ISTANBUL, Turkey. I snapped the photo at left in at the Ancient Orient Museum here – a handsome enclave of buildings hard by Topkapi Palace, but with many fewer visitors. This is hard to fathom since the Ottomans were robbing the Near East of its treasures long before the British or French got into the game and their collections are spectacular. The bas relief you see depicts an Assyrian king or noble holding a cup of wine. We know it’s wine rather than something else because of the pose: the cup held just below eye-level balanced lightly on the tips of three fingers and a thumb.
We also know that by the time this low relief was executed (8th or 9th century BCE) wine was already an important social marker for elites in the courts of the Near East. Elegant mixing bowls and drinking vessels are evidence of this, as are the complicated set of gestures and manners associated with wine consumption.
It makes sense that wine would be a prestige beverage here, since the fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates weren’t vine-friendly. Wine was imported from the hilly north counry – what is today eastern Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, northern Iran – and that insured that it remained a luxury.
Near the beginning of his Histories, Herodotus describes how skins of wine would be loaded onboard small wooden boats, along with a donkey or two, and floated down the south-flowing rivers to the great cities of the plain. Once the new wine was sold, the boats were dismantled and the wood packed on the backs of the donkeys for the long walk home.
I was thinking about this anecdote while wandering through this wonderland of a museum last week and saw the stele you see at right (click on the image to enlarge). In the lower panel, a woman is seated next to a man reclining on a banqueting couch; they appear to be exchanging things to eat and drink. The man holds a cup in the familiar three fingers and thumb grip, though not in the ritual position before the eyes. The scene has a homey, informal quality absent from the stiffly posed prince in the previous picture. So, is it wine they are drinking, or something else?
While puzzling over this, my eyes wandered to the upper register of the panel where a couple of men (or man and woman) follow a horse-drawn wagon. One keeps a hand on the cart’s oddly shaped contents – something like an inflated bag – as if to steady it. The two little peg-like appendages puzzled me for a bit, until it occurred to me that what I was looking at in the upper panel was a full wineskin on its way to the family pictured in the lower panel. The Armenians seem to be there, and the donkeys, and the wine.
At least that’s my take on it. What’s yours?
Originally published on Boston.com