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Which best captures the fleeting present — past or future?

Monday, October 26th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — architectural history as a question in philosophy — Palmyra ]




I’ll admit my preference for “past” — but is it just “the patina of antiquity”I’m appreciating?

What building from the first decades of this millennium might people think worth preserving — or destroying — a thousand years hence?

And what if the present should arise and fade, unaided?

Mosul Museum: first the bad news, perhaps

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — there’s some question as to the authenticity of the footage of destruction in the Mosul Museum, hence the triple post of which this is part 1 ]

First the grief, the terrible wailings:

The reason for the grief:

I have to say, I too was moved to tears by the video.

The symbolic impact:

An individual’s response ties the destruction of statuary in with the destruction of lives:

A communal response as reported by the same individual:


Two useful articles:

  • from the Editor of the Middle East Journal, More on the Destruction in the Mosul Museum:

    Following up on those videos of ISIS smashing Assyrian antiquities in the Mosul Museum, here’s a roundup of commentary and detail from several websites around the preservationist community. And let me emphasize that I am not giving more weight to the destruction of antiquities than to the slaughter of human beings, but that barbarity is already well known.

  • and from The Atlantic, Erased: ISIS and the Destruction of Ancient Artifacts

    But another way to think about it is as squarely in a tradition of iconoclasm. Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, himself destroyed idols, according to tradition. There’s a strong tradition of icon-destruction in Christianity. And in pre-Islamic Mecca, the Kaaba was the site of multiple idols, which Muhammad cleared out before rededicating the site to God. This is certainly the tradition to which ISIS wishes to claim a connection. The Taliban, another group that claimed fidelity to the principles of early Islam, also spent a great deal of time destroying images of people—most notably the massive Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. The tomb of Muhammad in Mecca was itself destroyed by Ibn Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia, early in the 20th century.

    The fog of war makes it tough to tell when genuine artifacts are missing or in danger.
    In reality, the relationship with icons in all three Abrahamic religions is rather more elaborate than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would want us to believe—but the tradition is there. Destroying traces of forebears, and even robbing and destroying tombs, has perhaps a longer tradition in civilization than preservation.

    ISIS can’t claim total purity on the matter itself, either. The group has widely been reported to be profiting by selling plundered artifacts on the black market.

  • **

    And let’s not forget the Christian tradition of iconoclasm, both Orthodox and Protestant, either:

    The torture and martyrdom of the iconophile Bishop Euthymius of Sardeis by the iconoclast Byzantine Emperor Michael II in 824, in a 13th-century manuscript

    The torture and martyrdom of the iconophile Bishop Euthymius of Sardeis by the iconoclast Byzantine Emperor Michael II in 824, in a 13th-century manuscript

    Not Paris, much nearer home

    Sunday, January 18th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — religious satire USA, plus two Charlie Hebdo resources ]

    Jesus dinosaur detail 602


    I hadn’t realized that comic book satire had entered the religion vs science debate — foolish of me, it’s an obvious medium for the task:

    jesus-and-darwin 602

    And here for total impact is the full page of Jesus riding the dinosaur (detail above), text included:

    jesusdinosaur large

    I have to say, neither these nor the Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten cartoons disturb me personally — but in our discussions of free speech and blasphemy, I think the voices of those who may be offended deserve a hearing.


    Sources and Resources:

  • Popperfont, Did Jesus ride on a dinosaur?
  • Beliefnet, Jesus and Darwin fight
  • Daily Beast, 16 most ‘shocking’ Charlie Hebdo covers
  • Understanding Charlie Hebdo, Charlie Hebdo’s satire
  • The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire

    Thursday, November 15th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — IDF terminology and the Gaza conflict, explanations of Exodus, an IDF video, Megillah 10b and the koan “with God on our side” / “with God on all sides” ]

    photo credits: Schristia, Cloud; Chris Tangey, Fire


    I’m curious.

    The IDF calls today’s Israeli operation in Gaza “Operation Pillar of Defense” in English, but as John Cook points out in Gawker, uses the term Hebrew term “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew.

    There’s a great deal of interest here, apart from the difference between their use of non-Biblical terminology in English and Biblical terminology in Hebrew. One point that catches my ear, a poet being a poet, is that the phrase “Pillar of Cloud” is in fact only one half of a double reference…

    Thus in Exodus 13.21-22 we read:

    And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.


    There are various ways of understanding the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, but it’s pretty clear that there’s only one pillar —

    And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud… [Exodus 14.24]

    which is called a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, perhaps simply because we are speaking of theophany — the Divine Presence made visible — perhaps because smoke from a brazier is more visible in daylight and flames at night — perhaps because as Hans Goedicke, then chairman of the department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins, suggested, the source of both fire and smoke was the eruption of Santorini around 1600 BCE.

    The difference in worldviews behind those explanations alone is a matter of considerable interest.


    Linguistically, however — and this is where the poet being a poet comes in — there are two pillars, and I have to wonder whether the name “Pillar of Fire” is being saved for a later and perhaps more impressive (“shock and awe”) operation, or — in line with the “by day and by night” distinction — refers to the covert side of the same op?

    Not that anyone would be likely to give me that information, or that I’d have any use for it if they did.

    But the Biblical phrasing is powerful, and “Pillar of Defense” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — besides, cloud and fire go together in Hebrew in much the same way smoke and mirrors do in English.

    Of the three choices, I’d have gone with “Pillar of Fire” myself.


    An IDF spokesperson, in a response to Cook’s Gawker article, claimed:

    I think that every example of Bible quotes you cited has defensive connotations, rather than “vengeful.”

    One of those quotes is Exodus 14:24, which I quoted above but will now give in full, along with verse 25:

    And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, and took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians.

    I think calling that “defensive” is a bit one-sided, but on the other of the two hands in question, so is calling it “vengeful”.

    The Israelites saw themselves in the larger context as escaping Egyptian oppression, the Egyptians obviously considered themselves under attack in the short term — just as surely as the people of Gaza must feel under attack by the oppressive Israelis today, while the Israelis clearly feel under attack by terroristic Hamas and its rockets. But hey, the IDF spokesman only offered his explanation that the Pillar of Cloud and Defense was “defensive” as “Just my two cents”…

    FWIW, those two verses from Exodus sound just a little like Quran 33.26:

    And He brought down those of the People of the Book who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror in their hearts; some you slew, some you made captive. And He bequeathed upon you their lands, their habitations, and their possessions, and a land you never trod. God is powerful over everything.

    That’s an ayat that has always interested me, because of the use of the word “terror” found in a number of translations including this one, by AJ Arberry — others have “awe” or “panic”, but “terror” is interesting in the context of its contemporary usage.


    Here’s the current strike counter strike in two tweets:


    Okay, let’s get as close to visceral as modern technological warfare permits. After the recent truce was broken and numerous rockets fired into Israel, the IDF fired a missile that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, and quickly put the video feed up on YouTube:


    People are killing and getting killed. Should that be a matter for concern, or delight?

    The narrative from which the IDF drew the name of their campaign in Gaza is taken from that of Israel’s escape from Egypt in Exodus, which also includes the parting of the waters and destruction of the Egyptian army:

    And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided…. [Exodus 14.19-21]

    And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians. And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. [Exodus 14.24-27]

    Here again we see an instance of what I have called the two-fold logic of scriptures: In the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b, R. Johanan tells us:

    The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?

    to which R. Eleazar responds:

    He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.


    To my mind, what we’re looking at here is a global koan: the immediate and eternal paradox of life and death.

    But more on koans shortly.

    Book Review: Lords of the Sea by John R. Hale

    Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

    Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale 

    “I cannot tune a harp or play a lyre, but I know how to make a small city great.” – Themistocles

    Nautical archaeologist Dr. John R. Hale, an expert on bronze age shipbuilding and seafaring, has written a delightful and robust popular history of the navy of ancient Athens, but more importantly, a poignant political history of the Athenian navy’s  intrinsic relationship to radical Democracy and Empire.  A page turner with enough detail about triremes and warfare in the Aegean to leave you crying “The Sea! The Sea!”,  Lords of the Sea will be enjoyed by naval buffs and philo-Hellenes alike.

    As you would expect, there is much in Lords of the Sea about the design, construction and care of triremes, Piraeus and the Long Walls, the shipsheds at Zea Harbor, the financing of the Athenian navy, trierarchy, naval tactics, rowers and rowing, superstitions of Athenian sailors on campaign, the deforestation of Athens for ship timber, comparisons with Spartan, Persian and Macedonian naval prowess and the great sea battles of the ancient world. Plenty, in fact, to keep naval aficionados happy while reading Lords of the Sea and all of which I am spectacularly unqualified to comment upon. I can say that in regard to ancient navies, I learned much that was new to me.

    What was of greater relevance to me was Hale’s major theme of the political nature of the Athenian navy. That the imperial glory and thalassocracy was irrevocably bound up with democracy itself and bitterly opposed by the wealthy, would-be, oligarchs who consistently preferred a much diminished Athens they controlled as Sparta’s vassals to a democratic Athenian empire where they shared power with the people:

    ….The resumption of work on the Long Walls jolted Athens’ oligarchs into action. A small group of upper-class citizens still hoped to destroy the radical democracy. These men feared that once Athens was permanently and inseparably linked to its navy by the Long Walls, the common people would never be unseated from their rule. Before the walls had been completed, the oligarchs sent secret messages to a Spartan army that was at that moment encamped not far from the frontiers of Attica. The oligarchs invited the Spartans to attack Athens, promising to assist in the overthrow of the current regime. In their own minds, these men were patriots, pledged to restore the ancestral consitution.

    Traitors are always heroic in their own minds.

    Hale was a student of Donald Kagan, whom he credits with inspiring him toward an investigation of the naval prowess of Athens, however in covering the history of Athens, including the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, Hale is more evenhanded in his assessments than Kagan. The  faction of oligarchs come off quite badly, except for the rising to the occasion of the Areopagus, patriotism and sacrifice is to be found  by Hale primarily in the demos, especially the thetes and newly freed and enfranchised slaves who rose to the call to defend the city in the hours of Athens’ maximum  danger. However, the demos in the Assembly were not without fault; rule by the people also proved to be impetuous, arrogant, capricious toward Athenian generals and cruel toward allies and enemies alike. The Athenian empire was, in short,  afflicted with hubris and this caused their downfall.

    Hale ties both democracy and Athens’ unparalleled cultural creativity to thalassocracy. When the political will to maintain Athenian naval dominance and independence as a power faded among the Athenian upper-classes, the spirit of oligarchy ignominiously surrendered Athens to a foreign king, despite a mighty navy and eagerly betrayed their own countrymen:

    ….The Assembly sent Phocion and Demades and Xenocrates, the head of the Academy, to ask Antipater [ Alexander the Great”s regent and successor ]  about terms: a war hero, an orator, and a philosopher to negotiate the fate of a once-great city. Antipater demanded a payment of indemnity equal to the full cost of the war, the handing over of Demosthenes and other enemies of Macedon, and the evacuation of Samos. The thetes of the demos, defined as all citizens with a net worth of less than two thousand drachmas, were to be expelled from Athens. The wealthier citizens who remained must surrender the fort on Munychia Hill in the Piraeus to a Macedonian garrison.

    …..So the Athenian envoys returned to Athens with the terms of surrender that gave up Athenian independence and, for all practical purposes, Athenian identity. The incredible had happened. Almost three-fifths of the citizens – 12,000 out of 21,000 – failed to pass Antiper’s test of wealth. They were the rabble, the mob, the radical democrats who were everywhere blamed for all the crimes of restless, ambitious, and expansionist Athens. They were now to be banished for the good of all, not merely from Athens but for the most part from Greece itself

    The Athenian Assembly would have been far better off keeping Demosthenes, executing the trierachs who had cravenly surrendered to Cleitus the White and his Macedonian fleet, ostracizing Phocion, Demades and Xenocrates and resuming the war. From this defeat, there was no recovery for Athens, nor did the new oligarchy, secure in their power now, seek any. Without the thetes there were no crews to man the ships or skilled laborers to build them at Zea. Athens was broken as a power and a polis forever.

    Strongly recommended.

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