From Athens to Samarqand: Spatial Perception in Antiquity from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Taklamakan Desert

20th Melammu Workshop: From Athens to Samarqand: Spatial Perception in Antiquity from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Taklamakan Desert

Florian Posselt, Universität Innsbruck; Alexander Steiner, Universität Innsbruck; Clemens Steinwender, Universität Innsbruck
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
17.01.2024 - 19.01.2024
Sebastian Knoflach / Julia Hackhofer, Alte Geschichte und Altorientalistik, Universität Innsbruck

History, Philology, Archaeology – In all of these disciplines spatial concepts matter which the conference titled “From Athens to Samarqand: Spatial Perception in Antiquity from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Taklamakan Desert” that was held as the 20th Melammu Workshop in Innsbruck showed to a great extent. As can be seen by the title, the talks focused on regions much beyond those, who – for a long time – were labelled as classical antiquities. This resulted in a broad variety, not only in terms of discussed geography and periods (1st millennium BCE to 1st century CE), but also of speakers which made this conference truly international. While some talks focussed on borderlands, their cities, conflicts and cultural exchange, others concentrated on maritime fields, special toponyms in different languages and spatial perception from varied perspectives in ancient sources.

After the organizers opened the conference and SEBASTIAN FINK (Innsbruck) gave a brief overview of the history of the Melammu workshop, CLEMENS STEINWENDER (Innsbruck) presented an excerpt from his thesis, on behalf of IRENE MADREITER (Innsbruck), who would have held the keynote lecture. Here he talked about the importance of the Caucasus as a borderland region, the impact of the Alani on the mountain passes, as well the cause and use of fortifications in the Sasanian Empire and their universalism. MANON COURTOIS (Paris) emphasized the importance of rethinking Illyria as a borderspace of the Roman Empire after the first Illyrian War, to grasp why the label ‘protectorate’, which was frequently used in research from 1921 onward, doesn’t apply. Hereafter PATRICK REINARD (Trier) showed, how and why the Egyptian dessert trade route shifted, starting from the Ptolemaic port of Berenike to the Roman period, when the infrastructure as well as the number of travellers increased greatly after 60 CE. This may have been caused by a blockade of the Silkroad which might have been a result of the ongoing conflicts between the Romans and the Parthians.

The conferenced continued with VITTORIO CISNETTI’s (Bologna) talk on the political-strategic, naval and symbolic importance of Cyprus for the Near Eastern empires and their Greek competitors between the 8th – 4th century BCE. He illustrated the somewhat paradox traditional external spatial perceptions of Cyprus, as both a symbolic ‘edge’ and a key strategic point in navel military warfare. VALENTINA A. GRASSO (Washington) followed with a comparison between the sixthcentury pre-Islamic Arabians and the Roman influence on them as well as the Turks in central Asia who appropriated the symbols of legitimacy belonging to the surrounding Chinese and Iranian empires for representational purposes. Thereby the focus was on the peripheries of the stated empires, their Konfliktbeziehung between the local dynasties and the (mis)application of cross-cultural assimilation.

ALEJANDRO MIZZONI (Buenos Aires) stated his thoughts on the depiction of Aramaeans as a generic tribal group inhabiting Upper Mesopotamia and Syria, without leaders or specific political entities in the Assyrian annals (11th –10th century BCE). According to him this should not be attributed to the Aramaeans themselves or their organization but more on the Assyrian view of borderlands and their initial failure to subordinate and establish a tributary relationship with these regions and their inhabitants. Hereafter ALEXANDER V. PODOSSINOV (Moskwa) shared his opinion on the – as perceived by Strabo – forged report of Alexander’s historians on the Tanais (modern Don) episode. He emphasized – in opposition to Strabo’s claim – that the perception of the Tanais as a continuation of Iaxartes (modern Syrdarya) existed long before Alexander and began with Hecateus of Miletus and Herodotus. This view might have been passed down to Alexander by his teacher Aristotle.

JULIAN DEGEN (Trier) showed that though it is frequently argued that the Achaemenid imperial worldview strongly impacted how Herodotus understood space, the Greeks did not merely adopt the imperial perspective and geography but adapted it to their own liking as it had become a focal point of discourse that produced and shaped the geographical knowledge in the Greek world. ZOZAN TARHAN (Sofia) gave an overview on the spatial perceptions of the toponyms ‘Nai’ri’, ‘Urarṭu’ and ‘Bia’ in the Assyrian and Urarṭian sources, the relationship between these toponyms, as well as how the Assyrian spatial perceptions of ‘Na’iri’ and ‘Urarṭu’ changed over time. In contrast to the common opinion that the Assyrians used ‘Na’iri’ synonymously to ‘Urarṭu’ she argued that though there is an essential relationship between these toponyms, they were not used as absolute synonyms.

RAINER FELDBACHER (Beijing) discussed the respective perception and definition of borderlands of the Chinese heartlands as well as that by the Iranian peoples that were excluded by the trade route between the Achaemenid and Chinese Empire. While talking about transmission of ideological and religious messages, as well as technologies and ideologies, he specialized on the naming of peoples, countries and regions from the Chinese point of view. YANG JIN (Xi’an) focussed on the research of the Sui and Tang Dynasties, with an emphasize on seeing Sui as separate terminology. The Sui-Emperors overcame the separation of north and south and thus reached territorial integration. This can be seen in the philological terminology ‘Sui Ren’ (隋人) which functioned as a new spatial term incorporating all peoples, also those in the peripheries Man, Yi, Rong and Di. She also mentioned the ever changing and psychologically unclear borders which emperor Yangdi used to expand his empire to the far western regions and revitalize the Silk Road. According to her this change can be observed from excavated royal tombs.

MICHAL SCHWARZ & ONDŘEJ SRBA (Brno) talked about various aspects of spatial organization and perception among particular communities along the Taklamakan Desert with Eastern connections across the Hexi Corridor and Altai Mountains. They showed how various communities accommodated their own designation and organizational structure to their particular position in terms of physical geography, relation of neighbouring oasis states, powers and cultural traditions. They mainly incorporated languages that related to titles of military officers marked by cardinal points related to the position of nearby mountains in Tocharian, Chinese, Mongolian and Manchu.

The next talk, held by VERONICA BUCCIANTINI (Firenze), broached the issue of traditional Greek perception of the spatial relationship between the Mesopotamian city Babylon (Βαβυλών), the surrounding area Babylonia (ἡ Βαβυλώνια with or without χώρα) and Assyria. Firstly she analysed the Persian inscriptions of Darius and Xerxes which in her opinion describe the city of Babylon with it’s country as a satrapy separated from Assyria. She demonstrated, how Herodotus in contrast did not differentiate between the two and how this view continued in other Greek historians, e.g. Strabo, Pomponius Mela, Isidore of Charax and Marcian of Heraclea.

MATTEO COMPARETI (Beijing) gave an overview and an analysis of the spatial perceptions from the pre-Islamic paintings at Afrasyab (Samarkand). He presented the paintings on each of the four walls in the private palace of Varkhuman in modern day Uzbekistan. Each wall was dedicated to a different people, with the northern wall depicting Chinese emperors, the western Turks, the eastern Indians and the southern Sogdians. King vakhuman ordered all these paintings to show the centre of the world (Samarkand) where many foreign peoples met. This room showed the Sogdian perception of foreign peoples interwoven with cultural exchange, as one can see inscriptions combining rules of different languages, intertwining religious rituals and respective lores after thorough inspection.

PAULINA KACZMARCZYK (Wrocław) dealt with the so-called ‘confusion’ of India with Ethiopia in late antique historical writing, while focussing on John Malalas’ work. She argued that the perception of Ethiopia, Axum and southern Arabia as Indian lands in the 4th-6th century CE was connected to the Christianisation of Axum as well as Himyar and that therefore it was presented firstly in the ecclesiastical histories as such. In this context she also made clear that this view was not shared by all authors at the time, with one of the exceptions being Procopius. LIBOR PRUŠA (Brno) talked about the so-called ‘borderlands’ of the Achaemenid Empire, which were only partly or not at all under the control of the Persian kings. While focusing on both, Greek and Eastern sources, he showed the importance of geographical aspects, pointed out the regional similarities and described the selected tribes from Asia Minor, the Pontic area, the Zagros mountains and the Alborz ranges (e.g. Pisidians, Carduchii, Madii, Uxii, Colchians). He also addressed the exploitation of said borderlands for the demonstration of power by both the Greeks and the Persians.

ANCA DAN (Paris) showed how the concept of ‘continents’ had been developed from the Achaemenid period over the Greek and Roman Empire. As the perception of ‘continents’ was heavily based on natural frontiers, the limits of the respective empires varied in time as they expanded or regressed. A special focus of hers was on defining the rivers Phasis and Tanais as the border between Europe and Asia. FELIX MÜLLER (Göttingen) illustrated the Middle Assyrian description of the end of the world by means of Egypt. According to him such places had to be remote (e.g. mountains), unknown and unreached by former rulers and therefore non-submissive (i.e. not paying tribute). As for Egypt, a shift of the perception of borders can be seen with Neo-Assyrian rulers in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE with a connection to the regions Meluḫḫa and Magan. In the last talk of the conference, KATERYNA BAULINA (Kyiv) discussed the importance, influence and ideological significance of border cities in the Achaemenid Empire, starting with the most important border city of Cyrus II. – Cyropolis – and ending with the founding of the Macedonian counterpart Alexandria Eschate by Alexander III. She put a special emphasize on border cities as suitable places for the transfer, syncretism, and transformation of the ideas of empires.

As ROBERT ROLLINGER (Innsbruck/Wrocław) mentioned in his concluding remarks, this conference showed the multidisciplinarity of research on spatial perception as it incorporated all fields of ancient studies. This convention overcame Eurocentric views in ancient studies and showed how important it is to also look beyond Greek and Roman sources to understand the proto-globalized ancient world. With the rising importance of defining ancient empires, all talks illustrated the characteristic fluctuating borders – the so-called ‘borderlands’. While this conference showed, how borders in antiquity were of military, geographical, linguistical nature or just imagined, it also exemplified how modern boundaries can be pushed by the diversity of speakers, nationalities and research fields.

Conference overview:


Florian Posselt (Innsbruck) / Alexander Steiner (Innsbruck) / Clemens Steinwender (Innsbruck)

Substitution of the keynote lecture

Clemens Steinwender (Innsbruck): The Sasanian Empire and the Caucasus: Spatial Perception of a late unique Borderland

Panel I: Borderlands I
Chair: Volker Grieb (Graz) / Bernhard Palme (Wien)

Manon Courtois (Paris): A Roman ‘protectorate’ in Illyria? Rethinking a Border Area in the Beginning of the Spread of the Roman Empire

Patrick Reinard (Trier): From the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Trade Routes in Ptolemaic and Roman Times

Vittorio Cisnetti (Bologna): A Central Frontier In the Sea. Cyprus as a Maritime Ideal Edge and Strategic Outpost in the Archaic and Classical Ages

Valentina A. Grasso (Washington): Kingship, Self Representation and Cross-Cultural Assimilation: a Comparative Analysis between Late Antique North Arabians and Central Asians (online)

Panel II: Perception of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea
Chair: Florian Schwarz (Wien)

Alejandro Mizzoni (Buenos Aires): Assyrian Practice and Imagination of Borderlands: The Aramean Case

Alexander Podossinov (Moskwa): Alexander the Great on the Don? Spatial perception of the geography of the Eurasian steppes in connection with Alexander‘s campaign in Central Asia

Julian Degen (Trier): Inherited Geographies in Herodotus´ Histories

Panel III: Spatial Terminology
Chair: Patrick Zeitlhuber (Wien) / Alexander Steiner (Innsbruck)

Zozan Tarhan (Sofia): Spatial Perception of the Toponyms Na’iri, Urarṭu and Bia in the Assyrian and Urarṭian Sources

Rainer Feldbacher (Beijing): Adoption of the Foreign– A linguistic Comparison of the Border Regions between Iran and China

Yang Jin (Xi’an): From Division to Reunification: New Spatial Transformation of Sui Dynasty in Lens of Dual Attestation (online)

Michal Schwarz (Brno) / Ondřej Srba (Brno): Changing understanding of spatial organization of centers and peripheries in the evolution of Inner Asian political and administrative terminology

Panel IV: Perception of the Near East, Central Asia and South Asia
Chair: Nina Mirnig (CoE EurAsian Transformations, Wien)

Veronica Bucciantini (Firenze): Continuity and Discontinuity of a Geographical Concept: Babylon and Babylonia in Greek Historiography

Matteo Compareti (Beijing): Spatial Perception of the Sogdians according to the Pre-Islamic Paintings at Afrasyab (Samarkand)

Paulina Kaczmarczyk (Wrocław): Perception of India-Ethiopia in Late Antique Historical Writing

Panel V: Borderlands II
Chair: Erich Kistler (Innsbruck) / Chair: Sebastian Fink (Innsbruck)

Libor Pruša (Brno): In the Grip of the King. The (Un)conquered Lands within the Achaemenid Empire

Anca Dan (Paris): Shifting Borders between Continents in Antiquity (online)

Felix Müller (Göttingen): Shifting the Edge of the World. Continuity and Changes in the Perception of Borders and Relations of Space in the Neo-Assyrian Royal Inscription

Kateryna Baulina (Kyiv): Border Cities in the Achaemenid Empire and Conception of Cyropolis in the Organization of the Imperial Space.

Robert Rollinger (Innsbruck/Wrocław): Concluding Remarks