History of International Relations Textbook

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Three magi from the east

Among the events celebrated at Christmas, the weirdest — apart from the virgin birth and the new star created for the occasion — is surely the sudden appearance of the three men bearing gifts for baby Jesus. in fact, the Gospel of Matthew, 2:1-12 — which is the only biblical reference to the event — doesn’t actually mention how many gift-givers there were, but since three gifts were involved, it has always been assumed three people showed up.

But who were they?  According to one tradition they were “kings,” but the only biblical reference here is from the Old Testament — Isaiah 60:3 — where it is said that the Messiah was “worshipped by kings.” What Matthew mentions is instead “magi,” a word derived from Old Persian maguŝ, which was the name of a priest in the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrian priests were great star-gazers, experts in astrology and, well, in all forms of “magic.” Hence it’s not surprising that they were guided to Bethlehem by a star.

Since the 8th century, the Magi have been named as “Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar,” but they have no names in the Bible itself. Among Syrian Christians they were instead known as “Larvandad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdas,” and that certainly sounds a lot more Persian.

The gifts they brought with them were “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” All three are clearly things you give to a man who already has everything.  Frankincese was a sort of incense used as perfume and myrrh was an oil used for embalming the dead body. Curiously, the Bible never tells us what happened to the gifts. Yet gold must have been quite a sensation for a poor carpenter’s family. Why didn’t Joseph use it to invest in some more lucrative business?

In fact, the Bible never tells us what happened to the magi themselves. They popped up unexpectedly and then they sodded off for ever. But apparently there is an oral tradition which says that they were baptized in India by St. Thomas, and according to another tradition their remains were taken to Europe after their deaths. This at least is the explanation they give in the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where there is a “Shrine of the Three Kings.”

Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas, is usually regarded as the day they appeared in Bethlehem, and appropriately enough in Spanish speaking countries this is when children get their Christmas presents. The festivals associated with the occasion all elaborate on the all-too-obvious Oriental theme. For the same reason the “Adoration of the Magi” was a favorite topos among Renaissance artists who loved to accompany the gift-givers with exotic animals and to dress them in outlanding clothes.

Yet it should be obvious that the three magi cannot have arrived as early as twelve days after Jesus was born. It must have taken quite a lot longer to travel to Bethlehem from Persia. In fact, the Bible acknowledges as much when it has Herod kill all children under the age of 2 when the magi tell him about the birth of Jesus. If the magi had alerted him to a recent birth, it would have been sufficient to kill all the newborns.

Considering how much Christianity has appropriated from Zoroastrianism — including the very idea of a “savior” and of an “end of all time” —  it is appropriate that Jesus’ first worshippers were Zoroastrian priests.  I like to think that the three magi are a subconscious way of acknowledging how much Christianity has borrowed from Zoroastrianism. historically speaking, Christianity is just a new Zoroastrian dispensation. Of course the Church would never quite put it like that.

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Unesco and the unity of mankind

Right after UNESCO — the UN’s cultural organization — was established in 1946, they planned to publish a book on the world history of science and culture which was to put an emphasis on the exchange between countries and civilizations, not their uniqueness. Spreading the word regarding the unity of mankind was thought of as UNESCO’s distinct contribution to the prevention of future wars.  Joseph Needham and Lucien Febvre were a part of the project and at a meeting in Mexico in 1947 they wrote up a draft of an outline:

The Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind

1. Humanity’s unity in diversity
2-3. Interchange and communication
4-5. Show what each part has received from the others — undo the “fiction” of a partitioned earth
6, Conclusions & synthesis repeating the above

Nothing came of the project in the end.  The only thing that materialized was a book by Febvre, “International origins of a civilization” (published in 2012 as “Nous sommes tous des sang-melés”). Another result, however, was an invitation from UNESCO to Lévi-Strauss to write about “race and history,” which he did.

Karine Chemla, a historian of science at NYU — most famous for her work in the history of Chinese mathematics — has done research on the UNESCO project, and also collected the various prefaces which Needham wrote to his magistral Science and Civilization of Ancient China, showing how Chinese traditions can be understood in the context of the scientific development of mankind as a whole.

No, we are not engaged in a project of quite this scale — and we are not comparing ourselves to any of these scholars — but we’e doing our little bit. E plurubus unum.

(Thanks to Magnus Fiskesjö for the information, and to Karine Chemla whose talk he listened to at NYU, Shanghai).

Stirred up over stirrups

Now this is a proper academic dispute. In 1962, the historians Lynn Townsend White published a book, Medieval Technology and Social Change, in which he argued that feudalism was introduced in Europe as a result of the introduction of stirrups. What are stirrups? We’ll they are this:

White’s point was that stirrups made it easier to control the horses and this made it possible for heavier cavalry to engage in more ferocious forms of combat. In order to reward the mounted warriors for their efforts, the Carolingian dynasty, in the 8th and 9th centuries, organized their land into a system of vassalage.  This is how feudalism, according to White, got started.

Other scholars are not convinced. While they agree that cavalry replaced infantry in Carolingian France, and that feudalism emerged at this time, they are skeptical regarding the technological determinism which White’s thesis implies. Cavalry had existed before stirrups, and, besides, there is no actual evidence for the thesis.  Modern reenactments of Carolingian military techniques give little evidence that stirrups made all that much difference.  It could have been that the introduction of the saddle made a bigger difference. The saddle, however, was introduced quite a lot earlier.

What’s interesting for our purposes is that stirrups seem to have been introduced from China already in the late 6th or early 7th century.  The people responsible may have been the Avars, a Central Asia nomadic people, which, together with so many others, pushed into post-Roman Europe.  An amazing archeological find, the Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, consisting of 23 gold vessels created by the Avars was discovered in 1799. Incidentally, it was discovered by a Serb peasant, in the Hungarian part of the Habsburg empire which today is a part of Romania. The treasure itself is on exhibit at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Check this out:

The saddle too was invented in Central Asia, but a lot earlier, by the Scythians in the first millennium BCE.

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Swedish mission in Xinjiang

In 1893, the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden — one of the “free” churches, not affiliated with the Swedish state church — started a mission project in Xinjiang, or what at the time was known as “East Turkestan.” The aim was to convert the Uygurs to Christianity by providing them with hospitals and schools and by printing pamphlets in the Uygur language. It was an uphill struggle for the Swedes and they made few converts. The political strife of the 1930s put insurmountable obstacles in their way and in 1938 the mission was abandoned.  What does remain, however — and this is remarkable — is a large archive of movies that the missionaries shot in Xinjiang.

At the Internet Archive there is also a large collection of audio interviews with the missionaries themselves, recorded in the 1960s. Someone Swedish-speaking should go through this material and write it up in an internationally accessible language. It would make a great MA thesis. (I’d do it myself if I wasn’t so busy writing these pages …)

One of the interviewees is Gunnar Jarring, one of Sweden’s foremost diplomats in the post-WW2 era and an expert on Turkish languages. He too visited East Turkmenistan in the 1930s.

Btw, Jarring donated his material on East Turkmenistan to Lund University! “It’s an extremely rich collection, possibly the biggest in the world,” says their web page. All that good stuff is just down the road from where I live! (and yet not as easily available as online …)

I taught a course on “human rights in China” in China

Reading Marshall Sahlin’s devastating critique of the Confucius Institutes which the Chinese government has been hard at work setting up since 2004, it is easy to get annoyed by the meekness of their Western directors.  “No,” they insist, “the Confucius Institute is not the appropriate place to discuss independence for Tibet.” The fact that these institutions are located at university campuses and integrated with on-going teaching and research, makes the meekness into something close to a crime. Universities outside of China cannot let the Chinese government have a say on how China should be discussed!

The irony is that in China itself there is often space to talk about these kinds of issues, at least in a university setting. The country’s dictatorship is more influenced by Groucho than by Karl Marx.  I used to teach a course at Shanghai Jiaotong University which had one week on independence for Taiwan and Tibet and another week on human rights. I used to ask my students if they ever thought Ma Yingjiu, the president of Taiwan, would become president of all of China?  That is, when will China come to have the kinds of competitive elections in which the leader of the KMT could win? “No,” said my students after some thought, “Ma is 64 years old, and he’ll be too old once we have free elections.”

And yet none of this was a surprise to my students.  I didn’t tell them anything about democracy or human rights — or about China for that matter — that they didn’t already know.  No one is fooled by the rhetoric and everyone is completely cynical.  Mind you, my students were all members of the

Nomadic political theory

When this book is finished, I’m going to write a book for CUP about “nomadic political theory.” Now what is that?

Reading about how the Mongols and the Arabs conquered the rest of the known world, it’s so obvious that they thought about most political concepts in an entirely different way than the Europeans. They were nomads, and nomads have their own view on borders.

Nomads need pasture where their animals can graze and they continuously move to places where they can find it. Grass grows naturally, it does not have to be planted, only carefully managed, and land has no meaning apart from what it can yield. Farmers, on the other hand, invest labor in their land, together with seeds and fertilizer, and they put up fences which limit access by outsiders in order to protect what they own. Fences, to nomads, is an abomination since they block their ability to move and thereby to feed their animals and themselves.

This understanding of, and relationship to, the land had implications for both warfare and trade. As nomads, the Mongols were interested in booty but not really in territorial acquisition. They would consequently take what they could get their hands on and move on. As a result they often had to reinvade land which they had invaded earlier. This is also why their empire left no monuments in the form of buildings. The Mongols did not build things since buildings cannot move.

This applies even to their own capitals. In fact, during Genghis Khan the Mongols did not have a proper capital. Instead Genghis would take his court and his advisers with him in a ger mounted on a cart which was pulled by a set of particularly strong horses. They toured the country, and the world, accompanied by their capital.

The only thing the Mongols built were bridges — to take their armies across rivers and to help merchants conduct their trade.  They were also experts at breaching walls. Indeed, siege warfare was the only field apart from horsemanship in which they made substantial technical innovations.

Bridge-building and wall-breaching are activities in which barbarians engage.  Barbarians want to break down barriers and force cultures to open themselves up to the rest of the world.  This is how — brace yourself for the contradiction! — barbarians help spread civilization.  Civilization, as opposed to culture, is not a feature of a particular society but of relations between societies.  This is what both Arabs and Mongols did.  The Arabs preserved the knowledge of the ancients and passed it on to the moderns; the Mongols supercharged the Silk Roads and facilitated trade.  In this way both Arabs and Mongols civilized the Europeans!

All of this becomes very interesting indeed once you realize that 21st century capitalism is a barbarian, but civilizing, force which operates in much the same manner.  Capitalism doesn’t have any respect for barriers either.  Capitalism breaks down walls and builds bridges.  Capitalism too conquers the world but doesn’t occupy anything.  Capitalism is destroying our cultures while making it ever easier for us to interact.

I can’t make up my mind about nomads.  Are they cool or just cruel?

Who are the Yazidis?

News and TV footage reaches us from the town of Sinjar, northern Iraq. A community of people known as the Yazidis, or Yezidis, are under heavy bombardment by ISIL, or ISIS, the fundamentalist Sunni fighters who now are taking over much of Syria and Iraq.  The rest of the world is aghast but it is far from clear what to do. The United States seems prepared to start bombing but bombing hasn’t helped much in the past.

The Yazidis are not Muslim, Christians or Jews, but neither are they mixes of these religions. Not surprisingly most journalists struggle to define them. The Yazidis are mountain people who valley-dwellers can’t categorize.  The Yazidi language is a version of Kurdish, and the Yazidis are usually classified as Kurds, but relations with the mainstream Kurdish community seem strained.  This explains something I’ve been puzzled by: the Kurdish peshmerga soldiers are usually very good at protecting their own and they are also the only ones, it seems, who ISIL doesn’t dare to attack. Why have they left the Yazidis to fend for themselves?

What more than anything bothers the rest of the world is the Yasidi worship of Melek Taus, which both Christians and Muslims have identified as Satan. Yes, Satan.  Yazidis refuse to pronounce words with a “sh” in them, as in “Shaitan.”  The Yazidis, goes the argument, refuse to pronounce the name of their lord. Yet Melek Taus is like no Satan I know or have ever heard of. He came to earth as a spirit but, say the Yazidis, he refused to submit to Adam and his lord.  Instead he presented mankind with a choice between good and evil.  Melek Taus himself represented the good but he wanted human beings to make up their own minds.  This is the whole point of their religion. This is a smart way around the theodicy problem faced by all monotheistic religions — how to explain the existence of evil in a world with a benevolent, and all-powerful, god.  Besides, the Yazidis are mountain people — they have to learn how to think for themselves.

The Yazidis sided with the Americans at the time of the invasion in 2001 and they readily admitted to other Iraqis that they were collaborators.  In fact, Sinjar, once the Americans got to it, looked the way they had hoped all of Iraq would look — with cheerful people lining the streets to celebrate their liberation. The greatest sin of the Yazidis seems consequently to be that they followed “Greater” rather than normal-size Satan. Small minority groups have always looked to empires to protect them from nationalists.  Not surprisingly the large ethnic groups in Iraq were sharpening their knives waiting for the Americans to leave.  When the Americans eventually did, the genocide begun.

Their land is age-old border territory.  The frontier between the Byzantine and the Sasanian empires ran through the main street of Sinjar. There was heavy fighting here some 1,500 years ago too. As American troops entered the town in 2001, Yazidi children were throwing Roman coins at them.

Apparently, the opening sequence of that notorious 1973 movie, The Exorcist, was shot in Sinjar (I have yet to confirm this).  Somehow it would be just typical of the Islamic fundamentalists if they got their notion that the Yazidis are Satan-worshippers from watching this movie. Islamic fundamentalists, like all fundamentalists, know too much about pop culture and not enough about their own religion. Fundamentalists need to return to fundamentals. Meanwhile, leave the Yazidis alone.

A Golden Horde for the 21st century

I watched Close to Eden, or Urga as it also is known, a 1991 movie by the Russian film director Nikita Mikhalkov.  The film shows amazingly beautiful images of the steppes, the life of a family of nomads, and it very leisurely walks us through their everyday routines.  A Russian truck driver shows up to provide some drama and much comic relief, and Genghis Khan makes an appearance to warn the family about the dangers of abandoning its traditional ways of life. Roger Ebert concluded that it is the kind of movie

that has no reason for existence, except to keep the viewer bemused. It does that with such sly charm that when it’s over, you don’t even think to ask why it was made. You’re simply pleased that it was.

Much as I respect Roger Ebert, he could not be more wrong. Nikita Michalkov is the most powerful man in the Russian movie industry and a strong supporter of President Putin. Far from being politically innocent, the film has a strong Eurasianist message.  According to Eurasianists like Lev Gumilev, the Russians are more influenced by the Mongols than by the Europeans. In fact, the Mongol invasion of Russia never happened.  Instead the Mongols intervened in order to defend Russia against the incursions by aggressive knight templars working for the Catholic church. It is by identifying with its Mongol past that Russia will become strong again and learn to stand up to the West.  Compare Putin’s project for a Eurasian Economic Community.  This EEC is not a recreation of the Soviet Union as much as a Golden Horde for the 21st century.

Make doors, not wars

Looking at those amazing color photos from Bukhara, I eventually noticed the doors behind the emir — big, slender, doors carved in wood.  Then I suddenly remembered that I had seen those doors before — in an exhibit at the Islamic Art Museum in Doha, Qatar, last year. They were advertised as coming from “Afghanistan” but surely Bukhara is what they refer to.  Or rather, the art of door making must have been spread throughout much of Central Asia.

 

It’s great to see different images from Afghanistan than the usual images of war.  Skilled craftsmen doing what they do best.  The ordinary as an antidote to the extraordinary.  Make doors, not wars.

The thirteenth-century really isn’t that far away after all

All day today I’ve been reading about, and looking at, these remarkable Russian color photos from before the First World War.  I didn’t even know there were such things. I thought color only came into widespread use after the Second World War.  After all, my father only took black-and-white photos back in the 1960s.  Well I was wrong.  More to the point: the photos completely blow me away, not least the ones taken in the Emirate of Bukhara in 1911.

These are Jewish boys of Samarkand studying with their teachers:

And here is the minister of the interior:

And here is the emir himself (read the full story here):

The world which this man represents, in his outfit and his beard, connects us directly to the thirteenth-century, yet the quality of the photo connects us directly to today. It’s like having Genghis Khan himself on Facebook. The thirteenth-century really isn’t that far away after all.