Curator's corner
Idrimi, the 3,500-year-old refugee

The thing I love the most about guiding visitors through the British Museum is taking them to the astonishing statue of King Idrimi. No one has ever heard of Idrimi, but, after seeing his statue, no one ever forgets.

Idrimi was a refugee who fled Aleppo in Syria about 3,500 years ago – the same Aleppo so often in the news today. Later, as a much older man, Idrimi had this statue made of himself, with his life story written across the front, literally from head to foot. This extraordinary story is inscribed in the wedge-shaped cuneiform script of the ancient Middle East, and it is one of the earliest (and most interesting) political autobiographies ever found.

The Statue of Idrimi. Tell Atchana, Turkey, 16th century BC. Photo by Tracey Howe for Making Light.

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The story of Idrimi

Idrimi lived with his parents and six older brothers in the ancient kingdom of Aleppo. When he was a young man, a ‘hostile incident’ happened between his father and the king, so Idrimi fled with his family to his mother’s hometown of Emar, on the Euphrates river. Although his older brothers were happy there, Idrimi thought that his family was not being treated well, and so he fled again to the Land of Canaan, probably in southern Lebanon.

In Canaan, Idrimi met another group of refugees from Aleppo, who claimed him as their leader. For the next six years, Idrimi made offerings to the storm god, Teshub, but to no avail. Finally, on the seventh year, the offerings were good. With Teshub’s blessing, Idrimi built a fleet of ships, sailed up the coast, and attacked the ancient city of Alalakh, about 80km west of Aleppo, in southern Turkey. Idrimi would rule over Alalakh for the next 30 years, leading his armies against seven Hittite cities in Turkey. It is also easy to read, between the stick-like wedges of the cuneiform text, Idrimi’s delight at placing his six older brothers under his protection, when they later turned to their youngest brother for help.

Idrimi carved his statue in white magnesite limestone around 1500 BC, and he placed it inside a temple upon a black basalt throne.

Photo by Tracey Howe for Making Light.

A curse…and a blessing

What I love most about the statue are two phrases that bracket the start and the end of the text. The last two lines curse anyone who might destroy the statue, or who is bold enough to change its text. However, the curse contrasts a blessing written in two lines down Idrimi’s right cheek, almost like a cartoon speech bubble coming directly from his mouth. These lines state that Idrimi wrote his deeds upon himself for everyone to see, and those that read the text will learn from his life, and so bless Idrimi forever.

The blessing inscription. Photo (c) Adam Lowe, Factum Foundation.

When was the statue found?

An invading force destroyed the city of Alalakh in about 1200 BC. The attackers found the statue, and, disregarding its curse, they removed its head and pushed the body from the throne.

In 1939, the famous archaeologist Leonard Woolley unearthed the basalt throne lying on the temple floor. A few days later, he discovered the statue, immediately recognising it as one of the most important Bronze Age artefacts ever discovered in the east Mediterranean world.

Intriguingly, the statue itself had been hidden inside a pit beneath the temple floor, the severed head placed carefully alongside the body. We do not know who buried the statue, following its desecration in the city’s final hours. However, I like to imagine a mysterious worshipper, now lost to history, finding the statue among the temple’s smouldering ruins, and burying it within holy ground.

Woolley sent the statue to the British Museum in June 1939. Ironically, Idrimi soon found himself hidden underground once more, this time by nervous curators protecting the collection at the outbreak of WWII.

Why does it matter?

The statue was one of the most important finds from Woolley’s dig at Alalakh, and he published a photograph of the moment of its discovery in the Illustrated London News. The statue increased in fame a few years later when Idrimi’s text was translated at the Museum. The inscription provides a fabulous window into the politics, geography and cultic practices of the eastern Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, seen through the eyes of King Idrimi.

The inscription also describes a loose alliance between Idrimi and a mysterious group of stateless wanderers called the ha-pi-ru, who lived in the Canaanite hills. This is one of the first times in history that the ha-pi-ru are named, and many archaeologists believe that they were the ancestors of the Hebrew tribes that later conquered Canaan, written in the Bible a thousand years later.

The discovery of Idrimi as published in the Illustrated London News, 1980.

For these reasons, the Idrimi inscription is listed here as one of the 20 most important cuneiform documents ever found.

Scanning Idrimi

Photo by Tracey Howe for Making Light.

Today, Idrimi sits in Room 57 at the Museum. However, the statue must be kept within a glass case due to the fragile condition of the stone. Unfortunately, this means that researchers can’t get close enough to study the inscription in detail. To solve this problem, we created a digital model last year that anyone can view on Sketchfab here. This model is a fantastic tool for presenting the statue online. However, it is not at a high enough resolution for cuneiform experts to study the inscription in the detail they need.

We needed to scan Idrimi with greater precision. And so, earlier this month, Idrimi found himself being removed from his case by our heavy lifting team, and carefully placed in a roped-off area on the gallery floor, ready to be scanned.

This new project was a collaboration between the Museum and the Factum Foundation, a nonprofit organisation that uses digital technology to record cultural heritage throughout the world. A team from Factum spent two days scanning and photographing the statue in high resolution – we even stayed in the Museum until after midnight. Factum recorded the statue using two different methods:

  • Structured light scanning: in this technique, the Factum team projected vertical beams of light onto the statue. They then measured how these beams were distorted, in order to map the statue in 3D.
  • Photogrammetry: in this technique, the Factum team took thousands of over-lapping high-resolution photographs from every possible angle. These were then uploaded into a computer program that matched the exact same pixels in different photos to develop the framework for a highly accurate 3D model.

Photo by Tracey Howe for Making Light.

A replica of Idrimi

The Factum Foundation have now created a digital model of Idrimi that is accurate to less than a millimetre. This model provides a unique baseline for our ongoing conservation of the statue. It also enables researchers from all over the world to study the important life-story of king Idrimi in detail.

But one of the most exciting outcomes will be Factum Foundation’s plan to create a highly accurate, life-sized replica. As the statue itself is too delicate to lend, Factum Foundation’s replica will enable Idrimi to travel and they plan to lend it to an upcoming exhibition celebrating Syria’s long history of cultural achievements called Syria: Past and Present, organised by the UK charity Making Light.

Risking the curse, invoking the blessing

When our team temporarily removed the statue from the safety of its case, I couldn’t help but think we were risking Idrimi’s curse. However, by scanning the statue we have made Idrimi’s story available for everyone. As Idrimi says himself, by reading these words we can learn from his life, and ultimately bless this 3,500 year-old refugee from Aleppo forever.