The cult of Adonis shows that a core of cult-practice and items from an ancient Near Eastern myth could indeed be encountered in our Euboean Greek travellers’ eastern ‘triangle’ and pass across languages into Greek practice and subsequent storytelling. The transfer was not exact and the contents were not exactly researched and copied. ‘Adonis’ was the partial understanding of Greek outsiders who heard the cries of the worshippers of Tammuz. The core of his story of death and return became enhanced by Greeks too, who added heroic details of hunting and romance. But not everything was ‘lost in translation’.
There was, therefore, a bridge across which genuine knowledge passed to Greeks. It was not some ‘migrant charismatic’, travelling from the Near East: it was female, the women of Phoenicia, then of Cyprus, with whom Greeks did have that informed ‘intercourse’ through which stories, cults and practices can pass between cultures. The rites of Tammuz, however, were unmissably public, interrupting civic life and bringing crowds out to worship at secondary shrines in the landscape. In other cases, myths of Near Eastern societies had been connected with rituals which were performed by or around a king. Among the Greeks, kingship had almost entirely vanished by the eighth century BC, except in Sparta and Cyprus. In itself, a difference of social structure would not prevent such myths from being picked up: the Greeks’ myths, after all, travelled on to a second life in the very different structure of Roman society. The greater problem was accessibility, not just of language but of the rites and songs in question. It is hard to imagine that eighth-century Greek visitors to Cilicia or the Levant were ever privileged observers of songs and rituals conducted by local non-Greek kings of the ‘house of Muksas’ and other dynasties.
There was, however, another bridge besides women. It was one which everyone shared and which caused myths to be told across social classes: the landscape.1 Even now we tend to think of a landscape only as an external object, a mass of rock, soil and water which exists independently of its viewers. But nature, too, is a human invention and landscapes are creatures of culture as well as hard objects: they are given their character by human concepts. In the Near East, just as in Greece, landscapes were interpreted through myths. All visitors who arrived in these settings wanted to know why the places around them had a particular form. They would ask their local inhabitants and hear, or half-understand, their mythical explanations. The landscape affected everyone and so it was a more open bridge for myths to pass from one culture to another than the rituals around a royal court. In and around north Syria there was so much to explain and interpret. The northern and eastern coast and hinterland of our ‘triangle’ abound in spectacular natural landscapes: huge caves and clefts in the ground, the fast-flowing waters on the hill-site of Seleuceia (they were later said to be weeping for the Jews martyred in Greek Antioch)2 or the sudden cliff-face, like a robbers’ hideout, which rises so steeply above the Cilician plain at Anavarza, and which is the site of ‘Cyinda’ where Alexander the Great and his Successors understandably stored their treasure. The great chains of wooded mountains return to the coast where it bends round and Cilicia runs south into Syria. Here, we can still share the impressions which this landscape left on its Assyrian conquerors as they climbed Mount Amanus and looked westwards in wonder over the ‘great sea’.
One particular mountain stands out beyond all others on this coastline, a focal point in the view both to and from north Syria, for which, as we have seen, it marks a southern boundary. Known nowadays as the Jebel Aqra, it rises to a height of c. 6,000 feet from the seashore at its foot. Its peaks are high landmarks on all the surrounding routes, whether by sea to Cyprus or by the coastal road to modern Lattakieh, north and west across the broad inland plain of the Amuq valley or up the mountain route which climbs to cross the distant ‘Syrian Gates’. This natural beacon begins with woods on its lower hills, ascends to a range of lesser peaks and ridges and then tapers finally to its highest point. In antiquity it was accurately summed up by the Roman historian Ammianus (c.AD 380), himself a man from the plains of Antioch beneath it: ‘Wooded, and with a rounded girth it is extended on high to a great altitude.’3 In the nineteenth century western travellers returned to climb it and they, too, were impressed by the woods which survived on the lower slopes, a mixture of oak and myrtle, birch-trees, quinces and wild pears and even the rare styrax-trees whose resin was so highly prized. Then, the mountain narrows to an alpine height: ‘In April the patches of gaudy scarlet peonies alternate and are relieved by patches of yellow asphodel not far from the snowclad summit, where violets and pansies are succeeded by dark green fennel. The summit is composed of naked limestone rock…’4 The woods have now been reduced by felling and the styrax-trees are gone, but above modern Bezge the track towards the summit winds sharply back on itself and the change to the grey bleakness of the upper slope becomes brutally visible. Frequently veiled in cloud, this summit causes the highest rainfall along the entire Syrian coastline. It is the focal point for the storms and the circling claps of thunder which resound along these ridges at the end of a hot summer.
Throughout antiquity the ancients acknowledged the strange genius of this place. They knew the wild animals on its wooded slopes, although characteristically they never mentioned the peonies. In the second millennium BC they already drove their flocks to its lower hills for summer pasturing and knew the mountain-range for its sources of water and its veins of precious metal.5 They told stories of its spectacular thunderstorms and they discovered that by rising so steeply above sea level the peak offered visitors a rare opportunity: from it they could see the sunrise for about five minutes while the plains below were still in darkness.6 It is not, then, surprising that this mountain was thought to be a seat of the gods. In late antiquity sailors and locals still called its neighbouring peak the Throne, just as it had been the ‘throne’ of the gods in texts which went back a thousand years into the pre-Greek past.7
Centuries before Homer’s Olympus, the Jebel Aqra was the mountain Sapuna, the residence of Baal, one of the great gods of the Canaanite people.8 On its heights, as we know from texts recovered from nearby Ras Shamra (Betyllion to the later Greeks), the gods built Baal a palace of blue lapis and silver which they brought down from the clouds. The mountain itself was an object of cult and on it, too, lived the goddess Anat. In autumn, when the summer’s heat breaks, the great claps of thunder echo round the neighbouring hills, lightning strikes the sea below and the waves roar in reply. Manifestly Baal is back in his mountain-palace, just as once he had returned in triumph from his victories over death (Mot) and the sea (Yamm), beating them with his two huge clubs and with his bolts of thunder and lightning.
Ras Shamra lies on the southern side of this awesome mountain and from its temple of Baal we have a fine image of Baal in action.9 On a stone relief there, he is shown armed with his club and thunderbolt while striding forwards: a small image of the local king is shown in his protection. Below him are sculpted the outlines of four hilltops, exactly the four hills which are still visible from Ras Shamra on the Jebel Aqra’s lower slopes. Below them again are shown the waves of the sea over which Baal and his weapons have been victorious. The scene of his victory was surely the sea by Ras Shamra itself at the southern foot of the mountain on which he lived. An exact local reading of this monument helps to place and explain it. The people of Ras Shamra lived just by the sea where Baal had triumphed. Each autumn, when he thundered on the mountain above them and flashed his lightning down onto the sea-swell, the stories of his triumph would reassure them that these continuing signs of power would not lead on to more wars of the world.
Even so, Baal was not the first god on this peak. Earlier settlers in north Syria, the Hurrians, had known the mountain as ‘Hazzi’ and had placed their own Storm God, Teshub, on the summit. Hittite rulers then took over this name for the mountain and for the weather-god on its heights. They too sang stories of his victories, including a victory over the sea by which he secured his kingship in heaven.10 For hundreds of years, before the Greeks settled nearby, the god of the mountain had been praised on each of its sides, the north and the south side, by Hittite and by Canaanite royal singers respectively. The mountain, therefore, was an essential site for cult and prayers. On its bare summit stands a huge mound of ashes and debris, about 180 feet wide and 26 feet deep, obviously an ancient cult-site. In 1937 it was surveyed briefly before the gods intervened and storms and cold weather stopped the investigation: a Hellenistic level was reached at a depth of 6 feet but the next 20 feet plainly go down to the ninth century BC and earlier.11 At present they are closed to further organized researches as the summit, bordering Syria, is a Turkish military zone. But one day their truth will be recovered.
This holy mountain is the barrier which split in two the Greeks’ early contact with this coastline. On its northern side, by the beach at its foot, lies Al Mina, the port of call for Euboeans, Cypriots and others who came here from the early eighth century onwards. On the southern side, beyond the mountain’s wall of descending ridges, lies the settlement at Ras el-Bassit, eventually to be called Posideion, where pieces of Greek pottery imply that Greek visitors had been known since c. 950 BC, but a site whose settlers and residents were Syrians and Phoenicians, not Greeks. South of it lay the White Harbour and Betyllion by the multi-cultural settlement at ancient Ugarit (Ras Shamra). Throughout antiquity, the non-Greek settlers here looked north to the same ‘twin peaks’ of the Jebel Aqra on the horizon, ‘Mount Hazzi’ and ‘Mount Nanou’ as the Hittite texts had called them.12 The Hittite name persisted in neo-Hittite culture into the ninth century BC and so when Greeks settled on the north side of Mount Hazzi they continued to call its main peak ‘Mount Kasios’. They gave the name of ‘Antikasios’ to a lower peak, probably the one which juts towards the sea south-west from the main summit.13 Centuries later, as we have argued, Macedonians who were settled by Alexander’s Successors called this stretch of coast ‘Pieria’, partly because the peaks of Mount Kasios suggested their own Mount Olympus to their minds. Now that we see its age-old role as the seat of the gods and their battles we can understand even more clearly why they looked at Mount Kasios in this way. It was the Olympus of the Near East.
This mountain is a beacon of ancient paganism, but it is possible to study the political history of the entire ancient world without realizing its immense significance. It will turn out to be of the greatest importance for the Greek travelling heroes who came here and for their mythical baggage. To bring out its role, we need to dwell on the later evidence for its impact.
After Alexander’s conquests, when Greeks then Romans controlled this territory, they continued to be intrigued by the mountain and its god. In due course, they built a sanctuary for Zeus Kasios near the summit: the tiles, stamped with his name, were reused in the Christian buildings which were later placed on an easterly ridge of the mountain.14 The first datable Greek reference to Zeus Kasios in north Syria belongs after Alexander’s death, but here of all places it is a mistake to take our first surviving attestation of a cult as the moment of its origin.
In c. 300 BC Alexander’s Successor Seleucus founded two major cities in the Amuq valley, Seleuceia on the coast and the famous Antioch in the plain inland. Before founding his coastal Seleuceia,15 Seleucus is said to have climbed Mount Kasios (in the month of April) and sacrificed there to Zeus. An eagle, ominously, is said to have carried off part of the meat which was being sacrificed and dropped it on the coastal site opposite the mountain where there was already a settlement: Seleucus duly sited his new Seleuceia on the lower slopes of the mountains which face back southwards across the valley to the Jebel Aqra’s peak. The Zeus of this separate range was called ‘Zeus of the Peak’.16 In an alternative story, however, Seleucus was said to have sacrificed to Zeus the Thunderer in the plain below and to have been guided to the new Seleuceia’s site by thunder.17 The alternative is not radically different: thunder is a sign of Zeus Kasios urging and approving too. To this day, thunder breaks out above Mount Kasios and while it rolls round the surrounding ridges it sounds in the Amuq river-plain below. These stories are known to us in authors writing long after the events of 300 BC, but the important fact is that they use earlier local sources and attach exactly to items of continuing cult in Seleucus’ city Seleuceia. Coins struck there during the first century BC imitate earlier coins of the Seleucids by showing a thunderbolt, sometimes placed reverentially on a throne with a cushion.18 Plainly it was an important item of cult in the city. In the reign of Trajan (AD 97–116) we then find coins of this thunderbolt accompanied by other coins which show a shrine of Zeus Kasios with a pointed roof, identified by its caption. An eagle, no less, stands on the roof and a holy stone object is shown inside. These two types appear together and owe their existence to an obvious event, Trajan’s stay in Antioch and the Syrian plain and the saving of his life, as we shall see, by Zeus Kasios in winter AD 114/15. The late date of the coins is thus no discredit to their evidence for the nature of the cult; they were struck, surely, in 115 to honour the god who had saved the emperor. Their image of his temple was drawn from life and the eagle on top of it referred to the eagle at Seleuceia’s founding-sacrifice. The stone, as we shall see, may also have had an exact reference to the god.
We can follow this cult in the personal worship of travellers of the Roman period. From Iskenderun–Alexandretta, just across the Amanus mountains, we have a significant little shrine made in limestone for personal worship.19 Four pillars define it, like the four pillars round the shrine on Seleuceia’s coins: inside stands a figure of the sun-god, raising his hand in blessing and surrounded by signs of the zodiac and the four winds. The shape of this entire object is a ‘sacred stone’, or betyl, veiled at the back and resembling the holy stone on Seleuceia’s coins. The identity of its cult should not, then, be doubted. It is a worshipper’s personal shrine of Zeus Kasios, combining the attributes of the god’s north Syrian temple and his relation with the sun and the elements which had a particular relevance in his cult. Further east, by the Euphrates, we also have a much-discussed small altar, inscribed at the military colony of Dura by a soldier from a Roman legion which had been posted for many years in north Syria at Antioch. The altar dates from the later second century AD and is dedicated to the ‘ancestral Zeus Betylos’ of ‘those who live by the Orontes’.20 A betyl, or betylos, is a sacred stone and although the double name is not unambiguous, it ought to mean a Zeus who is worshipped ‘with’ a sacred stone or betyl. This soldier’s legionary base was Antioch, where the most famous such Zeus was Zeus Kasios above the lower Orontes river, who was worshipped both in Seleuceia and on his mountain overlooking the river. The name ‘Zeus Betylos’ for him is unprecedented, but the reference was made by a foreign soldier far away who simply evoked the local Zeus near Antioch by the best-known object in his cult and imagery.
If we go back to the Hellenistic age after Alexander, the god’s continuing importance is reflected in the personal names of men and women from the plain and coastline beside his mountain. They are called ‘Kassio-dora’ and ‘Kassio-doros’ (‘gift of Kasios’, to whom, then, one parent or both had vowed or prayed before succeeding in conceiving the child). These namesakes appear as travellers far beyond Syria in inscriptions in the Greek world, because the god’s fame spread so much more widely than historical narrative allows us to see.21 Further south on the Levantine coast, Greeks located mythical ‘Kassi-opeia’, whose daughter, Andromeda, was exposed at Joppa to the attacks of a fearsome sea-monster. A Levantine story of a sea-monster and a woman probably underlay this tale, though it is lost to us now: Greeks perhaps modelled the name ‘Kassiopeia’ on the names based on ‘Mount Kas(s)ios’ up the coast.22 The mountain’s fame was very extensive. In an inscription recently discovered in the little coastal town of Keramos, on the south-west coast of Asia Minor, the local donor of a sundial (c. 100 BC) had its stone inscribed with Greek verses explaining that his gift would observe the ‘true course of the midday, for as long as the sun shines above highest Kasios’.23 The Jebel Aqra is not visible from Keramos but there is no need to conclude that the stone may have been transported here from a coastal town in our triangle. The author knew it as the high point for the sun at noon in the east Mediterranean. So, later, did one of the first young pupils of St Augustine, writing clumsy verses in Latin in northern Italy, months after his master’s conversion to Christian celibacy.24
The best-attested visitors to the mountain-peak are three Roman emperors, each of whose visits illuminates the local conditions. In winter AD 114/15, the emperor Trajan was present at Antioch for a spectacular earthquake which shook the surrounding Amuq plain and fractured part of Mount Kasios itself. Trajan ascribed his own escape to a heavenly helper, evidently Zeus Kasios in person. Previously Trajan had honoured the god with a dedication of silver cups and the gilded horns of an enormous wild ox, spoils from his recent victory over the Dacians near the River Danube. These ox-horns are somewhat unusual and we should remember that way back in the Hittite Bronze Age (c. 1200 BC) the Storm God of this very mountain had already been worshipped with ox-horns.25The old practice may have lived on among his priests. It is from the year of Trajan’s visit onwards that the coins of Seleuceia on the coast below show the rounded stone in a pillared shrine, captioned with Zeus Kasios’ name. We now see why: the god had just saved his life.
When Trajan visited, he was accompanied by his adopted son Hadrian, who composed Greek verses in honour of the emperor’s dedications to Zeus Kasios: aptly, he described the god as ‘dark with clouds’. Nobody could have guessed that this same Hadrian, now emperor himself, would return in the year 130 and climb the mountain in the darkness of night, no doubt to witness the premature dawn at its summit. As he prepared to honour Zeus Kasios with a sacrifice, a flash of lightning is said to have killed his animal victim and the attendant who was about to slaughter it. This part of the story is probably a mischievous invention, but the author knew that the god, ‘dark with clouds’, was a stupendous thunderer.26
In spring 363 the last pagan emperor, Julian, also took the route to the bare, bleak summit, hoping to see the early dawn. The sun rose, and in ‘broad daylight’, so the contemporary orator Libanius assures us, Julian saw Zeus Kasios in person. So far as we know there was no personalized cult-statue of the god in Seleuceia to give him human features: perhaps, like Trajan, Julian ‘saw’ him as a dark-bearded figure.27 Where such important pagans still climbed, worshipped and sensed Zeus Kasios’ power, Christians badly needed their own religious counterweight. From the fifth century onwards, therefore, Mount Hazzi attracted two remarkable Christian storm troopers. First, the young Barlaam left his home in the plains below and went up to challenge the demons just below their historic seat on Mount Kasios’ summit. On an eastern ridge, just above modern Bezge, he founded the least welcoming of all early Christian monasteries where the mountain reduces to bare, grey rock. He settled just by the site of the temple to Zeus at which previous Roman emperors had worshipped: perhaps it had the architecture and the sacred stone which are shown on the coins of Seleuceia across the valley. Fragments of its building were later used in the monastery which was built to commemorate him.28 In the following century, in the 530s, Barlaam was excelled by the young Symeon from coastal Seleuceia, who showed even more stamina at a height which was no less impressive. On the hills beyond Mount Hazzi’s northern slope, Symeon began a Christian life as a stationary saint on a pillar-base at the tender age of seven. Progressing ever higher, he ended by standing on the tall pillar whose base is still intact among the ruins of its surrounding Christian church.29
The young Symeon remained standing on a pillar here for more than forty years (until 592). As his blessing and prophecies proved their worth, they attracted important patrons, including the Byzantine emperor Maurice who built the large stone church which still stands around the pillar. The siting is extremely significant: the view through its side chapels aligns exactly with the peak of the Jebel Aqra, the demonic backdrop to Symeon’s life on high. Like the elder Symeon Stylites who was his namesake and role-model,30the younger Symeon stood on high as an alternative Christian focus, contradicting an ancient pagan ‘high place’ in the mountain landscape behind him. Just below the hillside of his pillar lay the site of Sabouni, visited by Greeks in the Bronze Age and the eighth century, and on the coast below it lay the site of Al Mina, ‘Potamoi Karon’, the former residence of Euboean travellers. Across more than seventeen hundred years, therefore, the Jebel Aqra framed the beginning and end of pagan Greek worship in the Levant.
In the eighth century BC, Mount Kasios, its myths, its storms and gods mattered daily to the Greek contemporaries who were living in their shadow. They were a part of their mentality, part of what it meant to be a Greek on the coast of north Syria, a more important part than their Geometric pottery and skyphoi with semi-circles, the durable debris which survives for archaeologists and until now has dominated studies of these travellers’ presence.
One fact is certain about Greeks’ interaction with this mountain: they did not learn its name from the Phoenicians who came up to its southern side at Ras el-Bassit or passed it at sea on their way up to southern Cilicia and its plain. Phoenicians called the Jebel Aqra by the old Semitic name Saphon, which was familiar from Canaanite poems about the gods, whereas the Greeks called it Kasios. They adapted this name from the ancient name Hazzi which Hittite conquerors had picked up from Hurrian settlers in north Syria and had used in their texts between c. 1400 and 1200 BC. The two names diverged in their foreign impact. In the later eighth century, from the 730s onwards, Saphon is the name which the conquering Assyrians and their scribes adapted. The Greeks always held fast to Kasios and ignored Saphon.31
The reasons for this divergence can be explained. The Greek name ‘Kasios’ perhaps goes back to a contact in the Bronze Age, c. 1200 BC, when the neo-Hittite kings were still very powerful and Greek visitors to the nearby site at Sabouni on the Orontes heard the name ‘Hazzi’ from the locals. However, its survival among Greeks through the ‘dark’ centuries from c. 1150 to 950, when Greek visitors to the coast dwindled, or ceased altogether, is not attested. We should also look to the period c. 950–750, when Greek goods returned to the site of Ras el-Bassit near the mountain’s south side and then Greeks settled Al Mina at its northern foot. We have seen how even after the old Hittite kingdom’s fall, Hittite culture survived among the neighbouring kings of the north Syrian plain which lies to the Jebel Aqra’s north and east. These were the years when the neo-Hittite kingdom of Patina flourished inland behind Al Mina and its capital at Kinalua on the bend of the Orontes was unscathed. The name ‘Mount Kasios’ prevailed because of Greek contacts on the north side of the mountain, the site, above all, of the Euboean presence at Al Mina from c. 780 BC onwards. By contrast, the Assyrian scribes and compilers of place names listed sites as if they were coming up northwards from the far Phoenician side of the mountain: they adopted the name ‘Sapanu’ from the West Semitic speakers on that part of their conquered territory.
A mountain is a static landmark, unlike a travelling hero, a Daedalus or Heracles who could find so many homes. Yet it is most remarkable how this god, and even the mountain, travelled abroad. At first their relocations were not Greek at all, but Greek travellers then followed lines which Egyptians and Levantines had already laid. The travels of Mount Kasios remind us that Greeks were only one type of traveller on these busy east Mediterranean sea-lanes.
Long before any Greeks arrived in north Syria, the god of the mountain had travelled with visitors between Egypt and the coast of the Levant. His travels went far back in time and it is not surprising to find that c. 1300 BC Baal Saphon, the god of the Jebel Aqra, had a temple in Egypt at Memphis.32 When the king of Ugarit, just to the south of the mountain, wrote to the pharaoh in Egypt, he invoked his own Baal Saphon, who had a monument on the site (Ras Shamra). In the temple of Baal at Ras Shamra stood a carved representation of the god dedicated by a royal Egyptian scribe on behalf of his pharaoh, probably c. 1300 BC. His inscription in Egyptian hieroglyphs calls the god ‘Baal Zephon’; he is invoked to give prosperity: the distinctive sandstone of this relief-sculpture had been sent to Ras Shamra all the way from Egypt. Visitors honoured the great god of the place and so, through diplomacy, trade and travel, the god entered Egypt and became known away from his mountain seat.33
No ‘dark age’ can efface a mountain and so Baal Saphon survived into the first millennium. Again, the best evidence is diplomatic. Publicly, in 677 BC, the king of Tyre invoked Baal Saphon as one of three gods who would protect his treaty with the king of Assyria: against anyone who broke it Baal Saphon would ‘raise a hostile wind against your ships, to destroy your rigging and break your masts and rouse a gigantic wave at sea’.34 The curse is a reminder that the god of the mountain was also master of the winds and sea-swells, as the old local myths had celebrated him. Those Greeks and Cypriots who had been travelling and settling on either side of the mountain since c. 950 BC knew exactly what this curse meant, on days when the thunderstorms rolled and lightning flashed on the peaks above them.
The god was important to individual Phoenician travellers, too. A small amulet, made of lapis lazuli, has been found recently near Tyre, inscribed with an emphatic invocation to Baal Saphon and another Baal of the mountains, the Amanus range or ‘Cedar and Box-tree Mountains’ which face the Jebel Aqra’s north slope. This amulet is datable only by the form of its inscribed letters, which perhaps date to the sixth century BC. The owner was probably a seafarer, accustomed to travelling between Tyre, the coast of north Syria and the Bay of Issus, to whom the favours of Baal Saphon on his mountain-top and the Baal across the valley were of special importance. So he wore his blue amulet, invoking them, on a chain round his neck.35
Meanwhile the god of the mountain had remained important to residents in Egypt. From c. 600 BC onwards, evidence for his cult survives from the royal city of Memphis where Tyrians had settled up the Nile. It survives too from the eastern arm of the Nile Delta. Here, at Tell Defenneh, we have the papyrus letter of a lady who writes to another lady at Memphis concerning a financial matter. She invokes the blessing of Baal Saphon in language which implies that the god had a cult at Tell Defenneh itself. Aptly, both of the women are Phoenicians.36 Tell Defenneh was also a home for Jewish settlers, as we know from the Hebrew Scriptures. Among them was the prophet Jeremiah in exile, and just as Levantine sailors and settlers had brought Baal Saphon and his cult to the Nile Delta, so the Israelites’ contact with coastal Phoenicia had made Baal and his mountain familiar in Israel. In verses of their psalms, especially Psalm 48, and in verses of the Hebrew prophets, ‘Saphon’ means the ‘north’, as if the Jebel Aqra was a focal point for people in Israel.37 There are even times when their praises of Yahweh and his holy mountain Sion recall the ancient Canaanite poems of praise to Baal on his north Syrian mountain-peak: Hebrew authors seem to have transposed some of the imagery which applied to the neighbouring ‘heathen’ gods and applied it to their own god instead.38 Baal Saphon’s impact in Israel is neatly attested by the personal name of the prophet Zephaniah, a contemporary of Jeremiah, c. 600 BC: it means ‘Saphon is Yahweh’.
Jews were also aware of Baal Saphon’s cult in Egypt. The prophet Jeremiah cannot have missed it during his exile at Tell Defenneh and the cult appears, famously, in the biblical story of the Exodus. This story weaves together two contradictory routes for the Israelites’ return from Egypt, each of which was derived from the biblical compiler’s underlying, discordant sources. One, the most famous, takes the Israelites far south through the Egyptian desert to the distant Red Sea. The other, by contrast, directs them to ‘Baal Saphon’ and a ‘sea’ to the east of it where they encamp. Probably, this route was the one given by the priestly source for our scriptural narrative, a man who was writing (in my view) in the later sixth century BC.39
‘Baal Saphon’ has been fixed here with certainty, on the Egyptian coastline just to the east of the eastern arm of the Nile Delta. On a tongue of land between the Mediterranean sea and Lake Bardawil, the promontory Ras Kasroun marks a site which was linked directly to the god.40 The lake behind it was notoriously marshy and treacherous: it is probably the Bible’s ‘sea of reeds’ (yam sūf), whose exact translation is still uncertain, although it is the ‘sea’ in which Pharaoh’s chosen captains were drowned ‘like a stone’ (Exodus 15: 5). As it was a sea of ‘reeds’ or some other water-plant, it was a ‘sea’ in the sense of a freshwater lake. ‘Reeds’ and other water-plants will not grow in the salty Red Sea, but they will grow in Lake Bardawil, which is partly fed by freshwater sources.41
In a brilliant study of these biblical locations, the German scholar Otto Eissfeldt argued that there was nothing fortuitous about this siting of the pharaoh’s destruction and the miracle of the Exodus: it emphasized that Yahweh was much more powerful than the local Baal Saphon, a heathen god. Certainly, the coastline by Lake Bardawil was very treacherous: in the 350s BC the marshes ruined a Persian army which invaded Egypt, and the coastline caused great problems for the young Demetrius, a flamboyant Successor of Alexander, when he and his father staged a combined land and sea attack on Egypt in 306 BC, following the ‘Exodus route’ in the reverse direction.42
After the Exodus, the next important witness to the site is Herodotus, who visited the area of Lake Bardawil in c. 440 BC. Three times he refers to ‘Mount Kasios’ on exactly this stretch of coast and regards it as a recognized boundary between Egypt and Syria. He also remarks on the adjacent marsh, the modern Lake Bardawil, which he calls the ‘Serbonian bog’: in it the monster Typhon was ‘said to have been hidden’. Typhon’s concealment here occurred because of his battle with Zeus: Herodotus does not happen to mention Zeus at this point, but there can be no doubt from his mention of Typhon that he associated Zeus with this Egyptian Mount Kasios and its marshland.43
These sitings were not the random inferences of Herodotus’ own researches in the country. They were accepted facts which went back to Greek visitors before him, to Greeks who had known that Baal Saphon was worshipped in the eastern Delta and that a point on the Egyptian coast had assumed the name of the north Syrian mountain. We can be more precise about the origins of this knowledge. In the later seventh century BC, Greeks, too, had been settled at Tell Defenneh (Daphnae, as they called it) among the Jews, Phoenicians and Egyptians. Until c. 580, but not afterwards, their ships were allowed to approach Egypt by the eastern arm of the Delta.44 The Greek knowledge of Zeus Kasios on this coastline thus arose in or before the seventh century BC through their contact with Phoenicians and Baal Saphon in and around the eastern Nile Delta. It might even go back to eighth-century Greek visitors, coming down from Rhodes or Al Mina in the friendly interlude of the short-lived ‘Delta pharaoh’ Bocchoris. Some of them may have been Euboeans.
This second address for the god and his mountain is most remarkable. The coastline beyond the easterly arm of the Nile Delta is conspicuously flat and from the level monotony only one hill stands out prominently, the sandy eminence of Ras Kasroun, which reaches a height of about 300 feet above the sea. A narrow strip of land between the sea and the lake separates it from Lake Bardawil: in the late 1960s surveys and excavations established it as the site of Baal Saphon where the Greeks before Herodotus had located the local Mount Kasios. Precise distances given by later ancient geographers confirm that ‘Kasion’ was indeed here.45
Compared with the parent Mount Hazzi, this Egyptian sibling is a very humble affair. However, the hill was important to sailors: we can see from the Macedonians’ ‘reverse Exodus’ into Egypt in 306 BC that Kasion, the modern Ras Kasroun, was a landmark, but not at all an easy anchorage. The young Demetrius and his fleet were troubled by very rough seas off Kasion and could come no closer than half a mile to the shore. Egyptian Kasion, therefore, looked down on a turbulent sea, just like its Syrian prototype ‘Mount Hazzi’: this similarity was what encouraged the twinning of the sites. There was also something more, lying in the lake behind. Here, as Herodotus remarks, the fire-breathing monster Typhon was said to be located. Later Greek authors added that his hot breath was visible beside Egypt’s ‘Mount Kasios’. In the rising heat of an Egyptian morning, a haze, or at times a damp mist, still shimmers off the lake and its adjoining marshes and sand-dunes, as if Typhon is exhaling.46
Ras Kasroun, then, is a site of sadly neglected holiness, and naturally its layers of myth were enhanced by Egyptians too. They took the local god to be their own Horus and they equated the monster he had beaten into the marshes with Horus’ opponent Seth. By lateral thinking Greek visitors then made a similar connection to their own myths of Zeus and Typhon. As the Greeks’ prominence in Egypt increased after Alexander’s conquests, their Greek name, Kasios, became the name for the entire eastern arm of the Nile Delta: there was even a type of sailors’ knot called the Kasiote. ‘Zeus Kasios’ and ‘Baal Saphon’ received local dedications and at Mehamdiah (the ancient Gerra) on the west of Lake Bardawil, Baal Saphon had a small shrine.47 Further west, on the Nile’s arm, he had another, at Pelusium. We can now understand why the emperor Hadrian took such a particular interest in this area. In early 130 he arrived in Egypt from Antioch and promptly honoured the local Zeus Kasios with a new temple and cult-statue at Pelusium, 10 miles from the ‘Serbonian bog’.48 There had already been a cult of Baal Saphon here, but honours for Zeus Kasios were entirely appropriate for Hadrian, who had experienced the god’s brutal power on the peak of his native Jebel Aqra in north Syria only a few months previously in the storm which was said to have killed the attendant standing beside him.
The travels of Baal Saphon and Mount Kasios are beautiful evidence of a travelling cult and its accompanying place name from one landscape to another. By c. 600 BC, perhaps even by c. 720, Greeks had added to the transpositions which Levantine visitors to Egypt had already made. The beginnings of this Greek interest are unfortunately unknown to us: Herodotus is our earliest evidence (c. 440 BC) for the existence of the Greek names ‘Mount Kasios’ and (by implication) ‘Zeus Kasios’ here in Egypt. What we cannot yet document is a role for early Euboean visitors in naming the god and the Syrian mountain and then discovering his secondary home in the Delta. He must have been very important to them, because they lived in north Syria beneath his home, and it is eminently possible that they then found his second Egyptian address. His further travels to the west are documented in the Aegean and west Mediterranean, but only from evidence which begins in the Hellenistic age after Alexander. Even then, Greek-speaking Syrians and Phoenicians were the active bearers of the god’s worship, especially those whom the god continued to protect at sea. It is a sign of this power that his name is prominent on stone anchors which were dedicated by sailors in ports of Sicily and southern Spain but which do not as yet survive in examples before the third century BC. The god had kept the ship of each anchor safe at sea.49
So far, no such dedication has been found in the early Euboean Greek settlements of Ischia or eastern Sicily, although Euboeans sailed here, spanning the bay of Syrian Mount Kasios and the Bay of Naples. We can come no closer than Corcyra, and even here we know only of an eventual temple to Zeus Kasios on the coast. It stood, however, at the aptly named site of Cassiope on the north-east cape of the island overlooking the Vivari channel between Corcyra and the mainland and its future fine site of Butrint. Importantly, the sea here is rough and unpredictable but the cape and its channel are natural routes up the coast for sailors who are bound for the ‘heel’ of Italy and Otranto some 40 miles north-west across open sea. The temple stood beside the subsequent Christian church to the Virgin at Cassopitra, but we know nothing of it earlier than a coin struck in 46 BC.50 Its established role then confronts us in a thought-provoking incident. When the vain, cruel Roman emperor Nero set off in AD 66 for his journey to win prizes as a performer and charioteer in Greece, it was on landing at Cassiope that he first performed as a singer on Greek soil. He sang a hymn, mercifully lost to us, to Zeus Kasios: he was not merely thanking the god for a safe sea-journey. The ‘sun-king’ Nero was singing here to the god whose mountain had such a special relationship with the rising sun.51
Mount Hazzi in Syria, Cape Ras Kasroun in Egypt and Cape Cassiope on Corcyra all looked over extremely treacherous coastal stretches of sea. As in the old myths in the Bronze Age, their Zeus Kasios retained an enduring role and devotion among sailors. At Corcyra we can continue to follow it in their grateful dedications, including words inscribed by a ‘chief secretary of the association of athletes’ when travelling west from Ephesus to Italy, thanking Zeus Kasios at Cassiope who had ‘swiftly saved him, ship and all’.52 Sailors broke into verse here in their thanks to the god of the sea and storms: they also dedicated model ships to him in gratitude. One Barbaros (‘Barbarian’) even dedicated two, one bigger than the other in thanks for a better voyage. ‘If you grant riches too, he will hang up a ship entirely made of gold,’ he adds, optimistically.53
In the early eighth century BC we have tracked Euboeans from the Near Eastern triangle up past Ithaca exactly to Corcyra, on which, by c. 750 BC, Eretrians among them actually settled. Others sailed on, as we have seen, across the straits to Italy, but it was through the Vivari channel, in reverse, that they will have returned with news of the new lands for the taking to their fellow-Euboeans back home. Surely these supreme sailors had already prayed in gratitude to the Zeus Kasios whom they knew so well from their beach in north Syria’s Unqi. The place name Cassiope (if it existed so early) and the treacherous winds and sea would have brought him inevitably to their minds. It is, then, only an accident of survival that we have no text or dedication here from a travelling Euboean. We only know that, eventually, people here wanted to believe in the god’s active presence in or before the eighth century BC. The historian Procopius in the sixth century AD describes how a ship made from white stones stood on the shore at Cassiope and bore a dedication by a merchant to ‘Zeus Kasios’.54 Some of the local people, he tells us, believed that it was the very ship on which Homer’s Odysseus had been carried home to Ithaca. We know from the local dedications that it was only one more of the ships dedicated to Zeus Kasios by grateful sailors. Homer would never have claimed it: his poems, strikingly, never refer to Zeus Kasios at all.