A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 31, 2017

The First Battle of Gaza, Part II: Snatching Defeat from Victory

It has been a week (because I was down with a bug and on deadline) since I published Part I on the First Battle of Gaza. If you haven't already read that post, I would urge you to do so today before reading this one.

The main events of the battle took place on March 26, 1916, with some final movements the next day so we're slightly past the 100th anniversary.

By the morning of the 26th, the British were deployed for attack. As noted in Part I, the British lines were extended along the coast as the rail and water lines advanced. This left their right flank hanging in the air and vulnerable to an attack from the Ottoman forces at Beersheba. To protect his flanks and secure his lines of communication General Sir Charles Dobell, Commander of the Eastern Force, kept significant forces around Rafa and elsewhere along the line. (For the dramatis personae, see Part I.)

The British plan of attack called for a frontal assault by infan try to seize Gaza before the Turkish garrison could withdraw, The frontal assault would be carried out by the 53rd (Welsh) Division  and one brigade from the 52nd (East Anglian) Division.Meanwhile the ANZAC Mounted Division and the Imperial Mounted Division would envelop the Turkish line and hold off any attempts to reinforce the garrison by Turkish troops from Beersheba or Jaffa. The Turkish defenders were already 4,000, while the British expected only 2,000.

The infantry attack met with stiff resistance; the Turks were well-dug in and the arid terrain provided open fields of fire. Adding to the British problems, a heavy fog set in before dawn, preventng visual reconnoitering of the Turkish lines.

The infantry attack, delayed by the fog and a generally slow start had as its initial objective the shrine of ‘Ali Muntar. But difficult communications between 53rd Division Commander Maj. Gen. A.G. Dallas and Desert Column Commander General Sir Philip Chetwode created much confusion, as did delays in bringing up the artillery and a failure to register the artillery on the Turkish lines.

bell and Chetwode sent Dallas his orders to launch his attack; orders were sent at 11, again at 11:30, and with increasing urgency at noon. Still without adequate artillery, Dallas finally attacked.n

The infantry assault did eventually make progress, reaching the Turkish defenses around ‘Ali Muntar.
They captured German and Austrian troops as  well as Ottoman.
Situation 2:00 PM
Meanwhile, Chetwode named Harry Chauvel of the ANZAC Mounted Division to command both it and the Imperial Mounted Division for the day. The Imperials were to patrol the approaches in the east to block reinforcements, while the ANZACs attacked Gaza from the north.

Dobell and Chetwode were increasingly worried, however, that Gaza would not be taken before dark due to the morning delays, and that the British right flank might be vulnerable to an attack in the darkness.

By 5:30 PM. the Infantry had finally taken ‘Ali Muntar, wile to the north, the ANZACs managed to actually enter the town of Gaza. By a bit after 6:00 PM. the British Empire forces seemed to be nearly victorious.
Situation 6;00 PM
Ottoman reinforcements had meanwhile arrived on the east in the afternoon, further raising concerns.

Sunset on March 26 was expected at 6:00 PM. Neither Dobell nor Chetwode yet knew that the infantry had taken ‘Ali Muntar.

At 6:10 PM, Chetwode, after consulting with Dobell, ordered the withdrawal of the mounted divisions. Even when he learned the British position was better than he realized, he did not change his position.

And thus, not for the first time, caution and bad intelligence managed to snatch defeat from the very jaws of victory.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Yesterday's Arab Summit

Yesterday's Arab League Summit in Jordan, like most Arab Summits, was fairly unnewsworthy, reiterating its support for the Saudi peace plan. It did, however, begin with Lebanese President Michel ‘Aoun tripping and falling:

After that, this viral montage shows the exciting conference itself:

Monday, March 27, 2017

What Economic Crisis? Egypt Now Has an Indoor Ski Slope

When I first lived in Egypt 45 years ago, there was still at least a pretense of being an "Arab socialist" society, the legacy of the Nasser era.

That was then.  This month, though Egypt's per capita GDP hovers around $3000, Egypt became the first country in Africa to have an indoor ski slope.

It is also only the second indoor ski slope in the Middle East, after (where else?) Dubai. Of course there are real ski slopes in Lebanon and Morocco, but they aren't inside mega-malls.

The just opened Mall of Egypt, built and owned by a Dubai (surprised?) development group, is unlikely to attract ordinary, non-elite Egyptians. It is in 6 October City. a "satellite city" in the Western Desert edge of Greater Cairo, accessible mostly by private car.

See the website here.

Part II is Coming

I've been down with a bug; Part II of the post on the First Battle of Gaza will be up soon.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The First Battle of Gaza, 1917: Part I: Opening Moves

The next few days will see the 100th anniversary of the First Battle of Gaza, the opening clash of the Palestine Campaign in World War This will be a multi-part post.

We saw in January how the Sinai campaign ended with the Battle of Rafah and the retreat of the Ottomans behind their own frontier.

The advance across Sinai had been slow, as the British had to extend their railway line and a freshwater pipeline as they advanced. Initially, the British Commander in Egypt, Sir Archibald Murray, intended to proceed slowly, but after a meeting between the British and French, it was decided to advance on multiple fronts; Maude's advance on Baghdad was one; Murray was ordered to move on Gaza, while other advances were launched on the Western and Macedonian Fronts. The February Revolution in Russia had undercut the Eastern Front. By March, the rail line had reached Khan Yunis, and the Turks were entrenched south of Gaza.

Murray (Seven Pillars)
By advancing along the coast to Gaza, the British avoided the main Ottoman concentration around Beersheba (where the Turkish railway ran) and allowed for naval resupply. The plan was to seek to capture the Gaza garrison by a single stroke, using the mounted to envelop the town and screen against Turkish reinforcements.

Murray entrusted command of the operation to the Commander of his Eastern Force, Sir Charles Dobell, a Canadian. Dobell in turn entrusted the main effort to the highly mobile Desert Column, consisting of the ANZAC Mounted Division, the Imperial Mounted Division, the Imperial Camel Corps, and the 53rd Welsh Division.

The plan was to advance the rail line to the Wadi Ghazzeh, which cuts as a deep ravine a few miles south of Gaza. A network of ravines around the wadi made the land difficult to pass and the open, barren country south of the town gave a lack of cover and a clear field of fire to the Turkish defenders in their trenches. (See the map at bottom.)

The Desert Column was commanded by General Sir Philip Chetwode.

The defending forces were under the command of General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, the German Chief of Staff to Turkish Fourth Army Commander Djemal (Cemal) Pasha.

Kress von Kressenstein
As already noted, the main German concentrations were around Beersheba. In the advance on Gaza, Dobell estimated there were only 2,000 defenders in Gaza; the British had a total force of 22,000. In fact there were already 4,000 defenders, with reinforcements on the way.

In the open, arid country, both sides were able to use aircraft to good effect; the British made bombing raids on Beersheba and a rail junction through February and March, and both sides flew reconnaissance missions.
Bombing raid on Gaza..

The British appear, in retrospect, to have underestimated not just the Turkish numbers but also their morale. Unlike the advance across Sinai, Gaza was clearly Ottoman territory, and in both the First and Second Battles of Gaza, the British would fail, at least in part due to a precipitate retreat.

More to come.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Nowruz Mobarak

The Haft Sin
The Ancient Persian New Year, Nowruz, is not just an Iranian holiday marking the Spring Equinox, but one celebrated by a broad swath of countries from the Balkans to Central Asia. I have dealt with many aspects of the tradition in my previous posts through the years, so I will refer you to those posts for for details of the traditional feast.

Friday, March 17, 2017

If It's Saint Patrick's Day, It's Time for My Annual Post on the Links between Coptic Egypt and Early Irish Christianity

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Saudi Council for Girls Founded

You've probably seen this already, but here it is again:
  "Saudi Arabia launches girls' council - without any girls."

Ursula Lindsey on Egypt's "New Capital"

 I think I've been fairly clear (see here and here) that I'm pretty dubious, if not downright cynical, about Egypt's "new administrative capital," the waterless, public-transportless city supposed to sprout in the desert east of Cairo, where greenery and high rises will allow the government to function in splendid isolation without poverty, congestion, or poor people. In the two years since this new Xanadu was announced, its original Emirati patrons have bailed out, as has one of its two Chinese corporate rescuers.

I've quoted other doubters before, such as urban planner David Sims, and now we have a detailed, sustained indictment of this money pit/mirage from Ursula Lindsey, who lived in Cairo for years, including the revolutionary years, and is now living in Morocco. Her article, "The Anti-Cairo," the subtitle of which is "Egypt’s military regime is building a new capital city in the desert, where the “People’s Piazza” will be a pale shadow of Tahrir Square."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Chaharshanbe Suri

Fire-jumping (Wikipedia)
Tonight is the eve of the Wednesday before Nowruz, known as Chaharshanbe Suri, "Red Wednesday," an ancient Iranian fire festival marking the waning days of the old year. Celebrated in the same broad areas historically influenced by Persian culture, from Turkey and Kurdistan to India and Central Asia. Celebrations include fire-jumping. Greetings to all who celebrate, as well as early Nowruz wishes a few days early.

Friday, March 10, 2017

March 10-11, 1917: General MaudeTakes Baghdad

Following the Second Battle of Kut, in February, the renewed British advance on Baghdad paused
only briefly. General Frederick Maude (who had been the last man off the beach at Gallipoli), continuing to show far more speed than his predecessors, advanced to ‘Aziziyya, paused there, and on March 5 began his final approach to Baghdad.

The British had been uncertain about the value of taking Baghdad due to its limited strategic value but eventually saw it as a symbolic goal; in addition it was seen as a way to close a pincer on the Turks with British advances from Baghdad and Russia pushing south from Mosul. That was not to be: at this same moment the February (March New Style) Revolution was under way in Petrograd.

Khalil Pasha
The defense of Baghdad was commanded by the hero of the 1916 victory at Kut, Khalil Pasha, who was the uncle of Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha and was both governor of Baghdad and Commander of the Ottoman Sixth Army. After the war he would take the surname Kut from his victory and be known under the Turkish Republic as Halil Kut. He had the Turkish XIII and XVIII Corps defending the Baghdad region.

Maude marched his main force up the east bank of the Tigris, arriving March 8 at the banks of its big tributary the Diyala. With the Turks defending the opposite banks of the Diyala, Maude moved most of his force downstream and crossed to the west bank of the Tigris. Detecting the movement (both sides had aircraft now with Germans flying for the Turks), Khalil moved most of his force to the west bank, leaving one regiment on the Diyala. The British soon pushed this aside, and Khalil, facing British advances on both banks, resolved on a retreat from Baghdad. By the evening of March 10, the Ottoman evacuation of Baghdad was under way, with no major battle having been fought.

On the next day, March 11, the British and Indian forces entered Baghdad. The northward advance would be put on hold after Baghdad as the war unfolded on other fronts. Photo of Maude entering Baghdad on March 11, 1917:

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Conquest of Western Mosul Gathers Speed

In the past two days, Iraqi Security Forces and their allies have made significant advances against Islamic State forces in western Mosul. Reports suggest senior IS leaders have already left Mosul for Raqqa. Although there is a sense of collapsing resistance, the narrow streets of the old city could still provide ample opportunity for hard fighting.

As the two maps below indicate, after crossing the Tigris and seizing the airport, Iraqi forces have steadily advanced northward, and have now taken the government center. Though the advance may slow in the old city, a key symbolic target will likely be the Great Mosque, where IS "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was proclaimed. Baghdadi is believed to have fled, perhaps to Raqqa, where allied forces are already maneuvering for the final assault.
Institute for the Study of War
Iraqi Joint Operations Command

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Bouteflika's 80th Birthday Passed, With No Sign of Bouteflika

On March 3, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika turned 80 years old. He made no public appearances. Recall that a few weeks ago, Bouteflika canceled a visit by Angela Merkel because he had bronchitis (or perhaps "bronchitis").

This time there was no mention of bronchitis to explain Bouteflika's nonappearance; appearances have been rare since his stroke in 2013 (despite election to another term after that), and when he is seen, he is wheelchair-bound.

The ruling FLN Party has announced that Bouteflika is fine. Any questions?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Blog on All Things Libyan

I've just encountered (though it seems to have been around since 2015), a blog on all things Libyan, with an eclectic mix of cultural, social, linguistic, and historical posts. Called The Silphium Gatherer (which may be why I didn't find it sooner), and including at least some material in Arabic, its "About" page explains its purpose:
The Silphium Gatherer is a blog focusing on scholarship of Libya in as many fields as possible, including but not limited to: arts, ethnography, histories, linguistics, literature, music, and urban studies. Most blogposts will be in the form of bibliographic references with a brief description of the study, and links where possible. Longer posts, announcements of events and exhibits, and the odd commentary will also occasionally appear. The curator of this blog is Adam Benkato.
Silphium was a plant produced in ancient Libya and prized for its medicinal benefits—as Libya is the least studied of North African countries, new, unique, and critical research is the ‘silphium’ of modern Libya…
This blog is motivated by the recognition of the need to put Libya on the map in a number of academic disciplines. It will therefore gather resources, link to publications, make older or inaccessible sources available, and above all draw attention to what studies do exist and should be more well known. It will be bilingual as often as possible.
 By all means dip in and sample it. It draws from multiple disciplines.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tables Turned: Will Civilians in Western Mosul Fare Better than Civilians in Eastern Aleppo?

The US and Western Allies were highly outspoken about the siege and bombing of civilians as Syrian regime forces closed in on eastern Aleppo, barring relief convoys and barrel-bombing civilian neighborhoods.

Now we may be witnessing a looking-glass parallel as another major urban area faces a potential siege and house-to-house fighting as another major city, Mosul, faces an offensive by the Iraqi Army and its Iranian and Shi‘ite militia allies, backed by US Special Forces and air power.

I am not suggesting an equivalency, moral, military or otherwise, but conquering a densely populated city where defenders are prepared to fight house by house and street by street is no easy matter, and even if we assume that "our" side is above such things, given the motley crew of "allies," including Iranian Guards Corps units, casualties may be high.

I merely raise the issue.