Thursday 10 January 2013

Star-Gayzing - The Meteorite That Became a God

In recent years the city of Homs in Syria has become known as a war-torn victim of internal conflict. But in ancient times, when it was called Emesa, it was famous as the centre of a cult centred around a large meteorite and an effeminate emperor.

There are a few sacred stones said to have fallen from the sky. Historians and archaeologists are not sure about the exact origin of the Black Stone of Emesa. Probably no-one ever will because (if it still exists) its buried under a mosque. But archaeologists often refer to it as a meteorite. Legend says it fell from the sky directly from the sun god El-Gabal. Considering its size (from depictions on ancient coins it was about the size of the average refrigerator) it must have made a spectacular entrance through the atmosphere. No wonder the locals thought it came from the sun god.

It’s not unusual for such a large object to smash into Earth. The Black Stone of Emesa may have been one of the Apollo asteroids I mentioned in November. A recently as 2008 a similar sized asteroid weighing 80 tons crashed into the Nubian desert.

The Bedouin nomads worshipped the El-Gabal stone and settled in Emesa where they built a shrine around it – they probably got tired of carting it around with them because it was so heavy! The leaders of the tribe became the hereditary kings and high priests of El-Gabal.

The ancient Roman writer Herodian describes this shrine as housed in a huge temple decorated with gold, silver and precious gems. All the neighbouring kingdoms paid tribute to the meteorite every year. He describes the meteorite as a big black stone in a rough conical shape with various markings on its surface (probably ritual carvings made by the early nomads who worshipped it).

This temple housed the meteorite until 218 when it was transferred to Rome by the emperor Bassianus. This teenager was the hereditary high priest of El-Gabal and the meteorite, and he is better known to us by a name taken from his god – Elagabalus. Over a year ago I featured Elagabalus in my Extraordinary Lives series, so I won’t go over it all again here. More appropriately for the Ology of the Month we’ll look at his special relationship with the meteorite.

It wasn’t long after becoming emperor that Elagabalus decided to bring the stone from Homs/Emesa to Rome. In doing so he decided to make El-Gabal superior to the Roman gods. He even married it to a statue of the goddess Astarte.

Just as the El-Gabal meteorite was housed in a luxurious temple in Homs/Emesa, so Elagabalus built one for it in Rome. All of the sacred Roman relics were brought from their own temples. He created a special festival in its honour during which free food was distributed. Another ancient writer, Cassius Dio, also says that boys were sacrificed at this festival.

The first entry of the meteorite into its new temple was a splendidly over-the-top occasion. The stone was placed onto a chariot and pulled by four pure white horses bedecked in gold fittings and ornaments. Elagabalus himself led the horses by the reins, walking backwards in front of them. Following this chariot was a procession of cavalry and guards carrying all the other scared Roman statues, with offerings and imperial insignia. And alongside the procession were the Roman citizens carrying torches and throwing flowers and bouquets at the meteorite as it passed. Beside the emperor were bodyguards to ensure that he didn’t fall over, and he could see his route by the gold dust scattered on the road.

At the new temple Elagabalus climbed up inside the towers and threw gold, silver, rich cloths and clothing wildly to the crowds below. The scramble to grab all these riches caused many citizens to be trampled on or crushed and many lost their lives.

It wasn’t long before the Romans got tired of Elagabalus and his extravagant lifestyle. His worship of the meteorite above the gods of Rome was unpopular, and his general behaviour was that of a spoilt brat. In the end the military got fed up with his effeminate behaviour – dressing in extravagant robes (when he dressed at all) and wearing make up, giving all-male parties, and “marrying” a particularly well-endowed charioteer.

In the end Elagabalus was beheaded whilst trying to escape his own execution. He was just 20 years old.

As for the meteorite – as soon as Elagabalus was out of the way it was shipped back to its temple in Homs. No-one knows where it is now. It may have been smashed up when the temple became a Christian church, or buried underneath the mosque which occupies the site today. But for a couple of years it was the chief deity of the whole of the Roman Empire from Spain to Turkey and from the Atlas mountains to the northern boundary of the Roman Empire marked by the wall built by that other gay emperor, Hadrian.

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