THE LYRE OF MEGIDDO

 

 

 

The ruins of the ancient city of Megiddo (aka Armageddon) sit atop a hill in the Jezreel Valley in what is today northen Israel. Careful excavations of 26 layers of debris have revealed that the area has been occupied for about 6000 years, and that the city has been destroyed by wars and natural disasters many times, and then rebuilt.

The above image appears on one of the famous “Megiddo ivories” that were excavated by archaeologist Gordon Loud, at what are believed to be the remains of a Late Bronze Age royal palace. The illustration is etched onto a sliver of a hippopotamus tooth, and probably adorned the lid of a box or some other decorative item. Since the hippo is found in the waters of the Upper Nile River, in Egypt, this piece shows the enormous range and influence of Egyptian culture throughout the Middle East in that period.

The Late Bronze Age covers a period from roughly 1600 to 1200 B.C. which puts this piece very close to the time of the biblical King David, who is believed to have lived sometime around 1000 B.C. As most people know, according to the Old Testament, David was a musician, singer, and purportedly writer of many of the Psalms. He was said to have played a 10-string lyre (“kinnor” in Hebrew) which is exactly the type of instrument we see in the Megiddo ivory. The figure playing the lyre is dressed in the manner of a Canaanite, not an Egyptian, and is playing an instrument with 9 strings.

There is another interesting but much more stylized and sketchy illustration of a 4-stringed kinnor found on a pottery shard from the same period, also from the excavations at Megiddo (below).

 

 

King David has been depicted by artists as playing an extraordinary variety of instruments including a number of harps of decidedly medieval European design, as well as Greco-Roman lyres (lyres of the Greek god Apollo) that can be seen on the coins of first century Roman-occupied Judea. The fact is, if David played the kinnor as the biblical accounts say he did, he would almost certainly have played an instrument like the one below.

 

 

I was curious to know what an instrument of this type would sound like, so I designed and built one. Here is my first sketch based on the lyre seen on the Megiddo ivory (inset). I added a conventional CD to the photo to show relative size and proportion.

 

 

The soundbox of this instrument is of wild cherrywood, the curved sides and dowel yoke are of red oak, and the pegs are maple. There were no nails or screws of any sort used in the construction. The anchors (where the strings are attached at the base of the instrument) consist of ten small gold spikes angled downward so the strings can loop over and hold. I was contemplating putting an anchor - or anchors - on the bottom of the instrument but that would mean it could not stand upright unless small feet were added to raise the instrument up.

The Megiddo lyre as we see it etched on the ivory is shown from the back, so the strings disappear behind the soundbox. In the photo below, I show the lyre from the front so you can see the bridge and the full length of the string from the yoke to the anchor.

 

FRONT

 

REAR

 

In ancient time, instruments of this sort were strung with gut made from the dried, twisted intestines of sheep. Since David was a sheepherder, there would have been no shortage of raw material. Gut strings are still used by players of certain stringed instruments, both classical and folk, and are considered superior in tone to the much cheaper synthetic materials such as nylon and fluorocarbon. There is one organic substance, however, that compares favorably to gut for the volume and exceptional timbre of its sound, and that is silk.

The Chinese discovered many centuries ago that silk, when properly treated and stiffened with fillers and hardeners, was ideal for musical strings. I have been experimenting for years with ancient Chinese techniques and have found out a good deal about how the strings were made. The strings on the Megiddo replica are of 100% silk. This accounts for the clarity of the overtones and overall string volume when the strings are tuned to within roughly a minor third of their breaking point.

The instrument as you hear it in the video, is tuned to an F harmonic minor scale, starting on the F below Middle 'C', up to the G# above Middle 'C'. If the density and tension of your strings is sufficient to give you really bright, clear, bell-like overtones with a long sonic decay (comparable to steel) you can get almost 3 usable octaves from an instrument of this sort (from F below Middle 'C' to D# above High 'C') using the full set of second and third harmonics.

There is a verse in the Old Testament of the Bible (1 Samuel 16:23) that says, “David took an harp [i.e. kinnor] and played with his hand...” which seems to suggest that David did not strum the strings with a pick or other implement, but plucked them with his fingers. If this assumption is correct, it might give us some idea of how the instrument was held. If it was strummed with a pick in one hand while the fingers of the other hand blocked the strings, then there is a good chance that it would have been held by the musician so that its strings were more or less parallel to the ground much like a modern guitar or ukulele. The illustration below shows an 18th dynasty (1500 - 1200 B.C.) Egyptian lyre player depicted on the wall of Theban tomb no. 38 (the tomb of Zeserkaresonb).

 

 

This beautiful painting shows a seven-stringed instrument very similar to the lyre of Megiddo, and it is held in the same position as the lyre on the Megiddo ivory. If, however, as the Old Testament suggests, David plucked the strings of his kinnor with his fingers, as opposed to strumming and blocking, then it is highly likely that he held the instrument with its strings at more or less 90 degrees to the ground as modern harpists do.

There is a modern Near Eastern instrument that still exists in certain areas of Jordan and the Sinai desert. It is called the “simsimiyyeh” and it is a direct descendant of the ancient kinnor. Unlike its Bronze Age predecessor, it is strung with wire and it can have anywhere from five to more than twenty strings. The photo below shows a Bedouin musician of the Sinai strumming his simsimiyyeh.

 

 

What we have to remember about musical instruments of ancient time is that like folk instruments of today, their exact size and proportions were not established by tradition. The characteristics of instruments varied greatly from region to region and maker to maker across the centuries. The modern acoustic violin is made according to universally accepted measurements and they tend to look pretty much the same wherever you find them in the world, but there is remarkable variation in shape and sound when it comes to folk instruments and often instruments are made by the musicians themselves.

What did the music of the time of King David sound like? Were quarter tones used in the tuning of the instruments as they are in the modal system known as “maqam” used throughout the Near and Middle East today? It seems logical to assume the answer to this is YES, but we cannot know for sure.