A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Historical Photography in Iran

At Reorient Magazine,  here's an interesting illustrated piece by Sanaz Janloo on the history of photography in Iran from the Qajars to today: "Portrait of a Nation."


Another Round of Views on the Latest War

 I had barely posted yesterday's post with nine links, called "Many Voices on the Region's Newest War," when I discovered my Inbox, Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, etc. were filling up again. (I haven't posted links in Arabic because right now they're running very biased.) I'm assembling the links, not endorsing the views:
I'm sure there will be more.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tunisians Respond with Humor to Silly Claim ISIS is in Tataouine

One of Tunisia's niche tourist attractions is the fact that the first Star Wars film was filmed in and around the southern Tunisian town of Tataouine, which also gave its name to Luke Skywalker's home planet. After some Western media reported (wrongly) that  pro-ISIS forces had taken control of the area, Tunisian social media started having fun with the idea, which isn't true. See the link but here are three of the best samples:





"Tataouine: the niqab is already obligatory"



Many Voices on the Region's Newest War

Unsurprisingly, just about everybody is weighing in on he region's newest war. More durprisingly is the divide in opinion isn't always on purely predictable lines. Herewith a broad selection:
And finally, from The New Republic, an article by the late, great, Patrick Seale originally published  January 26, 1963, to remind us we've been here before:

Friday, March 27, 2015

"The Breathtaking Beauty of Yemen"

In a 40-year career of dealing with the Middle East from Morocco to the Gulf, one of my few regrets is that I have never had the privilege of setting foot in Yemen.

But as that country with so rich  a history descends into war, here's a wonderful slideshow;"The Breathtaking Beauty of Yemen." Do yourself a favor and look it over.

Sudan and the Saudi Coalition: Cooling to Iran, Warming to KSA

Some are expressing surprise that Sudan is contributing aircraft and even ground troops  to the Saudi-led coalition bombing the Houthis in Yemen. Sudan has relatively few good friends in the region, and in the past has been one of the rare Sunni Arab countries to maintain friendly relations with Iran. (Oman, which is partly Ibadi, also does, but is not actively participating in the coalition.)

 Sudanese President Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court, though Egypt has welcomed him on visits in the past and this week he visited King Salman in Saudi Arabia. Gulf press reports have said that Sudan has deployed either two or three aircraft to the coalition, and there are also reports that it has offered ground troops.

Interpreting this as "Sudan changes sides," as some are doing, is probably an exaggeration of reality. As a Red Sea country whose main oil exports pass through the pipeline terminal at Port Sudan, Sudan, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, obviously has concerns about the stability in Yemen. But its participation is a bit surprising: Egypt and Saudi Arabia are extremely close in the Sisi era, and all the GCC states except Qatar and Oman are also predictable (and Qatar is on board with the coalition. Pakistan has close military ties with the Saudis, and Jordan and Morocco are also frequent allies of their fellow conservative monarchies in the GCC.

But Sudan, despite its obvious concerns as a Red Sea littoral state, is not the most obvious volunteer. But the country's economy is a mess and Bashir is internationally ostracized. It may seem cynical to suggest that the sudden enthusiasm for Saudi Arabia is financially motivated, but Sudan is the least obvious member of the coalition.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Relax, Oil Prices: There's Really Very Little Chance of Anyone Closing Bab al-Mandab, Let Alone the Houthis

NASA photo: Bab al-Mandab with Perim Island
Oil prices are rising steeply due to the Saudi and allied attacks on Yemen. Business reporters in particular may be fueling this with articles like this one and this one, suggesting that if the Houthis take over Yemen they could block the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, a critical choke point for the passage of much of the world's oil. Like the Strait of Hormuz to the east, this is a critical international passage that technically lies within the territorial waters of the neighboring states. And like the Strait of Hormuz, whenever tensions rise, people start worrying about a closure of the Strait. Egypt has explicitly cited this as a reason for its joining the Saudi coalition (though there are doubtless monetary reasons too). But there are multiple reasons to doubt that any Yemeni government, even a Houthi one would do it, since Yemen's own oilfields and the Aden refinery are outside the Strait and it is their lifeline to world markets, but even if a Yemeni government should be self-destructive enough to try, I don't think it could be done.

Let's start with this: you and what navy?

In response to the far less lethal threat of Somali piracy, the United States, NATO, the European Union, and even Russia, China, and Japan, dispatched warships to assure freedom of navigation. Do you think they'd let the Strait be closed? If somebody fires on a ship from Perim Island, I think they'll get an up-close and personal visit from an Aegis Cruiser (if anything is still standing after the Predator strikes).

Even if the international warships in the Gulf and Indian Ocean were not in the neighborhood, the Egyptian, Saudi, and Israeli navies are sufficient, I suspect, to deter or meet any threat. It's not the days of Alfred Thayer Mahan or Teddy Roosevelt. Sea power is global, three dimensional, and rapidly deployable.

I'm reminded of my days writing on defense issues in the region in the early 1980s, when the Soviets had bases in South Yemen and Ethiopia, the US had bases in Oman and the French in Djibouti, and there was a lot of talk about Bab al-Mandab. Unlike the Houthis, the Soviets could have closed the Strait. (At the cost, of course, of starting World War III.),

Iran has from time to time threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. And it has a navy that could credibly make the attempt. At the cost of war with the US, NATO, and probably loss of its own oil production facilities.

Though international traffic passes through territorial waters of Yemen and Djibouti (as Hormuz does between Iran and Oman and the UAE), these are international straits where the right of innocent passage (or "transit passage" as the International Convention on the Law of the Sea calls it) is guaranteed.

The closest thing to a closure of the Strait I know of was an Egyptian Navy blockade during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which was not aimed at the world's oil supply but at intercepting shipments bound for the Israeli port of Eilat. And at the time, the Suez Canal had been closed since 1967 anyway. And it was wartime, when the rules change.

Which brings me to another point. Blocking Bab al-Mandab might be possible with a serious naval force, which Yemen lacks. But is it really the most vulnerable point in the oil supply? Let's run some numbers:

Bab al-Mandab: Width 18-20 miles (16 miles between Perim Island (Yemeni) and Djibouti coast.

Hormuz: Width 21 miles, but with shipping channels only two miles wide in each direction, separated by a two-mile buffer.

Suez Canal: Width 673 feet.

SUMED Pipeline: two 42-inch pipes

If you want to block international tanker traffic, which choke point is chokiest?

Due to Arab-Israeli wars, the Suez Canal was closed for several months in 1956-57 and again from 1967-75. Sinking a few ships in the shallow canal can block it for weeks. If bad guys also attacked the SUMED (Suez-Mediterranean) pipeline (two 42-inch wide lines running from ‘Ayn Sukhna on the Red Sea to a terminal off Alexandria), not only would passage of Gulf and Yemeni oil to Europe be blocked, but so would Saudi oil from the terminal at Yanbu‘ and Sudanese oil from Port Sudan.

I really am less worried about the Houthis blocking Bab al-Mandab than I am about the instability in Sinai threatening the Canal and SUMED.

Beware the "Sunni-Shi‘ite Conflict" Narrative: the Houthis from a Local Rebellion to Geopoliticization

In January, I noted that although the Yemeni Houthis are certainly radical in their rhetoric, Zaydi Islam traditionally is not, and that while technically Shi‘ite in that their Imams must be descended from ‘Ali, they have never identified with the Twelver Shi‘ism of Iran, nor has it generally considered them genuinely Shi‘a. The same is true of the ‘Alawites of Syria, yet today both ‘Alawites and Houthis are loosely aligned with Iran's geopolitical goals (though the links between the Houthis and Iran have more often been asserted than demonstrated).

Iran has been partly responsible for this, but the readiness of the West to accept the narrative of an "ancient" enmity between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, some sort of inexorable clash, has also helped reinforce a regime narrative on the part of Sunni majorities who want to paint non-Sunni minorities as Iranian-backed fifth columns. This narrative has already led to a tendency to paint the conflicts in Iraq and Syria not as complex fractures along complicated lines but as a Sunni-Shi‘ite dichotomy. (The only reason this oversimplification has not been extended to the equally complex conflict in Libya is that there are no Shi‘ites to speak of in Libya.)

The danger is that the more the world accepts the dualistic view, which to some extent reinforces both the Iranian and Saudi regimes' dueling propaganda, the more the various regional conflicts with their complex historical, social, economic, ethnic (and yes, sometimes sectarian) roots, the more these local conflicts are merged into a regional general war, and the sectarian dualism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the Houthis, let me note that back in 2009 I was already blogging about border clashes between the Saudis and the Houthis, though accusations about Iranian support were just beginning.

I keep hearing the war in Yemen, which is complex (consider the role of ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, old friend of the Saudis, new friend of the Houthis), described in simplistic ways which see broad geopolitical motives behind people fighting for quite different motivations (power, tribe, ideology). If one side misinterprets the motivation of their adversary, disastrous results are inevitable.

Oman Stays Out of Saudi Coalition, Days after Sultan Returns Following 8-Month Absence

The GCC countries are all reportedly backing the Saudi intervention in Yemen with the sole exception of Oman. Oman has long had the best relations with Iran of any GCC country, and was the intermediary that originally brokered the nuclear talks; it has also been aloof from GCC plans for a joint military force, so its absence from the Saudi coalition is not a surprise.

Besides, Oman is preoccupied. On Monday Sultan Qaboos returned to his country after eight months in Germany for medical treatment of an undisclosed ailment. For the first time in his 45 years on the throne, he missed the country's National Day (his birthday) in November and addressed the country from Germany.

Qaboos is now the longest-serving Arab leader; he has no children or siblings, and no designated heir apparent; and at 74 he appears frail and much thinner in recent photos (below). Official statements have claimed his medical treatment was a success, but the nature of his illness and the reasons for the eight-month absence remain unclear.

Egypt Says There Will Be a Ground Campaign in Yemen: Perhaps They Should Ask Nasser about That

The Associated Press is quoting Egyptian officials as saying there will be a ground campaign in Egypt after the airstrikes have weakened the Houthis, involving Egyptian and Saudi troops..

Those who do not remember history  . . .

Between 1962 and 1967, Egyptian forces were deployed in then North Yemen, supporting the republican side in a civil war in which Saudi Arabia backed the royalist side. At its peak, Egypt deployed 70,000 troops; perhaps 26,000 died. Egypt was still engaged in Yemen at the time of the Six-Day War with Israel, weakening its abilities to resist the Israeli pre-emptive strike. The losses in Yemen and the defeat by Israel weakened Nasser and Egyptian troops were withdrawn from Yemen. Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970 at the age of only 52.

Of course, most Egyptians today are too young to remember that Yemen War (but not Husni Mubarak, who flew bombers there), and today they and the Saudis are on the same side.

But it's worth noting. President Sisi is often compared to Nasser, but he should also take a lesson from Nasser's biggest blunder.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Saudi Arabia Strikes in Yemen

Saudi Arabia, traditionally the epitome of caution when it comes to military action, appears to be committing to a full-scale intervention against the Houthis in Yemen, with air strikes and a reported ground force commitment of 150,000 men, and with Pakistan, Egypt, and the other GCC states offering to assist.

Reports from (pro-Saudi) Al-Arabiya, all unconfirmed:

First:
Saudi Arabia has deployed on Thursday 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units after it launched its operation against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.
The Saudi aerial deployment enabled the Royal Saudi Air Force to be in control of Yemen’s space early Thursday.
Reports also emerged that top Houthi leadership including Abdulkhaliq al-Houthi, Yousuf al-Madani, Yousuf al-Fishi were killed and head of the Revolutionary Committee for the Houthis, Mohammed Ali al-Hothi, was wounded.
Second:
Pakistan and Egypt announced their participation in the ongoing Saudi-led military campaign against with air and naval forces, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.
Al Arabiya said Egypt, Pakistan and Sudan have also expressed their readiness to contribute ground troops in the campaign.
The UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan have also deployed fighter jets to join the Saudi air force in the ongoing air campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Al Arabiya News Chanel reported.
The UAE has deployed 30 fighter jets, Bahrain 15, Kuwait 15, Qatar 10 and Jordan 6 warplanes, according to the news channel.
This would appear to be a more direct intervention outside the Kingdom's boundaries than any Saudi action since support for royalist forces in Yemen during the civil war of the 1960s.

Another civil war just was internationalized. I'll have more to say as we learn more.

Noted Belatedly: Obama Used "Persian Gulf" in Nowruz Greeting

I overlooked a subtle message in President Obama's Nowruz message to Iran the other day.

I've discussed on earlier occasions (here and here and here  and here and here) what I have called "the  [Insert Name Here] Gulf problem which has led to Iran protesting anyone referring to "the Arab Gulf,," or even, in the case of Google Maps, which tried to avoid the issue by labeling it "the Gulf," a form I sometimes use on this blog, complaining about that, as well as the airline Gulf Air. But one of the links above is to a case of a Saudi case which went the other way, in which a teacher got in trouble for using "Persian Gulf." In the Middle East Journal, I allow either, since I've learned Iranian authors will protest if you change it to just "the Gulf."

It got past me until now that in Obama's Nowruz message urging Iran to agree to a nuclear deal, he specifically appealed to Iranians "from the coasts of the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf."
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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Multiple Takes, Pro and Con, on Egypt's "New Capital" Project

Since Egypt announced its plans for a new administrative  capital in the desert east of Cairo, I posted a piece by Khaled Fahmy questioning the project as well as a response defending it. Here are a range of other opinions, from mocking to laudatory, across the spectrum.
David Sims, a Cairo-based urban planner, has spent years cataloguing the failures of Egypt’s satellite cities, culminating in last week’s well-timed publication of his latest book – Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? Sims leans towards the latter.
“It’s just a bunch of crazy figures,” he says. “The scale is huge, and there are questions like: how are you going to do the infrastructure? How are you going to get the water? How will they move all these ministries?
"In other words, I think it’s just desperation. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it, but I rather doubt it.”


Monday, March 23, 2015

Israel's Yediot/Ynet Publishes New Revelations in the 1965 Ben Barka Assassination Case; Lengthy Story Then Disappears Down Memory Hole

Mehdi Ben Barka
Update: The story has reappeared under a new title, and I haven't compared the two.

Early Sunday morning Israel time the Ynet website, the English online site for Yediot Acharanot, published a lengthy article on the Israeli role in the 1965 disappearance and death of Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka, called "Secret History: How the Mossad became entangled in a political assassination."

You may note that I didn't link to the article. That is because within 24 hours, perhaps less, it disappeared from the website. 

The article, by investigative journalists Ronen Bergman and Shlomo Nakdimon, remained availble through Google cache last night, but now the cached version also brings up a page not found message.

Fortunately Le Monde had already interviewed one of the authors, (link is in French) and some Algerian  and Palestinian papers ran summaries, but the main story seems to have disappeared down a memory hole.

This is curious. The Israeli press is subject to military censorship, but articles must be cleared before publication. Did censorship clear it in error? Did somebody else spike the story?

If so, they must not understand the Internet. Even when someone manages to delet it from Google Cache, you can't be sure readers hven't already saved copies to the hard drives.

Readers like me.
Screencap of the story
I won't violate their copyright by quoting the story in full, but since it seems to have vanished I'll summarize it.

I previously wrote about the Ben Barka affair back in 2012. The disappearance of Ben Barka from the streets of Paris was a scandal mat the time. French investigations led to the jailing of a few French agents, and the involvement of Moroccan intelligence has long been established. Mossad's role has long been rumored, but with few details known.

Ahmad Dlimi
Bergman and Nakdimon begin by discussing Mossad's good relations with French intelligence dating from the days of the Algerian war, as well as their growing covert relations with Moroccan intelligence. They report that Morocco  provided Israel with full details of the 1965 Arab Summit in Casablanca, and in return asked for Israeli help in locating the exiled dissident, Mehdi Ben Barka.

They directly quote from interviews they had with the Mossad chief at the time, Meir Amit, prior to his death in 2009. According to Amit (as quoted in the article), Israel was willing to cooperate but did not want to get directly involved in a killing.

They helped the Moroccans locate Ben Barka, who traveled frequently, discovering he picked up mil from a kiosk in Geneva. This was conveyed to Moroccan Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Dlimi. (The article spells it Dalimi, but Dlimi is standard in both English nd French.) But then:
But for the Moroccans, Israel's debt had not yet been paid. On October 1, 1965, they requested Mossad agents in Paris to rent them a hiding place and provide them with camouflage, makeup and fake passports. In addition, they wanted Israel to follow their target for them and advise them on how best to send Ben Barka to meet his maker.
According to the protocol of the meetings between Amit and [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol, only on October 4 did Amit report to the prime minister about the Mossad's involvement. To sweeten the pill of what he was about to tell Eshkol, Amit began with good news, describing the valuable intelligence gathered by the Mossad at the summit in Casablanca. "I want to show you the information about the debates," Amit told Eshkol, and said that intelligence indicated that at that time, the armies of the Arab countries were not ready for war against Israel.

Then came the less good tidings: "What do they want?" Eshkol asked. Amit continued: "A very simple thing: Deliver Mehdi Ben Barka. We found him in Paris and King Hassan gave an order to kill him. They came to us and said: 'We do not want you to do it, but help us.'
Meir Amit
Israel agreed to provide five foreign passports, but they quote Amit as sayi[ng that Eshkol said to him in Yiddish, "It does not smell right to me."
Four days went by. On October 8, Amit told Eshkol: "So far, all is well. We are able to hold on. We are 'ducking' the issue."

But the Moroccans had no intention of "ducking" the issue. On October 12, Dalimi asked Israel for fake car license plates and a poisonous solution. Israel rejected the request for the license plates and suggested the use of rented cars, for which it would provide fake documentation. Dalmi also informed Israel that Oufkir had decided to postpone the operation until the end of October, but did not specify an exact date.
On October 13, 1965, Dalimi left France to return to Morocco, and Amit took this as a sign that the entire operation had been scrapped. "Thank God, they gave up on it," he told Eshkol on the same day.

Besides Amit, the report also cites the work of Dr. Shlomo Ben-Nun, an expert on Israeli-Moroccan relations.


Dlimi and his agents, with the help of French police acting on their own, kidnapped Ben Barka as he arrivved for a meeting at the famed Brasserie Lipp, They took him to an apartment on the outskirts ofn Paris and t]ortured him. The authors cite conflicting reports over whether the Mor0ccans asked Mossad for poison, but say the sources agree that Ben Barka died under torture. Mossad then assisted in disposing of the body in a forest outside Paris.

cessor.Muhammad Oufkir
Charkes de Gaulle was furious .at a kidnapping on the streets of Paris in broad daylight,  and reportedly demanded that King Hasan II hand over Dlimi and his superior, Interior Minister Muhammad Oufkir. On November 5, Amit reportedly told Eshkol, "The Moroccans killed Ben Barka. Israel had no physical connection to the act itself."

Much of this has been reported or rumored in the past. But the authors also discuss an internal Israeli blowback from the operation. According to them, Mossad's legendary "founding father," Isser Harel, retired but an adviser to Eshkol, entered the tale. They quote Harel (who died in 2003) as telling them before his death

When Harel heard of the Mossad involvement in the affair, he turned to prime minister Eshkol. Before his death, Harel described the conversation to us: "I told him (Eshkol): 'God sent me to protect you and you became terribly entangled. Amit lied to you all along. You told him not to get involved, and he was involved. Your situation is very grave. You had a consultant on this issue and you didn’t consult him. And it heightens your own responsibility, and now you have to resign.'

"Eshkol really begged for his life," Harel recounted. "I told him, in my opinion, you should appoint an inquiry commission and see who is responsible for this failure, and the findings of the investigation will decide whether you continue as prime minister. And as for Amit, you should know that he did not tell you the truth. You had an advisor and did not use him. Eshkol almost started crying ..."
Isser Harel
Eshkol refused to resign and refused to fire Amit, but continued to puraue the issue, leading to secrt investigations and much infighting. Amit blamed Harel's jealousy of his successor. De Gaulle hrough Mossad's European headquarters out of Paris.

I can't testify to any of this and would normally have just referred you to the link. The whole story is much longer and more detailed than my summary..

As for Muhammad Oufkir, he was implicated in a plot to shoot down the King;s plane in 19712, after which he committted suicide, or many believe "committed suicide." Ahmad Dlimi went on to become the hero of the war against POLISARIO in Western Sahara, becoming the most powerful figure s[ince Oufkir and perhaps considered a threat by the King. In 1983, after a meeting with the King, he was killed in an auto accident, the "accidental" nature of which has been widely questioned.

The Literacy Gap in the Arab World

Via Iyad al-Baaghdadi, a striking contrast: literacy among 15-24 year olds and among 65 and older. He notes the current age of Arab leaders is 69.

Arab Spring is not dead. Thermidor is not permanent. Al-thawra mustamirra.

A lot to talk about today but first I have to clear my desk on the day job. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Nowruz 2015

This evening the sun will pass the vernal equinox, bringing a much-awaited Spring (at least for us in the winter-bound US). That also means it's Nowruz, usually defined as Persian or Iranian New Year, but as I noted some years back:
It's a pretty broad brush: Iranians, of course, and Kurds, Afghans, many Turks, a lot of other folks where greater Persian civilization once held sway up into Central Asia, and members of a number of religions — Iranians of all varieties, but also Parsees (Zoroastrians) everywhere (who invented the holiday), Baha'is, Syrian ‘Alawites, Turkish Alevis, Albanians of the Bektashi Sufi order (thank you, Wikipedia, I didn't know about that one) — and doubtless many I'm leaving out.
To all those folks, Nowruz Mobarak,  and for more background see my earlier post on the Haft Sin (the "seven S's"), which Michelle Obama explained in the White House's early Nowruz celebration.
Haft Sin Table

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Ring with an Arabic Inscription from the Viking Age

I'm crashing on deadlines and appointments today and haven't had time for blogging, but wanted to at least show the flag.

This is probably being given more attention than it deserves since it isn't quite as strange as people are making it sound: "Why was a 9th century Viking woman buried with a ring that says ‘for Allah’ on it?" (Washington Post); "Ring brings ancient Viking, Islamic civilizations closer together," (Science News), and similar reports.

They are all reporting on a scholarly piece from The Journal of Scanning Microscopies,  of an article called "Analysis and interpretation of a unique Arabic finger ring from the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden,"  for those who prefer the original paper to the journalistic summaries. The illustrations below are from that article.

The ring comes from a woman's grave in which the clothing and other burial goods are all Viking Age Scandinavian. The silver ring, set with a stone originally thought to be amethyst, but which is actually colored glass, is inscribed with what appears to be a Kufic inscription which the article interprets as "for/to Allah," I presume reading it as li-llah, though they write it as al-_llah.

Unpointed Kufic is always a challenge, and inscribed on glass even more so. Here's their rendering:

It could as easily be {stray alif] billah, since it;'s unpointed.

Interesting, but not that revolutionary. Rings with Arabic inscriptions have been found in several sites in Eastern Europe, and Birka, Sweden, was a key Viking trading center, so the ring presumably arrived as trade goods.

Offa's "Dinar" (British Museum)
Arabic coinage (especially gold dinars and silver dirhams due to their intrinsic value) circulated all over Europe, and the 8th century Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia Offa (builder of Offa's Dyke to hold back the Welsh), famously struck a gold coin that directly imitated a dinar of the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, with the Arabic shahada imperfectly copied on one side and "Offa Rex" on the other. Offa was a Christian and the British Museum site suggests the coin was struck for the Pope, so we can assume Offa was better at holding back the Welsh than at recognizing the shahada.

And of course there was Ibn Fadlan, the medieval Arab traveler who visited the Volga Vikings in what is now Russia. He didn't like them much. Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead was a fictionalization of Ibn Fadlan's travels. A bad movie was made from it, The 13th Warrior.

So the Birka find is interesting, but not unprecedented. The trade routes across Europe are quite ancient; Ancient Near Eastern jewelery has been found in Scandinavia, and the Ancient Greeks knew Baltic amber.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March 18, 1915: The British and French Navies Fail at the Dardanelles

A century ago today, the Gallipoli campaign, at least arguably, was doomed to failure more than a month before the first troops went ashore. This post repeats text and photos that appeared in a post last year, a sort of rerun for the actual centennial today. You should also read my March 10 post about the Turkish minelayer Nusret.

Winston Churchill, at the time First Lord of the Admiralty, had a thing about the Mediterranean that would persist into the next World War as well. He conceived a daring plan to break the stalemate on the Western Front, knock one of the Central Powers out of the war, and provide a warm-water supply line to Russia by forcing the Turkish straits, and taking Constantinople/Istanbul. The Royal Navy still controlled the seas, and a British and French flotilla was duly sent to try to force the Dardanelles.

The plan seems crazy in retrospect, especially in view of the ten months of carnage in which British commanders kept throwing Australian and New Zealand troops against entrenched Turkish positions, the latter commanded in part (and eventually entirely) by Mustafa Kemal. If it ever had any hope of success, that surely lay in a quick naval victory, not in infantry landings. And that, originally, was the plan. The flotilla arrived off the Dardanelles in February and began shelling the Turkish forts on both sides of the strait, and using minesweepers to clear the minefields that filled the passage. The plan was, after softening up the forts and clearing the mines, the Royal Navy and its French allies would force the straits and sail right up to the Topkapi.

As daring as it seems, the Ottomans took it seriously. The US Ambassador to the Porte, Henry Morgenthau, recorded that archives and critical documents were being crated up to be moved deeper into Anatolia. (Note that just a few years later, the capital was moved to Ankara.) The Ottoman forts were nearly out of ammunition, the minefields were largely cleared, and there seemed to be little standing between the Allied flotilla and the Golden Horn.
The Allied Flotilla in the Dardanelles, 1915
Then, on March 8, the minelayer Nusret managed to lay a line of 26 mines which the Allies failed to detect.


Ten days later, the Allied naval assault began. On March 18, the attempt to run the straits began.

Line No 11 is Nusret's Minefield
Now, the Royal Navy had a low opinion of the Turkish fleet and the Admiralty insisted on keeping all the most modern, Dreadnought-class battleships in home waters in case the German High Seas Fleet came out. The flotilla in the east were older, pre-Dreadnought vessels, slower and less thickly armored. As if that wasn't enough, the commander, Admiral Carden, took ill the day before and his deputy, Rear Admiral John de Robeck, who had serious doubts about the venture anyway, took command.

Bouvet Afire
As the flotilla moved into the Çannakale Strait, the narrowest part of the Dardanelles, the French battleship Bouvet suddenly exploded. Within minutes she capsized and sank with the loss of her captain and all hands.

It soon got even worse. The battle cruiser HMS Inflexible and the battleship HMS Irresistible struck mines; the first was beached, the second evacuated and left adrift; both apparently sank. Several other ships were damaged. For a total Turkish loss of 118 men, Nusret's mines and the shore guns had sunk three Allied capital ships and crippled another.

Bouvet Capsizing and Sinking
Though the Turks were still bracing for a renewed attack, de Robeck was shocked by the losses, and at this point London made what was arguably the decisive mistake that transformed Gallipoli from a daring naval raid that failed into a symbol of the meat-grinder tactics of the Great War: they decided to suspend the naval operations until ground troops could be landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

HMS Irresistible Proves it was Misnamed
That would not take place until the date we  today know as Anzac Day: April 25. The naval battle was March 18. In the intervening weeks, Turkey would rush ammunition, artillery shells, mines. and troops (and Mustafa Kemal) to turn the Galipoli Peninsula into a hardened fortification. A campaign aimed at bypassing the carnage of the trench warfare on the Western Front would recreate that carnage on a barren peninsula in the Aegean.

The element of surprise had been lost. The Turks were ready.

You can find a much more detailed account of the action in the British Official .of Naval Operations.

The Attack on the Bardo

Since the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, Tunisia has been the one success story of the Arab Spring. There has been some violence, attacks on police, and political polarization; trouble along the Libyan and Algerian borders, but nothing like today's attack at the Bardo National Museum. Even previous attacks on tourist sites, such as the 2002 attack on the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, were outside the capital;  today's attack struck at its very heart, its symbolic center of culture.

For readers unfamiliar with Tunis, the Bardo is Tunisia's national museum, and one of the world's great museums. It contains, among much else, one of the world's largest collections of Roman mosaics, which survived in the dry North African climate better than in Italy. So it is a powerful symbol of national heritage.

It is also a keystone of Tunisia's tourist industry, which took a hit after the Revolution. Tunisia's beaches are popular and affordable for European tourists, and he high profile Bardo attack is a direct attack on the industry.

But there is another powerful symbol: it stands next to the Tunisian National Assembly, recently elected, housed in an old beylical palace which shares a courtyard with the museum. So it also strikes a blow at Tunisia's nascent democracy.

In the Google image below, the complex at left (west) is the museum, the structure at the bottom (south) is the Parliament building.


Ibn Khaldun on Arabic Dialects and Classical Arabic

Ibn Khaldun (Tunis)
Ibn Khaldun never ceases to amaze. His Muqaddima is not just the first great work of synthesizing history but also a pioneering work of sociology. Arnold Toynbee, who attempted something similar himself (at much greater length and arguably with less success), famously said of him, in every author's dream of a book-cover blurb:
"Undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place . . . the most comprehensive and illuminating analysis of how human affairs work that has been made anywhere."--Arnold J. Toynbee, Observer
Of course, since Ibn Khaldun lived from 1332-1406, he wasn't able to use Toynbee's quote on his book tour.

Born in Tunis of a family that had fled al-Andalus (Spain) during the Reconquista, he was educated at Tunis and spent a career in North Africa, Granada, and finally Cairo. As I noted a few years ago, after Tunisian independence a statue of French colonial missionary Cardinal Lavigerie was replaced with a statue of favorite son Ibn Khaldun.

A frequent theme on this blog through the years (45 posts  with the label so far) has been the divergence between spoken Arabic dialects and the written language (Classical, Modern Standard, fusha), the phenomenon linguists call diglossia. Many classical Arab writers complained about it, but few tried to explain it. Ibn Khaldun tried to explain everything, of course.

As the excellent Algerian linguist/blogger Lameen Souag notes in a recent post on his Jabal al-Lughat blog, notes that Ibn Khaldun addressed the issue: "Ibn Khaldun: Arabic Dialects are Independent Languages." He translates the relevant section of the Muqaddima, and you need to read the whole post, but essentially he comes down to what I think linguists call a substratum and which he calls "mixing" with non-Arabic: languages:

You may observe this in the towns of Ifriqiya and the Maghreb and Andalus and the Mashriq:
  • As for Ifriqiya and the Maghreb, the Arabs there mixed with the non-Arab Berbers as they spread their civilisation among them. Hardly a town or a generation was isolated from them. Thus non-Arabness came to predominate over the Arab tongue which they had had. It became a different, mixed language, within which non-Arabness predominated for the reasons outlined. So it is further from the original tongue.
  • Likewise the Mashriq. When the Arabs prevailed over its nations, the Persians and the Turks, they mixed with them. Their languages then spread among them through the labourers and farmers and captives whom they took as servants and nannies and wet-nurses. As a result, their own language was corrupted by corruption of their (linguistic) habits, until it became a different language.
  • Likewise the people of Andalus, with the non-Arab Galicians and Franks.
All the people of the towns from these regions came to have a different language, specific to them and distinct from that of Mudar [=Classical Arabic], and distinct each from the other - as we shall recall. It is as if it were a different language due to their generations' mastery of the linguistic habit of it. And God creates and decrees what He will.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Election Note: If There is a National Unity Government, the Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset Will Be an Arab

Update:  this post was written before actual votes had been counted, when exit polling suggested a tie. Since then the vote has gone more heavily to Likud, though a Unity Government remains a possibility. The Joint List now seems likely to get 14 seats however, one more than suggested below.

Despite Netanyahu's rush to declare victory, the ultimate shape of the next Israeli government  is far from clear. If the exit poll indications are borne out, with the two big parties tied at 27 seats each, Netanyahu will have a better prospect of forming a coalition than Herzog, but it would still be one with a narrow majority. Though neither Likud nor the Zionist Union want it, there may be pressure to form a National Unity Government around the two big parties. In fact, there already is pressure: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has said he will urge them to do so, and while the Israeli President is largely powerless, he is the person who decides who will get the chance to form a government.

And if the two big parties form a unity government, then the Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset will be the head of the third biggest bloc.

And for the first time in Israeli history, that will be an Israeli Arab: Ayman Oudeh of the United List. The Arab vote, though some 20% of the population in Israel proper (within the Green Line)  has usually been divided among several Arab parties and the far left joint Jewish-Arab Hadash (and many don't vote).

This year they ran united under Oudeh's leadership, and are the third biggest bloc (if the exit poll forecasts don't shift) with 13 seats. Ironic given Netanyahu's last-ditch warnings about the dangers of the Arab vote.

Lisa Goldman has a profile of Oudeh and his innovative, inclusive campaign: "Ayman Oudeh has already Won Israel's Election."

The Annual Saint Patrick's Day Post on Ancient Links Between the Irish Church and Egypt

Happy Saint Patrick's Day, which this year is also election day in Israel. (Zionist Union leader Yitzhak Herzog's father was actually born in Belfast, come to think of it.)
Coptic Wheel Cross
Every year since 2009, I have reposted or linked to my original 2009 post on the faint but apparently real links between the Coptic Church of Egypt, where monasticism was invented, and the early Irish church.
Celtic Wheel Cross

It's the sort of thing you do when you're a specialist on Egyptian history also named Michael Collins Dunn, but it's also been a popular post. Herewith, with some added illustrations, corrections and updates,  the original text:

Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone, an appropriate wish here since the Irish Church Patrick founded seems to have been the religious and monastic daughter of the Church of Egypt (the Coptic Church).

Coptic Ankh Cross
Ah, you're thinking: he's really reaching this time, trying to find a way to work Saint Patrick's Day into a blog on the Middle East. My name is, after all, Michael Collins Dunn, and I'm therefore rarely assumed to have Greek or Japanese ancestry, but actually it's not a reach to find a reason for a Saint Patrick's Day post on the Middle East, since Irish Christianity has ancient, if somewhat hard to document, links to Egypt, and Saint Patrick himself may have studied alongside Egyptian monks. They say everyone's Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, but I'm going to explore how Egypt and Ireland have links dating back to the earliest days of Christianity in the West. And while some of the evidence is a bit hazy, none of this is crackpot theory. I warned you that I started out as a medievalist, and still have flashbacks sometimes. Forgive me if I can't footnote every statement here.

Irish Standing Wheel Cross
Anyone who has ever seen one of the standing crosses that are a familiar feature of medieval and post-classical Irish Christian sites will know what the Celtic Cross or "wheel cross" looks like; anyone who has ever set foot in a Coptic Church will know what a Coptic Cross looks like; unfortunately the illustrations at Wikipedia's Coptic Cross site don't include a precise example, but the wheel cross is common among Egyptian Copts as well, and can be seen on many churches in Egypt today. [Illustrations added after original post.] The wheel cross is not an obvious derivation of the Christian cross, and many think it is an adaptation of the ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol, so what is it doing on those Irish standing cross towers?

Sure, iconography can repeat itself: both Indians in India and Native Americans used the swastika long before Hitler did, and so on. But the Celtic Cross/Coptic Cross similarity is not the only link. There is pretty decent evidence that Christianity in Ireland, if not immediately derived from Egypt, was closely linked to the Egyptian Church. An ancient litany in the Book of Leinster prays for "the seven holy Egyptian monks, who lie in Desert Ulaidh." The place mentioned is somewhere in Ulster, with many placing it in Antrim: perhaps suggestively, "desert" or "disert" in Irish place names meant a place where monks lived apart from the world as anchorites, modeled on the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. "Ulaidh" just means Ulster.Who these seven holy Egyptian monks were is unclear, but they died in Ulster and were sufficiently venerated to be remembered in a litany.

See also my post on "The Faddan More Psalter: More Evidence of the Coptic Links to Early Irish Christianity," posted about an Irish psalmbook with a cover stiffened with Egyptian papyrus.

St. Mena ampulla, the Louvre
It is often said (I haven't got a firm cite though) that holy water (or holy oil for anointing)  bottles found in Ireland carry the twin-camel emblem associated with the Shrine of Saint Menas (Mina) west of Alexandria. (Menas was one of the major patron saints of Egypt, his shrine a major pilgrimage center, and his cult extended far beyond Egypt.) If so, I don't think the Irish were using local camels as models. While I can't find the specifics on the Irish find, these ampullae of terracotta marked with the emblem of St. Menas have been found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. The photo shows one in the Louvre.

 There are also said to be tombstones in old Irish ogham writing that refer to the burial of so-and-so "the Egyptian." The earliest Irish forms of monasticism included anchorite communities who withdrew from the world and venerated the tradition of Saint Anthony of Egypt; the early Irish church used an Eastern rather than a Western date for Easter; some aspects of ancient Celtic liturgy resemble eastern liturgies, and there are archaeological evidences (mostly probable Egyptian pottery in Ireland and British — Cornish? — tin in Egypt) of trade between Egypt and the British Isles. "Double" monasteries — where a monastery for monks and a convent for nuns were adjacent — first appeared in Egypt, and were common in Ireland. The evidence may be circumstantial, but there's a lot of it.

In the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin there is a pilgrimage guide to the Desert of Scetis, the Egyptian desert region of Coptic monasteries today known as the Wadi Natrun. That, along with the Saint Menas holy water bottles, suggests Irish monks made pilgrimages all the way to Egypt. And obviously those seven holy Egyptian monks in Ulster made the trip the other way.

But do these connections between Egypt and Ireland, tenuous as they may seem, really connect in any way with Saint Patrick, justifying this as a Saint Patrick's Day post? I'm glad you asked.

Saint Patrick's life has been much encrusted with mythology (the snakes, the Shamrock, etc.) and all we can really say for certain is what he himself told us in his autobiographical Confession: he was born somewhere on the western coast of Roman Britain (so the Apostle of Ireland was British, but before there was such a thing as an Englishman since the Angles and Saxons were not yet present: he probably spoke old British, an ancestor of Welsh), was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland, later escaped and joined the church, and returned as the apostle of Ireland. But very ancient biographies (though not his own autobiographical account, one of the few vernacular Latin works to survive from the period) say that he studied for the priesthood at the Abbey of Lérins off the south coast of France. This was a Mediterranean island abbey much influenced by the church of Egypt and the rule of Saint Anthony of Egypt, and according to some accounts, many Coptic monks were present there. There's no certainty that Patrick ever studied there, but then, he studied somewhere, and this is the only place claimed by the early accounts. So Patrick himself may have had direct links to the Egyptian church. (And remember that until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD — by which time Patrick was already a bishop in Ireland, himself dying in 461 by most accounts — the Coptic Church and the rest of Christendom were still in full communion.)

There may be even more to it than this. A few linguists believe that the Celtic languages, though Indo-European in their basic structure, have a "substratum" of some previous linguistic element that is not found in other Indo-European languages, only in Celtic, but some aspects of which are also found in Afro-Asiatic languages, particularly Berber and Egyptian (of which Coptic, of course, is the late form). I'm certainly not qualified to judge such linguistically abstruse theories, and know neither Irish nor Coptic, and they seem to have little to do with the question of Egyptian-Irish Christian influences. But it helps remind us that the ancient world was more united by the sea than divided by it, and that the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia.

While the links are tenuous, they appear to be real. Irish historians accept some level of Egyptian influence in the Christianization of Ireland, and Coptic historians love to dwell on the subject, since it lets them claim a link to the earliest high Christian art and culture of Western Europe. If Irish monasticism preserved the heritage of the ancient world and rebuilt the West after the barbarian invasions, and if the Irish church is a daughter of the Egyptian church, then the West owes more to Egypt than most would imagine.

I first heard a discussion of this in a presentation by the Coptic Church's bishop in charge of ecumenical outreach, Bishop Samweel, back in the early 1970s. I later ran across several references to it in British orientalist literature (Stanley Lane-Poole seems to have been particularly fond of it, and I think he places Desert Ulaidh near Carrickfergus), and continue to find it intriguing, if never quite clear enough to nail down precisely.

Bishop Samweel, mentioned above, met an unfortunate end by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the way. When Anwar Sadat deposed Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 1981, Sadat named Samweel — considered one of the Coptic church's leading figures after Shenouda — head of a council of bishops to run the church while the Patriarch was in exile. Due to this appointment, Bishop Samweel was seated on the reviewing stand behind Sadat on October 6, 1981, and died in the volley of fire which killed the President.

Like much of the earliest history of any culture or country, the links between Irish and Egyptian Christianity are fairly well-delineated but their precise origins are untraceable, but tantalizing. Since this is little known to most Westerners or even to Egyptians who aren't Copts, it seemed appropriate to mention it on Saint Patrick's Day.

Erin go bragh. Misr Umm al-Dunya

Monday, March 16, 2015

On Election Eve: Zionist Union Leading Likud, but Forming a Coalition May Be Another Matter

The Israeli elections are tomorrow. I haven't been blogging the campaign given the extensive number of Israeli English-language news sites, but I guess I need to go on the record before the vote.

The trick of course is that Israeli political maneuvering really begins after the votes are counted. No party has ever won a majority in the history of the state. The party that wins the most votes will be invited to form a government first. But that doesn't guarantee governance. In 2009 Tzipi Livni's (then) Kadima won more Knesset seats than Netanyahu's Likud, but could not put together a majority while Bibi could. (In 2013 Netanyahu and Likud ran more strongly but it still took time to hammer out a coalition.)

This year, Likud faces a stong challenge from a revitalized Labor Party, under Yitzhak (or Isaac) Herzog, in alliance with Tzipi Livni's current party, Hatnua, running together as the Zionist Union. Herzog, son of Chaim Herzog, onetime general, spokesman, and President of Israel. (The younger Herzog's family tree is fascinating too: Chaim was born in  Ireland of Polish ancestry and his wife in Egypt of Russian ancestry.)

Israeli laaw forbids polling in the last five days of a campaign, so the last published polls were dated last Friday. Most of hese showed the Zionist Union leading by about four seats over Likud, mostly in the range of 26-22 or 25-21. Likud's vote is expected to decline from 2013. If the actual vote bears that out, Herzog will likely have the first chance to form a government. He will have 28 days to do that and can ask for a 14-day extension for a total of 42. After that, Netanyahu would be offered the chance.

I'll offer my own speculations here, but note this piece in the pro-Herzog Haaretz arguing he can't make the math work; but see also this piece in The Forward that argues it's difficult but not impossible,

Though the polls indicate that many voters are disillusioned and tired of Netanyahu, and running second will be a blow to his prestige, don't count him out. Offering Herzog the first opportunity to forge a coalition is one thing, but as with Livni in 2009, actually putting together 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset is quite another matter.

Neither Herzog nor Netanyahu is likely to favor a National Unity Government including both parties (and ensuring policy paralysis) unless no other result is possible, so each of the two will be scrambling to put together a coalition for themselves and cut deals which will block their rival from forming one.

This where the math gets tricky for Herzog. The quirks of Israeli politics mean that in practice, not all parties elected are available for coalition building. Longstanding tradition holds that Zionist parties not build a coalition that depends for its majority on non-Zionist Communist and Arab parties. (There have been moments when a minority government held on to power because those parties did not vote no confidence, but they are not included in coalition-building.) Those parties are running this time as the United List, and this time around they have repeatedly asserted that they will not join any coalition. As of the end of polling most polls listed them as likely winning around 13 seats. If they do it would mean that 13 of the 120 seats are effectively out of play for coalition building. or a little over 10% of the Knesset. (And if Herzog did break with tradition and somehow persuaded them to join, two improbabilities to start with, he'd lose the ability to include the religious parties.)

The parties to the right of Likud, notably Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beteinu and Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home (HaBayit HaYehudi) will be off the table for bargaining with Herzog. His most natural allies would be Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and the leftist Meretz, but these are fiercely secularist parties and would not play well with the religious  parties, mainly the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism, and perhaps Yachad. (For years, coalitions depended on the moderate, Orthodox but non-haredi National Religious Party as a key element, but its linear descendant Jewish Home under Naftali Bennett makes Netanyahu look like a peacenik.) The new Kulanu Party might be persuaded to join as well. But several of these parties might be more natural partners for Likud.

So Herzog (assuming he wins more seats than Netanyahu) faces the quandary Livni did in 2009 when she failed to form a coalition: of the limited Lego blocks available for coalition building,  many do not all play well together. Add Meretz, lose Shas, and so on.

The electoral "threshold" is currently set at 3.25%, which translates roughly into four seats in he Knesset. Parties winning below the threshold have their votes distributed proportionally among the parties above the threshold, but some parties have vote-sharing agreements, and it can take several days to sort out the precise final distribution. Once that number is finalized (well, even before), the smaller potential partners start making demands and extracting promises from the two big blocs.

So tomorrow's vote is not the finish line but the starting gun. The campaign is over; let the wheeling and dealing begin!

And since it's also Saint Patrick's Day, watch the returns in an Irish pub. (actually I never go to an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day; too many people who are only Irish once a year.)

More on the South Arabian Language Soqotri

Last year I blogged about "The Endangered South Arabian Languages of Oman and Yemen." These languages are quite distinct from Arabic, belonging to a different branch of the Semitic subfamily of Afro-Asiatic, and are actually coser to the Ethiopian languages.

For more, see my earlier post. But here's a piece from Al Jazeera about one of them, Soqotri, (which the article spells Socotri), spoken on Yemen's island of Soqotra. Because of itsinsular loction, it is the most distinctive of the Modern South Arabian language, with little mutual intelligibility with the others.

The article deals with the work of Russian linguists who began to study Soqotri during the era of Soviet influence in South Yemen. It adds some color to my earlier post, from which I take a map and a video of Soqotri poetry:



Wikipedia

Egypt's New Capital, Continued: A Response to Fahmy

Egypt's ambitious plans for a new capital are continuing to spur controversy. I cited Khaled Fahmy's critical post in CairObserver, "Chasing Mirages in the Desert,"  in my original posting on Friday, so it seems only fair to also cite a rebuttal by Khaled Tarabieh at the same site, "Finding Hope in the Desert."

Friday, March 13, 2015

Egypt Unveils Plan for "New Capital City" East of Cairo

Locator map from the website
To accompany the launch of a much awaited economic development conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt unveiled plans for a "new capital city" and administrative center to be located to the east of the existing metropolis. The website is here.

The idea to create a new government center outside the center city has been discussed for some time, but this is the first time details have been released. The new capital city would continue the expansion of the metropolitan area further eastward into the eastern desert, at a point midway between the core city and the Suez Canal. As the map show, it would lie to the east of New Cairo, a satellite city developed since the early 2000s and home to AUC and other universities, sporting clubs, etc.

Many urbanologists have criticized the growth of satellite cities since the 1980s as encouraging the segregation and isolation of political and economic elites in gated communities far from the urban core, which is bypassed by a growing number of ring roads and bypasses.

A Dubai in the desert?
The publicity claims that the new capital will be a city of five million with a diversity of land use and employment. This post at CairoScene and this one at Egyptian Streets take fairly positive approaches, largely repeating the official publicity.

But not everybody is on board. At the always interesting CairObserver, AUC historian Khaled Fahmy's sharp critique is unsparing:
The website also links to Capital City Partners, a private real estate investment fund led by Emirati Mohamed Alabbar. Alabbar is one of the main advisors of Muhammad bin Rashed al Maktoum, the governor of Dubai. He is also CEO of Emaar, a leading construction firm which built the iconic Burj Khalifa in Dubai and which already has extensive business in Egypt.
I won’t dwell on the fascination with Dubai as a model for urban development and how unsuitable this model is for Egypt whose GDP per capita is 8% of that of the UAE. Nor will I dwell on the deep political and social inequalities that lie beneath the glittering veneer of Dubai, and the serious political implications that this model bodes for the new proposed capital of Egypt. I also won’t dwell on the meaning and significance of announcing such a momentous decision not in front of parliament (for we have no such institution due to a legal fracas that delayed the elections to an unspecified future date) and not to the local media (despite the fact that whatever independence this media might have once enjoyed has evaporated in thin air), but to a group of word leaders and foreign investors who claim to be  “focus[ing] on efforts to promote shared prosperity in Egypt and the region” (in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry).
I just wonder what will happen to Cairo, Egypt’s capital for more than a thousand years? What will happen to the metropolis that is home to close to 20 million inhabitants? Where do they fit in the government’s plans for the new capital? The website says that it is hoped that the new city will attract 5 million inhabitants when it is finished. Assuming that the aim of building a new administrative capital is to alleviate the pressure from downtown Cairo where the majority of government offices are located, and assuming, for argument’s sake, that the 5 million inhabitants will actually be moved from overcrowded city, what will happen to the rest of us?
But do read the whole piece, "Chasing Mirages in the Desert."

I will also look forward to seeing how David Sims, whose new book, Egypt's Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? was recently published by AUC Press, reacts to these plans. I haven't read the new book, but he summarized it in this interview last month.

(For my appreciation of Sims' earlier book, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, see my 2011 post on essential readings on Cairo.) 

I imagine I and others will have more to say about this in coming days.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Now, Khorsabad as Well?

The Iraqi government is now claiming that ISIS has now begun destroying the ruins of the Assyrian city of Khorsabad (Dur al-Sharrrukin) as well.

Again, there are only the government reports. The city was founded by Sargon II (722-705 BC) as his capital, but abandoned undwer his successor Sennacherib, who ruled from Nineveh instead.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

White House Marks Nowruz Early

Ten days early, the White House has celebrated Nowruz.

Note midway through, the First Lady (or her speechwriter) explains the haft sin to a crowd that presumably already knew what it was.

I wonder if the early marking of Nowruz had anything to do with the Republican letter to Iran?

ISIS Now Said to Destroy 10th Century Monastery

The latest atrocity attributed to the "Islamic State" (which I still call ISIS as I consider them neither Islamic nor a state, and it gives me some satisfaction to refer to these destroyers of "idols" by the name of an Egyptian mother goddess) — though perhaps I should follow John Kerry's lead and use the Arabic acronym Da‘ish since it appears to really anger them — is that in addition to destroying the ruins of Nineveh, Nimrud, and now reportedly Hatra, they have also reportedly demolished the Monastery of Mar Girguis (Saint George) just north of Mosul.

AINA website photo from Wikipedia
This is a 10th century foundation, much rebuilt however; it was founded as a monastery of the Assyrian Church of the East and is now a Chaldean Catholic monastery and seminary.

I would add one word of caution. There were reports last year that it had been destroyed, which proved unfounded, and the source is still coming from the Iraqi government. On the other hand, some previous unfounded reports of ISIS depredations have merely proven to be premature, and they soon get around to it.

Afternoon Map's WWI Collection

The Afternoon Map cartography blog from the Ottoman History podcast has assembled a collection of "A Cartographic Companion to World War One in the Ottoman Lands," collecting various maps they've run through the years relating to the War and its subsequent regional settlement. Do take a look.