Friday, December 29, 2006

Youth in history

This story in the Guardian (UK) about a 14-year-old sailing the Atlantic solo (in December!!!) reminds me of how much, good and bad, has been done in history by people who today would not be considered fit to vote, drink, or drive an automobile after dark in various jurisdictions.

The youth of famous historical actors is often unstated, or disguised by the fact that portraits often show them a quarter or half-century after they did whatever they did.

Einstein upset the universe (or our view of it) in his 20s.

Update: The young pilot, Mike Perham, made it. His chief safety precaution, if you are curious, was being shadowed by his father in an identical yacht, just in case.

Brave reporter chronicles a grim Baghdad

McClatchy Newspapers (until recently Knight-Ridder) continues to astound me with its substantial world news coverage. Here's an article by Hannah Allam (seen above in a 2004 photo in Baghdad) describing what the Iraqi capital is like now.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Suez and Iraq: Two catastrophic British adventures

It's easy to think of the Iraq war as an American adventure, but HM Government (in the UK) went along with enthusiasm. And now...

Anyone interested in the dynamics of Western intervention in the Middle East might want to read up on the Suez Crisis of 50 years ago.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Really good maps for historians

I am putting together visual presentations for my class in History of Islamic Civilization, and in search of the elusive really good map of the Middle East in the 20th century, I've come across these two sites:

Le Monde diplomatique English edition
, which has far more than maps, but has a whole section of maps both historic and current., which is just what it says it is.

Both sites feature striking and clear color maps.

HNN's Top Young Historians

When I was a student, I started to notice something: historians I had just discovered myself, or who were being taught to me as important authorities, were either very old and retired, or dead. This was a perfectly natural phenomenon, of course, because the books I was reading were not brand new, while my teachers were telling me about scholars who had been particularly influential when my teachers had been grad students. Newer stuff may have been part of the conversation but it was not the basis of the conversation. A student like me would not be focused the absolute cutting edge unless I was reading the new journals as they came out -- something I hardly ever did.

Things have changed a bit since then, some timely scholarly conversations are more easily available -- such as the H-Net book reviews, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and The Medieval Review, all on-line. But if you want to know what's going on in professional historical circles right now, it's still a bit of an effort to find out.

Thus I was pleased to see at the History News Network a feature called Top Young Historians. I've just dipped into it, but it seems to include quite a few detailed and personal looks at historians who are now in their late 30s and early 40s (yes, that's young to make a mark in an occupation with a very long apprenticeship). It's put together by a Concordia grad student and HNN editor named Bonnie Goodman, who is getting a very interesting education this way.

So if you want to see one list of historians and topics considered "hot," have a look. Comments on them are welcome.

Also at HNN, Brett Holman's blog Revise and Dissent has a long post on pre-World War I "scares" where hundreds or thousands saw what they were sure were enemy airships or devices built by local inventors. An interesting episode in popular psychology.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

English Russia

A friend sent me a link to one of the photo galleries on this site, which is subtitled: "just because something cool happens daily on 1/6 of the Earth surface."

What world historian, expert, dilettante, or apprentice, could resist?

Here's the particular photo gallery that caught my friend's attention: a village in Ukraine.

Christmas Eve Middle Eastern blogging

If reader statistics mean anything, few people are looking for intellectual stimulation on Christmas Eve. Surprise! But I've run across a couple of items that I want to point to before I forget.

First is an amazingly meaty article from Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt) on a huge surviving Christian library which holds manuscripts from both the Coptic (Egyptian) and Syriac (Syrian) tradition. There are a couple of things worth noting about the article. First, it has the kind of intellectual heft you'd expect from a really good feature article in the New York Times. Second, it provides a reminder of something that my students in History of Islamic Civilization have heard me say: Egypt, Syria and a number of other Middle Eastern countries were once predominantly Christian, and the continuing Christian tradition is very poorly known. This could apply to any country. There's a politically dominant culture or identity that gets all the press, and then there are the more obscure traditions that despite the fact that they are adhered to by thousands or millions, seldom or never get mentioned at all. Not until one of those traditions "comes out of nowhere" to become a world-beater (like, say the Arabic tradition in the time of the Prophet).

The other item comes from the Washington Post where Syrian writer Sami Moubayed summarizes the history of Syrian women in the 20th century. In connection with my class I've done a bit of research into the topic of feminism and female emancipation in the Middle East, and what struck me was that the issues of the late 19th century and early 20th century weren't all that different from those of Europe, America, or Australasia. Nor does the chronology look amazingly different. Because those times are relatively close, we sometimes think a gap of 20 or 30 years is hugely significant. In the longer term, however, many very important developments look a lot more like world movements and not so easily identified (as so often) with a specific "Western" style of modernization.

Image of a 13th century Coptic New Testament from Al-Ahram. Interestingly, the main Coptic text is annotated in Arabic, or at least in the Arabic alphabet. Thanks to David Meadows at Explorator for catching that article.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Yes, students, this is how we do it!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Fish in human history, then, now, and in the future (?)

Phil Paine reflects on the ongoing collapse of the world's fish stocks, and puts this catastrophe in a global, historical context.

Frankincense in danger?

Here, from the Associated Press via the Globe and Mail, is a story about the trees in Arabia and the Horn of Africa that produce that gift of the Wise Men and liturgical perfume, frankincense. Short version: the trees are overtapped for the desired sap and aren't reproducing.

The United States as a Christian nation

A Muslim from Minnesota named Keith Ellison was elected to the US House of Representatives in November, and will take office in January. As I understand it, Congresspeople are not sworn on any book or document at the public swearing in, but sometimes repeat the oath privately on the book of their choice. Guess what Mr. Ellison will swear on? The Quran, of course.

A Representative from Virginia named Virgil Goode is denouncing Ellison's plans as antithetical to American values and using it to promote a bill he favors that would restrict Muslim immigration -- despite the fact that Mr. Ellison's ancestors crossed the Atlantic a long time ago, and he is in fact a pretty ordinary American who converted to Islam in university. The basis of Mr. Goode's stand is that the United States is and should remain a Christian nation.

There's a long debate on this question of whether the USA is a Christian nation. No one doubts that the vast majority of white settlers in the 13 colonies were at least formally Christian, or that the Angl0-Americans were formally Christian at the time of the Revolution. But there was little invoking of a specifically Christian God or of Jesus Christ in revolutionary rhetoric. Indeed in the backwash of the Revolution state-supported Christian churches were disestablished, and the First Amendment forbade the federal government from favoring any specific religion.

One interesting document relevant to this debate is the US-Libya treaty of 1797. The context as I understand it is this. There were still "Barbary Pirates" in the Mediterranean, Muslims raiding Christian shipping and occasionally Christian settlements (even in Iceland!) and enslaving sailors and others. Christian countries paid tribute to avoid such problems. But the new USA was not covered by those treaties and was vulnerable to piratic action. Establishing that the US would neither pay tribute nor allow its shipping to be preyed upon on the excuse of religious warfare was an early priority of the US government (see what you can find under "War with the Barbary Pirates") . Both military and diplomatic action was taken. On the diplomatic side we see the treaty with Libya which stated (quoting from Juan Cole):

...the Government of the United States is in no sense founded on the Christian religion.
In other words, holy war was no excuse for piracy against the United States.

This statement was made just a couple of years before Napoleon told the Egyptians (as he invaded their country) that the principles of the French Revolution represented "true Islam."

Now I think Napoleon would say anything to anyone for advantage, but the idea that the American Congress meant what it said is a bit stronger, I think. Even Napoleon was sincere in believing that his cause transcended earlier religious political theories. He thought that he himself was a unique historical force.

This Goode "crusade" does point out a certain confusion about what motivates supporters of the Iraq war. If Islam is so antithetical to American values, why are Americans fighting in Iraq to support a government whose core constituency favors Islamic government? How many people in the US military signed up to establish Shiism in Iraq? How much money is it worth to the American taxpayer to establish Shiite political parties as the dominant factor in Iraqi life?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Quetta near Kandahar

From the LA Times (USA), a report from Quetta, the Pakistani "safe haven" for the Taliban whom Canadian forces are fighting in the Kandahar region.


Muhlberger's Future History

In a holiday pamphlet from my township government, the Community Emergency Management Coordinator says:

Pandemics remain at the top of the list as the next emergency disaster. Prepare yourself as the effects of a pandemic could be devastating.
Now I'm pretty sure she is just reinforcing the idea that people have to be prepared at all times to care for themselves for 72 hours until government has a chance to swing into action. There was a disastrous storm this summer and the power was out for about exactly that long. When you live in a rural area on the edge of Northern Ontario, and get your water from an electrically-pumped well, being prepared for outages is a really good idea.

But one thing that comes across is the idea that someone knows what disaster is next. Indeed, you can easily find on the web that there is a lot of guessing on pandemic chronology.

But face it, it is just guessing. As storm-battered British Columbians how sure they are about the next "emergency disaster."

Image: victims of the 1918 flu, which killed a great-aunt of mine.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

News from and about Iraq

I am torn when it comes to reporting news about Iraq. This isn't a news blog (there is a rather opinionated blog called that, which often has good content), but a history/class bulletin board focused on material I teach and write upon. One of the things I teach is "History of Islamic Civilization," and you can't avoid the wars of Afghanistan and the Middle East if, like me, you think that survey courses like mine should come up to the present. If I don't say something about the connections here, I'm missing a bet and no doubt disappointing part of my audience.

But what to say and what to omit? I certainly don't want this to be Iraq-and-Afghanistan all the time.

Here's what I'm trying to do: direct people to material that might give them a better idea of the Middle Eastern context than what they read or see in the major North American media. Most of what is in the news, especially US news, is Washington news: Bush, Bush's critics, what well-known columnists are saying, with just a bit more on the latest catastrophe on the front -- the latest big bomb blast or pile of bodies killed execution-style. Mostly it's about who is to blame for current problems, a subject of immense importance to those now-prominent or powerful figures who in the future may find themselves completely discredited, impeached, imprisoned, or denounced in every history book and foreign policy analysis on this period for generations to come. It's too late for most of them but that just makes them more energetic in producing "news" and "analysis" that is Washington-centric and devoted to saving their hides.

If you are not an American trying to influence Congress, most of this news is not very helpful in understanding the Middle Eastern situation, especially how it looks to people who live there. So I will include links to real stories about the Middle East, in the hopes that I can help a few people find the gems among the dross.

Today's offering, thanks to the News Blog and the excellent US McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau, is here: why one Sunni Iraqi became a devoted follower of the al-Sadrist verison of Shiism. Real news about the real Iraq, not about the Congressional line-up or who is running for President in '08, or who favors a "surge." Real reporting, not more Washington score-keeping.

Image: Maha Adel Mehdi. Click and read about her.

Now if McClatchy or the Guardian or the Globe and Mail would just send someone to Amman, Jordan and report on the huge exodus of Iraqis, especially educated ones, to other Arab countries.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

HIST 1505 assignment

Monday, December 18, 2006

Not exactly cheery holiday fare

This Op-Ed article from the LA Times -- an excellent news source -- talks about the cultural acceptability of torture as seen in recent movies. Anyone who remembers the early seasons of the TV show 24 Hours may really wonder who was behind those torture heavy scripts and how much it promoted the legitimation of torture in the USA.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Not quite Christmas, but wolves anyway

Long-time readers of this blog may remember me posting last December on Wolves for Christmas.

Well, it's only December 16th, but we had the wolves singing tonight, despite the warmest December weather ever.

They sounded awfully close.

Women in Iraq today

Perhaps this is just lazy blogging -- merely a link to a Washington Post article Women Lose Ground in the New Iraq -- but I thought that it gives a personalized picture of the experience of specific women, and shows how much less "modern" life has become for big-city women in the past five years.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Christmas in Turkey

Turkey is 99% Muslim but somehow the Turks have got in the habit of celebrating Christmas on New Year's Eve. Father Christmas, shopping, holiday lights and belly dancers.

As the McClatchy Washington Bureau implies, Turks may just want as much celebration as they can cram into the calendar.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Testimony on the Lancet study of excess deaths in Iraq before the US Congress

This is a long and grim discussion of what Iraq has been like since the invasion. And it only continues to get worse.

There's a link to a video record of the testimony.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sunni-Shiite conflict spreading beyond Iraq?

Thanks to Juan Cole, a link to an ominous story in the Daily Times (Pakistan) which states that prominent Saudi Wahhabi clerics are calling on

Sunni Muslims around the world to mobilise against Shiites in Iraq, although a statement they issued fell short of calling for a jihad, or holy war.

How far short?

There have been recent stories in the international press about truck drivers admitting to carrying large shipments of money from Saudi Arabia to Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

Picture: King Abdullah at a Royal Diwan meeting when he was Crown Prince.


Back to the New World of Algonquian languages in Virginia

Soon after I began blogging, I ran across a story about the John Smith/Pocahontas/Jamestown/Powhatan film The New World which focused on the fact that the director had the Algonquian language of the Virginia natives recreated so that his native characters could use it. A lot of effort was put into this part of the project and it definitely added to the movie for me.

Well, that was not the end of it. In today's Washington Post there is an article about how the work for the film has been picked up by members of Virginia's small but still lively Algonquian tribes, who are beginning to use it again. See the article for a photo feature and a list of words with pronunciations.

By the way, I did eventually see -- and acquire -- The New World and though I can see why it didn't make a big splash in the theatres, I am fascinated by it and will watch it again and again. The director, Terence Malick, forces us to see a lost world from the outside. If we don't understand everything that happens, or what people are thinking, how is this different even from daily life?

For those who find a contemplative movie of this sort attractive, let me remind you of the existence of Malick's other stunner, Days of Heaven, not to be confused with Heaven's Gate.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Novel assignment, HIST 1505

Here is next term's novel assignment for HIST 1505 (Word file).

Here's the list of eligible novels and their ISBN numbers:

Chinua Achebe, Girls at War (ISBN # 0385418965)

Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina (ISBN # 0226020452)

J.G. Ballard, The Empire of the Sun (ISBN # 0743265238)

Mario Vargas Llosa, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (ISBN # 374522367)

Abdelrahman Munif, Cities of Salt, (ISBN #039475526X)

Preserving cultural treasures in Iraq on BBC Radio 3

In a few minutes, BBC Radio 3 will be presenting on the show Night Waves a special program on what has happened, if anything, as a result of British promises to repair cultural damage from the recent and still-unresolved war.

If you miss this tiny window of opportunity to tune in live try this page for a recorded version (available for the next week).

Update: Apparently looters have been focusing on sites where there are probably caches of cuneiform tablets, instead of flashier stuff. The tablets are extraordinarily important, but don't look like much and can't be read easily (to say the least!).

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ancient history cornucopia

Despite my great respect for the weekly ancient history feature Explorator, I often don't have time to read it very thoroughly. So every once in a while it really hits me how good a given week's issue is.

This week, for instance has links (more than I show here) on:

The discovery in Rome of regalia apparently associated with Maxentius, the Roman emperor defeated by Constantine at the Milvian Bridge.

The discovery in Rome of the sarcophagus of St. Paul

A story on a really terrifying tsunami in the prehistoric Mediterranean.

And the possible discovery of another runic stone at the famous Danish site of Jelling.

And plenty more!

It's a golden age of discovery, I tell you.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

War today, generalization alert

From Talking Points Memo
again -- a post summing up refugee movements generated by the disorder in Iraq.

TPM cites a UN report which estimates 100,000 refugees leaving each month, "arterial bleeding" indeed.

When we hear, in such situations, that the people of country X want this, or are doing that, or are thinking the other thing, it's always important to remember that those who leave or those who die are seldom counted.

Above, internally-displaced Iraqis living in a cemetary earlier this year.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Three bull moose

The ones we saw were younger, and crossing the highway between North Bay and Mattawa. This is not such a usual sight even in our wintry clime!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Iraq Study Group report

It will soon be forgotten.

Jonathan Steele in the Guardian (UK):

The country's political elite wants to ignore the American people's doubts, and build a new consensus behind a strategy of staying in Iraq on an open-ended basis with no exit in sight. "Success depends on unity of the American people at a time of political polarisation ... Foreign policy is doomed to failure - as is any action in Iraq - if not supported by broad, sustained consensus," say Baker and his Democratic co-chair, Lee Hamilton, in their introduction. In other words, if things go wrong, it will be the American people's fault for not trusting in the wisdom of their leaders.

As long as this is the attitude of "the country's political elite" there can be no end but catastrophe. Indeed, catastrophe is here and this is all a song and dance to distract both public and policy makers from the terror that will seize them when they really understand the situation.

You can plan an open-ended strategy for staying in Iraq but you can't deliver on it. Just do a lot more damage trying to.

Update: It's February 20, 2007 and I haven't heard anything about the Iraq Study Group during this month.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Montreal Massacre commemoration

An announcement from NU's Women's Centre:

This is a reminder for the December 6th Vigil happening tomorrow at 11:30 am in the Nipissing Front Foyer. This Vigil commemorates the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, as well as the Montreal Massacre.

I won't be in the foyer but am unlikely to ever forget hearing the news of the Massacre, as I drove home at the end of my first term at Nipissing University.

Do you want an "Islamic Reformation"? Are you sure?

Josh Marshall, an American political commentator who runs Talking Points Memo, says something that I've often thought the last few years, exposing one of many shallow statements made by "serious thinkers" in recent times, based no doubt on shadowy memories of Western Civ surveys they took as undergraduates, which told them the Reformation was all about the freedom of conscience:

As I have, you've probably read a hundred times from this and that pundit that what Islam needs is its own Reformation along the lines of the Reformation in Europe that took up, in one sense or another, the better part of two centuries.

But if what you care about is geopolitical stability, less religious extremism in the political realm, or just fewer people being sawed in half or burned alive, then you can really only say this if you know little or nothing about what the Reformation actually was. Or, perhaps better to say, that it was actually a pretty rough ride for something like 150 years.

In the Muslim world, we don't have the break out of an entirely novel schism in the dominant religious culture. But in other respects, let's go down the list: renewal of eschatalogical enthusiasm, check; heightened sectarian identification and inter-sectarian violence, check; breakdown of established mechanisms of state and social authority, check. I'd say we, or rather they, may be about set to have their Reformation. Or they may already be in thick of it.

Not to worry, though. By 2146 or so, after a century or so of bloodletting, there may be a broad political and ideological consensus in favor or relegating religion to the private sphere and leaving the whole thing to personal conscience.

The image is an illustration of the "Defenestration of Prague," a piece of terrorism that helped usher in the Thirty Years War. Let's hope the Middle East isn't about to re-experience that horror.

(P.S. I'm not so sure that Salafism, e.g., isn't a pretty "novel schism in the dominant culture.")

World wealth distribution: things you should know about aristocracy today

It's pretty common knowledge that world income is very unevenly distributed. Now, via Reuters, comes news of a study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the U.N. University that 2% of adults own more than half the world's wealth.

Here's a couple of other estimates from the study:

"We've estimated that the richest 2 percent of adults own more than half of global wealth, while the bottom half own 1 percent," said institute director Anthony Shorrocks.

He likened the situation to that where, in a group of 10 people, one person has $99, while the remaining nine share $1.


According to the study, in 2000 a couple needed capital of $1 million to be among the top 1 percent on the wealth list -- the richest 37 million people in the world.

More than one in every two of those people lives in the United States or Japan.

And it found that net assets of $2,200 per adult would put a household in the top half of the world wealth distribution.

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but the qualification for being one of the top 1% seems kind of low to me. If you bought a nice house in Toronto about 25 years ago, and paid off the mortgage, you might be on that list. If that qualification is accurate, then two things would seem to follow: a huge proportion of the world's population has net assets of 0 or close to it; and a huge proportion of the public figures you know -- those people whose faces you see on screens -- must be in that group of 37 million.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Antikythera device -- a triumph of ancient Greek technology

"Anti-kythera" isn't the negation of some obscure cosmic force. It's a Greek island where the first ancient shipwreck was discovered and recovered at the beginning of the 20th century.

The device is one of the ancient wonders, even though it's in pretty rough shape.

As USA Today's article says, referring to a newly published study in the prestigious journal Nature:

With one dial in front and two in back, the hand-cranked device replicated cycles of the sun and moon's appearances in the sky over a repeating 76-year pattern, the study suggests, as well as the planets' motion. The reconstruction supersedes an older, simpler model of the mechanism and shows the ancient Greeks invented differential gears and miniaturized mechanisms in ways unseen until the Renaissance.
Here's what it may have looked like (leaving out the wooden case):

The new study results from some more sophisticated x-ray tomography and digital imaging, and shows the corroded device originally had 30 hand-cut differential gears.

This reminds me of Watt, who was an instrument maker for a university lab in Scotland before he devised his radically improved steam engine.

The articles noted above have a number of interesting links.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Doing it the Dutch Way in Afghanistan

That's the title of a Globe and Mail (Canada) article on a strategy that seems to be working so far.


Were the Pyramids made of cast concrete blocks?

A recent story in the Times Online (UK) discusses a theory getting serious examination: The higher-level blocks in the pyramids at Giza were not hauled to the top, but cast in place out of a lime slurry made from lime dug up very near by. Limestone concrete, well before the Romans became the concrete masters of the ancient world.

If the theory is confirmed it gives a very impressive picture of the expertise of ancient Egyptian engineers. I have had the usual view, well represented in the scholarly literature, that the Egyptians did things the simpler, even brute-force way, such as using repeated subtraction instead of inventing division like the Mesopotamians did. My view may need some revision.

Friday, December 01, 2006

One year blogging

Sometime last December I started this blog. It's been fun! And I hope it will continue to be so.