Archive for the 'Judaism' Category

Thessaloniki 1913

June 29 2015

From a five-part BBC documentary series about Albert Kahn, Edwardians in Colour [why Edwardians?]: The Wonderful World of Albert Kahnc 2007. The talking head is Mark Mazower, mentioned in the last post.

BBC: “In 1909 the millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn embarked on an ambitious project to create a colour photographic record of, and for, the peoples of the world. As an idealist and an internationalist, Kahn believed that he could use the new Autochrome process, the world’s first user-friendly, true-colour photographic system, to promote cross-cultural peace and understanding.

“Until recently, Kahn’s huge collection of 72,000 Autochromes remained relatively unheard of. Now, a century after he launched his project, [a] book and the BBC TV series it accompanies are bringing these dazzling pictures to a mass audience for the first time and putting colour into what we tend to think of as an entirely monochrome age.

“Kahn sent photographers to more than 50 countries, often at crucial junctures in their history, when age-old cultures were on the brink of being changed for ever by war and the march of twentieth-century globalisation. They documented in true colour the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the last traditional Celtic villages in Ireland, and the soldiers of the First World War. They took the earliest known colour photographs in countries as far apart as Vietnam and Brazil, Mongolia and Norway, Benin and the United States. In 1929 the Wall Street Crash forced Kahn to bring his project to an end. He died in 1940, but left behind the most important collection of early colour photographs in the world.”

The photographer of Thessaloniki in early 1913 was Auguste Léon, but the name mentioned at 00:20 is hard to understand.

Cf Prokudin-Gorskii, who photographed the Russian Empire in colour. Posts about him here. He used a different method to obtain colour, not colourised, photographs – not the Autochrome process.

Mesmerising as some of the images are, does Kahn concentrate too much on street sellers and the like? What is unrecorded by his photographers and by most others is what life was like indoors. That is the real lost world.

And these records show nothing of people’s manners.

Mitchell and Kenyon are of similar importance in England before the First World War because of the technical quality of their work, though they made moving films, and in black and white.

Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris.

Singing Sephardim

June 28 2015

[Sephardic Jews] developed under the Ottoman régime a quite different êthos from the Jewish êthos as we know it in the West, because the treatment which they received at the ʿOsmanlis’ hands was quite different from the treatment which Jews have customarily received at the hands of Westerners.

The psychological effect of four centuries of the [comparatively benign] Ottoman régime upon the descendants in the Near East of these Sephardi refugees from Castile was once brought home to the writer of this Study by an incident which came under his personal observation.

One day in August 1921, some eight years and more after Salonica, with its Sephardi population of eighty thousand souls, had passed by conquest out of Ottoman jurisdiction into Greek, I found myself travelling by train from Salonica to Vodena in the same carriage with three Sephardi school-teachers going on a holiday and one Greek officer going to rejoin his regiment. The holiday-makers – two girls and a man – were in high spirits, and they gave vent to their mood by breaking into song. They sang in French: the “culture language” in which the modern Near Eastern Jew has found the necessary supplement to his hereditary Castilian vernacular. After they had been singing for some time, the Greek lieutenant broke his own silence. “Won’t you sing in Greek for a change?” he said. “This country is part of Greece now, and you are Greek citizens.” But his intervention had no effect. “We prefer French” the Jews answered, politely but firmly, and fell to singing lustily in French again, while the Greek lieutenant subsided. There was one person in the carriage, however, who was even more surprised at the Jewish teachers’ reply to the Greek officer than the Greek himself, and that was the Frankish spectator. Seldom, he reflected, would a Jew have shown such spirit in such circumstances in France or England or America. The incident bore witness to the relative humanity with which the Jews in the Ottoman Empire had been treated by the ʿOsmanlis; and it also had a wider and more interesting significance. It was evidence that the Jewish êthos was not something ineradicably implanted by Race or something indelibly ingrained by Religion but was a psychic variable which was apt to vary in response to variations in Gentile behaviour in different times and places.

The Jews were singing in a lingua franca, French, not in a ghetto language, and they were not showing a ghetto mentality. Such cheerful defiance in the presence of a member of the dominant culture, and a soldier, would not have been thus demonstrated in Russia or Austria – but really not in France, England or America?

Would the point have been made even more strongly if they had been singing in Turkish or Greek or would that have come from mere cultural dilution? Would they have shown even more confidence if they had been singing in the “hereditary Castilian vernacular”, ie Judaeo-Spanish, ie Ladino? Ladino was spoken by Sephardic minorities in the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. Most speakers are now in Israel.

It is not to be confused with another Romance language, Ladin, which is spoken in parts of northern Italy and is related to Friulian and the Swiss Romansh.

The Jews of Salonika were happier in the multi-ethnic Turkish Empire (before the arrival of the Young Turks) than under the Greeks (1912-41). 98% of them died in the Holocaust. Much of the Jewish Quarter had been destroyed in the fire (probably accidental) of 1917.

See Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, Harper Collins, 2004.

Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki.

A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934

Jews and Muslims in Christendom

June 2 2015

Though the status [of Jews] was not recognized de jure in the canon law of the Christian Church, it was no more possible for Christianity than it was for Islam to cut the ground of its own moral claims to theological validity from under its own feet by proscribing another higher religion which was not only older than it was, but was its forerunner according to its own contention. [Footnote: The historical relation of Christianity to Judaism explains why the Christian Church never extended its tacit toleration of Judaism to an Islam which was in one aspect a post-Christian reversion to Judaism from Christianity. In the Christian view the tolerance morally due to a truly though imperfectly inspired pre-Christian approximation towards Christianity could not properly be extended to a perverse backsliding from the Christian summit of religious attainment.]

Christians did not treat Jews better than Muslims. They had higher regard for Jewish theology, but where Jews had no civil rights, religious toleration had no meaning.

Islam’s traditional respect for the older religions is disappearing in some quarters.

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954

Martin Gilbert

February 6 2015

Chronicler, factory.

Obits a week after Churchill and Holocaust anniversaries:




Main Churchill volumes (comment in old post).

Career ended February 2013 with cerebral haemorrhage.

2002 interview by Allan Gregg about the Jews in the 20th century:

William Dalrymple

December 31 2014

One of Dalrymple’s heroes is Leigh Fermor. WD’s a fine historian, but not PLF’s literary equal.


In Xanadu (1989), following the path taken by Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the site of Shangdu, Xanadu, in Inner Mongolia, the summer seat of Kublai Khan. Posts here: Xanadu and JeholThe Silk Road and Summer capitals, summer palaces.

City of Djinns (1994), about Delhi, where he lives.

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (1997), about eastern Christianity. Posts here: Indian churches, Christians and Yazidi, and work back from links in latter.

The Age of Kali (1998), about trouble in modern India. Kali Yuga is the fourth age in Hindu cosmology.

Editor, Lonely Planet Sacred India (1999).

White Mughals (2002), about a love affair in early-nineteenth-century Hyderabad between James Achilles Kirkpatrick and a Muslim noblewoman, Khair-un-Nissa Begum.

Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals of Fanny Parkes (2002), an edition of the travel journals of Fanny Parkes, who travelled in India from 1822 to ’46 and wrote Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque.

The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 (2006).

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (2009).

Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan (2012), about the first Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-42.

Editor, with Yuthika Sharma, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857 (2012). After Aurangzeb.

TV, radio, journalism.


Links to podcasts this year in the BBC Radio 4 Point of View series, with my comments:

A Lenten reflection, April 4. About the discovery, by a British hunting party in 1819, of the painted caves at Ajanta, in the western Ghats in central Maharashtra. “Along with the frescoes of Pompeii, […] the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world.” The caves were inhabited by Buddhist monks, but show the sensual life of the court in which the Buddha grew up, not the austerities of the religious life. They were probably painted in the 2nd century BC, with a later group from the 5th century CE. There was no conflict between the sacred and the sensual in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, says Dalrymple; he does not dwell on Hindu traditions of mortifying the flesh.

Later: Buddhist, Jain and Hindu carvings and fragments of paintings in caves at Ellora in Maharashtra. Buddhist and Hindu carvings in caves on Elephanta Island in Mumbai harbour. Erotic Jain and Hindu carvings at temples in Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh.

The puritanical break in India, he suggests, came not with Islam, but with the British, with effects still felt today in a false reinterpretation of their history by Hindus. Africans and Muslims are doing the same thing with theirs. What is rejected as unMuslim and unAfrican is often nineteenth-century unWestern.

A classic instance in modern Western art of wild eroticism united with religious sensibility is Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. Its original inspiration wasn’t Indian, but its title is a composite of two Sanskrit words, turanga and lîla, which, apparently, roughly mean “love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death”. How odd that Bernstein, who conducted the premiere in Boston, never returned to it or recorded it. Or is it kitsch?

A tale of two elections, April 11. About the 2014 elections in India and Afghanistan.

Travel-writing giants, April 18. About Peter Matthieson, who had just died, and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Last year in the same series, we had Islamo-Christian heritage, December 20 2013, about the old sharing of sacred space in Egpyt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, India by Christians, Muslims and Jews. I quoted from it here.

Islam did not tolerate Christianity: it showed great tenderness towards it. Dalrymple quotes examples from Akbar’s abortive capital at Fatehpur Sikri. Mary is mentioned more often in the Quran than in the Gospels. Many apocryphal sayings of Jesus were and are current in Islam.

Contested sites and the failure to share: Jerusalem and Ayodhya, the Temple Mount and Ram Janmabhoomi. Though the Israeli occupiers of the Temple Mount do enforce a ban on prayer by non-Muslims at its Umayyad structures, a ban which some orthodox Zionists would like to defy and nearly all Muslims demand.

Dalrymple on Akbar and Christianity, New Statesman, December 19 2005. Post here mentioning Akbar’s attempt to start a new syncretic religion, the Dīn IIāhī.

National Museum, Saudi Arabia

December 6 2014

This is worth visiting. Architecture good (Raymond Moriyama), museology good. And I like dioramas. There are historical films too, and what must be the only cinema in the Kingdom outside a royal palace.

A visit reminds you, who are conscious of hotel lobbies and shopping malls, that Arabs of the subcontinent used to live in a vast, beautiful and varied landscape. They have lost the macrocosm and are imprisoned in a microcosm. The night sky is gone, too. Perhaps some tours can bring you back to them. Driving from Riyad to Bahrain, as I have done, does not. Plastic bags blow over the desert, which looks as beautiful as one of their ubiquitous dusty spaces between buildings with empty PET bottles rolling around them.

Out of that macrocosm the Arabs wrested, to paraphrase Toynbee, their conception of the unity and omnipotence of God. That seems a small affair, too, now, as reflected in the Islam we usually see, though the call to prayer can remind you of it.

Apart from the museum, there isn’t much to do in Riyad. You can go to a Friday morning public beheading by the sword in Deira Square if you really want to. It is easy to meet locals, which is not the case in some of the smaller Gulf states. They are often charming.

Don’t ignore the King Abdulaziz Memorial Hall just because it sounds boring: there are wonderful photographs of 20th-century Arabia.

Other Gulf museums: Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. Dubai Museum. The Louvre and the Guggenheim on Abu Dhabi’s Museeninsel, Saadiyat Island, have yet to open.

When did the Arabs ride into history? According to the museum, in 853 BC at the Battle of Qarqar, in which Assyria, conquering Syria, fought Aram-Damascus and Israel. A camel cavalry under King Gindibu fought on the side of Damascus.

After some cosmic and anthropological material (Man and the Universe), the museum has a section on the Old Testament of Arab history which, if it ended at the Hijra, lasted 1475 years, a few years longer than the New Testament has lasted so far.

It places the kingdoms, towns and religions of that period in a regional context. The rest of this is based on notes (nothing more) made during two visits, with some fact checking.

Tarout Island. Off the Eastern Province in the Gulf. A very early settlement.

Dilmun. The early civilisation of Bahrain.

Qurayyah. Location of the earliest Midianite pottery, 13th century BC. Cities of Midian: northeast edge of the subcontinent near the Gulf of Aqaba and northern Hejaz.

Tayma. Same area. In 2010, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities announced the discovery of a rock near the oasis bearing an inscription of Ramesses III (early 12th century BC): the first confirmed discovery of a hieroglyphic inscription on Saudi Arabian soil. Tayma must have been on a land route between the Arabia and the Nile valley. The earliest mention of it is in Assyrian inscriptions of the 8th century BC. From the 1st century CE (earlier?), it had a significant Jewish population.

Gerrha. Persian Gulf coast. To the Greeks, East Arabia (present al-Hasa province), or its capital city, was known as Gerrha, a corruption of the Arabic Hagar (present Hofuf). Hagar/Gerrha was destroyed by the Ismaili Shiite Qarmatians, rebels against the Abbasid Caliphate, at the end of the 9th century CE.

Al-ʿUla, southwest of Tayma on the incense road from Yemen to Damascus. The Dedanite kingdom flourished in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. Nabonidus, king of Babylon, conquered Tayma, Dedan and Yathrib, the old Medina, in 552 BC or later. The next few hundred years, until around 100 BC, were the time of the Kingdom of Lihyan. Then Nabataean Arab frontiersmen controlled the region, until at least AD 106, when Trajan conquered their capital Petra. They made Madaʿin Saleh or Hegra, 22 km to the north of Al-ʿUla, their second capital. In 2008 Madaʿin Saleh became Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site.

Thaj. Northwest. Perhaps Seleucid-era.

Qaryat al-Faw. Between Mecca and Yemen, but further inland than Mecca, at a pass overlooking the northwestern edge of the Empty Quarter. Capital of the Kindah Kingdom from the 1st century BC to the 4th century CE.

Ruwafa. Nabatean.

Dumat Al-Jandal. Nabatean, with a pre- and post-Nabatean history.

Ain Jawan. Pre-Islamic necropolis in eastern Arabia.

Al-Uyoon, eastern Arabia.

Najran. Oasis near Yemeni border. Now mainly Ismaili Shiite. On the incense route. Conquered c 685 BC by the Sabean King Karibʿil Watar I of Yemen. Najran was under Yemeni – Minaean or Sabean – rule at different times during the next centuries and remained part of Yemen. Aelius Gallus, Roman prefect of Egypt, led an unsuccessful expedition to conquer Arabia Felix and won a battle near Najran in 25 BC. He used it as a base from which to attack the Sabaean capital at Maʿrib. When the Ḥimyarites conquered the Sabeans in AD 280 they probably also took control of Najran. The north Arabian Lakhmids attacked Najran in 328. There was a Christian community from the 5th century CE under the influence of Axum. Under the Caliph Umar, the Christian community of Najran was deported to Mesopotamia, on the ground that no non-Muslims were to live in the Arabian peninsula. Najran had a pre-Islamic Jewish community as well, historically affiliated with the Yemenite Banim Chorath. Saudi Arabia conquered Najran in 1934. Two hundred Jews fled from persecution to Aden in September and October 1949. They were later airlifted to Israel.

Khaybar. Oasis 153 km north of Medina (Yathrib). Before the rise of Islam, a fortress town inhabited by Jewish tribes. It fell to Muslim forces in 629. Soon afterwards Umar expelled the Jews.

Lakhmids. Arab power on the frontier of Iraq, c AD 300 until their conquest by the Sasanids of Persia in 602.

Ghassanids. Similar client state of the East Roman Empire. Both were swept away by the Muslim invaders in the 7th century.

Jerash, Asir.

Al-Qullays, a pre-Islamic pilgrimage site.

The first mention of Jews in the area of modern-day Saudi Arabia dates, by some accounts, to the time of the First Temple. Immigration to the peninsula began in earnest in the 2nd century CE, and by the 6th and 7th centuries there was a considerable Jewish population in the Hejaz, mostly in and around Medina. They were expelled in the early days of Islam.

On pre-Islamic Mecca and Medina, see this old post.

And see:

Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities

Museum site.


Ancient towns in Saudi Arabia

Judaism in Arabia

Christianity in Arabia.


The rest (upstairs) deals with the Prophet; the wars of Islam; Caliphs, Mamluks, Turks; calligraphy; the Haj; the unification by King Abdulaziz. In the middle of the 18th century, Wahhabi reformers brought a strict version of Islam to the Nejd, which had sunk into irreligion – and it was the Nejd under the Saud family which unified the peninsula, or most of it, between the wars.

There had been two Saudi states before that. The First Saudi State or Emirate of Diriyah lasted from 1744 to 1818. The Ottomans, who had controlled the Holy Cities since 1517 (through the Hashemite sharifs of Mecca), felt threatened. In the winter of 1818 Diriyah fell after a siege (of which the museum makes much) to Ibrahim Pasha, the son of their Egyptian viceroy.

The Second Saudi State or Emirate of Nejd, founded by Turki, lasted from 1818 to 1891. It was brought to an end by the Rashidis of the Emirate of Jabal Shammar, the arch-enemies of the House of Saud.


Since the domestication of the Arabian camel, nearly 2,000 years before Muhammad’s day, Arabia had been traversible, and ideas and institutions had been seeping into the peninsula from the Fertile Crescent that adjoins it on the north. The effect of this infiltration had been cumulative, and, by Muhammad’s time, the accumulated charge of spiritual force in Arabia was ready to explode.

The horse was used in Arabia from about the same time. Elephants were brought into the peninsula by the invading Axumites in the 6th century. The Year of the Elephant (Wikipedia).

Old posts here:

Seepage into Arabia

Roads to Mecca (including the grotesque part about the Makkah Hilton in a comment)

Tales from the India Office.

Regions of Arabia

Historical regions of Arabia, early 20th century

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The martyrdom of the Moriscos

November 13 2014

Educated Osmanlis are aware that the Spanish-speaking Jews who are so prominent in the principal cities of the Levant, are descended from the Jews of Spain, who were expelled by the Spanish and given asylum by the Ottoman Government at the close of the fifteenth century. Following up this clue, they have studied the martyrdom of the “Moriscos,” the Moslem population of the Moorish states in the Peninsula reconquered by the Christians. They have read in Western histories how this civilised and industrious Middle Eastern people was forcibly converted, driven by oppression into desperate revolts, and then massacred, despoiled, and evicted by its Western conquerors, at the very time when in the Near East the Osmanlis were allowing conquered non-Moslems to retain their cultural autonomy and were organising Orthodox, Armenian, and Jewish millets as official departments of a Moslem state. I have heard Turks express ironical regret that they did not Westernise in the fifteenth century after Christ. If they had followed our example then, they would have had no minorities to bother them to-day!

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

Germany: Memories of a Nation

November 9 2014

Neil MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation, which completed its BBC Radio 4 run on the eve of 25 years of “Germany”, was as good as his A History of the World in 100 Objects (old post). This time, thirty 15-minute episodes, not quite chronological, “using objects, art, landmarks and literature”.

The test with a series like this is: would the other side wince if they heard it? I hope not in this case, even in the tenth programme. BBC descriptions are slightly edited here. Links to podcasts:

  1. The View from the Gate. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, begins his series examining 600 years of German history through objects with a reflection on Germany’s floating frontiers. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Neil visits the Brandenburg Gate.
  2. Divided Heaven. Neil MacGregor examines the story of the two Germanys, East and West, created in 1949, through objects including a wet suit used in an escape attempt from the East in 1987, which was later used as a training device by the Stasi, the East German secret police.
  3. Kafka, Kant and Lost Capitals. Neil MacGregor visits Kaliningrad, now in Russia, but formerly the German city Königsberg, home of the philosopher Kant, and also visits Prague, birthplace of writer Franz Kafka.
  4. Strasbourg – Floating City. Neil MacGregor visits Strasbourg, now in France, but once also a key city in German history, culture and precision engineering, as revealed by model of the astonishing cathedral clock.
  5. Fragments of Power. Neil MacGregor discovers how coins reveal the range and diversity of the Holy Roman Empire, with around 200 different currencies struck in the various territories of Germany.
  6. Luther and a Language for All Germans. Neil MacGregor focuses on the things which bind Germans together. He begins with the story of how Luther created the modern German language, by translating the Bible.
  7. Fairy Tales and Forests. Neil MacGregor examines how the tales of the Grimms and the art of Caspar David Friedrich re-established an identity for the German-speaking people, after their defeat by Napoleon.
  8. One Nation under Goethe. Neil MacGregor focuses on Goethe, arguing that he is the greatest of all German poets, and a unifying force, so that the Germans are one nation under Goethe.
  9. The Walhalla: Hall of Heroes. Neil MacGregor visits the Walhalla, one of the most idiosyncratic expressions of national identity in 19th century Europe, a temple to German-ness, modelled on the Parthenon.
  10. One People, Many Sausages. Neil MacGregor focuses on two great emblems of Germany’s national diet: beer and sausages. He finds out how regional specialities represent centuries of regional history.
  11. The Battle for Charlemagne. Neil MacGregor visits Aachen cathedral to examine the legacy of Charlemagne (c 747-c 814) – was he a great French ruler, or was he Charles the Great, a German? And what is the significance of a very fine replica of the Imperial Crown?
  12. Riemenschneider: Sculpting the Spirit. Neil MacGregor focuses on the religious sculptures of Tilman Riemenschneider (c 1460-1531), whose reputation as an artist has steadily risen. He is seen as a supreme sculptor, working in a peculiarly German medium, limewood, but articulating the sensibilities of a continent. And Neil MacGregor reveals why, as the war came to an end in 1945, the Nobel Prize-winning writer Thomas Mann identified Riemenschneider as a moral and political hero.
  13. Holbein and the Hansa. Neil MacGregor charts the rise and fall of the Hansa, or Hanseatic League, a great trading alliance of 90 cities, and the role of the painter Hans Holbein the Younger.
  14. Iron Nation. Neil MacGregor charts the role of iron in 19th century Prussia, an everyday metal whose uses included patriotic jewellery and the Iron Cross, a military decoration to honour all ranks.
  15. 1848: The People’s Flag and Karl Marx. Neil MacGregor reflects on the events of 1848, when black, red and gold became the colours of the flag for a united Germany, and Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto.
  16. Gutenberg: In the Beginning was the Printer. Neil MacGregor examines how Johannes Gutenberg’s inventions led to the birth of the book as we know it. For many, it is the moment at which the modern world began.
  17. Dürer: An Artist for All Germans. Neil MacGregor focuses on the work of Dürer (1471-1528), arguing that he is the defining artist of Germany, his image – and his self-image – known to all Germans.
  18. Porcelain: The White Gold of Saxony. Neil MacGregor focuses on how 18th century German chemists discovered the secrets of Chinese porcelain, known then as “white gold” – translucent, fine-glazed, and much-coveted.
  19. From Clock to Car: Masters of Metal. Neil MacGregor focuses on the long tradition of German metalwork, from finely-engineered clocks and scientific instruments to the Volkswagen Beetle.
  20. Bauhaus: Cradle of the Modern. Neil MacGregor focuses on the Bauhaus school of art and design, founded in 1919. Its emphasis on functional elegance is visible in our houses, furniture and typography today.
  21. Bismarck the Blacksmith. Neil MacGregor charts the career of Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), known as the Iron Chancellor: he argued that the great questions of the day should be decided by “iron and blood”.
  22. Käthe Kollwitz: Suffering Witness. Neil MacGregor focuses on the art of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), who expresses the loss and suffering of war, especially after the death of her younger son Peter at the front in 1914. Neil MacGregor argues that she is one of the greatest German artists. Like no other artist of the time, Kollwitz gave voice to the overwhelming sense of personal loss felt by ordinary Germans – the loss of a whole generation, the loss of political stability and of individual dignity.
  23. Notgeld. Neil MacGregor examines the emergency money – Notgeld – created during World War One and its aftermath. Small denomination coins began to disappear because their metal was worth more than their face value. People hoarded them or melted them down. Paper notes replaced coins, but as cities produced their own money, there was also currency made from porcelain, linen, silk, leather, wood, coal, cotton and playing cards. He also focuses on the crisis of hyperinflation in the early 1920s. At its peak, prices doubled every three and a half days, and in 1923 a 500 million mark note might buy a loaf of bread.
  24. Degenerate Art. Neil MacGregor examines how the Nazis attacked art they viewed as “entartet” – degenerate. He charts how Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, led a process designed to purify all German culture, including books, music, paintings and pottery. The programme focuses on a vase created by Grete Marks, with an evident debt to Chinese ceramics, and a loose brush-splashed glaze suggestive of modernist painting. Goebbels condemned this vase in his newspaper Der Angriff – The Attack. Grete Marks, who was Jewish and had trained at the Bauhaus, left Germany for England.
  25. Buchenwald. Neil MacGregor visits Buchenwald, one of the earliest and largest concentration camps.
  26. The Germans Expelled. Neil MacGregor focuses on a small hand-cart to tell the story of how more than 12 million Germans fled or were forced out of Central and Eastern Europe after 1945.
  27. Out of the Rubble. Neil MacGregor talks to a Trümmerfrau, a woman who cleared rubble from the Berlin streets in 1945, and focuses on a sculpture by Max Lachnit made from hundreds of pieces of rubble.
  28. The New German Jews. Germany today has the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe. Neil MacGregor visits a synagogue in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, which was inaugurated in 1956.
  29. Barlach’s Angel. Neil MacGregor focuses on Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Hovering Angel, a unique war memorial, commissioned in 1926 to hang in the cathedral in Güstrow.
  30. Reichstag. Neil MacGregor ends his journey through 600 years of German history at the Reichstag, seat of the German Parliament.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, Goethe in der Campagna (1787), Wikipedia

The prisoners of Ezra

October 31 2014

The scribe and prophet Ezra was born in Babylon, but under the Persians c 480 BC after the exile was over. He moved to Jerusalem, where the Temple had been rebuilt, and reintroduced the Torah there.

In their attitude towards gentiles, Jews today are still the prisoners of the masterful Babylonian Jewish reformer Ezra. His objective was to make the Jews obey the Torah; and, as a necessary means to this end, he took drastic steps to segregate them from their gentile neighbours. “The general result of his policy was to draw a sharp line of division between Jew and gentile, and to make for the Jewish community a sort of enclosure in the midst of the gentile world.” This was an inevitable effect of enforcing the observance of the Torah as Ezra understood it. But the observance of the Torah as understood by Ezra and by his successors the Pharisees is not an inevitable accompaniment of the religion of Deutero-Isaiah [the exilic “second Isaiah”]. Ezra raised an issue. He did not settle it. And the debate that he started has been continuing in Jewish hearts and minds ever since.

The quotation is from R Travers Herford, Judaism in the New Testament Period, Lindsey Press, 1928. The passage also refers to his The Pharisees, Allen & Unwin, 1924.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961

Jewish legion

August 28 2014

Epstein at war, 1917. Silent Pathé clip. He served briefly in the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, aka the Jewish Legion. Did he fight in Palestine? Where is his reputation now? It seems uncertain.

Why is Jerusalem holy?

August 3 2014

A city can […] become holy through having been the scene of a transcendent spiritual experience, whether authentic or legendary. For instance, Jerusalem is a holy city for Muslims because the Prophet Muhammad believed that this was the place where, on “the Night of Power”, he had ascended into Heaven and re-descended to Earth. The most tragic of all possible events in a prophet’s life is martyrdom, and the holiness of the scene of a martyrdom is enhanced if the martyr has been buried in the same place. The crucifixion and burial of Jesus in Jerusalem are the two events in Jesus’s history that have made Jerusalem a holy city for Christians.


Why is Jerusalem a holy city for Muslims today? Because it was a holy city for the Prophet Muhammad; and it was holy for him because of its long-established holiness for Christians and Jews – “the People of the Book” who enjoyed religious prestige in Muhammad’s eyes in virtue of their having been previous recipients of divine revelation. This is why Muhammad originally instructed his followers to face towards Jerusalem when they were saying their prayers, and it is also why, in his mind, Jerusalem was the place from which he ascended to Heaven and to which he re-descended on “the Night of Power”.

Why is Jerusalem a holy city for Christians today? Because it was a holy city for Jesus. It was holy for him because he was an orthodox Jew, and he was observing the Jewish Law, as this stood in his day, when he went from his native Galilee to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover there in the year in which he was crucified and was buried outside Jerusalem’s city-wall.

Why is Jerusalem a holy city for Jews? Because King Josiah of Judah (circa 640-610 B.C.) [meaning reigned] centralized in Jerusalem all acts of worship in his kingdom and put all other places of worship there out of commission.

Moses and Joshua conquered Canaan, the Promised Land. The Hebrews were often subject to the coastal Philistines and were ruled by Judges until c 1000 B.C.

The prophet Samuel, florebat from c 1050 BC, was the last judge of Israel and the first of the prophets after Moses. His judgeship was dominated by war with the Philistines, who captured Moses’ Ark of the Covenant. In his old age he agreed, at divine request, to the establishment of a king; he thus anointed Saul and remained chief prophet during Saul’s reign. In this role he also anointed David, a shepherd, who was from the Jewish tribe of Judah.

Saul was succeeded by David and then by Solomon. After the expansionist reign of Solomon (c 970-928 BC), the kingdom broke up into two states: Israel in the north, established by Jeroboam, with its capital at Shechem, then Tirzah, then Samaria, and Judah in the south, under the house of David, with its capital at Jerusalem. Josiah was of the house of David.

When the “eternal” Davidic dynasty failed after four centuries, it formed the basis for the Jewish belief in the Messiah.

Why did Josiah carry out this act of cultural synoecism (to use an Hellenic term of constitutional art)? Because Jerusalem was the capital city of the Kingdom of Judah in Josiah’s day. Why was Jerusalem the capital of Judah? Because, at an early date in the tenth century B.C., David [of the united Israelite kingdom] had conquered and annexed the Canaanite city-state of Jerusalem and had made this city the capital of his kingdom, which included not only Judah but Israel. After the irruption of the Israelites and Judahites into Palestine circa 1200 B.C., this Canaanite city-state had maintained its independence for about two hundred years in between the Israelite invaders to the north of it and the Judahite invaders to the south.

The Judahites were one of the twelve tribes of the Israelites: he must be referring to the split that led to the formation of the two states. How did each of the twelve tribes align themselves in this?

It will be seen that the holiness of Jerusalem is paradoxical. It was the last piece of Canaanite territory to be acquired by the Judahite worshippers of Yahweh, yet it became the only place in Judah where the worship of Yahweh was allowed, and it acquired this cultural monopoly because, after its annexation to Judah, it had been made the capital of the Judahite state.

The two kingdoms were later conquered by expanding Mesopotamian states, Israel by Assyria (c 720 BC) and Judah by Babylonia (586 BC). The Babylonians destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem and held the Jews captive in Babylon.

Why is modern Israel called Israel, not Judah (House of David), when Jerusalem gained so much more prestige than Samaria?


The history of the City of Jerusalem since the liquidation of the Kingdom of Judah has been as kaleidoscopic as the history of Rome since the disintegration of the Roman Empire. When, in 538 B.C., the Babylonian Empire was liquidated in its turn by the Persians, Jerusalem became a non-sovereign temple-state [the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity and the temple was rebuilt], and it retained this status under the successive Persian, Ptolemaic, and Seleucid regimes till the second quarter of the second century B.C. A Hellenizing party among the Judaean Jews then attempted to transform the Jerusalem temple-state into a city-state on the Hellenic pattern. This led to a domestic Judaean Jewish conflict between Hellenizers and conservatives, and to a consequent collision between conservative Jewish religious and political nationalists and the Seleucid Imperial Government. The break-up of the Seleucid Empire enabled the [anti-Greek] Hasmonaean leaders of the Jewish nationalist movement to turn the Jerusalem temple-state into a Palestinian Jewish miniature empire of the kind that Pope Martin V and his successors carved out in Central Italy in and after the fifteenth century of the Christian Era. The Hasmonaean Empire was cut back to the dimensions of its nucleus, the Jerusalem temple-state, by the intervention of the Roman war-lord Pompey in 63 B.C. The sequel was a head-on collision between the Palestinian Jewish community and the Roman Empire; the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70; the foundation, on the vacant site, of a Graeco-Roman city, Aelia Capitolina; and the eviction of the Jews from all parts of Palestine except Galilee.

Pompey conquered Palestine in 63 BC, but the state survived until 37 BC with a loss of autonomy. From 37 BC to AD 92 the Roman province of Judaea (Judea) was ruled by puppet kings of the Romans, the Herodian Dynasty, a Jewish dynasty from Idumea.

When the Jews revolted in AD 66, the Romans destroyed the Temple (AD 70). The foundation of Aelia Capitolina led to another revolt between AD 132 and 135, led by Bar Kokhba, which was also suppressed. Jericho and Bethlehem were destroyed, and the Jews were barred from most of Palestine.

At the moment of writing, in October 1969, a new Jerusalem, outside Aelia Capitolina’s western wall, was the capital of the post-Second-World-War state of Israel, while the Old City which contains the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy places was a piece of Jordanian territory under the Israelis’ military occupation. Since 1929 it has looked as if the relations between the Vatican City, the rest of the City of Rome, and the Italian national state have become stabilized; but in 1969 the future of the two parts of the City of Jerusalem was still unpredictable.


The Muslim Dome of the Rock stands on the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem, territory which Israel re-occupied in 1967; it is the site where any Third Temple would be built

Cities on the Move, OUP, 1970

I have referred to a US edition.

High Baedeker and other matters

February 20 2014

“Singapore is the meeting place of many races. The Malays, though natives of the soil, dwell uneasily in towns, and are few; and it is the Chinese, supple, alert and industrious, who throng the streets; the dark-skinned Tamils walk on their silent, naked feet, as though they were but brief sojourners in a strange land, but the Bengalis, sleek and prosperous, are easy in their surroundings, and self-assured; the sly and obsequious Japanese seem busy with pressing and secret affairs; and the English in their topees and white ducks, speeding past in motor-cars or at leisure in their rickshaws, wear a nonchalant and careless air.”

W Somerset Maugham, P&O, story in The Casuarina Tree, William Heinemann, 1926.

The first sentence there is in what could be called High Baedeker.

EM Forster (who brings Baedekers into A Room with a View) uses it in the first sentence of A Passage to India, Edward Arnold, 1924:

“Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”


Another story, The Letter, in the same Maugham collection, has a similar passage to the one in P&O:

“Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog-trot and shouted to the passer-by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones.”

He is enjoying the mixture of black, yellow, brown and white. That isn’t racist.

“Chinks” is still used sometimes in India. It is one of a dwindling number of verbal survivals from the Raj. “Peg”, as in “a peg of whisky”, is another. An Indian man in Delhi – who is married to a Tibetan (Tibetans are a significant minority there) – referred to “chinkies” when talking to me in 2010 and did not in the least mean to be offensive. I am not sure whether he meant to include Tibetans.

Mussoorie, a mere 170 miles away, has the training centre for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

In 1984, when I first visited Singapore, people would still ask where one was “putting up”, to mean where was one staying.

Singaporeans like the phrase “cock and bull story”. Also “raining cats and dogs”.

Jews? They were and are an important, though small, minority, mainly Iraqi Jews, whose modern diaspora got under way in the nineteenth century. They settled in Bombay and moved east. I knew one very well in Singapore. See Wikipedia articles on David Sassoon of Bombay and Edward Isaac Ezra of Shanghai, especially. There are Sassoons in Singapore. David Marshall, one of Singapore’s modern founding fathers, was an Iraqi, or Baghdadi, Jew.

Armenians? They were a parallel movement. The Raffles Hotel was founded by Armenians, the Sarkies Brothers. The Straits Times was co-founded by an Armenian, Catchick Moses. Was he also Jewish? I suppose both groups were attracted by a growing trade between South Asia and the West and found little room for their energy in a declining Ottoman Empire.


Raffles, despite its recent sugar-coating and fakifying, is a fine building, especially from the side. Its architect was Regent Alfred John Bidwell (1869-1918) of a local firm, Swan and Maclaren. He also designed the Victoria Memorial Hall and deserves to be remembered.

You immediately feel that Raffles has taken something from Malay architecture. But what? Compare the Wikipedia picture of Raffles with the main Wikipedia image of the Rumah Melayu, the traditional Malay house. Here are both.

Rumah Kedah

Raffles Hotel

It is hard to pinpoint the architectural feature which defines a hybrid style, but the windows are similar. The Rumah Melayu tradition is indigenous. In its origin, it owes nothing to colonial influences. But does that house in Kedah owe nothing or is it itself done in a local hybrid style which in turn influenced the design of Raffles?

The Singapore shophouse style was a hybrid of Chinese and Portuguese vernaculars, with Malay decorative elements. The BakerLutyens style in New Delhi is a hybrid of European and Mughal.

Baker’s and Lutyens’s buildings did not come out of a local hybrid vernacular, but were products of individual genius. That is why New Delhi feels unreal to some people. Not to me. Its architects were too talented. If you want unreal stage sets, go to Putrajaya in Malaysia.

The great indigenous vernacular architectures of East Asia are Japanese and Malay. Some primitive Chinese vernacular is also moving.

Old posts:

Loggia, arcade and shophouse (Singapore architecture)

Anglo-India (P&Os)

Baedeker, Britannica and others


Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire

November 9 2013

In the commercial centres in the heart of their dominions – Constantinople, Smyrna, Salonica, Sarayevo – the ʿOsmanlis settled civilian communities of refugee Sephardī Jews from Spain and Portugal.

Above all in Salonica. With the Alhambra decree in 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella expelled all Jews from Spain who did not accept Christianity.

Like their compatriots and contemporaries who settled at Leghorn, these modern Hispanic Jewish settlers in the Levant stepped into the shoes of medieval Italian men of business.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

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

Five prophets

August 21 2013






Five portraits from the Holy Land. Clive Lawton, narrator, writer. Mark Savage, producer. BBC Radio 4, August 12-16.

Saul, David and Jonathan (old post).

Jewish revolts, Christian non-violence

June 21 2013

In striking contrast to the series of Jewish insurrections against first Seleucid and then Roman rule during the three hundred years running from 166 B.C. to A.D. 135, the Christians never once rose in armed revolt against their Roman persecutors during the approximately equal period of time that elapsed between the beginning of Jesus’ mission and the conclusion of peace and alliance between the Roman Imperial Government and the Church in A.D. 313.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The malleus presbyterorum

June 7 2013

If the formidable authority conferred on the priests by their custody of tradition is to be challenged, the challenge can be delivered only by the word of God Himself as revealed in His prophet’s message; for, if that message is once recognized to be authentic, it must override the rulings of priests who are not God’s spokesmen but merely His ministers; and, though the winged words of God’s living human spokesman will be likely to have both a greater virtue and a greater effect than any written testament, dumb scripture has one decisive posthumous advantage over the living voice. Scripture can attain a longevity which, at second hand, will multiply a hundredfold the brief life-span of the prophet whose message this frozen echo perpetuates. Holy Writ that purports to enshrine prophetic revelation is thus a malleus presbyterorum that is a literal godsend to rebels against sacerdotal authority. The followers of the Prophets of Israel and Judah and of Zarathustra made effective use of this weapon against the priests of their day; the Scribes and Pharisees used it against the Sadducees; the Protestant Reformers used it against the Papal Church.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Essence and accidents

May 26 2013

How, in an Oikoumenê that was being united on a literally world-wide range within a Western framework, were Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus to make further progress in disengaging the essence of Religion from the accidents? The only way open to these fellow seekers after spiritual light was the hard road of spiritual travail along which their predecessors, with God’s help, had arrived at the degree of religious enlightenment represented by the living higher religions at the stage in which they found themselves at this crucial moment in Mankind’s history. By comparison with the stage embodied in Primitive Paganism, the state of relative enlightenment to which the adherents of the higher religions had attained by a date midway through the twentieth century of the Christian Era manifestly represented a marvellous spiritual advance; yet, marvellous though it might be, they had now become aware that they could no longer go on living parasitically on God’s past mercies to their forefathers and on their own forefathers’ past spiritual endeavours to win a fuller vision of God, and a closer communion with Him, for themselves and for their children. They knew that they could no longer rest on their predecessors’ spiritual labours because, in their generation, they were being racked by a conflict between heart and head which they could not leave unresolved with impunity, and which could be resolved only by a fresh spiritual move forward.

As the pilgrims girded themselves to take the hard road again, they might draw some encouragement from divers past successes of Mankind in discarding veils which had served as windows in their time. In default of fuller light, there had been a glimmer of spiritual enlightenment in the faint translucency of Man’s vision of God through the animal creation. In the demonic physical energies of untamed wild beasts Man had caught a glimpse of a divine power surpassing Man’s own strength; in the hunter’s game and in the shepherd’s flock he had caught a glimpse of God’s beneficence as the giver and sustainer of life; and a primitive worship of God in animal form had lived on to play a leading role in the religion of the Egyptiac Civilization. Yet, in the World as it was in A.D. 1952, this dim “theriomorphic” vision of God, though still a living reality for unsophisticated souls at the lower levels of Hinduism, was on the whole on the wane. In the Christian consciousness the lamb, the dove, and the fish stood, not for literal likenesses of God, but for poetic images of His ineffable nature – just as the rock on which the Church was built according to the Roman Catholic Christian belief was not a literal stone like the stone that had once embodied the Emesan divinity Elagabalus or the stone that still supported the wall of a Meccan Kaʿbah.

There were, however, some relics of past stages of enlightenment which might not prove so easy to purge away. The Muslims, who had resolutely rejected all visual representations of God in the physical likeness of living creatures, including “the human form divine” [Blake, The Divine Image], had not yet summoned up the resolution to break with that older and cruder phase of idolatry which had been embedded in Islam by the founder Muhammad himself – against the grain of his own prophetic mission – when he had given his sanction to the adoration of the Black Stone as part of a compromise with the vested interests of an ancien régime at Mecca. [Would Muslims say “revere” rather than “adore”?] Even the puritanical Wahhābī reformers, who had twice entered Mecca as conquerors pledged to purge Islam of idolatrous accretions, had left the Black Stone untouched both in A.D. 1804 and in A.D. 1924. To Christian minds the Muslims’ reluctance to part with the Black Stone seemed a quaint anachronism in glaring contradiction with the abhorrence of idolatry and devotion to monotheism that were the twin beacon-lights of Islam; and, conversely, Muslim minds found stumbling-blocks in the idolatry and the polytheism which, as they saw it, were still being practised by Christians, as well as by Buddhists and Hindus. In Muslim eyes the Christians’ persistent idolatry betrayed itself in the visual representation of God in the forms of a man, a bird, and an animal, and their persistent polytheism in their doctrine of the Trinity and their cults of the saints, while in a Protestant Christian’s eyes the sacrament of the pagan mysteries survived in the Catholic “Sacrifice of the Mass”, and the worship of the Great Mother had been withdrawn from Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Cybele, and Inanna only to be paid, by Catholic devotees, to the same Mother of God under the name of Mary. [Footnote: […] Catholic Christians, of course, did not admit the Protestant allegation that their adoration of Mary amounted to the worship of a goddess. According to the Catholic Christian doctrine, Mary was one of God’s creatures, and the qualities that Catholics adored in her were gifts to her from her Creator.]


This was the challenge that confronted the followers of the historic higher religions in a world in which they had suddenly been brought to close quarters with one another and with a Modern Western Science owing to the rapid spread of a secularized Western Civilization over the whole habitable and traversable surface of the planet. In the year A.D. 1952 the living generation of Mankind did not yet know how they were going to negotiate this next stage of their present “climbers’ pitch”; still less did they know whether they would succeed in scaling it; but they could see that they stood no chance of succeeding unless they could settle their latter-day conflict between Heart and Head, and that therefore a sincere and earnest attempt to recapture a lost spiritual harmony was an indispensable prelude to grappling with the formidable precipice that towered above them.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Namier’s eyes

May 6 2013

One of Namier’s eyes was a rabbinical scholar’s. He was proudly conscious of his descent from the Gaon of Vilna. The other eye was a Polish landowner’s. His family were Roman Catholic (Latin rite) landowners of Jewish origin in the eastern part of Galicia [post here]. Galicia was at that time one of the crown lands of the Empire of Austria. It is divided to-day between two Communist republics: Poland and the Ukrainian constituent republic of the Soviet Union.

Namier’s hereditary rabbinical eye for minutiæ is surely part of the secret of his success in applying the prosopographical method to the study of 18th-century British politics. After he and I had each struck out our different lines of inquiry, Namier once said to me that at least we resembled each other in dealing with history differently from the way followed by most contemporary historians.

“You,” he said, “try to look at the whole tree. I try to dissect the tree’s texture, leaf by leaf. Most of the others break off a branch and try to cope with that. You and I agree,” Namier added, “in not favouring that method.”

Namier’s vein of Jewishness was, of course, not exclusively intellectual. He had also inherited a Jewish emotional intensity and even fanaticism. [Toynbee has a habit of equating Jewish with fanatical. Namier’s Zionism led to a temporary rift with Toynbee.] So, when he discovered the 17th-century English Puritan writers, their spirit struck an answering chord in him. They, and not their Laodicean 18th-century successors, were Namier’s first love in his wooing of England past and present.

Meanwhile, Namier’s other eye – his Polish Roman Catholic one – was also making penetrating observations of English life; and here, too, Namier saw things to which our native English eyes had been blind, because we had taken these things for granted. I remember his excitement over his discovery of the emotional timbre that is given to the English language by the use of Biblical quotations and allusions. This was a stop which the organ of the Polish language did not possess, and which therefore caught Namier’s ear when he listened to the music of English speech. The Biblical note was lacking in the Polish language, for Roman Catholics of the Latin rite the Bible was imprisoned in the Latin of the Vulgate. There was no consecrated and familiar translation in the vernacular which could influence the living language, as King James I’s authorised version of the Bible has influenced the English language ever since it was published.

Lewis Namier, Historian, Encounter, Vol 16, No 1, January 1961 (more from this in yesterday’s post)

Two Maghrebis

May 1 2013

A belief that the whole life of the Universe was governed by “the Law of God” was the qiblah of a Judaic Weltanschauung that was the common heritage of the Orthodox Christian, the Western Christian, the Arabic Muslim, and the Iranic Muslim societies; and a theocentric philosophy of history derived from the intuitions or inspirations of the Prophets of Israel and Judah and the Iranian Prophet Zarathustra was bequeathed to Western Christendom in Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei and to the Arab Muslim World in Ibn Khaldūn’s Prolegomena to his History of the Berbers – two works of spiritual genius which unmistakably reflect one single common outlook and whose mutual affinity can only be accounted for by their indebtedness to a common source, since Ibn Khaldūn was as ignorant of his Christian predecessor and fellow Maghribī’s theodicy as Augustine was of Muqaddamāt that did not see the light till more than nine hundred years after the Christian North African Father’s death.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Modern straits

September 8 2012

In [the modern] post-Christian Odyssey there was more than one passage to be negotiated and more than one kind of ordeal to be faced.

The two spiritual dilemmas, the “straits” Toynbee told us we needed to negotiate in 1952 – he imagines Greek sailors negotiating the straits of Messina and of Gibraltar – can be restated in modern terms, with some realignment of metaphors.

Following in Odysseus’ wake, these Phocaean seafarers would have first to negotiate the straits between Sicily and Italy without approaching either an Italian shore where they would be pounced upon by the monster Scylla or a Sicilian shore where they would be engulfed by the whirlpool Charybdis […].

[But] if they were to reach the boundless waters of a globe-encompassing Ocean, these voyagers must put to sea again [and] make for the Straits of Gibraltar between the Pillars of Hercules, where this pair of menacing mountains, towering above the African and the European shore and threatening, from either flank, to fall upon any ship audacious enough to run the gauntlet without their leave […].

In the interpretation of this parable in terms of the Western Civilization’s prospects, the finding of a passage between Scylla and Charybdis signified the negotiation of the Western World’s immediate problem of finding some way of avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification. Mid-way through the twentieth century of the Christian Era the Western Society was in imminent danger of destroying itself by failing to stop making War now that a demonic drive had been put into War by the progress of a Western physical science; and it was in hardly less imminent danger of stultifying itself by seeking asylum from War and Class-Conflict in Circe’s pig-sty. […]

“Avoiding self-destruction without falling into self-stultification” is the nuclear and ecological strait.

And how can people become richer without losing some of their humanity? Scylla threatens to pounce on you for romanticising poverty. Charybdis wants to suck you into a global Dubai.

In this spiritual ordeal the forbidding Pillars of Hercules were a pair of rival authoritarian and dogmatic faiths, both of which alike were offering to the storm-tossed voyager an everlasting Nirvāna in their stony bosoms and were threatening him with the eternal punishment that had been inflicted on the Flying Dutchman if he were to be so impious and so fool-hardy as to reject their offer and sail on past them out into the blue. From the one shore this ultimatum was being delivered to Western souls by a Christian heresy in which the stone of Communism had been substituted for the bread [footnote: Matt. vii. 9; Luke xi. 11.] of the Gospel, and from the other shore by a Christian Orthodoxy in which the body of Christ, [footnote: 1 Cor. xii. 27; Eph. iv. 12.] who had “come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”, [footnote: John x. 10.] had been petrified into a pillar of salt [footnote: Gen. xix. 26.] by a backward-looking ecclesiastical tradition. To dare the passage between these two frowning Pillars of Hercules was a venture that might daunt even a mariner whose moral had been fortified by a previous success in making his way safely between Scylla and Charybdis.

The new Pillars of Hercules are, on one side, convinced post-communist atheists and, on the other, religious men of “passionate intensity”.

When I was in my twenties, most of my contemporaries professed “agnosticism” when asked about religion. They lacked “all conviction”. Today, their nominally if that Christian equivalents in the UK – partly because of the recent example of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, partly because encouraged by Dawkinses and Goldacres – are confident enough to profess outright atheism.

Plus ultra!

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954


July 26 2012

The “clergy” took its name from a Greek word (κλῆρος) [klēros] whose general meaning of “lot” had been specialized in a juridical sense to mean an allotted share of an inherited estate, and in a political sense to mean an allotted share of a conquered territory. This political usage, which had been borrowed from Spartan conquerors in the Peloponnese by Athenian conquerors in the Archipelago and Macedonian conquerors in Egypt and South-Western Asia, had given the word a rather unfortunate connotation by the time when the Christian Church began to work out its ecclesiastical organization. The Church adopted the word, nevertheless, to mean the portion of the Christian community that God had allotted to Himself to serve Him as His professional priesthood.

A footnote here quotes

Lightfoot, Bishop J. B., in his edition of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 7th ed. (London 1882, Macmillan)


“the sequence of meanings by which the word κλῆρος arrived at this peculiar sense: (i) the lot by which the office was assigned [as in Acts i. 26]; (ii) the office thus assigned by lot [as in Acts i. 17]; (iii) the body of persons holding the office” […].

The square brackets referring to Acts are Toynbee summarising Lightfoot.

Acts i. 26 is about the election of the apostle Matthias. He was chosen, as it happens, by lot. Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ and then (according to the Gospel of Matthew) committed suicide in guilt before Christ’s resurrection. Between the ascension of Christ and the day of Pentecost, the remaining apostles elected a new twelfth apostle by casting lots, a traditional Jewish way of determining the will of God.

Acts i. 17 uses the word when it says that Judas had been part of the apostles’ ministry (he was not chosen by lot).

Lightfoot’s point is that “the sense ‘clerical appointment or office’ chronologically precedes the sense ‘clergy’”. Since, as he admits, the election of Matthias by lot is unique, to have both (i) and (ii) in the “sequence of meanings” seems unnecessary. And did Judas and Matthias have “offices”?

[These usages] cannot be traced back to the Old Testament; for, though, according to Num. xviii. 20, God is the κληρονομία [kléronomia] of Aaron, and, according to Deut. xviii. 2, He is the κλῆρος of the Levites, “the Jewish priesthood is never described conversely as the special ‘clerus’ of Jehovah, while on the other hand the metaphor thus inverted is more than once applied to the whole Israelite people” (Lightfoot, op. cit. […]).

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954


July 25 2012

The Christian Church’s sacred book – taken over from the Jews and eventually augmented by the addition of an exclusively Christian “New Testament” to supplement and retrospectively reinterpret “the Old Testament” of Jewish origin – was presented by the Church as its credentials in the belief that this was the authentic Word of God Himself. In so far as the Bible was not referred to as “the Books” (τα βιβλία) [ta biblia] par excellence, it was designated by a term long since current in the vocabulary of the Roman inland revenue. In the fiscal terminology of a post-Hannibalic Roman Commonwealth the word scriptura signified the tax payable for the right to graze cattle on the public lands in the devastated areas in the South of Italy, because an entry in the official register, certifying that a would-be grazier had duly paid his tax, was the warrant that authorized him to make use of the public pasturelands. The Greek equivalent of the Latin scriptura was (γραφή) [graphē], and in a latter-day Kingdom of Greece at the time of writing there was a district in the Southern Pindus, between the plains of Thessaly and the west coast, which was still known as the Agrapha [unwritten] because the agents of an Ottoman inland revenue – and an East Roman inland revenue in an earlier age – had never succeeded even in inscribing in their registers, not to speak of actually collecting, the taxes due from the wild highlanders in this mountain fastness.

The Pindus range is in northwestern Greece and southern Albania.

Spring in Agrafa

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954


July 25 2012

The two “testaments” of which the Christian scriptures consisted […] were called διαθήκαι [diathekai, covenants] in Greek and testamenta in Latin because they were thought of as being the equivalents of legal instruments in which God had declared to Mankind, in two instalments, His “will and testament” for the ordering of Human Life on Earth.

The Greek word is translated as either “covenant” or “testament”. The meaning is probably closer to testament or disposition, but the meaning of diatheke is complex.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954


July 22 2012

One of the features of the Christian liturgy was a recurrence of its ritual in both annual and weekly cycles. The Christian liturgical week was modelled on a Jewish prototype; and, though the Christian copy had been differentiated from the Jewish original by making the first day of the week the holy day instead of the seventh, the Christian adaptation still followed the pristine Jewish dispensation in retaining the Jewish name for the eve of the Sabbath. In the Greek Christian vocabulary, Friday continued to be called “the preparation” (Παρασκευή) [Paraskevi, which is still the word in modern Greek] – in accordance with a Jewish usage in which this elliptical term explained itself. In the psychological atmosphere of a post-Exilic Judaism, in which a stateless diasporà maintained its esprit de corps by a common devotion to the keeping of the Mosaic Law, “the preparation” sans phrase could mean nothing but “the preparation for the Sabbath”.


in the psychological atmosphere of a pre-Alexandrine Athenian sovereign city-state whose citizens worshipped their own then still potent corporate political power under the name of Athena Poliûchus [Athena Protector],

the word had had a merely political connotation.

In the usage of Thucydides, writing for an Athenian public for whom politics were the breath of life, and whose political-mindedness was being accentuated in the historian’s generation by the military ordeal of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, the word Παρασκευὴ could be used as elliptically as it was afterwards to be used in the Septuagint [Greek Old Testament] to convey, just as unmistakably, an entirely different meaning. Thucydides uses the word to signify what a generation of Englishmen, overtaken unawares by a world war in the year A.D. 1914, learnt ruefully to take to heart as “preparedness” when they found themselves within an ace of defeat owing to their pre-war neglect to emulate the Germans in building up a stock of armaments to stand them in good stead in a fight for their national existence.

Is he referring to the 1915 shell crisis? Britain is considered to have won the naval arms race.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Holland and Bowersock

May 8 2012

(Now it sounds like a law firm.) Tom Holland’s reply to Glen Bowersock in the Guardian. I mentioned Holland’s new book about the Romano-Persian endgame and the origins of Islam a couple of weeks ago.

Both articles are worth reading, but severe limitations of space mean that they are skirting around questions about early Islam that really demand 7,000-word articles in the New York Review of Books, not a few inches in a daily. The arguments deserve to be outside scholarly journals, but as presented here are hardly comprehensible to ordinary readers. I don’t know who is right, but I had wondered about a few things in Bowersock’s “dyspeptic” piece. His superior phrase “with the publisher” about some early Qurʿanic manuscripts found in Sanaʿa: could there therefore already be a consensus about what they meant? His insistence that QRSh means only to congeal or clot, not to gather people: some language-instinct made me wonder whether that was so. But Bowersock is a major scholar. I just wish this discussion could be aired properly.

There is some simple background in this blog:

Since the domestication of the Arabian camel, nearly 2,000 years before Muhammad’s day, Arabia had been traversible, and ideas and institutions had been seeping into the peninsula from the Fertile Crescent that adjoins it on the north. The effect of this infiltration had been cumulative, and, by Muhammad’s time, the accumulated charge of spiritual force in Arabia was ready to explode.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Ritual, reason and revelation

April 14 2012

In the encounter between a dawning philosophy and a traditional paganism there had been no problem of reconciling Heart and Head because there had been no common ground on which the two organs could have come into collision. The pith of Primitive Religion is not belief but action, and the test of conformity is not assent to a theological creed but participation in ritual performances. For the vast majority of the faithful, the correct and alert execution of their ritual duties is the alpha and omega of Religion; primitive religious practice is an end in itself, and it does not occur to the practitioners to look, beyond the rites which they perform, for a truth which these rites convey. The truth is that the rites have no meaning beyond the practical effect which their correct execution is believed to have upon the human performers’ social and physical environment. The so-called “aetiological myths”, which purport to explain a traditional practice’s historical origin, are not taken as statements concerning matter[s] of fact that can be labelled “true” or “false”; they are taken in the spirit in which, in a more sophisticated state of society, a child takes a fairy-story or a grown-up person takes poetry. Accordingly, when, in this primitive religious setting, philosophers arise who do set out to make a chart of Man’s environment in intellectual terms to which the labels “true” and “false” apply, no collision occurs so long as the philosopher continues to carry out his hereditary religious duties – and there can be nothing in his philosophy to inhibit him from doing this, because there is nothing in the traditional rites that could be incompatible with any philosophy.

Awkward situations do, no doubt, occasionally arise, as when, in a ritually conservative Athens, the intellectually adventurous Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (vivebat 500-428 B.C.) got into trouble for having made public his opinion that the heavenly bodies were not living gods but inanimate material objects. A more celebrated case was the prosecution, conviction, and judicial murder of Socrates by his Athenian fellow countrymen in 399 B.C. on three charges, [footnote: Plato: Apologia Socratis, 24 B.] of which the second was that Socrates did not pay due worship to the gods who were the official objects of worship at Athens, and the third was that he paid worship to other divinities who were strange gods. Yet it may be doubted whether legal proceedings involving Anaxagoras would have been taken, some twenty years after the Clazomenian philosopher had ceased to reside in Athens, if these had not served the current political purpose of “smearing” Pericles; and it may equally be doubted whether Socrates would have suffered the death-penalty that Anaxagoras escaped if Socrates’ attitude towards religion had been all that his enemies had had against him. Socrates was – and remained to the last – a scrupulous performer of his ritual duties; and, on the religious counts, Aristophanes’ malicious caricature of him in The Clouds might have remained the limit of the penalty exacted from him, if he had not also been under fire in 399 B.C. on another count – the political charge of “corrupting the young” – which, significantly, figured first in the indictment. Socrates was the victim, not so much of conservative Athenian religious fanaticism, as of democratic Athenian resentment over the final defeat of Athens in the long-drawn-out Atheno-Peloponnesian war and democratic Athenian vindictiveness towards a fascist-minded Athenian minority who had seized the opportunity opened to them by the discrediting of the democratic régime through military defeat in order to overthrow the democratic constitution. Socrates’ past personal association with Critias, the moving spirit among “the Thirty Tyrants”, was the offence that the restored democratic régime could neither forget nor forgive. It was Politics, not Religion, that cost Socrates his life.

Where the issue was not confused, as it was in Socrates’ case, by political animus, Philosophy and Primitive Religion encountered one another without colliding. The death of Socrates was an exception to a rule of which the life of Confucius was a classical example. Confucius reconciled a conservative reverence for the traditional rites of primitive Sinic religion with a new moral philosophy of his own making by presenting his personal ideas as the meaning which the rites had been intended to convey. Fortunately for himself, Confucius found no Sinic Critias to be his political pupil in his own lifetime; and – thanks to this failure, which was the great disappointment of his life – he died peacefully in his bed. Confucius’s attitude and experience were characteristic of the normal relations between Philosophy and Primitive Religion; but a new situation arose when the higher religions came on the scene.

The higher religions did, indeed, sweep up and carry along with them a heavy freight of traditional rites that happened to be current in the religious milieux in which the new faiths made their first appearance; but this religious flotsam was not, of course, their essence. The distinctive new feature of the higher religions was that they based their claim to allegiance, and their test of conformity, on personal revelations received by their prophets; [footnote: This was true in some degree in practice even if not in theory of the “Indistic” higher religions as well as the “Judaistic”. Ipse dixit came to be a criterion of truth, not only for the followers of Jesus and Muhammad, but also for the followers of Siddhārtha Gautama and of the philosophic prophets of a post-Buddhaic Hinduism.] and these deliveries of the prophets were presented, like the propositions of the philosophers, as statements of fact, to be labelled either “true” or “false”. Therewith, Truth became a disputed mental territory; for thenceforward there were two independent authorities – on the one hand prophetic Revelation and on the other hand philosophical or scientific Reason – each of which claimed sovereign jurisdiction over the Intellect’s whole field of action; and, when once the hypothesis that the spheres of Revelation and Reason were even partially coincident had been accepted – and both parties did accept this as axiomatic – it became impossible for Reason and Revelation to live and let live on the auspicious precedent of the amicable symbiosis of Reason and Ritual. “There is a peculiar agony in the paradox that Truth has two forms, each of them indisputable, yet each antagonistic to the other.” [Footnote: Gosse, E.: Father and Son, chap. 5.] In this new and excruciating situation, there were only two alternative possibilities. Either the two rival exponents of a supposedly one and indivisible Truth must convert their rivalry into a partnership by agreeing that their expositions were mutually consistent, or, finding themselves unable to agree, they must decide the ownership of an apparently unpartitionable disputed territory in an ordeal by battle that would have to be fought out until one or other party had been driven right off the field.

The Hellenic world and China have been the only two places where advanced philosophy has preceded “higher religion” (if we regard the Vedic origins of Hinduism as belonging to that category).

Where did the conflict occur in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions? Is there even a serious gulf between philosophical/scientific and religious thought in the Indian tradition? In Hinduism, revelation is implied in the terms Apaurusheyatva and Śruti. Can one speak of revelation in Buddhism?

Anaxagoras, young crater near the lunar north pole

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954


January 3 2012

Which is an excuse for an unearned digression into Verdi. Lamberto Gardelli, Wiener Staatsoperorchester.

Numbers in the Babylonian captivity

January 2 2012

According to the Bible, there were three deportations of Jews of Judah to Babylon: in 597 BC, involving King Jeconiah and his court and others; in 587-6 BC, of his successor King Zedekiah and others, when Jerusalem was burned; and a possible deportation after the assassination of Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of what had become Yehud Province, possibly in 582 BC. The forced exile ended in 538-7 BC after the fall of Babylon to the Persian king Cyrus the Great, who gave the Jews permission to return and to rebuild the Temple. The second deportation is the one we usually remember.

Eduard Meyer [post here] estimates the numbers deported in 586 B.C. at something between 30,000 and 50,000 (Geschichte des Altertums, vol. iii (Stuttgart 1901, Cotta), p. 175). This estimate appears to be based on the record, preserved in the Book of Nehemiah, chap, vii, of the numbers that returned from Babylonia to Judaea in 538 B.C. after Nebuchadnezzar’s sentence of deportation had been rescinded by Cyrus. The total given in this document amounts to no less than 42,360 free persons and 7,337 slaves, and the figures are convincing, since they are the sum total of thirty-nine precise items, while there is also a note of one group that was of doubtful legitimacy and of another that was definitely rejected. All the same, Eduard Meyer’s estimate for the deportation of 586 B.C. seems hazardously high in the light of the information (fragmentary and ambiguous though it is) in the second Book of Kings and in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. Even in 586 B.C. Nebuzar-adan, Nebuchadnezzar’s captain of the guard, “left […] the poor of the people, which had nothing, in the land of Judah, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time” (Jer. xxxix. 10; cf. 2 Kings xxv. 12); and this statement means, on the face of it, that the agricultural population of Judah was not only left undisturbed, even in 586 B.C., but was given possession of the former property of the executed or deported notables. Even the deportation of 586 B.C. may have been confined to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot be certain that the urban population was deported en masse even on this second occasion. “Now the rest of the people that were left in the city, and the fugitives that fell away to the King of Babylon, with the remnant of the multitude, did Nebuzar-adan … carry away” (2 Kings xxv. 11; cf. Jer. xxxix. 9) has to be taken with a grain of salt considering that the same authority declares that Nebuchadnezzar had “carried away all Jerusalem” in 597 B.C. (2 Kings xxiv. 14). Moreover, a quite incompatible set of figures, on a far smaller scale, is given from some different source in Jer. lii. 28-30: 3,023 persons deported by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C.; 832 deported by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.; 745 deported by Nebuzar-adan in 581 B.C.; making only 4,600 souls in all.

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

The dark horse

December 19 2011

The apparently paradoxical, and at the same time fundamentally right and natural, victory of “the dark horse” is the theme –  if this may be said without irreverence – of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, … blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth” (Matt v. 3 and 5). The same paradox is the Leitmotiv in the “folk-tale” of the Ugly Duckling which turns into a swan, in the fairy-story of the Cinderella who turns into a princess, and in the romance of the boor who turns into a mighty man of valour like Sir Kay in fiction and Muzio Attendolo “Sforza” in “real life”. And, if Sir Leonard Woolley’s theory is right, we can see the same principle at work in the first gleam of a revelation of the nature of the One True God which has eventually shone out in Christianity. According to Woolley in his Abraham (London 1936, Faber), God revealed himself to the Hebrew patriarch in the shape of the familiar humble tutelary genius of the household, whose worship Abraham carried with him out of Ur into the Wilderness, and not in any of the great deities of a Sumeric Pantheon whose temples the emigrant perforce left behind him in a city of destruction from which he was extricating himself just in time.

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

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

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)

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

Greater Syria

May 18 2011

The succession of concentric waves in which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam spread over the face of the World, one after another, from an identical centre of dispersion in a “Greater Syria” embracing Palestine and the Hijāz […].

Faisal, a man of the Hijaz, aspired to unite the whole of this Greater Syria after 1918.

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

Islam and Zoroastrianism

January 17 2011

The Prophet Muhammad prescribed the religious toleration of Jews and Christians who had made their political submission to the secular arm of Islam, and he gave this ruling expressly on the ground that these two non-Muslim religious communities, like the Muslims themselves, were “People of the Book”. It is significant of the relatively tolerant spirit which animated a Primitive Islam that, when the Arab conquests brought the Zoroastrians of Iran, as well as the Christians of Syria and Egypt and Mesopotamia and ‘Irāq, under Islamic domination, the privilege originally reserved for the Jews and Christians was tacitly extended to the Zoroastrians – though these were not “People of the Book” in the strict technical sense of believers in the inspiration of the Jewish or Judaistic Scriptures. In tolerating the religion of their Zoroastrian subjects the Primitive Muslim conquerors stretched a point of theological exegesis because they recognized that in fact Zoroastrianism was a “higher religion” of the same order as Judaism and Christianity and Islam itself, and that therefore any attempt on their part to stamp Zoroastrianism out by force would result, in proportion to the extent of its material success, in debasing and defaming the Islam in whose name the persecution would be conducted.

We are directed to a footnote in the next volume, which says:

Officially “the People of the Book”, who, according to the Shari’ah, were entitled to religious toleration if once they tendered their political submission to the Islamic state, included the Jews and the Christians but not the Zoroastrians. In practice, however, the Zoroastrians were accorded, as a matter of grace, the toleration which the two Biblical sects received as a matter of right. In the Qu’rān the Zoroastrians are only mentioned in the following passage:

“Surely those who believe [i.e. the Muslims] and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians and the Magians and those who associate [others with Allah, i.e. the polytheists] – surely Allah will decide between them on the day of resurrection.” – Surah xxii. 17.

Brackets in original. Magians, ie Zoroastrians. The translation is not identified, but the passage seems to come from a then-recent rendering by an Egyptian scholar, Muhammad Habib Shakir.

For Qu’ranic references to “People of the Book”, go here.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

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


January 15 2011

[The] Sinic art of turning the trick of literary Archaism [imitation] from a barren conceit into a potent charm, whose compelling power can strike down to the subconscious fundament of the Soul and then stir it to the depths, will be no secret to any Jewish or Christian or Islamic writer who has had the good fortune to have been equipped for his work by being educated in accordance with the tradition of his forefathers; for the language of the Bible or the Qur’ān will have been imprinted on his memory in his childhood as indelibly as the language of the Sinic Classics on the memory of the Far Eastern litteratus; and a mind thus inalienably enriched with the treasures of its native spiritual heritage will be master of that alchemy which knows how to evoke something new out of an allusion to something old or, in other words, how to transmute an act of mimesis into an act of creation.

A Study of History, Vol VI , OUP, 1939

A Survivor from Warsaw

December 28 2010

Amateur colour footage shot in Warsaw on May 3 1939. At the beginning, Piłsudski Square. Then a Jewish district in the north of the city.

Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947). Performers not stated. English and partly German text by Schoenberg, based on a published interview with a real survivor of the ghetto uprising.


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)

The Libri Karolini

April 25 2010

In the Libri Karolini composed in Charlemagne’s name by his ecclesiastical advisers in A.D. 790, the Fathers of the Second Nicene Council were taken to task on the ground that they had taken it upon themselves to declare the cult of images to be obligatory under pain of anathema, whereas, according to the iconodule Greek theologians’ Frankish critics, the correct view was that the exhibition of pictures in churches was neither obligatory nor unlawful. Thereafter, at the council of Frankish bishops held at Frankfurt in A.D. 794, the acts of the Second Nicene Council were formally condemned on the false assumption (due apparently to a mistranslation) that the Fathers had awarded the same honours to the images as to the Holy Trinity (see Hodgkin, Th.: Italy and her Invaders, vol. viii, Book IX: The Frankish Empire (Oxford 1899, Clarendon Press), pp. 17-18).

This unfriendly reaction in Frankland to the Second Nicene Council’s decisions was, no doubt, to some extent the reflection of a cultural antipathy between Western and Orthodox Christendom and a political rivalry between the Carolingian and the East Roman Power. In the intercourse between the two churches it was a cardinal principle of policy on either side that the other party must never be admitted to be in the right; and the position taken up by Frankish theologians in the Libri Karolini was nicely calculated to put Greek iconodules and Greek iconoclasts equally in the wrong. It is suggested by Hodgkin, ibid., that Charlemagne’s hostility to the full-blooded Christian Iconodulia of the Nicene Fathers may also have been partly inspired by his own personal experience in wrestling with the pagan idolatry of Saxon barbarians whom he was finding it difficult to subdue and convert. Though there seems to be no positive evidence to corroborate this conjecture, it is supported by an analogy between Charlemagne’s experience and Muhammad’s; for Muhammad’s uncompromising Iconophobia was undoubtedly a reaction to the stubbornness of the Quraysh in clinging to their pagan worship of the idols in the Ka‘bah. Yet, when all due allowance has been made for local and temporary considerations of a religious order, as well as for non-religious considerations of a cultural and political order, which may have played some part in inclining the Frankish Church to react unfavourably to the Second Nicene Council’s Iconophilism, a recollection of the instances, noticed […] above, of iconophobe feeling in Gaul as early as the sixth century of the Christian Era may lead us to look for the main cause of the manifestations of Iconophobia in Frankland in A.D. 790 and 794 beyond the horizon of current affairs, in an original and abiding Judaic element in Christianity. We must not leave out of our reckoning here the gadfly ghost of a Judaic Aniconism.

The author of the books was probably Theodulf of Orléans. He is also remembered for the the private oratory built for his villa at Germigny-des-Prés, which contains the most complete surviving Carolingian mosaic (c 806, but over-restored in the 1860s).

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

The Torah in the Diaspora

April 9 2010

“Displaced persons”, whether they be refugees or deportees, are physically prevented by their geographical removal from continuing to worship at their ancestral shrines; and, since the due celebration of a rite at the proper place may be as essential to the religious efficacy of the proceedings as the performance of the proper gestures and the utterance of the proper words, the members of an exiled community may find themselves debarred from perpetuating the liturgy that has been their traditional means of communion with their god and with one another. In exile, this communion will have become more than ever precious, since it will be the sole remaining sustenance of a communal life which has lost its roots in a soil that the exiles can no longer call their own; and there will be a proportionately strong incentive to find some new medium of religious communion to replace the liturgy that has been abandoned perforce. In this desperate emergency a sacred book recorded in the tables of the heart – or even in the less durable, but hardly less portable medium of ink and paper – may save the situation by taking the lost liturgy’s place.

The classic example of this enforced replacement of a liturgy by a book is, of course, the ritual revolution which was Jewry’s response to the ordeal of being dispersed abroad among the Gentiles. In the Jewish communities of the Diasporà the priest offering sacrifices at the altar in the Temple at Jerusalem had to be supplanted by a reader reciting from the books of the Law and the Prophets on a reading-stand in the synagogue; and after the destruction of the Temple and the Roman Government’s ban on the residence of Jews in Aelia Capitolina – the Hellenic city founded by Hadrian on the site where Jerusalem had stood – the Diasporà’s form of worship was the sole form surviving.

The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, which had been built by Solomon, in 586 BC, and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple, which had been founded in 516 BC under the Persians, in the Romano-Jewish war in AD 70. The building of Aelia Capitolina led to the final revolt by Bar Kokhba in 132-136.

We need more than a “classic example” to support a general point, but that is all we are given here. There were synagogues before the destruction of the Second Temple, but communal worship was centred on sacrifices offered in the Temple by priests.

The Muslim Dome of the Rock stands on the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem, territory which Israel re-occupied in 1967. It is the site where any Third Temple would be built.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Hammers of the priests

April 8 2010

If the formidable authority conferred on the priests by their custody of tradition is to be challenged, the challenge can be delivered only by the word of God Himself as revealed in His prophet’s message; for, if that message is once recognized to be authentic, it must override the rulings of priests who are not God’s spokesmen but merely His ministers; and, though the winged words of God’s living human spokesman will be likely to have both a greater virtue and a greater effect than any written testament, dumb scripture has one decisive posthumous advantage over the living voice. Scripture can attain a longevity which, at second hand, will multiply a hundredfold the brief life-span of the prophet whose message this frozen echo perpetuates. Holy Writ that purports to enshrine prophetic revelation is thus a malleus presbyterorum that is a literal godsend to rebels against sacerdotal authority. The followers of the Prophets of Israel and Judah and of Zarathustra made effective use of this weapon against the priests of their day; the Scribes and Pharisees used it against the Sadducees; the Protestant Reformers used it against the Papal Church.

This revolutionary attack in the name of Holy Writ had been met by the priests with varying degrees of success in different cases. The Jewish priesthood was eventually worsted by a combination of adverse circumstances: the Babylonish Captivity; the permanent preponderance of the Diaspora over a reconstituted temple-state at Jerusalem; the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and consequent cessation of the Hierosolymitan liturgy of sacrifice; and, above all, the gradual change of outlook and ethos in Jewry from a communal towards an individual relation to God. On the other hand the Magi signally defeated Zarathustra by playing upon his too simple-minded followers the confidence-trick which the English King Richard II sought to play upon a rebel peasantry when he cried “I will be your leader!”; and, by an equally skilful use of similar tactics, the Brahmans had managed to survive the epiphanies of a long series of sacred books, from the Vedas onwards. The error of short-sighted priests who had clumsily ensured the prophets’ triumph by ill-advisedly putting them to death had been retrieved by those priests’ far-sighted children, who had contrived to sterilize the martyrs’ spiritual legacies by building their sepulchres; [footnote: Matt, xxiii. 29-31; Luke xi. 47-48.] and the efficacy of this stratagem had been so great that it had proved able to weather even a scathing exposure. They say: “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” [Footnote: Matt. xxiii. 30.] The priest had drawn the sting of the prophet’s message when, under the cloak of a feigned repentance, he had constituted himself the official interpreter of the prophetic books.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Higher religions

January 23 2010

By higher religions I mean religions designed to bring human beings into direct communion with absolute spiritual Reality as individuals, in contrast to earlier forms of religion that have brought them only into indirect communion with It through the medium of the particular society in which they have happened to be participants. Religion, in these earlier forms, is an integral part of the culture of some particular society. On the other hand the higher religions have broken – some partially, some completely – out of the configuration of the particular cultures in which they originated. They have become separate systems of specifically religious culture, in a state of tension with the systems of secular culture with which they have parted company. The advent of a higher religion thus brings with it the distinction – previously unknown – between “religious” and “secular”, “spiritual” and “temporal”, “sacred” and “profane”.

A religion cannot be extricated from the non-religious elements in culture without being divorced from the society that carries these non-religious elements on its network of relations between people. But no form of culture, secular or religious, can subsist without a social setting; and therefore the adherents of a higher religion cannot assert its independence of secular culture without at the same time incorporating it in an independent society. Every higher religion is carried on a network of social relations of its own. This is a specific form of society, distinct from both civilizations and pre-civilizational societies. A name is needed for a society of this religious species, and it would be convenient if we could label it “a church”. I have sometimes used the word “church” in this wide sense; but this usage has been contested by several of my critics, and they are, I think, right. The word “church” implies a unified ecclesiastical government, and this is possessed by perhaps no more than two of the extant higher religions: the Tantric Mahayana and the Roman Catholic denomination of Christianity. The Christian churches of the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Protestant Episcopalian denomination are respectively in communion with each other without having any common organs of ecclesiastical government. The ecclesiastical organization of most other extant higher religions is still less formal and more loose.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961