Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Battle of Clontarf: 1000 Year Anniversary

Viking helmet
One thousand years ago today, on the 23rd of April 1014 AD, on the Easter Sunday of that year, the Battle of Clontarf was fought between Brian Boru and Mael Morda and the kingdoms of Ireland, the earldoms of the Isles and mercenaries from much of Northern Europe. I have written some posts previously about this event. It is a sombre recollection but an interesting one, as we think how this event has changed Irish history. It is important as well to remember the historians, annalists and saga-writers who kept the tale of these events alive.

Enjoy the millennium anniversary.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Sumerian History: 3500-1940BC

Marshes of southern Mesopotamia
When the heavens above did not exist,
And earth beneath had not come into being—
There was Apsu, the first in order, their begetter…
“Enuma Elish”, Babylon c. 1700BC

Looking back through the blogs I realised that while I had written a post about the ancient Sumerian culture I had omitted to give a decent timeline of this impressive civilisation. So, while my overall general thoughts on Sumerian culture can be found in the previous post, this one will focus primarily on just giving an overall timeline of the events of this culture. Due to the chronological issues (to be dealt with in a later post) all dates are given in short chronology and should be treated as subject to academic debate.

After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu.
In Eridu, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28,800 years.
Alalgar ruled for 36,000 years.
Two kings; they ruled for 64800 years.
“Sumerian Kinglist” (from a translation of a prism found at Larsa, c. 2000BC)

Artists impression of Eridu
Sumer is not a particularly ancient place of settlement by Neolithic standards. The land in the southern region of Iraq was primarily a marshland that was unsuitable for large scale settlement, so settlements like Catal Huyuk and Jericho predate Sumer. While there is no clear distinction between town and city, these earlier settlements would have been very small with populations that probably were no more than a few thousand at absolute most: pastoralist settlement isolates in a sea of nomads. There was a culture in the centre of Iraq known as the Halaf culture but this culture appears to have been primarily village based and leaves few traces. The first real city seems to have been Eridu in southern Iraq. While it is now quite inland, in that period it would have been on the coast. Around 5000BC there is evidence of a settlement there. This was very (very) gradually extended until the city had a dock, palaces and the first evidence of multi-storied monumental temples. Other smaller towns surrounded Eridu and Eridu’s prominence may have been due to the fact that it had ritual significance. Eridu was built on a fresh water marsh and the original mound the city was built on was believed to be the first dry land when the world was created out of the waters, (this was referred to as Apsu, later personified as a god in Babylonian mythology).

“Enmerkar’s speech was very grand; its’ meaning very profound. But the messenger’s mouth was too heavy, and he could not repeat the message. Because the messenger’s mouth was too heavy, and he could not repeat it, the Lord of Kulab (that is, Enmerkar) patted some clay and put the words on it as on a tablet. Before that day, words put on clay had never existed. But now, when the sun rose on that very day — so it was! The Lord of Kulab had put words as on a tablet — so it was!”
“Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta”, lines 500–06, Ur, c2100BC (after Vanstiphout 2003, p. 85): Mesopotamian account of the origin of writing

Ruins of Temple of Inanna in Uruk
Around 3000BC the irrigation of the hinterland of Eridu had drained most of the marshes in the area, leading to salinity poisoning of the crops and the emigration of the fishing population of the surrounding area. The centre of culture moved northward to Uruk, which was far larger than Eridu had been and depended on the river Euphrates for irrigation rather than the marshlands of the coast. The population of Uruk was about 20,000-50,000 (un-disputably a city) and it was at this period that the proto-writing of signs and tokens developed into a full-fledged script to deal with the complexity of administering this burgeoning civilisation.

En-me-barage-si, the king, built the Iri-nanam in Enlil's temple. Aga, son of En-me-barage-si, made the Tummal flourish and brought Ninlil into the Tummal. Then the Tummal fell into ruins for the first time.
“The History of the Tummal” 1-6: Documents of En-me-barage-si, a supposed contemporary of Gilgamesh

Around 2900BC a dynasty of heroic figures, Meshki-Angasher, Enmerkar, Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh supposedly arose in Uruk. Their exploits became legendary (the Sumerian equivalent to the heroic age for the Greeks). It is unclear if they actually existed but the fact that some of their supposed rivals were historical figures allows the possibility that these heroes may have some basis in fact. The main point is that Uruk is no longer dominant around this time. Other cities have emerged, such as the Sumerian cities of Lagash, Larsa, Isin, Umma, Kish, Nippur and Aratta (Aratta’s location is unclear but it was probably not Sumerian and probably located to the east of Sumer). Larsa was quite close to Uruk and the two were often in competition but the other cities were further north.

Ceremonial dagger from Ur
Uruk he defeated.
Ur he defeated.
Kiutu he defeated.
Iriaz he destroyed,
and its ruler he killed.
Mishime he destroyed.
Arua he obliterated.

Before Eannatum,
the one nominated by Ningirsu,
all the lands trembled.
The Eannatum Boulder c. 2430BC

Warfare is described from this period and the Elamite civilisation to the east provided a worthy adversary to the Sumerian states. Unfortunately the Proto-Elamite script is as yet undeciphered so the accounts of battle are one-sided. Eannatum of Lagash created a tenuous empire around 2500BC and erected what is known as the Stele of Vultures to celebrate a victory over Umma, as well as numerous other monuments. Bows, helmets, body armour, shields, formations and chariots are all in evidence at this time. It should be noted though that the chariot was likely pulled by onagers rather than horses, which were not domesticated in that area at that point.

Ceremonial spears
from Ur

Around this time a city called Ur rose to prominence. It had been a settlement since the Ubaid period but had never been powerful. While it was to become significant later it was as yet a minor power compared to the cities of Lagash and Kish. Like the Pharaohs of later times, the rulers of Ur went down to the grave in splendour. However, there were also servants who followed them into the afterlife, either through poison or blows to the head. The rituals were carried out and the servants lay entombed with their gilded masters for four millennia before being unearthed.

The quantity and quality of the grave goods is quite astonishing and, while these items were mainly ceremonial, it is testimony to the skill of the Sumerian craftsmen that they were able to create such works. I have attached two pictures of the grave goods of Ur. Photo credit is from sumerianshakespeare.com so do head over to that site for more incredible pictures. It is interesting to note that one of those buried (Puabi) may have been a queen, but also that she may not have been Sumerian. Another people group coexisted with the Sumerians in the south of Iraq but they spoke a different language; a Semitic language afterwards called Akkadian.

In those days, although writing words on tablets existed, putting tablets into envelopes did not yet exist. King Ur-Zababa despatched Sargon, the creature of the gods, to Lugal-zage-si in Uruk with a message written on clay, which was about murdering Sargon.
Sargon and Ur-Zababa: Description of the rise of Sargon; in this extract his master sends Sargon to his arch-rival, hoping his arch-rival will kill him.

Sargon of Akkad
Around 2270BC, an Akkadian speaker called Sargon launched a coup against King Ur-Zababa of Kish and defeated the hegemon of the Sumer at that time Lugal-Zagesi. There are legendary accounts giving Sargon a birth legend similar to the later tales of Moses. His capital was the city of Akkad (or Agade), a newly founded city by Sargon that gave its name to the Akkadian language but which ironically does not appear to be an Akkadian word. Sargon’s empire encompassed all of the Sumerian cities and the cities of Mari and Ebla to the north in Syria. The campaigns against the Sumerian cities appear to have been quite brutal. He installed his daughter Enheduanna as High Priestess of Nanna (or Nannar) the Moon-God of Ur, as a method of controlling the elites in the Sumerian cities.

Akkadian rule was strongly resented and there were numerous revolts against Sargon and the kings that followed him (Rimush, Manishtushu and Naram-Sin). During one of these revolts a Sumerian called Lugal-Ane (lugal may be a title here) took Ur and stripped Enheduanna of her priestly title. A surviving hymn of Enheduanna (most probably the world’s first named author) gives a lament to Inanna (the Sumerian name for the goddess Ishtar) about her loss.

I, Enheduana, will recite a prayer to you. To you, holy Inanna, I shall give free vent to my tears like sweet beer! … In connection with the purification rites of holy An, Lugal-Ane has altered everything of his, and has stripped An of the E-ana. He has not stood in awe of the greatest deity. He has turned that temple, whose attractions were inexhaustible, whose beauty was endless, into a destroyed temple.
The Exaltation of Inanna, by Enheduanna c.2250BC: Description of the revolt against the Akkadian Empire.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
Naram-Sin, the grandson of Sargon of Akkad was able to restore order to the empire and embarked on a series of campaigns that brought the empire to its greatest extent, leaving stelas and monuments in his wake. His successor, Shar-kali-Sharri held the empire together for over ten years after Naram-Sin’s death but the empire rapidly disintegrated thereafter. An expressive document, grimly named “The Cursing of Akkad” speaks of the will of the gods turning against Akkad describes the collapse, although it inaccurately places the collapse at the time of Naram-Sin. The empire collapsed and a new people group called the Gutians moved down from the Zagros Mountains into Sumer. Whether or not it was an invasion is unclear but the Akkadian Empire was no more.

The life of Akkad's sanctuary was brought to an end as if it had been only the life of a tiny carp in the deep waters, and all the cities were watching it. Like a mighty elephant, it bent its neck to the ground while they all raised their horns like mighty bulls. Like a dying dragon, it dragged its head on the earth and they jointly deprived it of honour as in a battle.
The Cursing of Akkad, c.2000BC: Description of the end of the Akkadian Empire

King Gudea of Lagash
While the later accounts of this time describe this as a Sumerian Dark Ages where the barbarian Gutians oppressed the land this may be a feature of later propaganda and lack of sources than an actual Dark Age. Accounts exist from the city of Lagash of a king called Gudea who appears to have had a relatively prosperous and peaceful reign. Lagash seems to have become independent in the later years of the Akkadian Empire and they subsequently extended their influence over much of Sumer.

"When you, true shepherd Gudea, really set to work for me on my house, the foremost house of all lands, the right arm of Lagash, the Anzu bird roaring on the horizon, the E-ninnu, my royal house, I will call up to heaven for humid winds so that plenty comes down to you from heaven and the land will thrive under your reign in abundance."
The Building of Ningirsu’s temple c.2130 BC

The reign of the kings of Lagash was effectively ignored by the later rulers of Ur. Utu-Hegal a king of Uruk defeated the Gutians but his leadership was usurped by Ur-Nammu of Ur. Ur-Nammu and his son Shulgi led a renaissance of Sumerian culture with an empire that across all the cities of the south and initiated a program of rebuilding in all the cities. The Great Ziggurat of Ur reached its current form under the reign of Shulgi and the vast amount of documentation produced makes it one of the best documented periods of history for administrative affairs. The law codes of Ur-Nammu are some of the first codifications of law in history.

"O Utu, Enlil has given Gutium to me, may you be my help!" He laid a trap … behind the Gutian. Utu-Hegal, the mighty man, defeated their generals.
Then Tirigan the king of Gutium ran away alone on foot. He thought himself safe in Dabrum, where he fled to save his life; but since the people of Dabrum knew that Utu-Hegal was a king endowed with power by Enlil, they did not let Tirigan go, and an envoy of Utu-Hegal arrested Tirigan together with his wife and children in Dabrum. He put handcuffs and a blindfold on him. Before Utu, Utu-Hegal made him lie at his feet and placed his foot on his neck. … He brought back the kingship of Sumer.
The Victory of Utu-Hegal (grandfather of Shulgi) c. 2100BC

Ziggurat of Ur
Shulgi was succeeded by Amar-Sin who continued the building program, even attempting a massive ziggurat in the now moribund city of Eridu. Shu-Sin succeeded Amar-Sin but now the empire was disintegrating and a new people group speaking a Semitic language moved in from the West (they were called the Amorites: Amurru means “West” in Akkadian). Ibbi-Sin was the last Sumerian king of Ur and his continuation of the fortifications of his father Shu-Sin was of no help in staving off the end. Elam had previously been subject to Sumer but now the king of Elam attacked Ur. The tribal attacks had previously weakened Ur to such an extent that it had lost control of the food supply and the famine-stricken city surrendered. Ibbi-Sin was taken and died in captivity. The Amorites took over the cities of Iraq. Their language was similar to Akkadian so they were able to assimilate rapidly and soon new heights of civilisation would be reached. But after the fall of Ur in 1940BC the use of Sumerian as a spoken language began to go into irreversible decline and it would only survive as a scholarly language (like Latin in the Middle Ages).

Mother Ningal, like an enemy, stands outside her city. The woman laments bitterly over her devastated house. Over her devastated shrine Urim, the princess bitterly declares:
"An has indeed cursed my city, my city has been destroyed before me.
Enlil has indeed transformed my house, it has been smitten by pickaxes.
On my ones coming from the south he hurled fire.
Alas, my city has indeed been destroyed before me.
On my ones coming from the highlands Enlil hurled flames.
Outside the city, the outer city was destroyed before me,
I shall cry "Alas, my city".
Inside the city, the inner city was destroyed before me,
I shall cry "Alas, my city".
My houses of the outer city were destroyed,
I shall cry "Alas, my houses".
My houses of the inner city were destroyed,
I shall cry "Alas, my houses"."
“Lament of Ur”, 254-264, c.1900BC

Friday, 11 April 2014

Mada'in Saleh

Mada'in Saleh
In the north of Saudi Arabia, in the old kingdom of Nabatea, lies an abandoned city hewn into the rocks of the desert. It’s worth reading about but the video footage makes for fascinating viewing.

The city may be the city of Thamud mentioned in the Qu'ran (7.78) that was struck down in judgement.

So the earthquake seized them, and morning found them prostrate in their dwelling-place.

The remains of the city today are mainly the tombs of the Nabatean period, similar to Petra but with less Classical influence. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



Friday, 4 April 2014

India from 1800-500BC: Part Two

"Friends, which of these two kings has greater wealth, greater possessions, the greater treasury, the larger realm, the greater stock of riding animals, the greater army, greater power, greater might: King Seniya Bimbisara of Magadha or King Pasenadi of Kosala?" And this discussion came to no conclusion.
Khudakka Nikaya, Udana, Raja Sutta (translated from Pali by Thanissaro Bhikku)

This is the second post on the Vedic Era. Click here for the first post on the Vedas and the early tribal groupings.

Map of India in 600BC showing kingdoms.
The early periods of many tribes and peoples (often associated with the Early Painted Grey Ware culture in archaeology) gave way to the era of the great kingdoms (associated with the Northern Black Polished Ware pottery by archaeologists, who have a knack for finding descriptive but boring names for eras). These kingdoms were known as the Mahajanapadas; around twelve to sixteen great kingdoms (“Maha” in Sanskrit literally means “great”). They were roughly contemporary with the Assyrian Empire and later with the Persian Empire in Mesopotamia and Iran and also with the Zhou Dynasty through its gradual decline into the Warring States. Either as a result of the Battle of the Ten Kings or because of subsequent developments the Purus and the Bharata tribes merged to become the Kuru state; the first of the Great Kingdoms and the battle itself shows that tribal amalgamations were already taking place (9 kings fought under one ruler against the Trtsu). These great amalgamations into the kingdoms may have influenced the writing of the great Indian epic called the Mahabharata.

By the time of the kingdoms emerging fully the Vedas were effectively compiled and our sources for the period come from Buddhist and Jain texts written around 450-100BC. The Sanskrit language was now becoming ancient and only survived among the intellectuals. The common language was one that resembled a now dead language called Pali or less frequently, Magadhi. In practice, while they are treated as different languages Sanskrit and Pali are so closely related that Pali can be thought of as an extension of Sanskrit. The most powerful of the great kingdoms was Magadha and its capital, Pataliputra would be the centre of empires for centuries to come.

But of their cities it is said that the number is so great that it cannot be stated with precision, but that such cities as are situated on the banks of rivers or on the sea-coast are built of wood instead of brick, being meant to last only for a time, so destructive are the heavy rains which pour down, and the rivers also when they overflow their banks and inundate the plains, while those cities which stand on commanding situations and lofty eminences are built of brick and mud; that the greatest city in India is that which is called Palimbothra (Pataliputra)…
Arrian, Indika 10 (probably based on Megasthenes account of India from the 300’s BC)

Black Polished Ware: a pottery type typical of the period
Some of these states might not have strictly been kingdoms. Buddhist texts and later Greek evidence seem to suggest that some of the states may have been ruled by councils of elder statesmen. The evidence is thin but some historians have gone so far as to posit that these states were the earliest republics. Without any knowledge of the constitution of these states this seems to assume a great deal but it is likely that there were aristocracies that ruled some of the states. This would parallel developments in Greece around 800BC onwards.

By about 1000 AD the Vedas were substantially complete but further scriptures were compiled, including poetic compositions known as the Upanishads and the Puranas that functioned as commentaries and extensions to the Vedas. While these writings are vast and hard to sum up in a few words, they appear to be less concerned with the Vedic rituals and incantations of the RigVeda and the AtharvaVeda and more to do with the underlying conceptions of divinity and the Universe.  These texts are part of the great cultural heritage of humanity but they do not generally contain many useful historical references for the period. Their main use for history is to inform us that many thinkers in this age were considering philosophical and religious concepts and that many of these thinkers found the existing religious concepts to be inadequate in their own right. Again, it should be noted as well that these texts are linguistically very ancient but that they were not written down until substantially later, as at this point there is no clear evidence of writing in India. The Indus Valley Script had died out and it would only be around 300 BC that there is evidence of the newer Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts.

Now, there are of a truth three worlds—the world of men, the world of the fathers, and the world of the gods. This world of men is to be obtained by a son only, by no other means; the world of the fathers, by sacrifice; the world of the gods, by knowledge. The world of the gods is verily the best of worlds. Therefore they praise knowledge.
Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad

Indus Valley Civilization pottery showing elephant
The class system of the great kingdoms was solidifying around 1000-500BC and warfare appears to have become purely the domain of the military classes. This meant that other sections of society could be relatively unaffected by wars but also meant increasing specialisation. The chariots of the earlier Vedic era were refined and the quality of the iron weapons increased, much as was the case in China at that period. The elephant was also trained for war. Elephants had been captured since the era of the Indus Valley Civilization but there are no depictions of elephant riders from that time. Elephant warfare was perfected in India during this period. The specialisation of warfare may also have led to developments in religion, as there was now a powerful class that was nevertheless fairly unoccupied during times of peace and was able to cultivate intellectual ideas.

This concern from the warrior class led to reformers who wished to restructure the Vedic practices. Many schools of thought sprang up and there was an intellectual ferment the likes of which has seldom been seen. The two ideas that have most influenced the world from this period are Jainism and Buddhism, associated with the figures of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha respectively. Both lived in or around the 550-450 BC and renounced their upper-class warrior/ruler status to wander the kingdoms of northern India, learning from the various religious and philosophical schools before forming their own ideas, achieving enlightenment and founding their own schools. The two religions are different but there are similarities. Both preach the importance of non-violence and both reject the Vedas as scripture. However, the overall world view of the Vedas is pre-supposed by many of their teachings. While both schools were immediately very popular, neither of them were universally acknowledged within India or definitely known of outside of India until later.

This has been only the most cursory of overviews of one of the most tantalising and important periods of human history. We know so little of what we would wish to understand but the nature of the source materials makes a full knowledge of this time impossible. The ideas formed in this time and place changed the world irrevocably. The summary is that by the year 500BC there were major kingdoms in India, with an ancient religion that had its roots at least a thousand years previous but that was being added to and challenged by new intellectual ideas; that there was as yet no writing system for these ideas to be written but that there was a strong oral tradition that supplemented this lack and that the kingdoms had created a durable social system with a strong warrior class that would compare favourably with outside forces. Between the Indus Valley Period and 500BC there is no clear outside mention of India. From 500BC peoples beyond the Himalayas and the Spin Gar mountains begin to feature in Indian history. But that is a matter for another day. If you have the time there are few better ways to improve one’s mind than to study the history of India and this period in particular.