This is a good survey of well known travelogues in, through, and around central Asia, from the 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, to the 17th-centuryThis is a good survey of well known travelogues in, through, and around central Asia, from the 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, to the 17th-century English trader Anthony Jenkinson.
Actually there are two additional travelers covered in the book after Jenkinson, but I generally lose interest entering the early modern period so stopped there. If possible one should read the travelogues themselves, and I intend to do this for several (e.g., Ibn Battuta and Babur really stood out for me). Some of Blunt's analysis is Eurocentric in an unselfconscious, twirpy way not surprising in the mid-20th century in which Golden Road was written, but pretty obnoxious now. But he means well, and is clearly taken with his subject matter. In general, this was a very enjoyable read and it contains great images....more
As a physical volume, Ancient Egypt, edited by David P. Silverman, has the look and feel of a survey history textbook. But before that puts you off, nAs a physical volume, Ancient Egypt, edited by David P. Silverman, has the look and feel of a survey history textbook. But before that puts you off, note that the content is far superior.
The print decisions here are excellent in every respect and are what lend the book-as-object a textbook vibe. The paper is fairly heavy and there are full color, high quality images (marginal, half, and full page) throughout. Many pages contain inset textboxes that focus more specifically on a topic treated generally in the running text. The end of each section’s running text, with very few exceptions, coincides with a page break, which makes for easy navigation in a volume containing so many separate authors, sections, and topics. All of these decisions make the vast and varied amounts of information presented, coherent and digestible to the reader. One last textbook-y characteristic of which I am less fond is the omission of footnotes. A lot of people hate these anyway, but the academic in me misses them.
Lack of footnotes notwithstanding, Ancient Egypt still excels where most textbooks fail. With multiple authors, but a single editor, the text reads cohesively, yet makes space for the different areas of expertise of each author without watering down points of possible contention among them. One of the worst aspects of traditional textbook content is the impression of omniscience and univocal historical agreement that an army of editors cannot help but convey. The resulting “consensus” usually destroys any sense of unknowability, which is an inherent aspect of historical inquiry in general, and especially of inquiry into the distant past given the fragmentary nature of the historical and archaeological record.
Instead of a bland consensus, the various sections in Ancient Egypt successfully convey the impression of a complex bygone culture, as well as the enormity and non-definitive nature of the centuries-long project of Egyptology itself, ,i.e., the painstaking piecing together of ancient Egypt’s culture, beliefs, politics, and language.
I’ve read works about ancient Egypt before, but I’ve never encountered such a sweeping, comprehensive-while-not-reductive, treatment of this incredible stretch of time. Readers are so often given a vision of the Egyptian empire that highlights its stability, its unchangeability, and its “obsession” with death. Silverman’s volume instead provides a sense of the dynamism of the Egyptian empire and of its liveliness.
Taken together, these characteristics—layout and concept of a textbook, content of a thoughtful secondary source—make it an engaging, unusual, and really informative book. ...more
Peter Wells deftly tackles the bizarrely persistent idea that the early Middle Ages (c. 400 to 800 AD) were, as the old moniker would have it, actuallPeter Wells deftly tackles the bizarrely persistent idea that the early Middle Ages (c. 400 to 800 AD) were, as the old moniker would have it, actually "dark". Crucially, Wells' research is based on archaeological evidence rather than textual evidence.
The primary literate document producers of this 400-year period, namely clerics, subscribed to the late Roman Empire's school of thought regarding what makes "culture" and "civilization". According to these criteria - which are much like our own: monumental stone buildings, written law codes and official correspondence, a strong centralized political authority, etc. - the 400 years following the effective waning of Roman imperial power looked dark, chaotic, decentralized.
But archaeological evidence speaks to the contrary. It tells of a culturally and materially, if not politically, unified Europe holding strong manufacturing and trade relationships with empires as far away as Egypt and India. Rather than some interruption in "civilization", the archaeological record displays a fascinating hybridity during this period between pre-Roman and Roman European cultures that gesture toward the florescence of the high Middle Ages and Renaissance. If anything, this evidence demonstrates how the Roman Empire was a mere interruption of pre-Roman European culture. Roman culture influenced and was blended into, but certainly did not determine the ways people lived, the buildings they built, the rituals they practiced. Once Rome's authority declined, the people of Europe continued to construct the buildings, craft the jewelry and weapons, perform the sacred practices their ancestors had done. And their activity led directly to the Carolingian "Renaissance" of the 9th century and all of the cultural productivity that lay beyond it.
This is an enjoyable and enlightening read. Unfortunately, its readership has probably been small enough, that people will continue to call this period the Dark Ages, without realizing how vibrant it really was....more
Originally published in 1961, this third edition was edited and augmented by Aidan Dodson and released in 1998. I do not know if it is typical in archOriginally published in 1961, this third edition was edited and augmented by Aidan Dodson and released in 1998. I do not know if it is typical in archaeological and ancient historical works for old books to be reissued with a little updating, but it's strange for other kinds of history books. Usually the date of a work provides a good indication of its relevance. Academic theories, methods and pet ideas change with some rapidity. So I prepared myself for something relatively fusty. The Egyptians is not, however, fusty. Aldred writes beautifully, definitely having taken a lesson from those fine old school narrative historians like Stephen Runciman. Probably a more accurate comment is that Aldred was a fine old school narrative historian - he predeceased Runciman by almost a decade. And if I had my guess, I would wager that Dodson devoured and adored Aldred's work as an undergraduate or graduate. His additions to the work are, stylistically, obscure and blend well with Aldred's voice. If I knew more about Egyptology I might be able to identify more modern interpretations of artifacts and decide how much altering Dodson actually did. In any case, this reads as a unified work of careful scholarship. Unfortunately, its date does tend to show in Aldred's moderate use of the word "primitive" as though it describes anything other than the writer's own cultural arrogance, and in blandly racist observations about how portrait statues of the Nubian pharaohs have more "Africanized" features (by which I take him to mean black), which according to Aldred makes them seem more stern and aggressive. I only regret Dodson didn't remove these few antiquated and offensive ideas. Otherwise an informative read and frequently an enjoyable one. When I wasn't rolling my eyes....more
This is a very a lucid, historical look at one of the most referenced and quoted books of the New Testament. By piecing together the book's likeliestThis is a very a lucid, historical look at one of the most referenced and quoted books of the New Testament. By piecing together the book's likeliest authorship and his likeliest intent, Pagels painstakingly delineates how Revelations, like any good propaganda, allowed successive generations to use, appropriate, misread or misinterpret it, pretty much from the time of its writing on.
Revelations has been invoked for centuries, frequently by literal-minded, fire-and-brimstone fear-mongers who are looking for strong, apocalyptic exclusionary language to divide an "us" from a "them". Interesting then to discover that, according to Pagels, the man usually credited with writing Revelations, John of Patmos, was most likely a Jewish follower of Jesus, in exile from Judea following the Jewish Revolts and the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, who took issue with Paul's proselytizing among Gentiles and his teaching that converts to this fledgling "Christianity" did not first need to become Jewish. Moreover, the famous "Beast" of Revelations can best be understood as the Roman Empire, not Satan himself. In other words, historical context exposes the conflicts within the nascent religion, which are not the same conflicts the book has since been used to speak about (and rail against).
First and foremost, Pagels elucidates how Revelations is clearly a work of intense and specific symbolism, rooted in the struggles of its author's life. Of course, this does not preclude it from having broader meaning and application in future contexts, like any good work of literature. It ought, however, preclude it from being used as a literal description of anything. ...more
Jealous Gods and Chosen People is an anthropological look at the religions spawned in the Middle East beginning thousands of years ago. Leeming tracesJealous Gods and Chosen People is an anthropological look at the religions spawned in the Middle East beginning thousands of years ago. Leeming traces the Bronze Age mythologies of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Hittites and Western Semites (whose descendents would spawn first Judaism and later Christianity and Islam), and ends with brief treatments of the mythological (as opposed to historical) aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Throughout, Leeming highlights what these varied mythological traditions share, how they have interacted and borrowed from each other over the millennia. He provides a very compelling picture of modern monotheistic religions as inheriting and interpolating the ancient pagan religions of the Mesopotamians, et al. He demonstrates quite clearly how Judaism, Christianity and Islam share far more than they do not and laments the state of contention among these religions that has reigned in the area for centuries down to today. Moreover, he ties these land conflicts to the fact that modern people insist on reasserting ancient claims based on even older mythologies and tend to do so in violent ways that contrast sharply with the kernels of peace and mercy that ultimately live at the heart of all three major monotheistic religions. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking work. ...more
Richard Sennett deftly tackles a topic of considerable breadth in "Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization". Using primary andRichard Sennett deftly tackles a topic of considerable breadth in "Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization". Using primary and secondary sources, fiction and art, Sennett examines six cities at various historical moments in order to explore the development of the relationship between cities and the bodies of their residents. He identifies attitudes toward the self and the Other, towards comfort and pain, that manifest themselves in western urban culture and spaces and, in turn, which act upon the human body dwelling in such spaces. Sennett employs theory from a number of disciplines, including history, sociology, urban development, psychology, economics and cultural anthropology. The latter is used in a way reminiscent of Greg Dening in "The Death of William Gooch", where Dening successfully presented western culture as "other" to a western audience; Sennett performs a similar feat by objectifying the stage itself upon which western culture has been enacted - the city. Urban spaces, and how we feel as bodies living in and moving through them, seem strange and manufactured - which they are. We are simply used to cities and how we feel in cities and, so, naturalize them to a certain extent. Sennett erases this naturalization and we see urban space not as an inert backdrop against which we move or as a mere product of human will or design, but as a dynamic organism that has the capability of acting on our bodies even as we act upon it, and of creating our understanding of ourselves in relation to it. The city makes and is made, just as we make and are made. The generative power at play in the relationship between a city and its residents flows both ways.
Sennett examines Athens of the Fifth Century B.C., Rome of the Second Century A.D., thirteenth-century Paris, the Jewish Ghetto in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Venice, revolutionary Paris, nineteenth-century London and modern New York. Throughout his exploration, Sennett ties developments in western urban life to then contemporary understandings of the body and its processes. For example, he links William Harvey's seventeenth-century discovery of the circulation of blood through the human body with a new focus in urban planning on motion through the city's veins and arteries and the desire to make human movement easy and unobstructed. For Sennett, this impulse to free the human body relates directly to other modern conveniences, like television and automobiles, that end up instead imprisoning the body in a non-sensing bubble.
In fact, Sennett identifies this trend toward ease, comfort and lack of obstruction as one of the primary ramifications of how western cities have developed. For Sennett, ease and comfort pacify the body and desensitize the individual to their connection with others. The individual becomes a self-contained, disconnected unit moving through the city, claiming her right not to be interfered with and, thereby, isolating herself from society as a whole. The individual in this scenario loses her sense of sharing a common interest with the individuals around her. Sennett asserts that western civilization's historical drive toward personal freedom (especially in one's physical life) has actually culminated in passive bodies rather than active ones, in sterile spaces rather than lively ones. These isolated individuals in the modern western city feel, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, "strangers to the destinies of each other".
Essentially, difference and human social friction constitute, for Sennett, true freedom; the freedom to act, to work out differences, to really experience the Other. In many ways, Sennett's meditation on the city and bodies is really a plea to reconnect, to tolerate and even invite difference. He writes:
"Lurking in the civic problems of the multi-cultural city is the moral difficulty of arousing sympathy for those who are Other. And this can only occur, I believe, by understanding why bodily pain requires a place in which it can be acknowledged, and in which its transcendent origins become visible. Such pain has a trajectory in human experience. It disorients and makes incomplete the self, defeats the desire for coherence; the body accepting pain is ready to become a civic body, sensible to the pain of another person, pains present together on the street, at last endurable - even though, in a diverse world, each person cannot explain what he or she is feeling, who he or she is, to the other. But the body can follow this civic trajectory only if it acknowledges that there is no remedy for its sufferings in the contrivings of society, that its unhappiness has come from elsewhere, that its pain derives from God's command to live together as exiles."...more
In a recent post on my blog, I spent a good deal of time discussing how ancient Egypt receives a disproportionate amount of popular attention as far aIn a recent post on my blog, I spent a good deal of time discussing how ancient Egypt receives a disproportionate amount of popular attention as far as classical history goes. And then I promptly began reading a novel by Norman Mailer set in ancient Egypt. I learned about Ancient Evenings (and a number of other extremely interesting books) from a post by Wilfried Houjebek on the original and worthwhile site SpaceCollective. Houjebek describes it this way:
"[Ancient Evenings] is the autobiography of a Ka, the lowliest soul of the seven souls of the ancient Egyptians, which makes for unusual reading. Especially because Mailer uses an uncensored version of Egyptian mythology which, to put it mildly, differs from the version you get of it from the National Geographic. The Egyptians practised sex magic with the stamina of a bonobo. Mailer makes Aleister Crowley look like a prudish schoolboy. This is the boldest attempt to recreate a radically different mind from ours that I know of, and does so successfully."
Strangely and despite my bellyaching about all of the historical attention paid to ancient Egypt, reading this novel has underscored how seldom ancient Egypt has been explored in fiction. Science fiction has adopted Egypt as an aesthetic treasure trove from which to draw tropes and visuals (much like fantasy has used the Middle Ages), but fictive explorations of historical ancient Egypt remain scarce. Ancient Evenings in this respect certainly provides a thrill on par with Apocalypto, Mel Gibson's cinematic rendering of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. For reasons best known to the 100,000th author to set a novel in Victorian London, we rarely get to place ourselves imaginatively in certain more neglected places and periods. It is a treat to go along with an author or filmmaker while they portray these lesser attended worlds and their inhabitants.
To work, this kind of venture requires at least a gesture towards the detail and methodological sophistication of an adept historian. It is not sufficient to project one's modern sensibility into a premodern time period; neither is it useful to envision all precursors to our modernity as quainter, rubish versions of ourselves. That kind of shortsighted anachronism seems clunky and unconvincing even when applied to time periods much closer to our own (a great - by which I mean rather dreadful - example of this is One Thousand White Women). The author undertaking such a project ideally realizes that past cultures operated not just in different material worlds than we do, but within truly foreign paradigms and cosmologies. The cultural assumptions upon which they based their value systems, their ideas of self and of the world depart radically from our own. When executed with sensitivity, such a project demands not merely sound research but a real shift of one's entire epistemological framework.
I think Mailer understood this and attempted it sincerely. He not only spent a good deal of time researching the world in which he set this novel, but his narrative choices exhibit an awareness that ancient Egyptians viewed the world and humans' place in it in a profoundly different way than do we. Their minds were not our minds. It took Mailer 10 years to complete Ancient Evenings and, without being an expert on ancient Egyptian civilization, I can offer that every time I looked up a reference which seemed either farfetched or peculiarly well-imagined, a factual basis existed for it. I have actually become so curious regarding the breadth of Mailer's research that I procured a couple of academic histories about ancient Egyptian society and culture. I expect by reading them to form a more complete opinion concerning Mailer's level of scholarship and authenticity* in portraying ancient Egyptians, but I suspect it is rather high.
Authenticity and historical imaginative responsibility aside, the book possesses other artistic merits. Mailer has given the novel a story-within-a-story narrative structure reminiscent of The Thousand-and-One Nights. As indicated above, we do begin with our protagonist Menenhetet's ka, or vital spark - that essence which distinguishes the living from the dead - as he awakens in an Egyptian necropolis and realizes he is dead but cannot remember who he was. Slowly, Menenhetet's ka recalls himself and, soon, meets the ka of his namesake great-grandfather. The story moves across generations, telling the story of the elder Menenhetet's four previous lives, and involves tales of charioteers, concubines, and priests, embroiled in wars, palace intrigue, and religious rituals; and yet, through Mailer's careful emplotment and through the almost supernatural connection of his ancient Egyptians to each other and to their own history, the reader gleans a coherent narrative from the maze. In contrast with The Thousand-and-One Nights, the story-within-a-story structure of Ancient Evenings supplies a feeling of unity rather than the Arabian tale's feeling of disjointed rabbit-holing.**
The most self-contained narrative episode of Ancient Evenings relates the story of the deities Isis and Osiris. But again, while discrete, this story adds much to the arc and cohesion of the novel as a whole given the centrality of deities to daily Egyptian life (and so, to Menenhetet's lives). The tale of Isis and Osiris introduces the reader to the main players in the Egyptian pantheon and also offers a good example of the gods' vacillating powers, aspects, and associations with one another. This information proves useful as we crawl into Mailer's well-realized, and highly religious, ancient Egypt. It also begins to inure us to the litany of sex acts, detailed descriptions of which we will have to wade through in order to make it to the end of this 700plus-page book.
Mailer does a reasonable job of linking sex to some sort of spiritual alchemy. Most Bronze Age cultures situated procreation and fertility, metaphorically and actually, at the center of their religious mythologies and rituals. Mailer's ancient Egypt reflects this. Sex comprises an exchange of power, equal or unequal depending. The sexual activity of the pharaoh, indeed all of his physical experiences, are tied to the land itself and to the vital cycles of the Nile. Sex can establish something like a psychic link; although in general Mailer's Egyptians are capable of hearing each others' thoughts and even seeing each others' memories. In short, sex certainly has a relevant place in the world of Mailer's story. Nevertheless, the endless (if inventive) sex scenes made me feel half like a baffled and enthralled, probably giggling, child nervously flipping through a pilfered porn magazine; and half like a bored adult, scoffing and rolling eyes, because I have actually had sex and now these images do not feed my curiosity, but seem superficial and disappointing.
I do not here lodge any accusation of rank sexism at Mr. Mailer, nor am I calling Ancient Evenings pornography. I have formed the distinct impression that Mailer truly used, or felt he used, his depictions of sex to communicate the centrality of sex-as-act and sex-as-metaphor to the spirituality of ancient Egyptians. That is, he does not treat his descriptions as gratuitous and I believe he meant by them to reveal how open and un-tabooed Egyptians behaved with regard to sex. Mailer's sex scenes tend to punctuate if not always further the plot. The sex he describes does not only involve bodies, but egos and psyches as well. Additionally, he references most types of sex imaginable: between men and women, men and men, women and women, people and animals; participants range from two to the hundreds (seriously, you have never seen battle depicted like this); oral, anal, manual and anything else you can imagine occurs; he portrays sex as it demonstrates (for both sexes) love, lust, domination, curiosity, rage and friendship; sex for Mailer's characters can yield shame, elation, or insight. As with actual sex in the actual world, the meaning all depends on context and participants.
In this way, I would not call Mailer's use or depiction of sex sexist. I am, however, tempted to call plenty of it juvenile. Mailer definitely crafts female characters with more agency than round-mouthed blow-up dolls, but the drives of their sexuality still seem to mimic the drives of men. They use sex the same way men do; they want the same things...ahem...thing. Compiling a list of Mailer's euphemisms for the penis would yield a monotonous, if periodically amusing, read. And this goes back to the feeling I kept getting while reading the novel; that I was, in fact, peeping at girly magazine. Ancient Evenings is not like porn insofar as it has a higher purpose than portraying sex for titillation. It is exactly like porn insofar as it is so profoundly phallocentric as to seem frequently comical.
The male member is described, referred to, manipulated, named, and prized to a farcical degree by Mailer via all of his characters. Women and at least one of their erogenous zones are not ignored certainly, and some female characters (only the most powerful and goddess-like, however) are more three-dimensionally drawn than others, but female sexuality as a whole in Ancient Evenings retains the unidirectional telos and raison d'être of porn: it's all about the cock.
True, many modern portrayals of sex, pornographic and otherwise, echo Mailer's phallus obsession. It is possible that ancient Egypt simply resembles our own time and place in this respect, but I rebel against this thought. I find the omnipresence of phallic symbols as fertility symbols very believable, but I assume Egyptians would know and employ other symbols as well and that female symbols of sexual power might also engage their sexuality. Ancient Evenings is an otherwise well-imagined portrayal of a people for whom the powers-that-be appeared more sexually balanced than strictly patriarchal, and who validated women's sexual appetites (and so, I dare to hypothesize, understood and even indulged them). It would have been refreshing to read about a group of women who do not behave as though they were reared on the assumption that their own sexuality exists primarily for the use and pleasure of men; or that their sexuality mirrors, in perfect inverse, that of men.
Observing the many-columned Temple of Hatshepsut, Pharaoh Ramses II says to the elder Menenhetet: "Only a woman would build a temple with nothing but cocks". (278) And there is no satire in this comment, no inkling of a minor truth that women learn when still little girls and continue to observe as the boys they know become men: many, many males are fascinated by their own dicks and project this fascination out into the world (and on to females) with an astounding lack of self-reflection. I suggest, only a man would imagine a woman would build a temple with nothing but cocks.
*Whatever "authenticity" may mean in this context. ** Small wonder given the folkloric and oral provenance of The Thousand-and-One Nights; I intend no criticism of that amazing work....more
This is classic and foundational. It's a compendium of late Roman knowledge - accurate, erroneous, mythological, naturalistic...there's little that PlThis is classic and foundational. It's a compendium of late Roman knowledge - accurate, erroneous, mythological, naturalistic...there's little that Pliny omits. All things under the sun, as they say. I especially enjoy his descriptions of animals and peoples of the known (or often just heard-of) world. ...more