Thursday, December 29, 2005

Deep in the heart of the University of Texas

Today's web resource, a long-established one good for all sorts of historical and up-to-date uses, is the Perry-CastaƱeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. This should be one of your first stops for maps or links to maps concerning any recent event, or for historical topics, like the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 (end of the 30 Years War).

Another resource at UT I just discovered is a huge collection of historical portraits. This will be one of my first stops any time I'm putting together an illustrated lecture. It has its limits, though. All the pictures I've looked at -- a couple of dozen -- are in black and white. If the original portrait was a sketch or a black and white photo, that's OK, but today's audience -- including me -- wants color if it's available.

Another limit is the fact that many of the pictures are imaginative depictions of people we have no visual record of. Included with this post are UT pictures of Alfred the Great, 9th century kind of Wessex, and Aspasia, famous courtesan of Periclean Athens. There may be some ancient busts that have been identified as Aspasia, but one has to wonder about their authenticity, and even if you accept them as real, this sketch is really a fantasy based on who-knows-what. Alfred's even a worse case. The picture is purely generic. Some 19th-century artist has created a "portrait" based on 14th-century and later pictures of some great king or other.

In other words, I'm not sure either the picture of Aspasia or the picture of Alfred gets you any closer to those people. They may even be a barrier to understanding them.

But if you need a quick pic of Midhat Pasha, the 19th-century Ottoman reformer, you can look at UT, if you are too lazy to look at Google Images.

One big advantage of the UT Portrait Gallery: It cites its sources!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Yazidis make the news

One common result of war or disaster is that stories you'd never hear otherwise show up in major media. Thanks to the current Iraq war, a formerly obscure group, known only to experts on Iraq, Kurdistan, or Middle Eastern religions, is now having its 15 minutes or so of fame.

This is the Yazidis, who live in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and who practice a religion that combines a lot of elements also found in major historic religions, such as Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. What exactly those elements are, however, are in serious dispute. A few moments cruising the Web will show you that everyone has a different understanding of the Yazidis and what they believe. Are they sun worshipers? Are they Manichaeans? Shiites? Anti-dualists? Step right up, pick your site and your interpretation.

It's often reported that the Yazidis worship Satan or Lucifer, in the form of Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel (illustration above taken from Wikipedia). This of course is the most famous thing about the Yazidis: that some people think they are devil worshipers. Whether the Yazidis worship or at least venerate Melek Taus, or fear him -- that's hard to say with any certainty. It sure wouldn't surprise me to hear that Yazidi opinions vary widely on these questions.

The Yazidis are one of several examples of the variety of Middle Eastern culture, even in a region long identified with the dominance of Islam (Baghdad being one of the greatest of Islamic cities over many centuries). Their current problems show how the continuing processes of history can wipe out or, more likely, scatter old cultures, and remind us how often that's happened in the last 100 years. In Iraq alone, it wasn't so long ago that Baghdad was the home of a thriving Jewish community derived, as far as anyone can tell, from the time when Babylon was the big city in those parts. We may see a situation where Yazidi culture -- which is only about 100,000 strong -- may end up being relocated to Los Angeles or some other new location.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

Wolves for Christmas

Actually it's Christmas Eve.

I've said this won't be a personal blog, but I think that some readers may be interested to hear that when I went out after Christmas Eve dinner I heard wolves howling in the distance...

Christmas greetings from the other side of the world

I suppose there must be people out there for whom Christmas greetings from halfway around the world are no big deal, but I'm not one of them yet.

I just received a nice e-greeting from someone who I met on my trip to India in April. (Those interested can see my account of the trip here.)

It's a cheery thing, and I pass on the feeling of good will to you as best I can.

I hope you are well, happy, and together with your loved ones, at least some of them.

And whatever holidays you celebrate, enjoy them!

Monday, December 19, 2005

HNN and the"Hitlerization of history"

Responding to my vast reading public, here's another resource worth knowing: the History News Network out of the United States. It publishes history items out of the news and articles by scholars that try to give context to the news.

Today's snip is from a Guardian (UK) article which criticizes British schools for a modular approach to history where a few high-profile eras get repeatedly presented while everything else suffers. Now, it seems the Third Reich is what's being repeated, leading to what the Fabian Society calls a "Hitlerization of History."

Now here in Canada, I've heard complaints from students that the school version of our history is: "Plains of Abraham, Confederation, Vimy Ridge, October Crisis." Since I never went to school in Canada and it would be a long time ago if I had, I have to wonder if this is the case now, and what colleagues in the Faculty of Education have to say about the "new curriculum" as it affects history teaching. Comments welcome about your own experience!

For those of you who want earlier history than "Plains of Abraham," have a look at a protest in Fort Lauderdale of depictions of King Tut for showing him as "Caucasian" instead of "black." The whiteness or blackness of Egyptians is a subject that's been kicked around for a long time, and of course reflects various modern attitudes toward whiteness and blackness. You can dive into Google on this subject and never come up! One interesting point is that ancient Egyptians had their own color-coding of human and divine portaits. This doesn't come up in most popular discussions.

As before, Google Images is your friend. You can look at ancient and modern Egyptians as long as you like.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Once upon a time before blogs...

There were e-mail discussion lists! And lists of specialized info that you could subscribe to!

One that still is alive and thriving is "World Wide Words" available through its website at

It's sent out by British freelance etymologist Michael Quinion, who explains words and their derivations on a weekly basis.

His newsletter is a constant lesson in historical humility. You may have a favorite phrase, like "cash on the nail" and "the whole nine yards," and know a neat story about where it came from. Almost without exception Michael Quinion can tell you that your neat story about your favorite phrase is wrong, wrong, wrong. There's plenty of documentation to show the phrase was around a long time before the explanation. "Nine yards" was not the standard length of a machine gun's ammunition belt during the Second World War.

But when it comes to the true explanation, though, Quinion is usually no farther ahead than the rest of us. Except, of course, that he knows what he doesn't know, which is the whole point.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Tell Hamoukar: An Early Battle Site

Here's an article from the New York Times on a site that not only contains evidence of a large early battle (about 3500 BCE) but demonstrates that there was significant, independent development of Northern Mesopotamia before the South came to dominate, in later, better documented times. The map shows the location of the Hamoukar: it's the large dot in northeast Syria, right on the Iraqi border.

The picture shows clay balls shot by slingers in that same early battle. The battle seems to have been between the local people and invaders from the "Uruk" culture of the South, who were victorious and moved in. has more on the importance of this site to our knowledge of early city development.

What I find remarkable is that this seems to be evidence of far-ranging military campaigns well before writing and well before the Bronze Age. This is 800 years before the historical Gilgamesh.

Update: The LA Times version.

Iraqi Art: The Internet is your illustrated book

I'm doing a little long-range preparation for next fall's course on "The History of Islamic Civilization." I'm reading a recently released book on the Iraqi experience of the current war, written by an Arabic-speaking American reporter, Anthony Shadid. I'm impressed. It's well written and I especially like the fact that Shadid makes no claims to omniscience. The copy I'm reading is from the Nipissing University library and will be returning there soon.

An unexpected pleasure in the book was being introduced to Muhammed Ghani, a well-known Iraqi sculptor who has created a lot of public monuments in the course of his life. Shadid makes Ghani and his work sound very interesting, and so I fired up my computer to find some pictures. And sure enough, I found a few. Not too many, and not of great quality, but they do exist, and if you use Google Images you'll find them.

Here's Ghani himself in his workshop:

Here's an unlabelled sculture I found:

And another from the from the ArtIraq site:

Neither of these look particularly monumental. Here, however, is a third which commemorates the heroine Khahramana, the slave girl who killed the 40 theives by pouring burning oil on them:

It looks more like a sketch for the monument than the monument itself.

My thanks to Anthony Shadid for including Ghani in his book. I've read a lot about Iraq but never anything about its art. But if I'd thought to look, there is plenty of contemporary Iraqi art of all sorts available on the Internet.

Just like there is plenty of everything else, if you look.

Note: by one of those odd transformations that happens so often, "Ali Baba" has become Iraqi slang for "thief," even though he was the most prominent non-thief in the story.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Radical Loser

A few years back, even educated, interested people were exposed only to the news and views that were published or republished in their local and national newspapers.

Now there's a plethora of material from all over the globe available to millions of us.

Sign and Sight republishes German material in English. At the moment it has a reprinted article from Der Spiegel called "The Radical Loser," which explores how ordinary losers -- as the author says, this could be any of us -- turn into the kind of people who murder their wives and kids, become terrorists, or become genocidal dictators.

Connection with "Early History?" I'll be teaching Islamic History next fall, and this is relevant.

Update from Phil Paine, who referred this to me:

"Unfortunately it doesn't address the most important issue. Anyone with a brain can tell why some pathetic, self-destructive noodnik will support a messianic ideology and strap a bomb to himself. But he should put some thought into asking why, time and time again, tenured professors at Harvard, the Sorbonne, or the London School of Economics are quite likely to end up supporting the same moronic ideology."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

For those fans of ancient Maya

In today's L.A. Times, a story about a new find in Guatemala, the oldest mural yet, with a picture on the main webpage.

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Greetings, visitors!

My name is Steve Muhlberger. I teach a variety of history classes at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario. (Have a look at my academic home page for specifics.) I'm starting this blog primarily to communicate with students, ex-students and colleagues, at Nipissing or elsewhere.

There are times when I want to say a bit more in class, or refer to an on-line resource; there are times when a story in the news, or a post in a blog seems appropriate for discussion; there are times when someone asks me a question that lots of people might want to know the answer to.

This blog is for those times.

Note: I am moderating all comments to the blog, in part to cut down spam, but also to keep it on track. There are plenty of blogs out there for politics, culture, or academic griping. This is not the purpose of this blog. I appreciate all good-natured comments, but I won't guarantee to publish them. On the other hand, I will prize contributions that are relevant to "early history" or the content of any of my classes.

Finally, this blog is not an official publication of Nipissing University. You might want to look at the disclaimer here.