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The Passion of Max von Oppenheim

Lionel Gossman

II. The Archaeologist: Tell Halaf

7. Discovery and Excavation, Publications and Critical Reception

Texte intégral

1Oppenheim’s excavations at Tell Halaf and the scholarly articles and books to which they gave rise—along with the massive and influential study he initiated of the numerous Bedouin tribes, their individual histories, their laws and customs, their internal social organization, and their interconnections— while not unrelated to his demonstrated patriotism, do show him in a somewhat different light from his activity as the “Kaiser’s spy.” It is only fair, therefore, to devote a section of this study to what was, after all, a significant aspect of the persona he saw himself as and wanted others to see him as. Our main focus in this study is on history and politics, and on the situation and outlook of a German with a part-Jewish family background who was dedicated to the aggrandizement of Germany, even under National Socialism; however, it is not possible to do justice to the complexity of the man or take the measure of his motivations without considering his no less enduring commitment to the archaeology and ethnography of the Middle East and in particular to his excavations at Tell Halaf.

  • 1 The Home Letters of T.E. Lawrence and his Brothers (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954), p. 225.

2That many archaeologists working in the Middle East at the time also served intermittently as agents of their governments is a well established fact. One need think only of T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and his teacher, the Oxford archaeologist D.G. Hogarth. As it happens, both men were working at Carchemish in Northern Syria at the same time that Oppenheim was excavating at Tell Halaf, less than 200 kilometres away. In fact Oppenheim and Lawrence, who came to play similar roles in their country’s politics—Oppenheim by trying to foment Muslim uprisings against the British, French and Russians, and Lawrence by successfully fomenting Arab revolts against the Ottoman ally of the Germans—did meet and spend several hours together two years before the outbreak of war.1 Nevertheless, the archaeologists were not simply political agents in disguise. They were scholars keenly and genuinely interested in the objects of their investigations and most of them also had an interest in the present-day inhabitants of the ancient sites. Though he had had no formal training, Oppenheim, the amateur archaeologist and ethnographer, was clearly moved by indefatigable and respectful curiosity about the ancient cultures and peoples of the Middle East, by sensitivity to the forms and meanings of the artefacts uncovered by his excavations, and by a desire to share his discoveries with others by means of patient, detailed descriptions, excellent photographic images, and informed and serious, if sometimes controversial, scholarly analyses and speculations. There was also no doubt here, as in the other areas of his activity, a strong interest in making himself known and establishing a reputation for himself, in this instance as “the discoverer of Tell Halaf.”

  • 2 2 vols. (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1939, 1943) and 2 posthumous volumes (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrass (...)
  • 3 In the Foreword to volume 1, dated Cairo, March, 1899, Oppenheim writes that it was not his intent (...)

3As with other similarly dedicated explorers of earlier cultures, interest in the past was often accompanied in Oppenheim by an admiring or, at times, patronizing attitude toward the present-day inhabitants of the ancient sites. His respect for and empathy with the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa is manifested in the numerous beautiful photographs of individuals and groups with which he illustrated his books, beginning with the impressively informative, straightforwardly narrated Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf durch den Haurān, die Syrische Wüste und Mesopotamien of 1899–1900 and culminating forty years later in Die Beduinen.2 Though a relatively early work, the two-volume Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf already demonstrates not only the author’s considerable literary talent, both narrative and descriptive, but his ability to combine a highly personal account of the territories he has travelled through and of their inhabitants with an impressively comprehensive picture of them embracing geography, history, customs and mores, current politics and administration, economy and commerce, art and architecture, as well as biographical portraits of individuals.3

  • 4 Describing the efforts of the Ottoman administration to pacify the Bedouins and get them to settle (...)
  • 5 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia (see above, ch. 6, note 6), pp. 9–10.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 17.

4Empathy, however, did not exclude from time to time, as was to be expected of a conservative upper-class German and loyal subject of the Kaiser, recommending stringent measures to deal with disorderly situations. In an earlier account, for instance, of part of the 1893 journey through the Syrian desert and Mesopotamia, Oppenheim deplores the “Räuberunwesen der Beduiner” [monstrous plundering way of life of the Bedouins] and proposes, if only as a last resort, the forceful removal of the entire Bedouin population from Mesopotamia into the Arabian desert.4 Likewise, in his dealings not with statesmen and powerful chiefs but with ordinary “natives” [“Eingeborene”], empathy does not erase a certain condescension, even toward people for whose services he was genuinely grateful and of whom he seems to have been truly fond. In the monograph on Tell Halaf that he published in 1931, for instance, he pays generous tribute to his two devoted Lebanese servants, the cousins Tannus and Elias Maluf. The former, a strong, powerfully built man, was illiterate but took care of the Baron’s personal security, as well as that of the caravans and the camp, served as an invaluable intermediary and negotiator with the Bedouins, and tended his master loyally whenever the latter fell sick. Elias, a village teacher, spoke French, had a scholar’s knowledge of the Arabic language, and served as Oppenheim’s secretary in all matters concerning Arabic, providing him with meticulous records in Arabic script of place names and proper names, along with accurate European transcriptions. Yet even in Oppenheim’s touchingly affectionate portraits of the two men it is impossible not to detect a patronizing tone.5 As for the Bedouin workers he employed at the Tell Halaf site, he declared: “So far as I possibly could, I helped the workmen and their families, and they looked on me as a father. […] They were like children and were treated as such.”6


  • 7 See ch. 6, note 9 above.
  • 8 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, p. 8.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 7.
  • 10 Vol. 36, no. 2 (1901): 69–99.
  • 11 Der Alte Orient, vol. 10, no. 1 (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1908).

5In 1899 Oppenheim had spent “three days only” (or perhaps even only a day and a half)7 at the Tell Halaf site, partly, as he explained later, because “we had neither the proper outfit, the time, nor any permit to carry out more detailed investigations”8 and partly also, no doubt, because he felt impelled to continue his covert prospecting for the Baghdad railway. He was greatly excited by what he had discovered, however. It marked, in his own words, “a turning-point in my life”9 and, passing through Constantinople on his return from Syria, he sought official permission to excavate the site. The discovery and excavation of Tell Halaf was indeed to be the crowning achievement of Oppenheim’s career and one of the great achievements of modern archaeology. Two relatively short accounts of the preliminary 1899 excavations were published: the already mentioned “Bericht über eine im Jahre 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der Asiatischen Türkei” [“Report on a journey of exploration in Asiatic Turkey in 1899”], which appeared in the Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin [Journal of the Berlin Geographical Society] in 1901,10 and a 43-page essay Der Tell Halaf und die verschleierte Göttin [Tell Halaf and the Veiled Goddess], which appeared in 1908 in a series put out by the Berlin Vorderasiatische Gesellschaft [Near Eastern Society].11

  • 12 Cit. G. Teichmann, “Grenzgänger zwischen Orient und Okzident. Max von Oppenheim 1860–1946,” p. 53. (...)

6Nevertheless, ten years elapsed after the initial discovery before Oppenheim took advantage of the authorization he had obtained from the head of the Ottoman Imperial Museums. No doubt he was fully taken up by his activities as Legationsrat [legation counsellor] in Cairo. In 1909, however, he was advised by the Turkish government that he must act immediately on his right to excavate or forfeit it, since English and American scholars were now soliciting permission to explore the neglected site. In addition, he had received a letter, signed by eleven German colleagues in the field of Oriental studies, urging him to begin serious work at the site: “None of us can forget your lecture at the Congress of Orientalists in Copenhagen and your study of ‘Der Tell Halaf’ in the Publications of the Vorderasiatische Gesellschaft,” the letter ran. “The whole scholarly world very much hopes that you will crown the work you began a decade ago with a full-scale excavation of the site.” Oppenheim, the letter continued, was clearly the man for the job, being one of the few scholars with the means to undertake it. “The resources of the State in Germany are entirely devoted to the Babylonian excavations. The study of Hittite and Islamic culture has thus been left entirely to the initiative of private individuals. At the same time, what an honourable opportunity there is here for a person who can undertake such a project at his own expense. And the time to do so is now, for your publications have long drawn the attention of others to the riches of this site.”12 In other words, if Oppenheim does not act immediately, the glory of developing the site will almost certainly be lost to German scholarship.

  • 13 New York Times, “German Intrigue in Egypt. Attempts to Weaken British Power. The Activities of Bar (...)

7Disappointment at his failure to make headway at the Auswärtiges Amt may well have combined with the pressure from the Turkish authorities and from his Orientalist colleagues to persuade Oppenheim that he should return to the work of research and exploration that had always engaged him. He himself later claimed that he did so at some sacrifice to his career, since he had been appointed to an ambassadorial position, but it is not at all clear what this position might have been. It is also possible that he was still, officially or unofficially, serving German national interests. A report in the New York Times from the paper’s special correspondent in Cairo refers to Oppenheim’s passing through Constantinople in 1910 on an “enigmatical journey to the Khabur River and the Urfa region,” ostensibly “to exhume the statue of a Hittite goddess on the banks of the Khabur.” The report goes on to claim that “according to Syrian advices, the real object of the Baron’s visit was to purchase the support of Arab and Kurdish tribal chiefs in the Khabur region for the Baghdad Railway Company.”13 It is equally possible, however, that this report, written after the start of the First World War and several years after the event referred to in it, simply reflects the general suspicion with which Oppenheim was regarded by the British and the French and those sympathetic to their cause.

8What is certain is that on 1 November 1910, Oppenheim resigned his position at the Auswärtiges Amt and prepared to begin a thorough excavation of the site he had discovered a decade earlier. It was a very expensive operation. Oppenheim wanted his expedition to be on a par with that of Robert Koldewey at Babylon and to use the methods elaborated by Koldewey. That meant hiring architects experienced in archaeological work, transporting all the required supplies and every piece of equipment to Tell Halaf, and staying on site for an extended period of time.

9“Tell Halaf is many days’ journey from the nearest towns, Der es Zor, Mardin, and Ourfa,” he related later in the substantial, well illustrated book on Tell Halaf, which Brockhaus of Leipzig brought out in 1931, and in which he gave an account of the 1911 excavation. Moreover, even these places were capable at that time of meeting only the needs of the local Arabs:

  • 14 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, p. 11.

I had to bring nearly everything needed for the excavating and for life on Tell Halaf on camel-back from Aleppo: the heavy expeditionary baggage brought with me from Europe, the scientific apparatus, the tools for digging, a field railway with twelve tip-waggons, and nearly all the materials for building the house for the expedition. […] Taken altogether, nearly 1000 camels were used for our transport from Aleppo to Tell Halaf, and for safety’s sake a road was used that needed almost twenty days for the journey.14

10Finding workers was also not easy. The excavation was begun on 5 August 1911 with “a gang of ten men made up of my own servants and of Arabs.” As the local Bedouins, intimidated by the Chechens in the region and by other more powerful Bedouin tribes, were afraid to work for Oppenheim, two hundred Christian Armenians had to be hired from a nearby community, and “supplies and flour for their bread [had to be brought in] at our own cost from the villages.” They turned out to be difficult workers, especially after, “in spite of every precaution taken, the dried up walls in one of our deep trial trenches fell in, with the result that several workmen were buried and one young man was killed.” Fortunately for Oppenheim, it was possible to replace the restive Armenians with Bedouins from a nomadic tribe “not dependent on the Chechens.” “In the end we had an average of 550 Bedouins working for us.” The pay was not great and care was taken to ensure that there was no slacking off. Still, the total wages bill must have been substantial.

  • 15 Ibid., pp. 16, 20.

To each twenty workmen or so there were two foremen with pickaxes, either kinsmen of the Sheikh or especially good workers; also four or five men using mattocks, who put the earth into baskets, when it was taken away by the rest of the gang—youths, boys or girls. The workers with iron tools earned about 80 pfennig [approx. $4.00–$6.00 in 2011 currency], the other men about 60, and the boys and girls 40 pfennig a day, and had to find their own food. For these wages they had to work ten hours daily. The payment of wages for work done regularly every ten days without any deduction and in good coin had never before happened in those parts. […] In the work of excavation the men with the pickaxes first loosen up the ground, whether the object is to dig trial trenches or to lay bare a definite layer. Then come the mattock men and take it into the baskets of the women and older boys, who carry them away under the arm, on the shoulder, or on the head, and empty them where they are told. […] It is then the overseer’s duty to see that the bearers do not get too little soil put in their baskets through politeness being shown to the ladies or for some like reason.15

11Besides the workers, Oppenheim had engaged a team of highly skilled German professionals to accompany him on the mission. These included, for the 1911–1913 excavation, two architects who had worked with Koldewey, as well as engineers, photographers, physicians, and secretaries. In addition, a specialist was brought in from the Royal Museums of Berlin to make plaster casts of most of the sculptures, since the Ottoman antiquities law of 1874 had been changed in 1884 and no longer permitted sharing of the finds. In the unhealthy climate several staff members fell seriously ill (as, at one point, did Oppenheim himself) and had to be sent back to Germany and replaced. Oppenheim does not say how this highly specialized team was remunerated, what the cost of its day-to-day upkeep was or how much he spent on the building he had constructed to house it over what was expected to be a long period. A drawing made of the house confirms his own verbal description: “With its high walls and great courtyards it looked like a castle. […] Here I lived with my staff and servants like a desert prince.”16 Oppenheim was obviously dedicated to his task and spared no expense in executing it. It has been estimated that it cost him the equivalent of 7–8 million Euros in today’s money (2011).17

12The first stage of the excavation of Tell Halaf was completed in August 1913. Work was supposed to resume in the winter of 1914 to 1915, but World War I intervened. It was not until 1927, after Germany joined the League of Nations, that Oppenheim was able to obtain permission from the authorities of what was now the French mandate of Syria to return to Tell Halaf and continue his investigation of the site.

  • 18 “Both as a whole and in its details,” according to the 1901 Bericht (p. 90), “the form of some of (...)

13By the time Oppenheim and his team went back to Germany in 1913, however, much had been accomplished. The physical characteristics of the site had been determined, a serious attempt had been made to reconstruct its history, and the excavations had yielded significant finds in the form of sculptures, reliefs, and pottery. The excavations discovered several stages in the settlement of Tell Halaf. Handsomely decorated and painted pottery found at the lowest level of the excavations bore witness to a chalcholithic culture (i.e. one in which stone tools are beginning to be replaced by metal tools) in the 5th or 6th millennium B.C. The relief sculptures and some sculptures in the round that had been dug up in 1899 had been identified in the 1901 Bericht and then again in the 1908 essay Der Tell Halaf und die verschleierte Göttin as Hittite and had been attributed, on the basis of inscriptions on some of them, to the reign of a ruler named Kapara, whom Oppenheim took to be a princeling of the Mitannian age or of a somewhat later period—i.e. to some time between 1450 and 900 B.C.18

  • 19 Herzfeld (1879–1948) had a distinguished career. He participated in the excavation of Assur (1903– (...)

14After the excavations of 1911–1913 and 1929 and under the influence of the established academic archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld,19 Oppenheim revised this judgment, and dated the sculptures to a far earlier period from around 3000 to 2000 B.C. Superimposed on the two earlier cultures (one of the 5th millennium B.C. and one of the 3rd), he now argued, were the palaces and temples of an Aramaean kingdom that dated from the end of the second and the beginning of the first millennium B.C. Oppenheim and his team identified two major structures in the Aramaean city, which they described as the Northeastern Palace or Citadel and the Western or Temple Palace. Various inscriptions indicated that the Temple Palace, with its monumental entrance façade of towering caryatids in the form of the three principal deities mounted on huge fabulous beasts—the weather god Teshub flanked by his wife, the mother goddess Hebat, and their son, the mountain god Sarruma—and its walls decorated with relief sculptures, had been built by a ruler whose name was Kapara, and who was now defined as Aramaean. Following Herzfeld, however, Oppenheim now held that many of the relief orthostats and some of the sculptures, including the caryatids of the Temple Palace and the sphinxes guarding the entrance, as well as two female figures that held a special attraction for him, dated from the third millennium B.C. These, it was conjectured, had been part of an earlier palace that had been destroyed; Kapara had come upon them as the site was being cleared for the construction of his palace; and he had reused them for his own building:

  • 20 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, p. 37. See also, at the end of the volume, Append (...)

From the circumstances of the finds and on archaeological and stylistic grounds it would seem to be an impossibility that the statues were made under Kapara and belong to the end of the second millennium. Rather they were […] used over again by Kapara and belong to the third millennium. As often happened in ancient times, Kapara simply put his own name on the old sculptures.20

  • 21 “Tell Halaf, la plus ancienne capitale soubaréenne de Mésopotamie,” Syria, 13 (1932): 243–56.

15This was the account that Oppenheim presented to the public, after further excavation of the site in 1927, in Der Tell Halaf. Eine neue Kultur im ältesten Mesopotamien, a handsomely illustrated volume, published in 1931 by Brockhaus, the well established Leipzig firm known for its widely used encyclopedias and reference works, and clearly intended for a broad rather than a specialized readership. The account was unchanged in the English translation of the book that appeared two years later in London and New York, in a brief, richly illustrated article by Oppenheim in the scholarly journal Syria, the organ of the Institut Français du Proche-Orient,21 and then again in the full French translation of the book, brought out by Payot in Paris in 1939 and said to be a revised and updated version of the 1931 text.

  • 22 Edith Porada, review of Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, Tell Halaf, vol. 3: Die Bildwerke (part of the (...)
  • 23 Man, May 1934, p. 78.
  • 24 Times Literary Supplement, 8 June 1933, p. 395.

16From the beginning, however, this chronology was regarded with great scepticism by most scholars. Although the book was very well received on the whole, most reviewers questioned Oppenheim’s (i.e. Herzfeld’s) “sensationally early datings” of the sculptures and large relief orthostats.22 One eminent English archaeologist, the Australianborn V. Gordon Childe, reviewing the 1933 English translation in the journal Man, noted that “the sculptures are well illustrated and clearly described.” On the other hand, “Professor Herzfeld’s attribution of them on ‘stylistic grounds’ to the fourth and third millennia […] is, to say the least, highly speculative and controversial,” so that “one is inclined to regret that the author of a book directed to the general public should have accepted such a chronology without reserve.”23 In the Times Literary Supplement, the anonymous reviewer—in fact, Reginald Campbell Thompson, who was a teacher of both T.E. Lawrence and Max Mallowan and had excavated at Nineveh, Ur, and Carchemish—“congratulated [the Oppenheim team] on its finds.” “The stone statues,” he declared, “must be seen to be believed” and “throw a new light on the civilization of the Upper Euphrates.” The painted pottery he judged “of immense interest.” The book, moreover, was “beautifully illustrated.” But, while acknowledging the possibility that the slabs on which Kapara’s name is incised might well, as Oppenheim claimed, “be an instance of a later king absorbing his predecessor’s work,” Thompson objected strongly to Oppenheim’s chronology: “We cannot accept his extraordinarily high date for these slabs, which are here assigned to a period not later than 2900 B.C., long before the end of the painted pottery; in other words that they are prehistoric, although not one of them appears to have been found in a true prehistoric layer.” Anticipating a criticism made by several of his colleagues, Thompson thus questioned Oppenheim’s and Herzfeld’s reliance on stylistic grounds alone to justify their chronology, without any support from stratigraphy or inscriptions: “Crudity of workmanship is no criterion necessarily for assessing a high date to sculptures.”24 Leonard Woolley, who had directed the excavations at Carchemish in 1912–1914, at the same time as Oppenheim was excavating Tell Halaf (and who was also, during World War I, engaged in intelligence work on the side), also saluted Oppenheim on his achievement and generally accepted, with only a few reservations, the latter’s assessment of the oldest stratum:

The appearance of Baron von Oppenheim’s book giving for the first time an account, popular but reasonably full, of his discoveries at Tell Halaf is very welcome. The volume is well illustrated. It contains photographic reproductions of some seventy of the stone sculptures and eight plates of pottery as well as some of the gold, ivory, and other objects; the text gives an account of the site, of its excavations, and of its history and a description of the sculpture and small objects by von Oppenheim himself, while appendices by Herzfeld, Langenegger, Karl Müller, Hubert Schmidt, Meissner, and Jensen deal with the more technical aspects of the work and of the material.
Tell Halaf, a group of mounds on the banks of the Khabur River in northern Mesopotamia, proved to be a most remarkable and a most productive site. In the lower strata of the mound there were found no buildings but great quantities of pottery. At the bottom came a monochrome ware associated with stone weapons and implements which was unquestionably Neolithic; above this came an elaborately painted ware with designs sometimes geometrical, sometimes naturalistic, in a paint which at its best is as lustrous as that of Mycenaean pottery. Hubert Schmidt contributes a short but valuable study of this material, which he distinguishes into four periods. Similar wares have been found at Carchemish, Sakjegeuzi, and, more recently, at Arpachia, near Nineveh, and there is no doubt that it is extremely early; at Tell Halaf Schmidt records the finding of a few copper implements associated apparently with the “ first painted period,” so that we may even from the outset be dealing with a chalcolithic rather than a truly neolithic culture; but in bringing the later phases of the ware down so late as 2000 b.c. von Oppenheim is surely minimizing its antiquity.

17On the buildings and statuary, however, Woolley expressed serious doubts about the chronology proposed by Oppenheim:

In the upper levels, below scanty remains of Hellenistic date, the excavators traced the town wall with its gates and a few adjacent buildings; one of the mounds inside the rampart yielded a large temple of the Assyrian period, resting upon walls of an earlier date; but the greater part of the work was concerned with the Citadel which lay at the north side of the town close to the river; here there was a very large complex of palace and other buildings erected by Kapara, an Aramaic ruler whom Bruno Meissner would date to the twelfth century b.c.— other authorities would certainly consider this date some hundreds of years too early. The palace produced an astonishing array of stone sculptures, statues in the round, carved bases, and, above all, reliefs on basalt or limestone slabs which decorated the façade of the building; the study of these, from an artistic and a chronological point of view, occupies a large part of the volume. Further, at Jebelet el Beda, 70 kilometres south of Tell Halaf, Baron von Oppenheim discovered a burial-place surmounted by basalt statues of a remarkable sort.
The mounds of Tell Halaf yielded no remains whatever dating between the close of the Painted Pottery period and the time when Kapara (or more probably his father, for the palace shows traces of rebuilding) re-occupied the deserted site. Baron von Oppenheim and Professor Herzfeld are convinced that the sculptures, many of which are inscribed with the name of Kapara, are of a much older date and were simply re-used by him, and since there is no building earlier than the twelfth century to which they can be assigned, it follows that Kapara must have found them in the Painted Pottery level and that they rightly belong to the third millennium b.c.; Professor Herzfeld on stylistic and technical grounds distinguishes the bulk of the sculptures into groups which he dates to c. 3000, c. 2800, and c. 2600–2550 b.c. respectively. It is a theory which few scholars will be inclined to accept.
There is too close a parallel between the sculptures of Tell Halaf on the one hand and of Carchemish, Senjirli, and Sakjegeuzi on the other for them to be very far removed from one another in point of time; recognizing this, Professor Herzfeld attributes the monuments of these sites also to various dates in the third millennium. Now, the buildings in which the monuments occur belong definitely to the first millennium; therefore the Tell Halaf theory must apply equally to them and in each of the four cases a late builder must have delved in the prehistoric strata, discovered prehistoric sculptures, all intact, and incorporated them in his own work. This is carrying coincidence too far. At Carchemish there are, indeed, instances of older sculptures being re-used, but such are generally re-used merely as building material and not for decoration.
The fact that a number of the Tell Halaf slabs bear the name of Kapara, which to many people would seem conclusive, is dismissed on the assumption that the inscription was cut on the ancient stones discovered by him. Other difficulties are as lightly met; thus that the domestication of the horse and the use of Assyrian horse trappings and harness would by this theory be carried back into the third millennium is held not to weaken the argument but only to enhance the interest of the carvings; on the basis of a purely subjective criticism which in some instances can be proved misleading we are asked to jettison all that we have yet learned about the chronology of north Syrian art. It is generally agreed that the earlier Carchemish sculptures are of about the twelfth century B.C. and others two or three centuries later; both the Senjirli and the Sakjegeuzi sculptures fall well within the first millennium and some of the latter are approximately dated by inscriptions. The Tell Halaf reliefs resemble those, for instance, of Carchemish in their use—alternate slabs of limestone and basalt forming a façade—often in their subjects and sometimes in their style; and in so far as the style differs, the Tell Halaf orthostats seem to be not so much primitive as provincial. Similar basalt carvings are not uncommon in north Syria, […] and it is probable that they decorated the buildings of local magnates who could not command the services of the better artists employed in the royal cities.
The case of the Jebelet el Beda statues is quite different. Here we have figures which are either very ancient or preserve remarkably well the ancient tradition; their dependence upon Sumerian art is obvious, but to bring them into close relation with the Tell Halaf orthostats is wholly unjustified.

  • 25 C. L. Woolley, review of Tell Halaf: a new culture in oldest Mesopotamia, in Journal of the Royal (...)

18“They are of great importance,” however, Woolley readily conceded, “and so are the sculptures of Kapara’s palace and the prehistoric pottery.” Woolley’s ultimate judgment of Oppenheim’s work was thus mixed: “Baron von Oppenheim is to be congratulated on his discoveries, and everything that throws light on their character and on the conditions in which they were found is a welcome addition to knowledge. It is the more to be regretted that the chronological theories put forward in the present volume should rob it of so much of its value as a contribution to history.”25

  • 26 A native of Austrian Galicia, Speiser immigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen and b (...)

19Most other reviewers agreed with Woolley on the issue of chronology. For example, the University of Pennsylvania Assyriologist Ephraim A. Speiser (1902–1965)26 in the American Journal of Archaeology:

Even more disturbing, though no less fascinating, is the chronology of the several sculptural stages represented by the carvings from Tell Halaf and Jebelet-el-Beda. The author would place his earliest specimens in the fourth millennium and the rest of his sculptures not later than the third. In this view he is supported by the expert, if apodictical, opinion of Herzfeld. But nearly all critics would relegate the bulk of the Tell Halaf carvings to the end of the second millennium! On both sides the arguments employed have been chiefly of a stylistic nature, inasmuch as the circumstances of discovery admit of no definite stratigraphic interpretation. Throughout this discussion the author has remained unshaken by the opinion of the majority.

  • 27 E.A. Speiser, review of Tell Halaf: a new culture in oldest Mesopotamia, in American Journal of Ar (...)

20Nevertheless, Speiser kept the door slightly ajar on the chronology question. Oppenheim, he wrote, should “derive much joy from a very recent discovery at Warka, where a stele has been unearthed in one of the Jemdet Nasr deposits (end of the fourth millennium) which bears a remarkable resemblance to the older sculptures from Tell Halaf.” Above all, Speiser responded warmly to Oppenheim’s passionate engagement with his material and zoomed in on an aspect of it to which Oppenheim himself drew attention and to which we shall turn shortly: “One is awed by the mysterious power of the veiled goddess who, in addition to guiding the excavation, appears to have inspired the correct solution of one of the most knotty problems resulting therefrom. The baron is to be congratulated on more counts than one.”27

  • 28 Ungnad (1879–1945) was professor successively at Jena, Greifswald and Breslau with a stint as visi (...)
  • 29 Tell Halaf: a new culture in oldest Mesopotamia, p. 54: The Subaraic culture is undoubtedly just (...)

21On the other hand, Speiser did question the claim, which Oppenheim took over from his friend, the Assyriologist Arthur Ungnad,28 that an autonomous “Subaraean” culture, extending over much of Northern Mesopotamia under the domination of various invading ethnic groups, was of equal significance to the ancient Babylonian and ancient Egyptian cultures. Oppenheim had adopted Ungnad’s thesis that, albeit not unified politically into a single empire, Subartu constituted an influential grouping of several political centres, of which the earlier Tell Halaf of the third millennium B.C. had allegedly been one of the most important.29 Speiser disputed this claim:

Baron von Oppenheim regards the Khabur region as the center of a third great and independent culture by the side of those of Egypt and Babylon. To the new civilization he would apply the name “Subaraic,” following the lead of Arthur Ungnad. In a very broad sense this view may pass as correct: the cultural background of Tell Halaf is certainly neither Egyptian nor Sumerian, and there is some excuse for calling it Subaraean. But the implied assumption that this third cultural group (which used to be called “Syro-Hittite”) was necessarily homogeneous will not stand closer scrutiny. As a matter of fact, the unity of the so-called Babylonian civilization is now known to be also a myth. Many disparate elements entered into the make-up of the Sumerian culture, and matters are even more complicated in Central Mesopotamia, Syria, and Anatolia.

  • 30 D.T.R. in Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, 20 (1933): 451–54. This reviewer, however, a (...)

22On the whole, despite serious misgivings about both chronology and the so-called Subaraean culture, reviews of Oppenheim’s book were extremely favourable. It is clear that British and American professional and academic scholars held Oppenheim, though an amateur, in high esteem. Many were especially responsive to the author’s talent for lively description and narrative. In the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, the reviewer underlined the vividness of Oppenheim’s narratives and descriptions and his sensitivity to the aesthetic qualities of the reliefs and three-dimensional sculptures his team had excavated at Tell Halaf. “The career of an archaeologist is one of the most interesting and romantic that it is possible to choose in these law-abiding days of easy travel,” this reviewer wrote. “Yet it is seldom that an archaeologist is found who is able at the same time both to produce his results in a scientific and reliable manner and to convey to the general reader the delight and excitement of his work. This is not the case with Baron von Oppenheim. His book, Tell Halaf, is enthralling from beginning to end. It is admirably balanced; the various chapters deal in the most interesting manner possible with what their titles say that they deal with; […] and they tell us of discoveries which must prove of considerable importance in the history of the Near East. The book is at the same time a thrilling tale of adventure.”30 In the same vein, The Geographical Journal praised Oppenheim for having written a book that was both an important contribution to scholarship and a lively evocation of an earlier culture. “Imagination,” this reviewer wrote, “is an essential quality for the archaeologist.”

His problem is to reconstruct history, which is a thing of motion, out of material which is in its nature stationary. His actual finds are clues; what interests him are not the pieces of pottery, statues, bronzes, in themselves, but the life and continual change which they represent, by which they were once cast casually on buried shelves of Time, where the archaeologist laboriously digging finds and uses them to reconstruct the living picture. This work of imaginative reconstruction has been going on very rapidly of late in near and central Asia, and every discovery, while it throws light on its own immediate age and locality, opens up new and unexplored problems for future investigation. Baron von Oppenheim’s book is important in both these aspects, for not only are the statues and reliefs found at Tell Halaf unique as artistic objects of the very greatest interest, but the theories which the author bases on their discovery open up the very obscure question of the pre-Sumerian and pre-Semitic inhabitants of the Euphrates and Tigris valleys.

  • 31 F.S. in The Geogaphical Journal, 82 (1933): 364–65.

23Not least, according to The Geographical Journal’s reviewer, Oppenheim’s book “introduces us, in a lively, simple style to a most engaging, adventurous, and enthusiastic personality.” The dramatic narrative of Oppenheim’s discovery of the site is singled out for special mention.31

24Oppenheim had in fact followed a tradition set by earlier archaeologists, such as the remarkable Austen Henry Layard, who had been commissioned by the British Museum in the mid-nineteenth century to conduct excavations at ancient Nineveh and Babylon (Discoveries in the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon [London: John Murray, 1853]), in providing not only vivid descriptions of the finds but lively personal narratives of the journey to the site (almost always eventful and often dangerous), of individuals and peoples encountered along the way, of life at the site, and of the actual excavation of the site. Thus Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia opens on the exciting little narrative mentioned by the Geographical Journal reviewer. At a Bedouin camp, Oppenheim relates, where he was being entertained in 1899 by the tribal leader, Ibrahim Pasha, with whom he had become friendly, he learned of “remarkable statues said to have been found on a hill by the small village of Ras el Ain.”

The village was inhabited by Chechens, Mohammedans coming from the Caucasus and akin to the Cherkesses (Circassians), who after the Russian conquest of their home had fled as religious refugees to an Islamic land, that is, Turkey. The Chechens, I was told, had wanted some years before to bury one of their dead on the hill, and, while doing this, they had come upon stone statues of animals with human heads. Filled with superstitious dread, they filled in the hole again and buried the body at another place. In that same year the neighbourhood was visited by drought, locust swarms and cholera. This was attributed by the Chechens to the evil spirits that they believed to have been in the statues, and now set free. As a result they most carefully avoided speaking of the statues, fearing that others might dig out the fabulous beings and thereby bring ill-hap on them once more.

25Oppenheim and his team immediately set off for Ras el Ain. After various adventures along the way, they “dismounted at the house of the Mukhtar, the village headman of the Chechens.”

  • 32 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, pp. 6–7.

It was not until we had partaken of the feast that I started to speak with great care of the remarkable statues. As I had foreseen, they denied everything. However, I did not give up; I described the stones and promised the Chechens a good reward if I could get guides to the place of the finds. It was all in vain. Then I appealed to the laws of hospitality, and demanded, as the guest, not to be told what was untrue, but to have my request granted. Thereupon the Mukhtar and the village elders swore on the Koran that they had not lied. I now played my last trump. I hurled a curse at my hosts for having sworn falsely on the Koran. […] There was then a dramatic scene. All the Chechens stood up. Some drew their long narrow daggers; such a thing as this had not yet befallen the hot-tempered, proud Caucasians. My soldiers ran to my side; the situation grew threatening. I shouted to the Chechens to cap their false oath with the murder of their guest in their own house. At the last moment three old Chechens and the guides sent with me by Ibrahim Pasha came between us. […] A sudden silence fell on them. […] The Mukhtar acknowledged his wrong, and asked me to stay; and on this the Chechens most solemnly promised to take me up the hill on which the statues were said to have been found.32


26The 1901 Bericht already contained several careful descriptions of sculptures and reliefs which, though cursory compared with the later writings, testify to Oppenheim’s propensity to engage personally with the ancient culture he was investigating, as well as to the strong attraction its art held for him. He was especially taken, Oppenheim acknowledged in this short text, with “a bust of a beardless human figure, certainly that of a woman, whose head was most expressive, despite the lack of any musculature.”

Fig. 7.1 Tell Halaf. “The Pole Goddess,” excavated in 1899. Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Bericht über eine im Jahr 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der asiatischen Türkei,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 36, 2 (1901): 69–99, plate 16.

27A photographic illustration in the article showed how “the bust, more than three times life-size, atop a cubic base, formed a whole hewn out of a single block of stone.” It “thus appeared to provide a uniquely simple solution to a problem still facing many artists today”:

How to present a bust on a socle. Only the head of the human figure was represented here; even the shoulders and upper arms found in Greek hermae were missing. Instead, two cubic stone strips ran down the front of the column; on one of them there was a cuneiform inscription. But on the two lateral surfaces wing-like traces were to be seen, as if the figure had been represented with folded wings. The lower part of the stone column was not found. The lips were thin, the nose, of which only a part remained, must have been prominent; the eyes—one of them was found—were of smoothly polished black basalt and were framed in white plaster. Like other sculptures at Tell Halaf, the statue was made of dark volcanic stone. The hair was not worn in long, hanging locks, as in the other figures at Tell Halaf; but it had been carefully arranged and there was a band over the forehead, from which hung a remarkable headgear. […] The whole style of this ornament, along with a mystical element in the expression of the countenance, inevitably led one to imagine that the sculptor wanted to represent the face, between the two thick bands at the temples, as covered with a veil, from the lower part of which little bands hung down around the neck. Very similar veils are still found today in certain Bedouin tribes in Lower Egypt and, above all, among Arab women of the Persian Gulf area. We can certainly conjecture that the veiled woman of Tell Halaf is the oldest example yet found of a veiled stone image. Perhaps we are dealing here with Ishtar, the Babylonian Earth Goddess, who is already mentioned in the Old Testament, and from whom the Syrian Astarte and then Venus derive.

28Oppenheim’s fascination with this figure emerges again in the 1908 essay in which it once more occupies a prominent place and is the object of a more detailed description. It is now identified as the figure of a goddess. Stone no. 14, found in prospection hole D, he writes,

  • 33 Der Tell Halaf und die verschleierte Göttin (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1908), pp. (...)

was the most remarkable of our finds. It was the torso of a human figure. The moment I saw it, I had the impression that the artist’s aim had been to represent a veiled woman, a goddess. The head emerged directly from a stone block that was barely broader than the neck. There were no shoulders or arms. From the area of the breast down, the stone had been I picked it up and took it back to the house. The other eye socket was empty. On the head there was a cap-like head covering that clung close to the form of the head. Its outer edge, over the forehead, was marked by a broad band. The small head-covering bore flat, curl-like decorative marks. (Quite possibly the artist wanted to represent only a headband around the head, and on the head itself hair arranged in flat curls.) Two substantial bands came down from the headband in front of the ears to the shoulders. At their ends they curled spiral-like outwards and upwards. Between these two bands, below the chin, this unusual headgear ended with another set of smaller bands descending almost to the breast area. The ends of these were also decorated in most cases (two out of every three) and curled outwards. Shorter bands alternated with longer ones and with still shorter ones that did not curl at the end. […] The entire form of this headgear, together with the mystical element in the expression, inevitably leads one to think that what we are confronted with is the head of a woman and that the sculptor wanted to represent the face between the two broad bands descending from the temples as covered with a veil, from the lower part of which the smaller bands hung down around the neck. Very similar veils are still worn today by Arab women in the area of the Persian Gulf and by Egyptian Bedouin women in the neighbourhood of the Suez Canal. […] Is the veiled goddess of Tell Halaf to be seen as a herma-like bust sculpture, or is the column-like stone I dug up only part of a massive stone slab, an orthostat with the body of a Sphinx? In favour of the first hypothesis is the way the head is held straight, together with the treatment of the breast area. But the lines of the back of the head and the lower neck in stone fragment no. 15 support the hypothesis that the head of our goddess too was of a piece with the back of a quadruped animal figure. […] Further excavations will solve this question.33

Fig. 7.2 Tell Halaf. “The Goddess with the Veil”. Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Der Tell Halaf und die verschleierte Göttin,” Der Alte Orient, 10, 1 (1908): 43. Plate 12.

29The excavations of 1911–1913 allowed the figure to be identified as a Sphinx. A long description in the 1931 monograph on Tell Halaf picks up on the earlier accounts and carries them forward. I quote at length because of Oppenheim’s preoccupation with this figure:

  • 34 Der Schleier von Sumer bis Heute. Mit 8 Abbildungen im Text und 15 auf Tafeln (Leipzig: F. C. Hinr (...)
  • 35 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, pp. 108–12.

Among the most important sculptures of Tell Halaf are the two great statues that stand in the archway of the passage to the first room in the temple-palace, that is to say, at the section of the mud-brick wall with the façade reliefs. They are veiled winged sphinxes, parts of which I found as early as 1899. They were so set into the arch of the gateway passage that their fore-part projected out about 0.90 metres in front of the façade into the open, while their flanks made a continuous surface with the mud wall in the gateway arch. […] In front, the statues are treated in the round; at the sides, as reliefs. […]
A lot of small bits from the upper surface of the relief at the side, especially from the wing, had been splintered off the basalt block when the temple was burned down; but we found them nearly all again. The front part of the sphinx is worked out in a different way to any of the other statues on Tell Halaf. Over the well-chiselled lion’s paws—which here again are like bear’s paws—the legs rise up like square pillars, and end above directly in the disproportionately large woman’s head, which stands up from the almost flat line of the back between the pillar-like legs. Here nothing can be seen of any muscles. The look of the whole reminds us of the later hermae or of pillar-gods. On the front of the left leg-pillar Kapara’s inscription is chiselled running downwards.
The head is a masterpiece of the old sculptor’s art. The flat chin is strongly retreating. The nose, long and pointed in profile, forms, when looked at from one side, an unbroken, lightly curved line with the retreating forehead and the upper part of the head. Involuntarily we are reminded of the beak-faces of the seal-cylinders and tablets from the oldest south Mesopotamia, but, above all, of the huge stele of Jebelet-el-Beda. The hair on the head is set in curls. Round the forehead clings a band which seems to be tied behind the head and ends in two hanging tassels. On this band there hang alternatively [sic] longer and shorter strips, whose lower ends turn backwards in a spiral, and which beyond the ears cover all the back of the head. […] Round the neck, a hand’s breadth under the chin, strips hang down here. Under the band on the forehead tufts of hair are chiselled from ear to ear.
The mouth is marked only by a narrow line; the lips are barely shown. What is different from all the other Tell Halaf statues is the eyes. Instead of a big white inset, in which a small flat round polished centre of black stone is inlaid as the pupil, we have here an oval black stone centre, markedly standing out, filling almost the whole eye socket, and with a narrow white ring round it. One of these eyes I found in situ when I made the discovery in 1899, and I was able to save it.
The face has something decidedly mystical about it. The eyes look far darker than any other inset eyes at Tell Halaf. From the very first moment I was convinced that I had a veiled goddess before me. She does not see so well through the veil, and so her eye is darker, blacker, more piercing. That the artist meant to represent a veil is furthermore shown beyond any questioning by the band on the forehead with the two ends hanging down at the back of the head and emphasized by tassels. The veil makes the effect of a headdress. Today veils quite like this are worn on the upper Tigris, in Mosul, for instance. […] The Mosul veil is the same as the sphinx’s, down to the smallest details. Only wanting are the small hanging strips on the forehead band and below. Veils like this with all kinds of ornaments hanging down in front are found in many other parts of Islam.
That the mouth, nose and eyes, as well as the hair under the forehead band, are represented in the veiled goddess is quite in agreement with how the veil is depicted in antiquity. In Egypt, under the garments of veiling, the breast, navel and limbs were drawn so as to be fully visible. But we have only to think of modern sculptures of veiled persons in Italian graveyards; here also in spite of the veiling we can see the forms and even the details of the faces.
In this sphinx we have the oldest veiled statue in the world. There is no other of its kind. […] I will not here go […] into a discussion of the ancient myths of the veil. I have briefly discussed the subject in […] Tell Halaf and the Veiled Goddess. […] Professor Alfred Jeremias, however, has given a more detailed account of the subject under the title The Veil: from Sumer up to the Present Time (Old Orient Series, 1931).34 […]
The relief on the side surface of the veiled sphinx shows a winged lion. The artist looks at his statue half sideways from the front, and accordingly gives it both the hind-legs, but from the side view he makes only the side of the left fore-leg appear. This is in contrast to later Assyrian embossed colossi—bull-men and lion-men: they are copied from ours but on them there are represented on the side-surface four legs in motion, although the front which is carved as a statue in the round, shows both the beast’s fore-feet. In the Tell Halaf statues everything is more realistic. The beast has only four legs, and so, in spite of the combination of sculpture in the round and relief only four are depicted. This is old Subaraic.35

30Oppenheim’s extremely personal, almost obsessive, and distinctly proprietary relation to the sphinx figure anticipates his even more intense investment in another goddess figure from Tell Halaf, discovered in the course of the excavations of 1911–1913 and usually referred to as “thronende Götttin” [enthroned goddess]. I shall again quote at some length from the text of the 1931 book (in the English translation of 1933) in order to convey a sense of the combination of objective description and lively subjective response that is characteristic of Oppenheim’s archaeological writing:

  • 36 Ibid., pp. 189–91. I have quoted the text of the English translation of 1933, since it is widely a (...)

Perhaps the most impressive statue on Tell Halaf is the great throned goddess (1.80 metres high, 0.82 metres broad, 0.95 deep) which we found walled in a huge mass of mud bricks, and over a grave shaft driven into the living rock not far east of the south citadel gate.
The statue, weighing almost four tons, is of basalt, like all the large pieces of Tell Halaf sculpture in the round. It represents a woman seated upright on a high chair without back or arms. The stiff, calm and stately bearing at once marks her out as a goddess on a throne. Her feet are resting on a low stool. Seen from the side, the chair shows cross-pieces below and has a netlike ornamentation on the edge of the seat.
The statue is, as it were, put together from three cubes or rectangles climbing like a pyramid. From the footstool rises the lower part of the woman’s body which is shaped like a cube. Its rigid lines show hardly any bodily form, and it almost gives the impression as if the goddess were holding a broad board on her knees and the clothing were hanging down from it. On the upper surface of the squared block rests the outstretched forearm with the hand laid flat on it, while the right hand is holding a beaker well forward on the lap. Perpendicular to this cube, set far back, a fresh cubic block then rises to the woman’s shoulder. From this the head stands up on a high neck. In spite of its highly primitive lines the expression on the face is remarkably impressive. The chin is retreating and runs downwards to a point; the cheek-bones and cheeks are strongly marked. The eyes (they are not inlaid) are on the small side. […] From the forehead there falls on each side of the face and in front of the ears a heavy lock on to the breast; it is independently carved and grooved in a slant. The lower part of the face is flat; the lips of the small mouth are delicately and beautifully curved. […] The line of the nose runs up over the forehead and head in a single bold curve. Particularly striking is the retreating forehead, like that which we find on the oldest Hither Asiatic statues. Seen in profile the head reminds us of the beak-nosed faces on the early Sumerian cylinders and the double stela of Jebelet-el-Beda. […] The stunting of the arms too is shared by this figure with the god on the double stela of Jebelet-el-Beda.
The woman is wearing a gown. Its sleeves reach just short of the elbow and have a broad edging. This edging bears a zigzag motive and runs on at right angles down to the lap; another strip made up of ribbons or bands with an angular motive follows the lines of the upper arms and shoulders up to the neck. […]
The upper part of the body leans slightly backwards.
The throned figure in its great calm has something majestic about it. The countenance shows in a very high degree the mystical archaic smile. In spite of the over-great head and the cubical shape, of the wholly lacking indication of the breast and the too broad shoulders and equally broad lap, the effect is extraordinarily impressive. The goddess’s smile has a fascination that grows on the onlooker. It is a work of the greatest artistic perfection. Anything like this so to speak ‘Cubist’ goddess is not to be found anywhere else in the world. In some ways, the well-known beautiful old Greek seated goddess in white marble of the Berlin Museum might be compared with her; this, too, has the mysterious smile. But in strength, originality and dignified character the goddess of Tell Halaf stands above the Greek goddess, who is a descendant of ours, coming two thousand years later.
It was one of the great events of my excavations and one of my greatest joys as a discoverer, to see this statue literally rising out of the ground. After the greatly denuded mass of mud bricks had been laid bare […], its surface was cleared. In doing this we first of all came upon the top of the head. It looked like a great dark iron pan, but soon the outlines of the head showed themselves. Now one layer of mud bricks after the other was carefully lifted away. […] The work had to be carried on most carefully, so that the pickaxes should not do any hurt to the statue. It was hours and, indeed, days before the great throned goddess at last stood before us in all her greatness. What was our joy when we found that the statue was wholly unhurt! Our Beduin workmen came to call this goddess my bride, because I kept on going to her and could not be out of sight of her. […]
Beyond all question what we have here is the great Subaraic goddess – Hepet.36

Fig. 7.3Tell Halaf. “Sphinx”. Berlin, Pergamon Museum. Wikipedia. Photograph by Z. Thomas. CC-BY-SA.

  • 37 Agatha Christie Mallowan, Come, Tell Me How You Live (London: Collins, 1946), pp. 51-52. It was Ma (...)
  • 38 Cit. Teichmann, Faszination Orient, p. 93.
  • 39 Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, Tell Halaf (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1943–2010), vol. 3 (1955), ed. Anton M (...)

31Oppenheim sometimes referred to this much loved statue as a “Venus.” In her memoirs, the popular detective story writerAgatha Christie describes a visit she and her husband, the distinguished archaeologist Max Mallowan, paid to the special museum in Berlin in which, in the 1930s, Oppenheim exhibited some of his finds from Tell Halaf: “I recall a visit we paid to Baron von Oppenheim in Berlin where he took us to the Museum of his finds. Max and he talked excitedly for (I think) five solid hours.” Now and again, “Baron von Oppenheim stopped in his eager dissertation to say lovingly: ‘Ah, my beautiful Venus,’ and stroke the figure.”37 Later still, in 1943, when the Tell Halaf Museum received a direct hit during an allied air raid on Berlin and the sculptures were blown to pieces, Oppenheim’s greatest concern was for his “Venus.” In a letter to the Director of the Near Eastern section of the Pergamon Museum, he expressed the hope that “the pieces into which the individual stone sculptures have been shattered might be gathered up and brought to the State Museums, so that at some later stage the sculptures can be reconstituted from them.” His greatest concern, he declared, was “naturally, to save the enthroned goddess.” “Do you think that she can reasonably be put together again,” he asked, “from the fragments that have been salvaged?”38 With all his male bonding to his fearless and warlike Bedouin tribesmen, Max von Oppenheim may well have shared a view of the Orient, common among Western men of the time, as the origin of everything, essentially female, and shrouded in the mystery of Woman. He might not have been too happy to see his “enthroned Goddess” cautiously described in the posthumously published volume III (1955) of the great Tell Halaf catalogue as “Grabfigur einer thronenden Frau” [tomb-sculpture of a woman seated on a throne].39

Fig. 7.4 Tell Halaf. “Enthroned Goddess”. Illustrated London News, October 25, 1930, p. 707.


1 The Home Letters of T.E. Lawrence and his Brothers (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1954), p. 225.

2 2 vols. (Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz, 1939, 1943) and 2 posthumous volumes (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1952, 1967–1968). These four volumes constitute a substantial work of scholarship, each one running to nearly 500 pages with very large, well designed fold-out maps in a pocket of the binding. The first two volumes, devoted to the Bedouin tribes of Mesopotamia and Syria and to those of Palestine, Transjordan, the Sinai and the Hijaz respectively, carried on the title page the notice “Unter Mitbearbeitung von Erich Bräunlich and Werner Caskel” [with the collaboration of Erich Bräunlich and Werner Caskel]. Volume 3, published posthumously in 1952, and dealing with the Bedouins of the northern and central parts of the Arabian peninsula still carried Oppenheim’s name as author and, on the title-page, “Bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Werner Caskel” [prepared and edited by Werner Caskel]. (Bräunlich had died in 1945 in a prisoner of war camp in Yugoslavia.) Oppenheim also figured as the author of a fourth volume (1952), which was divided into two parts, the first devoted to Iran and the second containing an index and bibliography for all four volumes. Caskel’s name again appeared alone as the editor. Oppenheim’s collaborators, Bräunlich and Caskel, were in fact responsible for much of the work even on the volumes published during Oppenheim’s lifetime, but Oppenheim was the instigator and guiding spirit behind the entire project, and he provided much of the data.

3 In the Foreword to volume 1, dated Cairo, March, 1899, Oppenheim writes that it was not his intention to provide a simple travel account but “to portray land and people in their historical development and in their ethnographic and religious particularity. In doing so,” he goes on, “I considered myself obligated to quote, in each case, from the rich literature that deals with the history and geography of Syria and Mesopotamia and that includes, along with the works of classical Graeco-Roman and Arabic writers and modern Arab chroniclers, a whole series of older European travel accounts and numerous new scholarly works—these last scattered in not easily accessible journals.” (p. v) The names of individuals and places were given in Arabic script as well as in German. This added a touch of couleur locale—while also serving as a signal of the writer’s authority.

4 Describing the efforts of the Ottoman administration to pacify the Bedouins and get them to settle, he notes that those who do are soon preyed upon by their former friends and relatives until they resume their old ways and resort again to plunder as a way of life. “In my opinion, only one thing will work in dealing with the Bedouins,” he writes, “and that is the deployment of force—strong garrisons manned by good regiments of men mounted on mules, camels, or horses to hold the Bedouins in check, pursue them relentlessly and punish them energetically when they exact tribute from the peasants or plunder them; and if all else fails, driving the entire Bedouin population out of Mesopotamia into the desert lands of Arabia” (Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Bericht über seine Reise durch die Syrische Wüste nach Mosul,” Offprint from Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 1894, no. 4 [Berlin: Druck von W. Pormetter, 1894], 18 pp. [p. 12]). A version of this well written text was also published soon afterwards, in the oldest German geographical journal, Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen. Five years later, material from it was incorporated—but without the suggestions for reining in the Bedouins—into the two-volume Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf durch den Haurān und die Syrische Wüste.

5 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia (see above, ch. 6, note 6), pp. 9–10.

6 Ibid., p. 17.

7 See ch. 6, note 9 above.

8 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, p. 8.

9 Ibid., p. 7.

10 Vol. 36, no. 2 (1901): 69–99.

11 Der Alte Orient, vol. 10, no. 1 (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1908).

12 Cit. G. Teichmann, “Grenzgänger zwischen Orient und Okzident. Max von Oppenheim 1860–1946,” p. 53. The signatories included several of the most eminent scholars of the Middle East in Germany and Central Europe, e.g. C. H. Becker, Ignaz Goldziher, and Ernst Herzfeld. The letter is dated 1919 by Ludmila Hanisch (Die Nachfolger der Exegeten. Deutschsprachige Erforschung des Vorderen Orients in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts, p. 129). However, it is unlikely that “the work begun a decade ago” refers to the extensive excavations of 1911–1913 (less than a decade before 1919), rather than the preliminary excavation of 1899, and the study referred to is clearly that of 1908. The International Congress of Orientalists also met in Copenhagen in 1908 and would thus in 1909 have been fresh in the memory of the letter-signers.

13 New York Times, “German Intrigue in Egypt. Attempts to Weaken British Power. The Activities of Baron von Oppenheim,” 6 January 1915; report dated Cairo, 19 December 1914, p. 7.

14 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, p. 11.

15 Ibid., pp. 16, 20.

16 Ibid., p. 21. The illustration (not in the original German text of 1931) is on the following page.

17 sub “Tell Halaf Museum.” See also Nadja Cholidis and Lutz Martin, Der Tell Halaf und sein Ausgräber Max Freiherr von Oppenheim (Berlin: Vorderasiatisches Museum/Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2002), p. 35, where the cost of the 1911–1913 excavations is estimated at around 750,000 Reichsmarks of the time (approx. $200,000 of the time, the equivalent of approx. $4.5 million today). Whatever the correct figure, the sum was clearly in the millions.

18 “Both as a whole and in its details,” according to the 1901 Bericht (p. 90), “the form of some of our finds bears a great resemblance to Hittite artifacts. But other elements, especially the mystical fertility goddess, are completely unrelated to anything as yet discovered among the artifacts of ancient civilizations. It is not impossible that in Tell Halaf we have come upon the palace of one of the kings of the still unknown Mittani people, which must have lived here in Mesopotamia. Ras el ‘Ain, which is part of Tell Halaf, was virtually made to be the capital of a small principality. Countless tumuli in the neighborhood […] testify to the existence here, in the Babylonian-Assyrian period, of a rich and vibrant culture.”

19 Herzfeld (1879–1948) had a distinguished career. He participated in the excavation of Assur (1903–1905), was appointed Professor of “Landes- und Altertumskunde des Orients” at the Technical University of Berlin in 1920, conducted extensive archaeological work in Iran (1925–1934), and, obliged to vacate his position in Berlin on racial grounds in 1935, was appointed to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (1936–1944). His papers are preserved in the Archives of the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, D.C.

20 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, p. 37. See also, at the end of the volume, Appendix 1 (“Stilkritische Untersuchung und Datierung der Steinbilder”) by Ernest Herzfeld.

21 “Tell Halaf, la plus ancienne capitale soubaréenne de Mésopotamie,” Syria, 13 (1932): 243–56.

22 Edith Porada, review of Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, Tell Halaf, vol. 3: Die Bildwerke (part of the multi-volume scholarly work devoted to Tell Halaf, of which only the first volume appeared during Oppenheim’s lifetime and which, though it carried Oppenheim’s name, was largely produced by his younger friends and associates): “None of the scholars who had to express an opinion about these works followed Herzfeld. […] Instead, the controversy centred on the classification of the sculptures as either Hurro-Mitannian or Aramaic and on their dating between 1400 and 800 B.C” (Artibus Asiae, 20 [1957]: 86–88 [p. 86]). For an overview of the enduring debate about the chronology of the Tell Halaf finds, see W.F. Albright, “The Date of the Kapara Period at Gozan (Tell Halaf),” Anatolian Studies, 6 (1956): 75–85.

23 Man, May 1934, p. 78.

24 Times Literary Supplement, 8 June 1933, p. 395.

25 C. L. Woolley, review of Tell Halaf: a new culture in oldest Mesopotamia, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, July 1934, part 3: 593–97. Woolley (1880–1960) subsequently headed up the joint British Museum-University of Pennsylvania team that in 1922–1934 conducted one of the most spectacular excavations of the twentieth century, at Ur.

26 A native of Austrian Galicia, Speiser immigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen and became a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

27 E.A. Speiser, review of Tell Halaf: a new culture in oldest Mesopotamia, in American Journal of Archaeology, 38 (1934): 610–12.

28 Ungnad (1879–1945) was professor successively at Jena, Greifswald and Breslau with a stint as visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania (1919).

29 Tell Halaf: a new culture in oldest Mesopotamia, p. 54: The Subaraic culture is undoubtedly just as important as the Old Babylonian and the Old Egyptian. Through the discovery of Tell Halaf and of the statues of Jebelet-el-Beda the proof is given for Upper Mesopotamia also of the existence of this third culture in Hither Asia, independent and rooted in the land, and stretching back into the earliest prehistoric times.”

30 D.T.R. in Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, 20 (1933): 451–54. This reviewer, however, also took up the issue on which Speiser had criticized Oppenheim, i.e. the latter’s claim that there was an autonomous “Subaraean” culture, as well as the racial “hypothesis of a large Nordic element in Western Asia,” which the reviewer sees as popular among German anthropologists: “Chapter II deals with the history of Northern Mesopotamia, the ancient Subartuland, home, according to von Oppenheim, of an homogeneous culture in early times, with its own particular racial type and its own particular art. This culture von Oppenheim calls the Subaraic; to its art are to be assigned the works which we know as Hittite and which have hitherto been dated too late, since they have been attributed to the culture established in Asia Minor by conquering Indo-European tribes early in the second millennium. The author suggests that these works must be assigned to the old Subaraic civilization […] established in the north-western part of Mesopotamia. The ‘Hittite’ remains—Karkemish, Senjirli, etc.—have, thinks von Oppenheim, little to do with the purely Hittite culture, which was intrusive above them (p. 56). The Hittite picture writing he also regards as much older than is generally supposed. It must have been older than cuneiform; have been more or less forgotten, and then revived, perhaps somewhat fictitiously, at a comparatively late date.This suggestion seems perhaps somewhat too elaborate. The Hittites as we know them—von Oppenheim calls them Nasians—he regards as of Nordic race, who were linguistically members of the Kentum group. But here we are on very insecure ground, and the hypothesis of a large Nordic element in Western Asia, though upheld by certain German anthropologists (especially Günther), is not one which can be generally accepted. The Mitanni, of whom we hear so much in the history of Egypt’s foreign relations, von Oppenheim also regards as Indo-Europeans, but they were members of the Satem group, and had little to do with the Hittites.”

31 F.S. in The Geogaphical Journal, 82 (1933): 364–65.

32 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, pp. 6–7.

33 Der Tell Halaf und die verschleierte Göttin (Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1908), pp. 24–27. (This is a separate publication of 43 pp. by the Vorderasiatische Gesellschaft of the article in Der Alte Orient, vol. 10, no. 1.)

34 Der Schleier von Sumer bis Heute. Mit 8 Abbildungen im Text und 15 auf Tafeln (Leipzig: F. C. Hinrichs, 1931).

35 Tell Halaf. A New Culture in Oldest Mesopotamia, pp. 108–12.

36 Ibid., pp. 189–91. I have quoted the text of the English translation of 1933, since it is widely accessible, resisting the temptation to revise and correct it. It is, unfortunately, a poor translation.

37 Agatha Christie Mallowan, Come, Tell Me How You Live (London: Collins, 1946), pp. 51-52. It was Mallowan who gave the generic name “Tell Halaf pottery” to all pottery in the style of the coloured, geometrically designed pottery found by Oppenheim at Tell Halaf.

38 Cit. Teichmann, Faszination Orient, p. 93.

39 Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, Tell Halaf (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1943–2010), vol. 3 (1955), ed. Anton Moortgat, Tafel I (image) and pp. 35–36 (description). The physical description is detailed, but the figure is always referred to simply as “die Frau.”

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 7.1 Tell Halaf. “The Pole Goddess,” excavated in 1899. Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Bericht über eine im Jahr 1899 ausgeführte Forschungsreise in der asiatischen Türkei,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, 36, 2 (1901): 69–99, plate 16.
Fichier image/jpeg, 159k
Légende Fig. 7.2 Tell Halaf. “The Goddess with the Veil”. Dr. Max Freiherr von Oppenheim, “Der Tell Halaf und die verschleierte Göttin,” Der Alte Orient, 10, 1 (1908): 43. Plate 12.
Fichier image/jpeg, 211k
Légende Fig. 7.3Tell Halaf. “Sphinx”. Berlin, Pergamon Museum. Wikipedia. Photograph by Z. Thomas. CC-BY-SA.
Fichier image/jpeg, 67k
Légende Fig. 7.4 Tell Halaf. “Enthroned Goddess”. Illustrated London News, October 25, 1930, p. 707.
Fichier image/jpeg, 232k


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