Posts Tagged ‘Byzantine Empire’

Jodi Magness’ Book on Archaeology of Early Islamic Palestine in Oxbow Book Catalogue

March 31, 2019

I also found Jodi Magness’ Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine (Eisenbrauns 2003), listed in the bargains section of Oxbow Book News for Spring 2019. The blurb for this goes as follows

Archaeological evidence is frequently cited by scholars as proof that Palestine declined after the Muslim conquest, and especially after the rise of the Abbasids in the mid-eighth century. Instead, Magness argues that the archaeological evidence supports the idea that Palestine and Syria experienced a tremendous growth in population and prosperity between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

It’s hardback, and is being offered at £14.95, down from its publication price of £42.95.

Magness is an Israeli archaeologist, and I’ve read some of her books on the archaeology of Israel. This is interesting, as it adds yet more evidence against the Zionist claim that there was no-one living in Palestine before the arrival of the first Jewish colonists in the 19th century. I don’t know how far back they extend this claim, because obviously Palestine was inhabited at the time of the Crusades, otherwise there would have been no fighting in the Holy Land when the Crusaders conquered from the Muslims. In his book, Ten Myths About Israel, Ilan Pappe thoroughly demolishes the myth that Palestine was uninhabited, and cites works by a string of other Israeli historians against the assertion that it wasn’t, made by the Israeli state.

I’m also not surprised that it flourished after the Islamic conquest. Before the Muslims conquered the region, they were held by the Byzantine Empire, the Greek-speaking eastern Roman empire. This was declining like the western Roman empire, although unlike the west it struggled on until the fall of Constantinople itself in 1450. During the late Roman and Byzantine period, I understand that the empire’s population and towns shrank, with the exception of Constantinople itself. There was also severe persecution as the Greek Orthodox and associated Melkite churches attempted to suppress the Syriac and Coptic churches, who were viewed as heretics. The result of this was that the persecuted Christians of these churches aided and welcomed the Muslim conquerors as liberators. Their incorporation into the emerging Islamic empire made them part of a political and economic region stretching from Iran and parts of India in the East to Spain in the West. This would have stimulated the provinces economically, as would a century of peaceful, or comparatively peaceful rule following the Muslim conquest.

Book on Early Islamic Palestine in Oxbow Bargain Catalogue

December 2, 2018

Another book I found in the Oxbow Book Catalogue, which might be of interest to some readers of this blog, is Jodi Magness’ Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine. The blurb for this runs

Archaeological evidence is frequently cited by scholars as proof that Palestine declined after the Muslim conquest, and especially after the rise of the Abbasids in the mid-eighth century. Instead, Magness argues that the archaeological evidence supports the idea that Palestine and Syria experienced a tremendous growth in population and prosperity between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

The book’s published by Eisenbrauns. It’s normal price is 42.95 pounds, but it’s being offered by Oxbow at 14.95.

I’ve no doubt that the area did receive a boost after the Islamic conquest. The Muslims were helped to seize the region by its indigenous peoples, including Christians. Many of them belonged to sects which were judged heretical by the Byzantine Empire, and so were terribly persecuted. Quite apart from the fact that Byzantine Empire was declining economically and demographically, so that many Byzantine towns dwindled to villages or vanished during the centuries of the Empire’s fall before the conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century by the Ottomans. The Muslims were aided in their conquest of Palestine and Egypt by indigenous peoples of those countries because they offered them tolerance and peace. And materially, inclusion in the new Arab Empire made them part of state that stretched right across north Africa, Arabia and the former Persian Empire to the borders of India, and into Spain, which obviously gave a massive boost to long distance trade.

The book also adds more evidence against the Israeli assertion, completely disproven but still being repeated, that Palestine was empty before the Israelis arrived, and that the Palestinians who occupied it only arrived comparatively recently.

Book on Ancient Philosophy in Gaza

Similarly, the catalogue also includes book on ancient Greek philosophy in the Palestinian city of Gaza. This is Explaining the Cosmos, by Michael W. Champion. The blurb for this reads

This volume analyses the writings of three thinkers associated with Gaza, Aeneas, Zacharias and Procopius. Together, they offer a case study for the appropriation, adaptation and transformation of classical philosophy in late antiquity, and for cultural transitions more generally in Gaza.

That’s by the Oxford University Press. It was 62.00 pounds, but is now 14.95

The philosophers studied in the book seem to be Christian Greeks, rather than Jews or Syriac Christians. Nevertheless, this shows that Gaza, now a beleaguered ghetto under the Israelis, was a centre for intellectual enquiry and learning when it was part of the Byzantine Empire, the Greek Roman Empire of the East.

The Social Hierarchy that Makes Prejudice towards Some Minorities More Acceptable Than Others

May 9, 2018

Way back on April 23rd, Mike also wrote an article commenting on the near complete media silence over islamophobia in the Tory party, contrasting this with the furore over the supposed anti-Semitism in Labour. Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi had appeared on Robert Peston’s programme to state that islamophobic incidents and rhetoric were almost weekly occurrences in the Tory party. The only news outlet that reported Warsi’s statement, which not even Peston himself commented on, was RT. Which shows just how much we need the Russian-owned broadcaster and supposed ‘propaganda outlet’ to correct the massive bias in our own media.

Aleesha, a Muslim female blogger and political activist, who talked about the massive increase she’d seen in Tory islamophobia, but which went unnoticed and unremarked by the media, and which no one was condemning or acting against. She discussed the vehemently islamophobic comments of the Tory MP, Bob Blackman, Zac Goldsmith’s campaign for the post of mayor of London against Sadiq Khan, and the official EU Leave campaign, which said that Europe has an ‘exploding Muslim population’.

Aleesha further asked

“Why is nobody acting? I have been blocked by Tory councillors and Tory MPs when I call islamophobia out. Why are these MPs and councillors supporting islamophobes? It makes me think that the Tory party has an actual problem with islamophobia, not to mention the dozens of times I’ve been religiously abused by Tories.

“Are we just going to ignore it? When will we give these cases the rightful outrage? Islamophobia is absolutely normalised in British politics and nobody is really doing anything about it. The silence from our politicians shows their inability to act and their legitimation/endorsement of these views. Are we going to act, or are we going to do nothing and let MPs like Bob Blackman host more extremists in Parliament?”

Mike ended his article by referring back to Baroness Warsi’s comments, and concluding that the real reason islamophobia is being ignored is because the Tories love it.

https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/04/23/sick-of-labour-anti-semitism-lets-talk-about-tory-islamophobia-instead/

As Mike has pointed out repeatedly, racism of all types, including islamophobia, is far more prevalent amongst the Right, including the Tories, than the Left and the Labour party. But the media aren’t commenting on it, and are playing up the supposed anti-Semitism in Labour for purely political reasons. They fear Corbyn’s Labour and its programme of ending neoliberalism, renationalising the NHS, part of the electricity grid and the railways, and restoring the welfare state. The Blairites in the Labour party and their allies in the Israel lobby also despise him, not because he is an enemy of Israel, but because he demands dignity and justice for the Palestinians. This also attacks traditional geopolitics in the region, where the West has supported Israel and Saudi Arabia against Russia and the surrounding Arab nations. As a result, the Tories, the media, the Israel lobby and the Thatcherite Labour Right, the Blairites, have all seized on the spurious allegations of anti-Semitism against Corbyn and his supporters as a way of trying to unseat the Labour leader and marginalise and expel his supporters.

There are also a number of reasons why islamophobia is far also far more acceptable than other forms of racial prejudice. Colour prejudice is one factor. Most Muslims in this country are Black or Asian, and Muslims may also be seen as more foreign than other ethnic groups because historically they lay outside and beyond the European Christian mainstream. While there have been Muslim communities in parts of Europe, like Spain, the Balkans and Russia and the Baltic states since the Middle Ages, they were always marginal communities outside the European mainstream. Europe in the Middle Ages was Christendom. Muslim Spain was part of the Islamic world, as were the Muslim communities in the Balkans which were established after the region was conquered by the Muslim Turks. The Ottoman Turks were an aggressive, expansionary threat to the European Christian states up until the late 17th century. The massacres of Christians carried out by the Ottomans at the end of the 19th century, when the Greeks and Serbs fought their wars of independence, became notorious, and so contributed to this stereotype of Islam as an innately hostile threat. At the same time, the massacres carried by Christians against Muslims was little reported and did not provoke the same outrage.

There is also the legacy of British imperialism, and its conquest of part of the Dar al-Islam in the creation of negative views of Islam and its peoples, followed by the continued instability of the region after independence. The result has been that Islam and Muslims have continued to be seen as a threat completely opposed to Europe and the West. The stereotype has been reinforced by the rise of militant Islam following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Islamist terrorism and highly emotive campaigns by some Muslims in Britain, such as the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the controversy over the Satanic verses, and the marches and demands for Pope Benedict’s death after he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor’s negative comments about Mohammed.

And added to all this is Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis, which stated that after the collapse of Communism, there would be an inevitable conflict between the West and Islam. Huntingdon’s idea has been taken up by very many on the right, from the Republicans in America to UKIP, the Fascist and Nazi right in Britain and Europe, and now, it seems, a very large part of our own Conservative party.

But a few years ago, one right-wing writer also offered his own views on why prejudice against some minorities was more acceptable than others. He wrote

‘Is there, in effect, an unofficial pack of equality Top Trumps cards? In egalitarian Britain, who has the best minority credentials? They could go something like this:’

He then laid his scheme of how these cards would look as follows:

LESBIANS AND GAYS
Media Connections 9
Victim Status 4
Rarity Value 3
Fear Factor 6
Political/financial clout 8

MUSLIMS
Media Connections 4
Victim Status 6
Rarity Value 4
Fear Factor 9
Political/financial clout 4

JEWS
Media Connections 9
Victim Status 8
Rarity Value 6
Fear Factor 5
Political/financial clout 10

DISABLED
Media Connections 2
Victim Status 9
Rarity Value 8
Fear Factor 1
Political/financial clout 2

GURKHAS
Media Connections 7
Victim Status 5
Rarity Value 6
Fear Factor 9
Political/financial clout 4

TRANSSEXUALS
Media connections 1
Victim Status 3
Rarity Value 10
Fear Factor 2
Political/financial clout 3.

So who was the terrible person, who compiled this league table of marginalised groups? Well, actually it was Daily Mail sketch writer Quentin Letts, in his book Bog Standard Britain: How Mediocrity Ruined This Great Nation (London: Constable 2009), pages 115 to 117. They’re in the chapter ‘Bum Rap’, where he comments on the way the vile homophobia of some Caribbean rap lyrics are apparently considered acceptable, when Lynette Burrows was reported to the cops for homophobia when she questioned on the BBC the right of male gay couples to adopt baby girls. He concluded on this issue that

… it is hard to escape the conclusion that the police leave rap music alone because it has more minority value than the gay people it so charmlessly attacks. Lynette Burrows was collared because she was an easy target and because she was one of the majority. The rappers are more frightening and they have the political Scotchguard of victimhood.

But you could use his grading of the comparative power and victim status of various minority groups to argue that anti-Semitism is far more unacceptable than other forms of racial prejudice, because Jews have a greater victim status and political and financial power. If this came from someone on the left now, they would almost certainly be libelled as an anti-Semite. But there has been no such outcry against Letts. And I hope there isn’t, because I don’t believe he has written anything anti-Semitic.

There is some truth in what he writes, as the majority of Westerners are acutely aware of the long history of persecution the Jews have suffered in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust. Jews are also generally more integrated than some other groups, and Brits have a more positive attitude towards them. Only 7 per cent of Brits in polls say they are anti-Semitic. Many leading businessmen and media figures are Jewish, though this certainly does not mean that the vile conspiracy theories that claims Jews control business and the media are anything but murderous lies. And the anti-Semitic smears of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, and the Jewish Leadership Council carry weight, because they are part of the Tory establishment.

Against this, there are still anti-Semitic attacks and harassment. Nazi groups, like the banned National Action in England and the Alternative Fuer Deutschland in Germany have made terrifying speeches calling for the murder and extermination of Jews. And many of those libelled by the Blairites, the Tories and the Israel lobby as anti-Semites are self-respecting Jews, whose only crime is that, like their gentile anti-racist friends and comrades, they support Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left.

Real, murderous anti-Semitism, like other forms of racism, still exists, and Jews have given their support to other marginalised groups suffering racial abuse in the West. The ADL, the American Jewish organisation dedicated to tackling anti-Semitism, for example, also came out in support of Muslims against Donald Trump’s immigration ban.

Thus, for a variety of historical, social and economic reasons, prejudice against some minorities, such as Jews, is far less acceptable than others, such as Muslims. But racial prejudice generally is far more common in the Tory party, and the current attacks on anti-Semitism in the Labour party has far more to do with politics than real anti-Semitism, as shown by the fact that so many of those smeared are genuinely anti-racist and Jewish.

Jodi Magness on the Archaeology of Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine

December 17, 2017

One of the other books in the winter edition of the Oxbow Bargain Book Catalogue for Winter 2017 is Jodi Magness’ Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine. The blurb for this says

Archaeological evidence is frequently cited by scholars as proof that Palestine declined after the Muslim conquest and especially after the rise of the Abbasids in the mid-eighth century. Instead, Magness argues that the archaeological evidence supports the idea that Palestine and Syria experienced a tremendous growth in population and prosperity between the mid-sixth and mid-seventh centuries.

Eisenbrauns, 2003, 9781575060705, Hardback, was £49.99, now £14.95.

Magness is an Israeli archaeologist, who has written some brilliant, very accessible, popular books on the archaeology of the Holy Land. I recognise that my own religious views mean that I have a bias towards Biblical archaeology and the Ancient Near East, as opposed to the later, Muslim periods. However, western concerns with these periods have meant that precious later evidence of Muslim culture and towns have been destroyed as archaeologists have dug through them to get to ancient Egypt, for example. The British archaeologist John Romer was particular critical about this in one edition of his series on the history of archaeology for Channel 4, broadcast in the 1990s, Great Excavations. In one sequence, he sifted through the sand around one excavated ancient Egyptian monument, picking out pieces of Islamic period pottery, and sadly remarked, ‘There was a whole town here once.’ And explained that it had been either destroyed, or at least its remains had, by archaeologists determined to get at what was underneath from antiquity.

Which of course, may partly explain – but does not justify – the Islamist rage against pre-Islamic Egypt and its monuments. Like the pyramids, which they’d love to destroy.

Magness’ conclusions don’t really surprise me. There’s an argument about the demographic and economic conditions of the late Roman Empire at the time of the Muslim conquests. Part of the reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire was economic stagnation, as I’ve pointed out before to combat the rubbish spouted by right-wing politicos and classicists like Boris Johnson. During the late Byzantine Empire, towns shrank, and many disappeared completely as they were abandoned. Those that survived tended to consist of a castle or fortification and a church around which was a much smaller settlement.

The nascent Islamic Empire put the region in touch with an expanding state that grew to cover the Near East and spread into parts of India. It gave merchants the opportunity to establish trade networks across a vast area. Furthermore, even when the Byzantines and Muslim emperors were still at work, Christians in the early caliphate were not prevented from contact with their spiritual superiors and coreligionists in Byzantium. Also, the official Byzantine ‘Melkite’ church, as it was known in Egypt, had persecuted the various ‘Jacobite’ or ‘Nestorian’ sects, which they considered heretical, often with horrific tortures. The result was that when the Muslims conquered the region, the persecuted masses opened the gates to them and welcomed them as liberators.

At the moment, however, Netanyahu, the Likudniks and the other members of the Israeli religious right in his coalition seem to be determined to erase any history of Palestine, that challenges its exclusive Jewish character. There are any number of books and articles by western historians attacking this and comparing it with militant nationalist movements elsewhere. Such as by Philip Rahtz, a very respected British archaeologist from my part of the West Country in his book, Invitation to Archaeology. This is not anti-Semitic, and Rahtz himself has always been anti- or at least, non-racist. He describes in the above book how shocked he was when an apparently liberal Australian student he was teaching was deeply surprised by his interest in the archaeology of Aboriginal Australians. ‘But they’re just apes!’ she exclaimed.

Netanyahu and his thugs are determined to close mosques and churches, or at least keep them very tightly controlled, just as the illegal settlers they support seize Palestinian land and homes in the Occupied Territories. So I really don’t know how long a genuinely open archaeological investigation of the Islamic period will last.

Outrage at Theresa May’s Refusal to Condemn Trump’s Sneer at Sadiq Khan

June 6, 2017

After Sunday’s terror attack on London, Donald Trump responded with a disgusting Tweet sneering at Sadiq Khan, the capital’s mayor. Trump said

At least 7 dead and 48 wounded and Mayor of London said “there is no reason to be alarmed.”

The Orange Buffoon then followed this with

Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his “no reason to be alarmed” statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!

In fact, Mayor Khan was misquoted. He has said London is the safest city in the world, but that’s a relative statement. It does not mean, and he made it clear that it did not mean, that there was no danger.

This would, of course, be lost on Trump, a political opportunist, islamophobe and general numbskull, who would not recognise the important point, and distinction, Khan made.

Mike over at Vox Political has asked the vital question of why his state visit should be allowed to go ahead, when he can’t even show proper respect to our capital’s mayor?

And Theresa May has added insult to injury – and shown her similar lack of backbone – by failing to rebut Trump’s slur. In a press conference, May was asked something like five times if she would had or would criticise Trump for his statement. She didn’t. Instead, she went on about how Mr Khan is ‘doing a good job.’ You can see the transcript and video of this over at Mike’s blog, as well as reading the disgusted Tweets against May’s cowardice that followed.

I will say one thing in May’s favour: she did at least acknowledge that Khan was doing a good job. But the fact that she hasn’t condemned Trump’s remarks, as the Tweeters like Owen Jone, Tom London, and others Mike has reblogged, have said, shows she isn’t fit to be Prime Minister.

Isobel Tweeted

Sadiq Khan is the Elected Mayor of London, May is an insult to her office, we have no space in the UK for Trump who insults or elected Mayor.

Mike’s article concludes

This is the will of the country.

We don’t want our government to welcome a US President who insults us after we have been attacked.

And we certainly don’t need a prime minister who won’t condemn the man who utters such an insult.

That is why you should do this:

Vote Labour on Thursday – for our national pride.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/06/06/can-we-really-tolerate-a-state-visit-from-a-us-president-who-trolled-us-after-a-terror-attack/

Trump’s sneering attack on the man the people of London chose as their mayor doesn’t surprise me. A week ago after the Manchester terror attack the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, sneered at the young victims of that atrocity as ‘liberal trendies’, many of whom ‘supported open borders to let the Islamicists’ in. He later repeated the slur, stating that they had ‘run the white flag up’ to Islamicists.

Jones has given his unswerving support to Trump, and had him several times on his programme, Infowars, when Trump was campaigning for the presidency. Jones has claimed that the US government orchestrated the Oklahoma bombing, the 9/11 attacks and that the kids killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting were actors. He claims that the incident was faked so that the American government could bring in greater gun controls.

He also believes that real babies are sacrificed to Satan at occult ceremonies attended by the global elite in Bohemian Grove; that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were satanically possessed, and that Barack Obama was going to have everyone incarcerated in FEMA camps.

In the clip below from The David Pakman Show, Pakman and his producer discuss Jones’ smears and the fact that Infowars has been given a press pass to attend Trump’s meetings. Pakman makes the point that one of the victims of the Manchester suicide bomber was an eight year old girl. How was this innocent child a ‘liberal trendie’?

Of course, Jones is an islamophobe, who believes that Britain has surrendered to Muslims by passing legislation outlawing hate speech. He thinks this makes it illegal to criticise Islam.

It doesn’t. You can still criticise Islam, just as you can any other religion or ideology. Or at least, you should. What you can’t do is spread hate against Muslims simply for being Muslims.

Now there are extremists within the Muslim community, who do want to stop criticism of Islam. The people demonstrated against Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses in the 1980s, Mohammed Akhtar, Kalim Saddiqui and the rest, did want to make blasphemy against Islam an offence in British law. And there have been riots and screams for the deaths of those Muslims believed had blasphemed against their religion around the world. One of those, whose beheading was demanded by the bigots and the fanatics, was the previous pope after he quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor’s views on Islam.

But the legislation the British government introduced was designed to protect innocent Muslims from attack by racists and xenophobes, simply for their faith, when they were normal, peaceable people. It was designed, not to surrender to the Islamists and bigots, but to stop them creating the hatred and division they wish to exploit to radicalise more Muslims.

Jones doesn’t recognise this, and so he thinks we’re soft on them. And he’s not alone. There are plenty of extremely right-wing Republicans, who believe the same. And it looks very much like Trump is one of them. Hence the sneers.

Given these sneers from Trump and Jones, and Trump’s own vicious islamophobia, it would be an injustice and a mistake to let him enter the country on a state visit.

Peace, Love and Lebanese Rockets

October 22, 2014

The Lebanese Rocket Society

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige
Soda Film + Art
Arabic with English, French and Arabic subtitles
Running time 95 minutes.

Lebanon Rocket 1

With the news full of the horrors of ISIS and their genocidal war in Iraq and Syria, I thought I’d turn to a far more optimistic and inspiring episode of recent Middle Eastern history: how a group of Lebanese students in 1962 were inspired to join the nascent space race and begin building their own rockets. It’s a piece of history that has been all but forgotten. The film not only documents the rise and fall of the Lebanese space programme, but the film makers’ own attempts to jog people’s memories of it on Lebanese radio. They then turned the rocket programme into an art project, constructing a full-scale statue of one of the rockets, which they presented to the Lebanese Armenian college at the centre of the rocket programme. They also made their own version of the Golden Record, the disc containing the sounds of Earth, which was carried into space on the Voyager 2 probe destined to leave the solar system for the depths of interstellar space and possible contact with aliens. In the hands of the film’s producers, the record held the sounds of Lebanon.

They also created an animated film, by Ghossein Halwa, depicting what Lebanon might be like in 2025, if the programme had continued. In Halwa’s film, the Lebanon of the near future is a prosperous, bustling space age state. Space technology has given the country security by allowing it to guard its borders against foreign invasion. It has also contributed to the country’s material wealth by discovering oil reserves off its coast. Beirut and its suburbs are a true, futuristic city like the vast megalopolis’ in Japanese manga films and the SF classic, Blade Runner. Vast space craft, Arab versions of the Space Shuttle, are launched to explore the depths of space. But it’s also a fun a place, where you can trip the light fantastic in zero-gravity nightclubs.

Lebanon Rocket Cartoon

One of the new generation of spacecraft from the alternative Lebanon of 2025.

The Founder, Manoug Manougian

The programme was the brain child of Manoug Manougian, a professor of mathematics at Haigazian college, an Armenian college in Lebanon. Manougian’s interest in space travel seems to have been sparked, like many a child’s, by reading Jules Verne. Now teaching maths at university in Tampa, Florida, he says during one interview that it may not be accident he ended up there. Verne made it the location for his astronaut’s journey into space in his Voyage to the Moon as it was at the right latitude for launching a flight to the Earth’s companion world. Inspired by the achievements of the Americans and Russians, Manougian was inspired to begin his own experiments. He and a group of his students began making and launching a series of rockets. At first these were tiny ‘baby rockets’, not much larger than fireworks and about the same size as some of the model rockets hobby rocketeers enjoyed by hobby rocketeers. The rockets became increasingly larger and more sophisticated, until they reached the end of what could legally be built. The fuel used by the rockets was strictly limited to the armed forces. Furthermore, there was a problem with funding as any further increase in size would make the rockets prohibitively expensive for a small, civilian project. Manougian’s group had caught the interest of the Lebanese army under Captain Wehbe, who stepped in to give the young rocketeers the money and equipment they needed.

Involvement with the Army

The alliance with the army brought its own problems, however. Manougian and his students were only interested in peaceful research. The college’s founder, a Protestant pastor, was very much afraid that the rocket would be used as a weapon, and was initially strongly opposed to the research. He resolved to put a stop to it when he saw his own 12 year old daughter come out of one of the campus’ laboratories, her forearms grey from mixing the rocket fuel. He decided to go round and tell Manougian to put a stop to it.

He was persuaded otherwise by the massive publicity the programme was giving Lebanon and his college. The newspapers were full of stories about Manougian and his band of space cadets. Other, similar groups sprang up elsewhere in Lebanon. One such was a group of 13-15 year old boys, who launched their own baby rockets. The Lebanese also received international assistance and co-operation from France and America. Col. Wehbe attended a course on rocketry and the American space programme in Florida. He also attended the launch of a French experimental rocket in North Africa.

International Tensions and War

The programme was doomed by the political tensions in the Middle East. The film makers point out that the 1960s was a period of tension and conflict between the superpowers, America and Russia, and their allies and clients in the Arab world. Against them was Arab nationalism, led by the Egyptian president Abdel Nasser, which briefly resulted in the union of Syria and Egypt, and the anti-imperial forces. Lebanon was buzzing with spies and political intrigue. One of the speakers recalled how one frequent drinker at a hotel bar in Beirut was none other than Kim Philby, the notorious British traitor. The Lebanese’s success in building larger and more sophisticated missiles attracted attention and alarm from other nations. Their last missile was to have a projected range of 500 km, bringing into range Cyprus, Syria and Israel. Manougian’s rocketeers received a sharp message from their diplomatic staff in Cyprus. The British authorities were understandably annoyed after they made a mistake with one of their rocket’s trajectory, so that it almost landed on a Cypriot fishing boat.

Other Arab nations were also keen to acquire Lebanon’s success and expertise. Manougian recalled how he was approached at an official party by another Armenian, whom he didn’t know. The man asked him if he was looking for funding. When Manougian said he was, the unknown man replied that he knew someone who wanted to meet him. And so Manougian found himself driving through Beirut with the man at 2.30-3.00 O’clock in the morning, before ending up at hotel, in front of which was a crowd of people. He was then approached by the heir of one of the other Arab states, who asked him if he’d like to come and do the same in his country as he’d done for Lebanon. Manougian states that he felt it would have been impolite to refuse the offer, and so simply replied that he’d have to think about it. He then fled back to Texas to complete his education, explaining that at the time he only had a B.A., and not even an M.A.

The Army’s Takeover and End of the Project

With Manougian absent, the rocket programme began to experience a series of disasters. Three of the rocketeers were badly burned in an accident when the perchlorate rocket fuel being mixed exploded. The College decided the rocket programme was too hazardous, and so had them removed from campus. it was then gradually taken over by the Lebanese army. Manougian, Joseph Sfeir and the other leading rocketeers were peaceful visionaries, but the army made it clear that they had always been interested in developing it as a weapon. They just didn’t tell the project’s civilian leaders. Well, said one of the officers, if you told Manougian it would be all over Haikazian college, and if you told Sfeir, it would be all over his home province. Under the army’s control, the tests became more secret and closed to the public, unlike the earlier launches. Eventually the project was closed down due to international pressure. One of the rocketeers identified the French as responsible. Another recalled how he knew the then-president personally, and asked him, which country was responsible. ‘Was it from the north?’ he asked. ‘From the north, from the south, and elsewhere’, came the reply. Clearly Lebanon’s success at creating such a missile had made a lot of people understandably very nervous.

The film laments how very, very few Lebanese now remember the programme, despite the massive publicity it had at the time. They feel that the 1967 War and the losses of Arab territory to Israel and subsequent conflicts have blotted out all memory of the programme, and made Arabs afraid to dream and strive for utopias. There is very little Science Fiction in the Middle East, they opine, because there’s always the danger that someone in the future will consider it subversive.

Peaceful Idealism

What actually comes out of the film, in contrast to the militarism and political intrigue, is the peaceful idealism and patriotism of the projects leaders and founders. Manougian states that Lebanese Armenians are very loyal to their adopted country for taking them in after the Armenian massacres that occurred throughout the Turkish Empire and the Middle East. It’s a situation the film’s producers strongly sympathise with. One of them has an Armenian grandparent, while the other is part Palestinian. They see the space programme as what their country, and the Arab peoples themselves, can achieve if only they dare to dream and look for utopias. The film was made in 2009-10, during the Arab Spring, which they hail as the Arab people once more daring to dream of better societies without tyrants or despots. As for Manougian, he is still very much a visionary and campaigner for peace. He’s active in a project, ‘Peace through Education’. The film makers hoped by making the film they would restore its memory. The sculpture of the rocket was painted white to show that it wasn’t a real missile, and taken through the streets of Beirut to Haikazian College to show what Lebanon had achieved peacefully, through idealism.

The Lebanese Rocketeers – The Arab ‘Mice that Roared’

The film and its rocketeers remind me somewhat of the Ealing comedy, the Mouse on the Moon. This was the successor to the comedies about the minuscule state of Little Fenwick, an English village that manages to gain independence from the rest of the UK, Passport to Pimlico and The Mouse that Roared. The Mouse on the Moon chronicles the events as Little Fenwick joins the space race, rushing to land on the Moon ahead of the Americans and Russians. Apart from well-known Ealing stars like Margaret Rutherford, it also has Bernard Cribbins, known to grown-up children of a certain age as the narrator of The Wombles, and to a new generation of children as one the friends of David Tenant’s Doctor. It shows what small nations and ordinary people can do with skill, vision and military backing. Sadly, from the perspective of 2014 the film’s optimistic embrace of the Arab Spring seems misplaced. The despots throughout the Middle East have either successfully clamped down on the civil rights movements, or else the dissident movements themselves have led to the raise of dangerous and unstable Islamist militias. Egypt’s brief experiment with the democracy and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood has collapsed, and the country is once more under the control of the army. Nevertheless, for a brief moment another world of peace and freedom seemed possible.

Human Progress Made when Peoples and Cultures Come Together

The other point that comes out of the film is the amazing advances in science and civilisation when difference peoples and cultures come together in peace to try to learn from one another. Lebanon was known as the Switzerland of the Levant. It’s a mosaic of different peoples and religions, including Christians, Muslims and the Druze, a highly unorthodox form of Islam. Islam was able to make great strides in science in the Middle Ages, because the early caliphs were keen to draw on the knowledge and expertise of their empire’s subject peoples. The caliph Al-Ma’mun founded a bayt al-hikma, or House of Wisdom dedicated to science and medicine. They drew on Greek, Persian and Indian science and mathematics, and employed Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus, as well as Muslims, to translate scientific and medical works into Arabic. Al-Ma’mun himself sent a scientific mission of scholars, including the pioneering mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to word ‘algorithm’, to acquire scientific knowledge and texts from the Byzantine Empire, the Greek Empire of the East. Western science, in its turn, because massively enriched from the 12th century onwards when European scholars acquired copies of the lost Greek classics and Arabic scientific and medical texts. Peaceful contact between nations and cultures, and the great advances they could make by learning from each other, is now threatened today by the rise in militant xenophobia and, in the Middle East, by the genocidal Islamism of groups like ISIS.

Bill Hicks’ Vision – ‘We Can End World Hunger and Colonise Space’

This film shows the opposite, of what can be achieved through peaceful co-operation. It goes some way to proving the point the late comedian, Bill Hicks, used to make at the end of his gigs. Hicks used to state that if the world spent the amount of money it spends on arms instead on developing, we could feed the world. ‘Not one person would starve. Not one. And we could go and colonise space, in peace, together.’

Bill Hicks sadly died of cancer, but the dreams lives on.

Here’s the great man in action, taken from Youtube.

The Churches and Monasteries of Medieval Nubia: Part 1 – Introduction

June 21, 2013

I’ve blogged a bit before on the great Christian civilisation of medieval Nubia in what is now the Sudan. This civilisation consisted of the three kingdoms of Nobatia, Merkuria and Alwa. Nobatia was situated in the area between the Nile’s first and second cataracts, with its capital at Faras or Pachoras. Makuria stretched from the third cataract to the Butana. Its capital was Old Dongola. It was amalgamated with Nobatia in the seventh century. Alwa was centred on its capital of soba far to the south. Alwa is its Arabic name. The Greeks called it alodia. The remains of extremely small churches and a limited number of burials suggest that there may have been a settled Christian presence in Nobatia in the early sixth century before the possible conversion of the pagan temple of Dendur into a church by the king Eirpanome in 550 AD. The Nobatian church was monophysite, like the modern Egyptian Coptic Church, which believes that Christ only had a single, divine nature. The Makurian church, however, was dyophysite. Like the modern Greek and Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic and European Protestant churches, it believed that Christ had two natures. He was both human and divine. Nubia boasted numerous churches. Little is known about Alwa, but the Armenian traveller Abu Salih described it as possessing 400 churches. Archaeological excavations in Soba have uncovered very few buildings that may have been churches, and it is possible that Abu Salih had overestimated their number. One of the very earliest churches in Nubia was in Qasr Ibrim, which was created by the local Christian community in the fifth century through the conversion of the Meroetic temple of King Taharqa, dating from the seventh century B.C.

European and International Exploration and Archaeological Investigation

After its conquest by Islam in the 16th century, medieval Nubia was largely unknown in the West until a series of European explorers and archaeologists visited the area from the early 19th century onwards. One of the first was the great Swiss explorer Jacob Burckhardt, who made two expeditions to Nubia and travelled as far as the third cataract from 1813 to 1815. Burckhardt was the first to describe the Nubians’ way of life, and their faded memories of their ancient Christian past. Two tribes even then still claimed to be descended from the ancient Christian inhabitants. He saqw the remains of two public buildings, which were probably churches at Qasr Ibrim, and came across the remains of a chapel in one of the islands of the Batn el Hajar, lying between the second and third cataract. Later explorers included Count Vidua, Richard Lepsius, the archaeologist, Somers Clarke, and many others. Most of what is known about medieval Nubia comes from the great rescue operations to investigate its archaeology during the construction of the Aswan dam. The first of these was 1899,led by Clarke, and the second, much greater series of excavations in the ‘Save Nubia’ UNESCO campaign from 1960s onwards, caused by the construction of the High Dam and formation of Lake Nasser. These were done by teams of British, American, Polish and Dutch archaeologists.

Nubian Courts and Kings Styled on Byzantine Empire

Archaeological finds and inscriptions, including evidence from churches, indicate that Nubia had strong connections with the Byzantine Empire. Often these were stronger than its relationship with the Egyptian Coptic church to the north. Inscriptions found by J.W. Crowfoot in the region of ancient Mekuria in 1927 indicates that the Nubians used Greek and followed the Byzantine liturgy in their worship. Documents discovered and published the following year by F.Ll. Griffiths showed that the Mekurian court was also modelled on that of the Byzantine Empire. There were courtiers and officials with the Byzantine titles of meizoteros (mayor of the palace?), proto-meizoteros (premier super-mayor), domesticus, primacerius and eparchos. A graffito in mangled Greek at St. Simeon’s monastery, dating from 7th April 1322, records that the last Christian king of that part of Nubia, Kudanbes, styled himself ‘president of the Caesars’.

Construction of Nubian Churches

Nubian churches were mostly built of mud brick, which does not survive very well in the archaeological record. Otherwise churches were composed of fired, red brick on stone foundations. These were either of sandstone, or granite from the marginal areas near the desert. The roof, which could be either flat or vaulted, were supported by granite pillars. These were painted or plastered, and occasionally were covered with frescoes. Stone capitals, doorjambs and lintels were carved with a wide variety of motifs and designs which reached their zenith in the eighth century. These included fish, crosses, vine and palm leaves. Granite capitals have been found in Upper Nubia, but they are rare, and were probably robbed out for reuse after the buildings were abandoned. William Adams identified four phases in the evolution of Nubian church architecture from his work in Lower Nubia. In the first, earliest phase churches probably consisted of the Byzantine basilica type. These were rectangular buildings comprising a nave flanked by two aisles. The Byzantine influence on these churches suggest that the dyophysite Christian communities in Nubia were earlier than indicated by the historical sources. The next phase, termed Early Nubian by Adams, lasted from about 650-800. This still roughly followed the form of the classical basilica, but with some slight differences. These may have been the result of changes in the Nubian liturgy, or the deliberate creation of a separate architectural style by the churches’ builders.

The zenith of Nubian church architecture was reached in the next phase, the Classical Nubian, which lasted from roughly 800 to 1150. This was defined through the addition of a passage running across the east side of the church, leading from the baptistry in the south to the vestry on the north side of the church. These were probably constructed to allow the clergy to pass from one side of the church to the other without going through the sanctuary or heikal. In some churches of this type there was a brick wall between the sanctuary and the nave. This indicates that the ceremonies in the sanctuary was becoming more secret and spiritual, and so concealed from the view of the laity.

According to the Polish archaeologist, Wlodiemiercz Godlewski, who excavated Old Dongola, the first three phases also saw changes in the construction of the baptistry. These were usually located south-east of the nave or narthex. These originally possessed large, circular tanks into which the candidates for baptism could walk. These were gradually replaced by square fonts, which were placed on a pedestal or base, similar to those in modern western churches from the eleventh centuries onwards. It appears that there was thus a move away from large, public baptisms towards a smaller, more intimate ceremony.

During the last phase of church construction from around 1150 to 1400, churches became smaller. The earlier large tanks for baptism were not generally built in churches of this period, and the emphasis was now on the sanctuary. This suggests that the church interior was exclusively reserved for the clergy, and that the congregation were deliberately kept outside. It also indicates that baptisms were being conducted in the Nile, rather than in a special space within the architecture of the church. This may well have been produced by changes in the liturgy, or as a result of the position of Christianity in Nubia becoming increasingly endangered from Muslim and desert raider incursions from the north. It is possible that the Nubian church became increasingly orientated towards Byzantium after Muslim raiding and conquest made contact with the Egyptian Coptic church increasingly difficult.

Among the churches that have been excavated are those of West Arminna and the cruciform and granite column churches of Old Dongola. The monasteries that have also been revealed and investigated by archaeologists include those of Ghazali and Qasr el Wizz. I will talk about these in parts two and three of this essay.

Sources

William H.C. Frend, The Archaeology of Early Christianity: A History (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1996)

Niall Finneran, The Archaeology of Christianity in Africa (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 2002)