The year was 165 AD, and the location was the Edessan necropolis at Sogmatar, in what was then northern Syria. In this year King Wa’el of Edessa had an inscription carved upon the sacred hill of Sogmatar, which said:
In Sebat of the year 476 (of the Seleucid era) … we set up this pillar (netsib) on this blessed mountain and erected a seat (kersa) for the one who maintains it. The governor will be a budar … and he will give the seat to the one who is going to maintain it … If he withholds the seat or the pillar is ruined, god will be the judge.
Before we come onto the meaning of this inscription, lets first look at the hill of Sogmatar. It is the central focus of the Edessan royal necropolis, which lies in a very remote location in the barren rolling hills to the southeast of Edessa (modern Sanlurfa in Turkey). And the strange thing about this man-made hill, is that it is the same size and shape as Silbury Hill in England. Why and how this similarity arose, is open to speculation.
Figure 1. The identical man-made hills of Silbury and Sogmatar. (Photo credit: Ralph Ellis)
Pillars and Thrones
It was upon this man-made hill at Sogmatar, that this inscription was found. But what does it mean? The translation by Han Drijvers mentions a netsib bun ‘pillar’. But Steven Ross in his analysis of Roman Edessa calls this same pillar a betyl-omphalos stone. Now this is interesting, for it implies that the Edessan netsib bun ‘pillar’ was the same as a Judaic matseb-ah hbum. The latter is a term that refers to both a pillar and to a small pyramid (a small conical stone, an omphalos stone).
The most famous matseb was the ‘pillar of Jacob’ that Jacob anointed with oils when he was at Haran in northern Syria, as narrated in Genesis 28:18. This ritual appears to be very similar to the anointing of Hindu lingams, which are also basted with oils in exactly the same fashion. So the Syrian netsib and the Judaic matseb must have been small conical stones basted with oils. So was Jacob venerating a Hindu lingam? Possibly, but since the Hindu lingam is often basted with a Minoan rhyton, it would appear that this ritual has travelled from west to east rather than vice versa . And the most likely conduit for this transfer of veneration and ritual, would be the Indian campaigns of Alexander the Great – especially as the Greeks were also closely identified with a similar matseb omphalos stone, as we shall see.
Figure 2. A Hindu lingam, basted with oils, in exactly the same fashion as Jacob’s Pillar (Jacob’s small conical stone). (Photo Credit: Lotus Sculptures )
Thus the Sogmatar inscription mentions a small omphalos stone, but it also mentions a seat. But it is highly likely that the Syriac kersa ‘seat’ was actually derived from the Judaic korsa aork, which refers more to a royal throne than to a common seat. But what type of throne was this? Was it a throne for a king, or a throne of the gods? And where might we find a sacred stone and a divine throne in close proximity to each other? The answer can be seen in the throne of Apollo, who is often depicted sitting on a sacred stone. Remarkably, we not only see this stone on Greek coinage, but it is now in the Delphi museum (although this is a very ancient copy of the original).
Figure 3. Left: A Greek coin of Seleucus III showing Apollo seated upon the sacred omphalos stone of Delphi. Right: This stone (or an ancient copy of this stone) still exists at Delphi. (Photo credit: Ralph Ellis.)
So the netsib-matseb conical-stone and the kersa-korsa throne were intimately related objects – they were both thrones of the gods. But it was not just the Greeks who had a sacred stone that was also a throne, so too did the Israelites.
So when might we encounter a sacred stone within Judaism that was intimately connected to a seat or a throne? For the answer, we only need to turn to the Book of Exodus which says: