Monday, 30 June 2008

A Boys’ Country

As all other countries in the Middle East, Egypt is a typical boys’ country. Women and girls after puberty are rarely seen on the streets, and if, they are more or less veiled. When I strolled through the mayhem of Cairo last week, I identified maximum 10 per cent females in the streets. Boys were everywhere, holding hands, praying in the middle of the alleyway, being active. In the evenings, more women showed. Mothers and their half-grown daughters and little kids went shopping. Downtown and in the Islamic part of Cairo, almost all of them were veiled.

In the fancy restaurants on the shores of the Nile or in Al Azhad Park there was, of course, a completely different picture. The fun-loving, young, bold and beautiful celebrated birthday parties and enjoyed life. Young couples (of course not married) met for romantic candle-light dinners. Only some of the girls were wearing more fashionable head scarves, très chic.

I talked with many young lads in the little shops of Khan Al Khalili, the main souq, and with “students” of Islamic Architecture and Antiquities in the Grand Al Azhar Mosque. They are 24, 26 years of age and rarely married. No money. The question “Do you have a girlfriend?” is sometimes answered slowly, or not at all. “Yes. But no sex, only love.”

What I have heard is that the situation is getting worse. Economy seems to be a disaster. Unemployment may be 25 per cent. Especially the youngsters seem not to have a real future. And after all, Muslim Brothers are on the rise. I have never heard so many calls for prayer than during these ten days in Cairo, not even in Kuwait. At least, the muezzin who woke me up every morning at 4:30 am had a nice voice and did a good job. Allāhu akbar, 'al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu, five times a day (or even more). When the personal situation gets miserable, religion becomes more important, as consolation, as hope, at least for the aftermath. I do not want to entertain here in further detail on the dangerous mix of being young male, Muslim, sexually frustrated and without any social perspective. It’s well-established. Irrational thinking conveyed by religious ratters may have deleterious effects.

Are the boys oppressing, controlling, the women, I was recently asked. I really don’t know. Arab women may be amazingly self-confident. I met an extremely competent (and attractive, albeit veiled) female guide in Beit el-Suhami, a lovingly restored private mansion north of Khan Al-Khalili. Another young Cairene woman with a strong American accent was definitely flirting (and so was I) when trying to convince me that this was the shop for tribal Bedouin rugs I was actually looking for.

I got to know many Arab women, in particular our mainly female students in Kuwait. They are as self-confident as their Norwegian counterparts. But I have to admit that I’ve got only a very superficial insight into daily family life in Muslim societies. Religious fundamentalism will turn back the clock, I am afraid.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Souq Al Gamaal

A very dirty and depressing place. I wouldn’t recommend Souq Al Gamaal for a visit. We saw the pyramids when passing Giza to go north of Cairo. When we approached the site in Birqash, we saw dozens of decomposing bodies of camels, cattle, sheep, on what was a giant garbage dump. Tourists had to pay for a ‘ticket’. Incredible.

Camels had been carried from Sudan, I was told, to this horrible place. Their usual fate is to be slaughtered. In order to prevent their quick escape, their left foreleg was bound, so they could only jump a bit. Young boys and men beat the beasts all the time, without any reason. My driver asked for camel milk for his sick mother in hospital. They had to milk a camel, and Ahmed was happy when he finally got the container with the milk.

I spent some time with a “sheikh”, who supposedly was the boss of all of this. He showed me a year 2000 copy of a German magazine about Cairo where he and the camel market in Birqash had been featured. He was the owner of a unique cowhide made of buffalo skin. Only his son owned a similar piece, he told us.

I found this video about the camel market on the internet.

Saturday, 28 June 2008


Unity, New Hampshire, June 27, 2008

Exercises in Pyramids

Well, I wasn’t in Giza. It was too hot in Cairo last week and the prospect of lining up in endless queues in the burning sun, hefty gate-money, claustrophobia, and, in particular, simply too many tourists prevented me from visiting. I have seen the Fab Three from the car when passing Giza on my way to another “exotic” place outside of Cairo, Birqash with its horrible camel market (I will report later), and the proximity of the pyramids to residential areas was in fact amazing.

No, we went to Saqqara and Dahshur, further to the south. Saqqara is home of the first stone monument, the Step Pyramid. Here also a life-size limestone sculpture of the Pharaoh Djoser was found, who governed the country 2650 BCE when Imhotep, his later deified architect built this ingenious pyramid (I suppose it took more than one year, but that was the information given) which originally was totally encased with limestone. His Step Pyramid is about 60 meters high. Few tourists were strolling around the complex, sometimes bothered by friendly Egyptian would-be-guides, but in general, it was a peaceful moment seeing what four-and-half-thousand years ago people were able to construct.

Djoser himself (or rather his sculpture) is sitting in the entrance area of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and looks really a bit scary.

Not so well-done was another mound of rubble in the vicinity of the Step Pyramid, Userkaf’s Pyramid. But if you imagine that they also were encased in white limestone, you would agree, not too bad as a tombstone.

Further south of Saqqara, the wonderful Red Pyramid can be admired at Dahshur. With 105 meters height it is the 3rd largest true pyramid (after the two of Khufu and Khafre at Giza). The pyramid was created by the most prolific Pharaoh Sneferu (2613-2589 BCE). Most amazing was that there were only six people around, four of them tourists. The pyramid can be entered for free (except a little baksheesh for an unofficial local who was sitting at the entrance in the middle of the northern face). Claustrophobia after about 35 meters in the extremely cramped and steep passage prevented me to go further. No problem, I had forgotten a torch anyway.

Pharaoh Sneferu tried several pyramids. One attempt, the Bent Pyramid, started at a steep angle of 54 degrees but when it became unstable in the middle of the construction, the architect decided to continue at 43 degrees. It somehow spoilt the overall picture, but imagine! How much work for so many people! An even greater failure represents the Black Pyramid east to the Bent Pyramid, which left, after collapse in medieval times, only a tower-like structure. The latter could not be approached since they lie in a militarized zone.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Happy Egyptians

Coptic Quarter, Cairo

Monday, 16 June 2008

The Annual Dose

It will be pretty quiet here for the next couple of days. I will get my annual dose of the Middle East this time in Egypt. So, Carlton Hotel has finally confirmed my reservation and I will arrive tomorrow morning at Cairo airport. Very early tomorrow morning.

I have always spared Egypt when I was still living in Kuwait. The country seems to be easy to approach from the West, contrary to countries like Iran, which had been the destination of my previous Morgenlandfahrt. So, why not postpone the visit to Cairo when living and working in the Middle East anyway.

I am very curious. It is not only the bustling city of Cairo; it is also the HEAT, which will represent a sharp contrast to the green winter (called summer) here in Tromsø. I’ll report later, insha'allah.


Saturday, 14 June 2008


In previous postings I have outlined that the real origin of the three current monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (another one is Manichaeism of antiquity, which has vanished), most probably lies in Zoroastrian Persia of the 6th and 5th century BCE. Eurocentric humanists have always looked at the Greek achievements during that time with great admiration. It was a time of tremendous development of Science, Philosophy, and Art. In the East, Siddharta Gautama Buddha (ca. 563-483 BCE) abandoned his earthly body and entered Parinirvana, and Confucius taught his philosophy in China.

However, it was the dynasty of the Achaemenids who, during these years, erected their true World Empire. While seated mainly in the province of Fars in southern Iran, they tried to secure the periphery of the then known world by relative tolerance in religious matters and several military campaigns towards Egypt, Greece, the Scythians, and India. Their main capital was Pārsa, and the Hellenistic World called it Persepolis. It is said that Persepolis was the most beautiful city of the world, Built by Darius the Great in about 515 BCE, it was looted in 330 by Alexander’s troops and later burnt, most probably in revenge for the destruction of the Acropolis of Athens by Xerxes about 150 years earlier. That was the end of the Achaemenian Empire. But Persian History went on, of course.

There was recently considerable concern with regard to plans of the Iranian Government to build a dam between the historical sites of Parsagadae and Persepolis which might result in flooding especially parts of the former. Construction of the dam has already commenced.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Morning Song

Fred Frith, Iva Bittová, Pavel Fajt (1989)

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

The Midnight Sun

Kroken, June 10, 2008

Monday, 9 June 2008


Cyrus II encouraged the Jews in Babylon to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, knowing well that imperial generosity will grant stability in the empire’s periphery. It is interesting to note that the Jews declined. Too comfortable had life been in the Diaspora, several generations under better circumstances than in Judah. It was Darius I (522-486 BCE) who ordered the construction of the temple, as a fortress, as a proper place for administration, and, of course, to worship Yahweh. Yehud was, after the conquest of Egypt, no longer a marginal province. Darius appointed Zerubbabel as local governor who was a Davidide. This period is covered in the Tanakh in the Books of Haggai, Zechariah 1-8, and Isaiah 56-66 (the Third Isaiah). Darius’ strong influence as a lawgiver who respected local laws (see, for instance, his carved-in-stone, multilingual inscriptions in Behistun) expedited the canonization of Yehud’s religious texts, of course.

For the short period between Cyrus and Darius, Cambyses II, son of Cyrus, ruled for almost a decade Persia (530-522 BCE). It was a time of stability and stagnation in Yehud since Cambyses was more interested in conquering Egypt, but from the sea. Troops did not pass Palestine. Cambyses’ army was lost in a devastating sandstorm when heading to the oracle of the Siwa oasis in western Egypt. About 50’000 men vanished literally from the face of the earth. Recently, archeologists may have found the remains of the 2500 years old campaign, preserved in the sand of the desert. Two hundred years later Alexander the Great dared to repeat the enterprise and was allegedly greeted there as the son of Zeus.

Cambyses tomb was very recently discovered in Parsagadae near his father’s mausoleum.

Let’s come back to Yehud’s history as a colony of the Persian Empire. Under the rule of Xerxes I (486-465 BCE), i.e., after Darius, Persian support for Yehud declined again considerably. In contrast, increasing armed hostilities at the western borders (Greece) and his march to Egypt in 485-484 BCE when he went through Palestine twice took its toll. Moreover, the systematic divestiture of any local autonomy has to be seen as particular contradiction to his predecessor Darius.

Artaxerxes I (465-423 BCE) appointed as governors in Yehud Ezra and Nehemiah, who were able to re-establish something like a careful autonomy in the colony under central control of Persia, of course. It was in particular Ezra who undertook the task of a thorough reform of Yahweh’s religion. Darius had, some 50 years before, codified the ‘King’s Law’ which had been implemented throughout the Empire. Ezra, a loyal but most probably lower-level Persian bureaucrat, had to unify Yahweh’s religious laws with those of the Emperor (Ezra 7:26).

It is highly significant that it was Persia’s central administration which appointed these governors in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Their main task was the implementation of the King’s Law in the colony of Yehud. The traditions, religious laws, worship of Yahweh, all had to be streamlined in a way that would fit with Persian rules, regulations and laws. Definitely, the influence of Zoroastrianism as the state religion in the Persian centers Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis, was strong. The great tolerance of most Persian Emperors especially in religious matters granted, however, considerable freedom in particular when the temple in Jerusalem had finally been rebuilt, and refurbished by Ezra. The temple was undoubtedly the center of worship of Yahweh, but what was even more important to the Persian Empire, for administration and defense.

Thus, it is more than amazing that the real origin of the nowadays three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, lies definitely in Zoroastrian Persia.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Yehud under Persian Rule

I have recently reported on my visit of Pir Bakran near Esfahan and its very old Jewish cemetery and a small but still active synagogue. Recent distressing strong rhetoric of the Iranian president but also the response of a highly-ranked Israeli politician (not to mention new remarks of outgoing Bush and presidential hopeful Obama) augur badly. Remember, Jews and Persians have lived most of the time in harmony, even under Islamic rule. Presently, the Jewish community in Iran (of course less than 40'000) is the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel. Representing a minority (like Zoroastrians), a Jew is also a member of the Iranian Majlis. So, the abject rhetoric is definitely (and fortunately) not directed to Jews as a people or religious group.

As a matter of fact the canonization of the Tanakh was accomplished under Persian rule, in particular in the first half of the two centuries of the Achaemenian Empire (539-330 BCE). Most interested in the millennia-old history of the Persian nation and rather recently inspired by a social and historical treatise authored by Jon Berquist (Judaism in Persia’s Shadow), I am going to post in the coming weeks some interesting pictures of my visits in Persepolis near Shiraz and other Zoroastrian sites in Yazd and Esfahan.

The Tanakh and the Old Testament of the Bible are not as old as many might believe. Major parts of the work have been written and compiled when the Jewish elite and many officials were either deported to Babylon (already in 597 BCE; the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed one decade later) or, after their return to Jerusalem, Yehud (the Persian name for Jerusalem and its environs) was a vassal of the then ruling Empire, Persia.

Even before that, Judah was rarely an independent state. It was rather dominated by the larger powers Assyria (who besieged Jerusalem in 701 BCE), Egypt, or Babylonia. Israel, the other nation in the area with its capital Samaria, had been destroyed by Assyria already in 722 BCE.

Babylonia deported Judah’s intelligentsia. Jewish rural life in Babylon is mainly portrayed in the Book of Ezekiel while Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) describes Jewish life in exile when involved in governmental activities and bureaucracy. In fact, their special talents made life apparently rather comfortable in the Diaspora. The Book of Daniel reports on four young Jewish aristocrats who stayed at Nebuchadnezzar’s court for a life-time service (with obvious reminiscence to the story of Joseph in, for example, Gen 41). What is thought to be Daniel’s tomb is located in the city of Shush (the ancient Susa) in Khuzestan which is just to the northeast of Kuwait. Jewish pilgrims from around the world still visit it. And Iranian Shiites revere him and his shrine, too.

Babylon’s general custom of deporting the administration and all aristocrats of conquered countries, i.e., the centralization of imperial power, does not mean, however, that the common people have not still inhabited, for instance, Judah. It made, however, the periphery of the Babylonian Empire too volatile, and it was only few decades later (539 BCE) when the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus II defeated Babylonia.

Cyrus’ administrative style was completely different from that of the former rulers in Babylon. The priesthoods of several peoples regained their former strength and regional governors were allowed to stay in place. In fact, Cyrus sent the Jews home and ordered them to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1, 2-4). Cyrus’ edict is found on the inscriptions of the so-called Cyrus Cylinder which was placed under the walls of Babylon as a foundation deposit. It asserts the following:

I returned to (these) sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which (used) to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I (also) gathered all their former inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkard whom Nabonidus has brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their (former) chapels, the places which made them happy.
May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask Bel and Nebo for a long life for me and may they recommend me (to him); to Marduk, my lord, they may say this: “Cyrus, the king who worships you, and Cambyses, his son, …” … all of them I settled in a peaceful place … ducks and doves, …. I endeavored to fortify/repair their dwelling places…

While Cyrus was generous to those who he had conquered, he ensured, at the same time, loyalty in the periphery of his Empire and maintained functioning administration. The order to the Jews of building a new temple in Jerusalem would not only allow worship of Yahweh but also restore the administration in the western colony of Yehud.

Cyrus' mausoleum is located in the wide plateau of Pasargadae, about 100 km northeast of Shiraz in the province Fars, the heartland of the Achaemenids. It is a modest copy of a Mesopotamian ziggurat. No inscription was actually found in the tomb chamber, but legend has it that Cyrus exhorted possible visitors by:

O man, whoever thou art, from wheresoever thou cometh, for I know you shall come, I am Cyrus, who founded the empire of the Persians.
Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.

Alexander the Great looted and burnt Persepolis first, but when he then headed to Pasargadae, he paid a visit to the tomb and honored the Great Cyrus, it is said.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Yes we can

Barack Obama yesterday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meeting. Everything is okay but the tenor has changed anyway.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Delayed Spring

Krokelvdalen, May 31, 2008. 17 degrees Celsius (62 degrees Fahrenheit).

Raiders of the Lost Ark

When I recently visited Yemen, I had read about a sensation which had happened more than 30 years ago. When restoring parts of the Grand Mosque in Sana’a in 1972, workers stumbled in a small niche between the outer and inner structure of the roof across fragments of paper manuscripts. Careless as they were, they packed the pages into potato bags and subsequently forgot about them. Years later, the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, Qadhi Ismail al-Aqwa’, realized that he had to ask for international assistance to study what is now known as one of the oldest versions of the Holy Qur’an. It was the German Qur’anic paleographic Gerhard R. Puin who started the restoration of the tens of thousands of fragments of the Holy Scripture. Little has been published in the meantime since the message might be too disturbing for the common faithful Muslim. See the article by Toby Lester in The Atlantic Monthly here.

In upcoming August, there might be another heavy dispute about the hidden origins of Islam. The German Professor emeritus Karl-Heinz Ohlig and G. R. Puin are going to make their so far only in German distributed Book available in English, then providing the general public with a highly controversial compilation of texts by different authors. Some of them have started to linguistically analyze the text as being Syrian-Aramaic and re-read parts of the Holy Qur’an in a completely different way. In the publisher’s announcement of The Hidden Origins of Islam, it reads as follows:

“The standard histories of Muhammad and the early development of Islam are based on Islamic literature that dates to the ninth and tenth centuries--some two centuries or more after the death of Muhammad in 632. Islamic literary sources do not exist for the seventh and eighth centuries, when, according to tradition, Muhammad and his immediate followers lived. All that is preserved from this time period are a few commemorative building inscriptions and assorted coins.

Based on the premise that reliable history can only be written on the basis of sources that are contemporary with the events described, the contributors to this in-depth investigation present research that reveals the obscure origins of Islam in a completely new light. As the authors meticulously show, the name "Muhammad" first appears on coins in Syria bearing Christian iconography. In this context the name is used as an honorific meaning "revered" or "praiseworthy" and can only refer to Jesus Christ, as Christianity was the predominant religion of the area at this time. This same reference exists in the building inscription of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by the caliph `Abd al-Malik.

The implication of these and other findings here presented is that the early Arab rulers adhered to a sect of Christianity. Indeed, evidence from the Koran, finalized at a much later time, shows that its central theological tenets were influenced by a pre-Nicean, Syrian Christianity. Linguistic analysis also indicates that Aramaic, the common language throughout the Near East for many centuries and the language of Syrian Christianity, significantly influenced the Arabic script and vocabulary used in the Koran. Finally, it was not until the end of the eighth and ninth centuries that Islam formed as a separate religion, and the Koran underwent a period of historical development of at least 200 years.”

I have read the original German book from 2005 about the hidden origins of Islam (and its sequel from 2007) with much interest. Even in Germany, the book was perceived very controversially. Famous German orientalists Tilman Nagel and Angelika Neuwirth criticized the approach of, in particular, Christoph Luxenberg, and his new interpretation of the oldest still visible Qur’anic inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem may in fact be very peculiar. As an example, Luxenberg reads muhammad and abdullah not as nouns but rather gerundives (the praised one, the servant, respectively) and assigns both to Jesus (Isa bin Maryam) rather than to the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. Belonging mainly to the revisionist party, most authors of the compilation cannot really be considered scientifically serious but rather striving for sensation. One typical example might be ‘hobby’ numismatic Volker Popp with his peculiar interpretations of coins found in the 1st and 2nd century AH. That coins which were once circulating among inhabitants of a particular region are not radically exchanged under new reign is so self-evident that it does not really deserve special attention.

Anyway, the book will undoubtedly incite new discussions, this time among an international audience.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Standard Operating Procedure

When this happened I visited Damascus where I got to know an Iraqi professor who was visiting the city too. The shocking pictures induced considerable disturbance, and I have reported on that almost significant emotional event some time ago. President G. W. Bush apologized for the mistreatment of detainees in Abu Ghuraib on May 6, 2004. But that was not well-perceived in the Arab world. Shockingly, the American hostage Nicholas Berg was beheaded one day later by the dastard slayer Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I remember the horrible video which immediately circulated on the internet. And that I was more or less forced to see it by an Arab colleague who obviously wanted to teach me, the Westerner, a lesson.

Zarqawi was killed in a US bombing raid exactly 2 years ago. Berg's assassination added a new, indeed catastrophic, dimension to the war in Iraq.

The award winning semi-documentary Standard Operating Procedure by Errol Morris can now be seen in movie theatres throughout Europe.

This posting is in commemoration to Nicholas Berg.