The Cave Churches of Göreme

About two and half million years ago in the center of what is today Turkey, Mount Erciyes erupted. The resulting layers of ash and lava formed a rock soft enough to carve out, a natural resource well exploited by the Christian community of the 4th century. These followers of St Basil of Caesarea (modern day Kayseri) took advantage of this natural resource to dig churches out of the very rocks of Cappadocia, but not just churches. Over time whole extensive communities had carved homes and workshops and refectories and stables from the soft rocks. And when enemies approached and threatened these early Christians, they responded by digging down. And down. Forming whole cities beneath the surface of the earth, 36 in all of varying sizes and depths. Kaymaklı—the subterranean city we visited this time around—is comprised of eight distinct layers with an abundance of rooms connected by nearly 100 tunnels. I love Cappadocia. It is a fantasy realm come true.

The Underground City of Kaymaklı

More of my photos from Cappadocia from 1994:



Our bare limbs stretch across the sands
Desperate for distant Isis to return
As the great burning orb glares
At a land all too eager to breath once more

The servants of Maat, wills reviving
Daintily dip their shaven heads
Heavy words falling quickly from their lips
As one by one they approach the shore

“Rise!” the God our King commands
“Rise!” He proclaims as He casts
His declaration into the shallow Nile
His face stern as temple stone

And we – we the weary farmers
We the wary watchers, the mindful merchants
We the obedient slaves, the sullen soldiers
A thousand thousand of us, waiting

As one we watch the papyrus command
Float over the sluggish blood of Egypt
The Nile River from which all life comes
The heart of our once great land

We watch, we wait, praying for the waters to return
And despite my fear, I dare to look
Upon our King, son of the son of Ra
Who gazes ever heavenward, stolid, true

From bended knee I look upon him and wonder
As his hands begin to tremble and his eyes close
For the water refuses to rise beneath the angry sun
And the land grows drier and drier still

With a sharp glance at his High Priest
Our King turns away and begins his ascent
While my children, hungry and scared, look to me
“It’s alright,” I say, “we’ll try again tomorrow.”

Save Yourselves!

I know, I know – nobody particularly enjoys a complainer. And at this moment, being on vacation, what do I have to complain about, right? In fact, it is being – and eating! – here in Turkey that reminds me rather sharply of precisely what I have to complain about in terms of my life back in the United States.

Enjoying dessert with my daughter after a meal of köfte, pita bread, and stewed tomatoes and peppers along the marina of Çeşme.

Bear with me.

My diet has changed quite a lot over the years, an experience I imagine many of you share. Growing up in suburban America, food was quite simple. My mother was too distant from her Scottish heritage to know much of anything other than simple American foods, fried and stewed, supplemented by a growing number of frozen meals you could pop in the microwave and have done with. I should at least be grateful that this disconnect actually saved me from having to endure haggis and black pudding for much of my life. However, it did leave me with a taste for little else besides what her limited skills could provide from her upbringing in Arkansas: fried okra (which I still love), corn bread, baked beans, and an occasional steak, which was when my father stepped in to help out with the grill.

Moving to San Francisco was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. A welcomed escape from the dullness of Salinas, California. And an incredibly stimulating introduction to cuisines of the world. To pay the bills while in college, I took a job cooking in one of S.F.’s thousands of restaurants and treated myself to nibbles of the dishes I was preparing there, including rack of lamb with a garlic spinach sauce, and curry cream shrimp and scallops over pasta, and a chocolate pecan pie with Devonshire cream that was to bloody well die for!

Not much complaining yet, right? Okay, here we go.

Burger King stands testament to a declining cuisine at the entrance to İstiklal Street in İstanbul.

When I left the U.S. to live overseas, I was so very ready to experiment and explore. For five years I studiously avoided the growing number of McDonalds and Wendy’s and Subways popping up everywhere and went only – and I mean only! – to small family-owned restaurants and lokantas. And I was in culinary heaven! Always fresh breads from local bakeries, and fresh yogurt spooned out of tins, and fruits that tasted like fruits, and vegetables that you could identify for what they were from nothing but a quick smell – while your eyes were closed.

Have you tried smelling vegetables in U.S. stores? Not only lacking in true flavor, but bereft even of the appropriate scent. Stand in the produce aisle of Wal-Mart or Smiths or any major chain and take a whiff. You might as well be standing in the stationary aisle.

Living back in the United States, I quickly began to suffer. Gained weight quickly, esophagus burning, becoming addicted to Tums and chewable Pepto, and thinking nothing of it – that this must be what life and aging are supposed to be like. When I became a Crohn’s Disease patient, I was forced to re-evaluate many things about how I was living.

And eating.

My days in the U.S. now include delicious salads and juicy fruits and frequent omelets so long as they include lots of peppers and tomatoes lightly sautéed in olive oil.

One of my favorite salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cheese, walnuts, and raspberries.

As for life here in Turkey: indulging in fruits and vegetables and eggs and milk from local farms. And loving it!

But since arriving, I’ve been in the stores, picking up essentials and even grabbing some things one can easily find in the U.S., mainly to please my eight-year-old daughter. Who insists! And so here’s the thing that leaves me frustrated and bewildered: even packaged and junk foods here taste different. I’m tempted to say … better! Nesquik chocolate mix actually tastes like chocolate, while Nesquik in the U.S. tastes like flavored sugar. Cheetos here tastes like cheese, while cheetos in the U.S. tastes like flavored salt. Salça (tomato paste) here tastes like tomatoes, while tomato paste in the U.S. tastes like flavored chemicals.

And we let it happen.

We allow ourselves to fall into these traps of processed foods so harshly flavored with additives and sweeteners and salt that we become addicted to it all. Expecting it with every meal. Expecting to find lumps of sugar and shakers of salt on the table … just in case there’s not enough in the dishes we eat. Which are quite likely filled already with more sugar and salt than we could possibly need. And yet we still add more.

We allow this to happen, you know.

The food industry encourages it all, stuffing their pockets while we stuff our mouths with their crap. And the government defends the food industry in its ongoing efforts to keep us in a perpetual state of obesity and steady decay. Which justifies the immense wealth pouring into the drug industry to preserve us (not cure us) from the crimes of the food industry, while the ME industry gleefully looks the other way, refusing to see the truth of what we are doing to ourselves and our children. Preferring instead to stare at our iPads and iPods and Xboxes and wii’s, giving our tap-texting fingers more exercise than they need while the rest of our bodies receive none, continuing to expand and fold over and over into eventual over-stimulated over-medicated oblivion.

In the face of all of which, as I eagerly plan out my eventual and permanent return to the Old World of my ancestors, finding security and harmony with my beloved in a small village in Europe, I have to say this one last thing on this subject to you all, my fellow poets and bloggers, after which I will go back to writing poetry: save yourselves, my friends. Because no one else will.

İSTANBUL City of Kings, City of God

The following is an article I recently authored for the new magazine of our Muslim Students Association at Salt Lake Community College:


City of Kings, City of God

by George Ellington

The Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent rising above the Bosphorus

By the 5th century A.D., the City of Constantine, emperor of the Romans, had become the center of the Christian world. To the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the Pope was a lowly bishop subservient to him. The fall of Rome, city of light, in A.D. 476 plunged the western Roman Empire into the Dark Ages, leaving many to wonder if perhaps the Patriarch might not have been correct. After all, Rome had fallen under the sway of supposed barbarians, while the increasingly wealthy and diverse population of Constantinople worshipped in some of the finest churches the world had ever seen. When Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, was dedicated by Justinian, Emperor of the Byzantines in Constantinople in A.D. 537, the largest domed cathedral in the world at the time, could there be any doubt left? The City of Constantine was indeed the new Rome, the new city of light, a source of inspiration and culture for peoples east and west, and its glory would survive until the end of time.


Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), Church of the Divine Wisdom, built 532-537

Of course, even the most cursory glance at history should be enough to remind us that empires rise and fall, and that temporal glory is as fleeting as the life of man. The fortunes of the eastern Romans or Byzantines did indeed ascend and decline as the years passed. Years became centuries. Leadership fell to great men and to corrupt fools. The borders of the empire stretched into Europe, Asia, and Africa, tenuous in some areas, firm in others. Invading armies crossed the borders and were turned back, while life in Constantinople went on untouched. Occasionally, enemy forces drew closer, even up to the walls of the great city itself. In A.D. 674 an Arab Muslim army under Yazid tested the strength and endurance of the city’s defenders before eventually withdrawing. Forty years later, the Arabs returned, and once again failed to breach the massive walls of Theodosius that encircled the city. Not that the city was impregnable. The once insulted church of the west took no little pleasure in seeing the Orthodox Christian capital of Constantinople sacked by Catholic Christians from the West in A.D. 1204. Although the Byzantines eventually reclaimed their capital city from the Catholics, many believe that it was now too late. Constantinople never fully recovered.

The walls of Theodosius, built 404-413

Two and a half centuries later, when yet another foreign army set up camp outside the massive walls of Constantinople, fear very quickly spread among the remaining inhabitants of the city. Frantic appeals were made to the West to come to the aid of their fellow Christians. The last Emperor of the Byzantines, another Constantine, even dangled before the Pope the possibility of reuniting the Latin and Greek churches. But to no avail. While some volunteers arrived from Greece and Italy, it was as if the West had already passed a shroud over the East, bidding farewell to the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. Although neglected by their fellow Christians in the West, the 10,000 or so defenders of Constantinople did their utmost to save the city, giving their lives in a truly valiant effort to hold off an invading army of around 100,000. On 29 May 1453, after a siege that lasted some eight weeks, the walls of Constantinople were overrun by the army of the Turkish Ottoman Empire led by Sultan Mehmet, who would come forever after to be known as Fatih—the Conqueror.

One of Mehmet’s first acts was to ride to the great basilica of Hagia Sophia and there have an imam pronounce the Shahada:

ašhadu an lā ilāha illa Allāh, wa ašhadu anna Muhammadan rasūlu Allāh

(“I testify that there is no god but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”)

The Mosque of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, built 1463-70

Out of the neglect and betrayal that had plagued the City of Constantine for centuries, out of the fire and destruction of the Turkish conquest, a new city was born, a city dedicated, not to a man, not to a king, but to Allah. And as the city of İstanbul became the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks under Mehmet and his successors set about quickly to revitalize the city, to reshape it, transforming it from a Christian capital to a Muslim one. Initially, many Orthodox churches, including Hagia Sophia, were converted into mosques for Muslim worship. But authentic houses of worship were required for a growing population of Muslims. And sultans and nobles were eager to contribute the funds necessary to have mosques and masjids built, along with schools for Quranic study, markets to improve trade, hospitals for the ill, mansions for the rich, shelters for the poor, caravansaries for pilgrims and merchants. Within a century, Constantinople no longer looked anything like its former self. When and why it came to be called İstanbul is still open to debate, but there is no doubt that İstanbul was quickly becoming the richest, most powerful capital city in all of the Muslim world.

The Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapı Palace along Seraglio Point

The Byzantine Emperor had lived in a grand style in a magnificent palace. But the Ottoman sultans required a home fit not for just any emperor, but for the “Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe.” So began the lengthy title appended to the name of the man who may have been the greatest of Ottoman sultans—Süleyman the Magnificent, the great grandson of Mehmet the Conqueror. In the centuries after Mehmet entered the city in triumph, the Turks constructed several palaces, the grandest of all stretched out along Seraglio Point, known as Topkapı Palace, which underwent its most extensive construction in the time of Süleyman. Amidst lush gardens, a menagerie of animals, ornate fountains, military barracks, kitchens that fed around 4,000 people a day, and the most meticulous bureaucracy the city had ever known, were beautifully adorned apartments for the sultan and his retinue. Yet perhaps more impressive was the harem itself, a maze-like cluster of hundreds of rooms for the sultan’s mother, wives, and concubines, who at times exceeded 100 in number.

The Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, built by Sinan 1550-57

Yet the magnificent appearance of the city of İstanbul as it comes to you today—walking the streets, wandering the markets, exploring the historical landmarks—was determined by one man in particular more than any other. His name was Sinan, the greatest of Ottoman architects. Arguably, the greatest builder the Muslim world has ever known. Born in 1489 as a Christian named Joseph, he was conscripted for government service in the elite Ottoman forces—the Janissaries. Along with his military training, he was instructed in architecture. His obvious talents won him the attention of some rather powerful patrons, the most important of which was none other than Sultan Süleyman himself. To Sinan and to those who served him have been attributed 94 mosques, 52 masjids, 57 colleges, 48 bath houses, 35 palaces, 22 mausoleums … and the list goes on and on. He supervised much of the building of Topkapı, oversaw repairs to the Sacred Mosque at Makka, designed stately homes for the wealthy, and served the needs of the common people with aqueducts, kitchens, caravansaries, and hospitals.

The Şehzade Mosque, built by Sinan 1543-48  for Mehmet, son of Süleyman

The most noticeable and memorable of Sinan’s works in the city of İstanbul were the edifices commanded by the royal family he served—the House of Osman. The skyline of İstanbul today is replete with examples of his finest works, all ordered and paid for by sultans, their sons and daughters, their in-laws, yet all dedicated by Sinan to the glory of Allah. The first of Sinan’s royal complexes was built for the wife of Süleyman—Hürrem. Like Sinan, Hürrem was not born into a Muslim family of the empire, but to a Christian family. And like Sinan, she too would rise from obscurity to play a major role in Ottoman history, if only behind the scenes as the sultan’s beloved wife, managing the affairs of the harem while steering her proud husband in directions he might not otherwise have chosen to follow, including having his own son by a different wife put to death in favor of Hürrem’s son, who succeeded Süleyman to the throne as Selim the Sot. Hürrem’s daughter, Mihrimah, and her husband, Rüstem Paşa, Grand Vezir to the sultan, also made good use of Sinan’s skills to contribute to the beauty and piety of the city of İstanbul.

The Rüstem Paşa Mosque, built by Sinan 1561-63

The fortunes of the great city of İstanbul fluctuated much as those of Constantinople had. By 1923, it faced foreign occupation and the dismemberment of the empire. On 29 October of that year, Mustafa Kemal and his courageous companions declared the establishment of the Türkiye Cumhuriyeti—the Republic of Turkey. The capital was moved to Ankara, where it remains today. But for many, the heart of Turkey is still İstanbul, the largest city in the nation, the preeminent center of art, business, and culture. And the most visible reminder of a glorious past when this was indeed the city of kings, the city of God.

Alevilik: An Introduction to the Alevis of Turkey and Beyond

Arriving at a universally acceptable definition or description of Alevilik, even among the academic community who approach this issue with less bias than the average lay person, has proven virtually impossible due to the ethnic, linguistic, regional, and doctrinal differences between divergent communities living inside and outside of Turkey, all of whom identify themselves more or less as Alevis.  One of the more remarked upon aspects of Alevilik, which itself gives rise to this confusion of identity (or may be seen as an attempt to explain the apparent disparities in Alevilik), is its syncretic nature.  Alevilik has been variously defined as a synthesis of “Sunni and Shi‘i beliefs and Muslim and Christian practices” (Aringberg-Laanatza 152), or as a fusion of Central Asian paganism, Persian Shi‘ism, and Anatolian mysticism.  Çamuroĝlu defines Alevilik as a “syncretistic belief structure, which shows strong traces of gnosticism” (1998, 79), and remarks that large numbers of Alevis may be found outside of Turkey today.  In April 2000 a team from Gazi University’s Turkish Culture and Hacı Bektaş Veli Research Center produced a documentary film on diverse Alevi communities from no less than 13 different countries outside of Turkey: Iran, Türkmenistan, Özbekistan, Kazakistan, Azerbaycan, Bulgaria, Greece, Rumania, Hungary, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo (Aydın).

Another form of distinction remarked upon by scholars concerns which form or focus of Alevilik that Alevis choose to pursue today.  So, for instance, Çamuroĝlu (1998) has identified three major trends in her work among Alevis: 1) political Alevis, who are intent on seeing Alevilik as a secular political ideology, 2) traditionalist Alevis, who demand a return to the true (heterodox, syncretic) Alevilik, and 3) Islamist Alevis, who seek to redefine Alevilik in orthodox Islamic terms, pointing out that Ali, after all, followed the five pillars of Islam.  Bilici, in contrast, has identified four branches of Alevilik in Turkey today: 1) the largely nonreligious materialist or modernist branch, who are associated with the Alevi Kurds, the Kurdistan Alevi Union in Germany, the Kurdish Zülfikâr journal, leftist Alevis, the Kervan (formerly a Communist journal), and followers of the sixteenth century poet and martyr Pir Sultan Abdal; 2) the mystical branch, which emphasizes the importance of the individual’s relationship to God; 3) the heterodox or Caferi branch, who see themselves as a distinctly religious Muslim community, but one which deserves the same political considerations which Sunni Muslims in Turkey receive,[1] and 4) the Shi‘i-inclined branch, who argue that Alevilik is the way of ‘Ali, the true path of Islam before it became corrupted by association with Bektaşilik.  This association, these Shi‘i-inclined Alevis argue, was forced on the Alevis of Anatolia by the Ottoman state, which sought to use Bektaşilik as a means of controlling and converting the Alevi population.

Whether Alevis are closer to Sunnism or Shi‘ism is not only a theoretical problem, but one that divides Alevis today.  In many practical ways, Alevis seem quite distinct from both Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims.  There is much less stress in Alevi culture in general on obeying external practices associated with orthodox Sunni and Shi‘i Islam, such as the fast during Ramadan, the Hajj or ‘pilgrimage’ from Makkah, salat or ‘Muslim prayer,’ and paying the zakat or ‘regular charitable tax.’  In other ways they seem to favor Shi‘i traditions, or at least a modified version of them, while opposing a number of customs followed by Sunni Muslims.  They avoid prayer in mosques, for example, without outright forbidding it, because of the association of mosques with the assassination of ‘Ali, who was murdered in a mosque.  Some, although by no means most, Alevis perform a fast, but only for ten days, to commemorate the ten days of suffering Hüseyin endured at the hands of his captors after he and his followers were attacked by Yazid’s men at Kerbala.  This is a tradition they share with other Shi‘i Muslims.  Alevis oppose mezhepler or ‘Islamic schools of jurisprudence’ as well, seeing them as associated with “strife and persecution” (Naess 178).[2]  However, as I will demonstrate later, there has been a trend among some Alevis to seek an association with orthodoxy through closer ties to Sunni Islam, and some have even begun engaging in Sunni practices while still calling themselves Alevis.

The rediscovery of Alevi religious culture has not occurred in a vacuum, but during a period of Turkish history which has seen renewed interest on the part of a number of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups for their own culture, language, and professed homelands, including the Kurds, Laz, and Çerkes.  The existence of different ethnic and linguistic groups and diverse religious elements among Alevis has been at the heart of this difficulty in defining true Alevilik.  Linguistically, one might identify at least four, possibly five, different groups: Turkish, Zaza, Kurmancı, Azerbayjani, and Arabic, the largest of these being Turkish and the second a combination of Kurdish Zaza and Kurmancı speakers.  Because of the innate importance that language often possesses in establishing identity, it may prove to be a stumbling block to any form of Alevi cohesion, although other divisive ethnic and political issues already firmly separate these five groups.

Such ethnic differences among Alevis have added considerably to the confusion over defining Alevilik.  One such distinction resides in the split between Turkish Alevis and Arab Alawites, a distinction which has not always been observed even by researchers.  Until quite recently, for example, the Index Islamicus has included articles and publications on both Alevis and Alawites under a single heading – Alawite, despite the fact that in most cases the Turkish Alevis and Arab Alawites reject the notion of there being any bond between them.  Even though both may be seen as offshoots of a centuries old tradition of venerating ‘Ali and the House of the Prophet, they are today generally incongruous with one another.  However, the incorporation of the Hatay province into Turkey in 1939 left the Turkish Republic with a sizable minority Arab population, many of whom were and have remained Alawite, but with no where near the numbers of the Turkish-Kurdish Alevi population.[3]  Nonetheless, I have included Arabic above as a fifth Alevi language based on as yet unverified (yet logical) reports that the Alevi religious revival in Turkey, or at least the many years of contact between the two groups, has begun to attract Arab Alawites in the Hatay region to increasingly participate in Turkish Alevi practices, such as attendance at cem ceremonies.

The Kurdish-Turkish ethnic distinction has in recent decades become one of the most obvious and increasingly sensitive divisions among Alevis, who seem less and less able to overcome the ethno-political nature of the division in favor of a religio-cultural unity.  Although existing studies of urban Alevi migrants in Anatolia have shed little light on the evolution of Alevis in relation to this dichotomy, the extreme prominence of the Kurdish issue in Turkish politics today will certainly make it an unavoidable issue in urban Alevi studies in the years to come, which is why I include it here in our summary of Alevi ethnic diversity. 

Kurdish Alevis, who even today are sometimes distinguished from other Alevis by the out-dated term Kızılbaş, are predominantly Kurmancı and Zaza speakers.[4]  Despite the nationalist political conflict which besets them, these Kurdish Alevis persist in their usage of Turkish for Alevi ritual purposes, in particular for gülbanklar (“invocations”) and nefesler (“religious songs”).  This use of Turkish has continued even though some Kurdish Alevis argue that Turkish Alevis adopted Alevilik from the Kurds, who had previously learned it from the Persians, making the issue of a ritual language ambiguous at best.[5]  Turkish Alevis have been noted for playing a significant role in defense of the Kemalist struggle during the War of Independence, even against Kurds who happened to be fellow Alevis.[6]  Supporting the new state against Kurdish insurgents took priority over defending co-religionists.  Since then the Kurdish identity of the approximately one-third of Turkey’s total Alevi population has become a source of confusion and division among the Kurdish Alevis, who increasingly find themselves torn between identifying themselves as Kurds or as Alevis.[7]  Sizable Kurdish Alevi communities reside in the eastern and central regions of Dersim (renamed Tunceli), Erzincan, Kıĝı, Bingöl, Muş, Sivas, Malatya, Maraş, Antep, Adana, and as far north as Kars.  Prominent Alevi tribes within these regions are the Dersimi, fieyhhasanan, Hormek, Lolan, and Koçgiri Kurds, although many Alevi Kurds outside of Dersim seem to trace descent back to the Dersimi Kurds.

While the Kurdish Alevis of these regions share much in common with the Turkish Alevis of central and western Anatolia, they have been noted to practice or express belief in a number of distinct forms of religious worship not commonly associated with the Turkish Alevis.  Among these, recorded by ethnographers and travelers from the beginning of the twentieth century, is the belief in metempsychosis, according to which human souls may be reborn as animals, whether they be mammals, reptiles, or insects.[8]  As with the Ahl-i Haqq of Syria, belief in various degrees of divine incarnation has also been expressed among the Dersimi Alevis, the most obvious example of which is the manifestation of God in ‘Ali.[9]  Finally, similar to the ancient traditions of the Central Asian Turks, the Kurdish Alevis of eastern Anatolia have displayed a reverence for nature through worship of such celestial bodies as the sun, moon, and planets, and of natural phenomena and elements, such as rain, thunder, water, rocks, and trees (van Bruinessen 1997).  In all of this there is evidence of a highly syncretic religious culture, a characteristic of Alevilik which the Kurds share with the other ethnic groups among the Alevis.

A cornerstone of Alevi religious culture is the Shi‘i veneration for the Ahl al-Beyt or ‘House of the Prophet,’ and in particular for ‘Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet and the First of the Twelve İmams.[10]  Like other Shi‘is, Alevis reject the first three orthodox caliphs, condemning them for having wrested the succession, the leadership of the Muslim community, from the Prophet’s own hand-picked successor – ‘Ali.  They argue that the Prophet made this designation clear when he said, “‘I am the city of knowledge (ilmin şehri), Ali is the gate of knowledge (ilmin kapısı).  And how can you come to the city without finding the gate’” (Naess 177).  As the Alevis in Naess’ study argued, the Sunnis tried to circumvent the framework of authority and knowledge built by the Prophet.  In essence, as one villager put it, “‘The Sunnis are like people who run along the walls, in vain seeking the gate’” (177).

The second key figure in Alevi ritual and belief is Hacı Bektaş Veli.  Historians argue that Hacı Bektaş arrived in Anatolia around 1230 “coming from Khorassan.”[11]  Hacı Bektaş apparently remained in Anatolia in the town of Soluca Kara Öyük or Karayol, which today bears his name – Hacıbektaş – until 1270, when he died at the age of 63.[12] Depending for such early information on hagiographic descriptions, we cannot be absolutely certain of the details of Bektaş’s life.  However, it seems he was not a theologian or orthodox Muslim in his behavior, but a Sufi from the Turkmen tribes,[13] and it is very likely that his Muslim worship was influenced by the Central Asian customs and traditions from which he came.  “He was a mystic, born among the people and who remained near to the people.  Though he was a Muslim, he did not give up the ancient practices and customs of Central Asia” (Melikoff 2). 

According to the Vilayet-name or biography of Hacı Bektaş, he apparently favored open worship to praying in a mosque, which resembles the Alevi aversion to mosques.  The same source also describes how he brought his abdallar or ‘followers’ up the mountain Hırkadaĝı, where they performed the sema, a ritual dance still practiced by Alevis.  The continued importance that Alevis attach to Bektaşilik may be seen in their associations with Hacı Bektaş foundations and with the town of Hacıbektaş itself.  To travel there in order to visit his tomb is to go on a hajj or ‘pilgrimage.’  The efendiler living in the town, who are said to be descended directly from Hacı Bektaş himself, are approached (albeit rarely), as a sort of court of last appeal in cases of disputes.  All of these connections to Hacı Bektaş seem to provide Alevis, in Shankland’s assessment, with their most cohesive framework.  Hacı Bektaş is for Alevis a leader, a spiritual guide, and a revered saint, making him “at once a spiritual focus, and also an orienting figure through which Alevis build up a link and define their place in the wider world of Islam as a whole” (1998, 19).[14]

One of the most important elements of Bektaşilik found among Alevis today is the Alevi tradition of the Dört Kapılar or ‘Four Gates.’  Like Bektaşis, Alevis believe there are Four Gates of spiritual development through which one must pass before one can achieve direct experience of God: şeriat, tarikat, marifet, and hakikatŞeriat refers to the Law of God, and is achieved simply by submitting oneself to the will of God through right belief and behavior.  While establishing a legal system based on the Shari‘a has become an end goal for some Muslim communities today, living according to God’s Law is only a first step for Alevis.  Most Alevis, having submitted themselves to the will of God, are said to have arrived at the stage of tarikatTarikat, which is associated with ritual practices which culminate in the cem ceremonies, may be interpreted as the organization of individuals into ritualistic societies based on the recognition that there is more to right living than the simple adherence to rules of proper belief and behavior.  Marifet, an Ottoman term of Arabic origin, suggests the acquisition of a special skill or spiritual knowledge through intense discipline and guided training and study, which is beyond the capacity of most followers.  The Alevi leaders or dedeler are ideally at the final stage, that of hakikat or truth, the real world, when the physical properties of this world no longer block one’s path to God.  At this stage it may be said that the individual has achieved spiritual unity with God, something which most Alevis never achieve in life.  For most it is enough to follow the directions of the dedeler, which focus essentially on right practice and ritual.  This focus on correct practice over dogma has been linked to the Alevi injunction, referred to by Shankland (1998) as edep: “Eline, diline, beline sahip ol!” (“Master your hands, your tongue, and your loins.”  In other words, at its simplest level, “Do not steal, lie, or have sexual relations outside of your marriage.”)

The leadership of the dedeler, which has been challenged in the urban setting, is integral to traditional Alevi religious culture.  As one of the keys to Alevi society, “they are at once its focus, its teachers, temporal judges and links to their religious heritage” (Shankland, 1998, 19).  The dedeler are recognized by the community as rehberler or ‘guides’ who define their duty as being “the way, the light, the inspiration of the community” (Shankland, 1998, 19).  Their primary duty, apart from functioning as sources of spiritual and traditional knowledge, seems to be to mediate disputes between Alevis of the same lineage or between lineages.  They may also help in marriage negotiations or be asked to comment on matters of importance to a whole community.  Dedeler have been traditionally able to justify their leadership of the community by claiming descent from the Prophet through one of the Twelve İmams, and many ocaklar or ‘dede lineages’ claim descent as well from dervishes who attended the Hacı Bektaş tekke or ‘dervish lodge’ in Hacıbektaş.  They are called in to assist the village community by talip or ‘follower lineages,’ who are obliged to respect and heed the dede lineages.  Some villagers say that the dede-talip links were assigned by Hacı Bektaş himself, thereby giving them greater validity and emphasizing the enduring role which dedeler are expected to play in the leadership of the community.

How the dedeler convey their teachings to the community has also become an issue in the urban setting.  In traditional Alevi culture, religious culture has been transmitted orally from dede to talip or from master to disciple.  Written texts are not absent in Alevi tradition.  In fact, they have existed in Alevi culture since the 16th century in the form of the Buyruk or ‘Decree.’  The first and most honored of these is the Buyruk of the Sixth İmam Cafer Sadik, which is supposedly a list of questions posed by a Byzantine emperor along with answers supplied by the İmam.  Its significance among Alevis is attested by their characterization of the text as the “Aleviliĝin anayasası” or ‘Constitution of Alevism.’[15]  Despite the importance of such texts, however, they have not superseded the oral nature of transmitting esoteric knowledge, which has remained firmly in the hands of the dedeler, who guide the community in interpreting the Buyruk.  This tradition naturally places greater authority in the hands of the dedeler, without whom the religious traditions of Alevis presumably might not survive.  The dede takes on the character of the walid dini or ‘religious father,’ whose tie to the disciple is stronger even than that of the disciple’s own father.  He is in essence the father of the community, and so it may be argued that the oral transmission of culture is invariably linked to the ongoing authority of the dedeler at least, if not to the overall survival of Alevi cultural traditions.

Most Alevi rituals have come to be associated with the cemevleri or ‘community gathering centers.’  The cem ceremonies performed in these gatherings are necessary forms of community cohesion, binding each member of the group to one another and to the whole.  The cem töreni or ‘cem ceremony’ is attended by men and women together, which is distinct from the separate worship of men and women in Sunni and Shi‘i cultures.  There are different forms of the cem ceremony, but the basic ceremony of gathering, the Abdal Musa cem, includes rituals symbolizing the martyrdom of Hussein at Kerbala, interpretations by the dede of key Alevi themes, even music, something that one would never find within an orthodox Sunni congregation.  The following is an example of the kind of music produced by Alevi musicians, who rely heavily on the baĝlama.

The Alevis interviewed by Shankland (1998) contrasted their worship with Sunni worship by pointing out that no one can attend their cem ceremony who is not at peace.  All who are present must first make peace with one another, if any quarrels exist, before they can begin the ceremony.  Otherwise, those who are unable to make peace must leave the cemevi.  Alevis say that this necessity for peace among the community, as well as the injunction against strangers attending the ceremony, is why they do not pray in a mosque: “(T)he greatest problem about praying in a mosque is that it is possible to be next to a murderer without realising it” (Shankland, 1998, 20). 

Alevi worship and belief, they argue, is also distinct from Sunni belief in that Sunni belief in God is based on fear, while Alevi belief is based on love.  They relate creation in the following terms: God created the world and He gave creatures life, but then He saw that there was nothing truly in His creation which reflected the Creator.  Therefore, He gave all humans a part of Himself, which became man’s ruh or ‘soul.’  “Now, we pray together in the cem, we do so face-to-face, and through the collective worship, see into one anothers’ hearts and so become part of God” (Shankland, 1998, 20). 

Musahiplik is another traditional aspect of Alevilik which binds people together, and which has been challenged in the urban setting.  Musahiplik is a form of ritual kinship or brotherhood which links two men together, obliging them to unending support of one another in a variety of forms, including economic and moral support.[16]  This support is unending in that, once the tie between two men has been recognized by a dede, it is assumed to survive even into the next world, where the two men will recommend one another to God on the Day of Judgment.  However, this form of commitment and support is not open to all Alevis, but only to those especially initiated for it by the dede, who must first recognize the couples’ preparedness in terms of their spiritual growth.  As such, musahiplik should not be considered a necessary element for all Alevis, but it certainly must be acknowledged as an integral aspect of Alevi religious culture, as it is present in all known rural Alevi communities which are organized around an ocak or ‘Holy Family.’  One can be Alevi without it, but to achieve it is to attain a higher stage in the striving for spiritual perfection and thus to be honored by the community for this achievement.[17] 

How Alevis trace the history of musahiplik brings us closer to their Shi‘i origins.  As the basis for this brotherhood, Alevis offer a tradition attributed to the Prophet during his final days.  It is said that the Prophet, returning from his last pilgrimage to Makkah, instructed his followers each to choose a special companion, a musahip, whose support would never wane.  To take the lead in this process, Muhammad chose ‘Ali as his own musahip by opening his cloak and pulling his son-in-law to his breast.  In this way he indicated how he and ‘Ali were one, and he proclaimed to those present, “‘Ali and I, we both derive from the same light.  He is my brother in this world and in the hereafter.  His blood is my blood, his flesh is my flesh, his soul is my soul, his body is my body’” (Kehl-Bodrogi 123).

The cem ceremony and musahiplik may be interpreted as traditions of inclusion or social binding which strengthen the ties of the community.  However, there is another form of the cem ceremony, known as the görgü cem, which functions as a judicial institution, an institution that has proven extremely difficult to carry on in the urban setting where judicial matters are clearly in the hands of the state.  As with the inclusive Abdal Musa cem ceremony examined above, the görgü cem is prohibited to outsiders.  During the görgü, accused offenders are required to give an account of themselves before a görgü heyeti or ‘görgü committee,’ which includes the dede.  The members of this committee must come to an agreement regarding how to sanction the offender, the “sentence” being carried out immediately.  The intention is to bring peace and cohesion back to the community, but serious violations may incur more serious penalties, from verbal abuse and, in some reports, spitting on the offender, to the most extreme punishment – düşkünlük or ‘excommunication.’  For such an introverted, group-oriented community, permanent excommunication is tantamount to ostracism, and, not surprisingly, has been reported to have occurred rarely, if at all, in most traditional Alevi communities.  A more frequent sanction may be geçici düşkünlük or ‘momentary excommunication,’ which may be applied in cases of theft, for instance.[18]

Social traditions among rural Alevis, such as marriage, divorce, and funeral rites, are generally quite distinct from representative urban practices.  Marriage is considered a highly sacred bond which “should persist under all circumstances” (Bozkurt, 1998, 89).  Other than in extremely exceptional cases, separation or divorce are simply not acceptable resolutions to marital problems.  Nor is it acceptable that an outsider should pass judgment or practice authority on what is essentially an internal Alevi matter.  This goes for funerary services as well as for sanctions.  Dealing with death is an Alevi communal concern, and funerary rites are carried out by the community and the dede, with songs and the recitation of the funerary prayer, known as the Hatayi, performed in Turkish.  The ritual dance or sema may also be performed. 

Researchers working among Alevis often emphasize the respect and tolerance which Alevis display towards non-Alevis.  Shankland, for example, argues that among Alevis, “outsiders are able to be accommodated within the villages,” and that “individual believers can take up different individual positions within the Alevi faith” (1998, 22).  While this is true, it is important to note that many of the characteristics of Alevi religious tradition promote a sense of inclusivity among the members of the community while enforcing exclusivity of non-members (i.e.,  non-Alevis).[19]  Musahiplik, for instance, is not only reserved solely for Alevis, but is further limited to Alevis deemed deserving by the religious leaders.  In addition, the hereditary aspect of dede leadership has made it traditionally impossible for either non-Alevis or even Alevis of talip lineages to rise to positions of leadership.  Moreover, marriage, while theoretically open to mixed Alevi and non-Alevi couples, has traditionally been an endogamous practice.  As for the cem ceremonies, Shankland himself has noted how long it took for him to receive reluctant permission to attend a cem ceremony, despite the fact that he had lived among Alevis on and off for over a year.  It is not at all surprising that such a long history of isolation and persecution would promote exclusivity among a religious minority, but, as I will show, modernization and urbanization have challenged even this long-standing practice.

This exclusivity may be interpreted as one aspect of a larger cohesion that binds Alevis – or at least Alevis of the same village – together, even when great distances set them apart.  In a study of an Anatolian Alevi village hidden under the name of Dereköy (presumably in the vicinity of İzmir), Naess found that Alevi emigrants from the village retained a strong connection with their village, even though their migrations carried them as far away as Norway (150 migrants) and Germany (50 migrants).  Those who remained behind, reckoned at 514 by the 1985 census, nonetheless counted themselves at more like 1200, continuing to include those who had migrated either to the local town, to İzmir, or to Europe.  In other words, these rural Alevis identified themselves in terms of the larger group of current village inhabitants along with the permanent and temporary Alevi migrants who had left the village.  After all, these emigrants remained in contact with the village, sent remittances back to it, visited it, and even returned to the village to find Alevi spouses. 

[1] According to these Alevis, the gates of ijtihad are still open and “every aspect of the life of the individual or community should be based on judgments made on the basis of a combination of faith, reason, and life, and that action should be taken in accordance with decisions based on free will.  Thus, in this theology, contrary to Shari‘a, all human problems are related to the actual world, and relevant judgments arise from life itself” (Bilici 54).

[2] The Alevis hold that the schools were organized by Harun ar-Rashid, who first ordered the most knowledgeable men of his time to codify Islamic law into separate schools.  When these men refused, Alevis say, declaring instead their continued allegiance to ‘Ali, Harun ar-Rashid had them executed.

[3] On the other hand, the incorporation of Hatay into Turkey led to the emigration of some 50,000 Arabs, including 10,000 Alawites, from Hatay into Syria.  (See Aringberg-Laanatza for more details on the similarities and differences between Alevis and Alawites.)

[4] Estimates concerning how many Alevis are Kurds run anywhere from 10-30% in the literature.  This is not the place to explore the issue of ethnicity among Turks and Kurds, but a commonly accepted explanation among scholars for the large numbers of Kurdish Alevis in Anatolia today is not that they are all descended from early Kurdish settlers, but that most of them are descended from Kurdicized Turcoman tribes, Kızılbaş supporters of the Safavids who had adopted Kurdish languages, in this case mainly Zaza, through contact with Kurdish Alevis in Anatolia.  Van Bruinessen disagrees with this view, proposing instead that today’s Kurdish Alevis in Turkey are descended from Kurmancı or Zaza speaking Anatolian Kurds who adopted Alevi practices along with their earlier syncretic beliefs.  (See van Bruinessen, 1997 for further discussion on this point.)

[5] I could unfortunately find no figures regarding these divisions among the Kurdish Alevis.

[6] Kurdish resistance to the Kemalist struggle, most notably represented by the Sheikh Sa’id rebellion, was opposed not only by Turkish but also by Kurdish Alevis, particularly the Hormek and Lolan Kurds around Bingöl, Muş, and Varto.  (See van Bruinessen, 1997 and Olson.)

[7] This is not to suggest that the Alevi-Kurdish distinction is the only one which divides Turkey’s Kurdish population.  Regional, linguistic, religious, and tribal divisions also play a significant role.

[8] See Andranig, Tersim.  Tiflis: 1900.

[9] A less distinguished divine presence within the seyyidler or ‘descendants of the House of the Prophet’ has also been noted.

[10] After İmam ‘Ali, the Alevis venerate or honor an intriguingly heterodox collection of individuals, including the sixth İmam Cafer Sadiq, Hacı Bektaş Veli, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, and most recently Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Naess 179).

[11] This is a phrase generally understood to mean “migrating from Central Asia.” He possibly did so in the company of Kharezmians, escaping the Mongols in the 13th century.

[12] The order which bears his name today was possibly founded by Kadıncık Ana, a woman of the Oĝuz Çepni town, who is variously described as his adoptive daughter or his spiritual wife.

[13] Melikoff suggests that the relationship between the Ottomans and the Bektaşis was strengthened by the fact that they came from the same social backgrounds.  In fact, Elvan Çelebi, in his hagiographic text on Baba İlyas, states that Hacı Bektaş was closely connected with Edebali, who became the father-in-law of Osman Gazi, founder of the Ottoman state.  Further, a number of Bektaşi dervishes were apparently companions of Osman’s son, Orhan Gazi, including Abdal Musa, follower of Hacı Bektaş and founder of the Bektaşi Order of Dervishes, who contributed to Ottoman expansion by actually assisting the Ottoman armies in their conquests.  The dervishes had thereby become gazis, Muslim warriors, who founded orders and colonies in conquered lands, orders which became centers of Muslim teaching.

[14] See Birge, still considered by many to be the definitive work on Bektaşilik in English, as well as Eröz and Türkdoĝan for more on Alevi-Bektaşi customs and beliefs.

[15] For more on the scripturalization of Alevi religious traditions see Olsson.

[16] A man is responsible for “the moral and social integrity” of his musahip (Kehl-Bodrogi 123).

[17] The absence of musahiplik among the non-Alevi Bektaşi marks it as a critical distinction between the two otherwise quite similar cultures.

[18] For examples of such görgü conflict resolution see Shankland, 1993.

[19] Bozkurt goes so far as to argue that, within Alevi belief, “Strict control forms the essence of this belief, which aims at keeping the community going without appealing to the state security forces and without state support.  All their ceremonies and sanctions are aimed at achieving this end” (1998, 85).


Aringberg-Laanatza, Marianne. “Alevis in Turkey – Alawites in Syria: Similarities and Differences.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 151-165.

Bilici, Faruk. “The Function of Alevi-Bektashi Theology in Modern Turkey.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 51-62.

Birge, John Kingsley. The Bektashi Order of Dervishes. Hartford: Hartford Seminary Press, 1937.

Bozkurt, Fuat. “State-Community Relations in the Restructuring of Alevilik,” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 85-96.

Çamuroğlu, Reha. “Alevi Revivalism in Turkey.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 79-84.

Kehl-Bodrogi, Krisztina. “On the Significance of musahiplik among the Alevis of Turkey: The Case of the Tahtacı.” Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East. Ed. Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, New York: Brill, 1997, pp. 119-138.

Mélikoff, Irène. “Bektashi / Kızılbaş: Historical Bipartition and Its Consequences.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 1-7.

Naess, Ragnar. “Being an Alevi Muslim in South-western Anatolia and in Norway: The Impact of Migration on a Heterodox Turkish Community.” The New Islamic Presence in Western Europe. Ed. Tomas Gerholm and Yngve Georg Lithman. New York: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1988, pp. 174-195.

Olsson, Tord. “Epiloque: Scripturalization of Ali-oriented Religions,” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 199-206.

Shankland, David. “Alevi and Sunni in Rural Anatolia: Diverse Paths of Change.” Culture and Economy: Changes in Turkish Villages. Ed. Paul Stirling. Cambridgeshire: The Eothen Press, 1993, pp. 46-64.

Shankland, David. “Anthropology and Ethnicity: The Place of Ethnography in the New Alevi Movement.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 15-22.

van Bruinessen, Martin. “Kurds, Turks and the Alevi Revival in Turkey.” Online. Internet. 16 Feb. 1999. Available http: ~godlas/alevivanb.html.

Akhen-Aten, Ancient Egypt’s Monotheistic King

While Egyptians worshipped multiple gods for some 3,000 years, there was a brief moment in this vast span of history when at least some Egyptians converted to a monotheistic faith thanks to a rather unique pharaoh named Akhen-Aten. 

Upon the death of his father, Amun-hotep III, Amun-hotep IV ascended the throne as the next pharaoh of Egypt.  Physically, he may have seemed an unlikely choice, having an elongated body with abnormally long neck, limbs, and fingers, and somewhat rounded hips and prominent belly.  This was certainly not the stereotypical image of physical perfection that we have come to associate with Egyptian kings.  Certainly, we do not assume that Egyptian kings were really as perfect as their statues and images portray them to be, but nonetheless, there was clearly something odd about the appearance of this young king.  Modern researchers have in fact suggested that Amun-hotep IV may have suffered from a genetic abnormality known as Marfan’s Syndrome which lengthens the limbs and fingers in just this manner. It was once thought that Abraham Lincoln also suffered from this abnormality, although he has since been rediagnosed with multiple endocrine neoplasia. Likewise, the diagnosis of Marfan’s has been dropped from discussions of Akhen-Aten as of this year, 2010, when genetic testing proved that Tut-ankh-Amun was indeed Akhen-Aten’s son and that Tut lacked any genetic traces of Marfan’s.

However Akhen-Aten’s odd appearance may eventually be explained, it is true that Amun-hotep IV was different in other ways as well.  Even as a child and youth, he seemed less inclined to engage in physical activities and sport as other youth did, preferring a more contemplative life one filled with spiritual considerations, extensive periods of prayer and contemplation.  Still, upon his ascension to the throne, he showed no inclination towards any spiritual practices or beliefs outside of the traditional beliefs of the polytheistic Egyptians.  For his first few years as king, he honored the gods of his fathers and provided endowments to the priests of Amun at Karnak, where statues were erected in his honor portraying him in the physical perfection we have come to expect from Egypt’s divine kings. 

Despite the apparent adherence to tradition displayed by the new king, Egypt was clearly at a point in her history when a new god was just coming into prominence.  Durign the reign of Amun-hotep III there seems to have been a greater interest in another of the several sun gods – the Aten.  Egyptian polytheism, being a syncretic evolution of animistic gods derived from the natural world, tended to displayed its gods in human form with perhaps some remnant of their pre-human animal selves still present, for example, images of Horus as a man and Horus as a falcon, or Thoth [Djehuti] as a man with an Ibis head, and Thoth simply as an ibis.  But the Aten was different.  The Aten was the only significant deity to be portrayed purely as the natural element it was believed to be, in this case, the sun disk.  The Aten had no human or semi-human form.  All images of Aten display him as the sun itself, often with rays of light extending outwards with little hands at the end of each ray with which the loving god could carress and comfort its people as well as hold the traditional symbols of life and power. 

Down to his fifth year as king, Amun-hotep continued to use the name given him by his parents, a name which signified a special reverence for the ancient sun god, Amun.  However, in that year he began to refer to himself as well as “the first prophet of Ra-Harakhti Rejoicing in the Horizon in his name the sunlight which is Aten.”  At the palace, the new king began to replace traditional images with images of the sun disk.  This change of religious symbolism slowly extended outside the palace as well.  In the tomb at Thebes of the royal vizier, Ra-mose, who died during the early years of Amun-hotep IV’s reign, we see images of the new king in the traditional style, and of Ra-mose making offerings to the god Amun.  But then on the opposite wall are images in a new style of Amun-hotep IV and his wife, Nefertiti, bathing in the glow of the light of Aten.   

While records of the actual events transpiring at this very significant time in Egyptian history are missing, most likely deliberately destroyed by later Egyptians seeking to wipe away any evidence of what occurred, the archaeological record leads to the following conclusions.  In the sixth year of his reign, Amun-hotep IV decided to leave the old capital of his father and ordered the construction of a new capital city on the west bank of the Nile half-way between modern day Cairo and ancient Luxor.  This site is known today as El-Amarna, a name derived from the tribe of Banu Amran who inhabit the area, but the name given the new city by its founder was Akhet-Aten, meaning the Horizon of Aten.  The city, built in great haste and now completely destroyed, nonetheless reveals much concerning its founder and the revolution he sought to pursue.  It is also the site of one of the finest archives found in Egypt, now referred to as the Amarna letters, letters inscribed in cuneiform, among which is the earliest recorded reference to the Canaanite city of Jerusalem. 

In keeping with his new faith, Amun-hotep IV adopted a new name and a new image.  His new name was Akhen-Aten, which means “It is well with Aten.”  As for his new image, it was so very distinct from traditional images of Egyptian kings as to offer some of the most memorable images out of Egypt’s entire 3000 years of history.  Akhen-Aten has himself portrayed realistically, with every physical flaw intact.  Physical perfection is gone.  On the contrary, Akhen-Aten seems to revel in his realism.  Not only is he shown as he really was, but he is shown doing what he most likely really did in life.  No more stiff, inhuman poses for this king.  We see Akhen-Aten at dinner with his family or playing with his children, something no other pharaoh would ever be shown doing, whether or not he actually did so in real life. 

How extensive this new faith in the Aten was is impossible to tell, although it is safe to assume that the great majority of Egyptians had nothing to do with it.  Nonetheless, for Akhen-Aten faith in the Aten meant everything.  An inscription from the tomb of Ay, Akhen-Aten’s advisor and successor, has been attributed to Akhen-Aten himself, and expresses well his deep devotion to the one god: 

You arise beauteous in the horizon of heaven, O living Aten, beginner of life when You did shine forth in the eastern horizon, and did fill every land with Your beauty. You are comely, great, sparkling, and high above every land, and Your rays enfold the lands to the limits of all that You have made, You being the sun, and You reach their limits and subject them to your beloved son. Being afar off, yet Your rays are upon the earth.  You are in men’s faces, yet Your movements are unseen.  When You set in the western horizon, the earth is in darkness after the manner of death.  The night is passed in the bedchamber, heads covered, no eye can see its fellow.  Their belongings are stolen, even though they be under their heads, and they perceive it not.  Every lion is come forth from its lair and all snakes bite.  Darkness is the sole illumination while the earth is in silence, their maker resting in his horizon. (Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, 225) 

Initially, all that Akhen-Aten strove to accomplish with his personal faith in the Aten seems to have been fairly restricted to his immediate environment, particularly his new capital.  Indeed, he may have built his new capital with its strictly delimited boundaries in part to separate his faith from the old faith, while leaving the old faith intact.  However, at some point he clearly decided to eradicate the old polytheism of Egypt rather than leave it to spread its corrupting influence over the people.  He therefore sent workmen across the land to destroy images of the gods and to remove the names of the old gods from the temples.  In these efforts, they largely failed to do little but anger the priests and those people who directly benefitted from the old faith.  In the homes of the Egyptians, worship of the old gods probably continued as usual.  In the village constructed for the workmen employed on building Akhen-Aten’s new capital, even, shrines to the old gods have been found.  Far from leading a successful religious revolution, then, all Akhen-Aten really succeeded in doing was turning many people against him.  One important reason for this failure may have been the lack of a concerted effort to bring the new faith to the people.  Apart from closing the old temples and removing the names of the old gods, the new faith seems only to have been upheld in a couple of new temples, which could not possibly have reached the entire population with their monotheistic message. 

Involved as he was in the everyday affairs of his new faith, Akhen-Aten had neither the time nor the inclination to involve himself in foreign affairs.  Consequently, as uncovered in letters written to the capital by Egyptian outposts, hostile neighbors began to threaten the borders of Egypt, in particular the Hittites in Anatolia, who were just now coming into their own politically and militarily and seeking to expand southward into Palestine.  Letters from the Egyptian governor in Palestine attest to this fact, and paint a picture of a man desperate for assistance from Egypt against the growing threat, but receiving no answer from a king who had no interest in such earthly political matters. 

Towards the end of his reign, Akhen-Aten accepted his son-in-law Smenkh-ka-Ra, husband to the king’s eldest daughter, as his co-regent and heir to the throne of Egypt.  That he had no sons of his own compelled him to this end in acquiring an heir.  However, while Smenkh-ka-Ra may have been eager to become the next king of Egypt, he seems to have had no commitment to the new faith of his father-in-law.  This is indicated by evidence that he quickly left Akhet-Aten to take up residence in the ancient capital of Thebes.  Jilted by his son-in-law, Akhen-Aten was left without an heir.  There is even a suggestion that he may have been abandoned by his wife, Nefer-titi, in the end.  However it happened, we may assume that the monotheistic king of Egypy died an isolated and hated man.  His mummy has never been found, and indeed he may never have been mummified.  His very enemies, in keeping with Egyptian tradition, probably destroyed his body even as they destroyed his city after his death.  His tomb has been found, and his sarcophagus within the tomb, but the sarcophagus stands empty and evidence suggests that it never held a body. 

The curse of Akhen-Aten then descended on his only remaining male heir, husband to his last daughter, Ankhes-en-Amun.  This was the famous King Tut, well known in contemporary society for his remarkable tomb, but most significant in history because it was the boy king Tut who, seeing which way the wind was blowing, rejected the monotheistic revolution of his father Akhen-Aten.  Tut ordered the temples to the ancient gods reopened and generously gave to the priests, no doubt hoping thereby to win their support.  But it was too late for Tut.  Before he had even reached his 20th birthday, Tut died.  A popular theory, based on an early forensic examination of an injury to his skull, was that he had been murdered, most likely by his own chief advisor Ay, who coveted the throne for himself.  We know that Ay did indeed become pharaoh after Tut’s death, but only after he had apparently compelled  Tut’s widow, Ankhes-en-Amun, to marry him.  Thereby, Ay gained legitimacy for his own claim to the throne, although his death put an end to this most amazing dynasty and gave rise to one of the most renowned dynasty in all of Egyptian history – that of Ramesses the Great.  More recent examinations of Tut’s body, however, suggest that he more likely died from malaria or from an infection that had spread through his body following a severe injury to his leg, the kind of injury that might have been caused in battle or even from falling off his horse.

Funerary Traditions in Ancient Egypt

Regardless of whether the Egyptians were monotheists aor polytheists, they all agreed – hell was a very nasty place indeed, as awful as anyone could imagine today.  The following is a description of hell narrated in Egyptian texts by one who had actually been there, a mummy, who is being questioned by a priest:

When it became necessary for me to die, the Kosmokrator angels were the first to come round about me, and they told me of all the sins which I had committed, and they said to me, “Let him that can save you from the torments into which you shall be cast come hither.”  And they had in their hands iron knives, and pointed goads which were like unto sharp spears, and they drove them into my sides and gnashed upon me with their teeth. …at that moment angels who were without pity came and dragged my wretched soul from my body, and having tied it under the form of a black horse, they led me away to Amenti [Hell]. … I was then delivered into the hands of a multitude of tormentors who were without pity and who had each a different form. … And it came to pass that when I had been cast into the outer darkness, I saw a great ditch which was more than two hundred cubits deep, and it was filled with reptiles; each reptile had seven heads, and the body of each was like unto that of a scorpion.  In this place also lived the Great Worm, the mere sight of which terrified him that looked thereat.  In his mouth he had teeth like unto iron stakes, and one took me and threw me to this Worm which never ceased to eat; then immediately all the [other] beasts gathered together near him, and when he had filled his mouth [with my flesh], all the beasts who were round about me filled theirs. (E.A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Religion, 139-40)

In contrast, paradise for the Egyptians was a marvelous place, quite similar to this earth, with all the good things of this earth and without the bad things.  These were the Elysian Fields, where the soul could enjoy a very physical existence forever with his family and friends, playing cards, drinking beer, listening to music, fishing, all that he had most enjoyed in this life. 

That being the case, any Egyptian in his right mind would want to spend eternity there.  And so they took great pains to ensure that they had this opportunity.  But remember the lesson of Osiris – you can only enjoy eternal happiness in heaven if your body is preserved through the very process that Osiris was the first to undergo – mummification.

The process of preparing a mummy evolved over time in Egypt.  Initially, bodies were probably buried in the sand.  Over time, the wealthy came to have special burial chambers built for themselves, which also meant that their bodies required special preparation in order to preserve them.  The following were the steps generally required in this 70 day process:

1. Brain

As the Egyptians believed that the heart was the location of the soul and of human thought, they had no interest in preserving the brain (which is pretty sad, really, because that means that if the Egyptians had been right about their paradise, and the means of getting there, they had spent 3 millennia filling paradise with lobotimized spirits).  To remove the brain, a spike was hammered up through the nose to break through the nasal cavity and open a passage into the skull.  This allowed the priests to poke a long stick with a hook at the end through the cavity and into the brain.  Using the hook, they would wisk the brain into a thin mush, quite liquidy.  Tipping the head forward, then, the brain would seep out through the nasal cavity and ears.

2. Organs. 

Make an incision in the left side of the body.  Remove the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines through this incision. 

3. Canopic jars. 

Clean these organs and place them into caponic jars, which would stand near the sarcophagus in the tomb.

4. Heart

Remove the heart, cleanse it, wrap it, and return it to the chest cavity.

5. Dessication. 

Dry the body by leaving it covered in natron for 35 to 40 days.  Natron was a natural substance that collected along the banks of Egypt’s small lakes as the waters evaporated.  Composed of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride, it’s pretty much like covering the body with a combination of salt and baking soda, which leach the moisture out of the body.

6. Stuffing. 

Stuff the resulting body cavity with materials provided by the family, such as cloths used by the deceased during life which are soaked in gums, herbs, and oils.  In some cases of poorer mummies, researchers have found other less personal material used to stuff the dead, including straw and mud.

7. Cleaning. 

Cleanse and purify the body.  Various oils and perfumes were used, such as palm wine, frankincense, and mer, to provide the body with a pleasant aroma with which to come into the presence of Osiris, the Judge.

8. Wrapping. 

Wrap the body in cloth strips.  The body of a king would be carefully wrapped in the finest linen, while less noble bodies might be wrapped in strips made from their own clothing or bed sheets.  While the body was being wrapped, the priests would hide magical amulets within the layers of cloth to further protect the body from harm and assist the journey of the dead into the Underworld.

Death mask.

Assuming this to be an individual of some standing and wealth, then along with amulets, the priests would decorate the body with jewelry and ornaments of gold and precious stones.  And at the very end of the wrapping, a death mask would be laid over the face of the deceased.  All of which was far too compelling for thieves in Egypt to ignore.  After all, if you break into a tomb, hoping to become rich, the last thing you intend to do is leave the dead in peace.  You know the traditions.  You know there are valuable jewels and gold on or buried beneath the layers of cloth, and so thieves would tear apart the dead, ensuring that the entire purpose of mummification was not achieved.  The spirit could not live forever once the body was destroyed.

9. Coffins. 

Finally, the mummy was placed in one or more coffins or sarcophagi to further ensure its protection against the elements.  Remember, the ultimate goal of all this apparent obsession with the body is in fact to secure the survival of the spirit in the life to come.  Destruction of the body was believed to threaten the survival of the spirit, and everyone wants the chance to live on in the afterlife, right?  The Egyptians thus became masters at physical preservation for the sake of spiritual longevity. 

Not only did burial customs evolve over time in ancient Egypt; the place where the dead were buried also changed.  In the pre-dynastic period, before Egypt was unified as a single state and mummification became the funerary ritual of choice, the dead were simply buried in the sand, which was an extremely effective form of natural mummification in such a dry desert.  However, over time and with increasing wealth, the Egyptians began to construct tombs for their dead.  Or at least for the upper classes.

For those who could afford it, an increasingly common form of tomb construction was the mastaba, a term derived from the Arabic for “bench,” used to describe even today the table or platform on which the deceased are prepared for burial.  You can see a large number of mastabas clustered around the Great Pyramid of Giza. 

These pyramids became the symbols of ancient Egypt, and there were in fact more than most people know, probably some 100 pyramids in all.  Regardless of fantastic speculations about who built them and what they were for, the simple explanation is that they were tombs.  All excavatable pyramids in Egypt have revealed chambers for the burial of a pharaoh or, in the case of the smaller pyramids, a close relative of the pharaoh.

The shape of the pyramid has also inspired much conjecture.  From an architectural standpoint, the pyramid is far more durable than a rectangular building with vertical walls, at least in the pre-steel and pre-cement ancient world.  A monument of the massive size of the Great Pyramid with vertical walls would surely have collapsed.  However, there may have been another source of inspiration for the shape of the pyramid in Egypt – the primeval hill, Ben-ben.  Just as the gods emerged from the hill in the beginning of time, the descendents of the gods – the pharaohs – would return to the heavens through their own artificial hill, the pyramid.

The Gods of Ancient Egypt

If you recall what we said earlier about the decipherment of hieroglyphics, it was thanks to the works of Budge and other prominent Egyptologists that the history of ancient Egypt at last came alive.  Rather than trying to guess how the pyramids were built or why Egyptians mummified their dead, we could now simply read the sometimes lengthy explanations left by the Egyptians themselves to understand these phenomena, including their polytheistic beliefs.

Amongst the hundreds if not thousands of gods worshipped by the ancient Egyptians was the pharaoh.  The term pharaoh is derived from the name given to the palace of the king of Egypt – the Per-o, meaning the “Great House.”  Egyptian kings or pharaohs were autocrats wielding absolute power.  In the reign of secure, confident, powerful kings, that power was unchallenged.  The power of the pharaohs of Egypt depended upon three things:

  • The people believed pharaoh to be a god, thus strengthening their loyalty to him.
  • Pharaoh was the ultimate possessor of all things on earth, including the people.
  • Pharaoh’s word was law. 

If these were the sources of pharaoh’s power, they could also be his undoing.  He could lose power if any one of these three sources was challenged, which happened a number of times in Egyptian history:

  • if the people stopped believing in pharaoh’s divinity, which could happen if the priests turned against pharaoh
  • if the all important fertile lands belonged to someone else, which happened whenever pharaoh rewarded loyal servants and generals with gifts of land
  • if the laws were written down, thereby giving the law a life of its own, a validity outside of pharaoh’s dictates

Among the many other gods, certainly one of the most significant was Ra, the Creator, maker of men, father of the gods, who was typically worshipped as the state god of Egypt.  Not surprisingly, he was associated with the the all-powerful sun, which would be recognized as the greatest of gods in a place like Egypt.  In the form of the sun, Ra rose over the earth every morning, sailing across the heavens in two boats (the first from sunrise until noon, and the second from noon until sunset).  As creator, recall, he first brought forth Shu, god of light, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture.

The children of Shu and Tefnut rose from the watery abyss together to become the earth (Geb) and the sky (Nut).  According to one Egyptian myth, they embrace one another during the night, only to be separated every morning by their father Shu, son of the creator.  In this image you see the father Shu holding his daughter Nut high up and away from Geb, the earth.  In the end, their nightly embraces lead to children of their own, who grow up to form the core of Egypt’s most important myths.  As the parents of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, Nut and Geb were also known as the Father and Mother of the Gods.

Osiris was the son of Nut and Geb.  He ruled over the earth until he was treacherously slain by his brother, Seth, after which he was resurrected to become King of the Afterlife and Judge of the Dead.  His wife and sister, known as the “Lady of Enchantments,” was Isis.  She was often depicted as the “Divine Mother,” suckling her baby Horus.  Hers was one of the most popular Egyptian cults, and survived the foreign occupations of Egypt to become a favorite popular cult in Greek and Roman cultures as well, with shrines at Delos and Pompeii.  In Greece she became associated with the Greek goddess Demeter, while in Rome she was known as Stella Maris – the Star of the Sea.  Because of the prevalence of statues and images of Isis seated with the baby Horus on her knee, she was later compared with the Virgin Mary, holding the baby Jesus, and it is common to think of her in Egypt as a mother goddess figure.

The sister and companion of Isis was Nephthys, and like Isis, she was a goddess of Magic who helped the dead to overcome the finality of death and the grave.  Her husband and the god of all that was Evil in the world, including the desert, darkness, night time, sickness, storms, and foreigners, was Seth.  Seth killed his brother Osiris to become king, and then waged war on the vengeful Horus even as the night battled the day for dominion over the earth.

Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis.  He became King of the World by defeating his uncle Seth in battle.  He was also the Guardian of the Pharaoh, and every pharaoh had a “Horus” name to indicate his special relationship to Horus.  His symbol was the falcon or hawk, which was often depicted in paintings and statuary guarding over the pharaoh.

The illegitimate child of Osiris and Nephthys (or the son of Ra), Anubis was a guardian of the afterlife who assisted in the preparation of the dead and guided the spirit of the deceased to Osiris, even as he assisted in the mummification of Osiris by embalming the dead king’s body.  The priests who labored over the preparation of mummies were known as the Priests of Anubis.  The apparent origin of Anubis as protector of the dead seems to stem from actual events in prehistoric Egypt.  Before the development of mummification, it is clear that the Egyptians would simply bury their dead in the Western Desert.  With the shifting sands of the desert, however, this meant that a dead body could fairly easily be uncovered and exposed to the jackals – the scavenging wild dogs of the desert.  According to belief, the first jackal to come upon such a body would guard over the body, snarling at other would be scavengers to scare them off, thus allowing him to eventually sit and enjoy his rather dry, tough meal by himself.  From this arose the belief that the jackal – Anubis – was the protector of the dead.  Because of the use of the west as a necropolis for the dead, Anubis came to be known as “the one of the West, lord of the sacred land.”

One of the most important of Egyptian myths concerns the central gods of Egyptian belief: Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and Horus.  Osiris was the king of the world.  He was a great king and a powerful god, and he ruled over the earth as a just king.  Unfortunately, Osiris had a brother, Seth, and Seth was very envious of his brother’s power.  Whatever it took, Seth was going to become king. 

Now ancient Egyptians were fascinated with death, so don’t be too surprised to hear that one day Seth brought a coffin with him to a celebration at the king’s palace.  But not just any coffin.  This was a beautiful, fantastic piece of work, and Seth had secretly had this coffin built exactly to fit his brother, Osiris.  So in walks Seth with the coffin, and he announces that it would belong to whichever god best fit into the coffin.  They all tried, but only Osiris could slip into the coffin nice and comfy.  And the moment he was inside the coffin, Seth had the lid of the coffin slammed down on top and nailed shut so that his brother could not escape.  Then he had the coffin thrown out the palace window and into the river Nile, where the coffin floated away and Osiris drowned to death. So now, with his brother out of the way, Seth was king.  But there was still Osiris’s widow, Isis.  You see, when she learned her husband had disappeared, Isis was so distraught that she vowed to find him.  She searched all over Egypt, and eventually she did find the coffin and managed to bring it back with her, but she couldn’t let Seth get ahold of it.  She had to protect her husband’s body, so that his soul could live forever, so she and her sister Nephtys took turns watching over the hidden coffin.  But Seth still managed to find the coffin, and this time he had his brother’s body chopped up into little bits, fourteen pieces in all, and he threw the pieces into the Nile River.  Now he could be king, knowing he was safe and his brother’s soul would die along with his body. 

Now Isis really had her work cut out for her this time.  But she didn’t give up, and once again she was successful.  She found the pieces of her husband’s body, well, not all of them, thirteen of them, and she brought these thirteen pieces back, and using her sister’s magic, she was able to put the pieces back together.  Now, working together, Isis and Nephthys prepared the body, cleaning it and wrapping it in linen, properly preserving it. 

And in this way, Osiris, the first mummy in Egyptian history, was resurrected from the dead to live and rule in the afterlife as King of the Dead, which was a pretty powerful position to hold, as you’ll see.

Now, Seth was still king, but he was not the only one to claim the right to the throne.  Osiris was now king of the dead, but he had a son – Horus.  If Seth wanted to be king, he had to get rid of his challenger.  While Horus was still a baby, Seth sent a serpent, which bit Horus and poisoned him.  While Horus was dying, his mother Isis pleaded with the chief god – Ra – to help her son.  Ra looked down on the baby and agreed, in a sense adopting him, so that when he saved Horus’ life, he was in essence agreeing to watch over all new kings. 

But Horus did not win the crown so easily.  Seth was determined to remain king, and when Horus grew up and claimed the throne for himself, a war began that lasted for years.  Neither side was able to defeat the other.  When Horus cuts off his uncle’s head, it simply grew back.  When he destroyed his uncle’s army, a new army replaced it.  And when it seemed the war would simply drag on forever, Seth asked for arbitration to end their dispute.  So Ra organized a council of the gods to listen to both sides and choose who would be king.  Both sides gave good arguments, and after about 80 years of this trial, most members of the council believed that Horus should be king since he was the son of the old king.  But Ra favored Seth, who was son of Nut.  Seth, he argued, was older and more experienced than Horus.  So even this council could not agree on who should be king. 

Seth and Horus therefore resumed their fighting.  Seth may have been the god of war, but he realized he could not defeat his nephew in battle.  So he tried a different tactic.  One night he went to bed with his nephew and the next morning, Horus was pregnant.  It’s a bizarre, yet worthy tactic, because if Horus was pregnant, then he could not have been a real man, and only a man could be king in Egypt.  But Horus wasn’t pregnant just anywhere; he was pregnant in his hand.  And his mother, Isis, wasn’t about to let Seth become king just because her son was pregnant.  So, she chopped off her son’s hand and threw it into the Nile River.  Now Isis tried the same trick with Seth, but Seth protected himself and so they were back to square one. 

By now of course everyone was sick to death of all this sickness and death.  The chief of the gods, Ra, could not seem to stop this, favoring Seth as he did.  And so they turned to Osiris, who was now, remember, king of the dead and the afterlife.  Naturally, Osiris said his son, Horus, should be king.  Ra disagreed.  He still wanted Seth.  But Osiris reminded Ra who held the power of life and death within his hands, who could send an army of the dead to steal anyone’s life from them, who controled the entrance to the afterlife – Osiris, of course.  And this was enough to convince Ra.  After all, nobody wants to be kept out of heaven, right?  So they all agreed, and Horus became King in the land of the living, while his father, Osiris, ruled in the land of the dead.  Good had triumphed over evil.

Sumeria, Gilgamesh, and the Great Flood

Kingdoms of Mesopotamia (c. 3200-331 B.C.). 

You may recall from our earlier discussion of agriculture that, as far as we can tell from the archaeological record, the earliest experimentation with cultivation occurred in the Middle East around 10,000 B.C., specifically along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys that form the backbone of the current state of Iraq.  It was there that the first civilizations developed, probably due to the climate.  In Europe, early human cultivators could rely on heavy rainfall to water their crops, and they therefore had little need for organized cooperative ventures to grow food.  In the Middle East, in contrast, rainfall was relatively scarce, and so cultivators had to rely on rivers for irrigation.  However, harnessing this water source required more cooperation, which necessitated oversight, and therefore may have encouraged the development of more centralized governmental agencies to administer the all-important activity of cultivating, gathering, and distributing food for the community. 

Sumeria and the Bible

A number of Biblical accounts seem to have precursors in the Sumerian records.  A number of references have been found in ancient images and writings to a holy tree and a serpent.  Quite a few cultures around the world have ancient myths associating a serpent with a tree of life, and at least two of these – Indian and Iranian myths – include the corruption of mankind stemming from early man’s consumption of the forbidden fruit of the tree.  As for Mesopotamia, one cylinder, now in the British Museum, shows a tree flanked on one side by a man, on the other by a woman, and a serpent rising up behind the woman.  (Actually, this so-called Adam and Eve seal has been interpreted as an image of a woman worshipping a deity with the tree and serpent between them representing fertility.)

Also, another Sumerian story has been uncovered that narrates how a particular man had angered one of the gods, who therefore caused the man to fall ill.  However, another god took pity on this man and decided to help him.  He therefore took one of the man’s ribs and fashioned it into a woman, who became his helpmate and caretaker. 

Moreover, researchers have discovered among the thousands of texts from Mesopotamia one called The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer.  It has been suggested that this may have been the origin of the story of Job.  Compare the following:

From The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer

My comrade says not a true word to me,

My friend gives the lie to my righteous word,

The deceitful man has conspired against me,

And you, my god, do not thwart him .  .  .

Tears, lamentations, anguish, and depression are mine,

Suffering overwhelms me like one condemned to weep,

Evil fate holds me in its grip, carries off my breath of life,

Malignant sickness afflicts me .  .  .  (James Wellard, Babylon, 206)

From the story of Job

My acquaintance are wholly estranged from me,

And my familiar friends have forgotten me.

I call unto my servant, and he gives no answer.

Why do you persecute me, O my god?

He multiplies my wounds without cause,

He will not suffer me to take my breath.

My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust.

My skin closes up and breakes out afresh .  .  .  (James Wellard, Babylon, 207)

Story of Gilgamesh (c. 2800 B.C.).

It was here as well, in the land of the ancient Sumerians, that humans began to record their lives in writing for the first time ever, using a script known as cuneiform.  While western cultures tend to think of the tales of Homer as the earliest of the epics produced by human civilization, Homer’s tales emerged as much as 2,000 years after the first great human epic to be inscribed on stone – the story of Gilgamesh.  Several versions of this ancient story dating from different years have been uncovered in Iraq.  Taken together, they constitute the heroic tale of Gilgamesh, King of Sumeria, and his dear friend Enkidu. 

After Gilgamesh the king and Enkidu had become great friends, Gilgamesh began to worry that his fame was not as great as it should be and would not last, and he therefore decided to set out on a great adventure, to slay Humbaba, the guardian of the Cedar Forests of Lebanon.  In essence, this was a vain undertaking, meant to further promote the king’s name through all time, so that his fame would never die, and in the end he would pay for this act of brutality with the loss of his dear friend, Enkidu, whom the gods caused to die in retribution.

Utnapishtim and the Great Flood

With the death of his friend, Gilgamesh now began to fear his own mortality and death, and so he set off on another adventure, this time to find the man whom legend had told could never die, the immortal man, Utnapishtim.  From Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh hoped to learn the secret of immortality, and in the process he learned of how Utnapishtim had been chosen to survive the great flood sent by the gods to destroy all mankind.  The capriciousness of the gods is well demonstrated in the story of the flood.  The book of Genesis speaks of the Tigris and Euphrates as two of the four rivers which stem from the river of Eden.  Was the Paradise of the Bible ancient Mesopotamia?  This was in fact an area given to natural disasters, such as torrential rains, leading to great floods.  In Egypt, floods were welcomed, because they occurred annually as a result of the winter rains to the south before it was time to plant seeds for the next harvest.  As the floods receded, they left fertile new soil for the Egyptians to plant in.  In contrast, in Mesopotamia the floods often came from Spring rains after the crops had been planted and could thus destroy one’s livelihood.  The story of the flood in Gilgamesh was probably inspired by these very real and destructive floods that the Sumerians had to endure, and it has been suggested that the Israelites took the story of the Great Flood from the beliefs of the Sumerians, enshrined in the tale of Gilgamesh.

In those days the world teemed, the people multiplied, the world bellowed like a wild bull, and the great god was aroused by the clamor.  Enlil heard the clamor and he said to the gods in council, “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.”  So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.  Enlil did this, but Ea because of his oath warned me in a dream.  “… O man of Shurrupak, son of Ubara-Tutu; tear down your house and build a boat, abandon possessions and look for life, despise worldly goods and save your soul alive.  These are the measurements of the barque as you shall build her: let her beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up into the boat the seed of all living creatures.” …

                Then was the launching full of difficulty; there was shifting of ballast above and below till two thirds was submerged.  I loaded into her all that I had of gold and of living things, my family, my kin, the beast of the field both wild and tame, and all the craftsmen.  I sent them on board, for the time that Shamash had ordained was already fulfilled when he said, “In the evening, when the rider of the storm sends down the destroying rain, enter the boat and batten her down.”  The time was fulfilled, the evening came, the rider of the storm sent down the rain.  I looked out at the weather and it was terrible, so I too boarded the boat and battened her down.  All was now complete, the battening and the caulking; so I handed the tiller to Puzur-Amurri the steersman, with the navigation and the care of the whole boat. …

                For six days and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world, tempest and flood raged together like warring hosts.  When the seventh day dawned the storm from the south subsided, the sea grew calm, the flood was stilled; I looked at the face of the world and there was silence, all mankind was turned to clay.  The surface of the sea stretched as flat as a roof-top; I opened a hatch and the light fell on my face.  Then I bowed low, I sat down and I wept, the tears streamed down my face, for on every side was the waste of water.  I looked for land in vain, but fourteen leagues distant there appeared a mountain, and there the boat grounded; on the mountain of Nisir the boat held fast, she held fast and did not budge.  One day she held, and a second day on the mountain of Nisir she held fast and did not budge.  A third day, and a fourth day she held fast on the mountain and did not budge; a fifth day and a sixth day she held fast on the mountain.  When the seventh day dawned, I loosed a dove and let her go.  She flew away, but finding no resting-place, she returned.  Then I loosed a swallow, and she flew away, but finding no resting-place, she returned.  I loosed a raven.  She saw that the waters had retreated.  She ate, she flew around, she cawed, and she did not come back.  Then I threw everything open to the four winds.  I made sacrifice and poured out a libation on the mountain top. (The Epic of Gilgamesh, 108-111)


Tales of great floods and destruction are not limited to the Middle East.  Recall the Kwakiutl of Canada.  Many stories would be told during the tsetseka, legends of the Kwakiutl ancestors and how they interacted with the spirits, which gave rise to the different tribes of the Kwakiutl.  One of those tales you might find particularly interesting as it concerns the Great Flood that wiped away nearly all of the people, allowing only a select few to survive and thrive as the Kwakiutl:

Before the time of the great flood, the Da’naxda’xw of Dzawadi knew it would happen and began to prepare for it.  Some of the people tied four canoes together and put their provisions in these.  Dzawadalalis built a home of small poles, which he covered with clay.  The others laughed at him, but he knew that he and his four children would survive the flood.  When the rains came, the others tied their canoes to an Elderberry tree, while Dzawadalalis began moving his belongings into his clay-covered house.  One of the men who had ridiculed him said, “Please let me come with you, but Dzawadalalis refused, saying, “Go to the mountain, for that is what you said you would do.  My children and I will be locked inside this house, for we are going underwater.”  Shutting the door, he began to sing, “Take care of us.  I am going where you told me to go.”
                Those people who had made fun of him floated around in the flood, which had reached the tops of the highest mountains in Dzawadi.  For some time, Dzawadalalis and his children lived in the underwater house.  Then he sent a small bird out.  It retured to their house with a small root in his mouth, and so Dzawadalalis knew that the waters were beginning to subside.  He waited for some time, then sent another small bird out.  Again, it returned with evidence that the waters were still going down.  The third time he sent a bird out, it brought leaves back from a tree.  Finally, the fourth small bird was sent out and it brought back blades of grass in its mouth.  Dzawadalalis knew then that it was safe to leave his underwater house.  He instructed his children to open the door and he thanked the Creator for saving them.  They survived because they believed they would be saved. (C.F. Newcombe 1900)