Posts Tagged ‘Assyria’

The Ancient Near East as the Birthplace of Democracy

May 15, 2017

This is a bit of a rejoinder to Boris ‘Mugwump’ Johnson. Johnson, as a public schoolboy steeped in the Classics, believes that everything great and good began with ancient Greece and Rome. But a few years ago I put up a blog post about a book, The Origins of the Democracy in the Ancient Near East, which argued that the roots of democracy went further back, and further east, than ancient Greece. It began instead in the popular assemblies, which governed ancient mesopotamian civilisations such as the city state of Mari.

I found this passage about the democratic nature of ancient near eastern civilisation in the entry ‘Law (Mesopotamian)’ in Charles F. Pfeiffer, The Biblical World: A Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (London: Pickering and Inglis Ltd 1966), 356-359. This states

The pattern of society in early Mesopotamia has been described as “primitive democracy”. There was an assembly (Sumerian ukkin, Akkadian puhrum) of the elders and young men with whom they chieftain or leader (antecedant of the later king) must consult. All major decisions were put to a vote. In addition, the cheiftain was obliged to give to his tutelary deity an annual account of his conduct of authority during the previous year. No doubt here also, as in the case of Egypt, there was drastic modification in practice especially in later years when, for example, such strong men as Sargon of Akkad, Hammurabi of Babylon or Sennacherib of Assyria ruled. But the principle remained in daily life as a unique characteristic of Mesopotamian civilization and spread into Syria and Anatolia as well. 356.

I don’t doubt that in the half century since the book was published, this view of ancient near eastern society as democratic has been revised. I think the book that came out about it a few years ago said that these states weren’t democratic. However, popular assemblies did exist.

Mesopotamia was the old name for the area that is now Iraq, and I wonder how much of its ancient history and precious archaeology has survived the western invasion by Bush and Blair, sectarian conflict and the destructive fury of ISIS. Nicholas Wood in his book, The Case Against Blair, describes how the Americans trashed Babylon when they chose to make it into one of the bases. And the barbarians of ISIS released a vide of them levelling Nineveh and destroying priceless antiquities in one of Iraq’s museums.

And their fury against anything they judge to be un-Islamic isn’t confined to the ancient past. They’ve also desecrated and destroyed Christian churches and the country’s Muslim shrines and mosques. And this is besides the horrific carnage and destruction which the war and its aftermatch have unleashed on the region and its people.

Iraq was one of the major centres of world civilisation, and the destruction of its ancient monuments and artefacts is a massive loss. And all because Bush, Blair and the Saudis wanted to steal the country’s oil and other state-owned industries for American big business.

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Dan Cruikshank on ISIS’ Attack on Ancient Monuments

June 24, 2015

Next Tuesday the Beeb is showing a programme by Dan Cruikshank on the threat posed to the great antiquities and priceless monuments of Middle East by ISIS. It’s entitled Dan Cruikshank’s Civilisation under Attack. The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state

Islamic State have declared war on some of the planet’s most important architectural sites, with jihadi fighters seemingly set on destroying the wonders of the ancient world. Dan Cruikshank charts the likely course of the militant group’s advance, investigating why it is happening. (p. 86)

and

Watching the videos here of Islamic State fighters taking sledgehammers and drills to Assyrian reliefs in Nimrud – then blowing up the whole site – is hard. Similar attacks in Mosul, Nineveh and Hatra have brought global condemnation, and now the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra lies under IS control.

Dan Cruikshank talks to Islamic scholars about the claimed rationale behind the IS actions and what, if anything, can be done to challenge it. ‘Are we prepared to use armed force to protect the cultural heritage of all humanity?’ demands one expert. But it turns out to be not nearly that simple, in a programme that can offer few answers. (p. 83.)

The programme’s on BBC 4 at 9.00 pm, if you can bear to watch the footage of this gratuitous vandalism.

Cruikshank is an architectural historian with a deep appreciation of the glories of the world’s architectural heritage, not just that of Britain. A few years ago he presented a series, in which he toured the globe’s great buildings and monuments, including those of Iraq and Afghanistan. These included either Babylon or Nineveh, where he was horrified to find how botched and tawdry the ‘restoration’ performed by Saddam Hussein had been. The monument had been partly restored using modern brick stamped with the late dictator’s own name. I’ve got a feeling this was slightly before the West’s invasion of Iraq, as he stated his own, real fears about the threat a war in the country posed to the survival of these precious antiquities. He also talked to one of the leaders of the Christian community in Iraq about the deterioration in relationships between them and their Muslim compatriots. The interview was quite strained, with ominous pauses where the bishop appeared to be thinking very carefully indeed about how to explain his people’s embattled situation. He explained that relations between Christians and Muslims had previously been quite harmonious. Tensions had increased, with members of the Christian church physically assaulted, with the threat of invasion from the West.

Alas, Cruikshank’s fears have been borne out. Christian communities throughout Iraq and the Middle East have been attacked and expelled by ISIS as part of their radical Islamisation of the territories they capture. And it’s not just been Christians that have suffered. They’ve also attacked, brutalised and enslaved the Yezidis, and have killed Muslims, whose religious views differ from and are opposed to their own. I’ve blogged before about how many Islamic clergy have been murdered and mosques demolished by ISIS, simply because they dared to have a different conception of Islam.

And in addition to destroying churches, and ancient Assyrian monuments, they’ve also destroyed historic Islamic shrines, again because they are ‘un-Islamic’, according to their twisted ideology.

All this is a deliberate attack on an ancient heritage that belongs to the world and specifically to the peoples of the countries ISIS have conquered and brutalised. These monuments are a threat, as they show just how ancient the history and culture of these peoples are. Archaeologists and historians of the ancient Near East, such as Georges Roux in his Ancient Iraq have noted, for example, that the style of housing used by the ancient Babylonians is very much the same as that traditionally used in Iraq. The forensic scientist and Egyptologist, Dr Jo-Anne Fletcher, made the same point about the type of houses built and used by modern Egyptians. This is also very similar to those built by their ancient predecessors thousands of years previously.

In language, too, there is considerable similarity and some remarkable survivals from the ancient cultures. Akkadian, the language of the Assyrian Empire, was, like Arabic and Hebrew, a Semitic language. And there are still words in modern Arabic, which are clearly derived from, if not exactly the same, as those uttered by the Assyrians. Certain customs and cultural practices have also survived down the centuries from the ancient past. In the programme about Palmyra, Cruikshank pointed to a relief, which showed a group of veiled women riding camels or mules. This, he pointed out, showed how ancient the veiling of women was in the Middle East. It certainly does. Respectable married women were required by law in ancient Assyria to veil themselves in public.

ISIS’ destruction of these monuments is a deliberate attempt to erase the history and cultural identity of Iraq and Syria. It’s the same totalitarian strategy pursued by Hitler and Stalin, in their brutal campaigns to remodel Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, so that no trace of their former cultures could survive to challenge the regime. And the cultural vandalism didn’t stop there, but was also imposed on the nations they conquered. Hitler, for example, had the Paris metro destroyed, as he had claimed that Berlin was the only city in the world that had such an underground railway system. This was clearly belied by the existence of the French system, and so it had to be destroyed. And as Orwell stated in 1984, that classic SF dystopia, if you want to control the future, you have to control the past. Hence the Ministry of Truth, which existed to rewrite history in order to satisfy the ideological and propaganda needs of Big Brother’s tyranny.

Orwell based his book on Stalin’s Russia. Since then, Communism has fallen, although Putin seems determined to revive some of Stalin’s reputation and his brutal methods. And ISIS have now succeeded the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as destroyers of culture and history in the pursuit of totalitarian power.

They haven’t always been able to get their own way, however. There has been the odd case where the local people have protested so strongly against their attempts to destroy one of their country’s monuments, that ISIS have been forced to retreat. One of these cases was when the locals gathered round to protect an historic minaret.

Their actions stand in stark contrast to far more enlightened approach of the early caliphs. What made medieval Islam such a powerful cultural and scientific force in global society, was its willingness to seek out, absorb, and assimilate the learning of the peoples they had conquered. This was then synthesized and built on, with the result that Muslim scholars made astonishing advances in astronomy, medicine, physics, mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, historiography – the philosophy of history – and even in areas ISIS utterly detest, such as musical theory.

ISIS, by contrast, are destroyers, and their deliberate and calculated attack on these ancient monuments has left the culture of the world and the Muslim and Arab peoples themselves badly impoverished.

The Young Turks on Saudi Airstrikes and Sunni Coalition Against Yemen

April 4, 2015

A week or so ago I blogged about the horrific implications of the ISIS terrorist attack in Yemen, and the Saudi airstrikes against the Houthi rebel forces. ISIS are horrific, not just because of the mass death and terror they inflict on the territories they occupy, but also because of the massive cultural vandalism they also commit.

In Iraq they have smashed immensely valuable Assyrian antiquities and bulldozed the ancient city of Nimrod in order to cover up their looting and destroy the remains of the country’s pre-Islamic history. They have also destroyed mosques and shrines to St. George and Seth, one of Adam’s sons, who is revered in Islam as the Prophet Sheth. Yemen is also rich in history, as the centre of civilisations going back thousands of years. Its city, Marib, was the capital of the kingdom of Sheba, whose Queen visited King Solomon in both the Bible and the Qu’ran. There is thus a similar possibility that ISIS could attempt to destroy these ancient and vastly important remains as well.

I also blogged on the airstrikes against Yemen by the Saudis, and the terrible threat they also pose for peace in the Middle East. The Houthi are Shi’as, who have been marginalised and persecuted by the Sunni Gulf states. The attack on them by the Saudis could act as the catalyst for a wider war between Shi’ah and Sunni that could tear apart this entire region.

In this video from The Young Turks, they also discuss this possibility and the other political implications of the airstrikes. It hasn’t just been Saudi Arabia that launched the attack. They were also assisted by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan, as well as Egypt. Pakistan was also considering sending ground forces if Iran became involved, while Turkey promised to provide logistical support. Iran, meanwhile, has possibly been supplying aid to the Houthis, but this is unclear.

The Turks point out how dangerous this situation is, especially when Turkey and Pakistan are both being drawn into it. Both are ‘tangential’ to the Middle East. Turkey in particular is a relatively modern, secular country, which has tried to position itself as a European as well as Middle Eastern country.

The Turks point out that the Saudis have probably acted because this time they can’t get America to wage war on their behalf, as they have so many times in the past. And aiding them would be very much against America’s interests. America needs to avoid a confrontation with Iran as it is negotiating with them over the country’s nuclear programme. Furthermore, both America and Iran are fighting ISIS in Iraq. The last thing America needs is to take part in attack on Yemen, and so find itself fighting the entire Shi’a population of the Middle East, as well as ISIS and al-Qaeda.

The one positive aspect to this is that America has not blindly done what the Saudis want. Several of the posters on the Islamophobic sites, were former members of the American armed forces. They had served in Saudi Arabia, and bitterly resented the arrogance with which the Saudis boasted they had the Americans wrapped around their little fingers and could get them to do their bidding. If America finally shows some independence from the Saudis in Middle Eastern policy, this might make some a little less prejudiced towards Muslims generally through experiences serving Saudi oil aristocrats.

ISIS Atrocity in Yemen

March 21, 2015

Yesterday came the news that a suicide bomber had killed forty people at a mosque in Yemen. The country is currently torn in a civil war between its Sunni population and government, and the Houthi tribe, who are Shia. It was first feared that the bomber was a member of the latter. He wasn’t. Nor was he a member al-Qaeda, who were also initially suspected of involvement.

It was ISIS, yet again.

This is extremely disturbing. It’s not just that forty innocents were murdered and a house of worship desecrated for no other reason than that they and it belonged to a different faith, though this is bad enough. It’s because ISIS also attempts to destroy the very culture, including the ancient monuments, of the peoples it conquers and rules. I’ve blogged several times this week, including today, about the cult’s destruction of the Assyrian antiquities in Iraq, their smashing of art treasures in a museum in Mosul, the bulldozing of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod and their destruction of the mosques and shrines to the Patriarch Seth, revered in Islam as the Prophet Sheth, St. George, also revered in Islam as Jerjis, and the Prophet Jonah, known in the Qu’ran as Yunus. They also attempted to demolish one of the earliest minarets built in Iraq, but were fortunately prevented by the local people.

Yemen is also vulnerable to this destruction. It is, like the rest of the Middle East, a country with ancient and rich history. The city of Marib was the capital of the ancient South Arabian civilisation of Saba, known in the Bible as Sheba, whose queen visited King Solomon to test him with ‘hard questions’. This episode is also mentioned in the Qu’ran, and the Muslim name for the Queen is ‘Bilqis’. According to the chapter in the Qu’ran, the Surat al-Naml, which means ‘The Ants’ in English, Solomon could understand the language of birds. He was brought news of the Queen of Sheba by the hoopoe. the same sura also describes the destruction of the town’s great dam, the remains of which are still extant. The South Arabian languages spoken in the Gulf are also the origin of the modern majority languages of Ethiopia, Amharic, Tigre, and Tigrinya, which are all descended from the medieval language, Ge’ez. And the Ethiopian people themselves in their national epic, the Kebra Nagast, or ‘Glory of Kings’, traced their descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The British Museum has a gallery devoted to the ancient cultures of Yemen, and a little while ago they staged an exhibition of its antiquities and the archaeology of this rich and ancient country. Any attack on these would be yet another blow against adab and the culture, not only of Islam and the Arabs, but of the world.

Video on ISIS’ Destruction of Ancient Monuments in Iraq

March 21, 2015

I’ve posted a number of pieces condemning and commenting on ISIS’ destruction of the priceless monuments and archaeological treasures in Iraq. These include not only the ancient Assyrian artefacts in Mosul and the ancient city of Nimrod, but also the shrine of the Adam’s son Seth, venerated in Islam as the Prophet Sheth. I’ve found this short video about this cultural vandalism on Youtube. It’s from a Christian perspective, but it does report not only the destruction of the ancient Assyrian monuments of especial interest to Christians and Jews, but also the Islamic mosques and shrines that have been destroyed. These now include the tomb of Saint George, venerated in Islam as Jerjis, and the mosque dedicated to the Prophet Jonah, revered in Islam as Yunus. Here it is.

The piece also suggests that ISIS had already looted the site for artefacts, which they could sell on the international antiquities market in order to raise money for their war against everything good, decent and civilised. They trashed Nimrod, the video alleges, in order to cover up their looting.

I’ve also seen reports elsewhere that the Islamist terror groups are funding their war through pillaging and selling the region’s antiquities.

Regardless of the reasons for its destruction, this is just a monstrous attack on culture and civilisation, that has left the world and all its peoples poorer.

The Grand Vizier’s Letter Permitting Excavation of the Assyrian Monuments in Iraq

March 18, 2015

I’ve put up several pieces this week commenting on and condemning ISIS’ destruction of archaeological, cultural and religious treasures, including their smashing of the Assyrian museum exhibits at Mosul. I described how Layard himself experienced problems and setbacks when a relief of the winged bull was uncovered, as the local people feared that they had disturbed the remains of Nimrod himself. Layard managed to allay such fears through contacting the local authorities and explaining what the precise situation was and that no remains of any person sacred to Islam was being desecrated.

The British government under prime ministers Canning and Robert Peel, were also keen to gain official support for Layard’s excavations from the Ottoman Turkish authorities. They were successful, and on 5th May 1846, the Grand Vizier of the Turkish Empire sent this letter to the Pasha – governor – of Mosul.

There are, as your Excellency knows, in the vicinity of Mosul quantities of stones and ancient remains. An English gentleman has come to these parts to look for such stones, and has found on the banks of the Tigris, in certain uninhabited places, ancient stones on which there are pictures and inscriptions. The British Ambassador has asked that no obstacles shall be put in the way of the above-mentioned gentleman taking the stones which may be useful to him, including those which he may discover by excavations … nor of his embarking them for transport to England.

The sincere friendship which firmly exists between the two governments makes it desirable that such demands be accepted. Therefore no obstacle should be put in the way of his taking the stones which … are present in desert places, and are not being utilised, or of his undertaking excavations in uninhabited places where this can be done without inconvenience to anyone; or of his taking such stones as he may wish amongst those which he has been able to discover.

(in H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria (Sidgwick and Jackson 1984) 305)

There are serious issues with the conduct of archaeology in many parts of the world, such as imperialism, and the use of archaeology for nationalistic or propagandistic pieces. Saddam Hussein certainly used his restoration of Iraq’s ancient monuments to bolster his Ba’ath regime. Babylon, or at least one of its ziggurats, was ‘restored’ using modern bricks, stamped with his name. Hence, perhaps, the resentment of the Islamist militants for the remains of that ancient civilisation.

Layard and the early excavators, however, were interested only in uncovering the great monuments and remains of what was a lost civilisation. They were not interested in attacking Islam, and were careful to assure the Turkish authorities that they were not.

And ISIS have shown that they don’t just smash pre- or non-Islamic works. They have also attacked Muslim shrines and institutions such as the Mosque of the Prophet Sheth/ Seth in Iraq, and the grave of a Sufi saint and the medieval Islamic library in Timbuktu.

They are the enemies of adabiyyat, literature and culture, regardless of whether it is Arab, Islamic or otherwise. And their destruction impoverishes all the world’s culture.

From Ancient Assyria: The Poor Man’s Revenge on a Rich Mayor

March 17, 2015

The other day I put up a post about a book arguing that the roots of Western democracy go back beyond ancient Greece to Mari in ancient Mesopotamia, now Iraq. I also mentioned Sasan I. Samiei’s book criticising the belief that there has always been a conflict between a freedom-loving, democratic West, and a despotic East. It’s been extremely well received, and I thank everyone who’s read, reblogged or commented on the post. It seems to me that there are an immense number of people out there, who are heartily sick of war-mongering and the demonization of the Middle East and its peoples. It shows that there are many out there, who have had enough of the big multinationals and their wars to exploit these nations on the one hand, and religious bigots and extremists like ISIS on the other. Many wish to stand with them in establishing a far more just, fair and peaceful international order, which promotes the respect and dignity of all nations and their citizens.

I mentioned in my original post that there was a story from ancient Assyria that suggested that there was something like a democratic mentality there thousands of years ago. The story was about a poor man, who gave a gift to the local mayor expecting him to do something for him in return. The mayor didn’t, and so the poor man arranged to have the living daylights beaten out of his nominal ruler.

I managed to trace the story down in Wolfram von Soden’s The Ancient Orient. I got some of the details wrong. It’s actually from ancient Babylonia, c. 1100, and the gift is a goat, rather than a gold cup. But here it is:

A Babylonian story which is completely unique for its time, about 1100, deals with the case of the impoverished Gimil-Ninurta, who out of desperation gives his only possession, a goat, to the mayor of Nippur in the hope of a receiving a commensurate gift in return. The mayor, however, contemptuously dismisses the man after giving him a mug of beer. As Gimil-Ninurta is leaving, he tells the gatekeeper that he will avenge himself three times, and requests as the first item an elegant chariot from the king. With this, he drives forth as the commissioner of the king, demands a private audience with the mayor, and then beats him thoroughly “from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet”. Afterward he takes from the mayor the amount in gold for the rental of the chariot. Gimil-Ninurta next disguises himself as a doctor seeking to treat the ill-handled mayor, then beats the offender as before. The mayor and his retainers then take up the pursuit of his tormentor, but he is trapped by Gimil-Ninurta under a bridge and beaten a third time. The text concludes with the words: “The mayor could only crawl back into the city [again].”

Von Soden concludes with the statement that ‘Many would certainly have had similar fancies regarding the powerful in that age, and just as today they have smirked over this story.’

So the moral of this story is: Politicians, don’t short-change the voters. And especially not poor ones, with nothing to lose. You don’t know who they’re friends with.

The Young Turks on ISIS’ Destruction of Ancient Assyrian Remains

March 16, 2015

This morning I blogged about ISIS’ destruction of priceless and irreplaceable antiquities from ancient Assyria. I compared it to concerns by the local people about the excavation of ancient Assyrian statues of the winged bulls in Mosul by Austin Henry Layard in the 19th century. Layard had, however, been able to allay local fears about the identity of the remains by assuring the local governor that it was not the remains of the Nimrod, mentioned in both the Bible and the Qu’ran. After allowing the excitement produced by the discovery of this massive monument to subside, Layard was able to go back to excavating it quietly.

I also mentioned some of the issues involved in archaeology in the Developing World, and particularly the Islamic nations. As much of the investigations are done by Western organisations, these can be resented as forms of Western imperialist interference. The excavation of pre-Islamic civilisation in the Gulf States can also be delicate, as this period is regarded as the Juhailiyya, the period of ignorance or darkness before the appearance of Mohammed and Islam. The Saudi authorities have sponsored excavation of the ancient civilisations, but archaeologists still have to be careful to avoid causing religious offence.

This is another video from The Young Turks. They discuss the destruction of the artefacts, and make several very good points. First of all, the smashing of these artefacts, although horrendous, is not as atrocious as the mass death that has been caused by the Western invasion and the ensuing carnage.

Secondly, the whole point of the exercise is provoke American and her allies into overreacting and responding with violence. This will, they hope, lead to further disaffection and give them further support. It is absolutely vital that we do not do so, but give a measured response designed to win hearts and minds. Only that way will ISIS be truly defeated.

ISIS’ Destruction of the Cultural Treasures of Iraq

March 16, 2015

One of the most shocking events of ISIS’ occupation of parts of Iraq was their destruction of Assyrian antiquities kept in a local museum a fortnight or so ago. This shocking destruction of priceless cultural treasures, which have immensely enriched our understanding of the history of that ancient country, was broadcast around the world. The smashing of the artefacts is not, of course, as great or as serious an atrocity as the Islamist State’s terrorisation of Iraq’s people, the capricious, brutal murder of their captives or the sale of captured women into sex slavery at their markets. It is nevertheless a truly shocking outrage and an assault on history and culture itself.

ISIS claimed to have smashed the ancient statues and works of art because they claimed they were idols. I think I recognised some of the statues from their photographs in books I’ve got here at home. One statue wasn’t a god, but was the image of one of the Assyrian kings or officials. The Victorian archaeologists, who pioneered the excavation of ancient Assyria and Babylon also encountered problems where the local people mistook some of the massive statues they uncovered for the idols of the ancient giants wiped out by Noah’s flood, or else of Nimrod himself, who is also mentioned in the Qu’ran.

Austin Henry Layard mentions the alarm and excitement that greeted the excavation of one of the great Assyrian winged bulls in his 1867 book, Nineveh and its Remains.

On the morning following these discoveries, I had ridden to the encampment of Sheikh Abd-ur rahman, and was returning to the mound, when I saw two Arabs of his tribe coming towards me and urging their mares to the top of their speed. On reaching me they stopped. ‘Hasten, O Bey’, exclaimed one of them – ‘hasten to the diggers, for the have found Nimrod himself. Wallah! it is wonderful but it is true! we have seen him with our eyes. There is no God but God’; and both joining in this pious exclamation, they galloped off, without further words, in the direction of their tents.

… As soon as the two Arabs I had met had reached their tents, and published the wonders they had seen, every one mounted his mare and rode to the mound to satisfy himself of the truth of these inconceivable reports. When they beheld the head they all cried together, ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet!’ It was some time before the Sheikh could be prevailed upon to descend into the pit, and convince himself that the image he saw was of stone. ‘This is not the work of men’s hands,’ exclaimed he, ‘but of those infidel giants of whom the Prophet, peace be with him! has said, that they were higher than the tallest date tree; this is one of the idols which Noah, peace be with him! cursed before the flood,’ In this opinion, the result of a careful examination, all the bystanders occurred.

The news of the discovery of the massive head in Mosul caused some concern amongst the town’s Muslim leaders, who feared that it was indeed the ancient prophet Nimrod. Layard describes how he had to go to the town to talk to the local governor and persuade him that it was not so, and that the remains would be treated with appropriate respect.

As I had expected, the report of the discovery of the gigantic head, carried by the terrified Arab to Mosul, had thrown the town into commotion. He had scarcely checked his speed before reaching the bridge. Entering breathless into the bazaars, he announced to every one he met that Nimrod had appeared. The news soon got to the ears of the Cadi, who called the Mufti and the Ulema [cadi- Islamic judge, ulema – Muslim clergy] together, to consult upon this unexpected occurrence. Their deliberations, ended in a procession to the Governor, and a formal protest, on the part of the Mussulmans of the town, against proceedings so directly contrary to the laws of the Koran. The Cadi had no distinct idea whether the very bones of the mighty hunter had been uncovered, or only him image; nor did Ismail Pasha very clearly remember whether Nimrod was a true-believing prophet, or an infidel. I consequently received a somewhat unintelligible message from his Excellency, to the effect that the remains should be treated with respect, and be by no means further disturbed; that he wished the excavations to be stopped at once, and desired to confer with me on the subject.

I rode to Mosul at once and called upon him accordingly. I had some difficulty in making him understand the nature of my discovery. At last he was persuaded that I had only discovered part of any ancient figure in stone, and that neither the remains of Nimrod nor of any other personage mentioned in the Koran had been disturbed. However, as he requested me to discontinue my operations until the excitement in the town had somewhat subsided, I returned and dismissed the workmen, retaining only two men to dig leisurely along the walls without giving cause for further interference.

Layard himself remarks on just how awesome the statue was, and does not sneer at the local people for their reaction to it.

I was not surprised that the Arabs had been amazed and terrified at this apparition. It required no stretch of imagination to conjure up the most strange fancies. This gigantic head, blanched with age, thus rising from the bowels of the earth, might well have belonged to one of those fearful beings which are described in the traditions of the country as appearing to mortals, slowly ascending from the regions below.

Indeed, Layard states that he himself used to contemplate the sublime and truly awesome power of these statues.

There are a number of complex issues and problems with archaeology in the developing world, including Islamic countries. Much of it is carried out by Western nations, and at first little or nothing was published about the discoveries in the local languages. You can imagine that this would result in a lack of connection between the local peoples and archaeological projects and their findings, if not disaffection and hostility. Edward Said criticised the Western obsession with ancient Egypt for leading to an attitude of complete disinterest with the modern country and Islamic culture. The veteran British Egyptologist, John Romer, echoed these sentiments in his series Great Excavations. Looking around one an ancient Egyptian site, Romer remarked that there had once been an Islamic town, that had been completely cleared away in order to excavate the ancient remains, and casually picked up a piece of 12th century Islamic pottery lying on the ground.

Since the 19th century, much of the archaeological investigations in these countries have been done by the indigenous peoples themselves. In Egypt this was pioneered by Zakaria Goneim. There is the problem that pre-Islamic history and culture in the Gulf Arab states is regarded as the Juhailiyya – the period of pre-Islamic ignorance or darkness. There is a feeling that investigation of the pre-Islamic past is thus somehow contrary Islam. As a result, archaeologists have had to be very careful in the excavation and display of the remains. One archaeologist working in Saudi Arabia writing in Current Archaeology a few years ago, praised the Saudi king for allowing and patronising such excavations, while also discussing the restrictions placed on exhibition of the artefacts uncovered by the need to avoid religious offence. This was especially acute in cases of religious figures, or the nude human form, particularly female. The latter most definitely could not be placed on display.

Some of the secular leaders in the Middle East have also used archaeology to support and bolster the country’s national identity. As many of these countries, like Iraq, are the creation of the Western powers, it is not hard to see how an archaeology that supports this identity could also be rejected and attacked as part of Western imperialism and dominance in the region. And where the country was ruled by a secular dictator, it also isn’t surprising that religious extremists should see the ideological emphasis placed on ancient remains as an attempt to undermine their nation’s Islamic culture.

Even so, it is depressing and shocking that a century after Layard and the other great archaeologists uncovered these awesome and majestic remains, that archaeology and its priceless historical treasures should still be the target for such rage and destruction.

Evolution, Race and African Civilisation: A Remedial Course for Kippers

June 27, 2014

A few days ago I reblogged a piece from Still Laughing At UKIP, reporting the massive racial abuse and vilification directed against the Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, by the Kippers on Facebook after he had the audacity to observe that they weren’t actually very good at spelling and grammar. The article’s ‘Racism. Uncontrolled, Mass Racism’, and it’s at http://stilllaughingattheukip.wordpress.com/2014/06/23/racism-uncontrolled-mass-racism/, if you want to check it out for yourself. The racist remarks reported by the Kipper Smoker include the crass, racial insults of ‘monkeys’ and ‘spear chuckers’ to describe Blacks, as well as remarks that people of ancient African extraction are ‘uncivilised’. So let’s go through a few facts about evolution and African civilisation, just to straighten the record.

Archaic Features in First Human Colonists in Europe Compared to Africa

The comments about ‘monkey’s recalls the daft and dangerous racial hierarchies Europeans drew up in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which placed White Europeans at the top of the evolutionary ladder as the apex of human evolution, and Blacks at the bottom. The lowest rung was occupied by Aboriginal Australians. Below them were Orang-Utans, which Europeans were originally unsure whether they were human or apes. Science has overturned this classification, and I cannot see any modern, ethical archaeological department ever endorsing such claims that certain sections of the human species are inferior to Whites, no matter what the authors of the infamous ‘Bell Curve’ may claim about innate differences in cognitive ability between different ethnic groups.

It is true that physiologically Aboriginal Australians have many archaic features, such as a pronounced brow ridge. This is hardly surprising considering just how ancient these people are, having colonised the continent about 40,000 years ago. They are, however, just as human as every other part of the human race. Their facial features are also very close to those of the ancestral humans that colonised Europe at about the same time. Skeletons showing Australian Aboriginal characteristics from that remote epoch have been found in Southern France. A little while ago I went to a seminar at Uni taken by an American professor, who was one of the world’s greatest authorities on early man and the Neanderthals. He pointed out that the skeletons of the early modern humans – Homo Sapiens Sapiens recovered from that period have archaic features, and are less gracile than African skeletons from the same period. If you want to put it crudely, at that stage the ancestors of modern Europeans were less evolved than their cousins in Africa. Despite their physiological differences, they were still Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Their appearance does not saying anything about their essential humanity.

Ancestral Skull

Ancestral Modern Human Skull from Broken Hill, South Africa. The first humans to colonise Europe 30-40,000 years ago had similar features

Africa: Continent of Many Cultures and Civilisations

Now let’s deal with the claims that Africans are somehow ‘uncivilised’. For a start, Africa is a continent, not a single country, and contains a plethora of cultures and peoples, whose lifestyles can vary considerably. The Bushmen of South Africa – the Khoisan peoples – are hunter gatherers, while many of the peoples of East Africa were traditionally nomadic pastoralists, herding their cattle across the Savannah. Others have long been settled in village as settled farmers and agriculturalists. And some of these peoples have developed highly advanced civilisations.

Ancient and Christian Nubia

The Nubians of the Sudan took over much of the culture of ancient Egypt, and for a time even ruled the ancient Land of the Nile. Regardless of the claim that the Ancient Egyptians themselves were Black, there was a dynasty of Black pharaohs, whose empire stretched into the Ancient Near East. One of these was the pharaoh Taharqa, who is mentioned in the Bible for his part in struggling with the Assyrians for the control of the various minor, Near Eastern states dominated by these two superpowers, like ancient Israel. The Nubians later converted to Christianity, and had a literate, Christian civilisation with strong links to Egypt and the Byzantine Empire until the country was conquered by Islam in the 14th century. Archaeologists have been studying the remains of their ancient culture since that part of Africa was opened up to Europeans in the 19th century.

Ethiopia

Further east is the equally ancient culture of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. This too is also extremely ancient. There were early centres of civilisation at Meroe and then Aksum. Although Meroe was a literate civilisation, they spoke a language completely unrelated to any other, so that although their inscriptions can be read, scholars at still at a loss to know what they mean. The main languages of modern Ethiopia, Amharic, Tigre and Tigrinya, are descended from Ge’ez, which in turn is descended from the South Arabian languages, such as Sabaic, when colonists from these civilisations conquered and settled there well over 2,000 years ago. It converted to Christianity under its king, Ezana, in the fourth century, before the Anglo-Saxons had managed to over-run Roman Britain.

The Swahili in East Africa

South of Ethiopia, the great Muslim civilisation of the Swahili emerged later in the Middle Ages. They adopted not only Islam, but also other features of Islamic and Arabic life and culture. They built impressive cities from blocks of coral taken from the east African reefs, which were covered with a kind of lime wash produced by burning the same coral. In their time, they created some of the most outstanding examples of Islamic architecture, some of which can still be seen today in places like Zanzibar.

Nok, Benin and the Great Civilisations of West Africa

On the other side of Africa, other civilisations emerged which reached an extremely high level of civilisation. Africans in what is now Nigeria began smelting iron early, long before Europeans, in c. 1800 BC, due to the natural iron bloom available in the region. The earliest African artistic culture outside ancient Egypt, the Nok, appeared in Nigeria in the 3rd century BC. This is known for its highly stylised sculptures, the artistic skill of which has drawn admiration from modern art experts and connoisseurs. Other West African cultures also have been the subject of considerable scholarly interest for the high standard of their art, such as Ife and Benin. Both of these cultures produced extremely naturalistic metal sculptures. The Benin bronze heads, produced to form part of a shrine to the rulers’ life-force, are justly famous and are found in many European collections after they were looted by punitive raids by the British in the 19th century after they expanded into the region.

Ife Sculpture

Sculpture of a king of Ife. Similar works have been found in terracotta dating from before the 12th century.

Benin Bronze

Benin Bronze from Shrine to Ruler

These cultures also impressed European observers and traders when they first encountered them in the 16th and 17th centuries. They commented on the size of the cities they encountered, as well as the chastity of the indigenous women, which they considered to be far greater than their own. These civilisations did practise much that struck Europeans as barbaric, such as human sacrifice. What surprised them about this, however, was that such a cultured and civilised people should actually engage in such horrors. Captain Denman of the West African Squadron, charged with suppressing the slave trade between Africa and America, stated this in his evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in the 1840s. When asked whether mass human sacrifice really existed amongst the peoples of Dahomey, Ashanti and other cultures in the region, he replied that it did, and that it ‘was remarkable, given the achievements they have made in most of the arts of civilisation’. In other words, what shocked Europeans wasn’t that the Africans committing these atrocities were barbarous savages, but actually the complete opposite: they were highly civilised, and so the massacres they committed were even more shocking and horrifying by contrast to the rest of their civilisation.

Akure Place

Plan of the palace of the Deji of Akure, showing how complex great African buildings may be.

Benin pic 2

View of the City of Benin, published 1668 by the Dutch explorer, Dapper

North of these pagan civilisations was the great Islamic empire of Mali. Access to a plentiful supply of gold made it one of the richest civilisations in West Africa. So rich, that when its ruler passed through Egypt in the 12th century on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the amount of gold he and his retainers carried was so great that it actually through the country into a recession. Mali was also an important religious and intellectual centre, in which the scientific literature of the Muslim world also circulated. Scholars have uncovered vast libraries of ancient manuscripts preserved in the empire’s mosques from the Middle Ages. Amongst the treasures of this civilisation are manuscripts of the heliocentric system, showing the Earth and planets moving around the Sun, which Muslim scholars discovered independently of Copernicus about two centuries earlier.

Non-Ptolemaic Moon

Non-Ptolemaic Model of the Moon’s orbit, produced by the Turkish astronomer Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi in 1285. Similar works were copied and circulated amongst scholars in Mali.

Further south, in Zimbabwe, is the great stone fort from which the country takes its modern name. This vast structure is so impressive that previous European scholars could not believe it had been built by Africans, and instead attributed it to the Arabs or Chinese. I’ve got a feeling that some of the Ufolks may well believe it was built by ancient space aliens. Examination of the ruins themselves, however, show that it is indeed African in design and construction, similar to the way wooden houses are built by the peoples of the area.

Zimbabwe Fort1

The Temple at the Great Fort of Zimbabwe

There may also have been many other African civilisations, of which we currently know little, simply because the evidence for them has not survived. Africans tend to build in wood, rather than stone, a material that is particularly vulnerable to the continent’s climate and attack by termites. We only know of those civilisations that have either survived to the present day, such as Dahomey, Ashanti and the other contemporary Nigerian cultures, or who built in stone. Other civilisations may have existed which built in wood, the evidence for which perished over the centuries. However, merely because the evidence has not survived, does not mean that such civilisations weren’t there in the first place.

The Kippers racially abusing and insulting Umunna thus reveal just the extent of their own vile bigotry, but also how little they know about human evolution and African culture and civilisation. While these are fairly exotic topics, they’re not so arcane that only a few scholars know about them. There have been some excellent TV series on them, aimed at the general public. These include The Incredible Human Story on the BBC, presented by Time Team’s own Dr Alice Roberts. The BBC also produced a series on human evolution, presented by the avuncular, moustachioed Dr Robert Winston. Further back in the 1990s, Channel 4 also screened a series on human evolution, which presented the case that the early human colonist of Europe were actually Black. Again, an entirely respectable viewpoint, considering that all modern humans arrived out of Africa.

As for African civilisation, there have been a number of blockbusting series. Back in the 1980s there were a couple, one on BBC 2, presented by the Black African scholar Dr Ali Mazrui, and another on Channel 4 presented by the White afrocentrist historian, Dr Basil Davidson. More recently, BBC 4 and 2 screened a series, Lost Kingdoms of Africa, presented by a Black British art historian. I’m afraid the only thing I can remember about this chap’s name is that he was Gus somebody, and his name was double-barrelled. And that, like all archaeologists and intrepid explorers, he wore the de rigueur Indian Jones felt hat. This was also well worth watching, and there was a book to accompany the series. It’s great series like that which provide the strongest argument for retaining the BBC, and keeping television out of the mitts of Murdoch.

Africa’s Problems those of Human Evil, Corrupt International Economic and Political System

Terrible atrocities and crimes against humanity are being committed in Africa, by kleptocratic dictators and army generals, who are a blight on the human race. These have gained power partly through the profound economic and social problems of their nations, but also through the complicity of Western politicians, industrialists and financiers. The difference and superiority of western, scientific and industrial culture is only very recent. Western Europe only began to overtake Islam scientific and technologically in the 17th century, and there were still areas in which the Muslim world was superior in the 18th. Well into the 19th century, much of western Europe was ruled by absolute monarchs, whose societies rested on serfdom, the effective enslavement of their peasants. One American historian of the Balkans has pointed out that while the Turks in the 19th century were seen as barbaric for taking the heads of those they slew in battle, this was actually common amongst American bounty hunters out West. Before the development of cheap, efficient photography, the only way you could prove that you had successfully hunted down and killed a dangerous criminal was to take their heads.

Africa is beset by many severe problems, but this is not because its people are somehow less ‘evolved’ or ‘uncivilised’. Indeed, for much of human history, the opposite has been true. The continent’s problems come from a number of causes, which include the legacy of colonialism, a corrupt and unfair international economic system, and simple pure, unrestrained human evil. The last knows no difference in colour, and affects every culture. Including the upper echelons of the Tory party, and even now clouds the judgment of Kippers towards their fellows.