Calendar Wars III

Nizar

Nizar Qabbani : Syrian Poet

Last night was the spring, or vernal equinox.  In astrological terms that makes today the first day of the new astrological year.  The first month of the Zodiac calendar is Aries, the Ram.  We all love to make fun of horoscopes and the notion that you can predict your future from the rotation of the planet and the precession of the stars.

At the same time the human brain is pre-programmed to seek patterns in nature.  Random chance is a frightening threat, so we seek solace in order and causality.  Reading horoscopes is simply a manifestation of the real human need to make sense of our world.

Today is also the first day of the new year in the Bahá’í calendar, a religion from Iran.  Year 1 of this calendar begins in 1844 CE making this year 175BE.  Though it originates in Iran it is most heavily persecuted there.  It is sad that Islam, which was once renowned for its tolerance of other faiths, has become so prohibitive of other peoples beliefs.

So to poetry and today I have a poem from one of the most famous and best loved Syrian poets.  Nizar Qabbani was born on March 21st 1923 in Damascus which he described in his will as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine“.

The suicide of his older sister when he was aged 15 had a profound influence on the young Qabbani.  She made the ultimate refusal to an arranged marriage.  All his life he advocated feminism and an examination of the relationship between men and women in Arabic society.

The defeat of Syria and the Arab allies in the 6 day war by Israel also had a profound effect on his work and shifted his focus from the poetry of love to the poetry of politics.

A lesson in Drawing; by Nizar Qabbani

My son places his paint box in front of me
and asks me to draw a bird for him.
Into the color gray I dip the brush
and draw a square with locks and bars.
Astonishment fills his eyes:
‘… But this is a prison, Father,
Don’t you know, how to draw a bird?’
And I tell him: ‘Son, forgive me.
I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.’

My son puts the drawing book in front of me
and asks me to draw a wheatstalk.
I hold the pen
and draw a gun.
My son mocks my ignorance,
demanding,
‘Don’t you know, Father, the difference between a
wheatstalk and a gun?’
I tell him, ‘Son,
once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks
the shape of the loaf
the shape of the rose
But in this hardened time
the trees of the forest have joined
the militia men
and the rose wears dull fatigues
In this time of armed wheatstalks
armed birds
armed culture
and armed religion
you can’t buy a loaf
without finding a gun inside
you can’t pluck a rose in the field
without its raising its thorns in your face
you can’t buy a book
that doesn’t explode between your fingers.’

My son sits at the edge of my bed
and asks me to recite a poem,
A tear falls from my eyes onto the pillow.
My son licks it up, astonished, saying:
‘But this is a tear, father, not a poem!’
And I tell him:
‘When you grow up, my son,
and read the diwan of Arabic poetry
you’ll discover that the word and the tear are twins
and the Arabic poem
is no more than a tear wept by writing fingers.’

My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in
front of me
and asks me to draw a homeland for him.
The brush trembles in my hands
and I sink, weeping.

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Messiah

500px-Standard_of_Cyrus_the_Great_(Achaemenid_Empire).svg

The only non-Jew to be granted the title “Messiah” (Anointed by the Lord) was Cyrus the Great.  It was Cyrus who defeated the neo-Babylonian empire and entered Babylon on this day in the year 540BC.

He freed the Jews from their slavery “by the rivers of Babylon” and permitted them to return to Zion.

Amongst his many titles Cyrus was called “King of the four corners of the world”.

Looking at a map of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus I can now reveal where the four corners of the earth lie.

North West corner is the Dardanelles in Asian Turkey, guarding the entrance to the Bosphorus.  This was the site upon which the Allied soldiers died in their thousands during the Great War.

South West corner is on the coast of Judea just before the Sinai desert, around where modern day Gaza city lies.

North East corner is just about where Kantubek lies on the Aral Sea.  It is an abandoned site where the USSR used to test biological weapons.  It has pride of place as the largest Anthrax dumping ground in history.

South East corner is the Pakistani port of Gwadar in Baluchistan province.  The town name means “gateway of the wind”.

What made Cyrus great was not his conquests, but his retention of his conquests.  He set up an administrative system that endured long beyond his passing.  Alexander the Great defeated the Achaemenid Empire, but in deference to excellence he strove to maintain the established system of government.  To the horror of many of his Macedonian generals Alexander “went native” and became a Persian.  He married a Persian wife, Roxanne (Roxana).

Before Cyrus the lands were ruled by dynastic kings and their noble families, supported by the concept of divine right.  Cyrus gave the job of provincial governorship to non-royals.  It was a meritocracy.  What he effectively established was the first “Civil Service”.

When you look at today’s map of the world of Cyrus one must marvel at his skill in holding together such a diverse empire.  The land today contains the countries of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Oman and the UAE.  If any modern leader could unite this area into a peaceful economic bloc they also would deserve the title “Great”

Part of his greatness was tolerance.  He was protective of the rights, customs, traditions and religions of his subject peoples.  The repatriation of the Jews was a strong example of this in practice.  Tolerance, acceptance, pluralism, qualities that seem thin on the ground in today’s Middle East.

Salamis

trireme

Sept 22nd 480 BC the allied fleet of the southern Greek city states defeated the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis. It was an unlikely victory, and one that stopped the Persian invasion in its tracks.
Up to this point the Greeks were in full retreat. Glorious as the 300 Spartans under Leonidas were at Thermopylae the Greeks were defeated on both land and sea.

Athens lay next in the path of the enormous army under Xerxes. When the Athenians consulted the oracle at Delphi they were advised, in highly vague terms as usual, to retreat behind their wooden walls. Athenian power came from their fleet, so they believed that this meant they should abandon the marble city and sail away. The Persians sacked Athens on the 21st of Sept. Next day the two sides fought a naval engagement; the battle of Salamis.

The victory by the Greek allies (half the fleet was Athenian) severely damaged the ability of the Persians to maintain their invasion. The Persians had no fleet themselves. They relied upon the fleets of the Asian greek states under their vasselage as well as the Phonecians. The clash at Salamis did little numerical damage to the Persian fleet, but it was a tactical disaster. The ships they lost were the “fast ships”. These were the bronze beaked war triremes. They served a similar role in ancient fleets to Destroyers on convoy duty during the Atlantic war in WW2. They protected the slow moving cargo vessels from enemy attack.

Once the Greeks had eliminated the Persian triremes, the sea was open to them. Capturing Persian transports was like shooting fish in a barrel. Also, the Triremes carried the best and the brightest of the strategists, navigators, rowing crews and sailors. The Persians were unable to replace these ships and men in the time needed to complete their invasion.

It is perhaps no surprise that Xerxes took this opportunity to remove himself from the campaign, and returned to Persia leaving Mardonius in charge.

According to the history books the Greeks did not immediately attack the Persian land army, because “an eclipse of the sun” occurred and was taken as a bad omen. They bided their time over the winter. What a lot of tosh. The Greek armies had been badly mauled in their defense of Attica. The respite accorded by the victory at Salamis gave them a much needed opportunity to rest, regroup and rearm. In the meantime the Greek navy undoubtedly went to work on the Persian supply fleet. Grain ships bound for Mardonius captured and brought to Greek armies.

As a result Mardonius had to retreat far north to Thessaly where he was in relatively friendly territory, and could secure supply routes from Persia. The following Summer he marched south again and met the allies at Platea. Where Salamis was a battle dictated by the Athenian sailors, Platea was dictated by the Spartan Hoplites. In a world where battles were fought by men banging shields, singing paeans and roaring defiance the Spartans stood apart. They marched in silence, a disciplined phalanx of red cloaked warriors, bringing death to their foe. Platea was the high watermark of the Spartan military system.
Platea was only made possible by Salamis. So it is the Battle of Salamis that goes down in history as the battle that saved Greek Independence, Greek Civilization and hence Western Civilzation. If the Greeks had not won at Salamis the world today would be a different place.

The Battle of Salamis; by Aeschylus

The night was passing, and the Grecian host
By no means sought to issue forth unseen.
But when indeed the day with her white steeds
Held all the earth, resplendent to behold,
First from the Greeks the loud-resounding din
Of song triumphant came; and shrill at once
Echo responded from the island rock.
Then upon all barbarians terror fell,
Thus disappointed; for not as for flight
The Hellenes sang the holy pæan then,
But setting forth to battle valiantly.
The bugle with its note inflamed them all;
And straightway with the dip of plashing oars
They smote the deep sea water at command,
And quickly all were plainly to be seen.
Their right wing first in orderly array
Led on, and second all the armament
Followed them forth; and meanwhile there was heard
A mighty shout: “Come, O ye sons of Greeks,
Make free your country, make your children free,
Your wives, and fanes of your ancestral gods,
And your sires’ tombs! For all we now contend!”
And from our side the rush of Persian speech
Replied. No longer might the crisis wait.
At once ship smote on ship with brazen beak;
A vessel of the Greeks began the attack,
Crushing the stem of a Phoenician ship.
Each on a different vessel turned its prow.
At first the current of the Persian host
Withstood; but when within the strait the throng
Of ships was gathered, and they could not aid
Each other, but by their own brazen bows
Were struck, they shattered all our naval host.
The Grecian vessels not unskillfully
Were smiting round about; the hulls of ships
Were overset; the sea was hid from sight,
Covered with wreckage and the death of men;
The reefs and headlands were with corpses filled,
And in disordered flight each ship was rowed,
As many as were of the Persian host.
But they, like tunnies or some shoal of fish,
With broken oars and fragments of the wrecks
Struck us and clove us; and at once a cry
Of lamentation filled the briny sea,
Till the black darkness’ eye did rescue us.
The number of our griefs, not though ten days
I talked together, could I fully tell;
But this know well, that never in one day
Perished so great a multitude of men.

Bending the Bow

Bowgirls

The Gastraphetes, or belly bow, was an ancient Greek forerunner of the crossbow.  There is a story that the bow was invented to allow women to participate in the defence of a Greek city.  By placing your belly on the yoke at the base of the bow you could use your body weight to load the weapon.  As a result it requires far less strength and technique to fire the gastraphetes than it would to fire a standard bow.  By inventing an easily cocked bow, the city was able to double its defensive capability.

Greeks have a great tradition of associating the bow with women.  The Goddess Artemis is commonly shown wearing hunting gear and carrying a bow and a quiver full of arrows.  The Goddess of Childbirth, Virginity, protector of young girls and instrumental in female diseases.

The legendary female warrior tribe of the ancient world, the Amazons, are frequently depicted bearing bows and arrows.

During the Persian wars the light bows of the Persian troops were unable to penetrate the heavy bronze shields and armour of the Greeks.  The Phalanx armed with Pylon and Spear became the standard weaponry of Greek Hoplites.  Bows and Arrows were seen as the weapons of cowards and women.

When warned that the arrows of the Persians were so numerous they would darken the sky the Spartan general Dieneces celebrated that his soldiers would get to fight in the shade.

Roll forward a 1500 years or so and we come to the middle ages and courtly romances.  In the cycle of Robin Hood stories we have one of the strongest female heroines, the Maid Marian.  Again, strongly associated with the bow and arrow.

Indeed Archery was seen as one of the “suitable” sports for women in the Olympics, being introduced in 1904.

So we come to the Hobbit 2:  Desolation of Smaug, which introduces Tauriel, the bow wielding captain of the sylvan elf guard.  In the same year we saw the release of Catching Fire, the 2nd instalment of The Hunger Games series, featuring the bow wielding Katniss Everdeen as the heroine.  It seems the association between heroine and the bow remains as strong as ever.

On Children:  by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.