An August Mausoleum or August?

The first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, died on this day, 19 August, AD 14.[1] Occasioned by the 2005th anniversary of that event, this post is a brief follow-up to “Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü,” featuring a probable Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan (d. AD 117). Since that entry (first in a new occasional series) was posted on the most likely day of Trajan’s death, this one too is timed for the anniversary of the Emperor’s death.

The Mausoleum of Augustus as reconstructed in the Model Plastico di Roma, a 1:250 scale model of Imperial Rome now in the Museum of Roman Civilization, which is . . . closed now, for several years (pic shamelessly appropriated online because Ancient Dan cannot access the actual model)

Like Trajan after him, Caesar Augustus died on his way back to Rome. His ashes were placed in the huge tomb Octavian (his given name) prepared for himself already in 28 BC, before he even obtained the title Augustus by which he is remembered.[2] It was a huge circular Mausoleum built of concrete and tufa reticulate (small blocks of volcanic conglomerate in a diamond pattern, often as a form for the concrete). The outer of six concentric structural walls measured 300 Roman feet (c. 89m) in diameter, and the 40 Roman feet (c. 12m) high. The 2nd and 3rd walls were consequtively higher and bonded with the outer, making 25m thick ring. A single entrance on the south pierced the outer walls, opening to a vaulted corridor around the 4th wall, through which 2 entrances led to another corridor around the 5th wall, with a single entrance to the burial vault (for urns, as the Romans practiced cremation). The ruined state of the building makes the superstructure details unclear and several reconstructions have been imagined, most assuming a finished overall height of 150 Roman feet (40-45m).

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome, currently still closed, as seen from an open portico in the building to the south (the only way to see the entrance); the entrance passes through the 3 outer wall rings, which are linked by buttresses as seen at left; the ruins of this outer ring support the ring of current trees (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

According to Strabo, the Mausoleum was the most impressive of local monuments, “which consists of a mound of earth raised upon a high foundation of white marble, situated near the river, and covered to the top with ever-green shrubs. Upon the summit is a bronze statue of Augustus Cæsar, and beneath the mound are the ashes of himself, his relatives, and friends” (Strabo 5.8.3). One would expect such an impressive monument would be remembered, respected, restored, and revered.

The Mausoleum of Augustus in Rome in its present state; the best view of the full width of the sides, obtained by shooting from an opposite street corner (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

Sadly, that has not been the case. The Mausoleum was converted into a fortress in the medieval period, destroyed in 1167, and robbed for building stone. The building became an ornate garden in the 16th century, an arena for bullfights in the 18th, a theater and circus arena in the 19th, and a concert hall with 3,500 seats in the early 20th century.[3] Thereafter the site fell into total neglect, became overgrown, and deteriorated even after some attempt at clarifying it with a surrounding plaze by the Fascist government in the late 1930s.

A better view of the outer ring wall of The Mausoleum of Augustus, now stripped of decorative white marble/limestone; the staircases were added by the Fascist government of Mussolini in the late 1930s (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-11)

The original white limestone facing was robbed along with other usable limestone within. Trees dominate the upper surface of the ring defined by the outer walls today, perhaps simulating hinting at the appearance described by Strabo (above). The site has been closed for some time, and restorations were supposed (by one report) to be completed in April of this year. At last check, the Mausoleum is still inaccessible, but Google Earth photos give some hope of progress.

My advice: if you get to choose whether to have a month named for you or have a fantastic monument . . . take the month.


[1] The month August was named in his honor—a non-physical and more enduring “monument.”

[2] Bonus for footnote readers—because I never get to share this one in class anymore: if you ever have to watch Disney’s Cinderella (original animated), as I have with two daughters and then two granddaughters, you might notice that when the new fat mouse is discovered, he gives his name as “Octavius.” But Cinderella says, “we’ll call you ‘Gus’ for short.” How does Octavius become Gus? Octavius = AuGUStus. This almost makes up for the annoying music.

[3] Most details from Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: University Press, 1998), 181-84. BTW, this series is the most helpful and undersold of archaeological guides; the new edition of Rome is here.

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Trump’s Ultima Thule (and some seemingly unrelated Pics of the Day)

Most of my posts result from a combination of visits I have made to odd places, some latent interest sparked by a random input, and bizarre current events. This is one of those posts. The stimuli, respectively, were a recent visit to the Orkney Islands, my 26 July A.Word.A.Day (AWAD) email featuring ultima Thule, and President Trump’s bid to purchase Greenland.

Despite being a great idea (and not a new one); the latter is NOT going to happen, notwithstanding any confident flaunting of “the art of the deal.” Ultima Thule may require a little explanation—at least to get to the real topic of this post . . .

We begin sometime between 320-300 BC when Pytheas, an explorer from the Greek colony of Massalia (modern Marseilles, France), became the first known Greek to sail past the Carthaginian blockade at the Straits of Gibraltar. His apparent goal was the tin mines of Cornwall, but he also circumnavigated Britain and described its triangular shape accurately. In northern Scotland, Pytheas heard from the locals of a mysterious island called Thule (Θούλη).  He reported of Thule that: it was “the most northerly of the Britannic Islands”; “there the circle of the summer tropic is the same as the arctic circle” (Strabo 2.5.8); it lay six days sailing north of Britain (Pliny Natural History 2.186-87); and “there is neither sea nor air, but mixture like sea-lung, in which earth and air are suspended; the sea-lung binds everything together” (Polybius 34.5.3-5).[1] Sea-lung? This got weird. Although the words used are the same as those for jellyfish, Pytheas is using a strange metaphor at minimum.[2] For this and other reasons, many ancient geographers dismissed Pytheas entirely, or accepted his description of Britain and drew the line at Thule.

The 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, showing Thule (labelled “Tile”) NW of the Orkneys and S of Iceland; Greenland (ultima Thule) appears in the upper left inset (Composite from 1949 facsimile; public domain)

Thule’s actual existence was debated for centuries, its possible real identification even still today, and the name Thule eventually came to mean the most northerly occupied place. The name was attached to Greenland when explorer Knud Rasmussen founded a trading post in the far NW corner of the island and named it “Thule.” The United States Air Force cemented the name by building Thule Air Base nearby in the mid-1950s.[3] Meanwhile, the term ultima Thule developed as a literary extension of the geographic idea, meaning “the farthest place” or “a remotely distant goal.” Thus, the title of this post . . . which, admittedly, does not obviously reveal the pictorial topic.

Ring of Brodgar in Stenness, Orkney; a stone circle combined with a henge, the largest stone circle in Scotland and the 3rd largest in the British isles (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

If Thule was a real place, where was it? Some in the past have identified Thule with the Orkney Islands. That is good enough for me to use this weird thread of logic to feature some pics from the center of Mainland, the central island of the Orkneys.

Ring of Brodgar from above; unlike Avebury, there are no stones within the henge (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

I rather liked Orkney. Crowds at important places could be minimized, even at the height of the tourist season. This is partly due to the relatively limited accommodations there. One could find huge clots of tourists, but they came for organized day-trips via ferry from the north tip of Scotland. Stuck on bus-tours, they were predictable and easily avoided. The other great secret is something mentioned by Pytheas: “For it was the case that in these parts the nights were very short, in some places two, in others three hours long, so that the sun rose again a short time after it had set” (Geminus, Introduction to the Phenomena 6.9). Indeed, in Orkney in early July, the sun set around 22:30 (10:30 pm) and rose around 04:00. Tourists seem to arrive about 10:30 and depart around 16:00, leaving lots of time to see stuff in the early morning or late afternoon-evening unencumbered.

Ring of Brodgar with a clearly-related outlying stone in the foreground; you don’t get this pic at 06:00 with a bus tour (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

In the heart of Mainland, Orkney lies a fantastic collection of megalithic monuments. The crown jewel is the Ring of Brodgar (built 2500-2000 BC), the largest stone circle (103.6 m/340 ft) in Scotland and the 3rd largest in the British Isles. It is unusual in that the perfect stone circle is combined with a henge, much like Avebury in England. The site is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and very much the signature location in Orkney. It is crawling with bus loads of day-trippers during the main hours, but I did not see another living human between 05:30-07:00.

The Stones of Stenness; with the monolith Watch Stone adjacent to near end of bridge in back right, and the Ring of Brodgar somewhat visible in distant background with right edge above the standing stone and left above adjacent utility pole, about a mile away (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

The Ring of Brodgar dominates a narrow peninsula separating the lochs of Stenness and Harray. A mile to the south are the Stones of Stenness, four huge megaliths that remain of an earlier stone circle. The site has an eerie magnificence with its giant standing stones (up to 19 ft high) with sheep dozing or eating at their bases. An outlier monolith called the Watch Stone (also 19 ft) dominates the near end of a bridge on the road that leads to the Ring of Brodgar.

The Barnhouse Settlement; with several Neolithic houses, the largest of which is Structure Two at right center; the larger Structure 8 seems to postdate the village and probably has a ritual function (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-15)

Near the Stones of Stenness are the excavated remains of the contemporary Barnhouse Settlement, a Neolithic village of 15 or so houses, including one (Structure Two) that is larger than the others. Past the Watch Stone and across the bridge are continuing significant excavations of more Neolithic structures, called the Ness of Brodgar, that continued after Barnhouse was abandoned. In that later period, Structure Eight, probably for cultic use, was built by the ruins at Barnhouse. It seems to be oriented—as is another standing stone—with the largest chamber tomb in the region, Maeshowe (and another target of many of those bus tours). These interesting sites are all within a linear mile and a half. There are other significant Neolithic sites and other wonders in the Orkneys, but they will have to wait. Like Greenland.

Maeshowe Chambered Tomb (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-07-14)

One more thing: is there any chance Orkney is the Thule of Pytheas? Almost certainly not. Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law and Roman governor of Britain from 78-84, Julius Agricola, claimed the Roman fleet circumnavigated Britain and, “thus established the fact that Britain was an island. At the same time it discovered and subjugated the Orkney Islands, hitherto unknown. Thule, too, was sighted, but no more; their orders took them no farther” (Tacitus, Agricola 10). This eliminates Orkney as Thule, but brings the Shetland Islands and possibly the Faroe Islands into play. Modern scholarship ignores them and prefers either Iceland or Norway. I should like to travel to all possibilities, but for now this desire is my own ultima Thule.


[1] Astute readers (obviously you, because you are reading the footnotes) may have noticed that I am not quoting Pytheas himself, but rather other classical authors. This is because Pytheas’ writings are lost, save their quotations by others.

[2] “Sea-lung” renders πλεύμονι θαλαττίῳ in Strabo 2.4.1.

[3] My first knowledge of Thule came as a young child when my Dad, a USAF pilot, used “sent to Thule” as a jovial reference to the worst potential disciplinary reassignment during the Cold War.


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Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü (Pic Of The Day, 2019-08-08)

I have always been fascinated by monuments or memorials to the deceased and the psychology behind them, as well as the physical structures themselves. This post is triggered in part by the most recent of the all-too-familiar temporary memorials that appear at scenes of horrific mass shootings in my own country. But not to dwell on that depressing and unfortunately ubiquitous topic, I hereby initiate an occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity.

Actually, a precursor to this theme appeared in my post “The Hazards of Tax Day,” which featured the Temple to the Deified Julius Caesar in Rome. Tonight’s subject is a presumed cenotaph for the Emperor Trajan, erected in the city of his death and at the spot of his probable cremation on or about this date (8 August) in AD 117.[1]

The structure known locally as Şekerhane Köşkü; very likely the platform for a temple of the Deified Emperor Trajan, who died in Selinus in AD 117 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2019-06-27).

Trajan excelled in his 19-year reign and was highly regarded in life, death, and by Renaissance and early modern historians. Already having made significant military conquests in Dacia, in AD 114 he set out for campaigns on the eastern frontier. The problem there was agitation by the Parthian Empire (originating in Persia—modern Iran—another connection of this story with contemporary events!). Trajan was incredibly successful in his initial campaign, taking the Parthian capital Ctesiphon and gaining a foothold on the Persian Gulf. But reduced success and troubles elsewhere in the Empire caused him to return towards Rome in 117.

Our main source for Trajan’s last days is Cassius Dio. Already suffering in health, which he attributed to poison, the Emperor suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. In early August he sailed for Rome from Antioch. When Trajan’s health deteriorated the ship put in at the nearest port, Selinus in Cilicia, where he “suddenly expired” (Cassius Dio 68.33). Selinus was subsequently renamed Traianopolis in the Emperor’s honor and memory. Details on the exact disposition of his body are not given, but his “remains” were transported back to Seleucia, the port of Antioch, for viewing by his successor, Hadrian, and then to Rome.

Interior of the Şekerhane Köşkü, likely the platform for a Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan, who died in Selinus in AD 117 and was probably cremated in a structure incorporated in the building’s walls (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2011-05-24).

On the outskirts of the Turkish city Gazipaşa are the ruins of Selinus/Traianopolis, and on the landward outskirts of them stands a lonely structure known locally as the Şekerhane Köşkü, which refers to the building’s use as a hunting platform for elites during the Seljuk Period. Early western explorers of the area identified it as having a sepulchral function and likely built as a cenotaph (a tomb structure without the honored person’s actual remains) for Trajan. Trajan was the only personality of his magnitude known to have died there and a memorial to him is a logical outcome although the written sources do not mention such. The roof of the edifice was covered in soil and produced wheat and other crops that were grown around it. This layer was cleared in the early 2000s revealing the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure with a place for a cult statue. These and other details now make it likely that the building was not a cenotaph but rather a platform for a temple to the deified Emperor Trajan.[2]

The Şekerhane Köşkü, with the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure on the recently-cleared roof; the door opening in the front and cut block exterior are modification of the platform during the Seljuk Period, when the building functioned as a hunting platform (aerial image by Tıröd Ğnihcnüh; © AncientDan.com).

Coins issued in Selinus from the late 2nd-mid 3rd centuries featured a temple to Trajan on the reverse. There is no other suitable candidate for this temple in the extant remains apart from the Şekerhane Köşkü. Further, there are striking parallels to coins featuring the Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar (mentioned above) in Rome, which was situated at the spot of Caesar’s cremation. One of the walls of the Şekerhane Köşkü incorporates an earlier square structure, arguably the cremation pit where Trajan’s corpse was burned—an essential step in Apotheosis (elevation to divine status) for both Caesar and Trajan.[3]

Trajan’s Column in his forum at Rome (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-11-10).

The Emperor’s ashes were eventually transported to Rome where they were placed in a special chamber at the base of Trajan’s Column, a magnificent and still-standing 30 meter (98 ft) high column depicting the Emperor and his troops during the Dacian wars and showing painstaking detail of the Roman army in action. Trajan’s Column anchors one end of the extensive Forum of Trajan, the last of the Imperial Fora in Rome.

In addition to physical monuments, Trajan’s legacy includes other honors. He was universally lauded by contemporary writers and posthumously declared by the Senate optimus princeps, “the best ruler.” He was considered by some Christian theologians to be a “virtuous pagan,” and Dante depicts him in Jupiter’s Heaven in The Divine Comedy. Modern historians have sometimes questioned Trajan’s accomplishments, and his successor Hadrian (who did relinquish Trajan’s gains against Persia) now gets better press.

Next in the series: The Mausoleum of Augustus.


[1] Some sources place Trajan’s death a day earlier or later, on 7 or 9 August; e.g., Chris Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995), lists 7 August as the date of death in the box at the beginning of the entry for Trajan (p. 90), but 9 August in the text (p. 97); therefore, I am taking the middle road in posting this on the evening of 8 August.  

[2] This argument is effectively made by Michael Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 10 (Sept 2016): 56-68 [this is a special issue also titled Ex Terra Scientia: Papers in Honor of David Soren, eds. R.H Wilkinson and P.P. Creasman]. For the nerds that read footnotes: I actually obtained this issue recently for a current research project and was pleased to find this article there. Ironically, Michael Hoff (the author) had graciously received my research colleague and I at his impressive excavation site within an hour of our most recent visit to the Trajan Temple site.

[3] Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” 62-64.

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The Hazards of Tax Day (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-24)

I was considering some sort of “seasonal” post relating to that hazard of early Spring in the USA: the looming April 15 tax deadline. I have not dealt with my complicated tax situation for 2018 yet and need to get on it. Anyhow, my consideration of a tax theme turned to resolve at University Baptist Church this morning; a result of the New Testament passage (Matthew 22) and related sermon on the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. More about the connection below, but stay with me . . .

Panorama of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the subject of this post is at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

In the heart of Rome one can visit the preserved remains of the ancient Forum.  Near the center of the Roman Forum lie an often overlooked and nondescript ruin. It is the foundations of the Temple of Divus Julius; that is, the Temple to the deified Julius Caesar.

The central Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the Temple of Divus Julius is the ugly brown mass at lower center with idlers milling about in front, as usual (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, while exiting the Senate Chamber. At his public funeral in the Forum, Marc Anthony’s famous speech incited the crowd who then took over. Instead of the planned pyre on the Campus Martius, Caesar was cremated by the crowd across from his office as pontifex maximus (chief priest) at the Regia. A monument was hastily constructed there with an altar, but this was removed by the anti-dictator Liberator party. But two years later Caesar’s heirs (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) decreed that a temple would be built on the spot. Thus, Julius Caesar was officially deified and a cult established in the name Divus Julius.

The remains of the Temple to Divus Julius (foreground) in the Roman Forum; it is hard to get a pic clear of people because the railing in front of the nondescript ruins make a convenient spot for groups to wait around (as you can see here, unaware of the significance); note the later Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (converted to a church) in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

The Temple’s size (with 40-foot columns on a high platform) is belied by the meager ruins today. Like other Forum monuments, it suffered from robbing and spoilage by the building programs of later holders of the title pontifex maximus (the popes). The entire superstructure and almost all original cut stones of the podium are now missing. A round altar (perhaps a rebuilding of the original crowd-sourced altar) in a recess of the podium is now closed in by a later wall, through which you must pass to view it. Despite its obscurity to the average tourist and somewhat hidden nature, however, I have never seen the altar without fresh floral offerings on top. Caesar was, and remains, a popular figure.

Altar associated with the Temple to Divus Julius, concealed from the crowds by the wall on the right; note the floral offerings on top, and many coins wherein folks apparently “rendered unto Caesar” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

What does all of this have to do with tax season? Above, I note that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Most people don’t know that date, but many can answer the question “when was Caesar killed?” with the well-known day, “the Ides of March.” The Romans counted days of months differently than we do. The “Ides” was the middle day of the month; so, the Ides of March was March 15. The Romans also generally specified due dates for financial obligations by the Ides and, since they allowed a quarter to get previous years’ corporate debts to the government, March 15 was the day such debts were due. It was, essentially, “tax day.” Ironically, this became true under Julius Caesar as he instituted the “Julian Calendar,” which moved the traditional New Year’s celebration to January 1 from—even more ironically—March 15! While it is true that Caesar was supposed to depart Rome on the 18th and the Liberators had to act before then, what better day to choose than the one on which former happy celebrations were now replaced by debts due to the victim? The day very well may have been planned to minimize public retaliation (somewhat akin to issuing unpopular notices at work on Friday afternoons). Certainly the days after the assassination were used by both sides to curry public opinion, as in Antony’s speech and—on the other side—in a coin issued by the famous Liberator Brutus extolling the day’s act.

Silver denarius issued by Brutus (on obverse); with (reverse) “Ides of March” under Pileus (freedom cap) and two daggers (photo: British Museum)

While the Liberator conspirators’ act ultimately backfired and resulted in the deification of the one they wanted to eliminate, the whole affair highlights the political business of public perception. For more on that, and the connection to Jesus’ answer to the question posed to him on paying taxes to Caesar, stay tuned for the next post. For now, I have to go work on my taxes . . .

BTW; “tax day” in the USA used to be March 15 (from 1918 to 1954), but was extended to the “Ides of April”—April 15—two years before my birth. At this moment I am glad.

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The Road Between Jerusalem and Jericho and the Road Between Discrimination and Acceptance (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-10)

I was asked to give the “spoken reflection” at tonight’s Celtic Worship Service at University Baptist Church, and thought I would post my reflection here with a couple of pics. The focal passage is the famous “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10, which I find very thought-provoking in light of the increased divisiveness and media focus on racism of late in our society. I have done a great deal of introspection on these topics in recent months and even thought of making an Ancient Dan blog post entitled “Confessions of a former Racist.” But my wife and daughter wisely advised against it. The “Good Samaritan” story, I think, provides a way to express my thoughts in a better way.

First, a quick look at the “Good Samaritan” account as I see it. Jesus tells the story in response to the question, “and who is my neighbor?” in the context of discussing the Jewish Law. In it, a man is assaulted by bandits and left for dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The geography is important here, as it is a desolate road through unoccupied desert, where there were no neighbors.

The Wadi Qelt, along the path of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the Judean Desert; the area was only inhabited by those seeking to get away—either from the authorities or for religious isolation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

As Jesus narrates, a priest came along the road and we expect that this religious man will help our unfortunate victim. But, alas, on this road a priest would be headed up to Jerusalem where he would serve his week-long rotation in the Temple. It was the highest religious duty in the Jewish Law and could not be compromised by uncleanness imputed by blood from the victim or—worse—contamination by his corpse should the man be found dead or die whilst receiving aid. The priest crossed to the other side and passed by. And the hearers of this story—all Jews—were not in the least surprised or judgmental. All the same logic was true for the Levite that happened along next. None of those listening expected that he would stop either. What crummy luck; our victim was having a really bad day. But then in Jesus’ telling there is another who appears and nears—a Samaritan! While we now think of “Good Samaritans” or even just “Samaritans” as helpers, this notion destroys the gist of the story. To the Jew, a Samaritan was the worst of rivals. Jesus’ listeners no doubt expected this “bad” (by their definition) Samaritan to stomp on the victim’s head and finish the job. The bad day, they thought, was now the worst of days. He of course, as we know, demonstrated the proper action of kindness.

Wadi Qelt: the monastery of St. George (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

But this story is not about how to treat others; it is really about how we perceive them. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I perceive others. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant heterosexual man. I was raised in a “middle-class” American home which, by any world-wide standard, was a life of privilege. So I am a potential poster-boy for racist and intolerant views. Nevertheless, I’ve always denied that I was bigoted or intolerant. In my extended family, I cannot ever recall having heard the “N” word used or any other racial or discriminatory epithet. BUT, that is a poor gauge on how I have perceived others. Like most folks, I learned from my youth to categorize people with labels like, “the black guy,” “the Mexican woman,” “the gay dude” or “the Alabama Crimson Tide sidewalk fan.” So this is not so much the confession of a former racist, but the admission of an unconscious tribalist.

I am convinced that human beings have an innate tendency for group identification, like the herd or pack instincts of other mammals. Unfortunately, in “civilized” human society it is somehow easier to identify one’s group by isolating those who are not part of it—through creation of the “other.” This is easiest with obvious differences like skin color, but the principle is the same for all discriminations.

Back to the “Good Samaritan.” The key for me is realization that the lesson is not in the story itself, but in the question asked by Jesus at the end, to the one who asked him “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked, “which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”

It is sometimes observed that when the “lawyer” responded to Jesus, he was unwilling to use the designation “Samaritan” because of his disdain for that group. He responded, “the one who showed mercy on him.” The Jewish-Samaritan divide was severe, to be sure, but it was not due to physical difference. The Samaritans were—as an ethnic group—half Israelite. They were the other monotheistic minority in the early Roman Empire period, worshipping the same God as Israel and practicing circumcision like the Jews. The Romans could not tell the difference between Samaritans and Jews that were naked and talking about God. Tribalism and details of theology had created the schism.

It is true that the Samaritan demonstrates that all are our potential neighbors. But I wonder if the lawyer really got it right with his generic description. The main point may be how we perceive others upon first glance or knowledge. Do I continue using categories and labels for people, or can I see them generically, all capable of good and mercy. This is the challenge, and Jesus consistently points me—and all of us—in the direction of acceptance.

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Pic of the Day (2019-03-03): Dry Dry Desert 2, the Sun Temple of Niuserre

Exactly two months after my first blog complaint about this unbelievably wet winter, rain continues to fall and much of the USA is experiencing a renewed cold snap. Thus I am moved to wistfully feature another drier and warmer place: the 4500 year-old Sun Temple of Niuserr­ē in Egypt.

Abu Ghurob: Sun Temple of Niuserrē, with the pyramids of Giza on horizon at right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2010-06-26)

Several of the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2500-2345 BC) rulers of Old Kingdom Egypt had pyramid tombs constructed at Abu Sir, 11 km southeast of Giza where the more famous Fourth Dynasty pyramids are found. The Fifth Dynasty was dominated by the solar cult of the sun god R­ē, and two of the kings built “sun temples” northwest of Abu Sir. The better preserved—and, naturally, harder to get to—is that of Niuserr­ē (“Delight of Re”). It is 1.6 km from Abu Sir, across the dry dry desert sands at Abu Ghurob. You don’t get this on the bus tour.

Fragment of an inscription with the hieroglyph for “obelisk” (bottom) among the ruins of the Sun Temple of Niuserrē (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2010-06-26)

The sun temple complex featured a platform rather like a truncated pyramid surmounted by an enormous obelisk, the symbol of R­ē. A hieroglyph in the pic above gives an impression of the now-ruined obelisk. The monument is surrounded by a courtyard with various cult buildings and a well-preserved altar. The altar does not get much attention but is cleverly formed by four limestone blocks with upper surfaces carved in the shape of the hieroglyph for “altar.” The Egyptians were great at word/picture play!

View from atop the ruins of the Sun Temple of Niuserrē, at Abu Ghurob; altar lower left, Abu Sir in background, right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2010-06-26)

From the top of the ruins there is a great view of the altar, the Abu Sir pyramids to the southeast, the Giza pyramids in the distance to the northwest, and the very first Egyptian pyramid—built for Djoser in the Third Dynasty—which peeks over the horizon from Saqqara to the south.

Pyramids of Abu Sir from the Sun Temple of Niuserrē at Abu Ghurob; left-to-right: Pyramids of Sahurē, Niuserrē, Neferirkarē; visible over the horizon at right: the very first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, at Saqqara (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2010-06-26)

It was well over 100° F at the site when these pics were taken and I recall running out of water quickly. Still, it looks pretty good from where I sit now.

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Pic of the Day (2019-02-20): The Rachel

To round out my “shipwrecks” POTD posts—of which this may be last, because I think I have run out of shipwrecks—I give you “The Rachel.” After Hurricane Camille in 1969, a mysterious shipwreck appeared on the Alabama coast five miles east of Fort Morgan. Reclaimed by the sea and sand, it reappeared temporarily after Hurricanes Ivan in 2004, Ike in 2008, and Tropical Storm Ida in 2009. Hurricane Isaac then exposed the wreck more than ever in 2012.[1] Apparently, tropical cyclones with “I” names have a thing for this ship.

The Rachel; exposed by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, here shown in 2013 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

Despite speculation that the wooden ship might be a Confederate blockade runner from the Civil War, Fort Morgan historian Mike Bailey is now certain that the wreck is the Rachel, lost to . . . you guessed it, a tropical storm in 1923.[2] Since the practice of naming storms by sequential alphabet letters had not yet begun, we don’t know if that hurricane would have had a moniker beginning with “I” (but I wouldn’t bet against it).

The Daughters and Granddaughter of Ancient Dan (Sarah, Amelia [11 mos], and The Rachel) watch for trouble from the charred bow of the schooner Rachel, near Fort Morgan, AL (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

The Rachel has an odd backstory. A Mississippian, Captain John Riley Bless McIntosh, was never able to achieve his goal of owning a ship prior to his death. His daughter and heir, Rachel McIntosh McInnis, took her $100,000 inheritance to the De Angelo Shipyard in Moss Point, MS, to commission a ship in an attempt to fulfill her father’s dream. John De Angelo at first refused to take Rachel’s money, knowing that it was a futile investment.  But with hard times for business at the end of World War I, his sons accepted the job and built a 155 foot 3-masted schooner named Rachel for Mrs. McInnis. It remained docked at her expense from its completion in 1919 until her death in 1922. After that, the De Angelo brothers claimed the ship for unpaid dock fees and sold it at auction.[3]

Amelia revisits the wreck of the Rachel, near Fort Morgan, AL, a year later; a finely-preserved brass rudder hinge, visible when the ship emerged following the 2008 hurricane, has now been cut away from the stern (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-08-15)

The Rachel’s buyer hired a crew out of Mobile to operate the schooner for hauling lumber (big business in South Mississippi at the time). The first run successfully delivered a load to Cuba, but ran into trouble—the storm, classified as a hurricane—on the return journey. The Rachel was driven aground near Fort Morgan, with no loss of life. The crew emptied the unnamed light cargo and guards were posted to protect the impossibly beached ship until an insurance settlement could be obtained. Unknown parties burned the Rachel down to near the keel after that, presumably to salvage metal parts.[4] Thereafter, the charred hulk was lost to the sand and tide, to sporadically resurface by the same forces that doomed her.

The Rachel with the Rachel (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

The Rachel was an odd and pleasant diversion on the Fort Morgan beach for a few years after 2012. It rests on private beach property, but was quite accessible from the beach. I have not seen the Rachel since August of 2014. A quick check of Google Earth reveals that the eroded beach has “recovered”—itself and the Rachel. So if you want to visit her, it seems you will have to wait for an I-named tropical storm to turn back the sands of time.

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[1] Erin McLaughlin, “Mystery of Shipwreck Uncovered by Hurricane Isaac Solved,” ABC News, Sept. 5, 2012, https://abcnews.go.com/US/mystery-ship-washed-hurricane-isaac-solved/story?id=17152464#.UEel0VQZxjl; Brian Kelly, “Wreck of sailing ship reappears at Fort Morgan beach after Hurricane Isaac,” AL.com, September 05, 2012, http://blog.al.com/live/2012/09/mystery_shipwreck_at_fort_morg.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Sledge, “The True Story of the ‘Rachel’,” Mobile Bay Magazine, July 25, 2016, https://mobilebaymag.com/the-true-story-of-the-rachel/.

[4] Ibid.


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