Homer in Calah

Erwin COOK

            In this paper I argue that Skherie represents an amalgamation of some of the distinctive features of Near Eastern cities and palaces, in particular those of Assyria. I will focus on the palace garden and entranceway, which constitute the most important and prominent of these features. I hope to make two basic points:

  1. The walled and irrigated garden attached to Alcinous’ palace is unique in Homer, and archaeologically unparalleled, but gardens are an essential and defining component of Near Eastern palaces from the early Bronze Age onward. Of these, royal gardens of Assyria from the reign of Ashurnasirpal most closely correspond to Alcinous’ garden: both are walled, irrigated, and contain exotic plant species. From the reign of Sargon, they were also attached to the royal palace, again like the garden of Alcinous.

    Ashurnasirpal, for example, boasts of installing a garden that is both a source of pleasure and a working farm: “I irrigated the meadows of the Tigris (and) planted orchards with all (kinds of) fruit trees in its environs. I pressed wine (and) gave the best to Ashur my lord and the temples of my land. I dedicated that city to the god Ashur my lord. In the lands through which I marched and the highlands which I traversed, trees (and) seeds which I saw, cedar, cypress, simsalu, burasu-juniper, . . . drapanu-juniper, almond, date, ebony, meskannu, olive, susunu, oak, tamarisk, dukdu, terebinth and ash, mehru, . . . tiatu, Kanish oak, haluppu, sadanu, pomegranate, salluru, fir, ingirasu, pear, quince, fig, grapevines, angasu-pear, sumlalu, titip, siputu, zanzaliqqu, “swamp-apple”, hambuququ, nuhurtu, urzinu, and kanaktu. The canal crashes from above into the gardens. Fragrance pervades the walkways. Streams of water (as numerous) as the stars of heaven flow in the pleasure garden. Pomegranates which like grape vines . . . in the garden . . . [I], Ashur-nasir-apli, in the delightful garden pick fruit like a mouse [. . . . . .]” (Grayson 1976, 173-74).

  2. The entire architectural ensemble constituting the entranceway to the palace can also be seen as modeled on Near Eastern, and in particular Assyrian, prototypes:
    1. Most strikingly, the doorway is flanked by a pair of animated gold and silver statues of guard dogs. The use of magical statues to guard the ruler’s palace is unattested in Iron Age Greece, but common in the Near East, where they are animated by spells. The only good Greek parallels are from the Bronze Age, and include the Lion Gate at Mycene, and the fabulous griffins flanking the throne in the megaron at Pylos. It is important to note, however, that Homer follows Near Eastern prototypes more closely than does the comparanda from Mycenaean Greece, and again our best parallels come from the palaces of the Sargonid rulers of Assyria.
    2. Homer describes the doorway, lintel and threshold as composed of gold, silver and bronze. This description can again be closely paralleled in the use of bronze and silver cladding in the construction of the entrance doors and columns by the Sargonid rulers of Assyria (and bronze thresholds are also attested). Sennacherib boasts that in constructing his palace at Nineveh: “Great door-leaves of cypress, whose odor is pleasant as they are opened and closed, I bound with a band of shining copper and set up in their doors (elsewhere, the band is said to be silver and copper). Eight lions, open at the knee, advancing, constructed out of 11,4000 talents of shining bronze, the workmanship of the god Nin-a-gal, and exceedingly glorious, together with 2 colossal pillars whose copper work came to 6,000 talents, and two great cedar pillars...I set up as posts to support their doors (elsewhere the columns are said to be cased in bronze and lead)” (Luckenbill 1924, 96-98).
    3. The walls leading into the palace are said to be of bronze with a blue cornice or frieze running about it. This could be a reference to blue glazed brick which was also a popular feature of Babylonian and Assyrian palatial architecture. Ashurnasirpal boasts that in building his palace “I glazed bricks with lapis lazuli (and) laid (them) above their doorways” (Grayson 1976, 173); even closer is an inscription of Esarhaddon: “um jenen Palast herum liess ich einen Fries und ein Pechnasengesims aus Hämatit und Lapislazuli machen und ihn wie eine Bekrönung umgeben” (Borger 62).

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