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.

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Alliteration

Alaric_Alexander_Watts

The alliterative Alaric Alexander Watts

Defined as the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.  A perfect example of alliteration is given in a poem by Alaric Alexander Watts.  Born on this day in 1797 into the world dominated by the Napoleonic Wars.  He died in 1864 at the height of the U.S. Civil War.

In his lifetime Europe was in a constant state of war.  The greatest force for peace in the history of the world is the European Union.  Because of this I find it strange, incredible, that anyone who knows anything about history would want to dismantle the European Union.  But today the British People, the Russians and the USA are all working very hard to dismantle the European Union.

The British are taking themselves out of Europe.  Putin is trying to exert pressure on Eastern Europe to extend Russian influence back into former East European Communist Economies.  Donald Trump has sent Mike Pence on a scouting mission to see if he can tip countries like Poland, Hungary, Romania or Bulgaria out of the Union.  They are trying to find cracks to prize the union apart.

Why?  What is to be gained by a return to conflict and constant war?  Do they all hold shares in Arms Manufacturing companies?

 

The Siege of Belgrade; by Alaric Alexander Watts

An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.
Cossack commanders cannonading come,
dealing destruction’s devastating doom.
Every endeavor engineers essay,
for fame, for fortune fighting – furious fray!
Generals ‘gainst generals grapple – gracious God!
How honors Heaven heroic hardihood!
Infuriate, indiscrminate in ill,
kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill.
Labor low levels longest, lofiest lines;
men march ‘mid mounds, ‘mid moles, ‘ mid murderous mines;
now noxious, noisey numbers nothing, naught
of outward obstacles, opposing ought;
poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed,
quite quaking, quickly “Quarter! Quarter!” quest.
Reason returns, religious right redounds,
suwarrow stops such sanguinary sounds.
Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train,
unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine!
Vanish vain victory! Vanish, victory vain!
Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were
Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier?
Yield, yield, ye youths! Ye yeomen, yield your yell!
Zeus’, Zarpater’s, Zoroaster’s zeal,
Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!

Goths of Rome

Goths

Two Goths pose with a smiling girl dressed in black.

These days if you find Goths in Rome they are likely to be nihilistic teenagers with pale skin, dressed head to toe in black.  If they seem over emotional they may be emos rather than goths.  Tribes of teenagers sacking the city of Rome may seem absurd but in ancient days the Gothic armies were probably heavily manned by teenage warriors.

The first and most famous invasion was the “Sack of Rome” by the Visigoths under Alaric.  When people speak of “Barbarians at the Gates” it is a direct reference to the Sack in 410 AD.  Not the first sack of Rome, but the first since the attack by the Gauls under Brennus some 800 years earlier.

Once breached Rome fell prey to many new opportunists.  The Vandals carried off any portable wealth that the Visigoths left when, led by Genseric, they sacked the city 455 AD.

The Goths rounded off the “4 Sacks of Ancient Rome” in 546 AD when the Ostrogoths under Totila sacked the city.

The Ostrogoths also tried in 537 AD when Belisarius occupied the City in his reconquest of Italy for Emperor Justinian.  Belisarius was Justinian’s favourite general, victor over the Persians at the battle of Dara, victor of the Vandals, the man who saved Constantinople from the Nike riots, when the people of new Rome rioted because of the shortage of good running shoes. OK, maybe that’s a lie.  The Greek for victory is Nika, from the Goddess of victory, Nike.  The password for the rioters was the word they shouted at the chariot races, so they were the Nika riots (victory riots).  When Phil Knight decided to make running shoes he decided to call them after the Greek Goddess of Victory, and as a point of information the final e in Nike is pronounced as it is in all Greek female names such as Phoebe, Penelope, Ariadne and Chloe.

It was on this day in 537 that the Siege of Rome by the Ostrogoths began.  There was no Ostrogothic sack of Rome in 537, which kind of gives a hint to how the siege will end.  Strangely enough I am currently reading Robert Graves “Count Belisarius” and by coincidence I reached the Siege of Rome on exactly the anniversary of the Siege of Rome.

As a novel Count Belisarius is not a patch on I Claudius which is a masterpiece.  The account of Belisarius reads far more like a history book than a novel.  Unlike with Claudius the author fails to bring the characters to life as living breathing people.  It is an interesting and very accurate account of events, but it struggles as a novel.

Bellisarius

Impi! O nans’impi iyeza

zulu.jpg

Stanley Baker, the Welsh Actor responsible for the greatest British war movie ever made was born on this day in 1928.  Zulu was filmed in 1964.  It is Baker’s best remembered role and made a movie star of a young lad called Michael Caine.

Bravery is not the ability to face danger without fear.  True bravery is finding yourself in a hopeless situation, facing certain death, feeling awful cowardice and yet standing up to danger.

There is a moment in the film when the Zulu sing the song of the warriors.  The rag-tag unit of British soldiers listen to the Zulu, their power, their majesty and know that all is lost.  Then Baker asks the lads to sing “Men of Harlech”.

 

 

Happy Birthday A.R. Ammons

Ammons.jpg

Award winning American poet Archie Ammons was born this day in 1926.  He served in the navy during WW2 aboard a battleship escort.  He was a member of the generation who benefited from US government support for education.

He attended University after the war to study biology, becoming a teacher.  He then pursued an M.A. in English and became a life long academic, teacher, writer in residence and award winning poet.

So I guess he qualifies as a “warrior poet”.

 

Eyesight; by Archie Randolph Ammons

It was May before my
attention came
to spring and

my word I said
to the southern slopes
I’ve

missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see:

don’t worry, said the mountain,
try the later northern slopes
or if

you can climb, climb
into spring: but
said the mountain

it’s not that way
with all things, some
that go are gone

The Seed Potatoes of Leningrad

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There are few stories so hear wrenching they will make me cry, but his is one of them.

I am not going to re-tell it, I will direct you to John Green’s excellent podcast here:

—–>Tetris and Seed Potatoes

During the winter of 1941/42 as many residents of Leningrad were dying EVERY MONTH as the total Americans who ever died in all wars ever.  Mostly they died of starvation.  Amongst this carnage a small and dedicated group of scientists protected a seedbank which has benefited humanity ever since.

In our world today do we find any sense of such self-sacrifice for the higher goals of humanity?

What can I do today to reverse the damage mankind has inflicted on the Earth?

 

Earthrise

Earthrise

The photo of the Earth taken by Major William A Anders from the Apollo 8 capsule slingshoting around the Moon is called “Earthrise”

It changed the way we look at the world.  Captured in the lens are the lives, loves, dreams, hopes and worries of all but 3 of the entire human race, on that day, Christmas Eve 1968.

To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers who know now they are truly brothers.” ….Archibald MacLeish

Seen in this way, a delicate ark of humanity, an oasis of life in the vastness of space really makes you think.

What is to be gained by man waging war on man?  We should be working shoulder to shoulder to reach out to the stars.

How can we exist on such a vulnerable sphere and allow it to be polluted, abused, over-expolited and poisoned by our own activities?

Why do short term greed, selfishness, personal ambition and crass materialism drive a society which should be planning for the long term survival of the human race?

If you need a resolution for 2019:  work in what small way you can to reduce the impacts of mankind on Planet Earth.  Badger your politicians.  Reject plastics and chemicals.  Eat less meat.  Opt for energy from renewable sources.  Invest your pension in ethical funds.

You, Andrew Marvell; by Archibald MacLeish

And here face down beneath the sun
and here upon earth’s noonward height
to feel the always coming on
the always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
the earthy chill of dusk and slow
upon those under lands the vast
and ever climbing shadow grow

and strange at Ecbatan the trees
take leaf by leaf the evening strange
the flooding dark about their knees
the mountains over Persia change

and now at Kermanshah the gate
dark empty and the withered grass
and through the twilight now the late
few travelers in the westward pass

and Baghdad darken and the bridge
across the silent river gone
and through Arabia the edge
of evening widen and steal on

and deepen on Palmyra’s street
the wheel rut in the ruined stone
and Lebanon fade out and Crete
high through the clouds and overblown

and over Sicily the air
still flashing with the landward gulls
and loom and slowly disappear
the sails above the shadowy hulls

and Spain go under and the shore
of Africa the gilded sand
and evening vanish and no more
the low pale light across that land

nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
to feel how swift how secretly
the shadow of the night comes on …