Thursday, November 1, 2012

Queens of Mesopotamia – Part II: Nitocris



‘Darius Opens the Tomb of Nitocris’
By Eustache Le Sueur
In the previous post, we discussed the Assyrian queen Semiramis, as described in the Histories of Herodotus and other works. Now we will take a look at Nitocris, another queen who ruled Babylon five generations after Semiramis.

(Another, perhaps better-known, Nitocris was also mentioned by Herodotus as a ruler of Egypt. She was said to be the last pharaoh of the Sixth dynasty. Today, scholars question her very existence.)

The Assyrian-origin Nitocris, sometimes called Nitocris of Babylon, is said to be either the wife or daughter of Nebuchadnezzar II. This Nebuchadnezzar (a major figure in the Bible’s Book of Daniel) was the son of Nabopolassar, founder of the Neo-Babylonian or Chaldean Empire, which broke free from Nineveh-based Assyria by forming an alliance with the Medes of Persia. After the destruction of Nineveh, the Babylonians began to worry about the ambitions of their erstwhile Persian allies.

Nitocris is introduced by Herodotus as follows (in George Rawlinson’s translation):

The later of the two queens, whose name was Nitocris, a wiser princess than her predecessor, not only left behind her, as memorials of her occupancy of the throne, the works which I shall presently describe, but also, observing the great power and restless enterprise of the Medes, who had taken so large a number of cities, and among them Nineveh, and expecting to be attacked in her turn, made all possible exertions to increase the defences of her empire.

Herodotus says Nitocris ordered a number of grand civil works aimed at creating defensive positions north of Babylon and thereby deterring attacks by the Medes. Among other things, Babylonian excavations transformed the Euphrates, formerly a straight river course flowing into Babylon from the north, turning it into a winding river with a number of sharp bends. She also ordered a huge lake to be dug to the north of her capital.

As Herodotus put it: “All these works were on that side of Babylon where the passes lay, and the roads into Media were the straightest, and the aim of the queen in making them was to prevent the Medes from holding intercourse with the Babylonians, and so to keep them in ignorance of her affairs.”

She also took advantage of the massive construction projects to temporarily redirect the Euphrates into the new lake basin and build a stone bridge across the riverbed inside the city of Babylon, for the first time linking the two sides of the capital.

Says Herodotus: “When the river had filled the cutting, and the bridge was finished, the Euphrates was turned back again into its ancient bed; and thus the basin, transformed suddenly into a lake, was seen to answer the purpose for which it was made, and the inhabitants, by help of the basin, obtained the advantage of a bridge.”

The location of the bridge of Nitocris has been uncovered by archaeologists at the site of the city of Babylon.

The Achaemenid Persian King Cyrus used Nitocris’ public works against her in his conquest of Babylon. He diverted the Euphrates into her artificial lake, lowering the river’s level to allow his troops to enter the city under the defensive walls beneath which the river passed.

Nitocris also created what Herodotus called “a remarkable deception” to prevent anyone from seizing her burial treasure after her death. She built her tomb above one of the main gates of Babylon, rendering the entrance unusable, because of a widespread cultural prohibition against passing beneath a dead body:

She had her tomb constructed in the upper part of one of the principal gateways of the city, high above the heads of the passers by, with this inscription cut upon it:- "If there be one among my successors on the throne of Babylon who is in want of treasure, let him open my tomb, and take as much as he chooses -- not, however, unless he be truly in want, for it will not be for his good." This tomb continued untouched until [the Achaemenid Persian king] Darius came to the kingdom. To him it seemed a monstrous thing that he should be unable to use one of the gates of the town, and that a sum of money should be lying idle, and moreover inviting his grasp, and he not seize upon it. Now he could not use the gate, because, as he drove through, the dead body would have been over his head. Accordingly he opened the tomb; but instead of money, found only the dead body, and a writing which said- "Hadst thou not been insatiate of pelf, and careless how thou gottest it, thou wouldst not have broken open the sepulchres of the dead."

Herodotus does not specifically say what happened to Nitocris’ treasure, but his account suggests none was buried with her – that, of course, would have been the centerpiece of the deception.

Classicist Deborah Levine Gera, author of Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus De Mulieribus, says Nitocris of Babylon appears to be more intelligent than Semiramis, particularly because of her public works projects and her awareness of Median expansionism. But she notes that some scholars suspect the two queens, if they actually existed, were in fact the same person. Plutarch, for example confuses the two, and has Darius plunder Semiramis’ tomb. Also some accounts attribute the bridge-building and artificial lake to Semiramis.

There are other theories about Nitocris’ identity, including:

(1) She was Nebuchadnezzar II, whose name Herodotus mistook for a feminine form. 

(2) She was Adad-Guppi, mother of Nabonidus, last of the Neo-Babylonian rulers. The influential Adad-Guppi, who helped engineer her son’s rise to the throne, was born in about 649 B.C., 150 years or five generations after the queen thought to be Semiramis. 

(3) Nitocris was a powerful Assyrian queen named Naqi’a, wife of Sennacherib (who ruled from 704-681 B.C.) and mother of Esarhaddon (who ruled from 680-669 B.C.). Many of the public works completed during Naqi’a’s lifetime resembled those of Nitocris.

To sum up, as Levine Gera puts it:

Nitocris is an elusive figure. All of the attempts to identify the Babylonian queen with an historical personage lead to difficulties of one kind or another and we cannot establish whether, in fact, she ever existed. Real or not, Nitocris is a complex, ambiguous personality whose successes and failures are inextricably linked.  She builds magnificent, monumental waterworks, but these are used by Cyrus to capture her city. She tricks Darius into opening her tomb only to bring about the violation of her own grave. Nitocris is said to be clever, but the queen is, in Herodotus’ tale, her own worst enemy: ultimately, her building feats and artful epitaph – the outstanding products of her intelligence – do her no good.

The mystery of Nitocris, like that of Semiramis, continues….

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