“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 9)

The last part of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the end of the 2nd Millennium BCE, it first looks at the return of Assyria as a power in the region. Then it talks about Bronze Age Collapse which occurs in the 12th Century BCE and ushers in what is sometimes called a “dark age”. The big powers (Egypt, Assyria) wobble but many of the smaller states suffer a severe crisis. The power vacuum this leaves sets the stage for the “Age of Empires” as the next chapter of the book refers to it.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.
  • 1186-1155 BCE: Reign of Ramesses III in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Rise of Assyria

Assyria had been a notable power in the region around 1800 BCE, but by 1750 BCE it was practically a vassal to the Babylonians – although there is some limited evidence that there might’ve been a greater degree of autonomy than the term vassal would suggest. At some point in the 16th Century BCE Assyria becomes a vassal of the Mitanni – although the (later) Assyrian King List keeps on listing names of kings for this period there are no contemporary Assyrian royal inscriptions at all from this period. So the “kings” may well’ve been governors installed by the Mitanni in some sense. There’s also some textual evidence to suggest that the Assyrian kingdom wasn’t a cohesive whole during this time – it may’ve been fragmented into several vassal kingdoms of the Mitanni.

Assyrian royal inscriptions reappear in the archaeological record around 1420 BCE, and they start to appear in the diplomatic record again shortly afterwards. By the time Ashuruballit I takes the throne in c.1363 BCE Assyria regards itself as an independent state, capable of participating in diplomatic gift exchanges with Egypt (as recorded in the Amarna letters). 50 years later the Assyrian kings are once again styling themselves “Mighty King, King of Assyria”, reflecting Assyria’s return to the status of major power in the region.

Under Adad-nirari I (ruled c.1305-1274 BCE) the Assyrians conquered the Syrian region where the Mitanni kingdom had once been – not once, but twice. The Mitannian kingdom had given way to a new state called Hanigalbat, and Adad-nirari I’s first campaign against them was justified as retaliation for hostilities committed by the Hanigalbatean king Shattuara. Shattuara was captured and “encouraged” to become an Assyrian vassal, but his son requested help from the Hittites which prompted Adad-nirari I to invade once more, this time finishing the job and retaining control of the region. Adad-nirari I also successfully campaigned against the Kassite rulers of Babylon, pushing the border back into what had previously been Babylonian territory. But culturally speaking the Assyrians looked to Babylon – using Standard Babylonian in written texts (instead of the Assyrian dialect of Akkadian) and revering Babylonian gods. And Adad-nirari I also managed to get himself accepted as an equal of the Hittite king Hattusili III, with all their diplomatic correspondence addressing each other as “brother”. So by the end of his reign Assyria was once more the equal or superior of any of the major powers in the region.

Shalmaneser I succeeded his father as king of Assyria in c.1273 BCE and continued the military expansion of the Assyrian kingdom. As well as putting down another revolt in the Hanigalbat kingdom to the west, Shalmaneser I also campaigned to the north of Assyria. The peoples he fought there were the Urartians, which is the first time they are documented – in later centuries they were to become a powerful kingdom but at this point they were apparently not yet unified. Relationships with the Hittites cooled during Shalmaneser I’s reign – the Hittites attempted to encourage an economic embargo against the Assyrians. Shalmaneser I was also notable for beginning the practice of systematically deporting conquered peoples, using them as an important part of the workforce in the kingdom’s heartland.

Shalmaneser I was succeeded by his son Takulti-ninurta I, who may be the real person behind the biblical stories of Nimrod or the stories of the Greek king Nino or Ninus.* Takulti-ninurta I ruled for a long time, 36 years, and expanded the Assyrian territory further into Anatolia and Babylon. After he had conquered Babylon he install Assyrian governors to directly rule the city, and also uprooted several of the religious artifacts from that city and transported them (and some of the associated ritual practices) to Assur. This did not go down well with the Babylonians, nor with the Assyrians. Perhaps due to tensions with the elite in Assur Takulti-ninurta I founded a new capital across the river Tigris from Assur, making a big deal that it was founded on virgin soil. Much of what is known about his reign comes from an Epic that was composed to celebrate his victory over the Kassite rulers of Babylon (presumably commissioned by Takulti-ninurta I). It’s very much a justification of his moral superiority over the defeated foe. Takulti-ninurta I almost certainly died by assassination, and Assyria went into decline for about a century after his death in c.1208 BCE.

*Or so the book says, in a single sentence starting with “Some have viewed” and then promptly drops the info on the floor and fails to explain who views, why they view or indeed any points of similarity. Oh well. It let them use a 17th Century Dutch painting of Semiramis tho, who isn’t mentioned anywhere in the text in this section and later in the book is noted as having been married to someone else *rolls eyes*

The next important ruler of Assyria was Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled from c.1115-1077 BCE, who reorganised the military and set about re-expanding the Assyrian kingdom. He’s the first Assyrian king that we know to have recorded annals for his reign. They’re not dated, nor are lengths of the campaigns mentioned, but his military campaigns are listed in chronological order in these annals. I’m not sure how they know it’s chronological if there are no dates – perhaps internal evidence from the text? He campaigned in the same regions that his predecessors had done – against the people to the north (who at this point were the Mushki), into Anatolia amongst the Neo-Hittite kingdoms, against the peoples in modern day Syria (including Arameans living near the Euphrates), and against the Babylonians. He’s also known to modern archaeologists for gathering together a collection of documents we now call the Middle Assyrian Laws. These seem to’ve been his library copy of a selection of original texts written 300 or so years before his time, covering a wide variety of subjects including things like blasphemy, abortion, inheritance, maritime traffic. He was probably also assassinated, and once again the Assyrian kingdom went into decline for around a century.

The book now breaks from its chronological trot through the rise of the Assyrians to talk about the Sea Peoples, the fall of the Hittites and the ensuing Dark Age. The name “the Sea Peoples” comes from Egyptian texts, starting with sporadic mentions in the time of Ramesses II (reigned c.1279-1213 BCE) through to more frequent mentions in the time of Ramesses III (reigned c.1184-1153 BCE) who had to fight a series of battles against them (which he records on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu). There are also references in texts from countries in the Middle East of destruction around this time period, and there is archaeological evidence of increased destruction taking place – archaeologists presume that both of these strands of evidence are referencing the same peoples as the Egyptian texts. So who were the Sea Peoples? The short answer is that we’re not entirely certain but there’s a reasonable amount of evidence to link specific named groups of Sea Peoples to people who had previously been living in the Aegean and Anatolian areas. There’s also archaeological evidence of abandonment of settlements in Mycenaea around this time. It’s not at all clear why these peoples were on the move – the reliefs at Medinet Habu depict not just soldiers but families, so it seems that this was migration rather than purely military expeditions. Famine or sudden climate change have been put forward as potential explanations for the migrations, but there’s no consensus. There’s also no consensus on how much of an effect the Sea People’s migrations had on the region – although it seems plausible that they did contribute to the destabilisation that occurred in this time period.

The fall of the Hittites is a part of that destabilisation. The deterioration of the state appears to’ve started during the reign of Tudhaliya IV (c.1237-1209 BCE), and the last of the Hittite kings was Suppiluliuma II (c.1207-1190 BCE). The causes are unclear – conflict with the Assyrians certainly played a part, and probably so did conflict with the Sea Peoples. One key military conflict during Suppliluliuma II’s reign was with people based on Cyprus, to protect grain shipments heading from modern Syria into the Hittite kingdom. The people on Cyprus at the time may or may not’ve been Sea Peoples who’d settled there. Ultimately the Hittites were unable to sufficiently protect their grain shipments, and that caused famine. There’s even a reference in an Egyptian text (dating to the reign of Merenptah) to a shipment of grain being sent to the Hittites as aid. What exactly the coup de grace that finished off the Hittites was is unknown – some cities show evidence of destruction as would be caused by an invasion, some cities show evidence of abandonment instead.

The next 300 years or so (c.1200-900 BCE) is referred to as a Dark Age – as with other Dark Ages this is because of a lack of textual evidence for the era in question. The Babylonian and Hittite kingdoms had both collapsed, and Egypt and Assyria were both weakened. This meant that there was a power vacuum and new players rose to prominence. In Babylon (which had been ruled by a Kassite dynasty) a new local dynasty rose to prominence, although it wasn’t a match in power for its predecessors. Harassing both this Babylonian dynasty and the Assyrians were the Aramean peoples who were spreading into Mesopotamia proper from Syria where they had settled. In the long term they were very succesful at infiltrating into Mesopotamia – their language, culture and alphabetic script all rose to prominence in the 1st Millennium BCE.

The chapter finishes with a four page spread about the Bible and its relation to the history of this period. Parts of this section read like one person wrote it, and another went through scattering “if it really happened” and other such phrases at judicious intervals! Which makes it quite hard to sum up, as almost every paragraph ends by undermining everything it just said. There are possible linguistic and cultural similarities between what the Old Testament says about the Patriarchs and the city of Mari on the Euphrates. There are possibly cultural parallels with Ugarit (in particular Ugaritic poetry), and the Ugaritic language is very similar to Biblical Hebrew. The author here spends a while trying to place the time period of the Exodus – whilst saying that there’s “no evidence but”. They settle on 19th Dynasty prior to the reign of Merenptah, as far as I can tell. They note that the Biblical laws are remarkably similar to the laws of earlier times in Mesopotamia. Interestingly the key difference is that the Mesopotamian ones are generated by the king (and then offered to the gods for approval) but the Israelite laws are created by God who presents them to humanity (as a take it or leave it deal, not for approval). There were, I think, more nuggets of interesting information in this bit of the chapter than I’ve presented here – but something about the tone of it set my teeth on edge (as I’m sure is apparent).

The next chapter of the book will start by returning to Assyria – the Age of Empires is about to begin.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 8)

The next section of this chapter of the Middle East book covers the second half of the 2nd Millennium BCE and focuses on the kingdoms in the west of the region – for instance the Hittites & the Mitanni. It also looks at their interactions with Egypt, because this is the era of the Amarna letters and the era of the Battle of Qadesh.

Orientation Dates:

  • 1600-1046 BCE: The Shang Dynasty of China (post).
  • 1650-1550 BCE: The Second Intermediate Period in Egypt.
  • 1550-1069 BCE: The New Kingdom in Egypt.
  • 1479–1458 BCE: Reign of Hatshepsut in Egypt.
  • 1351–1334 BCE: Reign of Akhenaten in Egypt.
  • 1332–1323 BCE: Reign of Tutankhamun in Egypt.
  • 1279–1213 BCE: Reign of Ramesses II in Egypt.

Power Struggles: The Western States

We start with the Old Hittite Kingdom in which parts of Anatolia, northern Syria and Upper Mesopotamia were ruled over by Hittite kings from their capital in Hattusa. It last from around 1650 BCE to 1400 BCE, and is known from their own records: thousands of cuneiform texts were found in Hattusa dating from this period. The original origins of the Hittite people isn’t known, but they had probably been living in Anatolia for a few centuries by the time the Old Hittite Kingdom rose to prominence – Assyrian texts from before this period mention individuals with Hittite names in Anatolian cities. The Hittite language is an Indo-European language (so from the same broad family as English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit etc). Most of the other peoples in the region spoke Semitic languages (like Egyptian and Akkadian), or spoke Sumerian (which is a language with no known relatives). Rather conveniently for modern scholars some of the records discovered in Hattusa were bilingual and written in both Hittite and Akkadian.

The first king of the 15 or so who ruled the Old Hittite Kingdom was Huttusili I who conquered territory as far as the Euphrates River. His successor Mursili extended the kingdom as far southeast as Babylon but after his assassination the Hittites abandoned the territory across the Euphrates River. The next few kings all took the throne by assassinating their predecessor (or his heirs) and knowledge of this period mostly comes from a text known as the Proclamation of Telepinu. In this the new king (Telepinu) attempts to lay out rules for how the succession should work in the future, making it a strictly patrilinear succession. However he died without a direct male heir, and so these rules failed at the first hurdle. The second hundred years of the Old Hittite Kingdom seems to’ve been almost as turbulent politically as the first!

The kingdom of Mitanni is the next state the book considers. They started out as a confederation of Hurrian states in inland Syria & northern Iraq around 1600 BCE. The Hurrian language is part of a now extinct language group, and the people who spoke it are believed to’ve migrated from the Trans-Caucasus region. By 1450 BCE the Mitanni Kingdom was a prominent player in Upper Mesopotamia. Sadly none of their own records have been discovered so they’re mostly known from what the Hittites & Egyptians had to say about (and to) them. By 1500 BCE the Mitanni state had expanded into most of Syria, and this later brought them into conflict with an expanding Egypt (during the reign of Tutmosis III). Relations between the Mitanni and the Egyptians were somewhat warmer by the reign of Akhenaten – perhaps because the Hittites and Assyrians were both expanding again by this stage, and with these northern neighbours the Mitanni could do with southern allies. But not long after this the Mitanni state began to fragment and was subsequently defeated by the New Hittite Kingdom. It did continue to exist as a small buffer state between the Hittites and the Assyrians until around 1290 BCE, but the Mitanni’s days as a major state were over.

The power vacuum left in Babylon by the sacking of the city by the Old Hittite ruler Mursili was eventually filled by a Kassite dynasty who ruled c. 1570-1155 BCE. Quite a lot of evidence for these kings comes from their diplomatic correspondence (and diplomatic marriages) with the rulers of nearby states including the Egyptians and the Hittites. As well as the diplomatic evidence for these kings internal affairs are known from the administrative archives of Nippur. The Kassite people originally came from north-eastern Syria and had migrated into Mesopotamia sometime around the 18th Century BCE. The Kassite rulers of Babylon were thoroughly Babylonised, building temples to Babylonian gods, collecting & creating the Babylonian literary canon and preserving the Babylonian scribal tradition.

The New Hittite Kingdom starts immediately after the end of the Old Hittite Kingdom, but it sounds like the first three or four kings are more of a transitional period. The true start of the return to prominence of the Hittites comes when Suppiluliuma I successfully carries out a coup against his brother in 1344 BCE. Most of what is known about this ruler comes from “The Deeds of Suppiluliuma”, which was written during the reign of his second successor. He ruled for nearly 20 years, and re-established the Hittite kingdom as a marjor state. He not only re-conquered Anatolia, he also conquered the Mitanni and several other kingdoms in Syria, and forced these states to sign long lasting peace treaties. He is also the King of the Hittites who a Queen of Egypt apparently wrote to asking for one of his sons to marry after the death of her husband (the Pharaoh) without an heir so that she could avoid being forced to marry a commoner. Suppiluliuma I is said to’ve been suspicious, but then sent one of his sons who was promptly murdered after he crossed the border – and this is the justification for subsequent tensions between the Hittites and the Egyptians. The Queen in question is often supposed to be Ankhesenamun (Tutankhamun’s widow). However (and the book sadly doesn’t mention this) the story is only known from one text dating from the reign of one of Suppiluliuma I’s successors, and I think there’s significant doubts about its truthfulness – it’s actually more likely to be Hittite propaganda. (Charlotte Booth talked about this a bit in the talk she gave to the EEG in July about Horemheb.)

According to texts from his son Mursili II’s reign called the Plague Prayers, Suppiluliuma I and his son (and first successor) Arnuwanda II both died of an epidemic of plague brought back with captives from a successful Syro-Palestinian military campaign. Which Mursili II believed was due to divine disfavour regarding the fratricide which let his father take the throne, and the campaign itself being in violation of a treaty with Egypt. This latter concern didn’t stop Musili II’s successor Muwatalli II from antagonising the Egyptians further, resulting in the Battle of Qadesh (more on this later in this post). The treaty after the battle was signed between Ramesses II and Hattusili III, who had usurped the throne from Muwatalli II’s son. Quite a lot of what we know about his reign (and his immediate predecessor’s) comes from his “Apology”, an autobiographical text that explains why he thought he should depose his nephew (who subsequently fled to Egypt, much to Hattusili III’s disgust). Hattusili III’s wife is also known from texts – in particular letters between herself and Ramesses II after Hattusili III’s death. She was acting at that point as Queen Mother, and is accorded the same sort of respect as Hattusili III by Ramesses II. It’s not clear if she was unusually respected for a Queen Mother, or if it’s just that she’s the only Hittite Queen Mother whose correspondence survives.

The capital of the Hittite kingdom was the city of Hattusa, which was located near the modern town of Bazkoy in northeast Central Anatolia (in Turkey). It was founded at some point early in the 2nd Millennium BCE, and was originally relatively small compared to other ancient Near Eastern cities. It was sacked a couple of times between 1750 BCE and 1400 BCE, then rebuilt extensively by Suppiluliuma I. This later city had two main regions: the royal acropolis (including large temples), and the lower city. Population estimates for this period range from 10,000 to 40,000 inhabitants.

Having made a comprehensive tour of the major players in the western part of the Middle East during this period the book now devotes a few pages to the minor Mediterranean and Syro-Palestinian states each of whom get a couple of paragraphs. I’m pretty much going to name check them here, rather than devote much attention to them. Ahhiyawa is considered a diplomatic equal to the Hittites, given the correspondence during the New Hittite Kingdom period. Both textual and archaeological evidence suggests these people may be the Mycenean Greeks. The Luwians lived in Western Anatolia and were at times a vassal state of the Hittites, and the language (a close relative of Hittite) was dominant in the region after the fall of the New Hittite Kingdom. Carchemis and Aleppo were both part of the array of small Syro-Palestinian states, as were Astata, Alasiya (modern Cyprus) and Alalakh. All of these states were at times vassals of the Hittites and at times more independent. The state of Ugarit was caught between the two superpowers of the Hittites & the Egyptians – and thus were courted by both with offers of support against the other. The Amurru people were further south, and in the Egyptian sphere of influence – and a thorn in the sides of their neighbours, who complained to the their mutual overlords about the Amurran’s employment of bands of mercenary warriors known as the ‘Apiru to harass their neighbours.

The last couple of double-page spreads of this section look more closely at the interactions of the Middle East with their Egyptian neighbours. The first of these talks about the Amarna Letters – a collection of cuneiform tablets discovered in the Egyptian city of Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna) which was briefly the capital of Egypt during Akhenaten’s reign (and only existed for that 20 years). 90% of the 380 surviving tablets are copies of the diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and their neighbours from Year 30 of Amenhotep III’s reign through Akhenaten’s reign, Smenkhare’s reign and into the first year of Tutankhamun’s reign. Most of them are the incoming correspondence, although some are outgoing (either unsent or copies, it’s not known which), and all are composed in Akkadian which was the diplomatic lingua franca of the era. Some of these letters are to rulers that the Egyptians at least superficially regarded as their peers – addressing each other as “brother”. However it’s notable that in the marriage alliances Egyptian women never married foreign princes, instead the default was vice versa. Other letters are between Egypt and its vassal states.

The Battle of Kadesh

And the section finished with a closer look at the Battle of Qadesh – which Ramesses II depicted on several temple reliefs (the above picture is from the Ramasseum). The site of the battle was strategically important – it sat on the crossroads of two major trade routes, and dominated the fords of the Orontes River. It had been significant in Egyptian foreign affairs even before Ramesses II’s campaign – for instance it lead the coalition of rebellious towns that Tutmosis III defeated at Megiddo c.1457 BCE. During the reign of Akhenaten the Egyptians made two unsuccessful attempts to remove the Hittites from the region, and for the next generation or so the city swapped allegiances several times. By the time of Ramesses II the Egyptians felt it necessary to make a concerted effort to recover Qadesh and reassert their power in the region. The Battle of Qadesh took place in c.1275 BCE, and the Egyptians record several accounts of it – all of which talk about Ramesses II annihilating the Hittites. But if you read between the lines, and remember that the Egyptians didn’t tend to write down bad things, you can see that the truth is more of an inconclusive draw. About 15-20 years after this the two sides signed a peace treaty – which rather astonishingly not only survives in both Hittite and Egyptian documents, but the two versions are also in agreement with each other! There was indeed peace (relatively speaking) for the remainder of the time that the Hittite state existed. This section of the chapter finishes with the note that “Soon thereafter, Qadesh was destroyed, probably by the Sea Peoples”. I don’t imagine the Qadeshian citizens had enjoyed any of its turbulent history, however!

The next (and last) part of this chapter of the book is about the rise of the Assyrians, on their way to be the first large scale empire in the Middle East.

The Iraq War; Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble

The last episode of The Iraq War covered the time period from after immediately after power was handed over to an elected Iraqi government through to earlier this year. Unlike the previous two episodes there isn’t a familiar well worn storyline for the whole of this episode – partly because the later bits are too recent to have a narrative yet, and partly because once the US & UK etc troops had gone then Iraq stopped being headline news so often. The story this episode told was one of a country that had descended into all out sectarian violence, then looked to be pulling out of it only to start slipping back.

In the time immediately after the Iraqi government was elected the country was divided by fighting between Sunni & Shia Muslims – the Sunni fighters were dominated by Al Qaeda, the Shia fighters were various militias plus the Mahdi army. And the ordinary civilians on both sides were caught & killed in the middle. Some (all?) of the Shia militias were state sponsored – they got weapons, transport, ammo, logisitics from state officials & departments – which only served to make the Sunnis fighting against them more determined.

Given it didn’t seem like the elected Prime Minister was able to do anything about this violence the US & UK governments replaced him. While it was dressed up as “suggesting” that he step aside for someone else, it really was the replacement of an elected leader of a country with a hand-picked alternative who was more “suitable” to the US & UK. Nouri Maliki, the replacement, was then to be propped up, sorry “supported”, by the US. And for all my scare quotes in the last few sentences it was a stratagem that initially seemed effective. Due to the US succesfully managing to get non-al-Qaeda Sunnis to work with the government, and Maliki himself suppressing the worst of the Shia militias (and pacifying Basra) some degree of unity and stability returned to Iraq … and the US & UK managed to get their troops home & to leave Iraq to look after itself.

But it hasn’t been a long term success, and violence is getting worse again. Maliki’s regime are arresting people who were involved in the sectarian violence, but it seems that it’s Sunni leaders & opposition politicians in general who are being targeted while Shia politicians remain free. In the last election several of the opposition politicians were disqualified from standing for election – again for reasons that didn’t seem to be a problem for Maliki’s own party’s candidates. The opposition gained a lot of seats in the election, to an extent where to form a government Maliki had to negotiate with them & set up a power-sharing deal. That hasn’t been honoured, say the opposition politicians, it’s still the Prime Minister Maliki show. So the feeling is that Iraq is slipping into a dictatorship with a figleaf of elections, and violence is rising.

An interesting series, particularly because it was primarily told through interviews with the people who were making the decisions (or their aides). Although obviously they’ll’ve been edited to fit the story the series was telling (worth reminding myself of because the message plays to my pre-existing bias on the subject).

I think I was right about Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble following the past, present, future theme for its episodes – this last episode was about sheep farming in Australia which is the future in two or three different ways. The first half of the programme focussed on what you could think of as the globalisation of sheep farming (I suppose this could count as “present” rather than “future” but for most of the world this sort of sheep farming is still the future). Humble visited a sheep station called Meka which is in Western Australia and is about the size of the county of Kent. There are several thousand sheep on this land, which mostly roam free, and five people. Handling this many sheep with this few people is pretty hard work & involves a lot of modern tech – to keep them watered there are windmills pumping up water to automatically fill troughs in each paddock (which might be 10km by 4km in size). And to muster the sheep in each paddock, which they only do a couple of times a year, requires planes & motorbikes.

Most of these sheep are bred to be sent to the Middle East, which has a growing & more affluent population but not the land to raise enough extra sheep to meet the growing demand for meat. For another market (like the UK) the sheep would be killed locally and then the meat exported, but the Middle Eastern market buys live sheep to slaughter themselves (i.e. the family who will eat the sheep kill it). This is a controversial practice, and the farmers Humble spoke to were open about the fact that in the past poor regulation of the shipping meant that losses of sheep on the voyage could be 3-10% of the cargo. However regulation has been tightened up, and Humble visited the holding pens for sheep before they were shipped and they were kept in good conditions & seemed relaxed. Losses these days are significantly lower (I can’t remember if they said 0.1% or 0.01%). But there is still the problem that the slaughtering once they reach their destination may not be humane (if nothing else because it may well be untrained people doing the slaughtering).

So that was the future of sheep farming as a large scale enterprise with the consumers on a different continent to the producers. Humble next visited farms where the breeding of sheep is done using modern genetic technology. The technique used is embryo transfer – they induce a ewe to release several eggs, then artificially inseminate her. The embryos are then removed, and viable ones are transplanted into other ewes as surrogate mothers. This speeds up the process of selective breeding because it allows you to get several more offspring from your best breeding ewes than you otherwise would. J noted while we were watching that it would also narrow the gene pool & wouldn’t that be a problem – but the programme didn’t mention that. I’m not sure if the various breeds of sheep might already be fairly inbred (because many of the breeding ewes would have the same father already).

And a third sort of future was a farm where the farmers are what Humble called “very hippy-dippy”. The sheep lead very stress free lives, with a lot of interaction with people & many lambs hand-reared. So they’re happy sheep, and the farm wins awards for the quality of the meat. A future for the elite – where quality over quantity counts.

It was a fun series to watch, with lots of interesting stuff about how different people live as well as about the sheep (or alpacas).

Treasures of Ancient Rome; The Iraq War; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The third & last episode of Treasures of Ancient Rome was about the art during the declining years of the Roman Empire. Alastair Sooke opened by explaining that the canonical view is that the art of this period is poor & gets worse over time because the Empire is falling to bits. He sets out to show in this episode that this isn’t true – the art style might change but it’s no less good than what came before.

He started in the city of Leptis Magna which is in Libya and was prominent in the later part of the Empire. Sooke characterised this period of Empire as the periphery becoming as important (if not more important) as the centre. Citizens from the periphery could even become Emperor – Septimus Severus, for instance, was from Leptis Magna. The city is very well preserved, so several of Sooke’s examples of art from this period were from the city or nearby. These included a triumphal arch & the basilica, both of which combine classical Roman motifs with local elements. There was also a stunning mosaic depicting gladiators from a nearby villa that was only relatively recently discovered & has just been put on display in a museum (I think this was my favourite piece from the programme). And Sooke also visited another villa in Libya that has been part excavated – but he was visiting not long after the overthrow of Gaddafi and the Libyan archaeologist who was showing him around was explaining that sites like this are being neglected (now & under Gaddafi’s regime) and the art & artifacts that have been uncovered are deteriorating due to the neglect. From Libya Sooke went to Egypt, to show us the famous mummy portraits. These aren’t wholly Roman nor are they classically Egyptian, the two art styles & symbolisms have been merged together. And they are hauntingly beautiful images of the people whose mummies they’re attached to.

The next few artworks were from the northern reaches of the Empire. He very briefly touched on the art at Bath, which is a fusion of Roman & Celtic art, but wasn’t very impressed. The stuff he did hold up as truely great pieces of art was some of the silverware that’s been found in Britain & other parts of the northern Empire. This includes the Mildenhall Great Dish which he looked at with a modern silversmith to talk about how technically accomplished it is (as well as being good art). In this segment he also showed us the Lycurgus cup, which is made of carved glass. In the light it looks like it’s red, but in shade it looks green – this effect has been achieved by including particles of silver & gold in the glass. I wasn’t that keen on the design of the cup, so it seemed more of an engineering achievement than a piece of art to me.

And he finished up the programme by talking about how the art of the later Romans became the art of Western Christianity. To illustrate this he first showed us the mosaics in the mausoleum for a Roman woman (Galla Placidia) which date from the early 5th Century AD, and then the later mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. As this dates from the late 6th Century AD it’s well after the end of the Roman Empire – but there’s definitely continuity between the two sets of decoration.

At the very end Sooke wrapped up the series by saying that he’d shown that the Romans should be famed for their art, not just their conquering. Having not seen the first one I’d not quite realised that was the premise! A good series, I’ll be looking out for more programmes from him.

One of the sorts of programmes that J & I look out for to record fit into a category we think of as “depressing current affairs” – and the recent BBC series about the Iraq War fits into that. The first episode looks at the road to war, starting in September 2001 and following the politics & intelligence service actions for the next 18 months. The bulk of the programme is interviews with the senior people involved, not just from the US & the UK but also from Iraq. And I mean really senior – for the UK the people interviewed included Tony Blair & Jack Straw, among the US interviewees were Dick Cheney & Colin Powell.

The story the programme told was the now familiar one – in retrospect it’s clear that the decision to effect regime change was made and then intelligence was gathered to justify it rather than the decision coming after the data. It opened with something I’d not heard before that after Bush did his “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” speech the Iraqi government (in the person of the Prime Minister I think) were poised to reply that Iraq would join the fight against al Qaeda. But then Saddam Hussein countermanded that & said he’d reply himself – and tried to turn it into “we’ll help if you drop your sanctions”. So that put up the US government’s collective backs, and regime change seemed like the obvious way forward.

I’m not going to attempt to re-cap this programme, instead I’ll just mention a couple of the other things that particularly struck me (other than how self-serving Blair always comes across as …). First was a thought sparked by the current/recent situation in Egypt. There’s been a fair amount of talk in the media about how the US is having to dance an interesting diplomatic dance where they can’t regard the military intervention as a coup because coups are Always Bad Things and they don’t want to condemn this particular one just yet. Yet the attempts by the US intelligence services to figure out a way to engineer a coup in Iraq were being held up as the moral thing to do without even a figleaf of pretence that ceci n’est pas un coup d’etat. So coups are Always Bad unless either we like you better then we’ll call it something else or we organise it ourselves coz then it’s Good. Glad we got that straight 😉

One piece of the intelligence that was used to justify the war stood out to me as a particularly revealing about the way things were handled – this was the information from a French journalist/informer who had access to the Iraqi Foreign Minister. He told the CIA that the Iraqi man was wanting to defect & that he confirmed that Iraq had WMD. The CIA were concerned to make sure the journalist really did meet with the man he said he was talking to – so there was some business with custom made suits and an appearance at the UN in one of them. But despite being suspicious enough to run that test, once he’d passed that test then it was just assumed he was telling the truth about everything. Not that it was 100% confirmed but everyone interviewed was clear that it coloured the way they looked at everything else. So “definitely met him” was turned into “probably telling the truth about the conversation” very quickly, not for any reason except that the reported conversation fit the desired answer. Which is why you shouldn’t make your decisions first then fact gather to justify them! Hard enough to avoid bias normally, let alone when the President’s busy saying “I want to do this, now make a case for why I can”.

Of course the thing about a programme like this is that hindsight is always 20/20. The bias of the narrative was that people should’ve known better but that doesn’t mean they were cynically ignoring things or falsifying intelligence. Good intentions don’t outweigh the mistakes, but it’s better than having bad intentions as well!

The second episode covered the immediate aftermath of the war. The familiar story here is that while the US had a plan for the war, they didn’t have a plan for the peace – this programme showed how that lack of foresight played out. Again I’m not going to do a full recap, just pull out some things that particularly caught my attention (so there’s definitely important events missing from my write-up that the programme did discuss).

After Saddam was deposed & the war “won” because there was no plan there was a power vacuum, which the first man on the ground (Jay Garner) did his best to fill. He was a retired US General who had worked with the Kurdish leaders in the past – so known to them & respected by them – and he got them together with the Iraqi opposition leaders who’d been in exile. Garner’s plan was to have them form themselves into an interim government very quickly, then they’d sort out a constitution and elections afterwards. For political reasons & because the situation looked poor (because it was) he was replaced by Paul Bremer.

And that’s where the slide downhill begins. Hard to say if it would really have ended up differently had Garner been in charge, his plan wasn’t well received by all Iraqis, but it certainly seemed like Bremer caused a lot of the later problems. I was particularly struck by him setting up his office in one of Saddam’s old palaces … it seems the sort of symbolism you’d want to avoid. He then follows up by telling the proto-government that Garner was trying to assemble that they’re not diverse enough to represent the whole of Iraq (true, but …) and so he’s the one who’s in charge not them. Coz obviously it’s better to have a random US diplomat who knows no-one & no-one knows. Maybe he was a better choice, but handling it like that seemed designed to put everyone’s back up.

And then there’s the debacle with the Iraqi army. The plan, laid out by Bush, was “don’t disband the army, putting 300,000 or so trained men with weapons on the streets seems a bad idea”. Bremer … failed to pay the army and then disbanded it. The payment thing was particularly eye-rolling in my opinion – there was a disbursement of wages to civil servants etc from the old regime, $20 each which was about 6 months wages. But nothing for the army because why should they pay what Saddam had failed to pay them? So after disbanding the army they had a large number of well trained & organised men who felt disrespected & dishonoured, and who had no money to buy food for their families. Not surprisingly a lot found their way instantly into the various insurgency groups & that’s when the real violence against the US & their allies kicked off.

The handover of power got further complicated because the main Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, issued a fatwa saying that elections should come before the constitution – i.e. that the constitution would be written by elected Iraqis not people chosen by the US. Seems simple enough, but Bremer had a hard deadline of “before Bush runs for President again” and that wasn’t time to get elections organised. The US administration of Iraq is therefore more concerned with how it looks in US domestic politics than whether it’s the best for the country they’re running … In the end Bremer just appointed someone to be Prime Minister and other people to be the government, which is directly against the fatwa that the Grand Ayatollah had issued and so is guaranteed to piss off the people who regard Sistani as their spiritual leader (i.e. the Shia Muslim majority of Iraqi citizens).

So now they have the army against them, the Shia Muslim authorities & believers against them plus the people who’d never been going to be with them. Maybe there were no good solutions once the war was won. One of the interviewees on the programme was a Sunni cleric who’d been leading an insurgency group since day 1 of the aftermath – he was quite clear that he’d not considered doing anything but fight the US. But even if it was hopeless, the way the post-war US administration acted didn’t help, and actively made things worse.

For something a little more light-hearted we finished off the series of TOWN with Nicholas Crane. This episode was about Enniskillen, which is on an island in a lake in Northern Ireland. Of course, as with a lot of places in Northern Ireland, the history of the town wasn’t terribly light-hearted. The oldest building is a castle that was built by Hugh the Hospitable in the early 15th Century, due to the strategically important location it was a target of the English when they were conquering & subduing Ireland in the 16th & 17th Centuries. Fast-forward to the modern day & The Troubles, and Enniskillen was the place where the Remembrance Day Bombing took place in 1987 killing 11 people.

The town is built around a single street running right across the island – it actually has 6 different names along the route, but that seems fairly arbitrary. Crane walked down this in a rather padded-out segment of the programme when he was making a big deal about how many independent stores there were on the street (and how they were clustered in types). The camera didn’t linger on the chain stores, but we still spotted them 😉 There were some interesting shops tho – particularly the butcher’s shop where they are so keen to ensure the quality of their bacon that they’ve purchased a nearby island to let their pigs roam free (until butchered).

The “future of the town” section concentrated on the fact that shale gas has been discovered in the area, and so there are starting to be plans for fracking to take place. I can see why people are concerned about this (“we’ll just explode the rock under your town a little” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence), but I did raise my eyebrows somewhat at the repeated allusions to The Troubles in this bit (not by the people, but by the programme). Crane said a couple of times that “the town needed to all come together against this just like they did during The Troubles”, which I suppose was like calling on Londoners to display Blitz Spirit during some later event … but it just felt a bit off to be comparing mining for gas (however intrusive) with killing people.

Overall the series was … OK. While we did watch all of it I wouldn’t say it was a favourite and I don’t think I’ll bother recording a further series.