31 Mar 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter – The Ancient Roots of the Kurds

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median_empire_map (iranchamber.com)

In Liberated Kobani, Kurds Take Pride Despite the Devastation  (NY Times, 2/1/2015, T. Arango,).

The Kurds have been much in the news lately yet many Americans know very little about this ancient culture.  The Kurds have existed as a society in the Mesopotamian plains and the mountains of the Taurus and Zagros for at least 3000 years. Traditionally they were sheep and goat herders but were known for their military prowess since ancient times and were probably the Kardouchoi that Xenophon speaks of in his Anabasis as those who fought for Persia attacking the “Ten Thousand” Greek mercenaries in 401 B.C.E. Their native tongue is Indo European and it is believed that they are related to the ancient Medes who established an empire in 612 B.C.E. the date that the Kurds claim for their founding. That lasted until Cyrus the Great was able to impose Persian hegemony in 550 B.C.E. Nevertheless, their culture was dominant in Persia until Alexander the Great conquered the Empire in 331 B.C.E.  After that, the Kurds remained as small principalities similar to the other populations of the area such as the Parthians and the Sassanids of Persia, and the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia. It was a Turkish sultan who gave the name Kurdistan (“the land of the Kurds”) to their provinces. In the 7th century C.E., many Kurds adopted Sunni Islam so Arabic is also an official language, yet the Kurds never adopted Arab customs but held fast to their own culture and traditions.

The Kurds rose in political power again as the Ayyubid Dynasty founded by Kurdish soldiers of fortune in the 12th century C.E. They were excellent military engineers and built the citadel at Cairo and the massive defenses at Aleppo.

Citadel_of_Aleppo (wikipedia.org)

They controlled the government of this empire that stretched from the Zagros Mountains through Egypt until the 13th century when Turkish-Mongolian tribes invaded. After that, the Kurds split up into several principalities united by language, culture and traditions and were autonomous but not independent.  In the 15th century, the Kurdish principalities got caught in a power struggle between the Persians and the Ottoman Turks as they each tried to expand their territories.  The Kurds made an alliance with the Ottomans who defeated the Persians and allowed Kurdistan to govern itself for about 300 years (much like the autonomous states of the Holy Roman Empire at about the same time).  In the 19th century, the Kurdish people began asking for unity and independence (just as the French were doing in France and the English and Spanish were doing in the Americas).  But the Ottomans, with the help of some European friends, were able to defeat the Kurdish independence movement because Kurdish aristocracies were reluctant to give up their elite status.  When the Ottomans were defeated in World War 1, the Kurds rushed to the Conference at Versailles to present their claims for the recognition of Kurdistan.  Most were thrilled when the Allied Powers passed the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, recognizing a free Kurdistan, although some Kurds did not think the territory was large enough. 02_kurdistan_sevres_1920 http://edmaps.com/html/kurdistan_in_seven_maps.html

The British and French had been given mandates in the Levant to oversee the development of new states from the defeated Ottoman Empire. But Atatürk won his war of independence for Turkey in 1923 and at the peace conference at Lausanne a new treaty was signed that invalidated the Treaty of Sevres and divided Kurdistan between Turkey, Iran, and the mandates that became Iraq and Syria (similar to the way Poland was divided between Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1772–Poland was re-established after WW I).

Today, about 25-30 million Kurds still live in their ancient homeland, but are kept in a minority status.  _78409411_kurds_map624_kobane http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440

They were allowed some autonomy in Iran, Iraq and Syria but not in Turkey where they are forbidden to wear traditional clothing, denied ethnic identity, restricted in the use of their Kurdish language and are called “Mountain Turks” rather than Kurds.  In response, the Kurds formed an independence party (PKK) and have engaged in armed struggles since 1978 so they are hated by the Turkish government.  In Iraq they make up nearly 20% of the Iraqi population (BBC News, 2/5/16) and are still known for their military excellence but in 1988 Saddam Hussein used poison gas on them in an attempt to extract them from their oil-rich territories. They were given back their autonomous status in Iraq’s new constitution in 2005 and have joined in the struggle against Al Qaeda and IS. In Syria, they are the largest minority comprising nearly 10% of the Syrian population (CIA, May 2015) but Amnesty International claims that the Syrian government persecutes the Kurds. The Iranian government claims to protect the Kurds but recently an Iranian West Asian analyst said that Iran will not tolerate Kurdish independence (Azad News Agency, 2/17/2016).  Kurds have become an important ally for the U.S-led coalition forces in the war against IS, but Turkey is an ally too, so hostilities against Kurds from their neighbors could cause problems for the coalition.  So the Kurds are in a difficult position again and  even though they are a legitimate and ancient society, they may never gain the independence that they long for.

03 Mar 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter – Food Traditions

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roman food 1

Food is not only necessary for life, it is also associated with our social, political and cultural traditions.  People like to eat together. Dinner at home is the gathering of the family. Friends meet for lunch or dinner. Some foods show class identity: wealthy people eat caviar or escargot, the poor eat hotdogs. Many cultures and religions forbid the consumption of certain foods: most Buddhists are vegetarians, Jewish law forbids consumption of pork and Americans will not eat dogs or horses.  Specific foods are culture markers.  For example, you can be “as American as apple pie.”  English housewives still tear the loose tea leaves from teabags to make “proper” English tea.  In Japan, the word for “meal” means “cooked rice”, the call to dinner in Thailand means “eat rice”, and the Chinese word for “rice” means “food”.

How does all of this relate to archaeology? Nutrition and the methods to obtain it were factors that drove history.  Human teeth got smaller when we began cooking our food. The first permanent buildings were probably built to store grain. The first attempt at writing was to record food supplies.  If a community could produce a surplus they became wealthy. The very productive towns that were built along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers developed into the first really big cities (the ancient city of Ur had a population of about 60,000).  The surplus encouraged trade which led to the development of travel technologies, money, and the interchange of ideas that eventually spread all over the world.  But the control of food was also the cause of war. The Romans annexed Egypt, a major producer of grain, to guarantee that Rome’s burgeoning population would be fed.  In the 15th century, there was a war between Italian nobles over control of salt, and, more recently, there was a “Cod War” between the United Kingdom and Iceland from the 1950s to the 1970s for control of fishing rights in the North Atlantic (Tom Roston, A Brief History of Food & War, January 11, 2012).

What we eat is recorded in our bones, teeth and hair so food can tell archaeologists where people were born and grew up. The enamel of the teeth of Ȍtzi, the “ice man” who died in the Italian Alps 5300 years ago, indicate that he spent his entire life within a 37-mile range just south of where he died. But new studies on diet reveal that ancient people were often quite mobile. Bone fragments show that ancient societies of the Sahara were made up of many foreigners, debunking the classical theory that kingdoms were always formed by indigenous people (http://phys.org/news/2014-03-ancient-bone-fragments-diet-health.html#jCp

Well-fed people are productive. Roman gladiators ate lots of vegetables and drank a tonic made from ashes to keep essential minerals high (J. Howard, Huffport Science, 10/22/14).  Herodotus said that the population of ancient Egypt was healthier than any other (Histories II, 20-39) and it was the ordinary people, not slaves that built the enormous pyramids. The ancient Chinese ate lots of rice and vegetables and developed many innovative technologies long before any other society. Elite men have always been better nourished than women and lower classes so they lived longer. Good leaders who were able to rule for a long time tended to produce stable governments.  Rameses II ruled ancient Egypt for 66 years providing peace and prosperity.

So the old adage, “you are what you eat” (Concerning Spiritualism and Materialism, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, 1863) takes on new importance as another tool to enhance or possibly change what we already know about past civilizations.

24 Feb 2016

Powerful Women Buried at Stonehenge

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181_1Article from Discovery News by Jennifer Viegas – full link below

The remains of 14 women believed to be of high status and importance have been found at Stonehenge, the iconic prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England.

The discovery, along with other finds, supports the theory that Stonehenge functioned, at least for part of its long history, as a cremation cemetery for leaders and other noteworthy individuals, according to a report published in the latest issue of British Archaeology.

During the recent excavation, more women than men were found buried at Stonehenge, a fact that could change its present image.

Read the full story on Discovery News: news.discovery.com

01 Feb 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter

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022B7B6D0000044D-3068887-image-a-1_1430841153212

Diseases’ Impacts of World History

Disease has plagued humans from the beginning of our existence.  Cancer, including breast and prostate cancer, tuberculosis, sinusitis and dental disease affected the ancients world-wide.  A third of all mummies studied show evidence of clogged arteries. It has recently been discovered that 5300-year old Ȍtzi, the Iceman, had H pylori, a bacterial infection that can cause stomach ulcers and must have made him very uncomfortable (A. Kraft, CBS News, Jan. 7, 2016).  It can be found also in pre-Columbian Mexico so it was widespread.  Diseases that thrive in large populations such as plague, influenza, measles and cholera did not become big killers until the rise of cities where they often determined the political and social outcome of history.

Smallpox has been a major threat and was present at least 5,000 years ago in northern Africa.  It is estimated that at least one third of those infected died of the disease which was not controlled until 1798 when Edward Jenner introduced the vaccine.  Before that, countless millions including many important leaders succumbed to it:  Ramses V of the 18th dynasty in Egypt in 1156 b.c.e., Queen Mary II of Scotland in 1694, the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph I in 1711, Russian Tsar Peter II in 1730 and French King Louis XV in 1774. Documents from India and China show massive infections there also, and it was smallpox that almost completely wiped out the Aztecs, Incas and other Amerindian populations in the Americas after the arrival of Spanish explorers (H. Whipps, Live Science, June, 2008). This event had global significance as the precipitous drop in the indigenous population allowed Europeans to freely occupy the devastated land.

A plague (perhaps Typhoid Fever) caused Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War in 430 b.c.e. It killed nearly a third of the population as well as the brilliant Athenian leader, Pericles.  No other leader was up to the job and the city eventually fell to the Spartans.  Another disease that probably lost a war was cholera in 218 b.c.e. when Hannibal set out to attack Rome with 50,000 troops and animals (Polybius and Livy say 80 elephants).  Nearly half of Hannibal’s troops were lost crossing the Italian Alps (Polybius), probably because the first line would have had the use of pristine mountain streams but those streams would have been polluted by the time the last troops got to them. The war would likely have had a different outcome if Hannibal had not lost so many soldiers (and nearly all of the elephants).

A particularly bad type of malaria probably helped to cause the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century c.e. British scientists David Soren and Robert Sallares have found DNA evidence that reveals malaria as the cause of many children’s deaths (children are especially vulnerable to malaria) around Lugnano, Italy, and Roman writers tell of a pestilence there and that many people died of fevers. The labor shortage left swamps undrained allowing mosquitos to spread so that Rome, a city of millions, was reduced to a town of only a few thousand (A. Thompson, BBC, Feb. 17, 2011) and unable to defend itself from attack.

A very devastating disease, the Bubonic Plague, has been found as early as 5th century b.c.e. in Egyptian mummies (E. Panagiotakopulu, Journal of Biogeography, 2004, 31) and sounds similar to the devastating wave that moved along trade routes from Asia through Europe in the 14th century c.e.  That medieval plague killed at least seventy-five million people signaling the beginning of the end of Mongol power in Asia and ending the feudal system in Europe.  That changed European society and economy and helped to foster an intellectual movement that led to the European Renaissance, the Reformation, and stimulated the scientific thinking that eventually spawned the Industrial Revolution (Whipps, April 2008).

Modern technology makes world-changing diseases less likely to alter history but the HIV epidemic and the recent ebola scare serve to remind us of the power of nature.

10 Jan 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter

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L'Anse aux Meadows, Unesco World Heritage Site

L’Anse aux Meadows, Unesco World Heritage Site

The Vikings

In August of 2016, Time Sifters is offering a “Viking Trail” Tour to the western coast and northern tip of Newfoundland.  This tour gives you a chance to see the ruins of the Vikings in North America.  The Vikings settled in northeastern Canada more than 400 years before Columbus.  The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the word “Vikings” as “Germanic Norse seafarers, speaking the Old Norse language, who raided and traded from their Scandinavian homelands across wide areas of northern and central Europe, as well as European Russia, during the late 8th to late 11th centuries.”  They actually went as far east as Baghdad, and as far west as North America. They were farmers who began to spread from their native territory about 700 c.e. probably because good farmland is not plentiful in Scandinavia.  They did not call themselves “Vikings” (National Geographic, Oct. 2010). The word probably comes from the Old Norse vik meaning “fjord” (bay) and Víkingar, which means traveler from the fjords. It was not used to describe the Norsemen until the 18th century. Before that, the Germans called them Ascomanni “ashmen” because they built their boats of ash wood. The Gaelic word for them was Lochlannach meaning men of the lake, and the Anglo-Saxons called them the Dene (beach?). Farther east, the Greeks called them Variagoi (sailors) and the Slavs, Byzantines and Arabs referred to them as the Rus (rowers). All of those visited by the Vikings wrote about them, but the Vikings themselves were not literate. They did use an Old Norse system of symbols called runes that represented things and ideas but they do not mention voyages.

Vikings were physically similar to other Europeans but they liked being blond and used strong lye soap to make their hair lighter. Viking women had more rights than most women at that time although the eldest son inherited the family farm.  Both men and women fought in battle. They used simple weapons, wore no armor and, contrary to popular belief, their helmets had no horns. The Vikings were excellent sailors and the honored were buried in their boats along with their weapons.  They had their own pantheon led by Odin, the father of many of the lesser gods, but adopted Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries (History.com).

The Viking tribes never unified (they often fought each other) yet their raids were a major threat to the local populations (that is why the word “Viking” came to mean “pirate raid”). The earliest reference to them comes from the English monk, Alcuin, who, in 793, wrote that there had never been such a terror in England before the Vikings arrived. They killed and enslaved the locals and took home their farm goods as well as the treasures from the monasteries. But many also settled in their new lands as farmers, merchants and craftsmen. Some eventually became leaders: Danish kings ruled England from 1016 to 1042, King Henry I of France (d. 1135) was the last royal of Viking descent, and Russian royals have carried Nordic DNA since the 9th century.  Today, many Europeans (and Americans of European origin) also carry Viking DNA; at least one of every thirty-three British men are Viking descendants (Daily Mail, March 9, 2014).  They made a huge impact on Europe where hundreds of Old Norse words have become part of the language; they founded the cities of Oslo, Kiev and Novogrod, made Dublin the capital of Ireland and took over Normandy.  They discovered Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and North America.

Vikings had already settled in Iceland and Greenland in the 10th century c.e.  when Leif Erikson explored the coast of North America naming his discovery “Vinland” because of the wild grapes there.  Three years later, Thorfinn Karlsefni sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland (L’Anse Aux Meadows) with his family, friends and livestock.  They found timber, fish and good pasture, but also some unfriendly Native Americans who were able to chase Thorfinn and family back to Iceland after only three years (Linden, Smithsonian Magazine, December, 2004).  Still, others came and spread, founding real colonies with permanent houses.  Archaeologists have found the remains of at least 400 farmsteads in Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia.  But the settlements did not thrive, perhaps because of hostile Indians or weather changes and by 1500 they had all been deserted, leaving only ruins for future archaeologists.

 

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