In Babylonia the return of the spirits of the dead was greatly dreaded. Ishtar once uttered the terrible threat: “I will cause the dead to rise; they will then eat and live. The dead will be more numerous than the living.” When a foreign country was invaded, it was a common custom to break open the tombs and scatter the bones they contained. Probably it was believed, when such acts of vandalism were committed, that the offended spirits would plague their kinsfolk. Ghosts always haunted the homes they once lived in, and were as malignant as demons. It is significant to find in this connection that the bodies of enemies who were slain in battle were not given decent burial, but mutilated and left for birds and beasts of prey to devour.
The demons that plagued the dead might also attack the living. A fragmentary narrative, which used to be referred to as the “Cuthean Legend of Creation”, and has been shown by Mr. L.W. King to have no connection with the struggle between Merodach and the dragon, deals with a war waged by an ancient king against a horde of evil spirits, led by “the lord of heights, lord of the Anunaki (earth spirits)”. Some of the supernatural warriors had bodies like birds; others had “raven faces”, and all had been “suckled by Tiamat”.
For three years the king sent out great armies to attack the demons, but “none returned alive”. Then he decided to go forth himself to save his country from destruction. So he prepared for the conflict, and took the precaution of performing elaborate and therefore costly religious rites so as to secure the co-operation of the gods. His expedition was successful, for he routed the supernatural army. On his return home, he recorded his great victory on tablets which were placed in the shrine of Nergal at Cuthah.
This myth may be an echo of Nergal’s raid against Eresh-ki-gal. Or, being associated with Cuthah, it may have been composed to encourage burial in that city’s sacred cemetery, which had been cleared by the famous old king of the evil demons which tormented the dead and made seasonal attacks against the living.
Oil reservoirs, formed over millions of years as carbon-rich sediments are compressed and cooked, are scattered like islands across Earth’s subsurface. Like other deep biosphere habitats, we know they harbor life, but we aren’t really sure how or when life got there.
“There’s a hypothesis that these bacteria were buried, then continued to live on in complete isolation,” study author Olga Zhaxybayeva told me.
To test that hypothesis, the team of researchers, hailing from Dartmouth College, the University of Alberta, and the University of Oslo, analyzed 11 genomes of the heat-loving bacterium Thermotoga. The bacteria was taken from oil reservoirs in the North Sea and Japan, and marine sites near the Kuril Islands, Italy and the Azores. They compared their results with publicly available Thermotoga genomes from North America and Australia.
Their analysis revealed a complex evolutionary history between the different genomes, suggesting rampant gene swapping across far-flung communities. And since the oil beds themselves are ancient, this genetic exchange has probably been going on for millions of years.
How microbes half a world apart actually exchange genetic material isn’t totally clear. Some bacteria are genetic scavengers, sucking up stray DNA willy-nilly. Others use microscopic tubes to pass genes back and forth in a weird bacterial version of sex. And viruses—which cut and paste DNA among surface-dwellers’ genomes all the time—might also shape the genetic landscape of the deep biosphere.
“The answer is probably that it happens in a variety of ways,” Zhaxybayeva told me. “But it’s really surprising to see how much it’s happening. It’s clear that these organisms are not nearly as isolated as we once thought.”
The author’s findings may also shed light on the nature of life on early Earth. Zhaxybayeva, who has been mapping Thermotoga’s lineage for over a decade, says the organism has deep roots in the tree of life.
“This lineage is perhaps one of the most ancient that exists today,” Zhaxybayeva said. “The fact that it’s anaerobic, and likes hot environments, fits with our understanding of where life on Earth first evolved.”
Thermotoga’s penchant for gene swapping may indicate a once-widespread adaptation for life in hydrothermal vents, where high heat and acid have no trouble shredding DNA apart.
“As temperatures rise, organisms accrue more DNA damage. One way to potentially repair their genome is to actually recombine it— to patch their genomes with similar DNA,” Zhaxybayeva said.
Top-notch DNA repair machinery may be life’s most precious survival tool. Who knows, maybe it’s Earth’s most ardent gene-swappers that could actually survive the long, dark, radiation-filled trip to another world.
UNESCO describes Palmyra as a heritage site of ‘outstanding universal value’.
The ancient city stood on a caravan route at the crossroads of several civilisations and its 1st and 2nd century temples and colonnaded streets mark a unique blend of Graeco-Roman and Persian influences.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the city was ‘under threat’ as fierce fighting and shelling continued on its eastern edges amid a regime counter-offensive.
The jihadist advance on the well-preserved remains came as an international conference was under way in Cairo to address destruction already wreaked by IS on the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq.
Foreign affairs and antiquities officials from 11 Arab countries gathered in Egypt to condemn the jihadists’ demolition of Iraq’s heritage with sledgehammers, bulldozers and high explosives.
Abdulkarim said Syria’s antiquities officials would try to ensure the safety of artefacts found in Palmyra’s archaeological digs over the years and now housed in an adjacent museum.
‘We can protect the statues and artefacts, but we cannot protect the architecture, the temples,’ he said.
‘IS will just destroy it from the outside.’
Abdulkarim said he had no doubt that if Palmyra fell to the jihadists, it would suffer a similar fate to ancient Nimrud, which they blew up earlier this year.
‘If IS enters Palmyra, it will spell its destruction… It will be a repetition of the barbarism and savagery which we saw in Nimrud, Hatra and Mosul.’
It does something to our sense of ourselves, and of humanity, when we see pictures of men, willfully and with impunity, destroying some of the world’s oldest and rarest archeological treasures. A couple of weeks ago, it was video clips of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham’s extremists wielding sledgehammers and drills, methodically destroying an exquisitely carved stone lamassu, or winged man-bull, at the Assyrian complex of Nimrud, which was created by artists nearly three thousand years ago. A few days later, it was the ancient temple complex of Hatra, in northern Iraq, which was built by the Seleucid Empire around two or three centuries before Christ. Hatra had been the site of a series of glorious colonnaded buildings and statues; it is reported that beginning on March 7th, ISIS destroyed what was left of them. On Monday, there were new images on social media showing ISIS extremists attacking the grounds of St. George’s, a centuries-old Chaldean Catholic monastery outside of Mosul. In this world of all-seeing, all-hearing killer drones, these acts somehow continue.
All around the Middle East, archeological treasures of the ancient world have been stripped of their original glory—often, of what some call graven images.ISIS’s fanatics do so hatefully, as if to spite all others, but they are not the only perpetrators. Muslim extremists have long sought to destroy the physical evidence that any other faith worth valuing existed before their own. In March, 2001, the Afghan Taliban announced to the world that they would destroy the ancient, giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, and then, using explosives and artillery, proceeded to do just that. In the last decade, the Saudis, as the keepers of the Muslim holy places, have razed hundreds of historic sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina to make way for new construction, including shopping malls and hotels.
On a recent trip to Libya, I revisited the ancient Greco-Roman temple complex of Cyrene, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I had been there three years ago while Qaddafi was still in power. Most of the statues had already been defaced, but some had their human countenances still intact. On this return trip, on a line of pillars topped by bas reliefs showing the faces of gods, there were signs of even more recent vandalism, and a spray-painted message on the stone wall condemning idol worship. There were no guards that I could see. That evening, I spoke to Ahmed Hussein, who was recently named head of the Department of Antiquities (in one of Libya’s rival governments, anyway), and who attributed the damage to a band of footloose “local boys.” Even without interference from extremists, Cyrene was already succumbing to these casual forms of vandalism and to land grabbers who have been bulldozing sites to build cement-block houses around the edges of the temple complex. “The biggest threat we face is from the mentality of the local people, who don’t realize the economic value Cyrene has for us through tourism,” Hussein said. I pointed out that the city of Derna, which then, as now, was in the hands of ISIS extremists, lay only a short distance down the coast from Cyrene. Hussein acknowledged worryingly that that they “might come here.” He said, “We must be ready, because if they come, it will be like Iraq.”