Hollanda Araştırma Enstitüsü  -  Nederlands Instituut in Turkije

The palace of Samosata as a globalizing assemblage: innovating objects in Late-Hellenistic Commagene

Lennart W. Kruijer (Leiden University)

My stay as a fellow at the NIT has been a wonderful experience so far and I am extremely grateful to Aysel and Fokke for their kind hospitality and assistance. The NIT offers a unique working place, with its well-stocked open library, spacious setting and calm atmosphere. The latter is somewhat deceiving, as its hyper-central location makes it the eye of a hurricane; one step outside its doors and the city immediately draws you in and drags you into its unceasing and addictive chaos. The NIT apartment, not far away from the institute, is incredibly luxurious and offers a beautiful view on the Bosporus. I feel privileged that I got the opportunity to finalize and submit the manuscript of my PhD thesis here in Istanbul during the second week of my stay. This dissertation deals with the legacy data of the 1st c. BCE palace of Samosata, a large luxurious residence (not unlike the NIT apartment!) in the capital of the Late-Hellenistic kingdom of Commagene, in modern south-eastern Turkey. It is a great pleasure to provide a short introduction to my research here, hopefully making the reader curious for more!

It is well-established in scholarship on Hellenistic palaces that, especially towards the Late-Hellenistic period, royal commissioners of the Near East started to build in an increasingly monumental and experimental fashion, pushing the limits of what was physically possible in terms of these palaces’ size, location and their lavishness of decoration. Famous examples of this phenomenon are most notably found in Judea, where king Herod commissioned a range of unique palaces in places like Jericho, Herodium and Masada. In the latter, a large palatial mansion (the so-called ‘northern palace’) is located at the vertiginous edge of a steep rock, with terraced pavilions in a range of different architectural designs, introducing new wall painting styles and forms of architectural decoration. This urge for innovation of Late-Hellenistic Near-Eastern kings in the first place served the showcasing of their wealth, power and prestige. It is probably not coincidental that the amplified need for this type of ostentatious self-representation happened during a time when the power of many such kings had become increasingly contested or even annulled in the face of Roman military and political interference in the region, subordinating many Late-Hellenistic kingdoms to the status of (semi-)dependent ‘client kingdoms’ (admittedly, a much debated term). In my research, I am particularly interested in the ways such innovative dynastic projects often meant a clean and abrupt break with past traditions: it seems that, beyond the specific intentions of their royal commissioners, these palaces functioned also as loci of non-local influx, cosmopolitan hubs where novel elements assembled and irreversibly altered and affected the stylistic and material make-up of their wider surroundings.

The palace of Samosata in the kingdom of Commagene is a relatively unknown example of such experimental royal self-representation. The main reason for this obscurity has been its rather limited state of publication, which is mostly in Turkish and so far lacked an exhaustive, in-depth archaeological analysis. It certainly does not help, moreover, that, since 1990, the entire city of Samosata has been completely submerged by the waters of the Atatürk Lake, a result of the construction of the Atatürk Dam in the Euphrates. In my dissertation, I have provided an analysis of the archaeological legacy data pertaining to this palatial context, unlocking a wealth of new archaeological material (sculpture, architectural decoration, ceramics) stored at the depot of the Museum of Adıyaman, and integrating these finds with the largely unpublished documentation of the salvage excavations conducted in Samosata during the 1980s, led by prof. dr. Nimet Özgüç (Ankara University). This resulted in an exhaustive archaeological analysis of the palace, providing in-depth discussions of the structure’s chronology, its layout, decorative features, and its recontextualized finds - all in combination with newly crafted archaeological maps and hundreds of previously unpublished photographs.

From this new archaeological analysis follows the observation that the palace of Samosata has indeed all the characteristics of Late-Hellenistic royal experimentation and likely functioned as a monumental, cosmopolitan hub: its excavated sector is already 1700 m2 in size, it is placed on top of a 50-meter-high mound, towering over the Lower Town, and looking out over the nearby, majestic Euphrates river, thus taking up a highly visible, nodal point in the wider landscape. The structure itself has almost two-meter-wide walls, and contains a unique architectural lay-out with symmetrical suites of small rooms and narrow corridors alternated with enormous halls measuring up to 14 x 20 m. in size. Throughout the excavated part of the palace, walls are decorated with painted decoration in so-called Masonry Style, showing imitations of stone orthostats and isodomes in bright yellow and red colors. The floors contain tessellated mosaics with so-called concentric border schemes, framing central figurative mosaic emblemata that depict comedic masks, amphorae and dolphins. Lastly, the palace housed a range of limestone and probably even marble sculptures, often depicting the Commagenean kings, which were probably erected in a statue group that might be interpreted as an ancestral gallery.

Crucially, I demonstrate in my dissertation that almost none of these architectural and decorative features are known for the preceding, earlier archaeological contexts of Samosata, Commagene and, even, the wider north-Syrian region. At the same time, these non-local elements had very trans-regional ‘genealogies’, appearing in places like Delos, Pergamon, Judea, and the Italian peninsula. Compared to other examples of Late-Hellenistic palaces, the monumental and cosmopolitan character of the palace of Samosata thus meant a similarly clean and abrupt break with local traditions, introducing a range of new objects and concepts to the city and its environs. The underlying shift in royal strategies of self-representation should probably also be seen in relation to Commagene’s growing subjugation to Roman power in the 1st c. BCE. The use of non-local elements in experimental combinations can furthermore be understood against the background of increased Afro-Eurasian connectivity and its consequential widening of object repertoires on a local scale. While similar arguments have already been made for the eclectic character of other dynastic contexts in Commagene - most notably the famous and contemporary tomb-sanctuary of Nemrut Dağı -, my dissertation attempts to take this analysis one step further, starting out from a more fundamental critique on the often reductive approaches to Late-Hellenistic cultural eclecticism in previous scholarship. This concerns especially the problematic scholarly tendency to assign the different elements of Late-Hellenistic Near-Eastern palaces to either a ‘Greek’ or an ‘Oriental’ sphere, often suggesting that these monarchs intended to create ‘Oriental-Greek’ hybrids. Instead of such reductive and culturally essentialist approaches to material culture (deeply steeped in acculturative notions of culture contact between incommensurable cultural spheres), my dissertation develops a method that allows for an investigation of the impact (or vibrancy) of these innovative palaces, reconceptualizing them as relational assemblages -compositions that act - and looking not at which culture or rhetoric message they represented but rather at their more-then-representational capacities. Such an approach opens up exciting new lines of research, with which the local impact of both Late-Hellenistic dynastic experiments as well as larger-scale globalization processes can be investigated for singular archaeological contexts. In the research time that I have currently left at the NIT, I am devising a post-doc proposal that further explores these themes for a different, equally cosmopolitan dynastic context in Late-Hellenistic Commagene, namely the tomb-sanctuary of Arsameia on the Nymphaios.

Access to the archaeological material was kindly granted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Archaeological Museum of Adıyaman. I am very grateful to prof. dr. Aliye Öztan and prof. dr. Tayfun Yıldırım (Ankara University) for allowing me to publish the materials from the Özgüç Archive.