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Lawrence Joseph has mentioned the poem "In This Language, In War's Revolutions" that:

in the city Baghdad, named Sutis by its founder,
Nebuchadnezzar, here where the prophet Daniel
propounded his dream, a grenade is slipped in the pocket of each victim, wire linked
to a battery, detonator pressed, bodies blown apart, the execution party walks away laughing

I can't find any information regarding the naming of Baghdad as "Sutis"; does the name carry any special or symbolic meaning? Was Baghdad really founded by Nebuchadnezzar?

2 Answers 2

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TL;DR: “Sutis” refers to Susa in modern Iran.

Here’s what I think happened. Chapter 8 of the book of Daniel starts as follows. I’ve quoted the Vulgate text as that’s what was available to the author of Mandeville’s Travels.

1. Anno tertio regni Baltassar regis, visio apparuit mihi. Ego Daniel, post id quod videram in principio, 2. vidi in visione mea, cum essem in Susis castro, quod est in Ælam regione: vidi autem in visione esse me super portam Ulai.

1. In the third year of King Belshazzar’s reign, I, Daniel, had a vision, after the one that had already appeared to me. 2. In my vision I saw myself in the citadel of Susa in the province of Elam; in the vision I was beside the Ulai Canal.

Daniel 8:1–2. Vulgate; New International Version.

The author of Mandeville’s Travels seems to have conflated Babylon (the city where Daniel had been taken after the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel chapter 1, and where he saw his visions) with Susa (the city that Daniel saw in the vision in chapter 8), and then, heaping confusion upon confusion, also conflated Babylon with Baghdad:

Celle cite de baldath souloit estre appelee Suchib. nabugonodosor la fonda. et la demouroit saint danyel le prophecte. et la vie il maintes visions diuines. et la fist il les exposicions des songes.

Jean de Mandeville (14th century). Voyages, folio 13r. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. NAF 4515.

þat cytee of Baldak was wont to ben cleped Sutis & Nabogodonozor founded it And þere duelled the holy prophete Daniel & þere he saugh visiounes of heuene & þere he made the exposicioun of dremes.

P. Hamelius, ed. (1819). Mandeville’s Travels, p. 27. London: Early English Text Society.

The conflation of Babylon with Baghdad is understandable, because the two cities are not far apart. And the conflation of Babylon with Susa is something that you might plausibly deduce from the Vulgate’s version of Daniel 8:2. This verse begins “vidi in visione mea, cum essem in Susis castro”, meaning, “I saw in my vision, when/while I was in the fort of Susa” and the obvious interpretation is that Daniel was in Susa when he had the vision, and from this you might deduce that Susa was another name for Babylon.

Some early translations of the Bible into English contain exactly this reading of the verse, for example, in Wycliffe’s Bible (1382), Daniel 8:2 begins:

siy† in my visioun, whanne Y was in the castel of Susis

† siy = then, next, afterwards

and there are similar translations in the Coverdale Bible (1535) and other 16th century bibles based on the Vulgate. Translations based on the Hebrew Masoretic text, by contrast, indicate that it was in the vision that Daniel saw himself in Susa.

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  • I’m glad you posted an answer. I was going to suggest you did rather than me try to incorporate your findings into my answer.
    – Spagirl
    Jun 18 at 19:58
  • @Spagirl I like your theory that Joseph picked this passage from Mandeville precisely because of all the mistakes. Jun 18 at 20:11
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Baghdad is described as being founded by Nebuchadnezzar and called Sutis in Chaper VI of ‘The Travels of Sir John Mandeville’. This work is described in Wikipedia as

a travel memoir which first circulated between 1357 and 1371. The earliest-surviving text is in French.

By aid of translations into many other languages, the work acquired extraordinary popularity. Despite the extremely unreliable and often fantastical nature of the travels it describes, it was used as a work of reference: Christopher Columbus, for example, was heavily influenced by both this work and Marco Polo's earlier Travels.

Much of the manuscript is derived from earlier travel accounts and little is though to be the result of the author’s own travels or original work. The identity of the author is uncertain, but not likely to have actually been a John Mandeville.

The relevant section of the Travels reads

And beyond the river of Tigris is Chaldea, that is a full great kingdom. In that realm, at Bagdad above-said, was wont to dwell the caliph, that was wont to be both as Emperor and Pope of the Arabians, so that he was lord spiritual and temporal; and he was successor to Mahommet, and of his generation. That city of Bagdad was wont to be clept Sutis, and Nebuchadnezzar founded it; and there dwelled the holy prophet Daniel, and there he saw visions of heaven, and there he made the exposition of dreams.

The drawing together by Joseph of Nebuchadnezzar, Baghdad, Sutis and Daniel’s dream suggests that he may have been drawing on this same paragraph. Particularly as Nebuchadnezzar does not seem to be much linked to the founding of Baghdad in any other sources I can find, but did effectively re-found Babylon, 50 miles distant.

None of this gets us to any meaning of ‘Sutis’ however.

I have not been able to access the text of the poem, but wonder from the little I have been able to read of his work whether the poet deliberately invokes The Travels of Sir John Mandeville as a critique of the western world’s attitudes to the Middle East, perpetually othered and not quite real in a way which perhaps allows us to distance ourselves more from atrocities our countries commit there.

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  • I think I will dig a little deeper into the meaning of Sutis, but your answer helps a lot. Thank you very much!
    – scrivener
    Jun 18 at 10:03
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    Mandeville's spellings were "Baldak" and "Nabugodonozor" so it seems likely that "Sutis" is also a distorted form, but I can't guess what the original might have been. Jun 18 at 10:18
  • @GarethRees Wikipedia says the earliest copies are in French. My scholarship falls far short of trying to look those up to find out how the names are rendered there.
    – Spagirl
    Jun 18 at 12:43
  • @scrivener cheers. If you do find anything more do please come back and add your own answer for future searchers. I have an upvote waiting…
    – Spagirl
    Jun 18 at 12:45
  • The French manuscript is online here at the BNF. Jun 18 at 12:55

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