“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 Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 5)

The Middle East book is starting to get into the realm of real dates for events, and so I’m including some reference points for what else is happening in the world c.2900BCE to c.2200BCE. For this chapter my only points of comparison are in Egypt – the earliest potentially datable Chinese dynasty were the Xia in 2100BCE so a little later on.

Orientation dates:

  • c.3150-2686 BCE – Early Dynastic Egypt, the first two dynasties.
  • 2686-2181 BCE – Old Kingdom Egypt
  • c.2560 BCE – building of the Great Pyramid at Giza

The Emergence of City States

Despite the title of this section of the chapter it is not so much about the birth of city states as a concept (that was the last bit of the chapter) but more about the growth of these and the first couple of unified empires in Mesopotamia. At first the early city states were independent of each other, and were frequently in conflict over the limited agricultural resources of the region. This Early Dynastic Period (2900-2300 BCE) is characterised by rivalries between the city states. The first to establish itself as a major centre for the surrounding region was Uruk, with Lagash and Umma developing into such after 2500 BCE. Some cities became more symbolically important – like Nippur (which was where the shrine of Enlil (a major deity) was), or Kish. In both cases being able to say you were king of the city implied that you were endorsed by their gods and so “should” have sovereignty over other cities. The first ruler over a unified Sumeria came from Umma and reigned from 2375 BCE to 2350 BCE, but Lugalzagesi’s empire didn’t outlive him. The first lasting empire was that of Sargon, ruler of Akkad, who proclaimed himself King of Sumer and Akkad (a title that was used for the next 200 years).

The Royal Standard of Ur (see pic below) dates from this era (c. 2600-2400 BCE) and there’s a small sidebar in the book about warfare in Sumeria illustrated by the decoration on this object. Most of the soldiers would’ve been foot soldiers – but they did also have chariots of a sort. They were drawn by onagers (wild asses) and were heavier than later chariots, so probably actually used as mobile observation platforms than as battle weapons. At first the military leadership was separate from the city rulership, but as warfare became more important the two roles merged.

Royal Standard of Ur

Again the book is a trifle confused in its organisation as the next double page spread about the city of Uruk reiterates much of the info that the previous section of this chapter gave us (but with new pictures). The key point for this era is that Uruk’s political importance decreased in the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic Period. However, the increasing importance of the legends of Uruk’s foundation by Gilgamesh indicate that the city continued to have religious significance.

The city state of Lagash rose to prominence during this era. The state of Lagash had three centres: the economic one was the city of Lagash itself, Girsu was the religious and political centre and there was a further temple precinct at Nina. The people of Lagash seem to’ve been particularly keen on war, as evidenced by their local patron gods. One was their version of the war god Ninurta, called Ningirsu – who was also patron of irrigation (a key area of conflict with the nearby city state of Umma). And the other patron god was the war and fertility goddess Nina, who was related to Inanna/Ishtar. As well a belligerence against their neighbours this is also the first place where a revolt against the city rulers is recorded, and the king instated after the revolt is thought to’ve created the first law code in Mesopotamia. Sadly no dates given for this king, Urukagina, but as it’s mentioned he’s several hundred years pre-Sargon of Akkad he must’ve reigned long before 2350 BCE. Perhaps contemporary with the 4th Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu or maybe even earlier than that.

As well as the Sumerians and the Akkadians there were other cultures in and around Mesopotamia during this period. The Amorites were one of these – the name we use for them derives from the Sumerian word for westerner (amurru), and they initially lived between the Sumerians and the Cananites & Egyptians. The Sumerians regarded the Amorites as barbarians, but evidence from their cities (such as Mari or Ebla) suggests otherwise. These cities had extensive libraries and there is evidence they were hubs on the trade networks running between Mesopotamia and Old Kingdom Egypt. The Amorites may also have founded Bablyon (although Sargon of Akkad is later credited with this) – this would be after the Akkadian Empire collapsed when the Amorites were filling the local power vacuum. There were also Hatti in central Anatolia (who were not the cultural ancestors of the Hittites despite the face we use the same name for the two cultures), and the Elamites who lived to the east of Sumer.

The Akkadians lived to the north of the Sumerians, and even before the Akkadians ruled Sumer there was a lot of cultural contact. The Akkadian language is a Semitic language, so from a completely different family to the Sumerian language, but there is evidence of word borrowing between them. In particular the Akkadians picked up words for writing and gardening from the Sumerians, whereas the Sumerians picked up words for war, herding and religion from their neighbours. The most obvious cultural exchange between the two peoples was that the Akkadians learnt and used the Sumerian writing system (cuneiform). This was to continue long after the Akkadian Empire collapsed – Akkadian written in cuneiform was to be the diplomatic language for the next couple of millennia in the region. It’s been suggested that in the reverse direction the Sumerians acquired elements of Akkadian theology. They began to worship some of the same gods (notably Shamash and Ishtar). The conceptualisation of the gods as capricious or malicious may also have been Akkadian in origin. As an aside the book notes that while in the Old Testament flood story God floods the world because of mankind’s wickedness, in the Sumerian version of the myth the gods do it because humanity is too noisy!

Sargon of Akkad established the world’s first empire c.2350 BCE, and unsurprisingly we don’t have much concrete information about his rise to power. Legends about him are reminiscent of later biblical stories (for instance like the stories of King David). His conquests started with Kish (in the north of Sumeria) and then Umma, which was one of the largest Sumerian city states at the time. Despite the need to constantly put down rebellions in previously conquered city states Sargon extended his empire to the Levant and to the Taurus mountains in Turkey. The rebellions eventually lead him to change the government in the city states he conquered – he installed his sons as the new governors and his daughters as high priestesses. There is little written about Sargon in contemporary sources – he only appears in the records of Susa (the Elamite capital city). Most of our information comes from later legends and King Lists. These say that he reigned for 56 years, and it was a turbulent period as he was unable to stabilise his control of his empire and was constantly fire-fighting against rebellions. The next four rulers of the empire reigned for 86 years between them. These kings included Sargon’s son (with a reign of only 9 years) and his grandson Naram-Sin who reigned for 30 years. The office of chief priestess of Sin (the Akkadian’s primary god) also became hereditary and was always a daughter of the king.

The empire was never particularly stable – all the kings had to frequently wage war to enforce taxation and tribute requirements from the regions outside their core area of Babylonia, and to protect necessary trade routes. However one area of success was in the organisation of agricultural production. Competition for agricultural resources had been one of the major sources of rivalry between independent city states, and so the Akkadian empire centralised (and protected) the storage of grain and distributed it as rations throughout their empire. This meant that there were no famines for over a hundred years despite decreasing rainfall and flooding in the highlands – the continued rainfall in the lowlands enabled sufficient grain production to keep the empire fed.

After 150 years the Akkadian Empire abruptly collapsed for reasons that are unclear. Previous hypotheses have focussed on the internal turbulence of the empire – suggesting potential problems such as the cost of all the military campaigns that were necessary. The book dismisses these theories as “logical but unconvincing”, in large part because these problems were the same throughout the whole of the empire’s history. A more recent hypothesis is to do with climate change (which is, of course, the trendy theory for collapses of civilisation these days …). There is evidence from sediment cores that suggests that around the time of the Akkadian Empire’s collapse there was a sudden shift towards more arid conditions. This same shift is seen across a wider region than just Mesopotamia – it’s a current hypothesis to explain the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt as well. Backing this up is archaeological evidence from Tell Leilan in northern Mesopotamia, where the remains of domesticated sheep & cattle from this period show signs of extreme water deprivation. Textually the climate change hypothesis is backed up by ancient sources that blame the fall of the Empire on the displeasure of the gods with Naram-Sin who attacked the city of Nippur and sacked the temple of Enlil. And so the gods cursed Akkad and “… the great agricultural tracts produced no grain. The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine. The gathered clouds did not rain… People were flailing at themselves from hunger.”.

After the collapse of the Akkadian Empire the next power to rise up in the region was a Sumerian dynasty – the Third Dynasty of Ur – which formed the only Sumerian Empire. And that’s what the next section of the chapter is about.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 4)

Mesopotamia: The Cradle of Civilisation

The next chapter of this book deals with the wave of urbanisation in Mesopotamia starting around 6,000 years ago, and the emergence of city states. This is the rise of what we call civilisation – urban culture as opposed to village/farming culture. Obviously as with any dividing line it’s reasonably arbitrary: the Ubaid culture discussed at the end of the previous chapter (post) consists of large villages with public buildings, sometimes surrounded by smaller satellite settlements. There’s a hierarchy within the population, and indications of centralised administration of resources. This is well on the way to the same sort of city organisation that characterises the urban cultures of this chapter – it’s just not quite as well developed as it becomes after this arbitrary line in the sand.

The chapter is divided into three parts (and I’m only really writing about the first one in this blog post). Firstly it covers the early Sumerian period where true city dwelling develops and writing is invented. Next is the emergence of city states, and the first empire (the Akkadian Empire). And lastly the return to prominence of the Sumerian city of Ur after the collapse of the Akkadian Empire.

An Urban Explosion

This section of the chapter opens with a double page spread on “The Sumerian Question”, to which scholars apparently have no clear answer: where did they come from? Were they the people who had always lived in southern Mesopotamia (since there were people there), or did they migrate into the area in the 4th Millennium BCE? Or were they a combination culture of the indigenous hunters & fishers, merged with incoming farmers from the north, or from Bahrain*? There are various bits of evidence that hint at one or another of these possibilities. For instance there are indications of a pre-Sumerian culture in the area with links to the Samarrans in the north of Mesopotamia. And there are loan words from other (unknown) languages in the Sumerian vocabulary, indicating contact with some other culture. The Sumerian language is a language isolate. This means that it has no living relatives, and in fact there are no other dead languages that appear to be related to Sumerian. Other languages spoken in Mesopotamia after this period are all Semitic languages (it’s a bit hard to tell for sure what was spoken contemporaneously with Sumerian as only Sumerian was being written down at this time). The writing that the Sumerians invented long outlasted their language – cuneiform was still being used in the first centuries CE, but spoken Sumerian began to die out in the 2nd Millennium BCE. After this it lingered on as the language of religion and epic poetry but gradually became more & more obscure until dying out, entirely.

*This is not quite as out of left field as it might sound, Sumerian legends mention Dilmun (modern day Bahrain) so there’s a potential link to there.

The initial part of this urbanisation of Mesopotamia is referred to as the Uruk Period, because it was dominated by the city of Uruk which became the first city state. This era is characterised by increasing social stratification, regulated agriculture and the development of writing. The latter two of these go together as the earliest use of writing in the region was keeping track of goods – the early cities in Mesopotamia were well organised economically compared to the earlier and contemporary villages. These cities relied on domestic agriculture for food and trade for many of the other necessities of civilisation. So Sumerian trade colonies spread throughout the rest of the region. Uruk and the other Sumerian cities of this period were centred around temples and ruled by priestly officials. This structure was not spread to other surrounding cultures, which did develop cities similar to the Sumerian model except ruled by secular authorities.

Archaeological evidence at Uruk shows the development of an improved pottery wheel, wheeled vehicles, the plough and the pottery kiln. The new pottery wheels changed the material culture of the region significantly – in the Ubaid Period pottery was distinctively painted, but in the Uruk Period this was replaced by mass-produced unpainted wares. There is also archaeological evidence of an increase in the scale of slave labour – in particular of forced migrations of peoples from many different places into Sumeria. Settlement sizes and numbers increased dramatically during the Uruk Period across the whole of Mesopotamia and later in the period many of these have fortifications, indicating a rise in militarisation. An interesting unanswered question about this period is what the relations between the main cities of the region were. Were they all mostly-independent regional centres, with Uruk the largest of them with a limited central administrative role? Or was there a form of pre-imperialism whereby Uruk was in some sense ruling over the other cities? At the end of the period there was a collapse of whatever sort of organisation existed and the region fragmented into several smaller polities – so clearly there was some degree of organisation above the city level.

The structure of this chapter is a little confused as after talking about Uruk it then jumps back in time for a brief discussion of Eridu, which was the first temple town. The foundation of Eridu pre-dates Uruk by at least a thousand years and it was an important ceremonial centre during the Ubaid period. Sumerian mythology describes Eridu as having been founded before the flood (as detailed in the Epic of Gilgamesh). However despite the early founding of Eridu, Uruk became a city state first and Eridu only later. Rather frustratingly the book doesn’t clearly say what makes a city a city and a large village a large village. Perhaps it’s a “you know it when you see it” sort of thing? What the text does get across is that it’s the complexity of the society that matters – elites supported by the agricultural output of the farmland around, including priestly, political and military classes as well as artists and craftspeople. Cities could be pretty large, as well: some had populations numbering in the tens of thousands.

Temple towns developed on the rivers of the region, and water-borne trade was important in providing the resources needed to build their public buildings as well as the water itself being used to irrigate the fields. The towns and cities were dominated by temples built in the shape of artificial mountains. These ziggurats were a form of sacred architecture used in Mesopotamia for thousands of years after this. The administrative buildings of the city were associated with the temples. Urban life had existed for a few hundred years before writing was invented – which then made the bureaucracy of the cities much more efficient (as well as enabling accurate communication across large distances or times). An aside in the text here mentions that their counting system was based on base 60 and we still use it for time and angles, which I knew before but I still find a bit astonishing how that has persisted over such a long time and over such a vast cultural gulf.

Each city had at least one temple, and thus a patron god. All the Sumerian cities revered the same pantheon of deities but religious practice was focussed on the god to which the city’s shrine was dedicated. These gods included Anu (father of the gods, with a temple in Uruk), Inanna/Ishtar (queen of the gods, with a temple in Uruk too), Enki (god of wisdom & water, with a temple in Eridu), Ninurta (war god, Lagash), Sin (moon, Ur), Nabu (wisdom, Borsippa) and Shara (minor war god, Umma). Education and art in Sumer were associated with the temples. Libraries were maintained in temples by priests and scribes, and decorative arts were dedicated to the gods (and later to the rulers of cities).

Sumerian society was highly stratified, and had a very high regard for ownership of property. Writing developed, as I said, to track goods and later many of the texts we have are related to property transactions and lawsuits. I’ve just started translating very simple examples of these sorts of things in my Akkadian course (so from a bit later on in time from the Sumerian period). These give an impression of a pretty litigious society in their matter of factness about such things e.g.: “Takūm-mātum daughter of Amurrûm and her mother, Rabbatum, bought a field from Ãlikum son of Arwûm. Ãlikum son of Arwûm, Sumu-ramê and all his sons sued Takūm-mātum and the judges of the house of Shamash rejected their lawsuits.” It’s not just ownership of property that the Sumerian society was keen to control and codify – the book also mentions increasingly complicated systems for recording the passing of time and for recording boundaries, goods and services.

This section of the chapter ends with a double page spread about cuneiform writing. The book says it was the first writing system, but I believe the jury is still out on whether the Sumerians or the Egyptians got there first (and on whether or not these two systems developed wholly independently or whether one copied the other). Although cuneiform started out as pictographs over time it was simplified into clusters of wedge shapes for each sign – I think of it as looking like a drunk bird staggered across the surface (although a pretty regimented drunk bird, as the signs are generally in neat rows). I also find them hard to memorise because there’s a lot of them that are pretty similar to each other, and they all come in many forms. Complicating this writing system still further is the fact that each sign may have multiple different logographic (whole word) or syllabic meanings assigned to it. The converse is also true – there may be more than one sign for any given syllable. Although developed for Sumerian cuneiform was adapted to write several other languages, most importantly Akkadian. Akkadian took on a role in the ancient Middle East similar to that of Latin in medieval Europe. It was the language of bureaucracy, scholarship and of diplomatic correspondence, and the use of it long outlasted the culture and empire that originally spread it across the region.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 3)

This is the second half of the second chapter of this book (I’ve read a lot more of it I promise you, it’s just the blog posts are lagging behind both in terms of being written and in terms of being published; you never know, I may’ve finished the book before you read this!).

The Fertile Crescent

Neolithic Era

We now move into the Neolithic era – the first farmers, who definitely live in permanent settlements and grow their own food (both plant and animal). There is also a shift from relatively small groups to larger communities and a move from an egalitarian society to a stratified one. Archaeologists divide the Neolithic into four phases. The first two of these are called Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) – not the most catchy of names, but the important point here is that pottery develops relatively late compared to agriculture or sedentarism. PPNA runs from c.9800-8800BC, PPNB is the next couple of thousand years (8800-6800BCE). This sequence is based on excavations at Jericho, which is thought to be the oldest site where agriculture is found. During PPNA Jericho was a regional centre, covering 6 acres with satellite villages within a day or two’s walk. Anatolian obsidian and imported greenstone artifacts have been found at Jericho, as well as the first monumental structures: a stone tower approximately 8m high with an internal staircase, which was used as a burial place. Göbleki Tepe was another regional centre during this period.

During PPNB communities became much larger, the villages from this period are around 34 acres in size. The Neolithic way of life was spreading outside the Levantine area. Burial practices were becoming more elaborate. Since late Natufian times people were buried with their heads removed then placed in the grave. During PPNB some skulls would be disintered and plastered and decorated. After some time (“after long usage” says the book) the decorated skulls would be reburied in groups. Society was also becoming more stratified – a consequence of the closer proximity of larger numbers of people. Archaeologists can tell that by things like the variation in house sizes, and access to useful resources (like burnt lime in this case). The larger social groups also lead to more widespread use of art and cult objects – to bind people together with shared cultural experiences. There’s evidence of some sort of magical use of cattle figurines (perhaps to ensure success in hunting). There are also signs of ancestor cults – see above about the decorated skulls, but also large statues that are interpreted as divine ancestors. Which the book notes are reminiscent of biblical and Sumerian legends about the creation of mankind from the earth, being made of mud and plaster.

During the Pottery Neolithic periods (c. 6800BC-5800BC) the new technology of pottery changes how households are organised – it gives more options for preparing, cooking and storing food. Sites from this period have more rubbish dumps and more storage areas as people have more possessions. Over time there is an increase in complexity of Neolithic settlements – each village gets bigger, and the houses get larger. Dwellings were now built around courtyards – a style that’s still used in the Middle East today – with from 8 to 24 rooms around the courtyard, suitable for housing an extended family rather than just a nuclear family (as was the case with pre-pottery Neolithic dwellings).

Having introduced the Neolithic cultures in overview, the book now moves on to consider a couple of aspects of Neolithic life in more detail, plus a couple of the cultures of the late pre-Pottery Neolithic/early pottery Neolithic period. The first section is about the domestication of animals. This happened after the beginnings of farming, and took a few millenia before people had the suite of animals available that we expect today. It can be a bit difficult to tell when and where an animal species begins to be domesticated, but progress of domestication can be tracked to a fair degree from archaeological evidence. At first it was a case of keeping wild animals in a protective environment, but then inbreeding, and human selection, began to change the domesticated species towards smaller & less aggressive animals (which can be seen through things like horn size). I’d always assumed that a food animal would be the first domesticated species but it turns out that domestication of the dog began significantly before other animals – c.12,000BCE which is during the Natufian culture at the end of the Paleolithic period. Sheep and goats were next, c.9,000BCE, followed by pigs and cattle over the next 3000 years. The various beasts of burden were much later – donkeys c.4000BCE, horses c.1500BCE (in the Middle East, earlier elsewhere) and camels 1200BCE. Domestication of food animals also allowed the agricultural way of life to spread into the more arid areas of the region – with nomadic pastorialism becoming the main way of life in the desert regions by the end of PPNB.

The new lifestyle of the Neolithic – farming and permanent settlements – allowed populations to grow beyond the limits the hunter-gather lifestyle had imposed. This didn’t just mean that villages increased in size, it also meant that there was pressure for people to move to new areas and set up new villages there. There’s a suite of technologies that are sometimes called “the Neolithic Package” which are first seen in the Levant, and then spread from there through Asia, Europe and Africa. As outside the Levant everything seems to arrive at once in any given area it’s assumed that this whole way of life spread (with people?) from the Levant. The technologies are domesticated plants (wheat, barley, peas), domesticated animals (goats, sheep, cattle and pigs), three flint tool types (arrowheads, sickle-blades and axes), digging wells for water supplies, various cultic characteristics (Mother Goddess figurines and dancing scenes). And later pottery is part of the mix. (Note (as the book does) that domestication of plants and animals did take place independently in China.) This period (PPNB) is also when the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Crete were colonised – there’s evidence of flourishing villages with all the technology of the day. I find this faintly astonishing – boats feel like sophisticated technology to me, so the idea that people could sail the Mediterranean before they had knowledge of pottery is surprising.

‘Ain Ghazal is a major Neolithic site near modern Amman in Jordan. It starts as a normal small village but during the PPNB period it reaches 35 acres in size – one of the largest settlements of the time. Each house was made up of one or two rectangular rooms, with floors and walls plastered with lime plaster. There are also round storage spaces. Burials of the community show evidence of stratification – some individuals have richer burials than others in “better” sites. The skulls may be removed and decorated – sometimes the decoration is removed and buried again (without the skull, which may’ve been redecorated). The more elaborate burials were under the floors of the houses, less elaborate ones were in pits outside houses. And still others appear to’ve been placed in rubbish dumps. The most important discoveries from ‘Ain Ghazal are the art objects – lots of animal figurines, mostly cattle. And some of the earliest statues of humans – made from reed frames which are coated with plaster and hae painted features. The book notes in passing that some of these have 6 fingers or toes, which seems odd to me. After the PPNB period ‘Ain Ghazal declines – it shrinks, and the number of art objects discovered also drop off.

Çatal Hüyük (in modern Anatolia) is the next Neolithic site discussed in the book, but the two page spread feels rather like it’s been rather brutally edited down from a larger piece and the remaining text isn’t quite coherent. There are no dates for the site in the text, although they refer to it as the “earliest city”. It had around 5,000 inhabitants, in houses that are packed so closely together there’s no ground between them – access is from the roof via ladders. There are lots of burials within the houses, under the sleeping platforms. These are described as family groups in the book, but a TV series we watched recently (Ascent of Woman) interviewed an archaeologist currently working on the site who says that recent DNA evidence shows the groups are no more related with in the group than across the whole population. Which he interpreted as children being fostered out to other familes – interesting if so as that’s not really a social pattern we see any more (I think!). Some famous figurines have been found at this site too – including statuettes of a woman (the Mother Goddess?) giving birth on a chair/throne flanked by two leopards or lions. The really exciting thing about the Çatal Hüyük site is that there aren’t just figurines but also wall paintings. Although there appears to have been some doubt about the reality of these? There’s an off-hand reference in the text to newer excavations finding evidence that “Mellaart’s initial claims […] to be more reliably based than first suspected.”. Which is … an interesting turn of phrase, particularly after they mention that Mellaart got chucked out of Turkey when he fell out with the authorities there over this excavation. But I do rather wish this section had told us more about the city and dropped fewer hints about scandals of archaeology! A tangent to follow up on one day! 🙂

The last few sections of this chapter start narrowing the focus down to Mesopotamia – as the following chapter is about early urbanisation in that region. The Late Neolithic (pottery Neolithic) looks in retrospect like a filler period between two stages in cultural development – it’s after the “Neolithic Revolution” of agriculture and before the “Urban Revolution”. I’m not sure I like this way of thinking about it but the book does go on to explain that we don’t know much about the period – mostly it’s characterised by different types of pottery without much other feel for the cultures. Interestingly administration and a concept of property exist during this period – I’d assumed that came in with cities – but there’s evidence from 6,000BCE from Tell Sabi Abyad in Syria of clay sealings for jars or rooms which show if someone who shouldn’t have has opened it. The period is divided into four broad cultures – pre-Hassuna, Hassuna , Samarra and Halaf. The latter three are named after the sites the cultures were first discovered. The Samarran culture is the one that Tell Sabi Abyad belongs to – the book positions it as a sort of proto-Sumerian culture. Not only are there the clay sealings there are also clay tokens that may be the very early antecedents of cuneiform writing. And some symbolism may prefigure later Mesopotamian religious iconography – particularly scorpion motifs (later associated with the goddess Ishtar).

With the arrival of pottery archaeology gets quite a bit easier. Pottery doesn’t decay, even if broken, and large amounts of it are made (and thrown out). Functional vessels can be made in a large variety of styles, and different cultures tend to have different fashions & traditions. This gives you information about trade networks and about how cultures evolved over time. Different styles within a culture can also demonstrate things about social stratification. In the Halufian culture of Late Neolithic Mesopotamia in particular very fine pottery was used as elite status symbols. Pottery at the time would’ve been the (relatively) new technology and also the exotic metals or other materials (such as ivory) used for later status objects weren’t as available.

The Halaf culture was primarily in the north of Mesopotamia, and overlapping slightly with them were the southern Mesopotamia based Ubaid culture. This is the last of the pre-urban (and pre-historic) cultures that the book considers. Ubaid culture begins in the south and then spreads throughout the rest of Mesopotamia and beyond – whether by migration of people or trading of objects & ideas is unclear. As well as the physical artifacts this culture is characterised by the development of the first irrigation canal networks. This is an important stepping stone on the way to urbanisation in Mesopotamia. The canals make agriculture a bit easier, thus freeing up labour for other purposes like crafting or bureaucracy. They also require a more complex degree of social organisation – someone(s) needs to make decisions about what is built, someone(s) needs to organise the labour force and so on.

The next chapter of the book moves on to the rise of true urban settlements – as well as the development of writing and the beginning of city states.

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 2)

The next chapter of this book covers the vast swathes of prehistory in the Middle East, taking us from the first migrations of pre-homo sapiens humans out of Africa all the way through to about 6000 years ago just before the first cities of Mesopotamia. Which is rather a lot of ground to cover! So much so that I have split the chapter into two blog posts, the first of which covers the Paleolithic cultures and the second will cover the Neolithic.

The Fertile Crescent

This is not just the story of the Middle East over this period, but also the story of humanity as we go from early humans to modern humans, and from nomadic hunter-gatherer to farmers living in permanent settlements. The introductory 2 page spread for this chapter suggests that one reason everything seems to happen first in the Middle East is due to geography. It’s on a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, so it was the best informed region – all knowledge flowed through there as it spread. And then could be combined with the other new ideas from other areas to produce leaps in technology.

Paleolithic Era

Early humans (Homo erectus) begin to spread outside Africa within a few hundred thousand years of their evolution. The earliest traces of humans date to 2.6 million years ago (in Ethiopia) and the earliest non-African evidence is from Dmanisi in Southern Georgia dating to 1.8 million years ago. These hominids presumably migrated via the Levantine corridor, as the only land route between the two areas. The next oldest site where human tools (and three teeth) have been found is in the Jordan Valley. Judging by the tools found at a wide variety of sites across the Middle East there were three or four different waves of migration out of Africa by Homo erectus. One of these migration waves also provides evidence of the first controlled use of fire – which I think I should’ve known pre-dated modern humans, but if I did know I had forgotten.

The Middle Paleolithic era lasted from around 250,000 to 45,000 years ago, and it was during this period that Homo erectus was replaced by Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The dominant theory 40 years ago (based on archaeological evidence from Europe) was that first came the Neanderthals and they were then replaced by our own species before 40,000 years ago. Excavations in the Levant have changed this picture significantly. There are Homo sapiens sapiens remains as old as 100,000 years ago at site in the Levant, and Homo sapiens neanderthalensisas young as 50,000 years ago. There have also been skeletons found that display different combinations of characteristics from the two groups. What’s more the tools produced in the various different sorts of sites show no significant difference between the sites in terms of material culture and way of life. So perhaps the two species co-existed (for around 50,000 years or so). The double page spread about this era ends with a set of questions we don’t know the answers to yet – including whether or not the Neanderthals were actually a separate species.

The boundary between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic (c.45,000-50,000 years ago) is marked by changes in tool technology. The shift was from tools formed as flakes or points to elongated blades which have a better edge-to-mass ratio and can be more efficiently produced. Interestingly as well as a local development of this tool culture (or perhaps brought by newcomers from Africa) there is also evidence of migration* into the area from Europe. The tools these immigrants brought with them are also blade based, but not the same as the ones produced in the Levant. These migrants are relatively restricted to one geographical region and one time period (32,000 to 30,000 years ago). An oddity of the Levantine Upper Paleolithic culture is that there is no evidence of art: no cave paintings, no figurines, no engravings. If I remember right the same is also true of Chinese prehistory … is art another of those ideas that is thought of only rarely and then spreads to become universal? Although having said that, we are very limited in what we can find evidence of – music, singing, dancing, drama and so on aren’t necessarily going to leave traces in the archaeological record.

*I’m not quite sure from the book why they know (if they know) that it’s the tool users that migrated rather than just the technology moving.

The next period of Middle Eastern prehistory is referred to as the Natufian period, and once again it’s characterised by a particular sort of tool. They give a technical description in the book, but basically the main form is small crescent-moon shaped tools for hunting and food preparation. The Natufian period falls into two phases: early from ~15,000-13,000 years ago and late from 13,000-11,500 years ago. This culture shows the first signs of sedentarism – with permanent, year-round villages. The communities still seem to have been hunter-gatherers, which was interesting as I previously thought the general idea was that settlement and agriculture happened the other way round. During the second phases of this period there’s actually more mobility in the communities, but they seem to have more clearly defined territories even if they’re not sedentary. I’m not actually sure what the evidence for this is, they don’t mention it in the book. However the authors do say that the second phase lines up with a signicantly drier period and so perhaps there wasn’t sufficient food at any given site to support a permanent population. Agriculture may or may not have begun during this period (experts are divided) but taming and domestication of the dog were definitely begun by the Natufians.

In contrast to the earlier Levantine cultures the Natufians are art producers. They produced both standalone things (like decorated bowls and slabs as well as figurines) and personal accessories (like necklaces, belts, etc). And the beginnings of trade are visible – for instance artifacts made of Anatolian obsidian have been found in the core Natufian region (the Levant from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan Valley). Natufian sites also have evidence of the first large scale cemetaries. There isn’t really a pattern to how bodies were treated. Generally the body was buried in a flexed position, sometimes in a single occupant grave, sometimes in a larger grave. Some bodies have decoration and/or ornaments, some graves have carefully place stones, others are just a pit refilled after burial. The book doesn’t speculate at all about potential elite/non-elite distinctions – perhaps it’s clearly random when you look at the data?

“The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed” Stephen Bourke (Part 1)

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.

“The Arab Uprisings: The People Want the Fall of the Regime” Jeremy Bowen

J got me to reserve this book out of the library a few weeks ago, he’d seen a mention of it somewhere & when he finished he said he thought I’d like to read it. It’s an overview of the first 18 months or so after the start of the Arab Spring in late 2010/early 2011, as told by Jeremy Bowen who is a journalist with the BBC. The book is a combination of overviews of the political situation before, after & during the various revolutions and also of more personal anecdotes from Bowen as he travelled through the countries to report on the revolutions & their aftermath. So it’s very much one man’s account – it’s what he’s seen, what he’s been told & what he thinks it means. But it’s also one man’s expert account, so worth the read.

One of the themes he draws out is that the growing discontent wasn’t just because the ageing autocratic leaders were starting to pass power down to their children, it was also because the population was growing and changing. In these countries something like 60% of the population is under 30, and a large number of those people have never had jobs and had no sense that this could change. They were also more connected to each other than people would’ve been in the past. The internet & mobile phones opened up communication between people across a country & across the region. So the discontented no longer felt isolated, and with being able to see they weren’t alone came organisation & action. And the security services & the regimes were slow to catch on. Not only to try & stop people using modern ways to talk to each other, but they also failed to realise that modern technology makes it harder to brutalise people into pretending nothing happened – if the video of the beating/killing/whatever has already gone viral then the world knows you did it.

Bowen also didn’t shy away from detailing the many ways the West had caused the problems in the first place – not just the leftovers of the colonial era, but much more recently. The propping up of various regimes as part of the Cold War, for instance. Also the later propping up of the same regimes as they fought on the “right side” of the “War on Terror”. For all the preaching about democracy and human rights the reality of the situation was that a secular but brutally autocratic dictator was considered preferable to risking an Islamist government. Just ignore what he’s doing to his people … Even Gaddifi got rehabilitated towards the end, forgiven for his own sponsoring of terrorist activities because he was useful for the new anti-terrorism.

How nothing happens in isolation is another of the threads running through the book. The uprisings took off one after the other in part because with a common language & global communications people in one country could look at Tunisia or the following countries and imagine themselves doing the same thing. On the other hand, leaders like Gaddafi & Assad took away the lesson that if they wanted to squash their own revolutions they needed to be more brutal than, for instance, Mubarak. On a brighter note Bowen says that the NATO intervention in Libya grew out of the fact that some of the key players were in junior positions or on the sidelines during the 1990s and witnessed the non-intervention in the genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda. And so they were determined not to stand by & let Gaddafi get away with war crimes in their turn. But then that had the knock-on effect of influencing Russia’s veto over intervention in Syria, because they felt they’d been misled about the level of proposed intervention in Libya …

An interesting & thought provoking book. Reading it now when the coup? second revolution? in Egypt is in full swing was also a slightly odd experience – the Egyptians Bowen talked to who said “we know the way back to Tahrir Square” feel prescient now.

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Secrets of the Arabian Nights; The Secrets of Stonehenge: A Time Team Special

The second episode of Helen Castor’s She Wolves: England’s Early Queens was about Isabella of France & Margaret of Anjou. Neither of these women ruled England in their own right, but both ruled in the name of a man (son & husband respectively) and neither have been remembered kindly by history. Rather unfairly, I think (although Isabella brought it on herself to some degree).

Isabella was the daughter of the King of France & was married to Edward II when she was only 12 years old. The marriage didn’t get off to an auspicious start when Edward sat his favourite, Piers Gaveston, closer to Edward at the feast than Isabella was and they ignored her to concentrate on each other. Even at this young age Isabella was very aware of the respect due to herself as a daughter of a King and a Queen herself. However, despite the fact that Edward was besotted with his favourite, Isabella set out to behave like the perfect Queen & wife.

Gaveston’s behaviour and indulgence by the King wasn’t just annoying & insulting to Isabella, it also wasn’t going down well with the nobles at court. Eventually the situation deteriorated to the point where the barons took up arms against Edward & his favourite, and they had to flee – with Isabella in tow. The situation was only resolved with the capture & execution of Gaveston. Relations between Isabella & Edward must’ve got better after this – if nothing else they started having children including the future Edward III. Isabella had therefore performed one of the critical duties of a Queen in ensuring the succession, she also played the Queenly role of peacemaker in mediating between Edward & the rebel barons.

However she was to play a critical role in the re-emergence of hostilities. She was travelling with her household when they were caught in a storm, and sought shelter at Leeds Castle (in Kent). The Lord of the castle had been one of the rebels but he was away, and his wife refused Isabella entry. Isabella was furious and ordered her men to force their way in, at which point the soldiers in Leeds Castle fought back (as you would) and six of Isabella’s men died. Edward called this insult to his Queen treason & used it as an excuse to beseige the castle, eventually capturing it & imprisoning the lady & her children. The lady’s husband was executed. I’ve got chronology muddled a bit here (I don’t think Castor did tho) and by this stage Edward II had already taken up with his next poor idea for a favourite – Hugh Despenser. Castor characterised Despenser as a political predator (and we got nice visuals of a raptor of some sort flying about and tearing at some sort of prey). She also said that she believes that relationship to’ve been platonic, unlike the one with Gaveston.

So now relations between Edward & the country are deteriorating & so are those between Edward & Isabella. Tensions are rising between England & France, too. Isabella seizes her chance when her brother (now King of France) wants to negotiate a peace – she volunteers to go to France to negotiate on England’s behalf. Once in Paris she organises for her son Edward to join her, and instead of returning to England as a dutiful wife she returns at the head of an army, fighting to depose Edward II & set Edward III in his place. She’s practically welcomed in, Edward II’s reign had become tyrannical and unpopular. Once Edward II was captured Edward III was crowned & Isabella ruled as his regent. Edward II subsequently died, almost certainly at Isabella’s orders (but not via the red hot poker of later myth). Isabella was widely regarded as the saviour of England at the time.

But she’d already sown the seeds of her downfall. Whilst in Paris she’d also taken up with a knight called Roger Mortimer (Castor made a lot of use of chess metaphors in this programme, in particular referring to the Queen making her move with her Knight & Pawn (Edward III)). So when she started to rule as regent she had her own favourite by her side, not quite what the nobles wanted to see. And she had always been very aware of her own majesty, and this only got worse when she was running the country – she and Mortimer enriched themselves at the Crown’s expense. So in the end Isabella was overthrown in her turn, by her son. Mortimer was executed, but Isabella was allowed to live on.

(Isabella is one of the viewpoint characters in “Iron King” by Maurice Druon that I read earlier this year, it’s set around the time of Edward III’s birth. Druon has her & Mortimer (very much pre any relationship) conspiring to catch her sisters in the act of adultery, oh the irony.)

The second half of the programme was devoted to Margaret of Anjou – the French bride of Henry VI. Henry had been King since he was 9 months old, when his father Henry V died. Unfortunately at the time Margaret of Anjou married him he still wasn’t showing much signs of capability to rule – he was 23 by then. And it got worse – Margaret became pregnant, but shortly before the baby was born Henry slipped into a catatonic state. The court was already divided into factions – one centred round the Duke of York (who had his own claim to the throne), one centred round the Duke of Somerset (who was pro-Henry). Castor was telling us that Margaret would’ve prefered that she was named regent – she felt she had the right as the King’s wife & that she was a more neutral choice than the other two. However it was the Duke of York who got the job. This is where the Wars of the Roses begin to properly kick off.

Henry did recover his wits (such as they ever had been), so the Duke of York was no longer regent. However relations between the Yorkist & Lancastrians had deteriorated to the point where civil war broke out. Margaret was firmly in the Lancastrian camp, keen to protect her husband & son’s right to the throne. Henry was fought over & captured/released and generally passed around like pass the parcel. Castor told us of the king sitting in the centre of St Albans, guarded by soldiers, while the fighting raged through the town – not participating, just bewildered as he was fought over. In the end York won, not to control the king but to rule in his own name. (By this stage it’s not the original Duke of York, it’s his son Edward who ruled as Edward IV.) Margaret & her son (and husband? I can’t remember where Castor said Henry was) fled the country. Whilst in France she worked tirelessly to drum up support for her husband’s cause, but not very successfully.

Eventually the chance she’d been waiting for arrived – one of the major Yorkists, the Earl of Warwick, became dissatisfied with the King he’d put on the throne. Warwick regarded himself as “Kingmaker” and felt that if this one wasn’t working out, why all he needed to do was put a new one on the throne. So he switched sides, and promised Margaret that he’d work to return her husband to his rightful throne. Margaret was quite canny about this, she accepted his aid and then waited with her son in France until Warwick had delivered on his promise. Only then did she set out for England.

Sadly for Margaret just as she and her son were landing in England the Yorkists re-grouped and retook the crown. Margaret & her forces were forced into a battle in which her son took part for the first time. He died and as he was Henry VI’s only heir, with him died the hopes of Margaret for keeping her husband’s line on the throne. Henry VI was a Yorkist captive again, and died shortly afterwards in the Tower of London. Margaret lived the rest of her life in France.

Secrets of the Arabian Nights was a standalone programme presented by Richard E. Grant all about the stories of the Arabian Nights. He traced their origins in the Middle East & beyond, and how they got to the West. He also talked to several critics & others about the impact they still have in both East & West today. And we also got treated to some retellings of some of the stories.

The stories come from a thriving oral tradition originating with merchants travelling the Silk Road & other trade routes across Asia. The prominence of merchants in many of the stories is a legacy of that. These stories were subsequently fitted within the Scheherazade frame story, and written down as The 1000 Stories. They came to the West via a Frenchman called Antoine Galland in the 18th Century – he was fluent in Arabic & Persian & other Middle Eastern languages, and he translated an Arabic form of the stories into French & published it. The book was a great success – partly because it was exotic and new, with sorts of stories & magic that aren’t the common tropes of Western literature (flying carpets were an example Grant mentioned repeatedly). And partly because it was the right thing at the right time – there was already a fashion for fairytales, and these stories fitted into that niche. Due to the success of the stories Galland was pressured to provide more, and he did – he said he’d heard the stories from contacts in the Middle East, but Grant pointed out that this was pretty dubious. It’s more likely that Galland invented them or significantly embellished them. I knew already that what we have in the West isn’t quite the same as the original, but I hadn’t realised that Aladdin & Ali Baba were among the extras.

Galland’s book was translated into English where again it was a success and helped establish the craze for “oriental” fashions in Britain. It was also disapproved of by the more strait-laced – Grant quote one lord who felt that it was encouraging the “Desdemona complex” (which is every bit as racist as you might imagine). And then in Victorian times the Arabian Nights stories were significantly bowdlerised & re-purposed as children’s stories. Which is really the form that most of us English speakers run into them first today.

Grant spent some time talking to a variety of critics both European & not. They were mostly in agreement that one of the themes of the book as a whole (in the original) is female sexuality & desire. They also drew out a feminist theme to the collection of stories. The framing story of Scheherazade is about a king whose wife betrays him, so after killing her he goes on to marry & then execute a woman every night. As revenge. Scheherazade uses her wits & her storytelling abilities to not just save herself but to slowly change the King’s attitudes. They were saying at the beginning the stories she tells fit with the King’s misogynistic & vengeful ideas, but over the course of the stories she emphasises wisdom & reflection over vengeance, and seeing women as people.

In the Middle East today (well, 2011 or 2010 when this was filmed) the book is controversial. It’s regarded by some as immoral – too much drinking, too much sex, people aren’t rewarded for being good they’re rewarded for being lucky, and so on. Grant talked to an Egyptian author & publisher (Gamal al Ghitani) who has published a new edition of the stories – he has received death threats & there was pressure on the government to ban the book because it was indecent & not Islamic enough. Gamal al Ghitani was clear that he felt this was rubbish, that the extremely conservative Islamist groups weren’t right about the only way to be a Muslim. And that these stories are an important part of Arabic heritage & should be read & learnt about by modern people.

It was a good programme, interesting & the dramatic re-tellings of stories were fun 🙂

Secrets of Stonehenge was a Time Team special we’d recorded several years ago, about a team excavating at and near Stonehenge. It felt very padded, in what I think of as “Discovery channel style” – i.e. the sequence went: cliff-hanger, ad break, re-cap, small bit of something else, next cliff-hanger etc. And while it did belabour the point about theories only lasting so long as there’s evidence to support them, it also made a lot of use of “and now they’ve proved” language *rolls eyes*. However. It was fun to watch, as Time Team generally is. A particularly amusing moment was when Robinson said “to help the archaeologist Time Team has built a life size replica of the henge at Durrington” … well, no, I think you did it so you had something cool to show on the telly 🙂

The excavations were led by a chap called Mike Parker Pearson, and his pet theory (which evolved over the 6 years of excavations) was that Stonehenge fit into a ritual landscape involving a progression from life to death. The henge at Durrington, built of wood, was a place where people came to feast each midwinter. They then travelled down the river Avon and along the avenue to Stonehenge, which was the place of the dead. There they buried some of their ancestors (mostly adult males, who were relatively fit – Pearson speculated this was a royal line). Some of this left me hoping it was based on better evidence than they showed us (i.e. that the people would process along the river scattering ashes?), some of it was more compelling (i.e. evidence of feasting on pigs of a particular age at the Durrington site implies feasting at a particular time of year).

Another strand of the programme talked about the previous excavations at the site – it was a minor enough theme I wouldn’t’ve mentioned it except that I wanted to make a note of one rather appalling part. One of the modern excavators, back in the 50s, was a man called Richard Atkinson. Although he did a lot of work on the site none was recorded and none was published – so effectively he dug it up & disturbed it all for no gain. Not what you expect from the modern era! Wikipedia is somewhat kinder to the man citing overwork & illness, so perhaps that too was hammed up to make “good telly”.

Overall I’d say it was fun but not necessarily accurate (or nuanced).

A History of Syria with Dan Snow; Howard Goodall’s Story of Music

Instead of starting TV night with our on-going series, we started with a documentary about Syria – watching it first because it was bound to be depressing viewing. A History of Syria with Dan Snow was a This World documentary that looked at the historical underpinnings of the current civil war, to put it into some sort of context. I’m sure I’m not going to manage to get everything right in my summary and being a current & politically charged subject I’m more conscious that errors may offend, I’ll still try & give some sort of feel for what Snow told us.

He started with a little bit of geography – showing us where Syria is on the map, and pointing out that it’s at the point of contact between Asia, Europe & Africa. So trade flows through the region, and empires butt heads across the region. In some ways the 5000 year history of the region could be summed up as “the Syrian people got screwed over by one big empire after another”. Snow only name checked the Egyptians & Assyrians, and got down to business properly with the Romans. Syria was a wealthy province under Roman rule, due to its location and the trade routes running through it. And the people converted to Christianity when the rest of the Empire did (if not before) – Syria was an important centre for Christianity until the Muslim conquest, and there is still a sizeable Christian minority in the region to this day. Snow visited a church service in Damascus, and talked briefly to a priest afterwards who was keen to stress his view that all Syrians were important regardless of religion, sect, ethnic background. Which was an optimistic way to start the programme.

Syria became part of the expanding Muslim empire very early on and then the capital of the (Sunni) Umayyad Caliphate was in Syria. The majority of the people living in Syria today are Sunni Muslims, and Snow said that the time of the Umayyads is looked back to as a kind of golden age for Syria by the Sunnis. He skipped lightly over the next few hundred years when Syria was first ruled over by an Egyptian centred Muslim empire, and then by the Ottoman Turks. The only key point from this era that he mentioned was the Crusades & the way they have shaped Arab feelings about Western intervention in the region. The next period he discussed in depth was the British Empire’s turn at screwing over the Syrians – this was during the First World War when the British allied with the native Syrians as a way of destabilising the Ottomans. This is the time of Lawrence of Arabia, and the war ends with the Arabs convinced that the British have promised them their own independent state – only the British had also promised most of the territory to the French & guess which promise gets kept? The French rule over Syria was imperialist & brutal, and there was a rebellion (which ultimately failed) in 1925. Snow talked to the daughter of the man who lead that rebellion & she talked about how she feels the current rebellion is the spiritual successor to her father’s rebellion.

Syria became independent in the 1930s, and the programme skipped lightly over the next period until we get to the seizing of power by Hafez al-Assad – but first it back-tracked to explain another bit of older history that is important to put this into context. Most of the Muslims (and indeed most of the people) in Syria are Sunnis, but the largest minority group is a Shia Muslim group of people called the Alawites who make up about 12% of the population of Syria. The division between Sunni & Shia Muslims goes back to immediately after the death of the Prophet, and has continued ever since. In Syria (and the region around Syria) the Alawites have been particularly persecuted – Snow was telling us that almost within living memory members of this group were unable to find work because of their religion. Assad was an Alawite, and rose to prominence via the military at a time when the Ba’athist political party were gaining in strength. Through two military coups (first that put the Ba’athists in power, then that put Assad himself in power) he took control of the country. Snow interviewed a Ba’athist political figure, a woman who is an advisor to the current government and was an advisor to Hafez al-Assad’s government. She emphasised the secular nature & policies of the Ba’athist party, dwelling on how Assad put schools into all the villages, and that women could get an education. What she didn’t mention was that the Assad regime was a tyrannical police state. Snow also interviewed a couple who had lived in Hama, a Syrian town, during the 1982 massacre that the government perpetrated there – theoretically to quell Muslim Brotherhood led insurrection, but actually tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Assad’s Russian connections were also important – during the 60s he’d been an army leader at a time when Israel was flexing her muscles. And he gained a reputation as an Arab strongman, who’d helped the Arab world to recover it’s pride after defeat by Israel. I’m fairly unclear on the details of this bit to be honest – but the take home message was that Assad’s regime had both the backing of parts of the Arab world, and the backing of the Soviets as a counterpoint to the US backing of Israel.

So that’s almost all the pieces of the situation lined up – the last bit that’s needed is that once Hafez al-Assad died, his son Bashar inherited the presidency. He seemed at first to be likely to reform the police state nature of the Syrian state, and hopes were high that he’d move the regime towards a more open & democratic (and Western-friendly) state. But this was not the case, and he continued with his father’s policies – and methods.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was then the spark that lit the tinderbox. Snow’s interview with the couple from Hama also talked about this – they and their sons had been involved in the first protests, but are now living as refugees away from the fighting in Syria. One of the sons was saying that at first the protests were about wanting democracy, then once people started being killed it was about overthrowing the regime. The programme then cut back to the woman in the government who was saying that they had reacted to armed insurrection the way any government would – that the rebels were preventing the normal business of the country so the army had to be sent in to protect the state. With interviews with people on both sides of the conflict Snow showed that however it started it’s fragmented down the fault lines that history has provided – Sunni vs Alawite, secular vs religious, to name a couple. With the ordinary people being caught in the middle of it.

Sobering to watch – it seems like a situation where there’s so much history and ill-will on both sides both recent and dating from centuries ago that it’s hard to see how it can be resolved.

To follow that up, we watched the fifth episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music as something lighter weight to cheer us up before sleep! This was titled “The Age of Rebellions” and covered the period from the death of Wagner (in 1883) through to just before the First World War. Goodall opened by talking about how after the death of Wagner instead of several pseudo-Wagners continuing on with his style of music instead you have a movement away from a Wagnerian style – rebelling against it, if you like. Goodall seemed quite gleeful about this 🙂 So we heard some bits from Satie, Faure and other French composers of that era. Goodall also talked about Mahler in this segment & discussed how his symphonies & songs were a move to a more personally emotional music. Rather than writing some abstractly sad piece & calling it something general like “Nocturne” Mahler wrote songs about specific subjects like the death of a child.

Another of Goodall’s themes for the programme was the influence that folk music had on the classical music of the time – Mahler, for instance, incorporated the sounds & rhythms of the Jewish folk music of his upbringing. It was in Russia where this was a really striking trend. Previously Russian music had looked to the West rather to its own traditions of music, but in the late 19th Century this was to change. One of the major players in this change was Mussorgsky – and his music was different because he was not formally trained, and so didn’t know the “rules” that he was busy breaking. Not all of the composers influenced by Mussorgsky were Russian – Debussy heard Mussorgsky’s music at the World Fair in Paris. Debussy was also influenced by other music he heard there, like the Javanese musicians, and he incorporated these non-Western rhythms & tonalities into his music.

This breaking of the previous rules for composing music encouraged others to experiment even further. The ballets of Stravinsky (like Firebird & the Rite of Spring) with their overlayed rhythms & polyrhythms were a result of this experimentation, as was the dissonance & emotionality of Strauss’s opera Salome. We were shown a little of Salome & I don’t think I’ve any desire to see the whole opera 😉

The last segment of the programme was devoted to the new mainstream music that was beginning in this era – the blues and later ragtime and the beginnings of jazz. Goodall talked about how the blues and the spirituals grew out of the African-American’s musical traditions, both from the music that they remembered from their African origins & the Christianity they were converted to once in America. Goodall said it was controversial to suggest that there were any other influences on this music, but that he believed there were also traces of the music of European immigrants (in particular railroad workers) and also the Chinese railroad workers.

As this new music became more mainstream classical music began to decrease in popularity. Goodall told us that the reaction of classical composers was to write music that appealed to a sense of nostalgia. The music of Elgar is a part of this nostalgic music. And the programme ended with Goodall pointing out that this nostalgia was for the sort of elite lifestyle that was just about to end with the outbreak of World War I.