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.


References

Featured image: William H. Johnson, ‘Landscape with Mosques, Tunis’. 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.

Tracing Scythia’s Griffins

My early childhood recollection of griffins comes from watching the Golden Voyage of Sinbad when, in the final act, the eponymous hero witnesses a spellbinding stop-motion clash between a giant one-eyed centaur and a griffin. After recently reading about the nomadic Scythians of eastern Europe and central Asia, I once again came upon a griffin in combat, this time in the medium of jewellery.

Symmetrical and intricately woven, the crescent-shaped golden pectoral of Tovsta Mohlya from southern Ukraine provides a snapshot of Scythian life and folklore. It dates from the fourth century B.C. and was discovered by Soviet archaeologists in a kurgan, a Scythian burial mound, along with the graves of servants and horses nearby.[1]

Measuring roughly thirty centimetres in diameter, the pectoral consists of three detailed panels. The top panel portrays Scythian daily life, including two figures fashioning clothing out of sheepskin. The middle panel features pastoral scenes of birds, spiralling vines and conch-like flowers. It is the lower frieze which holds one’s attention. Here, fears about predators are interwoven with magic. Lions feast on boars, yet the eye is drawn to the centre where winged griffins dismember a horse.

Pectoral, Historical Treasures Museum, Kyiv

The predator-prey dichotomy features heavily in Scythian artwork, reflecting the harsh existence the nomads would have faced.[2] What was truly fascinating was that a near identical motif, dating roughly from the same century, was found in a terracotta fragment in southern Italy some 2½ thousand kilometres away from the kurgan. Likewise, the Olynthus mosaic of Northern Greece, also dating from the same time period, shows a similar scene. [3] What could have accounted for these identical artistic themes separated by such a huge geographical distance?

Applique Fragment, 350-300 B.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu California. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The answer to this may lie in trade. Griffins originate in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia where they appear in artistic depictions as early as 3000 B.C.[4] Below one can observe such art from the region, although dated some 2,500 years after. The Phoenician scarab, most likely used as a seal, depicts the Egyptian God Bes locked in a struggle with our mythical creature.

Engraved Scarab with Bes Fighting a Griffin, 500 B.C., green jasper orginal featured alongside a stamp impression, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu California. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Ann Farkas suggests the griffin-in-combat motif may have been transferred to Scythians via the ancient textiles trade from the Near East.[5] For instance, a rug portraying stags and griffins was found in a Scythian burial site in Pazyryk in southern Siberia. It was theorised that the rug would have been gifted or traded by Persia or nearby polities. Similarly, it is possible that Persian textiles featuring griffin motifs may have been exported to Greece and across the Mediterranean to southern Italy. From Greece, Hellenic traders and artisans may have transported the featured motifs to the northern shores of the Black Sea, where it would have caught the eye of local Scythians.[6]

What has been described is the proliferation of an ancient artistic trend, not dissimilar to the trends we see in a globalised world. The Scythian reception and indigenisation of the griffin demonstrates that even ancient nomads did not exist in total cultural isolation.


References

[1] Piotrovsky, Boris. “Excavations and Discoveries in Scythian Lands.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 32, no. 5 (1973): 31.

[2] Cunliffe, Barry. The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe. Oxford University Press, 2019. 283.

[3] Farkas, Ann. “Interpreting Scythian Art: East vs. West.” Artibus Asiae 39, no. 2 (1977): 128.

[4] Mayor, Adrienne, and Michael Heaney. “Griffins and Arimaspeans.” Folklore 104, no. 1-2 (1993): 41.

[5] Farkas, Ann. “Interpreting Scythian Art: East vs. West.” Artibus Asiae 39, no. 2 (1977): 128.

[6] Ibid.,128.

Scroll Readers and Tiger Tamers

There is a cacophony of excitement as villagers gather under a banyan tree. Patua, or travelling minstrels, have called for the village’s undivided attention, hoping to both entertain and illuminate the audience with their scrolls. Carefully manipulating the bamboo handles of the scroll, the Patua progressively reveal elaborate scenes of a tale; making literal the term ‘the story unfolds’.

Often sung, this rural performance art, known as Pattachitra, is native to Bengal and Odisha. In the 19th century, the scrolls would include scenes from the Ramayana or depictions of the travails of local saints. Modern iterations are also content with providing socio-political commentary such as Indira Gandhi’s restriction of civil liberties during The Emergency and Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement.[1] One traditional narration, found in the Gazi Scroll, dating from the 1800s and measuring thirteen metres in length, is now tucked away in the British Museum. The focal point of this artwork is the portrayal of the Sufi mystic Gazi pir who wields a serpent as a staff and rides a frightening tiger as his steed. Measuring thirteen metres in length, it represents the enormous historical transformation of the Bengal delta from centuries prior.

A scene from the Gazi Scroll, British Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Mughals, having conquered the Bengal Sultanate had acquired a province of which the eastern half comprised a thick, inhospitable jungle. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, the imperial administration sought to colonise this giant stretch of forest.[2] Local holy men, known as pirs, provided much initiative, encouraging their followers to act as pioneers by chopping the forest and building new settlements. With it came accounts of the pirs’ supposed magical abilities, including taming the fearsome crocodiles and tigers who threatened these nascent communities. As late as 1898, a British officer noted of pirs operating in Bengal’s jungles;

“As these animals seldom attack man in this district, the Pir is generally allowed by persons of both religions to have restrained the natural ferocity of the beast, or, as it is more usually said, has given the tiger no order to kill man.”[3]

Patua storytelling is fluid as is the case with many oral traditions. Depending on the performer’s mood or audience, the delivery may change ever so slightly, although a general outline would be fixed by the scroll’s illustrations. While the exact narration the scroll’s painter had imagined may not be retrievable, the Gazi Scroll serves to remind its audience of a past sprinkled with heroes and fiends. Central to this account is human agents and their capacity to transform uninhabitable maneater infested swampland into the verdant paddy fields we see in Bengal today.  

References

[1] Ghosh, Pika. “Unrolling a narrative scroll: Artistic practice and identity in late-nineteenth-century Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies 62, no. 3 (2003): 835-871.

[2] Eaton, Richard Maxwell, and Richard M. Eaton. The rise of Islam and the Bengal frontier, 1204-1760. Vol. 17. Univ of California Press, 1993.

[3] Ibid., 209.

The Giraffe of Bengal

Presented as a gift to the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty, a giraffe represented the intensive fifteenth century connections between China and South Asia. Likely an accession gift to Bengal’s sultan from east African envoys of Malindi, the giraffe was re-gifted, finding its way to the Ming court in 1414.[1]

‘Tribute giraffe with attendent’, Shen Du (1357-1434)
The gift was presented to the emperor as a qilin, a mythical creature which represents benevolence. Qilin are said to have the body of a deer, equine hooves, fish scales and a horn. Matching their strange form was a diet which consisted of “unhusked rice, beans and flour-cakes”.[2] How such creatures managed to cook flour-cakes escapes me. The emperor himself was not too fussed about the creature declaring:

“If my ministers devote themselves to their work day and night, and exhaust all efforts to govern the empire and bring benefit to it, the empire will be at peace. Even without a qilin, there is nothing that hinders us from governing well.” [3]

Nonetheless the Ming emperor reciprocated by providing velvet and silk, thus establishing cordial ties between the two polities.[4] The ties were soon interrupted by Bengal’s internal turmoil. Raja Ganesh, a Hindu chieftain, had overthrown the Turkic Ilyas Shahi dynasty who had ruled the Bengal delta for seven decades. Incensed by Ganesh’s enthronement of his twelve year old son Jadu as the new sultan, the Sufi mystic Nur Qutub ‘Alam invited the neighbouring Jaunpur Sultanate to intervene. Attempting to legitimise his rule, Jadu converted to Islam and took the name Jalal-Uddin. This dispelled Nur Qutub ‘Alam’s apprehensions, but did little to dissuade Jaunpur, who viewed the succession struggle as an opportunity to weaken their neighbour.

For six years official records remained quiet about any envoys sent between Bengal and the Ming court.[5] It was in 1420, after Jalal-Uddin had consolidated his regime, that Bengal officially requested China’s assistance against border excursions. In response, the Ming emperor sent a military expedition, resulting in Jaunpur’s withdrawal from Bengal’s affairs.


References

[1] Duyvendak, Jan Julius Lodewijk. “The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth Century.” T’oung Pao 34, no. 1 (1938): 348-354

[2] Church, Sally K. “The Giraffe of Bengal: a medieval encounter in Ming China.” The Medieval History Journal 7, no. 1 (2004): 22

[3] Ibid., 25

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 26

The Caliph’s Dream

Skeletons of giants, Viking long ship funerals and medieval statecraft – ‘Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness’ widens the eyes in many ways. Superbly translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, it recounts several Arab travellers’ experiences in modern day Russia, Central Asia and Hungary between the 9th and 14th centuries. What particularly drew my attention was Sallām the Interpreter’s voyage which followed Caliph al-Wāthiq’s dream of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj escaping their prison in 831 CE.  

Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj are beings featured in Islamic eschatology, transmitted from early Christian sources about Gog and Magog. This tribe were imprisoned in the far North underneath mountains and sealed behind a barrier built by the ‘two-horned one’, commonly associated with Alexander the Great. Every day this tribe tunnels from beneath the earth using their teeth, allowing them to penetrate just enough soil to glimpse the world above them. Before falling into torpor at night, Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj would promise to break through this hole once they awake. To this day they wake up to their work undone by the will of God – giving mankind reprieve from their pestilence. During the end of times, it is through God’s will that they will finally leave their subterranean prison to consume every living creature until there is nothing but themselves.[1]

One can see why, upon dreaming of the world’s end, the Caliph al-Wāthiq decided to commission Sallām the translator and fifty companions on an eighteen month journey to determine whether it was an imminent premonition. In the ninth century, Arab and Persian geographers divided the world into seven climes, beyond which was the domain of Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj.[2] The region and people associated with this realm would change depending on historical realpolitik, with Mongols, Turkic tribes, and later Napoleon and the Soviets were equated to Yaʾjūj and Maʾjūj .[3] In our ninth century travellers’ case, Sallām and his companions made their arduous expedition from Baghdad to outer China via Iran and Central Asia. Arriving at the fabled barrier, Sallām remarked of ‘a high mountain surrounded by fortifications’, a reference to the Great Wall of China.[4] Sallām returned to the Caliph to assure him that that the only damage to the barrier is the size of a thread. The consoled Caliph granted the fatigued travellers  gifts and provided alms as his fears were now allayed.  

Noted by Lunde and Stone, the interpreter’s odyssey is a vivid description of an interconnected world of caravansaries.[5] Both overland and maritime routes linked the worlds between Andalucía and the Far East. More importantly, these travels present the reader with an imagined world tamed by physical verification. To trek beyond the pale of human settlement, prior to air travel, in order to satiate a dream is itself an astonishing feat.


References

[1] Schmidt, Andrea B. and van Donzel, Emeri Johannes Andrea B. Schmidt. ‘Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources: Sallam’s Quest’, Brill (2010) pp. 95-97

[2] Ibid., 98

[3] Ibid., 4

[4] Lunde Paul and Stone, Caroline E.M., ‘Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North’, Penguin Classics (2011), p. 101

[5] Ibid., Xviii

Caravans and ancient puzzles

Hello! A big welcome to you. I will be writing about many fascinating historical events, ideas and stories which dotted the the silk roads and beyond. In doing so, I hope to unravel how people communicated and maintained trust when journeys between regions could take months. For instance, how could a merchant from Mughal India ensure his cloth would reach its destination in Astrakhan, Russia?

I hope you enjoy my findings.

Eugène Flandin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons