Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 3

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 3. Edited by David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume is about the history of the eastern Islamic world, defined as everything from Iran to Southeast Asia, from the 11th through the 18th centuries.

In this period Central Asian nomads had an enormous impact on most of these lands.

"Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, the two major independent Muslim powers in the Middle East were still ruled by Turkish dynasties: the Ottomans, of course, but the Qajars of Iran were also, in origin, of Turkish descent. Indeed, it may be said that apart from the Zand interlude of the eighteenth century in part of the country, Iran as a whole had no ethnically Persian rulers from the arrival of the Saljuqs until the accession of Reza Shah in 1925 - very nearly 900 years."

Throughout this time most of India - the north more often than the south - was also ruled by Muslims of Turkic origin.

It seems that Turkic tribes were converted to Islam by Sunnis. They became associated with this strain of Islam at a very early stage, certainly by the 11th century. They revived Sunnism's fortunes in the Muslim heartland at a time when it seemed to be losing its fight with Shiism.

The Mongol invasion of the Middle East was much more destructive than the Saljuk (Turkic) invasion that preceded it.

The Mongols "were not as quick as the Saljuqs had been to appreciate the character and virtues of civilised life away from the steppes. They had arrived in vastly greater numbers, with no educational preparatory period on the borders. This may be part of the explanation for the ferocity of the first Mongol invasions: they had not yet understood that allowing agriculture and cities to continue in existence could be to their advantage as the new owners." [...]

"Not all of these actions were new - the massacre of soldiers after battle, permitted looting and the destruction of fortifications were all familiar. It was in the systematic organisation of conquered populations that the Mongols stood out, and in the ferocity with which they punished recalcitrant cities. In such cases the population was divided up among the soldiers to be killed, with the exception of women and children to be enslaved, young men for levies, craftsmen and the religious classes, who were spared." [...]

"Considering the consequences of resistance, it is remarkable how many cities opposed the Mongols." [...]

"The fact that Chinggis Khan could send out small contingents in different directions is a testament to the exceptional loyalty of the Mongol army; the defeat of one army did not threaten Chinggis Khan’s control over his followers. This sort of discipline was a phenomenon unknown in the recent experience of Iranian cities. The Mongols moreover enlarged their army through local alliances and levies - some levies rebelled, but others fought efficiently and participated enthusiastically in punitive massacres." [...]

"The vast majority of the Mongol army at this stage was clearly composed of light cavalry, meaning horsemen who were lightly armoured (with armour mainly composed of cloth and leather, but sometimes with iron components, with partially metal helmets; some had iron armour), carrying bow and arrows and some basic weapons for hand to hand warfare, and mounted on small, but sturdy steppe ponies. The Mongol trooper would set off on campaign with a string of such ponies, apparently around five, in order to change mounts during both long distance travel and battle (and perhaps provide meat also for himself and his fellow soldiers). The tactic of choice was wave after wave of cavalrymen advancing while firing, and then wheeling around to permit the advance of another wave of similar troops.

This might be accompanied by an attempt to encircle the enemy, facilitated by both the large numbers and the mobility of the Mongols. The aim was to break the will and formation of the enemy by these repeated attacks, and only then to engage in hand to hand combat or to chase after them if they fled, in either case probably inflicting greater casualties than the previously mentioned barrages."

The Mongols had a superstitious aversion to spilling royal blood, so when they captured Baghdad, they rolled up the caliph in rugs and kicked him to death instead of beheading him or piercing him with a sword.

In fairness, the Mongols did not only destroy. Their conquest of most of the civilized world facilitated cultural contacts between its distant parts. They brought Chinese astronomers to the Muslim lands, one of whom became the head of an observatory in Samarqand. And they brought Middle Eastern researchers to China, who established the Office of Western Medicine and an astronomical observatory there.

"...from the early Yuan period on, until the arrival of Jesuit astronomers in the seventeenth century, Islamic astronomy would play an important role in the history of Chinese science."

The Mongols even tried to bring paper money, a Chinese invention, to Iran:

"Its introduction was carefully planned, proclaimed in Ramadan 693/August 1294, and implemented a month later, but the population refused to accept it. Commerce shut down and violence erupted on the streets, so the experiment was cancelled."

The extraordinary organization and discipline of the Mongols did not last long after Chinggis Khan's death:

"Since neither Islamic nor Mongolian tradition favoured primogeniture, there were frequent succession struggles, and the Mongol period was one of particularly intense factionalism. Not many men of power, whether bureaucrats or commanders, died of natural causes. The only way to achieve an orderly administration was to rule for a long time, and here Mongol rulers were handicapped by their excessive consumption of alcohol. Leadership required constant feasting, accompanied by the drinking of both fermented and distilled alcohol. The resulting alcoholism was a common cause of death, and both the Great Khans and the Ilkhans had unusually short reigns."

In the late 14th century a Mongol warrior named Temur, aka Tamerlane, recaptured much of the old glory during 35 years of incessant campaigning, leaving towers of severed human heads along the way. He conquered Iran and Central Asia, crushed the Ottomans, obtained the submission of the Byzantine emperor at Constantinople and died while planning to invade China.

Temur and his descendants were extraordinarily generous patrons of the arts, helping to create a culture "whose impact on the subsequent development of almost every field of artistic endeavour, in both the eastern and western Islamic world, was entirely out of proportion to the Timurid dynasty’s relatively limited duration and geographical scope."

Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan

Temur's mausoleum
Temur, facial reconstruction based on exhumed skull.
I liked this quote about a Central Asian ruler of this time: "In the forest of courage, he was a lion hunting tiger; in the sea of generosity his hand rained pearls." [...]

"...the charismatic figure of Temür and the Timurid cultural legacy have become of great relevance to the construction of their national identity by the modern Uzbeks of the post Soviet republican period."

This would have baffled Temur himself:

"In Central Asian sources of the period, the amırs are usually identified by a tribal name [...] never as ‘Uzbek’, a generally derogatory or condescending term applied to an unlettered person, a bumpkin or rustic. It was outsiders who used the term ‘Uzbek’, and often in a pejorative sense, to refer to the entire state, its rulers and their military supporters."

Of course, Temur's empire dissolved as soon as he stopped breathing.

"Since the decline in the central authority of the Abbasid caliphate, ruling dynasties, even formidable ones like the Saljuqs, the Mongols and the Timurids, rarely lasted for much more than a century, and often less"

This contrasts with the more durable Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires in the Muslim world, as well as the French, Spanish, English and Russian nation states which arose at roughly  the same time.

"What is the explanation for this? The most obvious point is that they were ‘gunpowder empires’. The argument is that, with the increasing sophistication and expense of gunpowder weaponry, only large states could afford to keep up to date, which endowed such states with a decisive political and military advantage. By contrast, in the era of the dominance of the composite bow, which every nomad cavalryman possessed, any ambitious chieftain could attempt to put together a force which, when it reached a sufficient size, could hope to be the equal of any other. Hence in part, perhaps, the comparatively ephemeral nature of many pre-1500 states."

So it's not that firearms created large states. Those periodically popped up throughout the middle ages - just think of Charlemagne in Europe. What firearms did instead was make large states more durable and centralized. Knights and nobles could no longer hide behind their armor and castle walls, plotting revolts against the king. So they were defeated, and then "domesticated" by him.

The degree of success of the transition to firearm technology 500 years ago seems to correlate with mean IQ levels today, implying that modern geographical differences in IQ go back centuries. Europe did best. The Ottomans were second, with Iran, India and Southeast Asia lagging behind them. A lot of the gunsmiths in the Turkish realm were Westerners, yet in India and Southeast Asia Ottoman gunsmiths predominated.

"Safavid Iran, it has been argued, ‘succeeded in remaining independent because it did not allow itself to get drawn into the kind of war that only the Ottomans could win. Its reliance on cavalry instead of firearms was the secret to its survival.’"

The steppe nomads fared worst of all:

"There were to be no more steppe empires after Tamerlane’s, and the vast area that had produced the Turks and the Mongols was eventually divided between the sedentary empires of Russia and China."

Firearms could have only been manufactured in a sedentary society. Also, the settled world had a much larger population. Once organized into huge, centralized states, it could keep the nomads at bay.

By bringing back powerful states, guns increased peace and prosperity. There's an obvious parallel with nuclear weapons in the 20th century.

What about the large, stable, centralized states that existed before guns: Rome, China before the nomads started invading it? Perhaps mounted warriors weren't as effective in antiquity as they became in the middle ages. But I don't know enough about the evolution of equestrian military technology to be sure of this.

Since the Mongols were pagans when they arrived in the Middle East, they had no special respect for Arabic as the language of the prophet. They employed Persian bureaucrats though, so under their rule Persian rose in importance.

"Such traditions were transplanted into India, and there, too, Persian became the language of government so ineradicably that even in the nineteenth century it was still thought necessary to teach Persian to young British recruits to the service of the East India Company." [...]

"This is not to say that Arabic lost its prestige: as the language of the Quran, of law and of theology, its position was unassailable. But for literature, for poetry, for history, for civilised discourse generally, Persian became the language of choice over a vast geographical range, enormously larger than anything that might be considered to be Iran in a political or ethnic sense." [...]

"That there was a decline after the early Islamic centuries, in some sense, was undeniable, but it was an Arab and an Arabic, not a general Islamic, decline. The young Albert Hourani asked Philip Hitti why his celebrated History of the Arabs of 1937 contained so little on the period between the Ottoman conquest and the nineteenth century. ‘There was no Arab history then,’ was the reply. The centre of the Islamic world had shifted out of the old Arab heartlands, and so likewise should the attention of the historian. The centre shifted, in fact, to the Persian world."

One thing I didn't know before I read this book was that "all six of the collections of hadıth that carry the greatest authority in Sunnı Islam were compiled by third fourth/ninth tenth century scholars from north east Iran and Central Asia."

This book traces the development of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, which made Shiism that country's state religion around 1500. After the Safavids' decline there was a period of civil war, which ended when Agha Muhammad, a member of the Qajar tribe, emerged on top, reuniting the country in the course of several decades of tireless campaigning.

The interesting thing about him is that he had been castrated at the age of 5 after he was captured by a rival clan. Think of the qualities that soldiers expected from their leaders at that time. Now imagine his voice and beardless face, the jokes told in soldiers' camps. And yet he did it. Famous for extraordinary cruelty, even by the standards of his age, he beat every rival on his path to power.

Agha Muhammad
For most of the period covered in this book Iran was much poorer than India, so it experienced a huge outflow of talent - poets, administrators, clerics - towards its eastern neighbor.

A 17th century French monk named Raphael du Mans compared Persia to "a great caravanserai with two doors: silver entered through one in the west, only to exit through another in the east and pass into India, ‘where all the money in the Universe is unloaded as if into an abyss’".

The book quotes other Western writers, going back to Pliny the Elder, making the same observation. The spice trade was a small part of the reason. India was the world's chief manufacturer of cotton textiles. Cotton was grown in Iran and Central Asia too, but those regions could not compete with the subcontinent in the quality and price of finished cloth.

After the discovery of the Americas a huge share of the silver and gold mined by the Spaniards ended up in India. The West's ancient trade deficit with that country only disappeared when the Industrial Revolution allowed Europeans to make cheap textiles of their own.

Arab traders brought Islam to small parts of India early on, but the first large Muslim states were founded there by Turkic nomads. India's climate and terrain were unsuitable for actual nomadism, so these people quickly settled down. They fought on horses which they imported from their Central Asian homeland, but these often had to be replaced because they did not live long in Indian conditions. The same was true of the conquerors themselves:

"Among the invading Turks, the most substantial losses of manpower were probably caused by exposure to the almost entirely new disease pool comprising malaria, smallpox, cholera, bubonic plague and a host of others of the hot and humid climate of the densely settled plains of India rather than by warfare as such."

Babur, a Turko-Mongol commander who founded the Mughal Empire in India, preferred to rule it from Afghanistan.

"He and many of his men were appalled by the environment and society of India. In fact, many of his begs or commanders fled back to the temperate climate of Kabul immediately after their Rajput victory. Babur himself did not have that luxury, and in his memoirs he recorded his acerbic evaluation of his conquests. Noting, first of all, that the trans-Indus region known as Hindustan was a ‘strange kingdom … a different world’ where even the rocks were unique, he went on to indicate that the only thing he liked about Hindustan was its wealth and its seemingly limitless human and material resources. He particularly hated north India’s flat, featureless landscape, with its lack of geometrically precise gardens bisected by waterways, and despised much of what he knew of Hindu society. Many of his most provocative critiques are contained in one brief passage, in which he writes that: The people of Hindustan have no beauty; they have no convivial society, no social intercourse, no character or genius, no urbanity, no nobility or chivalry. In the skilled arts and crafts there is no regularity, proportionality, straightness or rectangularity."

This book explains Babur's complaint about the lack of convivial society in India as a sign of his disgust with the caste system. Turkic nomads were more egalitarian than either Indians or Middle Easterners.

Babur's memoires are called here "a masterpiece of concise and straightforward Chaghatay prose, revealing an endearingly complex personality who lived in difficult political times."

Islam had a special appeal to lower caste Indians because unlike Hinduism it stresses equality of all men before God.

"The first great Islamic scholar to comment on the Indic world, Abu Rayhan al Bırunı (973-1048), noted how radically it differed from Islamic (or Christian) civilisations: ‘On the whole there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves: at the utmost, they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy."

Ancient Europeans and Middle Easterners did not fight any religious wars either. That seems to be unique to monotheism.

Among India's Muslim scholars the natural sciences - astronomy, medicine, etc. - were more popular than elsewhere in the Muslim world, and purely Quranic scholarship was less common.

Akbar, Babur's grandson, experimented with syncretism and religious tolerance, inviting accusations of apostasy. He allowed some of his Indian wives to practice Hinduism and adopted a modified form of vegetarianism.

"By the end of his life Akbar had subdued a territory that may have included more than 100 million people, nearly comparable to the population of Ming China, the only contemporary state that rivalled Mughal India in territory, population and wealth. At about the same time the populations of the Ottoman and Safavid states comprised an estimated 22 and 10 million people respectively, while Uzbek territories probably held no more than 5 million."

This and the following pictures are from Lahore in what is now Pakistan.

Jahangır, Akbar's son, also wrote an autobiography, "and while it seems to reveal a shallower individual than his great-grandfather the work is nonetheless still a rich, complex text."

He confessed in it to being an alcoholic and an opium addict, which, according to this book, was not unusual among the Mughal and Safavid ruling classes. Interestingly, Turkic royal women drank too.

"Temür’s wives were present at his receptions and drank and got drunk with men present, even with the Spanish ambassador Clavijo in 808/1405."

Why didn't Islam prevail over Hinduism in the long run? I think that at the elite level India already had a pretty sophisticated culture which did not feel itself to be inferior to Islam. It wasn't a martial culture, hence the ease with which Turkic nomads conquered it, but intellectually and commercially it was quite accomplished. And the Indian masses could look up to this native tradition.

This was even more true in China, where Islam fared much worse than in India.

Arab traders had been visiting the far east long before Muhammad. Muslim communities in coastal Chinese cities go back to the early centuries of Islam.

"Around 290/900 there were direct passages from the Gulf to China in one ship, though other trade was done in several ships. By the end of the eleventh century direct trade in one ship had ended. The trade became segmented, with one merchant and ship doing the Arabian Sea part to south India, where the goods were exchanged, and then taken on by other ships and merchants to South East Asia, where there was another exchange, and so to China."

This important move towards segmentation was partly a result of unsettled conditions at both ends of the route as powerful empires declined, and partly because traders realised that the direct passage in the same ship was inefficient, given that they had to wait for monsoons at several places."

The spread of Islam in Southeast Asia and China was mostly due to these traders.

"A rather rare case is cited of one Li Yansheng, identied in Tang sources as ‘an Arab’ (Dashiguo ren), who passed the civil service exams in 847, and was recommended to a post at the palace. The incident sparked a debate among Chinese scholars about the meaning of ‘being Chinese’ in the wake of this appointment."

When the Mongols conquered China, they brought some Muslims with them:

"Qubilai instituted a systematic classification of population according to ethnicity: Mongols had the highest status, western and Central Asians (se mu) came second, then northern Chinese. In theory, the highest offices were reserved for the Mongols and se mu, who also enjoyed tax privileges and the right to bear arms."

Think of that when someone tells you that ethnicity is a modern invention. Muslims suffered in the inevitable nativist, anti-Mongol backlash.

Islam fared better in Southeast Asia, especially in countries where Chinese cultural influence was weak.

I think that this could be telling us something about the future: as long China continues its upward trajectory, Islam will have little impact on it. Individuals don't abandon winning cultures. In fact, if China ends up dominating the world the way European powers did before WWII, Islam's self-confidence, even in the Arab world itself, could fall back to its mid-20th-century levels.    ř

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 2

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 2, edited by Maribel Fierro, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5 out of 10.

This volume covers the history of the western Islamic world - the area between Syria and Morocco - from the 11th through the 18th centuries.

It's natural to compare it to European history of the same period. The barbaric invasions which plagued Core Europe during the Dark Ages ended around 1000 AD, but continued in the Islamic world for quite a while afterwards.

Arab nomads from the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym tribes devastated the Maghreb in the 11th century before settling there permanently. As a result the area under cultivation shrank, partly replaced by pasture. The cities declined. The famous North African historian Ibn Khaldun compared this invasion to a plague of locusts.

The Bedouinization of Egypt is blamed here, along with the plague, for the fall in land revenues from 9.5 million dinars in 1376, to 1.8 million in 1517.

Two Berber tribal groups, the Almoravids and the Almohads, succeeded each other in conquering the Maghreb and Muslim Spain from the 11th through the 13th centuries. Turkic nomads conquered Anatolia and Syria in the 11th century:

"This nomadic invasion was especially devastating to the Byzantine village populations who were exposed and undefended. Consequently they increasingly abandoned their lands."

Mongols seized Iran and Iraq in the 13th century.

As the urban culture of Europe began to revive, its Islamic counterpart continued to get hit by waves of nomads. I don't think that's the main reason why Europe overtook the Muslim World in the later Middle Ages, but it must have been a contributing factor. If the Mongols reached as far west in the 13th century as the Huns did in the 5th or if the Viking Age recurred after 1000 AD, things might have turned out a little differently.

Starting in the 9th century and for a very long time afterwards Muslim states paid their armies mostly by granting warriors the revenues of specific tracts of land. In contrast to European feudalism, Muslim soldiers did not own these tracts. For example, most of the time they couldn't pass them on to their children. Still, it's interesting that in the Middle Ages both Christendom and Islam preferred this system over the Roman (and modern) model of governments paying soldiers (from "solidus", a Roman coin) with money that they collected through taxes.

Medieval Muslim states did collect taxes, but maybe there was a limit to how much money they could obtain this way? In the Middle Ages the military was the most expensive, the most resource-hungry part of the government. Perhaps in the absence of large bureaucracies and with rebellions a common occurrence, an experienced killer with a sword taking what he needed from the peasants himself was the most efficient way to finance these armies. And I'm assuming that this gentleman took a lot of it in kind. Perhaps the medieval money economy simply wasn't large enough to support a lot of people paid in cash.

The Muslim armies of this period were either tribal, bound by the altruism that comes with close kinship, or of Turkic slave origin. Young Central Asian boys were sold into slavery in the steppes and brought to the core Muslim lands to be trained to fight on horseback. When they matured, they were freed and given the quasi-feudal estates that I mentioned earlier. Most of the time these people, called Mamelukes, fought for Arab or Persian masters, but on occasion, most famously in medieval Egypt, they seized power for themselves.

Egyptian Mamelukes barely spoke Arabic, retaining their Turkic language, names and costume. Their mixed-race sons, called by an Arabic term that means "wanderers between two worlds", were not allowed to reach high positions in the army. If they pursued military careers, they had to do it in the auxiliary non-Mameluke units. The next generation of real Mamelukes, the heart of the army, was again recruited through slavery.

The steppe dwellers' inborn machismo was not the only reason for their domination of Muslim militaries:

"Such freedmen, with few ties to their natal families or clans, were thrown back upon the loyalty to their owners or former owners".

Both the Crusaders and the Mongols were defeated in the Middle East not by natives, but by these Central Asian warriors.

"the Zangid Nur al Din"..."was reported to say that only the arrows of the Turks were effective against the Crusader army."[...]

"Moreover, there was the prejudice expressed by authors like Abu Hamid al-Qudsı (d. 888/1483) at the end of the ninth/ fifteenth century, that Arab Egyptians were unmartial people and not able to protect themselves. Therefore the Turks would cheerfully shoulder the burden of the holy war and devote their lives to the defence of the community of believers."[...]

"As the mostly Turkish-born mamluks defeated their Central Asian Mongol ‘cousins’ in 658/1260, Abu Shama (d. 665/ 1268) stated that ‘against any (evil) thing there is a cure from its own kind".

"...experiments with black military slaves were only short-lived, possibly owing to the fact that the white military slave, the mamluk, enjoyed a far higher reputation in the Muslim world than the black household slave, the abd."

At some point Mamelukes began to be bought in the Caucasus. This book implies that this was because the Black Death hit the steppes worse than hard-to-access mountain valleys. In 1382 there was a coup in Egypt, with a Circassian Mameluke sultan replacing a Turkic one.

For much of the Mameluke period civil administration in Egypt was mainly handled by Copts, who were already a minority then. Their success occasionally led to anti-Christian riots. I'm fascinated by remnants of formerly large religious communities, the people who refused to convert when everyone else did. Many became successful: Parsees, Lebanese Christians, Russian Old Believers, the last native English Catholics, and apparently the late medieval Copts too.

One of the most important storylines in this volume is the rise of the Ottomans. The Seljuk Turks conquered Anatolia in the 11th century, but their state was broken up by dynastic conflict and Mongol expansion. A number of small Turkic states took its place in Asia Minor. One of them, in the north-west of the peninsula, was headed by the Ottoman family. It first shows up in the historical record at the end of the 13th century.

One of the causes of the Ottomans' success was that they avoided the dynastic fragmentation that was so typical in the Middle Ages. Some of it was luck. After the deaths of several important sultans one son was able to kill all of his brothers, preventing the division of the realm. In some periods this was institutionalized, the junior heirs being strangled in the palace at the senior heir's accession. In other periods there were wars between princes.

The early 16th century was the Ottomans' peak, an era remembered with nostalgia by subsequent generations of Turks. The empire they created was more centralized than any Islamic state before it. Its army was 100,000 strong.

The Ottomans were able to defeat the Mamelukes partly because the latter resisted the adoption of firearms. They were too attached to their self-image as mounted warriors. In fact, they were the only people in Egypt who were allowed to ride horses.

In the late 17th century the Ottomans switched from rowed to sailing warships because the latter could carry more firepower. However, they were never good at oceanic travel, losing the Indian Ocean trade to the Portuguese and their Dutch and English successors, and were conspicuously absent from America. According to this book, the Moroccan sultan Ahmad al Mansur, who ruled in the late 16th century, planned "to join England in the acquisition of American territory", but this came to nothing.

The Ottomans added the Balkan peninsula to the lands of Islam before being stopped at the gates of Core Europe, just like the Arabs 800 years before them. Was this because Core Europeans were better at defending themselves than peripheral Europeans? Or because the unconquered territories were too far from the Muslim center for effective campaigning to be successful? In the latter case Core Europe could simply be the area that was never screwed up by Arab, Berber, Turkish and Tatar-Mongol conquests.

Who staffed the Ottoman Empire during its heyday?

"Viziers and other members of the military–political class were usually of Rumelian origin, that is from the Balkan Peninsula. It was only during the late tenth/sixteenth and eleventh/seventeenth centuries that men of Caucasian origin emerged as rivals to the Rumelians in the contest for political office. The legal–religious elite tended to come from Anatolian Turkish families, as did the secretaries that manned the sultan’s chancellery. It was also Rumeli and Anatolia that furnished the majority of troops and crews for the imperial army and imperial fleet, and provided most of the materials and cash to support military and naval enterprises".

"...the sultans preferred, wherever possible, to appoint governors from among the men of non-Muslim origin who had received their education in the palace, and hence had no source of patronage except the sultan."

Many of these men were Balkan natives who were captured by the Turks as boys.

"Although few Arabs entered the higher ranks of the Ottoman legal establishment or army outside their home provinces before the late nineteenth century CE, Ottoman governors and chief judges usually had local Arabic-speaking deputies." [...]

"Nationalist Arab historians have generally consigned the Ottoman centuries to their people’s darkest age, with Ottoman imperialism prefiguring later Western imperialism in the region."

The Ottomans never conquered Iran, which became their main Muslim rival. The Persian history of this period is treated in a different volume, but I'm guessing that this long-term confrontation was the reason why Shiism became Iran's official ideology at this time. Iran's rulers would have needed to differentiate themselves from the Ottomans and to challenge their claim to leadership of worldwide Islam.

The Ottomans' control in the Maghreb was never as tight as in the empire's core. Before the Turks arrived in that region, the Spaniards seized many of the towns on the North African coast.

"The fear of suffering the same fate as Oran (where Cardinal Ximenez had orchestrated the massacre of 4,000 inhabitants and the capture of 8,000 others, before consecrating the two main mosques as Catholic churches in May 1509) led most of the other threatened ports to surrender without a shot."[...]

"What were these conquerors looking for? Whether these new vantage points were a means of consolidating the reconquista or were a basis for the colonisation of the country is hard to judge. If it is true that Spain had a policy towards Africa, this was thwarted by the people of Algiers’ calls to the intrepid Turkish sailors, the Barbarossa brothers."

By the way, the Normans occupied the coast of Algeria for 25 years in the 12th century. Throughout history this region escaped many attempts to Europeanize it. A related bit of info, which I didn't know until I read is book, is that the Crusaders made a serious attempt to conquer Egypt.

The Barbarossas mentioned above had been privateers, and the Ottoman provinces that were created in the Maghreb in the wake of their campaigns against Europeans drew the greatest share of their income from piracy.

Most of it was of course confined to the Mediterranean, but "In 1037/1627, the pirates from Algiers sacked the coast of Iceland and reached England in 1041/1631."

Since the 11th century a large majority of commercial shipping in the Med was conducted by Europeans. Muslims rarely visited Christian ports, while the reverse was commonplace. But according to this book Muslim piracy was about as common as the Christian kind. A lot of the North African corsairs were converts from Christianity though, natives of Sicily, Calabria, Corsica and similar places who had become "professional Turks" in the Maghreb. Many came to the region when they were captured by a previous generation of pirates.

"Scholars now calculate that between 1500 and 1750 at least a million European Christians were captured either temporarily or permanently in North Africa."

Before setting sail these pirates, who preferred to call themselves holy warriors, solemnly visited the shrines of various Muslim saints. Jubilant crowds greeted them on their return. The golden age of the pirate economy on the Barbary coast was the 17th century.

In some periods the military elite of Algiers functioned as a quasi-republic. Real republics, with formal constitutions, seem to have been absent from the Muslim world though. City states occasionally popped up, but not as often as in Christian Europe.

At the end of the book there is a chapter about the ulama, Islam's learned men.

"Comparison with the university traditions of the Christian West are not always helpful, for in the Islamic societies there were indeed no universities, degrees or syllabuses as such."

There were madrasas though, which made their first appearance in Baghdad in the 11th century.

Muslims had a tradition of compiling huge biographical dictionaries of scholars.

" the dictionary entries, the list of teachers that each alim studied under conveys exactly the same meaning as the degree awarded by a Western university. An aspiring alim had to choose his teachers carefully according to their rank and reputation, for by studying under them he would acquire something of their personal authority, and he would become one more link in a chain of inherited recognition."

As in the West, rulers and rich merchants donated money to madrasas and individual learned men. One potentate in Timbuktu is mentioned here as giving a scholar "a farm with thirteen slaves and 80 mithqal of gold – more than the average price for a slave – for the purchase of a copy of the Qamus, a classical Arabic dictionary."

Of course having read this, I had to look up this dictionary and Arabic dictionaries in general. Already by the 13th century they had one which contained 80,000 head words and which fills more than a dozen modern volumes.

Back to Islamic education:

"This formally unstructured system of learning underwent a great change during the Ottoman period, when the ulama became state functionaries through a process that filtered out the less suitable candidates. The final result was a powerful hierarchical structure of a sort previously alien to the world of Islamic scholarship."

I'll end with a few remarks about the piece of scholarship currently under review. As in the first volume, the authors of the individual chapters did not coordinate with each other much. The same material is sometimes covered by more than one researcher. Worse than that, an important event - the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans - was not covered by any of them, having simply slipped through the cracks of editorial topic assignment.

The style is sometimes unnecessarily verbose and square-headed in the typical modern social science way, yet at other times elegant - it all depends on the author. The material is fascinating throughout. Anyone who has a lot of interest in the story of Islam should read these books.    ř

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pretty Pictures

I often re-tweet cool-looking pics. Today I decided to look through them, picking out the best. However, endless scroll turned out to have an end, at least in IE and Chrome on Windows 7, so I was only able to see my tweets since the start of this year. I've been using Twitter since April of 2014, so this is a small percentage of what I was looking for.
If I hadn't drawn my avatar myself, I might have considered changing to the above. 

There's more after the jump.

The Islamist Trend

This morning I clicked on the Derb's article about the Westminster Bridge attack. The following passage is about the 1960s:

"Islam was even less of an issue. Muslim countries themselves were either keen to modernize or sunk in medieval apathy. For those trying to modernize, Islam was a dusty relic of the past that was only holding them back. That’s why you had these secular dictatorships like Nasser’s Egypt or Ba’ath Syria."

It's very true. So when and why did Islam become cool again in these countries? The first thing that pops into my mind in answer to that is the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But why would a Shia development affect Sunnis? And what was the cause of the Iranian upheaval?

The conventional answer to the latter question is that the shah was too secular and spent too much money on himself. But secularism was the path to success, not exile, in mid-20th century Middle East. And Oriental potentates have always lived lavishly. I'm now reading the second volume of The New Cambridge History of Islam, and it talks about a ruler of Morocco who fathered more than 500 sons. Middle Easterners don't cut down tall poppies, they (well, to some extent "we") heap ornate, mellifluous praise on them. While sometimes plotting against them in secret, true, but that's not because of any distaste for inequality per se.

So what changed?

One theory is that when the West became self-critical, other cultures stopped looking up to it. If it doesn't respect itself, why would anyone else respect it?

From roughly 1500 till the middle of the 20th century, when the West dominated the world militarily, politically and technologically, it was natural for other cultures to imitate it. And secularism was one of the things that they imitated towards the end of that period. But then the West's elites became culturally relativistic and started arguing that the West's success was 1) a lie ("Chinese gunpowder, Islamic science!") 2) a series of atrocities (as if Arab, Mongol, Turkish or Chinese successes weren't that). Western culture's self-confidence was broken, and soon after that its neighbors' respect for it was lost.

I'm guessing that's the main reason for Islam's comeback. Neoconnery must have been a contributing factor. The neocons fought for regime change in Middle Eastern countries in order to create havoc in the enemy's camp. It just so happened that when they started doing that, most Middle Eastern rulers were secular and Islamism was a rising undercurrent. So by overthrowing the current rulers the neocons ended up accelerating the Islamist trend.

What could end this trend, besides radical technological change? China's rise. Perhaps in 20 years everyone will be looking up to the Middle Kingdom.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Back to Gambling

Today I spent $146.80 on Marine Le Pen shares at I bought some shares for $0.35 and some for $0.36. If she wins, I'll get $1 per share.

Why? Gambling is fun. Marine could be a single WikiLeak away from l'Élysée. And I'm not going to get upset at losing $146.80 anyway.

My past record at such activity is mixed. I made dozens of Intrade bets years ago, coming out roughly even overall. Before that, around 2002, I made some bets on stock index futures, again coming out approximately even. So I'm not pretending to be any sort of an oracle here.

Setting up an account turned out to be much easier with Predictit than with the now-defunct Intrade. With the latter I had to get a bank check, which is a different thing from normal personal checks. Then I had to mail it to Ireland and wait for them to credit it. Predictit accepts credit cards.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review of The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 1

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 1, edited by Chase F. Robinson, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This book covers the period from before Islam's rise to the 11th century. It begins with a substantial overview of the early Byzantine and late Sasanian empires, which became the arenas of Arab expansion soon after the start of the Muslim era.

A lot more is known about the Byzantine Empire than about the Sasanian one. The ancient Greek historical tradition, which went back to Herodotus and his predecessors, survived until the 7th century. Sasanian historical writings are much more meagre. Also, more archeological work has been done in the Mediterranean than in Iran.

It seems that the demographic, economic and cultural decline which affected Western Europe during the Dark Ages was felt in the Eastern Roman Empire as well, though to a lesser extent.

Instead of disappearing, most eastern cities shrank. Inside them fora, major thoroughfares and other public spaces were built over with private houses. Rubbish was dumped in buildings that fell out of use. Theaters, gymnasia, water supply systems and public baths were abandoned, while churches proliferated. In the countryside the area under cultivation decreased. The volume of trade went down, as did its range. Economies became more local. Anatolia and the Balkans suffered worse than other parts of the Eastern Empire.

Climate change may have been partly to blame:

"By about 500 CE the climatic situation was changing, with colder and wetter conditions persisting up to the mid ninth century."

You have to realize though that the complexity of elite Greek culture peaked in the 3rd century BC and then declined for many, many centuries afterwards. I'm willing to believe however that the coldness and wetness of the Dark Ages exacerbated pre-existing downward trends.

There's less data on Iran, but according to this book, "...the Sasanian world in general appears to have experienced a slow demographic downturn from the later third century onwards, as settlement surveys and sherd distribution analysis would seem to suggest..."

The Sasanian dynasty replaced the Parthian one in Iran in the 3rd century AD. It was more hostile to Rome than its predecessor, eventually killing three Roman emperors in war. Until the 7th century the Sasanians didn't try to occupy Roman territory though, raiding for booty and captives instead. They abducted tens of thousands of Roman citizens, many of them skilled craftsmen, in order to settle them in their realm.

"Roman prisoners of war built many of the roughly twenty Sasanian bridges and dams that are still to be seen today."

According to this book, the fiscal and military reforms of Diocletian and his successors were meant to make Rome more capable of dealing with the Sasanian threat. From what I understand, they were also attempts to bring internal order to the Roman Empire after the crisis of the 3rd century.

By the way, the estimates of late Roman taxation levels that are cited here range from 5%-7% to 25%. This reminded me that there are economists who assign numbers to the Roman GDP. The idiocy of these people is profound. Forget tax rates, there's a lively debate among historians on whether the city of Rome had 1,500,000 or 150,000 people at its imperial peak.

Both the Roman and Sasanian empires had multiethnic populations, but only the latter was politically ethno-nationalist. The ethnically non-Iranian parts of the Sasanian realm were called Aneran (un-Iran), and "ideologically, the people of Aneran remained second class inhabitants of the empire."

The Zoroastrian religion was much less universalist than Christianity, much more concerned with a specific country and people - Iran and Iranians.

The Sasanian shahs portrayed themselves as the heirs of an enormously long line of past Iranian rulers, although the names of individual Achaemenid kings were already forgotten by then. They did have a legend of the evil conqueror "Alexander of Rum" though, and another one that reinterpreted Alexander as a Persian prince.

Projecting modern ideological biases onto the past in a similarly closed-minded way, the authors of this book called the "distinct, quasi-‘nationalistic’ Sasanian Iranism" "a big drawback".

During the Byzantine-Sasanian wars Arab tribes were recruited as allies by both sides.

"...thanks to Roman-Persian rivalry Arab tribal society had become much more militarised than it had been in the past, and, just as important, much more conscious of the possibility of gaining access to the wealth of the settled Near East."

In the Persian-Byzantine war of 602-628 the Sasanians captured Egypt, the Levant and much of Anatolia. But then the Byzantine emperor Heraclius concluded an alliance with Turkic nomads, who rode in from the north to save him from total defeat. He was then able to recapture old Byzantine provinces right before losing them again to the Arabs.

"Muslim success may owe something to Roman war weariness, but that is a rather nebulous concept, possibly more appealing to scholars at their desks than to the sort of young men who actually filled the ranks of the Roman army. More important may have been the lack of ready cash. Heraclius had had to fight Persia without the revenues of Egypt and the Levant."

Unlike the Byzantine Empire, the Sasanian state was entirely destroyed by the Arabs.

"The reasons for the priority for the conquest of Iran rather than the rump of the Roman empire might be the following: (a) it was Iran that had posed a steadily growing threat to the H.ijaz throughout the Prophet’s lifetime; (b) Islam acknowledged its affinity with Christianity, but could not but set itself against Zoroastrian dualism; (c) Iraq was much more exposed to counter attack across the Zagros than was Palestine, shielded as it was by Syria to the north. The issue of priority is crucial. For it is plain that Byzantium was ripe for the taking by the early 650s, and that it was ultimately saved by the outbreak of civil strife within the caliphate in 656. Then, and only then, were the Byzantines able to revive their spirits and reactivate the ideology of a Christian, Roman, world-shaping power." [...]

"In contrast to the large-scale, resource-intensive and protracted campaigns that were so typical of Byzantine-Sasanian warfare of the sixth and early seventh centuries, and which in at least some places resulted in widespread violence and social dislocation, the Islamic conquests of the mid seventh century read like a series of relatively short engagements (the great battle of al Qadisiyya is said to have lasted three days), which were made by relatively small and hit-and-run armies that rarely laid sieges of any length or produced casualties in large numbers. In many and perhaps most cases in the Byzantine provinces, local elites cut deals that avoided large scale violence."

The figures given by the Islamic sources for the numbers of Arab combatants are "often in the hundreds or low thousands; even a large army, such as the one that fought at al Qadisiyya, probably numbered no more than 10,000 or 12,000 men."

Wild nomads had been periodically conquering the centers of civilization since pre-historic times. They were more macho and used to war than settled peoples. A larger share of their male population had been in the saddle since childhood. Most settled folks were farmers instead. So really, the only unusual thing about the Arab conquest was its later religious impact.

This book repeatedly stresses that almost everything we know about Muhammad and the beginnings of Islam was written two to three centuries after the fact, and not in marginally-literate Arabia, but in the old centers of Near Eastern civilization, in Syria and Iraq, by people who strove to justify their views of the politics of their own times.

Christian and Jewish sources confirm that there really was a man named Muhammad who made prophetic claims and who created a state in the early 7th century, but very little else can be said about him with certainty. By the way, it's mentioned here that the word Muhammad ("the praised one") was probably an epithet applied to him after the start of his religious career.

Western historians started questioning the official Christian views of the beginnings of Christianity back in the Enlightenment era. Since Islam was far less relevant to Western politics until recently, the same sort of academic skepticism wasn't applied to it until the last decades of the 20th century.

After the Byzantine and Sasanian armies were defeated, most of the civilian populations of the conquered areas accepted Arab rule without a fight. The new power's financial demands were modest. Life in the Christian communities of the Middle East went on as usual. Until the end of the 7th century the old Greek- and Persian-speaking bureaucracies continued to function without much interference from the Arab authorities.

"In sum, the Arab conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia was rather like a summer thunderstorm"..."terrifying while it lasted, but soon past and the damage promptly repaired."

For several decades after the conquest the Arabs did not try to convert the subject peoples to "Islam", whatever that meant at that point. When non-Arabs first started joining, they had to be incorporated into Arab tribal lineages by Arab patrons. The universality of Islam took some time to develop.

"Early Islam, outside the Hijaz, was the elite religion of a tribally-organised military. During the period of conquest the Islamic religion possessed only a rudimentary theology, which was probably even more basic among military units. Contemporary Byzantium might have perceived the conquest as a menacing rebellion and if they had noticed the religious dimension at all - an Arab heresy of Judaeo-Christian origin." [...]

"As for Islam, sophisticated Christian observers initially regarded it as little more than the inchoate cult of a few thousand barbarians; it could hardly threaten so deep-rooted and richly-elaborated a faith as Christianity."

While reading this book, it was fascinating for me to watch the various features of what we now understand as Islam emerge for the first time in the documentary record.

A papyrus receipt from Egypt dated with the year 22 (643 AD) is the first known use of the new Muslim calendar. Starting in 651 AD the phrase "bism allah", which some will remember from the Bohemian Rhapsody and which means "in the name of God", appears on some coins. But the word "allah" was used by pagan Arabs before Islam and continues to be used by Christian Arabs today.

For some years after the conquest Iranian coins continued to be struck with the images of Zoroastrian fire temples on one side and the names of old, dead shahs on the other. Starting about 661 AD the names of the shahs were replaced by those of the Arab-appointed governors, but the fire temples remained! Contemporary coins in the formerly Byzantine territories retained the Christian cross.

Caliph Muawiyah (661 - 680 AD) issued coins proclaiming him "the commander of the faithful", but with no other religious messages. A Christian source mentions him restoring a church in Edessa after it was damaged by an earthquake in 679.

In 680, after Muawiyah's death, there was a struggle for power, which led to a civil war among the Arabs. One of the claimants to the caliphal title, ibn Al Zubayr, wanted to emphasize his close ties to Muhammad's family and to the latter's real (or imagined) ideas, and through these to the origins of Arab rule in most of the Middle East.

Between 685 AD and 688 AD ibn al Zubayr issued coins in Iran that said "Muhammad is the messenger of God". But the portrait of the old shah and the fire temple still remained. Around 689 AD Zubayrid authorities created a coin which marks the first known appearance of "the shahada", the central Muslim message that "there is no God but God". In 691 they finally removed the Zoroastrian fire temple from these coins.

Ibn al Zubayr was defeated and killed soon after this, but his numismatic innovations were picked up by the winners. From that point on the symbols of the Arab state always conformed to what we now recognize as Islam.

If the religious ideas of the Arab conquerors were hazy at first, why did they later coalesce into something much more definite, and something so different from and opposed to Christianity and Judaism? This isn't really explored in this book, but I would point to the obvious fact that the Arab empire was a rival of Byzantium. So while monotheism was definitely the trend of the time, the Arab version of it was under no compulsion to follow the Byzantine model.

Also, the old cities of the Fertile Crescent which the Arabs conquered contained lots of intellectuals who were more than willing to engage in doctrinal debates which eventually defined, refined, and extended the new state's ideology. And to increase legitimacy, they would have tended to project their ideas back onto Muhammad, the state's founder.

As time went on, the non-Arab majority of the empire began to convert to the new, rapidly-evolving religion because it was the ideology of power. It's estimated here that Iran, for example, became majority Muslim around the middle of the 9th century AD. Egypt is thought to have become majority Muslim in the 9th century as well.

Simultaneously the descendants of the conquerors intermarried with the locals. There was a change of dynasty in 750 AD, which involved troops from Iran, probably of mixed Arab/Persian character, replacing Syrian Arab troops as the basis of the caliphal army. This new dynasty, the Abbasids, downplayed the Arab identity of the empire in favor of the Muslim one, which was by then already understood by many to be universalist.

As people of Arab descent became a minority among Muslims, Muslim armies and Islam's governing elite, the beduins reverted to their old poverty and obscurity. In a few centuries their alienation form the structures created by their ancestors became so strong that they started to rob the caravans of pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, and occasionally even plundered the Kaaba.

Various Iranian Muslim groups rose to power at different times. Then, in the 9th century, Muslims started raiding the Central Asian steppe, capturing Turkic slaves in order to employ them as professional soldiers. Steppe nomads were always good at war, so it's not surprising that in time they ended up dominating the military profession in most of the Islamic world. The enslavement of these nomads seems only to have been OK if they were pagans. Spaniards had a similar attitude to slavery in the Americas in later centuries.

One of the most interesting episodes of this period was the revolt of the Zanj:

"This Arabic word denotes blacks originating from the East African coast. Large numbers of East African slaves had, in the later first/seventh century [Glossy: Muslim/Christian calendar], been brought to work in southern Iraq under harsh conditions. In the third/ninth century we find gangs of Zanj kept in conditions of acute hardship and misery and working in the marshlands (al bat.apih.) of lower Iraq, removing the nitrous topsoil (sibakh) to reclaim the land for cultivation."

The Zanj revolt was led by an Arab who promised them "revenge against their oppressors, riches and slaves of their own" and who "made good on these promises to a remarkable extent" in the next few years.

"The local and caliphal authorities were unable to defend against the Zanj, who moved swiftly on interior lines, hidden by the swamps. They seized the main cities of lower Iraq and neighbouring Khuzistan, including Basra, Wasit, Abbadan and Ahwaz. They slaughtered many inhabitants, but did not occupy these cities permanently: all the Abbasid forces could do was to enter these ruined centres of early Islamic civilisation and survey the devastation."

This revolt was only suppressed with great difficulty. While rebellions were numerous, almost all of them were ideologically Islamic. The only exceptions were the Muslim-Christian conflict in Spain and the unsuccessful attempt by a man named Mardavij to revive a Zoroastrian state in Iran in the early 930s AD.

In the later 9th century the caliphate, which was never very centralized, began to definitely break up into a patchwork of virtually-independent states.

This book's editor dealt with that by devoting separate chapters to various Islamic regions. However, the authors of these chapters did not coordinate among themselves, so they often recounted events that affected more than one region separately, needlessly repeating things.

I was struck by this description of the Ibadi imamate in Oman:

"In its structure and ideas the Imamate differed considerably from the Caliphate. There was no ruling family and no hereditary succession. It was a tribal community in which the leader was elected by a group of elders (namely, religious scholars), took his decisions by consultation, had no privileged position, and had only limited authority to compel military service."

This is very unusual for the Middle East, whose politics, like daily life, normally revolves around extended families instead.

The chapter on Syria mentions the survival of a pagan, astral religion in Harran, near the modern Syrian-Turkish border, into Islamic times. We normally think of late remnants of paganism as hiding in remote, inaccessible areas like the Caucasus, Afghanistan or the Kurdish mountains, but Harran was a substantial town in a well-settled region.

The chapter on Egypt explained to me for the first time how Nile irrigation worked:

"Out of the flood had emerged the system of ‘basin’ irrigation, under which the floodwater was formed into artificial lakes by long earthen banks to allow it to soak into the soil. A collective effort was required to build the banks, and to open and close the entrances each year."

Of course I knew about the Nile floods, but when I saw the word "irrigation" in reference to Egypt, I always imagined canals, not this.

There seems to have been more immigration and settlement of Arabs in Egypt than in the other parts of the empire. They took local wives in the Spaniards-in-America fashion, and the authors attribute the gradual decline of Egyptian Christianity and the Coptic language to that more than to conversion.

The area where Arabs encountered most resistance early on was the Berber Maghreb. And this makes sense: who would be a match for desert nomads if not other desert nomads?

"In contrast, the narrative of the conquest of Hispania in 92/711 recalls a similar pattern to the invasions in Byzantine and Sasanian territories: after one pitched battle and the defeat of the king’s army the Visigothic administration crumbled, clearing the way for an Arab rule which consolidated with remarkable ease and no serious challenges."

After the death of a Visigothic king of Spain named Witiza his sons fought against an usurper named Roderic. It seems that they were the ones who invited the Arabs and their Berber allies to the country. The Muslims defeated Roderic and, having taken power, confirmed the extensive land holdings of the sons of Witiza. Their descendants through a female line became the leading Muslim families in Seville in later centuries. The intermarriage of the Visigothic elite with the commanders of the conquerors seems to have been common.

Coins struck in Spain by the victors in 711 AD featured the shahada in Latin: "Non Deus Nisi Deus Non Deus Alius."

The survival of the Persian language in Iran is made particularly remarkable by the fact that Latin was dying in Muslim Spain:

"In a celebrated text a Cordoban Mozarab called Alvarus complained that in his time only one among a thousand Christians was able to write a letter in Latin." [...]

" the fourth/tenth century Christian sacred books were being translated into Arabic in significant numbers, which bears witness that even among Christian populations that language was more widespread than Latin."

Of course some Spanish Christians fought Muslims in the north, but there were cases of extraordinary defiance in the south as well:

"The voluntary martyrs thus presented themselves to the judge of Cordoba, hurling blasphemy and abuse against the Prophet and Islam in the full knowledge that this left the official no choice but to condemn them to death in application of the law. As a result almost fifty Christians were executed in Cordoba between 850 and 859."

One of this volume's final chapters reviews the history of the Western study of Islam. It says that a lot of progress was made during the Cold War, when Western governments needed specialists who could help them influence Muslim countries. They increased the funding of the study of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, and that eventually trickled down to historic research in the same way that the funding of military technology during the same era indirectly led to scientific advances.

This implies that the area of Islamic studies may produce remarkable results in the next couple of decades, as some of the smarter members of the enormous horde of failed spooks bred by Western governments after 9/11 slowly grope their way out towards the light of historic scholarship.     ř

Monday, February 20, 2017


Via Vox Day I saw this Daily Mail article on 1970s British PM Edward Heath.

"The police chief investigating claims that Sir Edward Heath was a paedophile is convinced the allegations are ‘120 per cent’ genuine, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
More than 30 people have come forward with claims of sexual abuse by the former Conservative Prime Minister, according to well-placed sources. 
And they are said to have given ‘strikingly similar’ accounts of incidents to Wiltshire Police – even though the individuals are not known to each other.
The Mail on Sunday has been told that Wiltshire Chief Constable Mike Veale regards the allegations as ‘totally convincing’, and plans to publish a report in June."
Astonishingly, Mr Veale is also understood to support claims that Sir Edward’s alleged crimes were reported to police years ago but covered up by the Establishment."
There's a theory that this sort of thing is more common among the Brit elite than in the general population because a lot of the Brit elite grew up at single-sex boarding schools, and not at home. This idea assumes that the imprinting theory of sexuality is correct.
According to Heath's Wiki article, he did go to a single-sex school, but it was so close to his birthplace, that he almost certainly lived at home then. Still, I got curious enough to look through the first few pages of one of his biographies on Amazon.
"Inevitably he was prominent among the school prefects."[...]
"But though he was allowed to use a gym-shoe to beat recalcitrant schoolboys, he rarely availed himself of the opportunity."
"Rarely" is more than once. What exactly is meant here? Wiki explains:
"In the United Kingdom, especially in England and Wales, the slipper was a common implement for administering corporal punishment in schools for students of both genders and all ages.[...]
"Slipper" is a misnomer, as the usual item of footwear used was the plimsoll, or gymshoe or tennis shoe, with a fabric upper and a heavy rubber or synthetic sole.[...]
A typical gym shoe, which was actually used in a school in Lincolnshire, is shown on the left.[...]
Boys aged between 11 and 16 were required to bend over and received up to 12 hard whacks on the seat of the trousers."
I knew that there was corporal punishment in British schools until recently, but I didn't know that they used shoes for that or that some of it was administered by students to other students.
It reminded me of Rousseau saying in his Confessions that his life-long desire to be pushed around by powerful women, as well as to be whipped by them, was born when a 30-year-old woman whipped him for some misdemeanor when he was 8. He boarded with her and her husband then. I don't think they were related to him.
This is all very anecdotal of course. I have feeling that the imprinting theory explains at least some of the variation in human sexuality, however. And I'm not alone in this. Back to the Daily Mail article:
"Some of those who said Sir Edward abused them are believed to have told police they went on to commit sexual abuse crimes themselves as a result."
The most astonishing thing here, though, is that this was kept under wraps during Heath's life. There were rumors, but he ascended the peak of British politics anyway.
You'd think that a rival politician could have exploited this. People do a lot to gain power. Some think that Churchill's father went insane because his bid for Prime Ministership failed. I remember watching an American documentary where someone said, completely seriously, that there are people who would kill to become a US senator.
Why couldn't a rival get some journos to interview some of Heath's victims? Because all of the newspapers were owned by people who were satisfied with Heath? Why not get some foreign newspaper to do this then, an American one for example? Or a French one. The news would have gotten back home, and he probably wouldn't have been reelected in his constituency.
Also, Heath had a long career. The people in charge of the police in Britain must have changed a few times during it. And all of them wanted to protect him until ten years after his death?
If things that are only important to a few people (Heath and, likely, a few dozen victims) could be hushed up so thoroughly for such a long time by the political system, with nothing but rumors escaping, what about bigger, more important things like secret government policies? The reality of politics could be weirder than we imagine.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

YouTube Links

First, Rigamaroo by a band called Sleepy Sun. I love the album cover in the video, but not as much as the song.

I first heard this song in a supermarket a month or two ago. Googled its lyrics, noted its name and then found it on YouTube at home. I doubt the younger generation understands how elusive music was before the Internet. If you heard something amazing on the radio, you might never hear it again. The announcers didn't always name the titles and the bands, and record stores carried a tiny fraction of what you can now see online.

When lyrics first became searchable I found a long list of songs I dreamed of hearing for ages. Not everything though. For example, there was this incredible song by a young English woman whose name I forgot. I remember the style and exactly how it made me feel, but unfortunately none of the lyrics, so it just can't be found.

Back to the Decembrists, here's a live version of Down by the Water from NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. It's not as good as the album track, but look at the fiddler. A very attractive woman. This, with her, her brother and a pianist, is also good.

I love the Tiny Desk Concerts in general. I've never found anything wrong with the SWPL aesthetics or sensibilities, just with the politics.

This is great for example. But the best Fountains of Wayne song I know of is Sink to the Bottom. Even though the singer speaks with an American accent, he was born in Britain, which is where the humor in the lyrics obviously comes from.

Here's Suzanne Vega's Tiny Desk Concert. The song I Never Wear White was new to me. It's like Left of Center with colors, but she's an amazing lyricist, probably the best female one I know of, so she can make simple ideas like that work great. The best Suzanne Vega songs I'm aware of are the original a capella Tom's Diner (of course), Marlena on the Wall, St. ClareThe Queen and the Soldier, A Small Blue Thing, and Knight Moves.

The last time I did a post like this I mentioned the Canadian band Metric. I love this song of theirs.

Years ago someone correlated people's musical preferences, as revealed on their Facebook pages, with the average SAT scores of the colleges they attended to produce a list of the smartest and dumbest musicians. Number two, behind Beethoven, was a guy named Sufjan Stevens. This whole post has gone in a very SWPLy direction for some reason, and there's really not much more SWPLy in life than this song of his. But it's also good. And he does sound smart.

The Cranberries aren't SWPL, which may have something to do with the fact that their Tiny Desk concert isn't representative of how awesome they are. My favorite Cranberries songs are Disappointment, Twenty-one, Pretty (these two have a similar mood; I wish there was a third song like that in the Universe), Not SorryEmpty, No Need to Argue, Dreaming My Dreams, I Still Do, How, Waltzing Back, Ridiculous Thoughts, Sunday, Yeat's Grave, Linger (which was the first one I heard of theirs), Ode to My Family (which was the one that made me buy a cassette tape of theirs in 1994 or 1995), I Can't Be With You and So Cold in Ireland. The quality went down after the second album, but there are some good things in this song and in this solo single too.

By the way, if for some reason your taste in music is similar to mine, you might enjoy this other post of mine.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Language History

I recently wrote here about the Cambridge Histories. I ended up choosing to read the New Cambridge History of Islam first. I'm now about 58% through its first volume, and will post a review here once I get to the end. It's fascinating.

Since I wrote that post I became aware of the existence of a 6-volume Cambridge History of the English Language. I love linguistics and will likely read that whole thing eventually. That made me want to look at histories of other languages.

It turned out that the largest history of French contains 26 volumes which appeared between 1905 and 2000. However, the great majority of these were published before 1938. They were republished between 1966 and 1979, but I'm under the impression that only the bibliographies were updated then, not the main text. A lot of research must have gone on since then, so much of this stuff is probably obsolete.

The biggest modern history of French seems to be the 2-volume effort by Alain Rey. I bought its first volume through iBooks and browsed it a bit. It's much more pop-sci than the Cambridge History of English. So I don't know what I'll do with French yet.

I also looked for histories of Russian. I haven't found anything huge and thorough yet, but while searching I came upon this great video of professor Andrey Zaliznyak talking about the history of Russian for an hour. I already knew a lot of this, but it was fascinating to watch one of the biggest minds in that field express these things in his own words in real time. And some of what he said I didn't know until now.


During the middle ages the two main forms of Russian were the Novgorodian dialect and "all the rest". The differences between the speech of Vladimir, Moscow, Tver', Kiev, Chernigov, Polotsk etc. were minor, even though this huge area is now divided between three official state languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian. But the difference between the language of this huge area on the one hand, and the Novgorodian dialect on the other, were considerable. The latter covered all of northeastern Russia, the area where original-Slavs mixed with Estonian-like Finnic speakers.

Zaliznyak implied that the Novgorodian dialect was the most divergent member of the Slavic branch in general and that it must have split from the original Slavic core very early, perhaps before all the others. He said that in the earliest available birch bark letters, ones written in the 11th century, the differences between the Novgorodian dialect and the rest of Russian were largest, and that during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries Novgorodian speech gradually moved towards the dialect of the rest of Rus'. The dialect of Pskov, situated at the north-western edge of both medieval Rus' and modern Russia, was even more divergent than the Novgorodian one.

Zaliznyak said that this last bit of info - the greater divergence of the Novgorodian dialect at the start of Russian history than in the later Middle Ages - was only established in the last 25 years through the study of birch bark letters.

He also said that up through the 13th century the Novgorodians did not apply the word Rus' to themselves. In the 9th and 10th centuries this word only described Varangians, in the early 11th century it began to describe all of the people in the area around Kiev, including Preyaslavl and Chernigov. Then the definition widened to all of the Rurikid principalities except for Novgorod. And by the 14th century even Novgorodians started calling themselves Rus'. But there are birch bark letters from the 13th century where Novgorodians talk about Rus' as some other land that one could visit. By the way, in this interview Zaliznyak cautiously supported the theory that the original source of the word Rus' is the Norse word meaning "rowers".

Why did Zaliznyak talk so much about the Novgorodian dialect? First because he's the chief authority on birch bark letters, most of which were unearthed in Novgorod. Second, because the medieval Novgorodian dialect ended up greatly affecting modern standard Russian in which this interview was conducted.

In the late 15th century Novgorod lost an epic power struggle with Moscow. It's plausible to me that this might have had something to do with the beginning of the Little Ice Age. The agricultural productivity and population size of the far north would have probably gone down then. But this wasn't discussed in this interview because it was about language instead.

In the aftermath of Moscow's victory Ivan III ordered a series of population transfers. A lot of Novgorodians were resettled in the Muscovite heartland. The Novgorodian merchant elite was settled in the city of Moscow. And a lot of peasants from central Russia were settled in Novgorodian lands. I guess the logic was "if we disperse them, mixing them with others, they're not going to revolt." The Assyrian Empire did this in antiquity, as did many other states throughout the ages.

How large was the Novgorodian contribution to the later Muscovite language? Zaliznyak kind of implied that it was about half. I was surprised by that. And he gave some examples.

By the way, in the discussion that I linked to in this post someone theorized that Novgorodian influence is the reason why Russian is the most archaic modern Slavic language. The Novgorodian dialect split from the Slavic core early on and then moved towards the edge of the earth, touching on the Arctic Ocean. So for a while (we're talking 7th through 10th centuries) it was probably insulated from general Slavic trends, preserving some archaic features.

Anyway, this was all very interesting for me to listen to. If you got this far in this post, you might be a language nerd.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A New Quatrain

I wrote another quatrain for my big Credo poem last Sunday:

We cannot explain tradition
Any better than a spleen
Can expound upon its mission
Of maintaining our blood clean.

At first I thought "maybe I worded this too strongly". But no, what we have is, surely, a mixture of correct and incorrect explanations of individual parts of traditional systems of morality. But every part interacts with every other, and the system only works as a whole. How would progress in the understanding of the whole look like? The changes that we introduce would lead to better outcomes.

There was a moment in the history of medicine when knowledge about individual parts accumulated to such an extent that life expectancy started to rise, indicating that medicine as a whole started doing more good than harm. I don't think such a change has happened yet in the arena of rational thinking about politics and morals. So I would say that our current explanations of tradition as a whole aren't any more useful, aren't any better, than a complete lack of explanations would have been.


Now a bit on how poetry works:

Everyone understands rhyme, but few understand meter, which is at least as important. It's possible to read and enjoy lots of poetry and song lyrics that contain meter, and yet be unaware of it.

Meter is essentially rhythm. If you're rhyming two lines, they will sound better if you make them conform to the same rhythmic pattern.

By rhythmic pattern I mean the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, the word "pattern" contains two syllables: "pa", which is stressed and "ttern", which is unstressed. If we represent stressed syllables by slashes and unstressed ones by dashes, "pattern" will look like this:


Here is the rhythmic pattern of the first line of my quatrain above:


In this poem I rhyme alternate lines within each quatrain, so the first line rhymes with the third one. And they have the same rhythmic pattern.

There's one complication here though. In other quatrains in this same poem the first line is  /-/-/-/- while the third one is --/-/-/- or vice versa. Yet that sounds OK. Why? I guess at some level the brain interprets --/-/-/- as a variation on the simpler, more regular /-/-/-/-. So /-/-/-/- becomes the expectation. By the way, the fancy term for /-/-/-/-  is trochaic tetrameter. It seems to be OK to put an unstressed syllable where a stressed one is expected, but not vice versa. At least that's been my experience. If you put a stressed syllable where the reader has come to expect an unstressed one, the effect is often unpleasant.

People like both repetition and variety. There is a happy middle somewhere between these two things which a good poet, musician or writer can find, and which the bad ones miss. Of course, the smarter the audience, the less repetition it likes.

One way to insert some variety into a poem is to alternate lines that end in a stressed syllable with lines that end in a unstressed one. I like this effect a lot, so I'm using it in this poem. It makes the writing process harder though because in English the number of two-syllable rhymes (like tradition/mission above) is more limited than the number of one-syllable rhymes like spleen/clean.

Why do people enjoy listening to rhyme and meter? I don't know. Maybe a liking for rhythm prevented our hunter-gatherer ancestors from getting bored on long walks, allowing them to walk further. Think of soldiers' marching songs: they're all heavy on rhythm and have a meter.

But that's a guess. As I was trying to say in my above quatrain, our ability to understand why we are the way we are is limited. The evolutionary and cultural forces that made us were much too complex for us to understand them fully.