Ancient History & Civilisation


Potamoi Karon


Like much else in contacts between Greeks and the non-Homeric ‘triangle’ of Cyprus, Cilicia and the Levant, the rediscovery of the crucial mound in north Syria began from a creative mistake. In 1936, fresh from his triumphant excavations at ancient Ur, the archaeologist Leonard Woolley transferred his skills to this river-plain and chose to dig two particular mounds among scores of possible candidates. Already in his mid-fifties, Woolley had moved west from Mesopotamia (Iraq) after restrictive changes in its laws on antiquities. He returned to excavate in north Syria, then under the French Mandate, a cultural region in which he had dug some twenty years before at Carchemish near the Euphrates with the young T. E. Lawrence as a member of his team. In 1936 his aim was to find a Bronze Age site in north Syrian Unqi, the river-plain which he viewed as a ‘self-contained hollow…from the point of view of commerce, the meeting place of the Great Powers’.1 Instead, one of his finds was a site which had flourished in the eighth centuryBC, a period for which he had not been looking. It gave a precise turn to an established debate about the impact of the crafts and techniques of north Syria on eighth-century Greek craftsmen. It then generated a new debate about its own role and significance for Greeks visiting the Levant.

Woolley chose to dig a mound, or tell, just to the north-west of the Orontes river which had been cut by a small modern road leading to the nearby village of Sueidia. On the mound’s northern end, as now, stood a shrine to Sheikh Yusuf, a local Muslim Alawite saint: at first Woolley called his site the ‘Tell of Sheikh Yusuf’. Although it lay about a mile inland from the coastline, he inferred correctly that the plain had advanced through silting of the river and that the mound had once lain by the river-mouth. So it came to be called ‘Al Mina’, Arabic for ‘the port’ or ‘the anchorage’.

Digging deep down to the ninth and tenth of its ancient levels Woolley struck virgin soil across an excavated span of about 650 yards. These levels were characterized by scattered fragments of painted Greek pottery which Woolley considered to have begun to arrive in the mid-eighth century BC. The mound produced no supporting burials and the outlines of the single-storey buildings in the lowest levels were extremely humble. At most they had pebbled floors and mud-brick walls which had collapsed inwards, leaving only their uncut bases of local stones. The near-total preponderance of Greek pottery was remarked by Woolley and led him, unsurprisingly, to the view that the site was first occupied by Greeks.2

In Woolley’s opinion it was not a normal settlement. The floor plans of the buildings were so ordinary and the site seemed to be typified by broken bits of cups and drinking-vessels. About 3 miles up the Orontes river at Sabouni, Woolley located a second mound, which he examined but never excavated. Here he found pieces of Mycenaean Greek pottery from the Bronze Age, but Sabouni showed signs of an eighth-century presence too and so Woolley became ‘fairly certain that this was the place where there lived the merchants who did business at Al Mina. Others, very likely, had villas elsewhere…’ The social proprieties, he thought, could be resolved: at Al Mina there must have lived ‘residents of the poorer sort…but the richer merchants lived in the healthy surroundings of Sabouni and came down to their offices every morning’. Woolley, one feels, and Mrs Woolley, would have settled with servants in a Sabouni villa: ‘Sabouni was the town proper, standing to Al Mina much in the relation of Athens to the Piraeus.’3

For Woolley, Al Mina was the ancient Posideion of Herodotus and the legendary travelling hero Amphilochus was a memory of real Argive Greeks who had once settled at Sabouni in the Mycenaean age. On the seashore to the north of Al Mina stood a Muslim shrine to a pilgrim-saint who was known (as he still is) in Arabic as the ‘lord of the Sea’. For Woolley, this shrine was a living memory of the local sea-god, a god whom the Greeks of this Posideion had once equated with Poseidon and who was still ‘ignorantly worshipped’, so Woolley believed, in a Muslim form.4 In later antiquity the name Posideion, he suggested, fell out of use and the site became known as Betyllion.

We have seen that both these place names belong elsewhere on the map, but Woolley’s discoveries were far more important than his attempts to link them with names in texts. Earlier in the twentieth century, without any knowledge of these sites, German archaeologists had already established the detailed impact of north Syrian skills and objects on eighth- and seventh-century craftsmen of the Greek islands and mainland.5 Magnificently, Woolley appeared to have found the underlying point of contact: a Greek settlement at the very mouth of the Syrian river which led on up to the royal city of Kinalua (Tell Tayinat) inland. Through this ‘port’ (Mina), north Syrian goods were evidently channelled by Greek traders into the Greek world. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the pottery and minor objects which Woolley preserved from Al Mina were published only in part and were then dispersed to collections far and wide. However, Woolley’s view of the site prevailed, and in 1957 the Oxford archaeologist John Boardman intensified its interest by arguing that much of Al Mina’s earliest Greek pottery was Euboean in style or origin.6 His brilliant hypothesis was proved correct when Lefkandi and other sites in Euboea were later excavated and revealed similar pottery of their own.

Nonetheless doubts began to be raised about Woolley’s explanations. Al Mina was plainly not Posideion (as we have seen, Posideion lay further north on the Bay of Issus and the name was then given later to Ras el-Bassit, just to the south). If the place really was a Greek settlement, why did it have no known Greek name? Why were there no Greek burials and no Greek architecture or roof-tiles? Why, even, were there no Greek cooking-pots and everyday kitchenware? Where were the early Greek inscriptions? Why could not the Greek pottery have been brought here by visiting Phoenicians who might even have founded the site?

Each of these questions has been answered.7 In the early to mid-eighth century Greeks had not yet invented roof-tiles and as elsewhere abroad they would build simple dwellings in local materials without a distinguishable Greek style.8 The burials could have been lost to changes in the course of the Orontes nearby: whoever lived at Al Mina, some of them must have died there and yet no burials at all have been recovered from the earliest phases. There are no non-Greek inscriptions, either. The one known early inscription happens to be Greek, scratched on a piece of imported pottery which has been dated c. 700 BC.9 The near-total absence of cooking-pots also applies to whoever lived on the site, although a few non-Greek pieces have been traced from the earliest levels. Greeks may have brought their cups here for their own favoured style of drinking, but used non-Greek ware for the common task of cooking. Allegations that Woolley threw away the non-Greek pottery are disproved by what survives and by his own field-notes.

What was the site called? Here, non-Greek evidence has made an unexpected contribution. A recently published Assyrian account of Tiglath Pileser’s conquests in 738 BC lists conquered places on the north Syrian coastline from the ‘Cape of the Rocks’ (Ras el-Bassit) to the Jebel Aqra mountain, then ‘Ahta’, the ‘trading post by the edge of the sea, the place of the kingship’s “store” ’ (a storehouse?) and then the Amanus mountains on the north edge of our river-plain. Although Assyrian lists do not always follow a geographical order, this one is clearly going northwards in a correct sequence at this point. The ‘trading post by the edge of the sea’ belongs on the coast just north of the Jebel Aqra mountain, precisely in our river-delta. Either Ahta is itself this ‘trading post by the edge of the sea’, surely our Al Mina on the seashore, or Ahta is one place, possibly the still unexcavated mound at Sabouni, and the ‘trading post’ is Al Mina, while the ‘place of the kingship’s “store”’ is the same or yet another site (the translation ‘storehouse’ is uncertain).10

The placing of this trading post is important for a neglected later itinerary, the progress of the fleet of Alexander’s friend and Successor the historian Ptolemy, up the north Syrian coastline in 312 BC. His fleet stopped to ravage Posideion, none other than Ras el-Bassit at this date: it then went on to ravage a nearby place called ‘Potamoi Karon’ before heading on north to the river-mouths of the south Cilician plain.11 ‘Potamoi Karon’ is a strange name for a purely Greek site. It translates as ‘Rivers of the Carians’, referring to a people from south-west Asia who included notable sailors and were later transplanted to the Persian Gulf as a naval contingent by the un-nautical Persian kings.12 However, no object, text or reference connects any Carians with the mouth of the Orontes. The word-order ‘Potamoi Karon’ is odd for a Greek name and we should therefore consider the possibility that like other known local Greek place names it arose from an underlying non-Greek word. Just such a name confronts us now in the list of Tiglath Pileser’s conquests: ‘karu’ or a trading post.13 The Greek ‘Karon’ may have arisen from ‘karu(n)’: the name ‘Potamoi Karon’ would then mean ‘River(s) of the Trading-post’, referring to the mouth of the Orontes on which Al Mina stood; the uncertain ‘royal storehouse’ in Tiglath Pileser’s list may well be the same place. On separate, secure grounds Woolley ascribed the final phase of Al Mina to a destruction datable to the late fourth century BC. He credited the damage to Seleucus during the building of his nearby port-city of Seleuceia. But we can now see the likelier culprit, not Seleucus but Ptolemy, whose fleet sailed up here in 312 BC laying waste to coastal bases and devastating Potamoi Karon.

If correct, the use of a curious name which derived orally from an ancient Assyrian word would remind us that Al Mina was not a full Greek settlement for much of its later life. However, the majority of the first settlers (before 738 BC) were Greeks and that fact about the place may have been recognized by Assyrians too. We have a recently found letter in which an Assyrian official, evidently from the Levantine coast, reports to the court at Nimrud: he describes attackers who had raided ‘the town of Iauna’, evidently the ‘town of Greeks’. The text is fragmentary, as usual, and the siting is uncertain: the attackers fled to ‘snow mountains’.14 But a ‘town of the Greeks’ in the Levant is not Ras el-Bassit, a non-Greek place at this date, or any other site on its coast. Assyrian governors on this coastline were unlikely to be involved with the Greek Posideion up near Cilicia: the natural candidate is Al Mina itself, at the foot of ‘snow mountains’ running south.

Woolley’s publication of some of the finds has been enough to show that Al Mina was indeed a fitting ‘town of Iauna’, a site with Greek contacts on a scale far greater than the others, excavated later, which we have followed along this coast. At Tyre or the nearby Ras el-Bassit we have been referring to Greek cups, plates or drinking-vessels only by the dozen, increasing to fifty or so in the mid to later eighth century BC on long-occupied non-Greek sites. At Al Mina, the pottery in Woolley’s two lowest levels numbered pieces by the hundreds. They lay on virgin soil which had not been occupied before. Those hundreds have now been increased by yet more deposits from these same levels which were sent by Woolley to the British Museum and never published. No other site in Cilicia or the Levant, no cemetery on Cyprus has produced anything like this concentration of Greek pieces, let alone in the earliest level of a settlement. By contrast, Al Mina’s two lowest levels have nothing inarguably Phoenician in either of them.15 Even in the next level, Phoenician pottery has been correctly diagnosed only in a few instances: proportionately, the Greek pottery is still the main, dominant ware. The same arguments apply here as we have already applied in the era when Lefkandi still flourished in Euboea. Greek pottery from a single main source, once again Euboea, was not carried back to the coast of Unqi by north Syrians: they were not seafarers. Nor was it brought there by Phoenicians: they left next to no trace of their contact with the earliest settlement at Al Mina. Euboea also had little of special value to attract Phoenicians when the whole west Mediterranean stretched before them. We cannot easily explain why the pottery brought from Greek sites to the Levant was predominantly from Euboea, despite so many other attractive Greek brands across the Aegean, if the carriers were Near Easterners who had been stopping at other Greek islands with local Greek pottery of their own on their way home. The cogent answer is that it was brought by Euboeans.

The inference, then, is that Euboeans lived at Al Mina, perhaps with some east Greeks (a very small amount of pottery from Samos has been identified) and perhaps with Cypriots too.16 Euboeans, it seems, founded the settlement, or dominated it, but was it a home for some of them year after year, or did they come to and fro for trade, spending only part of their time in this ‘port’? Initially there would be no civic structures, no rules about citizenship, and we should not exclude non-Greeks even when the place began. There was a role for non-Greek women, people from the north Syrian plain, as these Euboean adventurers would not have brought their own women on journeys for trade and piracy; for sex they needed the locals. The date of the first settlement remains controversial, and suggestions still vary between c. 800 and 760. We must also allow for casual Greek contacts before the full settlement began, because the earliest fragments of pottery on site are classified as ‘Euboean Subprotogeometric’, with perhaps a piece of Athenian ‘Middle Geometric’ going back in origin into the mid-ninth century.17 In the early eighth century a non-Greek piece of recently found evidence is also relevant, although its reference is still disputed.

Beside the Orontes river, about 3 miles east of the mound of Sabouni, an inscribed text on stone was discovered in 1968, but its contents were so unexpected that one response was to argue that the stone must have been carried downstream from far away up the river.18 It recorded the awarding of the ‘town of Na-ah-la-si, its fields and orchards’, to the king of Arpad (inland, in north Syria) by the authority of the Assyrian king and governor: the date of this arbitrated award falls almost certainly between c. 805 and 795. The most attractive interpretation is that the land and town given over by this arbitration lay in our river-delta: if so, the ‘orchards and gardens’ should be those which stood near Sabouni where the stone was then set up to record the boundary of the arbitrated ground. Without it we would not think of Arpad as the likeliest Syrian state to control this place. Kinalua (Tell Tayinat) on the bend of the Orontes river or even Hamath further south were geographically much more likely candidates. Perhaps the award to Arpad was controversial and gave a political framework in which Greeks at Al Mina could take root. Perhaps Greeks were able to settle in the power-vacuum, or perhaps the king of Arpad may have tolerated these outsiders at the mouth of his newly confirmed river-delta as he and his subjects were not seafarers. Even after the arbitration there was a risk of attack from Arpad’s rivals, especially from one or other Phoenician city, whose sailors might try to put in by sea and attack the river-delta which landlocked Arpad, their Aramaic rivals inland, could not easily defend.

By c. 800 BC the site was probably known already to Euboean visitors, even if they had not yet formally settled it. Since the 950s pieces of their Euboean pottery had been reaching some of the north Syrian sites which lie further inland in the plain. Some of these pieces may have come from the Bay of Issus by crossing the Amanus mountains and coming down by land through the ‘Syrian Gates’. Other pieces may have come up from the mouth of the Orontes, after casual Greek visitors brought them to the river-delta. To Phoenicians, the site which became Al Mina had not hitherto been of much interest, as we have inferred from its coast’s local conditions and the greater appeal of ports in Cilicia further up to the north. For Greeks, coming across from Cyprus, or down from the Bay of Issus, the weather conditions were less of a deterrent than for Phoenicians who had to come north: for Greeks, the winds and currents ran helpfully from the west off Cyprus, and the Jebel Aqra’s range, to the south of Al Mina, did not have to be negotiated. There are many uncertainties, but if the recently found inscription shows that the river-delta was suddenly awarded to the king of Arpad, the new development of a Greek settlement at Al Mina would fit intelligibly just after this change in the political landscape.

A subsequent change, at least, is clear to us. After taking an oath of submission in 740 BC, King Tutammu of Kinalua broke it and in 738 BC, Assyrian troops returned. ‘I set up my throne inside Tutammu’s palace,’ Tiglath Pileser’s inscriptions recalled. ‘[I took] 300 talents of silver, weapons, many-coloured robes, linen robes, all types of herbs and furnishings…I placed my eunuchs over them as governors.’19 In the ruins of Kinalua’s palace the visual images of these events survive: six panels show Assyrian soldiers holding the severed heads of their enemies by the hair and marching over naked bodies underfoot.20 Remarkably, we can even follow Tutammu’s deportation eastwards in a letter which was sent up to the coast at Nineveh by one of the governors on his route. ‘Tutammu and his courtiers will come to Nineveh,’ he reports, and we can assume he was cruelly executed on arrival. In this new phase of direct rule Al Mina or its neighbour became the ‘trading post by the sea’ in the Assyrians’ list of their conquests which their scribes drew up promptly in 738/7. We cannot trace any direct Assyrian involvement in the sparse remains of the site, but by c. 710 BC a new level of settlement superseded the previous foundation-layer. As Woolley emphasized, it contained much more Cypriot pottery, and as others have analysed it since, ‘Syrian’ and specifically Phoenician pottery is present too. Several possible stories could explain this change, but an ‘eclipse of the Greeks’ is not necessarily one. Instead, more Cypriots may have joined a venture which was flourishing under Assyrian rule: some Phoenicians, too, may have started to see the place as a worthwhile stop.

In the absence of written historical sources we can only make informed guesses from the site itself, its objects and its local context.21 At Al Mina we have imitations of pottery in a Euboean style, and although we are not sure where they were made, they suggest that some Greeks did persist on the site: as their first cups and bowls broke, they needed local replacements.22 Some Greeks stayed on, then, but others probably went to and fro across the Aegean, like those who visited the rest of the coast. Were the Greek visitors essentially there to sell their distinctive cups and pottery to non-Greek wine-drinkers, engaging in a bulk trade whose surviving fragments represent only the bits of the stock which became broken by accident?23 As I have argued, it seems most unlikely, because these patterned Greek cups, with no images, were such a minority interest in Near Eastern societies which had their own drinking-culture and their adequately shaped cups and bowls for local use. Although a few Greek cups occur inland, further south in the Levant, they are extremely few and when they are found in tombs they are best understood as symbolic objects, placed there as mementoes of foreign contact. Excavations inland in Unqi have turned up Greek pottery at Tell Tayinat, the ancient Kinalua, but even after many years it remains unpublished by its American excavators and so its style, dates and proportional quantities are still unclear.24 However, as elsewhere, this pottery would have accompanied other, more important cargoes in ships from the Aegean and its presence is only indicative of other exchanges. Besides trading it, visiting Greeks may simply have retained some of it as personal items to which they were attached. Unlike most Near Eastern cups, their cups and bowls always had handles, and were therefore more familiar to them.25

If the first Greek settlers at Al Mina were not pottery traders, were they perhaps mercenary soldiers, maintained by the king of Arpad or Kinalua inland to defend the delta from attackers, including Phoenicians, but then prolonged as a military outpost by subsequent Assyrian conquerors?26 No weapons have been found on site and specialized military service for regular pay over a long period is unlikely for Greeks at this date, especially at a site on the edge of their paymaster’s kingdom. We should think, rather, of a range of skills and opportunities among the first settlers and visitors, as this was an age, as Woolley emphasized, when trader, warrior and pirate were not separate professions. At Al Mina, people’s basic livelihood depended on working the surrounding land: nobody could live for long from casual trade only. It helped that there were natural goods worth exporting from the plain, quite apart from the items made by Syrian craftsmen which were to have such an impact on craftsmen back in Greece. There were metals, including the tin and copper which are listed in Assyrian texts about the region’s assets. Exactly on the nearby Jebel Aqra, the mountain which closes the south end of Al Mina’s coastline, King Sargon’s texts (c. 710 BC) refer to the mining of copper as an impressive fact.27There was also local gold. Back in Greek communities, copper and tin would make the bronze for armour and for the ever-popular bronze cauldrons on bronze tripod stands. The gold would make jewellery: a local type of stone mould for making earrings has been found in the level at Al Mina which begins c. 710 BC.28 Perhaps local women helped Euboeans with this craft. In return, Euboeans might sell their wine and oil and trade their own services intermittently as workers, sailors and warriors. As the Assyrians’ texts remind us, there was continuing scope for Greeks to practise piracy at sea even if they were residents with the permission of one or other king inland. Al Mina may have been a base for their raids.

Uncertainties remain because the most-discussed Greek site in north Syria is only part of an incomplete study. Woolley noted, but never excavated, the nearby Sabouni, although it is the site where much complementary evidence awaits us. To Woolley the relations between Al Mina and the hinterland were primary, stretching out, he believed, down ‘caravan-routes’ as far as Aleppo and the Euphrates river. However, we risk overestimating this long-distance link and overplaying the centrality of inland Tell Tayinat for trade conducted down on the coast.29 Tell Tayinat looks south at least as much as west, because it lies on the far bank of the Orontes’ sharp bend southwards to Syria. When more finds are published from it and from the plain of Unqi’s other inland sites, the scale, or otherwise, of the Greeks’ inland connections may be clearer. The crucial point for the trail and contacts which we shall go on to follow is not whether Greeks founded Al Mina as a Greek settlement (in my view they did) nor whether non-Greeks lived in it too (in my view, non-Greek women lived there from the start, and non-Greeks joined as the Greek site flourished). What matters is that Greeks, above all Euboeans, lived there at all: the earliest pottery, found in dominant quantity on virgin soil, is clear evidence that they did and its local imitations show that their influence persisted.

Meanwhile we should allow each party to play to its attested strengths. In 738 the Assyrians listed all types of herbs together with metals and fine linen as their booty from the rebellious King Tutammu at Kinalua.30 Greeks’ words for herbs and spices are some of their clearest borrowings from Near Eastern languages, including coriander, crocuses (the source of valuable saffron) and types of incense: they go back initially to contact by Greeks in the east in the Bronze Age, but they remained to be regained by the Greek visitors who returned in the eighth century. On the Amanus mountains between Posideion and Al Mina grew the rare styrax-trees with their precious scented resin. They were to be found on the Jebal Aqra mountain too, just above Al Mina, while the humid plain of the Orontes river was an ideal site for the other great source of scented ‘balsam’ and amber-like resin, the eastern liquidambars.31 In return we know that Euboeans on their home island were above all skilled as riders, men with a talent for horses. Such men were not only the Euboean nobles who rode into battle: they included the supporting grooms and attendants who looked after the mounts. From the Cilician plain, King Solomon had once imported horses, and no doubt the north Syrian kings who were so much nearer to it welcomed these imports too. The herding, let alone the shipping, of horses from place to place is not an easy business. Perhaps Al Mina’s Euboeans applied their home skills to bringing in the warhorses which the inland lords of the plain required. Between their bouts of piracy one source of the Euboeans’ livelihood on this coastline may have been four-legged.


In detail, we have followed the traces of a Greek pottery trail from the Cilician plain, on round the Bay of Issus and so to the north Syrian river-plain which is punctuated by the winding Orontes. Have we hit here on the answer to our Homeric puzzle, those ‘Arimoi’ or ‘Arima’ where Zeus’s lashing of ‘Typhoeus’ caused the ground to resound as it once resounded beneath the advance of the Greek troops across the plain of Troy? In north Syria, from the ninth century onwards, we have evidence of ‘Aramaeans’ who were speaking and writing Aramaic. Even earlier, c. 1060 BC, texts of the ruling Assyrian king refer to the land ‘A-ri-me’, ‘A-ri-mi’ or ‘A-ra-me’, out east in Mesopotamia. Its people recur as ‘A-ra-me’ in a text from the scribes of the Assyrian king Sargon c.710 BC.32Surely they solve the problem, making the Arima or Arimoi a distant hint (hence ‘they say’) in Homer’s Iliad of the grand Syrian and Mesopotamian world known to these Greek visitors? The truth, however, is much more subtle, as we shall gradually see: it spans the world in ways which no Aramaean or Assyrian knew.

In the triangle of Cyprus, Cilicia and north Syria the local Greek contacts which answer this question will emerge. For the moment what has emerged is a crucial role for Euboean travellers and much scope for their close encounters with non-Greek people abroad. From the Cilician plain round to the plain of Unqi we should think of Euboeans as travelling from site to site, using Posideion and Al Mina as stops for their ships and their piratical raids. We can connect them through one particular class of small objects, a much-discussed type of engraved seal-stone which shows the schematic figure of a ‘lyre-player’ on its green or reddish surface. Such lyre-player seals are known at Al Mina, but also in the Cilician plain, and significantly, one of their sites on the other side of the Aegean is Eretria in Euboea: another is Lefkandi in its later phase (c. 720 BC). As we shall see, the seals had an even wider distribution, but their particular type of stone has at last been precisely located. It is at home in the hills in the central Cilician plain and on the plain’s north-eastern edge beyond the Pyramus river. The seals are ‘a bazaar product…each seal may not have taken more than about ten minutes to make and they could all be the product of a small family business within the working lifetime of one man’. Their imagery is extremely revealing.33 Several of the types match sculptures up at Karatepe, imitating their style of dress, their musicians and tables with cups and food. They belong in this neo-Hittite milieu, one whose style was repeated on smaller sculpted reliefs and no doubt on sculptures at other royal centres like Tarsus and Adana in the Cilician plain. Such centres were visited by Greeks, including Euboeans, in the eighth century. The seals are a quick, clever adaptation of local neo-Hittite art which their cutter had observed. He may have been a local non-Greek who sold or gave a stock of these seals to a Euboean visitor or to a Greek from Posideion on the Bay of Issus, where Euboeans, in my view, and Rhodians may have met in the mid- to late eighth century. So far, none has been found in a Phoenician context. These small, prized objects link Cilicia to north Syria and gratifyingly include Euboean owners among their destinations.

In this multi-cultural zone it was not possible for Greek visitors to remain entirely monolingual, a characteristic sometimes ascribed to them by modern scholars.34 They had to talk with their non-Greek women, with their customers and fellow-travellers and traders whom they met. Loan-words from these contacts entered Greek, although the scale and date of their adoption remain controversial in the absence of hard-and-fast philological rules about their origins. Naturally they included words for eastern luxuries, the special scents, textiles, gems and spices in which the Cypro–Levantine triangle was so rich.35 In due course Greeks are known to have copied other Near Eastern words and ideas related to commerce besides the ‘shekel’: one was a ‘deposit’, or arrabon, and another, on one view, was the dreaded idea of interest-bearing debt. ‘Presumably the connections reach further than can strictly be proved,’ their distinguished classical champion Walter Burkert has recently concluded: a Semitic origin has even been argued for the Greek words for ‘deceitful’ and ‘counterfeit’ and their well-known word for love (agapē).36 If true, these loan-words say much about Greeks’ cross-cultural experiences in the Levant.

A Greek presence in north Syria also explains the imports of north Syrian objects which Greek craftsmen elsewhere in the Greek world began to imitate from c. 800 BC. Across the Aegean came big bronze cauldrons with animal figures on their rims and handles, small ivory figures of naked females and conspicuously, on Crete, embossed and decorated big bronze shields, which were given a ceremonial use.37 These objects did not travel west with Aramaeans and Luwian-speakers because neither of these peoples were bold seafarers. If any of these foreigners reached Crete as craftsmen, once again we should think of them travelling not as free ‘migrant entrepreneurs’ but as slaves taken in war or raids. Their physical presence there is increasingly questionable, as renewed studies of the objects and their contexts now prefer to leave local Greek craftsmen on Crete to adapt their style independently without the need for foreign teachers at their side.38

One particular class of objects sums up the complexity of such transfers and stands as a fitting conclusion to the inter-relations we have followed: pieces of horse-harness from the Near East. As we know from north Syrian and above all Assyrian representations, Near Eastern chariot-horses wore decorated bridle-pieces, especially plaques on their foreheads and blinkers fitted to direct their eyes. From three Greek sanctuaries in the Aegean we have seven such blinkers and five front-pieces.39 One of the blinkers and at least one of the front-pieces is inscribed with the same historically significant Aramaic words: ‘that which Hadad gave to our lord Hazael from ‘Umq, in the year that our lord crossed the River’.40 The contexts in which these two inscribed pieces were found are also extremely suggestive. One was in a deposit at the temple of Hera on Samos, the other in the precinct of the temple of Apollo at Eretria, no less, on Euboea.

The front-pieces found in the Greek sanctuaries are triangular pieces of metal. They are decorated variously with sculpted figures, with groups of lions, with a male ‘master of the animals’ who holds sphinxes or a lion upside down in either hand and, above all, by naked deep-bosomed women who are holding their breasts with their hands and standing on lions’ heads on which another naked female sometimes supports them. These figures and their accompaniments are north Syrian in design and execution. The repeated use of these themes shows that a clear meaning underlies them. The ‘master of the animals’ represents the ability of humans to master wild animals, a highly relevant symbol for the riders or drivers of the strong-willed horses who wore this decoration. The women are erotic, presenting their big breasts but not pressing them, and yet they also trample or triumph over lions. They are probably attendants of a warrior-goddess, the erotic and warlike Ishtar: in a fine ancient Hittite hymn to the goddess, we have names for her attendants, both the ‘first’ ones and the ‘last’ ones. They are groups of four, just as there are four ladies shown on the bronze frontlet found in Samos. These lady-attendants are said to be like ‘pillars’ when Ishtar goes to war. They bring love and desire to happy households and strife to unhappy marriages: they also fight in battles.41 The harness’s decoration alludes to these ancient elemental functions. Its imagery suits its use on warhorses, unruly animals when driven to the frenzy of battle.

To Greeks these Syrian meanings would be even more opaque than they are to us. The Syrian inscriptions, however, are important evidence for these pieces’ origin. ‘Hazael’ is the notorious King Hazael of Damascus whose warfare in Syria and Israel is so brutally commemorated in the scriptural book of Kings. In the later ninth century, c. 830–815 BC, we can best locate a campaign by Hazael into ‘‘Umq’, the north Syrian river-plain. He crossed ‘the River’, which must be the Orontes, as he came up north to Unqi.42The ‘Hadad’ who gave him these spoils is Hadad the storm-god of Syria. These pieces, then, were booty which was taken in battle in Unqi and dedicated, most probably, in a temple of Hadad with Hazael’s thanks. From a Near Eastern context we know of another such looted ornament, an ivory plaque, whose inscription refers to the help of ‘[H]adad of Imma’ to Hazael.43 The geography fits very well. ‘Imma’ is Imm, famous as the site of medieval battles because it commands the best narrow route from inland Syria across the Orontes into the plain of Unqi.44 Its storm-god is the right divinity for Hazael to have honoured: it was he who let Hazael through safely to cross the ‘River’ and win battles.

These pieces for horses belong in exactly the area we have studied and their afterlife in Greek hands fits perfectly with our main Greek travelling heroes, Euboeans in the Near East. In the 730s King Tiglath Pileser and his Assyrian troops completed their conquest of Unqi and in 733/2 they took Damascus. No Greek participation is attested in this victory, and yet these bits of horse-armour, now nearly a century old, came into Greek hands. Perhaps Greeks from Al Mina, horse-experts from ‘the trading post by the sea’, joined in the Assyrian army’s looting: several other bits of equally old horse-armour were taken off by Assyrians to new homes beyond the Euphrates. Perhaps some Greeks went as far south as Damascus but more probably some of them stopped and raided a site which had votive offerings to Hadad and lay nearer to the north Syrian plain: the obvious site is Imm, whose god Hadad had been honoured with trophies by Hazael. Once again these items of harness became trophies and were taken out of Unqi, but this time they were taken west and dedicated in Greek sanctuaries. They were not dedicated there by an Assyrian or an Aramaean. They were dedicated by Greeks who had acquired them: their Greek find-spots are extremely significant. One inscribed blinker was found in the sanctuary of Apollo at Euboean Eretria: there was another blinker there too, uninscribed but displayed on a wooden post by the temple’s entrance.45 They were two right-sided blinkers, not even a pair. A front-piece, inscribed like the Eretrian one, was found on Samos, where five other uninscribed pieces have also been discovered. In the mid- to later eighth century BC the lower levels of Al Mina coincide neatly with this human chain: they contain Euboean pottery and a few pieces of Samian pottery too. A Euboean took the blinkers, a Samian acquired the front-piece, and they returned home from Al Mina to dedicate them proudly to their Greek divinities. Horse-harness was an eminently appropriate trophy for a Euboean adventurer who was skilled with horses, who might therefore have served as a groom in the Assyrians’ advancing cavalry and looted or received some valuable items for horses, quite unlike those which his horse-loving Euboeans knew at home. Perhaps a Samian, skilled with horses, had helped him, but it is possible that Euboeans, too, gave the other pieces to recognized Greek friends. A third cluster, including a front-piece, was dedicated to Athena at east Greek Miletus. We know of two special guest-friendships between Euboeans and other Greeks, one with Samians and one with Milesians.46 The diffusion of these pieces of harness fits them beautifully. Blinkers, on present evidence, were not a Greek item, nor were metal front-pieces. They were given by Euboeans to their Greek guest-friends, like so many objects which heroes exchange in Homer’s epics. The items were special, so they were then dedicated to the gods.

In Homer, we hear only of a Carian or Lydian woman from west Asia who is staining an ivory cheek-piece for a bridle for horses, a precious treasure, fit for a king which ‘many horsemen prayed to wear…a glory for a driver’.47 Homer never refers in any simile to bronze or ivory horse-harness from north Syria, to deep-bosomed ladies presenting their breasts or to a hero’s mastery of lions by their paws or tails. However, we, too, need to take off our own blinkers and look finally beyond the Greek pottery which has led us exactly to the north Syrian coast. We can see this coast in a new way with the help of two later types of visitor.

The first is Macedonian, the cluster of settlers whom Alexander’s Successors brought to live here in the new Antioch and Seleuceia c. 300 BC. For Macedonians, this coast had a very evocative look of their own Macedon back home. At the north end of the river-plain, they called their king Seleucus’ harbour-city ‘Seleuceia-in-Pieria’. Pieria was the coastal plain of their own Macedon which lay between Mount Olympus, seat of the gods, and the Haliacmon river before it bent round south-eastwards into the Thermaic Gulf. Pieria included the kings’ ancient capital and burial place, the magnificent site of Aigai–Vergina, the scene of King Philip’s murder and Alexander’s accession in 336 BC. Behind the coast, Macedon’s Pieria ran into well-watered farmland and a memorable landscape of woods and hills.

At first sight ‘Pieria’ sits most oddly in north Syria. All over the Near East, Macedonian kings gave Macedonian place names to towns and rivers, new and old, some of which were taken from their kings’ own families and others suggested by an existing non-Greek place name.48 No non-Greek name suggested ‘Pieria’ to them in Syria: it was given for quite other reasons. It marked the coast of a new ‘Macedon-by-the-Mediterranean’, which Alexander’s settlers spattered widely with Macedonian names. The new ‘Pieria’ was based on their impression of the landscape: the sea, the coastline, the two defining hills at either end.49 One was Seleuceia’s hilltop (which they called the Crest, or koryphaios), and the other was the great Jebel Aqra, the seat, like a local Olympus, of the ruling god whom the Greeks identified as Zeus. Beside it the Orontes river spilt out onto a sandy silted plain, suggesting to Macedonian eyes their own great Axios river which also ran into a silted delta and extended the Macedonian coastline out into the sea. For a while, the Orontes was actually called ‘Axios’ by the nostalgic Macedonian settlers.50 Inland in Unqi, as in Macedon, there was a swampy plain, the home for its Macedonian kings’ important herds of war-elephants: after Alexander’s conquests, elephants were kept in Macedon too, in the then-swampy plain below the famous capital of Pella. Above all there was the Jebel Aqra, the Greeks’ ‘Mount Kasios’, which was as much a seat of the gods as the Macedonians’ own Mount Olympus back home. What mattered to the Macedonian settlers were these individual features rather than exactly similar relationships between them. The Macedonians were not brought up on maps. They were men with an eye for landscape and its evocative similarities.

Nearly four hundred years before them, Euboeans had also known ‘Macedonian’ Pieria while trading and travelling on the northern Greek coast. Perhaps they too were sensitive to similarities between coastal Pieria and Unqi and their two great mountains of the gods. However, an even wider view was possible, which is best caught for us by the sharp eyes of a later traveller, Gertrude Bell. Coming to this coastal plain in 1906, she visited Seleuceia and responded to its exceptional setting. ‘It was with real regret’, she wrote in 1907, ‘that I left Seleuceia…Delicate bars of cloud were lying along the face of the hills and as I swam out into the warm still water the first rays of the sun struck the snowy peak of Mount Cassius [the Jebel Aqra] that closed so enchantingly the curve of the bay.’ She paid it an acute tribute: ‘The Bay of Seleuceia is not unlike the Bay of Naples and scarcely less beautiful…The Orontes flows through sand and silt further to the south and the view is closed by a steep range of hills, culminating at the southern point in the lovely peak of Mount Cassius which takes the place of Vesuvius in the landscape.’51

When Gertrude Bell looked, swam and made her imaginative leap here, she had no idea that a buried Greek presence lay at Al Mina in her line of sight, still less that it was a Euboean presence or that Euboeans had followed the very course westwards which occurred to her mind’s eye. Long before her, Euboeans had linked the two bays, those of north Syria and Naples, the next stretch of their far-flung trail.

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