© Paul Hemphill 2013, 2016, 2019, 2021. All rights reserved.
The great and the good, the wise and the weary, have all offered a definition of ‘history’. To Napoleon, it was “a myth that men agree to believe”. Historian Marc Bloch observed that it was “an endeavour towards better understanding”. His Nazi killers disagreed – their’s was a less nuanced, more zero-sum approach. Abba Eban, long time Israeli foreign minister, wrote that it “teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. Aldous Huxley observed “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And channeling Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Buffy Summers remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. But best is John Banville’s admission in The Sea that “the past beats inside me like a second heart”.
Simply put, we like to see some pattern, some sense of order to it all. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented: “The passion for tidiness is the historian’s occupational disease”. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have ever been, and shall ever be, animated by the same passions. And thus they necessarily have the same results”. And yet, whilst seeking patterns, we cannot really use them to predict outcomes. And it is impossible to know what really happened. The past is another country and all that. All we can say for sure is that in the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. And, history takes time. All the time in the world.
Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. Like most folk who get into history, I am partial to parallels and patterns in the past that speak to the present. Albeit in a more ambivalent way – cleaving to Mark (Twain, that is) rather than Marx, I am fascinated more by the rhymes rather than the repetitions. But “remembering”, as Taylor Swift sings, “comes in flashbacks and echoes”.
A recent rhyme was evident when an opulent exhibition on the life and legacy of Alexander The Great of Macedon was brought from ‘old world’ St.Petersburg, the twice renamed city of Peter The Great of Russia, to ‘ new world’ Sydney, Australia on the far side of our planet.
For all his ‘greatness’, young Alexander was, like Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but with murderous psycho mixed in. In his ‘Inferno’, Dante had him standing in the river of boiling blood, along with war-mongers and murderers. “Why don’t these people just stay at home?” you might say. Well, what would you think? There you are, are minding your own business down beside the rivers of Babylon, and then suddenly, there’s an army of 50,000 Greeks on the other bank intent on doing damage. Or there you are, beside the sacred Indus, just about to tuck into your chicken vindaloo, when a rampaging horde of homesick Greeks come charging over the horizon. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been massacred or enslaved by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?”
And there you are on the banks of the Tigris, minding your own business, and keeping out of the way of the summer swelter, struggling to manage with ththe shortages and privations of international sanctions that only always seem to hurt the poor folks, and all-seeing, ever-present, and quite nasty Mukhabarat, when over the horizon in a cloud of dust and disco sweeps a column of armoured vehicles and hordes of ka-firi-n with rifles and ray-bans. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been bombed or strafed by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. Nothing much has changed, really.
Except that everything has changed. It changed when two planes piloted by Saudi and Egyptian Islamist flew into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, an icon of American corporate dominion and hubris, another, into The Pentagon, the heart of the most powerful war machine the world has know, and a fourth into a paddock in Ohio that was brought down when the passengers sought to overpower the hijackers. Their doomed and and never forgotten war cry has reverberated through these early decades of the Twenty First Century: “Let’s roll!”.
And roll it did. America’s vengeance for the thousands who perished that sunny September morn – brought American boys to a one time hippie transit land where at one time British boys, and later, Russian lads died in their thousands alongside hundreds of thousands of Afghanis in the longest war that the US has ever fought, and is still fighting, and thence to that aforementioned date with destiny on Tigris’ shore. It is a war that has cost trillions of dollars, taken millions of lives, and brought terror and carnage to cities, towns and villages across most of the world. It is ongoing, seemingly interminable, and practically, unwinnable.
But the saddest, baddest and maddest thing about it is this has all happened before. We’ve been there, done that, and to quote a relatively unknown song from the punk era, if we have to do it all over again, we’ll do it all over ourselves. History, like nature, knows no jumps,” said American poet Robert Penn Warren, “except the jump backward, maybe“. To borrow from Bob Dylan, history “doesnt talk – it swears!”
Which brings us back to our definition of history …
Beyond the scholars’ passion for patterns, and the dry dialectics of cause and effect, there is the personal dimension. Who were the actual inhabitants of ‘history’? What did they think and feel? Who were those souls on the banks of the iconic Twin Rivers of the fabled Garden of Eden, and the billions the world over who have found themselves caught, engulfed and washed away by the rivers of history, or the fortunate ones who were passed by and spared to bear witness in song and story, stone and parchment, book and blog.
Thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Simply put, people who lived ‘then’ are not at all the same as we who live ’now’.
An old Irish song, Let Erin Remember, encapsulates it: “On Lough Neagh’s banks, as the fisherman strays, in the clear, cool eve declining, he sees the round towers of all our days in the waves beneath him shining”. And that, perhaps, is what history is all about. It is the layers of history, the Long March of humanity. And the lesson learned? When it all comes down to it, all flesh is grass, and we are rendered into dust. But not all of us. Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote: ”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. Jim Morrson’s unfortunate neighbour in Père Lachaise might sing in Chanson, the names no one remembers and the ones no one forgets”, who cohabit as equals in that grand necropolis. But remember we do. Because one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”.
So, let us walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, beginning with, yes, the usual suspects: power and pride, greed, and aggrandizement, and as accessories after the fact, dolour, devastation, and death.
Time: Year Zero of the Christian era. Place: The Mediterranean littoral
Often, with overwhelming political and military power and economic wealth come arrogance, decadence, and complacency. And with lean and hungry barbarians on the borderland, the geographical interface between the desert and the sown, and soon hanging around the gates, so the seeds of decline and destruction are scattered and germinate. The Pharaohs conquered and ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, the first historical record of a ‘formal’ set piece battle between two armies took place in 1468 BCE at Meggido, just south east of Haifa in present day Israel – some five thousand Egyptians took on and bested two thousand Canaanite soldiers of local city states. But Egypt was to fall to the ascendant and ambitious Greeks and Persians, and later, the Romans. And down went these mighty successors. Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Rome, Carthage, Byzantium, Constantinople. Grand names, but now bones, bones, dry bones. The Bard of Avon declaimed “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve”. As Percy B Shelley intoned: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.
It was the English historian Toynbee who suggested that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. They lose their “mojo”. The 14th Century Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it “assabiyah” – in short, they lose their élan, their sense of direction and their minds. His point was that the moribund Byzantine and Sassanian empires were broke and militarily overstretched, corrupt, venal and soft, and hence no match for the desert hardened, combat keen, tribally cohesive, spiritually zealous warriors of the one true faith.
At the dawn of the Christian era, the known world was divided up between the those Romans and Persians, who themselves had subjugated and subsumed the Greeks and Phoenician Carthaginians, and Hittites and Assyrians respectively (in the east, the Chinese and Indians boasted powerful, prosperous civilizations as old as The Pharaohs, but this is not their story).
The Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire, to nomadic rovers from out of the east (we’ll get to them shortly) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, who were beset by those same horsemen), were over-extended and overspent slave societies living off the land and labour of conquered peoples. Until they were challenged and defeated by another ascendant power – those Arabs out of of Arabia and the imperial marches.
For generations this mob had served as the mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new yet hybrid faith, and muscled up with a martial spirit built upon generations of mercenary employment and privateering, stormed the sclerotic empires from within and without, and in the space of fifty years after the prophet’s death, built a domain that extended from Spain to Afghanistan.
Modern genetic analysis has shown that the bloodline of these desert conquerors is as much a mosaic as most other overlords. Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Egyptian, Nubian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arabian, Hebrew. And whoever else may have been passing through. Many races came and settled, and many too were invaded and scattered. The ruins and artefacts endure still to remind us of their passage. And this genetic calabash was stirred some more with the Arab conquests.
As the armies of Allah surged eastwards and westwards, slaves were sent homewards as plunder and labour. This was the modus operandi of carnivorous empires throughout history. The Babylonians did it; the Romans too. They conquered and controlled though mass death and deportation, dragging their broken subjects in tens and hundreds of thousands across the known world. Wherever Roman armies, administrators, traders and slavers ventured, unnumbered Britons, Gauls, Germans, Slavs Africans and Jews were exported to Italy. So too it was with the Arabs as hundreds of thousands of souls from afar afield as the Pyrenees and the Hindu Kush ended their days in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Blue-eyed blondes and redheads, sallow skinned Turkic and Chinese. You see their heirs today in Homs and Aleppo, Gaza and Hebron. In a fascinating post-classical irony, the European empires were likewise catalysts for ethic trans-migration. The suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford reflect the colours, cuisines, and conflicts of once-upon-a-homeland. The long arm of long dead empires still taps us on the shoulder.
It is the view of some revisionist historians that whilst Mohammad and his revelations provided the impetus for the Arab “surge”, the religion that we know as Islam was actually retrofitted to the Arab adventurers’ ethos, a kind of ex post facto justification for what was in reality an old fashioned smash and grab. They suggest, therefore, that Islam and the role of Mohammad within it as the messenger and final word were cleverly constructed one to two hundred years after his death by Arab dynasties seeking legitimacy and heavenly sanction for their own aggrandizement. But then, wasn’t it always thus? As Jarred Dimond and others have written, this pandering to invisible friends and post-mortem insurance is part of our genetic baggage. It goes back to way back, to Neanderthals, and before them, to chimpanzees, our closest relatives.
Notwithstanding this, these parvenus ushered in the flowering of Arab culture in the arts, architecture, literature, and science as caliphs encouraged intellectual inquiry, and invited polymaths from across the known world to abide in their domains. Indeed, much of the work of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists was translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity when the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarians, the beginning of what are called The Dark Ages.
The Not So Dark Ages
One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copied rare texts, often embellishing them with their own, ‘Celtic’ art work. The Book of Kells owes a stylistic debt to the monasteries of the Byzantine Levant. And whilst we digress on the subject of books, it is believed by some scholars that The Quran was not actually written in Mecca or Medina, but most likely in Baghdad, which did not exist whilst Mohammad breathed. Learned iconoclasts also purport that it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the Levant at the time of Jesus, and that Arabic has not yet evolved as a written language. The Torah, the basis of Jewish law and custom, and of The Bible, was written in Babylon and not Jerusalem. And The New Testament? Well, that was assembled all over the shop: in cosmopolitan Athens, Rome, and the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. And we heirs of the British Empire owe our’s to a dissolute yet diplomatic, erudite if unsavoury Scottish king who by dint of dynastic dilemmas, came into the English throne on the death of Good Queen Bess. The Quran itself drew on both books – it swiped many of the parables, the principles and the prophets, and created a blueprint for organizing humanity that many aspire to today.
Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’ . And yet, one fancies that should the deity deign to speak to us, he or she would address us in the beautiful and lyrical English of The King James Bible, an amazing compilation created by the crème de la crème of England’s biblical scholars and philologists. Specifically appointed by that Scottish King we introduced above, they melded earlier versions of “the Word” with their own translations from Aramaic, Latin, Hebrew and Greek to deliver a Holy Bible that spoke to all English-speaking believers with the fine but forlorn hope of fostering unity and n harmony in a land riven by decades of religious conflict repleat with passion and poison, brutality and burning.Within forty years, England would sunder in civil strife, leading to the trial and public execution of King James’ son and the establishment of the first and only English republic.
Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all.
The Islamic tide was turned at Tours in the south of formerly Gaul by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel, named nostalgically and pugilistically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE and the founder of the Hasmonean dynasty that gave us that great builder and all-round bad-boy Herod the Great, another Herod who did for John the Baptist on the whim of a dancing daughter, and yet another Herod who went down in history for the never-happened Massacre of the Innocents.
Charles’ grandson Charlemagne founded the French monarchy which endured until the unfortunate Louis the Last lost his head to the French revolutionaries in 1793. The Western Christian church established many fundamentals of law, politics and theology that endure to this day. There was, nevertheless, a lot of fighting, most of it between squabbling European potentates, and a major doctrinal rift in the Christian Church that saw it bifurcate, often with accompanying bloodshed, into the Catholic Church of Rome, and the Eastern Church of Constantinople.
Between the Christian ‘West’ and the Muslim ‘East” however, there endured an armed peace interspersed with occasional warfare until the eleventh century. The Byzantine heirs of Constantine were reasonably content to maintain a kind of Cold War with the many fractious emirs who ruled the lands to their east, and to sustain their power and influence through canny diplomacy, alliances, mercenaries, and proxies (It is testament to the ‘byzantine’ skills of these emperors and their servants that the empire endured for a thousand years as a powerful political, economic, and military force until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.
In western Europe, emerging from the rubble of the western Roman Empire, acquisitive and ambitious warlords transformed themselves into princes and kings, and their realms into principalities and kingdoms, laying the building blocks for what would in time become nation states. A hierarchical system of allegiance. service, reciprocal obligation and mutual benefit between rulers and lords, between masters and men, and between church and state that would be know hereafter as the feudal system – named for feoffment. the formal pledge by which a person was given land in exchange for a pledge of service, and thus taken into vassalage. Things were proceeding quite swimmingly until, land-hungry and rapacious, out of Scandinavia came the nautical marauders we now know as the Vikings. Pagans all, they were not deterred by Moses’ judgmental admonitions about coveting, stealing and killing. A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine – ‘from the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord!’. Thus rang out the litany of despair from churches and monasteries in Anglo-Saxon Britain during the years of Viking depredation and settlement that in time, contribute towards the evolution of English language and British culture. It transpires that this phrase might actually be apocryphal, but why spoil a damn good story – or a good song:
Vandals, Vikings and next year in Jorsalberg
But the Vikings were not the first Scandinavians to venture southwards to sunnier climes. Before them were the Vandals, a name now synonymous with all manner of disruption.
The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, predecessors but ethnic kin to the Norsemen and Vikings. Scouring through the Baltic lands, and present day Poland, Germany, and France, they settled in Spain. Andalusia is Arabic for ‘Land of the Vandals’. And eventually they established a kingdom in Libya, challenging and then paying tribute to the ascendant Roman Empire. The Vandals’ legacy lingers still. The Maghrebi Berbers’ script resembles, remarkably, Norse runes.
But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the Mediterranean and east. On a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica in Istanbul, there is some graffiti carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries.
And herein lies yet another tale of ethnic, social and political diffusion of which most folk are unaware. The principality of Kyivan Rus, with its capital at Kyiv, was established and ruled for over a century by Viking warriors who ventured south down the great rivers of today’s Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia. ‘Rus’, the origin of the name of Russia is an Old Norse word meaning “men who row” – how apt for the warriors of the famed long-ships. The Viking age lasted from the end of the eighth century to the latter half of the eleventh. The Vikings raided and traded, subjugated, and ruled whole countries or parts thereof, transforming existing politics and creating new ones. In so doing, they butted up against the Byzantine Empire, even reaching the gates of Constantinople itself. Envoys of the king of Rus first came to the city in 838, offering peace, friendship and trade. But there was also conflict. In 860, Vikings besieged the city and passing through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean, plundered Byzantine-controlled islands. This was repeated in 959.
Over time, relations became much more cordial. Prince Volodymyr the Great of Kyiv converted to Christianity in 988, a purely political move to secure the goodwill of the Byzantine empire, his most powerful and dangerous neighbour. He adopted the Byzantine orthodoxy, thus drawing him closer to the empire, and proceeded to convert his subjects. Alliances of mutual benefit were formed, often Vikings fighting the emperors’ border wars, and were often sealed with marriages between Viking lords and Byzantine princesses.
Constantinople was like a lode star to the Vikings. The princes of Kyivan Rus were attracted to its wealth and commerce, and also to the power, prestige and high culture. Indeed, they endeavoured to replicate it on the Dnieper. Voldymyr’s grandson Yaroslav/Jaroslav (he’s acclaimed by both Ukraine and Russia) rebuilt Kyiv in Byzantium’s image, in brick and stone, built a magnificent cathedral modeled on Theodosius’ Aya Sofia, naming it Saint Sofia, and a raised a Golden Gate like that in the Great City. Princes in other cities followed Kyiv’s example.
But everything was violently undone in 1238 when the Mongols invaded Kyiven Rus, and Kyiv itself was devastated in 1240, and did not recover its former importance and prosperity for centuries. Yet, the cathedral of St Sophia still stands in the heart of Kiev, as it has done for almost a millennium, its golden domes a symbol of the advent of Christianity in eastern Europe.
One commander of the Varangarian Guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Contantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalberg (See; Harald Went a ‘Viking).
If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!
The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy Summers the Vampire Slayer, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.
During its long history, Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times, captured and recaptured 44 times and destroyed twice. There is a harrowing account of the Roman siege and fall in 70 CE in Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem – a Biography, a must-have travel companion when visiting. Whilst the Romans laid siege and starved the city, it’s population already boosted during Passover, the Jewish rebels within fought a civil war among themselves. Tens of thousands died, and more were enslaved, and the Jews of Roman Palestine scattered across the known world. The city was raised to the ground – you can still see the huge bricks of the temple scattered around the foot of the eastern wall, just along from the Kotel plaza – and Emperor Hadrian rebuilt it in the Roman style, renaming it Aelia Capitolina.
When the Christian Crusaders sacked Jerusalem a millennium later, they left it standing with all the Roman, Byzantine and Muslim architecture that we see today, but slaughtered the unfortunate inhabitants. The next conqueror, Salah ad Din was more merciful a century later – he released the Christians who paid a ransom, though enslaving those who couldn’t raise the cash – although it is said that he actually put his hand in his pocket to release a a few sad souls.
There is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not exclusive to one particular religion or denomination, having affected Jews, Christians and Muslims from many different countries and backgrounds. These messianic carpet rides are called, appropriately enough, the Jerusalem Syndrome. And there’s a song about that too:
Many people devote a lot of energy to matters millennial, when they could more productively divert it to more practical matters like health, water, human rights, etcetera. Some enthusiastic souls in Israel have constructed a 3D virtual second temple as a template for its reconstruction. And they care not if they start a world war to get it built. Others strive to recreate the Islamic Caliphate thus precipitating the long foretold great battle at The End of Days. And a group of entrepreneurs recreate Noah’s Ark a paddock in Kentucky, USA, as the centerpiece of a creationist theme-park USA (and are endeavouring to make an insurance claim for flood damage). President Donald Trump is beholden to the evangelical movement who believe that Christ will return in glory to Jerusalem and that this time, the Jews will convert to Christianity thus ushering in the glorious Millennium of prophecy. Different tribe, same psychosis.
Never underestimate the irrational mind. For such is the power of myth and magic even in this techno day and age. More blood has been shed in and for Jerusalem than any other city on earth, and we ain’t done yet!
But back to our story of Muslims, Byzantines, and those up and coming prelates and potentates of Western Europe’, and the story that dominated the news in the last year of the Eleventh Century when things changed utterly for east-west relations.
The heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of those nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land, the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan.
The crusaders were drawn to the biblical “land of milk and honey” promised by god to the Jews, and now, by Pope Urban, his representative on earth. The ordinary folk who joined the quixotic Peter the Hermit’s disastrous “people’s crusade – also know as the Children’s Crusade, for many young ones followed and fell – set out for the Holy Land out of an ignorant and innocent belief in a release from the vale of tears that was their ordinary feudal lot. The crusaders who followed them were of an altogether different and secular mindset, and cut from a brutal and acquisitive martial cloth. The younger sons of western European aristocratic families and their armed gangs, fighting men, and more aptly, bandits, of poor means and avaricious dreams, and warlords who craved lands and lordships, provinces and principalities. They sought not salvation but sovereignty. And they only agreed to participate in the crusades if their was something in it for them,
In our more secular, rational times, we condemn those who maim and murder in the name of their god. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator (and among some faithful, it still is). Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, propelled young and old, rich and poor, the mighty and the meek down the long, hard, and for most, murderous road to Jerusalem. Many perished en route, including tens of thousands of Jews who happens to be living in what is now Germany, Austria, and the Balkans, and as many Christians in Anatolia and the Levant who happened to look like, well, Muslims! Collateral damage was not a Twentieth Century phenomenon.
Though outnumbered and beset by fatigue, hunger and thirst, the soldiers of Christ stormed Jerusalem and put thousands of its inhabitants to the sword – men, women, children and livestock, Muslims, Jews and Christians – it really didn’t matter because after all those long months and miles of trial and tribulation, their blood was up, all cats look black in the dark, and they were doing God’s work. Six months later, a Frankish visitor recorded that the Holy City reeked still of death and decay.
The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted almost two hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing. They were, in modern parlance, a colonial project, the First Crusade was followed by a new campaign in Western Europe, not for pilgrims and solders, but for the common people to settle, live and work in the Holy Land – Germans, French, Italians. Former serfs became landholders. Minor nobles styled themselves as lords and monarchs in the lands they had seized, and displayed all the material accoutrements of rank and status. Wherever there was land and water, the newcomers moved in, seizing and settling the fertile coastal littoral and the fertile valleys – and iconic though arid Jerusalem, of course, and leaving the desert wastes and wadis to the Saracens.
The crusaders and their kingdoms have haunted the Arab historical memory to this day. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – it is also said that those Varangarians derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank).
Jerusalem fell in 1187 to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and was restored to the House of Islam. Salah ad Din, the legendary Saladin, was clever, cunning, and for all his fictional and cinematic credentials as a very “noble savage”, cold-hearted and cruel emir. Back in his day, Egypt was ruled by the Shia Fatamids – he engineered a military putsch and massacred them all. But he is revered to this day as an Arab and Muslim hero – notwithstanding his murderous methods and his Kurdish pedigree. Pilgrims weep beside his tomb adjacent to the glorious Omayyad Mosque in Damascus. There are actually two catafalques – one modest and one extravagant, the latter donated by Kaiser Wilhelm of First World War fame during his celebrated tour of the Levant. It is said that his entourage attempted to poach Salah ad Din’s tomb and spirit it back to Germany, but were intercepted by the Sultan’s police. This renowned soldier and schemer could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?). He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Baibars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. it was Baybars who brought the crusader kingdoms to an end – in 1291, when Acre, the last remaining crusader cities, fell to his forces.
In defending their stolen patrimony against the Arab push-back, the Crusader Kings conveniently colluded with another new power that had emerged out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out off the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire; and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. When they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and then collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’.
When the Mongols began their onslaught in earnest in the mid-thirteenth century, there was no holding them back. Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus fell, but their advance into the Levant was checked by the aforesaid Baibars at the Battle of Ayn Jalut, but they brought the Abbasid house down. Like previous invaders, they conquered, delegated power to local satraps, settled, assimilated, and then weakened and fell as they, in their turn, were supplanted by, yes, another nomad band, this time the Turkic Ottomans (and again, out of central Asia). That’s how assabiyeh works. Once you have it, you have to work on it. Lose it and you are done.
It was always thus. The barbarians, usually horsemen originating from central Asia, surge in from the wild lands, devastate the settled lands, and take the cities. In Eastern as well as Western Europe, and the Middle East, they came, they saw, they conquered, and they moved in. Settled down, intermingled, and developing a taste for the good life, and gave up their roving, rampaging ways. We in the Anglo-sphere are their heirs and successors, descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.
Vasilly Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces. Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”. He does not mention, however, notwithstanding that he witnessed first hand the Red Army’s conquest of eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, the destructive and devasting consequences of conquest, including the ancient and enduring incidence of rape in wartime, and its use as a weapon of war and of genocide.
In time, the Turkic Osmanlik clan conquered Anatolia, inherited the Arab and Islamic patrimony, and its emir assumed the caliphate as the official ‘Deputy of God’. The Ottoman Caliphate, successor to the famed Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad, endured until its abolition in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey. It was restored in 2014 as ad Dawlet al Islamiye fi Iraq w ash Sham or Da’esh.
We will get to that later, but meantime, the wars and plagues and famines that beset the Middle East brought an end to the golden age of Arab civilization, with all its ecumenical, martial, intellectual, artistic, and scientific adventurousness – the same wars, plagues, and famines scoured the western world too, but these had less far to fall.
And so, time stood still for Islam and the Arab world, as the outlying, often neglected provinces of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. It is said of old, that before the advent of the Mongol lord, Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia” (the British and Indian Armies learnt this the hard way during the disastrous Mesopotamian Campaign of 1916). The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam Hussein.
The West Awakes
Meanwhile, the focus of our story shifts westwards with the crusader armies returning home, bringing with them a taste for the luxuries of the east, and scientific and philosophical ideas and inventions lost to the west during those not-so-Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into a backward looking atrophy that it has endeavoured to emerge from to this day.
And in time, came the rise of the great European powers, the successor states to the defunct Roman Empire. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unraveling that was to lead to the age of discovery. Came the power of the papacy, the questioning of that power, the end of the feudal system and the rise of absolute monarchy, and the invention of the printing press and with it, the dissemination of knowledge. All this set the stage for the next act.
Enter the Spanish and Portuguese, resource poor and priest-ridden, astutely patronizing the Spanish and Portuguese adventurers, and Italian chancers like Cristóbal Colón, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition – first in Spain and then elsewhere – the straighteners of religious conformity and the bedrock of imperial power. One of its first acts was to assist Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in expelling the Jews from their realms – in 1798, the same year that Columbus set sail for an unknown but long-inhabited continent that in typical European ethnocentrism would be hailed as The New World.
And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (a claim sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the corrupt and calculating Borgia Pope) on the one hand, and papal supremacy on the other: England, and Holland, and less parvenu but as imperially ambitious and acquisitive, royalist France. to use a phrase that would only enter our lexicon in the late-nineteenth century, that all wanted their ‘place in the sun’ and a share of a seemingly inexhaustible colonial cornucopia.
The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the political and transformations and the very gradual and painful evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.
The wars of religion, ostensibly between Catholicism and Protestantism, morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun), and there was nothing sacred about them. They endured some two hundred years, giving us the Renaissance and the Reformation and new ways of seeing, interpreting and portraying the world; and many, many people perished. And amidst the scramble for colonies and resources, and the ever-widening scope of scientific and intellectual inquiry, there ensued interminable blood-letting. Folk got much too close to the fire, literally and figuratively. Many were dragged there, and many were eager pyromaniacs. The Thirty Years War wasn’t called thus for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England that concluded just 165 years before, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once medieval and mid-twentieth century in its savagery. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.
In its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendancy of the English, the French, and the Dutch, and with it the creation of the European ‘Balance of Power’, a shibboleth that still has resonance today in the trials and tribulations of the European Union. Germany and Italy were still a profusion of principalities and oppressed satellites, Russia had yet to emerge out of an anarchic fog, and the USA had not even been thought of. Meanwhile, in the most populous parts of the planet, the Chinese and Indian empires carried on ever, in splendid isolation, narcissistic and ethnocentric, though not above trading profitably with the Occident. The potentates that is – the lower orders were, and in many in many ways remain, in a state of repression and submission.
So came an era of religious and intellectual ferment and the mass movement of peoples across the known world and beyond it, to the Americas. Innovations in transport, communications, industry and warfare, and the trans-global transit of armies and of international commerce in goods and in humanity literally changed the face of the planet. Eleven million slaves crossed the Atlantic in four centuries. Over forty million migrants “went west” in less than one. The inscription on Our Lady Of The Harbour, a gift from the Old World to the New, still says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. And so indeed did folk travel, fleeing poverty and pogroms, powerlessness and persecution, seeking “a new home in the sun”. From the glens of the Gael, from the shtetl and the steppe, from Old Europe and Old Asia. The Great American Dreaming. Today, some 1,300 airplanes a day cross ‘the pond” (475,000 transits a year).
The printing press and the bible in the vernacular changed the way men thought. Merchants and missionaries and military men, seekers and makers of fortunes, slavers and saviours, prophets and potentates, philosophers and pamphleteers, poets and painters. Enlightenment, revolution, and war. And in America, the creation of democratic institutions – though at this stage, exclusively for white men of means. Slaves, savages, and sisterhood had a long, long time to wait.
Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blow-back when French armies returned home harbouring the virus of republicanism and the concepts of liberty and equality. Be careful what you wish for, for liberty wields a two-edged sword as the revolution devours its children. Mounting the scaffold, the doomed Girondin Manon Roland exclaimed “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk noted that freedom and liberty often had to crawl over broken glass.
To borrow from Bob Dylan. Democracy was a slow train coming – and indeed, took more than a century to arrive. In the interim, the quest for trade and treasure led to the subjugation and plundering of most parts of the planet by avaricious and resource-hungry Europeans. The age of capital gave rise to a new imperialism that rivaled the empires of old, and an industrial revolution that brought prosperity and progress to western nations and untold misery to the rest of the world. And it began inauspiciously in what was to become the City of London, not too far from the Bank of England.
In September 1599, as William Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches to Hamlet, in Southwark, a mile to the north across the Thames, a group of London merchants, artisans, adventurer and privateers formed history’s first joint-stock, limited-liability company with tradeable shares.
The East India Company developed over two centuries into “a state in the guise of a merchant”, to use English politician Burke’s phrase, with a private army 260,000 strong – twice as large as that of Britain at the time, and the proving ground of many celebrated British officers, the most famous of those being Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington and who at the time of his Indian service, was the capable younger brother of the equally capable Richard Wellesley, Governor General of the principality Bengal, the keystone of the British hold on the Indian subcontinent.
At its peak, it had built a third of London’s docklands, its annual expenditure was half that of the British government, and it oversaw a third of the country’s imports and exports. For Britain, the East India Company was a gift that kept on giving. Unwittingly and haphazardly, it established and solidified British power in India and China, seeing off their European colonial competitors – the French and the Dutch, who also coveted a piece of the Indian action – and overseeing the transfer west of massive wealth to the home country. It set the keystone for the British Empire, with India, “The Raj”, the jewel in the crown.
When the East India Company was first established, the Britain had about 1% of world GDP compared to 43% per cent for Mughal India. By the time it was wound down over one hundred and fifty years later, it had more or less inverted that. In co-opting, corrupting and conquering the powerful warlords of the fractious Mughal Empire, it effectively established the British Empire and in the process, destroyed India’s sovereignty, economy and society. The word “loot” is of Indian origin – it came to symbolize how the company drained the blood from India’s veins, sucked the marrow from out of Its bones, and sending its wealth back to Britain, many historians argue, substantially financed the nascent industrial revolution.
Granted the right to ‘‘wage war’’ in its royal charter, the Honourable Company was the first multinational corporation to run amok (a Malay word for unrestrained rampage) on a grand scale. Having established itself in eastern India, by 1765 it had control of a production and distribution network for opium that was illegally imported into China, sowing the seeds for the Opium Wars – and a Chinese animus that resonates to this day. It bought Chinese tea, which it sold in Britain and the continent, and established tea plantations in India. It was in fact company tea that ended up in Boston Harbour in 1773 – fear of what the company could do if it was granted access to the New World was one of the causes of the American Revolution.
The company effectively bankrolled the British economy, yet ironically, it was also the Bank of England’s largest creditor. It could also be said to have invented corporate lobbying. Members of the British Parliament were on retainers, and were offered shares in exchange for extending the company’s monopolies: some two-fifths of British MPs held stock, including most members of the cabinet. Many members were in fact former employees who had repatriated millions of pounds in ill gotten gains from Bengal. And yet, it overextended itself and its resources and was on the verge of insolvency. The contrast between the bankruptcy of the company and the vast riches of its employees was too stark not to be investigated, and indeed it was. but was deemed “too big to fail”, and was bailed out by the British government in 1773.
The Company’s premier enabler and exemplar was the first governor of the Bengal Presidency, Robert Clive, or Lord Clive of Plassey, as he was ennobled after a battle that demonstrated the aphorism that one should never enter a gunfight armed with just a knife. But wasn’t that just how the East – and West – was won?
Clive was a humble accountant labouring on the ledgers, but found his calling as a soldier (just like the Spanish conquistador Hernàn Cortéz “the killer” – as Neil Young called him), and rose to great heights of power and riches through remarkable grit and graft. When arraigned by parliament for his rapacity – and acquitted – he exclaimed: “My God, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”
If ever you are in London, visit the small, quiet and shady Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, as he became known, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat with a blunt paper-knife. “How are the mighty fallen”. Leonard Cohen’s poet King David said that. “Not often enough!” I said that.
Eventually, the company – whose lobbying efforts saw its original fifteen year charter last for 274 years – became an embarrassment for the English government and establishment. Its Indian “subjects” rebelled unexpectedly and violently in the Great Rebellion of 1857, and it was only by considerable military effort and repression that the British Army was able to save the company and its Indian ’empire”. In the wake of what the British called The Indian Mutiny, which saw cruel atrocities committed by Indians and Britons alike, tens of thousands of rebel sepoys (Indian soldiers in the company’s employ) were executed in vicious reprisal. As George McDonald Fraser’s antihero says in Flashman in the Great Game, “there’s nothing as cruel as a justified Christian”. Assuming full control, the British government nationalized the company in 1859. Long outliving its purpose it was wound down in 1874. Read more about what the British did for India in Weighing the White Man’s Burden
Imagine today, a protection racket at the heart of government with the complicity of the British establishment, A company with the global reach of Facebook and Google, the economic tentacles of the likes of Halliburton and Exxon, and the military reach of Erik Prince’s mercenary armies. The corruption and criminality of the now defunct and disgraced BCAC (the so-called “Bank of Crooks and Criminals”), and the immunity and impunity of all the big corporates who took the world for a ride in the Global Financial Crisis, and not only got away with it, got governments to bail them out and we’re permitted to persist with their banditry. As Dalrymple himself has put it, The East India Company was literally Facebook with guns!
Imagine today, a protection racket at the heart of government Nd the complicity of the British establishment, A company with the global reach of Facebook and Google, the economic tentacles of the likes of Halliburton and Exxon, and the military reach of Erik Prince’s mercenary armies. The corruption and criminality of the now defunct and disgraced BCAC (the so-called “Bank of Crooks and Criminals”), and the immunity and impunity of all the big corporates who took the world for a ride in the Global Financial Crisis, and not only got away with it, got governments to bail them out and we’re permitted to persist with their banditry. The East India Company was literally Facebook with guns!
[Above was originally published in In That Howling Infinite‘s Bad Company – how Britain conquered India]
As we depart India and return westwards, let’s ponder a moment …
The words “what if” should never figure in a historian’s lexicon – they are more apt in speculative fiction. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to imagine how history would have unfolded if the East India Company had gotten its claws into North America, and likewise, if Clive and later, Richard Wesley, governor general of Bengal during the French Revolution – and elder brother of Arthur, later the Duke of Wellington – had failed in their endeavours to expel the French from India. And would, indeed, young Richard have had such an impact on Napoleon’s career if he’d not cut his teeth on the Deccan peninsular? On this speculative note regarding America and France, let us segue to what historians have called the Age of Revolutions.
Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey 1857
Principalities and Powers
The American patriots’ war for independence ushered in what became know as the the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. In reality, the political revolutions of 19th Century failed, and ended in slaughter – book-ended by Robespierre’s Terror and Bonaparte’s wars, and the the last stand of the Parisian communards in Père Lachaise cemetery and their execution against Le Mur des Fédéres in 1871. In reality this was the age of rising principalities and powers (the words are those of Saint Paul to the Ephesians), of new empires, Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, Britain and France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. And all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering, colonizing and exploiting the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia – no place was beyond the reach of the empires’ military and mercantile power, and no indigene was safe from the depredations of these latter-day Medes and Assyrians. Diamond again: it was all down to “guns, germs, and steel”.
The ‘discovered’ world was ripe for plunder. For land, for minerals, for food, for souls. And if the natives got fractious, there were machine guns and gun boats to reinforce the merchants, missionaries and administrators. For this was the era of militant and muscular Christianity and gunboat diplomacy, synergized in a divine plan to render the world a holier and happier place – for Christian white men. Rudyard Kipling said it best: “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need”. A new age of Empire had arrived wherein competing countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!
A little known facet of that century’s history is that contemporaneous to the western expansion of ‘These United States” and the spread of British red across the globe, Imperial Russia was moving eastwards. One outstanding volume of George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picaresque and quite political incorrect Flashman series sees the eponymous anti-hero fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up), and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. In the Flashman books, the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.
Amidst the humour and ribaldry is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress, a theme revisited in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Theodore Olsen’s Soldier Blue, set in the American West, and Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration and James A Michener’s Caravans, set in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ is no match for modern weaponry
With trade and economic wealth creation came the rise of the middle class. The urban, mercantile elite who seek political power commensurate with their economic clout thus demand a say in how they are governed. In an age of mass production and the beginnings of mass communication, we see the emergence of the masses as a political concept, and of mass society in which rulers are responsive and reactive to the needs fears, and rages of the masses and their representatives. The times of Machiavelli give way to those of Marx. And the focus of history is as much on the ruled as on the rulers.
So passed the Nineteenth Century. The Old World ruled. The New had its own preoccupations, with civil war and western expansion. The east and the south were conquered and colonized. God (European and most probably, English-speaking) was in His heaven and all was good and right in the world. The old scourges continued as they has since time immemorial: plague and famine, drought and flood, economic boom and bust, migration and invasion, war and peace, and comme d’habitude, death and destruction on a large scale. Good times and bad times as ever, with little to impede the onward march of progress. A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” The Mahatma replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.
In came the Twentieth Century. Same old, same old, but with markets and machines much more efficient, and likewise our capacity to create and destroy. A time of totalitarian regimes and total war, social change and technological wizardry. In 1905, the Imperial Russian Navy sailed eighteen thousand miles to the Korea Strait only to be broken by the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a new boy on the block, and once the guns of Tsushima Bay had fallen silent, signalling that the white man could indeed be beaten, and thence, the decline of the colonial empires of old as the “our new-caught, sullen peoples” threw off their chains. In the political, economic, military and demographic spheres, balances of power changed, and changed again. In the wake of two World Wars, from Old Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union, and then, in these present times, to a totally new configuration that reflects the transitory rise and fall of nations. As I write, we see a hesitant America and a struggling Europe competing with a resurgent and belligerent Russia, and the rise and rise of its fellow BRICs, Brazil, India and China – an ascendancy that is not however assured in this unstable and unpredictable world of ours. And in the post-Cold War, global financial crisis world of wide-open borders and the mass movement across them of people, goods, and capital, everything has a price and can be bought and sold. Immoral mathematics: “in these shifting tides, bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs, and more besides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores – damnation takes no sides” (from E Lucevan le Stelle).
And passing strange it is that whilst we can place men on the moon and machines on Mars, we still live in a world riven by superstition. We have come through the age of enlightenment, the age of revolutions, the age of machines, the age of mass society, mass war, and of mass communications, And yet, we are so, so ignorant. We thought that the rising tide of progress and knowledge would raise all the boats. But how wrong we were. The Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, we have returned there. Helped in no small part by their more atavistic descendants who see some wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a medieval ethos and lifestyle.
One thing is pretty certain. We are almost closing a circle. The history of the West, for the past two millennia has been dominated by the emergence and triumph of Christianity and of Islam. As the early Muslims saw it, al Dar al Harb and al Dar al Islam, the houses of war and peace respectively. A pretty good description if the terms are used interchangeably. Much of what has passed has been refracted through the prisms of these theologies. Call it crusade or call it jihad; or call it blow back on a grand scale. The legacy of two millennia of empire is coming back up the pipes. “Take up the White Man’s burden (or any conqueror’s burden, in fact) and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard”.
For surely, “by all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, the silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your gods and you”. Weigh them all and find them wanting. In compassion and loving kindness, in reason and rationality, in patience and peacefulness. And the greatest, saddest irony of all for all who have a passion for history and for charting the unbroken story of humankind, and for those with this passion who treasure the depths of their cultural lineage through all the fugues, follies, and fault lines of our heritage, is the dawning realization and regret, that after two millennia, the religion that kicked off so much controversy and conflict, schism and schadenfreude, brilliance and bigotry, bounty and bloodshed, that was the heir to ancient faiths and the progenitor of many more, is probably now doomed in the lands wherein it was born.
It’s as if over a millennium of painful, staggering, stuttering, blood soaked, inventive, and pioneering progress has meant naught, and that we might as well have remained in the dark, literally and figuratively. “It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. We range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”. (see In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill)
When Miranda exclaimed “what brave new world, with such people in’t!’, when the dismal Dane moaned ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable’, was the Bard being singularly ironic? He was writing at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century when the wars of religion were well under way, and yet, the reign of Elizabeth had brought a degree of civil calm, and King James was determined to heal the schisms, using his translation of The Bible as his balm. Reasons to be cheerful, perhaps. The Thirty Years War had yet to devastate continental Europe, and the English Civil war had still to come. Sweden had not yet ravaged Eastern Europe (yes, the Swedes had indeed attempted world dominion before ABBA). The Pilgrim Fathers were not to set sail for a decade, the Inca and Aztec were already no more, and as the Plains Indians rode the range mounted on the descendants of the conquistadors’ horses, the American West had not yet been discovered let alone ‘won’.
Some digression, that! So, back to where are we now, in the first decade of the 21st century. A world of wonders, no doubt, of technological advances in medicine, machines, and mass communications. But the new millennium began with the destruction of the Twin Towers, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars in these sad states continue. Conflagrations now engulf Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and turmoil threatens Egypt and Turkey. These are all the battlegrounds of old. Alexander marched this way and back (he burned Persepolis and died in Babylon, and his body, embalmed in gold, lies waiting to be discovered). In 1853 Czar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect Christian shrines in Ottoman Jerusalem, setting in train the chain of events that led to the Crimean War, and thence to the dissolution of the once grand Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the long decline and eventual demise of what the ascendant Europeans called ‘the sick man of Europe”, accompanied by Europe’s cultural and political – and in the case of France, territorial – conquest of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia bred a bitterness that endures and manifests today.
In June 1914, in Sarajevo, a former outpost of that empire, a wrong turn put Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the imminently moribund Hapsburg Empire in pistol range of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. The sixth attempt on his life that morning sounded the first shot of “the war to end all wars”, which led, incidentally to the destruction of the long-declining Ottoman Empire, to the Balfour Declaration, and to the Sykes Picot Agreement that created the tortured Middle East that today is the sum of all our fears.
So, we are still paying the price as all these ghosts watch over a brave new world of asymmetrical, ideological warfare weaponized by the Lords of War who know no frontiers or ethics, and waged by rag-tag armies who likewise know neither. The sundered and sullied tribes of man are caught up in the dreams and fears of their fathers and grandfathers, all the old hatreds and habits, schemes and shibboleths, the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. “There rides the mercenary, here roams the robber band. In flies the emissary with claims upon our land. The lesser breed with savage speed is slaughtered where he stands, his elemental fantasy felled by a foreign hand” (from ‘Freedom Comes’).
Over to the good and the noble players of the new Great Game who wage those ‘savage wars of peace’ that are “the white man’s burden”. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded gloomily, “I show in the first place that the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is none other than a war of all against all; and that in that war, all has a right to all things”. He had the English civil war on his mind, but, if he had slept for over four hundred and fifty years, and awoke today, he would cry “See! What did I tell you?” In the war of all against all, Homer’s blinded Cyclops is staggering around, endeavouring to catch the one who robbed him of his sight.
And he wages his savage wars of peace with weapons that would make the inquisition jealous. In his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.
And meanwhile, back in the lands of the rich folks, economic recession and high unemployment, and political and social instability, financial graft and funny money dressed up in manufactured metaphors like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and collateralized debt obligations. And in the lands of the poorer folks, those “faraway places with strange sounding names”, as The Springfields once sang, and of those who are climbing out of the mud, a sliding scale of prosperity and poverty, venality and violence. And threatening all of us, environmental degradation and climate change, with ice caps melting, low lands flooding, pasturelands turning to dust, and oceans becoming deserts. Fires and floods, and twisters and earthquakes, famines and plagues. As Joni Mitchell sang, paraphrasing Yeats, “Surely some revelation is at hand, surely it’s the second coming and the wrath has finally taken form” (the word ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek for ‘revelation’).
We are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, nor are we sailing to Tir Na Nog or Hy Brazil; but are we on the road to Pichipoi? This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but are we Israelites looking out over Canaan Land? We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok? In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the poet begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. We yearn, to quote Nigella Lawson, “that blissful moment when the bagpipes stop”. But in all truth, the crystal ball is shattered. All bets are off. Everyone has a game, and all is now in play. And remember what Bob said: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’, for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin”’.
Since I wrote this history, the final paragraph has effectively been mugged by reality. The heady days of February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East, had not yet transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter. Five years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.
The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality. It was followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that have led, five years later, to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, that has extended southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.
Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.
In the game of political ifs and buts, the world reaps the whirlwind of bad decisions by our owners and rulers. If “the Coalition of the Willing” hadn’t destroyed Iraq in the Third Gulf War; if the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been subcontracted out to warlords and private security firms; if the west hadn’t propped up tyrants and kleptocrats for decades; if it hadn’t turned a blind eye to its Saudi friends financing and inspiring the Salafi Killers; if the US had destroyed the Da’esh convoys as they crossed the open desert to capture and desecrate Palmyra; if the Russians had attacked IS rather than other Syrian militias; if the coalition had made as many bombing runs as the Russians. If so many events that had come before had not happened – the fall of the Shah and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (apparently given the nod by the US), and the wars that ensued; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it; the rise of al Qa’ida. If, if, if. But, at the end of the day, Muslims pay the price, and yet, it will have to be Muslims who sort it out. Western boots on the ground will not fix it, but, rather, as in days of yore, it will create yet another whirlwind for us all to reap.
We are in midst of what could be described as the final phase of the Wars of the Ottoman Succession. The lines drawn on maps by British and French bureaucrats in the years after The Great War have been dissolved. The polities fabricated by Messrs Sykes and Picot, and manifested in the mandates that evolved into the present states of Syria and Iraq have effectively disintegrated. The future of the other former mandates, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is uncertain, as is that of Turkey, the country which rose out of the ashes of debate and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.
All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.
© Paul Hemphill 2013, 2016. All rights reserved
The featured image: Timeless. A Syrian moment, in Foreign Policy 23rd July 2012. Paul Simon once sang “On the side of a hill in a land called somewhere”. Little changes.
The Destruction of the Temple, AD70, Francesco Hayes
So Far From Home, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13th January 1842 (1898). The phrase ‘so far from home’ is the title of young Mary Driscoll’s 1847 account of her migration from Ireland to America.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus February 2014. Al Jazeera 26 February 2014
Babes in the Wilderness. Syrian children in the eye of the storm. Al Jazeera, September 2011
In addition to a multitude of Wiki and Google searches, and references to and quotations from many songs and poems, including my own poetry and verse , special note is made of the following books that I have read of late that have inspired this piece:
Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood (Knopf)
Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization (Sceptre)
William Dalrymple, From The Holy Mountain (Harper Perennial)
William Dalrymple, Return Of A King (Knopf)
William Dalrymple, The Anarchy (Bloomsbury)
David Frye, Walls (Faber)
Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation (HarperCollins)
Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation (Andre Deutsch)
Vaslily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook (NYRB Classics)
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword (Doubleday)
Tom Holland, Dominion (Little Brown),
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe – A History of Ukraine (Basic)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)
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