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The medieval architecture of France includes many of the most renowned examples of Gothic architecture. Thus you are probably asking  yourself, “Were the French a part of the Gothic revival architecture movement of the 19th century?”

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The answer is Oui! Boy were they ever! This is the Chapelle royale de Dreux, the burial place of important members of the House of Bourbon-Orléans (the royal family of France after the revolution).  Its story is interesting.  During the French Revolution, an enraged mob burst desecrated the family chapel of the Duke of Orléans and threw all of the corpses which had been therein interred into a common mass grave at the the Chanoines cemetery of the Collégiale Saint Étienne.  After the revolution was over, the Duke’s daughter arranged for a grand chapel to be built over this new burial site.  Later on, when her son Louis Philippe became King of France, he added substantially to the grand new building which was built to mimic the great ancient structures lost to the revolution.  As a bonus, Alexandre Brogniart, the director of manufacturing for Sèvres porcelain, used his resources to produce huge fired enamel paintings on large panes of glass to go in the chapel.

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No series about the cities of the dead would be complete without a visit to the world’s most populous country, China.   Because of China’s 5000 year+ uninterrupted cultural history, there are some extraordinary examples to choose from, like the Western Xian tombs, or the world famous Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a circular tomb with a circumference of 6.3 km (3.9 miles) and an army of more than 7000 life-sized earthenware soldiers (they don’t build ’em like that anymore, thank goodness).  However for artistic reasons, Ferrebeekeeper is going to highlight the most well-known tomb complex in China–the Ming tombs which is a compound of mausoleums built by the emperors of the Ming Dynasty from 1424 to 1644 on the outskirts of Beijing.  Indeed today the tombs are now in a suburb of Beijing, surrounded by banks, residential housing parks, and golf courses.

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The First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the Hongwu Emperor, whose rags-to-riches story has no obvious equivalent in history, is NOT buried in the Ming tombs (although don’t forget to follow this spooky link to read about his horrifying excesses), nor is his successor, the Jianwen Emperor, who was usurped and vanished from history.  However the third and greatest Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the mighty Yongle Emperor is buried there.  The Yongle Emperor chose the spot according to principles of Feng Shui (and political calculus) and he and 12 other Ming dynasty emperors were interred there along with a dynasty worth of empresses, concubines, favorite princes, et cetera etc.  Each of the 13 mausoleums has its own name like the Chang Ling Mausolem, which is tomb to the Yongle Emperor, or the Qing Ling Mausoleum which is the final resting place of the Tai Chang Emperor.

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Some of the subjects of past Ferrebeekeeper posts can be found buried in the Ming Tombs–like the Jiajing Emperor (who is in the Yong Ling Mausoleum, if you are keeping track of this at home).  Considering how much mercury that guy drank, he is probably perfectly preserved somewhere in there glistening like the silver surfer even after all of these years.

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I say probably, because we don’t know.  Only three of the 13 tombs have been properly excavated and explored by archaeologists (these known tombs are the tombs of the Yongle Emperor, Longqing Emperor, and the Wanli Emperor).  In 1644, the whole necropolis was looted and burned by Li Zicheng, the first (and last) Emperor of the ill-fated Shun Dynasty, but, fortunately, he seems to have burned and looted tombs the way he set up kingdoms–very badly and incompletely.  This means there are ten whole tomb complexes of China’s richest greatest emperors which are awaiting the archaeologists of the future (probably…it is always possible that one of China’s more recent autocrats secretly looted everything and sold it to dodgy collectors or hid it under his bed). Imagine the unknown treasures awaiting discovery!

The first paragraph alluded to the artistic merit of this graveyard, and I really meant that.  Just look at the beauty of the Sacred Way in the top photo (this is the main entrance to the tombs which Emperors would traverse when visiting the spot to pay homage to their predecessors) or the ceremonial chamber form the Ding Ling Tomb (which is the third image down).  Best of all, we have an amazing painting (below)! Look at the this beautiful watercolor map/landscape painting from the late nineteenth century which shows the entire tomb complex (the painting itself belongs the Library of Congress).  Naturally, if you click the painting it will not blow up to full size here (thanks to the hateful anti-aesthetic nature of WordPress).  However here is a link to the original image at Wikipedia, you can expand it to immense size on your computer and take a personal tour of one of the world’s most lovely and historically significant tomb complexes.

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Persepolis (pictured above) was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, the great Persian Empire which ruled the near east from around 550 BC to 330 BC (when Alexander the Great swept through and conquered it).  Persepolis was apparently a rather strange city—an imperial showplace of palaces, temples, and stately grandeur, but with very few inhabitants, at least compared to the thriving Persian cities of Babylon, Susa, and Ecbatana. Archaeologists are still arguing about whether it was a palace complex, an administrative center, or a seasonal city for high Zoroastrian festivals.  Whatever the case, Persepolis’ strange quasi-urban nature is a good segue to today’s featured location: Naqsh-e Rustam, a Persian necropolis which is located 12 km (7.5 miles) from the site of Persepolis (both locations are high in the mountains of what is today the Fars province of Iran).

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Naqsh-e Rustam, the cemetery of Persian emperors, had even fewer inhabitants than Persepolis, and mostly those inhabitants were (and still are!) deceased. The most important tombs are four large tombs cut high into the living rock of the cliff face.  These are the tombs of Darius I (c. 522-486 BC), Xerxes I (c. 486-465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465-424 BC), and Darius II, the great emperors of ancient Persia. The facade to Xerxes tomb is pictured immediately below.

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Not many cities have only 4 long dead inhabitants. Indeed, the site of Naqsh-e Rustam was sacred long before the Achaemenids carved their unearthly mausoleums. The oldest carvings are dated to around 1000 BCE and thought to be from the Elamite kingdoms.  Later on, the monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty (the empire which stood in counterweight opposition to Imperial Rome) also carved great reliefs there.  These illustrate battles and victories.  In the middle of the complex is a mysterious cubic tower known as the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht.  It was made at the same time as the tombs and is presumably a Zoroastrian sacred building, but nobody really knows what is was originally for.

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I wrote about this astonishing place, because I was struck by the majesty and remoteness of the great tombs carved out of living rock, but now that I have started writing, I realize that Naqsh-e Rustam strains any definition of a city (other than as a place of great human-crafted edifices).  The urban culture, the political hegemony, and the sheer human labor required to craft such a site are obvious from the 2500 year old architecture, but the bigger questions about why humans make the things we make, or even about why the Persians organized their great civilization in this fashion are not answered by the haunting graves an monuments.

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Today amidst the internet flotsam and jetsam, there was a post about archaeologists discovering this exquisite mosaic in Şanlıurfa, Turkey.  There are two male and two female figures surrounded by beautiful decorative frames of interlocking geometry.  It is not known who the figures are–perhaps we will never find out–but look how expressive and amazing these ancient portraits are!

What is now the Turkish town of Şanlıurfa was once Edessa, capital of the kingdom of Osroene.  The city has an ancient and complex history, but between 100 AD and 600 AD (which is the rough age estimate for this mosaic)  it was a vassal state first to the Parthian Empire and later to the Roman Empire, before becoming part of the Byzantine Empire.  Later on, in medieval times, Edessa would be taken by the Sassanid Empire, the first Caliphate, the Crusaders…and on and on and on.

However this mural seems (to me) to be an artwork of Osroene, where the Syriac dialect first developed. Syriac literature and culture flourished there.  These people lived and died and were buried in rocky tombs (which were then buried beneath the Castle of Urfa and forgotten…till now.

Statuette of the god Anubis, ptolemaic Period 304-30 B.C., wood with gesso and paint

Statuette of the god Anubis, ptolemaic Period 304-30 B.C., wood with gesso and paint

In the most ancient ritual texts from the beginning of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (ca. 2686 BC), the supreme god of death and the underworld was the dark god Anubis, an embalmer-deity with the head of a jackal or wolf.  By the end of the 5th dynasty (2345 BC) this role was assumed by the great mummy Osiris who transcended death itself to live on forever as lord of the underworld. Yet Anubis remained an important deity in his role as embalmer and protector of the dead on their journey to the afterlife.

Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased (tomb mural from the tomb of Sennedjem, ca. 1300 BC).

Anubis attending the mummy of the deceased (tomb mural from the tomb of Sennedjem, ca. 1300 BC).

One of the most distinctive Egyptian deities, Anubis was usually portrayed with a powerful human body surmounted by the black head of a jackal.  Sometimes he was portrayed simply as a black jackal wearing a ceremonial ribbon, and in one or two statues he is portrayed as fully human.  As with the enigmatic desert god Set, the exact nature of the animal associated with Anubis is hard to ascertain.  For centuries, Egyptologists have identified the creature as a jackal–but increasingly, scholarly consensus inclines towards a subspecies of wolves which have long since gone extinct in Egypt.  The black color was not meant as a zoological illustration, but instead denotes mastery of night and the secrets of death.

Anubis in his recumbent form lying atop a coffin: from the the tomb of Tutanhkamun (ca. 1323 BC)

Anubis in his recumbent form lying atop a coffin: from the the tomb of Tutanhkamun (ca. 1323 BC)

Anubis was also known by various sacred titles such as “He who is upon his mountain” and “He who is in the place of embalming”.  In addition to embalming the corpses of the deceased so that their spirits would live on in the afterlife, Anubis was a psychopomp who lead the newly dead spirits to the great scale of the underworld where they faced judgment.  Under the watchful eye of Thoth, each dead person would then place their heart upon the balance where it would be weighed against the feather of Maat, the goddess of truth and order.  If a person had led a virtuous life, their heart would balance against the feather, but if they had been violent, dishonest, and dissolute, their heart would weigh too much for them to enter the afterlife—whereupon Anubis would throw them into the jaws of a crocodile demon known as “the devourer” and their soul would be annihilated.

A papyrus depicts Anubis leading the departed to the great scale of judgement (the devourer eagerly awaits on the right of the scale)

A papyrus depicts Anubis leading the departed to the great scale of judgement (the devourer eagerly awaits on the right of the scale)

This weighing was regarded as all-important to obtaining an eternity of bliss, so Egyptians were careful to please Anubis with temples, carvings, hymns, and offerings.  Egyptian tombs also demonstrate that the living made plans to deceive Maat when the moment of absolute truth arrived and the walls are graven with litanies of virtues which the dead perhaps did not possess and suspiciously plaintive lists of sins which they claim to have never committed.

Wild Asphodels (photo by Paul & Pam Markwell)

Asphodels are a genus (Asphodelus) of small to mid-size herbaceous perennial flowers.   Originally native to southern and central Europe, the flowers now grow in other temperate parts of the world thanks to flower gardeners who planted them for their white to off-white to yellow flowers and their eerie grayish leaves.  These leaves have long been used to wrap burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made of cow’s milk, rennet and cream—when the asphodel leaves dried out the cheese was known to be past its prime.  The bulblike roots of asphodel are edible and were eaten by the poor during classical antiquity and the middle ages until the potato was introduced to Europe and supplanted asphodel completely.

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This somewhat pedestrian wildflower is one of the most famous plants connected to the Greco-Roman underworld.  Homer is the first poet (whose works still survive) to give a lengthy description of the realm of Hades and the asphodel is mentioned growing everwhere in a great field in the middle of the underworld.  To quote the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the “Fields of Elysium,” a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

The gray and ghostlike nature of the asphodel plant and its wistful off-white flower may have suggested something funereal to the ancient Greeks.  Or possibly the plant’s connection with the afterlife was a hand-me-down from an earlier culture.  In fact here is a learned and comprehensive scholarly essay which posits that the asphodel had pre-Greek religious significance.

Whatever its history, the Greeks also regarded the plant as sacred to Persephone/Proserpine, who is frequently portrayed wearing it or picking it, as well as to other chthonic deities.  Greeks and Romans planted asphodel on tombs both for its melancholy beauty and as a sort of food offering to the dead.  So the cemeteries of classical antiquity were lugubrious but pretty places filled with ghostly flowers.

In western literature and art asphodel remains a symbol of mourning, death, and loss.  William Carlos Williams made the plant the central focus of his poem “Asphodel, the Greeny Flower” which agonizes over the ambiguities of the next world (which seems to be a land of oblivion) juxtaposed with the burning regrets of this life.  Here is a poignant fragment:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
		like a buttercup
			upon its branching stem-
save that it's green and wooden-
		I come, my sweet,
			to sing to you.
We lived long together
		a life filled,
			if you will,
with flowers.  So that
		I was cheered
			when I came first to know
that there were flowers also
		in hell.
			Today
I'm filled with the fading memory of those flowers
		that we both loved,
				even to this poor
colorless thing-
		I saw it
			when I was a child-
little prized among the living
		but the dead see,
			asking among themselves:
What do I remember
		that was shaped
			as this thing is shaped?
while our eyes fill
		with tears.
			Of love, abiding love
it will be telling
		though too weak a wash of crimson
				colors it
to make it wholly credible.
		There is something
				something urgent
I have to say to you
		and you alone
			but it must wait
while I drink in
		the joy of your approach,
				perhaps for the last time.

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