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I’ve had this image in my mind for a while, since first seeing it on the “Astronomy Picture of the Day” website: it was taken at dawn near the summit of Nemrut Dag (Mount Nemrut) in southeastern Turkey. An astronomer would be most impressed by the clear image of Orion just above the horizon. I was more interested in the stone images in the foreground (click to enlarge).

King Antiochus I Theos, who ruled the short-lived country of Commagene from 68-36 B.C., built a tomb and sanctuary on the 7,000 foot mountain, with monumental statues of himself and an assortment of Greek, Persian, and Armenian gods. Apparently, he was trying to cover all the bases. An inscription at the site says he wanted to set an “example of the piety that the gods commanded be shown towards the gods and towards ancestors.”

By placing his own statue among the gods, King Antiochus was following a long-standing pattern in the ancient world, in which kings would have images of themselves placed inside the sanctuaries of the national gods. This was indicate their humble devotion without the bother of actually having to be present. The photo at right, of King Assurnasirpal I of Assyria, served that purpose in suggesting his devotion to the moon god.

The practice reminds me a bit of folks who seem to think that having their names on the roll book of church members — or an ancestor’s name on a stained-glass window — is all that piety demands or God expects.

We all know inside, however, that it’s not that easy. The first Sunday of the new year often sees an influx of folks who’ve made resolutions to return their bodies, as well as their names, to a local community of faith. That’s because deep inside we all know that to be faithful in both deed and example, you just have to be there.

[The photo from Nemrut Dag is courtesy of Nick Zivanovic of the Calumet Astronomical Society, who kindly granted permission for its use on other websites. The photo of King Assurnasirpal is my own, from the “Art and Empire” exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts].

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