This 3,500-Year-Old Statue of a Syrian Refugee Remains One of Archaeology’s Most Important Finds

King Idrimi is getting digitized and his autobiography is as relevant as ever

In 1939, a British archaeologist unearthed something incredible: a 3,500-year-old statue. The find was more than just artistic—it included a lengthy first-person autobiography of a man who went from refugee to king and is considered one of the most important cuneiform documents ever found. The statue of King Idrimi, hasn't left the British Museum since its arrival due to its fragility and rarity.

But now more people are going to get the chance to meet Idrimi, Emily Sharpe reports for The Art NewspaperExperts recently were given access to the statue in order to create a painstaking digital model and facsimile, Sharpe reports. The effort is part of a larger project that’s documenting the experience of 21st-century Syrian refugees and is also an attempt to document the statue’s current condition and to make it available to researchers, who have had to rely on old photos since the statue’s glass display case makes its inscription hard to read. 

That inscription is so noteworthy because it shares a detailed account of a young man from the ancient kingdom of Aleppo who was forced to flee what is now Syria when his father got into a political scuffle with the king.

At first, Idrimi settled in his mother's hometown of Emar. But he then fled again to the Land of Canaan—likely what is now Lebanon—due to concerns over his family’s treatment. In Canaan, he ran across other refugees who decided he should lead them. Now a king, Idrimi began to battle rivals. He tells the story of how he not only fended off his enemies, but tried to make life better for his subjects, including giving homes to those who arrived without shelter. “Thirty years long I was king,” he concludes. “I wrote my acts on my tablet. One may look at it and constantly think of my blessing!”

But the tablet doesn’t contain only blessings. It also has a warning to anyone who would remove the statue—and says that anyone who changes it in any way will be cursed. That didn’t concern Leonard Woolley, the archaeologist who uncovered it and took it to Britain back in '39. Then again, as James Fraser, who curates the Middle East department at the British Museum, explains, by the time Woolley got his hands on the statue, it had already been desecrated—presumably by the invading force that destroyed Idrimi’s city of Alalkh in about 1200 B.C.E. Whether bad luck befell those vandals is unknown.

A previous digital model of the statue is already online, but Fraser says that the new model will be at a higher resolution that’s even more useful to researchers. The project is also inspiring conversation about Syrian refugees. Making Light, a British nonprofit that is working with the British Museum and the Factum Foundation on the life-sized replica of the statue, is also partnering with the UK’s Syrian community to collect oral histories of refugees. In 2018, the new facsimile of the precious statue will tour the UK along with those oral histories—proving that even though Idrimi’s story is 3,500 years old, it rings strangely true today.

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