The Transsexual Emperor: Elagabalus, Topoi and Gender in Rome

A contemporary depiction of Elegabalus. Kind of weird to see a Roman Emperor look younger than you, right?

A contemporary depiction of Elegabalus. Kind of weird to see a Roman Emperor look younger than you, right?

The history of marginalised people can be pretty difficult to write. More often than not, it’s a challenge just to prove they existed: you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no black people in Europe before mass immigration in the 1950s, no homosexual love before the gay subculture of the 1900s, no desire for men and women to change the sex they were born with until…well, that’s something that a lot of people need persuading of today. But that kind of thinking can be pretty dangerous. The stereotypical image of traditional, parochial, white Europe has been central to the campaigns of the European Far Right and the dismissal of gay and lesbian figures in history only encourages those who think that homosexuality is an invention of some ‘permissive society’. It’s a poisonous way of thinking, and one that can only really be counteracted by paying attention to those marginalised people whenever they make it into the history books – be it as a black field marshal under Napoleon, a lesbian poet in 600BC, or a cross-dressing Chinese girl in the 640s who defeats the Hu…wait, that’s the plot of Mulan, but to be fair that’s a fantastic Chinese legend anyway. And so, in this spirit, we get to the life of Elagabalus. A teenaged Roman Emperor of the 3rd century AD, Elagabalus – or Heliogabalus, if you’re feeling Greek about it, or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, if you’re feeling official – is probably one of the most interesting characters of his era. The young princeps was a foreign ruler in control of the Roman Empire at its height, and as politically divisive as the lovechild of Thatcher and Chavez. He was a devout sun-worshipper, openly denying the existence of the Roman gods. But most unusually for a Roman Emperor, Elagabalus was also transsexual – biologically male but identifying and behaving as a young woman. That alone carries amazingly important implications for the history of gender and our modern ideas about transsexuality. But the truth is always…complicated. The sources on Elagabalus’ life are far from perfect and Elagabalus’ gender has become the subject of hot debate. But the life of Elagabalus is undoubtedly an important one in understanding how we approach gender and historical fact in the ancient world. And in any case – the story of Rome’s teenage, foreign, sun-worshipping, lion-taming head of state is far too interesting to miss.


We’re talking LATE Principate here. This is an artists’s impression of Canterbury, which was basically the sticks at that point.

It would probably help to start with some context on the world into which Elagabalus came to power. The princeps was head of a Roman Empire pretty far removed from the relative peace and prosperity of the swords-and-sandals affair you might associate with Augustus, Antoninus and Asterix – by the beginning of the 3rd century AD, the empire was in turmoil, and it would remain so for Elagabalus’ entire reign. One of the key reasons for this was the sort of vicious circle of economic and military disasters: the army wants better pay, so it installs a new emperor, but the violent civil war stops people working on the fields and in the mines so there’s not enough money to even pay off the army, which, don’t you know, wants better pay. I’m sure you get the idea, but it got to the point that, through civil wars and backstabbing bodyguards, entire families were discredited and killed off (Sidenote: for the love of god, Roman Emperors, pay your bodyguards – the Romans assassinated a higher proportion of their rulers than any other polity to date). This extraordinary turnover, for want of a better term, may help to explain how, in the summer of AD 218, control of the empire was given to a fourteen-year old Syrian: the supposed son of the former emperor Caracalla. Elagabalus was one of the only surviving legitimate heirs. Then again, I suppose having a huge, loyal army and one of the era’s best politicians for a grandmother didn’t hurt. Despite this apparent support, though, Elagabalus wasn’t exactly typical Imperial stock. He wasn’t the first emperor from outside Italy – that’s either Claudius, Roman but born in Lyons, or El’s ancestor Septimius Severus, from a family of Italian-African nobles – but Syria was seen as distinctly foreign to the Roman elite. He was also a devotee and High Priest of El-Gabal – which is how he got his distinctive name. This association can’t have helped Elagabalus’ ‘foreigner’ image: for a start, it led him to reject all of the traditional Roman gods and his traditional duties as head of the Imperial Cult. On top of that, ‘El’ is such a generic Middle Eastern word for God you see it in not only Aramaic (hence Isra-el), but also Hebrew (hence el-ohim) and Arabic (hence Allah, or el-lah – kind of messy, but to be fair ancient Arabic didn’t have vowels). Admittedly, Rome would later be won over by monotheism from the East – by 274, the more West-friendly cult of Sol Incivtus and by 313, Christianity – but El’s open devotion to his god went down a lot worse than, say, Constantine’s more approachable henotheism. Elagabalus was also…well, just young. It was his grandmother Julia Maesa, who went to the Senate in his place and in a lot of ways ruled for him, which to a group of old men (because let’s not forget, America, that the word Senate literally means ‘Old Men’) was highly controversial. And like countless other young emperors, from Nero to Domitian to Joffrey Baratheon, Elagabalus seems to have developed a particularly cruel streak: his favourite prank was supposedly to move guests at his parties into bedrooms filled with tame lions and watch them freak out before they realised they were actually safe. This outrage, however, would scarcely match that which surrounded Elagabalus’ gender.

Another image of Elagabalus - but this one from 1888. Spot the Orientalism in 3..2.1..

Another image of Elagabalus – but this one from 1888. Spot the Orientalism in 3..2.1..

In modern terms, Elagabalus’ behaviour would probably be interpreted as transsexual, or at least genderfluid. El dressed like an emperor in public but assumed a completely female persona in private: demanding to be addressed as ‘Lady’ and not ‘Lord’, wearing make-up and women’s clothing, even perfecting a traditional ‘womanly’ manner of speaking. He arranged to marry his male lover Heirocles, and in the ceremony was referred to as Heirocles’ wife. When excused from imperial duty, El took up traditionally female tasks – like spinning wool, in particular, was typical Roman ‘good virtuous woman’ fare – and spent a good deal of his time around other women in the imperial court. Most interestingly of all, the majority of the sources on the life of Elagabalus state that the princeps wished he could have a procedure closely resembling a modern sex-change. (Cassius Dio 80.16.7, if you’re interested) He is even accused of castrating himself in one of the sources on account of his femininity, although this is denied by others. But here we reach the issue with an otherwise convincing argument for Elegabalus’ transsexuality. It’s this disagreement and bias in the only literary sources we have on Elagabalus’ life which makes it so hard to know anything for certain. It’s all too easy to cherry-pick evidence for historical facts based on our own modern ideas – but there’s as much conclusive evidence that the emperor asked to be referred to as ‘Lady’, for example, as there is that he sacrificed children or chose ministers based on the size of their cock. It’s only our modern perspective that makes one of those believable and two unlikely. The sources are hardly reliable in any case, coming mainly from one writer (Cassius Dio) who worked for Elagabalus’ rival and one source (the Historia Augusta) which many consider to be an exaggeration or even a parody of other writers’ work. There are other sources, from coins and from other writers, but too often they fall into the trap of topoi – the stereotypical traits that historians assign to ‘bad’ emperors. Effeminacy is one of the topoi, and one particularly associated with Syrians like Elagabalus. So are dangerous pranks and letting women rule in your place – Nero was accused of both of those. An emperor from another country in an empire on the brink of civil war? No points awarded for guessing that that gets you a lot of rivals. But the story of Elagabalus is still undoubtedly valuable. Lukas de Blois writes that behind all of the topoi lies at least an element of truth. Elagabalus may have been transsexual, but may not have been, but the fact that so much was written about it strongly suggests that writers were aware of transsexuality as a concept, albeit a hated one, some 1,800 years ago. Ultimately, there can be no definitive answer about Elagabalus’ gender. But in a way, it doesn’t matter. The fact that there’s a story alone offers some interesting evidence for the existence of transsexuality going back millennia. It’s certainly enough, for me at least, to dismiss those people who say it’s a modern invention. In the end, Elagabalus met the sort of sticky end that faced many 3rd century emperors, but also countless marginalised people throughout history – he was removed from society by his rivals, and ignominiously assassinated. He reigned for only four years, and he died when he was eighteen. Since then, his story has been reassessed and retold countless different ways, and often in ways that reflect the society which was telling the story more than his own. In the nineteenth century, during the era of empire and race theory, the focus was on his ethnicity. In the twentieth, particularly during the ‘moral panics’ of the 1920s and 1960s, the focus was on his sexuality. Now, in the twenty-first, the focus has been shifting to gender. It’s a testament to the life of Elagabalus – whether he was a tyrant, whether he was an activist, and even whether he was a she – that nearly two millennia later his experience can help us make sense of gender identity and its place in both history and the modern world. The history of the marginalised might be difficult to write, but it’s extremely important that we try.

Bromance of Two Kingdoms: Rome, China and and the Great Silk Road

Throughout the Age of Discovery – that awkward bit of history between the first Portuguese expeditions into the Atlantic in the 1420s and the last expeditions into unmapped Africa in the 1890s – Europe made a hell of a lot of debatable claims. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. James Cook discovered Hawaii. Willem Janzoon discovered Australia (sorry, Janzoon, I mean New Holland). One enthusiastic French explorer even claimed to have discovered Moscow, by that time a city of some 100,000 people.  You don’t need an obscure history blog to tell you not to take those claims at face value, but they’ve still managed to distort the way we see the world before the men with beards and boats did the exploring thing. They’ve still managed to create an image of a pretty much isolated world where each region was ignorant of everyone but its closest neighbours, where continents were never ever crossed and you could go on holiday to the next village and be amazed that the dirt was a slightly different shade of brown. This isn’t true. This couldn’t really be much further from true. Not only have fantastic, globe-spanning relationships existed for thousands of years, but they’ve also been really important in shaping the cultures and traditions at either end. We just weren’t always aware of the connections at the time, and modern historians are beginning to fill the gaps. So this post is about a new trend of real-life Holistic History – undeniable evidence of trade and even tourism stretching back for over two millennia. This is the story of the Silk Road (not the drugs one) and of the ancient Romano-Chinese Bromance.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

The Silk Road is one of those brilliant historical names that has nothing to do with what it describes so I’m going to start by clearing a few things up. Even calling it The Silk Road could give you the wrong impression – it was actually a lumping together of unmarked trade routes, stretching as far north as The Black Sea and as far south as Indonesia. It provided the West with more than just silk, although as we’ll see that was one of the more controversial products, and it definitely wasn’t anything like a road – more like a rough route through mountains, valleys and miles of open sea. It was, with the Mediterranean at one end and the South China Sea at the other, the definitive route from East to West for at least 2300 years. Very few people would have travelled the route entirely – or, at least, not compared to the numbers that would travel on Silk Road successors like the Trans-Siberian Railway – but with a system that would remain nearly unchanged till the days of the Pony Express, particular traders and nomads would act like a relay team: a continent-spanning conveyor belt for swapping stories, silks and gradually more exotic treasure. The distances objects could travel are extraordinary: a Kashmiri metalworker, for example, could find their work sold to Turkish nomads, taken through to Arabic Syria and then onto Roman Greece before being plundered by Volga Vikings and taken up through Russia to end up somewhere near Stockholm. Oh, wait, did I say “could”? Because that totally did happen. But the Silk Road did more than move objects around – trade always seems to. It made the Middle East rich, both culturally and economically, and when Islam expanded out into the world, it followed the lines of the Silk Road almost exactly: West into the Mediterranean, East into Persia and India, South to Indonesia and East Africa. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan tried to do the same 1600 years apart. And as I’ve talked about before, the Silk Road spread ideas and faiths as much as people and materials – that’s why there are medieval Christian churches in China; ancient Persian influences in Catholicism; statues of an East Indian prince and supposed acquaintance of Jesus Christ dotted around the landscape of China. And, to turn to a sour note before this gets very Crash Course trade also spreads pestilence and poverty like nobody’s business. It was along the routes of the Silk Road that the East Asian Ko-Ta-Wen disease spread to Europe and the Middle East. Europe called it the Black Death.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave was really the iPhone of its day.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers…silk was really the iPhone of its day.

But all this has been fairly well-known throughout the history of…well, history. The interesting question – and the one that we’ve been unable to answer until recently – is how much the people at each end of the road knew about each other. The relay system was great, especially for the Arabic and Parthian middle men, but it did mean there was no need for direct contact between distant places like Ancient China and Rome. But now there’s evidence to change that idea. While we’re not talking Julius Caesar and Wu of Han meeting in Isfahan for coffee, their empires – the far East and West of the Silk Road – were definitely aware of each other. Moreover, they were both fascinated by the possibility of an equally expansive empire halfway around the world. Of course, the information they received about each other wasn’t always accurate: The Silk Road was quick to turn into a very literal game of Chinese Whispers. What each civilisation got wrong, however, is interesting in itself – sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating – and if there’s a better example of connection and communication in the ancient world, I don’t know where to find it.

The Roman name for Western China was Serica, the “land of Silk”, and that name makes a lot of sense: China’s most luxurious export to Rome was silk, because China fiercely protected the secret of where it came from for about 3,000 years in a copyright battle that would put even Youtube to shame. The new material fascinated the Romans – it became a craze in women’s clothing and there are still hilarious accounts of flustered old Roman men complaining that almost see-through dresses were bringing on the downfall of civilisation. During the reign of Aurelian, the price of silk reached its peak – almost the silk’s weight in gold. This fuelled a lot of interest in the semi-mythical Serica, and Roman scholars were sometimes surprisingly right when describing China. Ptolemy, 1st century author of the enormous work Geographia,  more or less correctly describes the locations of trading cities like Chang’an and Guangzhou from Parthian accounts, and guesses that Serica controls the furthest East coast of the Asian continent. Pliny the Elder, despite being one of the most prolific bullshitters in history, knew that silk was combed out of trees and that the region was all one huge kingdom and even describes a typical Serican as “mild in character” compared to the Romans, setting up 2,000 years of “hot-headed Italian” jokes in the process. More interesting, though, are the assumptions the Romans made about their Eastern trading partners. They assumed, for one, that the Indian Ocean was almost entirely surrounded by land like the Mediterranean, and that Serica controlled that southern coast, pretty much projecting the geography of the Roman Empire onto another more distant model. They also assumed the Seres were tall and blond thanks to their experiences with Caucasian barbarians like the Scythians and Germans. But they never took into account that China might be any larger or more powerful than they were. Rome’s central position in the Mediterranean, the general consensus was that the Mediterranean must be the centre of the world, with the Romans controlling all but the kingdoms to the East and the sea to the West. Serica couldn’t be as large as Rome because there simply wasn’t room on the edge of the world. In fact, China was, for as long as Rome existed, larger and more populous. But they were just as fascinated with Romans as Romans were with them.

That's an...odd looking Roman you've got there, China.

That’s an…odd looking Roman you’ve got there, China.

If Rome’s obsession with was mostly economic, China’s obsession with Rome was very different, and surprisingly spiritual. They called the empire “Da Qin” – Great China – and believed it to be a sort of Tao-style counterbalance at the other end of the world – an empire just as great, powerful and virtuous as that of the Han, if not more so. To put it another way, Rome’s China was an exotic and foreign land whereas China’s Rome was like a better version of China. As such, accounts of Da Qin should be taken with a pinch of salt, because they’re part history and part Imperial propaganda made to inspire China to improve itself, but still they get a lot of things right. Yu Huan, 3rd century author of The Peoples of the West, describes a detailed and a journey from Parthia to the city of Rome with accurate travelling times, and describes the precarious Roman custom of getting rid of crap emperors by force. He describes the “minor kings” who rule the provinces, the empire’s walled capital at the mouth of a river, even the curious western script they write in. He describes the unique Roman goods that are traded in place of silk – pure glass, which could not be made in China, as well as more exotic things like rhinoceros horn, “fire-washed cloth” (early asbestos) and the “poison-proof rat” (mongoose). There is evidence of utopian propaganda getting into the work, of course – Yu Huan describes the roads as devoid of bandits and criminals, emphasises the similarities between the Romans and Chinese above all else, and even reports that the westerners claim to be Chinese people who left to make a better society. He also lists one of Rome’s primary exports as dragons. But it’s still a piece of compelling evidence of China’s knowledge of Rome, alongside countless others like the travelogues of Gan Ying and the drawings of Da Qin-ese leaders in authentic Roman mitres. There are even stories of Roman envoys to China, but that seems to be as far as the legend spreads. For all the accounts of Roman ambassadors arriving in China, there are none of them being sent by Rome.

Holistic History’s all-time favourite historian Fernand Braudel once called Europe “an Asian peninsula”, and it’s easy to see why. For all the arguments that globalisation and international trade are modern ideas, huge swaths of the world’s largest landmass have been thoroughly connected for the most part of human civilisation (Don’t worry, Africa, I haven’t forgotten you, you were totally connected too). It’s a connection that’s affected everyone involved, whether it made your ancestors rich or cultured or inspired them to be a better person or just annoyed the hell out of their stodgy Roman sensibilities. Not only have we always been a little bit globalised, we’ve often been immediately aware of the world around us and totally fascinated by the cultures and history that surrounds us. I, for one, hope that never changes.

Hidden Religions of the Middle East: Zoroaster, the Druze and the Bahá’í Faith

Name three Middle Eastern religions, right now, off the top of your head.

Christianity, Islam and Judaism, right? If you’re from roughly the same background as me, you might even have thought of them in the same order. The land between the Red Sea and the Indus Mountains is a diverse mess of ancient religions and creeds, but behind the Big Abrahamic Three you’d be forgiven for forgetting a few.  Anyone list Zoroastrianism as one of their three? What about Bahá’í? Druzism? Unless you’re…well, one of these people, I guess you didn’t. The way I see it, to use the most English analogy ever, seeing the Middle East and thinking of it just as a vast Muslim/Jewish expanse is like making tea and thinking of it as boiled water – you’re mostly right, but you’re missing all the flavour. So this Holistic History post is all about the tea leaf religions – the old gods and alternative beliefs that still manage to survive in pockets and enclaves around the Middle East. This is the story of their people, of their faith and ultimately of their persecution, but along the way there are prophets, prophecies and maybe a few world-eating demon gods. And if those three can’t don’t make you want to find out more, I’m not even sure why you’re here.

600 years before a certain prophet was dumped in a manger and given the most extravagant baby shower ever, everything between Israel and Afghanistan was under the rule of one religion – Zoroastrianism.  It was the religion of the Persians – that ancient empire that’s probably now more famous for once being at war with some scantily-clad Spartans than any of its colourful, deranged but extremely tolerant kings – and because of that it got spread along with Persia all across western Asia. Zoroastrianism might seem like a fairly familiar religion – good creator god, working class prophet at odds with the priests and ruling class, badass beards for all – but a few bits of it might seem a bit more alien to an Abrahamic audience. For one, there are two gods, one good creator type and one evil creator type. The earth, their joint creation, is their battleground, and good Zoroastrians have to constantly fight what they perceive as the forces of evil, darkness and ignorance. Fire is the symbol of life and renewal and burning away darkness, and so Zoroastrians have prayed in Fire Temples for centuries. Sounding familiar yet, Game of Thrones fans? In any case, the super-duper fire god and his evil counterpart dominated the Middle East from the first teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (or, if you’re a fan of Nietzsche and the film 2001, Zarathustra) in 1000BC for centuries until about 300BC, Alexander the Great tried to replace it with his own religion, worshiping a sun god who had descended to earth. A sun god who just so happened to be Alex himself. The Zoroastrians survived that assault – weirdly, worshiping a 30-year old binge drinker didn’t catch on – but they were so weakened that the attacks of the (Hellenic, then Christian) Romans and (Muslim) Arabs broke them down almost entirely, so much so that the religion that once reached tens of millions now has about one hundred and fifty thousand followers in small communities in Iran (and, because Iran isn’t a huge fan of non-Muslims, India and the US). But that’s not to say, of course, that Zoroastrianism has been forgotten. On the contrary, it’s probably influenced every religion with black and white morality and angels and demons in its wake. After all, remember the prophet in the manger and his ridiculous baby shower? You should probably know what they called Zoroastrian priests. They called them Magi.

Islam is the religion the Middle East is most famous for, and nowhere is it more powerful than in countries like Syria, which is currently being torn up by a civil war between a ruling class from one sect of the religion and a working class from another. But that’s not to say it’s the only religion in the region, because that would be ignoring one of the least-known Abrahamic faiths – the faith of the Druze. To put it simply, the Druze are to Muslims what Muslims are to Christians and Christians are to Jews. They believe in the Qur’an, and the first Shia Caliphs, and that you shouldn’t force people to convert to your religion, and that you should keep your faith secret to protect it. If you’re a Shia Muslim, that’s probably sounding like pretty standard stuff to you. But they also incorporate ideas from other parts of Islam – like Sufism and the idea that there is a supernatural world within our own that holy men can access – and far-flung Eastern religions – like Buddhism and reincarnation. Hell, it’s even partly based on ancient Greek philosophy: they believe in Plato’s “universal soul” and his theories about our senses deceiving us, which means it’s a religion inspired by the same things that inspired the fucking Matrix. The religion was born in the 11th century in Syria when Damascus was the capital of the Islamic world, and scholars from all over the world were trying to delve into religious texts to find some deeper meaning. Druzism was one of those deeper meanings, but it separated itself from Islam in the process and evolved into something very different. And that’s when the secrecy of the Druze came into its own. By keeping their faith secret, they were never attacked by zealous mobs from another religion. By only revealing little bits about their faith to different people, they created small and close knit communities that are debatably an ethnic group of their own. Yes, they might not have survived if the succession of Sultans and Khans in Syria had been particularly intolerant. And they might not have been born at all if Damascus and the surrounding area wasn’t home to so many religious texts and so many ways of interpreting the Abraham faiths. But they created a religion with a built in defense mechanism, and for that reason it’s got around two and a half million followers to this day. Syria is a much more dangerous place now, but their ecumenical cloaks and daggers may well see the Druze through it safely.

Finally, spare a thought for the Bahá’í faith, the new kid on the religious block at a measly 200 years old. Founded in the 19th century in Persia (amazingly, still bearing the name it had when it had been the birthplace of Zoroastrianism almost 30 centuries earlier) but developed in the Ottoman Empire, the Bahá’í Faith does something that damn near every faith before it would have thought unthinkable. It believes every other religion is right. Well, sort of. Bahá’í believes that there’s only ever been one religion, but that religion has progressed and changed to the most appropriate form for its time and place. So it counts Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as prophets. It also counts Buddha and Vishnu, Adam and Eve and our old friend Zoroaster. It even accepts that eventually Bahá’í will be replaced and their own prophet, Bahaullah, will be added to the list. The idea behind it is that each prophet accepts what’s good about the one before and rejects what’s not, kind of natural selection that works towards a perfect faith, but they’re all essentially talking about the same god. Born in the 19th century, the Bahá’í faith also incorporates a lot of modern ideas into its teachings (only in Holistic History are ideas from the 1800s modern, but still) like equality between men and women, a universal language, free education and other things so offensive to Industrial Era sensibilities that all Bahaullah’s letters to Queen Victoria were dutifully ignored. The Bahá’í, where the Zoroastrians spread their faith by the sword and the Druze hid their faith altogether, spread their faith through stuff like that – through letters, and meetings, and newspaper articles about Bahaullah being exiled from a  new country, which was…quite often. They’re still growing today, although essentially banned in the country they were born in and plenty of others besides, and have about 5 million followers spanning almost every continent. Of all the Middle Eastern religions, the strange and all-encompassing Bahá’í Faith might be one of the few on the rise.

So why have so many world religions come from the Middle East? The answer to that is probably the same as to why the Middle East is so important to our history. Zoroastrianism spread through one of the region’s largest empires, just as Islam spread through the Arabs and Mongols and Christianity spread through the Roman and West European empires. The Middle East is important to us because it was an integral part of so many cultures, civilizations and kingdoms that spread their wings across whole continents. Druzism came to be because of the rich history of monotheism and philosophical thought that could be built upon and expanded upon in the region. The Middle East is important to us because it’s the home of so much religion and so much philosophical thought. And Bahá’í could only have existed because of the huge variety of faiths, cultures and creeds that places like Persia were in contact with through trade and modern transportation. The Middle East is important to us, more so that for anything else, because it has always served as the connection between different parts of the world, between east and west, north and south, Christianity and Hinduism and plenty more besides.  You don’t need to understand the ins and outs of Zoroastrianism to understand that. But when you forget those hidden religions, when you picture the Middle East as closed off and insular, you run the risk of forgetting it.

Holistic History Extra: Get your Arabic Name On

Ibn Battuta’s full name wasn’t printed in the article I posted about him, and to some that might seem odd. See, medieval Arabic names just aren’t like other names. To be specific, each one takes up a whole damn paragraph. Ibn Battuta’s full name is this:

Shams al-Din Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Addallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah al-Lawati al-Tanji al-Maliki al-Maghribi

And that’s without naming any of the honorifics he had poured over him in his lifetime, beautiful titles like “Chief Qadi of Delhi” or any non-ceremonial nicknames, like “The Great Traveller”. See, Arabic names don’t provide a handle as much as all the information they thought was important about the person. So let me take it apart for a second – because dear god, I know some of you and you know who you are will be desperate to try and work out your own Medieval Arabic Name. So let’s get your M.A.N. on.

Laqab (Title) – “Shams al-Din”. Placed here, this is the equivalent of Mr or Mrs. But before you get a brilliant idea for a marriage-based celebrity gameshow, it’s not exactly the same. See, while Mr and Mrs are bastardised versions of Master and Mistress, the names of famous Arabs tend towards the divine. Shams al-Din literally means “the Sun of Religion”. You can also be Muhyi al-Din (“the Saviour of Religion”) or Sitt al-Mulk (“the Lady of Power”, a rare female example), if you really feel like it. You’ve probably heard of Salah al-Din (“the Righteousness of Religion”) before – although we usually spell it Saladin. For Ibn Battuta, the laqab essentially saying he’s a learned man. Maybe a better equivalent would be Ph.D, but hey, title’s a title.

Kunya (Reverse Patronymic)- “Abu Abdullah” I’m making up terms here, but this is the name of Ibn Battuta’s son. Which gets added to his name. Before his own name. Abu means “father of” (and interestingly, also “owner of”), and “mother of” is Umm. It’s generally a more intimate form of address than a title or personal name – and is probably more than a little awkward to explain to the kids who your name doesn’t show off.

Ism (Personal Name) – “Muhammad” Finally, some familiar ground. This would be a First Name or a Christian name in English. For obvious reasons this one is neither first not Christian, but you get my point.

Nasab (Patronymic) –  “ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim” Patronymics are names taken from your father, where Ibn means “son of”. “Bint”, incidentally, means “daughter of” and I’m not even joking. So his father was called Abdallah, and his grandfather – who he was, in all likelihood, named for – was another Muhammad. You can literally go as far back as you deem necessary. Sultans, as you might expect, tend to go back to their most famous ancestor. The Prophet’s family traced theirs back to Adam and Eve, so the sky’s your limit here.

Nasab (Surname) – “Ibn Battuta”. Ah. This must be confusing. Ibn Battuta acts as a surname, hence the capitals on Ibn in English, but it’s shaped like a patronymic. That’s because his surname is taken from the founder of his family, Battuta, so his family are the “Sons of Battuta”. To be honest, not too difficult if you have a German-style surname like Johnson or Peterson, but still catches people out. Surnames can be literally anything. One Arabo-Persian dynasty named themselves Saffarids – “the Coppersmiths” – because their founder was so proud of his non-aristocratic metalworking background. However, they’re more often than not just ways to attach yourself to a particular ancestor.

Nisba (Regional Name) – “al-Tanji”. The nisba is a kind of name suffix that tells you everything you need to know about a person. You can have several, usually starting with al- and ending in -i (if you’re feeling maculine) or -iyya (if you’re feeling feminine). al-Tanji tells us that Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in Northern Morocco. I’d use one myself but al-Coventryi sounds kind of terrible.

Nisba (Tribal Name) – “al-Lawati”. Tribal names were second only to family names in importance in Ibn Battuta’s Arab-influenced culture, so this is also an important nisba. The only confusing thing is that a tribe is more like a political alliance than a closely knit family. Tribes were constantly refashioned and genealogy reformed to fit political needs, so I guess if you’re playing along at home and don’t have any tribal ancestry, you can put your politics here. Arabia even had tribal factions who called themselves the “Rightists” and “Leftists” – the Qays and Yemen – so if you’re as willing to completely misunderstand medieval Arabic politics as I am think you’ll be fine.

Nisba (Scholastic Name) – “al-Maliki”. Oh god, another nisba? Al-Maliki refers to the school of law Ibn Battuta followed – there are four big ones in Sunni Islam and Maliki Law is the most prevalent in North Africa. I guess this one’s more important for Ibn Battuta than most people – he worked as the Chief Qadi of India for a long time – so it might be easier to put your school in than any school of law if you’re not a Muslim. I’m guessing…well, hoping you follow the laws of wherever you happen to live.

Laqab (Nickame) – “al-Maghribi”. Another Laqab, and we’ve finally come fill circle. This one acts less like a title, though, and more as a nickname. Nicknames had a special place in Arabic society, especially among famous people – go through a list of Caliphs and names like al-Mahdi (“the redeemer”) and al-Rashid (“the guided”) are sure to crop up. Al-Maghribi? That means “the Westerner”, and looking at Batutta’s life you can kind of see how he got it.

All credit to Tim Mackintosh Smith, the translator of this fantastic book, and please, try it yourself if you want to know more. It’s almost by definition a good travel book. Have fun making your own Arabic names, and first person to guess who Muhyi al-Himself Abu James Harry ibn James Potter al-Godric’s Hollow al-Phoenix al-Hogwarts The Boy Who Lived is wins a free Horcrux.

Kites Over Kabul, Part 2: Afghanistan’s Troubled Present

Afghanistan in the 1960s was not a happy, stable place. Pro-democracy fighters vied with monarchists and conservatives, and while the incumbent Prince Zahir Shah was all too happy to introduce liberal and democratic reforms (it kept people happy and subdued rumours about corruption in the monarchy) that just seemed to put more power in the hands of the extremists on both sides. For example, political parties were made legal, but the parties that emerged – the People’s Democratic Party, for example, and the National Revolutionary Party – were strongly opposed to the having a Prince at all. In 1973, the first revolution began, led by ex-prime minister Muhammad Daoud Khan, and although it was peaceful (Zahir Shah abdicated almost as soon as he heard the news) it gave Daoud complete control of the country and a one-party system that kept him in perpetual power and allowed him to bump off anyone and everyone who challenged him. The newly created Republic of Afghanistan was every bit as bad a place as its forerunner.

It only lasted five years.

Just as the Great Game had messed up Afghan politics in the Industrial Era, the Cold War messed Republican Afghan politics in the Modern. This time, the major player was the USSR, and its influence caused a second revolution, called the Saur Revolution after the Persian Calendar month it took place in, which installed a communist government. This was even more brutal than Daoud’s regime – killing intellectuals as the dictator had, but also traditional leaders, religious heads in an attempt to move the country “forward” – and even worse suited to the Afghan peoples – land reforms, propaganda and state atheism angering the largely conservative and Muslim country to huge extremes. But this was a regime that could not be toppled, one that had the full support of the Soviet military, and when rebellions started (just one year later, in 1979) the USSR actually invaded to “keep peace”. In retaliation, the USA began its funding the Mujahedeen (“Strugglers”, Muslims who fight for their religion) who were resisting the invasion. Afghanistan became, once again, a battlefield in a fight between Superpowers, and the bloody conflict stretched until 1922, when the Mujahedeen drove out the last of the communist government and created an Islamic, democratic republic. America had created a religious, conservative, democratic state out of a communist regime. Surely, with US support, this could last?

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan lasted three years.

See, one of the groups the USA funded were called the Students. They were Mujahedeen to an extreme – ruthless, successful, and supported by the nearby Pakistani government, and they made good use of the money they received from Uncle Sam, but once the Mujahedeen had won and the Islamic Republic been set up, they turned against their former allies for being too western, and too moderate. It was then when they started a revolution against the new Islamic Republic. And it is now that I should tell you that Students in Pashtun, the local language, is Taliban. The Taliban created the Emirate of Afghanistan, every bit as brutal a regime as those that had come before it with a religious twist – this time it was the non-Pashtun minorities like the Hazara, non-Sunni groups like the Shiites, who were exterminated. Similarly, women became at huge risk as the ultra-conservative regime reduced their rights and freedoms. The Taliban caused a second civil war, with forces loyal to the old republic in the north and the emirate in the south, which still blazes today. But they could not foresee the consequences of funding a particular terrorist group who would go on to become globally infamous. They did not foresee the danger of al-Qaeda.

2001 was the year that shook the world, and nowhere was that more clear than in Afghanistan. An almost immediate declaration of war from the United States forced the country into yet more bloodshed, and although the Taliban was toppled and replaced by a second Islamic Republic (which is still the de jure state of Afghanistan today) the insurgency and the war has continued to this day. Kabul is now a warzone, a constant fight between Islamists and Democrats, and the War in Afghanistan enters its 34th year (having started as soon as the communist revolution did). Whatever Afghanistan’s future, Taliban-led or Republican, Communist or Conservative, you can be sure it needs one thing more than any other right now. Peace.

Kites over Kabul, Part 1: Afghanistan’s Troubled Past

Afghan history, like its famous cultural export The Kite Runner, is a tragedy in three parts. The first part follows the rise of the region from a diverse tribal nation to the heartlands of not one or two, but three Islamic Empires.  The second follows the fight for independence from those Empires, the boon and the great cost of its last few kings. And the last part creates the Afghanistan we know today – beset by poverty, extremism, civil war and invasion – as the Cold War and the Taliban take turns breaking down the nation. It’s not a happy story but it’s a good one, and an important one – an example of the rise and fall of the Middle East in global politics, of the effect of foreign intervention on a small country, of the unifying and dividing power of Islam through the ages. It started, fittingly enough, with an invasion.

Afghanistan as we know it didn’t exist before the Arabs invaded. The region was inhabited, of course, but by a hugely diverse group of tribes with wide ranges of beliefs – Zoroastrians, Christians, Buddhists and Sun-Worshippers to name only a very few. The Arabs not only brought their technology and culture to the region (the Arabic Golden Age was just starting, and its unusual mix of science, law and religion was about to invent everything from hospitals to trigonometry), but also a religion that would spread like wildfire across the nation and change Afghan society forever – Islam. Islam was a religion perfectly suited to the Middle East at that time; it offered complex and relatively fair systems of law and order, it adopted large elements of Christianity and Judaism that made conversion easy and it relieved tensions between the previously diverse religious groups in the area. It allowed certain tribes like the Pashtun to grow powerful and regain control of the area, but it created huge divides between those that had adopted Sunni Islam and those who chose Shia. These problems came to a head in the 1980s, during the Islamic Revival, but we’ll get to that later.

So Afghanistan became important if not independent, as major cities like Kabul and Herat were beautified by Caliphs, Sultans, even the Mongol Emperors who settled in the region (The effect of the Mongols on Afghanistan was largely lost, but they did leave behind the Hazara people, who adopted Shia Islam and quickly became the country’s most oppressed, if largest, minority). Each empire followed a distinct pattern – rising in a wave of wealth and public opinion, then succumbing to decadence or some greater power – and as they fell the Afghans developed more and more separatist tendencies. In the 1700s, thanks to some regrettable government decisions by their incumbent Persian masters and a fair few rumours about ethnic cleansing, tensions in the area became too strong and a revolution began that would install an Afghan prince and an absolute monarchy. Afghanistan’s independence had begun.

Unfortunately, independence couldn’t have come at a worse time. It put Afghanistan right in between the competing powers of the Russian Tsardom and the British Empire, each wanting to control the Middle East and the valuable trading assets it owned while ensuring the other didn’t get too big – a sort of Victorian-era cold war with the occasional open conflict. Afghanistan became a pawn in this so-called “Great Game”, where a precarious balance between British and Russian diplomacy made wars frequent and bloody. At the same time, as the enlightenment swept across the Middle East, more and more people questioned the right of the Princes to rule with absolute power, and from the 1900s onwards revolts about the state of the country became common. The people wanted democracy and they were willing to go to lengths to get it.

This is where part three of the tragedy comes in, and the Kite Runner’s first part starts – the fall of the monarchy in the 1960s and the rise of republicanism, the second great game in Afghanistan and the Islamic Revival all take their turns in the limelight. This is where the trouble really starts.