Oil Fields and Fire Worshippers

In 1942, to celebrate his birthday, Adolf Hitler was presented with a cake depicting Eurasia; the führer carved himself a portion labelled ‘Baku’, representing Soviet Azerbaijan’s capital. The Germans coveted the Baku oilfields as they lacked their own source of petroleum and, more importantly, because the region accounted for up to 80% of their Soviet adversary’s fuel production.[1] The major military setbacks of the Wehrmacht in Stalingrad, a turning point of the Eastern Front, put a halt to German plans to occupy Azerbaijan. Petroleum is a linchpin of the modern economy; it is needed to run our cars, heat our homes and, in Hitler’s case, to fuel a world war. Nonetheless, prior to 1846, when the first ever oil well was mechanically-drilled in Baku, petroleum was employed in unusual ways.  

Before the advent of Islam, Azerbaijan was administered by an assortment of Iranian polities. Many professed the Zoroastrian faith, a monotheistic religion which emerged in the Eurasian steppes between 1400-1200 BCE. A key doctrine of the faith recognised fire as an emanation of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian deity. Fire represented purity and bridged the spiritual domain of Ahura Mazda with our temporal world. Mac Williams hypothesised lightning strikes would set ablaze the petroleum-rich soils of Azerbaijan, creating eternal flames, upon which Zoroastrians built their fire temples.[2] For example, the seventeenth century Surakhani fire temple of Baku was fuelled by subterranean gas before its depletion by Soviet exploitation of reserves in 1969.  

Following the Arab conquest of Azerbaijan’s Absheron Peninsula, oil had several practical functions. It was used for embalming, as an ingredient for cement, and to waterproof rooftops and ship hulls. The murky liquid was utilised in war too. It coated city walls to hamper enemy sieges and, when lit, was an inflammatory agent which smouldered the flesh of invaders. In 753 CE the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur even taxed Azerbaijan’s oilfields; where the oil would be deposited into tanks and transferred across Western Asia using caravans. The tanks were also transported onto ships at the port of Baku and ferried across to the southern Caspian ports of Jurjan and Tabaristan – allowing for the commodity’s export to the Middle East and India.[3]

The 18th century British traveller Jonas Hanway even identified medical uses for petroleum after Russia’s conquest of the South Caucasus.

The Russians drink it both as a cordial and medicine; but it does not intoxicate. If taken internally, it is said to be good for the stone as also for disorders of the breast [….] Externally applied it is of great use in scorbutic pains, gouts, cramps […] but it must be put to the part affected only; it penetrates instantaneously into the blood, and is apt for a short time to create pain.[4]

I would caution that such medicinal applications of petrol would not be advised by any respectable doctor of the 21st century. Nevertheless, delving into petroleum’s history reveals its alluring role in religious ritual, economic value to empires and ingenious functions prior to electricity. The 19th century chemist Thomas Edward Thorpe poetically connected this magical past with the mechanical present by remarking:

With the conquest of Persia, first by Heraclius, and twelve years later by the Arabs, the power of the Magi of the Zoroastrian sect was shattered ; and the worship of the Eternal Fire in the Surakhani temple for ever passed away, and in its place are now the symbols of a new cult in the shape of greasy derricks and dingy kerosene distilleries.[5]

I cannot help but both admire and begrudge how presciently he described the devastation which springs from our fanatical thirst for petroleum.

The Oil Gush Fire in Bibiheybat, Baku (1898), via Wikimedia Commons


Featured image: Paul Von Franken, ‘The Maiden Tower in Baku‘, 1818-1884

[1] Yevdayev, Milikh. “How Azerbaijan Helped to Defeat Hitler.” Jewish Journal, November 2, 2017. https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/blogs/226725/azerbaijan-helped-defeat-hitler/.

[2] Williams, Mac. “Zoroastrian and Zurvanite symbolism in” Las ruinas circulares”.” Variaciones Borges 25 (2008): 115-135.

[3] Asadov, Farda. “Trade Routes, Trading Centers and the Emergence of the Domestic Market in Azerbaijan in the Period of Arab-Khazar Domination on the Silk Road.” Acta Via Serica 4, no. 1 (2019): 1-24.

[4] Thorpe, T. E. “Baku Petroleum.” Nature 39, no. 1012 (1889): 481-482.

[5] Ibid.

Rivers of Ink: Ibn Khaldūn’s Historical Theory

How do underequipped insurgents manage to fight off resourceful superpowers? Previously I examined historian Ibn Khaldūn’s arguments against repeating historical accounts without critical engagement. The process of taqlīd meant medieval historians engaged in circular reporting, assuming the logical fallacy of appealing to authority. In this post I will draft Ibn Khaldūn’s Historical Theory which seeks to explain the lifecycle of dynasties and the fortunes of war. To understand this, we will need to examine the crucial mechanism behind it, aṣabiyya, or group solidarity.

What is aṣabiyya?         

The term aṣabiyya is connected to the Arabic word ‘asbah; which refers to cohesion among agnates.[1] According to Franz Rosenthal, Ibn Khaldūn may have had in mind ‘usbah, which pertains to a group more generally, although the foremost connection would be blood ties. ‘Aṣabiyya is driven by “[the feeling that] no harm ought to befall them [members of kin] nor any destruction come upon them”.[2] This was exemplified in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, which was later transmitted into the Qur’an. When Joseph’s brothers had secretly plotted to kidnap him, they assured their father: “If a wolf were to eat him [Joseph] when there are so many of us, we would truly be losers!”.[3] We could think of aṣabiyya as group morale, mutual self-sacrifice, or in Peter Adamson’s words ‘team spirit’.[4]

Sacrifice on behalf of one’s kin plays a crucial component in the Historical Theory. Why is the group the chief unit of analysis for Ibn Khaldūn? The answer lies in Ibn Khaldūn’s awareness of nature which is illustrated by conflict and predation. Just as a lion has been given claws, God has provided man with the ability to think and hands in order to craft tools. Ibn Khaldūn dismisses the individual’s defensive capacity by asserting that the “power of one individual human being cannot withstand the power of any one dumb animal”.[5] Accordingly, for Ibn Khaldūn, human social organisation is a necessity derived from the requirement to protect against others.

An exposition of the Historical Theory

Just as human society represents the manifestation of nature, the lifespan of a political regime is a reflection of the aging of a human. The Historical Theory appears in Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah; where Ibn Khaldūn applies this cyclic explanation to several dynasties in order to explain regime formation and collapse. For example, a historical account sketches how the Umayyad Caliphate established power in Iberia using group solidarity, but regime senility led to the dynasty’s collapse – paving the way for reyes de taifas (local Spanish principalities) to overthrow them.[6] Like the Umayyads before them, the weakening of ‘aṣabiyya among the reyes de taifas presented an opportunity for the Almoravids from North Africa to attain control of the peninsula. Ibn Khaldūn believes his theory has a universal application to it and the cycle is both natural and predictable.

The theory can be divided into five parts and describes two environments; the nomadic desert and the sedentary city.[7]

  1. Conquest
  2. Consolidation
  3. Stable rule
  4. Senescence
  5. Dynastic collapse

The initial military victory by a nomadic tribe over a sedentary civilisation is possible because nomads possess a stronger ‘aṣabiyya than the inhabitants of the city. In the desert, the nomads need ‘aṣabiyya because of the harsh environment and intense competition between rival tribes. Threats here are only external to the tribe. As a consequence of this, ‘aṣabiyya is required not only to protect and defend the tribe, but also to press claims. The goal of group solidarity is to attain the glory of royal authority and the eventual aim for the nomad is to achieve a sedentary life.

After conquest, a consolidation process occurs where the numerous ‘aṣabiyya, including that of the victorious group and conquered realm, are subsumed under a single leader who now governs the city. Khaldūn argues that in the consolidation process, royal authority or mulk, can only be attained through group solidarity.[8] Politics, according to Ibn Khaldūn, requires a leader who is singled out among the group; where the new leader claims “all the glory for himself and does not permit the people to share in it”.[9] Consequently, the group can now “dispense with group solidarity” because it is customary to be obedient to the ruler who, commanding an economy and army, has little need for ‘aṣabiyya to maintain power.[10] During this phase the royal deals with external threats associated with outsiders’ group solidarity and challengers from within his own tribe who may vie for or contest his authority. Once consolidation has occurred, a period of stable dynastic rule emerges.

We should note that Ibn Khaldūn does not view the nomadic stage as an ideal, even if it embodies the strongest group solidarity. Ibn Khaldūn argues that complex culture and science production cannot occur in a nomadic lifestyle because resources are diverted to the tribe’s survival instead of entertainment or technological efficiency. For instance, Abbasid Baghdad featured the House of Wisdom; which contained uncountable original works, translated materials and even an observatory. This would not have been possible if the Arabs had retained their nomadic ways.  

Senescence of the regime occurs because the city’s inhabitants become dependent on luxuries; leading to debt and spiritual avarice. This is compounded by the waning of ‘aṣabiyya as loyalty to the king grows. “[Royal authority] requires superiority and force, which express the wrathfulness and animality of human nature” and this creates an atmosphere of disloyalty among the citizens.[11] ‘Aṣabiyya weakens because the group lacks the will and ability to share power with the sovereign. The lifespan of the regime is generally thought to be three generations, roughly amounting to one hundred and twenty years. Ibn Khaldūn had a neat trick to identify regime senility: observe for the presence of decorative orange trees because it demonstrates a society’s dependence on impractical luxuries.

Grande rue à Kairouan, Maurice Rodieux, via Wikimedia Commons

The final phase of dynastic collapse sets the stage for the civilisation to be captured by nomads who personify the ‘aṣabiyya long lost by the sedentary citizens. An alternative means of dynastic collapse may involve internal dissension where an unpopular leader is replaced by a revolt from within the elite; with the newly enthroned leader closer representing the overall ‘aṣabiyya of the group.

To summarise, ‘aṣabiyya is a causal mechanic in the Historical Theory; whose strength and weakness determines the rise and fall of dynasties. The willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s kin is much stronger within the desert than in the city. This is because, in the city, the increasing loyalty to a ruler and reliance on luxuries steadily erodes ‘aṣabiyya to a point where it ceases to exist. Hence, the tribe can no longer press their claims, nor defend themselves from external threats.

Testing the cycle

Ibn Khaldūn saw a pattern among the historical regimes he had studied; the sacking of Baghdad in 1258CE provided a very recent case to test his theory. After a failed negotiation with the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols sieged Baghdad. The House of Wisdom was not spared:

In one week, libraries and their treasures that had been accumulated over hundreds of years were burned or otherwise destroyed. So many books were thrown into the Tigris River, according to one writer, that they formed a bridge that would support a man on horseback[12]

It was said the Tigris River ran black with ink and red with citizens’ blood during this calamity. Of course much of the Mongols’ ire was aimed at Caliph Al-Musta’sim who dithered during the crucial negotiations. Having taken the city, the conquerors were reluctant to spill noble blood for fear it would trigger an earthquake. Instead, in one account, the Abbasid caliph was wrapped in a rug and trampled on by elephants, whereas another claims he was locked in his palace – forced to stare at his treasures as he starved.[13] For Ibn Khaldūn, the intricacies of the siege and its outcome did not matter. Instead, he would ask us to step back to realise it was a mere repetition of a naturalistic cycle; just another nomadic group overpowering a decadent regime.

The imprisonment of Caliph Al-Musta’sim, “Le Livre des Merveilles”, Marie-Therese Gouss, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern takes on group solidarity

We can argue the Historical Theory is somewhat deterministic, especially considering the relative stability of modern-day polities. However, the concept of ‘aṣabiyya is useful in explaining why nationalism tears apart multi-ethnic empires. Ibn Khaldūn would have pointed out that the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were destined to collapse as each constituent nationality had its own ‘aṣabiyya yanking away at the peripheries. Similarly, he would argue the relative stability of western Europe was because group solidarity was largely placated by national borders; which roughly coincide with the ethnic groups living within them. The separatist sentiment of Catalans and Scots may yet prove that ‘aṣabiyya is a critical factor which determines how borders are drawn and re-drawn.

Additionally, if we inspect modern conflict, the causal mechanics of nomads conquering empires would fail because of technological and economic advances. It would be unfathomable to imagine Central Asian wanderers overpowering a nuclear-armed Russia. Nonetheless, group solidarity is an important facet of morale and has assisted modern history’s underdogs many times over. We need only glance at the Viet Cong’s resistance in the face of American B-52s, Israel warding off seven Arab armies and the Afghan defiance of three superpowers.


Featured image: Conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols 1258. Dschingis Khan und seine Erben (exhibition catalogue), München 2005 via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Rosenthal, Franz. “The Muqaddimah.” An Introduction to History 3 (1958). “Translator’s Introduction”, lxxii

[2] Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press, chap. 2.7., 98

[3] Haleem, MA Abdel, ed. The Qur’an. OUP Oxford, 2005., p.146

[4] Adamson, Peter. Philosophy in the Islamic World: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 3. Oxford University Press, 2016.

[5] Ibn Khaldūn, chap.1., 45-46  

[6] Ibid., chap. 3.2., 124

[7] Adamson, chap. 28., 204-205

[8] Ibn Khaldūn, chap. 3.1., 123

[9] Ibid., chap. 3.10., 132

[10] Ibid., chap. 2.1., 123-124

[11] Ibid., chap. 3.23., 154

[12] Harris, Michael H. History of libraries of the western world. Scarecrow Press, 1999., p85

[13] Neggaz, Nassima. “The Many Deaths of the Last ‘Abbāsid Caliph al-Musta ‘ṣim bi-llāh (d. 1258).” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 30, no. 4 (2020): 585-612.

Is All Fair and Lovely?

The best part about family gatherings is walking into a room mid-conversation and being privy to some gossip. Salacious subject-matter may include an aunt’s poor cooking skills, the financial woes troubling a distant relative and the minutiae of a conflict between cousins. Of course there would be times where you wish you hadn’t walked in. Once I’d chanced upon a discussion between aunts claiming they’d known their niece would grow up to be dark-skinned because, as a baby, her ears were swarthier than the rest of her body. The dialogue was shrouded with insidiousness and spite; denigrating her beauty due to her skin tone.

In spite of the racism faced by the South Asian community, there is a pervasive undercurrent of colourism and a self-hatred which stems from it. Whenever I’d visit Bangladesh, I would be bombarded with rose-hued billboards advertising Fair and Lovely, a skin lightening cream. The message, delivered with a model’s pearly smile, was clear; you’ll be more beautiful if you’re a shade lighter, or implicitly, you cannot be comfortable with your skin colour. Of course, seeing the blotched faces of those who bleached their skin was all the more distressing. As an ethnic minority living in Europe, this ostensible link between beauty and fairness privileged me with several insecurities. Ultimately, it played its part in fuelling a wider web of incessant despondency.

Beautifully translated by Elias Muanna, the ‘Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition’ is an encyclopaedia compiled by Mamluk-era historian Shihāb al-Dīn Ahmad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayri. The book provides a medieval Egyptian’s insight into formulating love potions, reasons for not speaking louder than others (even if you have a desperately profound statement to make) and the unconscionable habits of hyenas around human corpses.

Nestled between such morsels of wisdom are poems devoted to beauty and I happened across two pieces which provide a pleasant remedy to colourism:

How can I not desire a gazelle

Grazing freely in the protection of a king

Its duskiness a mix

Of camphor and musk[1]

This poem, however, is my personal favourite:

O you who spends his wealth

Upon the love of this fine gold-skinned one

How can silent gold, spent profligately

Compare to gold that speaks?[2]

To those of you with at least an atom’s worth of self-doubt about your skin colour – I’d like to wholeheartedly assure you that I am, and as are you, the gold that speaks.


Featured image: Louise Catherine Breslau – La Toilette (1898)

[1] Al-Nuwayri, Shihab al-Din. The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World. Penguin, 2016. p.57.

[2] Ibid.

Death Rituals of Scythia

Many of us living in towns and cities are somewhat insulated from death. Our chicken comes pre-packaged, neatly presented and devoid of feathers, feet or a head. We rarely hunt for our protein and animal slaughter is outsourced to a factory worker. Consequently, reminders of death are often demoted to observing the occasional pigeon or rat carcass along our daily commute.

Even with our modern detachment from death, it is an inevitability of the human condition. At some point we will lose loved ones and find ourselves staring vacantly at the ceiling from the death bed. Arranging and attending a funeral offers a special chance to pay respect to the departed and formalise closure within its rituals; whether it is a torrent of grief, a festivity of the person’s life, or both. If a Scythian from the fifth century were to step inside a time machine to visit us, they would be much surprised by our modern takes on death. Their nomadic worldview was epitomised by life and death, by predator and prey.

Narrating history

Barry Cunliffe’s book ‘The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe’ provides an illuminating insight into the funerary practices of this nomadic group. Scythians inhabited and migrated along the great steppes of Eurasia; stretching from the Danube, across the Caspian Basin, towards the Altai Mountains which punctuate the edges of western China. The book’s section on death heavily focuses on the Greek historian Herodotus’ accounts of Scythian burial practices from the fifth century CE.

We should cautiously note that Herodotus would likely have had in mind two different realms; one inhabited by Greeks and the rest by barbarians (barbaroi). Francois Hartog argues Herodotus’ writings on Scythia were placed “in order within the context of Greek knowledge, and, in so doing, constructed for the Greeks a representation of their own recent past”.[1] Essentially, Herodotus may have embellished Scythian practices to present a barbarian ‘other’ to juxtapose against the civilised Greek ‘self’. In this respect, we should view Herodotus’ works as literary pieces marketed towards Greek audiences rather than actual historical observations.

Nevertheless, Hyun Jin Kim asserts that Herodotus’ accounts are concordant with Scythian archaeological findings as well as social customs of other Central Asian nomads, often overlooked by Eurocentric scholarship on Scythia.[2] This is not to say Herodotus did not employ artistic license, but his works are far from the fairy tales assumed by Hartog and other neo-historicist sceptics.  

A funeral to remember

For the Scythians, death was bifurcated into two features: the death of the body and the transmigration of the soul afterwards. Bodily death was simple; it was the cessation of a person’s physical activity. The soul, however, wafted around the corpse and a proper burial would be required to prevent the spirit from causing mischief in the human realm. According to Scythian tradition it takes the soul up to forty days to fully disentangle itself from its body and the surrounding environs. This viewpoint was common among Indo-European cultures and is a widely held belief of many Eastern Orthodox Christians.[3]

Scythian funeral rites varied depending on the geographical location, era and social status of the deceased. Herodotus describes a forty day custom of Pontic Steppe Scythians from southern Ukraine and Russia. This involved placing the dead body in a wagon and trotting it out to various houses who would host feasts and offer their meals to the dead.

Before the tour, the person’s intestines and stomach were removed and some corpses had their brain matter withdrawn through punctures in the head. The skin was coated with wax which prevented flies from laying eggs and the resulting maggots which would hasten decay. The body’s empty cavity was then filled with fragrant herbs such as anise, incense and celery seed to help mask any smell.[4] This is likely because the odour of the putrefied corpse would be unbearable, especially if you had the pleasure of sitting beside the guest of honour during mealtime. Finally, to ensure the body kept its form, horse hair was stuffed in the empty cavities, including the skull.

Comforts for the next world

When a Scythian died they would take with them some worldly comforts to the next realm. Archaeological findings from burial sites include spears, clothing, jewellery, amphorae and bronze cauldrons. Furthermore, royals and nobles would be buried with horses, demonstrating the importance of the steed in taming the vast steppes and, presumably, the afterlife. In some cases, horses in a single burial site were found to originate from different regions, suggesting they were funerary gifts from neighbouring tribes. In the South Caucasus, Scythian and Cimmerian burial mounds contained skeletons of wolves or dogs and even the teeth of two lions.[5]

4th century BCE Scythian golden gorytos found in Melitopol Kurgan (Ukraine), VoidWanderer, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Horrifyingly, for those of higher social standing, trinkets and horses would not be sufficient to entertain the soul – they would require human company too. Herodotus claims a concubine would be strangled and buried with the king after the forty day mourning period. A year after the burial Herodotus notes:

They take the most suitable of the rest of the attendants […] they strangle fifty of them and fifty of the finest horses and, having removed their entrails, clean them and fill them with chaff and sew them up […] They mount each of the fifty strangled youths on the horses, mounting them in this way: they drive an upright stake through the body along the spine to the neck, and fix the end of this stake projecting from below the body into a hole made in the other stake that passes through the horse[6]

It was not only equestrians who would join their ruler in the grave as some Scythian burial mounds, known as kurgans, feature the bodies of cupbearers, serfs and carvers. It is difficult to determine the agency of the king’s entourage; did they go willingly into their master’s grave and were they accorded their own funerary rites? What is clear is that the bereaved were desperate to make certain the king’s soul would have enough pleasures in the afterlife to prevent it wreaking mayhem on the living.

Monuments to the departed

The Scythians of Herodotus’ time would bury their dead in quadrangular pits. Later on, these pits would include entrances and contain various wooden and stone shafts. After digging out the pit, the body would be lowered inside, often with spears placed on either side of the body. The architects and workers would then build wooden beams above the corpse to create a roof.

The roof would be topped with vegetation from nearby grasslands and may have poetically symbolised the royal taking his pasture with him into death.[7] Cunliffe estimates that a hundred thousand square metres of grass would have been cleared to obtain the required organic material for the Tovsta Mohlya kurgan, one of the smaller mounds.[8] The size of these kurgans also corresponded with the social status of the dead; larger mounds indicated a more important person – where the Pontic Steppe kurgans could be between twelve to fifteen metres high.

Aerial view of kurgans, Boris Rezvantsev, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is likely the kurgans served the function of legitimacy because of the amount of energy expended by the living to create these mounds. Communal effort into building these structures represented commitment on the part of the tribe to their leader and community. When the Persian emperor Darius challenged the Scythian king Idanthyrsus to battle, the Scythian leader boldly announced the tombs’ significance to his people:

We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight with you. If, however, you must needs come to blows with us speedily, look you now, there are our fathers’ tombs – seek them out, and attempt to meddle with them – then ye shall see whether or not we will fight with you.[9]

A painful grieving process

So far we have examined a bizarre embalming practice, the violent ritual burial of surviving community members and the pharaonic kurgans built to provide everlasting comfort. This raises a key question – what would happen to those fortunate enough not to be buried alongside their master or mistress? The survivors would demonstrate their loyalty to the tribe and the departed by partaking in acts of self-mutilation. Herodotus argues the bereaved would:

[…] cut off a part of their ears, crop their hair close, cut around their arms, slash their foreheads and noses, and pierce their left hands with arrows[10]

This claim may sound far-fetched but Kim notes this unusual form of mourning was found among other Eurasian nomads. Following Atilla the Hun’s death, in 453CE, the mourners:

[…] plucked out the hair of their heads and made their faces hideous with deep wounds, that the renowned warrior might be mourned, not by effeminate wailings and tears, but by the blood of men[11]

To mark the end of the grieving period the bereaved would enter a tent, place hemp seeds on hot stones and inhale the vapours – an ancient hotbox of sorts. This is surmised to be an act of purification or, more likely, a form of catharsis to ease the traumas associated with such a torturous grieving process. Returning to our Scythian time traveller, it would not be presumptuous for them to think our modern funerals are jubilant parties compared to their petrifying rituals of death.


Featured Image: Scythian Gold Comb from the Solokha Kurgan, Levan Ramishvili from Tbilisi, Georgia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Kim, Hyun Jin. “Herodotus’ Scythians viewed from a central Asian perspective: Its historicity and significance.” Anc West East 9 (2010): p.122

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p.127

[4] Cunliffe, Barry. The Scythians: Nomad warriors of the steppe. Oxford University Press, USA, 2019. p.295

[5] Tumanyan, Garegin S. “Cimmerian and Scythian Funerary Rituals in the South Caucasus.” Near Eastern Archaeology 80, no. 3 (2017): pp.196-201.

[6] Cunliffe, “The Scythians”, p.306

[7] Parzinger, Hermann. “Burial mounds of Scythian elites in the Eurasian steppe: New discoveries.” Journal of the British Academy 5 (2017): p.332

[8] Cunliffe, “The Scythians”, p.305

[9] Piotrovsky, Boris. From the Lands of Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the USSR, 3000 BC–100 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975. p.147

[10] Cunliffe, “The Scythians”, p.297

[11] Kim, “Herodotus’ Scythians”, p.128

The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness

Major strands of western philosophy confidently assert the world can be investigated because it is empirical and we can use our sensory experiences as a toolkit to understand this reality. The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness subverts this notion by arguing that changes occur so quickly that ordinary perception would not detect that our underlying reality is impermanent, lasting only for fleeting moments. Moreover, our conventional reality is a superimposition, one which is inhabited by seemingly lasting entities such as earthen pots, cars, humans and their identities.

This post critically evaluates the Doctrine of Momentariness advanced by Sarvāstivādin Buddhist monk Vasubandhu in his seminal text Abhidharmakośakārikā. Vasubandhu was born in either the 4th or 5th century CE in the kingdom of Gandhara, now centred in modern-day northern Pakistan. Gandhara was a hotbed of fluctuating social practices and religions – enabled by its location on a critical geographical artery between the Indian Subcontinent, Central and West Asia. The Doctrine of Momentariness strongly engages in dialectical reasoning by drawing from Gautama Buddha’s teachings on impermanence (annica), discourses which by Vasubandhu’s era, had circulated the region for over half a millennia.

The illusion of permanence

Buddhist philosophical traditions argue the world is populated by many entities, but there is only one type of thing which is ultimately real; dharmas. Dharmas are irreducible properties which include colour, shape and texture. A combination of dharmas produces aggregates known as skandhas, which give rise to form, perception and consciousness. Following from Buddha’s teachings that everything is impermanent, the key proposition of the Doctrine of Momentariness is that dharmas decay as soon as they are created, thus they are only momentary. Vasubandhu contends that:

[…] it perishes just where it was born. Its movement to another place would be impossible. Thus, there is no bodily action of ‘going’[1]

For Buddhists, these indivisible momentary dharmas are the basis of our reality. Dharmas give rise to substances such as pots, flames, humans, the world; but these are not stable entities because everything is momentary. So, a stationary earthen pot when observed at a particular moment is not the same object in the next moment. How could this possibly be?

To understand this we must consider Gautama Buddha’s Doctrine of Dependent Origination (pratītyasamutpāda); everything that exists arises and passes as a matrix of interdependence. Hence, although everything is momentary,  there is a causal interconnectedness. Material similarity provides material continuity – thus, the destruction of a bundle of dharmas which pertain to a man, will not lead to the subsequent creation of a bundle of dharmas pertaining to a fly. Incidentally, in the science fiction film The Fly (1986), dependent origination is unwittingly countermanded when an error in the protagonist’s telepods triggers his metamorphosis into a petrifying human-fly hybrid.

Dependent origination acts as a constraint on the succession produced by momentariness and explains why we see a lasting image of a stationary pot when, in reality, everything lasts for a meagre moment. Buddhists argue that reality is only the configuration of dharmas in a causally-linked stream, giving the appearance of a subsisting permanent thing, when there isn’t. Just as a Hollywood film appears to be a continuous series, masking that it is an amalgamation of still images, so too is reality – although the frames according to the Buddhist are causally connected.[2] Our misconceptions of this world give rise to suffering (duḥkha), where Buddhists see suffering connected to the false continuity which we attach to this temporal life; whether coveting and cherishing material objects, dwelling on our emotional states or placing expectations on relationships.

Measuring realities

Conventional reality is one which is obscured by human cognition and assumes there is a world populated by stable entities which subsist through time. However, according to Buddhists, for something to be ultimately real, it must not disappear under analysis; also known as mereological reductionism. Vasubandhu argues:

[…] anything the idea of which does not occur upon division or upon mental analysis, such as an object like a pot, that is a conceptual fiction. The ultimately real is otherwise[3]

For instance, in a previous post I examined the argument that a laptop cannot be ultimately real as it can be broken down into parts, such as its screen, silicone chips and plastic keys. It is the configuration of these parts which gives rise to the convenient designator ‘laptop’, but the laptop is not found in any of its components. We can extend this analogy to many other objects we assign to conventional reality; whether they are cars, houses, cities, individuals and consciousness.

An object which cannot be analysed is said to have svabhāva; that it does not borrow its properties or parts from elsewhere. Because dharmas embody svabhāva, they are ultimately real. Furthermore, dharmas or property bearers, such as colour, are said to be units of ultimate reality because they do not disappear under analysis. Unlike our laptop they cannot be reduced to any parts. This characterisation of dharmas can be contested. To advance the notion of colour as a dharma Vasubandhu declares:

It is what is grasped by seeing and touch that is cognised. The ideas of wool, cotton, safflower and saffron only arise where there are different colours […] no such ideas [exist] when these are burnt[4]

“Safflower”, Johann Georg Sturm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, colour cannot exist without the property of shape and so by Vasubandhu’s definition, this dharma cannot be ultimately real as it does not occur in isolation.[5] Similarly, a safflower would change its colour depending on its life-cycle: the bud emerges as green, turns to a vivid yellow hue and eventually browns in senescence.

Vasubandhu may respond that these changing colours are momentary, they arise, last for an instant and then disappear. This however violates the principle of svabhāva as the colours themselves then derive their properties from origination, duration and cessation.[6] The argument that dharmas are ultimately real because they do not borrow their nature from elsewhere must be abandoned.

The momentariness of all things?

It is also worth sketching the doctrine’s core argument to demonstrate Vasubandhu’s reliance on extrapolation in his understanding of ultimate reality. We will examine the argument that all entities cease without any cause and last for a mere moment below:[7]

Premise 1) Cessation occurs without an external cause, thus nothing ceases without a cause, just as nothing originates without a cause.

Premise 2) Nevertheless, thoughts, flames and sound cease without any cause and are momentary.

Conclusion) Consequently, premise 1 can be rejected, and we should recognise that cessation occurs without any causation.[8]

This is an inadequate argument because it provides an example of some things (flames, thoughts) which ostensibly cease without causation and supposes that this will be the case for all things. Even with a brief flicker of a flame, the Śaiva Siddhānta opponent Rāmakaṇṭha maintains it is implausible for the observer to perceive the flame for long enough to then demonstrate it as an example of the momentary nature of all things.[9] In the next section we shall see a fundamental challenge to the Doctrine of Momentariness which posits that there is at least one thing which lasts for more than a moment – a memory.

Causal chains and consciousness

Parrot addressing Khojasta, commisioned by Akbar, Mughal dynasty, c1556-1565, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The mind according to the Buddhist view is merely a causal series of dharmas, which momentarily exist and cease as aggregates known as skandhas. So, what proliferates our cognitions?

Vasubandhu argues it is an interplay of three things: our senses, a sense-object and attention. For example, when you hear a parrot cawing loudly, your hearing (sense), the parrot (sense-object) and awareness of the sound (attention) cluster together to create a type of consciousness we could call a hearing-a-parrot cognition. Should we then want to look at the bird and, if allowed close enough, touch it – different cognitions would be created. We mistakenly assume the mind or consciousness produces these cognitions – when in reality, cognition is only a conditioned form, a manifestation of its momentary causes.

Importantly, the destruction of a conditioned form is not contingent on a cause because it occurs in an intrinsic, or self-perpetuating manner. Vasubandhu asserts:

[…] for the cessation of conditioned things is spontaneous. Why is this? A cause is of an effect. And cessation is an absence. What is there to be done with respect to an absence? Therefore, destruction does not depend on a cause.[10]

Vasubandhu’s opponent Adi Śaṅkara, hailing from the school of Advaita Vedānta, attacks this position of the Doctrine of Momentariness by affirming that if skandhas are momentary, by the time a new skandha arises to replace it, there would no longer be a previous skandha to cause it.[11] Consequently, effects cannot arise without any cause. If every object is a manifestation of instantaneousness, there cannot be a causal process which interconnects them.

However, a critical problem emerges when considering the example of thoughts as a phenomena which cease without causation. Here, Śaṅkara combines the problem of memory with dependent origination:

[…] human dealings cannot be said to be dependent on mere similarity, for the experience is of the existence of the entity itself [the self] (expressing itself as, that very person) and not of mere similarity with that (as would be expressed in, am like that person)[12]

If our memories are momentary then how can we perceive lasting entities which require recognition over time? For instance, my memories of a childhood summer trip to Bangladesh requires the invocation of myself as a seven year old. Admittedly, Śaṅkara’s attack simplifies Buddhist understandings of reality. Vasubandhu could rebuke Śaṅkara by arguing that dependent origination necessitates similar enough, but momentary experiences which can connect mental dharmas to give rise to a memory.

Furthermore, contending that every experience of memory requires a continued existence of the self is mistaken. For instance, simply remembering a friend’s birthday does not require any acknowledgment of the self. Nevertheless, there are many memories, such as childhood trips or recollections of traumatic and euphoric moments, which do require acknowledgments of myself. Keeping this in mind, appeals to dependent origination cannot be made because Śaṅkara has shown that the momentariness of dharmas and their aggregation into skandhas prevent them from creating causal chains which connect our memories through time.[13] Thus, we can conclude that at least some memories last longer than a short flash of time and consequently, not everything is momentary.

The Doctrine of Momentariness challenges our traditional understanding of the empirical world. In some ways it is comforting to recognise that our interactions and position in this reality are transient and that our suffering is a consequence of our attachment to the ephemeral. Nonetheless, the doctrine relies on some measure of inscrutability to advance this argument, especially with regards to the momentariness of dharmas, which hinders its analysis. Furthermore, mereological reductionism as a test of reality fails because dharmas, representing the basic units of ultimate reality, do not satisfy the svabhāva requirement. Finally, the doctrine faces a devastating attack when causality is linked with the phenomena of memory.


Featured image: The Conversion of Sundarananda, © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

[1] Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy: an introduction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007, p.120-123

[2] Von Rospatt, Alexander. “The Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness A Survey of the Origins and early Phase of this Doctrine up to Vasubandhu.” (1995), p.1

[3] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.111-12

[4] Ibid., 114

[5] Rasmussen, Will. “Lecture II. Buddhism: Abhidharma and the Metaphysics of Empty Persons.” 6AANB017 Indian Philosophy B. Online Lecture, King’s College London, 2020

[6] Ibid.

[7] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.120-123

[8] Katsura, Shoryu. “Some cases of doctrinal proofs in the ‘Abhidharma-kosa-Bhasya’.” Journal of Indian philosophy 31, no. 1/3 (2003), p.110

[9] Watson, Alex. “The Self as a Dynamic Constant. Rāmakaṇṭha’s Middle Ground Between a Naiyāyika Eternal Self-Substance and a Buddhist Stream of Consciousness-Moments.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 42, no. 1 (2014), p.185

[10] Siderits, “Buddhism as Philosophy”, p.120-123

[11] Adamson, Peter, and Jonardon Ganeri. Classical Indian Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 5. Oxford University Press, 2020.

[12] Carr, Brian. “Śaṅkara and the Principle of Material Causation.” Religious studies (1999), p.424

[13] Adamson and Ganeri, “Classical Indian Philosophy”

The Byzantine Silk Heist

Attending a wedding or preparing for a job interview often requires a silk tie, yet little thought is given to this piece of cloth other than its colour and that it feels different to an iron-pressed cotton shirt. Silk’s simplicity conceals its historical importance, where wars have been fought in pursuit of this lustrous commodity. To illustrate, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, hungry for silk, decided to invade the Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen in order to secure uninterrupted sea shipments between India and Byzantine-administered Egypt.[1]

The importance of silk

Why would a war be waged over access to silk? In trade, silk was a substitute currency; east Mediterranean merchants could use silk to pay for a transaction in lieu of coinage whereas shipwreck survivors would be required to forfeit any salvaged silk as compensation for cargo losses. When dyed with the broken shells of the murex snail, silk would form a brilliant purple fit only for the emperor and imperial elite. The ones which weren’t dyed purple would be marketed towards wealthy and middle class citizens along with members of the clergy.

Silk also served diplomatic purposes. It helped deter enemies as indicated when emperor Constantine IX, in 1045, sent a thousand silk costumes to Caliph al-Mustansir to stave off a military attack. Crucially, silk helped Byzantium cement alliances, including one with Vladimir the Great of Rus’.[2] Between the years 907 and 971 Byzantium intensified its diplomatic relations with Rus’; where a marriage between emperor Basil II’s daughter Anna and the Rus’ Grand Prince Vladimir the Great culminated in the Christianisation of Rus’. Silk played a significant role in building this alliance; Rus’ merchants were given priority access to Byzantine silk items, Rus’ citizens who lost their slaves in Byzantine territory would be compensated with silk and a delegation even insisted on silk sails for their ships.[3] In return, Rus’ pledged its military support to the empire, most notably seen when Rus’ soldiers intervened to quell an Anatolian uprising which threatened to dethrone emperor Basil II in 988.

Rus’-Byzantine Treaty of 911, Radziwiłł Letopis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A tale of two heists

Let us return to the fourth century era of Justinian I, where we notice the emperor is faced with a puzzle. Without an established domestic silk industry, much of the empire’s silk was imported from China using an overland trade route via Persia. At the best of times, Persia was a fickle competitor, and consequently Byzantium was often mired by silk shortages. Shipments through the Red Sea would also face stiff competition from Persian traders or be hindered by hostile polities like the Himyarite Kingdom. Thus, there was an urgency to determine the secret behind sericulture, or the production of silk worms.

Fifth century Byzantine historians dispute the means in which sericulture was introduced to the empire. Procopius argues Christian monks from India, having learned of emperor Justinian’s dismay at Persia’s silk blockade, smuggled silkworm eggs hidden in dung into the empire. However, according to Theophanes, it was Persians from the land of Seres who presented emperor Justinian with silkworm eggs which had been impressively concealed within walking sticks.[4] The Theophanes account raises questions as to why Persians would provide their trade secrets to their Byzantine nemesis; I can only think it was opportunism or spite.

A complicated business

Both accounts are very likely to be colourful myths due to evidence of sericulture in Byzantine Syria prior to the heist. Nonetheless, analysing domestic sericulture provides a great insight into pre-modern economies. Byzantium’s silk production entailed a strict division of labour. Sericulturists would be responsible for rearing the silkworms and the production of yarns. This gave rise to the ancillary industry of mulberry growers because silkworms which were fed on mulberry leaves yielded the highest quality commercial silk.  

The sericulturists would send their yarns to private and government-run silk guilds which comprised a collection of weavers, dyers, embroiders and silk printers. The government-run guilds had evolved from the voluntary associations of the Roman Empire into compulsory public service corporations entirely controlled by the Byzantine state.[5] As a consequence of the strict policing of sericulture by the state, the government increased its tax base and revenues, whilst regulating silk imports and exports allowed it to manipulate foreign markets. Importantly, the sale of silk made certain the empire was inundated with foreign gold, whereas financial mismanagement of silk negatively affected its balance of trade.

Private guilds, like their government counterparts, had to address the dilemma of the significant level of seasonal capital demanded by the trade along with securing steady supplies of raw material. Lacking state funding, private guilds acted as cartels, where resources were pooled among members. This allowed them to collectively purchase silk at lower prices than if each guild-member attempted to negotiate by themselves. The cartels also ensured a fair distribution of silk by allowing poorer members to buy from the affluent at a predetermined profit margin. The 10th century Book of the Prefect outlined how private guilds paid utmost attention to product quality and had measures to prevent unethical behaviour among their membership, not too dissimilar to modern quality control practices in businesses.[6]

As we have seen, silk was a very important commodity replete with material and symbolic significance. It helped form a tapestry of alliances, augmented economies and generated resource wars. With all of this in mind, in the mad rush prior to my next job interview, I’ll be sure to better appreciate my tie.


Featured image: Emperor Justinian and his retinue, Basilica of San Vitale. Courtesy of Roger Culos, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road in world history. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 62-86.

[2] Muthesius, Anna Maria. “Silk, power and diplomacy in Byzantium.” (1992).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Muthesius, Anna Maria. “The Byzantine silk industry: Lopez and beyond.” Journal of Medieval History 19, no. 1-2 (1993): 1-67.

[5] Ibid.

The Indian Merchants of Tsarist Russia

The city of Astrakhan sits on a delta, not too far from where the Volga River empties into the Caspian Sea. In modern Russia it is an industrial city known for its fish processing and as a regional administrative centre. Yet, in the 17th century, Astrakhan had a far more glamorous role, owing to its position on a geographical crossroad between Russia and lucrative Asian markets.

A warm welcome

During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Russia experienced enormous socio-political upheaval characterised by the end of the 800-year old Rurikid ruling dynasty, numerous pretenders to the Tsarist throne and foreign interventions by neigbouring powers. Once the chaos subsided, Russian officials faced the predicament of building an economy depleted by famine and war. To increase customs revenues and ensure the flow of foreign silver into the empire, the Russian state encouraged foreign merchants to settle in Astrakhan, a city conquered by Ivan the Terrible nearly seven decades prior.

Non-Russians dominated the imports and exports trade in Astrakhan, among whom were merchants hailing from Mughal India. By 1725, there were 209 Indians residing in Astrakhan and engaging in local banking, mercantilism and moneylending. Additionally, the need to interact with the resident Turkic and Russian communities necessitated the hiring of interpreters.1 The Russian state cautiously allowed merchants to practice religious rites; where merchants could employ private cooks (likely to meet strict vegetarian diets) and were even allowed to cremate the dead, even if it alarmed local Christians.2

The mercantile community mainly imported Persian textiles into Russia; a 1638 Russian customs report found one merchant carried up to 28 varieties of silk and cotton. Similar to European markets, Mughal Indian consumers valued Russian furs. However, unlike their European counterparts there was a lower demand for Russian forest products in India. Instead, Mughal elites coveted luxury goods such as gyrfalcons, walrus tusks and Borzoi dogs.

The transcontinental trader’s dilemma

Between the 16th and 17th century Astrakhan’s Indian merchants formed part of a wider Persianate world, where the Persian language facilitated international trade stretching from Bengal to southern Russia’s borders. Trade routes could encompass distances as long as 3,600 kilometres, and this required enormous levels of trust between traders. To better understand how Indian merchants would have imported and exported under such uncertainty, I will introduce transaction costs; which are costs incurred to accomplish a trade.

Firstly, participants in a transaction need to address search and information costs; that is the costs of finding a trading partner and to market their goods. Subsequent bargaining and decision costs involves the ironing out of a contract which is agreeable to the respective trading parties. Finally, policing and enforcement costs ensure the contract is not broken and there is a recourse to action should a default occur.3 Trading is difficult enough for a modern-day seller who uses eBay to peddle old revision guides and, arguably, Astrakhan’s merchants faced much more manifold challenges.

A Caravan by Ilya Zankovsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Indian merchants would mainly operationalise Commenda agreements to reduce the transaction costs associated with long-distance trades. These were straightforward contracts where one or many merchants would provide capital for the business venture and traders, who lacked funds for investments, would need to fulfill the potentially life-threatening task of marketing or delivering the merchandise. If successful, the profits would be divided; where two thirds went to the investors and one third to the trader.4 On the other hand, if an attack on a caravan led to the endeavour’s failure, the investor would lose their money, whilst the trader risked losing their life. The 17th century merchant would be faced with an impasse: how could they find a trustworthy business partner who would not renege on their contract? It would be incredibly tempting for a trader to dash off with expensive merchandise they have not paid for.

The answer to this may lie in the 1747 Russian Census which revealed, out of the 51 Indian merchants residing in the Astrakhan, nearly half originated from a single city; Multan, whilst most other came from nearby areas in southern Punjab. Stephen Frederic Dale asserts that the Multani Hindu merchants would most likely have been from the Punjabi Khatri caste whereas Muslim traders would have hailed from the Pashtun ethnic group.5 Furthermore, there was a familial aspect to these firms too; five pairs of brothers conducted joint trade within Astrakhan and twelve Astrakhan Indians received goods from uncles or brothers in the Gilan province of Iran.

Membership of the same caste meant prospective firm partners were usually employed in the same profession, consequently their skills could be easily verified. In place of complicated contracts, kinship also provided a set of common cultural norms and allowed for mutual peer-monitoring. Furthermore, transaction costs associated with rule-breaking could be met with enforceable sanctions, including exclusion from the community.6 This ultimately encouraged prolonged economic interactions between Indian merchants, whilst discouraging opportunism associated with uncertainty. Similar kinship firms were also found among the Indian merchants’ Armenian contemporaries who originated from a single suburb of Isfahan in Iran, yet dominated the lucrative Indian Ocean silk trade.7

Protectionism and decline

Astrakhan’s Indian merchants kept business within the family as a response to trading in an uncertain environment. Yet, these same firms proved to be quite dynamic in the face of state pressures. Whilst Indian merchants were initially welcomed by Russian officials, Peter the Great’s introduction of the New Trade Regulations posed a serious financial challenge. The protectionist measures bestowed special trading privileges to Russians, Turks and Armenians, whilst Indians would have to pay extra custom duties, thus introducing new transaction costs. Indian firms would bypass these regulations by intermittently increasing their firm’s size, through recruiting Armenians and Russians, who would act as intermediaries for their business.

Whilst Russia’s protectionist measures discouraged Indian traders, it was external socio-political processes which ultimately debilitated Astrakhan’s mercantile activity. The sudden collapse of the Safavid empire in 1722 interrupted Multani trade networks within Iran, resulting in a rapid dwindling of Astrakhan’s Indian population. The slower disintegration of the Mughal empire had disrupted Multan itself and by 1850, Astrakhan’s Indian community had all but vanished.


Featured image: ‘Astrakhan in Russia’ in Rambaud’s Russia, volume 2 (1898), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

2 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.

3 Dahlman, Carl J. “The problem of externality.” The journal of law and economics 22, no. 1 (1979): 141-162.

4 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

5 Ibid.

6 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.

7 Aslanian, Sebouh. From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. University of California Press, 2011.

King Menander’s Chariot

How do we determine what is ultimately real? Conventionally, we could argue that we can use our common sense faculties to investigate empirical reality. The laptop I am writing this post on has to be real because I can feel the keys and hear them chatter away upon typing. For early Buddhists, however, reality was measured very differently. For something to be real, it cannot disappear under analysis. Simply put, the world does not exist of any ‘wholes’, only ‘parts’ – and this extended to notions of the self.

I’ll set the scene by taking us back to the second century BCE, in an Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria, a vestige of Alexander the Great’s failed invasion of India. After introducing himself to king Menander I, the Buddhist monk Nāgasena insisted that he can be referred to by his name, but that this name was merely “a counter, an expression, a convenient designator, a mere name […] for there is no person to be found”. [1] In the monk’s view, the name ‘Nāgasena’ was a useful term to describe the way in which something is arranged based on its constituent parts; in this respect a seemingly conscious being with human body parts. In reality, the name was a placeholder, nothing more, and there wasn’t an enduring identity behind it. This led to a fascinating philosophical debate.

In response to Nāgasena’s introduction, the king mocked him, asking that if there were no persons, then who was it that patronised the priests with clothing, food and medication? In a further caustic attack the king asserted if Nāgasena were to kill another monk, there would be no one to accuse for the murder. The cross-examination continued as Menander asked in turn if Nāgasena was found in his body parts, his perception or his consciousness? Nāgasena declined each of these, leading to Menander  to conclude that the word ‘Nāgasena’ could only be an empty phrase, not a convenient designator as initially claimed.

In response, Nāgasena mirrored the king’s reasoning by pointing to the chariot which the king rode in. Could we identify the chariot in its axels, its wheels, the banner-staff, the yoke, or the reins? The monk declined to find the chariot in any one of its components. The king finally understood that analogously, one cannot find oneself in our constituent parts; neither body nor consciousness.

Let’s go back to our laptop. It comprises a screen, the keyboard, the motherboard, with an array of microchips among others. Yet, I would not equate any one component for the actual laptop itself. Therefore, the laptop is not ultimately real as it disappears under analysis. Wholes cannot exist because they ultimately can be broken down into parts. Our world is full of many parts, on whose specific configurations we give names to; whether it is earthen pots, laptops, cars, cities, you and me. Yet, ultimately they are conceptual fictions, no different to Menander’s chariot.


Featured image: “Buddha panel from Afghanistan”, Asian Civilisations Museum (Singapore), courtesy of Vinayak Hegde, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Siderits, Mark. Buddhism as philosophy: an introduction. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007. p.51

Beauty in the Eyes of a Medieval Beholder

Take a visit to a trinket shop in India’s touristic Golden Triangle and you may be met with replicas and reimaginations of Persian miniature paintings hanging alongside the obligatory fridge magnets. Although miniatures were prevalent prior to Mughal rule, the Persian style was introduced during the sixteenth century when much of the subcontinent was part of a wider Persianate world. The miniatures were no larger than an average book cover but they packed an inordinate amount of detail. These included renderings of courtly rituals, royal forest hunts and even a Russian ambassador featured in an illustration by Muḥammadī.

So, how does one scrutinise a Persian miniature in order to make certain we are getting a quality product from the tout? Fortunately we have a 15th century Timurid prince and art critic Mirza Muhammad Haidar Dughlat to give the modern day reader some pointers.  

Muḥammadī, ‘Portrait of a Russian Ambassador’, Topkapi Palace Museum

The painting’s overall design, or ṭarḥ should embody muḥkam, interpreted by Eric Schroeder to be “tight, immovably fast and strong, like the ropes of a well-pitched tent, or a stable building”.[1] The brush strokes must be khunuk, firm, which somehow must complement the much desired attribute of nāzukī, a balmy softness. Importantly, the painting would be judged on the merit of ṣaf, a clarity or cleanliness.

Paintings with the properties of durusht, a coarseness resulting from larger brush strokes, were much disapproved by the art critic. This criticism was lodged by Dughlat against Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, an artist renowned for his miniatures in the Timurid and Safavid courts of Iran.[2] Judging from Dughlat’s commentaries, we can surmise that the thick impasto techniques found in Van Gogh’s works may not have received commendation either.   


Featured image: “Dancing Dervishes”, attributed to Behzād, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts

[1] Robinson, B. W. “Muḥammadī and the Khurāsān Style.” Iran 30, no. 1 (1992): 17-29.

[2] Arnold, T. W. “Mīrzā Muḥammad Ḥaydar Dughlāt on the Harāt School of Painters.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, London Institution (1930): 671-674.

Copper Cities and Glass Submarines

Sometimes we may read a history book and find ourselves thinking, “hang on, this doesn’t seem right”. Ibn Khaldūn, a 14th century historian born in what is now Tunisia, had similar thoughts when he evaluated mediaeval historical accounts. Historical works prior to Ibn Khaldūn were narrated through a process known as taqlīd, where reports were reproduced because the authors trusted the authority of the historians before them. Consequently, new historical works were mere repetitions, devoid of critical engagement with their sources.

In order to demonstrate the limitations of taqlīd, Ibn Khaldūn recalls the historian al-Mas’udi’s claim of a desert city gilded in copper. He reasons this would be impossible considering the metal’s scarcity would limit its usage to utensils and it would be unthinkable for copper to coat an entire settlement.[1]

Additionally, Al Mas’udi’s recounting of a 13th century retelling of Alexander the Great’s efforts to build Alexandria did not go unnoticed. When the city was under construction, monsters rose from the oceanic depths, causing a nuisance to the architects and builders. Alexander authorised a plan where he entered a glass box attached to a rope. With pen and papyrus in hand, the box containing Alexander was lowered to the bottom of the sea where he could accurately sketch the creatures. Using these illustrations as a blueprint, the king instructed the workers and magical jinn to build metallic replicas of the sea monsters. Acting as colossal scarecrows, these effigies scared off the sea monsters, making possible the establishment of Alexandria.

16th Century Islamic painting depicting Alexander the Great, lowered in a glass diving bell. OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); “Seas, Maps and Men”

Ibn Khaldūn  pointed out the absurdities of Al Mas’udi’s story asserting Alexander would most likely have suffocated in a submerged glass box. Additionally, Ibn Khaldūn contends:

Now, rulers would not take such a risk. Any ruler who would attempt such a thing would work his own undoing and provoke the outbreak of revolt against himself, and (he would) be replaced by the people with someone else.[2]

By evaluating these supposed retellings it is clear why critical reflection of sources was necessary. For Ibn Khaldūn, in order to accurately understand history, it is not sufficient to merely criticise the personality of the historical transmitter, but also to have knowledge of the true nature of civilisation. This raises a plethora of questions which I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming post.


Featured image: ‘Der el Ber Tunis’, Ludwig Hans Fischer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Ibn Khaldūn, (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History-Abridged Edition; Translated by Franz Rosenthal; Abridged and Edited by NJ Dawood. Princeton University Press. 37.

[2] Ibid., 36.