I wear the weave of history like a second skin, I wake with runes of mystery of how we all begin, I walk the paths of pioneers who watched the circus start, The past now beats within me like a second heart.
Paul Hemphill. E Lucivan Le Stelle
Whilst its scope is eclectic and wide ranging in content In That Howling Infinite is especially a history blog. It’s subject matter is diverse. Politics, literature, music, and memoir are featured – but it is at its most original and informative, a miscellany of matters historical, gathered in Foggy Ruins of Time – from history’s back pages– yes, an appropriation of lyrics from two Bob Dylan Songs.
In compiling the annual retrospective for 2022, I decided I would put together a list of my favourite posts in each of the categories described above, beginning with the history ones. My primary criteria were not so much the subject matter, which is diverse, as can be seen from the ten choices (shown here in alphabetical order) but firstly, what I most enjoyed writing and secondly, those I considered the most original insofar as I referenced and republished few other voices, other than direct quotations from the sources I was consulting and books I was reviewing.
Western folk, long on romanticism and short on historical knowledge, associate crusades and crusaders with medieval knights, red crosses emblazoned on white surcoats and shields and wielding broadswords battling it out with swarthy scimitar-swinging, be-turbaned Saracens. Here, we widen that orientalist perspective.
“… 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”. An original, idiosyncratic and not strictly accurate journey through those foggy ruins of time.
We know how the story of Thomas Cromwell ends. It’s how Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel gets us there that matters. Our questions here are whether Thomas could sense where it was all headed, and whether he could have quit while he was ahead.
“A wide-ranging rural road trip through England’s green and pleasant land takes the traveller by antique and desolated abbeys and monasteries, their ageing walls crumbling and lichen covered, their vaulted pediments open to the English elements. The celebrated poets of the romantic era immortalized these relics in poetry, and even today, when one stands in grassy naves, gazing skywards through skeletal pillars, one can almost feel an ode coming on”. A brief dissertation on Thomas Cromwell’s English revolution.
It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound. Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River at time when two culturally and spiritually disparate peoples collided.
In the First century, the Roman Empire was a far-ranging and cosmopolitan polity extending from the shores of the Atlantic to the borders of Persia. As far as we can ascertain from the historical record, Meniscus Diabetes was born in Rome in 25 CE. His father was a Greek slave in the Imperial Household of Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome. These were turbulent times for Rome and Romans, but our hero managed to navigate through them.
The Sport of Kings’ is not a history book – nor is it an historical novel. But it is most certainly about history. And about identity. As Morgan puts it: “You would never escape the category of your birth”. It is also about memory and myth: “Repeated long enough, stories become memory and memory becomes fact”. It is both a meditation on race, on slavery – America’s “original sin” – and a bitter inversion of the American dream.
An illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride andrevelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days. The horse” has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances, and yet, over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung.
Our forest neighbour, recently deceased and internationally acclaimed English photojournalist Tim Page ran away from boring ‘sixties Britain to the exotic East at the age of seventeen, taking the ‘overland’ route that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’. He washed up in the great war of our generation, and left it critically injured and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper. This is the story of a war, and a young man who wandered into that war.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. Abraham Lincoln
The North would not let us govern ourselves, so the war came. Jefferson Davis
Perhaps is the personal dimension that makes civil wars so attractive to re-enactors in the U.K the US – the gloomy and yet paradoxically romantic concept of “a family divided” and “brother against brother”. When hundreds of ordinary folk meticulously don period garb and take up replica weaponry to replay Gettysberg and Shiloh, Worcester and Naseby, Towton and Bosworth Field, it is much, much more than a fun day out in the countryside. It might be good-natured play-acting, or participating in “living history”, but might it not also speak to some inner-need to connect with long-dead forbears who endured “the longest day” on those very fields in mortal combat with their own kith and kin.
This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading an article in the New York Review of Books in 2017 reviewing Civil Wars: A History in IdeasbyDavid Armitage, and another in the Times in January 2022 reviewing a new book by american political scientist Barbara F Walter called How Civil Wars Start – And How To Stop Them. The review are reprinted in full below, but first, some of of my own observations.
Notwithstanding the fact that civil wars are so devastating in terms of lives lost, the destruction wrought on the urban and rural environment, and the shattering of social and political institutions, fear of civil war and its consequences apparently does not deter belligerent parties from marching down that road. Often, one or another actually forces the issue, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences, but rationalizing it along the lines of national, ideological or sectional interest, and indeed, some concept of community, social, religious or ethnic survival, a perception defined nowadays as an existential threat, as happened historically, one could argue, in England, in the US, Russia, Spain, and Bosnia. Sometimes, it is an accumulation of seemingly minor events, perceived slights, discrimination, actual atrocities, miscalculations, or overreactions that ignite pyres that have been building for ages – generations even. I think of Lebanon here, and Syria.
So often, casus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. The idea of what people are fighting about often looks different from the perspective of those actually engaged in it to his outside observers, both contemporarily and retrospectively. Indeed, sometimes, reasons are tacked on afterwards, and indeed, actually mutate progressively as matters escalate.
Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the southern slave states that sought to secede from the Union in 1861, and the English parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. Many civil wars have arisen from the ashes of a prior war, when there are what are perceived as existential issues unresolved and the availability of weapons and materiel and experienced and discontented men to use them. The Russian Civil War which followed on from The First World War and the Chinese and Vietnamese civil wars which followed the second spring to mind, and historically, the Paris Commune which raised its red banner after the Franco-Prussian War whilst the victorious Prussian Army was still camped outside the city. Ireland’s civil war bled out of its independence struggle against British rule after the Anglo-Irish Treaty left Ireland divided and dependent with the six Ulster counties excised as Northern Ireland.
The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England in the mid seventeenth century. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a relatively peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. And yet, the deposition of James III and the ascension of Queen Mary and her husband,the Dutch Prince William of Orange, was preceded by what can be described as the last invasion of England by a foreign force. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting In the streets of Paris in much the same way as Byzantine emperor Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.
There is a view that civil war can be retrospectively be seen as a crucible of nation, a fiery furnace through which the righteous must walk – an ex post facto rationalization of the Nietzschean paradox of “that which does not kill us makes us strong”. Abraham Lincoln verbalized this in his Gettysberg Address in 1863 on a battlefield where the fallen had been only recently interred. Franco made a similar play as he laid claim to the wreckage that was Spain in the wake of three years of carnage, but then petrified his riven, country in autocratic stone until his death many decades later. The Russian Civil War was not accorded such a nation-building ethos as it was viewed by the Bolshevik victors as the crushing of a counter-revolution against a new world already being born.
And finally, to conclude this conversation, let us briefly contemplate the article’s discussion of how and when protagonists actually define their internecine conflict as civil war. The American Civil War is a case in point, referred to at times as “The Rebellion” and “The War Between the States”. The American War of Independence, also know as The American Revolution was indeed a civil war as defined by the author, fought along political lines by people who had race, faith, culture and identity in common. The English Wars of the Roses, which staggered on for thirty years in in the fifteenth century is largely viewed as a dynastic struggle between noble houses rather than civil wars per se. And yet, nearly thirty thousand Englishmen died on the snow-swept fields of Towton, near York, the largest loss of English lives on a single day (a third more than perished on the first day of the Somme in June 1916).
The Syrian tragedy, as the author notes, is regarded by the concerned, and hypocritically entangled outside world, a civil war by any definition. But it is at present a harrowing work in progress, viewed by the Assad regime and its supporters as a rebellion and as an assault by extremist outsiders, and by the rebel forces, as a revolution, albeit a comprised and even hijacked one. Jihadis for their many sins, see it as a messianic prelude to Armageddon.
Once thing for sure, civil war, the Hobbesian “war if all against all” (Hobbes was thinking England’s) is undoubtably the saddest, bloodiest and most visceral of all conflicts. I leave the last words to WB Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
The end of the world is on view at Philadelphia. Hurtling across a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together, Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War ravage the earth amid blood-red banners and what looks like cannon smoke. Warriors fall before their swords and spears, and women, children, and babies are slaughtered.
Benjamin West completed this version of Death on the Pale Horse in 1817, two years after the Battle of Waterloo. It is tempting therefore to see in the painting not only the influence of the book of Revelation, and perhaps the elderly West’s intimations of his own imminent mortality, but also a retrospective verdict on the terrible catalogue of death and destruction that had been the Napoleonic Wars. Yet West’s original inspiration seems to have been another conflict. He first sketched out his ideas for Death on the Pale Horse in 1783, the concluding year of the American War of Independence. Bitterly divisive on both sides of the Atlantic, the war imposed strains on West himself. Pennsylvanian born and bred, he was a supporter of American resistance.
But in 1763 he migrated to Britain, and he spent the war working as a historical painter at the court of George III. So every day he served the monarch against whom some of his countrymen were fighting, knowing all the while that this same king was launching his own legions against Americans who had once been accounted British subjects. It was this tension that helped to inform West’s apocalyptic vision. More viscerally than most, he understood that the American Revolution was also in multiple respects civil warfare.
Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious, and divided into three parts in the manner of Julius Caesar’s Gaul. This seems appropriate since Armitage roots his account in ancient Rome. It was here, he claims, between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, that lethal conflicts within a recognized society, a common enough experience in earlier eras and in other regions, began to be viewed and categorized as a distinctive form of war: bellum civile.
How this came to pass is the subject of Part One of the book. In Part Two, Armitage switches to the early modern era, which is here defined mainly as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and shows how elite male familiarity with classical texts encouraged Europeans and some of their overseas colonizers to interpret the civil commotions of their own times very much in Roman terms. Part Three takes the story from the nineteenth century to the dangerous and precarious present. Whereas the incidence of overt conflicts between major states has receded during the post-1945 “long peace,” civil wars have proliferated, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The “shadow of civil war,” Armitage contends, has now become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.”
But why ancient Rome to begin with? Armitage attributes its centrality to evolving Western conceptions of civil warfare partly to this culture’s marked success in establishing and stabilizing the idea of a distinct citizenry and political community. “Civil War could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created.” More significant, as far as perceptions in later centuries were concerned, were the writings and careers of two brilliant Romans, each of whom in different ways was caught up in the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey and destroyed by the violence of their warring successors.
Cicero, an opponent of Caesar, is the earliest-known writer to have used the term “civil war.” He also employed it in a speech that he delivered at the Forum in 66 BCE, close to the spot where his severed head and hands would be put on display twenty-three years later, as punishment for his activism and his words. In the following century, the youthful poet Lucan completed a ten-book masterwork, De Bello Civile, on how, under Caesar, “Rome’s high race plunged in her [own] vitals her victorious sword.” Lucan dedicated his saga to Nero, the emperor who later forced him to commit suicide.
Their writings and the gory fate of these men helped to foster and perpetuate the idea that civil warfare was a particularly nasty variant of organized human violence. It is in part this reputation, Armitage contends, that has made the subject of civil war a more impoverished field of inquiry than inter-state conflict. Given that the English, American, and Spanish civil wars have all long been historiographical cottage industries, I am not sure this is wholly correct. But it is the case, and he documents this powerfully throughout, that the ideas and negative language that have accumulated around the notion of “civil war” have resulted in the term’s use often being politically driven in some way. As with treason, what gets called civil war, and becomes remembered as such, frequently depends on which side eventually prospers.
At times, the term has been deliberately withheld for fear of seeming to concede to a set of antagonists even a glimmer of a claim to sovereignty in a disputed political space. Thus the royalist Earl of Clarendon chose in his history to describe the English Parliament’s campaigns against Charles I after 1642 not as a civil war, but as a rebellion. In much the same way, an early US official history of the Union and Confederate navies described their encounters between 1861 and 1865 as a “War of the Rebellion,” thereby representing the actions of the Southern states as a mere uprising against an indisputably legitimate government.
For Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863, by contrast, it was essential to insist that America was undergoing a civil war. He wanted to trumpet in public more than simply the rightness of a particular governing regime. Since its survival was still in doubt, he needed as well to rally support for the Union itself, that “new nation, conceived in liberty” as he styled it: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Of course, had the American Civil War ended differently, it might well not have been called a civil war at all. Later generations might have remembered it as a “War of Southern Independence,” or even as a “Southern Revolution.” As Armitage points out, when major insurrections break out within a polity, they almost invariably start out as civil wars in the sense that the local population is initially divided in its loyalties and responses. But if the insurrectionists eventually triumph, then—as in Russia after 1917, or China after 1949—it has increasingly been the case that the struggle is redescribed by the victors as a revolution. Partly because of the continuing influence of the ancient Roman cultural inheritance, “revolution” possesses far more positive connotations than the more grubby and ambivalent “civil war.”
Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
Rebel–held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, recaptured by government forces, March 2017
As a searching, nuanced, and succinct analysis of these recurring ideas, linguistic fluctuations, and shifting responses over a dramatic span of time, and across national and continental boundaries, Armitage’s account is a valuable and suggestive one. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.
In dealing with civil wars he practices what, in an earlier work, he styled “serial contextualism.” This means that he offers detailed snapshots of a succession of discrete moments and of particular intellectual, political, and legal figures spread out over a very long stretch of time. The strategy is sometimes illuminating, but one has to mind the gaps. Most obviously, there are difficulties involved in leaping, as he does, almost immediately from ancient Rome to the seventeenth century. By the latter period, for instance, England’s “Wars of the Roses” were sometimes viewed and described in retrospect as civil wars. But at the time, in the 1400s, commentators do not seem to have resorted to medieval Latin phrases such as bella civilia or guerre civiles to describe these particular domestic and dynastic conflicts. Although classical texts such as Lucan’s De Bello Civile were known to medieval scholars, the impress of this ancient Roman inheritance on contemporary interpretations of fifteenth-century England’s internal wars does not appear to have been a vital one.
Why might this have been? The question could be rephrased. Why should it be imagined that language and concepts drawn from the ancient Roman past supplied the only or even the dominant ideas and methods for subsequent Westerners wanting to make sense of the experience of large-scale civil contention and slaughter? After all, in the medieval era and long after, most men and even more women possessed no direct knowledge of the Roman classics. Multitudes in Europe and everywhere else could not even read, never mind afford books. Yet in the past as now, it was precisely these sorts of “ordinary” people who were often the most vulnerable to the chaos and bloodshed of civil warfare, and so had little choice but to work out some ideas about it. What were these ideas?
A practitioner of intellectual history from the so-called Cambridge School of that discipline, Armitage barely touches on such questions. More international in range than many of his fellow scholars, he shares some of this school’s leading characteristics: its fascination with the long-term impact of Aristotelian and Roman republicanism, its overwhelming focus on language and on erudite elite males, and its comparative neglect of religious texts. It is partly this deliberately selective approach to the past and its sources that allows Armitage to venture on such an enormous topic over such a longue durée. But again, there is a mismatch between this methodology and the full extent and vital diversity of his subject.
To be sure, many of the impressive individuals who feature in his book were much more than desk-bound intellectuals or sheltered and austere political players. One of the most striking segments in Civil Wars is Armitage’s treatment of the multiple roles of the Prussian-born American lawyer Francis Lieber, who provided Lincoln with a legal code for the conduct of the Civil War. Lieber had fought at Waterloo and was left for dead on the battlefield. During the 1860s, he also had to bear the death of one of his sons who fought for the South, even as two others were fighting for the North. As he remarked: “Civil War has thus knocked loudly at our own door.” The fact remains, however, that most men caught up in civil wars throughout history have not been educated, prosperous, and high-achieving souls of this sort. Moreover—and this has a wide significance—civil wars have often been viewed as having a particular impact on women.
In harsh reality, even conventional warfare has usually damaged non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Nonetheless, the idea long persisted that war was quintessentially a separate, masculine province. But civil wars were seen as taking place within, and cutting across, discrete societies. Consequently, by their very nature, they seemed likely to violate this separation of spheres, with women along with children and the old and frail all patently involved. This was a prime reason why civil warfare was so often characterized in different cultures not just as evil and catastrophic, but as unnatural. In turn, this helps to explain why people experiencing such conflicts have often resorted, far more avidly than to any other source of ideas, to religious language and texts for explanations as well as comfort.
The major holy books all contain allusions to civil warfare and/or lines that can be read as addressing its horrors. “I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians,” declares the King James version of the book of Isaiah: “and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.” It was often the Apocalypse, though, as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s great canvas, that Christians mined for terrifying and allusive imagery. Such biblical borrowings sometimes crowded out references to the Roman classics as a means of evoking and explaining civil war altogether, as seems often to have happened in medieval England.
At other times, religious and classical imagery and arguments were combined. Thus, as Armitage describes, the English poet Samuel Daniel drew on Lucan’s verses on the Roman civil war when composing his own First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke in 1595, a work plundered for its plots and characters by William Shakespeare. But it is also easy to see in portions of Daniel’s text the influence of the Apocalypse:
Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,
And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,
Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,
Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:
Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,
…Nature all out of course to checke our course,
Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.
It was never just Christians who turned to holy books and religious pieties so as to cast some light on the darkness of civil war. Unlike allusions to the Roman past, such responses seem to have been universal. Indeed, I suspect that the only way that a genuinely trans-continental and socially deep history of civil warfare could conceivably be written would be through an examination of how civil wars have been treated by the world’s various religions, and how such texts and interpretations have been used and understood over time. In particular, the idea that Samuel Daniel hints at in the passage quoted above—that civil war was a punishment for a people’s more than usually egregious sins—has proved strikingly ecumenical as well as persistent.
Thus for Sunni Muslims, the idea of civil war as fitna has been central to understandings of the past. But fitna in this theology connotes more than civil warfare. The term can evoke sexual temptation, moral depravity—once again, sin. The First Fitna, for instance, the war of succession between 656 and 661, is traditionally viewed by Sunnis as marking the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the true followers of Muhammad.
As Tobie Meyer-Fong has shown, the civil wars that killed over twenty million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, the so-called Taiping Rebellion, were also often interpreted as divine retribution for immoral, decadent, or irreligious behavior.* Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist commentators on all sides rationalized the carnage and disorder in these terms. Poor, illiterate Chinese caught up in this crisis seem also to have regularly turned to religion to make sense of it, and not simply out of faith, or as a means to explain apparently arbitrary horrors. By viewing civil war as punishment for Chinese society’s sins in general, they could also secure for themselves a strategy and a possible way out, even if only in spiritual terms. They could make extra and conscious efforts to follow a moral pathway, and hope thereby to evade heaven’s condemnation.
Analogous responses and patterns of belief continue today, and understandably so. As the ongoing civil warfare in Syria illustrates all too terribly, vulnerable people caught up in such ordeals can easily be left feeling that no other aid is available to them except a deity, and that the only alternative is despair. David Armitage concludes his book with a discussion of how the “long-term decline of wars between states” (a decline that should not be relied on) has been “accompanied by the rise of wars within them.” As in his previous book, The History Manifesto (2014), co-written with Jo Guldi, he also insists that historians have a duty—and a particular capacity—to address such large and recurrent features of human experience:
Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.
Certainly, a close reading of Civil Wars provides a deeper understanding of some of the semantic strategies that are still being deployed in regard to this mode of warfare. Thus President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters frequently represent Syria’s current troubles as the result of rebellion, revolt, or treason; while for some of his Russian allies, resistance in that country is to be categorized as terrorism.
But historians can illumine the rash of civil warfare that has characterized recent decades more deeply than this. Whereas Armitage focuses here on the making and unmaking of states, it is the rise and fall of empires that have often been the fundamental precipitants of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century civil wars. At one level, the decline and demise of some old, mainly land-based empires—Austrian, Ottoman, and Soviet—have contributed to a succession of troubles in Eastern Europe. At another, the old maritime empires that invaded so much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East frequently imposed new boundaries and yoked together different peoples in those regions in ways that were never likely to endure, and stoked up troubles for the future. In these and other respects, Armitage is right to insist that history can equip men and women with a better understanding of the past and of the troubled present. It always has done this. But only when its practitioners have been willing to adopt broad and diverse and not just long perspectives.
1.Tobie Meyer-Fong, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (Stanford University Press, 2013).
Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton. Her latest book is Acts of Union and Disunion: What Has Held the UK Together—and What Is Dividing It? . (June 2017)
Is America’s second civil war brewing? All the signs are all there
The Balkans conflict gives an ominous glimpse of potential future strife in the US. A democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory
David Aaaronovitch, The Times, January 21, 2022
It turns out that there is a discipline that you might call “civilwarology” – the study of the factors that lead to civil war. It exists in think tanks and universities, and its experts are consulted by state agencies anxious to better understand the world in which they operate.
Barbara F. Walter became a civilwarologist nearly a quarter of a century ago and her entry is evidently well thumbed in the Rolodexes of the CIA and the US State Department.
In other words, she knows what she’s talking about – which makes this book rather scary.
The discipline is based on observation and measurement over time. Out of these have emerged a series of data sets and analytical tools relating to the progression towards or away from the conditions likely to lead to civil war. And it adds a word to the list of possible-ocracies.
Anocracy, disappointingly, is not government by assholes, but a troubling middle point between democracy and autocracy. An anocracy may exist during the transition from authoritarianism to full democracy, or the other way round, but it is less stable than either. Right now some states that lay claim to being democracies are in fact anocracies.
If anocracy is a key precondition for the outbreak of a civil war, “factionalisation”, Walter says, is another. Not to be confused with polarisation, this is “when citizens form groups based on ethnic, religious or geographic distinctions – and a country’s political parties become predatory, cutting out rivals and enacting policies that primarily benefit them and their constituents”. Winner takes all. Or loser loses all.
The postwar conflict that features most prominently in this book happened in the territories that had once been Yugoslavia. For 35 years the communist autocrat Marshal Tito had suppressed any latent ethnic rivalry between a series of closely related peoples. When he died in 1980 this settlement died with him.
As the component republics of the old state began to agitate for more autonomy, one group – the Serbs – saw themselves as losing out. This sense of loss on the part of a large group, Walter says, is a significant element in creating the conditions for war.
She reminds us that the election of Abraham Lincoln as US president in 1860 meant slaveholding Southern states no longer exercised a veto on federal policy; the other states could outvote them.
In Yugoslavia the new anocracy opened the way for what experts call “ethnic entrepreneurs” – a breed of politician that mobilises around ethnic grievances or anxieties. These included most notably Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Franjo Tudjman in Croatia and Radovan Karadzic for the Bosnian Serbs.
At a more local level ethnic politics became exploited by “violence entrepreneurs” – the men who formed and armed militias to take control and to kill their enemies. These militias do not need to be large. In the town of Visegrad one man with 15 gang and family members carried out a local genocide of Bosnian Muslims.
A common dimension in civil war development, Walter tells us, is a rural/urban divide, in which resentful “sons of the soil”, organising away from the supervision of the authorities, see themselves at cultural war with the more cosmopolitan town-dwellers. In Bosnia this was embodied in the bloody four-year siege of Sarajevo, with the Serb hicks from the hills mortaring and sniping the occupants of the city.
One of Walter’s reasons for reminding us of the horrors of the former Yugoslavia is to point out that to the population of these lands, civil war had never seemed likely until it happened and suddenly, one day, their good neighbours turned into their executioners.
And here we come to the nub of it. The title of the book is misleading. It isn’t really about civil wars generically, but about one conceivable conflict in particular: the Second American Civil War. Roughly at the halfway point, having established how fratricidal conflict occurs, Walter turns her attention fully to her own country. Naturally, she knows how absurd such a possibility will seem to many readers as they take the subway to their downtown offices or listen to the audiobook as they drive the children to school.
“No one wants to believe,” she writes, “that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war; the decay is often so incremental that people often fail to notice it or understand it, even as they’re experiencing it.”
Yet objectively the danger signs are there. So that “if you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America – the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela – you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”
My psychological disposition inclines me against claims such as these. In the Great Journalistic Division between the hysterics and the phlegmatists, I tend to side with the latter. But happenings in the US since 2016 – and especially the events of the past two years – have shaken my complacency.
There has been the loss of conventional politics from much of the national discourse, so that sharp political difference no longer concerns taxes or the environment, but (for one side at least) is almost entirely about ethnicity, identity, culture and loss. The Kyle Rittenhouse court case arose from armed men stalking the ungoverned streets shooting at each other in pursuit of political, not criminal objectives. Militias line statehouse steps openly carrying weapons of civil war lethality.
Then there was January 6, 2021, and the storming of the Capitol, in which political thugs sought to prevent the accession of a democratically elected president. Even more alarming than the mere fact of this act of what the CIA classified as “open insurgency” has been the way the Republican Party and its supporters have minimised this attempt at insurrection.
Walter shows how developments in the US match the conditions for other civil wars.
The sense of loss among many white-identifying voters (the US as a whole will follow where California and Texas have led by becoming minority white by 2045), the rural-urban divide, a failure of trust in politicians and other citizens, the factionalisation of politics, the rise of grievance-exploiting “ethnic entrepreneurs” (in this case most obviously Donald Trump), and all of this hugely exacerbated by the catalyst of that great creator of anxiety, social media.
The psychological fuel for civil war, Walter reminds us, is not hate, but fear. Between January and October 2020 a record 17 million firearms were sold in the US. In December 2020 one poll showed that 17 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.”
Walter admits that in light of all this she and her husband, children of European migrants to the US, considered leaving the US last year. A useful rule of thumb could be that when your experts on civil strife start moving abroad you may be in trouble.
Yet for all that, Walter is not fatalistic. If the forces of division have a playbook, then, she writes, “we have a playbook too”. She advocates better civics lessons in schools, prosecuting armed militias as terrorists, reform of what is a terribly inefficient and patchwork voting system, tech regulation and much greater attention to developing policies that benefit the majority of citizens. The threat can be averted. To which the watching Brit, otherwise powerless, can only whisper a heartfelt: “Amen.”
How Civil Wars Start – And How to Stop Them, by Barbara F. Walter (Viking)
It’s most amazing exhibits are its smallest, the tiny alphabet of the bronze age city of Ugarit from the 4th Century BC, said to be the world’s first alphabet, and its largest, the interior of second century synagogue from the Greco-Roman city of Dar Europa on the Euphrates.
The museum has not only survived Syria’s war unscathed, and for a long time closed to safeguard its contents, it has been reopened for almost a year. Whilst this is wonderful news, reflect on the memory of Khaled Mohammad al Asaad, renowned Syrian archaeologist and historian, and Director of Antiquities in Palmyra who was murdered by Islamic State in August 2015 for endeavouring to protect Syria’s archaeological treasures, and reflect also on the destruction of the World Heritage site for which he sacrificed his life.
Palmyra, the ancient and venerable ‘Pearl of the Desert stands in an oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus. This once great city was in its day one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world, at the junction of trade routes between Europe, Asia and Africa. Although a vassal of Rome, it was the capital of the third century Palmyrene Empire, and of its famous queen, Zenobia. She led a revolt against the Roman Empire, expanding her domain throughout the Levant and conquering Egypt, and ruled until 271, when she was defeated by the Romans and taken as a hostage to Rome by EmperorAurelian.
Palmyra contains monumental ruins from the 1st to the 2nd century, its art and architecture spanning several civilizations, combining Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. There are few remnants of the ancient world that compared wit it. Ba’albek, in Lebanon, maybe; Ephesus, in Turkey, possibly; and also, Apamea, in western Syria between Hama and Aleppo. Palmyra’s treasures hide in plain sight. For all the world to see and wonder.
When Da’ish captured Palmyra and Tadmor, the adjacent town (it’s name means ruin in Arabic) al Asaad refused to flee and though tortured for a month, refused to reveal where valuable artifacts had been moved for safekeeping. He was then publicly beheaded, his remains displayed amidst the ruins he has spent his life preserving for us, for humanity, for history. His murderers declared in a sign hanging from his body, that he’d did because he had overseen idols and had attended infidel archaeological conferences as his country’s representative.
Da’ish then proceeded to dynamite Palmyra’s monuments.
Four years on and the suffering of the Syrians continues unabated. The so called-civilized rulers of the so called-civilized world stood by and watched, first with fear and loathing, and then opportunistically and strategically as innocent Syrians were savaged by all sides in a war of all against all. For want of will and resources, and party to the proxy wars that are still being playing out between neighboring states and heat powers. Whilst the territorial Caliphate is no more, thousands of of the murderers and desecrators have melted into the Syrian and Iraqi deserts to carry on their atavistic struggle.
What is happened in Palmyra is no worse than what has happened in many Syrian and Iraqi towns and villages during the last nine years.
We now confront the fact that whilst the recent destruction of Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral encouraged a deluge of plutocratic philanthropy, the great and good of the western world, having expressed horror and outage at Islamic State’s destructive iconoclasm, are not demonstrating such open-pocketness when it comes to the reconstruction of Syria’s ancient and priceless archaeological heritage. The reason, it is said, is because the Assad government, victorious in its vicious and bloody reconquest of the country, is subject to international economic sanctions. Neither aid for the destitute and displaced nor the reconstruction of ancient monuments is forthcoming on the scale theses crises require.
Expensive, inspirational 3D representations of Palmyra’s lost monuments in London, Paris and New York are no substitute for for actually funding the reconstruction of the real thing.
We republish here a timely feature from the Sydney Morning Herald addressing this melancholy irony. It recalls many of the places we visited when we were last in Palmyra. We drove in from Damascus on a long desert highway that even in peacetime, had mukhabarat checkpoints and also boasted The Baghdad Cafe where we took refreshment, and departed a few days later on the Homs road. The feature photograph was taken from the breakfast room of our hotel in Tadmor – which the author says is now destroyed. The picture below was taken from Fakhr-al-Din al-Ma’ani Castleabove Palmyra. It was a magnificent vantage point for a panoramic view of the ancient city, and also for watching the most spectacular sunsets over the Syrian desert. It is now a military outpost.
In ages far beyond our ken, These stones weren’t set by mortal men. In friendly fields and foreign lands. They say these walls were by giants’hands were raised. But few, few remember when. With mortar mixed with blood and soil And leavened thence with sweat and toil. The masons and the muscle All are bones, bones, dry bones, And nothing else remains. Their histories are carved in stone. Their mysteries are locked in stone. And so the monuments decay As lonely sands stretch far away, And hide the stones.
Paul Hemphill, Ruins and Bones
The article follows our small photo gallery.
Read also, in In That Howling Infinite, Ruins and Bones, a tribute to al Asaad, and to Palmyra, and all, The Rubble Of Palmyraby Leon Wieseltier, published in The Atlantic, 5th September, 2014.
All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help. Damascus museum archaeologist Houmam Saad
Islamic State barbarians almost destroyed this World Heritage-listed site. Its wonders can be saved – so why is there such little international will to do so?
“Your heart will break when you see Palmyra,” says Tarek al-Asaad, looking out the window pensively as we cross the wide Syrian steppe on the road towards the ancient city. For Tarek, Palmyra represents a deep reservoir of sorrow that includes the public execution of his father Khaled, a renowned archaeologist and historian. Khaled had been instrumental in achieving Palmyra’s UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1980. The world stood by, horrified, while the fanatics of Islamic State, also known as IS, took to its majestic monuments with explosives and sledgehammers 35 years later.
We stop at a roadside store, where a young boy with old eyes is gathering aluminium cans to sell for scrap. Inside, soldiers of the Syrian Army guzzle sugary vodka drinks and beer. It’s May and the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when Tarek eats and drinks nothing from dawn to dusk, but the young conscripts are on leave and in a mood to celebrate. Tarek buys supplies for his first night in Palmyra since he fled the city in 2015 for the relative safety of Damascus, Syria’s capital.
Tarek’s father, Khaled al-Asaad, was 83 when he was beheaded by IS. He had devoted more than 50 years to uncovering, restoring and publicising the remnants of this historic Silk Road hub that reached its peak in the third century. Tarek, one of his 11 children, grew up in the modern town of Tadmur next to the site. “Every day I would rush out of school to ride in the wheel-barrows and buckets that carried the soil from the diggings,” he remembers. Khaled retired as Palmyra’s head of antiquities in 2003 but stayed on as an expert much in demand. Fluent in ancient Palmyrene, a dialect of Aramaic, he translated inscriptions, wrote books and advised foreign archaeological missions. Meanwhile, Tarek, now 38, a nuggety, full-faced man with a ready smile, ran a successful tourism business.
We’re travelling towards Palmyra from the western city of Homs, through undulating pasture sprinkled with crimson poppies. Bedouin herders, austere and watchful, graze flocks of long-haired goats and fat-tailed sheep. Soldiers hitch rides on passing trucks through concrete-block settlements edged with green rectangles of wheat and barley. Roadside military checkpoints mount extravagant displays of patriotism: the double-starred national flag is painted on concrete barriers, oil drums and blockhouse walls while banners depict Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad looking resolute behind aviator sunglasses, or waving to crowds. Sentries who inspect identity papers are relaxed and happy to banter. “I hope the fasting is going okay for you?” asks a driver. “We’re not fasting, we’re kuffar [non-believers],” jokes a guard, alluding to the jihadist insult thrown at adversaries.
Further along, pasture gives way to stony ground studded with pale green tussock. Remnants of the war are more evident here; burnt-out trucks and tanks, toppled electricity pylons and fortified berms of rammed earth crowned with barbed wire. Near a military airbase ringed by radar stations the checkpoint is heavily guarded and businesslike.
A Russian tank transporter going our way is a reminder that IS still fights in the desert beyond Palmyra, where several Syrian troops were reportedly killed this month. While IS lost its last Syrian stronghold of Baghouz in March, small bands continue to mount guerrilla attacks. This is my first visit to Palmyra since a trip as a tourist in 2009, drawn by the mystique of its spectacular architecture beside a desert oasis. Two years later, Syria was torn apart by war. As we approach Palmyra through a gap in a low mountain range, one question is playing on my mind: has the remote and mesmerising site suffered a fatal blow, or can it rise again?
Palmyra’s Grand Colonnade suddenly emerges out of a sandy plain. It is the city’s still magnificent spine, a kilometre-long avenue of towering limestone columns that slowly turn from pale gold to burnt orange in the setting sun. We park near the ruins and set out on foot to take a closer look. At the Grand Colonnade’s eastern end, the great temple of the Mesopotamian god Bel lies in ruins – though its portico somehow survived IS’s explosives – and the ornately carved triumphal arch is a pile of massive blocks. The invaders also blew up the tetrapylon that marked the city’s crossroads and the Baalshamin temple, a richly decorated combination of Roman and indigenous building styles. The theatre’s finely chiselled facade is a pile of rubble along with several multi-storey burial towers that sat on a bare hillside.
On the crossroads of international trade, cosmopolitan Palmyra developed an unorthodox and pluralist culture reflected in its surviving art and architecture. That, along with its location between the Mediterranean coast and the Euphrates river, made it a tempting symbolic and strategic target for modern-day fundamentalists. Muslims lived at Palmyra for 13 centuries, establishing mosques in structures that earlier functioned as Byzantine churches and pagan temples, but the bigots of IS were scandalised by almost everything they found. Every act of vandalism was videoed for use in IS propaganda, its shock value aimed at attracting extremist recruits and intimidating opponents.
IS occupied Palmyra twice: between May 2015 and March 2016, and between December 2016 and March 2017. During its first takeover, Tarek escaped, but Khaled refused to leave. “I phoned my father and begged him, ‘Please leave; Palmyra has been lost to evil people and you are not safe,’ Tarek says. “He answered, ‘I’m glad you got away, but this is my home and I’m not leaving.’”
After six weeks of house arrest, Khaled was imprisoned in a hotel basement and tortured to reveal the location of hidden treasures that Tarek says never existed. After a month in the basement, the old man was beheaded with a sword in front of an assembled crowd. “He refused to kneel for the blade, so they kicked his legs out from under him,” Tarek says. An online photograph showed his corpse tied to a traffic pole and his head, spectacles in place, positioned mockingly at his feet. A placard tied to his body labelled him an apostate who served as “director of idolatry” at Palmyra and represented Assad’s government at “infidel” conferences abroad.
Before war broke out in 2011, tourism and agriculture supported more than 50,000 people in Tadmur. Only a few hundred have returned, burrowing into half-demolished buildings along streets that sprout giant weeds from bomb craters. Tarek is not among the returnees; he lives with his mother Hayat in Damascus, where he manages a cafe. Russian sappers have cleared Tadmur of IS mines and booby-traps and power and water is back on. Commerce has made a tentative recovery, with a bakery, a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy and a simple restaurant. Its owner, Ibrahim Salim, 45, grills chicken on the footpath under a banner portraying President Assad and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin. Salim says he fled Palmyra after IS killed his wife Taghreed, a 36-year-old nurse, for the crime of treating an injured government soldier. “Security is good, so I can sleep peacefully in Tadmur now,” he says. “We hope the school will reopen soon, so more families will return.”
UNESCO has extolled Palmyrene art – particularly its expressive funerary sculpture – as a unique blend of indigenous, Greco-Roman, Persian and even Indian influences. As IS battled Syrian troops for control of Tadmur in 2015, Tarek rushed to save the most valued examples in Palmyra’s two-storey museum. With him were his archaeologist brothers, Mohammed and Walid, and their brother-in-law, Khalil Hariri, who had succeeded Khaled al-Asaad as museum director. They packed sculptures, pottery and jewellery into wooden crates and were loading them into trucks when mortars exploded around them. Shrapnel hit Tarek in the back and Khalil took a bullet in the arm. They got away with hundreds of pieces, but left many more behind. UNESCO has praised Syria’s wartime evacuation of more than 300,000 exhibits from the country’s 34 museums as “an extraordinary feat”.
We walk to Palmyra’s museum. Khaled’s former workplace is a desolate shell, its walls pockmarked by bullets, windows blown out and the foyer roof holed by a missile. Galleries that showcased the accomplishments of millennia are bare save for a few statues and bas-reliefs. They are minus heads, faces and hands – desecrated by IS cadres enraged by “idolatrous” objects, Tarek says, adding: “They even pulled the embalmed mummies out of their cabinets and ran over them with a bulldozer.”
I find only one intact exhibit – a portrait of Khaled (pictured) by Sydney artist Luke Cornish, a work that I and Cornish assumed had been lost. Painted onto a steel door, the portrait is propped against a wall and covered in a protective sheet of clear plastic. Tarek doesn’t know how it survived or who put it in the museum. “Someone must have hidden it from IS, because they would have destroyed it for sure,” he says.
No fewer than 15 employees of Syria’s museum network have suffered violent deaths in the eight-year war, but only Khaled’s murder made world headlines. The news prompted Cornish to pay him a remarkable tribute. Cornish makes art by spraying aerosol paint over layers of stencils. Twice a finalist for the Archibald Prize, his award-winning work achieves a near-photographic realism and carries strong humanitarian themes. In June 2016, he went to Syria to film a group of Australian boxers on a “hope-raising mission” led by a Sydney Anglican priest, “Fighting Father” Dave Smith, known for his use of boxing to help at-risk youths. Between bouts and training, Cornish held impromptu stencil-art demonstrations for children in war-ravaged places such as Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city.
“The kids were fascinated by the immediacy of the medium,” he told me in Sydney. “Most were very poor and had never known anything but war, so it was great to see them having fun putting stuff like [cartoon character] Dora the Explorer on a schoolyard wall or along a bombed-out street. Even with soldiers around and artillery going off, we always drew a curious crowd.”
Before leaving for Syria, Cornish prepared a stencil in the hope of painting Khaled’s portrait somewhere in the country. He got the chance when the boxers went to Palmyra. They arrived more than two months after a Russian-backed offensive first expelled IS from the city, and a week after St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra played a concert there to celebrate – prematurely, as it turned out – Palmyra’s liberation. The orchestra performed Prokofiev, Bach and Shchedrin in a Roman-era theatre that IS used as a backdrop for mass executions.
Cornish chose the door of the theatre’s electrical room to paint the man he calls “a hero who sacrificed his life for what he loved”. A YouTube clip of Cornish working on the painting led Tarek to contact him. “Luke’s painting was a beautiful gesture and a very kind gift to our family. We think of him as our friend and brother,” Tarek says.
But six months later, IS retook Palmyra, dynamiting the theatre and posting a gloating video of the damage. Cornish had assumed his painting was lost, too. “I’m used to having my work destroyed on the street, but having it blown up by IS is something else,” he says.
Syria boasts six World Heritage cultural sites and all are on UNESCO’s endangered list. Normally, World Heritage funds would be released to protect the threatened properties. In Syria’s case, UN support has been limited to the restoration of a single Palmyrene statue, and training for museum staff. A UNESCO emergency appeal for $US150,000 ($222,000) to safeguard the portico of Palmyra’s Temple of Bel has failed to attract support from potential donors. At the national museum in Damascus, white-coated conservators have begun the exacting job of repairing hundreds of Palmyra’s damaged exhibits. It is an almost entirely Syrian effort, done on a tiny budget. “We hope for more international help because Palmyra belongs to the world, not just to Syria,” says Khalil Hariri, the Palmyra museum director. He says the fallen stones of the triumphal arch, theatre and tetrapylon are mostly intact and can be put back together, but the museum service can’t afford to employ workers and buy machinery. Says a Palmyra specialist at the Damascus museum, archaeologist Houmam Saad: “All the world talks about the damage to Palmyra, Aleppo and our other World Heritage sites, but hardly anyone outside Syria does anything to help.”
More than two dozen European and US organisations have sprung up to promote Syria’s imperilled heritage. They collect data, hold meetings and issue statements of concern. One such group spent £2.5 million ($4.1 million) to erect a two-thirds-scale model of Palmyra’s triumphal arch in London’s Trafalgar Square, then repeated the exercise in Washington, D.C. Money raised for Syrian antiquities would be better spent where the damage was done, writes Ross Burns, a former Australian ambassador to Syria and author of four books on its archaeology and history: “Putting money into faux arches and 3D models vaguely mimicking historical structures does little more than salve the consciences of outsiders whose nations have encouraged – even funded and armed, then walked away from – the conflagration that grew to overwhelm Syria.”
Syria is a nation of many faiths and ethnicities that emerged in its present boundaries only in 1945. Its rulers have popularised a shared history as a tool to promote national identity and social cohesion. In 2018, UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay acknowledged this heritage as “a powerful force for reconciliation and dialogue”. She added a caveat: UNESCO would help rebuild Syria’s historic sites “when conditions allow”. That could mean a long wait.
The UN has banned its agencies from providing reconstruction aid until a “genuine and inclusive political transition negotiated by the parties” is achieved. The ban reflects the stance of the US, European Union and other nations which have imposed economic sanctions on Syria. The Australian government did the same in 2011 in response to what it called the “deeply disturbing and unacceptable use by the Syrian regime of violence against its people”. A year later, the Gillard government applied further sanctions and called for “intensified pressure on Damascus to stop its brutality”.
Luke Cornish ran up against the sanctions when he tried to send $28,000 raised for Syrian orphans to SOS Children’s Villages International last year. Sanctions have isolated Syria from global banking and payment systems, so the charity advised him to wire the money to its German bank account. However, his Australian bank declined the transfer, Cornish says, adding: “I made the mistake of using the word ‘Syria’ on the transfer description.” The UN Special Rapporteur on sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, says the restrictions have “contributed to the suffering of the Syrian people” by blocking imports ranging from anti-cancer drugs and vaccines to crop seeds and water pumps. Though not endorsed by the UN, the sanctions have had a “chilling effect” on humanitarian aid and obstruct efforts to restore schools, hospitals, clean water, housing and employment, Jazairy reported in 2018.
What, then, are the prospects for restoring Syria’s endangered antiquities, including Palmyra? Answers may lie in an ambitious Russian-funded project to rebuild Aleppo’s Great Mosque. It’s a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and symbol of the city, which lies north-west of Palmyra and lost one-third of its famed Old Quarter in fighting which ended in 2016. The mosque’s 45-metre minaret stood for more than 900 years until it collapsed during fighting in 2013. Today, it is a thousand-tonne pile of limestone blocks overlooked by a towering crane. Putting the minaret back up is the job of an all-Syrian team of architects and engineers, stonemasons and woodworkers. They must also restore the badly damaged columns, ceilings and walls of the prayer hall and arcades surrounding the mosque’s vast courtyard. Project director and architect Sakher Oulabi, who showed me around the site, says the workers feel a heavy responsibility: “We all understand we are doing something very important for the soul of our city and our country.”
Driving the rebuild is the Syria Trust for Development, chaired by Asma al-Assad, the President’s wife – so the project has considerable clout. Nevertheless, its technical challenges are almost as formidable as Palmyra’s. The minaret’s 2400 or so fallen stones must be weighed and measured, strength-tested with ultrasound and photographed from many angles so that photogrammetry – the science of making three-dimensional measurements from images – can help to determine where every stone fits. Materials and techniques must be as close as possible to the original: “An expert may notice the difference between new and old, but the public must not,” engineer Tamim Kasmo says. However, limestone that best matches the original is in a quarry outside government control, in Idlib province. As a senior US Defence Department official, Michael Mulroy, noted, Idlib harbours “the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world right now”.
Palmya’s giant stones are as white as old bones when we leave the site one evening at dusk. Tarek joins friends for iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast and begins with dates and water in line with a tradition supposedly begun by the prophet Muhammad. Our driver, Ahmad, has put aside the pistol he’s been carrying in his belt. He insists there is no prospect of an IS comeback, but says he carries the weapon because local roads can be dangerous. All the town’s hotels are destroyed, so we bed down in a private home and hear artillery fire throughout the night.
At dawn, a steady wind blows cold off the mountains. A road runs past the wreckage of a luxury hotel, where guests once dined while overlooking the ruins and below which Khaled al-Asaad was chained for his last 28 days, to the high perimeter walls of the Temple of Bel complex. From here, having sought the blessings of temple deities, ancient camel trains made the long desert crossing eastward to the Euphrates, with merchandise destined for markets as far away as China.
At the temple entrance today, a young soldier is hunkered down in a guard-post made from ammunition boxes and corrugated iron plastered with mud. “I was here all winter, but at least it didn’t snow,” he says. He apologises for having to inspect our papers and invites us to wait on plastic chairs while he clears our visit with a superior. I ask about the night’s gunfire. “It was only the army practising,” he says, pointing to a nearby mountain with a medieval citadel on its summit. A decade ago, I stood on its ramparts to take panoramic photos of Palmyra, but now it is an off-limits military zone.
Tarek and the soldier discuss welcome news: the spring that feeds Palmyra’s oasis is flowing for the first time in 27 years. The source of the city’s historic wealth, it has watered settlements here since Neolithic times. The spring’s revival has come too late for Tarek’s family orchard; its olive and pistachio trees have withered and died. But he takes it as a hopeful sign that enough of fabled Palmyra can be restored, for the prosperity of its people and the wonder of the world.
Why is it that when we think of Roman Emperor Caligula, we recall the late John Hurt’s over the top, mad and malevolent portrayal in the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Grave’s sardonically serious I Claudius.(1976). Or else, Malcolm McDowell’s vicious, almost cartoon villain in Penthouse pontiff Bob Guccione’s semi-pornograpic biopic Caligula(1979).
British author Simon Turney turns I Claudius on its head with the bumbling, stumbling, stammering Clau-Clau of book and film cast as a canny, conniving and ultimately successful player positioning himself to assume the imperial purple. Gone is the Caligula so malevolently and magnificently portrayed by John Hurt. No horses in the Senate. No incest. None of the orgies, explicit sex and delectable cameos of Penthouse Pets. But there is violence and gore – loads of it, in fact – and plots and conspiracies aplenty. But it is Claudius who is “nasty, brutish and short” while young Gaius is tall, blonde and well-intentioned. He’s certainly not all hugs and puppies, but he’s an astute, well-meaning but misunderstood victim of imperial circumstance who rides the perilous waves of bereavement and betrayal to assume the psychotic Tiberius’ throne.
The full title of Turney’s tome says it all: Caligula: loving brother, reluctant ruler and tortured soul (Orion 2017)
It is inevitable that history is written by the victors and throughout the past two millennia there have been plenty of cases of good men being maligned by their successors, as well as evil men canonized by their heirs and successors. Rome was no different and may indeed be the very epitome of this. Being so far removed from our modern world, we have only fragmentary archaeological and epigraphic evidence to directly base our research on – that and the writings of those who lived in these times.
And so it is with Caligula. Turney argues that once the chaff is cleared away, misunderstandings and misrepresentations clarified, and the more obvious cases of character assassination discarded, we are left with a complex man who fell foul of the most influential and dangerous people in the Empire. He could hardly have been the monster he has painted, for while those powerful senators and nobles managed to remove him, the ordinary people of Rome held him up as the golden prince and the army remained his – the latter in part on account of how as a child, he’d accompanied his father on victoriouscampaigns in Germania and Syria, earning the sobriquet “Little Boots” – in Latin, “Caligula” – named for the replica army sandals he wore on these road trips.
So, leave your assumptions and preconceptions at the city gates and enter Rome, 37AD.
Emperor Tiberius Caesar is dying. No-one knows how much time is left to him, but the power struggle has begun. The ailing old tyrant thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order to the chaos and carnage engineered by Sejanus, the cruel commander of the Praetorian Guard. The story is told through the eyes of Livilla, Caligula’s loyal, little sister and confidante. She recounts how her quiet, caring, beautiful brother became the most powerful man in the known western world, how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever. She is an attractive and insightful narrator, drawing the reader into her life as niece and hostage of mad, bad Tiberius and sister of his infamous successor.
Starship Captain Picard as Praetorian commander Sejanus
Being part of the extended family of the Divine Augustus is a tough gig. The five children of Germanicus appear to be cursed from birth. Their war-hero father is believed to have been poisoned on Tiberius’ orders, and mom and two brothers are arrested for treason, exiled on desert islands, and starved to death. Cold, ambitious, Agrippina is married off to an abusive husband, but keeps her eye on the ultimate prize. Sweet, docile Drusilla is wedded to a mild nonentity and pines for her own true love. Only Caligula and Livilla remain, as virtual captives on Capri, Tiberius’ pleasure island.
The ascent of the family into the imperial succession transforms Caligula from the easygoing lad Livilla knew to a shrewd, wary and calculating young man, used to watching his back and learning the dangerous power game of thrones. As much out of self-preservation as ambition, he maneuvers himself into the top job. A golden age beckons for Rome, but things unravel as political allies, friends, and finally family betray him and plot his demise. He becomes a bitter, resentful and vengeful Emperor, eventually losing touch with reality and his humanity. Even loyal Livilla comes a cropper. Power corrupts and absolute power, whilst not surreal scale of the films, leads Caligula to a rendezvous with the assassins’ knives.
Complementing the human drama of the quasi-Shakespearean rise and fall of a tragic hero, Turney also provides his tale with a political dimension. There is the well known backstory of the Roman Republic and how Julius Caesar was slain by gallant patriots who feared that he was about to make himself King – a concept that was anathema to SPQR, the Senate and people of Rome. Caesar’s heir, Octavius, who became Augustus, whilst hailed as ‘Imperator’, was most careful not to become ‘Rex’. Through Robert Graves’s epic, Claudius as courtier and as Caesar, perennially proclaims his desire to restore the republic – although, truth be told, the republic had run its course, governed by a corrupt and self serving senatorial elite. It was, perhaps, a nostalgic chimera, which, nevertheless, provides numerous conspirators in Turney’s narrative with a worthy motive. Caligula, they fear, is falling under the influence of royal middle eastern friends who advertise the attractions of absolute monarchy. At the end, Caligula’s Caesar complex commands a Caesar solution.
Turney next turns his attention next to another Roman emperor who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Skipping the lugubrious Nero, who features in Caligula as a chubby babe in the arms his devious and disloyal momma Agrippina, the projected series of “The Damned Emperors” will jump to Commodus, last seen impaled by Maximus Decimus Meridius, known today as Russell Crowe, in Ridley Scott’s solid if somewhat overwrought sword and sandals saga Gladiator (2000). It would appear that whatever history and show business has conceived, Turney aims to tear asunder.
In That Howling Infinite has traveled the Roman world many times before:
Bethlehem has captured the imagination of the world for centuries – we are culturally and spiritually drawn to this famous Palestinian town, and specifically, to an event that may or may not have happened 2,020 years ago. Many express doubt but we nevertheless embrace the myth and the magic it inspires: the appearance of a “star of wonder, star of light, star of royal beauty bright”, harking back to prophecies of old; stories of wise men journeying on camels’ back from the exotic and mysterious east, choiring angels, simple shepherds watching their flocks, and homely livestock; and an auspicious birth in the outhouse of a village pub – all the well-loved dramatis personae of the classic manger scene.
These moments in time have long inspired painters and poets, and are recalled by carol singers from the field mice of The Wind in the willows to the sentimentality of that famous book by the one they now hail as “the man who invented Christmas” to the songs that make shopping at this time of the year cruel and unusual punishment.
Poets have always been ambivalent about Bethlehem. It’s been invested with a symbolism quite detached from the geographic. TS Elliot’s magi we’re unsure what it all actually meant, whilst to WB Yeats, it might’ve been a place where bad things would happen. But then they hardly knew the place, and them and countless others, it is a place of myth and memory, most if it imagined.
And whilst “the hopes and fears of all our years” abide with this town of some 27,000 souls, it has a life of its own, a history, a society, an economy, and a political story that reaches back eleven thousand years.
Like Jerusalem, its sacred, senior sibling, just ten kilometres away as the crow flies (and much, much longer by road due to the impositions of the occupation), the “little town of Bethlehem” is as much a city of the mind and heart as one of bricks and mortar and of ordinary people with myriad preoccupations and passions.
British author and screenwriter Nicholas Blincoe has now written an affectionate and informative biography of a town that is as close to the heart of our culture as any town ever was, and yet one that is almost unknown. Whilst “the hopes and fears of all our years” abide with this town of some 27,000 souls, it has a story of its own that reaches back eleven thousand years.
Ballad of a border town
Blincoe’s story is part history, part travelogue and memoir, the past intermingling with the present in informative and ofttimes entertaining anecdotes and interviews, memories and personal experiences, as he takes us on a journey from the stone age to the stone wall – one that is in places eight metres in height.
Bethlehem has since the beginning of recorded history been a border-town on a physical and metaphysical borderland.
A borderland between “the desert and the sown”, the Judean Desert with it’s sheep-herding nomads and Bedouin bandits, and the orchards and vineyards in the fertile wadis that for centuries had supplied world-famous wine and olive oil.
A borderland between the Christians who once constituted a majority, and who for generations have tended to the churches, shrines, and monasteries that were drawn to the holy ground around the Church of the Nativity, and the vast Muslim hinterland from whence over the centuries have come traders and invaders, missionaries and marauders, tourists and tanks. For two thousand years, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been one of the world’s preeminent destinations for religious tourism, and over two million tourists and pilgrims visit the town each year.
Bethlehem’s location has given it a social, political, economic, and strategic significance disproportionate to its size. It grew the confluence of the springs and aqueducts that have supplied nearby Jerusalem for millennia. “All ittakes to conquer Jerusalem is to seize its water supply…This is what every future invader did.” It was close to the historic trade route between the Kings Road that linked the Hijaz to the Hauran, Damascus and the north, and the ancient Palestinian ports on the Mediterranean.
Its importance as a Christian island in a sea of Islam saw it serve as a refuge for the oppressed and dispossessed of Ottoman pogroms and genocides and also of the Nakba, it has earned a reputuaion as a haven for the more secular and radical elements of the Palestinian national movement their struggle with more religious and indeed fundamentalist adversaries.
But over the last half-Century, it is town that is increasingly cut off and isolated by the Separation Wall, encircled and encroached upon by the ever multiplying and expanding Israeli settlements (forty one at the last count with well over 100,000 inhabitants), hostile and acquisitive settlers, and the daily impositions and injustices of the military occupation with its restricted roads, armed soldiers and border police, checkpoints and the Kafkaesque permit system.
A cultural caravanserai
For most of his historical narrative, Blincoe maintains a degree of scholarly detachment with regard to the serpentine history and politics of the region, and crafts a captivating tale of warlords and adventurers, of soldiers and saints, as a parade of foreign armies pass through. Egyptians, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, Arabs, Franks, and Mamluks, Turks, Brits, and finally, Israelis. There is a great picture of a group of Anzacs from the far side of the world in their winter coats emerging from the cave of the nativity in December 1917. Rulers and rebels have passed this way, and many, like mad, bad King Herod, Bar Kokba’s Jewish fighters, and the Shabab of the Palestinian Intifada-t have died nearby.
Given its religious significance, Bethlehem has forever been a focus and at times, a flash-point for events that have enmeshed the Holy Land and its Holy Places, from the fossicking of Emperor Constantine’ mother Helena and the self-imposed exile of estranged Empress Eudocia, through the Muslim conquest, the Crusades and Mongol raids to the Crimean War, the Palestine Campaign of WW1, and the Arab-Israel conflict. Bethlehem’s history has been one of civilization, colonization and conquest.
As a former scholar of philosophy, Blincoe seems particularly at home amidst the theological disputes of the early Christian, Byzantine period, and brings to life a host of passionate, idiosyncratic, adventurous, and infuriating men and women – the wandering saints and scholars, clerics and ascetics, wealthy widows and society matrons of the Middle Ages, and an unending caravan of pilgrims, tourists, evangelical adventurers and amateur archaeologists that have walked these hills and valleys for centuries. As with Jerusalem, seekers of the numinous could never get enough of the place.
He doesn’t shy away from the social, theological and political complexities of his chronicle, but his objectivity is severely tested in his final chapters when writing of Bethlehem and the occupation.
But then he does after all have a lot of skin in the game: he is married to Bethlehem filmmaker Leila Samsour, dividing his time between London and Bethlehem. He is quite embedded with Leila’s Christian Palestinian family, one with deep roots in the town’s history and politics, and has often been in the thick of the crises, protests, incursions and violent clashes that periodically embroil his adopted home.
He is not some desktop warrior, NGO apparatchik or “occupation tourist”. And whilst he deplores the actions of the settlers and the right wing politicians – Avigdor Leiberman and other nationalist MKs are virtual neighbours of his – and ascribes to revisionist Israeli historians like Ilan Pape and Benny Morris’ reading of the Nakba, he is not one of Israel‘s haters But he is disappointed, saddened, infuriated even by the Jewish state’s often cavalier and callous approach to its Palestinians who are its neighbours and also, its sullen, subject people.
Banksy’s Bethlehem Bouquet
Breaking the wheel
Palestine, and with it, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have always been under strangers’ dominion. But in the past, the rulers largely left the locals to live their own lives and manage their own affairs in accordance with their own social, political, and religious ways, and in the fullness of time, they departed, ceding the land to the next despot. Until, that is, the Israelis. In the words of Daenerys Targaryen: “ We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
Year by year, Bethlehem’s economy shrinks. Over two million tourists and pilgrims visit “Royal David’s City” annually, but its economically stressed, and it has the highest unemployment rate (nearly 30%) in the West Bank.
Year by year, Bethlehem’s Christian population diminishes as people head overseas in search of a better life – and particularly its young folk. In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86% Christian, but by 2016, the Christian population was but 12%.
Year by year, the settlements grow, and settlers, encouraged by an extremist, nationalist government and a seemingly compliant IDF, become more emboldened in their expansion onto Palestinian land. Considered illegal under international law, Israel regards them as legitimate suburbs of Jerusalem- a territorial fait accompli that is tantamount to de facto annexation.
Year by year, Bethlehem becomes more and more cut off from the rest of the West Bank by walls, wire, and a web of “Israeli only” highways, and indeed from the world beyond the wall. Travel to Jerusalem and to the rest of the West Bank is severely restricted by roads, checkpoints and permits, whilst the interaction between Israelis and Palestinians that existed during the seventies and eighties, in workplaces, educational and health institutions, friendships and romances, ceased after the terrors of the second, bomb Intifada as israel and Israelis withdrew into their mental and physical fortress.
A generation of young people on either side of the old and ostensibly moribund Green Line have grown up with negligible contact with their peers on the “other side” – and this is most likely to be limited to military service in the Occupied Territories on the one hand, and confrontations with armed soldiers on the other.
Writing of the 1948 war, Blincoe notes: “From their future actions it became clear that both Jordan and Israel saw the term “Palestine” as an empty tag: it was the name of a piece of real estate rather than the home of people demanding self representation”, this is how he sees the future for Palestine and for Bethlehem, his adopted home. He argues that the settlement project is first and foremost about land and cheap housing for middle and lower class Israelis pressed by rising property values and a shortage of affordable housing to rent or buy in Israel proper. it is real estate developers, he argues, with friends in high places, who are calling the shots, rather than the more visible and vocal Zionist nationalists. As the Israeli historian and one–time deputy mayor of JerusalemMeron Benvenisti puts it, the settlements are a “commercial real estate project that conscripts Zionist rhetoric for profit”. The story of Jesus and the money-changers somehow comes to mind.
It is an intriguing argument that invites further research. it also echoes what would appear to be a similar patter in those parts of the West Bank that are under the direct control and administration of the Palestinian Authority, as we have reported earlier in Castles Made of Sand, an account of the land rush that is taking place in Area A.
With this and all the other pressures in play, from Blincoe’s perspective, the future prospects of Palestine and the little town of Bethlehem not appear to be promising. Bethlehem – Biography of a Town does not have a happy ending.
Synchronicity – a footnote
A few days after this post was published, an article by Hillel Zand appeared in the Matzav Review addressing the settlements and the real estate argument: “Israel’s right-wing has strengthened in recent years because it has promoted heavily financing the settlement project as a way to compensate for the not insignificant negative side-effects of neoliberal economic policy, especially rising housing prices and increasing inequality and poverty…In Israel, the “losers” are being compensated by the advocates of these policies with incentives, subsidies and entitlements that allow them to maintain, or even raise, their quality of life by living in West Bank settlements”.
The Israel- Jordan collaboration referred to by Blincoe also raised its controversial head recently when Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked and her boss Naftali Bennett hinted, favourably, at the prospects of US’ impending “peace deal” that includes the West Bank being ceded to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt. Murmurings from US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia have also indicated support for such an idea.
Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem
Walls and wire define the brotherhood of man – Aida
Whenever I pen commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.
With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archaeology, and of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.
I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.
I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that folllowed – Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe inTheEthnic Cleansing of Palestine.
The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.
I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.
Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.
Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.
But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.
Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back – but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.
Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.
So what happens next?
I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”. I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”
One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.
And it’s oh, what a beautiful, Oh, Oh Lord, what a beautiful city Twelve gates to the city, hallelujah!
Reverend Gary Davis
We all have a city or, if we are fortunate, cities of our heart. A place you see for the first time and say “I am home”. It is intangible – a feeling, a sense of you belonging to it, and it belonging to you. You might call it a “spirit of place”. And whenever you return to your city of the heart, you feel that you’ve never been gone, that the years that have passed since your last visit, and the changes time has wrought on it and on yourself mean nought.
I felt this spirit the first time entered London with a bunch of Birmingham school mates on a spree. When I first saw Paris. And when I first crossed the Jebal ash-Sharqi from Lebanon and descended to the oasis that was Damascus.
And so too when first I set eyes on the Old City of Jerusalem, and walked through the Damascus Gate. This ancient gate was the portal to a city that has forever danced on the edge of my consciousness (for that it what these cities do).
I fear that I will not see Damascus again. Back in the day, I was drawn to it again and again. When i spent months in Jordan, I would travel by “service” taxi once a week to Damascus just to BE there. To eat bouza ice cream at Bakdash in the Souk al Hamidiyye. To sit quietly in al Takiyya al-Sulaymaniyya, the most beautiful little mosque I have ever visited. To walk into history along The Street Called Straight. The guards on both sides of the border knew me by name.
Damascus is beyond my reach today. but there is still Jerusalem, Yrushahlahyim, al Quds. the Holy, the Golden, the magical…
Back in the day, I would roll down from Ramallah or Mount Scopus to Jerusalem and stand before it’s faux mediaeval walls. I would walk through the Damascus Gate into the Old City, grab a felafel sandwich, some figs, or a plate of kanafah, depending on the time of day, and amble contentedly through the alleyways and souks down to the Via Dolarosa, and then up Daoud Street to Omar Ibn al Khatab Square and the Jaffa Gate beyond. Traveling back from West Jerusalem, I would retrace my steps, and always with the same sense of wonder and delight.
It was a journey of the senses – the call of the muezzin and the peal of church bells, the cacophony of the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, the colours of the markets and shops, the aromas of spices, sweets, and cooking meats, the infinite variety of dress and custom of the many faiths, tribes and communities that dwelt therein or, like me, were passing through. If I had time on my hands, I would sit for a while in the gardens atop the Haram ash-Sharif, or wander into the Dome of the Rock or al Aqsa to sit and ponder awhile, or else progress through ecstatic clamour of the Escher edifice that is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The Occupation was relatively new then. I was not oblivious to it, but rather, very aware of its manifestations. I had crossed from Jordan, via the famous Allenby Bridge, and had watched my fellow bus passengers, Palestinians, endure the humiliating searches and questions of the border police, whilst armed military patrols were commonplace. None expected it to endure, ossify, and drag on for fifty years. There was bitterness, shame, and anger, for the memory of an-Naksa of 1967 was fresh, and the wounds livid, but not the frustration and hopelessness and the latent and actual violence that prevails today.
But, let’s return to the Damascus Gate.
Damascus Gate Thursday
It has been in the news a a lot of late. The recent and still ongoing Intifada Saki-niyeh – the Knife Intifada – has brought this venerable and famous gate into the world’s focus. It has been the site of many violent confrontations of between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security since October 2015. Many Palestinians have been killed and wounded in the act of attempting to stab Israelis, and several Israeli police men and women and civilians have been killed or injured.
In recent years, whenever the Israeli authorities, fearing unrest, prohibit access to the Haram ash Sharif for men under fifty years of age, the Gate has become a de facto place of worship as scores of Muslims pray in the open spaces in front of a gate that has now acquired nationalist and religious significance – most recently, the stand-offin July 2017.
Nazmi Jubeh, a professor at Birzeit University notes that the gate “has become a symbol for the Palestinian national struggle because of its accessibility to Palestinians and the main connecting point for both worshippers and for markets.” See Daoud Khuttab’s articlein the Middle East newsletter al Monitor – the piece which inspired me to write this post.
Kuttab quotes Azzam Soud, a well-known Palestinian writer whose stories are often set in Jerusalem. The Damascus Gate, he says, is a recurring feature of Palestinian novels and short stories.
It is the Old City’s biggest, oldest, and most important gate, and the beginning of all roads to the north. Today, it stands beside the bus station that services East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and is the most direct access to the al Aqsa Mosque and the Khan Ezzat souk. Before 1948 and the division of Jerusalem, the gate competed with the Jaffa Gate which was the primary entry point for pilgrims. With the partition line running in front of it, the Jaffa Gate was unusable, but since 1967, has been the portal for tourists, pilgrims, and Jewish worshippers visiting the Kotel. The Damascus Gate remains the main entry for Palestinians.
And it will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, a focus and a locus for Palestinian expressions of faith, identity and resistance.
But as with most things in the Holy City, the Gate has a long historical pedigree that is worth recalling.
Damascus Gate in 1856
In antiquity, there were twelve gates to the city. These were destroyed when the Bablylonians razed the walls and the Temple of Solomon.in 587 BCE. Named for the twelve tribes of Israel, these are now best remembered in Revelations and in the Reverend Gary Davis’ song.
The gate we see today was built in 1537 during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But its existence is very much older than that, as reflected in its Arabic name, Bab al ‘a-mu-d, the Gate of the Column. That refers to a victory column erected by the Romans in honour of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. It was Hadrian who ordered the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a Roman city in the wake of the city’s destruction by Titus’ legions in 70CE, during the Great Revolt that saw the razing of the temple and the expulsion of most of the Jewish population. The remains of the Roman gates have now been excavated, and we pass under the lintel of that gate, this being inscribed with the name the Romans gave to Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina.
The gate is situated in the northwest wall where the road leads to Nablus, and thence, in days long past, all the way to Damascus in Syria. Hence its name in Hebrew, Sha’ar Shkhem or Nablus Gate, and in English, Damascus Gate. Imagine, travelers of old on foot or horseback and caravans of traders passing under that Roman lintel. And even before Hadrian, pilgrims like the biblical Jesus and his comrades would have entered Jerusalem the Golden through this gate to sacrifice at Herod’s massive and magnificent new temple, having journeyed from Galilee and places north. Saul of Tarsus would have set out from this portal on the fateful journey to Damascus that was to transform him into Paul of Tarsus, Christianity’s first and most celebrated missionary, and the catalyst who transmuted a breakaway Jewish sect into a world- wide religion.
The Roman gate was preserved and built upon during the Byzantine, Muslim, and Crusader occupations of Jerusalem, and was given its present form when under Suleiman’s orders, the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt and seven of the eight gates used today were constructed. The eighth, the New Gate, was constructed in the mid nineteenth century to give Christian pilgrims swifter access to their Holy Places.
Imagine also then, Guy de Lausignan and Reynald de Chatilon at the head of twenty thousand crusaders setting out for their doomed rendezvous with Salah ad Din on the parched Horns of Hattin. Or Christian pilgrims and holy men walking the long miles through Anatolia and Syria to the Holy Places. Or Kaiser Wilhelm on his grand tour through the Sultan’s domain from Istanbul to Damascus and Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the authorities opened the wall next to the Jaffa Gate so that he could ride through in state. In Damascus, he visited the tomb of Salah ad Din and considering it a little shabby, donated a new improved model. It is still there, in all its gaudy emptiness , alongside the real deal.
In an earlier post, I recounted the history of the Jaffa Gate, the westernmost of the Holy City’s eight gates. Over millennia, this was the pilgrims’ gate, the entry point for the faithful – for Jews come to worship and make sacrifice at the Temple of Solomon and later of that of Herod; and for Christians to walk in the footsteps of the Christ, and to worship at the oft-rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the many other Holy Places that have drawn pilgrims to Jerusalem over the centuries. It is named for the port at which so many of these pilgrims disembarked. See my posts Amazing Grace: There’s Magic in the Air,The Grand Old New Imperial Hotel,and Messianic Carpet Rides.
Here is a brief description of each of the eight gates of Jerusalem, counter-clockwise from south to west:
The Zion Gate: Bearing Jerusalem’s earliest biblical name in Hebrew and English, this gate’s Arabic name is the Gate of the Prophet David, as the Tomb of King David on nearby Mount Zion, is but a short distance away. This gate leads directly to the Armenian and Jewish Quarters. It is also known as “the Hurt Gate”, a reference to the damage it sustained during a vicious firefight in 1948 when Hagannah soldiers fought and failed to lift the Arab Legion’s siege of the Jewish Quarter. The Quarter was razed to the ground and its inhabitants expelled, and was rebuilt when the Old City was taken by Israel in 1967.
The Zion or “Hurt” Gate
The Dung Gate: Its name derives from the refuse dumped here in olden days where the prevailing winds would carry odors away. Nehemiah 2:13 mentions a Dung Gate that was probably near this one. The gate leads directly to the Kotel, the famous Western Wall, and the Southern Wall Archaeological Park.
The Gate of Mercy: This gate, in the eastern wall of the Haram ash Sharif or Temple Mount is also called the Golden Gate or the Eastern Gate, and has been blocked for centuries. It is said that when Christ returns in glory, and the dead are resurrected, this gate will be miraculously opened.
The Golden Gate, viewed from Gethsemene
The Lion’s Gate: This is named for the pair of ferocious looking carvings that flank it. They are tigers, the heraldic sigil of the blonde, blue-eyed, Albanian 13th Century Sultan Beybars. It is also called St. Stephen’s Gate, after the first Christian martyr, who tradition says was stoned nearby. Lion’s Gate, which leads to the Pools of Bethesda and the Via Dolorosa became famous during the Six Day War when the IDF stormed through en route to the Haram.
Herod’s Gate: Notwithstanding the name, the infamous Judean King, builder and all-round bad boy had nothing to do with this gate. In Arabic and Hebrew this north-facing gate, which leads to the Old City markets, is called the Gate of Flowers. It is said that the name derives from a rosette carved over it. The north facing gate leads to the Old City markets, and is at the southern end of Salah ad Din Street, the main shopping strip of Arab east Jerusalem.
And finally, The Damascus, New Gate, and Jaffa Gates all which are described in this post.
Faces in the Street – images of the Damascus Gate and the ancient Muslim Quarter
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 wrote “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.
As Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. 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. 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! Well, what would you think? You 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 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.
Which brings us back perhaps, to what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious”. 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? The 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’.
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”. And so we do, for 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). Anyhow, the Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire (to nomadic rovers from out of the east) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, 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 of Arabia and of the imperial marches.
For generations this lot had served as mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new but 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 they 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. So too with the Arabs, therefore, 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.
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.
One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copy 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, the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. The Quran itself drew on both of these. Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’.
Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all. The Islam tide was turned at Tours by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’’ Martel, named nostalgically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE. 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 Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453).
Things changed utterly for east-west relations towards the end of the eleventh century. 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. 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. Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, conveniently colluded with another new power, out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out of 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. And when they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and 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’.
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 are their heirs and successors, us descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.
Vaslily 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”.
The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, 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.
But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the 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 Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. One commander of this 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 Jorsalaberg (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, “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.
Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old
The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing, and 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 Varangarian derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank). They fell to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and were restored to the House of Islam. But even 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 Barbars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. And then, out of the east, came the aforementioned Mongols, and these brought the house down. They conquered, 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.
The Ottoman Empire inherited the Arab, Islamic patrimony and 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 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.
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 the Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into the backward looking atrophy that we see today. And in time, came the rise of the great European powers. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unravelling 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 adventurers, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition and the straighteners of religious conformity, the bedrock of imperial power. And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the Borgia Pope) and papal supremacy: England, France, and Holland. The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the very gradual evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.
The wars of religion, between Catholicism and Protestantism morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun). These endured some two hundred years, giving us the renaissance and the reformation, 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 that for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England before that, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery. ‘Full on’ is the term we use today. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.
And in its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendency of the English, the French, and the Dutch. 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. Innovation 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).
And 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.
Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blowback 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.
And thence, the Nineteenth Century and the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. And the rise of new empires – Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, and all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering and colonizing the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, no place was beyond the reach of the empire’s 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. And if the natives got fractious, we had machine guns and gun boats to back us up. 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. 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 white countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!
So far away from home
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 ascendency 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 mediaeval 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 Habsburg 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 collateralised 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, 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”’.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014
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 defeat and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; Ottoman redux: and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.
All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.
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 Jazeeraz 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)
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)
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)
In the wake of controversial production of Shakespeare’s play in New York’s Central Park, here is an excellent exposition of the politics of this play by American screenwriter, novelist and producer Joseph Suglia. One forgets just how politically sophisticated and daring William Shakespeare was – potentially dangerous and, indeed, deadly during the unsettled and bloody times of the Tudor monarchs.
“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters. It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency. It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him. It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015). It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007). Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities. All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living…
“Byzantium, Byzantium, Constantinople, Kostaniniyye, Istanbul – The City has tangled with or represented an “idea” for so many, its influence has spun so far that her story, whether imperial, spiritual, cultural or political, frequently ends up being played out anywhere and everywhere other than in the city itself”. Bethany Hughes , Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities
As we observe Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s apparent drive to reestablish Ottoman autocracy, those who take a longer view of history will assert that there is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing unprecedented about Erdogan’s apparent urge to don the imperial purple, and join the long cavalcade of colourful emperors and sultans that ruled the land that now constitute modern Turkey.
Richard Fidler reminds of this as he literally walks us through the streets of Istanbul.
Part father-son quest, part travel story, ‘Ghost Empire’ is at once a history, and a treasury of tales both true and far-fetched. The Australian author and broadcaster, and onetime member of the comedy trio, the Doug Anthony Allstars, has written a blend of popular history and meditation on the significance of history.
Although ‘Ghost Empire’ might in seem in parts overly breezy and lightweight, as an introduction to the ancient and wondrous city of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, it is an highly informative portal to weightier albeit less entertaining books. This is not to say it is without its more harrowing moments. Fidler dwells as much on the gory as on the glory. And indeed, for many, particularly the sons of emperors and sultans, confidants and conspirators, life could indeed be nasty, brutish and short.
Whilst Fidler’s primary focus is the story of the Byzantines, concluding with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he travels back and forth in Istanbul’s long and storied history, between the violent past and the tumultuous present, from Julius Caesar and Constantine the Great, and the power couple Justinian and Theodosia, through Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent, to Ataturk and Erdogan, and captures the magic and at times, mayhem of the fabled metropolis that inspired WB Yeats to write:
“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come”
If Ghost Empire has whetted you appetite, i would recommend Bethany Hughes’ more substantial – “encyclopedic ” would a better description – Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities (Orion 2017). It is a lengthy, comprehensive and fascinating journey from the prehistoric past to the polarizing present.