.
Year by year reports of the expedition provided fresh surprises.
In the winter of 1933-34 a temple of Ishtar the goddess of fertility was exposed. Three of Ishtar's royal devotees have immortalized themselves as statues in the shrine which is inlaid with a mosaic of gleaming shells: Lamgi-Mari, Ebin-il, and Idi-Narum.
In the second season of digging the spades came upon the houses of a city. Man had been found! However great was the satisfaction with their success, far more interest, indeed astonishment was aroused by the walls of a palace which must have been unusually large. Parrot reported: “We have unearthed 69 rooms and courts, and there are still more to come.” One thousand six hundred cuneiform tablets, carefully stacked in one of the rooms, contained details of household management.
The record of the third campaign in 1935-36 noted that so far 138 rooms and courtyards had been found but that they had not yet reached the outer walls of the palace. Thirteen thousand clay tablets awaited deciphering. In the fourth winter a temple of the god Dagon was dug up and also a Ziggurat, the typical Mesopotamian staged tower. Two hundred and twenty rooms and courtyards were now visible in the palace and another 8,000 clay tablets had been added to the existing collection.
At last in the fifth season, when a further forty rooms had been cleared of rubble, the palace of the kings of Mari lay in all its vast extent before Parrot and his assistants. This mammoth building of the third millennium B.C. covered almost ten acres. Never before during any excavations had such an enormous building with such vast ramifications come to light.
Columns of lorries had to be commissioned to remove the cuneiform tablets from the palace archives alone. There were almost 24,000 documents. The great find of the tablets at Nineveh was put in the shade, since the famous library of the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, amounted to a “mere” 22,000 clay texts.
To get a proper picture of Mari palace aerial photographs were taken. These pictures taken from a low altitude over Tell Harm gave rise to almost incredulous amazement when they were published in France. This palace at Mari was, around 2000 B.C., one of the greatest sights of the world, the architectural gem of the Ancient East. Travelers came from far and near to see it. “I have seen Mari,” wrote an enthusiastic merchant from the Phoenician seaport of Ugarit.
The last king to live there was Zimri-Lim. The armies of the famous Hammurabi of Babylon subjugated the kingdom of Mari on the central reaches of the Euphrates and destroyed its mighty capital about 1700 B.C.
Under the wreckage of roofs and walls were found the fire pans of the Babylonian warriors, the incendiary squad who set fire to the palace.
But they were not able to destroy it completely. The walls were left standing to a height of 15 feet. “The installations in the palace kitchens and bathrooms,” wrote Professor Parrot, “could still be put into commission without the need of any repair, four thousand years after its destruction.” In the bathrooms they found the tubs, cake-moulds in the kitchens, even charcoal in the ovens.
The sight of these majestic ruins is an overwhelming experience. A single gate on the north side ensured easier control and better defense. Passing through a medley of courts and passages one reaches the great inner courtyard and broad daylight. This was the center both of official life and the administration of the kingdom. The monarch received his officials as well as couriers and ambassadors in the neighboring audience-chamber, large enough to hold hundreds of people. Broad corridors led to the king's private apartments.
One wing of the palace was used exclusively for religious ceremonies. It contained also a throne-room, approached by a marvelous staircase. A long processional way passed through several rooms to the palace chapel in which stood the image of the mother-goddess of fertility. From a vessel in her hands flowed perpetually “the water of everlasting life.”
The entire court lived under the king's roof. Ministers, administrators, secretaries and scribes had their own roomy quarters.
There was a Foreign Office and a Board of Trade in the great administrative palace of the kingdom of Mari. More than 100 officials were involved in dealing with the incoming and outgoing mail, which amounted to thousands of tablets alone.
Wonderful great frescoes added a decorative effect to the palace. Even to this day the colors have hardly lost any of their brilliance. They seem to have been laid on only yesterday but in fact they are the oldest paintings in Mesopotamia — 1,000 years older than the renowned colored frescoes in the splendid edifices of the Assyrian rulers at Khorsabad, Nineveh and Nimrud.
The size and grandeur of this unique palace corresponded to the land that was governed from it. Through these many thousands of years the palace archives have preserved the record.
Notices, public papers, decrees, accounts, scratched out on clay by the busy styli of well-paid scribes 4,000 years ago, had to be brought to life again with tireless industry. In Paris, Professor George Dossin, of the University of Liege, and a host of Assyriologists wrestled with the problem of deciphering and translating them. It would be years before all the 23,600 documents were translated and published.
Each of them contains a little piece of the mosaic which makes up the true facts about the kingdom of Mari.
Numerous orders for the construction of canals, locks, dams, and embankments make it plain that the prosperity of the country largely depended on the widespread system of irrigation, which was constantly under the supervision of government engineers, who saw to its care and maintenance.
Two tablets contain a list of 2,000 craftsmen, giving their full names and the names of their guilds.
The news service in Mari functioned so quickly and successfully that it would bear comparison with modern telegraphy. Important messages were sent by means of fire signals from the frontier of Babylon right up to present day Turkey in a matter of a few hours, a distance of more than 300 miles.
Mari lay at the intersection of the great caravan route from West to East and North to South. It is not surprising therefore that the traffic in goods, which extended from Cyprus and Crete to Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, necessitated a lively correspondence on clay concerning imports and exports. But the tablets do not merely record everyday matters. They also give an impressive account of religious life, of New Year Festivals in honor of Ishtar, auguries with the entrails of animals, and interpretation of dreams. Twenty-five gods made up the Man pantheon. A list of sacrificial lambs, which Zimri-Lim presented, refers to these occupants of heaven by name.
From countless individual bits of evidence on these tablets we can form a picture of this masterpiece of organization and administration which the kingdom of Mari constituted in the 18th century B.C. What is astonishing is that neither in their sculptures nor in their paintings is there any indication of warlike activity.
The inhabitants of Mari were Amorites who had been settled there for a long time, and who preferred peace. Their interests lay in religion and ceremonial, in trade and commerce. Conquest, heroism, and the clash of battle meant little to them. As we can still see from statues and pictures, their faces radiate a cheerful serenity.
That did not mean, however, that they were absolved from the necessity of defending and safeguarding their territory by force of arms. On their frontiers lived tribes of Semitic nomads, who found the lush pastures, market gardens and cornfields of Mari a constant temptation. They were always crossing the border, grazing their cattle over wide stretches of the countryside, and disturbing the population. They had to be watched. Frontier posts were therefore established as a check on this danger, and any incident was immediately reported to Mari.
In Paris the Assyriologists were deciphering a clay tablet from the archives of Mari. They read with astonishment a report from Bannum, an officer of the desert police:
“Say to my lord: This from Bannum, thy servant. Yesterday I left Mari and spent the night at Zuruban, All the Benjamites were sending fire-signals. From Samanum to Ilum-Muluk, from Ilum-Muluk to Mishlan, all the Benjamite villages in the Terqa district replied with fire-signals. I am not yet certain what these signals meant. I am trying to find out. I shall write to my lord whether or not I succeed. The city guards should be strengthened and my lord should not leave the gate.”
In this police report from the central reaches of the Euphrates in the 19th century B.C. there appears the name of one of the tribes known to us from the Bible. It literally calls them Benjamites.
There is frequent mention of these Benjamites. They seem to have given the ruler of Mari so many headaches and caused so much trouble that periods of a king's reign were even called after them.
In the Mari dynasties the years of each reign were not numbered but were identified with some notable event, for example the building and consecration of new temples, the erection of great dams to improve irrigation, the strengthening of the banks of the Euphrates or a national census. Three times the chronological tables mention the Benjamites:
“The year in which lahdulim went to Hen and laid hands upon the territory of the Benjamites” is referred to in the reign of King lahdulim of Mari and
“The year that Zimri-Lim killed the davidum of the Benjamites”
“The year after Zimri-Lim killed the davidum of the Benjamites ...” in the reign of the last monarch of Mari, Zimri-Lim.
An elaborate correspondence between governors, district commissioners, and administrators takes place over the single question: Dare we take a census of the Benjamites?
In the kingdom of Mari a census of the people was not uncommon. It provided a basis for taxation and for enlistment for military service. The population was summoned by districts and a nominal roll was made of every man liable for call-up.
The proceedings lasted several days, during which free beer and bread were distributed by government officials. The administration in the palace of Mari would fain have included the Benjamites in this but the district officers had their doubts. They advised against it since they understood only too well the temper of these roaming and rebellious tribes.
“Reference the proposal to take a census of the Benjamites, about which you have written me,” begins a letter from Samsi-Addu to lasmah-Addu in Mari. “The Benjamites are not well-disposed to the idea of a census. If you carry it out, their kinsmen the Ra-ab-ay-yi, who live on the other bank of the river, will hear of it. They will be annoyed with them and will not return to their country. On no account should this census be taken!”
Thus the Benjamites lost their free beer and bread and also escaped paying taxes and military service.
Later the children of Israel were to experience a census of this sort many times, conducted exactly on the Mari-pattern. The first time was on the command of Yahweh after Moses had led them out of Egypt. All men over twenty who were fit to fight were registered according to their families (Num. 1-4). A generation later, after their sojourn in the desert, Moses took a second census with a view to dividing up the land of Canaan (Num. 26). During the monarchy David ordered a national census. What he had in mind on that occasion was the building up of an army and his commander in chief, Joab, was entrusted with the arrangements (2 Sam. 24). As the Bible depicts the incident, Yahweh had put the idea into the king's mind in order to punish the people. The Israelites loved their freedom above all else. Registration and the prospect of being called up were equally hateful to them. Even in the year A.D. 6 the census carried out by Governor Cyrenius almost led to open revolt.
It is worth noting that it is to peace-loving Mari that the world owes the original pattern of all recruiting campaigns. It was later followed by Babylonians and Assyrians, by Greeks and Romans, in exactly the same way, as indeed in later days by the nations of modern times. Thus Mari has given the lead to the whole world in this matter of taking a census for purposes of taxation and conscription for military service.
In Paris the mention of Benjamites gave rise to conjecture and anticipation along a particular line. Not without reason.
On other clay tablets the Assyriologists dealing with these reports of governors and district commissioners of the Mari empire came across one after another a whole series of familiar sounding names from Biblical history — names like Peleg, and Serug, Nahor and Terah and — Haran.
“These are the generations of Shem,” says Gen. 11.”... Peleg lived 30 years and begat Reu: And Reu lived two and thirty years and begat Serug: And Serug lived thirty years and begat Nahor: And Nahor lived nine and twenty years and begat Terah: And Terah lived seventy years and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran.”
Names of Abraham's forefathers emerge from these dark ages as names of cities in north-west Mesopotamia. They lie in Padan-Aram, the plain of Aram. In the center of it lies Haran, which, according to its description, must have been a flourishing city in the 19th and 18th centuries B.C. Haran, the home of Abraham, father of the patriarchs, the birthplace of the Hebrew people, is here for the first time historically attested, for contemporary texts refer to it. Further up the same Balikh valley lay the city with an equally well-known Biblical name, Nahor, the home of Rebecca, wife of Isaac.
“And Abraham was old and well stricken in age, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had: Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh; And I will make thee swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell; But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred and take a wife unto my son Isaac... And the servant took... of all the goods of his master... and he arose and went to Mesopotamia, unto the city of Nahor” (Gen. 24:1-10).
The Biblical city of Nahor is unexpectedly drawn into a recognizable historical setting. Abraham's servant set out for the land of the kings of Man. The instructions of his master, according to the Biblical tradition, clearly indicate that Abraham must have known Northern Mesopotamia, including Nahor, extremely well. How else could he have spoken of the city of Nahor?
If we follow the dates given in the Bible we find that Abraham left his native place, Haran, 645 years before the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. They wandered through the desert towards the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses in the 13th century B.C. This date is, as we shall see, assured by archaeology. Abraham must therefore have lived about 1900 B.C. The finds at Mari confirm the accuracy of the Biblical account. About 1900 B.C., according to the evidence of the palace archives, Haran and Nahor were both flourishing cities.
The documents from the kingdom of Mari produce startling proof that the stories of the patriarchs in the Bible are not “pious legends” — as is often too readily assumed — but things that are described as happening in a historical period which can be precisely dated.
The fact that the Bible contains genuine early Western Semitic names found surprising confirmation in written sources from the Ancient East. Not only did personal names from the Biblical story of the patriarchs occur as place-names, but they also proved to be the names of individual persons and it is not at all rare or unusual for clay tablets to be found bearing the name of the patriarch Abraham. Yet has Abraham actually been brought nearer to us? The excavation of written sources at “Fennel Cape,” Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), has revealed that there were even an Egyptian and a Cypriot among those bearing this name. The distinguished Bible archaeologist Father Roland de Vaux considered this “unusual and disturbing.” Quite understandably so, for this being the case, Abraham, instead of drawing closer to us, is in danger of disappearing in the crowd of his numerous namesakes who appear during the various epochs of the history of the Near and Middle East.
Unfortunately the “Benjamites” of Mari have also disappeared. The conviction has established itself that the name in the texts from Mari which was interpreted as “Benjamites” really means simply “sons of the right (sc. hand),” that is to say, “sons of the south.” It appears to have been a purely geographical designation rather than the name of a tribe, for in the Mari documents banu rabbaja and banu satn'al are contrasted with the “sons of the south.” Moreover, the name of the territory Yemen in Southern Arabia has preserved the old Mari word across the millennia, for Yemen merely means south!
But Bible scholars have also learnt other things. A phrase such as “the year in which Zimri-Lim killed the davidum of the Benjamites” is now translated as “the year in which Zimri-Lim inflicted an annihilating defeat on the “sons of the south',” for davidum does not mean “commander,” as was previously thought, but “defeat.”
Of course, the beginnings of Mari around 1800 B.C. agree extremely well with the traditional dating of the Biblical patriarchs, somewhere around or shortly after 2000 B.C. Paradoxically it was the astonishing confirmation of statements in the Bible connecting the time of the patriarchs with a period of the history of the Ancient East some 500 years later which thus raised doubts concerning the customary dating. This confirmation comes from the archives of Nuzi in Yorgan Tepe, fifteen kilometres south west of Kirkuk. The written documents from this Horite city of the kingdom of Mitanni (c. 1500 B.C.) cast a light not only on the ancient laws of the Horites, but also on the legal practices of the Biblical patriarchs which agree to an amazing degree with the Biblical texts. Three examples will suffice as illustrations:
Abraham laments the fact that he will die without a son and that a certain Eliezer will inherit from him (Gen. 15:2). From the Nuzi tablets we know that it was customary for a childless couple to adopt a “son” who looked after his foster-parents and in return inherited from them. This arrangement could be reversed to a certain degree if an heir was subsequently born.
If a marriage remained childless, the wife had to provide a “substitute wife.” This is what Sarah did when she presented Hagar to Abraham (1. Gen. 16:2) and in the same way Rachel at a later time gave her husband Jacob her maid Bilhah (1. Gen. 30:3). The custom was precisely the same in Nuzi.
Jacob's wife Rachel stole the “images” of her father Laban (1. Gen. 31:3 ff) and Laban moved heaven and earth to get these “images” back. The Nuzi tablets tell us why. The person who was in possession of these domestic images (teraphim) also had the rights to the inheritance.
Taken together there is a striking conformity between the Bible and the Nuzi texts. Yet there is a bitter conclusion to be drawn, for if the patriarchs followed the legal customs of the Horites of the 15th century before the birth of Christ, how could they have lived in the 18th, 19th or even the 20th century before Christ? In other words, did Abraham really live in the “kingdom of Mari”? Or ought we to look for him centuries later in the kingdom of Mitanni? In fact, we shall see that certain concepts of the “patriarchal period,” in the religious sphere this time, are matched by ideas contained in texts from the coastal town of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) whose “classical” period came still later, in the 15th to 14th centuries before Christ. Do we have, in consequence, to put Israel's Biblical ancestors even later? The questions still facing us today are innumerable!
If it seems that science is abandoning us to ourselves with a large number of new problems and if it seems that it is consequently so much more difficult for us to connect the above mentioned names and facts with definite and familiar individuals, this very same science has amazingly confirmed other Biblical statements as will become apparent later. And as our knowledge is continually advancing, it is by no means impossible that Biblical archaeology will one day provide us with further sensational discoveries.