Locals in the Black Sea town of Sile are upset about their government’s restoration of Ocakli Castle, a stone tower that spent the better part of the last two centuries crumbling into ruin. Restoration work left the tower looking like new, but the decision about how to restore the castle’s unusual arched windows left locals complaining that the resulting building looked like a monument to Spongebob Squarepants. It raised an interesting question about whether restoration work should attempt to make ruins look like they did when first built, or whether our aesthetic reaction to history requires us to leave them looking ruinous to make them “feel” old. It also raises questions about what phase of construction to restore since the tower has at least Byzantine and Ottoman layers of construction. I was also interested in the fact that no one seems to be able to say how old the tower is. According to the Daily Mail, the “latest research suggests it was built by the Genoese 2,000 years ago and was later renovated by the Byzantines and again by the Ottomans.” This doesn’t make any sense since the Genoese didn’t exist the early days of the Roman Empire.
Another interesting story from the Guardian looked at the question of American Christian fundamentalism and why apocalyptic thinking is increasing among true believers in a time after the World Wars and the Cold War when the world is objectively less dangerous and apocalyptic events are arguably much less frequent. The argument, drawn from a new book about fundamentalism, places the blame on demographic change, with the overlapping (but not synonymous) groups of white people, conservatives, and evangelical Christians feeling threatened by the loss of their majority status, privilege, and power. This, in turn, makes them more open to imagining that the world is coming to an end because, for them, the world they knew is ending. This helps to explain why more people now identify Barack Obama than Hitler as the Antichrist. In 2013, 13% of Americans identified Obama as the Antichrist and an additional 13% suspected it might be true.
Since that was so depressing, I thought it might be fun to finish with something a little goofier. The ancient astronaut theory is synonymous with the so-called “chariots of the gods,” but over the years ancient astronaut theorists have run out of flying chariots to talk about. I thought I’d offer a new one that I don’t believe any ancient astronaut theorist has ever used before. The story comes from the Akhbār al-zamān, and it concerns the giant Nimrod, whom the racist author identified as both evil and the first Black person, because for him Black people are evil. The “Satans” are evil demons with magical powers. Anyway, here is what he reports: “Some people believe that he (Nimrod) lived in the clouds and that he rode across the sky in a chariot resting on the backs of the Satans, and then he came back down from there to the earth.”
Nimrod came from outer space, had a spaceship, and it was filled with demons, whom we know from Ancient Aliens are actually space aliens!
Now as it happens this is almost certainly derived, ultimately, from Babylonian divine iconography, wrongly associated in Late Antiquity with Nimrod. The gods’ thrones, for example, were often shown sitting on human-headed animals, winged creatures, or other monsters. These divine thrones entered Jewish lore as Yahweh’s chariot in the Book of Ezekiel and its derivatives.
While the version of the story I’ve quoted above is quite brief, a more developed legend exists in Islamic lore and seems to draw on the Greek stories of Bellerophon and Phaeton, along with Jewish lore. In that story, given by al-Tabāri (in several versions) around 900 in his massive world history (pp. 322ff.) from still earlier sources, Nimrod constructed a flying box pulled by four eagles so he could fly to heaven and move the mountains by pretending to be God himself. Some versions say that he shot arrows into the air, and they fell back to earth covered in blood. Nimrod believed he had wounded God, though the learned commentators speculated it might have been a bird. Some forms of the tale have Nimrod fall to earth.
Some think there is perhaps an echo of the Sumerian tale of Etana and the eagle, though they have only a little in common. Elements of the story seem to be remixed from tales of Nimrod, Ham, and Zoroaster found in the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (4.27-29) and a big chunk from the avian abduction of Abraham in the Apocalypse of Abraham 15-18, along with the specific form of God’s chariot that occurs in late Jewish lore, as in the Apocalypse of Moses 31:2, where it is described as a chariot born aloft by four shining eagles. Nimrod’s story, a moralizing fable, has simply made him into a rider on an ersatz divine chariot, imitating God poorly. The Akhbār version is more diabolical and probably represents a popular tradition still further disconnected from the story’s literary origins.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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