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 workers...silk 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.

The Lion of Zion, Part 2: Rastas and Revolutionaries

To read the first part of The Lion of Zion, click here.

We left Ethiopia on the verge of what historians call the Late Modern Period, which is somewhere in the late 1700s (because when you’ve been studying Egyptian tributaries or Inca agriculture for half your life you kind of lose perspective of what “recent” is). Perhaps it would be better to call it the Recognisable Age, because so many of the things our lives are based on – empirical science and automatic machinery, global diplomacy, mass politics and ideology- originated around then. They’re easy to take for granted but either didn’t exist or wouldn’t have been the same at all in an age of manpower and mercantilism and the divine right of monarchs. While it’s usually seen as a European thing, the Modern Age would have repercussions all over the world. In Ethiopia it would bring famines and boons, conquests and tragedies, bandit emperors and a son of God. It would begin in earnest, as many great sagas do, with a clash of kings.

I'm sorry, Tewodros II can't hear you over all the swag he has.

I’m sorry, Tewodros II can’t hear you over all the swag he has.

Sparked by a debatable line of succession – which coincidentally coincided with poor harvests, religious intolerance and a weak administration – the Ethiopian Age of Princes can be seen in the same light as the Time of Troubles in Russia a century earlier. Local nobles declared themselves Kings, Princes and Emirs in a battle royale for the…well, for the royalty, and the people of the country suffered massively. Muslim fought Christian, North fought South, and roving groups of bandits called Shifta fought freaking everyone. The Beta Israel even came out on top for a time, recreating their ancient Kingdom of Semien. It makes sense, in a conflict of local power, that the winners should be the ones who brought with them modernised, centralised structure. What makes less sense is that the winner would actually be one of the bandits. But Emperor Tewodros II was just that, a former Shifta and royal heir who – if you believe royal accounts – was basically Ethiopia’s Robin Hood figure before his systematic conquest of the petty states to restore order to the country in 1855. He was also, as it turns out, a sneaky moderniser – he asked for British weaponry and skills so he could “protect Christian interests on the borders of Victoria’s empire” and tried to separate the church from the state – and an impulsive badass – he filled his court with live Ethiopian Lions, a tradition that would last right up until the 1970s. But he was a new sort of Ethiopian leader, and like the new kind of Ethiopia he was far from stable. In his diplomacy with the British Empire, hindered already by Ethiopia’s unique alphabet and Britain’s obstinate refusal to ever learn anyone else’s language, he offended Queen Victoria’s aides, who decided to invade. Not wanting to be the Emperor who unified and destroyed Ethiopia in a single lifetime, Tewodros shot himself in his castle in 1868.

Ethiopia’s golden ticket of diplomacy worked worse in a secular, modern world – the “Prester John” card had failed, and protecting the Ethiopian Christians seemed less valuable to the Great Powers once they had become great enough to cross its mountains without habitually dropping dead. Ethiopia survived the British invasion only by installing a pro-British Emperor, who ironically had been given all the British supplies Tewodros had requested as payment, and life went on precariously. The rest of Ethiopia’s 19th century was spent expanding – expanding its army, expanding is borders, expanding its population. But it could only expand where there was space for it to do so, and the eyes of secular powers were still fixed on the now quite populous country. But one group of Westerners approached Ethiopia in a new light, and a unique light. Let’s give a warm, Holistic History welcome to Jamaica – and the movement who found God incarnate in Ethiopia.

Groundation Day: one hog away from a Bill Murray movie.

Groundation Day: Not to be confused with movies about Bill Murray’s repetitive life.

Ethiopia came under the control of Prince Tafari, later crowned as Halie Selassie, in 1916. Many saw him as another good Ethiopian diplomat – he had spoken out against the use of chemical weapons and for African independence at the League of Nations, and had become one of the most famous Africans in the world. But a literal reading of Bible verse had led some Jamaican Christians to believe he was something more. They believed he was nothing less than God in human form, and that Ethiopia was the “Zion” or holy land to the “Babylon” of the Western world. Combining Afrocentric philosophy, egalitarianism and the imperial colours of Ethiopia – red, yellow and green – they formed a religious movement which they named after the Prince which, in Amharic, made it “Ras Tafari”. Even more interesting is that Halie Selassie never accepted his role as God: he negotiated with Rastafari leaders, even offering them land to settle in Ethiopia, but remained a strict Coptic Christian his entire life. He visited Jamaica, an event still known as Groundation Day, but refused to speak to the crowd until the “cloud of ganja smoke” drifted away. Ras Tafari, the god who didn’t want to be, would spread his message of peace to a whole movement. But his mortal life was just as interesting.

In 1936, the Country That Couldn’t Be Conquered was occupied by that eternal latecomer to the imperial party, Italy – at the time, calling itself the New Roman Empire under the control of the prime minister and “Duke of Fascism” Benito Mussolini. The invasion would be one of Ethiopia’s bloodiest and most brutal, with both sides using illegal weaponry – the Ethiopians used expanding bullets, the Italians chemical weapons. The fight lasted for the whole of the Second World War, and Halie Selassie – from exile – raised the profile of Ethiopia considerably by denouncing the Italians. By the end of the war, with Italy’s defeat, Selassie’s diplomatic cunning allowed Ethiopia to annex Eritrea, a former Italian colony, and propelled it into being one of Africa’s most influential states, a model for the ambitious leaders of newly forming African nations. But Selassie, like so many of the leaders of post-war Africa, was good and dictatorial in equal measure. He passed the laws of Ethiopia, he took part in the nobles’ intrigue – he passed a law in 1967 which allowed him 75% of the country’s crops should he require it. In many ways, Selassie ran the country just like a pre-modern absolute monarch, right down to the Imperial Pillow-Bearer who carried cushions and bedding wherever he went. The modern world, however, is a world of ideology, and Ethiopia was about to experience one of the 20th century’s most dogmatic and powerful. In the ranks of an unhappy and powerful military, Communism was brewing.

Bob Geldof, surrounded by displaced Ethiopians in the famine.

Bob Geldof, surrounded by displaced Ethiopians in the famine.

The Derg presented themselves as loyal servants to the Emperor. A group of army officers and generals, they claimed to be helping Selassie administer his country in his declining years. But one by one, imperial assets seemed to disappear – his shares in industry were taken by the state, his law-making powers transferred to the Derg. In 1975, they declared themselves the true rulers of Ethiopia, imprisoning Selassie in his own palace. Many claim he was killed by suffocation with one of the imperial pillows. The Derg then ran Ethiopia with as iron a fist, and a great deal more extravagance – borrowing money for ridiculous projects and personal gains under the leadership of Mengistu Halie Mariam that it could never sustain. In their attempts to retain power, they were also brutal. They are estimated to have killed between 30,000 and 500,000 people, most notably and first of all the communist Revolutionary Party that had been collecting mass support in secret under Selassie. Mengistu would later be found guilty of genocide, and his entire rule known as The Ethiopian Civil War. A great – and somewhat related – tragedy came in the Ethiopian Famine of 1984. Famine caused by drought is common in subtropical Ethiopia, but during this famine the Derg insisted on a large quota of all the grain grown. They also tried to use it to settle more Amhara Ethiopians – those of the ethnic majority – in the less populated south and, in many cases, simply starve potential rebels from other ethnicities to death. When international aid did arrive – thanks to Live Aid and the work of film-makers like Mohamad Amin, it did in huge amounts – it went too often into the hands of the Derg itself.

There are few absolute bad guys in history. To be honest, the Derg can be seen as an extreme continuation of Amharic Ethiopia’s expansion and conquest from the invader state of Dmt onwards. Tewodros II showed the benefit of the modern world’s centralised power, ideology and structure, the Derg merely showed the other side of the coin. But the Derg years, which lasted until Mengitsu was run out of office by an army composed mostly of Ethiopia’s minorities in 1991, were atrocious in a unique way. The way Ethiopia is seen today is mostly the result of these years. In reality, Ethiopia remains at the same time both unique in Africa and a totally interconnected part of it – it has a somewhat alien religion to some, and a somewhat alien alphabet, even a somewhat alien history, but it’s got the same ancient roots, the same astounding cultural diversity, and faced the same issues of independence and colonial power, albeit in a slightly different way. Ethiopia may seem to defy being put into boxes. But there’s some things that connect all across history, and no country shows it better.

The Lion of Zion, Part 1: Ethiopia and Idiosyncracy

Ethiopia is a country that defies being put into boxes. It’s seen as one of the poorest countries in Africa, but it has the 12th highest GDP. It’s Christian in the majority, but about as close to Madagascar as Jerusalem, and it’s been that way for longer than Rome itself. It was home to the messiah of a world religion who never believed in the faith built around him, and it continues to contain the only part of Africa to have never belonged to “civilised” colonists from another continent. And despite its unique features, it’s likely the place where all human life originated, which is the kind of bragging right even Ancient Greece would envy. It might seem weird to look at Ethiopia holistically. You can’t generalise its history to the countries around it, you can’t really see themes and connectivity as clearly in a mountain kingdom that even the continent-conquering caliphs and imperialists left alone. But in a way Ethiopia is the best portrait of Africa you can get, not because it conforms, but because it’s so diverse and unusual. It’s so far from the stereotype of Africa as to make the stereotype look ridiculous, and if you start breaking preconceptions like that you can start to see the area less as a continent and more as a collection of states with individual needs, desires and histories. Welcome back to African history. But more specifically, welcome Ethiopia.

myrrh

Ethiopia and the Egyptians: One Frankincense short of a Nativity.

Ethiopia has been inhabited by humans since “inhabited by humans” meant “there are some tall, hairy monkeys here and when they’re not getting eaten by sabre tooth cats they’re actually pretty good at making tools”. The first records of civilisation there come much later, but considering that they were Ancient Egypt’s main source of myrrh and gold we can safely say that there’s been some kind of recognisable state there for  about 5,400 years. Originally occupying both sides of the Red Sea, what the Ancient Egyptians called Punt or Pwenet was a bountiful land of mountains, mummies and monkeys, but history about it kind of goes dark again when the Egyptians literally forgot that it was a real place (which seems ridiculous, but ask someone if Timbuktu is real and that suddenly gets more believable). In around 700BC, Ethiopia was rediscovered intact by settlers from what is now Yemen, who brought with them their kings, their genes and their alphabet to create the land of D’mt – incidentally, the genes and unique South Arabic alphabet remain in Ethiopia to this day, both long dead in their home country. At some indeterminate point later came the Beta Israel, a distinct ethnic group of black Jews who were either converted ethnic Ethiopians or southbound exiles from Jerusalem, who would become one of Ethiopia’s most interesting and unexpected minorities. But the first real records come from the Kingdom of Axum, a successor state of D’mt from around the turn of the first century AD. Axum, where D’mt created Ethiopian language and ethnicity, would create two of the most important traditions of Ethiopian history – Christianity, and diplomatically kicking ass.

prester

Prester John, like Jesus, evidently acquired the ability to turn from a Middle Eastern man into a white beardy guy to please Europeans.

Axum, truly the hipster of nations, was Christian before it was cool. It was one of the first Christian nations in the world, probably adopting it as a state religion before even the Roman Empire did (which, as we all know, they did in AD391). This early Christianity led to some interesting situations further down the line – including a rather ironic song that asks if Ethiopians even know it’s Christmas time, because they sure as hell knew before Bob Geldof’s ancestors did – and was probably the source of medieval European rumours about the Kingdom of Prester John, a mythical Christian utopia in the east surrounded by Muslim lands. It also led to an uneasy alliance with the Roman Empire, who bordered Ethiopia after they aggressively expanded towards each other. You can perhaps see why they got along. So diplomacy saved Ethiopia for not the last time, and brought the country back in touch with the Middle East via…well, via the via, because that’s literally the Roman word for road. In an ironic inversion of the D’mt invasion some 400 years earlier, the Ethiopians even teamed up with Rome to take over Yemen in the AD 600s, all the while growing as a regional power. But that power came at a cost, and Axum’s growth was threatened by its declining fertility and the slow advance of the Sahara desert. Axum couldn’t feed its population, couldn’t plant trees to match its deforestation, couldn’t survive the plagues that its burgeoning trade with the north brought it. Axum, again the hipster of nations, was destroyed by its declining environment 1,200 years before we began to worry that it could happen to us.

What replaced Axum was a series of monarchies and tribal divisions. Groups like the Beta Israel built their own towns and nations in the North, newly converted Muslims did the same in the East while the remaining Christians settled in the central highlands. But as the remnants of a now shattered Roman Empire in Africa and the Middle East were being eaten by the Islamic Caliphates, Ethiopia still managed to pull a legendary trick of diplomacy: because they had sheltered early Muslim refugees and promised to pose no threat to the Caliphate, the Prophet Muhammad specifically declared that attacking Ethiopia was against Islam. Ethiopia, where their old trading partners Egypt and Eastern Rome had fallen, remained unconquered throughout the Dark Ages.

What is remarkable was that that truce lasted, with one Ottoman-shaped exception, for the next millennium.

church ethiopia

When they’re not being churches, the carvings at Lalibela make for great helipads.

And so Ethiopia bumbled along peacefully for most of its existence. Under a new and unification-minded set of kings who traced their ancestry to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (to be fair, all you have to do to claim ancestry from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is 1: Be a King and 2: Say so) they built ridiculous underground rock churches, traded with the emerging powers of the time, even survived another threat to their independence in the 1500s – that is, the Ottoman-shaped exception – by enlisting the help of the Portuguese, who believed themselves to have found the real-life Kingdom of Prester John and were no doubt looking for all the Fountains of Eternal Youth and nubile white maidens that had been added to the legend over time. Even during the peak of colonisation, Ethiopia managed to retain its independence, but this time by being not particularly worth it – all rumours of Prester John dispelled, and without as much manpower and natural resources as, say, the Zimbabwe, but with a more modern army and mountains that could kick the shit out of a European soldier, the cost would have been greater than the prize. But Ethiopia’s years of peace would dry up as Axum’s farms had a millennium earlier. The modern age was blooming, and with it, modern threats. Solomon’s descendants still ruled. And they would go out with a bang.

Holistic History Extra: Lit History

Imagine a library. A library which contains every book written. Well, within reason. Since 1500. While you’re containing your excitement that yes, there are actually libraries like that, imagine the imaginary one has a search function. And we’re not talking searching for books.Searching for individual words. Individual words out of the trillions written across half a millennium. You could do a lot with that. You could trace trends in pop culture. You could chart the formation and destruction of ideas across time. You could search for “poop” and laugh uproariously for the next 500 years. In other words, it could be an extraordinary tool for charting history and culture connecting people across time.

Godammit, Internet, you’ve done it again.

The Google Ngram Viewer (it would be Google, they’ve done this kind of thing before) is a search tool for Google’s enormous imaginary library.  That is to say, it allows you to search through every single word of the 5,200,000 digitised books from throughout the history of Modern English, 1500 to the present. Don’t tell me you’re not at least a little bit interested. Now, as scientific methods go, it’s…about as scientific as a PhD in English Literature. Life isn’t reflected entirely by literature, after all, sometimes, literature tries to be as far from real life as possible. Plus, you kind of have to guess at cause and effect – why one word is popular at one time but dwindles at another is at its core educated guesswork. But it’s another fascinating thing nonetheless, and it’s got the makings of the objectivity and empiricism history is relying on more and more.  So here’s a few searches to get you started.

(Click on the images to enlarge)

WAR AND PEACE IN THE 20TH CENTURY

war peaceAn easy one to start with, right? “War” starts out low and begins to spike just before 1914 – that’s predictable enough -then drops, but never as low as it had been before the First World Fuckup. Contained there are generations of war poets and, after that, the modernist writers of the Lost Generation. Then it spikes suddenly from about 1937 as Europe prepares for war again and drops more slowly from the Cold War and further into living memory. Peace follows the exact same pattern on a smaller scale. But that makes sense too. When do people think about an end to war the most?

WAR AND PEACE IN RUSSIA, 1800-2000

war peaceSame shit, different language, using the Russian words for “War” and “Peace” and, for we uneducated few who can’t speak Russian, the same colours. “Peace” peaks in 1812: the same year Russia emerged victorious against Napoleon. That was a surprising result for everyone because a) Napoleon didn’t lose things and  b) The Russian Empire didn’t win things, and a source of much national pride for a country that not too long ago had been beset by plague, famine and angry Poles and was now set to conquer Europe. Another interesting jump is in the use of “War” from 1941, the year Hitler invaded the USSR. Almost until the war was declared, Stalin was intent on staying neutral, banning all mention of it in the media until it was unavoidable. Those media are responsible for the huge jump in the last part of the graph.

THE CITY AND THE CITY, 1770-2008

war peace

The changing face of places is also pretty clear to see. And not just because London’s looks eerily like the city’s own skyline. This ngram starts in 1770, and London begins as the unofficial capital of the lit world – and the capital of one of the empires running the real one (the fact that it’s mapping English texts helps, of course). New York’s rise to fame comes roughly during the “Gilded Age” of America’s history, the birth of monopolies and skyscrapers and silly moustachioed capitalists (kidding: they’ve always existed), and London’s decline comes during the decline of its empire before becoming a cultural capital during the “Swinging Sixties”. No-one really notices the large cities, the huge economic powerhouses of Tokyo and Beijing, until they have their booms – the miracle of Post-War Japan and the “Golden Sixties”, the Deng Xiaoping reforms from the 1980s in China. The graph ends before today. Beijing still rends upwards.

THE -ISMS IN THE 20TH CENTURY

war peaceThis one…this one is just uncanny. “Capitalism”, “Communism”  and “Fascism”‘s use  in Literature more than slightly resembles how influential they were in real life, minus capitalism’s unusually shaky start – look how Communism starts shaky and gets stronger, almost overtakes Capitalism in the 1950s and then dwindles back to a sharp decline in the 1990s during the fall of the USSR. Fascism pops up out of the blue in the late ’20s and has its peak in 1943, then it’s unpopular until it’s revived as a left-wing insult in the 1960s. However, Capitalism peaks in the 1930s, the recovery period of the Great Depression. Maybe Capitalism is more often used as a curse than a compliment, and invoked more by critics than believers. By the 1980s, at least, it has its day. Does this sound familiar yet?

You’ve probably got some ideas of your own, if not I’ve bored you half to death with enough. It’s rare that you get a chance to measure ideas so empirically – and the Ngram’s not perfect, but it’s clearly hit the mark more than once. It doesn’t have to be about history, and some of the linguistics angles are the most interesting (see the vicious battle between “thee” and “you” in the 1600s, although you can probably guess who won) And, whatever you do, post any ideas you have and discoveries you make in the comments. The imaginary library is only going to get larger. Why not make yourself part of it?

Metal, Monopoly and Mugabe: Zimbabwe and Its Legacies

The simple way to think about sub-Saharan Africa is as an unhappy result of European colonisation and nothing more. Most of the borders you can see today were drawn along the borders of old dominions, for a start. Most countries still use a European “business language” and a fair few still use their old colonial names. The African Commonwealth even have their own version of Eurovision, and if that’s not a grisly reminder of a Europe-dominated past I don’t know what is. But history, like nature, romance or War and Peace, resists any attempts to make it simple. History works on a sort of reverse Occam’s Razor – the simplest answer isn’t just incomplete, but incorrect, obtuse and even harmful. Much like being hit over the head with War and Peace. That’s why it’s so important to appreciate the things that break the stereotypes – those places and events that prove that an area’s history is more than the two-dimensional cut-out that non-holistic thinking makes it into. And that’s why today, we’re going to talk about some zimbabwes.

A zimbabwe, for those of you who are shaking your fists at the screen and saying that I can’t use proper nouns, is a specific type of stone fort found in southern Africa. But I admit, you got me, because I’m going actually to talk about the country they give their name to, and the centuries of history behind it. But ironically, our story – like so many of the best stories – begins in Nigeria.

Africa_ethnic_groups_1996

Light Green here represents the Bantu cultural group. They’re putting the Celts a little bit to shame.

Nigeria is a pretty relevant place in the world today, with its 174 million people and all, but in 400 BC they were the freaking place to be – well, along with that other tourist hotspot, Niger – because they had that luxury resource everyone was talking about…well, talking about or getting killed by. Nigeria had iron, and like the Etruscans, Celts, ancient Indians with whom they shared the discovery they used that technology to spread across huge areas very, very quickly. The Bantu culture, originally from the area around Niger and Nigeria, spread and diversified across hundreds of thousands of miles, conquering the stone tool-wielding natives of the southern jungles and savannahs and slowly assimilating them into the 250-odd Bantu ethnicities there are today. When they came to the Highveld of Zimbabwe (Highlands, but think less Scotland and more The Last King of Scotland), they were able to dominate it for over a millennium.

It’s difficult to know much about the early Bantu in Zimbabwe – being a culture that, for all its early technological advancements, had no written language to brag about them in – but contact with Arab traders on the lucrative Indian Ocean trade routes gives an impression of a pretty cohesive kingdom there in the 9th century. Zimbabwe is rich in gold and diamonds, something that would propel them to great heights pretty quickly with the northern kings and sultans who deemed their palaces insufficiently blinged out. Thus, the Zimbabweans got rich trading with…well, whoever had the ships to take their goods: first the Arabs and then the Portuguese, who enthusiastically claimed in that oh-so-European way that they had “discovered” the settlements.  But what the Portuguese found might have looked rather familiar. Because the first Bantu’s descendants still had one technological advancement up their sleeves, and it was a surprising one. They had invented, independently of Europe and probably of the Middle East, the castle. To be precise, they had invented the zimbabwe.

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The entrance as it stands today. You can see the Dan Snow documentary coming a mile off.

All the wealth they got back from ports in what would later become the ironically un-wealthy Mozambique had to go somewhere. The zimbabwes that still dot the Highveld show just what that wealth could do. Curved fortresses that housed every major family for a whole region, often built just from fuck-off huge chunks of limestone without mortar. The largest, the Great Zimbabwe, whose keep alone would have housed 300 local leaders and their families in a sort of “Well, your mansion is nice so I’m going to build mine literally on top of it” sort of fashion, is surrounded by farmland that fed a desmene around 30,000 people strong. The people of the area – now named the Shona, although that name started out as derogatory (they’d get along with the Iroqouis) – abandoned it in time, spreading north to better farmland safe from the desertifying effect of climate change and better, safer trade. But it’s a testament to that interim between Iron Age invaders and modernity like those castles found in Europe. It’s still standing.

I’ve talked before about what happened in Africa in the late 1800s, and that’s how long the Shona survived in their latest and greatest independent country, Matapa. From there, they started a slow decline– they didn’t take up guns or develop their own invader-bashing technology. Some southern tribes did, and that’s probably why you’ve heard of the Zulu. From there, the decline got a little faster. They also didn’t count on the invaders bringing machine guns, gold and frankly ridiculous shipments of tea, and so it was that the area that is now Zimbabwe became one of the southernmost points of the British “stripe” across Africa. This, unfortunately, is where the tragedy begins. Britain weren’t terrible colonial masters. While they lacked the tolerance and spending on education that the French Empire had (although that tolerance was frequently lost with horrible consequences – see Haiti) they ruled with at least some consent from local rulers and under the unwritten “British constitution”. In Zimbabwe, this was not the case. Because Zimbabwe wasn’t run as a colony. It was run as a company.

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You even put a pickaxe on South Rhodesia’s emblem. You subtle British bastards.

There have been few privately run countries in history. The British East India Company had one in India, the Dutch equivalent in Indonesia, and Leopold II of Belgium used one to justify owning the Congo personally as a dictator – the Congon Free State conveniently had only one shareholder. Newly renamed Southern Rhodesia was, de facto, run by the British South Africa Company under the leadership of a man called Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes and Rhodesia. Before you say anything, not a coincidence. The BSAC was a mining company, and the wealth that had once built Great Zimbabwe now built Rhodesia, finding diamonds, gold, silver – all with cheap Boer (Dutch-come-White-African) and black labour, whom they kept “honest” by imprisoning them literally within the mines themselves. For the record, while the BSAC doesn’t exist any more, it basically merged into the Rhodes’ De Beers mining cartel – you know, the one which currently make up 50% of the world’s diamond market. Zimbabwe’s history, in the process, was often forgotten or even actively suppressed – the colonial government went as far as to claim that Great Zimbabwe was the work of early white Christians, the acolytes of the mythical “Prester John”, because what Bantu could build something like that? So British farmers settled, using what was essentially perfect farmland for their European crops, and British politics emerged. Not even a struggle for independence could rid them of that, and Rhodesia emerged as an independent white-minority-led nation in 1965. It was a democracy in the loosest sense, and was widely denounced as a “racist state” along with its southern neighbour South Africa. When a black man won the 1980 elections, it was denounced as a Shona takeover. Unlike its equivalent in South Africa, this time it sort of was. Rhodesia had just elected Robert Mugabe.

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This protest is happening in Britain. It sure as hell isn’t going to happen in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s sort-of-socialist, sort-of-fascist government changed a lot of things in Zimbabwe. They justified it as returning the country to what it used to be – so it was renamed Zimbabwe, given a flag that incorporated treasure found in its largest fortress, and declared 16 Bantu languages to be the official languages of state. It also took over the land of white farmers by force. It also started a massacre of Mugabe’s political opponents called the Gukurahundi. It translates from Shona as “the rain that blows away the chaff”. In Zimbabwe today, the moral questions aren’t easy. Whether the country had the right to take away the land that had been taken from it before with force is debatable. Whether Mugabe is a better leader than men like Ian Smith and Cecil Rhodes were before him is debatable. Whether the government is really motivated by revanchism is debatable. But Zimbabwe remains a country ingrained in and affected by its powerful, vibrant and interesting history, in its mines and forts and trading posts. But by doing that it’s also defining itself by its colonial history, and maybe in doing so creating a situation if not worse then just as bad. A saying about Mugabe from a the white Rhodesian government days sums up Zimbabwe’s trouble best. “The problem is…he thinks too much like us”.

All Roads Lead to Roma: A Very Gypsy History

Gypsy_with_a_Mandolin__1874

Romantic Art: Making stereotypes look good.

There are few groups who have been so romanticised and so reviled over the course of history as those travellers of Europe and the Near East, the Gypsies. The Romani – to use the more accurate and polite term, because they’re not actually from Egypt – have been the subject of so many stereotypes and stories counting them would be impossible. They have also been alienated and persecuted to within an inch of their existence: even now, there are people who see them as nothing more than thieves, cons and scroungers. It is a belief that has existed as long as they have lived in Europe. But underneath that Daily Mail surface exists a monolithic, ancient culture. Their coming to be in Europe isn’t simple, but it’s interesting. Their story isn’t wholly happy, but it’s important. And it starts with a question.

“Where the hell did the Romani come from?!?” is, like all the best questions on Holistic History, almost impossible to answer. The Romani, like a lot of travelling cultures, have a distinct lack of written history until they get to Europe, which is not entirely hard to understand: before paper and the widespread use of vellum the only option was to write things on metal or stone. For travellers like the Romani, unless you want to go carving your messages on rocks and then leaving them behind like it’s prehistoric Twitter, this makes it difficult to take your past with you. Nevertheless, we do know some things about the origins of the Romani: recent genetic evidence suggests that they’re from Rajasthan in India, for start, so the current theory is that they migrated up through Persia to avoid…well, you know, the foreign guys who happened to be conquering Rajasthan in India at the time. So far, so much common sense. On their journeys around the Middle East, they split into three groups named Dom, Lom and Rom based on…well, based on which was the more convenient to pronounce in the places they settled, and the Romani made their first marks on western history. Reaching Europe in the 11th century, the Rom started to settle in the declining Roman Empire (they clearly liked the similar sounding name) and then Romania (see what I mean?) and by the 16th they had reached as far as Britain and Scandinavia – although they remained in the highest proportions in south-eastern Europe for minor reasons like slavery and oppression. But we’ll get to that. By the full height of the Renaissance, there were Romani in most of the kingdoms of Europe, and even further – Columbus brought three Roms with him to the New World, the first few of another continental migration. By the Enlightenment, their origin didn’t really matter – they had spread through almost every country in Europe. The burning question, then, became how to keep a consistent cultural identity across a whole continent.

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The Romani get expelled from Spain in 1554. In the same decade, a law passes in England making being a Gypsy an actual crime.

I’m not saying that there’s one, completely unified Romani culture – there are several million Sinti, Kale, Roma and Romanichal who might have something to say about that and I am desperate to not offend the Sinti when they have names as awesome as Django Reinhardt. However, there is a sort of cultural consistency amongst Romani groups – it’s called Romanipen, in case you feel this article needed a few more words beginning in Rom. Like those other famous exiles in Europe, the Jews, Romani culture was upheld through the Middle Ages by observing a series of laws and codes instead of a shared language and land. It still has influence today. The general theme is purity – virginity is traditionally upheld as the greatest virtue, and some Roms will not take baths to avoid stagnant water, only washing in showers or natural running water. Ever the communitarians, the Romani also traditionally use shunning and shame to uphold customs, which manifests itself today in fantastic phrases like “May shame eat your face”. Tradition and even religion vary massively over Europe – the northern Romani are generally more influenced by Evangelical Christianity, the southern by Islam and Catholicism, but the so-called Romani Code influences all. In the end, it’s that success at keeping a culture going that can make the Romani remain a distinct culture while so many other immigrants of their time seem to have assimilated completely. Unfortunately, that outsider aspect came at a cost. Europe was a dangerous place for exiles, and none seemed more dangerous to the rulers of Europe than the dark-skinned and mysterious Romani.  In the end, it would cost them over a million lives.

You can say the Romani got off to a bad start in Europe because enslavement by Romanians is generally considered as a bad start as you can get. Tied to the land in a status even below serfs, the Romani were kept in large numbers in Eastern Europe as farm labourers. Elsewhere, they were forced into an almost nomadic lifestyle by Western European leaders who frequently banished them (banishing being apparently a thing they could do on a whim – Elizabeth I of England banished all the black people from London in 1601 only to give up when no-one turned themselves in). That constant travelling eventually became an important part of Romani culture, but it also made them newcomers and strangers wherever they went. The Enlightenment, based on principles of “tolerance” and humanitarianism, saw a change in attitudes. The Romani were suddenly seen as poor backwards immigrants in need of naturalisation, to the extent that the Austrian Empress Maria Therese decreed that they should be renamed “New Hungarians” and forced to fit the Hungarians’ nomad-to-settler mould. Communism, when it reached Eastern Europe, did much the same, offering jobs to Romani people that had previously been denied at the cost of abandoning their traditional communities, but in non-Communist Europe they retained the role they had always had on the outskirts of society. It’s then that they fell foul of a theme of history. Every action has its reaction, each enlightenment its reactionaries. Many were led to believe that the Romani were going to be outsiders forever, and a drain on society for just as long. In 1933, some of those people came into power.

porajmos

Gypsies gathered in a concentration camp.

It’s difficult to translate “Porajmos” into English. It’s a Romani word that means something like “The Devouring”, but even that doesn’t quite cover it – the best would probably just be “The Romani Holocaust”. Labelled by the Nazis as “asocials”, the people who didn’t quite fit the Nazi vision of society, the Romani were taken to concentration camps and then death camps and systematically murdered: first those from Germany, then France and Italy and Romania  and Bulgaria. Let me list some of the countries with the highest Romani populations. Germany. France. Italy, Romania, Bulgaria. The death toll was between 200,000 and 1,200,000, and probably to the higher end – destroyed records mean only 200,000 can be confirmed. If you can find a way to visualise that, tell me.

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Real sign; real attitudes.

Today, safe from the genocide of the past but not entirely healed by it, the Romani are undergoing a social revolution. Record numbers now live in permanent residences, and secular education is improving alongside assimilation. But the struggle to retain a cultural identity within that, while definitely possible, seems more difficult year on year, and Maria Theresa’s dream of getting rid of all that is Gypsy through assimilation could one day come true. The persecution of the Romani, at the risk of getting too political, is far from over.  Forced relocations are still common in Romania, France and Italy; segregated classrooms for Romani students mean that 75% of Romani girls cannot read. Infant mortality is on average ten times higher just for being in a Rom community, and the issue of employers refusing Romani workers from the UK to Greece is currently being reviewed by the EU.

About 1,000 years ago, the first Romani arrived in Europe.

At what point will they stop seeming like outcasts?

 

 

 

Holistic History Extra: The Speech From Another Reality

There’s one type of history I usually wouldn’t touch with a Renaissance Venetian barge pole on this blog, and that’s alternate history. While it’s interesting to try and work your way through a “What If”, you need to understand what you’re talking about in minute detail to get anywhere. History, unfortunately, isn’t really about minute detail. But occasionally, just occasionally, you can get a glimpse of how things might have happened: from an idea, from an ambition, from a plan. Or, in the case of what I’m going to show you today, a contingency plan.

William Safire was a speechwriter and presidential aide for Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. He was one of the people who publicised the legendary Kitchen Debate, a bizarre event where Nixon and Khrushchev started a heated argument about their countries’ achievements in the plastic kitchen of an American “model home”. But in 1969 he had a different task, because somewhere high above his head were three men in a little metal box, about to make a small step for a man and – to paraphrase – a fucking huge one for mankind. But the White House was worried. The footage was to go live on television to 500 million people: what would happen if they failed? The first people to land on a surface other than Earth would go down through human history. But if they missed their rendezvous they could be stuck there forever, perfectly preserved in the lack of atmosphere, a grim reminder of the dark side of the Space Race. So Safire wrote a speech. A speech that was to turn this alternate turn of events into an act of national, maybe even global, heroism. Thankfully, it was a speech that was never used. But it remains hauntingly beautiful, the last transmission Armstrong and Aldrin would ever have heard in a terrible alternate reality where a momentous achievement was marred with tragedy. Here, in full, is that speech:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:

A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.