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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


Little is known about the prehistoric hunter-gatherer of the Near East who created the Natufian and similar cultures. With the development of civilization, people who lived by hunting (Esau) were sometimes represented in a less favorable light than builders of cities (Gilgamesh) or pastoralists (Jacob). The story of David, however, who “slew both the lion and the bear,” foreshadows his future greatness (1 Sm. 17:36).

The introduction of the horse-drawn chariot into Egypt before the middle of the second millennium enabled kings to display themselves spectacularly in the hunt. Tutankhamen (c. 1348–1339 BCE) is represented on a painted box shooting with bow and arrow as his chariot team gallops in pursuit of game; and the pylons at Medinet Habu show Rameses III (c. 1190–1158 BCE) stepping onto the pole of his chariot in order to transfix a wild bull with a gigantic lance. These representations are not realistic, for in real life a charioteer would have accompanied the king; and the Ramesside reliefs combine the originally separate motifs of the royal chariot and of the Pharaoh striding forward to smite his enemies. Most probably the game—which included lions, antelopes, and ostriches—was shot with the bow from a stationary chariot, which was driven up to it by spearmen and archers. These are shown at Medinet Habu below the king and on a smaller scale. Military training was thus combined with sport.


HUNTING. Figure 1. Relief from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, Mesopotamia. King Ashurnasirpal hunting lions, a lion leaping at the king's chariot. British Museum, London. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

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The royal hunt appears frequently in the palace reliefs of the Assyrian New Kingdom (see figure 1). Ashurnasirpal (885–860 BCE) hunts lions and bulls from a four-horse chariot in which he is accompanied by a driver and weapon bearers. Ashurbanipal (669–627 BCE) hunts with a spear and bow both in a chariot and on horseback. His skill as a mounted archer may reflect the influence of the Scythians, to whose kings the Assyrian royal house had allied itself by marriage. Ashurbanipal also killed lions on foot, and inscriptions accompanying his monuments refer contemptuously to the terror of subject kings compelled to share this royal sport. Lions are sometimes released from traveling cages to be destroyed by the king; and the monuments also show large-scale drives leading to the wholesale slaughter of lions, wild asses, and gazelles, which may be driven into long nets or toward a pit in which the king, holding a bow and arrow, is concealed. Sometimes these hunts are represented as taking place in parks to which the populace, including women, is admitted to witness the royal prowess.

The theme of Assyrian official art is the brutal crushing of the king's enemies; but the major monuments of Achaemenid Persia (c. 550–330 BCE) represent “all the kingdoms of the earth” (Ezr. 1:2) as the peaceful subjects of the Great King, who is portrayed on reliefs in Persepolis destroying imaginary monsters, allegories of evil, rather than hunting real animals. Herodotus shows that to hunt on horseback with bow or spear was for the Persian nobility the epitome of manly virtue—and excellent training for leaders of armies whose strength lay in their cavalry. Game parks, or “paradises,” are frequently mentioned as a feature of courtly life. Xenophon, in his romance Cyropaedia, tells how, as a boy, Cyrus the Great (c. 550–527 BCE) rode after boar, first in his grandfather's park and then in open country. More historical is the account in Xenophon's Anabasis of how Cyrus the Younger (fl. 401 BCE) killed a bear that had clawed him down from his horse.

In the provincial art of the Achaemenid Empire, hunting is often represented—notably on the marble sarcophagi created by Greek sculptors for the kings of Sidon and now in the Archaeological Museum at Istanbul. The Satrap sarcophagus portrays the perils of hunting big game on horseback; a less realistic hunt, on the Lycian sarcophagus, allegorises the virtue of a dead prince; and the Alexander sarcophagus may show, from the point of view of an Asiatic ruler, an incident of a historical lion-hunt in which Alexander the Great (336–323 BCE) took part with his generals. Engraved gems often show hunting on horseback or on foot, with bow or spear. The hunters are generally Persian nobles, but Darius I (522–486 BCE) is himself conventionally portrayed on an official seal, in the Assyrian manner, hunting lions from a chariot. The hunt is the symbol of the ruler's personal qualities and of the protection he affords his people.

In Asia Alexander the Great and his generals practiced, on an unprecedented scale, sports that the Macedonian kings had traditionally enjoyed in Europe. Under the successor kings, notably Ptolemy Philadelphus of Egypt (283–247 BCE) and Antiochus IV of Syria (175–164 BCE), biggame hunts and displays of exotic beasts were staged as popular spectacles, comparable to the later venationes (hunting shows) in the Roman amphitheater. The Roman conquerors of the Mediterranean basin at first availed themselves of the captured apparatus of the royal hunt, but in general, even under the emperors, Roman hunting (as distinct from collecting beasts for the amphitheater) seems to have been on a scale suitable to the fiction that the emperor was first citizen (princeps). Thus, Hadrian (117–138 CE) hunted a bear in Mysia and lions in Egypt on horseback, in the company of intimate friends.

Marble sarcophagi decorated with hunting scenes, many of them carved in Asia Minor, were used throughout the Roman Empire from the second century CE onward. The hunt as an allegory of virtue is splendidly represented in mosaics of the fifth-sixth centuries CE, notably at Apamea in North Syria and Antioch on the Orontes, where Magnanimity (Megalopsychia) appears personified.

From Sasanian Persia (224–651 CE) come silver-gilt plates, on which kings are shown hunting, usually on horseback, with bow or sword. Rock-cut reliefs at Taq-i Bostan (ascribed to Khusrau II, 591–628 CE) show royal hunts on a gigantic scale. Elephant riders drive wild boar into a swamp where the king, seated in a barge, shoots them with his bow; and herds of driven gazelles are pursued on horseback. Female musicians are in attendance, recalling the story of Bahram Gur (420–438 CE) and the Greek singing girl Azada, which is portrayed on some of the hunting plates.

After the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, hunting retained its interest as a sport and its value in military training.

[See also Lions; Mosaics; Pigs; and Wall Paintings.]


  • Anderson, J. K. Hunting in the Ancient World. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985.
    Brief general survey, emphasizing Greece and Rome but including Assyrian and Achaemenid material.
  • Barnett, Richard D. Sculptures from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, 668–627 B.C. London, 1976.
    Definitive publication of the most important Assyrian hunting reliefs, with full commentaries.
  • Boardman, John. Greek Gems and Finger Rings: Early Bronze Age to Late Classical. London, 1970. Includes an authoritative chapter on “Greco-Persian” gems of the Achaemenid period and excellent illustrations.
  • Hamdy, Osman Bey, and Theodore Reinach. Une nécropole royale à Sidon. Paris, 1892.
    Original publication of the Sidon sarcophagi, with magnificent illustrations recording details of color now lost.
  • Harper, Prudence Oliver. The Royal Hunter: Art of the Sasanian Empire. New York, 1978.
    Splendidly illustrated catalog of an exhibition of Sasanian art, with a useful historical introduction and valuable notes on the separate items.
  • Levi, Doro. Antioch Mosaic Pavements. Princeton, 1947. Full publication of important material, including the “Megalopsychia” mosaic.
  • Porada, Edith. The Art of Ancient Iran: Pre- Islamic Cultures. New York, 1965.
    Accessible general survey by one of the chief authorities on Near Eastern art.
  • Smith, William Stevenson. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. Harmondsworth, 1958.
    Well-illustrated general survey, including pictures of the Egyptian objects mentioned in the text.

J. K. Anderson

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