A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Kilroy was There: 33 Centuries of Leaving Your Mark at the Nahr al-Kalb

The pillars which Sesostris of Egypt set up in the various countries are for the most part no longer to be seen extant; but in Syria Palestine I myself saw them existing with the inscription upon them which I have mentioned and the emblem.
      Herodotus, The Histories, Book II, 106
There's a place in Lebanon where conquerors have been making their mark — literally — for 33 centuries. There is an inscription of Ramses II from year four of his reign (1275 BC, more or less) and one marking the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000 AD.  Sesostris, mentioned by Herodotus, is partly mythical and partly a conflation of real Pharaohs, but the monument Herodotus tells us he saw with his own eyes was probably one of the monuments left by Ramses II at the Nahr al-Kalb. The Nahr al-Kalb ("Dog River" in Arabic) is the River Lycus of the Classical geographers, and runs into the Mediterranean a few miles north of Beirut. There is an Ottoman bridge and traces of Roman ones; a bluff rises sharply above the ancient road, so travelers had to pass through a narrow passage between the sea and the cliff. A marching army passing by the cliffside would want to record its passage. So would their kings and generals.

Ramses II and Esarhaddon
In between Ramses and the Israelis there are more monuments of Ramses II, one from Esarhaddon (his text here) and some from other Assyrian Kings, the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar, a Seleucid (Antiochus the Great), the Roman Emperor Caracalla, the Mamluk Sultan Barquq, Napoleon III, and, just in the past century, British and French inscriptions from the collapse of the Ottomans in 1918, a 1920 inscription by Gen. Gouraud celebrating the French defeat of Faisal's Syrian forces at Maysalun, other inscriptions from the Mandate era, a Free French inscription from driving out Vichy in 1941, Lebanese independence and the withdrawal of French forces in 1946, and the aforementioned Israeli withdrawal of 2000.

Either the Crusaders somehow missed it, or theirs has weathered away. You can find a list of the monuments here.

Allied Armies 1918
I don't doubt the common soldiers wrote the usual things, the Bronze Age version of "Kilroy was here," or obscenities or dirty pictures or whatever; later passers-by, weather and the centuries doubtless erased these. But once Ramses II started the fashion of carving his victories there, later conquerors had to do the same, and these were carved in stone. Esarhaddon specifically brags about how he conquered Egypt, and put his monument next to Ramses, posthumously rubbing it in, I guess.

Israeli withdrawal
And so it continued, and continues into our own day. It is a testimonial I suppose to geography in two ways: geography determined the site, where the road passed between a cliff and the sea and crossed a river, but Lebanon's geography as the center point in the Fertile Crescent (the river was once the boundary between the Egyptian and Hittite Empires) meant that marching armies going to conquer one of its bigger neighbors nearby were likely to pass along this road. It is a great lesson in geographical determinism in history, and a reminder of how often war has come to this region.

I saw the Nahr al-Kalb only once, some 40 years ago. It's seen more wars and acquired at least one monument since then. But I don't know why it hasn't occurred to me to blog about it before.

UPDATE: On Herodotus' use of "Palestine," see the comments below.


Raymond Stock said...

Fascinating, Michael. Egyptologists, of course, are quite familiar with Ramses II's inscription. But the others are certainly far less well-known even to specialists in the region. I am curious about one thing, however. As I don't have a copy of The Histories with me, did Herodotus really use the term "Syria Palestine" to describe the area? The ancient Egyptians would have called the general area the Land of Djahi (or Zahi). The Greeks would have considered it perhaps to be a part of Syria and/or Phoenicia. But Palestine was a term invented by the Romans roughly five centuries later, and probably wouldn't have included southern Lebanon even then. I suspect the translator preferred that term. What do you think?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Don't forget the Philistines, original source of the name. If your Greek's better than mine, here's the original, which is certainly some form of "Palestine": αἱ δὲ στῆλαι τὰς ἵστα κατὰ τὰς χώρας ὁ Αἰγύπτου βασιλεὺς Σέσωστρις, αἱ μὲν πλεῦνες οὐκέτι φαίνονται περιεοῦσαι, ἐν δὲ τῇ Παλαιστίνῃ Συρίῃ αὐτὸς ὥρων ἐούσας καὶ τὰ γράμματα τὰ εἰρημένα ἐνεόντα καὶ γυναικὸς αἰδοῖα. Others translate it as "Palestinian Syria." If you Google Herodotus and Palestine you'll see there's a lot of debate about what it meant in Herodotus' day. You'll be shocked to learn that Palestinians and Israelis take rather different interpretations.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

And an addendum. Some apparently have argued that for Herodotus "Palestine" included territory north of the Carmel, so it could have included parts of Lebanon, though I'm unclear how he then would have distinguished it from Phoenicia.

Raymond Stock said...

Thanks, for that. You're right about Herodotus' reference, of course, as I should have remembered. He classified Palaestine as a part of Syria, as the Greek you've copied here indicates. (My Greek is not good, but I can make out the term at least.) Beginning a century or two after Ramses II, the Egyptians did refer to that between them and Lebanon as Peleshet. The Hebrews also used the term Philistia--which, like those other terms, referred to the land of the Philistines. However, that was not an official designation until after the Bar Kochba revolt, when the Romans called it Palestine in revenge. And of course, I'm deeply shocked to know that divisions exist over this history.