Pages

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Megali Idea and the Balkan Wars

In 1844, during the debate for the promulgation of the Greek constitution, Prime Minister Ioannis Kolettis, who had played a significant role in Greek independence, coined the phrase “Megali Idea” (Great Idea), which envisaged the restoration of the Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire, under the leadership of the Greeks. This restored kingdom would occupy the lands that the Byzantine Empire occupied at its zenith. Constantinople would be its capital.

Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Greek thinkers remained hopeful that the Byzantine Empire would be restored some day. During the eight-year Greek war of independence from Ottoman rule (1821 to 1828), the Megali Idea was a major inspiration. The slogan, “Once more, as years and time go by, once more they shall be ours,” was popular among the Greek revolutionaries, who believed that once Greece became independent, their national priority would be to use their national resources to restore the former Byzantine Empire.

In the first Balkan war of the twentieth century, the Greeks, in league with three other Orthodox Kingdoms of the region, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro, came close to occupying Constantinople. The four kingdoms were former colonies of the Ottoman Empire. They formed the Balkan League and declared war on their former colonial master on October 8, 1912.

The Ottoman elite could not believe that they were being attacked by their former vassal states. They thought that they would easily destroy the Balkan League and reestablish their colonial power over them. But there was an unexpected outcome in the military engagement that followed. Within ten days of the conflict, the Ottoman army began to collapse. The Balkan League managed to kill 35,000 soldiers, a third of the army that the Ottomans had put on the ground, and they made deep incursions inside Ottoman territory.

The Greeks managed to capture important ports and they sank several Ottoman warships, which meant that the Ottomans had no means of transferring their army from Libya to the Balkans. The fortress city of Edirne was besieged by the Bulgarian forces and they were just 25 miles from Constantinople. By January 1913, the Ottomans had lost 83 percent of their European territory and 70 percent of their European population. The shocking defeat of the Ottoman Army by its former colonies caused chaos in Constantinople. There were protests against the government for mismanaging the Balkan conflict and causing a great humiliation to the Sultan and the Empire.

On January 23, 1913, there was a Young Turk coup led by Enver Pasha in Constantinople. The Minister for War was killed for his mismanagement of the Balkan War which led to the Ottoman defeat, and the government of Grand Vizier Kâmil Pasha was overthrown. The power in the Ottoman Empire passed into the hands of the military hardliners of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

The Balkan League could not make further progress inside the Ottoman Empire because differences emerged among them regarding the sharing of the spoils, particularly Macedonian territory. Bulgaria took its attention away from the Ottoman Empire and attacked its former allies, Greece and Serbia on 16 June 1913. This was the Second Balkan War. Romania, which had its own grievances against Bulgaria, joined the war on the side of Greece and Serbia.

Bulgaria was decisively defeated in the Second Balkan War which lasted for six weeks (June 29 to August 10, 1913). But this war gave the Ottoman Empire, now under the CUP, the opportunity to take back some of the territory that it had lost in the First Balkan War. Thrace and Edirne went back to the Ottomans. The Treaty of Constantinople brought the Second Balkan War to an end. But neither side was happy with the territories that it had and new wars were inevitable.

During the First World War that followed, there were large-scale genocides against the Greeks (and the Armenians) in Asia Minor and several other parts of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the war, more than million Greeks had fled from the Ottoman lands to Greece and other places in Europe. 

In May 1919, the Greek army landed in Smyrna, and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 began. The Greeks quickly took control of the western and northwestern part of Anatolia, including a number of major cities. It seemed that they were on the verge of conquering all of Anatolia. But in 1921, the Soviet Union entered the war on the side of the Ottomans, and the Greeks were forced to retreat. There is some evidence to show that the French too were assisting the Ottomans. In August 1922, the Greeks and the civilian population in Smyrna had to flee in whatever boats they could find. The city of Smyrna was burned to ashes by the Ottoman forces.

The Megali idea of restoring the Byzantine Empire was weakened considerably but it did not die with the debacle in the war of 1919 to 1922. The idea is still alive. It continues to inspire some political movements in Greece, though it is no longer a driving force behind Greek foreign policy.

The Three Pashas of the Ottoman Empire

On January 23, 1913, Lieutenant Colonel Enver Bey (who later became famous as Enver Pasha), marched into Constantinople’s Sublime Porte along with ten of his armed supporters, belonging to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). The Grand Vizier’s guards opened fire to stop the intruders, and Enver and his supporters fired back. In the exchange of gunfire, four people, including Nazim Pasha, Minister of War in the Ottoman government, were killed. Some accounts suggest that Nazim Pasha was killed by intention, though the CUP termed Nazim Pasha’s death a "regrettable accident.” 

Enver and his men stormed into the cabinet meeting where Grand Vizier Kâmil Pasha was holding a cabinet meeting. Enver pressed his pistol at Kâmil Pasha’s head and asked him to resign. Kâmil Pasha complied immediately. “It was over in a quarter of an hour,” said Enver later. With the Grand Vizier’s resignation in his pocket, Enver marched to the palace of Sultan Mehmed V. The Sultan accepted the resignation and nominated a new Grand Vizier, Mahmud Sevket Pasha. But the real power went into the hands of CUP—their three members, Enver Pasha, Cemal Pasha, and Talaat Pasha, would now rule as a triumvirate which would be known in the Ottoman Empire and Europe as the “Three Pashas.” Their policies would determine the fate of the Ottoman Empire. 

With the coup of 1913, the chance of constitutional reform in the Ottoman Empire was finished. The Three Pashas were hardliners. The notion of negotiating with the great European powers was an anathema to them. They would fight for every inch of land belonging to the Ottoman Empire. The entry of the Ottoman Empire into the First World War was now inevitable. From 1911 to 1922, the Ottoman Empire was almost continuously at war, so their period of war was almost twice as long as the duration of the First World War. Enver, as Minister of War, and Talaat, as Minister of Finance, became the architects of the fatal German-Ottoman alliance which would lead to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. 

Enver was an admirer of Napoleon. He thought of himself as the Napoleon of the Ottoman Empire. But he was a poor political strategist. He took his country to a point of no return. He got tricked by the Germans into prematurely rushing into the First World War when the Ottoman army was not fully armed and mobilized, and was ill prepared to fight a modern, total war, against two great powers, the British and the Russians. But he was an inspiring wartime leader—his order to his army was “war till the final victory.” 

In 1914, the Ottoman army had 250,000 soldiers, which is a fairly high number considering the fact that the population of the Empire was 23 million. During the course of the war, around 2.8 million men served under arms—more than 10 percent of the population—but the number of soldiers did not exceed 800,000 at any one time. They fought with great ferocity because they realized that they were engaged in a life and death struggle. The Ottoman government and their soldiers had gambled everything that they had into winning the war. The fighting in the Caucasus was brutal with massive genocides occurring alongside the war against the Russians. When the war ended, the Ottomans had lost about 325,000 men and 400,000 were injured. 202,000 men were taken prisoner, mostly by the British and the Russians.

The Three Pashas died before the Ottoman Empire died. Enver Pasha was killed by Red Army troops in 1922. Talaat Pasha was assassinated in 1921. Cemal Pasha was assassinated in 1922. Along with Talaat and Cemal, Enver is one of the principal accused in the Ottoman genocides in which close to two million people were slaughtered.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Russian Dream of Constantinople

In 1914, it was clear that the demise of the Ottoman Empire was imminent. For Tsar Nicholas II and his government, the top priority was to take control of Constantinople in the name of Orthodox Christianity. The Russians were also intent on taking control of the straits which connected the Russian Black Sea ports to the Mediterranean. 

After the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Russia saw itself as the new Roman Empire and the guardian of Orthodox Christianity. Constantinople became a Russian dream—the city was venerated in Russia as the Orthodox Holy Land and the center of Russian power. In 1472, Ivan III (Ivan the Great) married Sophia Palaiologina, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine Palaiologos, and assumed the Byzantine double headed eagle as Russia’s symbol. 

Peter the Great annexed several territories from the Ottomans between 1685 and 1711. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea and Kabardia in 1787. She wanted to march to Constantinople but she was stopped by the British, French, and other European nations that were opposed to Russian possession of Constantinople. During Catherine’s victory procession in Crimea in 1787, a triumphal arch declared, “This is the way to Constantinople.” 

Russia was at war with the Ottomans throughout the nineteenth century. The Russians helped the Greek revolutionaries to free their country from Ottoman Rule in 1829. In 1828 and then 1829, the Russians were on the verge of taking Constantinople, but both bids failed due to military miscalculations. In the Russo-Turkish engagement of 1877 and 1878, Russia played a critical role in freeing Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. But Russia’s movement towards Constantinople was thwarted by the European powers, mainly Britain and France. 

In 1914, Tsar Nicholas II was convinced that he would achieve the five hundred year old Russian dream of occupying Constantinople for Orthodox faith. The Russian Council of Ministers met in February 1914 to discuss the conquest of Constantinople and the straits. They decided that the most opportune time for taking possession of these territories would be the European war which was then looming large. In April 1914, Nicholas II approved the recommendations of his cabinet. He ordered the creation of a force which would occupy Constantinople and the straits. 

The leaders of the Ottoman Empire knew about the threat that they faced from Russia. But this time, they could not rely on the British and the French to be their savior. Those two powers were now bound to Russia by a mutual defense treaty. The problem was that the Ottomans lacked the military strength to defend Constantinople and the straits. They needed to find a European power that would come to their aid in case of a Russian attack. With Britain and France on the Russian side, Germany was the only option left for the Ottomans. 

On 22 July 1914, Enver Pasha, Ottoman Minister of War, proposed an Ottoman-German alliance to the German ambassador in Constantinople. Initially the Ottoman proposal was rejected, but with the intervention of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German government accepted the Ottoman proposal on August 1, four days after the First World War had begun. In 1918, the German side lost the war. The Ottoman Empire was broken up in November 1922. But Constantinople was safe from the Russians, because there was a Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. 

If the government of Tsar Nicholas II had not been overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution, then the Russians would have realized their five hundred year old dream of occupying Constantinople. The possession of Constantinople would have made Russia the center of Orthodox faith, and a sea power. Reflecting on the Bolshevik Revolution years later, Winston Churchill said: “The German leaders turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

Who Wins the Political and Cultural Battles?

From the history of the political and cultural battles in the last 2500 years we learn that when there is a contest between polytheists and monotheists, it is the monotheists who generally prevail. When there is a contest between land based great powers and naval great powers, it is the naval great powers that generally prevail. In the twentieth century, two new kinds of groups have started winning the political and cultural battles—they are the atheists (utopians and nihilists) and the powers which dominate the sky through their missiles, planes, and satellites. In the twenty-first century, another power player has made its debut—the cyber powers which exercise control by weaponizing the flow of information.

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Norman Foes of the Byzantine Empire

The Normans were devout Christians but they have played an important role in weakening the Byzantine Empire. In the early eleventh century, the first Norman groups migrated as pilgrims and mercenaries from France to Italy. Some of these Norman groups managed to distinguish themselves as fearsome warriors and the Christian rulers of southern Italy started using them as mercenary soldiers. Eventually these groups began to create their own fiefdoms in several places and started seeing themselves as free people.  

The first major battle that the Normans fought in southern Italy was the Battle of Civitate in June 1053. They were pitted against the combined forces of the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire. The Normans destroyed the papal army, and captured Pope Leo IX. The Normans kept the Pope in honorable captivity to force him to acknowledge their conquest of Calabria and Apulia. In March 1054, the Pope acknowledged the Norman conquests and he was allowed to go. He did not live long after his return and died on 19 April 1054.

After the Battle of Civitate, Normans became a major power in southern Italy. Robert Gusicard rose to prominence as their leader. Between 1057 and 1059, he became the count of Apulia and Calabria. He was a charismatic leader and he united the Norman factions into a powerful army which could vanquish the Lombard Princes and Byzantine governors. From 1059 to 1085, he was the Duke of Apulia and Calabria and Duke of Sicily.

In her work of history, the Alexiad, Anna Komnene says that Guiscard left Normandy with five mounted riders and thirty followers on foot. After his arrival in Langobardia in 1047, he initially operated as the chief of a roving robber-band. She leaves the following description of Guiscard:

“This Robert was Norman by birth, of obscure origins, with an overbearing character and a thoroughly villainous mind; he was a brave fighter, very cunning in his assaults on the wealth and power of great men; in achieving his aims absolutely inexorable, diverting criticism by incontrovertible argument. He was a man of immense stature, surpassing even the biggest men; he had a ruddy complexion, fair hair, broad shoulders, eyes that all but shot out sparks of fire. In a well-built man one looks for breadth here and slimness there; in him all was admirably well-proportioned and elegant... Homer remarked of Achilles that when he shouted his hearers had the impression of a multitude in uproar, but Robert’s bellow, so they say, put tens of thousands to flight.”

Gusicard began his Sicilian campaigns in 1060. By 1072, he had captured most of Sicily. With the capture of Bari in 1071, he had wiped out all traces of the Byzantine Empire in southern Italy. He fought with the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus in October 1081, at the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Alexius was defeated, and Gusicard took possession of Corfu and Durazzo. He sacked the town of Cannae, but left the Cathedral and the Bishop’s house unharmed.

In June 1083, King of Germany Henry IV besieged Pope Gregory VII in Castel Sant’Angelo. On an earlier occasion, Gregory VII had excommunicated Gusicard for encroaching on papal land, but Gusicard came to the aid of the besieged pope. In March 1084, he marched into Rome with an army of 36,000 soldiers. Henry IV was forced to retreat from Rome. Gusicard’s army sacked the city for three days, and after that he escorted Gregory VII to the papal seat in Rome.

The Normans were responsible for the Great Schism between Latin and Orthodox Christianity. In 1054, before he was captured by the Normans, Pope Leo IX had sent a papal delegation to Constantinople to negotiate an alliance with Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, in view of the Norman attacks in Italy. Monomachos was a weak emperor. He could not decide what action could be taken against the Normans. This led the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople to mutually excommunicate each other, and the Great Schism of 1054 was born. 

Gusicard died in 1085, and was succeeded by Roger Borsa, his son by Sichelgaita. His other son Bohemond, by an earlier wife Alberada De Macon, became the legendary figure of the First Crusade. Bohemond tried to fulfill his father’s dream of conquering the Byzantine Empire, but he was defeated in 1108 by a coalition force of the Venetians and Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus in the battle at Epirus, in south-western Balkans.

Putin’s Dissertation Mirrors His Policy

In his PhD dissertation, Vladimir Putin talks about developing a mineral and raw materials strategy for the Russian economy. As President of Russia, he has managed to implement the central idea of his dissertation by making Russia’s natural resources a vital component of his overall geopolitical strategy. He has weaponized Russia’s oil resources. On several occasions he has tried to coerce Ukraine and the nations in Europe by raising the price of gas and by shutting down the supply. (Some reports have cast doubt on whether Putin himself wrote the dissertation titled, “Mineral and Raw Material Resources and The Development of Strategy for the Russian Economy,” which was submitted to St. Petersburg State Mining University in 1996.)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

America: The New Ottoman Empire

In December 1979, Leonid Brezhnev was told by his policy planners that the Americans were trying to create a “new Ottoman Empire” in the Middle East. The policy planners believed that once the Americans had established their Ottoman Empire, they could take advantage of the political instability in Afghanistan to gain power in that country, which would then become a base for their anti-Soviet missile systems. The Soviet Union did not have an air-defense system in its southern frontier and this meant that the instability in Afghanistan was a threat to the security of the Soviet Union. Two days after his meeting with the policy planners, Brezhnev ordered the invasion of Afghanistan.  On December 24, 1979, Soviet fighter planes, tanks, and 80,000 troops invaded Afghanistan.

There might be some truth in the notion that America was aiming to create a new Ottoman Empire. After the British left the Middle East, between 1945 and 1950, various American governments had invested a massive amount of resources in trying to dominate this region. It was hard to guess what direction the politics of any Middle Eastern country would take—but the American way was to muddle through by playing all the factions. 

President Carter did not trust Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. But in 1980, when Iraq suddenly attacked Iran, Carter’s administration saw it as a blessing. They were convinced that the Iraqi military would weaken the power of the Iranian theocratic regime and that would help in getting the American hostages released. When Reagan became the president in 1981, he started the policy of supporting Iraq through sale of weapons and by bolstering its oil revenues. Then in 1985, he declared that the goal of American policy was to remove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. There was a dramatic escalation in the arms that his administration was providing to the Afghan insurgent groups which were fighting the Soviets. The biggest arms sales to Middle Eastern and Afghan groups in American history have happened during the Reagan administration. 

On November 13, 1986, Reagan made a speech which was probably more shocking to Iraq’s political establishment than to the Americans. He said:

“Iran encompasses some of the most critical geography in the world. It lies between the Soviet Union and access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Geography explains why the Soviet Union has sent an army into Afghanistan to dominate that country and, if they could, Iran and Pakistan. Iran's geography gives it a critical position from which adversaries could interfere with oil flows from the Arab States that border the Persian Gulf. Apart from geography, Iran's oil deposits are important to the long-term health of the world economy.”

Reagan revealed in his speech that something was sent to Iran in a cargo plane—but he did not specify what was sent. He said: "These modest deliveries, taken together, could easily fit into a single cargo plane. They could not, taken together, affect the outcome of the 6-year war between Iran and Iraq nor could they affect in any way the military balance between the two countries.” This speech was the first insight into what would later morph into the Iran-Contra scandal and lead to the indictment of several senior figures in the Regan administration. It soon became clear that not one but several cargo planes with American weaponry had been sent to Iran. The Iraqi leadership was apoplectic. They had been led to believe that they had America’s support in their war against Iran. In their interviews, they said that they had been “stabbed in the back” by the Americans, who have behaved like a “typical imperialist power.”

In February 1989, the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, and on 26 December 1991, the Soviet Union fell. President Bush announced: “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” A few days later, he said, “The world was once divided into two. Now there was one sole preeminent power: the United States of America.” In the 1990s, most politicians and intellectuals failed to notice the weaknesses of the country that had won the Cold War. America could not be the world’s only superpower for too long. Instead of creating a new Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, America had itself become like the Ottoman Empire—its political culture was decadent and ossified. In the twenty-first century, this new Ottoman America is facing challenges from China, Russia, and the Middle East. This time the battleground is America’s own population and territory.

The Aftermath of the Iranian Revolution

With the 1979 revolution in Iran, which led to the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s regime, American policy in the Middle East was in tatters. The USA had lost an important ally against the USSR. The new Iranian government shared with the USSR the details of the military and intelligence gathering technologies that the USA was using in the Middle East—this created a nightmare scenario for the American defense establishment. There was chaos in the world’s oil markets. The price of oil tripled within days of Pahlavi’s flight from Iran. Several service stations across the USA and Europe were shut down due to lack of supplies.

Iran rescinded all the contracts that the Shah regime had signed with companies in Western countries causing a loss of hundreds of billions of dollars to these companies. The British company BP lost forty percent of its oil production after it lost access to the Iranian oilfields. The company was forced to go into a major reorganization. The contracts to build steel factories, airports, ports, power plants, armament industries were cancelled overnight. Orders for purchase of goods and services from the USA were cancelled leaving manufacturers with a large inventory and a big hole in their accounts. The Western governments and the Western companies had gambled heavily on the Shah regime for decades—now the gamble had flopped. 

U.S President Carter had a meeting with German Chancellor Schmidt after the Iranian revolution. Carter called the meeting “one of the worst days of my diplomatic life.” Chancellor Schmidt heaped personal abuses on Carter when they were discussing the Middle East. Schmidt alleged that “American interference [in the Middle East] has caused problems with oil all over the world.” Carter’s political career was gone in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution—his ratings tanked to an unthinkable 28 percent and he lost the election to Ronald Reagan.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

America’s Atoms for Peace Policy

In December 1953, President Eisenhower started a program with a funny name: Atoms for Peace. Under this program, the nations which joined the American coalition against the Soviet Union were given access to Uranium-235 for non-military research and power generation. Several nations were sold American-built reprocessing facilities which could operate a “nuclear fuel cycle” (extract plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel). The American establishment could turn a blind eye as and when it suited their foreign policy objectives. Until the 1980s, the Atoms for Peace program was a component of the American Cold War strategy for incentivizing friendly nations. 

Iran, then under the leadership of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the last Shah of Iran), was a beneficiary of the Atoms for Peace program. In 1974, the USA sold two reactors and enriched uranium to Iran. In 1975, the agreement with Iran was expanded to include the option to purchase eight more reactors from the United States and sufficient amounts of uranium at a standard price. The intelligence reports of that period declared that Iran was in an early stage of developing nuclear weapons, but the deal was not annulled since the American administration had faith in the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Kissinger referred to Pahlavi as a “man of extraordinary ability and knowledge.”

The nuclear reactor that Iraq had acquired from the Soviet Union went critical in 1967. Pakistan conducted a covert nuclear underground test in the 1970s. In 1976, Kissinger accepted that the American sale of nuclear material was a disaster. In a State Department meeting, he said, “I have endorsed it, but in any region you look at, it is a fraud. We are the only country which is fanatical and unrealistic enough to do things which are contrary to our national interests.” Seeing the proliferation of nuclear material in the Middle East, Israel invested in its own nuclear program. At the time of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel had thirteen nuclear devices.

Dostoevsky: On Russia’s Asian Future

Fyodor Dostoevsky wanted Russia to leave Europe and embrace Asia. In his political essay, “What is Asia to Us?”, he opined that it was important for Russia to free itself from Western Imperialism. He wrote, “In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, whereas we shall go to Asia as masters. In Europe we were Tatars, whereas in Asia we, too, are Europeans.  Our mission, our civilizing mission in Asia will bribe our spirit and drive us there.”

Dostoevsky wrote his essay in 1876. He could not have known that in the twenty-first century, many Asian countries would surpass Russia economically, technologically, militarily, and in geopolitical clout. In his time China was a desolate land of warlords, beggars, and opium addicts, but now it is ahead of Russia—it is a superpower rival of the USA. Even Japan and South Korea are doing better than Russia. More Asian rivals of Russia will emerge in the future.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Churchill’s Operation Unthinkable

In May 1945, on the order of Prime Minister Churchill, the British Military created a war plan called Operation Unthinkable which was based on the hypothesis that Hitler’s defeat marked a hiatus in the Second World War and not the end, and that there could soon be a war with the Soviet Union. The operation’s primary goal was stated as "to impose upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire. Even though 'the will' of these two countries may be defined as no more than a square deal for Poland, that does not necessarily limit the military commitment”

A war with the Soviets was clearly thinkable to Churchill and his government. The British planners were concerned about the massive deployment of Soviet troops in Eastern Europe—the Red Army outnumbered the Allied Force four to one, and they had better tank deployments. The idea was to have a strategy in place to defend the British Isles in the event of a war. In the initial versions of the operation, the conclusion was reached that without massive American support, it would be hard for Britain to defend itself against a full-fledged Soviet attack. In the later versions of the operation, a strategy was developed to defend the British Isles against Soviet drive towards the North Sea and the Atlantic after the American forces were forced by the Red Army to withdraw from the continent.

Operation Unthinkable was a top-secret during the Cold War. Even the USA was not informed of its existence. The operation was made public in 1998, seven years after the Soviet Union fell. But the British spy Guy Burgess had leaked to the Soviets some initial details regarding British contingency war plans when he defected to the Soviet Union in 1951.

Persia Becomes Iran

In the 1930s, the political elites in Persia were feeling that their country was not being treated fairly by the British. They started seeing in Hitler an alternative to British power. They were impressed by Hitler’s success in making the German army the most feared war machine in Europe, and by the initiatives that he was taking to transform Germany into an aryan paradise.

The Persians became convinced that the future belonged to Hitler’s aryan ideology. With the aim of “aryanizing” their own society, the Persians tried to purify their language and customs. They tried to resurrect several cultural practices from Persia’s illustrious past. In March 1935, Prime Minister Reza Shah Pahlavi took the decision to change Persia’s name to Iran. The word “Iran” means “Land of the Aryans” in Persian language.

Not everyone in the country was happy with the name change. Many intellectuals protested. In 1959, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the last Shah of Iran) decided to bring back the name Persia. But the implementation of the decision was lackadaisical. Today both names Iran and Persia are used in the cultural contexts, and only Iran is used in the political contexts.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Mussolini’s View of the British

In January 1939, British Prime Minister Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax visited Italy to convince Italian Premier Mussolini to fight alongside Britain and France in case of a war with Hitler’s Germany. 

When Chamberlain and Halifax departed, Mussolini said to his Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano: “These men [the British] are not made of the same stuff, as the Francis Drakes and the other magnificent adventurers who created the empire. These, after all, are the tired sons of a long line of rich men and they will lose their empire.” (The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943

After observing the weak response of Britain (and France) to Hitler’s multiple transgressions, Mussolini had become contemptuous of the two countries. In 1939, Mussolini’s relationship with Hitler was not good. He was worried that Hitler’s policies would destabilize Europe and that Stalin would take advantage of the chaos to expand the frontiers of the Soviet Union. But he refused to join Britain and France because he believed that the two countries lacked the will to fight Hitler. 

Mussolini was right to doubt the leadership in Britain and France. In September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, but they did not provide military assistance to Poland. A few RAF fighter planes flew over the German and Polish territories but instead of dropping bombs on the Germans, the planes dropped leaflets containing some naive propaganda literature. The French didn’t take any military action. 

A British government cabinet note of September 1939 declared, “There is good reason to believe that the German authorities feared the effect of our propaganda… the fact that our planes were able to fly with impunity all over North-West of Germany was bound to have a depressing effect on the morale of the German people.” The British cabinet agreed to drop more leaflets on German territory in the future. They thought that they could defeat Hitler with propaganda leaflets.

The Story of Elihu Yale: Yale University’s Benefactor

The benefactor of Yale University, Elihu Yale, after whom the university was named, made his fortune as an employee of the East India Company. Born in Boston in 1649, Yale moved with his family to England when he was three years old. After completing his school education, he joined the East India Company and was posted at Fort St. George, the company's headquarter in Madras, India. 

Yale began as a low level clerk, and rising through the ranks he became the governor of Madras. But he misused his powers as governor to enrich himself. He purchased land by using company funds. He committed acts of brutality—he was accused of selling people into slavery and hanging a stable boy for a petty misconduct. Charges of corruption and cruelty were brought against him. He was sacked in 1692. In 1699, when he returned to England, he had with him five tons of spices, and a massive amount of diamonds and other precious objects—all this was beyond his legal sources of income, but the British government allowed him to keep this fortune. 

Towards the end of his life, he remembered America, the country of his birth, and donated a good sum to the Collegiate School of Connecticut, which recognized his gift by renaming itself after him, and became Yale College. Yale died in 1721 and was buried at the churchyard of the parish church of St Giles’ Church, Wales.. He himself wrote the epitaph inscribed on his tomb:

Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell'd and in Asia wed
Where long he liv'd and thriv'd; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even
And that his soul thro' mercy's gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust. 

This line in the epitaph, “Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even,” could be taken as Yale’s subtle admission that the accusations of corruption and cruelty against him were correct. Yale University celebrated the 350th anniversary of Yale's birthday on 5 April 1999.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Rise of Saladin

Saladin was not an Arab or a Turk. He was a Kurd. His real name was Yusuf bin Ayyub. He was the nephew of Shirkuh, a Kurdish lieutenant in the army of Emir of Damascus Nur ad-Din. Saladin began his career as Nur ad-Din’s chief of police in Damascus. The contemporary chroniclers have reported extensively on Saladin’s deeds as a ruler, but they have barely anything to say about the early days of his life, and no description of his physical features has survived. It was not in Damascus but in Egypt that Saladin attained the status of a world-historical Sultan.

In the 1160s, the Egyptian government was in chaos. A conflict had broken out between the vizier of Egypt and the Fatimid caliph. There was a spate of coups and assassinations. Power was being nominally wielded by Fatimid Caliph al-Adid, an eleven year old boy who was a puppet in the hands of various strongmen in Cairo. The political situation was unsustainable. The Fatimid caliphate was on the verge of collapse, and Egypt was up for grabs.

Both Nur ad-Din and Amalric, King of Jerusalem, were trying to take advantage of the chaos in Egypt. Amalric marched his army of crusaders to Egypt in 1163. His army met the Egyptian army at Pelusium, a city on the eastern side of Egypt’s Nile delta. Amalric was victorious, but the Egyptian army opened the Nile dams flooding the river, making it impossible for Amalric’s forces to cross into Egypt. Amalric was forced to retreat.

Shawar, the former vizier of Egypt who had been deposed in a power struggle, went to the court of Nur ad-Din and pleaded for assistance. In April 1164, Nur ad-Din dispatched Shirkuh with a sizable army to Egypt with orders to restore Shawar on the throne of Egypt. In the fighting that followed, Dirgham, the vizier of Egypt was killed, and Shawar became the new vizier.

Once he had attained power, Shawar refused to remain subservient to Nur ad-Din. He tried to bribe Shirkuh with 30,000 gold dinars in return for his departure from Egypt. When Shirkuh refused to accept the money, Shawar turned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He requested Amalric to help him in destroying the army of Shirkuh. Amalric agreed to send his army. In the summer of 1164, Amalric’s forces besieged Shawar’s forces at Bilbais. The siege lasted for three months after which a cessation of hostilities was negotiated—both Amalric and Shirkuh departed with their forces, and Shawar was left in control of Egypt.

In 1166 and 1167, Nur ad-Din and Amalric made several attempts to intervene in Egypt. When Shirkuh marched into Egypt with his troops (this time with his 29 years old nephew Saladin), Amalric arrived with his own troops. Shirkuh was forced to withdraw. Shawar agreed to pay tribute to Amalric (an amazing sum of 400000 gold dinars), and allowed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to station its troops in Cairo.

At this point Amalric overplayed his hand. He had a treaty with the Byzantine Empire to attack Egypt jointly. But Amalric decided to attack Egypt on his own with some help from a newly arrived contingent of crusaders from France. He did not want to share the Egyptian loot with the Byzantines. This time Shawar turned towards the benefactor that he had earlier betrayed, Nur ad-Din, who immediately dispatched Shirkuh and Saladin with a large army. Amalric’s forces were decisively defeated, and he had to retreat from Egypt.

Having driven the crusaders out of Egypt, Shirkuh and Saladin invited Shawar to their camp for a meeting. Shawar thought that it would be a traditional meeting and he rode to their camp, but on the way he was confronted by Saladin and his men. They forcibly unhorsed Shawar and beheaded him. Later they presented Shawar’s head to the caliph as a proof of their success. Shirkuh was appointed the vizier of Egypt, but he died in two months due to a throat infection.

Being Shawar’s nephew, Saladin had a claim to the throne, but there were several more powerful claimants. Saladin displayed remarkable political acumen in playing other claimants against each other, and he emerged as a compromise candidate. In March 1169, 31 years old Saladin’s appointment as vizier and commander of the army was confirmed by the Fatimid caliph.

This was a big step upwards for Saladin. But his hold on power was tenuous. He was a Sunni Kurd in a Shia country. He was commanding the Sunni army of Nur ad-Din but the nominal head of the country was the Shia Fatimid caliph. He could easily become a target of a coup or assassination. Saladin proved to be a ruthless and fearsome ruler. He crushed every entity that could threaten his life and throne. He maintained a respectful attitude towards Nur ad-Din, paying regular tributes to him and promising his loyalty to him. But he refused to allow Nur ad-Din’s family members to enter Egypt.

When Nur ad-Din died in 1174, Saladin immediately moved to take advantage of the power vacuum that had been created in the Near East. He positioned himself as Nur ad-Din’s successor. The members of Nur ad-Din’s Zengid dynasty saw Saladin as a usurper. They wanted Nur ad-Din’s empire to go to his lone son As-Salih Ismail al-Malik who was eleven year old when his father died. Saladin claimed that he was there to protect the rights of As-Salih. But it was clear that he was focused on cementing his own rule. By applying coercion, Saladin managed to peacefully grab Damascus, and he solidified his position by getting the Abbasid caliph to recognize him as the overlord of Egypt and southern Syria.

There were several assassination attempts on Saladin. But he had a knack for survival. In 1176, he married Nur ad-Din’s widow Ismat ad-Din Khatun to strengthen his claim to Nur ad-Din’s legacy and empire. He continued to take measures against the Zengids to weaken their resolve to oppose him. When Nur ad-Din’s son As-Salih died in 1181, the Zengids lost their only rallying point. By using threats, bribery, and force Saladin managed to get the Zengids to give up Aleppo and Mosul. In 1187, he defeated a crusader army in the battle of the Horns of Hattin, and was proclaimed the Sultan of Egypt and Syria.

The God Rush, The Carnage, The Creativity

The unexpected consequence of the gold rush that the Spanish conquistadors began in the sixteenth century was the demise of the smaller political entities in Europe. In 1500, there were five hundred political entities in Europe—in 1900, there were twenty-five.

A significant part of the enormous revenue that Spain, Britain, Portugal, and the Dutch were generating from their colonies was poured into their military sector. France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy rushed to conquer their own colonies and, while their profits were not as substantial as what Spain, Britain, Portugal, and the Dutch were making, they garnered enough revenues to build a military that could protect their borders. 

When nations upgrade their military, wars become inevitable. Europe became the land of unending warfare. The competition in Europe between 1500 and 1945 (end of the Second World War) was brutal. The Europeans were killing each other wherever they could, with whatever weapons they could—they fought in Europe, in the colonies, in the seas, and after the discovery of aviation, in the sky. The smaller states could not compete at this level of militarization and brutality, and they were devoured by the bigger states.

The intense warfare, which showed no sign of ending, made it necessary for the big European powers to make relentless advancements in weapons and tactics. They had to pump ever increasing amounts of resources in their military sector. The wars in Europe, before the rise of the conquistadors (the gold-bearing boys of Spain), used to consume a few hundred lives, but by the twentieth century, the European powers had the capacity to slaughter millions.

The First and the Second World Wars saw the worst carnage in history, and with these two wars, the European powers lost their colonies. They were financially bankrupt and politically and culturally demoralized. The power to dictate the world’s political and financial agenda rushed out Europe and flowed into the USA and the Soviet Union. 

[Note: During the 445 years (1500 to 1945) of warfare, mass slaughter, destruction, genocide, and colonization by the European powers, a lot of creative activity was going on simultaneously. There were political reforms and Europe transformed into an industrial civilization The birth rate remained high, there was decline in infant mortality, and the life expectancy went up by several decades—with the result that the population kept rising.]

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The East India Company & the American War of Independence

The American War of Independence was influenced by the fortunes of the British company that was operating in South Asia, the East India Company (EIC). In the 1770s, the EIC was in a desperate condition—its revenues from India and China had plummeted while its operating expenses had skyrocketed, and to make things worse, parliamentarians and jurists in England were trying to have the EIC’s top management arrested on charges of corruption and cruel conduct in the colonies. These controversies led to a run on EIC’s shares and the company was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.

The government of Lord Frederick North decided that the EIC could not be allowed to fail. The company was too big. Its operations were too extensive. It employed too many people. It controlled much of the trading between Britain, India, Persian Gulf, and China. It had too much debt. It had too many important connections in Persia, India, and China. Since the British government did not want to burden England’s taxpayers, they decided to bailout the EIC by raising revenues from the British colonies in North America.

In 1773, the British parliament passed the Tea Act, which would bring the tax system in the North American colonies in line with England and facilitate the mobilization of revenues for the EIC’s bailout. But the North American colonies reacted furiously to the proposal of higher taxation. A pamphlet campaign began in Pennsylvania. In these pamphlets, the EIC was depicted as a gang of rapacious plunderers, tyrants, pirates, and bloodsuckers. The pamphleteers accused Lord North’s government of being in league with the EIC’s crooked management.

If the political establishment in England had refrained from openly admitting that the taxes were being raised to fund the bailout of the EIC, it is possible that their subjects in the North American colonies would have accepted the tax increase after some protests. The EIC was one of the most detested companies in England and its colonies. The North American colonies refused to let their money go to the EIC.

Several ships carrying tea were turned back by the colonists. In November 1773, three ships carrying tea belonging to the East India Company managed to enter Boston. One of these ships was the Dartmouth. On December 16, men dressed as Indians boarded the Dartmouth and dumped its tea into the ocean. This led to a chain of events which culminated in the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. The British government’s strategy of solving the problems on one side of the world with taxes raised from the other side of the world had badly backfired.

Lord Cornwallis, British general who surrendered to George Washington and the French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, on 19 October 1781, was appointed the governor-general of India in 1786. The EIC was dissolved in 1874. In a strictly legal sense, the British Empire was born after the dissolution of the EIC—this is because the EIC was the de facto imperial power while it was in existence. In the 1760s, Robert Clive had said in his deposition before the British Parliament that “the East India Company was an imperial power in all but name.”

The Era Dorada and the Spanish Armada

In the sixteenth century, the conquistadors were shipping gold to Spain in such enormous quantities that the Spanish ran out of storage space. On days when a large number of ships full of gold arrived, they would keep tons of gold in the open, outside their store houses. The avalanche of gold caused an economic boom in Spain. There was a surge in construction activity—new palaces, cathedrals, gardens, residences, roadways came up, changing the character of the cities. Works of art were commissioned not only by the nobility but also by the ordinary folks, whose fortune was made in the South American colonies.

The Spanish elite termed their age “Era Dorada”—the Age of Gold. They believed that the flood of gold would never end, because they had been chosen by God to be the recipient of this largesse. They believed that God was rewarding Spain for its Catholic faith, that He wanted the Spanish to be His policeman on earth and use the gold to build an army that would destroy the heathens. To ably perform the role of “Almighty’s Policeman,” the Spanish spent a significant part of their gold on enhancing their military and navy. The result was that by 1550, the Spanish possessed the most powerful fighting machine in Europe.

When Elizabeth I, a protestant, became the Queen of England in 1558, the Catholic establishment in Europe was outraged. Liberating Britain from her regime became their holy mission. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis (Reigning on High), which called Elizabeth I “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime.” The Pope threatened to excommunicate all Englishmen who were obeying her laws.

Elizabeth I was aware of the danger that she faced from her Catholic rivals in Europe (mainly Spain). She realized that her survival depended on building a navy that could match the strength of the Spanish navy. She hired the best shipbuilders in England to develop the design for a new generation of ships. These designs were quickly put into practice—the result was that the tonnage of English commercial and navy ships tripled between 1560 and 1580. There was a vast improvement in the maneuverability and speed of English ships.

The irony is that the progress of English shipping industry was partially funded by the activities of her rival, Spain. Part of the gold that the Spanish were hauling from South America was entering the English economy. The English privateers used to capture a number of Spanish ships coming from South America and bring their gold to England.

In the summer of 1588, the Spanish Armada (a fleet of 130 ships) sailed from Lisbon. The purpose of the Armada was to escort an army from Flanders to invade England and overthrow the monarchy of Elizabeth I. But the Armada was outmaneuvered and outgunned by the English navy and privateers like Sir Francis Drake. Many Spanish ships were lost in the sea—a few that survived were forced to flee to Spain. The new generation of ships commissioned by Elizabeth I had proved to be far superior than the ships that the Spanish possessed.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Renaissance in the West—Annihilation in the East

The irony is that the Renaissance of the West was contemporaneous with the annihilation of the East. When the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire was being systematically annihilated by the Ottomans, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italy and several other parts of Europe were having the Renaissance, their great flowering of religious scholasticism, culture, and art.

Western Gladiators and Eastern Theists

The largest building in the cities of the Western Roman Empire was the arena, where the Romans held their gladiatorial combats. The largest building in the cities of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) was the place of worship. 

The Byzantines were not interested in watching gladiators kill each other in the arena, and for this they were often branded as effeminate by their Western counterparts. This indicates that the Western Romans were brawny (gladiatorial) and the Byzantines were brainy (theistic). 

The Byzantine Empire had its Renaissance between the ninth to the eleventh centuries, three centuries earlier than the Western Roman Empire. It can be argued that the Byzantine Renaissance was the fountainhead of the Renaissance in Western Europe.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Second Crusade: Debacle at Damascus

The Second Crusade was sparked by the loss of Edessa in December 1144, to the forces of Imad al-Din Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul. But instead of reaching Edessa, this crusade landed outside the walls of Damascus, one of the largest and oldest cities in the Levant.

The decision to attack Damascus was taken at a Latin assembly held at Acre on June 24, 1148. Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, the two kings who were leading the Second Crusade, were at the assembly. But some of the local crusader elite—including the heads of Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli—were not present. The King of Jerusalem, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and the Grandmaster of Templars were present.

It is not clear how the assembly reached the decision to attack Damascus, which was an ally of the crusader held Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Second Crusade did not have enough soldiers and armored siege towers to lay siege to a large and well-defended city. The chroniclers of that time give no explanation for this decision. It is possible that the assembly felt that Damascus could come under the control of Emir of Aleppo Nur ad-Din and so they decided to conquer it first.

In July 1148, Louis VII and Conrad III marched their crusader army to Damascus. The governor of Damascus Mu'in ad-Din Unur sent frantic calls to the two Emirs of the Zengid Dynasty, Nur ad-Din and Saif ad-Din. On July 24, the crusaders approached Damascus from the western side where richly irrigated and dense orchards stretched about five miles outside the city.

The orchards provided much needed shade and water, which was a good thing from the point of view of the crusaders, but the problem was that the dense orchards provided cover in which the city's defenders could launch surprise attacks. Hundreds were killed during the skirmishes in the orchards. After crossing the orchards, the crusaders established their camp in an open area in front of the city, close to the Barada river.

Damascus seemed vulnerable since it was protected by low walls on the side where the crusaders had made their camp. When the crusaders tried to scale the low walls and enter the city, a desperate hand to hand combat broke out in the overcrowded outlying suburbs of the city. The defenders put up a heavy fight, and the crusaders were bogged down in the narrow streets which were barricaded with rubble, large rocks, and wooden beams.

The crusaders had to fight for every bit of advance that they made in the narrow streets. The fighting went on for three days. Both sides butchered each other in merciless hand to hand combat and the streets were red with blood and piled with dead bodies. The crusaders were running out of time—Nur ad-Din had dispatched an army to relieve the city.

Having failed to make progress beyond the narrow streets of the outlying areas of the city, Louis VII and Conrad III held a council of war on July 27. The decision was made to move the crusader army to the eastern side of the city which was relatively open and barren. They believed that it would be easier to launch a direct attack from the east side. But they failed to take into account the fact that the east side of the city was a rocky desert—it had no shade and water.

The resolve of the Second Crusade melted quickly under the unforgiving desert sun from which the east side of Damascus offered no protection. The crusaders had no water to drink. On July 28, the panicked decision was taken to abandon the siege and retreat from Damascus before Nur ad-Din’s army arrived. As the crusaders fled, they were chased by the defenders of Damascus and many crusader lives were lost in the skirmishes that followed.

With the failure at Damascus, the Second Crusade came to an effective end. Most of the crusaders were dead or badly injured. The two kings, Louis VII and Conrad III, who had marched out of Western Europe with thousands of troops hoping to transform the character of the Levant, were greatly humiliated. They spent some time in the Levant, not as crusaders for the Holy Land but as pilgrims, and then they sailed for Western Europe. 

William Blake’s English Jerusalem

The dream of liberating the Holy Land of Jerusalem was the zeitgeist of the medieval period in Western Europe. But in practice, the liberation of Jerusalem, and the imposition of Latin Christian rule on it, was an incredibly complicated, expensive, and perilous exercise. 

Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, a large number of men from Western Europe made the long journey to Outremer to participate in the holy war for liberating Jerusalem. They promised their families that they would be back in six months. Most of them never returned. 

In the nineteenth century, poet William Blake suggested that it would be preferable to build a Jerusalem in a safe and convenient location, such as England’s countryside. In his poem, “Jerusalem,” he wrote:

“I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.”

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Churchill: On The Soviet Iron Curtain

Immediately after the Yalta Conference (held February 4–11, 1945), Churchill said to a member of his staff: “Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don’t think I am wrong about Stalin.” By the end of the year, he realized that he was wrong about Stalin, possibly as wrong as Chamberlain was on Hitler. He was convinced that the Soviets were acting like a Great Empire and were after world domination. He wanted to develop a strong policy to counter the Soviet threat, but he no longer had the power. He had lost the election. Clement Attlee of the Labor Party had become the Prime Minister in July 1945.  

As head of the Conservative Party and Leader of the Opposition, Churchill tried to build public opinion against the Soviets. On 5 March 1946, he gave his “Iron Curtain” speech. He said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.” He noted that the expansive and evangelical philosophy of the Soviets was a threat to the West.

Anna Komnene’s Contribution to Ancient Greek Philosophy

The first major study of Aristotle and Plato was commissioned by Anna Komnene, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, in the twelfth century. While much of the work was done in Byzantine Greek, she had Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and some of Plato’s Dialogues translated into Latin for the benefit of the scholars in Western Europe. The translation of Nicomachean Ethics eventually found its way to Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Anna is the famous author of the twelfth century masterpiece of history, the Alexiad, but her contributions to the study of Ancient Greek philosophy are often ignored by modern scholars. In twelfth century Constantinople, she was seen as a philosopher and a scholar of Plato and Aristotle.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Zengi and the Fall of Edessa

Imad al-Din Zengi first made a name for himself in Outremer in 1126, in the conflict between the Abbasid Caliph and the Sultan of Baghdad. Zengi fought on the side of the Sultan and defeated the forces of the Caliph. But he conducted himself tactfully and earned the trust of both the Caliph and the Sultan, and with their support he became the atabeg of Mosul in 1127. Till 1130, Zengi exploited the factionalism in Northern Syria to defeat a number of Islamic warlords and seized control of towns like Aleppo, Homs, and Shayzar.

With his exploits in the battlefield, and the cruelty and capriciousness that he showed in his personal dealings, Zengi earned the reputation of a merciless warlord. By the 1130s, he was the most dreaded and powerful figure in Outremer. During this period he made several attempts to capture Damascus, which had an alliance with the Kingdom of Jerusalem, then under King Fulk.

In December 1139, Zengi laid a siege to Damascus but he did not dare to launch a full scale attack, probably because the city was of great historical and religious significance. He preferred to force Damascus into submission by applying an economic chokehold. Instead of yielding to Zengi, the ruler of Damascus Mu'in ad-Din Unur turned towards its non-Islamic ally, King Fulk, for help. Fulk dispatched his army to Damascus and Zengi was forced to lift the siege and retreat to Mosul. Throughout the 1130s, Zengi had shown little interest in attacking the crusader states, but that changed in the 1140s.

On April 1, 1143, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire John II Komnenos died when he was injured by a poisoned arrow while hunting wild boar. In the same year, King Fulk died after falling from his horse while he was hunting rabbits. These two hunting deaths led to the Byzantine Empire and Kingdom of Jerusalem getting bogged down in a succession crisis.

Zengi took advantage of the chaos to attack the Kurdish warlords in Diyar Bakr. One of these Kurdish warlords had a mutual defense treaty with Jocelyn II, count of Edessa. Edessa was the first crusader state, established by Baldwin of Boulogne on 10 March 1098. Jocelyn II had little sense of Zengi’s capabilities and intentions. He thought that Edessa was safe from attacks, and marched out with a large force (almost his entire army) to help his Kurdish ally. But Zengi had informants inside Edessa. When he learned that Edessa was largely undefended in Jocelyn’s absence, he force-marched his troops to the city.

With continuous bombardment and use of armored seize towers, Zengi devastated the life of the city’s inhabitants. Jocelyn tried to muster a rescue army to save his city, but it was too late. Zengi’s miners collapsed a section of the city’s walls on 24 December 1144, and his troops rushed into the city. The Christian inhabitants fled towards the city’s citadel, but such was the rush that hundreds got crushed to death (among them was the Latin archbishop). Zengi’s soldiers massacred the men and enslaved the women and children. Edessa was lost to the crusaders—the first of the four crusader states to fall.

The fall of Edessa and the reports of the massacre and enslavement of the city’s inhabitants sent shock waves through the remaining three crusader states and Western Europe. In 1145, Pope Eugenius III launched the Second Crusade. In 1147, the armies of Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany left for Outremer. But they would not have the chance to extract vengeance from Zengi since he was assassinated in September 1146 by one of his Frankish slaves. Zengi’s territories were divided between his two sons: Saif ad-Din (who got Mosul and eastern territory) and the younger son Nur ad-Din (who got Aleppo and western territory).

Nur ad-Din became a legendary ruler, known for his shrewdness, competence, and ruthlessness. He decisively defeated the Second Crusade. During his reign, from 1146 to 1174, he conquered large parts of Asia Minor and Egypt.

The Natural State of Mankind: Barbarism

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” ~ Robert E. Howard in his story Beyond the Black River

This is a good insight by Robert E. Howard. In the short term, a civilization dominated by intellectuals might score some victories, but barbarism always triumphs in the end. By barbarism, I mean the political and cultural forces that are ruthless, realistic, religious, passionate, energetic, ambitious, tradition-bound, and innovative. Barbarism does not entail mindless destruction. 

From history we learn that the greatest acts of mindless destruction have been caused by the civilizations which were dominated by the intellectuals (the most recent examples are communism, nazism, fascism, and neoliberalism). Mindless intellectualism is the death sentence for a civilization.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Last Crusade of Bohemond I of Antioch

When Bohemond arrived in Europe in late 1104, he had a hero’s welcome wherever he went. The story of his exploits in the First Crusade had turned him into a living legend. Tales of his bravery in fighting the heathens during the battles of Antioch and Jerusalem (though he never fought in Jerusalem) had made him more popular than any other leader of the First Crusade. In his letters to the Pope and European monarchs, he introduced himself as the “Prince of Antioch.” In his meetings, he distributed the relics which he had brought from the Holy Land. 

Bohemond was in Europe on a mission. He was planning a new crusade, whose goal would be to secure Jerusalem but along the way the crusaders would also conquer the Byzantine Empire. When he reached Italy, he was received by Pope Urban’s successor, Pope Paschal II. It seems that he managed to convince the pope. At the Council of Poitiers in 1106, Paschal II launched a new crusade. He granted Bohemond the banner of St Peter to carry into the battle and a legate to help him gain support for his cause.

Since Bohemond was unmarried, eligible heiresses were being lined up for him. He decided to marry the most powerful woman of his time: Constance, daughter of the French king, Philip I. Meanwhile, he was recruiting men for his new crusade. His marital connection with the royal house of France, helped him gather a large number of men. 

Bohemond toured Europe, promising his followers more spectacular victories in the Levant than those that the First Crusade had achieved at Nicaea, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Fighters from all over Europe flocked to be part of his holy war. Only England refused to pay heed to his call. King Henry I refused to allow Bohemond to cross the English Channel. It is not clear why Henry I did not want to have Bohemond in England—perhaps it had something to do with Bohemond’s connections with the French royal house. 

With an army of 34000 men, Bohemond set out from Europe in October 1107. Despite the high expectations, the crusade against the Byzantine Empire went badly. The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos knew about Norman tactics. When Bohemond’s troops arrived in Epirus, in south-western Balkans, Alexios refused to get drawn into a pitched battle. With the help of his Venetian allies, he cut off the supply lines of Bohemond’s troops and then allowed the siege to drag on. Famine and disease began to spread in Bohemond’s camp.

By 1108, the condition in Bohemond’s camp was desperate and he was forced to sue for peace. In her book of history, the Alexiad, Anna Komnene, the daughter of Emperor Alexios, gives details of the humiliating peace agreement that Bohemond was forced to sign in Diabolis (modern Albania). The agreement made Bohemond the liegeman of not only Alexios but also his son and heir John Komnenos. Humiliated by the crushing defeat, Bohemond never returned to Antioch. He died in Italy in 1111.

The Delusion of Intellectuals

The intellectuals can invent the solutions to the world’s most intricate problems in ten minutes, but to expect them to solve the problems in their personal life is like asking them to live on vodka and morphine.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Fall of the Crusader States: Jerusalem and Acre

In 1244, the Ayubid Sultan granted the Khwarazmiyya the permission to attack Jerusalem. The Khwarazmiyya forces began their siege of Jerusalem from 11 July 1244. The city’s defenses fell rapidly. On 15 July 1244, the Khwarazmiyya entered the city. There was extensive looting and killing and by the time the Khwarazmiyya left, the city was in such bad shape, with the streets choked with rotting corpses, that the place seemed unfit for human habitation. When the news of the pillaging and massacre at Jerusalem reached Western Europe, King Louis IX tried to organize a Seventh Crusade to the Levant. But the crusaders would never be able to retake Jerusalem.

The remaining forces of Jerusalem rallied around the Crusading orders and they clashed with the army of the Ayubid Sultan in the Battle of La Forbie (also known as the Battle of Hiribya), which began on October 17, 1244. After the experience of Khwarazmiyya’s sack ofJerusalem, the crusaders realized that no mercy would be shown to them if they lost. They fought bravely, since they knew that defeat meant death or enslavement, but the Sultan’s forces had overwhelming numerical superiority, and the crusader resistance collapsed on October 18. Over 5,000 crusaders had died, 800 prisoners were taken, including Walter of Brienne, William of Chastelneuf, Master of the Hospital, and the Constable of Tripoli.

After the fall of Jerusalem and the decisive defeat in the Battle of La Forbie, the remaining Crusader states in the Levant were in a bad shape. But instead of becoming united to face the external enemy, in Acre, they became embroiled in an internal war. This was the War of Saint Sabas, which pitted the shipping interests of Venice against the shipping interests of Genoa. The  Venetians and the Genoese quarters in Acre were separated by a neutral stretch of land belonging to the monastery of Saint Sabas. For several years, the Venetians and the Genoese had been petitioning the Papacy in Rome to be granted possession of the monastery and its territory. 

It is not clear to which party the Papacy had granted the monastery’s territory, since the Papal records of this momentous decision are missing. But both Venetians and the Genoese were able to flourish in Acre the papers which showed that they had the exclusive papal grant to the territory of Saint Sabas. Each side accused the other side of foul play and a war broke out. By 1256, the people in the Kingdom of Acre had forgotten that they faced the threat from the Islamic forces—they were too busy choosing sides in the battle between the Venetians and the Genoese. The Teutonic Knights sided with the Venetians while the Hospitallers sided with the Genoese. Between 1256 and 1260 most intense fighting took place. Many sections of Acre were ruined. Most of its defensive towers were destroyed. 

The final fall of Acre came in 1291. The Mamluks besieged Acre in April 1291, and by May 18 they had breached its defenses. The crusaders, their families, and the local residents made a mad dash for the harbor to escape the invading army, but most were killed or enslaved. Many of those who made it into the boats drowned when the boats capsized due to overcrowding. A Templar stronghold was the last to fall. It held out till May 18, when the Templars surrendered after accepting a truce offer. But they were promptly executed.

Churchill's Perspective

When British politician and socialite Violet Asquith, aboard the HMS Enchantress in 1912, looked out at the Mediterranean coastline and exclaimed, "How perfect!”, Churchill, who was with her, replied, "Yes—range perfect—visibility perfect—If we had got some six-inch guns on board how easily we could bombard …” (based on David Fromkin’s book A Peace to End All Peace)

This exchange does not depict Churchill as a warmonger who would love to bombard every piece of land on which he had set his eyes. His thinking is typically masculine. He is taking a realist, practical, and masculine view of what he is before his eyes. 

Throughout history it has been the responsibility of the men to defend their land and their family from invaders. Churchill was following the masculine tradition of being prepared to defend one’s land when he said to Asquith: “Yes—range perfect—visibility perfect—If we had got some six-inch guns on board how easily we could bombard …” 

I support Churchill’s perspective.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Imperial Ambitions of Anna Komnene

Anna Komnene, author of the twelfth century masterpiece of history, the Alexiad, harbored imperial ambitions from her childhood. 

Born on 1 December 1083, she was the eldest of the seven children of Alexios I Komnenos and Irene Doukaina. Her younger siblings were Maria, John II, Andronikos, Isaac, Eudokia, and Theodora. Her father Alexios had seized the imperial throne of the Byzantine Empire on August 15, 1081, in a violent coup, during which his troops had sacked Constantinople. His reign was hardly stable and there were frequent attempts to overthrow him, but he managed to survive and ruled for nearly four decades, till he died on August 15, 1118.

Since John was the eldest son, he had been designated as the heir to the imperial throne by Alexios. But Anna wanted the throne to go to the man whom she had married in 1097, Nikephoros Bryennios, a descendent of the Bryennios family that had held the imperial throne before the accession of Alexios.

Anna began to dispute John’s right to succession while her father was alive. Queen Irene Doukaina too preferred to see Nikephoros on the throne. According to the accounts of that period, Irene "threw her full influence on [Anna's] side” and tried to coerce Alexios into nominating Nikephoros as the next emperor. But Alexios could not be moved. He continued to insist that John would be his successor.

At the funeral of Alexios, Anna and her mother tried to get John murdered. When this attempt failed, they made a second attempt to have him murdered. But the second attempt too failed, possibly because Nikephoros did not fully cooperate with the coup plotters. Anna was outraged by her husband’s weakness. She is reported to have exclaimed that “nature had mistaken their sexes, for he [her husband] ought to have been the woman.”

A cleric in Hagia Sophia, the patriarchate of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, proclaimed John II Komnenos as emperor. He would rule until 1143, when he died of natural causes.

Anna was only thirty-six years old when she plotted to get her brother murdered, but with the failure of her plot, her life was over. She was banished to the monastery of Kecharitomene, which was founded by her mother. She would live at the monastery for the rest of her life, consumed with pain, jealousy, and hatred. She outlived John by a few years. The exact date of her death is not recorded, but it is generally believed that she died in the 1150s.

The Alexiad was written during the period when Anna was imprisoned at the monastery. There is no mention of her failed coup attempts in the book, but her pain at her thwarted political ambitions is visible in some of the passages.

Monday, June 14, 2021

George and Clemenceau: Dividing the Middle East

After the First World War, the British and French governments started the process of identifying the territories in the Middle East that they wanted to control. In December 1918, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had a meeting with his French counterpart Georges Clemenceau in London to have a blunt conversation on how the Middle East was to be divided among the allies. Here’s how their conversation went:

Clemenceau: “What do you want?”

George: “I want Mosul.”

Clemenceau: “You shall have it. Anything else?”

George: “I want Jerusalem too.”

Clemenceau: “You shall have it.” 

Clemenceau wanted to establish a protectorate over Syria, to which George agreed. George identified Palestine as the territory which he must control if he was to protect the Suez Canal. Clemenceau agreed to let George have Palestine. (Source: The Papers of Lord Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Imperial War Cabinet and top aide to David Lloyd George)

In light of the knowledge of the disastrous fate of the interventions in the Middle East from 1918 to this day, this exchange between Clemenceau and George seems naive, arrogant, and quixotic.

If Clemenceau and George knew history, they would have realized that the West had been failing in the Middle East for more than two thousand years. The Western Roman Empire failed to control the Middle East. The Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines) failed. The three centuries of crusaders could not make any headway in the Middle East.  

The policy of Clemenceau and George failed, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, with the result that there was a Second World War.

On Complete Independence

At a dinner in Baghdad in 1920, Gertrude Bell, an English writer who had been recruited to work for British intelligence, said to Jaafar Al-Askari, soon to be appointed Prime Minister of the new country of Iraq, that “complete independence is what we [the British] wish to give to Iraq.” Jaafar Al-Askari replied: “My lady, complete independence is never given—always taken.”

(Source: Gertrude Bell: Complete Letters; Page 224)

Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Fallout of the Battle of Manzikert

When Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes marched his military into Asia Minor, he thought that he would decisively defeat the Turkish forces and prove to his enemies in the region that the Byzantines, and not the Seljuk Turks, were the preeminent military power. The Byzantine and Turkish forces met at Manzikert on 26 August 1071. The spies employed by Romanos had conveyed to him that the Turkish forces at Manzikert were modest and were led by a minor commander. Romanos thought that they would be easy to defeat. But the intelligence that he had received was flawed—the Turkish forces at Manzikert were under the personal command of Sultan Alp Arslan (who had established himself as the leader of Sunni Islam in Asia Minor) and were part of the main Turkish army. 

The Byzantines were employing a significant number of mercenaries and Anatolian levies who fled when the Seljuk Turks began their onslaught. The professional Byzantine soldiers tried to put up a stand. They managed to inflict heavy casualties on the Turkish forces but they were eventually overwhelmed by the superior fighting tactics of the Turks. Romanos himself was injured and captured. When he was brought before Sultan Alp Arslan in a disheveled, bloodied, and tattered state, the Sultan could not believe that the exhausted man who was barely able to stand before him was the Emperor of the great Byzantine Empire (which was then known as the Roman Empire). According to one famous account, Arslan placed his boot on Romanos’s neck and forced him to kiss the ground. This is the exchange that took place between them: 

Alp Arslan: "What would you do if I were brought before you as a prisoner?"
Romanos: "Perhaps I'd kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople."
Alp Arslan: "My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free."

Romanos and the survivors of his army were set free by the Sultan. But a great damage had been done to the prestige of the Byzantine Empire. As the news of the defeat of the Byzantine army and the capture of its Emperor spread through the Levant, there was a panic among the orthodox Christians. They realized that in Asia Minor they were no longer safe. They started fleeing towards Constantinople, which they thought was the only place where they could be safe from the Turkish raids. The influx of refugees put a strain on the economy of Constantinople. There was massive inflation—by the middle of the 1070s, the price of wheat had risen by twenty times. The economic meltdown was accompanied by political upheaval. Several leading magnates rebelled and Constantinople was plunged into a civil war. 

The neighbors of the Byzantine Empire took advantage of the chaos. With no military to oppose their advance, the Seljuk Turks marched into Asia Minor. Advancing at great speed, leaving a trail of slaughter and destruction in their wake (according to the account by Anna Komnene, written a few decades after the war), they reached the shores of the Bosphorus, and the surrounding areas became exposed to their raids. By the 1080s, the Seljuk Turks had captured an area of 78,000 square kilometers. There was trouble for the Byzantines in Europe too. The Normans started eying the Empire’s western territories. The dynasties in Croatia and Duklja cancelled their alliance with the Byzantines and sought a new alliance with the papal establishment in Rome.

The Age of Excommunication of Monarchs

In the eleventh century began the age of intense disputes between the papal establishment in Rome and the monarchies of Christendom. The Popes started excommunicating the monarchs to force them to obey the tenets of religion and the papal directives on political issues.  

Several major figures of the eleventh century were excommunicated by the Popes: Henry IV of Germany (excommunicated by Pope Alexander II), Philip I of France (excommunicated by Pope Urban II), King Harold of England (excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII), Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire (excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII), the Norman Duke Robert Guiscard (excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII). When the monarchs made the appropriate conciliatory gestures, the Popes allowed them to return to the communion but when another dispute emerged, the monarchs were excommunicated again.  

Towards the end of the eleventh century, the Popes realized that the threat of excommunication was not a significant deterrence for the monarchs, and they conceived the idea of having an army that would be under papal control and could be used to subdue the recalcitrant monarchs. The idea of crusades was conceived. In principle, the crusaders owed allegiance to the papal authority. But the situation was different in practice and the crusaders often obeyed the monarchs. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries crusades were called against several excommunicated Christian monarchs.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Why Did Alexios I Komnenos Invite the First Crusade?

Alexios I Komnenos had not attained the throne of the Byzantine Empire through the legitimate method of inheritance. He had seized the throne in a military coup in 1081. He was appointed as a general by Emperor Michael VII Doukas 1071. Since Alexios had served with distinction in campaigns against the Seljuk Turks, Nikephoros III Botaneiates, the next Emperor who took power in 1078, retained him as a general.

In 1081, Alexios was entrusted with a significant military to counter the Norman threat, but he used this military to besiege Constantinople. On 1 April 1081, Alexios and his men broke through the walls of Constantinople and sacked the city. Botaneiates was forced to abdicate and retire into a monastery where he spent the rest of his life as a monk.

Alexios became the emperor but a significant part of the Byzantine political establishment despised him. They viewed him as a traitor who had acquired the throne through a coup. During his reign, Alexios was battling external threats from the Seljuk Turks and other Islamic forces and internal threats from his political enemies in Constantinople. He maintained his grip on power by promoting his family members to key positions in the government. But the questions regarding the legitimacy of his government would not go away.

By the 1090s, his position in Constantinople had become precarious. He could not be sure of the loyalties of even his family members. Since he could trust no one in his kingdom, he had to look westwards to save his throne. In 1095, he sent his envoys to Pope Urban II to plead for military assistance.

If Alexios needed military assistance then why did he choose to plead before the Pope, the leader of a religious institution, which does not maintain a military. Alexios had good connections with the monarchies of Western Europe. He could have asked for military assistance from them. But he didn’t. I think this is because Alexios did not want a real military from Western Europe to march into the Levant.

Alexios knew that if he allowed the European monarchs to march into the Levant with their military, then his days as emperor would be numbered. Once the European monarchs became aware of the factionalism in Byzantine politics and his weak position, they would be tempted to usurp his throne. Alexios must have thought that the Pope’s crusaders would pose less threat to his regime than with the real militaries owned by the European monarchs.

By sending his envoys to plead before Pope Urban II, Alexios bears the primary responsibility for triggering the First Crusade. The ostensible purpose of the First Crusade was to free the Holy Land, but the real purpose was to save Alexios’s throne from his political rivals in Constantinople.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Consequence of Richard Lionheart’s Death: Magna Carta

The unexpected consequence of the sudden death of Richard Lionheart, the hero of the Third Crusade, in April 1199, due to an arrow injury that he received while trying to suppress a revolt at the castle of Châlus-Chabrol, in southwestern France, was the Magna Carta in England. Richard was a courageous, jealous, and ruthless monarch. He had a traditionalist view of the institution of monarchy. He was convinced that he possessed the divine right to rule. He would have never allowed the nobles of England to coerce him into accepting the Magna Carta. He would have viewed the nobles who dared to present the Magna Carta before him as traitors and rebels whose just punishment was execution.

John Lackland (he was nicknamed Lackland because, being the youngest son of King Henry II, he lacked significant lands to inherit) became the King of England after Richard’s death. But he was unpopular with his subjects who viewed him as a coward because he had not participated in the Third Crusade, and as a traitor because when Richard was fighting the forces of Sultan Saladin in the Third  Crusade, John tried to usurp the throne of England. Richard’s contemptuous reflection on John’s treachery is preserved in the account of Roger of Howden, the twelfth century English diplomat and chronicler: “My brother John is not a man to conquer a land if there is someone to resist him with even a meagre degree of force.” There was so much hatred and suspicion between the two brothers that if Richard had not died in 1199, he would have ordered the execution of John for betraying him.

Most historical accounts of that period are critical of John. One source, identified as the Anonymous of Bethune, writes: “[John] was a bad man, more cruel than all others; he lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated. Whenever he could, he told lies rather than the truth.” In the chronicles of two thirteenth century monks at St Albans Abbey, Roger of Wendover and his successor Matthew Paris, John is presented as a cruel and godless tyrant. They claim, without any evidence, that John had sent a message to the Emir of Morocco offering to convert his Kingdom to Islam. Paris concludes his assessment of King John with this verse:  “England is still fouled by the stink of John; the foulness of Hell is defiled by John’s foulness.”

John accepted the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. The monarchs of Europe were horrified by the Magna Carta, and so was the papacy at Rome. Pope Innocent III annulled the Magna Carta but that led to a civil war in England, the First Barons' War ((1215–1217). John was defeated in the civil war (he died in 1216), and that was the end of the Angevin Empire which was founded by his father King Henry II in 1154.

Erich Hoffer: On the Elites

“But the elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride us.” ~ Eric Hoffer in “The Young and The Middle Aged" (1970). In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the elites did catch up with us. The global power grab by the elites in the name of a strange pandemic will not have a happy ending. The unexpected consequences of this power grab are now starting to reveal themselves. I wonder, how devastating will be the tsunami of consequences which the elites have failed to anticipate?

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Consequences of Constantine’s Conversion

Persia was a rival of the Roman Empire since the third century BC. When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD, the Persians started regarding Christianity as a Roman religion. While Constantine had not made Christianity a state religion, his personal ambition was to be the protector of all Christians, including those who were living outside the borders of the Roman Empire. He adopted a strident attitude towards Persia, which was then being ruled by the Sasanian dynasty (224-651 AD) who were Zoroastrian. Zoroastrianism was deeply rooted in Persia, having arrived in the country in the second millennium BC.

In the final years of his life, Constantine began to contemplate a military campaign against Persia. In a letter to Persian Emperor Shapur II, Constantine declared that he was delighted to know that Persia was home to a significant number of Christians whose faith was like his own and that he would advise Shapur II to treat his Christian subjects well. Constantine’s letter sounded like a threat. He was eliding the promotion of Rome’s geopolitical interests with that of his new Christian faith. Shapur II was incensed. 

There was no cause for Constantine to believe that the Christians were being mistreated in Persia. While Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia, other religions were not facing persecution in the country. Moreover, there were too few Christians in Persia in that time for the Persian regime to take note of their existence. The Romans and the Persians had been fighting wars for more than six centuries. The Romans had contempt for Zoroastrianism, and the Persians were contemptuous of Roman paganism. But their wars were over geopolitical issues and not religious differences. In 297 AD, Narseh of Persia and Diocletian of Rome had signed a treaty (Peace of Nisibis) which led to a period of peace between the two empires.

Before he could march his troops into Persia, Constantine fell ill and died in 337 AD. But in his letter to Shapur II, he had already created a convincing casus belli against the Persians. Most historians agree that it is Shapur II who broke the peace treaty of 297 AD by moving into Roman Mesopotamia. The two empires became embroiled in long drawn wars (337–350 AD and 358-363 AD). The Persians blamed Constantine’s conversion to Christianity for the conflict, and they started viewing the Christians living in their land as the secret supporters of Rome. Shapur II and his successors launched a series of persecutions which made martyrs of several Christians.

Blindsided by their obsession with destroying each other, the Romans and the Persians failed to take timely action to curb the barbarian tribes: Goths, Alans, Huns, Vandals, Suebi, and the nomadic Turks. By the fifth century, some of these tribes had become a serious threat to Rome and Persia. Rome was conquered by the Visigoths in the fifth century. Persia was destabilized and economically ruined by the barbarians but they survived till the seventh century, when a new force arose: Islam. The Sasanian dynasty was toppled by the groups fighting under the banner of Islam. Zoroastrianism was overthrown. By the eighth century, Islam had conquered almost the entire Levant, and significant parts of North Africa, East Asia, and Southwestern Europe. 

Constantine’s conversion was good for Christianity in the West, but it proved to be a disaster for Christianity and Zoroastrianism in the East. According to a 2011 census, there are 25,000 Zoroastrians living in modern day Persia (Iran)—in Constantine’s time, ninety-seven percent of Persia was Zoroastrian.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Controversy Over Silk in Ancient Rome

Silk from China started flooding into the Roman Empire as early as the third century BC. The popularity of the fine flowing silk garments among the Roman elite class horrified the traditionalists. 

Seneca the Elder declared that silk garments could barely be regarded as clothing since these garments would not hide the curves and the decency of the Roman ladies. He declared that the foundation of Roman morality was being undermined by silk garments, which allowed men to see through the light fabric which clung to the female form and left little to the imagination. Here’s an excerpt from Seneca’s Declamations (Volume One):

"I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes... Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body."

In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder complained about the high cost of silk. He said that the Roman economy was being drained for enabling the “Roman lady to shimmer in public.” He calculated that the Roman economy was losing 100 million sesterces annually in importing silk. 

The Roman political establishment made repeated efforts to discourage their people from wearing silk. Emperor Aurelian forbade his wife from buying a mantle of Tyrian purple silk. Laws were passed to ban men from wearing silk since it was seen as effeminate and antithetical to Rome’s militaristic culture.

Caesar and Constantine: Movement of Capital City to the East

If Julius Caesar was not assassinated in 44 BC, he would have moved the Roman Empire’s seat of Imperial Power out of Rome. Caesar believed that the seat of Imperial Power should be based in a region which would improve the governance of the lands where the best interests of Rome lay. He had in mind two places: Alexandria and the site of Ancient Troy in Asia Minor. The seat of Imperial Power was ultimately moved by Constantine in 324 AD to Constantinople, a city that was strategically located at the Bosphorus strait and was a testament to the fact that the aim of the Romans was to dominate both Europe and Asia.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Eastward March of Alexander and Octavian

When Alexander became the King of Macedonia in 336 BC, he had no doubt in which direction he had to march his military for gaining everlasting glory: East. He didn’t waste a moment in thinking of marching into Western Europe. East was where all the fabulous cities were located. East was where he would go. 

Tutored by Aristotle and other great teachers of Macedonia and Athens, Alexander knew about Herodotus’s glowing account of the wealth and splendor of Persia, and the grandeur of Egypt, which was conquered by the Persians in the 6th century BC. He knew about plays like The Bacchae (by Euripides), in which Dionysus says: “I have come to Greece from the fabulously wealthy East.” According to Dionysus, the lands of the East were dancing with the divine long before the Greeks. Alexander knew about the reports of the travelers, sailors, traders, and military adventurers on the treasures and culture of the East. “March eastwards” (because there was nothing worth conquering in the West) became the clarion call for his military. 

The “march eastwards” theme can be seen in the empire which inherited the legacy of Alexander and his great general Seleucus I Nicator: Rome. The Romans did not become an empire when they established their control on much of Europe (which the Romans regarded as the land of barbarians) but when they turned their focus on Eastern Mediterranean, and under Gaius Octavius (later named Caesar Augustus by the grateful Roman Senate) managed to conquer the great empire in the east, Egypt. 

Cleopatra made a major miscalculation when she got involved in a Roman civil war and decided to support the faction led by Mark Antony. When Antony’s forces were routed in the Battle of Actium in 30 BC, the shrewd and ruthless Octavian had the opportunity to bring his troops to Egypt. Despite the fall of Mark Antony, Cleopatra had enough military strength to cause serious damage to Octavian’s forces, but she played a series of bad political moves and was outfoxed by Octavian. She committed suicide and Octavian became the master of Egypt. He had arrived in Egypt as a Roman general; he left as a Roman Emperor. He had turned Rome into an Empire.

Our Apocalyptic Media

Reading a newspaper is like being waterboarded by a stream of apocalyptic water (propaganda masquerading as news). Here’s Michael Crichton’s take on the mainstream media: “The media is like the guy going down the street with a sign that says 'The End of the World is Near,' and he picks a date and the day comes and goes, and the world doesn't end. So he doesn't stop with the sign. He goes home, makes another sign, puts a new date on it, and starts marching again. That's the way the media is.”

Monday, June 7, 2021

Napoleon and the Making of Modern Egypt

After the fall of Saladin’s Ayyubid dynasty in the thirteenth century, the Mamluk Sultanate became the masters of Egypt. The Mamluks were overthrown by the Ottomans in the Ottoman–Mamluk war of 1516 and 1517. But after the war, the Ottomans retained the Mamluks as an Egyptian ruling class. The Mamluks were allowed to retain their influence in Egypt though they remained the vassals of the Ottomans. 

When Napoleon attacked Egypt in 1798, the country was out of direct control of the Ottomans and was being dominated by the local Mamluk elite. In the Battle of the Pyramids, fought on 21 July 1798, Napoleon’s French forces decisively defeated the Mamluk cavalry. The battle was over in an hour, with the French suffering just 300 casualties while inflicting more than 6000 casualties on the Mamluk cavalry. The Mamluk power in Egypt was finished. The Mamluk survivors moved into Syria, leaving Egypt in the hands of Napoleon who, three days later, triumphantly marched his troops into Cairo.

With his quick victory in Egypt, Napoleon had created the impression in Western Europe that he would achieve what all the crusades of the past had failed to achieve. But ten days later, the British Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson shattered Napoleon’s dream of founding a French Empire in the Levant. In the Battle of the Nile, between 1st and 3rd of August 1798, Nelson obliterated Napoleon’s navy at Aboukir Bay on the Mediterranean coast off the Nile Delta of Egypt. With most of his ships destroyed, Napoleon was now cut off from France and basically stuck in Egypt with his 35,000 troops. He remained in Cairo for three years, till 1801. 

Napoleon’s three year stay in Cairo wrought profound, long-term consequences for Egypt. He had not arrived in Egypt to merely conquer and loot—he believed that it was his destiny to liberate, reform, and bring modern ideas to the backward nations of the world. He had brought with him a team of more than 160 scholars. In three years, he gave Egypt the kind of reforms that this country had not seen for several centuries. He turned the traditional Egyptian society on its head. 

Egypt got a postal service. In Cairo and other urban areas street lighting and sanitation was created. A modern mint was established. A French trading company came up. There was creation of plague hospitals, and printing presses with typescript for French, Greek, and Arabic. Slavery was abolished. The dhimmi system was abolished, and the Ottoman and Mamluk social hierarchy came to an end. Though the Egyptian elite remained unconvinced of Napoleon’s intentions, many of his tectonic reforms worked so well that they were not abolished after he left the country. 

It can be argued that Napoleon led to the rise of Egyptian nationalism through his support of Egyptian scholarship. He encouraged the study of Egyptian culture before the time of the Mamluk Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire. He funded several scholarly works on ancient Egypt. This led to the rise of the new discipline of Egyptology. In July 1799, a young engineering officer, Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard, who had arrived in Egypt with Napoleon, discovered the Rosetta Stone, which played a significant role in the deciphering of ancient Egyptian language.