2,300-year-old tomb of a courtesan uncovered in Jerusalem
Excavations near Ramat Rahel in southern Jerusalem have revealed the burial cave of a hetaira, an ancient Greek courtesan. Dating to the late fourth or early third century BCE, the tomb offers a rare glimpse into the Hellenistic period (c. 332–37 BCE) in Jerusalem, a time when the region was under the control of rival factions of Alexander the Great’s splintering empire.
Discovered on a rocky slope near one of the city’s many Hellenistic-era roads, the tomb revealed a woman’s charred bones along with an incredibly well-preserved bronze box mirror. The charred remains show the woman was cremated, a practice well known in other parts of the Hellenistic world. The team also uncovered four bent iron nails that may have been ritually deposited to prevent the deceased from entering the world of the living. According to archaeologists, the tomb likely belonged to a hetaira who served as a companion to a high-ranking Greek soldier or official.
The archaeology team from Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority identified the tomb’s occupant as a courtesan based largely on the box mirror. “This is only the second mirror of this type that has been discovered to date in Israel, and in total, only 63 mirrors of this type are known around the Hellenistic world,” said Liat Oz, co-director of the excavation. “The quality of the production of the mirror is so high that it was preserved in excellent condition, and it looked as if it was made yesterday.”
Such folded box mirrors are known from temples and tombs around the Hellenistic world and are regularly associated with Greek women. Many are decorated with engravings or reliefs of female figures or Greek goddesses such as Aphrodite.
“Bronze mirrors like the one that was found were considered an expensive luxury item, and they could come into the possession of Greek women in two ways; as part of their dowry ahead of a wedding, or as a gift given by men to their hetairai,” said the team in a joint statement. “It is most likely that this is the tomb of a woman of Greek origin who accompanied a senior member of the Hellenistic army or government, during Alexander the Great’s campaigns or more likely during the wars of the Diadochi (successors).”
However, given the tomb’s location far from Greece, it is more likely that the woman had been a courtesan, as married women would rarely join their husbands on campaigns. While hetairai could serve as mistresses, this was not always the case, and many carried out other roles as well, including working as muses for sculptors and painters. Some would even become the common-law spouses of Hellenistic rulers, high-ranking generals, and men of high social standing.
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