This post is about the first chapter from the new non-fiction book I'm working my way through. It's a complete change of pace from the previous one - the only thing in common is that it's a history book, but it's about a different time, a different place and it's a very different sort of book. The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed is a big glossy book from the publisher Thames & Hudson, part of their series about Ancient Civilisations - I've previously read the one about China in this series (first post about that book). The format is a series of one or two double page spreads each about a particular subject. It's written by 14 authors, but they're not credited on individual sections - Stephen Bourke is the "Chief Consultant" and so I'm listing him as the author. The book covers the history of the Middle East from before the evolution of anatomically modern homo sapiens through to the Islamic conquest in the mid-7th Century AD.

Introducing the Middle East

The book opens talking about what they mean by the "Middle East". It's a term that's relatively recently coined (at the start of the 20th Century) and is already falling into disfavour for its Eurocentrism. It is also a very nebulous term, and their definition boils down to "that bit there between Asia and Africa, you'll know it when you see it". The core modern countries are Bahrain, Egypt (not covered in this book), Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Another reason that the term Middle East is not entirely favoured is that it elides the diversity of the peoples who live in the region. Modern ideas about race and ethnicity don't map well onto ancient ones - both are equally complex, just not the same. So scholars categorise the ancient peoples by the languages they spoke or the polities (city or state etc) they belonged to. There are several groups that were prominent during the period this book covers, and the authors devote a double page spread to a brief overview of who was where when. Which also gives an overview of the history that will be discussed in more detail in the book, so I think it's worth me writing more about it than just a brief summary.

Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq) was a region of two parts - north and south. The earliest* group to live there were the Sumerian speakers in the south. They were conquered by an Akkadian speaking group in the late third millennium BC. Some time after this the people living in the north came to be known as Assyrians (after their city of Assur) and the people in the south as Babylonians (after Babylon). Akkadian and Sumerian are used throughout the succeeding couple of millennia, eventually being supplanted by Aramaic.

*When they say "earliest" here, I think we're talking about historically and not considering the prehistoric cultures of the region, but I'm not quite clear on that.

Through the Bronze Age the peoples who lived in the southern Levant were called Canaanites by the Egyptians (tho they probably didn't call themselves that, and wouldn't've thought of themselves as a cohesive group). They spoke a Semitic language (the same family as Akkadian belongs to) and lived in large city states throughout what is now Israel. Around 1200BC much of their civilisation vanished, and their city states were destroyed. Their culture survived in part via the Phoenicians (who were also ancestors of the Carthaginians). In the area where the Canaanites had lived several small kingdoms now formed - the Philistines, Israelites, Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites.

The longest lasting culture in Anatolia was the Hittites, who spoke an Indo-European language and were most powerful in the Late Bronze Age. Between them and northern Mesopotamia were the Hurrians. In the Late Bronze Age these people had a kingdom that stretched across modern day southeast Turkey, north Syria and north Iraq, which was called Mitanni.

Ancient Iran has been inhabited as long as Mesopotamia, but less is known about the earliest people there as their script (Proto-Elamite) hasn't been deciphered. The first culture whose name we know were the Elamites, who lasted from 2700BC through till 559BC - the book isn't entirely clear (maybe it isn't known) whether these are the same people as wrote proto-Elamite or not. In the first millenium BC the Medes were also living in northwest Iran, and were an important power in that region. Iran was unified in the Achaemenid period (559-331BC) which lasted until Alexander the Great conquered the region. When the Classical Greeks refer to "Persians" they are generally talking about the Achaemenids. Post-Alexander Iran was first controlled by his successors in the Seleucid Dynasty and then by the Parthians. They ruled until 224AD when they were overthrown by the Sasanians.

The next section of this chapter feels a tad out of place - it considers the economic & agricultural activity of the region but mostly from a modern perspective which seems outside the scope of the book. It does point out that most of the agricultural production even now is of indigenous species which were first domesticated in the region (and subsequently exported as crops & technology). Other resources discussed are the timber industry in ancient Lebanon (now not thriving due to over-exploitation in the past), and modern oil reserves.

Water is such an important and contested resource that it gets its own double page spread. Because much of the region is arid or semi-arid control of water and management of water is critical to a civilisation's survival. Particularly in Mesopotamia where the amount of rainfall is insufficient for any agricultural activity, irrigation is essential. The major rivers in the region are the river Jordan, and the two rivers between which Mesopotamia lies (the Euphrates & the Tigris). The latter two both start in Turkey and are a source of modern tensions as damming projects in Turkey and Syria have knock-on effects in Iraq. The rivers were & are vital for food production, and the seas of the region, as is generally the case in the ancient world, were the main transport links between this and other places.

This chapter finishes with a brief overview of archaeological work in the region with some basic grounding in what archaeology actually entails. And makes for rather sad reading in the wake of IS destroying and looting so much that they've come in contact with - which we'll now never fully understand.

Colossi of Memnon
Colossi of Memnon

The Colossi of Memnon are, for me, the most underwhelming site we visited in Egypt. The only bits you get a proper look at on the site are the two statues in a rather sad state, but admittedly huge. The first time we visited there in 2009 the rest of the site didn't impinge on my consciousness at all, and this time it was only visible in tantalising glimpses of other reconstructed colossal statues.

My photos from this site are on flickr here.

Colossi of Memnon
View between the Colossi to the rest of the site

This was once the vast mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, built mostly of mudbrick and within the area flooded by the annual inundation. Once his cult was abandoned and repair works ended the temple dissolved, and what stone there had been in the walls was taken by later Pharaohs to use in their own building works. Most of the statuary was left behind (although some was usurped by later Pharaohs), mostly toppled over or buried by the time Egyptologists were on the scene - except for the two Colossi. This temple, along with the Temple of Mut at Karnak, is one of the places that all the Sekhmet statues come from - there were once 730 Sekhmets in this temple, one standing and one seated for every day of the year.

Colossi of MemnonColossi of Memnon
Graffiti (and an original inscription) on the Colossi

The two Colossi have been tourist attractions since antiquity. The one on the right used to sing at dawn - it had been cracked in an earthquake in 27BC and after that as the sun warmed the rock it would make an eerie crying noise. Hearing this was thought to bring good luck, so it attracted tourists - many of whom carved their names and messages into the Colossi. It stopped singing in 199AD when Septimus Severus had the statue restored and the cracks filled in.

Colossi of Memnon
Colossi of Memnon

Sappho was a 7th Century BC Greek poetess, but I rather suspect the thing she's best known for in modern culture is for being the reason we call lesbians lesbians. However, it was for her poetry that she was renowned in ancient Greece. Discussing a little bit about the woman and a lot about her work on In Our Time were Edith Hall (King's College, London), Margaret Reynolds (Queen Mary, University of London) and Dirk Obbink (University of Oxford).

Saphho lived on Lesbos, which is an island between mainland Greece and Turkey - both in a geographical sense and in a cultural sense. Whilst they were definitely Greek there were eastern influences on both their culture and their language. Their dialect of Greek was not the same as the Greek of Homer and would've sounded a bit exotic to the mainland Greek people of her time. She was a lyrical poet, which means that her words were set to music - accompanied by the lyre or other instruments. The work of a lyrical poet was an important part of ceremonies, and was also important to memorialise events. Obbink said that what survives is a bit like having the words to an opera, but not the music.

To the Greeks Sappho was "The Poetess" in the same was that Homer was "The Poet". A lot of her work was written down and still read long into the classical era. In the Library at Alexandria there was a 9 volume text containing all her poetry. But most of what survived to be rediscovered in the Renaissance did so as fragments in other texts - later translations and quotations in textbooks and commentaries. Much more recently papyrus fragments have been discovered from what were originally whole poems written in her native dialect - I hesitate to say originals as I think these would post-date her time but it would be like discovering fragments of a "Complete Works of Shakespeare" after only knowing his work via quotations from other books in modern English. More of these papyrus fragments occasionally get discovered - Obbink has recently found and translated some previously unknown fragments. These can radically change our understanding of a poem where they overlap with previously known pieces.

The subjects of her poetry were very personal in nature rather than mythical as is the case with Homer. Her poems contain several expressions of her desire for and love of other women, hence her later reputation as a lesbian. Some of the language and metaphors that she uses for desire have become a standard part of the repertoire of imagery - e.g. fire in the veins. The people in her poems are often specific named people, and she names herself in her poetry as well. Despite the first person perspective and specificity of the poetry it's not clear if it was actually autobiographical. In particular it's not clear if she was actually a lesbian, and if she was it's not clear if anyone in her culture at the time cared (although it is clear that they did care later on).

Hall suggested that Sappho's poetry might indicate that in her time and place there were women's symposiums running in parallel to the men's ones. Men's symposiums are well attested through Greek culture. Hall explained them as semi-public gatherings which in effect provided poetic and ritualised training of the next generation in how to be civilised. They were where a young Greek man learnt how to be "a Greek man". There are no records of women's symposiums, and in parts of the classical Greek world (like classical Athens) women's lives were so restricted that they seem implausible as an idea. However Sappho's time and place were different, and women's voices survive so rarely from this era (I'm not sure if Sappho is unique or just almost so) that no evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

In her own time and during later Greek culture Sappho's poetry was very popular. However she began to become less revered during the Roman period. Her dialect of Greek had died out and so understanding her poetry wasn't a question of picking up the text and reading it, it required a commentary or a translation. It became even more obscure in the Christian era when it dropped out of the standard curriculum altogether because the subject matter was too much about worldly, sinful things like desire for a beautiful woman. And because of her obscurity her work was not often copied, and thus no copies survived intact. Fragments of her work were only discovered in the late Renaissance, and early translations downplayed the sauciness of the texts.

Since rediscovery Sappho's work, and Sappho herself, have often been taken up by the women's movements of various eras. Because there is so little known about the woman herself, and even her work, it's relatively easy to shape her into an icon. Whether that is for intellectual liberation as in the 18th Century or the sexual liberation of the 20th Century. One of the experts suggested that it's also because of the position of Greek culture in our own culture as one of the "roots of civilisation". As the vast majority of what survives from Greece is male voices and male culture that can lead to an equation of men with civilisation. So if you're putting forward women as the equal of men against this cultural backdrop it's good to have an example of a feminine Greek culture.

This programme concentrated on the poetry and the legacy of Sappho rather than the woman herself - as there is so very little that's actually known about her. So it was well complemented by the TV programme "Sappho: Love & Life on Lesbos with Margaret Mountford", which we watched not long after listening to this. The TV programme was more focussed on Sappho the person - although of necessity it was more about the broader culture of the period than the individual. It also looked at the legends that have grown up around the woman in more modern times.

On Sunday Mohammed Abu el-Yezid, from the Ministry of Antiquties in Egypt, came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the Slaughter Court in Seti I's temple at Abydos. He is the Egyptologist and site manager for the province of Sohag (which includes Abydos) and he researched the Slaughter Court for his MA from Ain Shams University where he is currently studying for his PhD.

An important part of the rituals in an Egyptian temple was the feeding of the god(s) the temple was dedicated to - with meat, as well as other foodstuffs. A temple was a place of purity, common people weren't allowed in at all and only the High Priest or the King were permitted in the innermost sanctuary where the statue of the god lived. The priest had to purify himself before entering, performing the appropriate rituals around opening the doors and so on. And clearly any food taken into the sanctuary for the god must also be pure. The best way to ensure this is to slaughter the animals on site where the meat cannot be contaminated by anything impure - but this would then generate a lot of mess, noise and smells which would also contaminate the purity of the temple. Mohammed Abu el-Yezid's research has looked at how the Slaughter Court in Seti I's temple was designed to minimise this.

Abydos Plan Temple Seti I
Plan of Seti I Temple at Abydos
From kairoinfo4u's flickr

He began by telling us a bit about the overall temple layout - the plan above shows the L-shaped design of the temple. Previously it was thought that this was done accidentally, because when building they discovered the Osireon and had to modify the intended design. However it's now known that the Osireon was also built by Seti I and thus the complex was designed as a cohesive whole. The top right corner (on the plan) of the temple is the most holy area with the 7 shrines for the 7 deities and the complex of Osiris (the primary deity of the temple). The top left area contains the service rooms for the temple - the Butchering Hall and other storage rooms - and is linked to the main temple by the corridor that has the famous King List on the wall.

Butchers' Hall

Scenes of Butchering

The Slaughter Court (labelled Butchering Hall on the plan) has scenes of butchering on the walls (see above) indicating its function, but it could still be a symbolic slaughter court rather than a real one and there are other examples of both scenarios. For instance the 5th Dynasty temple of Raneferef had a functional slaughter court. It could be accessed from both inside and outside the temple, and when it was excavated butcher's equipment and animal remains were found in the room. There was also textual evidence talking about the number of animals slaughtered daily to feed the god. On the other hand Medinet Habu has what is clearly a symbolic slaughter court. Deep inside the temple there is a small room with butchering scenes on the walls. This room is only accessible from inside the temple, and it has no windows and no ventilation. If there had ever been butchery taking place in there then the butcher wouldn't be able to see what he was doing, and the mess would contaminate sacred areas of the temple.

Mohammed Abu el-Yezid looked at models of butchers from Middle Kingdom tombs to get a good idea of what Ancient Egyptian slaughterhouses looked like. He came up with a list of features to use to determine if a slaughter court was functional or symbolic and then examined the room at Abydos to see which possibility was more plausible. A real slaughter court should be away from the main temple axis and downwind of it so any noxious smells are blown away from the sacred areas. It must be accessible from both inside and outside the temple so that animals can be brought in without profaning the temple and meat can be taken to the god without coming into contact with the outside world again. The external entrance must be large enough for oxen to fit through, and once inside there must be enough space to manoeuvre the animals and rooms to keep them in while the work is taking place. Good hygiene practice required sunlight, ventilation, water and drainage. There should also be archaeological evidence of slaughtering and of butchering tools.

The Slaughter Court at Abydos has all of the requirements except archaeological evidence of butchery equipment. Mohammed Abu el-Yezid thinks this lack is because that area of the temple was used as a nunnery by Coptic nuns after Pharaonic times and so they cleaned it up.

Butchers' Hall

Water Jar Storage Area

As you can see on the plan there are two accesses to the Slaughter Court - one via the Kings List corridor to the inner sanctuaries, and one in the eastern wall to the outside world. The prevailing wind in the area blows from the north-eastern side of the temple so the air from the Slaughter Court would be blown out to the desert away from the temple. The Slaughter Court itself (Butcher's Hall on the plan) is open to the sky, so is well ventilated and well lit. There is an area where water jars could be stored. The floor may once have had drainage channels on it, but Mohammed Abu el-Yezid said he hadn't found much evidence of them. This area was used as a storage room from 1930 to 1985 and there was quite a bit of damage done to the floor.

The biggest room to the west of the Slaughter Court is the room where the slaughtered animals were butchered. This room is well designed for this task. The roof is raised compared to the surrounding rooms, and this allowed the architect to put in six windows at the tops of the walls. Three of these are on the southern side and three on the northern. This allows light in and keeps the room ventilated (and again the prevailing wind blows the smell out to the desert. The roof outside overhangs these windows and there are drainage channels to carry away water if it rains. The room is also unusual in having a sandstone floor and first course of building block. Sandstone is much less susceptible to water damage than limestone (which the rest of the temple is built from) and so this room could be washed out daily with no ill effects.

The corridor with the Kings List also has design features intended to keep the profane slaughtering area separate from the sacred temple space. At the Slaughter Court end there is a 5m stretch of corridor that is open to the sky for ventilation. There is also a screen wall at that end that prevents direct line of sight into the Slaughter Court from the corridor. This would stop the the priests accidentally seeing the animals or the butchering, which would pollute them. The screen wall is also interesting because it is the first time this particular design was seen in Egyptian temples (with a three part structure of base, body and corniche) - it becomes the standard design after this.

The Kings List corridor isn't just functional, it also serves more than one ritual purpose. At the temple end of the corridor are scenes showing Seti I purifying meat offerings - which symbolically purify every offering carried past them. The two lists along the walls - Kings on one side and Gods on the other - are there so that they also receive the offerings being taken to the sanctuaries. (Once all the gods and kings, in the lists and in the sanctuaries, had spiritually eaten the meat (or rather the Ka of the meat) the tangible meat that was left was eaten by the priests.)

This was a very interesting talk about a subject I hadn't really thought about before, and I was impressed how much of the practicalities of ancient temple rituals can be discovered when someone starts to research it. When J and I visited Egypt last year our group was lucky enough to be let in to see the Slaughter Court even though it's not yet open to the public - the photos in this blog post are two that I took on that visit. And at the end of his talk Mohammed Abu el-Yezid explained that his research is part of the process of getting this area opened to the public - it needs to be published and restored before this can happen.

Walk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina
Walking over the Mountain

After visiting the Valley of the Kings (post) we walked over the mountain to Deir el Medina. I didn't take my camera with me as I (rightly) thought it would make the walk more difficult if I had to manage to keep the camera safe as well. J took his camera tho, and the pictures in this post and on flickr are his.

Walk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el MedinaWalk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina
View of the Valley of the Kings (left), Buildings at top of Valley (right)

This walk would be how the workers who dug and decorated the tombs in the Valley got to and from work. There's some disagreement as to whether they commuted every day or whether they overnighted at the "security post" buildings at the top of the Valley. While we were there Dylan said he didn't think they slept there, but later on when we visited Deir el Medina Medhat said that was what happened. Whether or not they slept there, it was a stopping point where they were prevented from removing the (expensive) tools of their trade from the Valley. Perhaps not with much success, as they did decorate their own tombs in fine style!

Graffiti at the top of the Valley of the KingsGraffiti at the top of the Valley of the Kings
Ancient Graffiti

There was also a lot of (ancient) graffiti at that point in the walk - which I don't seem to've gone to have a look at, and I'm not sure why not. I'm writing this 8 months later so if there was a reason I've forgotten, perhaps I was just admiring the views after scrambling up the steep path to get up there! J took some photos though. I do know that it's been catalogued and studied, which is what the numbers on them are referring to. Other people looked over the steeper edges to catch a glimpse of Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el Bahri, however I stayed well back!

Walk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el MedinaGeology Lesson
Me not at the edge (left), Geology lesson (right)

Part way across from the security post to Deir el Medina Eileen asked John (the geologist) about some of the rocks, and we had an impromptu geology lesson. I have the piece of rock that sparked the initial question on my desk (as an ornament, there are pebbles from Kefalonia next to me too, I tend to bring back stones from places I visit). It looks a bit like a sandwich, with limestone outer edges enclosing a layer of chert (also known as flint when found in chalk). Chert is a silica rich rock and when found in limestone it derives from the structural elements of organisms like sea sponges. When they died and sank into the mud at the bottom of the sea the organic stuff rotted away but the little bits of silica remained. As the mud turned into limestone the silica was chemically incompatible with it, and so instead of being dispersed evenly through the rock it ended up clumped together in sheets or globules.

Walk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el MedinaWalk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina
Walk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina
Walk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina

There are more of J's photos up on my flickr account here so do go have a look :)

Walk from the Valley of the Kings to Deir el Medina

In the final chapter of this book Prestwich draws together the ideas and themes he explored in the rest of the book and discusses what it meant to be English during this period (1225-1360). On the one hand England was a pretty cosmopolitan society - there were many leading figures in the government who weren't English born, and migrants with useful skills were encouraged (Flemish weavers during Edward III's reign, for instance). On the other hand there was a strong sense of an English identity. Foreigners apparently had a simple stereotype: Englishmen had tails and were usually drunk! The English themselves had a bit more of a nuanced view, although not necessarily more complimentary. The author of the Vita of Edward II for instance said that the English "excel other nations in three qualities, in pride, in craft and in perjury". The north/south divide is already evident during this time - southerners are considered more civilised. And there is still a sense of an ethnic divide between the aristocracy (of Norman descent) and commoners (of Saxon descent) but both are also considered English.

Language was important to both national identity and social status. There was a sense that English people should speak English - and Edward III used the idea that the French wanted to wipe out the use of English in England as a piece of propaganda to drum up popular support for his wars in France. But speaking French still marked one as part of the social elite. Prestwich discusses how this French is changing and becoming more English - by the end of the period it's generally a learnt language not a naturally acquired one, and the French definitely think that the English speakers of French don't speak it properly. Culturally England is still close to Northern France, but differences are beginning to emerge. The English literature of the period (whether written in English or French) has a distinctive voice, and has English heroes and covers themes & political concerns peculiar to England.

During this period English art & architecture also developed a distinct style. For most of the 13th Century Western European culture was dominated by the French styles of architecture, but by the late 13th Century the English Decorated style was developing. It was more exuberant, and featured more naturalistic carving & sculpture. Art in the form of paintings hasn't survived in particularly great numbers & Prestwich doesn't discuss how this compared to the previous French style. Illuminated manuscripts and embroidery (tapestry) do survive and display high quality work - some of it reflecting the new English Decorated style of the architecture.

The legal system was an important part of English identity. In border regions whose law you were subjected to was important - a lord who had both English and Welsh tenants in the Marches would be expected to deal with the two groups via their own law and their own courts. The legal system in England was distinctive in that it was not codified - it was a law based on litigation and precedents, and it was primarily learnt by attending courts. This was something that struck me in particular while I was reading this book - how much is known because the court records are preserved, and how often people took each other to court.

The mythology surrounding England's origins as a country had a couple of different (mutually contradictory strands) during this era. One strand emphasised King Arthur and the Britons, with an ultimate origin of the country in Brutus the Trojan who defeated giants in Albion and founded Britain. The other concentrated on the Anglo-Saxons and the uniting of their kingdoms, and appealed to the authority of Bede's history of the English.

The wars of the period helped to strengthen the sense of Englishness. In the case of the Anglo-Scottish wars there weren't particularly large cultural differences between the two sides, but propaganda (on both sides) still made the enemy out to be vicious barbarians coming to commit atrocities against civilised people. The Anglo-French wars are often held up as important in forging an sense of Englishness as distinct from the Norman culture that stretched across England and Northern France. However Prestwich thinks it wasn't that significant - he sees most of the national sentiments as being there already. And points out that Edward III would want to be careful about negative portrayals of the people he hoped to rule if he won.

The intellectual life of England was a significant part of the mainstream European intellectual culture. Oxford and Cambridge were two of the greatest universities of Europe in this period. Prestwich gives mini-biographies of a few of the intellectual elite - including Ockham of Ockham's Razor - and discusses briefly the controversy of the day: nominalism vs. realism. Slightly confusingly nominalism is the school of thought that the only real things are those that can be observed and tested, whereas realism holds that there are absolute realities which the actual objects can only be approximations of.

Prestwich concludes by looking at the large scale trends throughout the period that the book covers. In the 1220s England was politically unstable with a weak monarchy and factional rifts among the ruling elite. The country was also militarily weak, and had barely succeeded in keeping independent of French rule. In contrast, the economy was strong, the population was rising and the peasants were firmly under the thumb of the aristocracy. By the 1360s this was reversed - England was politically and militarily strong, but the economy and population had collapsed (particularly in the wake of the Black Death). The peasantry were more able to make their feelings known as labour was now scarce. One of the key developments of the era not touched on by my simplistic summary was the emergence of Parliament as a mechanism for the monarch to consult with not just the highest ranking nobles but also the community of the realm as a whole via representatives for each county.

And so I have finally finished this book - I was reading it for around 18 months in the end. Which is too long! And it was primarily because I wasn't very diligent at coming back to reading it. But also because writing the summaries takes time and so I don't tend to read much more till I'm caught up with that in case I get too far ahead of myself. On the other hand, writing the summaries means I've retained rather more of the information, so I think it's a net positive.

I enjoyed reading the book - I found Prestwich's style readable and at times humorous (in a dry academic fashion). When I've whittled down my to-be-read pile a bit I may look for some more of his books - I know he's written a biography of Edward I which would be interesting. It's part of a series of books from Yale University Press on English Monarchs, which may make for an interesting project once I've finished the New Oxford History of England series (of which the present book is part) in a decade or two!

This is an index and summary of the things I've talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it's before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



The Merchant Princes Trilogy, Charles Stross - part portal/world walking fantasy, part sci-fi thriller. New.

Total: 1


Al-Ghazali - In Our Time episode about Al-Ghazali, a leading intellectual in the Islamic world of the 11th Century AD.

The California Gold Rush - In Our Time episode about the California gold rush in 1849 and its effects on the USA and the world.

Total: 2


"Horemheb" Charlotte Booth - July EEG meeting talk.

Total: 1


Egypt Holiday 2014: Ramasseum.

Egypt Holiday 2014: Valley of the Kings.

Total: 2

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The California Gold Rush was sparked by the discovery of gold in a river in January 1848 and not only did it make some individuals rich but it also had a significant impact on the politics and economy of the USA and the world. Discussing it on In Our Time were Kathleen Burk (University College London), Jacqueline Fear-Segal (University of East Anglia) and Frank Cogliano (University of Edinburgh).

When gold was discovered in what would become the state of California the land it was discovered on was not actually under the control of the USA. War between the USA and Mexico ended in February 1848 with the signing of a treaty that had the Mexicans cede that part of the continent to the USA. I imagine once they knew what they'd signed away they weren't best pleased. At the time the area was inhabited by around 150,000 Native Americans, down from a previous population of 300,000 due to diseases and other effects of the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans. There were also around 6,000 Mexicans and other assorted immigrants.

News of the discovery of gold was initially slow to spread, and didn't get taken seriously by the outside world until late 1848. Thus the gold rush proper was in 1849 - and until I listened to this programme I hadn't really put two & two together and realised that the song Oh My Darling Clementine refers to the gold rush ("In a cavern, in a canyon, Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner forty niner, And his daughter Clementine.").

In 1849 the population of the area increased significantly - by 1850 there were 100,000 settlers who had been drawn there by the gold. Most of the new immigrants were young men looking to get rich. The region was not yet a state, and it had none of the apparatus of government - amongst other things no law enforcement nor even laws. One of the experts described it as like "a stag party, they came and trashed California". Most came to mine gold and hopefully make their fortunes that way, but those who came to sell supplies (mining equipment & food alike) to the miners were the ones who were most likely to become rich. This second category included Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University.

These new settlers came from all over the world. From all 21 states of the USA and from 25 other countries. Not just Europeans either, there were settlers from various South American countries and from China. The journey to the territory was an arduous one no matter where you were coming from, and particularly so from Europe or the East Coast of the USA. By land it took 5 months, and there are few places where it's possible to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. By sea - you could cross the Pacific from China, or sail round the bottom of South America, or cross the continent at Panama (by land, the canal is not there yet) - all of which options have their difficulties and dangers.

The scale of mining operations progressed quickly. At first the stereotypical image of the lone miner panning for gold in a river was pretty accurate, and it was possible for individuals to set up on their own and strike rich. But as time went on mining techniques became more intensive and required more capital to set up. No longer did a lone incomer have much of a chance of getting his lucky strike on his own. As it became more industrialised it also became more destructive. By this I mean they were doing things like diverting rivers and blowing up parts of the mountains in order to extract more gold. As well as this physical destruction of the environment there was also a lot of mercury used in the gold extraction processes - which ended up in the rivers of California.

California may've started out as a lawless place in 1849 but it became incorporated as a state of the USA very quickly. In 1852 they had got themselves organised and went to the Senate with their constitution already written and asked to be made a state. At this point they already had double the number of people necessary to be considered. This had an unforeseen knock-on effect - they were the 31st state and were a free state. At this point in the USA's history tensions were rising between the North (free states) and the South (slave states) although it would be another few years before the Civil War broke out in 1861. To ease the tension states were being admitted in pairs, one slave and one free at a time. However California's swift self-organisation side-stepped around that procedure and unbalanced the Senate. Utah and New Mexico were admitted as slave states to re-balance it but didn't actually have a slave owning economy.

And in a reminder that the issues are never simple: despite being a free state California is actually one of the first to enact institutionally racist laws. One axis of this is the regulation specifically of Chinese immigration. Another is protection and governance laws concerning the Native American population. Despite the idealistic name these laws actually disenfranchised and dispossessed Native Americans. There was also official encouragement of the lynching of Chinese & Native Americans who "stepped out of line".

Obviously the biggest effect of the gold rush was on the economy - not just of California and the USA but also globally. For instance one of the experts made a case that the gold rush was critical for the Industrial Revolution in the UK. If there had not been more people with more money to buy the goods that the newly mechanised UK industry was producing then it would not have happened so fast or so succesfully.

The gold rush also affected the culture of the USA. For instance the American Dream mythology began as a spiritual Puritan vision of the City on the Hill being a shining beacon of virtue for the rest of the world to look up to. But after the gold rush this changes to a more material idea - you don't go to the USA (or to the West Coast) to live the best life you can, you go to get rich quick. California still occupies this sort of cultural space - you go to California to [find gold]/[be a film star]/[join a tech startup] (delete as appropriate). Hollywood and Silicon Valley are the descendants of the strike it lucky & get rich quick ethos of the gold rush.

Towards the end of the programme they talked a little about the role of women in this era of California's history. The main point they brought out was that there weren't many women, and so in some ways their social capital was higher than in other parts of the USA. The example used was that divorce was easier for a woman to initiate. I'd've liked it if they'd spent a bit more time on this - my notes that I'm writing this up from say that I thought they had more to say about the knock-on effects of this on modern US society.

Obviously you can't spend any time on holiday in Luxor without a trip to the Valley of the Kings, and we went there on the 4th day of the Luxor part of our trip. This was one of the advertised highlights of the tour as we had special access to one of the tombs that isn't generally open to the public (that of Seti I). We got to the valley around 6:30am and then had it pretty much to ourselves for a few hours. We had the standard "see three tombs" ticket, plus J & I bought an extra ticket to see the tomb of Ramesses V & VI. We didn't go for Tutankhamun's tomb as well - we'd seen it last time and didn't think we'd have time to fit it in before going to the Seti I tomb. Originally there had been planned to be two trips to the Valley of the Kings on the holiday so we had half thought about visiting it on the second day, but plans changed and we got to go to the Valley of the Queens instead (which was cool, as I'd not been there before).

(All pictures in this post are taken from on Wikimedia Commons with licences that meant I could use them because cameras are strictly forbidden in the Valley so I have no photos of my own.)

Tutmosis IV (KV43)

The first of the tombs we went in was that of Tutmosis IV (KV43) - we picked one each from the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasty for our set of three and visited them in chronological order. Tutmosis IV was the son of Amenhotep II and the father of Amenhotep III, and he ruled around 1400BC (roughly speaking). He is the Pharaoh who had the Dream Stela erected between the paws of the Sphinx at Giza, which says that he had a dream that if he restored that monument then he would be favoured by the gods and become Pharaoh, and lo! this is what happened. Which rather suggests that there were some irregularities in his acquisition of the throne, and it is known that he wasn't the original Crown Prince.

wall decoration in KV43
Wall Decoration in KV43 (photo by wikimedia user Neithsabes)

My main recollection of this tomb is that it didn't have much decoration compared to the ones we saw after it. As you walk down into the tomb at the end of the first passageway you cross a deep well (via a modern bridge) and this chamber is decorated. Then you turn left into another corridor, and just before you turn left again at the end to come out into the burial chamber there is another decorated chamber. I remember the decoration as being reminiscent in style of that in Tutankhamun's tomb - large figures, feeling almost oversized, on a yellowy background. The plain burial chamber still has the sarcophagus at the end of it, decorated with hieroglyphs, and we spent a while with Dylan walking round it while he talked about what the various things were.

This tomb also has a later piece of hieratic graffiti in it. It had apparently been robbed and in Horemheb's reign (last Pharaoh of Dynasty 18 or first of 19 depending how you look at it) an official had been dispatched to restore & re-seal the tomb. He (or perhaps his deputy) wrote a little note to say he'd been there and done this - Stephen Cross talked about this when he visited the Essex Egyptology Group as part of his talk on the Valley of the Kings (post).

Tutmosis IV's mummy wasn't discovered in his tomb - in antiquity it had been moved to KV35 (Amenhotep II's tomb) along with several other royal mummies. It's now in the Cairo Museum.

Tawosret and Setnakhte (KV14)

The next of the tombs we visited was KV14. Who it was dug for, and who was buried there, is a bit confusing (even the Kent Weeks book says that!) but it is from the last years of the 19th Dynasty and the beginning of the 20th Dynasty. It was probably originally dug for Seti II and his Queen Tawosret, and Seti II may well have been buried there in the first burial chamber you come to. When Seti II died his young son Siptah took the throne with Tawosret as regent, and when Siptah died young she took over and declared herself Pharaoh. The decoration in KV14 was partially altered for Siptah but he was then buried in KV47 and Tawosret started to alter the decoration again for herself. However she didn't last long on the throne and was overthrown by Sethnakhte. He intended himself to be buried in KV11 (see below) but when his son Ramesses III came to the throne he had his father interred in KV14. So the decoration once again began to be altered (particularly removing Tawosret). However given the rapid turnover of intended occupant most of the decoration is that which was designed for Tawosret as either Queen or Pharaoh (where she ended up buried is unknown, perhaps KV13). Kent Weeks labels the second burial chamber on his plan of the tomb as "Burial Chamber of Tawosret with Sethnakhte's Sarcophagus" which seems to sum up this confused tomb!

wall decoration in KV14
Wall Decoration in KV14 (photo by flickr user Gaspa via a modified version on wikimedia)

This tomb was much more fully decorated than Tutmosis IV's tomb, and the style more reminiscent of the tombs we'd seen last time we visited the Valley of the Kings. I'm not sure if this is a pre-/post-Amarna period shift, but that would seem plausible. And now is when anyone reading who is particularly into Egyptian tombs wishes it wasn't me writing this ... ;) I was mostly looking at the recurring motifs in the decoration, and appreciating their aesthetic qualities rather than looking at the meaning & symbolism of the composition as a whole. So from this tomb onwards a lot of what I was looking at was snakes - snakes with legs, snakes with heads, snakes as walls (particularly protecting gods or the deceased), snakes as paths, snakes as transport. Snakes everywhere, once you got your eye in. Sadly none of the photos I found to use for this tomb had particularly prominent snakes in them.

Ramesses III (KV11)

For the third tomb on our ticket we chose the properly 20th Dynasty tomb of Ramesses III (KV11). Ramesses III was the son of Sethnakhte and can be seen as the last great Egyptian Pharaoh. He had a long but somewhat turbulent reign - he is the Pharaoh who fought off the Sea Peoples amongst other invaders. And internal politics must also have been full of conflict as he was (probably) eventually assassinated by a harem conspiracy led by one of his wives (Tiye) and one of his sons (Pentaweret).

wall decoration in KV11
Wall Decoration in KV11 (photo by Wikimedia user Sinuhe20)

As I mentioned above this tomb was started by Sethnakhte but Ramesses III took it over. As you go down the initial corridor after a while you suddenly come to an undecorated wall with a little label saying Amenmeses. And then you have to turn right then immediately left in order to follow the corridor further into the tomb. When it was being built for Sethnakhte the workmen misjudged where to put the tomb, and broke through into KV10 (the tomb of Amenmeses, a 19th Dynasty Pharaoh). This may be why work stopped and there was a long gap between Sethnakhte being buried in KV14 and Ramesses III restarting work on KV11. We had organised our viewings of the tombs perfectly - the quality of the decoration in this tomb is a step up from that in KV14 which had been a step up from KV43. I was again mostly looking out for snakes in all their many roles. This time I've found a photo to use that has some - the three (one with human body) here are the deities Nepret, Renenutet and Hu.

Ramesses V & Ramesses VI (KV9)

KV9 is one of the tombs in the Valley for which you have to purchase an extra ticket - we did that this time as we'd seen Tutankhamun's tomb last time we visited. This tomb was started by Ramesses V and completed by Ramesses VI, and both Pharaohs were buried here. The reigns of these sons and grandsons of Ramesses III were all pretty short, and the direct line of succession kept dying out - the succession goes: Ramesses IV (son), Ramesses V (grandson), Ramesses VI (son), Ramesses VII (grandson), Ramesses VIII (son) and then Ramesses IX whose relationship to the others is obscure but possibly a grandson (according to Aidan Dodson & Dyan Hilton's book "The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt). This is one of the reasons Ramesses III can be considered the last great Egyptian Pharaoh as I mentioned above. The tomb was robbed in antiquity, and the bodies of both Pharaohs were moved to the cache of royal mummies in KV35 shortly afterwards.

wall decoration in KV9
Wall Decoration in KV11 (photo by It:Wikipedia user Hotepibre)

The decoration in this tomb was another step up in quality and the tomb itself felt more spacious. Kent Weeks devotes about 30 pages of his Luxor guidebook to describing the scenes in this tomb, and I wish we'd owned the book before we visited as I might've had a much better idea of what I was looking at if I'd read it first! The reason he discusses it so thoroughly is that it contains more complete versions of several of the texts than are usually found. Again I was mostly looking for the snake motifs I'd been looking at in the other tombs. I also particularly noted the ceiling in the burial chamber, which was pretty spectacular. It is painted in blue with gold figures & hieroglpyhs showing the Goddess Nut and two of the astronomical texts depicting the passage of the sun god through the day and the night.

Seti I (KV17)

We broke with chronological order here to go to the featured highlight of the visit to the Valley - KV17, the tomb of Seti I. Seti was either the second or third Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty (depending on how one counts Horemheb), and the son of Ramesses I and father of Ramesses II. One of the threads running through our holiday was Seti I - we had seen the man himself in the Cairo Museum, his temple at Abydos, now his tomb and would soon see his mortuary temple. He was also a shadowy presence whenever we saw anything relating to Ramesses II, as Medhat would compare the art styles of father and son (with son always coming up as lacking his father's taste & refinement).

wall decoration in KV17
Wall Decoration in KV17 (photo by flickr user Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via wikimedia)

This tomb was again a step up in quality of the decoration - as you would expect from Seti I. It's been damaged significantly since its original discovery in 1817 - in part by archaeologists of the time making "squeezes" (where you put wet paper on the wall then let it dry to copy the design), in part by archaeologists removing chunks of wall for museums, and in part because of flooding (made worse by removal of natural barriers at the tomb entrance preventing the water from entering the tomb). However the damage isn't really what one notices when actually there - yes, it's obvious, but you can still get an idea of how it used to be. We had a limited time in this tomb, so I started by making my way to the bottom fairly briskly then working my way back up. Again I was mostly looking for snake motifs, but I did note some other things. In the last of the decorated chambers you can get to there was a rather odd feature running right round the wall that looked almost like it was supporting a ceiling halfway up the room. It was even decorated with the sorts of motifs you find round the coving in Egyptian rooms. One of the rooms further up was unfinished, which is always fascinating - you get to see how the designs were created. And of course there were snake motifs too, the one that particularly caught my eye (that I hadn't seen in the other tombs) was a long snake running across the whole of one wall of a room plus bits on the adjoining two walls. It had 12 mummies laid out on it, evenly spaced. Each mummy had 2 pairs of legs associated with it, descending from the snake - so it was like twelve mummification beds in a row.

When I first read The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross (of which the first trilogy is currently published) several years ago they were advertised as fantasy rather than as a science fiction/techno thriller and were published as six books. I'd been getting them out of the library then but stalled out on the third or fourth of the books as the library didn't have the next one. So when I realised the books had been revised and re-released as 3 books it seemed the perfect time to pick them up and finally find out what happened. These three are The Bloodline Feud, The Traders' War and The Revolution Trade

The story opens with Miriam Beckstein getting herself fired from her job as a biotech journalist by being just a little bit too good at following where the dodgy looking funding deals are coming from. Turns out that if your employer's owner is involved he might not be so keen on having you break the story ... When she visits her adoptive mother for sympathy she brings home a box of heirlooms/trinkets, one of which is a locket with an intricate design on it. Examining it more closely she ends up somewhere else, with a splitting headache. And nothing will ever be the same again ... for her, or either (any!) of the worlds. It turns out that Miriam is, in fact, a princess of sorts - her family in the other world might be nouveau riche but as they and they alone have the ability to walk between the worlds they have political power and wealth that the better bred aristocracy of that world can only dream about.

When Miriam first stumbles into her heritage the Family make their money and generate their power in fairly simple ways. Their own world is technologically less advanced than ours so communication and transport across the landmass of the Americas is very slow, and they make their money by transporting goods and information very quickly via our world. In our world they make their money by transporting drugs very slowly but utterly securely in their own world (as well as growing their own heroin to sell). A pretty medieval way of doing business, and to Miriam's mind it's about time it was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. She's hampered in that goal by many of the other medieval aspects of this new world ... the status of women, for instance, and the Machiavellian political situation. And it turns out that these are not the only worlds, and they are not quite the only people who can walk between them.

They're pretty hard books to give a summary of even the jumping off point - I've written those two paragraphs and feel like I've barely touched on the elements that are in the books. It starts out as a fairly straightforward portal fantasy/wish fulfilment fantasy trope: adopted girl finds out that she's a princess in another world. And then Stross takes a good look at the ramifications of that. What would it really be like as a 30-something 21st Century American woman to suddenly become a medieval/early modern noblewoman? Answer: It would suck. And not just in the obvious ways, Miriam also doesn't have the cultural toolkit necessary to navigate such a hierarchical world where honour and losing face matter - it's not like she was particularly good at it even in her own world, just look at how she gets herself fired.

And it's not just the ramifications of that fantasy. For instance: once deciding to do business by transporting drugs (such an obvious step), the Family are then embroiled in the rest of the drug trade in the US ... and the law enforcement agencies, the government etc etc. As the series progresses the ways in which the two worlds' political, military and security establishments are tangled together get more clear, and the consequences of the events set in motion by Miriam get ever more severe.

Culture shock and the misunderstandings when one culture meets another are a theme across the series. This is most obvious in Miriam's reaction to the new world she finds herself in. But it also comes across in how the politics between the worlds plays out - assumptions made about how "of course they won't do X so we can do Y" don't always turn out the way the people involved expect. And it's present through all the small stuff too - Miriam constantly mis-steps because her cultural values aren't the same as her new family's and vice versa.

The science fiction aspect of them takes a while to show up, but one of the big things is that the "stare at this pattern and travel" ability isn't magic. And one of the threads of this trilogy that I most want to see where it's going in the next books is the exploration of both the worlds they can get to and where the ability comes from.

I could do with re-reading these, even fairly soon - to see how knowing the big reveals ahead of time changes what I think of the earlier sections. Also because I'm not sure I followed all the twists & turns of the Machiavellian politics and that might be easier the second time round.

Definitely a series worth reading :)


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