Sunday, January 27, 2013

OMG Khazars Part 3

What Up, Nerds?

So we had the Khazar Khaganate. It was a Jewish feudal state that dominated the pontic steppe of south Russia for maybe a hundred to a hundred and fifty years. And for that century and a half, there was peace. But like all things, that would eventually come to an end.

The Khazar peace was built on the same principle that most national stability is based on: overwhelming power. The Khazars could whip any of the other steppe tribes who tried to cause trouble. And to protect their trading wealth, the Khazars did whoop anybody who seemed like they were going to disturb the peace. So nobody in south Russia was willing to make trouble, and things were tranquil.

The Khazar Khaganate at around 850 AD is at the top.
To the south are surrounding Empires, and around Khazaria are the tribes who the Khazars dominated.

And then in the late 800's,there was a revolt among some of the Khazars. The revolt was put down, but the Khazar war drove the Pecheneg tribe off their traditional land in the Khazar orbit. The homeless Pechenegs in turn drove out the Magyars. The Magyars wandered around eastern Europe and stirred up trouble until they eventually settled in modern Hungary and became today's Hungarians.

Still, the first dominos had fallen, and the vassal tribes had begun to slide towards turmoil. More and more tribes were buffeted and forced to move around. The peace and the stability of Khazaria began to break apart. As certainty fell away, the people began to think that the Khazars might not stay in charge forever. And people started to think they could take the Khazars' power for themselves.

Then the Eastern Romans decided to go after the Khazars too. They might as well seize what they could since the Khazars were getting weak. After a war, subterfuge, and a sponsored rebellion the Eastern Roman Empire walked away with the Crimean peninsula.

But the final destruction of the Khazars was coming from another direction.

We start in the late 700's and 800's AD. The Viking age was already in full swing in western Europe. Danish and Norwegian bands were ravaging and settling Ireland, Great Britain, and the Carolingian empire. But the Vikings on the Baltic shore of Scandinavia decided to go the opposite direction. These were the inhabitants of modern Sweden, the Swedes, the Goths, and other less well-known tribes. While the western Scandinavians became famous for pillaging the west, the eastern Scandinavians decided to trade to the east.

The viking way of trade was not what you might call peaceful.

Scandinavian settlers sailed up and down the river systems of Eastern Europe. They searched out good places to both settle and to trade.

Who were they trading with? With the great Eastern Roman Empire and Islamic Caliphate to the south. Then they went back out the Baltic rivers and traded with other Scandinavians as far away as Ireland and Britain. On top of all this, they could extract valued trade goods like amber and furs from the natives of the east European forests.

When they found a good place to build one of their trading towns they would construct well defended commercial forts like Novgorod and Beloozero. Then they struck out from these forts with fire and swords. They subjugated the native peoples and exploited them as best they could to turn an even larger profit. They didn't just take amber and fur, they also took food and slaves.

Rough extent of Scandinavian settlement at the time of initial Rus' colonization.

The Eastern Romans called these trading Vikings the Varangians. But the more famous name of their tribe is the Rus.

This Russian civilization started out relatively weak. We think the early Rus lacked a real central authority, and that as a consequence they were a fairly weak group. The Khazars may have ultimately been the ones who imparted a stable government to them. In any case, a Rus Khaganate eventually arose.

The new Russian Khagans lead several attacks south across the black sea against the Eastern Roman Empire. The Romans were busy fighting off the sudden rise of Islam at the time. So the Russian Vikings got as far as Constantinople without a fight. They took a look at the city's impressive Theodosian Walls, pillaged the suburbs and then headed back to Russia. So Russia became something of an international power. Briefly. 

Well, visiting Constantinople's been nice but I think it's about time we go home.

The Russian ascendancy was short because a rebellion of the native Slavic people took down the Rus Khaganate and drove them back to Sweden in AD 862. The trading forts and viking towns were gone. Russia was almost a very short story.

According to the Russian records, a power vacuum followed the Russian retreat back to the Rus homeland in Sweden. Many Slavic, Baltic, and Finno-Ugric tribes immediately launched wars against and amongst each other. And in the ensuing chaos, a few of the tribes began to wish the old Russian overlords would come back and put things back to the way they used to be. So some of them went to Sweden and asked.

Of course the Rus were invited into Russia.

There were more then a few Rus who were happy to oblige. The possibly mythological viking leader Rurik (this is all still according to those Russian records) assembled a force of fighting traders and settlers and sailed a Russian invasion right back up the rivers into Slavland. When Rurik's troops landed they whooped the fractured native tribes, and they reestablished some of the old Rus cities. The great hub at Novgorod was rebuilt and was made the new Russian capital.

The Russians traded out around the north and west of the Khazar Khaganate, going right back to their old commercial ways, but this time they were less eager to sack and ravage the empires than to trade with them. Arab and Roman traders noted the return of their old trading-partners, and wrote about them. The Arabs particularly called the Rus "smelly and unwashed". But they also thought the Russian men were built spectacularly strong and tall. They had ruddy faces and striking blonde hair. They were, in short, stereotypical vikings.

Plus, like most vikings, they shared a particular sense of style. In western Europe they were considered to be dandies and fops. They combed their hair regularly and bathed significantly more often then the few times a year that the English, French, Spanish, or Italians did. So they didn't seem as barbarous as they might have, and the rival imperials were still happy to trade with them in any case.
Hägar the Hawtness

Around AD 880 prince Oleg of Novgorod succeeded to Rurik's old position as Prince of Russia. He was eager to extend the borders of his domain, so he led his warriors on a campaign south from Novgorod. They conquered native cities like Smolensk, subjected native tribes, and made their way down the Dneiper River. City after city fell, until in 882 he conquered the great city of Kiev and made it his new capital.

After taking Kiev he spent a few years completing the conquest of all the tribes around his new capital and between it and the old capital at Novgorod. Then he led a war against the Eastern Romans with eighty thousand warriors and two thousand ships. There was no conquest, but he managed to impose a tribute upon the Romans, as well as a commercial treaty, before he eventually died in 912.

Prince Oleg's campaign to conquer Kiev.
The view is facing towards western Europe from central Russia.

Oleg's new Kievan Russia would survive his death and even thrive on the land's rich resources and trade. These Russians even began to assimilate to Slavic Culture.

Then Sviatoslav the Brave rose to the throne of Kiev.

Prince Oleg had undoubtedly encroached on Khazaria. Kiev used to be well within the Khazar sphere of influence, and was just across the river from the Khazar Khaganate proper when Khazaria was at its height. But Khazaria had been weakening and retreating, leaving Kiev fairly open to Oleg's conquest. And now the new king Svitoslav had designs on the rest of the country.

Sviatoslav's ultimate objectives were the rich trade routes all the way down the Volga. If the Khazar capital happened to sit on the Volga, that was just too bad.

As his name suggests, Sviatoslav was a Slavicized ruler of Russia, possibly the very first one. He used this identity to his advantage. His first step in taking on Khazaria was to bring all the Khazars' subject Slavs to his banner. He sent out the call and received the backing of the Slavic tribes with only a little bit of difficulty.

He next aimed his warriors at Volga Bulgaria, which was the Bulgarian Kingdom dominating the upper Volga River above Khazaria. The Volga Bulgars had been vassals of the Khazars, but were not overly attached to their masters. After all the Khazars had destroyed their former kingdom of Old Great Bulgaria. Nevertheless, they fought alongside the Khazars. Then when the Khazar-Bulgar coalition lost they began to send Sviatoslav tribute. The Russians had conquered the Upper Volga, and they were ready to head downriver.

The extent of Kievan Russia when Sviatoslav came to the throne is in dark green.
Sviatoslav's campaign to crush the Khazars is marked by the arrows.

But first Sviatoslav made a short detour across Khazaria to the Don river. Here he laid siege to the Khazar Fortress of Sarkel, which lay at the heart of the former great Kingdom of Khazaria. He destroyed old Sarkel but left behind Russian Settlers to establish a new fort, which he called Belaya Vyezha. In the Khazar language, "Sarkel" had meant "White Tower," and Belaya Vyezha was the Slavic translation. Sviatoslav intended to re-settle and remake the pontic steppe to his benefit.

Only one target remained for Prince Sviatoslav.

By the time the Russian army reached the Khazar capital at Itil, the Khazar Army was totally beaten. The Russians attacked the city, and they destroyed it. A visitor to the site a short while later said that after the Russians attacked there was no grape or raisin or leaf on a branch remaining in the city. The capital of the Khazarsthe heart of the Khazar Khaganatewas dead.

Sviatoslav had secured the Volga River for Russia, and he headed home after the destruction of Itil. He made a stop to conquer the Ossetians on his way home, but he declined to mop up and occupy every corner of Khazaria. Subsequently small Khazar kingdoms would pull themselves and putter along for a few more years, but would eventually fall prey to Pecheneg and Cuman conquerors.

The Khazars had been great rulers and traders at the height of their power barely a century before. But they had been shaken by war and broken by the Viking Russians in quick succession. And so the story of the second Jewish nation in history came to an end.

Of course, the history of the Russian nation had only just begun.

Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Larry Gonick's  Cartoon History Series
and of course, Wikipedia

Fun fact: If you google "Rus," you will find a million links to "Toys R' Us." Dammit.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

OMG Khazars Part 2

What Up, Nerds?

So OMG Khazars Part 1 ended up on r/history the other day, which was nice.

In the comments, redditor kapsama left an answer to my question about what made the Khazar bigwigs decide to convert to Judaism. In his or her words, "... converting to Judaism was a political decision. Converting to Islam or (Orthodox) Christianity would have meant being second fiddle to the worldy and spiritual leaders of those religions in the form of the Caliph and Eastern Roman Emperor respectively. Judaism had no such leaders at the time."

That's a right good answer kapsama. But like any answer that's short enough to make a decent comment, that's only part of the story.

Let's see where these Khazars go, y'all.

It's the moment of the Khazars' conversion. Let's figure out just what is happening.

Just who converted?
Well, we don't really know, but we think it was probably the Khagan. Or the Bek. Or maybe it was one guy who held both offices. And probably most of his nobles converted too. Maybe. Could be some of the rest of the populace did too. We think. Um. The history ain't that clear.

Okay, I was looking for something a little more specific. Let's try again. When did it happen?
Geez, you're not gonna like this. Let's say... 700 AD. Plus or minus a century. A few folks say it was 740, but others say other dates, and none of them have very compelling arguments for being right.

No, specific. I said specific. Try telling me how it happened.
This is awkward. Because we don't know.

There are some folks who say there was one great man, Rabbi Yitzak Ha-Sangari, who went to the Khagan and preached to him. Rabbi Yitzak preached so well that the Khagan soon converted, and he decreed that his subjects must convert as well. But we have no really reliable reason to believe that was how it went down.

Another tradition says that the Khagan decided that Tengriism was holding the Khazars back internationally. It made the Romans and the Arabs look down on them. So he decided the Khazars would convert to one of the big new "modern" Abrahamic faiths. He invited representatives from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism to his capital at Itil. And then they debated whose religion was the best.

According to at least one witty cartoonist, the Jews won the Khazars over by saying that Judaism preached the doctrine of Hot Chicks. If the debate ever happened it was almost certainly staged. And it's even less likely that hot chicks would have been the deciding argument.

Of course some folks think it happened in other ways. Some say that the nobility converted in order to assert control over all the Jewish immigrants from Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire. Some say that it was a calculated political move that the Bek undertook in order to gain the loyalty of Jews still living in the Arab and Roman worlds. Some say that a man who was already Jewish got himself made Bek.

Who knows what truly happened?

You'd better know, if you're gonna write a history blog like this. So how about you answer your own damn question from last week. Why did they convert?
Fine. Politics. It was almost certainly politics.

There's something to be said for sincere religious conversion. One Khagan or Bek might have been convinced that Moses had his stuff together. But when a whole nobility converts en masse, you'd be amiss not to look for political motivations. When a head of state converts in the middle ages it absolutely must be politically expedient. No Khagan had the power to convert his whole nation on a whim.

So why did the Khazars forsake Tengri?

Simply put, they stopped needing him. Tengri was a sky god. When they lived as nomads on the open plains, the sky was the dominant feature of their worlds. The Asian steppes were just as much "big sky country" as the American West is today. So Tengriism came into being in a way that suited a nomadic life on horseback.

But the Khazars gave up their nomadic life. They built a settled agricultural style of life for themselves. Not only did they learn to farm but they also adopted a western-style feudal system. They were the first society in eastern Europe to adopt that social structure. And a nomadic religion just didn't teach the values that feudalism needed a religion to instill. It became irrelevant to Khazars' lives so they chose to embrace a more "indoor" kind of religion.

Like kapsama said, Christianity and Islam were the two big imperial religions in town. Converting to Islam would mean adopting a worldview in which the Khazars should submit to the authority of Mohammed's successors and the dominion of the Caliphate. Christianity had no such early history of a unified church and central state. But in the Eastern Roman Empire the Emperor had spent centuries positioning himself as the Head of Christendom. He could make and unmake Partiarchs of Constantinople. He could persecute sects he disagreed with out of existence. Even in west Europe the idea of a Roman Emperor who led Christianity was strong--it manifested its self in Charlemagne's crowning as the Holy Roman Emperor.

 So adopting either Christianity or Islam would leave the Khazars "being second fiddle" to a more powerful empire.

But to keep the musical metaphor, choosing to play second fiddle with one of the empires would also preclude the Khazars from playing duets with the other empire.

The Khazars were situated in some prime real estate for trading. They were one one end of the trade routes that are collectively called the silk road. Chinese goods would flow west over central Asia and into Khazaria--where they flow out to the cities of the Roman Empire and the rest of the Mediterranean. And western goods and money would flow back east, passing through the hands and coin purses of the Khazar governors.

Additionally the Khazars were also on the eastern terminus of the great Northern Arc trade route. That trade network stretched from Ireland, across Scandinavia, to Khazaria and ultimately into the Arab world. The immense wealth of the viking Age flowed along this path. And as the trade passed through the Khazar domain the Khazar government took its cut. They grew rich on this trade between Muslims and vikings.

The trade routes, more or less. The Silk Road is in pink, the Northern Arc is in light blue.
If you look close you can actually see me getting less and less meticulous and detailed as the drawing progresses,

What would converting to Christianity or Islam have done to trade? It would be a little like declaring for the Russians or the Americans during the much more recent Cold War. If the Khazars became Christian, they might hold on to a little trade with the Muslims, but the Caliphate would still view them as the enemy.

And the Christians would mistrust and avoid the Khazars if they became Muslim. Like the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War, the Khazars didn't see how choosing sides would benefit them. So if the Khazars wanted to keep playing economic duets with both Christians and Muslims, they had to find a religion acceptable to everyone.

Therefore: Judaism.

Judaism has a reputation as a persecuted religion today. Now it was persecuted back then too, you'll remember how in OMG Khazars Part 1 lots of Jewish immigrants to Khazaria were actually fleeing Roman and Persian persecutions. But compared to most other religions of the time, Judaism was hardly persecuted at all. Jews might be forced to leave an empire occasionally. But other "pagan" religions were forced to either convert or be killed. Adherents of both Islam and Christianity are supposed to show respect for Jews, according to doctrine. So in they end they tended to begrudgingly tolerate them.

Meaning that if the Khazars became Jews then trade could continue with everybody.

And as kapsama also pointed out, there was no international head of Jewry. With no preeminent leadership, the Khazars could make themselves out to be the great protectors of the Jews. The Persian and Mizrahi Jews were particularly fond of the Khazars. They thought that the Khazars might one day come and sweep away their Muslim rulers, allowing them to return to Israel and end their "Second Babylonian Captivity." The Khazars sure raided the Muslims plenty. But they had no grand plans to sweep away the Caliphate.

Instead Khazar leadership of Judaism manifested its self in smaller ways. When a Synagogue was destroyed in Iran, the Khazar ruler symbolically "punished" the Muslims by tearing down the minaret on the mosque in his capital city, and then non-symbolically executing the muazzin. It wasn't enough to warrant a full scale invasion by the Caliphate. But it was enough to keep the Jews in the caliphate on his side. Subtle negotiation like this kept the Khazars at the head of the Jewish world for more than a century.

So the Khazars built the first feudal state in eastern Europe and stood astride the balance of power in Russia. As time marched on they subjugated almost all of the peoples who lived around them, and they grew wealthy on trade.

Greatest extent of the Khazar Khaganate in several shades of blue, with subjugated and tribute-paying nations in yellow.
~850 AD.

And they're about to come crashing down.

Come back next week to find out how it happened.

Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Larry Gonick's  Cartoon History Series
and of course, Wikipedia

OMG Khazars Part 1

What Up, Nerds?

So. I haven't written any posts in a long time.

It may be the case that nobody ever really reads me, in which case nobody is unhappy. But maybe there are one or two of you out there who have checked my blog in the last few months. Maybe there are even one or two of you who have missed this little dose of history each week. If so, I appreciate you dearly. And I apologize to you for not posting for so long. I'm sorry.

I hope I can make it up to you by telling you about some poorly known Jews. Khazars are on the menu, y'all!

The story starts a long ways back.

In the 500's AD the Turks erupted out of modern Mongolia. That's pretty par for the course in central Asia--it's just a place that spawns huge nomadic hordes that ricochet all around Eurasia. Like the Huns before them and the Mongols after them that's where the Turks started.

This Turkish Göktürk empire spread pretty quickly. It was led by the Ashina clan, who will dominate the early history of these peoples. As they conquered, they assimilated the conquered people who became "Turks" themselves. The cascading wave of new and old Turks were going to keep pouring into lands from Manchuria to Persia, Turkey, and the Balkans from then through the 1600's. But back then they were still only really in central Asia.

Eurasia at the height of the Göktürk Empire, mid 500's AD.

The Empire lasted for a while. But when the fourth Ashina Khagan of the Turks died in the 580's, the eastern and western halves of the Göktürk empire supported rival Turkish princes who both wanted to be the new Khagan. Seeing the fracturing of the empire, more claimants to the throne declared themselves Khagan and there were many wars in between them. The power of the Ashina clan splintered. The western Khagan almost conquered the east. The easterners almost conquered each other. But in the end nobody could quite swing it. So the west and the east of the empire were permanently split.

Soon the east started to buckle under military pressure from the native Uyghur people.

The Ashina Khagan of the West focused on the defense and the stability of his realm. Maybe because of that, the west remained stronger. Around the year 630 he allied with the Eastern Roman Empire to drive back the invading Persians. He succeeded. The Western Turks also stayed in close contact with Tang China. They might have even married into the Tang royal family. While the alliance lasted it brought a lot of prestige and some amazing trading opportunities for the Turks. Being friends with the two biggest empires in the world had benefits.

But eventually that close connection with the Tang Chinese went bad. In the year 657 the reigning Khagan fell afoul of the emperor and a Chinese army was promptly dispatched.  The invaders easily conquered the eastern half of the West Göktürk empire. Since the Tang Emperor had already conquered the eastern Göktürks, he had himself proclaimed the new Khagan of the Göktürks.

Poor Ashina. There goes their legacy.

The Chinese dominion over central Asia didn't really last. The resurgent Uyghurs broke Chinese power, and then the Uyghurs fell to the Turks again. But the Chinese conquest did what we needed it to do for this story--it broke up the great Göktürk Empire.

So what happened to that half of the Western Göktürk Empire that the Tang didn't conquer? The far west remained free, and a member of a small branch of the original Ashina clan was still the Khagan. By then those Turks who remained there had a new name for themselves. They called themselves the Khazars.

At least that's where we think the Khazars came from. The Khazars didn't write any of this down. So we have to rely on the records of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Tang Chinese Empire.

And you know how these sorts of things go. When a huge horde first invades they all look the same, they look like one massive military juggernaut. But then they settle down in the neighborhood and take a break from invading you. And then you notice things about your neighbors. And you realize the horde is made up of many separate and interesting groups. Who knows where they originally came from? Who knows precisely who they first were? What I am telling you is that we don't know the origins of the Khazars for sure. Maybe they were just associated with the main body of Göktürks. But a good chunk of the literature suggests the true story is probably what I just told you.

Whatever happened, the Khazars were a big presence in southern Russia by the second half of the 600's AD. They soon clashed with the Bulgar Khaganate of Old Great Bulgaria. By 670 they had whooped the Bulgars, whose whole society split up. Half went south and settled in modern Bulgaria. The other half went north and settled around the middle Volga river. The northerners formed Volga Bulgaria under the domination of the nearby Khazars.

The Khazar Khaganate before conquering the Bulgars (650 AD) in the darkest blue, and after the conquest (750 AD) in medium-dark blue. Old Great Bulgaria is showed grayed out, in the area of modern Ukraine. The other great powers also labeled.
The lightest grey-blue will be the Khazar Khaganate at its height.

While this was going on there were at least three other important developments.

The first development was political. Unlike in the Göktürk imperial system, the Khagan of the Khazars was not the supreme leader. The Khagan was the supreme spiritual and religious leader, a holy symbol of the glorious Ashina past. But the political and especially the military power rested with the Bek. The Bek was officially a co-king with the Ashina Khagan, but in practice he was more. A good comparison might be with the Japanese Shogunate system. The divine favor rested with the Ashina monarchs, but the warlord Bek would take as much power as he could.

The second development was the beginning of a whole series of wars against the Muslims. The Islamic Caliphate had swept to prominence in the mid 600's and its northern border fell along the Caucasus mountains. That was the border because that was where the Khazar armies put a hard stop to Muslim expansion. Khazar history is filled with victorious battles over the Arabs. It's the Khazars who stopped the early expansion of Islam to the north. There are some interesting stories, but the borders never really changed.

The third important development was religious. Like all Turks the Khazars had originally been polytheists. Their particular form of worship centered around the sky god Tengri. He was at the center of their pantheon, but the practical side of Tengriism was adapted from some Buddhist and Chinese practices. Specifically, the Turks believed in the Mandate of Heaven. According to the Turkish version of the Mandate of Heaven, the Ashina clan was specially chosen to rule and that they enjoyed Tengri's favor. But if Tengri revoked that favor from an individual and that person failed in their royal duties then that individual could be executed. It had happened in the past. So being a Göktürk Khagan was a risky job.

But the Khazars weren't exclusive Terngriists. They didn't mind foreiners bringing their own gods in. Tengriists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Ancestor Worshipers and others were all welcomed as long as they brought prosperity. But by the late 600's the number of Jews in the Khazar Khaganate had grown disproportionately.

Khazaria wasn't unique in having Jewish citizens, but there were just a lot more Jewish immigrants in the Khazar Khaganate then there were elsewhere. The Khagan and Bek welcomed refugees from anti-Jewish persecutions in the Eastern Roman and Persian Empires. They welcomed immigrants who could bring wealth with them, and who could be good Khazar citizens. Large Jewish communities came to dominate certain places in Khazar society. Especially in the Greek settlements along the northern shore of the black sea. And just like any large ethnic or religious community, the Jewish community attracted more Jews still.

Found in excavations at Khazar archeological sites.
(Pic via Wiki)

So the Khazar Khaganate hosted an ever-growing population of Jews.

Time marched on and the Khazars looked after themselves. Things seemed good. Two Khazar princesses married Eastern Roman emperors. The Khazars invaded the Caliphate, were invaded by the Caliphate, followed a woman named Parsbit to expel the invaders, and went right back to their traditional raiding of northern Persia.

And then sometime in the late 700's or early 800's, the Khazar nobles converted to Judaism en masse.

What made the bigwigs decide to switch?

Come back next week to find out.

Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Larry Gonick's  Cartoon History Series
and of course, Wikipedia

Friday, September 28, 2012

OMG A Letter About Triangles

What Up, Nerd?

Dear Nora, 

Heya, friend. Do you remember, weeks ago, when I said I'd tell you more about what I been reading? About the discovery of Cunieform writing? Well I wrote this letter to you to tell you what precisely that's been.

But then I nerded out so hard that my letter spilled over and became a blog post too. I hope you don't feel offended that I'd repurpose something I wrote for you to be a blog post. I certainly did not set out to whore out our interpersonal nerdery for blogging material.

Well the story with Cuneiform starts a few hundred years back. For a long time people knew about these totally awesome desert ruins way out in Persia. All the upper-class European tourists liked to go see 'em but nobody knew what they were. Just your average mystical desert ruins.
They probably looked cooler back then.
(Pic from Wiki)
The buildings and remains were pretty awesome by themselves. But they left you with the usual mysteries. Who built this? Why did they build it? What was it built for?

Well they also had some sort of strange and ancient and triangle-shaped writing carved all around the site. The most impressive inscriptions were carved into a huge cliff nearby. If they could somehow learn to read the triangular writing then they they could solve the desert mystery. But they had no idea how to even think about reading the triangles.

If the rich Europeans who went to see the site had know how to properly excavate then maybe archaeology could have helped them to solve their questions about the ruins. But archaeology was still a century away from being invented. And the practice was even longer off from becoming anything more than glorified treasure-hunting. And so the mystery of the ruins remained impenetrable.

Then in 1755 a French guy from Paris named Abe got his hands on a copy of a book called the Zend-Avesta. The Zend-Avesta was the holy text of the ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. And Abe was a bit of a nerd for everything he thought seemed "oriental." So when he got his hands on the Zend-Avesta he did his research and found that somebody else had already translated the book into a Pakistani language hundreds of years earlier. He learned that particular Pakistani language and then used the translation of the Zend-Avesta to learn the book's language. And then he translated the book into French. Abe named the language of the Zend-Avesta after the book, so he called it Avestan.

Avestan wasn't exactly the standard ancient Persian language. But it was related to Persian in kind of the same way that Scottish Vernacular and Jamaican Vernacular English are related to each other.

So you know, it was related, but sounded real different

This really excited a nerd named George from Germany. It excited him a lot. It excited him because George was a massive nerd for Languages. He was almost what you might call an early linguist. And getting Abe's translation from the Avestan language gave George a chance to do something no one ever had before.

A lot of people in Europe were real interested in the triangle-ish writing that they had found in those ancient ruins in Persia. But nobody could figure out what that triangle-writing said. George planned to use his new knowledge of Avestan to crack the triangle code. If he succeeded he'd become famous all across Europe. And now that Abe had gone and given him a language that was closely related to ancient Persian he thought he could solve the language. 

The writing systems for Persian and Avestan were completely different, but George just didn't care. He had a bunch of little triangles and a French translation of a language that wasn't ancient Persian. And he was gonna be damned if he didn't somehow translate those triangles.

I don't know why I added the cats. I need to cut back the caffeine.

George got a copy of the inscriptions and turned his brain-engine on full steam. Other people had already looked at them and figured out that there were only really forty nine different kinds of characters, so George figured that the script had to be a kind of alphabet. And there were probably less than forty nine letters, because some of the characters were probably numbers and that sort of thing. But that still didn't make reading what the text said a simple task.

It says "Darius, the great king, king of kings, king of countries,
son of Hystapses, an Achaemenian, who built this place."
Well Nora, here is where I suspect either of us would have just been like "It says triangle triangle triangle triangle" and left it there. But some people had already though about how to decipher it. George did more. He decided that the sign that was one single diagonal triangle was probably used to separate words because A) it was so common and B)  it just kind of looked like a space.

Then George decided that, the most common sequence of letters was probably the Persian word for "king." He thought so because the word was on a big impressive carving and  the word was often written near pictures of very regal looking men.

He looked at the most common series of symbols, the series he thought meant "king" and noticed one place where the left half of the word was on the right end of a line, and then the right half was on the left end of the line below it. It was almost like the writer had started writing the word, run out of space, and finished the word on the line below. Because the left part of the word was on the line above the right part of the word, he decided the language was probably read from left to right.

And he was very right about almost all of that.

The word-divider is in pink, the word for "king" is highlighted in white.
In the inscriptions next to a couple carvings of royal-looking figures there was one first word right before that second word that meant "king." George figured out that that word was probably the king's name.

Then because the king's name from one of the inscriptions was also in the third line of the second inscription, George decided that that meant the second carving described the second king as the son of the first.

The ancient Greeks had written all about Persian kings when they wrote their histories of the Persian Wars. So George had a list of their names. He looked to those writings to find out which names these might be.

The big clue he had was that the father of one of the kings was not a king himself. Where the inscription listed his father, the word for king did not appear. Only two father/son sets of Persian kings fit this criteria. Of the two possibilities, George decided that the kings were probably the most famous father/son pair in the Greek writing about the Persian kings. They were the two Persian kings who had invaded Greece and who been unable to conquer it: Darius and his son Xerxes. 

So George looked at the Greek, Hebrew, and Avestan languages and guessed that the carved letters would spell out D A R H E U Sh and his son Kh Sh H E R Sh E. Modern historians and linguists have figured out that the characters actually spelled out Da A Ra Ya Va U Sha and Xa Sha Ya A Ra Sha A, pronounces Darayavaush and Xshayrsha. Except for missing the vowels attached to the letters, George had gotten 5/7 characters right on Darius, and 6/7 characters pretty close for Xerxes. 

He wasn't really right. But nobody else knew any better.

And with that amount of work, George was almost ready to be a star in Europe. Ready to rest on his laurels as "the man who deciphered Persian and found the great Persian Kings." But before he moved on he decided to translate just a little more. He took the pronunciations he'd determined for the characters in Darius' and Xerxes' names and he applied them to the word for king. He got the pronunciation Kh Sh E H I O H. This sounded a lot like Abe's Avestan word "Khscheio" for king, and George's word isn't too far off from the contemporary Persian word for king, "shah." The real Persian spelling was actually Xa Sha A Ya Tha I Ya, pronounced Xshayathiya. George wasn't very close with this, then. He was maybe half right at best. But still, he was doing all right.

Now George tried to translate the name of Darius' father, who the Greeks called Hystaspes. George identified the word he thought was the right one. And then he applied the letters he'd already deciphered to the word. Then he applied a few ideas about what the name should sound like from Abe's avestan language and plotted out a word. He spelled this word G O Sh T A S P. The real spelling was Vi I Sha Ta A Sa Pa, said like Vishtaspa.

Now Nora, if you're like me you might say "Gosh-tasp and Vishtaspa sound nothing alike" and write off George as a bad translator. But the truth is that George's main failure had not been in the consonants, it was in failing to realize every letter carried a vowel with it. If you forgive George the vowels he didn't realize were attached to the consonants, he spelled the word Vi I Sha Ta A Sa Pa as Gi O Sha Ta A Sa Pa. The word, despite looking quite off, is once again fairly close to the actual ancient Persian. Just one consonant and one vowel off.

So George had translated a little bit of the writing quite successfully.

And then for thirty years the question of the triangle-shaped ancient Persian writing was left alone. George was famous as the man who found Darius and Xerxes, and all was well.

But Europe only had a few small words translated. And somebody wasn't happy with that tiny amount. That somebody's name was Henry Rawlinson.

George had done some wonderful work in deciphering the script. But he had been working from a few small drawings of a few inscriptions. If the language was going to be translated a translator would need a lot more writing.

That'll do.
(Pic from Wiki)

Henry found himself in Persia as a British Army officer and as an adviser to the local governments. While in the area he had heard of a huge inscription in this triangular script which was carved into the side of a cliff at Behistun. Doing the only thing a gentleman and officer of the British army could do at the time he just rode on out and spent a decade climbing the dangerous cliff to the inscription and painstakingly copying the whole enormous inscription down.

Then because he didn't think he'd made his job difficult enough, he spent even longer going over the inscription and the well labeled illustration with the history from the ancient Greeks, lists of already know names from ancient Persia, and a full knowledge of both Abe's Avestan language and ancient Sanskrit.

Forty four years after George had come out with his initial translation of the carvings, Henry published the complete translation of the Behistun text. This amounted to a full and useful translation of the ancient Persian language, and the first decipherment of any of that strange triangular script.

You didn't think this Empire conquered its self, did you?
(Pic from Wiki)

I would go through the way Henry translated the carving, but I don't know that, and it's bound to be incredibly complicated. And I'd tell you about what he got right and what he got wrong. But Rawlinson basically got everything right. What else is there to tell?

That triangular writing is called Cuneiform. ("wedge-form") After Henry translated the Persian more and more scholars began to find more cuneiform writing across the middle east. Study showed that the texts were in many different languages. And many of those languages have since been deciphered with the help of ancient bilingual texts. Those texts have since told us almost everything we know about the ancient middle east.

And do you remember the mysterious desert city from the beginning of the letter? That turned out to be Persepolis, capital of the ancient Persian empire, which was conquered by Alexander the Great and passed into legend.

So, Nora, that is what I've been reading about lately, what I have been nerding out about lately. How about you?

Your friend,


PS: the main book I been reading up about this in is called Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet. It's sort of a bunch of smaller books about a bunch of different writing systems, all rolled into one. The relevant section is Cuneiform, by C.B.F. Walker. Props to you, Prof Walker.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

OMG, Needs More Potemkin!

What Up, Nerds?

1905. The Russo-Japanese war had destroyed two out of three total Russian fleets. The Baltic fleet and the Pacific fleets were bot sitting at the bottom of the Yellow sea. Now only the Black Sea fleet remained.

The Black sea fleet wasn't going to do a thing to help Russia's prospects with war against the Japanese. It was stuck in the Black sea by international treaty. But the men who crewed the fleet weren't. So as the war raged on and more and more Russian sailors from the Pacific and eastern fleets were killed, the Russian government started to transfer all the experienced commanders and crew from the Black Sea Fleet to the east to replace those who died. By the time the Russo-Japanese War ended nearly all the experienced sailors had been moved from the Black Sea Fleet to the Pacific. The Black Sea fleet was manned almost entirely by raw recruits and men passed over by the upper brass.

As such this fleet was made up mostly of men who just didn't really like the military. And they were men who had just seen two-thirds of their country's navy thrown away in a fruitless war for the Tsar's imperial ambitions. They were not the most loyal. There were more than a few revolutionaries on every ship.

And the Russian military's response to revolutionary sentiment? It was the same as its response to everything else: enacting the strictest possible discipline. These revolutionary raw recruits did not react so well to the military's harshness.

In late June of 1905 the revolutionary sailors from the Black Sea fleet met to plan their revolution. They were chafing under the harsh discipline and they were angry about the unpopular war, and that meant to them that the time for revolution had come. They agreed that the sailors of the Battleship Potemkin should be the first to mutiny and begin the overthrow of the Tsar. Once the revolutionaries had taken the Potemkin, the crew of the other ships would follow suit, mutiny, and seize military power all over the Russian coast of the Black Sea.

But then the military authorities found out about their plan. While the Battleship Potemkin was at port they moved in an arrested forty of the lower-lever revolutionaries, as well as one of the ringleaders. They were taken off and summarily shot.

This is the Battleship Potemkin. It was an incredibly formidable boat, one hundred and seven years ago.
(Pic from Wiki)

The Potemkin was ordered to depart port and it sailed to Odessa. At Odessa the Potemkin took on rations, one part of which was a big old portion of maggoty beef. That day when the sailors sat down to eat they noticed the maggots in their Borscht, and refused to eat it. One of the Potemkin's top brass, Lieutenant Giliarovsky, assembled the crew on deck.

He shouted at them and dressed them down, and then he attempted to force them to eat it. About a dozen men complied, but the rest stood firm and refused. Giliarovsky summoned about twenty Marines to deal with these men he saw as mutineers, and all but about thirty of the Potemkin's sailors immediately fled the deck. Among these thirty were secret revolutionaries that the purge on the Potemkin had missed.

Giliarovsky ordered that tarps be lain out on deck. Given theri past experience, the thirty men reckoned the tarps were out so that Giliarovsky could execute them without getting blood all over the decks and then throw them overboard more easily. That wouldn't have been an abnormal punishment for their situation, so you can probably assume they're right. 

Facing their imminent deaths the thirty begged the marines not to  kill them. Meanwhile about thirty other men who had fled the deck saw what was happening and acted fast. They stormed the armory and then they seized the signal room and the engine room. That second group of thirty men came out on deck very quickly, and at that point the marines declined to shoot anybody.

Lieutenant Giliarovsky was furious. He decided to take matters into his own hands. So he pulled his gun and shot one of the revolutionaries, Artillery Quartemaster Grigory Vakulinchuk. He ordered the marines to attack again, but the marines preferred not to die and ran away instead. The thirty armed sailors took the opportunity to shoot Giliarovsky dead. They moved like lightning as the ship's officers fled. They seized the Potemkin, and then took the torpedo boat that accompanied her, the Ismail. When the dust cleared they had killed seven officers and arrested twelve more. They set up a revolutionary committee on board with a man named Afanasi Matushenko as chairman. Matushenko had been an NCO and a political activist before the uprising, and now he took command of the tiny two-ship revolutionary fleet.

But the lack of Mustache was the most revolutionary thing about him.
(Pic from Wiki)

By ten o'clock that night the revolutionary battleship Potemkin steamed into the port at Odessa with one more new red flag and with one less old picture of the Tsar.

The imperial government at Odessa was already having some problems with revolutionaries. A general strike had been called across the city against the government's wishes. The arrival of a revolutionary battleship in port helped the imperials in no way. The strikers immediately approached the sailors and asked for their help to storm the armory and take over the city. By acting in this way the strikers figured they could extend the Potemkin's revolution to the land and use their armed workers as a land army in conjunction with the revolutionary fleet. Then they could support each others forces and take down the weakened Tsarist state.

That actually been had been the revolutionary sailors' original plan before the mutiny, but confusion and division between the sailors and these particular strikers quickly started to drive the sailors away. In the end the crewmen of the Potemkin were unwilling to commit their few men to a risky storming of the armory, and the assault never happened.

Instead the body of Quartermaster Vakulinchuk, who had been the man shot by Lieutenant Giliarovsky, was taken off the ship to be given a "state" funeral. The revolutionaries proceeded to carry Vakulinchuk's body up what is now know as the Potemkin stairs, in Odessa.

Ten thousand Odessan workers had massed to see the funeral.

Even on stairs that big, ten-thousand would have been a crowd.
(Pic from Wiki)

Three imperial port officials and fifty dismounted Cossacks saw this as their chance to disrupt the revolutionaries, and they attacked the funeral.  Apparently they didn't consider that they were fifty-three guys attacking ten thousand guys and also a battleship.The imperials were driven off. But the sailors still refused to go on the attack. Revolutionaries and the government started to fight in open battles across the whole city, and there were over twelve hundred casualties. The next day the Potemkin fired two shells into the section of the city that housed the military headquarters. Those shells killed only one man, and he was a civilian. Meanwhile the government and the workers continued to clash, and many people died.

The imperial government, fearing full scale revolution, sent in army reinforcements to crush the revolt in Odessa, and they sent the bulk of the rest of the black sea fleet to destroy or capture the Potemkin. When word of this arrived, the sailors were undaunted. The Potemkin steamed out to meet the imperial fleet near Tendra Island. The forces met and the Potemkin headed straight for the middle of the other fleet.

And the Potemkin refused to fire a single shot.

Seemingly miraculously, every single other ship refused to fire too. The crews of all the ships refused to attack the revolutionaries, men who they saw as their comrades. And as The Potemkin pulled away she had been joined by the Battleship Georgii Pobedonosets, which had just risen up in a bloodless mutiny. The revolutionary ships headed back to Odessa and left the rest of the fleet to puzzle over their gunners' sudden ineptitude.

But shortly after the Potemkin, Ismail, and Georgii Pobedonosets  began to head back to Odessa. Things went suddenly south on the new ship. The Potemkin had sent the Georgii one of its chief revolutionaries in order to maintain unity in the fleet. But that representative decided to rebel back to the imperial Government. He convinced the crew of the Georgii that the Potemkin was planning to arrest all of the NCO's and distinguished seamen, despite the fact that the head of the revolution, Matushenko, was himself an NCO. Then, after clearing out all the officers the Potemkin was supposed to make a full attack on the people of Odessa, where the crew of the Georgii was from. They were supposed to attack Odessa despite all of their previously relatively friendly interactions. So the officers of the Georgii Pobedonosets seized control of the ship, grounded her, and then before fled.

Again, two more ships mutinied and joined with the Potemkin too. But they were quickly either captured or turned against the revolution like the Georgii had been. So the Potemkin and her escort, the Ismail, remained alone in revolution.

You'll probably need this.

The Potemkin was starting to run short of supplies and steamed south to Constanța in Romania. But the port officials in Constanța feared the relative the might of the enormous Russian Empire. So the Romanians refused to sell them any goods. Unwilling to seize anything from the innocent Romanians, the Potemkin went to Feodosiya, back in Russia. Feodosiya was much more accommodating, and gave them everything they needed. Everything but coal and fresh water, that is.

The Potemkin needed water and coal, so it sent out a small force to seize some nearby imperial coal barges. The Russian army was on the prowl though. The imperials found the revolutionaries and killed most of the coal-finding force.

The Potemkin, desperately low on water and coal, sailed back to Constanța. The Romanian port officials weren't willing to give them the necessary supplies. And so, starved for coal and water and without having fought a single sea battle, the crew of the Potemkin determined that they were beaten. They let some counter-revolutionaries on their accompanying boat Ismail take that ship back to Russia. And then the Potemkin itsself was scuttled and half-sunk at Constanța. They had been defeated with hardly any clash of arms. But when the revolutionary sailors headed ashore, the Romanian crowd still cheered them.

The ship herself was quickly dragged back up, and returned to Russia, which renamed her. She continued to serve until 1919, when she was scuttled by anti-revolutionaries who wanted to keep her out of the Bolsheviks' hands.

Most of the sailors remained in Romania until the Russian Revolution. Most of the few who who returned before then were killed or imprisoned. The leader Matushenko himself returned to Russia under a promise of amnesty in 1907. His amnesty was immediately disregarded and he was promptly executed.

So what sort of legacy did the Potemkin's little revolution have?

The last surviving crew member died in 1987, in Ireland. He had made his way to the British Isles, where he had met Lenin, and eventually set up Beshoff's Fish and Chips in Dublin.

(Pic from Beshoff's)

But the revolution of 1917 saw the Battleship Potemkin's rebellion as a precedent. And 1905, it helped other Russian revolutionaries force some of the lesser reforms of the same year, like the Duma (similar to a parliament). In the end, the Potemkin probably helped speed the revolution, but not as much as the sailors would have liked. And of course even after some initial success the Russian Revolution itself would eventually fall to totalitarian control. But for the time the Potemkin rebellion wasn't a bad try at forcing social change.

And that's all the Potemkin you're getting for now.