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РЕЛИЗ ПОДГОТОВИЛА ГРУППА "What's News" VK.COM/WSNWS
WHEN THE SPANISH MET THE AZTECS
WorldHistories
FRESH PERSPECTIVES ON OUR GLOBAL PAST
How can enemies
forge a lasting
peace?
The Iranian
Revolution
Why 1979’s uprising still
shapes the Middle East
PLUS
How an ancient
Persian emperor
became a modern
youth icon
AMERICA’S WAR ON DRUGS
The roots of the present-day opiate crisis
How Gandhi inspires today’s protests
RELIGION, RELATIVITY AND RATIONALISM
A brief history of global philosophy
WHY WEAKNESS
IS POWERFUL
When falling empires
change the world
ENCOUNTERS
UNFORESEEN
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1492 Retold
The history of 1492 dramatized from a bicultural perspective, presenting the
life stories and beliefs of the historic Native American chieftains who met
Columbus side by side with those of Columbus and Queen Isabella. Based
closely on primary sources and anthropological studies.
“Rowen’s research…is nothing less than breathtaking. The sensitivity and originality of his portrayals
are equally impressive, avoiding the trap of simply retelling a familiar tale from an exclusively European
perspective or casting the explorers as nothing more than rapacious colonialists…remarkably new and
—Kirkus Reviews
inventive…”
“…a phenomenal historical novel…spellbinding…Few authors recreate historical worlds and craft
—Readers’ Favorite Five Star Review
characters who feel so real...”
“…a fascinating story of enmeshed lives, and the consequences of new worlds….written with scrupulous
—William F. Keegan, Curator of Caribbean Archaeology,
detail to historical accuracy…”
Florida Museum of Natural History, Taíno Indian Myth and Practice
“...riveting...a literary masterpiece that is as deftly complex as it is consistently entertaining.”
—Midwest Book Review
“A must read book for American history, European history, and Native American history!”
ANDREW ROWEN
www.andrewrowen.com
Available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook
ALL PERSONS PRESS
—Book Review Crew, Authors on the Air
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Patterns of change
Decorative tiles in the Jameh Mosque of
Isfahan, Iran. This issue, we explore how
the 1979 Iranian Revolution reshaped
the Middle East (page 42), and why a
figure from the nation’s ancient history
still captures the imagination (page 52)
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WELCOME
Peace. It’s an admirable goal
– yet even a cursory glance
at history reveals just how
fraught the process of
achieving it can be.
This issue, we asked our panel of historians to look
back at past hostilities to tackle the question: how
can enemies forge a lasting peace? Looking at
a range of treaties, from papal truces of the Middle
Ages to accords ending the global conflicts of the
20th century, can we identify political, military or
economic strategies that have contributed to enduring
peace? Indeed, is such a state ever achievable? Read our
experts’ thoughts in our cover feature from page 16.
War is often sparked by external aggression – or, at
least, that’s generally the accepted cause. But, as author
and Jonathan Holslag contests, in truth an underlying
factor fuelling conflict is often internal weakness.
His feature exploring this idea – the first in our new
Long Read series of argument-driven pieces spanning
the expanse of world history– starts on page 63.
As this magazine’s strapline suggests, each issue sets
out to offer diverse perspectives on historical events
and themes. It seemed important, therefore, to match
these considered analyses of the causes of conflict with
a visceral reminder of its devastating impact. Across the
course of his decades-spanning career, documentary
ISSUE 14
photographer Don McCullin has travelled to war
zones across the world, chronicling lives – and, often,
deaths – in those theatres. A new retrospective of his
extraordinary work opens at London’s Tate Britain in
February, and from page 78 one of the curators of that
exhibition reveals the stories behind some of McCullin’s
most powerful images. It’s moving, sobering stuff.
If time has rendered less raw the impact of some of
the most traumatic clashes, the geopolitical legacies of
many remain palpable today. In these pages we tackle
two examples. First, on the 40th anniversary of the
Iranian Revolution, Ali Ansari assesses its causes and
the ongoing consequences for the wider Middle East.
That’s on page 42. Then, on page 70, Caroline Dodds
Pennock looks at an even more distant encounter –
between the Aztecs and the Spanish – and asks
whether our 21st-century view of events is a fair
assessment of what actually
happened 500 years ago in
what’s now Mexico City.
If this issue’s features
leave you with thoughts or
questions, please do email
us at the address below.
For now, enjoy the issue.
Matt Elton
Editor, BBC World Histories
matt.elton@immediate.co.uk
Together with two regular
titles, the BBC History Magazine
team also produces a bi-weekly
podcast, live events and a range
of special editions exploring
specific topics and periods
COVER ILLUSTRATION: DAVIDE BONAZZI–SALZMANART. INSIDE COVERS: BRIDGEMAN.
THIS PAGE: STEVE SAYERS–THE SECRET STUDIO
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3
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CONTENTS Features
Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini greets
supporters in Tehran
in February 1979
after his return to
Iran following the
departure of the last
shah. In this issue, on
the 40th anniversary
of the Islamic
Revolution, two
historians explore its
long-term aftermath
16
52
THE BIG QUESTION
The unlikely afterlife
of Cyrus the Great ✪
A century after postwar reconstruction
and reconciliation got underway in Europe,
six historians debate the conditions that
contribute to lasting, meaningful peace
24
The thin white line:
America’s war on drugs ✪
BY BENJAMIN T SMITH
Modern global approaches to narcotics
trafficking and addiction owe much to
one dogged, draconian US official
44
How the last shah lost Iran ✪
BY ALI ANSARI
Forty years on, we examine the causes and
consequences of the Iranian Revolution
Plus The team behind a new BBC series
discuss the challenges of dramatising history
4
BY LLOYD LLEWELLYN-JONES
How an ancient Persian conqueror was
adopted as an icon by Iran’s disaffected youth
63
THE LONG READ
A history of weakness ✪
BY JONATHAN HOLSLAG
Why fragility, not strength, powers change
70
Two worlds collide ✪
✪ On the
cover
BY CAROLINE DODDS PENNOCK
Revisit the pivotal encounter between
Spanish conquistadors and the Aztecs
78
The horror of war
BY AÏCHA MEHREZ
The brutality and bleakness of conflict, as
captured by photographer Don McCullin
COVER ILLUSTRATION
BY DAVIDE BONAZZI
GETTY IMAGES
What makes for
a good peace? ✪
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CONTRIBUTORS
THE BRIEFING
Expert voices from the world of history
6 Viewpoints: Talat Ahmed on Gandhi’s
Talat Ahmed
non-violent protests ✪, Andrew Lambert
on China’s maritime power plays, and
David Frye on the significance of walls
“A world that is scarred by climate change, war
and racism is crying out for an effective political
strategy,” writes Ahmed, lecturer in South Asian
history at the University of Edinburgh. On
page 6 she discusses Mahatma Gandhi’s system
of non-violent protest, and how it is still being
employed today.
12 History Headlines: The latest news from
the world of history, in digestible chunks
14 Inside Story: The history that historians
Ali Ansari
think Europe should tell
On page 42, the professor of history at the
University of St Andrews examines the causes
and legacy of the 1979 revolution in Iran. “The
Islamic Revolution has cast a long shadow,”
he says, “transforming the geopolitics of the
Middle East and thrusting political Islamism
into the limelight.”
CULTURE
86 The Conversation: Julian Baggini and
Justin Champion discuss the former’s
book on the history of philosophy ✪
96 Agenda: The latest events, books and film
Jonathan Holslag
JOURNEYS
History, according to conventional wisdom, is
written by winners – the strongest powers that
rise to dominance in a given era. Yet as Holslag,
who teaches international politics at the Free
University Brussels, argues in our Long Read on
page 63, “weakness equally proves a powerful
catalyst of instability and war”.
100 In the footsteps of… A 10th-century trek
through Asia by James E Montgomery
108 Global City: Thessaloniki, Greece by
Alev Scott
110 Wonders of the World: Trongsa Dzong,
Daniel Schönpflug
Bhutan by Paul Bloomfield
When peace is negotiated after war, democracy
must be nurtured in all nations involved. So
argues Schönpflug, lecturer at the Free University
of Berlin, in our Big Question feature on page 16.
“Even in the 19th century, the idea still prevailed
that a good peace treaty must above all establish
a balance between the signatories,” he says.
REGULARS
32 A Year in Pictures: 1929 by Richard Overy
60
Extraordinary People: Pike Ward
by KJ Findlay
114 Museum of the World: A 17th-century
Alev Scott
feather fan by Stefan Hanß
On page 108, journalist and writer Scott
roams the Roman and Byzantine remains,
bustling bazaars, mosques and synagogues of
Greece’s historically cosmopolitan second city.
“During the long Ottoman occupation, the city
blossomed under a system of government that
encouraged diversity,” she says.
22 Subscribe to
BBC World Histories
– enjoy the latest issue
FREE with a
14-day trial digital
subscription
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issue
CONTACT US
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Viewpoints
Force of will
Even as the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth
is celebrated in India, his methods of non-violent
protest are employed by activists worldwide
BY TALAT AHMED
Expert opinions on
historical issues that
touch today’s world
Have your say Share your thoughts
on this issue’s columns by emailing us
at worldhistories@historyextra.com
6
his year marks the 150th
birth anniversary of
Mohandas Karamchand
Gandhi (1869–1948), one
of the most iconic figures of the 20th
century and the man seen as the father
of modern India. Clearly, there are
aspects of the personal life of the
Mahatma (‘Great Soul’) that have
attracted recent controversy, and his
legacy is subject to debate within India
as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and
the rightwing Bharatiya Janata party
try to appropriate Gandhi’s mantle for
Hindutva – an ideology that seeks to
establish Hindu dominance.
Nonetheless, during 2019 many
commemorative events in India and
across the globe will celebrate the legacy
of this ‘world historical individual’,
who led India’s national liberation
struggle with his ideas of non-violent
resistance. This year also marks the
centenary of the Amritsar massacre,
T
when a British brigadier-general ordered
indiscriminate firing on a peaceful
gathering, resulting in the deaths of
379 and injuries to 1,200. This event
came to epitomise colonial brutality
and transformed Gandhi himself from
an empire loyalist to an implacable
opponent of British rule.
Gandhi’s political philosophy was
termed satyagraha: satya meaning truth,
and graha, referring to insistence or
force. ‘Truth-force’ translates as
non-violent resistance. It is not passive
resistance, but the active engagement in
resisting unjust laws using non-violence.
For Gandhi it was not “meek submission
to the will of the evildoer, but rather the
pitting of one’s whole soul against the
will of the tyrant”. The politics of
non-violence represented moral force
against an unjust order, and entailed a
refusal to cooperate with authorities and
a willingness to undergo suffering to
attain objectives.
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Gandhi deployed these ideas most
emphatically in his non-cooperation
campaign of 1920–22; in the famous
Salt March of 1930, when mass civil
disobedience resulted in the breaking of
colonial salt laws; and in the Quit India
mass movement in 1942. Each campaign ignited large-scale mobilisations
of increasing size and sapped at the will
of the British to hold onto their precious
‘jewel in the crown’.
The transnational dimensions of
Gandhi’s strategy of civil disobedience
are worth remembering. It was initially
tested in South Africa, where Gandhi
lived for more than 20 years, leading
struggles for civil and political rights by
Indians in Natal and Orange Free State.
The turning of the other cheek and
appeals to the moral conscience of
political elites has inspired mass
agitation for social change globally since
Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of a
Hindu fundamentalist in 1948. Martin
Luther King’s civil rights movement was
guided by Gandhi’s strategy, its mass
campaign of boycotts and sit-ins forcing
the US government to pass laws making
racial segregation illegal in 1964.
ILLUSTRATION BY KATE HAZELL
In London last November, we
witnessed a new generation of climate
change activists invoking Gandhi’s
name, as thousands participated in the
largest peaceful civil disobedience act
in decades. Linking arms and singing
songs, the campaigners locked themselves together and blocked the British
capital’s main bridges for hours. The
organisers of protest group Extinction
Rebellion stated: “The ‘social contract’
has been broken … [and] it is therefore
not only our right but our moral duty to
bypass the government’s inaction and
flagrant dereliction of duty and to rebel
To Gandhi, nonviolent resistance
was not “meek
submission, but
putting one’s whole
soul against the
will of the tyrant”
to defend life itself.” A similar protest in
Manchester saw protesters “willing to
get arrested to raise awareness if that’s
what it takes”. And they did, each
protester standing up and co-operating
with police once arrested.
Extra-parliamentarianism combined
with non-violence is the hallmark of
satyagraha. A world that is scarred by
climate change, war and racism is
crying out for an effective political
strategy against destruction; when
conventional politics appears to have
failed, people often feel that they
have little choice but to resort to extraconstitutional methods.
Gandhi referred to himself as a
“non-violent revolutionary”, and
elevated non-violence to a principle and
an end in itself. Yet there were arguably
limitations to this strategy, not least
amid the rise of fascism in the 1930s,
when he advised turning the other
cheek to Hitler, and called on people
to ‘die’ rather than ‘do’. Fortunately,
few listened to Gandhi’s specific advice
in that instance, and fascism was
defeated by ‘doing’ – through active
action, using any means appropriate,
7
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Remote control
China’s bid to dominate the overland trade route
to Europe and the waters of the western Pacific
is the latest chapter in a long historical struggle
BY ANDREW LAMBERT
including self-defence in the face of
violent intent.
We should also recall that the
British did not walk out of India simply
because of Gandhi. Popular movements
from below – such as the Mappila
rebellion in 1921, in which tenant
farmers and peasants rose against
British authority and landlords, and
the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946
that paralysed the ports of Bombay
(now Mumbai), Karachi and Calcutta
(Kolkata) – were straightforwardly
insurrectionary. By definition, these
mass militant actions were independent
of Gandhi, yet helped make India
ungovernable for periods in the early
to mid-20th century.
More than 70 years after Gandhi’s
death, the power of moral persuasion
combined with non-violent mass
civil disobedience certainly retains
its inspirational appeal for many
activists. Whether Gandhi’s strategy
is enough to ensure that ‘love trumps
hate’ – by winning lasting systematic
change through struggle from below
against powerful state and corporate
vested interests – remains a more
open question.
Talat Ahmed is
lecturer in South Asian
history at the University
of Edinburgh
8
n 31 August 2018, HMS
Albion – an 18,000-tonne
British amphibious warship
carrying Royal Marines –
was harassed by a Chinese warship and
aircraft while en route to a port visit in
Vietnam. The Chinese ships came
dangerously close to the Albion – less
than 200 metres away – while it was
asserting the right of innocent passage
through the western Pacific basin, an
area of water commonly referred to as
the South China Sea.
HMS Albion remained in international waters at all times, and
continued her voyage without physical
interference, because China knows that
its claims over this vast sea area have no
basis in fact or law. However, unless the
right to sail these waters is routinely
exercised, it will be lost.
Albion was not the first western
warship to be bombarded with bellicose
Chinese rhetoric in this area. The
People’s Republic is spending billions
of yuan in its efforts to transform
international waters into a province of
mainland China. It has turned offshore
reefs and shoals, most of which fall
within the exclusive economic zones
of other states, including Vietnam,
Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines,
into artificial islands. These have no
territorial status, but are essentially
fortresses, complete with airfields,
missiles and troops. These actions have
had severe impacts on fish stocks and the
wider marine environment, as well as the
people of the region. Chinese forces
O
routinely attack local fishermen; they
have also threatened US warships and
aircraft operating legally in international
waters.
China’s actions in this regard were
declared illegal by the Permanent Court
of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016.
This judgment was hardly a surprise:
territorial control over the ocean is
restricted to 12 miles from the coast
of any sovereign territory, and does not
recognise artificial structures. Despite
this, China – using both economic and
military power – has coerced or cowed
several regional actors into silence,
notably the Philippines.
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If China were to close this sea
area to international traffic, it
would undermine the global
economic system and enable it to
seize territory from other states
If China were to close this sea
area to international traffic, it would
undermine the global economic system,
enabling the People’s Republic to switch
trade to closely supervised overland
systems and seize territory from other
states. Such action can be linked to its
long-held ambition to recover Taiwan
and secure other former imperial territory. This distant dispute is the front line
of an ongoing struggle between liberal
democracies committed to free trade,
the rule of law, a free press and political
accountability, and closed societies built
around command economies, one-party
states and dictatorships.
ILLUSTRATION BY KATE HAZELL
In a contest that stretches back
to the dawn of recorded history, sea
powers – relatively small, dynamic,
commercially minded, outward-looking
inclusive societies relying on maritime
trade for power and influence – were
opposed by monolithic terrestrial
empires obsessed with internal stability,
using state religions and, latterly,
ideologies, command economies and
military might to maintain power over
their people. These hegemonies feared
maritime trade as a vector for the
transmission of progressive ideas and the
acquisition of private wealth that might
challenge the regime. Sea powers fought
for access to markets, breaking down
physical and legal barriers to commerce,
using words as well as guns.
Democratic Athens, for example,
flexed its maritime muscles to undermine
its Persian and Spartan rivals, while
Carthage’s economic expansion and
inclusive politics challenged Roman
terrestrial ambition. In the early modern
world, Venetian commerce with the
Muslim world threatened the authority
of the Roman church, and the Dutch
republic fought Habsburg Spain for
independence and the freedom to trade.
Later, Britain resisted French and
German attempts to dominate Europe.
Not only did Napoleon block maritime
trade, he also dismissed the British as
“Carthaginians”, assuming that history
would repeat itself; in 1815, British artist
JMW Turner painted Dido building
Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian
Empire, to celebrate the fact that it did
not. In 1817, he exhibited The Decline of
the Carthaginian Empire, reminding his
countrymen that they must face the
danger of decline, caused by moral decay
and indolence, but later saw that Britain’s
command of steam power would ensure
a dynamic future, and in 1839 painted
The Fighting Temeraire to reflect that.
It may be significant that, during the
Cold War, the west used liberal values
and economic success to undermine
Soviet Communism. That contributed
to the eventual downfall of a one-party
continental empire that had a long
history of blocking maritime access,
fearful that progressive ideas and
9
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Have your say Share your thoughts
on this issue’s columns by emailing us
at worldhistories@historyextra.com
On the barricades
Protective walls, once considered essential for
the defence of cities, suffered a public-image
disaster when the Berlin Wall went up – and
now represent a moral battleground
BY DAVID FRYE
dynamic commerce would undermine
its domestic authority, in the same way
that inclusive, levelling politics had
spread from sea-faring Athens.
But not only is China attempting
to control the seas off its coast, it’s also
aiming to further build its terrestrial
might. The contemporary ‘Great
Firewall of China’ has been established
for the same purpose as restrictions on
contact between western traders and the
Chinese populace from the 17th century
to 1843. Imperial China preferred social
control to economic profit: it feared its
own people more than the foreigners.
Little has changed. Modern China
prefers terrestrial possessions to the
uncertainties of an ocean it cannot rule.
The ultimate expression of that is
the ‘New Silk Road’ railway linking
China with Europe, a state-funded
and controlled project to enable it to
offload industrial over-production and
maintain domestic stability through
employment, reducing dependence on
sea power.
States that fall under Chinese
dominion as a result of the development
of the ‘New Silk Road’ would be reduced
to subjects and clients. This situation
could be catastrophic for global trade
– or, at least, for
western interests.
Andrew Lambert
is Laughton Professor
of Naval History at
King’s College London
10
order walls and fences
have proliferated during
the 21st century – quietly,
in countries such as Saudi
Arabia, Thailand and Jordan; loudly, in
Israel, Hungary and the United States.
The policy of building barriers is
nothing new. Cities first began girding
themselves with walls nearly 12,000
years ago, and larger states have been
at it for at least 4,000 years. Razor wire,
electronic sensors and concrete slabs
have supplanted mud bricks and tamped
earth. Otherwise, we are carrying on
much as we always have.
Innumerable battles were once
fought at walls; invaders and defenders
clashed at the boundaries of cities,
kingdoms and empires. In the 21st
century, those battles have turned
political. The most bitter fights now
occur over proposed walls – which,
for the first time, are debated in
moralistic terms.
In antiquity, a city wall was viewed
as an essential and uncontroversial
component of the urban landscape. The
Spartans were the first to oppose walls
on principle. They refused to fortify
their city, and ridiculed those Greeks
who did. Passing by a walled town, the
Spartans would sneer with contempt,
asking: “What sort of women live
there?” In their eyes, the men who lived
behind fortifications, relying on bricks
for protection rather than their own
courage, had become effeminate softies,
addicted to the civilised lifestyle the
Spartans believed made men weak.
B
A very different complaint about
walls was made soon afterwards in
a country far from Greece. The
Chinese, who never objected to city
walls, were far less sanguine about the
extensive border walls that they were so
frequently drafted to build. For them,
walls symbolised forced labour. “The
wall was built with cries of pain and
sadness,” sang the peasants in their folk
songs. Every generation added to the
stock of lore about poor peasants
dragooned from their homes and
made to work on the walls.
Neither the Spartans nor the Chinese
voiced any moral objections to walls.
The belief that well-defined boundaries
reduce conflict was universal and
arguably innate, given the tendency
even of animals to mark their territories.
In Roman Italy, farmers met at the
edges of their fields and held feasts in
celebration of the god of boundaries,
The US channel
NBC financed the
digging of a tunnel
under the Berlin
Wall in return for
rights to broadcast
the escape
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who kept them from feuding. Centuries
later, that attitude was still widely
represented in sayings such as “good
fences make good neighbours” –
versions of which appear around the
world, in languages ranging from
Japanese to Hindi. The fashionable
view that walls are morally evil took
root much later in history, after 1961,
when a strange turn of events caused
a sudden reappraisal of a new wall and,
with it, all walls before or since.
The builders of the Berlin Wall surely
had no idea their work would become an
international symbol. The communists
who controlled eastern Europe had lost
more than four million citizens to the
west since the end of the Second World
War. The vast majority of those had
escaped into West Berlin, the precariously placed half of the old capital
that was administered as part of West
Germany even though it lay deep in
eastern territory. The existence of this
easy escape route gnawed at the Soviets,
who tried to starve West Berliners into
ILLUSTRATION BY KATE HAZELL
submission as early as 1948, when they
blockaded all land routes into the city.
By 1961, the issue seemed destined to
escalate apocalyptically. Soviet leader
Nikita Khrushchev threatened a
“thermonuclear” response to US
president John F Kennedy’s refusal
to abandon West Berlin.
Khrushchev chose barbed wire over
bombs. On 13 August 1961, Berliners
awoke to the rumble and clank of heavy
machinery. East German soldiers and
police had streamed out of their barracks
at midnight to hammer posts, roll out
wire fencing and lower concrete slabs
into place.
The initial reaction to the construction of the Berlin Wall was tepid. Top
officials in Britain and the United States
shrugged off the news. Kennedy viewed
the wall with relief; “A wall is a hell of
a lot better than a war,” he remarked.
What transformed opinions on the
Berlin Wall – and, subsequently, all
walls – was the presence of western
news correspondents in Berlin on that
so-called ‘Barbed Wire Sunday’ in
August 1961. Reporters, not politicians,
shaped the narrative. Newspapers,
magazines and nightly news shows
sensationalised the wall. The US
television channel NBC, ignoring
the objections of the Kennedy administration, financed the digging of a
tunnel in return for rights to broadcast
an escape. Publishers rushed out books
on the Berlin Wall. Hollywood made it
the backdrop for spy movies.
By the time the Berlin Wall fell in
1989, it had stained the image of walls
everywhere. US president Bill Clinton,
shoring up the US–Mexico border,
dared not apply the label ‘wall’ to his
operations, codenamed Hold the Line,
Gatekeeper and Rio Grande. George
W Bush’s more ambitious Secure Fence
Act would never have garnered the
support of senators Barack Obama and
Hillary Clinton had it been titled the
Secure Wall Act. Most recently, of
course, President Donald Trump revived
the forbidden term – arousing a debate
now fought with a ferocity once reserved
for actual sieges.
David Frye is
professor of history
at Eastern Connecticut
State University, and
author of Walls:
A History of Civilization
in Blood & Brick
(Faber & Faber, 2018)
11
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THE BRIEFING History Headlines
NEW YORK CITY UNITED STATES
Trailblazing figure
1
History
Headlines
A statue of Shirley Chisholm – the first black US
congresswoman, elected in 1968 – is to be erected in
New York City. The statue, the first in the She Built NYC
project commemorating influential women in New York,
will be installed in Brooklyn in 2020. Currently, only five
statues on city property depict female historical figures,
compared with some 150 of men. In 1972, Chisholm was
also the first woman and the first African-American to
run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Shirley Chisholm, the first black
US congresswoman, in 1969. A
statue in her memory has been
announced in New York City
CAMBRIDGE ENGLAND
Lost language lives again
2
An academic from the University of Cambridge has
revived the ancient Babylonian language, almost
2,000 years after it was last spoken. After two decades
of research, Dr Martin Worthington taught himself
to speak the Semitic dialect and, together with students
on Cambridge’s Assyriology course, has created
the world’s first movie in the ancient language –
a dramatisation of a 2,700-year-old Babylonian
story, The Poor Man of Nippur.
1
The moai statue
known as Hoa
Hakananai’a (‘stolen
friend’), currently in
the British Museum.
The governor of
Easter Island has
requested its return
A scene from The Poor Man of Nippur – the world’s first film in
Babylonian, produced by Cambridge scholars in November
HOZELEC SLOVAKIA
Buried treasures
3
A copper hook
discovered along
with Bronze Age
jewellery in Slovakia
12
6
4
EASTER ISLAND CHILE
Stone soul
4
The governor of Easter Island has appealed to the
British Museum to return one of its famous moai
statues. The basalt figure is known as Hoa Hakananai’a,
and is believed by the island’s indigenous Rapa Nui inhabitants to be imbued with the spirits of tribal ancestors. Taken
by the British in 1868, it has been held at the museum since
the following year. “My children and their children deserve
the opportunity to touch, see and learn from him,” the governor, Tarita Alarcón Rapu, said during an emotional visit to
London to meet museum officials in November. “We are just
a body. You, the British people, have our soul.”
TASR-SLOVAKIA/UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE/ALAMY/GETTY IMAGES
Artefacts including jewellery from the
middle to late Bronze Age, which seem
to have been buried in a 3,000-year-old
leather bag decorated with bronze discs,
have been found in the Slovakian village
of Hozelec. Other items discovered at the
site include a spur, horseshoes, coins and knives.
The finds will be displayed in the nearby
Spiš Museum.
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A 9,000-year-old sandstone
mask discovered in the West
Bank may have been used in
ancestor worship
HEBRON HILLS WEST BANK
Eyes on the past
5
The discovery of a 9,000-year-old Neolithic mask in the
West Bank has been announced. The striking sandstone
face, which was found some time ago but unveiled by
Israel Antiquities Authority in November, is one of only
15 known examples from that era, 13 of which are in
private collections. Experts have suggested that the
mask may have been used for ritualistic purposes.
2
3
5
RIO DE JANEIRO BRAZIL
Virtual rescue
6
INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY BANDUNG/GETTY IMAGES
Brazil’s Museu Nacional, ravaged by
fire in September 2018, has now been
recreated in virtual form online by Google.
As reported in the previous issue of BBC World
Histories, most of the museum’s collections –
more than 20 million items – were destroyed.
Now many of these artefacts, including the
skull of the 11,500-year-old-woman dubbed
Luzia, can be viewed at artsandculture.google.
com/project/museu-nacional-brasil.
BORNEO INDONESIA
Cave cow
7
An image believed to be the world’s
oldest known figurative painting has been
discovered in a cave in remote mountains
in east Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.
The large orange shape is thought to
portray a banteng – a type of wild cattle
found in the area. Analysis of calcite
crusts at the site indicates that the
painting, first reported in November, may
be over 40,000 years old. One hand stencil
also found at the site may date from as far
back as 51,800 years ago.
WORDS ELLIE CAWTHORNE
7
A researcher in
a cave in Borneo
studies a c40,000year-old picture
believed to be the
world’s oldest
figurative painting
13
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Inside
Story
The history
of Europe is
really countless tales –
of alliances
and enmities,
former empires and new
nations. Elinor Evans
reports from a conference
debating how to present
a common history for
some 50 disparate states
Elinor Evans is deputy digital editor
of historyextra.com, the website for
BBC World Histories magazine
14
How to tell the
story of Europe
Can we distil a single
combined history from the
countless pasts of a complex
continent? This question was the focus
of a workshop, How to narrate the history
of Europe, which I attended in December
at the European University Institute
(EUI) in Florence. It proved to be,
perhaps unsurprisingly, a topic of quite
heated debate, much of it centred on the
House of European History (HEH).
This museum in Brussels, opened
in May 2017, aims to explore a panEuropean history. Some exhibits honour
‘brilliant European inventions’; others
remember darkest moments in European
history, such as a letter written on birch
bark in January 1943 by a man deported
to the Soviet Union’s Vyatlag Gulag.
“We normally learn to think about
our history in the national framework or
at a regional level,” explained Dr Andrea
Mork, head curator at the HEH. “In our
current situation, there is an obvious
necessity to think in larger contexts –
to explain that we have a lot in common,
even though we are so different.” But
though the focus is on what Mork calls
“border-crossing developments”, she
conceded that it “can never be an
encyclopaedia. It is a fragment.”
The success of such projects was
questioned by delegates at the workshop.
“There’s an opportunity to make some
exhibitions and projects around Europe’s
shared 20th-century history better than
they are now,” said Rafał Rogulski,
director of European Network Remembrance and Solidarity (ENRS), which or-
ganised the conference. Some critics have
been more outspoken about the HEH,
branding it an “EU vanity project” – the
museum was funded by the European
Parliament at a cost of €55.4m (£47m) –
while decrying omissions and objecting
to some portrayals of national histories.
Dr Łukasz Kamiński, who specialises
in Poland’s post-1945 history, commented that: “The HEH presents Europe’s
history mainly as a legacy that we should
overcome, and which gives us almost no
reason to be proud of our past. Other
big problems are the marginalisation
of Christianity, and putting too much
blame for bad aspects of European
history on national states.” A 2017 report
by the Platform of European Memory
and Conscience, of which Kamiński is
president, stated that the HEH “creates a
strong impression of the inevitable evolution and progress of European history...
toward the ideal of a classless society.
There are some points that can be read as
sympathy towards Communism.”
‘Missing’ aspects identified in that
report include the role of the Treaty of
Versailles; the Warsaw Rising; and the
Ukrainian famine of 1932–33, caused
by Soviet confiscation of food, which
killed an estimated 3.9 million people.
It also decries “poor representation of
the smaller European nations, their
experience, achievements, and impact
on the development of Europe (usually
of the Eastern side of it).” Responding
to such criticism, Mork said: “There is
no attempt from our side to replace or
compete with national museums. These
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EU 2017
A visitor to the House of European
History at its opening in 2017. Some
critics have objected to the way
pan-European history has been
presented at the museum
institutions can go into much more
detail and dig deeper than we could.”
If achieving both breadth and detail
is one challenge, another is recognising
the legacy of now-vanished entities.
“If we restrict ourselves to telling
the history of nation states and putting
them all together, we miss several important histories that are critical parts of
Europe’s heritage – influential states that
existed for hundreds of years don’t exist
anymore, such as the Habsburg empire,”
said Pieter Judson, a professor of 19th
and 20th century history at EUI.
Also missing from pan-continental
histories, Judson observed, are many
thousands of Muslim Europeans who
lived in the Balkan peninsula for hundreds of years. As the Ottoman empire
dwindled and finally collapsed in the
late 19th and early 20th century, new
states emerged in that region – Bulgaria,
Romania, Serbia, Greece – and many
European Muslims fled to what’s now
Turkey. As a result, this group – and
many others who influenced Europe
from extra-European empires including
those of Britain, France, Italy and the
“If we restrict
ourselves to telling
the history of nation
states and putting
them all together,
we miss important
histories that are
critical parts of
Europe’s heritage”
Netherlands – has been largely rendered
invisible in histories.
An alternative approach might be
centred not on national identities but
on language, behaviour or other shared
aspects of culture, to “get at the hidden
histories that might otherwise be lost,”
Judson suggested.
The HEH welcomes such ideas. “We
are constantly updating the exhibition,”
said Mork, “allowing us to bring something new into focus each time.”
Some of the youngest objects in the
exhibition address what Mork calls “the
European crisis”, including a ballot
paper and badges from the UK’s 2016
referendum on EU membership – a
reminder that the shape of Europe itself
is being redrawn day by day. Its nature
and past continue to be debated at conferences such as the event in Florence,
where academics question what Europe
is as much as what defines its history.
DISCOVER MORE
Find out more about the European Network
Remembrance and Solidarity at enrs.eu and
about the House of European History at
historia-europa.ep.eu
15
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16
ILLUSTRATION BY DAVIDE BONAZZI
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THE BIG
QUESTION
What
makes
for a good
peace?
Treaties may bring a halt to armed conflict, but often fail to end
injustice, violence and victimisation. On the centenary of the 1919
Paris Peace Conference, six experts debate the lessons history
can teach us about how to construct a lasting and secure peace
Æ
17
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Daniel Schönpflug
Claudia Kemper
“Versailles negotiations
were dominated by the
interests of the victorious
world powers, not those
of young nations”
“After the Second
World War, there was
no comprehensive peace:
killings, starvation and
injustice continued”
In the 19th century, the idea prevailed
that a good peace treaty must above
all establish a balance between the
signatories. But in January 1918,
US president Woodrow Wilson set
international diplomacy on a new
course. His ‘14 Points’ speech, delivered
to Congress in preparation for the end
of the First World War, suggested that
a good peace was not possible without democracy. His plan
would not only invoke the right of self-determination to
the peoples within the multinational states and the colonies
of empire, but also set out the idea of a League of Nations,
under whose auspices the interests of the world could be
balanced in transparent negotiations. Over the course of
October 1918, in a series of diplomatic notes to the German
government, Wilson added that he was willing to negotiate
a peace with the German Reich only if the country could be
democratised by reforming its constitution.
But in the negotiations at Versailles beginning on
18 January 1919, Wilson was only partially able to impose
his ideas about the link between peace and democracy.
The other powers considered his concepts too idealistic.
It’s hard to imagine how some of the central questions,
such as German reparations, could have been resolved
democratically. But one of the structural problems of the
Treaty of Versailles was that the negotiations, which were
intended to create a new world order, were dominated by
the interests of the victorious world powers, not by the needs
of the young nations seeking freedom. The new republics
in eastern Europe emerging from the rubble of AustriaHungary and the Russian tsar’s empire did not play a crucial
part. Nor did the new states in the Middle East and north
Africa created by the collapse of the Ottoman empire, nor
the colonies such as India striving for independence.
It would be an oversimplification to see the disregard for
Wilson’s ideas as the sole reason for the failure of the postVersailles peace and the outbreak of the Second World War.
But we might consider that more democracy would have
made the peace more stable.
We know much about past wars and
violence from historical sources and oral
history, but less about past experiences
of good peace. In part, this is because a
peaceful state is much more difficult to
define than an act of violence, but also
because there has always been controversy
about what constitutes a good peace.
When the military violence of the
Second World War ended in Europe and Asia in 1945, for
many people this meant the beginning of peace. But there
was no such thing as a comprehensive peaceful experience:
killings, starvation, revenge and injustice continued in
different ways in many regions. Though Nazi Germany was
defeated, many wartime conflicts continued to smoulder in
Europe in the postwar period. The beginning of the Cold
War, though, ensured these conflicts were largely put on
ice, quashed by the generous Marshall Plan or by rigorous
anti-communist policies in the west and anti-fascist policies
in the Eastern Bloc. Europe was pacified after 1945 because
neither side in the Cold War really wanted another military
conflict on the continent.
Was this really a good peace? Compared with countries
in south-east Asia, Africa and Latin America, the level of
violence in Europe was extremely low, prosperity was high
and the nuclear threat was – at least according to a widespread
interpretation at the time – rather abstract. But with the
advent of mass protests against nuclear warfare in the early
1980s, it became apparent that the nature of the desire for
peaceful coexistence within European societies had changed
since 1945. Tellingly, many people in the UK, West Germany
and the Netherlands joined the movement to express their
dissatisfaction with their respective governments. But these
movements also protested against a highly armed world in
which the outbreak of violence was possible at any time.
And though the nuclear arms race of the Cold War was
extraordinary, political power to this day continues to be
defined by the facility to use armed force at any time. A good
peace, those protesters argued, means not only the absence of
violence but also that no one is threatened with violence.
Daniel Schönpflug is the author of A World on Edge: The End
of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age (Macmillan, 2018)
Claudia Kemper is a researcher at the Hamburg Institute for
Social Research
18
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Benjamin Ziemann
“A good peace – defined
as a state of societal
harmony or the elimination
of violent conflict – is
inconceivable today”
GETTY IMAGES
In Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1339),
“Pax... reclines on a suit of armour, indicating the ambivalence of a peace
that ultimately rests on the potential use of force,” says Benjamin Ziemann
“Nuclear weapons? No thanks!” declares a Belgian poster of 1981. Antinuclear movements “protested against a highly armed world in which
the outbreak of violence was possible at any time”, says Claudia Kemper
The notion of a good peace implies the
normative vision of a political order that
combines justice and harmony. Such
a peace was only ever an ideal, never
a reality. Ambrogio Lorenzetti came
closest to showing us what it might look
like. In 1339, he painted his Allegory of
Good and Bad Government [pictured left]
in the town hall in the Republic of Siena
in central Italy. Pax, the woman who personifies peace, is
seated on a bench together with the central figure of the just
ruler and others representing the virtues of good governance.
With an olive branch on her head and another in her hand,
she reclines on a suit of armour, indicating the ambivalence
of a peace that ultimately rests on the potential use of force.
To secure peace, additional figures such as Concordia are
needed; she provides a band of unity that passes through the
hands of the citizens and connects them. Other murals in
the town hall depict the benefits of peace to be enjoyed by
the citizens of Siena: thriving crafts, agriculture, a flourishing
of the arts.
In Lorenzetti’s painting, good peace depends on the
tranquillity and stability of a circumscribed municipal order.
Since 1800 – with the transition to modernity, the formation
of nation-states and the belligerence that underpinned
nationalism across Europe – any substantive normative
vision of peace based on a stable order disappeared. After
the Franco-German war of 1870–71, the French satirist
Honoré Daumier drew a cartoon La Paix, Idylle (Peace,
an Idyll), parodying bucolic images of a bygone era. In it, a
skeleton representing death tootles on two shawms (medieval
woodwind instruments) in a landscape devastated by war.
Modern societies are predicated not on stability but on
constant change. They are thus incapable of developing any
normative vision of a peace that is more than just the absence
of mass violence or major war. A good peace, understood as
a state of societal harmony and unity or even as the elimination
of violent conflict, is inconceivable in the modern era.
Benjamin Ziemann is professor of modern German history at the
University of Sheffield, and co-editor of Understanding the Imaginary War:
Culture, Thought and Nuclear Conflict, 1945–90 (Manchester University
Press, 2016)
19
Æ
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Alexandra Churchill
“Restraint helps to make
a good peace, and the more
restraint shown, the better
the chances it will endure”
Alexandra Churchill is a historian, television researcher and author.
Her latest book is In the Eye of the Storm: George V and the Great War
(Helion and Co, 2018)
20
A 16th-century painting in the Vatican depicts the Peace of Venice (1177).
Reconciling the supporters of the former adversaries required efforts
to make reparations and foster friendships, says Jenny Benham
AKG-IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES
The idea of transitioning from war back
to peace is a terrifying prospect and a
complex problem, as the combatants in
the First World War discovered at the
end of the hostilities.
During the closing weeks of the war
in 1918, King George V was as fraught
with worry about the dawn of a new
revolutionary world, demobilisation and
the massive shift that would take place in Britain’s industry
as he was about the ongoing fighting. And with good reason:
how do nations even begin to negotiate settlements that not
only ensure that arms are officially laid down, but which also
secure ongoing peace?
One thorny issue was the fate of the former German
Kaiser Wilhelm II, who fled to the Netherlands in November
1918. Two clauses in the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June
1919, allowed for his trial and even execution. British prime
minister David Lloyd George, for one, claimed that he had
no issue with that course of action, and wanted the trial to be
held in London. George V was furious with that suggestion,
and Winston Churchill – by then, secretary of state for war
– warned that the Allies must be careful not to provoke
future antipathy among the defeated Central Powers.
The issue was unresolved until 1920 when the Netherlands, which had granted Wilhelm asylum, definitively
refused to hand him over to the Allies. By then, tempers
had cooled and the lust for revenge had subsided. (At the
dawn of the Second World War in 1939, the British
government even decided that Wilhelm might be offered
asylum should his safety be compromised by lengthy
conflict.) Reason prevailed in this instance, yet the
harshness of the Treaty of Versailles and the bitterness
it engendered in Germany helped facilitate the rise of
fascism and the Second World War.
Clearly, restraint helps to make a good peace, and the
more restraint that is shown, the better the chances of peace
enduring. Though anger persists following a lengthy
conflict, it must be laid to one side in the immediate
aftermath in order to broker a lasting settlement that will
not threaten the future state of international relations.
An evangelist speaks to a British soldier in Derry/Londonderry in 1974
during the Troubles. The peace that followed the Good Friday Agreement
(1998) owed much to the role of the US and relationships within Europe
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Jenny Benham
Leonie Murray
“A good peace has to
acknowledge past wrongs
on all sides, but is mainly
forward-looking”
“The Treaty of Versailles
ended the First World War
but failed to address the
underlying causes of
conflict in Europe”
Any peace should aim to achieve satisfaction and establish ongoing methods
for resolving future disputes. Achieving
these, however, involves balancing several
different – and often competing – strategies. Satisfaction is the most problematic.
For instance, compensation for injuries
or losses incurred during conflict is one
of the oldest principles of peacemaking,
but can also lead to dissatisfaction, thereby becoming a
conflict driver. And since the methods for resolving future disputes often centre on compensation, creating an expectancy of
satisfaction on both sides, a circular problem emerges.
These competing strategies are evident in the Peace of
Venice (1177), which ended nearly two decades of strife
between Pope Alexander III and the Holy Roman Emperor
Frederick I. The conflict had begun after the death of Pope
Adrian IV in 1159, when two rival popes were elected –
Alexander III, supported by Sicily and northern Italian
city-states, and antipope Victor IV, supported by Frederick.
In the Peace of Venice, Frederick acknowledged the
pope’s sovereignty in Rome, and Alexander acknowledged
the emperor’s authority. Those appointed to ecclesiastical
positions by the antipope (by that time, Callixtus III) were
deposed, and lands or rights confiscated by Frederick from
churches supporting Alexander were restored. Clearly, many
of Frederick’s supporters would have been disappointed, but
compromise helped alleviate these disappointments.
Frederick’s key supporters, who had been instrumental in
negotiating the treaty, retained their ecclesiastical posts.
Callixtus was given an abbacy, and his cardinals were
restored to the positions they’d held before the 1159 schism.
Unsurprisingly, the pope’s supporters weren’t pleased.
To heal the rift, symbolic reparations (such as ceremonies of
apology or forgiveness) accompanied material ones, and the
sides fostered friendship through communal celebrations.
Frederick also diverted the ire of his supporters towards the
Slavs in the east, relieving pressure on his former Italian foes.
A good peace, then, has to acknowledge past wrongs on
all sides, but is mainly forward-looking. Developing trust
between parties is crucial, but success ultimately lies in a
willingness to engage with this process. The effects of
non-engagement are evident across the world today.
Jenny Benham is lecturer in medieval history at Cardiff University
It is easy to theorise what makes a good
peace, assuming we have already dispensed
with the thorny question of what peace
actually is, and the subjectivity of good/
bad. Yet the historical record demonstrates
that few – if any – societies have ever truly
achieved the ideal. There are three key
themes in this: the nature of peace, its
context, and the system enveloping it.
First, we must consider the nature of the peace. If referring
strictly to the absence of violent conflict, or ‘negative peace’,
then a good peace is a situation in which warring factions have
managed to put violence behind them. However, this says
nothing about the resulting equity or justice of the postconflict society. Negative peace may be the absence of direct
violence, but it takes a grander ‘positive’ peace to eradicate
structural violence, inequity and injustice. For example, in
1919 the Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War, but it
failed to address the underlying causes of conflict in Europe,
instead adding fuel to the embers of a dying fire.
Second, the domestic, economic, political and ideological
colourings of the groups to which peace is applied will
influence whether even the best-planned peace succeeds.
The Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995, for example, secured an
end to war in the former Yugoslavia but failed to take full stock
of ethno-national grievances and territorial disputes, resulting
in a renewal of conflict in Kosovo three years later and
persistent issues even today.
Lastly, the broader local or global power system in which
peace is attempted is critical. Positive peace may still be the
ideal, but the kind of peace that can succeed is highly dependent
on the wider political environment. The Good Friday
Agreement of 1998, for example, was a qualified success in
mitigating the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in large part
because of the role in the peace process played by the US, as
well as the relationships between Ireland, Britain and Northern
Ireland within the context of the European Union.
It’s clear, then, that understanding the specific contexts and
conditions is important in pursuing a good peace – but also
that there is no flawless historical example to learn from.
Leonie Murray is lecturer in international politics at Ulster University
21
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From medicine to menace
1
Heroin (diamorphine), trademarked and
marketed as a cough suppressant by the
German company Bayer from 1898
2 An American cartoon of 1898 contrasts
the potentially lethal effects of ‘old school
drug cure’ with ‘new school mind cures’
3 Fidel Castro c1959. US drug tsar Harry
Anslinger claimed that the Cuban leader
was funded by cocaine traffickers
4 Packages of the opioid known as ‘China
White’, seized in Massachusetts in 2017
5 Harry J Anslinger, head of the Federal
Bureau of Narcotics for three decades
6
An illustration of a Chinese opium den.
Opium smoking, exploited in China for profit
by the British, spread in the 19th century
7
A heroin addict prepares to inject the
drug in Philadelphia in 2018
1
THE THIN
AMERICA’S
5
24
6
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2
3
4
WHITE LINE
WAR ON DRUGS
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/GETTY IMAGES/ALAMY/MARY EVANS
7
The hardline approach to narcotics addiction and
trafficking adopted by most countries worldwide
evolved from the ideas of one single-minded
US federal official. Benjamin T Smith reveals the
continuing influence of the man who pioneered
the policies and tactics of America’s ‘war on drugs’ Æ
25
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F
Familiar crisis
Perhaps surprisingly, the bleak picture
this paints of narcotics use in the US
would have been familiar to Americans
living a century ago. At the turn of the
20th century, the country was in the
throes of a similar crisis. Just as today, the
problem had its roots in medical practice.
Doctors and pharmacists of that era regularly
prescribed opium, or a derivative such as
morphine, to treat a host of diseases including cholera. After 1898, they also prescribed
heroin, often as a cough suppressant.
26
At first, most addicts were middle-class women who had
been prescribed opium for what were euphemistically described
as ‘female problems’; the mother of playwright Eugene O’Neill,
for example, was a morphine addict for many years. Before
long, though, drug use by middle- and working-class men
increased in tandem with urbanisation, rising wages and the
expanding amount of time available for leisure activities, combined with the ease of obtaining opiate prescriptions.
Despite this homegrown crisis, the first serious American
attempt to crack down on narcotics use was overseas. After
1898, when the former Spanish colony of the Philippines was
ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Paris that ended the
Spanish-American War, US missionaries such as Charles Brent
encountered a country in which opium smoking was widespread. The opium trade had been regulated by the Spanish
government such that the drug was imported by a small group
of Chinese merchants and sold only to other Chinese immigrants, but the disruption caused by the war allowed the system
to expand, and non-Chinese natives took up the habit. By the
turn of the century, opium addiction was the greatest evil in
Filipino society, according to Brent.
Such dramatic observations had an impact. The US authorities in the Philippines discontinued the old Spanish system,
and also pushed other countries to crack down on the opium
trade. This pressure culminated in the 1909 Shanghai Opium
Commission, which resulted in the first international agreement to limit the trade in drugs. Though never openly declared
as such, this posturing also had distinct economic aims. Limiting the trade hit the profits of colonial rivals such as Britain and
France. Furthermore, the new nationalist Chinese government,
which was desperately attempting to curb opium addiction in
its own country, welcomed the support and rewarded the US
with favourable trading contracts. This wouldn’t be the last
time that foreign policy aims were linked with and
shaped US drug policy.
International policies were soon mirrored
domestically. One of the US representatives on the 1909 commission, Hamilton
Kemp Wright, began pushing for tighter
regulations on the prescription of opiates
and other drugs. In tactics that presaged future drug policy, supporters also
played on ugly racial stereotypes and
mass hysteria to push for reforms. Some
linked Chinese workers to the vice trade
and opium dens. Others connected AfricanAmericans with cocaine-fuelled violence.
Such tactics worked. Despite the opposition of most of the nation’s doctors, in 1914
Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín ‘El
the US Congress passed the Harrison Act,
Chapo’ Guzmán Loera is captured in
which cast addicts as outcasts and made it
2014. His cartel smuggled narcotics
worth an estimated US$14bn into the US
difficult for doctors to prescribe narcotics
TOPFOTO/GETTY/BRIDGEMAN
ourteen billion dollars: that’s the estimated value of the narcotics allegedly
smuggled from Mexico to the United
States by the cartel of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’
Guzmán Loera. El Chapo, the most
famous drug trafficker in the world, is
currently incarcerated in a high-security
jail in New York City; though he has
escaped custody before – once spirited
out of a Mexican prison hidden in a laundry cart, on another
occasion fleeing on a motorbike through a mile-long tunnel
dug beneath his cell – it seems unlikely that he will do so again.
In prosecuting El Chapo, the US authorities have claimed “an
important victory” in the war on drugs.
Yet the terrible problem of drug addiction has not been
solved. According to recent figures, two million Americans are
addicted to some form of opiate, and in 2017 the highest number
of drug overdoses in US history were recorded. And the violence
associated with the trade continues unabated: in 2017, too,
Mexico – the principal conduit for the transport of narcotics to
the United States – recorded its highest-ever number of murders.
Current crises have both roots and precedents in the past.
The United States has been railing against narcotics and
attempting to combat the drug trade, using imprisonment as
a deterrent and a preventative measure, for over a century. Yet
the war on drugs (or, more accurately, wars – there have been
several) is a strange and endless pursuit.
Notably, it has rarely been only about drugs. Counternarcotics policies may have started off with good intentions but, in reality, they have always pursued other aims. In the United States,
these have included the persecution of minority groups, the suppression of civil rights initiatives, the maintenance of bureaucratic funding and autonomy, and the creation of a vast
prison system. Abroad, these have embraced the extension of US influence, the weakening of rival
colonial powers, the defeat of communist
insurgencies, and the protection of rightwing governments and paramilitaries.
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Bad medicine
A trade card for Cocaine Toothache Drops,
1885. Before the 1914 Harrison Act, US
doctors commonly prescribed narcotic drugs
to treat ‘female problems’, toothache, cholera
and coughs; many patients became addicted
Agents of change
Federal agents shovel large quantities of
seized heroin into an incinerator in 1936.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics led
front-line drug policing in the US till 1968
Smoke without fire?
An opium den in China, c1880.
Supporters of narcotics restrictions
in the following decades often used
racial stereotypes to push their
anti-drug policies, linking Chinese
workers to the trade
The United
States is in the
grip of a drug
crisis: some
two million
citizens are
addicted. It’s
a bleak state
of affairs
that would
be familiar to
Americans of
a century ago
27
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including heroin, morphine and cocaine. A series of Supreme
Court cases backed up the act, as did a 1924 law that made
heroin completely illegal. By the 1920s, addicts had to scour the
black market for their fix – and to do so was a crime. The results
were often immediately evident: for example, in 1923 nearly
half of the 1,482 prisoners in the Kansas city of Leavenworth
were jailed for narcotics violations. Almost 300 were addicts.
Counternarcotics crusader
The Harrison Act was actually a tax act that used regulations
covering imports, exports and dues to control the proliferation
of narcotics. For this reason, from 1920 it was policed by the
US Treasury’s Bureau of Prohibition, which was charged with
regulating alcohol following the 1919 National Prohibition Act.
That department was famously corrupt, and in 1930 it was
replaced by the standalone Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN),
which headed up narcotic policing in the US until 1968, and
also took the war on drugs overseas to producer nations including Mexico, Turkey, Iran and Thailand.
Despite the heft of the FBN, which shaped American drug
policy for decades, it was essentially the fiefdom of just one man:
Harry J Anslinger. Born in Pennsylvania in 1892, Anslinger
had worked as an investigator for the Pennsylvania Railroad as
a young man before moving into the US bureaucracy and combating drug trafficking overseas in Germany and Venezuela.
That experience impressed treasury officials, who put him in
charge of the new counternarcotics office.
He did not disappoint. Tall, bald, thick-set, eloquent and
with a taste for posturing as a noir cop, for 30 years he was the
alpha and omega of US drug policy. Part administrator, part
diplomat and part policeman, he was the self-declared “world’s
greatest living authority on dope”. One of his agents summed
him up thus: “He is an educated, cultured gentleman… But as
soon as he gets into a story, something happens to his polished
phrases. ‘Trade terms’ begin to creep in. Soon he is speaking
an underworld patois in a Harvard accent.” A visiting journalist was similarly impressed: “His paper-littered desk is that of
a typical Washington executive… but the rest of his office is
a luxuriously furnished narcotics den… with opium pipes and
hypodermic needles.”
Anslinger’s most obvious talent was to control what we
would now call the ‘narrative’ surrounding drugs. Indeed, he is
arguably more responsible than any other figure for developing
the simplistic moral binaries through which narcotics are often
viewed, even today. True, he never called it a war – but he wrote
the rulebook for fighting one.
For Anslinger, drugs were an unrivalled evil. They represented a threat both to individual Americans and to the US as
a whole. At the end of the Second World War, he announced
that “with the coming of peace our country faces a foe that can
be just as deadly as the enemy on the field of battle... the opium
poppy holds as much potential disaster as an atom bomb”. In his
28
Dramatic licence
A US poster of 1899 advertises the ‘big scenic
sensation’ of the play King of the Opium Ring.
Long before Anslinger began his crusade against
narcotics, the topic was alarming the US public
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Truth was very
much a secondary
consideration for
Anslinger. Titillation,
sex, racism: he was
happy to make use
of whatever pushed
the buttons of the
moral majority
view, drug users were not sick, troubled or simply addicted.
They were ethical weaklings whose use of narcotics was either
some indication of deep moral turpitude or the potential trigger
for acts of outrageous violence or criminality.
Traffickers and peddlers were even worse. They were, as the
title of one of Anslinger’s books suggested, murderers who
should be locked up for long sentences – or even, if they sold
drugs to children, executed. In contrast, FBN agents – a ragtag
band of former cops, customs agents and private detectives who
often exhibited a distinct taste for what might kindly be termed
the ‘seamy’ side of life – were unadulterated American heroes,
defending the nation against pernicious intruders and dangerous, drug-addled fifth columnists.
Such narratives had circulated for decades, but Anslinger
popularised them – in televised congress hearings, in fawning
newspaper interviews, in his syndicated columns and even in
films, where Anslinger occasionally appeared as himself. Truth
was very much a secondary consideration. Titillation, sex, racism, stereotypes: he was happy to make use of whatever pushed
the buttons of the moral majority. In one of his books he told the
story of a Chinese opium peddler in Cleveland, Ohio who,
Anslinger asserted, used narcotics to snare and seduce beautiful
white women – yet the case files contained no such details.
He also crushed any opposing views. Soft-on-drugs liberals,
wayward Hollywood types, ‘drug propagandists’ in the entertainment industry, even doctors who pushed for a treatment
approach to addiction were at best angrily dismissed and at
worst vindictively persecuted. The FBN infamously had actor
Robert Mitchum arrested for possession of marijuana, and used
the movie star’s detention to force Hollywood to censor any
mentions of narcotics.
Man with a plan
Harry J Anslinger, US commissioner of
narcotics 1930–62. As head of the Federal
Bureau of Narcotics he shaped US drug policy,
using sometimes questionable tactics, many
of which were dictated by personal politics
Picked out for persecution
Jazz singer Billie Holiday is read the charge
for possession of drugs after her arrest in
May 1947. Holiday, a heroin addict, was one
of a number of African-American civil
rights advocates targeted by Anslinger
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/ALAMY/GETTY
Selective implementation
Simple tales, however, did not make for simple policing. And
the history of Anslinger and FBN’s war on drugs is one of
extremely selective implementation, both at home and abroad.
In the United States, Anslinger used drug laws to persecute
African-Americans, particularly those who were vocal advocates of civil rights.
So when the singer Billie Holiday – who was addicted to
heroin – released ‘Strange Fruit’, her extraordinary protest song
about black lynchings, Anslinger went after her. First he sent one
of the FBN’s few black agents to shadow her; then, when that
failed to yield results, he forced her husband to inform on her. In
1947, Holiday was arrested for possession of heroin. Promised
a cure in return for a guilty plea, she was instead tried as a criminal and sentenced to a year in jail. After her release, she was
banned from singing in jazz clubs because Anslinger deemed her
a threat to “public morals”. A year later, he prosecuted her again.
That decade-long campaign pushed Holiday further into
addiction and desperation – and Anslinger celebrated. “She had
slipped from the peak of her fame,” he wrote. “Her voice was
29
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The war on drugs
Allies with alibis
Opium poppies in China,
c1930s. Despite Anslinger’s
hardline approach to narcotics
in the United States and
overseas, he was reluctant to
target anticommunist allies
complicit in the drug trade –
including, in the 1930s, China’s
nationalist Kuomintang party
Acid test
Doctors Harry L Williams (left)
and Carl Pfeiffer conduct an
experiment with LSD at Emory
University, 1955. During that
decade Anslinger’s top agent,
George White, was involved with
CIA testing of LSD as a truth
serum or biological weapon
The Cold War
shaped US drug
policy: communist
countries were
repeatedly accused
of attempting to
flood the United
States with heroin
Call to action
Relatives of missing people
protest in Guadalajara, Mexico,
in May 2018. More than 30,000
people are currently reported
missing in Mexico, where rates
of murder and violent crime
linked to drug trafficking have
soared in recent years
30
Right on message
A campaign badge for Richard
Nixon, Republican candidate for
the 1968 US presidential election,
who adopted Anslinger’s anti-drug
narrative in his speeches
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cracking.” Holiday was more circumspect. In her autobiogra- United States’ anticommunist allies. During the 1930s and
phy, she focused on the ludicrousness and cruelty of fighting 1940s, he scrupulously avoided implicating China’s nationalsickness with criminalisation. “Imagine if the government ist Kuomintang party in the opium trade, and even suppressed
chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove reports by his own agents on the subject. Over the following two
it into the black market… then sent them to jail… We do prac- decades he ignored copious information indicating that French
tically the same thing every day in the week to sick people secret agents, in league with Vietnamese gangsters, Kuomintang
brokers and Corsican mafiosi, were growing opium in Thailand
hooked on drugs.”
In contrast to Anslinger’s persecution of African-American and Laos and processing it in Marseilles. These alliances were
jazz artists and singers, his treatment of wealthy white addicts crucial to the establishment of the ‘French Connection’ – the
was often quite soft: some were allowed to make plea bargains heroin pipeline that by the end of the decade was delivering the
and sent to the federal drug hospital at Lexington for a cure. drug in vast quantities to the United States.
If Anslinger’s general policy was to attach narcotics to preAddicts deemed more important were provided drugs by the
FBN itself. According to one insider, in the 1950s Anslinger even vailing US foreign policy initiatives, this did not prevent him
from throwing his weight around when he felt countries were
provided morphine for a high-level official in the US Senate.
Anslinger also tended to de-prioritise drug policing in cases not following prohibitive drugs laws with due care. Usually, a
that he deemed to be issues of national security. During the mixture of private bullying and public condemnation was
1950s, he allowed his top agent, George White, to be seconded enough to force small nations into line – but if he thought the
to the CIA as part of an operation dubbed MKULTRA. In that threat was serious, he also employed blackmail.
In 1940, Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, Mexico’s chief of drug
role, and with Anslinger’s permission, White was encouraged to
develop street tests involving LSD, which the CIA was consider- treatment, opened clinics for morphine addicts. Anslinger’s reting using as a truth serum or even a biological weapon. These ribution was swift: he immediately threatened to stop the extests were distinctly off-the-books. To find targets in New York, port of US-produced pain medicine to the country. With
he recruited a softcore pornographer who invited swingers, supplies from European pharmaceutical companies impeded by
players and prostitutes to White’s flat, where they would drink, the Second World War, Mexico had little choice but to accede to
his demands. Within three months, the clinics were closed.
smoke marijuana and take LSD.
For all Anslinger’s grandstanding, FBN measures barely
affected addiction rates, which had their own distinct rhythm. Changing attitudes
In general, they rose and fell in line with generational preferenc- By the 1960s, however, the FBN’s time was up. Attitudes to
es. They were also vulnerable to large-scale interruptions of drugs were changing – not just among the nascent proto-hippy
supplies, as happened during the Second World War – though movement in San Francisco and New York but also in the medof course Anslinger took credit for the fall in drug use at that ical establishment, where alternative addiction treatments were
time. But policing, especially the selective policing employed by making a comeback. In 1962, Anslinger reached mandatory
the federal drug authorities, rarely dented street prices and had
retirement age and stepped down. Over the next few years, his
no impact on deep-seated habits.
accusations of a communist-narcotics conspiracy were widely
Anslinger’s FBN was equally shaped by political concerns debunked and his bureau was accused of endemic corruption.
abroad, where anticommunism trumped racism. The Cold War In 1968, the FBN was merged with another department.
shaped US drug policy: communist countries were repeatedly
His influence, though, endured: the ideas, the discourses,
accused of attempting to flood the United States with heroin
the reluctance to seek alternatives. Soon after Anslinger’s retireand other opiates. From the late 1940s, Anslinger focused on ment, politicians picked up the baton. In the FBN’s final year,
communist China, which he claimed funded the Korean War the war on drugs found a new advocate: presidential candidate
and then the Vietnam conflict through production and traf- Richard Nixon. In a speech in Orange County, California in
ficking of opium. When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in
September 1968, he heralded his tough-on-crime stance. The
1959, Anslinger switched targets. First he claimed that Castro speech aimed to appeal to a new group – what Nixon later
had been funded by South American cocaine traffickers, then termed the “silent majority” – but the content was pure Anslingthat the actor Errol Flynn – a leftist, drug user and friend of er. First he cited the fictional story: a beautiful girl, a life of
Castro – was a crucial intermediary in the supposed conspiracy. addiction, a plea for assistance. “She asked me what I could
Both accusations were utterly fictitious: China and Cuba had do to help her generation,” Nixon claimed. Then came the
harsh regulations against drug trafficking and addiction. Yet martial call and the simple morality. If elected president, he
Anslinger maintained his claims, even in
said, he would wage war on the “pestilence
the face of ample evidence to the contrary. Benjamin T Smith is reader of Latin
of narcotics”.
On the other hand, Anslinger was American history at the University
Anslinger may have left the field – but the
extremely reluctant to go after any of the of Warwick
war on drugs rumbled on.
31
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A year in pictures: 1929
32
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Trans-Pacific pioneer
The giant airship LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin
lands at dawn at Los Angeles on
26 August 1929 after an 80-hour journey from Tokyo, the penultimate leg of
the first ever round-the-world flight by
an airship. German Zeppelins – rigid,
hydrogen-filled craft – were developed
in the late 19th century, and had been
used in bombing raids during the First
World War before being redeveloped
for long-distance air travel in the 1920s
and 1930s. The era of the airship came
to an abrupt end when the Hindenburg
was destroyed in a docking accident in
New Jersey in 1937, after which faster,
safer aeroplanes replaced dirigibles as
the most popular form of air transport.
A YEAR
IN PICTURES
1929
GETTY IMAGES
Aviation, eruption,
depression and
reconciliation
The ‘Roaring Twenties’ ended not
with a bang but a crash: the stock
market collapse that led to the
Great Depression. Richard Overy
explores the characters and
events of a tumultuous year
Æ
33
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A year in pictures: 1929
This was a year of
34
The state we’re in
A crowd of Catholic clergy reacts with enthusiasm as the
Lateran Treaty between the papacy and the Italian government
is read out. The treaty, signed in the Lateran Palace in Rome on
11 February 1929 and ratified by the Italian parliament in June,
finally granted the Vatican City the status of an independent
state with the pope (at that time, Pius XI) as its titular head.
The treaty was signed on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III
by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who saw it as a means of
cementing Catholic support for his Fascist regime.
ALAMY
both great highs – the first circumnavigation of the world by airship
– and lows: the economic downturn
triggered by the Wall Street Crash
that brought to an end the ‘Roaring
Twenties’ era of fast cars, jazz, emancipated women and easy money. In
a few days of frantic stock-market
trading in New York in late October,
confidence in postwar international
stability and the consumer boom was
swiftly destroyed.
The years that followed saw the
collapse of the global economy and
the rise of nationalist and authoritarian regimes that sought to counter
the social and economic disaster
generated by the Great Depression.
In truth, warning signs had appeared
before the crash. Farmers had become
impoverished as a result of overproduction and falling food prices.
United States overseas investment,
essential to the 1920s global boom,
was vulnerable to sudden cuts. And
tariff barriers stifled the growth of
world trade.
Yet 1929 seemed to be the apogee
of a decade of modernity. Cars and
Zeppelins whisked passengers to farflung destinations, while air races
and motor-racing trials set new
distance and speed records. Modern
art was flashy, experimental, abstract.
In the west, at least, women were
no longer expected to wear clothes
reaching to the ankle and wrist.
In the Soviet Union, the vast collectivisation project was launched,
and state planning began to go hand
in hand with state terror. Criticism of Josef Stalin, now the most
powerful man in the Soviet Union,
was rooted out; in 1929, his rival
Leon Trotsky was expelled from the
young state. Yet thanks to the crisis
of capitalism, the Soviet experiment
suddenly seemed less undesirable to
the millions affected by the crash.
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Between battles
Chieftain Habibullah Kalakani is flanked
by his rebels during the civil war that
ravaged Afghanistan for much of 1929.
After launching a revolt the previous year,
on 17 January the ethnic Tajik Habibullah seized power after the Pashtun King
Amanullah Khan had abdicated and fled
to Europe. During his nine months on the
throne, Habibullah reversed many of
Amanullah’s modernising reforms but
was overthrown by Muhammad Nadir
Khan in October and executed the
following month.
GETTY IMAGES/BRIDGEMAN
Rhapsody in blue
Woman in Blue with a Guitar, painted in 1929
by Polish artist Tamara Łempicka (1898–1980),
among the most prominent painters of the Art
Deco school in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Her
striking portraits, with their rich colours and
neo-cubist structure, have become iconic images
of the decorative art movement that flourished
from the mid-1920s until the outbreak of the
Second World War.
Æ
35
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A year in pictures: 1929
Treading water
AP
A Japanese rice farmer irrigates his rice
paddies using an old-fashioned, footpowered water-wheel in 1929. Though
Japan had launched a programme of rapid
modernisation and industrialisation following
the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the collapse of
food prices in the 1920s and a lack of funds
for agricultural modernisation fuelled rural
poverty – one of the factors that prompted
a new wave of Japanese imperialism in the
following decade.
36
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Architect of reconciliation
German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann addresses the League of Nations
assembly in Geneva in September 1929,
shortly before his death after a stroke at the
age of 51 on 3 October. During the 1920s,
Stresemann had become the architect of
reconciliation between defeated Germany
and France, which he saw as the best way
to restore Germany’s international status
(and for which he shared the 1926 Nobel
Peace Prize). His untimely demise left the
way clear for a wave of radical nationalism
and the rise to power of Adolf Hitler.
Consequences of the crash
J PAUL GETTY TRUST/GETTY IMAGES/ALAMY
An American cartoon shows brokers queuing up to throw
themselves from a window following the Wall Street Crash in
October 1929. An investment boom in the late 1920s had turned
sour after extravagant speculation was displaced by falling
confidence in overseas loans. On 24 October 1929, the Dow
Jones share index began a slide that accelerated on 28 and
29 October (‘Black Monday’ and ‘Black Tuesday’), ruining
millions and ushering in a decade of global economic depression.
Under the volcano
Italian villagers are evacuated from Terzigno, in
the foothills of Mt Vesuvius east of Naples, as a
lava flow threatens to engulf their homes during
an eruption in June 1929. Although this village
was partly destroyed by the lava, the eruption
was a relatively minor one compared with the
more violent events of 1906 – when more than
100 people were killed and a 13km-high column
of gas and ash was emitted – and 1944, which
was the last major activity to date.
Æ
37
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A year in pictures: 1929
38
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POPPERFOTO-GETTY IMAGES
Scrap at Scapa
Divers at the Royal Navy base
at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney
archipelago off the north coast
of Scotland, clean their diving suits
during efforts to raise the German
battleship SMS Kaiser. The
German fleet, interned at Scapa
Flow after the First World War,
was scuttled in June 1919
on the orders of German Rear
Admiral Ludwig von Reuter to
ensure that these ships could not
be taken by the British. The Kaiser
was raised in 1929 and broken
up for scrap metal at Rosyth
dockyards the following year.
Æ
39
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A year in pictures: 1929
After the riots
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Torn paper litters a synagogue in Hebron, desecrated during
Arab riots between 23 and 29 August 1929 protesting the
Jewish presence in Palestine. On 24 August, an armed mob
of Arabs stormed through the city, murdering and raping
Jews and looting Jewish property. At least 60 Jews were
killed, though many others were hidden by Arab friends.
After the pogrom, the Jewish population was evacuated
from Hebron by the British authorities. The violence
prompted the large-scale expansion of the Haganah defence
force to protect Jewish settlements in Palestine.
40
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High fliers
Pilots pose for photos at the Breakfast
Club in Santa Monica, California before
the start of the first official womenonly air race in the United States – the
Women’s Air Derby, nicknamed the
‘Powder Puff Derby’. The race to
Cleveland, Ohio began on 18 August
1929 and lasted nine days. Of 19 pilots
who set out from Santa Monica on
the first day of the race, one – Marvel
Crosson – suffered a fatal crash, and
almost all experienced technical problems
or accidents. The derby was won by
Louise Thaden (far left); Amelia Earhart
– who became America’s most famous
female pilot in the 1930s, and is pictured
here fourth from right – finished third.
BRIDGEMAN
Stalin’s scapegoat
A caricature on the cover of the 2 March
1929 issue of French magazine Le Charivari
depicts Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky
(1879–1940) as the ‘Wandering Jew’.
Having clashed with Josef Stalin over a
number of years, in February 1929 Trotsky
was expelled from the Soviet Union on the
grounds of alleged ‘ideological deviation’.
Trotsky and his family moved to Turkey
and later to Mexico, where in 1940 he was
assassinated by a local Stalinist agent.
Richard Overy
is professor of history
at the University
of Exeter, and
editor of The Times
Complete History of
the World (William
Collins, 2015)
41
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Forty years ago, Iran’s
Shah Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi fled Tehran
– and 2,500 years of
monarchy ended, to be
replaced by an Islamic
republic. Ali Ansari
examines the causes
and legacy of the
Iranian Revolution
of 1979
HOW THE
LAST SHAH
42
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GETTY IMAGES/BRUNO BARBEY–MAGNUM PHOTOS
LEFT Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi, last Shah of Iran,
1967. His attempted
reforms during his final
years in power alienated
many of his nation’s people
THIS PAGE Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini,
pictured in Paris in 1978.
The powerful Shia cleric
won support from both
the political left and
religious conservatives
COMPLEMENTS THE NEW DRAMA SERIES FALL OF THE SHAH
LOST IRAN
Æ
43
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The shah’s 1978 TV
broadcast was to be
a turning point in the
history of Iran – but
not in the way he hoped
grave, allowing Iran to take its place among the top five global
powers. The speed with which he hoped to achieve this goal was
at least partly motivated by an early diagnosis of cancer, which
had reinforced his sense of mortality and fatalism. Few were
aware of that diagnosis, instead ascribing the urgency to hubris;
regardless, it is certainly true that the shah’s impatience for progress led to a series of politically inept decisions intended to circumvent the last vestiges of constitutional monarchy and place
even more power in his own hands.
The decision to abolish what Mohammad Reza Pahlavi referred to as the “tiresome” two-party system and replace it with
a single-party state might have been considered a sensible rationalisation; after all, everyone knew that the two separate parties existed only for cosmetic purposes. However, the shah’s
proclamation that everyone should join his Rastakhiz (Resurgence) Party or leave the country did little to enhance his repuDream of progress
tation among the very people who might have endorsed his
The year 1978 had begun on an upbeat note for Mohammad
reforms. Similarly, his decision to abruptly change the official
Reza Pahlavi. US president Jimmy Carter, on his way home
calendar to an imperial system dating to the accession of
from a summit in Poland, had called in to spend New
Cyrus the Great in 559 BC displayed the worst kind
Year’s Eve with the shah. British sources regarded
of tunnel vision that rendered him blithely ignothe visit as a great triumph for the shah, and an
rant of a political hinterland that was becomindication of the international esteem in
ing increasingly restive.
which he was held. Carter went even further
The shah was clearly much more interin his toast at the New Year dinner, praisested in articulating his ‘vision’ and in the
ing the shah’s leadership and referring
dynamics of international politics. His
to Iran as “an island of stability” in an othministers, seemingly overawed by the aderwise troubled region.
ulation he received from foreign leaders,
The shah had reasons to be cheerful,
were disinclined to provide him with the
reinforcing the sense of complacency that
details of domestic politics that did not conhad come to define the previous few years of
form
to his lofty ambitions. The consequence
his rule. Buttressed by enormous oil wealth –
was a dangerous regress into sycophancy; one
Iran’s revenues had increased enormously after
courtier later told the shah that, whereas officials
Middle Eastern oil producers vastly hiked prices
American approval
were scared of telling his father a lie, they had
in December 1973 – he had spent much of the
US
president
Jimmy
Carter
and
been scared of telling him the truth.
1970s pursuing his dream of the ‘Great CivilisaMohammad Reza Pahlavi share
Such was the atmosphere at the start of 1978.
tion’, a sort of welfare state on steroids. The shah
a toast at New Year 1978. The
envisaged a state that, by the turn of the millenni- American leader called Iran The shah began the year urging his minister of
information to deal with Ayatollah Khomeini, a
um, would care for its citizens from cradle to
“an island of stability”
44
GETTY IMAGES
O
n 5 November 1978, a weary Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah
(‘King of Kings’) of Iran and
Aryamehr (‘Light of the Aryans’),
sat uncomfortably behind his desk
at Niavaran Palace in Tehran in
preparation for an impromptu television broadcast to the nation. After
months of mounting protests
against his rule, some of his officials had determined that it was
time to make a decisive break with the past. The shah should
take control of events, they suggested, placing himself at the
head of this ‘revolutionary’ movement.
Film rushes of this moment show a monarch, clearly uneasy
with the situation, being handed a script with barely time to
scan it. Haltingly, he read out the prepared statement acknowledging his past mistakes. In a particularly striking passage, he
proclaimed to his somewhat bewildered subjects that he had
“heard the voice of your revolution”.
The broadcast proved to be a turning point in the history of
Iran – but not in the way the shah and his supporters had hoped.
Far from presenting a sense of strong leadership, the shah appeared not only to waver but to also confirm that the country
was indeed in the throes of a revolutionary upheaval. People
who had hitherto been uncommitted now made preparations
for the future. And that future did not include the shah – who
was to be the last of the monarchs who had ruled this land for
some two and a half millennia.
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Birthday greetings
A ABBAS–MAGNUM PHOTOS
Courtiers bow to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on
his 58th birthday in October 1977. The shah’s
reluctance to reform Iran’s political system
inflamed public discontent with his regime
Burning anger
Rioters set fire to a portrait of the shah in Tehran in
December 1978. His promise that he had “heard the
voice of your revolution”, made during a television
broadcast the previous month, had only fuelled unrest
Æ
45
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Iran: The Revolution at 40
particularly troublesome Shia cleric who had been preaching in
increasingly robust terms against the shah. Khomeini was the
ostensible leader of the religious opposition to the shah, and had
been sent into exile in Iraq after an especially abrasive speech in
1964. Yet his appeal was not merely based on religion, and he
was careful to cultivate the loyalty of Iran’s burgeoning student
population – a constituency that should have naturally leaned
towards the shah and his vision.
Although the shah, convinced that his son should inherit a
more consultative system with a functioning constitution, had
begun to toy with a measure of liberalism, he held back from
engaging with the serious political reform the country needed.
Indeed, the imposition of the one-party state seemed to be
a move in the wrong direction. Students, bereft of avenues
through which to engage in politics, increasingly allied
themselves to the underground politics of the left or to the
politics of religion. That latter move, towards Islam, appeared to bother the shah less, because he considered his
primary foe to be communism. Yet the shah’s officials,
recognising Khomeini’s genius in appealing to both leftwing and religious dissidents along with his pointed attacks on the character of the shah, realised finally that the
situation needed to be addressed.
Fallen idol A toppled statue of the shah lies on the ground near the
headquarters of Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1979. On 11 February,
less than a month after the shah left Iran, the Ayatollah was in power
Attack on the Ayatollah
On 8 January 1978, a scurrilous anonymous article was
published in the newspaper Ettelaat. It seemed relatively
innocuous at the time, but historians now think it may
have been the firing of the starting gun of the revolution.
The article, which attacked Khomeini and described his
character in deeply unflattering terms, sparked a series of demonstrations – encounters for which the regime was not ready. Iran’s
security forces were not prepared for civil disturbances, and
lacked the equipment to deal with mass protests. As a consequence, the military was deployed – with the kind of results
that often ensue when soldiers are asked to perform a policing
role for which they are ill-suited: demonstrations in many cities
turned to violence, and a number of protesters were killed. This
led to political paralysis and the unravelling of a government
machinery overly dependent on decisions from the top.
Even so, until the summer of 1978 few people took
the demonstrations seriously; still fewer considered them a
threat to the regime. Diplomats, somewhat naively, urged the
shah to handle these protests with a light touch, arguing that
they were the natural consequence of his admirable decision to
‘liberalise’. The British ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons later
conceded that the relaxed approach was partly dictated by the
fact that the shah’s problems seemed to be the envy of Arab
rulers. Indeed, in contrast to other Arab states of a similar size
and population, Iran was generously endowed with resources
and a growing economy that, for all its flaws, held great promise
for the future.
46
March against the veil Women demonstrate against the new
Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab ruling in Tehran in March 1979. More
than 100,000 took to the streets to protest against strict new edicts, one of
which required all women to wear a headscarf to cover their heads in public
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High hopes
A ABBAS–MAGNUM PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
Demonstrators at Tehran University in
1979 hold a placard of Ayatollah Khomeini.
On 4 November 1978, troops had opened fire
on thousands of protesting students at the
university, killing five. Interestingly, Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president from 2005 to
2013, can be seen (bottom right, circled)
Queueing for change
A lone armed militia member is surrounded
by chador-clad women lining up to vote in the
March 1979 referendum on the Iranian political
system. According to official results, over 98%
of eligible citizens voted in favour of the
creation of the Islamic Republic
Khomeini appealed
to both left-wing and
religious dissidents, and
made pointed attacks on
the character of the shah
Æ
47
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Iran: The Revolution at 40
Hostage crisis
Wave power
Ayatollah Khomeini greets his
supporters outside his house,
1979. Upon gaining power in Iran
early that year, Khomeini “found
himself buffeted by competing
forces”, writes Ali Ansari
Blindfolded American
hostages, among 66 taken as
Iranian students seized the
US embassy in Tehran on
4 November 1979, beginning
444 days of occupation. The
last of the hostages were
released on 20 January 1981
Salute to the revolution
A ABBAS–MAGNUM PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
Armed members of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps raise their
fists in triumph in 1980, a year after
the regime took power. By this time,
left-wing elements in the revolution
had been ousted by Islamist forces
48
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Seeking the shah
AKG-IMAGES
A poster from 1980 calls for the
return of the shah, who spent his
final months in exile in Panama and
Egypt, to Iran to face trial. He died in
Egypt on 27 July 1980, and was
buried in Cairo’s Al Rifa’i Mosque
It was clear the shah
was losing control,
not least because he
appeared unwilling
to make any decisions
By autumn, though, it was clear that the shah was losing
control of the situation, not least because he appeared unwilling
to take any decisions. A belated attempt to impose martial law
resulted in serious bloodletting: more than 80 protesters were
killed by troops in Tehran, most of them in Jaleh Square, on
‘Black Friday’ 8 September. This event appears to have been a
psychological turning point for the shah who, for all his dictatorial pretensions, found himself ill-suited for that role. As he later
said, a dictator might shoot his people, but “a sovereign may not
save his throne by shedding his compatriots’ blood”.
At this point he appeared to be genuinely bewildered by the
dawning realisation that large sections of the population might
not hold him in strong affection, and became gripped by paralysis. Contingency plans were made at alarming speed by people
in Iran and farther afield. Those Iranians who might have been
considered the shah’s natural constituency prepared to move
abroad or made pledges of loyalty to the opposition. Western
governments, meanwhile, began preparations for a political
transition, accelerating the pace of the now inevitable unravelling of the shah’s regime.
On 16 January 1979 Mohammad Reza Pahlavi departed,
initially to Egypt, ostensibly for a holiday. It was an enforced
absence that effectively rendered useless the final pillar of the
regime – the army. And by February, Khomeini had returned to
the country, to a rapturous reception.
This twofold turn of events provoked widespread disbelief.
The shock spread to the triumphant revolutionaries, who could
not believe the speed of the transformation and, arguably, the
relatively low cost of that victory. Claims that martyrs of the
revolution numbered up to 70,000 were hyperbole; thanks to
the shah’s unwillingness to shed the blood of his people, in the
year preceding his departure 2,781 deaths were recorded. The
real reckoning occurred only after his departure, when the revolution turned on itself.
Fragmentation and fracture
The Iranian revolutionary Ebrahim Yazdi liked to comment
that the real leader of the Islamic Revolution was, in fact, the
shah, because only he was able to unite the disparate groups into
a single opposition. Once he had departed the scene, that focus
was removed – with devastating results. Khomeini, now Iran’s
titular leader, found himself buffeted by competing forces
aligned with the religious right and the populist left. A third
group, the secular nationalists, found themselves squeezed out
in the bloody struggle that was to follow.
Indeed, 1979’s ‘Spring of Freedom’ proved all too brief, and
the left succumbed in a bitter and bloody struggle against Islamist forces determined to seize control of the revolution. Having
abolished the monarchy through referendum, a new constitution was drafted, marrying elements of the French Fifth Republic with a theocratic structure developed by Khomeini that saw
the entire system supervised – and, in practice, dictated – by
49
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Iran: The Revolution at 40
Dig for victory
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein
carries a shovel in late 1980,
soon after his country’s
invasion of Iran sparked
a war that lasted eight years
a supreme ‘religious jurist’: Khomeini. This attempt to weld
western and Islamic ideas in the form of an ‘Islamic Republic’
was to prove contentious and unwieldy, but survived largely because of the charismatic Khomeini’s hold over his followers.
Two fractures in international relations – one self-inflicted,
the other imposed – also served to shore up a tenuous stability.
First, Khomeini approved the seizure on 4 November 1979 of
the US embassy by armed Iranian students. The justification
given was that the Americans, having admitted the ailing shah
into the United States for cancer treatment, were intent on repeating the 1953 coup that had toppled the nationalist prime
minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. The occupation of the embassy was intended to be a temporary protest. Instead, it became a
protracted 444-day exercise in hostage-taking that transformed
an already fraught relationship into one of growing enmity.
Then, in September 1980, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein
launched an opportunistic invasion of Iran – an action that the
international community, still reeling from the occupation of
the US embassy, could not bring itself to condemn.
Shadow of the revolution
The eight-year war with Iraq and the growing antipathy with
the United States had a profound effect on the direction of the
revolution and the Islamic Republic it spawned. They created
an acute sense of ongoing crisis that the political settlement,
marred by inconsistencies and contradictions, did little to assuage. For all its democratic pretensions, the Islamic Republic
50
remained stubbornly authoritarian, as the office of the Supreme
Leader – as the religious jurist became known – gradually grew
in size and took on the characteristics of the monarchy it
had replaced.
Ayatollah Khomeini died on 3 June 1989, under a year after the end of the war with Iraq. One of his immediate legacies
was another international crisis: on 14 February 1989 he issued
a fatwa on British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie for alleged
blasphemy in his book The Satanic Verses. Khomeini’s successors
have been fighting over his legacy ever since but, given a choice
between tackling the serious structural problems still facing the
country and being diverted by a foreign crisis, they seem all too
willing to lean towards the latter.
In this, they have been well served by successive US administrations. The revolutionary elite have become so preoccupied
with their continuing confrontation with the United States that
they have neglected urgent domestic problems such as the economy and the environment, at great long-term cost to the stability of the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution has cast a long shadow. Not
only were the geopolitics of the Middle East transformed
and political Islamism thrust uncompromisingly into the limelight, but the dramatic fall of the shah also had a profound
effect on a generation of developing-world leaders. This became
all too apparent when, during the Arab Spring of 2010–12,
a number of Middle Eastern autocrats wondered whether they,
too, might go the way of Iran’s monarch. In that febrile atmosphere, Russian president Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to show regional allies – notably Bashar al-Assad of
Syria – that, unlike the US, the
Russians can be relied on. The
impact of all this has been so pro- Ali Ansari is professor of
found that 1979, rather than history at the University of
1989, might be considered the St Andrews, and author of
truly transformative year of our Iran: A Very Short Introduction
modern age.
(Oxford University Press, 2014)
SHUTTERSTOCK
Iran’s Revolution
transformed Middle
East geopolitics and
thrust political Islam
into the limelight
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NEW DRAMA SERIES FALL OF THE SHAH FROM 30 JANUARY ON BBC WORLD SERVICE
Drama out of a crisis
AFP–GETTY IMAGES
Matt Elton speaks to Steve Waters and Simon Pitts, creators of a
new BBC radio series dramatising the Iranian Revolution, about the
challenges of piecing the story together from multiple points of view
To mark the 40th anniversary of the
Iranian Revolution, the BBC commissioned a new nine-part radio drama by
acclaimed playwright Steve Waters,
which airs from the end of January. The
series tells the story from a range of
viewpoints to provide novel insights into
events that continue to shape the Middle
East and the wider world today.
“The revolution was a global event,
and I wanted the drama to reflect that,”
says Waters. “When it came to choosing
which perspectives to include, the key
forces were clear: the shah and his circle,
and Khomeini and those around him.
But I also wanted to feature international
actors, especially the Americans, for
whom the shah was a critical ally. These
range from American president Jimmy
Carter to harassed officials such as the
fascinating US ambassador William H
Sullivan. I also wanted to present the
perspective of the ordinary Iranian, so I
risked inventing a fictitious family sucked
into the mayhem of the revolution.”
Adding to the challenge of piecing
together such varied, fractured points of
view was the fact that many of the facts
are still contested. “There’s a wealth of
material about the revolution but almost
no consensus within it,” Waters explains.
“A raft of memoirs appeared just after
the revolution, when everyone involved
was trying to understand what occurred.
I hope that the drama gives a sense of
how confused events were, and that the
revolution was a more complex beast
than the republic that grew out of it.”
To make sense of this complexity,
Waters drew on first-hand research.
“There are so many figures who have
since been forgotten. I was moved by the
fate of Shapour Bakhtiar, the shah’s last
prime minister – an honourable liberal
who, on the Ayatollah’s return, found
himself hung out to dry by the army.
And I’m fascinated by the shah’s last wife,
Farah Pahlavi – an eloquent, erudite
Before the fall
woman who was critical to the shah’s
morale and, perhaps, the nation’s. I also
had the privilege of meeting Iranians in
exile, some of whom were present at the
time, to hear their eyewitness accounts.”
The results, the team hopes, will help
bring into sharp focus the immediate
and continuing impacts of these events.
“The revolution affects so much modern
politics: the Iran nuclear deal, the USIsraeli relationship, divisions across the
Middle East,” says commissioning editor
Simon Pitts. “By telling the story as a drama, we hope to make these momentous
events seem alive – to make listeners feel
as if they are on the streets of Iran as the
revolution unfolds around them.”
DISCOVER MORE
Listen to the new drama series
Fall of the Shah, running weekly from
30 January on BBC World Service
The last shah of Iran with his wife
Farah Pahlavi, pictured in 1974.
The BBC’s new radio drama uses
multiple perspectives to explore
his fall from power
“I had the privilege of
meeting Iranians in
exile, some of whom
were present at the
time, to hear their
eyewitness accounts”
51
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Why has a simple stone tomb in south-central Iran,
used by authoritarian leaders to legitimise their hold
on power, now become a focal point for disaffected
youth? Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones explores the changing
public image of an ancient Persian emperor
52
PANOS PICTURES
From conqueror to youth
icon: the unlikely afterlife
of Cyrus the Great
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Tourists snap selfies at the
tomb of Cyrus the Great at
Pasargadae, south-central
Iran, in 2017. The sixthcentury-BC monument,
which Alexander the Great
sought out in 330 BC, has
provided a touchstone for
various political causes
Æ
53
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Remote from the revolution
An interesting fact: around 70% of Iranians are under 40 years
old. Iran has a notably young demographic, the result of a government-backed fertility drive following the protracted and
devastating Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s. Much of the youth of
Iran are feeling increasingly remote from that war and from
the Islamic Revolution that changed the DNA of Iran so
54
A faravahar,
the ancient
Zoroastrian symbol
now sported by young
Iranians on T-shirts,
jewellery and tattoos
The pre-Islamic Persian
past has been awakened
in Iranian consciousness,
galvanising Iranians to
criticise the regime
drastically. The mullahs who rule Iran do not represent the
vibrancy of Iran’s young get-up-and-goers, and Islam has little
or no appeal to the majority of the youth in the cities and
towns. Islam is being displaced, in fact, by a revitalisation of
pre-Islamic Iranian identity. The trend towards displays of
nationalism is reflected in a spike in pre-Islamic Persian names
(Cyrus, Darius, Anahita) for babies, instead of typical Muslim
names such as Hussain, Ali and Fatemeh, and in the everpresent faravahar, the Zoroastrian symbol that is sported on
jewellery, T-shirts, tattoos and bumper-stickers. The preIslamic Persian past has been awakened in contemporary
Iranian consciousness, and Iranians are being galvanised to
criticise the ruling regime.
Iran has a rich history stretching back over 2,500 years to the
Achaemenid dynasty (559–330 BC). Cyrus the Great and
Achaemenid successor kings have for centuries been regarded
by Iranians as heroic figures – men who created an empire built
on (or so the Iranians believe) tolerance and respect for all. This
‘history’ has provided a fulsome canon of stories on which
Iranian national pride is founded. The tales and legends of
Islam have a less-firm hold on the Iranian psyche because they
were, of course, foreign imports.
The historical Cyrus II (born c590–580 BC) was the ruler of
the small south-western Persian kingdom of Anshan, a fertile
horse-rearing land in the foothills of the Zagros mountains of
Iran. Supported by a coalition of Persian tribes, Cyrus marched
GETTY IMAGES
I
n a nondescript spot some 50 miles north-east of
the Iranian city of Shiraz, a solitary, blocky
structure rises from a gravelly plain. Six
steps lead to a simple oblong box, topped
with a pitched roof and built of honeycoloured stone. To casual observers, there’s
little to suggest this is a site of any great importance. Yet 23 centuries ago Alexander the Great
was driven to seek it out after his conquest of Persia – and today the lonely, elegant tomb of Cyrus the Great,
built at Pasargadae in his tribal homeland two centuries before
Alexander’s visit, is the focus of a different kind of attention.
As a professor of ancient history, over the past 20 years I have
extensively explored the vast and varied landscapes of Iran, discovering its rich history and meeting its hospitable and cultured
people. During those two decades I have witnessed many
changes in Iranian society – some good, some not so welcome
– but, in spite of its many troubles and the hostile image portrayed in western media, it remains a place to which I compulsively return. There are some sites I am compelled to visit on
every trip: the glorious Naqsh-e Jahan (‘Image of the World’,
known as ‘Half the World’) Square in Isfahan; the impressive
2,500-year-old site of Persepolis near Shiraz, city of roses and
nightingales; and that strikingly simple tomb at Pasargadae.
Even stripped of the former splendour of its religious enclosure, Cyrus’s elegant funerary monument is a bewitching,
atmospheric site. In the late 1990s, I often stood there quite
alone, interrupted occasionally by a handful of locals who
stopped by to take a quick photo before heading off just as hurriedly, or by a coachload of tourists who, after 20 minutes of
frenzy, abandoned the place to silence again. Over the past six
years, though, the number of visitors has swelled. The coachloads of tourists have increased exponentially, as has the number of Iranian day-trippers. It’s rare to find a moment’s peace in
Pasargadae these days.
Nothing, though, prepared me for the events of 29 October
2016, which I watched unfold on social media. On that day,
crowds numbering 15,000–30,000 (precise figures are difficult to come by) swarmed around the tomb’s rectangular platform, almost like pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca. And
these crowds were vocal: “Iran is our country!” they roared.
“Cyrus is our father! Clerical rule is tyranny!” These are dangerous words in the Islamic Republic – but ones that are,
I think, symptomatic of the times.
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View with a tomb
The tomb of Cyrus the Great,
photographed around the
turn of the 20th century. The
tomb was largely forgotten for
centuries till it was identified
by German archaeologist
Ernst Herzfeld in c1908
Gold standard
ALAMY/AKG-IMAGES/TOPFOTO
An Achaemenid gilt plaque (c6th-4th
century BC) depicts two horned,
winged lions. Such iconography,
symbolising power, was common in
Middle Eastern art of that period
World view
A tablet bearing a cuneiform inscription and a map of the Mesopotamian world,
dating from c700–500 BC. The ancient and powerful city of Babylon, shown at the
centre, was conquered by Cyrus in 539 BC
Æ
55
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Iran: Cyrus the Great
to the north of Iran to attack the Medes, a tribe that occupied
the north of Persia. He then turned his attention to the lands
bordering Media, including the powerful kingdom of Lydia in
Asia Minor (Anatolia). There, Cyrus’s sack of the Greek-speaking city of Sardis enabled the Persian leader to take other important cities along the Ionian coast. By 540 BC, Cyrus was ready
to attack the ancient state of Babylonia, and moved his army
into Mesopotamia. He entered Babylon on 29 October 539 BC,
having already defeated its king, Nabonidus. Cyrus appointed
his son, Cambyses, as the city’s regent, though he maintained
the status quo by allowing Babylonian officials to continue in
their governmental and religious offices.
Much of our knowledge of the fall of Babylon comes from
the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, a clay artefact written in Akkadian and placed in the foundations of Babylon’s city wall. Discovered in 1879 in southern Iraq near the sanctuary of Marduk,
chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, it has since been housed
in the British Museum. Composed on Cyrus’s orders, the text
is written from a Babylonian point of view, but as a work of imperial propaganda: the cylinder attempts to legitimise Cyrus’s
conquest of Babylon by representing the king as the champion of Marduk. It is a dazzling piece of self-recreation, wherein
Cyrus boldly presents the conquest of Mesopotamia as a kind
of ‘Operation Babylonian Freedom’. The cylinder stresses how
the Babylonians benefited from Cyrus’s ‘liberation’ of their city,
and proposes that they should pay him homage. It is important
to note that other cities did not fare so well under Cyrus. The
citizens of Opis (another ancient Babylonian city near modern
Baghdad) were massacred, while the defeated population of
Sardis was later deported en masse.
In the years following his conquest of Babylonia, Cyrus built
a vast international empire stretching from the west coast of
Turkey to Afghanistan. And at Pasargadae he constructed an
empire-in-miniature in the form of a lavish formal garden – a
pairidaêza (from the Greek paradeisos), an earthly paradise
planted with flora from across his conquered lands as a physical
statement of Persia’s ever-growing imperial power. The complex
included palaces and the barrel-vaulted mausoleum in which,
when Cyrus died in c530 BC fighting the eastern Massagetae
(a tribe from Bactria, now in Afghanistan), he was laid to rest.
Greatness personified A winged protective deity wearing
a crown of horns depicted in bas relief at Pasargadae. The carving’s
diverse artistic influences – Egyptian, Assyrian, Elamite, SyrioPhoenician – reflect the wide empire over which Cyrus ruled
Proud heritage
Pre-Islamic Persian history is taught only superficially at
schools so, unsurprisingly, Iranians are relatively naïve about
the realities of Cyrus’s empire building (bloodshed and all), but
it is nevertheless clear that they are deeply proud of their
ancient heritage. Successive leaders of Iran have capitalised on
this pride, and have used the figure of Cyrus the Great to
further their own agendas.
In the 1970s, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of
Iran, openly and enthusiastically compared himself to Cyrus
the Great. He declared 1971 the Year of Cyrus, and celebrated
56
At Pasargadae, Cyrus
constructed an empirein-miniature: a physical
statement of Persia’s
ever-growing power
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Guard of honour
Iranian soldiers pose en masse
on the steps of Cyrus’s tomb
during 1971 celebrations for the
2,500th anniversary of the Iranian
monarchy. Shah Mohammad
Reza Pahlavi drew parallels
between his own rule and that
of the first Achaemenid emperor
Costume drama
Iranian troops dressed in
historical uniforms parade at
the ancient Persian palace
complex of Persepolis, 1971.
Through such displays, the
shah implied his reign was
a continuation of the legacy
of his illustrious predecessor
Æ
57
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Iran: Cyrus the Great
Repurposing propaganda
58
Quote misquote Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi,
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Her acceptance
speech included quotes attributed to Cyrus the Great
that she later learned came from a fake translation
SHUTTERSTOCK/REUTERS
that empire-builder’s legacy with sumptuous, somewhat hubristic festivals at Persepolis and Pasargadae, where he stood to
address the ghost of Cyrus in the empty tomb: “Cyrus, great
king, Shahanshah, Achaemenid king, king of the land of Iran,
from me, Shahanshah of Iran and from my nation, I send greetings… you, the eternal hero of Iranian history, the founder of
the oldest monarchy in the world, the great freedom giver of the
world, the worthy son of mankind, we send greetings! Cyrus,
we have gathered here today at your eternal tomb to tell you:
sleep in peace because we are awake and we will always be awake
to look after our proud inheritance.”
The shah also lauded Cyrus for having created the first
ever bill of human rights. This is a long-held and shared
misunderstanding of the text of the Cyrus Cylinder, in which
a single line speaks of the invader’s treatment of the inhabitants
of the city: “I relieved their weariness and freed them from
their service.” It is hardly a cry for freedom. That Cyrus subsequently liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity
(and was bestowed with the title ‘messiah’ – God’s anointed –
by the prophet Isaiah) and allowed some, though not all, of
them to return to their homeland, has augmented his reputa-
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the
Cyrus Cylinder, lent to Iran by the
British Museum, following his
disputed re-election as president
in 2009. Like the shah before him,
Ahmadinejad used Cyrus to appeal
to Iranian nationalist sentiment
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tion as a champion of human rights. Far from it: Cyrus was as
brutal as any other Near Eastern ruler.
Yet the reputation of Cyrus as the creator of the first bill of
human rights has stuck. The last shah was keen to be admired
and remembered in the same vein, and he used the Cyrus Cylinder as the official icon of his 1971 celebrations, plastering it on
bank notes and coins; he even reformed the Iranian calendar
such that it aligned with the reign of Cyrus the Great 2,500
years earlier. To show to the world that he was Cyrus reborn,
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi gifted a facsimile of the cylinder to
the United Nations; to this day it is displayed in a glass case in
a lobby in the UN’s headquarters in New York City.
More recently, in the wake of 2009’s disputed presidential
election, Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – hoping to regain a measure of legitimacy – began to recast himself as
a nationalist leading a struggle against foreign foes. He achieved
something of a diplomatic triumph when the British Museum
agreed to lend the original cylinder to the National Museum of
Iran for a special exhibition on Cyrus and his legacy. Thousands
of Iranians flocked to Tehran for the once-in-a-lifetime chance
to view it; despite the fact that it is a Babylonian-made document
written in Akkadian and directed towards a Mesopotamian audience, they nevertheless hailed it as an icon of Iranianness.
“Talking about Iran is not talking about a geographical entity or race,” declared President Ahmadinejad, as he pinned a
medal of honour on the chest of an actor dressed in a colourful
Cyrus the Great costume at a ceremony in Tehran. “Talking
about Iran is tantamount to talking about culture, human values, justice, love and sacrifice.”
The Cyrus craze
Iranians may be poorly informed about the realities of ancient
Persian empire-building and, indeed, the content of the text of
the Cyrus Cylinder, but that has not stopped the Cyrus
craze from spreading. Azadeh Moaveni, an Iranian-American
journalist, echoed the feelings of many when she wrote in Time
magazine in 2007: “The Achaemenid kings [including Cyrus],
who built their majestic capital at Persepolis, were exceptionally munificent for their time. They wrote the world’s earliest recorded human rights declaration, and were opposed to slavery.”
Much of this bogus understanding of the document arises
from a plethora of fake translations that have cropped up on the
internet over many years. One of the most high-profile victims of
the cylinder scam was Nobel Peace Prize-winning Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi; accepting the award in 2003, she quoted what
she believed were Cyrus’s words: “I announce that I will respect
the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire
and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down
on or insult them as long as I shall live. From now on… I will
impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and
if any one of them rejects it, I shall never resolve on war to reign.”
She was reputedly mortified when she discovered her gaffe.
The young people of Iran
have claimed Cyrus as
their own, taking him
into the streets in their
smartphones and tablets
The latest twist in the tale is the mass adoption of the
image of Cyrus by activists, a situation that came to a head
at his tomb in 2016. The date of that demonstration, 29 October, is now celebrated by Iranians as Cyrus the Great Day, but
this is an unofficial holiday not recognised by the government.
In fact, the Islamic regime is befuddled, bewildered and angered by its popularity. One venerable mullah, Grand Ayatollah Noori-Hamedani, raged against the Pasargadae celebrations. “The shah used to say: ‘O Cyrus, sleep in peace as we are
awake’,” he said. “Now a group of people have gathered around
the tomb of Cyrus and they are circumambulating it, and have
taken out their handkerchiefs and cry [as they do for the Shiite
Imam Hussein]… These [people] are counter-revolutionaries.
I am amazed that these people get together around the tomb
of Cyrus. Who in power has been so negligent to allow these
people to gather? We are in a revolutionary and Islamic country, and this revolution is the continuation of the actions of the
Prophet and the Imams.” His sense of fear is almost palpable.
Where will this movement lead? Who knows – but it seems
to be here to stay.
In the past 60 years Cyrus the Great has been used by two
regimes to strengthen their power grip. The shah painted the
Pahlavi monarchy’s stance as a natural continuation of Cyrus’s
policy of tolerance, though in truth Pahlavi rule was anything
but tolerant. Ahmadinejad was willing to overlook the fact that
Cyrus was a pagan in order to activate a much-needed nationalism, to divert attention away from his disputed election;
in fact, he made Cyrus a sort of Shia saint.
Now the young people of Iran have claimed Cyrus as their
very own; separating him from shahs and mullahs, they are
taking him into the streets in their smartphones and tablets.
The myth of Cyrus is swelling, and his cult is growing. Fact
is displaced by a need to cast Cyrus as a new liberator.
The Iranian use of the Persian
past is a profound demonstration that ancient history is not
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is
dead: antiquity is alive, and
professor in ancient history at
still vital today.
Cardiff University
59
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A
t the turn of the 20th
century, Iceland’s independence movement
received a boost from
a surprising source: an
Englishman who developed its fishing
industry – and thus helped its small, impoverished population achieve prosperity and, eventually, nationhood. For his
role, this unlikely champion of Iceland
was awarded the Grand Cross of the
Order of the Falcon – the nation’s highest honour. Yet for years he was largely
forgotten until the recent rediscovery of
his diaries and photographs.
Pike Ward was born in Teignmouth,
Devon in 1856 into a middle-class
shipbroking family of religious nonconformists, egalitarian in outlook. He was
tall and generously built, gregarious and
self-confident; when his father died in
1881, his mother, Eliza, took over the
family company, and Pike investigated
new opportunities. The traditional
Devon trade in Newfoundland cod was
waning, and Ward found life in a small
town stifling. So in his mid-thirties he
turned his attention to Iceland.
Ward arrived in 1891, at a pivotal point
in the country’s history. For six centuries
Iceland had been ruled at a distance,
first by Norway and then Denmark. It
had suffered a litany of hardships including volcanic eruptions, climate change,
population decline, disease, trade
restrictions and oppressive social laws.
The majority of Icelanders lived in
abject poverty on scattered farmsteads.
A system of bondage required anyone
who did not own farmland to work for
someone who did, effectively outlawing
fishing as a full-time occupation.
60
By the mid-19th century, though,
change was in the air. A growing nationalist movement demanded greater
autonomy from Denmark, and fostered
pride in Icelandic culture. Constraints
on workers and trade were gradually
relaxing, and at last it was possible for
people to move to new fishing stations on
the coast. The conditions were right for
an Icelandic fishing industry to develop –
but it needed investment.
Around this time, mechanised trawling was developing in northern Europe.
Britain, Denmark, Germany and other
nations squabbled over the bounty of the
rich seas off Iceland, but Icelanders had
no trawlers and could fish only inshore.
To make matters worse, they had to
barter their catch with the Danish merchants who still dominated the economy.
Very few had access to the money they
required to buy boats and equipment.
It was into this environment that Pike
arrived, and soon recognised an opportunity to export the smáfiskur (small fish
under 40cm long) caught in Iceland. He
introduced new ways of processing these
fish for the British market, and they
became known across Iceland as Wardsfiskur – Ward’s Fish. Most importantly,
he paid Icelandic fishermen in cash for
the first time.
Ward quickly learned Icelandic and
established bases around the country,
becoming renowned for his fairness
and generosity. He stayed in Iceland for
nearly 22 years, returning to Devon only
for the winter months. He travelled by
pack horse, rowing boat and steamship,
across mountains and dangerous seas,
on perilous cliff paths and in terrible
weather, coping with cold, lice, illness
and meagre food, often with no means of
communicating with the outside world.
Pike’s money transformed the fortunes
of fishing communities, and the growing
fishing industry transformed Icelandic
society. Icelanders formed co-operatives,
developed ports, bought mechanised vessels and built a trawling industry – and
with it a wealthy, modern nation.
As the economy developed, political
independence beckoned. It was a long
process that began with the re-establishment of a national assembly in 1845 and
culminated in complete independence
from Denmark in 1944. It is hard to
imagine that it could have happened
without the establishment of a successful
commercial fishery – made possible by
the efforts and investment of Pike Ward.
Ward experienced a time of seismic
changes in Iceland’s status, fortunes
and cultural identity. His own identity
became a complex hybrid, drawing on
both his Devonian roots and the Icelandic life he loved. In 1912 his mother
retired, and he returned to Teignmouth
to take over the family shipbroking
business, bringing with him artefacts as
reminders of his long relationship with
Iceland. He died in 1937.
Today, debates about national interest
and belonging dominate current affairs.
Ward’s adventurous tale offers insights
into how nations come to be, and how
we each find our place in the world.
KJ Findlay is a heritage interpreter, and
editor of the diaries published as The Icelandic
Adventures of Pike Ward (Amphora Press, 2018)
PODCAST
Listen to KJ Findlay on Pike Ward on the History
Extra podcast: historyextra.com/podcasts
DREAMSTIME
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Fish for freedom
Pike Ward, a Devon man with a background in shipbroking, hardly
fitted the conventional image of a Victorian adventurer – yet he roamed
the wilds of Iceland, enduring great hardships in his efforts to find his
fortune in fish. His efforts transformed the country’s fishing industry –
and fuelled the final push to long-anticipated independence for Iceland
61
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MAGAZINE
Save when you subscribe
to the digital edition
of BBC History Magazine
BBC History Magazine is Britain’s bestselling history magazine.
We feature leading historians writing lively and
thought-provoking new takes on the great events of the past.
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THE LONG READ
Why weakness
powers
world history
History may be written by the winners – but its
course can be steered by the effects of fragility
BY JONATHAN HOLSLAG
ALAMY
Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II satirised
as the ‘sick man of Europe’ in a French
cartoon of 1897. His empire had entered
a terminal economic and military decline
Æ
63
N
othing, it seems, challenges peace more than
the rise of a major power. It was Thucydides,
a historian who lived in Greece in the fifth
century BC, who was among the first to
describe the phenomenon by which the ascent
of one power causes rivalry and war. “For it was
the rise of Athens,” he wrote, “that caused fear
in Sparta and made war inevitable.”
The term ‘Thucydides’s Trap’ was coined
in 2012 by American political scientist Graham Allison, who reviewed 16 such
transitions throughout history and concluded that 12 of them led to war between
great powers. Not surprisingly, today more and more students of world politics are
asking whether a new tragedy of this kind is in the making, with China’s rise
increasingly being resisted by the United States.
There is no reason to take issue with this phenomenon, nor the idea that rising
powers challenge incumbent leaders. Yet there is another, related point that we
must also address: weakness proves an equally powerful catalyst of instability
and war. Weakness elicits other powers to interfere, to become more aggressive.
Weakness also often breeds nationalism, of either the offensive kind – when
politicians seek to divert attention away from internal problems and redirect
them towards external adversaries – or of the defensive kind, when a frightened
and disorientated society walls itself off from the rest of the
world. Paying attention to both strength and weakness in
international politics is key, because it compels nations to be
self-critical and to try to restore the balance of power through
their own resourcefulness.
This point was made in May 2018 by James Mattis (who
was at the time US Secretary of Defense) in response to a
question about the international status of the west. “If there is
something slipping away, I think it is internal – it is not
external,” he said, pointing to the degradation of human
dignity and respect for the rule of law and democracy in the
western world. He also cited the rise of protectionism and
internal fragmentation, which he feared was a much more
important issue than the rise of China and its authoritarian
ideology. Mattis echoed what Saint Jerome (c347–420)
observed in the fifth century AD: empires die when they are
corrupted at their centre.
Jerome was a witness to the decay of the Roman empire.
A third-century AD carving showing
He saw African provinces rebel, then the colonies in Britain
barbarians battling the forces of Rome,
and, ultimately, Rome itself before, in 410 AD, the Visigoths
where economic weakness invited attack
64
GETTY IMAGES
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Just as much as a rising power, weakness is
a powerful catalyst of instability and war
GETTY IMAGES
sacked the capital. “The brightest light of the whole world is
extinguished; indeed the head has been cut from the Roman
empire,” Jerome lamented. The foundering of Rome was a
tragedy that unfolded in several acts, and was certainly not a
straight downhill pathway to anarchy. But throughout the
third and fourth century AD the empire became less and less
able to deal with external threats – not least the violent mass
migrations from north and east.
A key factor in this gradual weakening was the outsourcing
of border security to neighbouring peoples. The early
emperors had already enlisted barbarians to protect the border
against other barbarians living farther away. As long as those
pacified barbarians – the foederati (allies) – could be paid off, Rome retained
its prestige and the legions remained in place to man the border fortresses; in this
way, threats could be managed and never reached the imperial capital. But the
more that emperors struggled with economic challenges such as inflation, the less
able Rome was to pay foederati to protect its borders. At the same time, internal
inequality became crippling.
Rome spent lavishly on spectacles while its citizens starved, and the decadence
and smugness of several emperors led to political instability. As the challenges along
Rome’s borders became more pressing, the average rule of emperors became shorter.
When the Goths first came to Rome to request protection and resettlement, the
Romans dismissed them. As other migrating peoples impinged further on their
homelands, the Goths continued to knock on Rome’s door. About 20 years after
their initial plea to Rome, they crossed the Balkans and, when they reached Italy,
it was the Romans’ turn to flee. “All the shores of the east, of Egypt, of Africa,”
wrote Jerome, “would be filled with the servants and handmaids of the oncedominant city.”
A second-century AD
statue of a knight
from China’s Eastern
Han dynasty. Weak
military leadership
fuelled social unrest
that eventually led
to the downfall of
that dynasty
T
he collapse of Rome, and the turbulence it caused, teaches
us about the detrimental interplay between a number of
factors: internal weakening; the combination of decadence
at the top and economic exhaustion at the foundations of
the empire; dysfunctional diplomacy, ignoring the
interests of others; and the fact that no walls can protect
a society when it is no longer able to man those barriers.
The experience of Rome was somewhat similar to the
demise of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) in China.
Annals from that period in China report internal fragmentation, social unrest,
incompetent leaders and a “gradual diminishment of benevolence”. At the same
time, barbarians were pressing on the western borders, aiming towards the rich
agricultural heartland of the north China plain.
Following the downfall of the Qin dynasty founded by the first emperor Qin Shi
Huang in 221 BC, from the second century BC the early Han emperors made
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65
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continual efforts to expand their influence, aiming to pacify the ‘barbarians’ at the
border. Emperor An (reigned AD 106–125), though, made the catastrophic
decision to reverse that policy, evacuating much of the western borderland and
retreating behind the Jade Gate – an important pass in the Great Wall, now in
Gansu province, defending Han territory from western ‘barbarians’. The vacuum
his retreat left in that region was instantly filled by his rivals, allowing them to
encroach slowly upon the imperial heartland. The consequence of evacuating the
original sphere of influence was that even more soldiers had to be drafted to defend
the border, and that peasants were heavily taxed, sparking mass unrest – the
so-called Yellow Turban Rebellion (AD 184–205). Just a few decades later, the Han
dynasty collapsed, leading to over half a century of war between various kingdoms.
Internal fragmentation weakened Chinese resistance to similar threats on further
occasions. In the eighth century AD, infighting again threatened the north China
plain. “Kings lost control, while traitorous ministers sold out their country,” wrote
Wang Renyu (880–956). “Fierce armies and valiant warriors helplessly surrendered,
and the common people were slaughtered one by one. Since the beginning of the
world there had never been disorder like this.” One group to profit from the situation
were the nomadic Khitan people, whose leader addressed Chinese envoys mockingly: “That my son [the Chinese emperor] had come to such troubles, I already knew.
But I had heard reports that this son kept 2,000 women in his palace, and 1,000
musicians, that he spent his days hawking and running his hunting hounds, that
he was wallowing in drink and sex. He had no concern for his people.”
66
W
BRIDGEMAN
A Chinese painting
of the Second Opium
War (1859). The
conflict ended in
defeat for the Qing
dynasty – arguably
a result of its
weakness rather
than the power of
the victorious
British and French
eakness is also sometimes the result of
a lack of innovation in industry, arms and
communications. Again, China provides
an example of this phenomenon. In the
19th century, the Qing dynasty – established in Manchuria in the early 17th
century – ruled over one of the largest
empires on earth. Confident in the size of
its economy, the Qing emperors had
dismissed European traders – China is self-sufficient, they insisted.
Nobody could have predicted that so vast a realm would succumb to adversaries
that seemed comparatively puny. Yet during two Opium Wars (1839–42 and
1856–60), the forces of the British
empire dealt the Qing two humiliating defeats. “The Qing government
was already becoming weak and
decadent,” assessed historian Liang
Qichao (1873–1929). “The whole
nation was drugged by the enjoyment
of peace.” This evaluation was only
partially accurate. Even though the
Chinese bourgeoisie had surrendered
to the lure of Indian opium provided
by the Europeans, Chinese imperial
troops offered resistance. In the end,
it was the weakness of the Chinese
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Internal crises may elicit foreign
intervention, but they can also spark
belligerence towards other peoples
GETTY IMAGES
navy that prevented them from being able to repel
the foreigners.
The same was true for other major land empires.
The Mughals (1526–1857) in India and the
Safavids (1501–1736) in Persia lacked effective
ocean-going navies, and thus had no influence over
maritime trade routes. In the 17th century, English
traders used those maritime routes to bypass the
Safavids and the Mughals, sourcing textiles directly
from the Bay of Bengal, and those empires were powerless to intervene.
In the end, those two Asian powers were forced to allow European trade
companies footholds in their territories – and after that, nothing could stop the
Europeans from expanding their sphere of influence and relegating the Asian
rulers to the status of puppets.
Like the Chinese, the Indians and Persians had missed the military revolutions
that had swept through Europe. Gunpowder was an Asian invention, but the
Europeans applied it more inventively and combined it with the mobility of new
types of ships. Unsurprisingly, then, those Asian empires’ coastal navies and vast
land armies were no match for the small European units equipped with far more
powerful artillery.
The Ottomans fared no better. The Ottoman empire, which emerged from
Turkey in the 14th century, had posed an enormous threat to Europe between
the 15th and 17th centuries. Known in and around the Mediterranean basin for
their adaptability and speed, the Ottomans rapidly expanded their territory; by
the end of the 17th century they controlled much of south-east Europe, Anatolia,
the Middle East and north Africa. However, the military, led by the infantry of
the elite Janissaries corps, became a conservative force hindering progress. By the
18th century, the Ottomans had fallen behind important military innovations,
and were forced to call on European countries for support against arch-rival
Russia. After the Crimean War in the mid-19th century, the Ottomans became
known as the “sick man of Europe”, relegated to a debt dependency of countries
such as Germany and France.
I
A contemporary
illustration of 17thcentury Mughal
leader Shah Jahan
at Agra’s Red Fort.
The Mughals’ lack
of maritime power
allowed European
powers to control
trade routes
t is clear, then, that internal crises may elicit foreign intervention,
but can also often spark belligerence towards other peoples. In ancient
times, a lack of land (called stenochoria by the Greeks), famine and
social unrest were factors that encouraged colonisation all around the
Mediterranean. The growing cohorts of unemployed men in republican Rome, for example, drove its leaders to consider colonisation as
a social safety valve. Consul Gaius Marius (157–86 BC) sought to rid
the city of the growing threat posed by these unemployed masses to the
social order by enrolling them in the army and rewarding their service,
Æ
67
not only with pay but also with the promise
of land in far-flung provinces won during their
military campaigns. The medieval crusades
could be seen, at least in part, as an opportunity
to externalise the problem of overpopulation
in Europe.
German foreign secretary Bernhard von
Bülow justified nascent German imperialism in
the 19th century by citing a need to find “a place
under the sun”. His view was that Germany
needed to control the supply of raw materials,
gain access to export markets and ideally establish
colonies, or its nascent industries would wither.
In other words, he was well aware that, despite its
apparent strength, without securing those assets
it would soon become weak.
A similar train of thought drove the Japanese
when they set out to win control of the mines of
Manchuria: Japan had to expand to the Asian
mainland, or it would never become a strong
nation. The more its economic engine sputtered,
leading to increasing social unrest, the more
A 1907 cartoon satirises German colonial ambitions in
politicians aggressively preached imperialism and
Africa. German imperialism was driven in part by the need
to avert industrial weakness, Jonathan Holslag suggests
nationalism. It made war unavoidable.
The ruin of one country means the growth of
another: that was the view of Italian diplomat and historian Niccolò Machiavelli
(1469–1527). For all thinkers about politics, power remains key. If gaining power
was difficult for a young nation, preserving it was even harder for mature nations.
This is why Machiavelli and others put so much emphasis on good governance.
“One may win the empire on a horseback, but how can one govern it from a horse
back?” asked the historian Lu Jia (228–140 BC). Wisdom, harmony, social justice
and prudence have been commonly prescribed to rulers. Even if military power has
to be preserved to ward off rivals, and if walls have to be built, strong defences do
not work when the society inside those defences becomes restless or weak.
“When the city walls are not intact and arms are not abundant, it is no disaster
for the state. When waste land is not brought under cultivation and wealth is not
accumulated, it is not a disaster for the state. But when those above ignore the rites,
those below ignore learning, and lawless people arise, then the end of the state is
at hand,” the Chinese sage Mencius counselled in the fourth century BC. This
opinion was remarkably in line with those of philosophers and advisors from other
regions of that period: Aristotle in Greece, for example, and Kautilya in India.
Virtuous and just leadership had to preserve dignity and respect among the people.
The main attribute of power in a nation is to be found between the ears – it is
about virtue and responsibility and justice and prudence. And perhaps it is just that
point that James Mattis, during his
career as US Secretary of Defense, tried
Jonathan Holslag teaches international
to explain to the western world: with
politics at the Free University Brussels.
the ebbing of dignity, of respect for law
His latest book is A Political History of the
and democracy, the west is about to lose
World: Three Thousand Years of War and Peace
its main well of strength.
(Pelican, 2018)
68
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Two worlds
collide
Servile or stately?
A Spanish painting shows
Moctezuma humbly offering
treasures to Hernán Cortés –
yet in truth the Aztec emperor
flaunted his wealth and power,
dazzling the conquistadors
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BRIDGEMAN
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Five centuries ago, Spanish conquistador
Hernán Cortés met Aztec emperor Moctezuma –
a moment often depicted as the start of an
unstoppable, inevitable European colonisation
of the Americas. Caroline Dodds Pennock
explains why the story is much more complex
Æ
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Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, depicted
in a late-16th-century portrait. Rather than a
noble emissary of the Spanish crown, Cortés
was essentially a rebellious fortune-hunter
A 17th-century Spanish painting shows Moctezuma carried through the
streets of Tenochtitlan. Accounts of his meeting with Cortés describe the
Aztec emperor being shaded by a magnificent canopy of feathers and jade
n 8 November 1519, on a wide wooden causeway outside the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the tlatoani (ruler)
Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin – better
known today as Moctezuma – and
the Spanish conquistador Hernán
Cortés came face to face for the first
time. The meeting powerfully symbolises the confrontation between
the great civilisations of Europe and the Americas: Cortés,
standing as representative of the king of Spain and newly elected
Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V; and Moctezuma, the ruler of
an empire of millions. It was the start of a series of events that
led to the downfall of the Aztec empire, and to the Spanish conquest and colonisation of Central and South America.
The epic myth of the Spanish conquest has become famous in
history: the daring adventurer Cortés and a few hundred plucky
conquistadors who defied overwhelming odds to vanquish the
brutal Aztec empire. But this is no simple tale of inevitable European dominance. This was a moment when events were finely
poised, before the balance of power shifted decisively towards
the Europeans. And, for the players in this delicate game, it was
not at all apparent who held the strongest cards.
The meeting on the causeway has been depicted as emblematic of the meeting between the Old World and the New. But
various aspects hint at the complexities and nuances of the encounter. After Cortés rode his horse onto the causeway he seems
to have been kept waiting while Aztec nobles conducted a ceremonial welcome: each saluted him in courtly Nahuatl language
before bowing low to touch and kiss the ground. It must have
been an incredible scene, with thousands of Aztecs watching
from canoes and rooftops, hoping to catch a glimpse of the newcomers; the causeway, too, was packed with people.
In a striking distinction, Spanish accounts of the event emphasise the precious metals and stones sported by the Aztecs,
whereas the Florentine Codex – compiled later from the recollections of indigenous informants – gives priority to the glorious
flowers that adorned the causeway in gourd vases, wreaths and
garlands: sunflowers, popcorn flowers, magnolias, cacao blooms.
With so many nobles involved, these initial ceremonies
dragged on for perhaps an hour, and it seems that Cortés endured them a little impatiently. Fortunately, the proceedings
were deciphered for him by an indigenous translator, Malintzin
(known to the Spanish as Doña Marina or La Malinche), who
had been given to him as one of a group of enslaved women. Her
importance to the encounter cannot be overstated: it was actually her voice that both Moctezuma and Cortés heard during
their ‘conversations’, with all the potential for misunderstanding and misinterpretation that entailed. Fascinatingly, though
the Spanish sources largely ignore her involvement, indigenous
accounts don’t contain the same omission. In those, Malintzin
appears as a central character, both the voice of the Spaniards
and an authority figure in her own right.
After the initial ceremonies, calculated to make a grand impression and emphasise Aztec dominance, Moctezuma himself
came out to meet the conquistadors. The tlatoani was carried onto
the causeway on a litter with a magnificent canopy of green feathers, decorated with gold and jewels. The shimmering feathers
O
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GETTY/AKG IMAGES
Conquest of the Aztecs
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Moctezuma and his nobles greet Cortés in an illustration from a late16th-century book by Friar Diego Durán. After the Spanish landed on the
Mexican coast, Aztec emissaries presented them with valuable gifts
TOPFOTO/BRIDGEMAN
Moctezuma was a literate,
effective administrator
whose people were highly
educated and determined
and the green jade dangling from the canopy border, were
among the most precious objects in the Aztec world, enveloping
Moctezuma in a lustrous display of his power and wealth. He
was surrounded by the high lords of his empire, themselves fabulously dressed, but the tlatoani’s rank was marked out by his ornate sandals. All the other Aztecs, even the highest nobles, went
barefoot to honour the man who stood so close to the gods, and
only his closest advisors were permitted to look him in the face.
When Moctezuma stepped down from the litter, Cortés dismounted and the two engaged in a fascinating exchange that
reveals their very different values. It is hard to know precisely
what happened. However, it seems that Cortés proffered his
hand to Moctezuma but was rebuffed by his attendants – one
did not touch the tlatoani. Moctezuma instead extended his
own hand – taking control of the interaction – before accepting
from Cortés a necklace of worked-glass beads scented with
musk, which the conquistador had been wearing. In return,
Moctezuma offered the Spaniard flowers, then put over the conquistador’s head two necklaces made of beautiful and valuable
red snail shells, from which dangled eight shrimps made of pure
gold, each the size of a man’s hand. After this rather unequal
swap, the tlatoani invited Cortés into the city. It was the beginning of a famous relationship that led ultimately to the death of
Moctezuma, and to Cortés’s triumph over a city in ruins.
Things never dreamed of before
Thanks to the dominance of sources produced by conquistadors or their supporters, this story is typically told from the
Spanish perspective: scores of readers have experienced the
Æ
Malintzin translates for Cortés and Moctezuma in an illustration from the
Florentine Codex, a 16th-century history of ‘New Spain’
entry into Tenochtitlan through the wide-eyed wonder of the
conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his popular account of
“things never heard of, seen, or dreamed of before”.
The awe of the Spanish is not hard to imagine. Tenochtitlan
was almost certainly the largest city that any of them had ever
seen. Home to perhaps a quarter of a million people (more than
double the population of contemporary London), this island city
was a teeming metropolis, with palaces and temples towering
over clean streets, fertile gardens, orderly canals and huge plazas.
The market at Tlatelolco alone drew around 60,000 people each
day – similar to the population of Seville, the largest city in Spain
at that time. This was, incontrovertibly, a civilisation, much to
the consternation of the conquistadors. The Aztecs are often
stereotyped as an ‘ancient’ culture: superstitious, Stone Age, in
thrall to bloodthirsty gods. It is easy to forget that Moctezuma,
a contemporary of Henry VIII, was not just a powerful warrior but also a literate, effective administrator whose people were
highly educated, well-organised and determined.
Our narrative of the conquest usually follows the path of the
Spanish expedition, but the meeting on the causeway was actually the culmination of more than six months of careful manoeuvring from both sides.
From the time Cortés landed on the Mexican coast in March
1519, Moctezuma had been carefully monitoring his movements, despatching emissaries to meet the new arrivals and
sending astonishing gifts of gold and silver; these were intended
to persuade the invaders to depart his territory and move on to
others less powerful or less willing to pay tribute. To the Spanish, though, these courteous exchanges were not a deterrent but
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Cortés led an army in
which conquistadors were
outnumbered at least ten
to one by Mexicans
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ALAMY
Conquest of the Aztecs
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Conquistadors and indigenous
warriors under Hernán Cortés
attack Tenochtitlan in a late17th-century painting. The
assault, which ended in August
1521, effectively completed
the conquest of Mexico by the
Spanish, a year after the
so-called ‘Night of Sorrows’
when Aztecs rebelling against
the conquistadors killed many
of the Europeans and drove
the rest from the city
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Conquest of the Aztecs
an invitation: they saw them as confirmation of the existence of
a wealthy kingdom in the interior that could be easily exploited.
In a precarious position after defying his local superior –
Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba – Cortés saw the incredible
treasures sent by Moctezuma as an opportunity to buy the support of Charles V. He promptly dispatched these riches to the
Spanish king, along with emissaries to plead his case and secure
his authority in a land he had no real mandate to conquer.
This was just one prong of a complex strategy designed to
legitimise Cortés’s actions and ensure his success. First, he ordered that his ships be disabled, forcing his followers to commit
to the mission and realise – as Cortés himself said later – that
“they would conquer and win the land, or die in the attempt”.
This do-or-die attitude was not merely a facade. Having departed from Cuba without the governor’s sanction, Cortés had
been declared a rebel against the crown and, as a result, was
fighting on two fronts for much of the expedition. Indeed, in
May 1520 he found himself facing a force sent by Velázquez to
arrest him, but in a characteristically bold (and lucky) move,
Cortés convinced the Cuban soldiers to join his quest for gold
and glory. It was not until 1523, two years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, that Cortés learned he’d been named governor of New
Spain, and he spent most of his life fighting Velázquez’s accusations. It’s clear, then, that his position here was far from secure.
Cortés’s strategy on the ground was to exploit local divisions,
winning allies (or at least reasonably compliant bystanders)
through a combination of force, diplomacy and terror tactics. By
the time he arrived at Tenochtitlan he was accompanied by some
10,000 indigenous warriors. These men were Tlaxcalans, close
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neighbours and enemies of the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan; after initial fierce resistance, they had been convinced to throw in their
lot with the Spaniards against their old adversaries.
The entry into Tenochtitlan was an awe-inspiring moment
for the conquistadors. Superficially, the balance of power favoured Moctezuma: he controlled the stage, and the Spaniards
found themselves at the heart of a hostile city, in the centre of an
empire of millions, surrounded by highly trained warriors who
thought nothing of offering their opponents to a merciless god.
“What men in all the world have shown such daring?” boasted
Díaz. But the presence of a multitude of Tlaxcalans on the causeway must surely have affected the dynamic of the meeting. Bravery comes much more readily with 10,000 allies at your back.
When Cortés rode towards Tenochtitlan, he was at the head
of a strikingly foreign force – unfamiliar clothes and weapons,
white faces, beards, strange crosses and banners all feature in
later depictions of the invading Spaniards by indigenous people
– but he also led an army in which the conquistadors were outnumbered by Mexicans at least ten to one.
We don’t know what the Aztecs thought about the Tlaxcalans
in their midst, but we know that their fellow Mexicans were
luxuriously accommodated in the city with the Spaniards, and
that many Tlaxcalans died alongside their allies on the so-called
‘Night of Sorrows’. This was the night when, after simmering
hostilities erupted into open warfare following the slaughter of
unarmed Aztec warriors at a festival, the conquistadors fled the
city, losing most of their party in the process. Moctezuma was
also killed at some point during this clash, though it’s unclear
whether he died at the hands of the Spanish or his own people.
BRIDGEMAN
Spanish ships on the
Mexican coast are
disabled in July 1519 on
Cortés’s orders, forcing
his followers to commit
fully to the mission, as
depicted in a 19thcentury engraving
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The conquest, combined
with epidemics, killed all
but a small fraction of
the original population
Spanish soldiers slaughter unarmed Aztec men at a festival in 1520.
Though the Europeans were initially welcomed in Tenochtitlan, their
aggression sparked a violent response from their hosts
Aztecs afflicted by smallpox, shown in an illustration from the 16thcentury Florentine Codex. Weakened by an epidemic of this disease, the
Aztecs eventually succumbed to the Spanish invaders under Cortés
Cortés and his allies then orchestrated an unlikely reversal,
besieging the city with brigantines constructed in Tlaxcala and
carried over the mountains. Ravaged by a smallpox epidemic to
which they had no immunity, the Aztecs nonetheless fought to
the death, refusing to surrender until their new ruler, Cuauhtemoc, was finally captured in a canoe on the lake. By that stage,
the city the Spaniards had so admired was in ruins.
the Spanish, successfully asserting their autonomy and gaining
exemption from tribute. They sent emissaries to Spain, won
coats of arms, and became prominent players in colonial politics.
Other cities also asserted themselves, swiftly adapting their
knowledge of legal and literary conventions to a new alphabetic
system of communication, proving their adaptability and resilience, and learning the delicate art of negotiation with the
crown. Even the noble families of Tenochtitlan – the conquistadors’ fiercest opponents – successfully asserted their ‘traditional’ rights, intermarried with the Spanish elite, and gained posts
and grants at court in Spain.
The meeting between Cortés and Moctezuma was remarkable for all that it symbolises. For the Spanish, it was a precarious
juncture. For the Aztecs, it was the arrival of a strange force to
be dazzled and dominated. For the Tlaxcalans, it was an opportunity to exploit. It is a reminder that history is a mirror with
many faces. The side we most often see reflects European dominance, but tilt the angle and we see other perspectives, other
possibilities, other people. It is tempting to see this as the start of
European global dominance, but the route by which we got here
was not clearly signposted to
its participants. In the 500
years since Moctezuma met
Caroline Dodds Pennock is
Cortés, the world was relecturer in international history
made. Yet a closer look at this
at the University of Sheffield
moment reminds us that this
and author of Bonds of Blood:
history was not direct or inevGender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice
itable, but a mosaic of endlessin Aztec Culture (Palgrave
ly complex possibilities.
Macmillan, paperback 2011)
TOPFOTO/ALAMY
Moment of uncertainty
This story is not new. It has been told and retold: as the triumph
of technology; as a tale of heroism and European derring-do; as a
story of Spanish barbarity and vicious conquest; as the salvation
of savage souls; as the last gasp of a great empire or the start of
a new one. And yet we keep returning to it – to this moment of
historical tension, this instant when the world stood at a tipping
point. It is, for me, this very uncertainty that draws us back.
There is an inexorability to history. The story marches towards the present, towards the birth of brutal European empires
and the annihilation and exploitation of indigenous communities. The violence of conquest, combined with the merciless
epidemics that swept through the Americas in the following
decades, left all but a small fraction of the original population
dead, families and communities in ruins, and thousands of
Mexicans enslaved and transported to Spain.
But for the participants in this historical tragedy, the outcome
was not inevitable. When the Aztec empire fell, indigenous Mexicans did not passively submit to Spanish rule. For many, one
faceless emperor was simply replaced by another, and they adapted accordingly. The Tlaxcalans fought for their rights as allies to
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Don McCullin’s war photography
THE HORROR
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Cyprus, 1964
DON MCCULLIN-TATE
Nevcihan Oluşum cries in anguish at the loss
of her husband – a Turkish Cypriot killed
during the conflict that ravaged the island in
1963–64 – as her distraught son, Kubilay,
reaches out to her.
In 1964, McCullin travelled to Cyprus
to photograph the armed struggle between
Turkish and Greek Cypriots for The
Observer. It was his first assignment to cover
an international conflict, and the experience
made a deep impression on him. “Cyprus
left me with the beginnings of a selfknowledge, and the very beginning of what
they call empathy,” he recalled in his
autobiography. “I found I was able to share
other people’s emotional experiences, live
with them silently, transmit them.”
This image won the World Press Photo of
the Year competition for 1964 – the first time
a British photographer received the award.
OF WAR
Across a career
spanning six decades,
British photojournalist
Don McCullin has
captured harrowing
scenes from conflicts
around the world.
Aïcha Mehrez, curator
of a new retrospective
at London’s Tate
Britain gallery, selects
five images that reflect
the global scope of the
photographer’s work Æ
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Don McCullin’s war photography
A US marine throws a hand grenade in Hue,
central Vietnam, in early 1968. Two years
earlier, McCullin had signed an exclusive
contract with The Sunday Times Magazine
and, after the launch of the Tet Offensive on
31 January 1968, he was assigned to
Vietnam. There, he travelled with US
Marines to cover one of the conflict’s largest
military actions.
He spent 11 days with the soldiers as
they fought their way into the citadel of
Hue, capturing a number of iconic images
including this shot of a soldier in action.
“He looked like an Olympic javelin thrower,”
said McCullin. “Five minutes later, this
man’s throwing hand was like a stumpy
cauliflower, completely deformed by the
impact of a bullet.” Such macabre sights were
not uncommon: McCullin often saw corpses
and detached limbs lying among the rubble
of the citadel.
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“Almost 6,000 civilians
were killed in Hue,
more than the military
dead on either side”
Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour (1990)
DON MCCULLIN-TATE
Hue, Vietnam, 1968
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DON MCCULLIN-TATE
Cambodia, 1970
In 1970, US president Richard Nixon
approved military action in Cambodia;
McCullin arrived later that year. He was
walking with a group of Cambodian soldiers
when they were peppered with a hail of AK-47
rounds. As the soldiers mounted a counterattack, McCullin was knocked over by the
force of an explosion. Looking down, he
saw blood pouring from his legs and crotch.
He had been seriously wounded by mortar
fragments. He dragged himself to a group
of medics who dumped him on to an open
lorry for the wounded.
There, McCullin recognised this wounded
soldier, who had been alongside him when
the mortar exploded. “We had shared the
fragmentation, but he had taken most of it in
the stomach,” McCullin recalled. “[He] sat
up and was kicking his legs, pleading for life.
Minutes later I noticed he was lying down
again, his feet drumming too perfectly with
every motion of the lorry... It could so easily
have been my dead corpse rattling.”
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Don McCullin’s war photography
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Beirut, 1976
DON MCCULLIN-TATE
McCullin first visited Lebanon in 1964, and
returned regularly over the following years.
In 1976 he was assigned, together with
Sunday Times correspondent Martin
Meredith, to cover the civil war that had
begun the previous year. They witnessed
violent clashes between Christian and
Muslim groups in cities including Zahlé,
Tripoli and the capital, Beirut, where
McCullin captured this image.
Hearing music in the street, he found
a group of young Christian men playing an
oud they had taken from a ransacked house,
and singing in celebration over the corpse
of a young Palestinian girl. “My mind was
seized by this picture of carnival rejoicing
in the midst of carnage,” McCullin recalled.
“It seemed to say so much about what Beirut
had become. Yet to raise the camera could be
one risk too many. Then the boy called over
to me: ‘Hey, mistah! mistah! Come take
photo.’ I was still frightened, but I shot off
two frames quickly.”
Æ
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Don McCullin’s war photography
“Sometimes... the wind
rushes through the
grass and I feel as if
I’m on the An Loc road
in Vietnam, hearing
the moans of soldiers
beside it. I imagine I can
hear 106-mm howitzers
in the distance. I’ll never
get that out of my mind”
Don McCullin, Perspectives (1987)
The dark, metallic sky, torn earth and
flooded ditch in this photograph, taken
in the Somerset Levels, recalls First World
War trenches more than rural peace, and
sits perfectly alongside battlefield images.
The new Tate Britain retrospective
balances McCullin’s coverage of conflict
and disaster with examples of his lifelong
commitment to traditions of documentary,
landscape and still-life photography. After
a lifetime of war, McCullin’s more recent
focus has been on the meditative plains of
Somerset, as well as Scotland, Hertfordshire
and Northumberland. Yet these images
of bucolic countryside remind McCullin
of the various theatres of war to which his
mind is constantly returning. In his book
The Destruction Business (1971), McCullin
writes of such scenes: “I dream of this when
I’m in battle. I think of misty England.”
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DON MCCULLIN-TATE
Somerset, 1991
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Don McCullin retrospective
5 February–6 May at Tate Britain, London
tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/
don-mccullin
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The
Conversation
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“We have tended to study
philosophy ahistorically,
which has been a mistake”
Julian Baggini’s book How the World Thinks is a global history of
philosophy, from Confucianism to African oral traditions. He met
historian Justin Champion (right) to discuss how thought can shape
civilisations – and how pluralism is vital at a key moment for the west
PORTRAITS BY FRAN MONKS
Æ
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CULTURE The Conversation
“Understanding Russian
philosophy would help
us understand quite a
lot about Russia today,
for instance”
JULIAN BAGGINI
Justin Champion: Your book ranges widely through the
global history of thought, exploring philosophical traditions
that have emerged from Japan, China, India and the Muslim
world, among many other places. My first question, before
we get into the conceptual content of your new book, is:
who is it aimed at?
Julian Baggini: Writers often have the idea that there’s a
so-called ‘intelligent general reader’ out there – somebody who
is simply curious about the world and about ideas, philosophy
and history. And, though we might sometimes think that such
readers are mythical, there are actually people like that. So I see
this book as being for anyone who has a curiosity about the
world and how its people think.
But in a strange way, I think that this book is also more
for academics than other books I’ve written – precisely
because it’s not an academic work. For various reasons, some
good and some bad, academia rewards narrow specialism.
As a result, academics often don’t know figures outside the
historical period they specialise in, let alone outside the
culture they focus on.
Also, in the English-speaking world there hasn’t been much
interest in the history of philosophy. We have tended to study
philosophy very ahistorically, which I think has been a great
mistake. As a result, people don’t think that they need to know
anything about Athens at the time of Plato in order to
understand his work, for instance.
So there’s an increasing embarrassment among people
within academic philosophy in the English-speaking world
about not knowing about things beyond their tradition.
I suspect some of them might sneakily take a look through
this book, just to give them some starters. And this book really
is a starter – I don’t pretend to be comprehensive or exhaustive.
In the introduction, I stress the idea that the book explores
what you need to understand in order to begin to grasp
philosophy. It’s an entry point into these hugely rich and
diverse traditions.
Why isn’t the history of philosophy taught in the UK –
particularly at school? In France, for instance, philosophy
88
is taught in the final stages of secondary school, so there’s
at least a chance of training young minds to understand it.
The reasons philosophy isn’t widely taught at schools in the UK
or, indeed, the US are quite complicated. Partly it is because the
subject has come to be defined in a very narrow way, whereas in
parts of Europe it’s just one aspect of political and social thought.
This almost deliberate narrowing is quite a recent phenomenon. As an example, I’ve recently been doing a lot of work
on the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment thinker David
Hume, who – as well as writing philosophical work that’s
still studied today – wrote essays and history. Those works are
now generally ignored, and are often seen as evidence that
Hume lost his focus on his philosophical work. Yet, in his own
time, Hume was what was called a ‘man of letters’ – which
wasn’t a narrow discipline. Indeed, he saw history as part of his
philosophical project, because he was trying to understand
human nature in a more empirical way. He viewed history as
a series of experiments in how humans behave in a different
situations. That kind of viewpoint has got lost as, for institutional and historical reasons, philosophy has been narrowed
down to a tight discipline.
The overlap between history and philosophy is interesting
in many different ways. One example is Russian philosophy,
which is a subject about which I write only a comparatively
small amount in this book. That’s a shame in many senses. But
exploring it is very difficult because, for some strange reason,
Russian philosophy is often considered to be not philosophy
at all, but something else: religion, perhaps, or folk philosophy.
As a result, little has actually been written in the English
language about Russian philosophy. Yet, from the small
amount that I did manage to glean on the subject, it seems
that understanding Russian philosophy would help us
understand quite a lot about Russia today – particularly the
image Russia has of itself as being not part of the west, but
not quite of the east, either. The nation very self-consciously
turned against the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment
to embrace a romantic attachment to the land, peasantry and
religion. It therefore came to see itself as having a special role
in the world: to uphold these ideals against onslaughts from
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An engraving of an east
Indian deity by (or possibly
after) Bernard Picart from
The Religious Ceremonies and
Customs of All the Peoples of
the World (1723). This book
celebrated cultural
relativism, with all the
‘others’ of the world
regarded as equal
ALAMY/BRIDGEMAN
An early 19th-century painting depicts a
reading of Voltaire’s work to an audience
flanking a bust of the French philosopher.
Voltaire’s writing was a powerful
influence on the Enlightenment, from
which “certain ideas have been taken up
by broader culture in quite a crude way”,
says Julian Baggini
Æ
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CULTURE The Conversation
Six thinkers who shaped global philosophy
The Buddha (‘knower’) was an
itinerant teacher who lived in the
Indian subcontinent around the
fifth century BC. According to
tradition, he was born Siddhartha
Gautama in Lumbini in what is now
Nepal. As the privileged son of a
royal family, he was sheltered
from knowledge of hardship until
a series of chance encounters led him to leave home in search
of truth. After six years of wandering he achieved enlightenment, and thereafter taught the Four Noble Truths and the
Eightfold Path as a route to overcome dukkha, or suffering – by
cultivating non-attachment to self and the world.
Plato (c427–c347 BC)
Plato occupies a pivotal position
in the history of western
philosophy. Much of his work
takes the form of reported
dialogues involving his teacher,
Socrates, so it remains unclear
how much is Plato’s original
thinking. Plato’s Socrates denies
the reality of the material world,
and scorns those who accept only
the evidence of their senses; one
famous allegory compares humanity to a group of prisoners
who, watching shadows on a cave wall, believe them to be
real. After Socrates was executed, Plato founded the
Academy – the blueprint for the modern university.
David Hume (1711–76)
The Edinburgh-born philosopher,
historian and economist Hume
swam against the rationalist
tide during the Enlightenment,
arguing that sentiment, not
reason, was the basis of moral
decisions. He followed the
empiricists in believing that
reason was fundamentally
passive, and required the
emotions to provide the drive or will to act. Hume bucked
another trend in western thought by contending that all our
ideas are derived from impressions received through the
senses – a thought process that led him to question any
concept that was not derived directly from experience,
including that of a unified self.
90
Confucius (551–479 BC)
The influential Chinese thinker
Confucius – a Latinisation of the
Chinese name Kǒng Fūzı̌ –
emphasised the need for people
to respect their duties and roles
within a harmonious social
system, and believed that the
family is the ideal model for the
state. One Confucian paradigm is
the importance of the five wu lun,
or relations – sovereign-subject, father-son, elder-younger
brother, husband-wife and friend-friend. His teachings centred
on the idea of Ren, best expressed as: “What you do not wish for
yourself, do not do unto others”. Although secular, Confucianism functioned very much as a national religion for centuries in
China, and formed a key part of political thought to the present.
Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā)
(c980–1037 AD)
Born in what’s now Uzbekistan,
this polymath of the Islamic golden
age wrote about diverse subjects
including mathematics, geography
and astronomy, and produced a
medical textbook that was still in
use 600 years after his death.
Avicenna’s philosophy explores
logic and metaphysics in a Muslim
context, seeking to reconcile rational thought with his own
devout faith. In several of his works he aimed to demonstrate
the existence of God by reasoning that there must be an entity
that caused all others to exist, and whose attributes – including
unity, simplicity and power – he equated with Allah.
Hannah Arendt
(1906–75)
Born in Hanover, northern
Germany, Arendt studied under
influential philosopher Martin
Heidegger but in 1933 fled to
Paris to escape the Nazi regime’s
anti-Semitic policies. Migrating
to the United States in 1941, she
developed theories on political
thought, looking in particular at
totalitarianism, imperialism, racism (notably anti-Semitism)
and the nature of evil. In The Human Condition (1958), she
decried what she saw as a misguided obsession with welfare,
championing instead the classical ideals of work, citizenship
and political action.
GETTY IMAGES/AKG IMAGES
Buddha (sixth or fifth
century BC)
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“Rationality is important
precisely because there are
so many things in society
that work against it”
JULIAN BAGGINI
both the west and the east. That sounds almost as if we are
describing the regime in Russia today – and so it represents
just one point where the disciplines of history and philosophy
could help each other out.
The 18th-century Enlightenment is a school of thought that
gets a bit of a bad write-up throughout your book. You’re
critical of the notion that it was all about the elevation of
human reason and the defeat of religion and superstition,
for instance. Do you think there’s any saving grace to the
Enlightenment project at all?
I think part of the reason I’m so critical of the Enlightenment
is that you have to challenge hardest those things to which
people are most attached. What I’m particularly critical of is
how certain Enlightenment ideas have been taken up by
broader culture in quite a crude way. I think that the original
Enlightenment thinkers were often spot on, and completely
failed to conform to the stereotype used by those who have
subsequently come to diss their ideas.
The modern philosopher John Gray, for example, is a very
vocal critic of the Enlightenment, and has attacked what he
regards as its proponents’ naive idea of human progress. Yet,
as people such as historian Jonathan Israel point out, that isn’t
the whole story: many Enlightenment philosophers were aware
that human progress was fragile and could be reversed, and
were generally realistic rather than utopian. Returning to
David Hume [see box, left], one of the greatest philosophers in
history, he very much did not have a ridiculous faith in the
omnipotent power of reason.
In order to recover the Enlightenment, therefore, we need
to be very harsh about the ways in which simplistic interpretations have led us down blind alleys – as well as revisiting what
its original thinkers actually said. For me, the main message
is that we must use our reason as best we can. Rationality is
so important precisely because there are so many things in
human society and human nature that work against it.
As soon as you start looking at some of the less famous texts
of the Enlightenment, you get a real sense of its breadth. The
Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the
World by Bernard Picart and Jean Frederic Bernard (1723),
for instance, is spectacular because its pages feature so many
different cultures: Chinese, Indian, Japanese and many
more. The book made a lot of people at the time very upset
because it celebrated and embraced cultural relativism –
with all the ‘others’ of the world regarded as being equal.
That phrase ‘cultural relativism’ is an interesting one. I want
to draw back from absolute relativism, and would rather
defend what [20th-century philosopher and historian of
ideas] Isaiah Berlin called ‘pluralism’. That’s an important
distinction: if you’re a complete relativist, what you’re
essentially saying is that nothing is better than anything else.
I don’t think that can be right. For example, certain forms of
slavery have been abolished, and we are worried about those
forms that still exist because there is no possible world in
which they are morally acceptable.
Yet though there are things that are wrong, the list of ways
of living that are perfectly acceptable and allow for human
flourishing is longer than a single entry. That’s important,
I think: one value of examining these different philosophical
traditions and their moral and political principles is that it
helps us to understand that there isn’t just one model for how
human beings can thrive.
Those models also act as useful mirrors encouraging us
to re-examine ourselves, because sometimes societies have to
make choices. In a society that puts at its heart communitarian
principles and makes its priority social harmony, there’s going
to be a trade-off in terms of individual freedoms. The tragedy
of pluralism is that though there are multiple good ways to live,
you can’t live all of them at the same time.
Finally, it’s also true that you can use your awareness of
what’s good in other traditions to mitigate some of the excesses
of your own. I don’t think, for instance, that the west should
give up on the idea of individualism: I think it’s been extremely
helpful and very liberating. But a lot of people would say that
it leads to excesses we should be worried about. Understanding
alternative values, such as the Confucian idea of harmony,
gives us a resource to try to correct those excesses.
91
Æ
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CULTURE The Conversation
A 13th-century Turkish
illustration depicts
Socrates discussing
his philosophy. “One
thing that becomes very
evident even if you look at
a very superficial history
of Islamic thought is that
it incorporates great
diversity and richness,”
says Julian Baggini. “Its
philosophers are not all
of one voice, and it’s not
a monolithic culture”
92
sense of that without understanding family, parents, society,
people you grew up with, and so on. It’s built into who we are.
What’s very interesting to me is that science has made a
lot of progress in recent years in areas in which it has moved
slightly away from the reductionist paradigm. Systems biology,
for example, is a hot research area because people are realising
that you can only go so far when you analyse things in terms
of their discrete elements – and that analysing things as parts
of a system produces a different understanding.
Another beauty of having these multiple models is that
you can’t say one is better than the other. That’s the point.
You have to be able to look at the world in both ways, shifting
between the two to find what works best in any given situation.
This must have been a difficult book to write, partly because
of its ambitious scope but also because of the philosophical
side of the project itself. In order for us to understand
Japanese or Russian philosophy, for instance, we have to
translate it, both linguistically and culturally. Is it really
possible to culturally translate such models into an essentially Eurocentric philosophical tradition, or does that do
them a disservice?
There are so many potential pitfalls in a project like this. One,
certainly, is that you can’t help looking at these things from
where you’ve come from. There is no view from nowhere, only
a view from somewhere, so inevitably this is a westerner’s look
at the subject – though obviously I didn’t want to deliberately
distort things. The situation is more complicated than that, too,
because even within a philosophical tradition, people often have
different views on its ideas and its teachings. All I could do was
talk to the people who knew about a specific subject. I interviewed a lot of experts for this project, and a great deal of the
book comprises direct quotes. I can’t do any more than that.
BRIDGEMAN
That idea of societal choice is interesting, particularly when
it comes to intimacy and autonomy. That dichotomy is one of
the big philosophical problems we all confront today, isn’t it?
It’s important to first say here that my book is, in many ways,
standing on the shoulders of giants. I’m not coming up with
my own original interpretations – I’m trying to join the
dots. What you’ve just referred to is an idea from Thomas
Kasulis, a wonderful comparative philosopher who works
mainly on Japanese thought. He stresses that philosophical
traditions are not in some way completely alien from each
other but, rather, that what is in the foreground in one culture
is in the background in another – and vice versa.
The distinction between intimacy and autonomy – or
integrity, as he calls it – is Kasulis’s. Essentially, he writes that
there are two different orientations in the way in which we
think about and approach the world. One is a view in which
things are broken up into their constituent parts. That’s the
predominant way of thinking in contemporary science – the
atomistic or reductive view – and in the way we nowadays tend
to think about individuals. British prime minister Margaret
Thatcher famously said in 1987 that “there’s no such thing as
society – there are individual men and women and there are
families”. She wasn’t really saying that there is no such thing as
society – simply that society is what you get when you have a
lot of people together. That’s an example of the first paradigm
Kasulis describes.
The other paradigm takes as a starting point the idea that
everything is related, and puts those relationships in the
foreground. This paradigm doesn’t merely take individual
items and then relate them; rather, it recognises that things
only exist to the extent that they’re related. It doesn’t take
much thought to realise that humans are like that. If I think
about who I am or who you are, you can’t even begin to make
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“Islamic thought incorporates
great diversity and richness.
Its philosophers are not all
of one voice”
FRAN MONKS
JULIAN BAGGINI
seems to me to be false. We can have a much more optimistic
I think that, as a reader and as a writer, you have to have a bit of
and realistic view of how the west and the Islamic world can
humility. You can’t pretend that you fully understand Japanese
avoid clashes by looking at how, in Islam itself, there are lots
or Chinese culture just because you’ve read this book.
of ways of thinking that are both tolerant and open, and with
There were two specific areas in which I had to be
which we can coexist.
particularly careful. One is Indian philosophy, because
Throughout this book I’m trying to advocate for a balance:
there are people who take great pride in the fact that it doesn’t
we must fully acknowledge where there is difference, but not
distinguish itself from religion. They would argue that
make so much of that difference that we shut down the
religion and philosophy are in some way one. Yet there
possibility of mutual understanding and coexistence. You
are others who think that’s a kind of caricature – a way of
can’t pretend that everyone’s the same, but nor can you
dismissing Indian philosophy and not doing justice to its
make out that everyone’s so different that there’s no possible
rich tradition of thought.
hope of co-operation.
The other area is Islamic philosophy.
To even call the philosophy of the Islamic
Do you see this project as having
world ‘Islamic philosophy’, for instance,
a political edge?
is contentious, because there is a debate
I hate to sound like a philosopher, but
about whether, after the so-called ‘golden
there are many different meanings of
age’ of the Middle Ages, it lost its way
the word ‘political’! I guess, if we’re
and became theology – and then the
being honest, then yes, it does. When I
philosophy aspect got lost. Other people
embarked on the project, I wasn’t thinking
argue that this is a distorted, western
that the rise of nationalism and nativism
way of looking at it, because the west is
in many parts of the world meant that
intolerant of philosophy having a religious
I needed to write a book advocating
dimension. There’s a dispute there, and
“The
Anglophone
a more sympathetic understanding of
I try to show both sides. One thing that
other cultures, but that probably is kind
becomes very evident even if you look
world’s disinterest
at a very superficial history of Islamic
in other philosophical of right. I do think that, at this particular
point in time, we need to resist – and
thought is that it incorporates great
traditions
has
been
that’s the political element – a move
diversity and richness. Its philosophers
rooted in a perception towards insularity. And so, in that sense,
are not all of one voice, and it’s not
the book does have a political dimension.
a monolithic culture. It encompasses
that, although lots
Philosophy is only one aspect of
original thought right across its expanse.
of things go on in the
that, of course. You can achieve similar
We also shouldn’t imagine that what
name
of
philosophy
things through music and art, because
the Islamic world must do is exactly
elsewhere, they’re not whenever anyone has any sympathetic
what the Christian world did during the
or positive encounter with another
Enlightenment. A lot of people say that
really philosophy”
culture, it chips away at those forces of
there should be an Islamic Enlightenment
Hear more of Baggini and Champion’s
nationalism and nativism. But though
– and there might be some truth in that
discussion on our biweekly podcast
we’re used to celebrating the artistic
– but the idea that it would be a mirror
historyextra.com/podcasts
culture of other countries, for instance – Æ
image of the western Enlightenment
93
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CULTURE The Conversation
“In order to change the world,
is it the case that we need to
understand it further – and
not just Europe?”
JUSTIN CHAMPION
movement rather than a transformation. We already had
a fundamental belief in individual rights and individualism,
for example; today we are simply further down that road.
So I’d argue that cultures are more resilient than we
sometimes think. Just importing MTV or Coca-Cola, for
instance, doesn’t fundamentally change a culture overnight.
And there are still major differences between cultures: to
external observers, for instance, those of Japan and others in
east Asia look very much like conformism and collectivism,
with the individual subsuming their identity to the group.
In fact, that’s not the case – people in that region are just as
individual as anywhere else – but there is a fundamentally
pro-social way of thinking that goes back to that idea of
Karl Marx famously said that “the philosophers have only
integrity and intimacy. One of my favourite signs on the
interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however,
Japanese underground network reads: “Any masterpiece just
is to change it”. To invert that somewhat, it seems to me
becomes noise disturbance when emanating from earphones.”
that what you’re arguing is that, in order to change the
What I love about that is not only that it’s true, but also that
world, we need to understand it further – and that
it’s not telling anyone to do anything.
doesn’t just mean the European world
Signs in Britain often say things
either, but the entire world.
such as “No talking” or “Be quiet”,
Yes – absolutely. In order to change
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
whereas that Japanese example simply
our thinking we have to know what
reminds people that behaviour
brought us to where we are, and what
has antisocial consequences – and
the alternatives are for where we might
Julian Baggini
that’s enough in itself.
go in the future. To cite a key question
is a British writer
But if there’s even a possibility that
I ask in the book: is culture now
and co-founder of the
globalisation might produce a radical
changing in a new way as a result of
Philosophers’ Magazine.
shift in cultural values and ideas towards
a highly globalised world? We know
His latest book is How
a more homogenous world, it’s even
that cultures do evolve: Tom Kasulis,
the World Thinks
more important that we try to retain
for instance, argues that medieval
(Granta, 2018)
some of those ideas. Rather in the
Europe featured more of the intimacy
same way that we try to keep hold of
mindset than the integrity model.
endangered species and languages,
Yet this change tends to be gradual,
we need to keep hold of these diverse
and continuities tend to be greater.
Justin Champion
ideas before they’re forgotten.
People in the UK are often nostalgic
is emeritus professor of
about what the nation used to be like in
history at Royal Holloway,
DISCOVER MORE
the 1950s, for instance – but if you study
University of London. He
Explore the history of philosophy
more deeply how the country has
is co-editor (with Mark
in the BBC Radio 4 series
changed since then, these changes seem
Goldie) of the forthcoming
A History of Ideas. Listen online at
bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04bwydw
to me to be a continuation of existing
Hobbes on Religion
or their cuisines, or their architecture – we’re not so used to
celebrating their philosophies or their ideas.
I also think this is a process that’s very important for our
own sake, because the western world is struggling at the
moment. The kind of institutions and ideals that have helped
create a largely peaceful and democratic world are under threat,
and I think there’s an argument that we need to explore the
philosophical resources that other parts of the world could
offer. That might sound a bit like colonialism – that we’re
going to raid other cultures for their resources. It shouldn’t
be a raid, though, but a two-way trade.
94
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Issue 14 – February/March 2019
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Agenda
EXHIBITIONS, TV,
FILMS AND
MORE
96
MARA VISHNIAC KOHN, COURTESY INTERNATIONAL CENTER OF PHOTOGRAPHY
CULTURE Agenda
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A LOST WORLD
This photograph of Jewish schoolchildren in Ukraine in the 1930s
is among hundreds of images of
Jewish life in Europe between the
two world wars taken by Russian
photographer Roman Vishniac.
His extraordinary body of work is
the subject of a new retrospective
at two London venues – the Jewish
Museum and The Photographers’
Gallery. Each exhibition illustrates
the same themes using a different
set of images, documenting a way
of life that was progressively eroded
and attacked during the Nazi
regime. It’s a diverse collection,
featuring famous photos alongside
rare prints and film footage.
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,
until 24 February at the Jewish Museum
London and The Photographers Gallery
jewishmuseum.org.uk/roman-vishniac;
thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on
Æ
97
NEW IMPRESSIONS
The 19th-century Dutch artist Vincent
van Gogh is often associated with the
scenery of France, where he spent the
final years of his life. Yet, as a new
exhibition at London’s Tate Britain
gallery attests, the years that the artist
spent as a young man in England
were just as influential. Gathering
some of his best-known pieces, such
as Shoes (above, 1886) and Sunflowers,
the collection also includes paintings
Van Gogh admired early in his career
– works by British luminaries such
as John Constable and John Everett
Millais. It’s a chance to both admire
famous art first-hand and also
discover more about the life of
this troubled painter.
Van Gogh and Britain, from 27 March
at Tate Britain
tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/
ey-exhibition-van-gogh-and-britain
Tensions run high in Roma, a family drama
set against the backdrop of the social unrest
that troubled Mexico throughout the 1970s
THE PERSONAL AND THE POLITICAL
Conflict in various forms – domestic,
interpersonal and political – is the
thread woven lightly through Roma, a
new film set in Mexico City in the early
1970s. It begins at a languid pace, with
discord merely a background note, as the
story follows the daily routine of Cleo, a
young Mixteco Mesoamerican woman
who works as a live-in maid for a wealthy
family in the Roma district.
Gradually the narrative expands to
encompass strained romantic relationships, the divide between city dwellers
and the country’s indigenous people,
and growing tension on the streets. This
was the era of Mexico’s ‘Dirty War’,
during which leftwing groups, students
and other demonstrators repeatedly
clashed with government forces – and
were frequently ‘disappeared’. As the
story progresses, these larger political
problems touch the lives of Roma’s
characters – with devastating effects.
Loosely based on the formative years
of writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, and
using his trademark cinematic style to
tell a more grounded story than his fantastical recent fare (Gravity, Harry Potter
and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of
Men), this is an intimate drama evoking
a specific time and place in Mexico’s
recent history.
Roma, available now on Netflix
netflix.com/roma
BLUE PERIOD
An ornately gilded vase is
among the beautiful
pieces from Jodhpur
displayed in a new
exhibition in Toronto
98
For nearly five centuries, the Rathore dynasty ruled the princely
state of Marwar from Jodhpur, the ‘Blue City’ of Rajasthan,
north-west India. Now a new exhibition in Toronto opens a
window onto the lives and cultural evolution of these Rajput
rulers, with the chance to admire rarely seen treasures including
opulent jewellery, ceremonial objects, rich textiles and a monumental 17th-century court tent.
Treasures of a Desert Kingdom: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India, from 9 March
at Royal Ontario Museum. rom.on.ca/en/exhibitions-galleries/exhibitions/rajasthan
VAN GOGH MUSEUM, AMSTERDAM (VINCENT VAN GOGH FOUNDATION)/ALAMY/ THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON
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Nine books for 2019
From sweeping global histories to biographies of
people and places, our pick of the history titles to
look out for in the first months of the year ahead
How to Hide
an Empire
by Daniel
Immerwahr
Bodley Head,
February
Until its admission
to the United States
in 1959, Alaska
was an ‘organised
incorporated
territory’ – a label also applied to Hawaii,
which acceded in the same year. This book
tells the story of US-governed territories
across the nation’s history, and what it
reveals about empire more broadly.
Greece: Biography
of a Modern Nation
by Roderick
Beaton
Allen Lane, March
Spanning the past
300 years, this
book tells the story
of modern Greece
as a separate entity
from its famous
ancient forerunner. It weaves together
descriptions of political upheaval, cultural
innovation, intellectual development and
the everyday lives of the nation’s people.
The Patient
Assassin
by Anita Anand
Simon & Schuster,
April
In 1919, hundreds
were killed when
British Indian Army
troops fired into a
crowd of unarmed
people gathered
in the north-west Indian city of Amritsar.
A century later, Anita Anand chronicles
how one of the men who witnessed the
bloodshed at Amritsar set out to track
down and kill one of the people he believed
were responsible.
WORDS MATT ELTON
Threads of Life
by Clare Hunter
Sceptre, February
A history of the
world focusing on
sewing: it’s an
innovative, quirky
idea through
which the author
identifies links
between familiar
artefacts and eras. From the Norman
conquest to 1970s Argentina via Tudor
England and the First World War, it seems
that a stitch in time really can help shape
politics and personal identity.
Maoism:
A Global History
by Julia Lovell
Bodley Head, March
The dominance of
Maoism in China
from the 1950s had
genuinely seismic
consequences.
This study follows
its effects not just
in that country but throughout the world,
as its impact was felt through the Cold
War, the conflict in Vietnam and a diverse
set of insurgent and revolutionary causes.
The Ideas that
Made America
by Jennifer
RatnerRosenhagen
OUP, April
Political idealism
has been at the
heart of the US
since its founding.
This study heads
even further back in time, to consider
how the liberty and individual freedom
dreamed of by the first explorers to North
America shaped the values of later
generations. It’s a timely look at an issue
that still affects US politics today.
Midnight in
Chernobyl
by Adam
Higginbotham
Bantam, February
At 1.23am local
time on 26 April
1986, a massive
surge at the
nuclear power
plant in Chernobyl
sparked one of the worst disasters in
modern history. Adam Higginbotham
draws together unpublished documents
and hours of eyewitness interviews to
narrate a fresh retelling of the tragedy.
Arabs: A 3,000Year History of
Peoples, Tribes
and Empires
by Tim
Mackintosh-Smith
Yale, March
This account of
centuries of Arab
history argues that
spoken and written
language, not religion, were the fundamental factors driving the spread of Arab
culture and a shared identity. It’s an epic
656-page exploration of a vast subject.
African Samurai
by Thomas
Lockley and
Geoffrey Girard
Sphere, May
How did a 16thcentury African
mercenary find
himself in Japan,
serving as a
samurai under the
feudal lord Oda Nobunaga? That’s the key
question behind this biography of the man
known as Yasuke (as the UK version of this
book is titled). It’s both a compelling story
and a vivid illustration of the forces
shaping the world at that time.
99
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In the footsteps of…
A 10th-century
Islamic mission
across central Asia
In 921, a party set out from Baghdad to bring Islamic law to a
newly converted king on the river Volga. James E Montgomery
traces the perilous journey of Ibn Fadlan through central Asia,
encountering ferocious tribesmen and fiery Viking ship burials
100
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AWL IMAGES
Turquoise domes gleam over
the historic centre of Bukhara,
now in Uzbekistan. By the time of
Ibn Fadlan’s visit in 921, it was a
cultural hub of the Islamic world
Æ
101
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JOURNEYS In the footsteps of a 10th-century Islamic mission across central Asia
leven centuries ago, a party
The request was granted, and
of Muslims set out on an
Ahmad ibn Fadlan, at that time a minor
extraordinary journey from
functionary at the Baghdad court,
Baghdad. They travelled
“was delegated to read al-Muqtadir’s
letter to the king, to present him with
some 3,000 miles east and north to a
the official gifts, and to supervise the
spot on the river Volga, far beyond the
jurists and instructors”.
borders of the Abbasid caliphate (the
It was decided that the costs of conIslamic empire with an influence that
structing the mosque and fort were to be
spanned north Africa, the Middle East
raised by selling an estate in Khwarazm
and central Asia). Traversing what’s now
(an oasis region south of the Aral Sea)
Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kathat had belonged to Ibn al-Furat, the
zakhstan and Russia, the ambassadorial
recently deposed vizier.
mission encountered ferocious Turkic
An envoy – Sawsan al-Rassi, a memtribesmen, perilous river crossings and
ber of Nadhir’s entourage – was appointthe violent funeral rituals of Vikings.
ed. The route would take the mission
Remarkably, these experiences were rethrough perilous territory to the upper
corded in the earliest surviving sustained
Volga, on the very limits of the Islamic
first-person travel narrative in Arabic,
imperium and at the edge of the known
written by an otherwise unknown court
world; for this reason, two soldiers,
official called Ahmad ibn Fadlan ibn
Takin al-Turki and Bars al-Saqlabi, were
al-Abbas ibn Rashid ibn Hammad.
recruited to accompany the party. On
The story began in 921 with the
21 June 921, the caliphal mission to the
arrival in Baghdad of an emissary from
king of the Volga Bulgars left Baghdad.
al-Hasan, king of the Volga Bulgars,
bearing a letter for Caliph al-Muqtadir.
Along the Silk Roads
The letter was read out at court by the
The party’s first major destination was
powerful eunuch Nadhir al-Harami,
Bukhara (today in Uzbekistan), base of
who was the Bulgar king’s contact in
the Samanid emirate of Khurasan.
Baghdad. In the letter, the king
Though well established and
informed the caliph that he
much travelled, following
had converted to Islam,
part of the ancient Silk
and petitioned him
Roads, this leg – which
to send jurists and
involved a long trek
instructors to teach
east across Persia and
him and his people
what’s now Turkmenthe sharia – reliistan before crossing
gious law. He also
the Jayhun river (now
requested funds to
called the Amu Darya,
build a mosque and a
historically known as the
fort for protection from
Oxus) – was fraught with
his enemies. In effect,
danger. Baghdad’s control
the king was asking to
A coin of the Abbasid
of the region was tenuous at
become an emir – a local
caliphate of Baghdad,
best; indeed, Ibn Fadlan’s
ruler governing with
dating from the rule of
Caliph
al-Muqtadir
previous patron had died Æ
caliphal sanction.
E
102
Ahmad ibn Fadlan
A minor court functionary about whom
little is known. His role on the mission
was to read letters from the caliph,
the vizier and Nadhir al-Harami, and
to present gifts.
Caliph al-Muqtadir
Abu’l-Fadl Ja‘far ibn Ahmad al-Mu‘tadid,
born in 895, Abbasid caliph in Baghdad for
most of the period 908–32. His turbulent
reign virtually bankrupted the state treasury and weakened caliphal control.
Al-Hasan, son of Yiltawar
The king of the Volga Bulgars.
Nadhir al-Harami
A powerful eunuch at al-Muqtadir’s court,
the Volga Bulgar king’s contact in Baghdad
and sponsor of Ibn Fadlan’s mission.
Sawsan al-Rassi
The caliph’s envoy.
Bars al-Saqlabi
A soldier who may have defected from the
Samanids to the court of Baghdad.
Takin al-Turki
A slave-soldier who was an expert on the
Turkic steppe peoples and the Volga Bulgars, and had been involved in the arms
trade with the northern tribes.
Ibn al-Furat
An important financier and politician
who had been deprived of the office of the
vizierate. One of his estates was sequestered to finance the building of a mosque
and fort in the Volga Bulgar kingdom.
Nasr ibn Ahmad
Samanid emir of Khurasan (at the intersection of modern-day Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan), ruled 914–23.
AKG-IMAGES/TOPFOTO
The mission set out to traverse perilous
territory to the very limits of the Islamic
imperium and the edge of the known world
Ibn Fadlan’s journal:
cast of characters
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12 May 922
The Abbasid mission arrives
at the court of the king of the
Volga Bulgars, where the
party was detained
Mid-April 922
Ibn Fadlan’s group crosses
the territory of the Bashghird,
“the most ferocious of
the Turks”
April 922
The mission reaches
the land of the Ghuzz,
a fearsome Turkic tribe
March 922
The party joins a caravan of
5,000 men for the arduous
crossing of the Ustyurt plateau
September 921
The Abbasid party arrives at the
governor’s court in Khwarazm,
where they remain till the
following month, waiting for
permission to proceed
December 921
The mission overwinters at
al-Jurjaniyyah (now KonyeUrgench in Turkmenistan),
setting out again on
4 March 922
Late July 921
The mission arrives at
the Samanid court in
Bukhara, staying till
late August
21 June 921
Ibn Fadlan’s party
departs Baghdad
Æ
ILLUSTRATION BY THERESA GRIEBEN
103
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JOURNEYS In the footsteps of a 10th-century Islamic mission across central Asia
fighting the ruler of Rayy (now on the
southern outskirts of modern Tehran),
and the Zaydi Shias who lived south
of the Caspian sea were in a state of
constant hostility. Then there was the
Karakum desert, which spans much of
modern-day Turkmenistan, to cross.
Despite these challenges – and
having on two occasions been forced
to conceal their identities from hostile
warlords – 30 days after leaving Baghdad the mission reached Bukhara and
arranged an audience with the Samanid
emir Nasr ibn Ahmad, who was still a
beardless teenager. The emir complied
with the caliph’s instructions and issued
a letter to his governor in Khwarazm,
ordering him to support the mission and
provide them with a military escort.
Here, Ibn Fadlan’s mission hit a
major stumbling block. Forces loyal to
the deposed vizier foiled the sale of Ibn
al-Furat’s estate – funds from which
were earmarked for financing the construction of the Volga Bulgars’ fort and
mosque. The mission’s departure was
delayed for the month of August while
they attempted to resolve the problem,
but they eventually left Bukhara without
the money, concerned that the onset
of winter would stymie their planned
crossing of the bleak Ustyurt plateau.
From Bukhara the mission voyaged
north-west up the Jayhun river to the
court at Khwarazm, a state south of the
Aral Sea that formed part of the Iranian
Samanid empire. Here, an initially
hospitable welcome soon turned to mistrust when the governor recognised the
soldier Takin al-Turki from the latter’s
time running the arms trade among
the nomadic Turks. Suspecting that
the mission was a ploy to foster unrest
among the nomads, he denied the party
permission to proceed for two months.
During this enforced stay in
Khwarazm, Ibn Fadlan investigated the
local currency, made of lead and brass
rather than silver and gold, and observed
the people trading with sheep bones and
spinning tops instead of coins. “They
104
Ibn Fadlan’s party
traversed the land
of the Bashghird, who
in battle would take
the heads of their
foes as trophies
sound just like starlings,” he wrote of
their voices.
The mission spent the winter in alJurjaniyyah (Gurganj – now KonyeUrgench in far north Turkmenistan),
where they remained till March. Ibn
Fadlan was amazed by how the locals
used the frozen Jayhun as a highway,
and by the blizzards and extreme cold.
“I would leave the baths,” he wrote,
“and, by the time I got home, I would
look at my beard and see a block of ice.
I would have to thaw it at the fire.” He
slept under a mountain of skins and
blankets, but “even then my cheek
would freeze and stick to the pillow”.
Aboard the camel train
As the spring thaw began, the mission
prepared for the next leg of the journey,
which would take them across the inhospitable Ustyurt plateau, spanning what’s
now western Uzbekistan and southwest Kazakhstan. They acquired Turkish
(Bactrian) camels, collapsible camel-skin
rafts, three months’ supply of bread,
millet and cured meat, a local guide and
ample clothing. “Mounted on our camels,” Ibn Fadlan wrote, “we wore so many
heavy clothes that we couldn’t move.”
The mission joined a caravan numbering some 5,000 for the month-long
crossing of the plateau. In early April
922, they encountered their first Turkic
tribe, the Ghuzz (or Oghuz). Ibn Fadlan
noted their worship of the sky god
Tengri, their funerary customs, their
abhorrence of washing, and their system
of trade based on bonds of friendship
established with visiting merchants.
He also commented on their marriage
customs, the lack of shame among their
women, and the punishment for illicit
intercourse: a culprit was tied to a pair of
trees and torn in two. Passing through
the land of the Ghuzz, the caravan was
brought to a halt by “a solitary Turk, a
despicable figure, unkempt and really
quite repulsive”, who held the caravan
hostage until he was bought off with
a few loaves of bread.
The mission soon found itself in
danger once again. Though carrying a
letter of introduction from Nadhir to the
military commander of the Ghuzz, and
despite lavish gifts of money, musk, and
silk cloth, senior tribal leaders doubted
the true motives of the mission; they
feared that Baghdad wanted an alliance
with the Khazar polity to wage war on
the Ghuzz, and discussed dismembering
the members of the party before eventually allowing them to continue.
Soon afterwards, the mission tackled
the first of many river crossings. “The
people got out their camel-hide rafts and
spread them flat,” reported Ibn Fadlan;
“removing the round frames from their
Turkish camels, the hides were stretched
tight around them.” These coracles were
loaded with clothes and goods, then paddled across the water by groups of four to
six travellers. On one river crossing Ibn
Fadlan “saw a raft capsize and all the passengers on board drown. Several camels
and horses drowned, too.”
The caravan was on high alert as it
approached the territory of the Bashghird (Bashkirs), “the most ferocious of
the Turks”, who in battle would take the
heads of their foes as trophies and ate
the lice that infested their clothes. Ibn
Fadlan saw one Bashghird “take a louse,
crack it with his fingernail and then lick
it”. He did, though, find their religious
beliefs fascinating: they wore carved
wooden phalluses around their necks;
worshipped a pantheon of 12 gods
among whom the sky god was supreme;
and venerated snakes, fish and cranes.
Finally, over two months after
leaving al-Jurjaniyyah, the mission
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Impressive rock formations
stud the Ustyurt plateau in far
south-west Kazakhstan. Ibn
Fadlan’s party obtained clothes,
Bactrian camels and a local guide
to traverse this bleak terrain
An ornately carved mosque
door in Konye-Urgench, the
site of al-Jurjaniyyah,
already an important Islamic
centre when Ibn Fadlan
overwintered in 921–22
The ruins of Janpıq
Qala, a walled city of
Khwarazm on the
Jayhun (Amu Darya)
river dating from the
9th or 10th century. Ibn
Fadlan’s party would
likely have passed
Janpıq Qala, now in
Uzbekistan, on their
journey north-west to
the Volga Bulgars
ALAMY/AWL IMAGES
The Amu Darya sweeps past rocky
shores in Uzbekistan. Ibn Fadlan’s party
over-wintered by the Amu Darya – then
called the Jayhun – in al-Jurjaniyyah,
where he was amazed to see locals using
the frozen river as a highway
Æ
105
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JOURNEYS In the footsteps of a 10th-century Islamic mission across central Asia
reached the confluence of the Kama and
Volga rivers, and on Sunday 12 May 922
was welcomed by the king of the Volga
Bulgars. The following Thursday, at a
mustering of the Bulgars, Ibn Fadlan
read out the caliph’s letter, and a feast of
roast meat followed. The next day, Ibn
Fadlan began instructing the king in
religious etiquette: the latter adopted the
caliph’s given name, Ja‘far, and made the
proper declaration of fealty to the caliph.
However, when it became apparent that the promised money – which
the mission had failed to obtain in
Khwarazm – wasn’t forthcoming, the
enraged king took Ibn Fadlan prisoner.
“I left the audience, dazed and in a state
of terror,” wrote the chronicler. “I was
overawed by the king’s demeanour. He
was a big, corpulent man, and his voice
seemed to come from inside a barrel.”
Over the following months, Ibn Fadlan was forced to accompany the king
among his people, and recorded those
experiences in detail. He mentioned the
aurora borealis, the white nights of the
north and the difficulties they posed in
performing dawn and sunset prayers.
He wrote of forest-berries that tasted
of “sweet seedless pomegranates”, sour
apples, hazel trees and an intoxicating
tree-sap. And he described the bones of a
giant whom the king said was a member
of Gog and Magog, a ferocious people
trapped behind an iron wall, whose
release would mark the end of the world.
Last rites
Ibn Fadlan also encountered the Rus,
Vikings from Scandinavia, when
they arrived by river to trade. He was
amazed by their physiques (“as tall as
palm trees”), weapons, lack of personal
hygiene, worship of wooden effigies,
treatment of the diseased, addiction to
alcohol, and hanging of thieves and ban-
The nearest male relative of the dead Rus
Viking stripped naked and walked backwards
to the funerary ship, carrying a firebrand
106
James E Montgomery
is Sir Thomas Adams’s
Professor of Arabic at
the University of
Cambridge, and
translator of Mission to
the Volga (NYU, 2017)
DISCOVER MORE
Find out about the Volga Vikings in an
episode of In Our Time. Listen online at
bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00vrx8g
FINE ART IMAGES
Rus boats in the late 10th
century, depicted in an
early 20th-century Russian
painting. Ibn Fadlan
witnessed the fire-burial of
a Rus chieftain in such a boat
dits. But it was their funerary rites that
really fascinated him, and he described
in detail a Rus ship-burial.
When Ibn Fadlan heard of the death
of a Rus chieftain, he travelled to the
river where the chief’s boat had been
beached and surrounded by a structure
of firewood. He watched as the woman
in charge of the ceremony, known as
the Angel of Death, prepared for the
ceremony. First the chief was exhumed,
dressed in his finery and placed on the
ship with his weapons and a dog, two
horses, two cows, a cock and a hen. One
of the chief’s concubines was raped by
six men, stabbed and strangled, then
placed in a pavilion on the ship where
the dead chief lay waiting, while the Rus
banged their shields with sticks.
The chief’s nearest male relative
stripped naked and walked backwards
to the boat with a firebrand, with which
he set fire to the wood surrounding the
ship; all present then threw lighted firesticks onto the vessel. “It took scarcely
an hour for the boat, the firewood, the
female slave, and her master to be burnt
to a very fine ash,” wrote Ibn Fadlan.
After sections on the rulers of the Rus
and the Khazars, the manuscript breaks
off abruptly, and there’s no indication
that Ibn Fadlan returned to Baghdad.
But though incomplete, his journal is remarkable still, impressive for his candour
and moderation even when confronted
with situations and challenges that must
have been unimaginable.
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PREVIEW ISSUE 15
The United States’
hidden empire
The surprising
story of America’s
colonial ambitions
Magic numbers
How Arabic numerals became
cultural icons worldwide
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/GETTY IMAGES/ALAMY
In the footsteps of…
Walter
Benjamin’s
tragic Second
World War
trek across
the Pyrenees
High ambition
Take a historical
tour of Sagrada
Familia, Gaudí’s
sacred masterpiece
in Barcelona
A year in pictures: 1973
Tennis tussles, Nixon’s downfall
and conflict in the Middle East
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107
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JOURNEYS
Global City Thessaloniki Greece
Thessaloniki boasts a
thrillingly cosmopolitan
heritage, with Roman,
Byzantine and Ottoman
legacies, a long-term
population of Sephardic
Jews – and, of course,
generations of Greek
influence. Alev Scott
roams the sights of
Greece’s second city
Alev Scott
is a journalist and
writer. Her new book
is Ottoman Odyssey:
Travels Through a Lost
Empire (riverrun, 2018)
108
Thessaloniki’s Rotunda
of Galerius, built by
Roman occupiers in the
fourth-century, has
served as temple, mosque
and Orthodox church
or many centuries after
Athens’ ancient heyday, and
before it rose again as the
capital of a newly independent Greece in 1833, Thessaloniki was the
most important city not only in Greece
but in the entire Balkan region. Founded
in 315 BC, and named for a half-sister
of Alexander the Great, Thessaloniki
become one of the first truly cosmopolitan cities in the world, attracting waves
of refugees over the centuries: Sephardic
Jews in the 15th century, Orthodox
Christians from Anatolia in the early
20th century, and refugees fleeing wars
in the Middle East today. As the capital
of the Greek region of Macedonia, the
city lies at the heart of political tensions
surrounding Greece’s longstanding
dispute with its neighbour, the soonto-be-renamed Republic of North
Macedonia, a few miles to the north.
In 1917, the old city of Thessaloniki
was consumed by a devastating fire
that left a quarter of the population
homeless, destroyed mosques and
synagogues, and condemned the city to
an uninspiring 20th-century architectural transformation. The relics that
have survived that disaster, however,
speak of a spectacularly diverse past. The
F
8th-century Byzantine Hagia Sophia
(‘Holy Wisdom’) church is once again
in full working order – less palatial than
the original in Istanbul, but painstakingly restored with dazzling gold-painted
icons. Close by are signs of the earlier
Roman occupation (168 BC–476 AD)
in the shape of a ragged but clearly
defined forum and the imposing fourthcentury Rotunda of Galerius.
During the long Ottoman occupation
(1430–1912), the city blossomed under
a system of government that encouraged
diversity. Jews expelled from Spain in
1492 came here at the invitation of Sultan Bayezid II, and became the majority
demographic until 1912, when the city
fell to Greek forces. The city became
known as “the Jerusalem of the Balkans”,
dominated by Jewish trade, commerce
and real estate and with Ladino (Sephardic Spanish) as its lingua franca. In
1911, just before the Greek takeover, the
Zionist David Ben-Gurion visited the
city, then known as Salonika, to study it
as a model for the future state of Israel.
Sadly, Ottoman relics of the city’s
Jewish majority are few. The brick
domes of the 16th-century Yahudi
Hamam (Jewish Bath House) are the
only visible part of an edifice left to
ALAMY
Greece’s
cultural
melting
pot
РЕЛИЗ ПОДГОТОВИЛА ГРУППА "What's News" VK.COM/WSNWS
crumble. Today, the roughly 1,200 Jews
in the city are a mere fraction of the
population of less than a century
ago; during the Nazi occupation,
54,000 Jews – 96% of the city’s Jewish
community – were transported to
concentration camps in Germany
and Poland. Of some 50 synagogues
operating in the early 20th century,
just three survive today; the main one,
the Monastir Synagogue, is guarded by
police and open only at select times.
From a Turkish perspective,
Thessaloniki is most notable as the
birthplace of the founder of the modern
republic of Turkey – Mustafa Kemal
Atatürk, born in 1881 in a modest house
in the city centre. Today his birthplace
is a museum stuffed with odds and ends
The Kapani market,
a bazaar once
occupied by Ottoman
traders, still bustles
with shoppers
from his adult life, and filled with Turkish tourist-pilgrims at all times.
The city’s Muslim edifices are notably
unfrequented and unkempt, despite
attempts by the Turkish government to
encourage their restoration. The 1467
Hamza Bey mosque was once a
magnificent Ottoman structure;
subsequently used as a shopping centre,
it is theoretically under reconstruction.
The living parts of the city retain their
character more strongly than once-grand
buildings. The central Kapani market,
a covered bazaar formerly occupied by
Ottoman traders and craftsmen, is still
bustling with people buying vegetables and spices. In Ano Poli, the upper
reaches of the city, the houses of the
Ottoman elite survived the 1917 fire and
still command impressive views. Today,
as throughout its history, the seafront
is a wonderful place to walk, admiring
the White Tower built by the Ottomans
to guard the harbour that once ensured
the city’s unparalleled diversity, and
which still serves as Thessaloniki’s main
connection with the outside world.
THESSALONIKI IN 8 SITES
1
Hagia Sophia church
Eighth-century Byzantine marvel with
dazzling gold-painted icons that have
recently been restored
2
Rotunda and Arch of Galerius
Early fourth-century structure that has
served as Roman temple, mosque and
Orthodox church; the nearby arch is
beautifully decorated with carved friezes
4
6
3
5
Yahudi Hamam
Look for the remaining domes of the
original 16th-century structure, built to
serve the Sephardic Jews who arrived
having fled the Inquisition in Spain
7
4
Monastir Synagogue
The city’s only surviving traditional
synagogue, consecrated in 1927
3
5
2
1
Atatürk Museum
Birthplace in 1881 of Mustafa Kemal, the
founder of modern Turkey, who took the
name Atatürk
6
Hamza Bey mosque
Built in 1467, one of the first mosques
constructed here after the Ottoman
conquest – now awaiting restoration
7
Kapani market
Bustling covered market on the site of the
original Ottoman bazaar
8
8
ILLUSTRATION BY TONWEN JONES
White Tower
Distinctive round seafront Ottoman tower,
probably built in the 16th century to
replace a Byzantine defensive structure
109
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JOURNEYS Wonders of the World
Wonders of the World
Trongsa Dzong Bhutan
110
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High and mighty
Set on a rocky spur far above the ravine
through which the Mangde Chhu river
roars is a vast complex of whitewashed,
red-roofed buildings – Trongsa (also
called Choetse) Dzong, an imposing
fortified citadel. The story of this dzong –
a monastery-fortress combining
administrative and religious functions –
began in 1543, when Ngagi Wangchuk, a
Tibetan Drukpa lama (Buddhist teacher),
established a small meditation retreat
on the spur. Following the unification
of the country from 1616 by that lama’s
great-grandson Zhabdrung Ngawang
Namgyal, in 1647 the first fortress was
built here to control the central and
eastern districts of Bhutan.
SHUTTERSTOCK
Bhutan’s
greatest holy
fortress
Sprawling along a ridge in the
centre of this Himalayan kingdom
looms a monumental bastion – part
castle, part Buddhist monastery.
Paul Bloomfield roams the temples
and courtyards of Trongsa Dzong
Æ
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JOURNEYS Wonders of the World
Instant karma
Rows of elaborated decorated
prayer wheels dot the entrance
ways and courtyards of Trongsa
Dzong. Each comprises a metal
cylinder containing numerous
rolls of thin paper bearing
Buddhist mantras. By spinning
the wheels as they pass, monks
and devotees offer up thousands
of prayers, rapidly accumulating
good karma or merit.
Chain of command
A mural depicts a Mongol man with a
chained tiger defending the dzong. From
its earliest 17th-century incarnation the
site was important in strategic as well as
religious terms; until recently, the only
route linking the east and west of Bhutan
passed through its gates – so whoever
controlled the dzong also controlled trade.
The dual-winged Ta Dzong watchtower
guarding the fortress was originally
built in 1652 by penlop (local governor)
Chhogyel Minjur Tenpa. It now houses
a museum telling the story of Bhutan’s
royal family, whose ancestor Ugyen
Wangchuk was crowned the first Druk
Gyalpo (Dragon King) in 1907 and ruled
from this dzong.
112
GETTY IMAGES/SHUTTERSTOCK
Seat of power
GETTY IMAGES/SHUTTERSTOCK
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Superior complex
Trongsa Dzong is a rambling warren of offices,
temples, passageways and halls, extended and
rebuilt many times over the centuries – notably
following a devastating earthquake in 1897. The
dzong still serves as the seat of local government,
and visitors roaming its courtyards may rub
shoulders with local officials as well as the 200
or so red-robed Buddhist monks who live here.
Life cycle
A mural of the bhavachakra (the
Buddhist wheel of life or becoming)
in one of the dzong’s lhakhangs
(temples), depicting the six realms
of rebirth or samsara. The fortress
now encompasses some 23 temples,
built at various points over the past
four centuries.
\ Lord of the dance
During the tsechu (festival) at Trongsa,
one of the country’s most spectacular
events, masked dancers perform in
the dzong’s courtyards. Held over three
days in the 11th month of the Bhutanese
calendar – next in early January 2020 –
the tsechu honours Guru Rinpoche,
the revered Buddhist leader who
reputedly first came to Bhutan from
India in AD 746.
Paul Bloomfield is a travel and heritage writer
and photographer, co-author of Lonely Planet’s
Where to Go When (Lonely Planet, 2016)
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MUSEUM OF THE WORLD
Global history’s finest objects, curated by experts
“This object reflects
the material culture,
consumerism and
far-reaching tastes
of the 17th century”
The Messel standing
feather fan
Created by: Unknown
featherworkers, 17th century
Now at: Fitzwilliam Museum,
University of Cambridge
Chosen by: Stefan Hanß
The object is known as the Messel
standing feather fan after its former
owner, Colonel Leonard Messel
(1872–1953), whose family developed the
19th-century Nymans garden in West
Sussex, now owned by the National Trust.
Although it’s hard to be precise, the object
is likely to have been created during the
second half of the 17th century.
Where it was created is also something of a mystery. We know that many of
the feathers were sourced in South
America, taken from flamboyant species
such as the purple-breasted cotinga, a
114
bird found in what were at
the time Dutch colonies,
now parts of Brazil, the
Guianas and Suriname. Yet the
techniques used in the construction
of the leaf and wooden handle
suggest that it was most likely made
in England or north-west Europe.
The fan is, therefore, a truly global
object. The diversity of its source
material reflects the material
culture, consumerism and farreaching tastes of the century in
which it was created. As the extent
of the Dutch empire spread after
the establishment of its East India
Company in 1602 and then the Dutch
West India Company in 1621,
merchants traded a growing number
of materials on a global scale.
As a result, artisanal knowledge also
circulated. This fan is characteristic of the
blurring boundaries of consumer cultures
in a period when European artisans were
eager to respond to and engage with
materials and technologies that were
transported and traded worldwide.
Europe of feather fans
from Italy in the 1530s. In
16th- and 17th-century Italy,
artisans specialising in featherworking produced fans in different sizes,
featuring a variety of colours and
handles, as well as paper templates
enabling people to make fans
themselves. As such objects grew in
popularity, fan-makers adopted more
sophisticated methods involving a
large number of very small feathers.
I’ve been lucky enough to study this
fan closely, and by examining it with a
microscope I was able to fully appreciate the complex processes involved
in its manufacture. It packs a remarkable visual and emotional punch, and
exemplifies the way craftspeople in
the period used internationally traded
materials to make desirable objects for
global tastes.
Stefan Hanß is senior lecturer in early modern
history at the University of Manchester
DISCOVER MORE
The intricate techniques involved in the
fan’s production can also be understood
as a response to the arrival in northern
Listen to the BBC Radio 4 series
A History of the World in 100 Objects
online at bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00nrtd2
THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE
This fan, made of finely cut feathers
of striking colour and iridescence,
depicts scenes of birds, flowers and
butterflies across its five sections.
Measuring approximately 34cm tall
by 23cm wide, it features drawn
threadwork and woven panels arranged
in concealed frames.
Its user would have held it elegantly
between their thumb and forefinger, and
through its use would have spread the
scent of their perfumed gloves, bracelets
or jewellery. The effect would have been
captivating – indeed, both in its visual
impact and the deftness of its construction, the fan has mesmerised audiences
throughout the centuries.
BRIDGEMAN
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