Axial Anxieties: The Politics and Theology of Temple Destruction in the Achaemenid Empire and the Ancient Near East

Recorded: February 18, 2020
Event: Contextualizing Iranian Religions in the Ancient World - 14th Melammu Symposium

by Gonzalo Rubio (Pennsylvania State University)

Axial Anxieties: The Politics and Theology of Temple Destruction in the Achaemenid Empire and the Ancient Near East

The so-called daivā inscription of Xerxes (XPh) is preserved in several duplicates on limestone tablets: two in Old Persian, one in Elamite, and one in Babylonian, all from Persepolis, and a fifth witness, in Old Persian, from Pasargadae. In this text, Xerxes claims to have reestablished the worship of Ahuramazdā after destroying a sanctuary of the daivā (daivadāna). In spite of some speculations, this daivadāna is unlikely to correspond to a temple in Babylon or in Athens. It is more plausible that this place of worship was in Iran itself. In this historical and geographical setting, the content of the daivā inscription can be retroactively read in the context of the Young Avesta as evidence of an early, state-promoted form of Mazdaean henotheism or monotheism, an alleged phenomenon usually placed within the modern historiographical construct popularized as the “Axial Age.” There is, nevertheless, a broader milieu for such activities. The destruction of temples and shrines, as well as the forcible seizure and asportation of statues of deities (godknapping), can be seen as a political exploitation of theological devices to impose political hegemony. In fact, the motif of temple destruction is rather common among Assyrian kings, as in the cases of Sargon II in Urartu, Sennacherib in Babylon and Sippar, and Assurbanipal at Susa. Such aggressions against foreign or local cults were part of larger exercises of state violence, as in the notorious case of Nebuchadnezzar and the Jerusalem Temple. It would seem as if first-millennium Mesopotamian kings took as much pride in ravaging some temples as they often took in reconstructing others. In the Achaemenid case, a particular theopolitical discourse seems to have tried to secure hegemony by manufacturing homogeneity as an instrument of legitimacy.