Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an Antique Land by Mogens Trolle Larsen

The Archaeology of Ancient Assyria: Khorsabad, Niveheh, Calah, Assur are some of the places discovered within the pages of The Conquest of Assyria by Mogens Trolle Larsen

 The Conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an Antique Land
by Mogens Trolle Larsen
Routledge Press 2006

  I've been trying to read this book since July 6th, 2009. Like many other books from my Amazon Wish List it's expensive- 150 USD new, 30 USD used.  The ancient civilizations of the Middle East are interesting because they have a kind of a double history: Their actual history and then the "discovery" of that history by Western explorers and adventurers in the 19th century.  The rediscovery of the ancient civilizations of the Near East: Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria, the Hittites, the Egyptians, proceeded along multiple tracks.  First, there was the physical excavation of ruins and monuments prior to the creation of archaeology as a discipline.  Second, there was linguistic/philological race to decipher the various languages and understand non-alphabetical forms of writing.  Finally, there was the issue of confronting the fact that these discoveries related to text in the Bible, and had the potential to either 'prove' or 'disprove' Biblical text.

The Assyrian Empire ruled the middle east between 800 to 600 B.C.E.

  The primary figure in the The Conquest of Assyria was Austen Henry Layard, a young man with some education (but not an Oxford degree) who was supposed to be a lawyer but instead decided to set off, overland, to seek his fortune in India/Ceylon.  He never made it.  Instead, Layard became obsessed with the area we now know as Iraq/Iran, and was then part of the Ottoman empire.  Initially, Layard traveled as far east as Baluchistan which was then, as now, extremely dangerous for anyone- including people who were actually from there, let alone outsiders.

  While in Baluchistan he befriended a local sheikh type, who promptly ran afoul of the Ottoman pasha (territoriality governor) and long story short he ends up hooking up with marsh Arabs and raiding the Ottoman army.  From there, he bounced around the Near East before ending up in Northern Iraq, where he was the first to excavate Nimrud and Nineveh.

  Working prior to the point when we understood cuniform script or indeed before archeology existed,  Layard was never more than an interested amateur, but he was also first, and it was his discoveries that essentially created the field.  The great stone human headed lions he painfully had carted back from the desert still stand in a place of honor in the British museum.  He also wrote Nineveh and its Remains: with an Account of a Visit to the Assyrians, and the Yezidis, and an Inquiry into the Manners and Arts of the Ancient Assyrians.  This work did much to popularize Assyria and make the public aware that such a place existed outside the Bible.   This was in 1848-49.

 Layard was also involved in the deciphering of the cuneiform script.  This story is less interesting then running around in the desert and digging up huge temples and mythological beasts, but is clearly a subject near and dear to the heart of the writer- a professor of Assyriology at a Danish university.  For anyone looking to delve into the history of Assyriology, The Conquest of Assyria is an absolute must, even if it takes you five years to get your hands on a copy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hattusha(Hattusa): The Capital of the Hittites

Modern reconstruction of the Hattusa site in Turkey.

Book Review
Hattusha: The Capital of the Hittites
by Kurt Bittel
Oxford University Press, published 1970

  If you are looking for a comprehensive archaeological/historical description of Hattusha, The Capital of the Hittites, you need look no further, because this book is just about it.  Hattusha was pretty concretely excavated in the period before World War II and after, so it is a site where many photos have been taken and pottery measured. Since 1970 there has been more work done about the language and culture of the Hittites, and obviously this book doesn't draw on that corpus of knowledge.

  Hattusha is located in the northern Anatolian(Turkey) heartland, it is currently a "ruin" though habitation both preceded and succeeded the temporal period where Hattusha was "The Capital of the Hittites."  The chonological period of the Hittite Empire was 1600 B.C. to 1200 B.C.  Prior to Hittite in-habitation, Hattusha was called Hatti and had been inhabited by a pre-Hittite Anatolian ethnic group(Hurrians?), with an Assyrian trading colony embedded in the habitation.  This city was destroyed by a local rival group and lay dormant from some period before being inhabited by the Hittite monarchs.  Hattusha proved to be a devastatingly easy target for local and non-local invaders over the centuries.  In addition to the substantial pre-Hittie sacking and destruction, Bittel identifies at least two separate sackings within the Hittite period, seemingly demonstrating the insecure location on the northern border of the "Ancient Near East."
example of the wall art from Yazilikaya, the pre-eminent rock art in the Hattusha surrounding area.

  The main point from the pre/early Hattusha days is that the Hittites did not come as conquerors of that particular city, they just took it over because it had a good water supply, etc.  It also may have been a location of homage, as the nearby rock art of Yazilikaya would seem to demonstrate.  Yazilikaya is essentially a shrine to a local deity but the deities are Hurrian, not Hittite, so the art either was placed by the Hurrians themselves prior to Hittite arrival or the Hittites were emulating the Hurrian pantheon

Reconstruction of the shrine that would have encased the Yazilikaya shrine site near the Hittite city of Hattusa
  After the final fall of the Empire at the time of the mysterious "Sea People" assaults that engulfed much of the Near East during the 13th century B.C., there was a three hundred year "dark period" after which the residents seem to be members of the Phryigan Emprie/people.  The Phryigans were closer to Greeks in demeanor and culture and it is unclear what "happened" to the Hittites, besides being emulated by a serious of "Neo-Hittite" states in the 9th and 8th century B.C.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Impressions of Africa (1910) by Raymond Roussel

Book Review
Impressions of Africa (1910)
 by Raymond Roussel

  I'm not one of those people who says, "You have to read x in its original language."  However, I would say that when you are reading a book that is based on formal restraints based on homonymic puns (in French.)  Since neither homonyms NOR puns typically translate between languages, that makes reading Impressions of Africa in English nearly incoherent.  Basically, the entire book is "about" these European visitors who are stranded in an African city, watching a series of carnival esque escapades.  Near as I can tell, they are a group of people who are invited to this African city by the despotic ruler, only to be kidnapped by a bandit-king type on the way out of town.  I think.

  The idea of creating art around formal constraints is of course at the heart of any "classical" aesthetic, though not specifically.  One can think of Matthew Barney's early work which is LITERALLY him working against literal physical restraints (the drawing restraint series) or Lars Von Trier with his 'Dogme 95' set of film making rules, meant to create a "more authentic" film art.  Unfortunately when the formal restraints are homonymic puns in a different language, a contemporary reader is left in the dark.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr

These are the nations of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
Book Review:
Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
by S. Frederick Starr
Published October 13th, 2013.
Princeton University Press, First Edition

  You can't seriously be interested in the category of "world news" without realizing that "the Middle East" is one of the most consistently popular subjects within the world news rubric.  As I write this right now, I would imagine that the number one subject in world news right now is the current Gaza Strip conflict between Israel and Hamas and that the number three subject is the expansion of ISIS across northern Syria and Iraq.  Then you've probably got the Syrian civil war in the top 10, and also Afghanistan and then Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are all top 20 countries of interest for various reasons.
The ruins at Balkh

  The "Middle East" typically includes the areas of Arabia, Northern Africa/Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran.  This definition of the Middle East excludes Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the countries of former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.   In fact, these nations together with (arguably) Iran and Pakistan comprise a separate subject, "Central Asia."  Because the present day states in Central Asia proper are so obscure, interest in the history of this region is weak.

  That is a shame, because as S. Frederick Starr comprehensively demonstrates in his magisterial treatment of the history of this region in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, the Central Asian enlightenment between 800-1300 A.D. is one of the Golden Ages of world civilization, on a par with the European Renaissance (thought preceding it) or the Graeco-Roman phosphorescence of the "Ancient World."

   Lost Enlightenment exists to right a number of misunderstandings about Central Asia.  Primary among those misunderstandings it the frequent characterization by Western scholars that Central Asian scientists that wrote in Arabic were in fact Arab.  Thus, what we have historically referred to as scientific/artistic achievements of the Arab/Muslim Middle Ages were often neither Arab NOR Muslim in origination, simply written down in Arabic.

  The second major misunderstanding about Central Asia that Starr confronts is the idea that the only interesting subject to modern scholars about the Central Asian civilization of the early middle ages is it's "decline and fall."  This is a subject that is very much en vogue in the currents of "popular history."  The primary exponent of this thesis is Jared Diamond.

  To a lesser degree, Starr also explains in authoritative fashions the relationship between language and ethnicity in Central Asia during this period.  The Golden Age of Central Asia typically starts after the Arab conquest only because everything could be written down in Arabic, and because classic Greek works were translated into Arabic.  Crucial to understanding the history of Central Asia is understanding that the civilization PRE Arabic conquest was vital, being mostly Oases centered city-states run by different Iranic speaking native of the region.  The two places that figure most prominently in this pre-Conquest narrative are Balkh (located in the far north of Afghanistan) and Samarkand (southern Uzbekistan.)   These cities were the center of larger Iranic speaking ethnic/religious groups.  The most well know of these are the Sogdians, who were centered around Samarkand.

  Although conquered by the Arabs (more or less) in the 6th century, they had pre-existing relationships with India, and at the time of conquest there were Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Manichean, Christians and Jews.   Generally speaking, the Buddhists and Manicheans were treated harshly, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews held on for centuries, much as they did in other parts of the Islamic empire outside the Arab heartland.

  After the Arab Conquest of Central Asia, Turkic speaking tribes play a long running roll, starting as barbaric nomads and ending up as conquerors with hybrid Turkic-Persianate Sunni and Shia Muslims ruling over the entire Middle East and most of India via the Ottomans, Savarids and Mughals.   The role of actual Arabs in Central Asia after the conquest is analogous to the role that the Roman Empire played in Northern Europe: the people there aren't "Roman" in any way, but their development has been dramatically impacted by the Roman presence.

  Other then literally explaining these very basic and true facts about a little-known region of the world, Starr sets out to explain the constituent elements of the Central Asian Golden Age by drawing biographies of the leading exponents and detailing their accomplishments in general-reader level detail. It isn't "pop history" but Starr leans towards making good footnotes and sparing the reader debates interesting only to academics in the field.

  He also gingerly moves towards a conclusion about the "decline and fall" that is careful to avoid easy generalizations and takes into the account the utter lack of familiarity that most writers have about the actual facts and arguments of this period.  This "decline and fall" links directly to the larger subject of "the Middle East" since it implicates the entire Arabic writing intellectual world and mirrors the actual debate about the "closing of the Arab mind" that happened in the thirteenth and fourteenth century.
Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111):  responsible for the phenomenon of "the closing of the Islamic mind."
   This "closing of the Arab mind" issue is probably the most controversial in the non-popular field of Middle Eastern history, but you can't really discuss that subject without implicating Central Asia, because all of the non closed minds were non-Arabs who were raised in Central Asia not speaking Arabic.  I felt like Starr kind of buried the lede here.  Ultimately, the most responsible part in the Authors mind is the writing of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) who emerges as a kind of Central Asian Middle Ages equivalent of a Rush Limbaugh in the mid 1990s.   He attacked scientific/rational/philosophical thought in a classic text called The Incoherence of Philosophers.  His argument was essentially adopted wholesale by the Sunni Muslim academic teaching apparatus, and his followers essentially ended debate after a few generations of struggles.

  To this day the ideas of al-Ghazali remain unquestioned  and it is quite easy to trace from al-Ghazali directly to al-Queda and it's affiliated groups and ideology.    Starr also gently opines on the vexatious question of the failure of the Middle East to Modernize in the way of the West.  Here he firmly lays blame at the foot of the Turkic/Persian influenced Empires of the early modern Period.  These "gunpowder" Empires were essentially castes of Turkic speaking Calvary officers under the influence of Perisan-ate court culture who were quick on subjects like equipping an entire army with guns and artillery, but weak on adopting the printing press and subject to the restrictive Sunni Muslim ideology about rational thought and science.

  Starr does not dwell at all on the depressing present of any of these nations.   You can see the history of the region of the actual names of the countries.  Tajikistan means "Persians" and they speak an Iranic language.  Turkmenistan is Turks speaking Turkish, and the Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyistan represent different Turkic speaking tribes who arrived at different times in the area from the North and East.

  In conclusion, Lost Enlightenment is a must read for anyone with a deeper than average interest in world news, let alone an active interest in world history.  To my knowledge, this is the first comprehensive history of this time and place, and it is a welcome addition to any well compiled reading library in the subject area of World History or World News, for that matter.

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