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Celebrating Nowruz in Cities Ancient and Modern

Persepolis, entrance to the citadel with the Gate of All Nations, photo Alex Nagel

Persepolis, entrance to the citadel with the Gate of All Nations, photo by Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house cocurator of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, on view at the Sackler through April 28, 2013.

Nowruz Mobarak! Recently, many countries around the world celebrated Nowruz, the Persian New Year. At Freer|Sackler, thousands of visitors of all ages engaged in activities that included music, storytelling, hands-on activities, “fire-jumping,” and games. I had a wonderful time helping the chess and backgammon players, working with local experts and communities, and telling people about the ancient roots of these popular games. But how was Nowruz celebrated in the ancient world, with its multiple religions, festivals, and languages?

Since the nineteenth century, archaeologists have excavated cuneiform tablets that refer to a New Year’s festival in Babylon, including a 2,000-year-old tablet that describes the Akitu. Held at the end of March, this celebration lasted for many days and honored Marduk, Babylon’s main deity. It began in the old Esagila sanctuary in the city center of Babylon, which had one of the oldest ziggurats (temple or pyramid-like structures), the foundations of which are preserved and known as “The Tower of Babel.”

On this particular Akitu-tablet, in the collections of the Louvre, the writer praises Marduk as lord (“Bel”) and his wife Zarpanitu as “Beltia.” During the festival, the king of Babylon would lead a procession with a statue of Marduk to the river Euphrates, where the citizens of Babylon would watch as the statue was transported by boat to the Akitu Temple in the north. On the final day of the festivities, citizens brought offerings and tributes to Marduk, which became a source of wealth for the Esagila sanctuary.

Unfortunately, there’s much less written evidence for the New Year’s festivities in places like Persepolis and Susa. Some scholars have argued that there is a special significance in the bull and lion scenes found carved on the walls of the Apadana, one of the many buildings still preserved at Persepolis. Thousands of tablets excavated at Persepolis provide important information about high numbers of livestock used for cult purposes that we are only beginning to understand. And, what about jumping through fire? While it is not mentioned in the tablets, we know that the tradition of fire jumping began with people aiming to ward off evil spirits. As shown by the number of enthusiastic jumpers at the Freer|Sackler Nowruz celebrations, it is still a good way to start the New Year.

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Squeezing is Believing

 

Detail of cuneiform squeeze. Ernst Herzfeld papers, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives.

Larry DeVore is a retired lawyer who became a docent at Freer|Sackler twenty years ago. Shortly thereafter, he began volunteering in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. For the last fourteen years he has been working with our paper conservators, first Martha Smith and now Emily Jacobson. He has been involved in many different projects, including the repair of a collection of “squeezes.”  

A squeeze is a paper cast of an inscription or picture that has been incised on an outdoor monument or building. In this way the inscription, which could become eroded or destroyed over time and cannot be moved to another location, can be preserved. Large sheets of wet paper are pounded into the recesses of the inscribed surface and once the wet paper dries it is peeled off the surface.

The F|S Archives was given more than three hundred squeezes by Ernst Herzfeld, an archaeologist who worked in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, during the 1920s and 1930s. Over time many of the squeezes, of cuneiform inscriptions from sites such as Persepolis, had suffered damages. There were tears in a number of different places, the cuneiform was frequently compressed, and often sections of the cast were missing. In addition, repairs made previously used poor-quality materials, such as scotch tape or brown paper tape, which had to be removed before new repairs could be made. Tears and holes were mended using Japanese paper and a good-quality adhesive and the cuneiforms that had been crushed or damaged were restored to their original height where possible.

If you want to see for yourself what a squeeze looks like, come to the Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran exhibition that is currently on display at Freer|Sackler. If you look closely, you might even see where some of the repairs were made.

Learn more about the Squeeze Imaging Project at the museum.

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