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History off the press (July ’11 edition)

Posted in African, American, Ancient, Books, Middle Eastern, Storytelling by Alex L. on July 20, 2011

"America Walks Into a Bar" book coverOne of my favorite things about reading good history books is that it changes the way you see your environment. Familiar places become more exciting, strangers begin to seem more intriguing, traveling becomes a richer experience, and, if you’re lucky, some of one’s ignorant assumptions are challenged and replaced with insights. It’s like discovering again the sense of wonder about the world that we all had as kids.

The new history books published in late June and early July of this year promise to stretch our minds and offer us to look upon our world with new, unwearied eyes. As I mentioned in the first “History Off the Press” post last month, the books I will feature here were or will be published in late June or July; this list is neither exhaustive nor objective; and I have as yet read none of these publications (except for maybe a preview of the first few pages on Amazon.com).

Rivals of the ancient world

Without imagination, historical evidence seems dull and tragic. We can’t help but feel a patronizing condescension toward our ancestors, whose eroded remains of buildings look like something a child sculpted from sand on a beach and whose stories and myths sound like the imaginings of acid trippers or chauvinistic patriarchs or both.

What I like about Andrea Carandini’s new book, Rome: Day One, is his almost playful combination of taking ancient myths seriously and using colorful narrative writing to vivify the ruins of the ancient imperial city in Rome. Carandini uses the archaeological evidence to argue that the myth of the founding of Rome by Romulus is not far from the truth, that “a king whose name might have been Romulus founded Rome one April 21st in the mid-eighth century BC, most likely in a ceremony in which a white bull and cow pulled a plow to trace the position of a wall marking the blessed soil of the new city.” (more…)

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Symbolic reactions

Posted in Middle Eastern, Psychology, Reading, Travel by Alex L. on June 19, 2011

Hanging Gardens of Babylon engravingIn the deserts of the Middle East, goatskin seems to have been the material of choice for transporting water. This seemed strange to me when I first read about it in Wilfred Thesiger’s account of his travels in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula with the Bedouins. The way he described it, it seemed these goatskins had a tendency to sweat in the blistering sun and tear and leak their irreplaceable cargo as the nomads traveled from well to well.

Thesiger’s narrative formed images in my mind: the goatskin containers bulging with water and bouncing on a camel’s back; moisture congealing on the skins and falling in small droplets to sizzle on the sand; the Bedouins (and Thesiger with them) drinking gladly the animal-scented liquid at the end of a long day’s ride. Soon these water-bearing goatskins became for me part of a larger symbolism that I had affixed to the Bedouin lifestyle.

The nomadic Arabs were a complex people in Thesiger’s account. Ready to drive a knife through the chest of a child from a competing tribe if the customs of a blood-feud demanded it, the same Bedouin man would literally give the last shirt off his back or the last swigs of camel’s milk to a stranger who happened upon his camp. To me, reading and re-reading Thesiger’s book, Bedouins came to represent a love of freedom, a fraternal devotion to clan, and a proud contentedness with simple living.

But I have never met any real Bedouins (I’m not counting the hospitable entertainers of Bedouin descent who served coffee and rice for our Birthright Israel group before returning to their mansion in the desert for the night). Bedouins, along with their goatskin water bottles that I have never actually seen, exist only in my mind as symbol and metaphor. (more…)