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Syrian Royal Tomb @ National Geographic Magazine
By Karen E. LangePhotographs by Manoocher

Beneath a palace in Syria, archaeologists have found evidence that ancient kings once dined with the dead.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

King Idanda of Qatna faced imminent attack. A great army—archers in chariots and foot soldiers with swords and axes—was marching toward his city in western Syria. For some 350 years a shrewd system of alliances had helped Qatna survive as a wealthy center of trade at a crossroads for donkey caravans. But now, circa 1340 B.C., small kingdoms like Qatna were being overrun by Hittites from the north, Hurrians from the nearby kingdom of Mitanni, and Egyptians from the south, all fighting for control of Syria. "Don't be in despair! I will protect you!" promised a local king in a letter written to King Idanda. "Strengthen the city of Qatna until I will come!" encouraged another ally.

In response, King Idanda told his generals to fortify Qatna's four kilometer-long walls and ordered metalsmiths to arm his troops with 18,600 bronze swords. Historians believe he then did something that would make sense only to a person of his place and time: He turned his back on the approaching enemy to share a meal with his dead ancestors. It was the new moon, the 29th day of the monthly lunar cycle—a day when the worlds of the living and dead were believed to draw close. In the city surrounding the palace, families gathered in the gloom for meals within the safety of their houses, following a tradition even then ancient. Led by the eldest son, each family remembered the dead, offering food and drink to their ancestors and asking them for blessings in a memorial feast called kispum.

Deep in the palace King Idanda fulfilled his duty as eldest son and royal heir, descending to the netherworld below. The way was not easy. The king, his priests, and members of the royal family proceeded slowly with oil lamps and a few torches down a windowless secret corridor. At the end of the corridor the king and his retinue climbed down a wooden ladder to a small landing, then down another ladder to an antechamber three stories below ground. The priests passed vessels of food and drink from hand to hand down the shaft. Soon the royal party crowded the antechamber, dark as a cave. Idanda led the way into the main chamber of a four-room rock-cut tomb, stepping carefully so as not to disturb the bones lying on wooden biers.

The priests poured milk and beer and served beef and lamb, cereal, salt, and butter. In the farthest corner of the room Idanda sat down on a stone bench to dine with the dead: his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and some ancestors so distant he did not know their names. He called to them, starting with his father, whose spirit, once summoned, was believed to recline on a bed in a chamber at the rear of the tomb. We cannot know Idanda's exact words, but similar ones are found in ancient texts recovered across the Near East. "Come! Eat this! Drink this! And bless Idanda, King of Qatna."

From such fragments of text, scholars know that the cult of the dead played a central role in state and family religion in Mesopotamia from the third millennium B.C. through the time of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Israelites in the first millennium B.C. The performance of kispum marked eldest sons as heirs to their fathers, whether that meant sitting on a throne and ruling a kingdom or merely leading a family and inheriting its house and land. It also tied the living and the dead together in a relationship of mutual dependence. The dead needed food and drink from the living. And without the blessing of their ancestors, who mediated between the gods and the living, the family would suffer illness, infertility, poverty, and the worst fate of all—to be forgotten when they themselves died. Remembering the dead was believed to keep the spirits contented and bring good fortune—perhaps even victory in an impending battle.

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How has the ancient practice of kispum, sharing meals between the living and the dead, influenced modern religion?

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

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A Prayer for Ancestors
Ancestor worship was fundamental to daily life in Bronze Age Mesopotamia. Forefathers were venerated in death but were also considered to dwell among the living, legitimizing the family lineage. In a complex balance of mutual blessing, the living and the dead protected one another.

Kispum rituals—ceremonial feasts to honor deceased relatives and gain their approval—were the main way the living and the dead reaffirmed their relationship. Invoking genealogy, the eldest living son began the kispum by calling to his ancestors. One invocation made by the Babylonian king Ammisaduqa in the late 17th century B.C. names relatives within recent memory and then calls to all in his dynasty, asking them to come to the feast so that they may honor and bless one another.

Ammisaduqa invokes:

The dynasty of the troops of the Amorites
The dynasty of the troops of the Hanaeans
The dynasty of Gutium
The dynasty of those who are not written on this tablet
And of the soldiers who fell in the service of the army
The sons of the king
The daughters of the king
All people, from the west to the east
Whoever has no one to bring an offering or to invoke his name
Come! Eat this! Drink this!
And bless Ammisaduqua, king of Babylon

And then the feasting began.

—Barbara W. McConnell
Did You Know?

Related Links
Syria Museum
Check out an introduction to archaeology of the ancient Near East and descriptions of artifacts from many important sites and links to museums around the world with Near Eastern collections.
Find general information about the history of Qatna and the excavations there. 
Near Eastern Archaeology
Get links to organizations and resources pertinent to understanding ancient Near Eastern cultures.


Akkermans Peter M. M., and Glenn M. Schwartz. The Archaeology of Syria from Complex Hunter-Gatherers to Early Urban Societies (ca 16,000-300 B.C.). Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Jonker, Gerdien. The Topography of Remembrance: The Dead,Tradition and Collective Memory in Mesopotamia. E. J. Brill, 1995.
Porter, Anne. "The Dynamics of Death:  Ancestors, Pastoralism, and the Origins of a Third-Millennium City in Syria." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (325, 2002), 1-36.
Van der Toorn, Karel. Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel. E. J. Brill, 1996.


NGS Resources
Theroux, Peter. "Syrian Behind the Mask." National Geographic (July 1996), 106-31.
La Fay, Howard. "Syria Tests a New Stability." National Geographic (September 1978), 326-61.
Schaeffer, Claude F. A. "A New Alphabet of the Ancients Is Unearthed: An Inconspicuous Mound in Northern Syria Yields Archeological Treasures of Far-reaching Significance." National Geographic (October 1930), 476-516.


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