Mortal competition

“Eat delicious chicken”, advertises the poster of the Beyza – “The taste you trust” – meat company in Urfa. I can’t help but agree with them, especially around lunch time like now. But why do the poultry, destined for the kebab skewers and the saç tava pan, do the cheerful Kurdish dance, happily waving the scarf, and why do the beef and sheep, presumably the former favorites of the audience, note with dismay that now they have less chance to end up in kuşbaşı and saç kavurma?

If I were a horse – to quote Evans-Pritchard’s famous fallacy –, I would not want to be eaten. I’d rather have someone else get eaten instead of me, if anyone at all. Evolutionary competition and natural selection are based on this consideration.

But I am human, just like the creator of the poster and its target audience. Therefore, I can at least grasp the anthropocentic view that the primary mission of certain animals is to serve us as food. That is why we removed them from the evolutionary competition and subjected them to artificial selection. The tastier it is, the more perfectly it has fulfilled its earthly mission. And it is clear that just as humans become frustrated and depressed when they fail to fulfill what they consider to be their earthly mission, so do animals collapse when a fellow from the farm outranks them in it.

And if I were a cow or a sheep, thinks the designer of the poster, this is probably how I would immortalize myself in this shamefully failed situation.

This line of thought is not entirely absurd. After all, we also know careers among people whose goal is senseless death, and their practicioners are at least as proud of this mission as the imagined cattle, sheep and chickens. For example, the gladiators, or the soldiers sent by dictators to be slaughtered at the front.

However, this line of thought and this poster are not new. Their original is Hungarian: the poster attributed to Frigyes Karinthy, the legendary gagman of the 1930s, on which the cow and the pig tearfully look at the success of the carp with consumers. Although Karinthy himself distanced himself from the authorship of the slogan, some other Hungarian may also have gone to Urfa to sell the punchline.

“Tell me, cattle, why this grief?” / “Cheaper the fish than the beef!”

Messages from Mesopotamia

From the illustrations in our history books, it may seem that in the inscriptions left to us from the Ancient East, it is mainly the current ruler who tries to set his own exchange rate higher than everyone else’s. As in this stele preserved in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, circa 820 BC, on which Kilamuwa, King of Samʿal, belittles his own ancestors:

“I am Kilamuwa, son of King Chaya. King Gabar ruled over Samʿal, but achieved nothing. Then came Bamah, and he achieved nothing. Then there was my father Chaya, but he accomplished nothing. Then there was my brother Shaʿil, but he also accomplished nothing. But I Kilamuwa, the son of TML, what I accomplished, not even their predecessors accomplished!” (Translation by J. C. Gibson, see the full text here)

The Kilamuwa stele was written in Aramaic letters, but – exceptionally – in Phoenician language

The kingdom of Samʿal flourished roughly where I am writing this, near what is now Gaziantep in southern Turkey. It was one of the small Aramaic/Neo-Hittite city-states that arose as a result of the momentary decline of the surrounding Hittite and Mesopotamian great powers after 1200 BC, at the junction of the Anatolian highlands and the plains, only to be absorbed by the newly rising Assyrian empire in the 7th century BC. (I have already written about the adventurous exploration of one of these small kingdoms, Guzana/Tell Halaf.) The imposing ruins of its capital under Zincirli Hill were excavated beginning in 1888 with German and later American cooperation. Some of the finds are exhibited in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, while the other part are in the museums of the cities of southern Turkey, which we are currently visiting. These excellent but little-known museums add a lot to the well-known objects of the Pergamon’s Aramaic exhibition.

The North Mesopotamian Aramaic/Neo-Hittite kingdoms around 1000 BC

The Kuttamuwa stele in the Gaziantep museum also comes from Samʿal. However, this was not erected by the king, but by one of his officials. And it is not talking about worldly glory, but about what they know best here in Anatolia: eating.

“I, Kuttamuwa commissioned this stele for myself while still living. I placed it in the eternal chamber and established a feast at this chamber: a bull for hadad Qarpatalli, a ram for NGD/R SWD/RN, a ram for Šamš, a ram for Hadad of the Vineyards, a ram for Kubaba, and a ram for my soul (NBŠ) that will dwell in this stele. Henceforth, whoever of my sons or of the sons of anybody should come into possession of this chamber, let him take from the best of his vineyard as an offering year by year. He is also to perform the slaughter prescribed above in proximity to my soul, and is to apportion for me a leg-cut.”

Kuttamuwa’s soul is eating a leg-cut with the best of the vineyards of Mesopotamia, whose descendant are the still excellent wines of Tur Abdin. As a bonus, this text is the very first mention of a soul separate from the body in the Middle East

Eating is also the center of official documents such as this 8th-century BC real estate contract from the Kingdom of Carchemish, written in Luvian hieroglyphs. The capital of this kingdom was also near where I am now, on the banks of the Euphrates, on today’s Turkish-Syrian border, where in 605 BC, a great battle between Egypt and Babylonia, also mentioned in the Bible, took place. Most of the findings from Carchemish can be seen today in the Gaziantep and Ankara museums. In the document, the banquet guarantees the validity of the transaction, and the clause does not refer to the criminal code or the jurisdiction of an arbitration court as a sanction, but to the highest judicial authority.

“This house was sold by the son of XXX to Kamonis, and by him to the son of his brother, Parisarmas, grandson of Papitatis, who said: «We will give him 24 mina of silver, and we, Urasarmas from Ihasa, Pamu…, Muwas… and Kumawaris, the Dog, will give him a feast. We will give a great feast to the Lord of WASHA. And whoever takes this house from my son, grandson, or his son, may the heavenly Tarhunzas, Karhuhas and Kubaba, the moon and the sun, and Parakaras, rise against him, and crush his head.”

The following relief ensemble also comes from Carchemish. On its three panels, the local ruler does not speak of his own glory either, but rather shows his sons’ photo album like a happy father.

“This is Kamani here, and those are his younger brothers. Here I take him by the hand, and order him over the temple, although he is still a child.”

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The second panel shows seven younger brothers, accompanied by a dwarf, taking sheep bones into the playrom and playing with it. Earlier, I painted a world-scale panel about the sheep bone, or astragalus, or five stones game. I wrote there that the ancient Greeks considered the game to be of Anatolian origin, and on this relief we now see precisely this origin.

“Malitispa, Astitarhunza, Tarnitispa, Isikaritispa, Sikara, Halpawari, Yahilatispa.”

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On the third page of the album, there is only one child, the smallest, the dearest, the Benjamin (and we can only hope that his brothers’ envy will not make him a Joseph). The maid carrying the child is also leading a calf. It is not known whether the two are related, or whether the babysitter was simply charged with calf herding as well.

“And this is Tuwarsai, the longed-for child of the ruler, chosen to rule.”

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The most shocking ancient inscription in the Mesopotamian museums also does not speak of glory, but of its passing. In the 7th c. BC, the small Aramaic/Neo-Hittite kingdoms fall one after the other to the expanding Assyria. The Assyrian army and Assyrian rule were notorious for their cruelty, which was reinforced as a self-image by the Assyrian royal inscriptions. it is therefore all the more poingant to read the clay tablet in which the commander of the besieged Assyrian garrison of Tušhan, Mannu-ki-Libbali, pleads for reinforcements in 611 BC, before the city is captured by the Babylonians. The letter paints the coming final blow, the vulnerability and destruction of the defenders in such apocalyptic tone that no Assyrian text would have ever allowed itself before. As if a Russian commander surrounded in Donetsk were to write a pleading letter to his superiors, refuting the official Russian propaganda. However, all this was in vain. Mannu-ki-Libbali could not know that his capital, Nineveh, had fallen shortly before.

“For horses, Assyrian and Aramaic scribes, officers, clerks, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, carpenters, bow and arrow makers, tailors and patchers, to whom shall I turn? None of them remained in the city. Who should I give orders to? What should I do? My lord said: «We all row in the same boat.» And now I alone shall die? Because the end of this is death.”

However, Tušhani’s final fall did not take place until two and a half thousand years later. The Ilısu Dam, built on the Tigris River between 2006 and 2014, raised the river level by a hundred meters, flooding huge areas, hundreds of settlements and archaeological sites, including the ten-thousand-year-old historical city of Hasankeyf, and also Tušhani, which was excavated by the University of Akron (Ohio) in a rush before the flooding. What remains from the city, including Mannu-ki-Libbali’s letter, is today to be seen only in the Diyarbakır Museum.

The last summer. Hasankeyf’s Seljuk-era bridge and old town shortly before the flood

The Greek church in Nizip

From Antep (known as Gaziantep, Antep the Hero, in its name born out of Turkish political mythology) we drive towards the Euphrates. We are heading to Zeugma, the military center of the ancient Roman limes, which was flooded in 2000 by the river dammed with the Birecik Dam. But before that, archaeologists paid by an American private foundation hurriedly excavated and lifted the unique floor mosaics of the officers’ villas. The Zeugma Museum in Antep, created for them, is today the largest mosaic museum in the world.

Our road leads through endless pistachio groves. Turkey is the third largest producer of pistachios after Iran and California. Antep pistachio is a name in Turkish gastronomy. It even has its own holiday, in October, after the harvest. A 2nd-century tombstone of the Zeugma Museum, on which the child Brutus Koskonios holds a bird, a soul symbol, and a large bunch of pistachios, is proof that pistachios were already loved by the inhabitants of ancient Zeugma.

The Greek inscription of the pedestal: “Brutus Koskonios, ahead of time! Good bye!”

In the town of Nizip, “the cradle of pistachio production”, a narrow path branches off towards Zeugma. As I am looking for the junction on the map, I notice a small sign near it. I put it on my Organic Maps along with hundreds of similar signs in the past months, as I was collecting the possible attractions from the literature. This sign indicates a rare sight in this area, a medieval Christian church. We take the short detour.

The Fevkani mahalle is one of the neighborhoods of the old town. The regular floor plan of the housing estates accompanying the entrance road to the city gives way to zigzag streets and two-story houses, with sporadic demolitions in the spirit of land speculation, typical of the Turkish countryside. After one turn, the triple apse of a Byzantine-style church opens up without any introduction in a small square. Not only is its huge size impressive, but also its mere presence here, on the far periphery of the Roman and later Byzantine empire. One would expect such a church in Thessaloniki;  it would be a rarity even in Istanbul. Here, at the edge of Mesopotamia, among the Kurdish houses and provincial mosques, it fills you with a sense of home and with the experience of touching your own historical roots.

The literature does not provide much information about the church. It is said to be from the 6th century, but its current form is obviously later, perhaps from the 11th-12th centuries. According to the AintabData monument register, it was converted into a mosque in the 1800s, and it was abandoned after the opening of the two city mosques in 1888 and 1904. It was later used by the municipality as a warehouse, and then it stood empty. In 2011, it was included among the 14 churches + 1 synagogue which the Turkish state restored with great publicity between 2003 and 2017. According to a 2018 report, it was badly vandalized by the children of the Syrian refugee camp on the outskirts of the city, and now it is empty once again.

According to local tradition, the church belonged to the Armenians. However, it is clearly Greek in form, so it must have been theirs originally. In the Byzantine era, Nizip was a large Greek city here, behind the limes, under the name of Nisibis (not identical to the even larger Nisibis, today’s Nusaybin, which was an important theological and philosophical center until the Persian invasion in 363). Only with the retreat of the Byzantine empire and the disappearance of the Greek population could the Armenians take it over. However, unlike hundreds of other Armenian churches, it did not become a mosque after the Armenian genocide, but a hundred years earlier. What happened to the Armenians of Nizip, why did they give up their church in the 19th century?

According to an English photo album from 1919 (from AintabData), the church was still outside the city at that time

An old man is raking in the small park next to the church. After a ceremonial Turkish welcome, I inquire about the key to the church. “No key”, he narrows his eyes. “We cannot go in?” “No. The church was recently put in order, and then hooligans vandalized it. So the municipality closed it. Where do you come from?” “Madjaristan…” Big smile, there is at least one country where they still love us. “Attila…” says the man, as everyone here does when hearing the name of our country. In the past, this meant our common mythical king, but since last year the situation is different. “…Szalai”, he continues, tracing with his finger the yellow stripes of Fenerbahçe on his blue T-shirt. Our Attila Szalai has been playing in the popular Fenerbahçe football team since last year, and he seems to doing it well enough to effectively improve our country’s image.

So at least we have a look at the church from the outside. A dignified, puritan building constructed of white block stones. The floor plan of the Greek cross written in a square is closed by a triple apse in the east. The prominent façades of its transept are divided by only two semi-circular windows, and the western façade by three gates and also two semi-circular windows. It may have inherited its unworthy aluminium door from its warehouse days.

We are already getting back into the car when a thin man arrives with a limp and gestures towards the church with a broad smile. “Can we go in?” I ask, to which he nods. Indeed I saw that, as we went around the church, the gardener was frantically on the phone. Not having the heart to turn us away, he took it upon himself to find the key man for Attila’s sons. So we enter the church, which, despite the poor restauration – mirror-smooth dome, the plaster already moldy and decaying – creates an impressive effect.

After the first impression, I am looking for something that is still reported in the literature: a large byzantine fresco with apostles and saints. Our guide shows us a small fragment of a fresco with the remains of folds of clothes in the sacristy, but the larger one is nowhere to be found. “The mosaic was taken to the museum”, he says to my question. “Which museum?” “To here, of Zeugma, ten kilometers away from here.” He points on the map to the museum on the banks of the Euphrates, where we are heading. But this, as we will see later, keeps the antique floor mosaics preserved in situ, nothing external was brought here. The fresco – because it was that, not a mosaic, as our guide fantasizes – which survived so many centuries of destruction, and was still here in 1987, was certainly removed during the restoration.

A detail of the fresco from John Sinclair’s Eastern Turkey: An architectural and archaeological survey, Volume 4 (1987)

The fresco fragment in the sacristy today

Our guide, Abdulkarim, invites us to tea, but Zeugma and today’s busy program on the Euphrates await us. He is sorry and invites us for the next time with a smile. I ask for his phone number, so that we can get in more easily with a next group. When leaving the church, I want to give him a banknote for his trouble, but he refuses it with a firm gesture. The gardener also waves to us in a friendly way, and then the two of them go to tea together. The lonely church slowly disappears behind us.