Category Archives: Middle East


Black Athena and Diamond’s Farmers

In his analysis of a 'black Athena,' Bernal touted its interdisciplinary approach.
In his analysis of a ‘black Athena,’ Bernal touted his interdisciplinary approach.

In attempting to connect two scholarly articles with two seemingly different topics—in this case the foundations of Greek culture in Levine’s The Use and Abuse of ‘Black Athena’ and the link between cultural expansion and agricultural dispersion in Bellwood and Diamond’s Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions—one must think outside the box.

Diamond and Bellwood contend that the study of agricultural expansion is inherently interdisciplinary (Bellwood 1). Thus using techniques from archeology, anthropology, crop and livestock studies, genetics and—imperatively—linguistics, the two arrive at their thesis: Language diffusion follows/accompanies the spread of farming (Bellwood 3). The authors subsequently outline six objections to their thesis (on the grounds that the proto-language does not match the origin of its supposed dispersal, for instance) along with 11 specific examples, including the Bantu Migration and Japan’s early infusion (c. 400 BCE) of Korean rice farmers (Bellwood 7).

And it is precisely this interdisciplinary approach that pops up in Levine’s review of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. So what is Bernal’s hypothesis: Greek culture is not simply Indo-European “classical;” it contains elements from Egypt and the Levant as well (Levine 441). Levine’s response exposes the difficulty of pinpointing the inciting factors of a particular civilization while taking factors like race and politics into consideration. Note: Levine is not critiquing Bernal’s hypothesis; she critiques his political motives behind Black Athena. Just as Bernal levies heavy accusations at “subjective” 19th century classicists, he uses a 19th century paradigm to do his own bidding (i.e. righting the perceived historical record of racist misjudgments) (Levine 446).

But the “interdisciplinary” notion originates from Bernal himself. “Volume 1 of the Black Athena series is dedicated to Bernal’s father, John Desmond Bernal, a historian of science, ‘who taught [Bernal] that things fit together interestingly,’ and it is in fitting things together, interestingly, that Bernal’s book represents a tour de force,” Levine writes (Levine 444). I’d argue that Bellwood and Diamond’s hypothesis also fits evidence together…interestingly. And despite Levine’s verbose, animated analysis and B&D’s lengthy list of criticisms, we inevitable end up in the same place—wondering if current events influence every historical analysis and if objectivity exists at all (Levine 447-9).

Catherine engineered a Russian 'confessional state' in which Islam and other religions were "tolerated."

Islam and the Russian “Confessional” State

In terms of the 18th century Russian tsarist empire, “confessionalization” referred to a rather fluctuating toleration of non-Orthodox (Christian) religions. Specifically, in For Prophet and Tsar, Crews identifies how this form of “tolerance” by tsarist officials engineered a conduit for imperial reach into the furthest extent of its empire and actually shaped Islam within its bounds (Crews 2). To the tsars of the Russian Empire, “confessionalization,” was an Enlightened, temporary means of instituting autocratic rule—grounded in religious affiliations as opposed to ethnic ties (8).

But, regarding Islam, tsars like Catherine the Great faced major obstacles from the very beginning. As historian Richard Bulliet found, Islam was “without the benefit, or burden, of an ecclesiastical structure or a centralized source of doctrinal authority” (11). How, then, could the empress integrate a non-hierarchical religious entity into an imperial system?

The tsarist officials reasoned that Christianity and Islam had enough components in common: Each was monotheistic, and Christian religious authorities loosely resembled various Muslim leaders (17). The subordination of Muslims to Orthodox Christians was not ambiguous (38); however, this technique prompted less violence than outright religious suppression. Additionally, the imperial state began to rule laypeople indirectly through the Muslim elite (and an engineered Islamic structure, i.e. the Orenburg Muftiate), yet every stratum of the Muslim population also used the imperial bureaucracy to suit their needs, as evidenced by numerous court documents (21).

Most importantly, tsarist officials used shari’a to their advantage by interweaving Islamic and imperial law. According to Crews, “[ruler and ruled] shared the conviction, emerging out of the 18th century, that the imperial order rested on religious authority, and that the tsar’s agents, along with every subject, had a stake in establishing a world pleasing to God” (21). Hence, if you failed to abide by imperial authority, you also failed to abide by God’s rules.

It must also be noted that tsarist officials viewed their conquests of predominantly Muslim areas through a lens of European Enlightenment that constituted a profound inferiority complex (40). And in a similar vein, tsarist officials predicated their understanding of Islam on their experiences with the Ottoman Empire (and thus did not understand the inherent heterogeneity of Islam from region to region) (12-33).

The Turkic nomads of the Central Asian steppe had a complex relationship with thriving settled civilizations.

Symbiosis: Everyday Life in Central Asia

A succinct distinction between nomadic culture and settled civilization in Central Asia prior to the Russian conquest does not seem to exist, as evidenced by both Scott Levi and Adrienne Edgar in both “Turks and Tajiks in Central Asian History,” and “Everyday Life Among the Turkmen Nomads.” In the beginning Levi acknowledges that the modern conception of “Central Asia” is defined by the five ex-Soviet nation states (Levi 15), but then he delves into the ultra-complex political and social history of the region—aptly described as “waves”—in which first the Persians (then Muslims, Chinese, Mongols, and even a fusion of all of the above) dominated the region. Levi stresses that pastoral nomads and settled farming peoples existed in a symbiotic state, perpetually in flux due to perhaps population pressures, climate change, disease, and displacement (Levi 16). Hence the distinction, or more accurately, the differences between pastoral nomads are probably cultural perceptions and not definite constructs.

For example, Edgar (with more descriptive imagery) delineates between how Europeans perceived nomads as “exotic” and “dangerous” (Edgar 38), whereas nomads—specifically Turkmen—are proud of their nomadic heritage, descending from the Oghuz tribes (Levi 23), and even look down upon sedentary farming peoples  (Edgar 39). In fact, “kinship and genealogy are not just sources of pride to the Turkmen; they are also vital sources of economic and political solidarity” (Edgar 40). After the Russian conquest, ethnic differences are easier to define, but that is not necessarily a positive result. According to Edgar, pastoral nomads in Turkmenistan were forced to settle; this often resulted in starvation (Edgar 43). However, as far as the division between pastoral nomads and sedentary civilization is concerned, two words come to mind that can be interchanged for each: trade and raid.

Russian imperialism shaped Central Asian Islam in profound ways.

18th Century Colonial Russia and Islamic Feuds: Jadids v. Ulama

Muslims—specifically jadids and ulama—reacted to indirect imperial rule in different ways. The ulama first rejected Russian rule in the late 19th century, then they filled the power vacuum left by Russia’s policy of “ignoring Islam,” thereby functioning as agents of imperial power (Khalid 38-40). Simultaneously, a younger generation of Muslims–jadids–suffered from an existential religious crisis and subsequently denounced “traditional” Islam (41). While the reaction of the ulama seems predictable, the plight of the jadids seems much more fascinating. One sentence in Khalid’s analysis offered clues to the foundational philosophy of the reformists: “Enlightenment and education would solve all the problems of the community” (41).

Enlightenment. This refrain sounds familiar. Khalid refers to the “Europhilia” of the jadids, but I kept wondering if this reformist platform is a direct reaction to Russian imperial authority and its relation to the ulama. The Russian empire arguably suffered from Europhilia, and it seems possible that these Enlightened ideas infiltrated Central Asia’s Islamic society. Khalid noted that reformist Islam was a hallmark of modernist thinking in the 19th century (44), but I wonder if this broader redefinition of Islam correlates with colonialism around the globe.

Fitrat gives a satire-laden critique of the conservative ulama as he reconstructs a Socratic dialogue between a “European” and a “teacher.” To Fitrat, the teacher signifies the ulama, and the European symbolizes the endeavors of the jadids (244-245). Conversely, Cholpan extols the virtues of modernization through the teacher—a Russian teacher—who educates a young Turk “according to the needs of the times” (264-265). In each case, the “European” bestows knowledge.

handless pic

a quick note on The Handless Maiden

In The Handless Maiden, by Mary Elizabeth Perry, the author seeks to give a voice to the Moriscas of 16th century Spain by filling the historical silence that left many “voiceless and in the shadows” (6) by using a wide range of sources. They ranged from documentary evidence (such as the Almonacid writings (20)) to archival documents to co-religious legends, as well as an interesting utilization of anthropological frameworks. The lengthy introduction of Perry’s book expounded upon many topics including historical context (4), her issues with using traditional sources from the “victors who had the power to write and preserve the reports of the past” (5), and the need to read Inquisition records “against the grain” in order to attain an indirect notion of what Moriscos, and Moriscas in particular, where experiencing during this time period (6).

When Perry delves into the more psychological, and frankly suppositional, aspects of her argument in the first half of the book, they begin with the introduction itself. For example, Perry discusses the significance of the veil Muslim women wore as part of their faith. Perry maintains that Moriscas created a paradox by wearing of this piece of fabric. Hence she contends the veil was more of a symbol, and more accurately categorizes it as, “a veil of phallocentric assumptions [that] has covered most women of the past with unquestioned assertions that they have been more pawns or passive victims…in the background far behind the ‘real’ actors in history—men with military might and political power” (9). However, throughout her book, women often transgressed gender boundaries. Though Perry’s introduction is complex and comprehensive, her thesis seems straightforward: past historians have overlooked not only the minority, but especially women (10). And in the context of the medieval, pre-modern unification of Spain, Perry’s passion to give recognition to these women is palpable. Furthermore, the author contemplates whether Moriscas were active rebels with agency or passive victims simply trying to hang-on to their cultural identity (10).

Though every chapter of The Handless Maiden contains reoccurring and repetitive elements, each offers a distinct message. Chapter One focuses on the impact of traditional Muslim architecture on Moriscos (25) and introduces the book’s namesake with the legend of Carcayona. To Perry, this legend “can be read as a metaphor for a people who suffered a major reversal in fortune and cruel punishment imposed by an unjust ruler” (21). However, the author concedes that, though this legend is pertinent to her argument, there is no way to prove that 16th century Moriscas even identified with Carayona or had access to the myth (27). Chapter Two touches on the issue of the female body as a site of defiance (probably because it was often hyper-sexualized (54)), as ritual bathing became an act of heresy (38). In Chapter Three, rising societal tensions began to politicize Moriscas’ homes as a potential sites of defiance, as women continued to speak in Arabic, teach their children about Islam, and observe holidays and domestic (food-related) rituals (69).

Chapter Four was the most powerful chapter as Perry began to use more primary sources to illustrate the desperation Moriscas must have felt to necessitate their waging war alongside the Morisco men during the rebellion of 1568-1570. Her source use from Christian soldiers who witnessed the bravery of a particular Morisca named Zarcamodinia (88-89) gave this historical work a personal touch because this woman was real and died fighting with honor. Perry underscores Zarcamodina’s gender transgression when she calls upon the 7th century legend of Yurmuk (89-91), but later admits that many of the 16th century Morisca women would have been illiterate and may not have had access to this legend either (90). Chapter Five emphasizes the loss of humanity the Moriscos experienced after they lost the rebellion. In what Perry describes as a “Journey of Tears,” the converted Muslims were dispersed by the thousands and spread across Castile (111). In official documents, they were described as “heads of,” alluding to the fact that the relocation of “people in such large numbers…must have seemed similar to sheep and cattle—less than human, but live creatures that had to be herded” (114).

Chapter Six outlines the various debates between clerical members and the Crown concerning the ultimate expulsion of Moriscos in 1609 (135-138). Additionally, Perry again mentions the context of the unification of Spain through Ferdinand and Isabella (135), and the Church’s Protestant motives for creating a religious “other” (137). In this Chapter, Perry continuously stresses the economic implications for Morisco expulsion with documentation from Spanish nobility (134). In Chapter Seven, Perry examines the ultimate treatment of the Moriscos after they Crown demanded their expulsion and their “legacy of pain” (157).

Although Perry at times makes grandiose statements (mostly in the introduction and often geared toward other historians (88)) and offers extensive supposition, her constant transparency when it comes to the limitations of her sources was exceptional and not in the least condescending. In fact, I enjoyed the mixture of archival evidence, timely myths, and anthropological analysis. Perry created a story, and though at times she may have gone overboard with contemporary feminist interpretations, she was aware of it. Because of her combination of sources and absolute honesty, I gleaned a better idea of the voice of the Morisca, even if—at times—it was a bit influenced by Perry herself.


cordoba mosque

The Martyrs of Cordoba

In 9th century Al-Andalus, a Muslim-ruled area in the modern day south of Spain, Christian worshipers, or Mozarabs, were second class compared to their Arab counterparts. Many Christians underwent Islamisation, and as a result, more devout members of the Catholic church experienced an identity crisis. Forty-eight people, mostly clergy members and laymen (and women) with links to the monastery, martyred themselves by publicly denouncing Islam. A lecherous priest named Eulogius incited and chronicled the martyrs. Eventually the Muslim authorities put him to death.

In Martyrs of Cordoba, Jessica A. Coope presents a realistic thesis concerning the Cordoban martyr debacle using evidence primarily from two sources, the works of Eulogius and Paul Albar. Her theory underscores the Christian fanatic response to the increasing vibrancy of the Umayyad court (14). According to Coope, due to their marginalized position in society, Christians during the 850s, and the period leading up to it, found both social and economical reasons to adopt Islamic cultural components (3.) As a result of this one-sided assimilation, proponents of monasticism, particularly Christian clerics and laymen, found “the new dominance of a foreign cultural tradition devastating” (9). Hence the paranoid reaction of Christians to encroaching Islamic cultural ideologies was relegated to a specific subset of Cordoba’s Christian population.

Though Coope goes to great lengths to illustrate the Muslim-Christian tensions that consumed every level of Cordoban society (23), I wish she had spent more time analyzing the implications of religious power struggles within the confines of Cordoban families. For example, Nunilo and Alodia’s religious beliefs differed from their Muslim father, and later stepfather, so they were sent away, eventually exposed, and executed (23). Eulogius’ favorite, Flora, could not practice her faith because her brother was a Muslim. She fled, but he found her and brought her before the qadi. First she was beaten until the flesh on her neck was exposed. Six years later she was executed (24-25). Additionally, Rudericus, after trying to mediate between his Christian and Muslim brothers, was sold out by the latter brother. He was later executed for not renouncing Christianity (29). Coope concedes, “hatred between relatives in mixed families was one of the engines that powered the martyr’s movement” (29), but I kept wondering why. Perhaps the larger societal tensions that could not be expressed publicly manifested in private life. As the laws of physics demand, at some point that tension must release. Eulogius forcefully broke the ice and seemed to create an even more hostile environment where smaller, family ties buckled under amassing pressure.

Because Eulogius was clearly egotistical and manipulative (and after reading his Documentum concerning Flora, absolutely narcissistic (27)), I have an issue with Coope’s sources. True, she uses “other Latin and Arabic sources” to contextualize the martyr movement, but she admits most of her evidence stems from biographical accounts of Eulogius and Albar (xi). Coope seems to justify her dominant source due to the lack of progression in modern scholarship pertaining to medieval Spain (xi). In fact, in a review of Coope’s Martyr’s of Cordoba, Kenneth Baxter Wolf notes the lack of new data present in her argument (The Catholic Historical Review 307). Though Eulogius seemed to instigate the movement at every turn, Coope hardly focuses on his huge role. With the manner in which she presented her evidence, I am not convinced the Cordoban martyrs would have occurred in the absence of the meddling Eulogius.

With source-issues taken into consideration, as another review by J.N. Hillgarth maintains, Coope displayed a “valiant attempt” despite her source limitations (The American Historical Review 1531). I agree with her over-arching theme: “the public nature of Cordoba prompted Christians to think about their own religion in similar terms” (83), but I think her use of sources demanded too much supposition on her part as to the small-scale response of Cordoba as a whole. Sure, we can read Eulogius’ fanatical reactions, reveal whom he was reacting to and why, then work backwards; but if Coope is highlighting a societal trend, there has to be more evidence.


Reed Art

The historiography of art throughout the ages gives as much insight into the culture of the recipient as it does the lifestyle of the creator. A careful analysis of various art forms throughout time–whether dancing, painting, or sculpting–preserves the vitality of the human race in each of its stages as society continues its incessant march through time.

It is important to consume past art as voraciously as it is vital to indulge new creations. Why not connect with people who lived years, even centuries, before and explore the essence of what it means to be human; why we dance, why we sing, why we feel the need to capture life’s beauty on the rocky surface of cave walls. The message of Reed History is that we are all fundamentally the same. We have the same hopes, the same dreams and the same anxieties. No medium displays human-beings’ utter consistency better than art.

Check out some pretty fascinating artists, making history everyday.