Depicting the dead in North Syria: Funerary representations in Roman Commagene and Cyrrhestice

Summary of lecture by Assistant Professor Michael Blömer (Aarhus University), written by Jesper V. Jensen and Nathalia B. Kristiansen.

2017.04.05 | Christina Levisen

Written by Jesper V. Jensen and Nathalia B. Kristiansen

Michael Blömer, assistant professor at The Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Aarhus University, gave an insightful lecture on the funerary sculpture of Northern Syria, specifically the differences in local traditions. He mainly used examples from the cities of Zeugma, Hierapolis and Doliche, which are all situated in the regions of Commagene and Cyrrhestice. These included sculptures in the round, funerary reliefs and stelai.

Cyrrhestice was in Antiquity an urbanised region with fertile land and had close ties to the coastal cities of Syria because of the many trade routes that went through the area. Commagene, likewise, had fertile farmlands but was more rural in character. Because the region of ancient Northern Syria, which Cyrrhestice and Commagene were both a part of, is divided by modern borders, the rich archaeological material has of yet not been thoroughly studied as whole.

It can, however, be observed that the area had a sudden increase in the production of funerary sculpture in the 2nd and 3rd century CE, after almost a millennium in which none were produced. The funerary reliefs and statues from Zeugma and Hierapolis, which were produced in large numbers and constitute the second-largest corpus of Syrian funerary sculpture after Palmyra, are well known. At first glance, the funerary sculpture from both cities and the surrounding area seem very similar, but through a more thorough examination, it becomes clear that there are several differences between the two groups. For example, the men are portrayed in a Greco-Roman fashion, and the women are shown in a more local, Syrian tradition with a turban and veil. The women in Hierapolis are portrayed with jewellery, whereas their counterparts in Zeugma lack this attribute.

Less well known is the funerary sculpture from the rural areas of Commagene and Cyrrhestice such as Doliche and the Savur valley, a fertile region between the cities of Zeugma, Hierapolis and Kyrrhos. In Doliche, it seems that there was not a tradition for funerary reliefs and sculptures. Instead, the focus was on rock-cut reliefs and wall paintings showing more mythical scenes or prothesis as well as funerary stelai in basalt. The same type of stelai is also seen in the Savur Valley. The stelai in both areas often depict priests with conical hats, which must have been a typical, local priestly dress. The stelai are heavily influenced by the funerary sculpture of the neighbouring cities, but they also attest to a reappearance of ancient Near Eastern traditions, which cannot be seen in the urban context.

Because of the limited research done on the funerary sculpture of ancient northern Syria, we have only scratched the surface of what we can learn from this material.

History and achaeology