What is it?
This splendid statue depicts Idrimi, the king of Alalakh, an ancient city near the Syrian–Turkish border. Dated to the 15th century BC, it is carved from hard, white magnesite stone, with inlaid glass eyes, and sits a metre high atop a black basalt throne, carved with two prowling lions. The object is adorned with a 104-line cuneiform inscription that recounts, with considerable élan, the political misfortunes that caused Idrimi to flee Syria as a young man, and the circumstances that led to his spectacular return. It was installed within a temple at Alalakh (Tell Atchana). In the late 12th century BC, an invading force – possibly the enigmatic Sea Peoples – destroyed the city, and the statue was decapitated and pushed from its throne.
Where was it found, and when?
Alalakh lay abandoned until Sir Leonard Woolley began excavations in 1937. In May 1939, he uncovered the basalt throne lying on the temple floor. A few days later, he unearthed the statue itself, immediately recognising it as one of the most important Bronze Age artefacts ever discovered in the Levant. Intriguingly, the statue was found concealed within a pit beneath the temple, the head carefully placed alongside. We do not know who hid the statue following its desecration in the city’s final hours. However, it is not difficult to imagine a mysterious devotee, now lost to history, finding the statue among the temple’s smouldering ruins, and burying it within holy ground. Woolley sent the statue to the British Museum in June 1939. Ironically, Idrimi soon found himself hidden underground once more, this time by nervous curators protecting the collection at the outbreak of WWII.
Why does it matter?
Political autobiographies are surprisingly rare in the ancient Near East, and Idrimi’s account provides the cornerstone for our understanding of the history and geography of the northern Levant in the 2nd millennium BC. The inscription documents Idrimi’s flight from Syria as a young man, following a ‘great crime’ committed against his family in Aleppo. He spent seven years as a political refugee in the land of Canaan, a region corresponding roughly with Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and southern Lebanon today. After finally finding favour with the gods, Idrimi built an armada and sailed up the coast; he then captured Alalakh and assumed the throne. As king, Idrimi went on to campaign against the Hittites before immortalising his achievements on his statue towards the end of his 30-year reign.
The narrative is of particular interest because it includes the earliest cuneiform reference to the ‘Land of Canaan’, a term more familiar from biblical accounts written a thousand years later. It also describes a loose alliance between Idrimi and a mysterious group of stateless labourers, mercenaries, and refugees called the hapiru, who lived in the Canaanite hills. Many scholars believe that the term hapiru may be an early iteration of the term ‘Hebrew’. If correct, then the people with whom Idrimi spent his exile could have been the forerunners of the Hebrew tribes that later conquered Canaan, according to the biblical texts.
The inscription famously ends by cursing anyone audacious enough to defile the statue or amend its text. More unusually, Idrimi also calls on the gods to bestow favour on his statue’s scribe, Sharuwwa. Idrimi invokes people to look at the statue in perpetuity and ‘constantly think of my blessings’. No doubt he would be pleased to know that his statue is recognised as one of the ‘20 Most Important Cuneiform Documents Ever Found’ by the Cuneiform Digital Library at UCLA.
TEXT: James Fraser, Project Curator for the Levant at the British Museum
SEE FOR YOURSELF
The statue sits in Gallery 57 (Ancient Levant) at the British Museum. Entrance is free. A 3D digital model can be viewed at https://skfb.ly/JYuo