Thursday, August 29, 2013

Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?

This question comes to mind as I read my latest book acquisition, The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced, by Stephanie Dalley. Because she claims the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were not actually in Babylon. Nor anywhere near Babylon. Because the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually in ... Nineveh. Which makes sense, I suppose, since whenever anyone mentions the Assyrians, the first thing you think of is "gardening."

I'm still early in the book, so I'm not in any position to make a determination as to her evidence, but Dalley is a respected archaeologist and appears to have amassed considerable evidence. Aside from dropping a chicken wing on the book, so far I am enjoying it.

The Reichstag Fire and the Muslim Brotherhood

are the topics for my latest IVN column.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Bean weevils help narrow the date of Santorini "Atlantis" eruption

Ooh bean weevil
I believe you had Santorini in sight
Ooh bean weevil
I believe the season you give is right ...

I'm trying to get the song "Dream Weaver" out of my head that these damn bean weevils have put there. But it was worth it:
A new study of insect pests found in an ancient storage jar on the Greek island of Santorini suggests the major volcanic eruption that took place there around 1600 B.C.—and which may have inspired the legend of Atlantis—happened in early summer.
The "Atlantis" eruption was one of the most significant volcanic eruptions in human history. The blast is credited for not only ending the Minoan civilization, but also for affecting ancient Egypt and other communities around the eastern Mediterranean, explained Eva Panagiotakopulu, a palaeoecologist and fossil-insect expert at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Based on previous evidence, scientists had concluded that the eruption happened sometime between 1627 to 1600 B.C. But there has been one important and unresolved question about the event: What season did it take place in?
In a new study, published in a recent issue of the journal Naturwissenschaften, Panagiotakopulu and her team now say that based on insect remains found in a jar containing seeds of sweet peas discovered at the Bronze Age settlement of Akrotiri, they think the eruption occurred sometime between June to early July.
It was only during these months, the scientists say, that the insect, a species of bean weevil, would have had an opportunity to infest the crops and end up in the storage area.
"There is a short window from early to mid summer just after threshing which could justify the assemblage [of insects] recovered," Panagiotakopulu explained in an email.
Using a new pretreatment method to radiocarbon date a protein called chitin that makes up the insects' shells, the researchers obtained a date range (1744 to 1538 B.C.) for the fossils that agreed with the findings from other studies.
More importantly, though, the scientists realized the insects were their best clue yet about what season the eruption took place in.
Why Is It Important?
Determining the year that a prehistoric volcanic eruption took place is notoriously difficult, Panagiotakopulu explained, and trying to assign a season to one is even harder.
Other researchers have tried to figure out the season of the Santorini eruption by analyzing the distribution of its ash and debris.
"But in our case, we are speaking from the site data," Panagiotakopulu said. "How often can one go back to a prehistoric event and say that it happened during summer?"
What Does This Mean?
The bean weevils found in the jar of sweet peas at Akrotiri were at different stages of their life cycles. The fossil assemblage included larvae, pupae, and adults or "imagines."
This is important, the scientists say, because it suggests the insects were killed as a result of a single event, probably shortly after the seeds were stored away.
Knowing the season may help to determine just what kind of damage was caused by the Santorini Eruption, perhaps the most devastating volcanic eruption in human history. A 2006 article in National Geographic gives some highlights:
A volcanic eruption that may have inspired the myth of Atlantis was up to twice as large as previously believed, according to an international team of scientists.
The eruption occurred 3,600 years ago on the Santorini archipelago, whose largest island is Thera. Santorini is located in the Aegean Sea about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of modern-day Greece (map of Greece).
The massive explosion may have destroyed the Minoan civilization based on nearby Crete.
Writing in this week's issue of the journal Eos, a team of Greek and U.S. researchers estimate that the volcano released 14 cubic miles (60 cubic kilometers) of magma—six times more than the infamous 1883 eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa). Only one eruption in human history is believed to have been larger: an 1815 explosion of Tambora, in Indonesia, which released 24 cubic miles (100 cubic kilometers) of magma.
Whether it occurred in one large blast or in a series of smaller events, the eruption produced massive devastation.
In his book Volcanoes in Human History, de Boer [Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, an emeritus professor of geology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut -- JC] links the eruption to the demise of the Minoan civilization. The seafaring Minoan culture was based on Crete, which is only a few dozen miles from Thera. At the time of the eruption, they dominated that part of the ancient Mediterranean. When Thera erupted, the Minoans would have been clobbered by tsunamis, overwater pyroclastic flows, and fires from oil lamps knocked over by the eruption's shockwave. Famine, plague, and a destruction of the Minoans' shipping economy would also have followed, de Boer says. The eruption may also have had an enormous impact on Mediterranean mythology. "I have no doubt that every myth is based on some event, and so is the myth of Atlantis," the University of Rhode Island's Sigurdsson said. "An event of this magnitude must have left its imprint." Sigurdsson also sees traces of Santorini in a Greek poem called the Theogony, composed by Hesiod about 800 years after the eruption. The poem describes an epic battle between giants and the Greek gods and includes imagery of a great battle far out at sea. Hesiod must have picked up the story as folklore handed down from survivors close enough to see the event but not close enough to know what happened, Siggurdsson says. "He uses all the terminology one would use in describing an eruption," he said. "The people who lived close enough to see that it was a volcano were all killed. [The rest] could only describe it in supernatural terms."

It's easy to see how a massive eruption at Santorini could have destroyed Minoan Crete. Take a look at the map:

Just imagine the tsunamis that would have hit the north coast of Crete from the Santorini volcanic eruption.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The bad guys in Egypt are the Muslim Brotherhood.

I find the Western angst directed at the Egyptian military over their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood both puzzling and borderline offensive. Even Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who as execrable as they may be at times on domestic policy, are usually good on defense and foreign policy, have joined the stupidity by calling for a cutoff of US aid to the Egyptian military government. Jackson Diehl also condemns the Egyptian democrats for supporting the military over the Muslim Brotherhood, but at least he admits there are, uh, extenuating circumstances:
In defense of Egypt’s erstwhile democrats, it could be argued that they, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, had to fight on two fronts: not just against a military-backed autocracy but also against an ideological movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, that under Morsi appeared bent on monopolizing power. It’s like simultaneously taking on both Pinochet and Lenin’s Communist Party.
Though they ignited the 2011 revolution, the liberals were always weaker than either the army or the Brotherhood — less rich, less organized, less disciplined. And as five free elections in two years demonstrated, they had scant following among the mass of poor and rural Egyptians outside Cairo.
Once proud of their networked, leaderless structure, the liberals eventually embraced former U.N. nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei as their figurehead. It was a disastrous choice: Arrogant, vain and more comfortable in a Viennese salon than a Cairo slum, ElBaradei was polling in the single digits when he withdrew from last year’s presidential race.
Without their own candidate, the liberals were faced with a choice in the runoff between a military-backed candidate and the Islamist Morsi. Most chose Morsi. A delegation of youth leaders met with the Brotherhood nominee and extracted promises: Secular ministers would be included in the cabinet, and the new constitution would be forged by a consensus among secular and Islamist parties.
Morsi fulfilled some of his pledges, but his government grew steadily more insular and intolerant as it battled the lingering, Mubarak-era establishment in the bureaucracy, police and judiciary. Liberal journalists were prosecuted for “insulting the president,” and several of the revolutionary youth leaders were arrested for leading street protests.
The liberals could have waited and organized for parliamentary elections, due in a few months; polls showed the Muslim Brotherhood sinking fast. Instead, they took the easy way out and switched sides. As the Wall Street Journal reported, in the months before the coup, secular opposition leaders met regularly with Egypt’s top generals, who promised that they would respond to large street demonstrations by ousting Morsi.
As if those elections were actually going to take place, at least in a Western sense. It's more than a little disconcerting that so many in the foreign policy establishment and the media like Diehl are having such difficulty with this concept: The Muslim Brotherhood are the bad guys. Period. Full stop. This is not rocket surgery. 

As Ralph Peters asks, "Do we really need to have sympathy for the devil?"
What do we want the future Egypt to look like? A flawed, hybrid democracy, or a Sunni Muslim version of Iran? Based on his bluster yesterday about events on the Nile, Secretary of State John Kerry prefers the latter.
And Kerry’s remarks must have had White House approval.
In full outrage mode, America’s most famous windsurfer castigated the Egyptian authorities, insisting that the Muslim Brotherhood had a right to “peaceful protests.” Apparently, “peaceful” means armed with Kalashnikovs, killing policemen, kidnapping and torturing opponents, turning mosques into prisons, attacking Christians and burning Coptic churches.
The Brotherhood protesters rejected all offers of compromise and all demands to disperse. The interim government’s response was heavy-handed, but the Muslim Brothers chose violent resistance — using women and children as shields (a tactic typical of Islamist terrorists).
So the Egyptian army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government through a coup. So what? Peters explains the Muslim Brotherhood's version of "elections":
There was, indeed, a coup. But not all coups involve tanks. The real coup came after Egypt’s premature, badly flawed election, when Morsi and the Brotherhood excluded all non-Brothers from the political process; curtailed media freedoms and jailed journalists; attacked Christians; and rushed toward an Islamist state that the majority of Egyptians did not want.
Tens of millions of Muslims took to the streets to protest the Brotherhood’s plunge toward tyranny. Only after attempts to persuade an unrepentant Morsi to compromise failed, did the military move against the regime. The people cheered.
Yet our breathtakingly inept ambassador backed the Morsi regime right to the end. That isn’t diplomacy. It’s idiocy.
While it’s hard to be sympathetic to Egypt’s military government after yesterday’s violence, is it really the worst option for Egypt? Is it really the worst option for America’s strategic interests? Did the Muslim Brotherhood make violence inevitable? Would cutting aid simply send a signal to the current government or would it strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood? It’s important to recall that despite Morsi being the first democratically elected president of Egypt, he effectively engineered a coup of his own last year.
Duh. Barry Rubin puts it in very simple terms:
Let’s be frank: the Egyptian army did a great service not just to Egypt’s people but also to the U.S. government, because it saved its strategic balance in the Middle East. 
The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent of Islamism everywhere. They are simply evil. They should be destroyed. The US should do all it can to support the Egyptian military in making sure that happens.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Of crosses and sphinxes

With the world apparently on the verge of a complete collapse not seen since the end of the Western Roman Empire or perhaps since the 12th century BC collapse of inter alia the Mycenaean Greek civilization, the Hittite Empire, and Ugarit, might as well do some archaeology blogging.

First, there is talk that archaeologists have found a piece of the True Cross -- the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified -- at the remains of a 7th century church in Turkey:
Archaeologists working at an ancient church in Turkey believe they have unearthed a piece of the cross used to crucify Jesus.
But it could take years of analysis before the world will know for sure.
“We have found a holy thing in a chest; it’s a piece of a cross,” said one of the archaeologists.
Workers believe that cross is the one Jesus died on Friday, April 3, 33 A.D.
The piece of wood was discovered in a stone chest on the site of a church in Turkey, built in 660 A.D.
The church also has frescoes on its walls depicting Jesus, Mary and the Apostles.
Researchers aren’t sure who owned the chest, but it was probably a religious person of some importance, and that person apparently believed the cross relic was the real deal.
I think that's probably the only thing we can take as definitely true in this story: that whoever owned the chest believed it is a piece of the True Cross, not necessarily that it actually is a piece of the True Cross. In that sense, I think Ed Morrissey has it right:
Believe is the operative word here. It may well be that the original church in Turkey believed the relic to be part of the True Cross, even without the use of carbon dating. There may have been an oral and/or written tradition that supported the belief at the time, although that tradition may or may not be recoverable now. Clearly it was an object of veneration, which would make that belief at the time very clear; after all, what other chunk of wood would call for that kind of treatment by a Christian church of that period?
Carbon dating, though, can’t provide a definitively positive answer to that question, as a moment’s thought makes clear. It could set the date of the lumber’s production at or near the year of the Crucifixion, but it can’t tell the date of its use nor the victim executed on it — or even if it was used in an execution at all. At best, archeology can only provide correlative data that might tend to support or discredit the claim, but can’t offer much proof in either direction. Science is of limited application in cases like these, especially with a lack of information about the object and its provenance. 
Believe is indeed the operative word here. Precisely why he believed it remains to be determined, if it is even possible. Given all the uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts and even origins of the True Cross -- perhaps most famously, a piece believed to have come from the True Cross was lost to the Muslim Salah al-Din (Saladin) at the disastrous Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187 during the Crusades -- I have my doubts as to whether or not it can ever be scientifically determined that this was the actual cross. Thus, there will probably always be an element of faith necessary here. But it's certainly fun for us Christians to think about.

As to the second piece of news, let's ask a question: Why on earth would there be an ancient Egyptian sphinx in Israel?
Tel Hazor in northern Israel has long been a treasure trove for archeologists, but a recent discovery of part of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian sphinx has been a most unexpected find.
Inexplicably buried far from Egypt, the paws of a sphinx statue, resting on its base, have been unearthed with an inscription in hieroglyphs naming King Mycerinus. The pharaoh ruled in 2500 BC and oversaw the construction of one of the three Giza pyramids, where he was enshrined.
"Once in a lifetime you find something like this," says Amnon Ben-Tor, the director of the excavation and a professor at Hebrew University, which sponsors the archeological digging.
"This is of extreme importance from many points of view, since it is the only sphinx of this king known in the world -- even in Egypt. It is also the only monumental piece of Egyptian sculpture found anywhere in the Levant," he said, referring to the region spanning the east of the Mediterranean Sea.
Ben-Tor says the sphinx was deliberately broken, as were about 10 other Egyptian statues that had been previously found there. When cities fell, he said, most statues had their heads and hands cut off.
"This is what happened to this one here. He lost his hands," Ben-Tor said. The full sphinx is estimated to have been a meter tall, weighing half a ton.
The team will continue to search for the rest of its body on the archeological site covering 200 acres -- even if it takes 600 years, the length of time Ben-Tor expects for the site to be fully excavated.
As for the biggest question of all -- how the sphinx got to Tel Hazor -- it will likely remain a mystery.
"Maybe this was a gift which the Egyptian king sent to the local king of Hazor. Maybe. To prove it? Impossible," Ben-Tor said.
Tel Hazor was the capital of the city of Canaan 4,000 years ago, its population reaching 20,000. Located on the route connecting Egypt and Babylon, the city prospered.
Mycerinus is the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Menkaure. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book review -- Expedition to Disaster

So a few weeks ago I stop in at the Barnes & Noble at Greenwood Park Mall. It was a rather surprising experience inasmuch as their history section is much bigger and better than the Barnes & Noble at Keystone at the Crossing. Much larger selection of US, world, and military history books. I walked out with a book (after paying for it, of course) I had not seen outside of Amazon -- Expedition to Disaster by Philip Matyszak.

Expedition to Disaster is about the Athenian invasion of Sicily during the Peloponnesian War 415-413 BC. Athens and Sparta had reached the Peace of Nicias in 421, but a type of cold war had continued, with Athenian and Spartan troops and proxies continuing the fight. Many politicians in Athens, especially a Bill Clintonesque guy named Alkibiades, saw the city as flush with cash and ships, and went looking for something to do with them. When an ally in Sicily appealed for aid, Alkibiades saw a chance to add Sicily to the Athenian Empire. Now there was something to do with that cash and those ships.

The background was a little more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it. Not much of a motivation for war, but as Matyszak explains, Athens didn't need much motivation. Matyszak makes clear that though Athens has a lot of great things to he said for it and that we understandably and justifiably identify with Athens and its democracy, it was in fact Athens that was the villain in this drama. Neither Syracuse, the preeminent power in Sicily and one that had Spartan sympathies, nor any of the other Greek city states in Sicily had done anything to warrant the Athenian invasion.

But Athens invaded anyway. They could not knock Syracuse out quickly, and the Syracusans got help from Sparta in the form of a general named Gylippos, who whipped the inexperienced Syracusan military into shape. Then they launched a counteroffensive that resulted in the capture of all the Athenian supplies. This particular loss pretty much doomed the entire campaign. An Athenian reinforcement and a desperate attack only got the Athenian troops and their ships trapped. They tried to flee inland, but all were either killed or captured and enslaved. The entire expedition was lost in toto, as John Drogo Montagu would say.

Matyszak goes into considerable detail as to how this expedition came about and how it was tripped up early on by a phenomenon that ultimately destroyed Athens' democracy, Rome's republic, Weimar Germany, and a few others -- and that has been increasingly affecting even the US today: politically-backed mobs. In Athens, those mobs had been eating Athens own generals, successful or otherwise. But on the eve of the expedition, there was an incident that remains unexplained: overnight, almost all of Athens' hermai or "herms" -- stone markers of Hermes that were supposed to bring good luck -- were badly damaged or even destroyed. Precisely who was responsible has never been determined, but it was pinned on Alkibiades by his enemies who used their own mob into putting Alkibiades on trial for the crime. He was recalled from Sicily for trial, but he knew the fix was in and escaped to Sparta, where he gave the Athenians' plans for Sicily -- plans that he had developed -- to the Spartans, who gave them to the Syracusans.

Expedition to Disaster is very well written. Not the dryness you expect of history books today (or at least scholarly history books), but written in an easy-going, engaging style with a dry humor that I definitely appreciate, yet containing enough information to be considered scholarly. Very similar to a style that I try for in my own writing. Perhaps it is easier to have such a combination when you are tightly focused on such a short but important campaign as the Sicilian Expedition.

Matyszak could have perhaps used some better editing. For instance, his narrative refers to the Greek Sicilian city of "Egesta," but his map calls it "Segesta." He also specifically directs you to look for the Greek landing point north of Syracuse on the map, but the map does not show it and, in fact, cannot show it because, if his explanation of the location is accurate, the landing point would be west of the area shown on the map. Finally, there are a few times where he either gets names mixed up or, perhaps, fails to introduce new characters who have names similar to characters introduced earlier (see, e.g., Diomedes and Diocledes).

But those are very, very minor quibbles. Details that really do not materially detract from an otherwise excellent narrative. The book was a quick and slick read; I got it done in a weekend and very much enjoyed and reading it. I highly recommend Expedition to Disaster.

When the free market fails

is the subject of my latest column for Independent Voter Network. Short story long: few people outside of Microsoft really wanted Windows 8.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The real reason American has a bad name abroad

Douche or just dumb? You be the judge:
In an accident of historic measure, an American tourist to Florence's Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, is fortunate today that the motto "You break it, You buy it" didn't apply. A finger from a 14th century statue on display was broken off when the unnamed visitor got too close to the priceless statue.
The incident happened when the American began touching the statue. A security guard who spotted him didn't arrive in time to prevent the damage as the finger from the masterpiece by medieval sculptor Giovanni d'Ambrogio separated from the hand. The signs reminding visitors not to touch the artwork were clearly ignored.
Ambra Nepi, the head of communications for Florence's famous marble Duomo, says that it was an unfortunate accident. The finger, in fact, was not part of the original artwork, which had been damaged and repaired years earlier.
"This was already a very fragile piece of art," she said. "But every year throughout the Duomo we have many items that are damaged and broken."
The full-time team of art restorers had already looked at the damage.
"We are confident that it can be eventually restored," Nepi said.
Media reports quoted the American director of the museum, Tim Verdun, as being outraged by tourists' lack of museum etiquette. "In a globalized world like ours, the fundamental rules for visiting a museum have been forgotten, that is: Do not touch the works."
When I went to Rome a few years ago and visited the (very dark and very crowded) Sistine Chapel, the security guards were constantly shouting in monotone, "No photos!" People still took flash pictures of the fragile frescoes. The lack of respect for history is appalling. I can understand, say, going to a Muslim country and telling barbaric shar'ia law to shove it. Perhaps not safe, but I can understand it on principle. Nevertheless, when I'm abroad generally I try to respect the host country and its history and culture, particularly when, as in the case of Italy, that history and culture has contributed so much to our own. If what I was told in Italy is any indication, many American travelers do not.

Stuff like this is just plain offensive.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Cry me a Nile River

You hate to see bad things happen to good people:
Islamist president Mohamed Morsi is out. His opponents, a military-backed interim government of secularists, are in. And if you’ve got a beard — that most conspicuous symbol of Islamism in post-Arab Spring Egypt — you’re likely to get taunted on the metro, harassed in the souk and possibly even assaulted, according to conservative Muslims. 
A month after a military coup ousted Morsi and landed his top cohorts in the Muslim Brotherhood behind bars, a popular backlash against the Islamists who governed for just over a year is palpable far beyond the halls of power. It is evident in the sidewalk conversations, the grocery lines and the television talk shows. 
Criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood had been building for months, as citizens griped about a declining economy and what some called the group’s determination to dominate this nation’s power structure. But since Morsi was toppled, the complaints have exploded into a full-throttled fury at his supporters, demonstrating the dangerous polarization in this nation that is a key U.S. ally. 
In the weeks since the July 3 coup, Egypt’s military and the interim government — which is made up largely of liberals and stalwarts of the Hosni Mubarak era — have cast Morsi’s Islamist supporters as evil-willed “terrorists,” child abusers and spies. The Egyptian media have whipped up the anti-Islamist fervor with dramatic reports that the Muslim Brotherhood dismisses as lies. 
On the streets, where hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians joined protests in June to oust Morsi, there is a willing audience for the new government’s charges. “The treatment has changed for the worse,” said Osama Ibrahim, an imam at a Cairo mosque that caters to hard-line Islamists. 
The nation’s turmoil has seeped into his daily life in the Cairo neighborhood of Ain Shams, he said. “On the metro, they call us names. People come up to us and say, ‘How are you, Sheik Morsi?’” he said. 
He said his wife, who wears a face veil, saw men in their neighborhood yank the veil off another woman draped in black. At another point, local men stopped the couple’s car and barred them from entering a marketplace, Ibrahim said, because of the way they were dressed. 
“You have to understand: The minibuses don’t even stop for me anymore,” he said.
Cry me a Nile River, pal. You brought this on yourself. When you seek to impose a totalitarian ideology on people, don't expect them to cut you any slack when the shoe is on the other foot. I think the encouraging thing here is that the Egyptian people, though (in)famously conservative in the Muslim world, are making resistance to Islamism personal and are consciously expressing it in their everyday lives.