HistoryBits: Near East

HistoryBits: Near East

Bits and Pieces of History


Power/Artemisia

Artemisia’s counsel of retreat spared Xerxes further calamity in Greece, and had the Greeks known of her disposition to avoid further engagement, they might have thought twice about offering a reward for her capture. Clearly, women in history were not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more), and exert their influence in more subtle ways. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it.

Power/Darius

While Darius deserves credit for tying together the empire with an efficient systems of roads, tax collection, postal delivery, and spies, the real cement for the Persian Empire’s success was its tolerance of the very different religions and cultures of its subject peoples. Without tolerance, conquest will always catch up to an empire. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation–which is why religious and cultural tolerance is so important. Imperial overstretch is inevitable. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire.

Religion/Religious Tolerance

The key to so much of Cyrus and the Persian Empire’s success was their tolerance of the very different religions and cultures of its subject peoples. Without tolerance, conquest will always catch up to an empire. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation–which is why religious and cultural tolerance is so important. Imperial overstretch is inevitable. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire.

Religion/Zarathustra

Zarathustra’s dictum that “the truth does not belong to any people, any country, any race” proved to be the key to the Persian Empire’s success: its tolerance of the very different religions and cultures of its subject peoples. Without tolerance, conquest will always catch up to an empire. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation–which is why religious and cultural tolerance is so important. Imperial overstretch is inevitable. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire.

Assyrians/Power/Policies of Empire

The ability of the Assyrians to conquer and maintain an empire derived from a combination of factors. Through years of practice, they developed effective military leaders and fighters, and were able to enlist and deploy troops numbering in the hundreds of thousands. They were able to use different kinds of tactics: guerrilla warfare in the mountains and set battles on open ground as well as laying siege to cities. Then there its ability to create a climate of terror as an instrument of warfare: laying waste to the land in which they were fighting, smashing dams, looting and destroying towns, setting crops on fire, and cutting down fruit trees. They were especially known for the atrocities they committed on their captives, and for deporting entire populations as prisoners of war. Beyond the ugly business of creating the empire in this fashion, the Assyrians had a special talent for organizing it through a hierarchy of officials responsible directly to the king, and their communications network was so effective that a provincial governor anywhere in the empire (except Egypt) could send a question and receive an answer from the king in his palace within a week. Nice guys, these Assyrians, but their reputation caught up with them, and predictably at the first opportunity, their myriad enemies combined against them and exacted a revenge that gave as good as they had gotten. Conquest—and its attendant brutality–will always catch up to an empire. Conquered peoples do not readily accept subjugation and an empire founded on the resentment of its subjects is one that is built on a very shaky foundation. Imperial overstretch is inevitable. The spoils of empire are never sufficient to offset the expense of safeguarding and administering the empire, unless that empire provides for all its subjects in a way that enables them to become prosperous and self-supporting. Anything less results in an operating deficit that will inevitably prove ruinous, while the attendant dissatisfaction of the empire’s subjects attracts predators who sense weakness and blood… leading to yet more expense in defending the empire.

Culture/Divination

With their myriad means of divination, the Mesopotamians were unable to foresee what mattered most: the destruction of their civilization by their own excesses with the environment—specifically, the increasing salinization (and sterility) of the soil brought on by extensive irrigation. And yet, I find it ironic that, with all that we in the present day know (without having to consult sheep entrails and such) about the effects of carbon dioxide on global warming, our administration continues to “stay the course” with its head stuck squarely in the sand.

Culture/Statues

I suspect that the farther we reach back into time, the more sophisticated the civilizations we’d uncover if only we could, After all, it had been commonly thought that the Sphinx was 5,000 years old, but recent archaeological discoveries now indicate that it’s more on the order of 25,000 years old. What gives here–that’s back when people were supposedly shaking spears at mastodons! For us to believe that history is a linear progression from the primitive to the present is a massive conceit. The level of sophistication implicit in the many of the statues and monuments of those civilizations that are still accessible to us suggests that there’s more to the pattern of technological development in history than meets our critical eye. In fact, I imagine that future civilizations may well come to de-emphasize technology to the point where life again resembles the simplicity of certain ancient civilizations, and that with technology, the less intrusive, the better.

Culture/Epic of Gilgamesh

I realize that we’re treading on the most intimate and deeply held sensitivities when we talk religion, and I must say that I have nothing but respect for whichever path a person adopts in his or her quest for God, whether by way of some panoply of Egyptian deities, the Mesopotamian Moon-God, the God of Abraham, or simply personal reflection. The important thing is that he finds Him—All That Is–on whichever terms make the most sense to the individual in his cultural context. I’ve come to understand that there really isn’t any such thing as objective reality. Reality is personally construed, and what you imagine, believe, and expect is what you get. Imagine… above all—that’s the key word, for imagination is the precursor of personal reality, and in order for something to become material, it must first be imagined, then progressively invested with the emotional force that puts the meat on the bones, so to speak. In societies—ancient or modern–that are ordered around divine authority, myth serves that all-important purpose of expressing collective imagination in building culture. Myth is imagination writ large by culture and society, essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature, or as the Sun God may have signified the congruence of the Egyptians’ desert environment with the otherworldly Realm of Light, or as the Epic of Gilgamesh signified the miraculous origins of a resplendent civilization in an inhospitable environment.

Culture/Hanging Gardens

The Hanging Gardens must have existed to lend meaning to the term “Biblical scale”–splendid enough, methinks, to imbue even Donald Trump with a sense of insignificance.

Culture/Ishtar

I realize that we’re treading on the most intimate and deeply held sensitivities when we talk religion, and I must say that I have nothing but respect for whichever path a person adopts in his or her quest for God, whether by way of some panoply of Egyptian deities, the Mesopotamian Moon-God, the God of Abraham, or simply personal reflection. The important thing is that he finds Him—All That Is–on whichever terms make the most sense to the individual in his cultural context. I’ve come to understand that there really isn’t any such thing as objective reality. Reality is personally construed, and what you imagine, believe, and expect is what you get. Imagine… above all—that’s the key word, for imagination is the precursor of personal reality, and in order for something to become material, it must first be imagined, then progressively invested with the emotional force that puts the meat on the bones, so to speak. In societies—ancient or modern–that are ordered around divine authority, myth serves that all-important purpose of expressing collective imagination in building culture. Myth is imagination writ large by culture and society, essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature, or as the Sun God may have signified the congruence of the Egyptians’ desert environment with the otherworldly Realm of Light, or as the epic of Ishtar and Gilgamesh signified the fecundity of woman in a barren environment.

Culture/Sargon

I’ve come to understand that there really isn’t any such thing as objective reality. Reality is personally construed, and what you imagine, believe, and expect is what you get. Imagine… above all—that’s the key word, for imagination is the precursor of personal reality, and in order for something to become material, it must first be imagined, then progressively invested with the emotional force that puts the meat on the bones, so to speak. In societies—ancient or modern–that are ordered around divine authority, myth serves that all-important purpose of expressing collective imagination in building culture. Myth is imagination writ large by culture and society, essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature, or as the Sun God may have signified the congruence of the Egyptians’ desert environment with the otherworldly Realm of Light, or as the birth of Sargon signified the miraculous origins of a resplendent civilization in an inhospitable environment.

Culture/Writing and Civilization

In progressing from hieroglyphics and pictorial writing to phonetic writing (by around 3000 BC), we’ve accomplished the ability to represent abstractions—ideas and concepts—as well as tenses of adverbs and degrees of adjectives. That was perhaps the first great revolution in communications, and one that gave man the ability to document the full dimensions of his mental capabilities. After all, so much of civilization is embodied in concept: property rights and other laws, literature, science, and much more. In time, the Phoenicians would give us the beginnings on an alphabet that would better enable us to articulate in writing the full range of human speech. So, when you realize that you’d sooner starve as not pay your cell phone bill, you have some intimation of the primacy of communication… there’s so much to say, and the Mesopotamians and Phoenicians appreciated–no less than you do–the importance of enhancing our means to say it all.

Culture/Ziggurats

I suspect that the farther we reach back into time, the more sophisticated the civilizations we’d uncover if only we could. For us to believe that history is a linear progression from the primitive to the present is a massive conceit. The level of sophistication implicit in the pyramids, ziggurats, and other monuments of those civilizations that are still accessible to us suggests that there’s more to the pattern of technological development in history than meets our critical eye. In fact, I imagine that future civilizations may well come to de-emphasize technology to the point where life again resembles the simplicity of certain ancient civilizations, and that with technology, the less intrusive, the better.

Economy/Irrigation

I find it ironic that the technology of irrigation that facilitated the rise of Mesopotamian civilization also proved to be the agency of its demise. Irrigation pumped so much salt into the soil that it became infertile, and the farms that supported the once-flourishing cities of Mesopotamia withered away. In time, the Fertile Crescent became the arid and desolate landscape that we see today in Iraq, the sight of which might lead anyone to wonder how it could ever have been a cradle of civilization. I can’t help but wonder if technology might become the means of our own civilization’s demise someday.

hittite empire/Society/Geography

Mesopotamia, the “Land between the Rivers”, was—as Egypt was—a gift of its rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Its cities and their diversified trade economies were supported by well-irrigated farms. While it had no natural barriers with which to seal itself off from the rest of the world, Mesopotamia both thrived and suffered from the constant incursions of “barbarian” peoples from beyond—whether Assyrians, Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Chaldees, or Persians. But at least they kept them on their toes! Apart from irrigation and the world’s first cities, the Sumerians developed bronze and bricks, math and calendars, writing, the wheel and plow. But all of these glorious of civilization were ultimately laid low by the life-giving waters that had made it all possible: heavy irrigation led to deposits of salts which rendered the soil infertile. As farmland became desert, Mesopotamia’s cities were abandoned, and its civilization withered.

Hittite Empire

I find it ironic that the Hittites, a warlike people, fervently embraced both religion and law. What is it about a passion for making war that begets an obsession with God and the rule of law? Might we be talking about America here?

mesopotamia/Religion/Priests

The Hebrew concept of an all-in-one God was revolutionary, and like most revolutions, it put a lot of guys out of work—most notably the myriad Mesopotamian deities whose specialized functions answered to man’s every need and purpose. This lent enormous significance to the leap from the fractious mayhem of warring tribes to the social and philosophical unity required of modern society. It helps to have everyone on the same page for different cultures and societies to weld themselves into a cohesive nation. I realize that we’re treading on the most intimate and deeply held sensitivities when we talk religion, and I must say that I have nothing but respect for whichever path a person adopts in his or her quest for God, whether by way of some panoply of Egyptian deities, the Mesopotamian Moon-God, the God of Abraham, or simply personal reflection. The important thing is that he finds Him—All That Is–on whichever terms make the most sense to the individual in his cultural context. I’ve come to understand that there really isn’t any such thing as objective reality. Reality is personally construed, and what you imagine, believe, and expect is what you get. Imagine… above all—that’s the key word, for imagination is the precursor of personal reality, and in order for something to become material, it must first be imagined, then progressively invested with the emotional force that puts the meat on the bones, so to speak. In societies—ancient or modern–that are ordered around divine authority, myth serves that all-important purpose of expressing collective imagination in building culture. Myth is imagination writ large by culture and society, essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature, or as the Sun God may have signified the congruence of the Egyptians’ desert environment with the otherworldly Realm of Light.

mesopotamiaReligion/Priests

Alienating the priestly class has almost invariably proved to be the death knell of a regime. Similarly, so many of our own political candidates have blown the election by running afoul of the religious right (John Kerry?).

mesopotamia/Culture/Science/Medicine

The ashipu’s role in determining whether the patient had brought the illness on himself (out of guilt or anxiety over some offense) would seem to anticipate the fact that many illnesses are indeed self-induced, in some misguided attempt to work things out through suffering the disease. On another note, the provisions of Hammurabi’s Code for professional malpractice would give us pause for thought as to whether it would be better to lose an eye in return for an eye than one’s hindquarters to a lawyer!

mesopotamia/Society/Comparison with Egypt

Mesopotamia, the “Land between the Rivers”, was—as Egypt was—a gift of its rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Its cities and their diversified trade economies were supported by well-irrigated farms. While it had no natural barriers with which to seal itself off from the rest of the world, Mesopotamia both thrived and suffered from the constant incursions of “barbarian” peoples from beyond—whether Assyrians, Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Chaldees, or Persians. But at least they kept them on their toes! Apart from irrigation and the world’s first cities, the Sumerians developed bronze and bricks, math and calendars, writing, the wheel and plow. But all of these glorious of civilization were ultimately laid low by the life-giving waters that had made it all possible: heavy irrigation led to deposits of salts which rendered the soil infertile. As farmland became desert, Mesopotamia’s cities were abandoned, and its civilization withered. Egypt’s topography formed a natural setting for the kingdoms’ protection. Except for its vulnerability from the northeast, Egypt’s natural barriers enabled the kingdom to thrive unmolested for countless centuries. Egypt’s closure from the rest of the world can be compared to the Chinese belief in isolation. They were both civilizations that were world leaders in technology but would later falter with their continued blockage of outside knowledge.

mesopotamia/Society/Education

How did education differ along gender lines? A young man was educated according to the calling of the class into which he was born, possibly to study the Inner Mysteries of mathematics, astrology, or theology as protégé of a priest or an official. For a girl, however, there was generally no such calling, and the guiding inspiration of her education was purely to add value to her as a marriageable commodity. How presumptuous we are these days to think that love is everything in marriage! It wasn’t that long ago when love meant absolutely nothing; when a young man asked about his upcoming marriage, he was frequently reprimanded by his father and told to mind his own business! Marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another family, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed obsession with the bottom line that the barter of a camel for a herd of goats commanded. Once the two families had concluded that the marriage was in their mutual interest, the price of the bride, and the goods that came with the bride, became the paramount concern. Virginity was not a virtue so much as it was an economic imperative, for without it, the woman was damaged goods and unmarketable. Her education in the domestic arts was merely another economic consideration that ensured her marketability and tenure as a wife.

mesopotamia/Society/Law/Hammurabi’s Code

It’s funny how the notions of equal justice (“an eye for an eye”) give way here to the primacy of commercial value (as in paying half a slave’s value in the event of injury to a slave). What does this suggest about their priorities? So much of Hammurabi’s Code is concerned with property rights, slavery, taxes, prices, dowry, and child support. In an age of high theocracy, it still seems that the bottom line was the one with the dollar sign next to it. The preponderance of commercial and family law in Hammurabi’s Code gives one a pretty good idea as to the values which weighed most heavily in Sumerian society. Its provisions for professional malpractice would give us pause for thought, though, as to whether it would be better to lose an eye in return for an eye than one’s hindquarters to a lawyer.

mesopotamia/Society/Nomads

Mesopotamia, the “Land between the Rivers”, was—as Egypt was—a gift of its rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. Its cities were supported by the farms irrigated by these rivers, and their diversified trade economies thrived on their location at the heart of the region’s most coveted trade routes. It was a mixed blessing: its lucrative location caused Mesopotamia to suffer from the constant incursions of “barbarian” peoples from beyond—whether Assyrians, Akkadians, Amorites, Hittites, Chaldees, or Persians. But at least they kept them on their toes! Apart from irrigation and the world’s first cities, the Sumerians—the original Mesopotamians–developed bronze and bricks, math and calendars, writing, the wheel and plow. All of this may well go to show that, much as it has done here in America, fecundity of trade and culture thrives best on the fertilizer of cross-cultural chaos.

mesopotamia/Society/Women

It’s remarkable that the ancient Mesopotamians seem to have generally appreciated what has only recently become brain-dead obvious to people today: to wit, the need for absolute equality of opportunity for women, which has been so utterly impossible for so many people to get a grip on since. (We’ll overlook, for the moment, that Mesopotamian society was extensively based on slavery). But their enlightened view of (relative) gender equality (property rights, divorce, business) points up the likelihood that the farther we reach back into time, the more sophisticated the civilizations we’d uncover if only we could. For us to believe that history is a linear progression from the primitive to the present is a massive conceit.

mesopotamia/Power/Sea Peoples/Decline

Mesopotamia offers abundant mystery as to history’s vanished civilizations. Whether its inhabitants perished from the predations of the Sea Peoples or other barbarian invasion, political infighting, natural calamity, or all of these (and more) in combination, no one is quite sure. We do know that civilizations tend to perish suddenly. The moral of the story is that civilizations that take man untold generations to laboriously build—whether Rome, Europe on the eve of the First World War, or Wall Street on the eve of the Great Crash–have a nasty habit of coming undone… virtually overnight. What’s more, they do so in a way that nobody sees coming (which may be the only way that it could happen!).

sumer/Religion

The similarities of the ancient Sumerian epics with Biblical legends are astonishing, and it also makes me think of the ancient Hawaiians, with their pantheon of 400,000 gods. With such a multiplicity of deities, the polytheistic point of view would seem to approximate the realization that must of us come to in our own way–that God is in everything, everywhere.

palestine/Power/Blowback

The plight of the Jews in biblical times leads directly to present-day Israel. Israel was created by the United Nations after World War II as a haven for survivors of the Holocaust. The land that was taken from Palestine for creating the new state of Israel ironically left the Palestinians homeless, and offers us one of history’s best examples of “blowback”—reaping the consequences today of acts committed even long ago. But history has a very long fuse, and understanding history can help us manage its modern-day consequences.

phoenicia/Culture/Alphabet

The Phoenicians demonstrated that efficient communication is the key to advanced technological civilization. The phonetic alphabet was a big improvement over hieroglyphics, and even more so over some other of the world’s languages, picturesque and utterly unwieldy as they are. Chinese, for example, has a pictograph that, through an overwrought combination of some forty-odd brushstrokes, is meant to represent an elephant–it even looks like one, I might add, tusks and all. In the case of the Chinese language, certain canons of the culture can be discerned in the fact that the high art of Chinese calligraphy could only be mastered by the scholar-mandarin; mastery of the written language was emblematic of the gulf that separated the scholar from the commoner. What’s more, it accorded well with the Chinese veneration of the Golden Era of the Past. In the meantime, written communication in China remains stuck in the mud of ancient history, so be thankful for your ABCs.

Sumer/Society

Much as we are prone to assume the worst—that hegemony over one’s neighbors is customarily achieved at gun-point, through the kicking of fundaments and the taking of names—the Sumerians demonstrated early on there’s a better way: civilize them! Empires built upon conquest never stick to the wall, but empires built upon a better idea for all stand a much better chance of enduring (consider democracy, first invented by the Greeks nearly 2,500 years ago; at the end of World War II, only six nations were democracies, while today, some 180 are). The Sumerians, for their part, seemed to specialize in better ideas: irrigation, bronze and iron, math and chronology, writing, the wheel, brick, the plow… and yes, the cities and their diversified lifestyles that all of this made possible. Is it any wonder that their neighbors bought into the proposition?

sumer/Culture/Role of Writing

Something comparable to this happened to another militarily (relatively) insignificant civilization: Athens. From the depths of ruin, Greece transformed itself from an empire that gloried military conquest to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. Consider democracy: at the end of World War II, six nations were democracies; now, some 160 are. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for an idea, which suggests that, in the long run, freedom endures; conquest and empire do not. And if this much came from an idea, how much more do we owe the Phoenicians for having given us the means to express the idea! In a sense, the legal code that the Assyrians contributed anticipated the jurisprudential tradition of Rome, while the alphabet that the Phoenicians contributed set the stage for the cultural glories of Greece. The literary tradition of the ancient Greeks paved the way for the transformation of Greece from an empire that gloried military conquest to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. And how much more enduring this… than history’s mightiest empires!


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