Most Powerful Persian

Prince

A Mughal Prince in a Pavillion Surrounded by Ladies

Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, Bardiya, Darius the Great and Xerxes were the first five Achemenid Emperors of Persia.

Who could be greater than the King of Kings the ruler of the four corners of the earth?

Atossa.  Cyrus the Great and his wife Cassandane gave birth to four children; Cambyses, Bardiya (Smerdis), Atossa and Roxana.

Atossa was the eldest daughter of Cyrus.  Sister to emperor Cambyses and to the short reigning emperor Smerdis.  There is a very believable theory that Darius, a senior official of Cambyses, rose to power by assasinating both Cambyses and his brother Smerdis.  The official account is that Cambyses murdered Bardiya and hid the crime.  Then Cambyses cut himself with a sword and died of gangrene.  An imposter pretended to be Bardiya, and because only a handful of people knew about the murder, he might have gotten away with it.

So Darius and a crack squad of hit men stormed the palace and slayed the imposter Smerdis.

This story helps Darius portray himself as a good guy, and someone worth inheriting the mantle of King of Kings.

But he had no validity and no connection to the royal line.  So in a well trodden political move he justified his rule by wedding Atossa, the blood of the royal line.  She gave him a son, Xerxes, not his first son, but a son of the blood.  Xerxes was a grandson of Cyrus, nephew of Cambyses, and further cemented the rule of Darius the Great.

Atossa, daughter of an Emperor, sister of two Emperors, wife of an Emperor, mother of an Emperor.  How powerful is that lady?  And yet we know very little about this amazing woman.  It is said that Atossa had “a great authority” in the royal court.

In the west there has always been a great fascination with the goings on in the royal Harem.  This is dominated by male fantasies of exotic eastern ladies, profligate sexuality, nudity, decadence and a focus on the pleasures of the flesh.  In the West our knowledge of the Harem comes from The Arabian Nights stories and from  suggestive glimpses of the closeted lives of the seraglio which may be no more than the wild tales of sailors and travellers.

The truth of the harem was  far more down to earth.  If you read carefully you will learn that the ladies of the harem were not immune from economic necessities.  We have records of them engaging in trade and investments, using palace Eunuchs as intermediaries.  They represented a powerful 5th column in the politics of the empire.  In a world where access is power the ladies of the Harem had some of the best access possible.

Think of the Harem in ancient times like a modern professional political lobby organisation in Washington.  You pay them to buy access to votes.  In ancient Persia there was undoubtedly a long line at the desk of the head Eunuch of the Harem.  His effectiveness and his wealth were determined by his relationships with the right ladies of the court.

In this world it is clear that the almost unknown Atossa was the most powerful person in the history of the Achemenid Empire.  Daughter of Kings, Sister of Kings, Maker of Kings, Mother of Kings.

The Offended Moon (La Lune offensée); by Charles Baudelaire (Trans William Aggeler, 1954)

O Moon whom our ancestors discreetly adored,
radiant seraglio! from the blue countries’ height
to which the stars follow you in dashing attire,
my ancient Cynthia, lamp of our haunts,

do you see the lovers on their prosperous pallets,
showing as they sleep, the cool enamel of their mouths?
The poet beating his forehead over his work?
Or the vipers coupling under the withered grass?

Under your yellow domino, with quiet step,
do you go as in days of old from morn till night
to kiss the faded charms of Endymion?

— “I see your mother, child of this impoverished age,
Bending toward her mirror a heavy weight of years,
Skillfully disguising the breast that nourished you!”

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Harun al-Rashid

Sinbad

Born on St Patricks Day, some 300 years after St. Patrick lived, Haroun al-Rashid is considered by many to be the greatest Caliph of the Islamic world.  He presided over the Abassid Caliphate in its golden age when it was the centre of learing, enlightenment, literature, arts and science.

He corresponded with rulers as far away as France, presenting Charlemagne with a clock that was so ingenious the Franks believed it to be possessed, so many and complex were the chimes it sounded.  A good an generous friend he also proved a stern and powerful enemy.  He brought the Byzantine empire to heel and his name was feared throughout his own empire.

His name may translate as the “orthodox” or the “right guided” and for Sunni Muslims he represented a powerful bastion of the islamic faith.  So powerful indeed that the Christian world suffered the crisis of iconoclasm at this period.  Seeing the success of the armies of Islam orthodox christians questioned if religious icons, images and statues were in fact idols.  Heads were smashed from church altars, icons were thrown onto fires and emperors were dethroned based on their belief.

Legend has it that al-Rashid would don a beggars cloak and walk the streets of Baghdad or Raqqa and eavesdrop on the conversations of the ordinary folk to better understand how they perceived him and his rule.

In the West we know of this great Sultan because of a book.  “A thousand and one nights”, or the “Arabian Nights” is a collection of tales from the Asian world, originating in Arabia, India, China and Persia.  They include characters known by every Western child, The seven voyages of Sinbad the sailor, Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali-Baba and the forty thieves, magic flying carpets and many many more fantastic and magical tales.

At the heart of the tale is the evil sultan, thought to be modeled on Al-Rashid.  Each night he takes a bride from his harem and after taking his pleasure has her killed.  The interlocutor of the 1001 nights is Sheherazade, the wife who beguiles him with storytelling instead of pleasures of the flesh.  Instead of killing her he spares her for one more night, for one more story.  And so the tales unravel over the course of many years until he of course falls madly in love with her.

From this book we have a wealth of art, music, dance and not a few pantomimes.  It was the inspiration for hundreds of childrens authors from E. Nesbit to J.K. Rowling.  Poetry of Yeats, Longfellow, Tennyson and Archibald Macleish stories of O. Henry, James Joyce and Charles Dickens.  Al-Rashid is a thread that runs trough every weave in the fabric of literature.

The wiser wooer posts them to her

Desert

Meet in Desert Waste

A Valentine; by Lewis Carroll

Sent to a friend who had complained that I was glad enough to see
him when he came, but didn’t seem to miss him if he stayed away.

And cannot pleasures, while they last,
be actual unless, when past,
they leave us shuddering and aghast,
with anguish smarting?
And cannot friends be firm and fast,
and yet bear parting?

And must I then, at Friendship’s call,
calmly resign the little all
(trifling, I grant, it is and small)
I have of gladness,
and lend my being to the thrall
of gloom and sadness?

And think you that I should be dumb,
and full DOLORUM OMNIUM,
excepting when YOU choose to come
and share my dinner?
At other times be sour and glum
and daily thinner?

Must he then only live to weep,
who’d prove his friendship true and deep
by day a lonely shadow creep,
at night-time languish,
oft raising in his broken sleep
the moan of anguish?

The lover, if for certain days
his fair one be denied his gaze,
sinks not in grief and wild amaze,
but, wiser wooer,
he spends the time in writing lays,
and posts them to her.

And if the verse flow free and fast,
’till even the poet is aghast,
a touching Valentine at last
the post shall carry,
when thirteen days are gone and past
of February.

Farewell, dear friend, and when we meet,
in desert waste or crowded street,
perhaps before this week shall fleet,
perhaps to-morrow.
I trust to find YOUR heart the seat
of wasting sorrow.

 

 

The Macbeth of animals

bear

Say my name!

Actors performing in Macbeth will never, out of superstition, say the name of the play.  Instead they call it “The Scottish Play”.

In similar vein the wizards of the Harry Potter novels refer to their great enemy as “You know who” or “He who must not be named” because to speak the name Voldemort gives it power.

There is a tradition in Celtic society of refusing to give power to a beast by giving it its name.  If a village was terrified by an animal, real or mythical, they would name it “the beast” or “the monster” until it was slain.  Only when dead could they give name to the beast.

Which brings us to the Bear.  You may think you know the bear but in truth you do not.  So terrifying was the bear to primitive society that people would not speak it’s name.  Instead they called it simply “the brown one”.

So successful was this refusal to say the name of the beast that we no longer know the name.  “Bear” simply means “brown one”.

The Two Bears; by Hafiz

Once
after a hard day forage
two bears sat together in silence
on a beautiful vista
watching the sun go down
and feeling deeply grateful
for life.

Though, after a while
a thought-provoking conversation began
which turned to the topic of
fame.

The one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
and travels from city to city
in a golden cage;

He performs for hundreds of people
who laugh and applaud
his carnival stunts.

The other bear thought for
a few seconds
then started
weeping.

 

Grandfather Africa

Tatamkulu Afrika translates from Xhosa as Grandfather Africa.  It is the nom de plume of Mogamed Fu’ad Nasif who was born in Egypt on this day in 1920.  His initial publications were under what he called his Methodist name; John Carlton.  This was the name given to him by his Foster parents in South Africa after his Egyptian father and Turkish mother died of the flu.

That would have been the global pandemic Spanish flu which took people in the prime of their lives and left behind the aged and infirm and the small children.

He went back to the land of his birth in WW2 and fought in the North African campaign, was captured in Tobruk.

After the war he moved to South West Africa, now modern Namibia, and became Jozua Joubert when fostered by an Afrikaans family.

In 1964 he converted to Islam and became Ismail Joubert.

He moved to Cape Town and was active in protests against the whitewashing of District 6 under the apartheid regime.  His Egyptian/Turkish heritage permitted Joubert to classify as a white.  He refused.

Grandfather Africa was given to him as an honorific, as the Indians named Mohandas Gandhi “Bapu” and “Mahatma”.  But he was not the pacifist the Indian was.  He was imprisoned along side Prisoner 46664 for 11 years for terrorism, so maybe we should say that his was a Chimurenga name?

Egypt, Libya, Namibia and South Africa, the name fits.

afrika1

 

Nothing’s Changed; by Tatamkulu Afrika

Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
seeding grasses thrust bearded seeds
into trouser cuffs, cans,
trodden on, crunch
in tall, purple-flowering,
amiable weeds.

of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.

Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.

No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.

I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass,
linen falls,
the single rose.

Down the road,
working man’s cafe sells
bunny chows.
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it’s in the bone.

I back from the glass,
boy again,
leaving small, mean O
of small, mean mouth.
Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Nothing’s changed.

Montgisard

Schlacht_von_Montgisard_2

The Battle of Montgisard, 1177, by Charles Philippe Larivière

In the film “Kingdom of Heaven” the masked Baldwin IV, dying of leprosy, reminisces on a great victory in battle when he was only 16 years old.  That victory was genuine.  It was the battle of Montgisard, on this day in the year 1177.

Saladin led his Mameluke army from Egypt to attack a Crusader Castle, possibly Blanchegarde on Tell es-Safi near Ramla.

Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem,  Raynald of Châtillon, Bailan of Ibelin and the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Odo de St Amand all featured and you will hear these names bandied about in the movie, but beware the poetic licence taken by Ridley Scott with the characters.

The truth is that an outnumbered army of Christian knights prevailed and drove Saladin out of the Holy Land.  Saladin returned to Egypt with only one tenth of his force.  It was a disastrous defeat for him.

It took ten years for Saladin to get his revenge at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187.

Unpicking the details it seems that Saladin sent a detachment of his forces to bottle Baldwin up in Ashkelon and mistakenly thought he had neutralised that threat.  Believing himself in control Saladin permitted his forces to break up to pillage the country and forage for supplies.  Recent rains caused a stream to flood and his baggage train became enmired in the crossing.

When the Christian knights appeared the Mameluke army was in disarray.  Many of them charged back to the baggage train to retrieve weapons.  The Christian army brought out the relic of the true cross.  Baldwin IV dismounted and prayed before it for strength from God.  He rose to the accolade of his troops, his leprosy bandaged, and charged the Muslim army.  Saladin, it is said, escaped only because he had a racing camel at his disposal.

The Crusaders; by Edward George Dyson

What price yer humble, Dicko Smith,
in gaudy putties girt,
with sand-blight in his optics, and much
leaner than he started,
round the ‘Oly Land cavorting in three-
quarters of a shirt,
and imposin’ on the natives ez one Dick
the Lion ‘Earted?

We are drivin’ out the infidel, we’re hittin’
up the Turk,
same ez Richard slung his right across the
Saracen invader
in old days of which I’m readin’. Now
we’re gettin’ in our work,
‘n’ what price me nibs, I ask yeh, ez a
qualified Crusader!

‘Ere I am, a thirsty Templar in the fields of
Palestine,
where that hefty little fighter, Bobby
Sable, smit the heathen,
and where Richard Coor de Lion trimmed
the Moslem good ‘n’ fine,
‘n’ he took the belt from Saladin, the
slickest Dago breathin’.

There’s no plume upon me helmet, ‘n’ no red
cross on me chest,
‘n’ so fur they haven’t dressed me in a
swanking load of metal;
We’ve no ‘Oly Grail I know of, but we do
our little best
with a jamtin, ‘n’ a billy, ‘n’ a battered
ole mess kettle.

Quite a lot of guyver missin’ from our brand
of chivalry;
We don’t make a pert procession when
we’re movin’ up the forces;
We’ve no pretty, pawin’ stallion, ‘n’ no
pennants flowin’ free,
‘n’ no giddy, gaudy bedquilts make a
circus of the ‘orses.

We ‘most always slip the cattle ‘n’ we cut out
all the dog
when it fairly comes to buttin’ into battle’s
hectic fever,
goin’ forward on our wishbones, with our
noses in the bog,
‘n’ we ‘eave a pot iv blazes at the cursed
unbeliever.

Fancy-dress them old Crusaders wore,
and alwiz kep’ a band.
What we wear’s so near to nothin’ that it’s
often ‘ardly proper,
and we swings a tank iv iron scrap across
the ‘Oly Land
from a dinkie gun we nipped ashore the
other side of Jopper.

We ain’t ever very natty, for the climate here
is hot;
When it isn’t liquid mud the dust is thicker
than the vermin.
Ten to one our bold Noureddin is some wad-
dlin’ Turkish pot,
‘n’ the Saladin we’re on to is a snortin’
red-eyed German.

But be’old the eighth Crusade, ‘n’ Dicko
Smith is in the van,
Dicko Coor de Lion from Carlton what
could teach King Dick a trifle,
for he’d bomb his Royal Jills from out his
baked-pertater can,
or he’d pink him full of leakage with a
quaint repeatin’ rif1e.

We have sunk our claws in Mizpah, and
Siloam is in view.
By my ‘alidom from Agra we will send the
Faithful reelin’!
Those old-timers botched the contract, but we
mean to put it through.
Knights Templars from Balmain, the Port,
Monaro, Nhill, andl Ealin’.

We ‘are wipin’ up Jerus’lem; we were ready
with a hose
spoutin’ lead, a dandy cleaner that you bet
you can rely on;
And Moss Isaacs, Cohn, and Cohen, Moses,
Offelbloom ‘n’ those
can all pack their bettin’ bags, and come
right home again to Zion.

 

The Spartan General

Monty

Colonel Montgomery accidentally caught in Churchill Photograph

Born on this day in 1887 Bernard Law Montgomery was a hero of two world wars.

Son of an Ulster-Scots Church of Ireland Reverend Minister from Inishowen in Donegal.  Born in Surrey and grew up in Tasmania where his father was appointed as Bishop.

When he attended military college he was almost expelled for “rowdiness and violence”

He was already an adjutant in the British Army when WW1 broke out.  He fought in the famous retreat from Mons and was shot in one lung.  He recovered and returned to duty to fight again at Arras and Passchendaele.  He finished the war with a rank of lieutenant colonel and it was in this capacity that he was caught in the photograph above in a prophetic juxtaposition with Winston Churchill.

He married Betty Carver in 1927, widow of an Olympic Athlete who died in WW1, mother of two sons.  She had a moderating effect on Montgomery, smoothing out the negatives in his character, his violence, his intractability, his single mindedness.  The qualities that made him a successful battle commander did not serve him well in the 20’s and 20’s.  She helped him greatly to advance his peacetime career.

In a tragic set of circumstances she died of an infected insect bite that gave her blood poisoning and she died in his arms, leaving him grief stricken.

When WW2 commenced Montgomery immediately demonstrated his fitness as a battle commander.  He retreated from France with his command intact, ordering a night time march to reach Dunkirk, and returning to Britain with minimal casualties.

His abrasive manner ruffled feathers at military command and he was openly and frankly critical of the command of the BEF.  He had a reputation for physical and mental toughness and insisted on the physical fitness of all his men, including the senior officers.  He was ruthless in sacking men he saw as unfit to command.

When Winston Churchill sought a commander to replace Auchinleck in North Africa he was convinced to select Montgomery.  His transformation of the 8th Army and his defeat of Rommel at 2nd El Alamein are the stuff of legend.

From then on the march of Monty was the March of Britain.  Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, until he tarnished the polish of his legend in Arnhem with that Bridge Too Far in Operation Market Garden.  Had he succeeded Monty could have ended the war a year earlier.  But perhaps not.

Peace time was not good for Montgomery with no understanding wife to iron out his worst tendencies.  He upset many with his memoirs of the war and even faced legal challenges to what he wrote.  He demonstrated himself as the worst kind of bigot with his stances on issues such as apartheid and homosexuality.

 

Montgomery: by A.P. Herbert

Field Marshal, few, and foolish, are the lands
that do not hail the baton in your hands.
They labelled you a ‘showman’. But we know
good showmen must have something good to show:
One does not capture by the showman’s art
the people’s confidence, the soldier’s heart.
They said you were ‘eccentric’. We could do
with several abnormalities like you:
It needs a not quite ordinary man
to start at Alamein and take Sedan.
Master of craft, and horror of the Huns,
one hundred salvos from a thousand guns!
September 3, 1944

Monty2

Normandy 1944 at the height of fame.