2,800-Year-Old Cursed Assyrian Stele Brings Bad Luck for Police Commissioner
Whoever discards this image from the presence of Salmanu puts it into another place, whether he throws it into water or covers it with earth or brings and places it into a taboo house where it is inaccessible, may the god Salmanu, the great lord, overthrow his sovereignty; may his name and his seed disappear in the land; may he live in a contingent together with the slave women of his land
These are the translated words of the curse etched onto an ancient Assyrian artifact dating back to 800 BC, which is currently at the center of a dispute between its former owner and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London. The Commissioner is being sued by a Lebanese antiquities dealer after the police confiscated the relic due to questions about its provenance. The stele is in two pieces and the British Museum is the keeper of the top half of the ‘cursed’ relic. They declined to purchase the bottom half when it went up for auction in 2014 due to doubts about how it came to be in the hands of the dealer.
Tell Sheikh Hamad in Syria, where the upper portion of the stele was found. (Eastern Atlas)
Cursed Stele Goes Up for Auction
The basalt stele dedicated to King Adad-Nirari III comes from the ancient city of Dur-Katlimmu, now the modern town of Sheikh Hamad in Syria, where it was installed at a shrine commemorating a military victory. The British Museum's fragment, depicting the head of the king, was discovered in 1879 and acquired by the museum two years later from private collector Joseph M Shemtob. The lower part of the royal stele was put up for sale by a private collector in Geneva at Bonhams in London in 2014, with an estimate of £600,000 to £800,000. The stele was "given as a gift from father to son in the 1960s", according to the auction house, but no details about when it left Syria were available. Bonhams said they were confident about the provenance, however, The Telegraph reports that the Met Police seized the artifact following claims by the Beirut-based Saadeh Cultural Foundation that it had been illicitly excavated.
A King Worshipping the Divine
The complete stele would have measured 2.1 metres tall, and depicts king Adad-Nirari III, ruler of Mesopotamia between 810 BC and 783 BC, in a position of worship in front of divine symbols – the winged sun disc of Shamash; the star of Ishtar/Venus, goddess of human passions in love and war; and the thunderbolt of the weather god Adad. His right hand is raised in a gesture of worship and his left hand holds a mace. Cuneiform script is inscribed on the sides of the stele, and on the front across the body of the king, which reads:
“…Negal-eres, governor of the country of Rasappa… presented an image of Adad-nerari III, king of Assyria, his lord, to the god Salmanu, his lord, who protects the throne of his priesthood, to give into his hands the sceptre that shepherds the people, for the well-being of his seed, the well-being of the people of Assyria and the well-being of Assyria, to scatter his adversaries, to destroy his fierce foes, to subdue his enemy princes.”
Another stele, this one complete, depicting king Adad-Nirari III. Photo source: Wikipedia
A Symbol of Assyrian Power
Both of the inscriptions identify Dur-Katlimmu as the seat of the god Salmanu, confirming what has already been discovered in archival texts found at Tell Sheikh Hamad. The inscriptions describe the reconstruction and renovation of his temple at Dur-Katlimmu. The inscription on the front exhorts future rulers to care for the temple, while the text on the side explicitly curses anyone who should dare to remove the stele from the temple. Nergal-eres, governor of the region, presented this specific stele to the temple along with a namsaru sword, which is no ordinary sword but a weapon fit for a god. He wished to bring Salmanu's blessings on his king and his realm, showing Nergal-eres as a loyal supporter of his ruler.
Monuments of this kind were erected inside and outside temples. Their presence was an assertion of Assyrian power and were designed to intimidate foreign delegates, with many containing images depicting the relentless progress of the mighty Assyrian army. Statues and steles represented royal authority, and so oaths would have been sworn in the symbolic presence of the king. Their inscriptions are often addressed to future rulers who, when coming across them in the course of the renovation of a temple for instance, are admonished to treat them with care and respect. Not surprisingly, these statues were highly-prized trophies for rival kings who could carry them off and have their own name inscribed on them. To prevent this, these objects were secured with curses.
During the 9th century BC, the all-conquering Assyrian Empire extended its territories from what is now northern Iraq to the banks of the Nile. The empire collapsed in 612 BC with the fall of the capital at Nineveh to the armies of the Babylonians and the Medes.
Bad Luck for the Police Commissioner
The King Adad-Nirari stele places a curse on whoever tampers with or moves the stele, and in a coincidental turn of events, Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who ordered the removal of the stele from Bonhams auction house, is certainly experiencing some bad luck. Looking forward to a peaceful retirement, the Commissioner must now fight a legal battle with the former owner, who claims he has proof that it was obtained legally. He is demanding £200,000 compensation for loss and damage as part of his claim.
“Mr Korban holds Mr Hogan-Howe personally responsible for the actions of his men in seizing the stone and preventing its planned sale,” reports The Telegraph. “But Scotland Yard intends to mount a robust defence against his claims, curse or no curse.”
Featured image: The lower-half of the stele being auctioned by Bonhams on the left, and the top-half held by the British Museum on the right.