Interpreting a Sculptured Cave on the Banks of the Euphrates in Syria

Public lecture, Thursday, 18 May, 2017, 6:30
Venue: Theatre D, Old Arts Building, The University of Melbourne

Heather Jackson, Honorary Fellow, Classics & Archaeology, University of Melbourne

It is important, in these days of destruction of the ancient heritage of Syria, to bring this site, excavated by the University of Melbourne and Australian National University in 1996-1998, into the limelight. This spectacular sanctuary, now irrevocably damaged, was carved out of the local limestone cliff above the Euphrates and could be accessed only from the river by steep steps. It housed two zones of near-lifesize figures around the walls, nearly all women apparently carrying offerings. Larger figures include a seated mother with child; a full-sized stone bull in a niche waiting to be led to the blood altar in the middle of the floor; two large animals, either lions or horses, framing a lost centrepiece; and on the west wall, three possible tombs. The floor was originally covered in mosaic tesserae. The emphasis on women suggests a predominantly female cult or occasion, while the arrangement of the figures and the presence of the burials may suggest that this is the tomb of either a local queen or a high-born priestess. Certain features date it to the 2nd century AD, a period when the Romans were much in evidence on the Euphrates. However, the frontal stance of the figures and their style of dress are reminiscent of the sculptures of Palmyra, further south, as well as the ‘Parthian’ figures at Hatra. This is a truly multi-cultural monument, providing a glimpse of the knowledge we have lost about the resilience and vigour of the indigenous Syrian population, and their local culture.

Dr Heather Jackson is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her research and publications have been mainly concerned with the Hellenistic site of Jebel Khalid on the Euphrates in Syria. She has also engaged with the University of Melbourne’s collection of Greek vases, and was the curator of the exhibition of these in 2016. She has assisted with the curatorship of the current exhibition in the Potter: Ancient Syria, Modern Conflict.

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