Matthew Canepa, ‘Inscriptions, Landscape, and the Built Environment in the Eastern Mediterranean and Iran in Late Antiquity’ (Oxford, November 2009)

Paper delivered at the British Epigraphy Society Autumn Colloquium, November 21st, 2009, Oxford. Report by Emma Rix.

‘Inscriptions, Landscape, and the Built Environment in the Eastern Mediterranean and Iran in Late Antiquity’ (Oxford, November 2009)

Matthew Canepa, Oxford, November 21

In this paper, Professor Canepa demonstrated how the rulers of the Sassanian Empire used monumental sculpture and inscriptions to create and emphasise their cultural and racial decent from the Achaemenids, as well as simultaneously interacting with and differentiating themselves from their more recent predecessors, the kings of the Hellenistic Seleucid empire. A crucial feature of this interaction and hence of Canepa’s study was the way in which rock reliefs and other inscriptions interact with and become part of the landscape or building on which they are placed; this interaction can be a key part of their significance.

Various functions of inscriptions, including their role in creating and reinforcing memories, symbolising links to earlier and previously forgotten dynasties, claiming space, projecting power and establishing and maintaining cult were discussed, and Canepa then proceeded to illustrate these points by a fascinating and impressive array of examples.

Canepa explained how the Sassanid empire had resuscitated Persian culture, in particular the rituals of kingship first created by the Achaemenids, after the disruption caused by Alexander’s invasion and Hellenistic rule. The Achaemenids had themselves inherited inscriptional practices from ancient near eastern powers, and had developed them further, especially during the reign of Darius (arguably the first “Achaemenid”). Canepa pointed out that texts which claim to have been commissioned by Cyrus might actually date to the time of Darius.

Canepa then discussed one of the best known Persian inscriptions, Darius’ Bisitun inscription, emphasising the way that it dominates the E-W pass SW of Ecbatana. He discussed the possibility that Bisitun was already a sacred site, thus bringing out the complexity of the link between the presence of the inscription and the importance of the site, showing the difficulty of deciding which came first. The point of the Bisitun inscription was perhaps to claim the space, and its innovative nature is clear from the fact that Darius states that he ordered the creation of the cuneiform script for recording Old Persian specifically for inscriptional purposes. Elsewhere inscriptions of Xerxes placed next to those of Darius provide clear examples of the way in which later Persian monarchs positioned inscriptions in order to create visual links between themselves and their forebears.

Bisitun is also the site of the only known Seleucid rock relief, which shows a reclining Herakles and a Greek inscription on a Stele behind him; this suggests that the presence of the earlier relief suggested to the Seleucids that the site was particularly important.

Canepa then moved on to discuss Xerxes I’s inscription at Van in Turkey, the only Persian royal inscription known from outside Iran. It records that Darius made the niche in which the inscription was placed, but that it was left to Xerxes to complete the work of his predecessor, again showing how inscriptions could be used to forge links with the past.

From the Sassanid period, one memorable site discussed in some detail was the cube of Ka’ba-ye Zartosht at Naqsh-e Rustam, an early tower which was supposedly an ‘Achaemenid’ building. Monumental inscriptions were carved on the W, S and E side of this structure, thereby laying claim to Achaemenid work and implying a link between the two dynasties. In addition, the inscription was used to establish a cult at the site: since there were no sanctuaries in Sassanian cult, Canepa suggested that the tower might have been a Sassanian version of a dynastic sanctuary.

Canepa ended his paper by concluding that the Sassanian world was responding to both the imperial trilingual inscriptions of the Ancient Near East, and to Hellenistic inscriptions, in order both to link themselves with past elites, and to forge their own cultural identity.

This was a very interesting introduction to what was (at least for some listeners) a previously unfamiliar field, as well as to a range of fascinating sites and inscriptions.

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