Imagine finding an underground complex with hundreds of feet of passages, 20-foot staircases, and galleries carved 98 feet into the bedrock below the house you are building. A huge chamber 28 feet wide with a 16-foot ceiling unfolds as you go further. Then, you discover a 13-foot-long procession of eight ancient gods dating back 3,000 years on the wall. When they were etched into the rock, it was the Iron Age.
It would be an incredible find, but would you keep it a secret and continue digging or report it to authorities? If you decided not to report it, you probably wouldn’t dream of trying to sell the house to the highest bidder by pointing out the cool ancient art under your house. Yet that’s what happened in the village of Başbük, Turkey. In 2017, the homebuilders made the startling discovery, 70 miles from the border with Syria.
Archaeologists Find Ancient Gods and Goddesses
After villagers tipped off authorities, the homeowners were identified as looters and went to prison for a time. Then, archaeologists, including Mehmet Önal, arrived in 2018 and were in awe of what they saw.
“In the dim light of the lamp in the gallery carved into the bedrock, I felt as if I was in a ritual, when I was confronted by the very expressive eyes and majestic serious face of the storm god Hadad,” Dr. Önal said. “I felt a slight tremor in my body.”
On May 11, Önal and co-authors published their findings in the journal Antiquity.
More surprising was Hadad’s accompanying Goddess Atargatis, the primary Goddess in Syria from roughly 300 B.C. to A.D. 200, according to historian and epigrapher Selim Adali. Her name was rendered with the Aramaic name of Attar’ata. In style, these gods have an “artistic mix” of Assyrian features combined with Aramaic symbolism. When these artists depicted them, the region was a melting pot of cultures as King Ashurnasirpal II from northern Mesopotamia took control of the area during the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
By depicting Atargatis, it demonstrated that people were worshipping her centuries earlier than previously understood.
“Her appearance on the panel suggested she was influential centuries earlier. ‘The name that we read on this panel gives us a missing link for the history of the goddess,’ Dr. Adali said.
The Artists Left in a Rush
According to National Geographic, the artist or artists may have left in a rush because the etchings are unfinished, abandoned sometime early in the 8th century B.C. As they worked, they applied black paint, then began carving the figures in relief.
Possibly, these were local artists serving Assyrian authorities, and they were trying to gain favor with locals. However, at some point, there may have been a revolt. Another inscription with the name Mukīn-abūa indicates the work may have been ordered by a recorded Neo-Assyrian official of that name. Thus, it may be a case where authorities tried using religion for political gain, just like they do now. In this case, it seems to have failed.
“It shows how in the early phase of Neo-Assyrian control of the region, there was a local cohabitation and symbiosis of the Assyrians and the Arameans in a region,” Adali told CNN. “The Başbük panel gives scholars studying the nature of empires a striking example of how regional traditions can remain vocal and vital in the exercise of imperial power expressed through monumental art.”
Archaeologists Also Left in a Rush
Like the artists from thousands of years ago, the archaeologists had to hastily leave since they feared the tunnel might collapse after two months of excavations. Then, the homeowners/looters returned from prison and continued living in the home. However, the chamber beneath is under the legal protection of Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
If the archaeologists have their way, they might demolish the home and continue uncovering the ancient chambers.
“The processional panel, which would have greeted visitors in the upper gallery, has yet to yield all its secrets. Başbük’s rock wall panel is among the few such reliefs found since the mid-nineteenth century and future excavations may uncover more,” the authors write.
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Next, we’ll take a closer look at two of these ancient gods, with deep connections to the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Phoenicians.
The Storm God Hadad and Zeus
First and largest in the procession of gods is the “storm god” Adad (or Hadad), wearing double-horned cylindrical headgear and carrying a “triple lightning fork” and circled star. Later, the Greek Zeus took on similar characteristics.
Hadad’s symbol was the bull, similar to Zeus, while Atargatis was associated with lions, doves, and fish (More on the latter next). As we look closer, we see that Hadad and Atargatis have deep connections with the Romans, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Egyptians.
Hadad and a Massive Ancient Temple
An ancient legend suggests Hadad, the Phoenician Baal, was one of a triad of Phoenician deities venerated at Baalbek in Lebanon. Near the temple complex at the quarry sits the largest manmade stone block ever discovered, and recently in 2014. It is estimated to weigh 1,650 tons and dates back at least 2,000 years. Nobody knows how these ancient people accomplished moving megaliths like these, but one legend holds Solomon built it with assistance from djinns. On the other hand, the Old Testament bears no mention of this.
A Triad of Ancient Gods and Goddesses
The Romans replaced Baal with the temple to Jupiter built over the massive monolithic stones. To the Greeks, Baalbek became known as Heliopolis, the ‘City of the Sun’ and dedicated to the Sun God Helios, who is associated with Zeus. Myths about Helios reference a herd of immortal cattle similar to the Egyptian Apis bulls.
According to World Pilgrimage Guide, this site was highly important to the ancient Egyptians, who linked the temple with the Egyptian god Re.
“A sacred site with this same name already existed in Egypt, and the new Ptolemaic rulers may have found it provident to link the ancient sky-god of Baalbek with the Egyptian god Re and the Greek Helios in order to establish closer religious and cultural ties between their newly established Ptolomaic dynasty in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean world.”
A Triad of Ancient Gods and Goddesses
When completed, the Roman temple is believed to have been consecrated to a triad:
- Hadad (Baal/Jupiter/Zeus) – the god of Heaven. Egyptian Ammon (Amun-Re) or Zeus-Ammon. Phoenician Baal-Hadad.
- Atargates (Astarte/Juno/Hera), the wife of Hadad. Egyptian Isis, Taweret, or Hathor. Also known to the Romans as Dea Syria, the Syrian Goddess and in Greece as Derketo.
- Mercury, their son. Greek Hermes, Egyptian Thoth.
Notably, the Romans assimilated Astarte with Aphrodite or Venus. Although the Romans took over the site, many cultures viewed the site as sacred.
Oldest Religious Center of Egypt?
According to University Press Scholarship Online:
“Heliopolis was probably the oldest religious center of Egypt. According to the Pyramid Texts, it was at Heliopolis that the god-creator Atum emerged from the chaos as a hill or mound and started on his work of creation.”
Around 313 AD, the Roman Empire declared Christianity the official religion, after which soldiers sent by the Byzantine Christian emperors commenced desecrating thousands of sanctuaries considered pagan. Thereafter, temples to the pantheon of gods and goddesses were defaced and considered heretical.
Goddess Atargatis and Her Mermaid-Like Form
According to the authors of the study from the cave in Turkey, the artist “provided the storm god with an Ištar-type goddess consort.” Like Hadad, she wears a double-horned crown with a star. And she was also revered with her own temples, coins, statues, and myths.
According to Britannica, Hadad was her consort. To the people who worshipped her, she was their protector.
“Her nature closely resembled that of her Phoenician counterpart, Astarte, though she also showed some kinship with the Anatolian Cybele. Primarily she was a goddess of fertility, but, as the baalat (“mistress”) of her city and people, she was also responsible for their protection and well-being. Hence she was commonly portrayed wearing the mural crown and holding a sheaf of grain, while the lions, who support her throne, suggest her strength and her power over nature,” Britannica states.
Atargatis as Mermaid-Like Goddess
Atargatis’s anthropomorphic form is considered one of the first mermaids, similar to Oannes, the Mesopotamian male god/merman dating back five thousand years. Her Greek name Derketo is associated with her mermaid form, and she was also generally regarded as a form of Aphrodite, rising from the sea.
As we’ve seen with Hadad, she later took many names, conflated with Ishtar, Astarte, Aphrodite/Venus and Aset (Isis). She was also associated with the Moon, feminine power, as a water goddess, and All-Mother.
Atargatis and Hadad
According to one story, Atargatis fell in love with the mortal shepherd Hadad, and they had a daughter, Semiramis, who later became Queen of Assyria.
Tragically, Atargatis accidentally killed Hadad, drowning herself in a lake in sorrow. Then, she transformed into a mermaid. In the Greek telling, Derketo felt shamed after bearing a mortal’s child and dove into a lake.
“As the gods there would not allow her to give up her great beauty, only her bottom half became a fish, and she kept her top half in human form,” states Royal Museums Greenwich.
According to the Oracle of Water:
“In other versions, the fishes who pushed my fallen egg ashore were honored and turned into the constellation Pisces.”
The Oracle also notes that “the letter’ M,’ as in ‘mother’ and ‘mermaid,’ comes directly from the Egyptian hieroglyph depicting water.”
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