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Idrimi, the 3,500-year-old refugee

he statue of King Idrimi arrived at the British Museum in 1939. The inscription that stretches across the front of the statue is now recognised as one of the 20 most important cuneiform documents ever found. James Fraser, Project Curator, Middle East Department, discusses the importance of Idrimi's story, and how new scanning techniques are allowing us unravel the inscription in more detail.James Fraser, Project Curator, Middle East Department 10 April 2017

The thing I love the most about guiding visitors through the British Museum is taking them to the astonishing statue of King Idrimi. No one has ever heard of Idrimi, but, after seeing his statue, no one ever forgets.

Idrimi was a refugee who fled Aleppo in Syria about 3,500 years ago – the same Aleppo so often in the news today. Later, as a much older man, Idrimi had this statue made of himself, with his life story written across the front, literally from head to foot. This extraordinary story is inscribed in the wedge-shaped cuneiform script of the ancient Middle East, and it is one of the earliest (and most interesting) political autobiographies ever found.

The story of Idrimi

Idrimi lived with his parents and six older brothers in the ancient kingdom of Aleppo. When he was a young man, a ‘hostile incident’ happened between his father and the king, so Idrimi fled with his family to his mother’s hometown of Emar, on the Euphrates river. Although his older brothers were happy there, Idrimi thought that his family was not being treated well, and so he fled again to the Land of Canaan, probably in southern Lebanon.

In Canaan, Idrimi met another group of refugees from Aleppo, who claimed him as their leader. For the next six years, Idrimi made offerings to the storm god, Teshub, but to no avail. Finally, on the seventh year, the offerings were good. With Teshub’s blessing, Idrimi built a fleet of ships, sailed up the coast, and attacked the ancient city of Alalakh, about 80km west of Aleppo, in southern Turkey. Idrimi would rule over Alalakh for the next 30 years, leading his armies against seven Hittite cities in Turkey. It is also easy to read, between the stick-like wedges of the cuneiform text, Idrimi’s delight at placing his six older brothers under his protection, when they later turned to their youngest brother for help.

Idrimi carved his statue in white magnesite limestone around 1500 BC, and he placed it inside a temple upon a black basalt throne.

A curse…and a blessing

What I love most about the statue are two phrases that bracket the start and the end of the text. The last two lines curse anyone who might destroy the statue, or who is bold enough to change its text. However, the curse contrasts a blessing written in two lines down Idrimi’s right cheek, almost like a cartoon speech bubble coming directly from his mouth. These lines state that Idrimi wrote his deeds upon himself for everyone to see, and those that read the text will learn from his life, and so bless Idrimi forever.

When was the statue found?

An invading force destroyed the city of Alalakh in about 1200 BC. The attackers found the statue, and, disregarding its curse, they removed its head and pushed the body from the throne.

In 1939, the famous archaeologist Leonard Woolley unearthed the basalt throne lying on the temple floor. A few days later, he discovered the statue, immediately recognising it as one of the most important Bronze Age artefacts ever discovered in the east Mediterranean world.

Intriguingly, the statue itself had been hidden inside a pit beneath the temple floor, the severed head placed carefully alongside the body. We do not know who buried the statue, following its desecration in the city’s final hours. However, I like to imagine a mysterious worshipper, now lost to history, finding the statue among the temple’s smouldering ruins, and burying it within holy ground.

Woolley sent the statue to the British Museum in June 1939. Ironically, Idrimi soon found himself hidden underground once more, this time by nervous curators protecting the collection at the outbreak of WWII.

Why does it matter?

The statue was one of the most important finds from Woolley’s dig at Alalakh, and he published a photograph of the moment of its discovery in the Illustrated London News. The statue increased in fame a few years later when Idrimi’s text was translated at the Museum. The inscription provides a fabulous window into the politics, geography and cultic practices of the eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, seen through the eyes of King Idrimi.

The inscription also describes a loose alliance between Idrimi and a mysterious group of stateless wanderers called the ha-pi-ru, who lived in the Canaanite hills. This is one of the first times in history that the ha-pi-ru are named, and many archaeologists believe that they were the ancestors of the Hebrew tribes that later conquered Canaan, written in the Bible a thousand years later.

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