Archive for the 'Egypt' Category

The Desert Fathers

April 30 2012

The desert was the Scetes desert (Wadi El Natrun) west of the Nile Delta.

Anthony the Great (c 251-356) (sic)

Hilarion (291-371)

Pachomius (c 292-348)

John Cassian (c 360-435)

Others, including some who spent shorter periods in the desert.

They founded the tradition of Hesychasm, from the Greek for stillness. Interior silence and continual prayer.

The Greek Fathers

April 30 2012

(Those who wrote in Greek. Can one speak of Koine for the last two?)

Irenaeus of Lyons (?-c 202)

Clement of Alexandria (c 150-c 215)

Origen of Alexandria (c 184-c 253)

Athanasius of Alexandria (c 297-373)

The Cappadocian Fathers: Basil of Caesarea (c 329-379), Gregory Nazianzus (c 329-389), Gregory of Nyssa (c 335-after 394), Peter of Sebaste (c 340-391)

John Chrysostom (c 347-407)

Cyril of Alexandria (c 378-444)

Maximus the Confessor (c 580-662)

John of Damascus (c 676-749)

The Apostolic Fathers

April 29 2012

The Apostolic Fathers are believed to have been taught directly by one or more of the twelve.

Clement of Rome

Ignatius of Antioch

Polycarp of Smyrna

The Didache and Shepherd of Hermas are considered to be by Apostolic Fathers although their authors are unknown. Like the works of Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, they were written in Koine Greek.

The Great Transition

April 27 2012

Peter Brown (currently at Princeton) reviews

Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th-9th Century), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 14-July 8.

I don’t know how I have missed other pieces by him recently in the New York Review of Books, but here is a list. He is one of the few historians whose collected works I’d consider for desert island reading.

“We have been taught to see late antiquity and [the early period of Islam] in exclusively religious terms. In the words of Finbarr Flood, the period has suffered from an ‘excessive focus on religiosity.’ Anna Ballian warns us not to assume that ‘religion permeated every aspect of medieval society and in importance far outweighed secular matters.’ For this was by no means the case. There was always room for a ‘religion of the world’ – a tenacious conviction that there was more to life than piety. There was also something thrilling and almost numinous about wealth, good health, and the gift of children.”

We look at Iran this way today. If you go there, there is also sensuality, and fun to be had. In a week in Tehran in 1994 I never even heard a call to prayer.

The exhibition covers some of the ground of Holland’s new book (April 25 post).

The significant experience

April 11 2012

In the encounter between the world and the West that has been going on by now for four or five hundred years, the world, not the West, is the party that, up to now, has had the significant experience. It has not been the West that has been hit by the world; it is the world that has been hit – and hit hard – by the West; and that is why, in the title of this book, the world has been put first.

The World and the West, OUP, 1953


March 8 2012

John F Guilmartin, review of David Abulafia, The Great Sea, A Human History of the Mediterranean, OUP, 2011, in The American Interest, March/April 2012. How it differs from Braudel.

The bay of Carthage

Braudel’s main works:

La Méditerranée et le monde Méditerranéen a l’époque de Philippe II, 3 volumes, 1949 (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II; there is also a one-volume abridgement)

Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle, 3 volumes, 1967, 1979, 1979 (Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century)

L’identité de la France, 2 volumes, 1986 (unfinished, posthumous) (The Identity of France)

Grammaire des civilisations, 1987 (a world history, posthumous) (A History of Civilizations)

Les mémoires de la Méditerranée, 1998 (posthumous) (The Mediterranean in the Ancient World)

“[W]hen I think of the individual, I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand, fixed in a landscape in which the infinite perspectives of the long term stretch into the distance both behind him and before.” (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World)

The World and the West

March 6 2012

This is from the first of the 1952 BBC radio Reith Lectures, given under the title The World and the West. I posted the fourth, The Far East and the West, here. Background on Reith Lectures here.

In writing both the world and the west into my title, and writing the two words in that order, I was doing both things deliberately, because I wanted to make two points that seem to me essential for an understanding of our subject. The first point is that the west has never been all of the world that matters. The west has not been the only actor on the stage of modern history even at the peak of the west’s power (and this peak has perhaps now already been passed). My second point is this: in the encounter between the world and the west that has been going on now for 400 or 500 years, the world, not the west, is the party that, up to now, has had the significant experience. It has not been the west that has been hit by the world; it is the world that has been hit – and hit hard – by the west; and that is why, in my title, I have put the world first.

Let us try, for a few minutes, to slip out of our native western skins and look at this encounter between the world and the west through the eyes of the great non-western majority of mankind. Different though the non-western peoples of the world may be from one another in race, language, civilisation, and religion, if we ask them their opinion of the west, we shall hear them all giving us the same answer: Russians, Moslems, Hindus, Chinese, Japanese, and all the rest. The west, they will tell us, has been the arch-aggressor of modern times, and each will have their own experience of western aggression to bring up against us. The Russians will remind us that their country has been invaded by western armies overland in 1941, 1915, 1812, 1709, and 1610; the peoples of Africa and Asia will remind us that western missionaries, traders, and soldiers from across the sea have been pushing into their countries from the coasts since the fifteenth century. The Asians will also remind us that, within the same period, the westerners have occupied the lion’s share of the world’s last vacant lands in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and South and East Africa. The Africans will remind us that they were enslaved and deported across the Atlantic in order to serve the European colonisers of the Americas as living tools to minister to their western masters’ greed for wealth. The descendants of the aboriginal population of North America will remind us that their ancestors were swept aside to make room for the west European intruders and for their African slaves.

This indictment will surprise, shock, grieve, and perhaps even outrage most of us westerners today. Dutch westerners are conscious of having evacuated Indonesia, and British westerners of having evacuated India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon, since 1945.

That was all the territory Britain had lost by 1952, except for Palestine and concessions in China. We lost none, except Sudan (which was an Anglo-Egyptian “condominium”) and a military base at Suez, between Ceylon on February 4 1948 (which completed our evacuation of the subcontinent) and Ghana on March 6 1957.

1952 was also a year of direct British and American interference in the internal affairs of Iran.

British westerners have no aggressive war on their consciences since the South African war of 1899-1902, and American westerners none since the Spanish-American war of 1898. We forget all too easily that the Germans, who attacked their neighbours, including Russia, in the First World War and again in the Second World War, are westerners too, and that the Russians, Asians, and Africans do not draw fine distinctions between different hordes of “Franks” – which is the world’s common name for westerners in the mass. “When the world passes judgment, it can be sure of having the last word”, according to a well-known Latin proverb. And certainly the world’s judgment on the west does seem to be justified over a period of about four and a half centuries ending in 1945. In the world’s experience of the west during all that time, the west has been the aggressor on the whole; and, if the tables are being turned on the west by Russia and China today, this is a new chapter of the story which did not begin until after the end of the Second World War. The west’s alarm and anger at recent acts of Russian and Chinese aggression at the west’s expense are evidence that, for westerners, it is today still a strange experience to be suffering at the hands of the world what the world has been suffering at western hands for a number of centuries past.

The lectures introduced ideas which would be developed in the eighth volume of the Study.

In the encounter between the world and the west that has been going on now for 400 or 500 years, the world, not the west […], has had the significant experience

is the most striking sentence. These views were shocking, as he says, to many listeners in 1952. They seemed defeatist.

I have taken this from a transcript on the BBC website, not from the printed book: there may be differences. The transcript probably shows what was printed in The Listener. I have made the use of upper case in references to world wars consistent.

The lectures were published in book form as

The World and the West, OUP, 1953

The snake

February 11 2012

Small states (“vacua”) become the foci of quarrels between large states. Also a lurid and characteristically negative view of the rise and fall of Rome.

The ambitions, fears, and rivalries of the small states round the Mediterranean – Messana, Syracuse, and Saguntum; Aetolia, Pergamon, and Rhodes – involved their powerful neighbours in wars which did not come to an end till one Great Power, Rome, had eaten up four others – Carthage, Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt. The sequel [of these wars] was universal impoverishment and revolution, and the victorious Power also came to an unpleasant end, like a snake in the Zoological Gardens some years ago which, in a tug-of-war with another snake over the same pigeon, swallowed its rival as well as the bird, and died by inches as the foreign body stiffened in its throat.

The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, A Study in the Contact of Civilizations, Constable, 1922

Venetian people-traffickers

February 2 2012

The trade between the Greek settlements on the north shore of the Black Sea and the Royal Scythians had its [medieval] counterpart in a trade between Venetian and Genoese settlements on the same coast and the Golden Horde. During the Mamlūk régime in Egypt, when the Mamlūks were importing their slave-successors from the Great Western Bay of the Eurasian Steppe and not, as in the second phase, from the Caucasus, the Venetians were the principal carriers of this valuable human freight.

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Babylonic militarism

January 11 2012

When a Judah that had just escaped falling into Assyrian hands in 700 B.C. was carried away captive in 597 and 586 B.C. by the Assyrians’ Babylonian heirs, the only provinces of the Syriac World that still remained unscathed by Babylonic militarism were the Phoenicians’ colonial domain in the Western basin of the Mediterranean, which was insulated by the Sea, and Arabia Felix (the Yaman [sic]), which was insulated by Arabian deserts (the Najd and the Hijāz).

The Assyrians had controlled Egypt, but the neo-Babylonians did not. The post-Assyrian Neo-Babylonian Empire used to be called Chaldean. Chaldea is in southern Mesopotamia, Assyria was the north. Thus “Ur of the Chaldees” (Genesis 11:28, 11:31, 15:7) in the period of Sumer.

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Figure humaine

December 16 2011

Painting by Louay Kayali (1934-78) from the weblog of Imad Moustapha, who until a few days ago was the Syrian ambassador to the US. There is a lot of Syrian art on it. A Kayali site is here. Wikipedia.

Poulenc’s Figure humaine is a set of eight settings of poems by Paul Éluard. The notes to a new recording describe it as “a secret hymn to the French resistance”. The last poem is called Liberté.

The first is De tous les printemps du monde:

“Of all the spring times in the world
This is the most vile.
Of all my modes of being,
The trusting one is the best.

The grass lifts the snow
Like the stone from a tomb,
But I sleep through the storm
And I wake with clear eyes.

The short spell draws slowly to its close,
The roads had to pass
Through my most secret hiding-places
Before I could greet anyone.

I do not hear the monsters speaking:
I know them, they have said it all.
I see only beautiful faces,
Good faces, sure of themselves.

Sure of soon destroying their masters.”

My translation.

De tous les printemps du monde,
Celui-ci est le plus laid
Entre toutes mes façons d’être
La confiante est la meillure

L’herbe soulève la neige
Comme la pierre d’un tombeau
Moi je dors dans la tempête
Et je m’éveille les yeux clairs

Le lent le petit temps s’achève
Où toute rue devait passer
Par mes plus intimes retraites
Pour que je rencontre quelqu’un

Je n’entends pas parler les monstres
Je les connais ils ont tout dit
Je ne vois que les beaux visages
Les bons visages sûrs d’eux mêmes.

Sûrs de ruiner bientôt leurs maîtres.

BBC Symphony Chorus, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, conducted by Stephen Jackson, June 2003.

French in Egypt

November 22 2011

Napoleon invaded Egypt and was defeated by Nelson in the Battle of the Nile (1798). Afterwards, the reforming Ottoman viceroy Muhammad Ali (ruled 1805-48) had French military and scientific manuals and other works translated into Arabic. Much of the French infusion was managed by Rifa’a el-Tahtawi. I did a post (a sketchy passage by Toynbee) about French law in Egypt.

The vogue of the French language in Egypt has triumphantly survived a British military occupation which lasted for 54 years before it was at length brought to an end as the result of the signature of an Anglo-Egyptian treaty of friendship and alliance on the 26th August, 1936. French never ceased to be the official medium of communication between the representatives of the Egyptian Government and their British advisers; and, when the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Lord Allenby, on the 23rd November, 1924, read to the Egyptian Prime Minister, Zaghlūl Pasha [an old revolutionary], in English, two communications conveying an ultimatum which had been provoked by the assassination of the Sirdar, Sir Lee Stack, the unusual choice of language was doubtless intended to be taken as a mark of displeasure or even discourtesy. Even then, the British High Commissioner deposited written copies of his communications in French in order to make sure that their purport should be understood by their Egyptian recipient (see Toynbee, A. J.: Survey of International Affairs, 1925, vol i (London 1927, Milford), p. 216).

Sir Lee Oliver Fitzmaurice Stack (1868-1924) was a British army officer and Governor-General of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. On November 19 1924, he was assassinated while driving through Cairo.

The British demanded of the Egyptian government a public apology, an inquiry, suppression of demonstrations and payment of a large fine. They further demanded withdrawal of all Egyptian officers and army units from the Sudan, an increase to the scope of an irrigation scheme in Gezira and laws to protect foreign investors in Egypt. The survival of the condominium was thrown into doubt, but it lasted until 1956. Stack’s successor in the Sudan was a civilian, Geoffrey Francis Archer, formerly Governor of Uganda.

Sirdar, an Indian word, was the title given to the British Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Army from 1883 to (according to Wikipedia) 1916 (four are listed). Outside Egypt it is usually spelt sardar. It was used by many dynasties, including the Ottomans.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Revolution in Egypt

November 21 2011

This post from February 22 gave some superficial historical background.


November 18 2011

Occasionally (not necessarily here) there’s an old-fashioned Trotskyist sound to Robin Yassin-Kassab’s posts on the middle east (stock phrases from 1970s polemic, “Zionist” sometimes replacing “capitalist”) which might stop some people reading.

Here are links to a few recent entries on his blog. Links are mainly his. Headings are mine.

Syria update, July 27:

“Hizbullah used to be wildly popular in Syria because it was perceived as an organisation dedicated to fighting for the oppressed. Now that it’s taken to supporting the Syrian oppressors against the Syrian oppressed, Hizbullah is widely despised in Syria. Its own stupidity achieved what decades of Wahhabi-Saudi, Zionist and Western propaganda could not. Here’s an article by Hamid Dabashi on that.”

Interview with the Syrian opposition figure Burhan Ghalyoun by Ibtisam Azem, July 28:

“There is no danger for the Palestinian cause in the shadow of a democratic Syrian system. The Syrian people are closest to the Palestinian people, and they are more protective of the Palestinian cause, the Golan Heights, and Arab solidarity than the current regime whose leaders have made the country feudal and do not care for anything except for protecting their own interests and existence.” (Ghalyoun)

Syria update, August 6:

“Despite my disappointment with Hizbullah’s leadership, I still of course respect and admire their victories against Zionism. Look at this organisation, the first Arab organisation to confront and defeat the occupier: it succeeds because it is of its people, it fights for justice for its people, it arms its people. None of these things can be said for the Syrian regime, which arms against the people, and fears the people – which is why the Syrian regime will never confront and defeat the occupier.”

Hizbullah’s victory in 2006 was limited. He would like Muslims and Jews to live together with equal rights in a single secular state. In the meantime, the occupier is the Zionist regime.

Iran and Syria, including Asia Times article by Mahan Abedin, August 20:

“Iran banks all on Assad’s survival […] It is entirely conceivable that any diminution of Alawite political power in Syria (let alone the downfall of Assad and the ruling clique) will re-orient Syria towards the Sunni Arab political order at the expense of Iran. Under this scenario, even if the Iranian-Syrian alliance endures in one form or another, the Islamic Republic’s position on the eastern banks of the Mediterranean Sea will become increasingly vulnerable.” (Abedin)

The Israeli flag falls in Cairo, August 21:

Attack on the Israeli embassy.

Physical assault on the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat, August 25:

“I’ve often used Ali’s cartoons to illustrate online pieces. His work has been the perfect choice – its tone is tragicomic; he never minimises the pain of the contemporary Arab situation even as he laughs at it. His pen, and his blessed hand, draw the catastrophes of dictatorship and occupation, of misogyny and class oppression, of bureaucracy, hypocrisy and ignorance. Ali is a valuable friend of the Palestinian people: I hope those fools who still believe the Syrian thug regime is a ‘resistance regime’ will note this well.”

More, same day:

“On the radio I said that the Syrian regime isn’t trying to be popular at present. Escalating its attacks on Syrian cities in Ramadan, increasing the gunfire at the dawn prayer and at the break of fast: these are not moves calculated to win popularity. Likewise, when regime torturers force the detained to pray to a picture of the dictator, and to repeat ‘There is no god but Bashaar’, they are not seeking approval. It’s much more basic than that. The message is: We can do whatever the hell we like. We can outrage you as much as we choose. We can shock you with our barbarity and then shock you again, because we are unimaginably strong.

“But they aren’t strong. They are very weak indeed, as we will all soon – insha’allah – discover.”

Passive tools, August 30:

“Somebody said to me recently, ‘The Libyans will soon be doing business with Israel, whether they like it or not.’ Here we go again: the assumption that the Libyans have no agency of their own, even after they’ve so dramatically taken the initiative to change the course of their own history.”

Sufis, September 19:

“I love [Sufism] for its symbolic, illogical, individualist challenge to literalism and the obsession with rules, and because it smiles, and for its openness and tolerance, and its music and poetry […]. […] But when Westerners assume the Sufis are automatically cuddly or, alternatively, progressive, they make a blanket mistake. The ‘Sufi’ Barelvis in Pakistan cheered the murder of Salman Taseer as much as the purist Deobandis. And there’s nothing progressive about hereditary holy men, backward superstition, or the false structures of authority that have adhered to some schools like rust to polished metal. There’s nothing good about the Islamo-hippies who wish for peace at any cost with Zionism […].”

Sectarianism in Syria, September 29:

“Alawis have a complex, esoteric religion that throughout history has been savagely denounced, and its adherents savagely oppressed. Ultimately it’s a matter of political interpretation whether or not Alawis are to be considered Muslims. The Ottoman Empire didn’t even consider them ‘People of the Book,’ which meant that unlike Christians, Jews, and mainstream Shiites, Alawis didn’t enjoy any legal rights. The ravings of the influential medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (who thought Alawis were ‘greater disbelievers than the Jews, Christians, and Indian idol-worshipping Brahmans’) contributed to their oppression and justified the theft of their lands around Aleppo and their forced retreat into the mountains. Until the 1920s, the Alawis were stuck in those mountains. Antakya (Antioch) was the only city where Alawis lived with Sunnis, and Antakya was gifted by France to Turkey before the independence of the modern Syrian state.” On which last point see my post about some recent Syrian history.

Malta, October 7:

“The language is Malta’s idiosyncracy: half Arabic in vocabulary, more than half in structure. The verbs, prepositions and pronouns are Arabic. The rest is mainly Italian. The air hostess asked us to store our bags ‘fowq raasikum’. When we landed she said ‘saha wa grazia!’”

The thousand lives and the one life, October 20:

Release of Gilad Shalit. “The Israelis are the ethnic cleansers and the occupiers. The Palestinians are the refugees and the occupied. Zionist propaganda constantly obfuscates these simple facts. The Palestinians are the first victims of the propaganda, but Israeli Jews are also its victims, as the future will demonstrate.”

Syria resources, October 29:

Links, including to a fully-annotated historical piece by Michael Provence and Jamal Wakim at, Colonial Origins of the Syrian Security State. Wonderful photograph at the beginning of that. But much more too.

After 42 Years, October 30:

The Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa reads After 42 Years – his reflection on the fall of Gaddafi.

Ahmz, November 1:

British-Syrian rap in both languages from Ahmz.

Marina Warner, November 12:

Review (positive) of Marina Warner, Stranger Magic, Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, about the Arabian Nights and its contexts, and its impact in the west.

“Warner quotes Jorge Luis Borges (a guiding spirit in her book) approving the belle infidele approach to translation. ‘I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.’”

Fadwa Sulaiman, November 15:

Translation by Laila al-Attar of an interview on Jazeera with the Syrian actress Fadwa Sulaiman. Since then the Arab League has come out, belatedly, against the Assad regime.

Someone so sunk in stale books

August 3 2011

Qunfuz on Shaikh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a Syrian cleric and traditionalist. “Someone so sunk in stale books that he fails to notice the real world in front of him.”

“As such, he’s a lot better than the modernist Salafis who have recently proliferated in the hothouse made by Saudi money and rapid urbanisation, deracinated Muslims whose ugly, intolerant, rule-based version of religion strips away Islam’s history, philosophy, mysticism and morality. Salafists preach obedience to the wali al-amr – whoever is in power. As a result they contributed absolutely nothing to the struggle against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. But now that Mubarak has fallen, Salafis seek to profit from the new situation. Last Friday, along with the reactionary Muslim Brotherhood, they hijacked a rally in Tahreer Square, where they chanted against a secular, civil state and emitted such diplomatic slogans as ‘We’re all Osama.’”

The sight of Mubarak on a bed in a cage today was shocking. So was the sight of his sons. I have met and listened to Gamal.

Not Al-Buti, but an Indonesian cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir. He looks as if he reads books too.

The Favour of Alexander Valas

July 30 2011

“I’m not in the least put out that my chariot wheel broke]
and I lost that silly race.
I’ll drink great wines the whole night long,
lying among lovely roses. Antioch is all mine.
I’m the most celebrated young man in town –
Valas’ weakness, he simply adores me.
You’ll see, tomorrow they’ll say the race wasn’t fair
(though if I’d been crude enough to insist on it secretly,
the flatterers would have given first place even to my limping chariot).]”


The Favour of Alexander Valas, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at Spelling anglicised.

Alexander Balas was a humble-born native of Smyrna, but pretended to be the son of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Laodice IV and heir to the Seleucid throne. His claims were recognised by the Roman Senate and Ptolemy Philometor of Egypt. He married Cleopatra Thea, Ptolemy’s daughter. In 150 BC he defeated Demetrius I (Demetrius Soter, ie saviour).

As king, he is said to have abandoned himself to debauchery. In 145 his Egyptian protector and father-in-law betrayed him and, with Demetrius I’s son Demetrius II, defeated him near Antioch. Alexander Balas fled for refuge to a Nabataean prince, who murdered him and sent his head to Ptolemy, who had been mortally wounded in the battle.

Lying among roses. Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love:

“There I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle”

Elagabalus’s attempt to drown his guests in rose petals.

Painting in the National Galleries of Scotland by Botticelli of Christ sleeping by a rose bush adored by the Virgin.

Handel produced a quartet of patriotic or warlike oratorios after the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion: the Occasional Oratorio in 1746, Judas Maccabaeus in 1747 and Joshua and Alexander Balus in 1748.

Alexander Balus is a condensation of chapters 10 and 11 of the first Book of Maccabees set in Egypt. It is thus partly concerned with the Greeks’ relationship with the Jews. Jonathan Maccabaeus (Jonathan Apphus, or the Wary) is the anti-Hellenic Hasmonean rebel leader after the death of Judas Maccabaeus. Alexander has courted him and the Jewish rebels. He is invited to Alexander’s wedding.

Ptolemy falsely claims that Jonathan is behind the plot to overthrow Alexander. At the end, Cleopatra receives news of both deaths, her husband’s and father’s. Jonathan winds up the story, reminding the living that those who trust in other than the true God will always meet their fate.

Demetrius II does not appear in the oratorio, but in the biblical story Jonathan makes his peace with him.

Hyperion CD notes: “Handel’s finale is, perhaps not so surprisingly in view of the calamities that have befallen Cleopatra, unusually muted in its minor treatment of the traditionally lively Amens and Halleluias.” Here are Jonathan’s final words and the finale; performers not stated.

Jason – יסון


June 23 2011

The transit of the Far Eastern [Han dynasty] invention of paper across the conductive expanse of the Arab Caliphate […] was impressively rapid. Reaching Samarqand from China in A.D. 751, the use of paper had spread to Baghdad by A.D. 793, to Cairo by A.D. 900, to Fez (Fas), almost within sight of the Atlantic, by about A.D. 1100, and to Jativa in the Iberian Peninsula by A.D. 1150.

It might pedantically be pointed out that Cairo was not founded until 969. But Fustat is in effect now old Cairo.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The jealous god

June 6 2011

According to Woolley, Sir L.: Abraham (London 1936, Faber), chap. 6, pp. 234-5 and 244, the “jealousy” which is one of the outstanding characteristics of Yahweh the God of Moses was already characteristic of the nameless God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob with whom Yahweh came to be identified by Abraham’s deescendants in the Mosaic Age. In Woolley’s view Abraham’s God was the Family God that had been worshipped in every household in Ur, and it was of the essence of this Family God that “he could admit no alien worshippers and have no outside interests”. In persisting in the worship of this Family God when he left the city gods of Ur behind him, Abraham became, not indeed a monotheist, but at least “monolatrous”. It will be seen that the God of Abraham (if Woolley is right) resembled the God of Moses in the point of exclusiveness, but differed from him in not being tied to any particular locality. While the worship of Yahweh was bound up with Yahweh’s successive local habitations on Sinai, at Bethel, and in Jerusalem, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob was worshipped by his Nomadic votaries wherever they happened to pitch their moving tents.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

In the Tavernas

May 29 2011

“I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I didn’t want to stay
in Alexandria. Tamides left me;
he went off with the Prefect’s son to earn himself
a villa on the Nile, a mansion in the city.
It wouldn’t have been right for me to stay in Alexandria.
I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery.
The one thing that saves me,
like durable beauty, like perfume
that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides,
most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years,
and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile.”


In the Tavernas, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

East and West

May 27 2011

Though, in all persecutions, there are, no doubt, always many weaker vessels who […] fail to stand the ordeal, the followers of the higher religions have been conspicuous, on the whole, for their steadfastness and courage when put to the test.

The Christian Church was put to this test by the Roman Empire; the Mahāyāna by the Chinese Empire in its avatar in the age of the T’ang Dynasty. Both churches responded by producing martyrs; but the Christians in the Roman Empire seem to have been more steadfast than the Mahayanian Buddhists in China in standing a more severe ordeal; and this apparent preeminence of the Christians in a common heroism is, indeed, what was to be expected. We should expect both the Mahāyāna and Christianity to shine in facing persecution, since the distinguishing mark of the higher religions is, as we have seen, their voluntary acceptance of Suffering as an opportunity for active service. At the same time we should expect the persecution itself to be sharper, and the endurance of it more heroic, in the western than in the eastern half of the Old World because the temper of life in South-West Asia and in the Graeco-Roman Society was more tragic and more intransigent than the temper in either India or China. In appraising both the comparative mildness of the T’ang imperial government and the comparative softness of its Buddhist victims, we must make the allowance for this general difference in psychological climate. It would be unwarrantable to assume that the T’ang régime was more virtuous than the Roman régime was, or that the Buddhist martyrs were less heroic than the Christian martyrs were.

The same difference in temper between the two halves of the Old World comes out in other historical parallels as well. For example, Christianity and Buddhism were, each, expelled from its homeland by a rival younger religion which had derived its inspiration from the older religion that it was opposing and evicting. Christianity was expelled from South-West Asia by Islam; Buddhism was expelled from India by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism whose philosophy bears indelible marks of its Buddhist origin. But the advance of Hinduism at Buddhism’s expense in India in the age of the Gupta Dynasty was accomplished as peacefully as the previous advance of Buddhism at the expense of a pre-Buddhist Indian paganism in the age of the Maurya Emperor Açoka. By contrast with this Indian record, the supplanting of Christianity by Islam in South-West Asia and Egypt in the age of the Arab Caliphate was a story of pressure and penalization – though, by contrast with the treatment of subject Jews and Muslims in Christendom, the treatment of subject “People of the Book” in Dār-al-Islām has been honourably distinguished by its comparative tolerance.

The Chinese nurse

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Chance and necessity

May 12 2011

The Admonitions of a Prophet, written on a papyrus of the Twelfth Dynasty, recalled the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian history when “the land” turned “round as doth a potter’s wheel” (translated in A Erman, The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians, Methuen, 1927).

The dizzy motion of the Egyptiac potter’s wheel, which stands for the acme of disorder in the eyes of an Egyptiac poet whose imagination animates the clay that is helplessly spinning on this wheel’s whirling surface, is at the same time an example, on the mathematical plane of existence, of an orderly cyclic motion, while on the teleological plane it is an obedient instrument for impressing upon the clay the spiritual order that is represented by the potter’s will.

Said one among them: “Surely not in vain
My substance from the common clay was ta’en
And to this figure moulded, to be broke
Or trampled back to shapeless earth again?”

[Footnote: Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubāʿīyāt of ʿUmar Khayyām, Quatrain lxxxiv.]

In a similar way the disorderly motion of a rudderless ship, which stands in Plato’s eyes for the chaos of a Universe abandoned by God [a footnote refers us to an earlier reference to Plato’s Politicus], can be recognized, by a mind endowed with the necessary knowledge of dynamics and physics, as a perfect illustration of the orderly behaviour of waves and currents in the media of wind and water. [Footnote: It may be added that, in the Politicus, the simile of the ship adrift is one of only two elements that make up, between them, the picture which Plato is painting in the colours of myth. The state in which the Universe drifts at the mercy of Chance alternates, in an endlessly recurrent cycle, with a contrary state in which it is steered by the hand of God according to Plan.] When the Human Soul adrift thus apprehends that the force which is baffling it is not simply a negation of the Soul’s own will or caprice but is a thing in itself – albeit something that the Soul is failing to grasp or control – then the countenance of the unknown invincible goddess changes from a subjective aspect under which she is known as Chance to an objective aspect under which she is known as Necessity – but this without any corresponding change in the essence of this inhuman power’s nature.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

The Yacoubian Building

May 9 2011

Alaa Al Aswany’s novel turns out to make good radio. Starts here on BBC iPlayer. The reader is Mido Hamada, who was born in Cairo, though he sounds a bit stage-Arabish.

I wrote about it and some other Egyptian novels here.

Nothing is at it seems

May 9 2011

This politically-debilitating belief-tendency is almost universal in the Gulf and Levant. Revisionism starts early there.

Most people (if you look at whole populations) think that forces are at work which are hidden from them. The question, most of the time, is only how incredible the conclusions are. The Princess of Wales was murdered. 9/11 was not conducted by Al Qaeda. Mubarak was not an ally of the US. The US is behind the disturbances in Syria. Osama bin Laden isn’t dead.

Egyptians are rather more realistic.

Greeks on the Indian Ocean

May 8 2011

The maritime [trade route to India] was commanded by South Arabian middlemen until the first through-voyage from Egypt to India was made by Eudoxus of Cyzicus circa 120 B.C. [Cyzicus is in Mysia.] Eudoxus’s Greek successors gradually shortened the voyage – ­which in Eudoxus’s day was still made coastwise all the way – by cutting more and more adventurously across the open sea with the aid of the monsoons; and this process of shortening, which began circa 100-80 B.C., was completed circa A.D. 40-50  (i. e. on the eve of the precipitation of the story of Jesus in the Gospels) [the passage is about religious connections between Greece and India], when the Greek navigators of the Indian Ocean ventured at last to sail straight across the open sea from the Somali coast to the southern tip of India, without approaching Arabia at all. As a result of this Greek conquest of the Indian Ocean, pepper was obtainable in abundance at Athens in 88 B.C., and a Buddhist gravestone, erected before the end of the Ptolemaic Age, has been discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie at Alexandria (Tarn, op. cit., [ie Tarn, W. W.: The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge 1938, University Press)], pp. 367-75, superseding eundem: Hellenistic Civilization (London 1927, Arnold), pp. 196-9).

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Troubles of Zahi Hawass

April 26 2011

Minister of Ancient Egypt. Washington Post.

A late antique tsunami

March 14 2011

Adrian Murdoch quotes Ammianus Marcellinus’s description of the tsunami which hit Alexandria, the Nile Delta and Libya in AD 365 after an earthquake near Crete.

“Huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses […] at Alexandria.”

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded, off southern Chile on May 22 1960, caused a tsunami which killed 140 people in Japan.

Fishing boat at Ofunato, Iwate prefecture in 1960 (Ofunato was entirely destroyed in the recent Sendai earthquake)

The 1933 Sanriku earthquake, conversely, had been off Iwate prefecture and caused a tsunami which reached Chile.

The recent Sendai earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in Japan, also caused a tsunami which reached Chile.

Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture in 2011

Wikipedia on the 365 tsunami: “The sophist Libanius and the church historian Sozomenus appear to present it as either divine sorrow or wrath – depending on their viewpoint – for the death of emperor Julian.”

Wikipedia list of historical tsunamis.

The Arab return

March 9 2011

Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Arabs never really achieved independence, for a variety of reasons. Corrupt elites in authoritarian Arab states have plundered the people’s wealth, obeyed the dictates of hostile superpowers against the people’s will, and entirely failed to build reasonable education or social welfare institutions. Civil society has been stifled. Now it seems that the Arab people are entering the power equation, and true independence may be at hand.”

There is a bigger picture here. After the Abbasid Caliphate, the Arab countries were to a great extent controlled by non-Arabs: Mongols, Mamluks, Persians, Ottoman Turks, Europeans and at the end by unrepresentative elites supported by the West. Libya has been a maverick, but the Berbers, too, had come under Ottoman and European control. This is, in a way, an attempt at a return.

Tahrir Square 2

February 22 2011

When you know the faces and that emphatic, staccato, vehement Egyptian way of speaking, Egypt doesn’t feel like just another place in turmoil (clashes between supporters of X and anti-government protesters).

A friend who was in Tahrir Square emailed me on January 18:

“Things are boiling even more these days in Cairo. There will be some demonstrations on Jan 25 that people say will be a revolution, may be a civil war.”


Revolutionary years, not only in Egypt:


Egypt felt a reverberation from France. Napoleon invaded in person and was defeated by Nelson in person in the Battle of the Nile (1798). Afterwards, the reforming Ottoman viceroy Muhammad Ali (ruled 1805-48) had French military and scientific manuals and other works translated into Arabic. Much of the French infusion was managed by Rifa’a el-Tahtawi.

I have a post here (a sketchy passage by Toynbee) about French law and culture in Egypt. I can remember meeting a old Francophone Egyptian in Cairo.


1848 did not, as far as I know, have an impact on Egypt (though it happened to mark the end of the reign of Muhammad Ali), but it is a parallel to 2011 (and 1989) in the way revolution spread from place to place. The January trigger then was Palermo – not two hundred miles away from Tunis.


1919 had been a series of nationalist uprisings against the British, who had been in Egypt since 1882. In 1914 the British-occupied Khediviate became a British-protected Sultanate. Turkish influence was ended. In 1922, after the 1919 agitations, it became an “independent” kingdom. Even then, some British troops remained until 1936, and in the Canal Zone until 1954. It is hard, from these facts, to see how 1919 can have felt like a revolution, but it did to the Egyptians. I sketched the story of Egypt from Muhammad Ali to Nasser here.

The same year saw the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, the foundation of the Fascist party in Italy, the short-lived Bavarian and Hungarian Socialist Republics, the Amritsar massacre in India, police and other strikes in Britain, and convulsions in Ireland, eastern Europe and Russia, Turkey, Korea and China.

After the uprisings, the square, which had been called Midan Ismaileyya, after Khedive Ismail, who had commissioned the new downtown district’s plan, became popularly known as Midan al-Tahrir (Liberation Square). It was not officially renamed until the revolution of 1952. Other demonstrations have taken place there, including the bread riots in 1977 and the demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2003.


1952 was the revolution led by Nasser that removed King Farouk (seventeen years before Idris was removed in Libya) and installed the present military establishment.

(The first president was not Nasser but Muhammad Naguib. Farouk was not the last king: he was briefly succeeded by Fuad II.)

Between Nasser (died 1970) and Mubarak was only Sadat. Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel at Camp David and was assassinated.

Egyptian public morale collapsed in June 1967 (Six-Day War). It had been pumped up by Nasser and was high for good cultural reasons as well, and it was knocked back further in October 1973 (Yom Kippur War) and (though Egyptians are peaceful people) September 1978 (Camp David). Until January 25 2011 it had never quite recovered.


That’s what Americans fear, but no scowling demagogue got off a plane. Unless Yusuf al-Qaradawi is that.

Some educated Egyptians have a cultural fascination with Iran, the great or forbidden Other, and the only country in what Americans call “the region” which is similar to it in size of population. But Egypt has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979. Electronic alliances are being formed.

The sclerotic era of Mubarak began in October 1981.


From an old post:

“[People Power in the Philippines] was a T-shirted revolution before Twitter, a colour-coded revolution before mobile phones and email, a velvet revolution practically before fax. There had been peaceful protests and non-cooperation in India, but they were surely more manipulated and orchestrated.

“Since 1986, the Philippine example has been at the back of our minds wherever there have been large-scale, mainly peaceful popular protests. Václav Havel has said that it was in the minds of European demonstrators in 1989. The days leading up to the deposition of Ceauşescu in Romania reminded one very strongly of the Philippines. Was it in the minds of the Chinese students in the same year? It was in our minds this year [2009] during the protests that began after the Iranian presidential elections.”

Before January 25 Egypt had lost its standing in the Arab world, which had been so high in the ’50s and ’60s. Qatar, as Robin Yassin-Kassab has said, counted for more.

Egyptians must be charmed now to think that at least a few young people all over the oppressed world, not only in the Middle East, are looking up to them.


The obvious, though very far from exact, precedent. The chain of revolutions got going in the second half. In Russia, two years later, a system collapsed with little pressure from below.

Egypt had transferred its loyalty from the USSR to the US before this, under Sadat.


Removal of Mubarak. Now the people are dealing with the military in uniform, face to face.


Nobody who witnessed this revolution at a distance will forget the moving words of Wael Abbas, Ahdaf Soueif, Khalid Abdalla, Wael Ghonim and many others, and nameless people.

Blair on February 2: Hosni Mubarak was “immensely courageous and a force for good”.

As always, there are those in the Middle East, the homeland of conspiracy theory, who are hinting at forces – America, Israel, other – controlling these events. Many others, especially the rich, are saying: “We are not ready for democracy, the West should stop lecturing us” and “Let the West dream”. They are right. But the revolution happened in spite of Obama’s ditherings and, thanks to them, Egyptians feel that Tahrir Square was their own achievement.

I had thought that the relevance of Facebook and Twitter to real politics had been exaggerated. I was wrong, but I was in no doubt from January 25 that it was over for Mubarak.

“The World Bank says escalating food prices have pushed 44 million more people into poverty since last June.”

The median age in Egypt is 24. More than a quarter of males under 30 with degrees are unemployed.

Egypt had been “growing” at 6% a year. It’s said that revolutions usually happen in countries which are growing economically. Energy which had been pent up is released and destroys the system which produced the growth. Russia in 1917? That kind of growth, in any case, can make things temporarily worse, and perhaps permanently less secure, for the masses.

Real revolutions aren’t gang warfare waged at state level. They are a return to truth. Will the energy produce a later wave of expansionist Islamism or be wholly dissipated in manoeuvring, compromises and renewed corruption?

Tahrir Square became a university in which different classes and types in Egyptian society met. That moment will not return.

Egyptians, such as Waseem Wagdi, not reporters, were the best exponents of their condition.

However it ends, Tahrir Square has changed the Middle East politically, geopolitically and psychologically. [Postscript 2013 11 28: Is that true?] The revolution was not Islamist or socialist or especially anti-American or even anti-Zionist. There was no utopianism, no desire for an absolute break with the past, except in one respect. No exaggeration. Not even a leader. No “nativist romanticism, sectarian distraction or religious obscurantism” (Robin Yassin-Kassab). These facts may, perhaps, offer some grounds for hope.

Egypt has minorities, but not deep sectarian divisions. Robin Yassin-Kassab: “The answer to sectarian hatred is democracy. The answer to Arab hatred of Israel is for Israel to change itself from a violent ethnocracy to a multicultural democracy.”

On the Muslim Brotherhood: “First, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is noted for its aversion to violence. Ayman Zawahri and the al-Qa’ida types broke away from the Brothers for precisely this reason. Second, the Brotherhood by its own admission has not led the revolution, no more than Muhammad al-Barade’i or any other leader. Third, the Brotherhood is part of the revolution like almost every other segment of Egyptian society, because it is part of society, a venerable institution and a mass movement. If the revolution has an ideology, it’s one of representation and dignity, of democracy in other words. The Brotherhood, like Barade’i, has called for an interim national government with no NDP presence, followed by elections. If the Brothers win elections, they will not be in a position to establish a new dictatorship. Fourth, the most retrograde elements of Islamism, those that lead to nihilistic terrorism and sectarian hatred, are nourished by the social stagnation of dictatorship. Finally, it is not for British or American chatterers to decide whether the Egyptians are ready for freedom. The Egyptians are demanding freedom, and are making the chatterers irrelevant.”

Few people outside Egypt even know the name of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader. It is Mohammed Badie.

Many Egyptians who before January 25 did not speak in political terms nevertheless showed a pre-revolutionary mood in the way they spoke about their personal lives. But nobody predicted the certainty which they found in themselves in Tahrir Square.

A comment on this blog on February 1: “Day after day people lost the value of their own lives and now they are willing to give these lives away […].”

Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Arabs never really achieved independence, for a variety of reasons. Corrupt elites in authoritarian Arab states have plundered the people’s wealth, obeyed the dictates of hostile superpowers against the people’s will, and entirely failed to build reasonable education or social welfare institutions. Civil society has been stifled. Now it seems that the Arab people are entering the power equation, and true independence may be at hand.”

The best foreign reporting, aside from some blogs, was from CNN. Reporting, not analysis. The Egyptians will remember it. It was less naive than some about the role of the army. Al Jazeera was good, too. I am not an expert on Egypt, but many of the Western chatterers seemed to know nothing about it at all.


Egypt had been bursting for some kind of freshness in its politics for many years. Mubarak should have left in 2005. Cairo, too, in its planning. There is hardly a park or tree anywhere. There are little more than rough pavements by the Nile, next to noisy roads, along which people can stroll. Its physical charm has been squeezed out of it. This has happened in some degree in every old city on earth. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth, to judge from any account of the banks of the Nile, Cairo was a seductive place. But Egypt wasn’t a republic then.

Most of Tahrir Square has been a building site for as long as I can remember it and was not accessible by the demonstrators. You didn’t see it on the news. What you saw was a roundabout.

It isn’t clear what the work is intended to lead to. Paved area? Garden? The only thing that is clear is that the project has stalled because of corruption. Somebody, deserving or otherwise, has not been paid. Tahrir Square is a minor scandal of Mubarak’s Egypt.

Nearly all shots of the square show the giant Mogamma office building, a gift of the Soviet Union completed just before the 1952 revolution.


“[We] who were strong in love.

Early Egyptian capitals

February 12 2011

Hieraconpolis or Nekhen was the religious and political capital of Upper Egypt at the end of the Predynastic period (c 3200-3100 BC).

The foundation, circa 3100 B.C., of a united kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt was achieved by empire-builders from the extreme south of the Egyptiac World of the day, in the neighbourhood of the modern Al-Kāb, [footnote] between Thebes and the First Cataract.


The nucleus of the “nome” (canton) which was the original domain of these Horus-worshipping empire-builders consisted of a pair of cities facing one another across the Nile: Necheb (Graecè “Eileithuia”) on the site of the modern Al-Kāb on the east bank of the Nile, and Nechen (Graecè “Hieracônpolis”, in allusion to the hawk (“hierax”) which was both the heraldic emblem of the city and the symbol of its god (Horus) on the west bank. (See Hall, H. R.: The Ancient History of the Near East (London 1911, Methuen), pp. 93-94; Meyer, E.: Geschichte des Altertums, vol. 1, Part II, 3rd ed. (Stuttgart and Berlin 1913, Cotta), pp. 80 and 111).

The passage continues:

The political union, from this base of operations, of the whole of the Lower Nile Basin between the First Cataract and the Mediterranean was immediately followed by a northward shift of the seat of power. The Hieraconpolite empire-builders established their imperial residence at Thinis, and their necropolis at Abydos on the opposite bank of the Nile, down-stream from their ancestral canton; and the de facto centre of imperial administration seems soon to have moved on still farther down-stream to Memphis. Thereafter, this ideally convenient site, at the point of junction between the mouth of the Nile Valley and the head of the Delta, remained the seat of government of the Old Kingdom to the end. The de facto capital of its spring-time became the de jure capital of its summer, when the Thinites were followed by the pyramid-builders of the Third and Fourth Dynasties; and, when [the Old Kingdom’s] summer passed over into autumn, Memphis was still the place from which the demonic pyramid-builders’ pious Heliopolitan successors attempted to exert their gradually diminishing authority.

Heliopolis was important during the Fifth Dynasty (c 2465-c 2325 BC), when the worship of Re became the state cult.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

In the beginning

February 11 2011

The Old Kingdom

Kenneth Clark (last post) made some further programmes for television after his Civilisation of 1969. The last, in 1975, was an hour-long film about ancient Egypt called In the Beginning. I don’t know where it was shown, but it was produced by Reader’s Digest. From the second volume, The Other Half (1977), of his autobiography:

“On successive visits to Egypt, and especially to Sakara, I had grown more and more impressed by the suddenness with which civilised man had made his appearance. By evolutionary standards it should have taken millions of years for the primitive hunter, with low forehead and crunching jaws, to turn into the graceful, intelligent-looking man whom we find in the earliest Egyptian sculpture. In fact it took only about 500. Most people close their minds to this irrefutable fact, either because they cannot explain it, or because it smacks too much of special creation. It was on account of this second suspicion that I called my programme ‘In the Beginning’. I wanted it to make people reflect on what I believe to be the greatest miracle in history. By the year 2750 Egypt had developed nearly all the qualities that we value, or used to value, in our own civilization: a belief in the individual as moral being; pride in the merciful execution of justice, a well organised system of government, a sense of the beauty and dignity of man, who had a soul that would survive him after death; an awareness of animals as something very close to ourselves, which could be lovable as well as useful; geometry and its application to stone architecture; and above all an art that combined grandeur with humanity. All this emerged in what we call the Old Kingdom, which lasted over 700 years, and to which Egypt looked back for the next 200 years, rather as China looked back to the T’ang Dynasty.”

I think “earliest Egyptian sculpture” refers to sculpture in general, not a particular piece, but is he really saying that it took five hundred years for man to be transformed from an anatomically pre-modern to modern state? He is confusing art and anatomy. Anatomical modernity was achieved in some tens of thousands of years after the appearance of homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. Full behavioural modernity was achieved (perhaps) 50,000 years ago, after he had left Africa. Or did man really become more graceful with civilisation?

Some time before Civilisation, Clark had made a film for ATV about Luxor. “The Luxor film was my first introduction to Egypt, which I loved so much that I have been back many times, and have done another film [In the Beginning] about the earlier period [its main focus is on the Old Kingdom]. Working with a half-Egyptian crew, I have come to love not only Egypt but the Egyptians, and my dream of bliss, which I shall never now achieve, would be to go from Cairo to Assuan on a Nile steamer.”

Francis X Hartigan, The History Teacher (US), November 1980, of which I have accessed only part, reviewing In the Beginning:

“In Clark’s provocative view civilization came with ‘the suddenness of sunlight’ between 3000 and 2800 B.C., between the political order established by Narmer and the building of Sakkara, when Egyptian art achieved the sense of beauty, the dignity of man, the order, clarity, and inspiration that he defines as ‘civilization.’ Specifically, Clark places the cradle of civilization at Sakkara with its famous necropolis and step pyramid of Djoser, the earliest stone building in the world. Sakkara presents refinement, sophistication, and grandeur; the early elements of Egyptian art and design can be seen here.

“One may fault Clark’s criterion for civilization because it is exclusively that of an art historian. In his quest for the roots of civilization he all but ignores the greatness and primacy of Mesopotamian Civilization because comparatively little of its art and architecture survives. As an art historian Clark is understandably drawn to the unparalleled richness of the art and architecture of the Egyptians whom he regards as ‘a profoundly visual people.’ The Mesopotamians were more verbal than visual. Once in the world of Egyptian art Clark’s presentation is splendid. Two strong themes emerge: the refinement and confidence of the Egyptians and their unique love of nature and their determination to portray it as an integral part of their lives. Both themes receive their greatest expression in the Old Kingdom, the subject of Part One of the film. The audience is drawn into the freshness and vibrancy of the creative process as it unfolded in Egypt. Along the way Clark discards some old myths. The Giza pyramids were not built by slaves but were the co-operative enterprise of a dynamic and confident society. Egyptian portraiture was not static, but so sensitive that the statue of Khephren is ‘the noblest portrait of a ruler ever made.’”

Even if you look only at cradles of civilisation, and not the megaliths, Sakkara isn’t the “earliest stone building in the world”. But it depends on what ruins you are prepared to call buildings. Clark the anthropologist and archaeologist may be unreliable, but that is not what one reads him for.

Conquest of Upper Egypt by Lower c 3100 BC. Deposition of Mubarak today. Same geography, same faces even. There is some facial continuity between ancient and modern Egypt, which cannot honestly be said about Greece.

Eduard Spelterini, pyramids of Giza from a balloon, November 21 1904, Wikimedia Commons, scanned from Eduard Spelterini, Über den Wolken/Par dessus les nuages, Zurich, Brunner, 1928

The yokel in the aeroplane (old post).

The end of the Egyptian revolution

February 3 2011

As predicted by an Egyptian blogger. Via Qunfuz.

Lafayette or Metternich?

February 2 2011

America is uncertain about how and whether to change its role in the Middle East.

I miss the enthusiasm and the confidence that made the old revolutionary America irresistible. Lafayette pays a high psychological price when he transforms himself into Metternich. Playing Metternich is not a happy role. It is not a hero’s role, and not a winner’s, and the player knows it. But, in those early nineteenth-century years when the real Metternich was fighting his losing battle to shore up the rickety edifice of restored “legitimacy”, who in the World would have guessed that America, of all countries, would one day cast herself for Metternich’s dreary part?

America and the World Revolution and Other Lectures, New York, OUP, 1962

Mubarak’s thugs

February 1 2011

Some of Mubarak’s paid thugs. I took this picture on or before May 29 2006. They were standing opposite the apartment of the then-jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour to forestall a protest. Nour does not seem to be a serious candidate now.

Postscript, February 2: Mubarak splits the democracy movement.

I showed this picture earlier here.

“I will die today”

January 31 2011

I have heard a couple of the street protestors saying this. It must be an Arabic expression. I can’t find it in the Quran.

Does it come from a letter by Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid Empire, to his Ottoman opponent Sultan Selim I in 1514?

“I know the Truth as my supreme guide,
I would sacrifice myself in his way,
I was born yesterday, I will die today,
Come, whoever would die, here is the arena.”

That is all I can find. Would a phrase by a Persian Shiite have gained such currency in the Arab world? Was what I heard a coincidence? Shah Ismail’s words are powerful and appropriate anyway.

Tahrir Square

January 31 2011

Both via Qunfuz.

Outside the embassy in London:

Priest at the Serapeion

January 11 2011

“My kind old father
whose love for me has always stayed the same –
I mourn my kind old father
who died two days ago, just before dawn.

Christ Jesus, I try each day
in my every thought, word, and deed
to keep the commandments
of your most holy Church; and I abhor
all who deny you. But now I mourn:
I grieve, O Christ, for my father
even though he was – terrible as it is to say it –
priest at that cursed Serapeion.”


Priest at the Serapeion, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Serapis was invented during the third century BC by Ptolemy I and was a version of the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis. He was shown as Greek with Egyptian trappings and combined iconography from various cults to do with abundance and resurrection. His worship was not confined to Egypt. There is a Serapeum at Hadrian’s Villa. The poem refers to the Serapeion in Alexandria, which was destroyed by a mob led by the Patriarch Theophilus in 389. The official abolition of paganism by Theodosius followed in 391.

As often with Cavafy, there is an extra force in the final line.

Serapeion: Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340

Ptolemy I failed, like Ikhnaton before him, to make an artificial religion produce the result that was his objective. This Macedonian Greek founder of an Egyptian successor-state of the Achaemenian Empire wanted to create a bond of feeling between the intrusive Greek and the indigenous Egyptian element in the population of his usurped dominions. [Footnote: This is the motive for the establishment of the cult of Osiris that has been attributed to Ptolemy by most Modern Western students of his policy, but there are some dissentient opinions (see Nilsson, M.P., Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, vol. ii (Munich 1950, Beck), p. 148).] He sought to achieve this politically desirable effect by Hellenizing the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis, in whose temple at Memphis, the ancient national capital of Egypt, the successive bull-incarnations of Apis were buried. This Memphite Egyptian god was given a new temple in Rhacôtis, the Egyptian quarter of Ptolemy’s new Greek capital Alexandria, and here he was installed under the name Serapis, in a Hellenized visual form in which he would be an acceptable object of worship for Greeks both in Ptolemy’s dominions and beyond them. Since, by Ptolemy’s day, the Greeks were beginning to be addicted to the religiosity to which the Egyptians had long since succumbed, this new Hellenic version of an old Egyptian cult did duly strike root. But, if this successful religious innovation of Ptolemy’s was really inspired by the ulterior political purpose of promoting a rapprochement between Greeks and Egyptians, then his policy was a failure. The old Egyptian cult of a Memphite Osiris-Apis and the new Greek cult of an Alexandrian Serapis lived on side by side for centuries without ever coalescing; so that the naturalization of an Egyptian god in the Hellenic World did nothing to bring together this common god’s respective Greek and Egyptian worshippers.

The Serapeion at Pozzuoli, near Naples (Naples was mainly Greek-speaking)

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

The inheritors of the Ottoman Empire

November 24 2010

Though the discomfiture by British arms of a moribund Mughal Empire’s local viceroy in Bengal might do little to upset Islamic complacency, and might be regarded in the West mainly as an incident in a struggle over India between Great Britain and France, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Russia in the Great Russo-Turkish War of A.D. 1768-74 was taken everywhere as a portent; and, when in A.D. 1798 the French descended upon the Ottoman dominion of Egypt, and overcame all resistance there with ease, as a step towards reopening in India a contest with their British rivals which had been decided there against France in the Seven Years’ War, even shrewd observers took it for granted that they would live to see the Ottoman Empire partitioned between France, Russia, Great Britain, and the Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy. Yet this expectation, natural though it was at the time, was not fulfilled in the event; for the only parts of the Ottoman Empire, within its frontiers of A.D. 1768, which were in the possession of any of those foreign Powers in A.D. 1952 were the territories adjoining the north and east coasts of the Black Sea, from Bessarabia to Batum inclusive, which had fallen to Russia; Cyprus, which had fallen to Great Britain; and Tunisia and Algeria, which had fallen to France. As for the Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy, which had held Bosnia-Herzegovina from A.D. 1878 to A.D. 1918 and the sanjāq of Novipazār from A.D. 1879 to A.D. 1908, she had voluntarily evacuated Novipazār and had lost Bosnia-Herzegovina in the act of losing her own existence. [Footnote: The occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in and after A.D. 1878, and annexation of this occupied Ottoman territory in A.D. 1908, had, indeed, been nails driven into the Hapsburg Monarchy’s coffin by its own statesmen’s hands, since these Hapsburg acts of aggression against a moribund Ottoman Empire had had the effect of bringing the Monarchy into a head-on collision with a youthful Serb nationalism.] The lion’s share of the Ottoman Empire of A.D. 1768, from Bosnia to the Yaman and from Tripolitania [footnote: A “Libya” consisting of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fazzān, which had been conquered from the Ottoman Empire by Italy in A.D. 1911-12, and from Italy by Great Britain in the general war of A.D. 1939-45, had attained independence on the 24th December, 1951.] to Moldavia inclusive, had passed into the hands, not of alien Great Powers, but of Orthodox Christian and Muslim successor-states, of which the largest in area – apart from a mostly arid Sa‘ūdī Arabia – was a Turkish Republic stretching from Adrianople to Mount Ararat.

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954

Istanbul, Lagos, London

August 27 2010

The historic areas and buildings of Istanbul may be about to lose their UNESCO World Heritage status: BBC. Hürriyet Daily News: A city unable to care for even its Muslim treasures. The Ottoman wooden houses, the quiet streets left to themselves, are being pulled down. The equivalent has been destroyed in other places, so why not here? Many had recently been left to rough rural and other immigrants. (Cairo is unable to protect its Van Gogh.)

The photogenic scaffolding in Hagia Sophia (a museum, not a holy building) was removed earlier this year after seventeen years. Istanbul (with Essen and Pécs) is a European Capital of Culture. Would it have come down otherwise?

BBC series on Lagos now on YouTube starts here. Recommended at Marginal Revolution.

An East Asian or Second Empire approach to London would be to demolish most of the boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth and Southwark and build a new greater South Bank (I hope like neither Dubai nor Poundbury) to balance the historic city on the north bank.

Moses and Aaron

August 4 2010

The Hellenic story of Odysseus’ return from Troy to Ithaca appears, in a variant form, in the Syriac story of the Chosen People’s exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. The attraction which undermines the resolution [and retards the progress] of the Israelites during their wanderings in the wilderness is not the present delight of a Lotus Land or a Calypso’s Isle, but a hankering after the flesh pots of Egypt, [footnote: Egypt seems like an earthly paradise to the Israelites in retrospect, when the memory of their past sojourn there acts as a foil to the current experience of their present ordeal in the wilderness. Yet when they had been living and working in Egypt – making bricks without straw under the task-master’s lash – they had realized as clearly as the Egyptian peasants themselves that in Egypt, as in other lands, it is ever in the sweat of his face that Man eats bread.] which may perhaps be theirs again to-morrow (sic) if only they turn back now. They have no sooner crossed the sea dry-shod, and seen Pharaoh and his host perish in the returning waters, than they begin to murmur in the wilderness against Moses and Aaron:

“Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the Land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. [Footnote: Exodus xvi. 3.] …

“Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? [Footnote: Exodus xvii. 3.] …

“Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely – the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic – but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all beside this manna before our eyes.” [Footnote: Numbers xi. 4-6.]

Even when they have crossed the wilderness as safely as they had crossed the sea, and stand at last on the threshold of Canaan, their thoughts fly back to Egypt as they listen to the evil report of their spies – their sight of the Sons of Anak, the children of the giants, in whose presence the spies had seemed and felt like grasshoppers.

“And all the congregation lifted up their voice and cried; and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would God we had died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?’ And they said one to another: ‘Let us make a captain and let us return into Egypt.’” [Footnote: Numbers xvi. 1-4.]

The Chosen People are unable to enter into their inheritance until this haunting and enervating recollection of the flesh pots has been effaced; and it is not effaced until forty years of purgatory – spent in wandering over the face of the wilderness which they have just put behind them in one straight and rapid trek – have brought the older generation to the grave and the younger generation to manhood. [Footnote: Numbers xiv. 26-35. […]]

A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934

Moses and Jesus

August 3 2010

Moses in the wilderness encounters a benevolent numen, and receives an assurance of the kind of supernatural aid that Odysseus obtains from Athena. On the other hand, Jesus in the wilderness is fortified through being tempted by the Devil, like Job or Faust.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934 (footnote)

Stability and dynamism

July 31 2010

The wych-elm

I remember Henri Frankfort criticizing me on a point […]. I had apparently disparaged the ancient Egyptian civilization for being static. Frankfort said: Why on earth disparage it for that? Why isn’t the Egyptian ideal of keeping society static just as good as your wretched modern, Western idea of dynamism? And when we look at the world today we see there is a great deal in what he said, and we are beginning to think we must stabilize our civilization.

Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974

Recorded for the 1972-73 programmes of Radio Free Europe.

Frankish tortoise, Visigothic and Arab hares

July 22 2010

The organized and purposeful military campaigns of the Muslim Arabs were very different from the half automatic and barely conscious pressure of their ancestors against the yielding desert-frontier of a decaying Seleucid Empire in the second and the last century B.C. They are more comparable to the momentary Arab occupation of the Syrian, Egyptian, and Anatolian territories of the Roman Empire under Palmyrene leadership in the third century of the Christian Era. But they utterly surpassed both these anticipatory reconnaissances in the potency of their driving-force. [Footnote: This immense superiority, in potency, of the third of the three Arab offensives against the Hellenic World was almost certainly due to the most conspicuous of its distinctive features: that is to say, to the fact of its having been launched under the auspices of Islam. […]] While the Arab encroachments in the last two centuries B.C. had got no farther than the line of the Lebanon and the Orontes, [footnote: See Jones, A. H. M.: The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (Oxford 1937, Clarendon Press), pp. 255-6.] and the momentary Palmyrene conquests in the third century of the Christian Era had come to a halt at the banks of the Nile and of the Black Sea Straits, the Muslim Arab conquerors penetrated as far as their Palmyrene predecessors towards the north-west, while on the south-west they left them far behind. In Asia Minor the Constantinopolitan Government succeeded – at the price of abandoning its commitments and cutting its losses on all other fronts – in pushing the Muslim Arabs back from the line of the Straits to the line of the Taurus and holding them there at the cost of grievously overstraining and fatally deforming the nascent body social of Orthodox Christendom. In Africa, however, the wave of Muslim Arab conquest swept on from the Nile to the Atlantic – meeting and overpowering and, carrying along with it the lesser wave of Berber aggression which was at that time breaking, likewise for the third time, upon the remnant of the African domain which Rome had inherited from Carthage.

Justinian had expelled the Vandals from the Maghreb.

The two earlier waves of Berber aggression had been, first, the Numidian intervention in the Second Punic, or Hannibalic, War and the Numidian King Jugurtha’s war with Rome (these are taken together) during the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” and, second, renewed pressure during the shorter crisis of the middle of the third century CE.

At the Straits of Gibraltar the united Arab and Berber wings of the Afrasian Nomad forces collided with the epigoni of the Visigoths, who had settled down in the Iberian Peninsula at the end of a Völkerwanderung which had carried them across the whole breadth of the Roman Empire from a starting-point on the Great Western Bay of the Eurasian Steppe. When these Gothic pupils of the Eurasian Nomads now encountered the Afrasian Nomad invaders of the Roman Empire at a point on the Empire’s extreme western verge which was almost equally remote from the original mustering-grounds of both the rival war-bands, it was the Afrasian Nomadism that was victorious; [footnote: The victory of the Afrasian Nomads over the Visigothic representatives of the Eurasian Nomadism at Xeres [modern Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia], on the Iberian threshold of Europe, in A.D. 711, has the same piquancy as the victory of the Indian over the African elephants at Raphia, on the Egyptian threshold of Africa, in 217 B.C.] for the united Arab-Berber forces were not flung back from the Straits of Gibraltar by Roderick in A.D. 711 as the Arabs were flung back from the Bosphorus by Constantine IV in A.D. 677 and again in A.D. 718 by Leo Syrus. Scattering the Goths like chaff, the Arabs and Berbers pressed on across the Pyrenees and reached the banks of the Rhône and the Loire before they collided with the Franks and fared as ill at their hands in A.D. 732 on the road to Tours as the ancestors of the Arabs’ discomfited Gothic adversaries had fared at the same Frankish hands at Vouillé in A.D. 507. It was characteristic of the heavy-footed gait of the sedentary North European barbarians that, at dates which were two hundred and twenty-five years apart, they should win their successive victories over their mobile rivals from the Ukraine and the Hijāz on battlefields that were something less than twenty miles distant from one another as the crow flies. [Footnote: The battle between the Austrasians and the Arabs which is traditionally known by the name of Tours seems actually to have been fought in the neighbourhood of Old Poictiers [sic], in the angle between the rivers Elain and Vienne.] Charles Martel allowed the Arabs to come that much nearer to the home territory of the Frankish Power in the basins of the Seine and the Rhine [footnote: Charles Martel’s sluggishness in marching to the help of the Aquitanians in A.D. 732 may be compared with the sluggishness of the Spartans in coming to the Athenians’ aid in 490 B.C. and again in 479 B.C.] than Clovis had allowed the Visigoths to advance in the same direction before marching out to defeat them; but the event was the same. At Tours in A.D. 732, as at Vouillé in A.D. 507, the immovable Franks remained masters of the field.

These Frankish victories over Goths and Arabs were a double triumph for the tortoise who had been content to crawl from the Rhine to the Loire during the time that it had taken one hare to sprint from the Ukraine, and another to sprint from the Hijāz, to the tortoise’s doorstep in Aquitaine. In this contest between the barbarians for the division of the Hellenic dominant minority’s territorial spoils the race was certainly not to the swift, though the battle may have been to the strong. [Footnote: Ecclesiastes ix. 11.] But this revelation of the relative strengths of the rival barbarian war-bands is not the main interest of the two battles in which they tried conclusions with one another. The outstanding historical event to which the battles of Vouillé and Tours bear witness is not the discomfiture of the Goths and the Arabs by the Frank, but the collapse of the resistance of the Roman Power which had been the common arch-adversary of all the three combatants. By the time when, in the heart of the Orbis Romanus, the war-bands from beyond one of the four anti-barbarian frontiers encountered and defeated – on derelict Roman ground – the war-bands from beyond each of the other three frontiers, it was manifest that the third of the three attempts of the external proletariat to take the Hellenic universal state by storm had been completely and definitively successful.

The four frontiers are defined in an earlier passage as

the front against the sedentary barbarians of Continental Europe from the North Sea coast to Transylvania; the front against the Eurasian Nomads (and the Nomadicized sedentary intruders upon the Nomads’ ranges) in the Lower Danubian bay and the Middle Danubian enclave of the Great Eurasian Steppe; the front against the barbarians in the interior of North West Africa (Nomads on the Sahara and highlanders in the Atlas); and the front against the Arabs beyond the desert-coast of Syria who constituted the Asiatic wing of the Afrasian Nomad forces.

The two earlier attempts to take the universal state had been, first, the series of attacks – by Sarmatians, Arabs, Numidians, Cimbri, Teutones, Suevi – in the last two centuries BC during the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” (he treats this as a single crisis) and, second, the attacks – by Goths, Arabs, Berbers, Franks, Alemanni – of the crisis of the middle of the third century CE.

Perhaps one could quibble with this by pointing out that, according to Toynbee’s own system, the first attempt was an attack on the society before it had had a universal state (the Roman Empire) imposed on it.

In the third attempt

the action opened on the Eurasian front, where the eruption of the Hun Nomads blew the nomadicized [lower case this time] Goths right off the Steppe into the far interior of the Roman body politic – as rocks and trees are uprooted and hurled through the air by an exploding shell. From the end of the fourth century to the end of the sixth the pressure continued to be heavier on this front than on any other, as the ebb of the Hun wave was followed by the onrush of the Avar wave, and the vacuum left by the violent propulsion of the Goths was filled by the gentle infiltration of the Slavs. It was only in the seventh century, when the onslaughts of pagan Huns and Avars were outmatched by the demoniac outbreak of the Muslim Arabs, that the main pressure shifted from the Eurasian front to the Arabian.

Charles de Steuben, Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732, Musée du Château de Versailles, Wikimedia Commons

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939