Anthropology Friday: Our Moslem Sisters pt 2

Roman Era Tunisian Bath

I desired to read a good ethnography of Middle Eastern life in the 1800s, but not happening upon one, I settled for Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, edited by Annie Van Sommer and Samuel M. Zwemer. (Published in 1907.)

Sommer and Zwemer were Christian (Calvinist) missionaries–as such, we should keep in mind that much of the book is an explicit appeal for more funding, since missionaries must eat and often don’t have much income.

There are common themes that show up in each chapter–divorce is commented on extensively in most. I shall try to avoid repetition in my choice of quotes; if you wish a fuller picture of the countries discussed, I recommend the book.

Today we begin with Tunisia (as usual, quotes will be in “” for readability):

“When I came to this country some twelve years ago, the thing that most struck me in visiting Arab houses was the cheerfulness and even gaiety of the women. I had a preconceived picture in my mind of poor creatures sitting within prison walls, pining to get out, and in utter misery.

“Nothing of the kind! What did I find? Laughter, chatter, the distraction of periodic visits to saints’ tombs, or that centre of social intercourse—the bath. Old women, the scandal-mongers of the neighborhood, go round to retail their news. (And it will be allowed that even in England there are many who take a deeper interest in the doings of their neighbors than in more elevated topics of conversation.)

“Here Jewesses, spreading out their pretty, silken goods to tempt purchasers, or neighbors who had “dropped in” by way of the roof for a gossip, not over a dish of tea, but a cup of black coffee. There Arab women, much like children, quickly shaking off little troubles and meeting greater trials with the resignation of fatalism, which finds comfort in the magic word, “Maktoob” (It is decreed), in a manner incomprehensible to the Western mind.

“Is it surprising that I almost accused my fellow-missionaries of misrepresenting the home life of the people? But I only saw the surface and had not yet probed the deep sore of Mohammedanism nor realized the heavy burdens which its system entails.


“Let me tell you of three of the heaviest of these burdens: Polygamy, Divorce, and the Ignorance which results from complete lack of education and walks hand-in-hand with its twin-sister, Superstition. …

“Divorce is, however, the great curse which blights ]domestic happiness, and words fail me to describe the misery it brings.

“The Moslem population of the city of Tunis is sixty thousand. Setting aside men and children there remain, roughly speaking, about twenty-five thousand women, and comparing my own experience with that of other lady missionaries we are agreed in affirming that the majority of these women in the middle and lower classes have been divorced at least once in their lives, many of them two or three times, while some few have had a number of husbands. In the upper class and wealthy families divorce is not nearly so common, and for obvious reasons.

“I have never known a man to have thirty or forty wives in succession as one hears of in some Mohammedan lands. A man once told my brother-in-law that he had been married eighteen times, and I heard of another who had taken (the Arab expression) twelve wives, one after another; but this last was related with bated breath as being an unusual and opprobrious act.

“When a woman is divorced she returns to her father’s house and remains dependent on him until he finds her another husband, her monetary value being now greatly reduced….

“Among the upper classes a girl does not often marry till about seventeen years old, but a poorer man is glad to get his daughters off his hands at a much earlier age, especially if he can obtain a good dowry in payment. …

Photo of Dorothy and Fatimah from the book

“The history of the two little girls in the accompanying photograph, shows clearly the contrast between the life of an English and that of an Arab child. It was taken about eight years ago at the birthday party of my little niece, who had been allowed, as a treat, to invite a number of Arab girls to tea, and was photographed with one who was about the same age as herself. The one, Dorothy, is now thirteen years old and still a happy, light-hearted schoolgirl, carefully sheltered from all knowledge of evil. The other, Fatima, to-day, sits in her father’s house, divorced, desolate, and soured in temper by her hard fate. And, indeed, her story makes one’s heart ache. …”

Remedies in the case of sickness

“If there illness in the house, a message is first sent to the “degaz” (soothsayer), who writes a magic paper, encloses it in a leather case, and sends it to the sick one with directions to fasten it on the head, arm, etc., according to the part affected.

“Another favorite remedy is to pour a little water into a basin on which passages from the Koran are written, and then either drink or bathe with it as the disease may appear to require.

“These powerful remedies failing to restore health, the invalid is next taken to the tomb of some celebrated “saint.” There, offerings are made and prayers recited. A favorite resort in Tunis is the Zawia of Sidi Abdallah, situated just outside the city wall. Here a black cock is sacrificed and a little of its blood sprinkled on the neck, elbow, and knee of the sufferer on whose behalf it is offered.

On the Potential for Education

“To begin with, the first glance will show their intelligence. Get an average ignorant Englishwoman of the peasant class to repeat a Bible story that she has never heard before. She will dully remember one or two salient facts. Go up to a mountain village here and get a group of women and talk to them, and choose one of them to repeat to the others what you have said. You will feel after a sentence or two that your Arabic was only English put into Arabic words; hers is sparkling with racy idiom. More than that, she is making the story live before her hearers: a touch of local color here—a quaint addition there. It is all aglow. And this a woman who has sat year after year in her one garment of red woollen drapery, cooking meals and nursing children, with nothing to stimulate any thoughts beyond the day’s need.

“And their powers of feeling: do their faces look as if these have been crushed out by a life of servitude? Not a bit of it. No European who has not lived among them can have any idea of their intensity: love, hate, grief, reign by turns. Anger and grief can take such possession of them as to bring real illness of a strange and undiagnosable kind. We have known such cases to last for months; not unfrequently they end fatally; and more than one whom we have met has gone stone-blind with crying for a dead husband who probably made things none too easy while he lived.

“And then their will power: the faces tell of that too. …

“The dark side lies in untrueness born of constant fear of the consequence of every trifling act, moral impurity that steeps even the children—wild jealousy that will make them pine away and die if a rival baby comes. Their minds are rife with superstition and fertile in intrigue.”

“The Pretender” Bou Hmara, 1903, Morocco


“The families in which daughters are allowed to read are few and far between: just an occasional one among high-class government officials, or a favorite daughter here and there who is destined to support herself and relatives by teaching the few privileged to learn among the rising generation. The little girl is seldom welcomed at birth. It is a calamity she was not a boy. A few years of half-freedom for the town-child and hasty neglect for the village maiden. Many a better-class woman enters her home as a bride, in the carriage which so carefully conceals her, and sees but four white washed walls for the remainder of her days, nor leaves their monotony until carried out in her coffin. …

“Divorce is fearfully common and easy. Plurality of wives is an awful curse. The chief features of home-life are quarrels, intrigues, attempted poisonings, and rankling bitternesses.

“Slavery is more common than in other countries so near the borders of civilization, and the possession of these human chattels denotes the measure of worldly prosperity. Occasionally they find a kindly master, but, more often, are inhumanly treated and regarded as so much property. We are frequently urged to treat the slave for illness and so increase her market value, while the wife, or wives, may suffer unnoticed and unassisted. …

“Some of the women figure in the weird orgies of religious sects of a private and public character. Their wild, dishevelled, and torn hair is prominent in the Satanic dance of the Aisowia Derwishes, and they vie with the men in its frenzied freaks, falling finally exhausted to the ground, unable to rise. But this class fortunately is not numerous.

“I was visiting in one of these houses last year in Fez. The occupants were strangers and had come pleading me to relieve one in very acute pain. The atmosphere of the room hung heavily over me, I knew not why. … Such uncanny sense of the immediate presence of the evil one, I have never experienced, as when under their roof, nor would wish to again. …

Sultan AbdulAziz, 1904

“We have found medical work a powerful handmaid to awaken interest in the Gospel story. To our great grief, however, the continued political unrest, due largely to the presence of the Pretender and rising of the tribes from time to time, during the past four years, has almost closed up this highly useful evangelistic and Christ-like work.

“The Northern rebellion would have ceased long ago had the present Sultan honest and energetic soldiers and leaders. Few, however, are impervious to foreign gold; and no one trusts another, unless he pay well for the interest in his affairs. The Sultan is a pleasant and enlightened person, but unable to cope with the surrounding lawlessness single-handed. Many a tale of bribery and wrong reaches us. The wild tribes know no other fear than that of seeing turbulent skulls and rebellious heads hanging upon the city gates.

“We went down to Fez four years ago, a few weeks after the violent and sad death of our dear friend and brother, Mr. Cooper. His only crime in the eyes of the violent tribesman, his murderer, was that of being a foreigner. Two weeks after our arrival in the city, Consuls ordered foreigners to the coast. We had to obey. Six weeks were spent in Tangier and then again we returned to our scene of labor, the large out-patient dispensary which treated over eleven thousand cases last year …”

EvX: Note that most of these missions are connected with medical care of some kind, which would otherwise have been unavailable for many people. It is not unlike Doctors without Borders.

“Two years ago orders again came to pack up and prepare for emergencies. The storm blew over and since then the main roads have been practically safe for ordinary traffic and merchandise. Even the foreigner can securely take his place in any caravan without fear of ill.

Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni aka Raisuli, Morocco, 1871-1925

“Raisuli’s capture of European and American citizens for hostages alarmed many, but he had sought the Government’s recognition of his lawful Kaidship, and when refused, wrongly determined to claim the same by force. The strong hand with which he now controls those wild tribes under his jurisdiction, proves his ability to govern. His justice, if semi-barbarous, is certainly ahead of that of most of his fellow Kaids. He reversed the decision of a Moorish tribunal which had wrung from a poor widow her lawful property, restoring that which had been unlawfully taken. A few such men in the highest circles would soon bring order out of chaos and strength to the throne.”

EvX: The Raisuli incident is interesting. According to Wikipedia:

Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni was born in the village of Zinat sometime in 1871.[citation needed] … He was the son of a prominent Caid, and began following in his father’s footsteps. However, Raisuni eventually drifted into crime, stealing cattle and sheep and earning the ire of Moroccan authorities.

By most accounts, the formative event in Raisuni’s life was his arrest and imprisonment by Abd-el-Rahman Abd el-Saduk, the Pasha of Tangier, who was Raisuli’s cousin and foster brother.[citation needed] … He was sent to the dungeon of Mogador and chained to a wall for four years; … Raisuni was released from prison as part of a general clemency early in the reign of Sultan Abdelaziz ..

Raisuni was hardened by his imprisonment, and returned to criminality after his release. … With a small but devoted band of followers, Raisuni embarked on a second career: kidnapping prominent officials and holding them for ransoms.

Raisuni’s first victim was Walter Burton Harris, an Englishman and correspondent for The Times who already knew Raisuni. Raisuni demanded not money, but the release of several of Raisuni’s men held in prison; Harris was released after only three weeks captivity.

Many of Raisuni’s other victims of this time were Moroccan military and political officials; his men only rarely kidnapped Europeans. In between kidnappings, Raisuni extorted ‘tribute’ from villagers in territories controlled by his followers, executing those who refused to pay. He also periodically maintained a small fleet of boats for seagoing piracy;  …

Raisuni had a mixed reputation. He became known for his chivalry and respectful attitude towards his hostages; he pledged Ion Perdicaris that he would defend him from any harm …

However, towards those who were not worthy of ransom, emissaries of the Pasha and the Sultan, or those disloyal to him, he was known for cruelty. …

In 1904, Raisuni was propelled onto the international stage when he kidnapped the Greek-American expatriate Ion Perdicaris and his stepson Cromwell Varley and held them for a ransom of $70,000.[citation needed] American President Theodore Roosevelt, then running for re-election, made political capital out of the incident, sending a squadron of warships to Morocco to force Abdelaziz’s compliance with Raisuni’s demands, famously proclaiming “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead!”[citation needed]

After a near-confrontation between the government of Morocco and troops of the United States of America, Raisuni received his ransom money and concessions; he was appointed Pasha of Tangier and Governor of Jibala province, and all of his imprisoned followers were released. However, Raisuni was ousted from the post in 1906 due to corruption and cruelty to his subjects; a year later he was again declared an outlaw by the Moroccan government.[citation needed]

For years, Raisuni continued to antagonize the Moroccan government, even after Abdelaziz’s forced abdication.[citation needed] He briefly regained favor with the Moroccan government, by siding with Mulay Hafid‘s overthrow of Abdelaziz, and was restored again as Pasha of Tangier. However, at the instigation of the Spanish government, the Sultan removed Raisuni from his post in 1912.[citation needed]

In 1913, Raisuni led several Rif tribes in a bloody revolt against the Spanish, and continued a sanguine guerilla conflict against them for almost eight years.

In September 1922,[8] and after an interview with Colonel José Villalba Riquelme he submitted to the Spanish authorities and subsequently joined forces with the Spanish army in the Rif War of the 1920s. …

In January 1925, Krim’s followers attacked Raisuni’s palace, killing most of his guards and capturing Raisuni.[citation needed] He was jailed in Tamasint (near Al Hoceima), where he died by the end of April 1925, … He is still regarded as a folk hero by many in Morocco, although his reputation is mixed at best.[citation needed]

Back to the book:

“The English missionary has had the great advantage of being favorably received by the people on account of his or her nationality. It stood, to them, for integrity, strength, and honor. Whatever changes may have taken place during the last four years to lessen this trust in her, England has still much favor with the majority. Hers were the pioneer-missionaries, for where no man would have been trusted or allowed to reside, her lady workers penetrated.”

EvX: It is a common complaint in Anthropology that older anthropologists had neglected the female side of humanity, due to themselves being primarily male, and thus not really allowed into women’s spaces and confidences even when they remembered to think of them, but the missionary literature contains plenty of accounts from female missionaries, who were quite thoughtful and allowed into female spaces. Today, though, this missionary literature seems to be all but forgotten.


Anthropology Friday: Our Moslem Sisters pt 1

I desired to read a good ethnography of Middle Eastern life in the 1800s, but not happening upon one, I settled for Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, edited by Annie Van Sommer and Samuel M. Zwemer. (Published in 1907.)

Sommer and Zwemer were Christian (Calvinist) missionaries–I don’t know much about Sommer, but Zwemer‘s story is interesting:

Samuel Marinus Zwemer (April 12, 1867 – April 2, 1952), nicknamed The Apostle to Islam, was an American missionary, traveler, and scholar. He was born at Vriesland, Michigan. In 1887 he received an A.B. from Hope College, Holland, Mich., and in 1890, he received an M.A. from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, N. J.. His other degrees include a D.D. from Hope College in 1904, a L.L.D. from Muskingum College in 1918, and a D.D. from Rutgers College in 1919.

After being ordained to the Reformed Church ministry by the Pella, Iowa Classis in 1890, he was a missionary at Busrah, Bahrein, and at other locations in Arabia from 1891 to 1905. He was a member of the Arabian Mission (1890–1913). Zwemer served in Egypt from 1913 to 1929. He also traveled widely in Asia Minor, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London.

In 1929 he was appointed professor of missions and professor of the history of religion at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where he taught until 1937. He had married Amy Elizabeth Wilkes on May 18, 1896. … He founded and edited the publication The Moslem World for 35 years.

The book itself is a collection of essays written by missionaries working in different countries, from Morocco to Bulgaria, Turkestan to Indonesia, on the subject of women in Islam. Much of it is an explicit appeal for more funding, since missionaries must eat and often don’t have much income. As such, the authors have a certain interest in emphasizing that “conditions here are very bad and only through more funding for our missionary work can matters be improved.”

While we must therefore be cautious of the authors’ motives, there remains a remarkable consistency between different accounts (Islamic divorce law is cited as problematic in most nations) and with more recent ethnographies I have read.

For example, some years ago I read Lila Abu-Lughod‘s Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, published in 1986. This is one of the saddest books I have read that is not about genocide. In it, the women, who are not supposed to publicly express notions like “I love my husband but he married a second wife and now I am heartbroken,” turn to poetry and song to give voice to their sadness.

We have, as well, the rather obvious conditions of life in Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as areas controlled by groups like ISIS and the Taliban.

On the flipside, of course, we have women like Benazir Bhuto, Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. The US, meanwhile, has not had a female head of state. I have also known Muslims personally who were very warm and loving toward their families.

But without further ado, let’s jump into the text (as usual, quotes will be in “” for readability):


“The seclusion of the Harem is more or less rigid according to the caprice of some exacting husband or mother-in-law. As far as the younger married women’s experience goes it is mother-in-law rule literally, for seldom is a man permitted to take his wife to a home of his own. The sons and even the grandsons must bring their brides home to the father’s house and all be subject to the mother. A household of fifty is no uncommon thing. … Often she rules with a hand of iron, probably to make up for her own hard life in her younger days, intermixed with an honest desire to preserve and promote the honor and dignity of her house. For the honor, dignity, and aristocracy of a family are often estimated according to the rigor of the seclusion of its women-folk. …

“Among the strictest people a young woman is not permitted to be seen by even her father-in-law. Nor is it allowable for her to be seen by any male servants except eunuchs. Under such conditions it might be wondered how a woman could keep her domestic machinery in running order, but as one woman said, who had never seen the face of her cook although he had been employed in her house for thirteen years, when asked the question, “How do you tell him what you want for dinner?” “Oh, he knows my wants, but when I wish to give a particular order, I tell the maid servant, she tells the little boy servant, and he conveys the message to the cook!”

“It seems like the irony of fate that these women who are kept in such strict seclusion should be so extravagantly fond of society. They welcome in the most hospitable manner any visitors of their own sex. It is pitiful to see how they love to have glimpses of the outside world. A missionary lady tells of a woman whom she often visited, who had never been outside of her house since her marriage, forty years before, and who begged her to tell her something about the flowers, saying, “Ah, you are happy women, free to go here and there and enjoy life!” …

“It seems part of the nature of the Egyptian to distrust his womenfolk and to believe them capable of any misdemeanor. Therefore they must be carefully watched and kept in check. This distrust reacts upon the nature and character of the women, often making them truly unworthy of trust, but many of them are very sensitive on the subject and feel keenly this unfair position into which they are thrown.

“What has been said about the strict seclusion of Egyptian women refers chiefly to the middle and upper classes, for the poorest women, those of the peasant class, have the greatest freedom. They go about unveiled and manifest a character of marked independence and self-reliance, but they are ignorant beyond description, such a thing as books and schoolroom being unknown quantities to them, and their lot is a life of drudgery.

“Many of the village women labor in the fields from early morning to late at night, especially during the cotton season, seven or eight months of the year.

“During the cotton-ginning season many women and girls work from 4 o’clock A.M. to 9 o’clock P.M. in the cotton-ginning mills. Those in the vicinities of larger towns are vendors of fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese, and butter. On market days great troops of village women can be seen on the country roads, their wares in big baskets on their heads, their babies perched astride their shoulders, wending their way to town. Those who live in the larger towns are often employed as hodcarriers for masons. …

“Unhappy marriages are a natural result of the seclusion of women in Egypt. It would be highly improper for a man to see his bride until after he had married her. He has not even had the privilege of choosing her. His mother did that for him, and it goes without saying that the young man is not always suited. …

“Frequent divorce is a natural result of these unhappy marriages. Divorce in any land is a social evil but in Egypt it is especially so, because the divorce laws are such that in a peculiar way woman is degraded by them.

“It is difficult to obtain exact figures regarding the percentage of divorce, as all cases are not recorded. There are some who say 50 per cent. of marriages end in divorce, others say 80 per cent… An experienced missionary when asked her opinion, said, “Divorce is so common that to find a woman who lives all her life with one husband is the exception.”

“In fact it is such an exception that it is a subject for remark, and a visitor in a house where such happy conditions exist never fails to be told about it.

“Many women have been divorced several times, and a woman of twenty years of age may be living with her third husband.

“A native Bible woman who had worked among Mohammedans for fourteen years when asked, “How many men or women of twenty-five years of age she thought likely to be living with their original partners?” said, “Do you mean that they should have kept to each other and that neither has been divorced or married anybody else?”—”Yes.” She laughed and said, “Perhaps one in two thousand.” …

“The question has been asked what is the condition of the children of divorced parents. According to the law the mother is given an allowance by her former husband on which to bring up their children to a certain age; then they are his. If they are girls they often are allowed to become servants to the mother’s successor, although there are fathers who do have enough natural affection to give the daughters of a former wife the proper place in the house. The allowance given a divorced woman when she has children is most often a mere pittance and too often she never gets one at all. She marries again and the children live with grandparents or other near relations or even alternate between the houses of the remarried father and mother, thus becoming mere little street waifs who have no definite abiding place. They certainly do suffer from neglect, but seldom are they victims of deliberate cruelty, although such cases are not unheard of. …

“Yet even among Mohammedans polygamy is a dying institution. … Among the middle classes the difficulty of supporting more than one wife at a time is decreasing polygamy. But by no means is polygamy an unheard-of thing, even if it is going out of fashion. Fashion is always slow in reaching the country places, and it seems to be in the country villages that polygamy seems to be more generally practised. Two brothers, representative country-men, wealthy and conservative, were known to have very extensive harems, each one having twenty-four wives and concubines. …

“Child-marriages have always been considered one of the curses of the East. In Egypt thirteen is about the average age at which the girls are married, but one is constantly meeting with cases of marriage at a much earlier age. A woman of twenty-five, prematurely old, seemed to take great delight in telling of her marriage when she was only seven years old, about as far back as she could remember. Another often tells the story how she escaped being married when she was only eight years old. The guests were all assembled, the elaborate supper had been enjoyed by all, the dancing women had been more than usually entertaining; the time for the bridal procession came around, but where was the bride? Her father searched all through the house for her. At last he found her lying asleep in the ashes in the kitchen. His father heart was touched and he said to those who followed him, “See that baby there asleep! Is it right to marry her?” At the risk of bringing great disgrace upon himself, he then and there stopped the marriage and the next day started her off to school. …

“The evangelical community has the reputation of being the best educated class of people in Egypt. The last census of all Egypt showed that only forty-eight in one thousand could read. A special census of the native evangelical community showed that three hundred and sixty-five in one thousand could read. The census also brought out the fact that in the evangelical community female education has taken a great step in advance, showing that while in all Egypt only six women in one thousand could read, in the evangelical community two hundred in one thousand could read.”

EvX: Throughout the book, missionaries in different countries (with a few exceptions, like China,) aver that divorce is a source of greater suffering than polygamy, since only a few people could really afford to have many wives at the same time. In an area, for example, there might be very little prostitution, but a rich man could marry a poor girl, keep her for a week, then divorce her, marry another poor girl, keep her for a week, divorce her, etc. For the men, divorce appears to have no real effect on social or economic status, but for the girls it could be very problematic.

Notes on the Muslim Brotherhood

(I’m pretty much starting from scratch)

Sayyid Qutb lived from 1906 – 1966. He was an Egyptian writer, thinker, and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was executed in 1966 for plotting to assassinate the Egyptian president, Nasser.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded back in 1928 by Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna. Its goal is to instill the Quran and the Sunnah as the “sole reference point for … ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community … and state”;[13] mottos include “Believers are but Brothers”, “Islam is the Solution”, and “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish”.[14][15]

As of 2015, the MB was considered a terrorist organization by Bahrain,[7][8] Egypt, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.[9][10][11][12]

The MB’s philosophy is pan-Islamist and it wields power in several countries:

323/354 seats in the Sudanese National Assembly,
74/132 seats in the Palestian Legislature,
69/217 seats in the Tunisian assembly,
39/249 seats in the Afghan House,
46/301 seats in Yemen,
16/146 seats in Mauritania,
40/560 seats in Indonesia
2/40 seats in Bahrain
and 4/325 and 1/128 in Iraq and Lebanon, respectively

In 2012, the MB sponsored the elected political party in Egypt (following the January Revolution in 2011,) but has had some trouble in Egypt since then.

The MB also does charity work, runs hospitals, etc., and is clearly using democratic means to to assemble power.

According to Wikipedia:

As Islamic Modernist beliefs were co-opted by secularist rulers and official `ulama, the Brotherhood has become traditionalist and conservative, “being the only available outlet for those whose religious and cultural sensibilities had been outraged by the impact of Westernisation”.[37] Al-Banna believed the Quran and Sunnah constitute a perfect way of life and social and political organization that God has set out for man. Islamic governments must be based on this system and eventually unified in a Caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal, as stated by its founder al-Banna was to drive out British colonial and other Western influences, reclaim Islam’s manifest destiny—an empire, stretching from Spain to Indonesia.[38] The Brotherhood preaches that Islam will bring social justice, the eradication of poverty, corruption and sinful behavior, and political freedom (to the extent allowed by the laws of Islam).

Back to Qutb:

In the early 1940s, he encountered the work of Nobel Prize-winner FrencheugenicistAlexis Carrel, who would have a seminal and lasting influence on his criticism of Western civilization, as “instead of liberating man, as the post-Enlightenment narrative claimed, he believed that Western modernity enmeshed people in spiritually numbing networks of control and discipline, and that rather than build caring communities, it cultivated attitudes of selfish individualism. Qutb regarded Carrel as a rare sort of Western thinker, one who understood that his civilization “depreciated humanity” by honouring the “machine” over the “spirit and soul” (al-nafs wa al-ruh). He saw Carrel’s critique, coming as it did from within the enemy camp, as providing his discourse with an added measure of legitimacy.”[24]

From 1948 to 1950, he went to the United States on a scholarship to study its educational system, spending several months at Colorado State College of Education (now the University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley, Colorado. …

Over two years, he worked and studied at Wilson Teachers’ College in Washington, D.C. (one of the precursors to today’s University of the District of Columbia), Colorado State College for Education in Greeley, and Stanford University.[30] He visited the major cities of the United States and spent time in Europe on his journey home. …

On his return to Egypt, Qutb published “The America that I Have Seen”, where he became explicitly critical of things he had observed in the United States, eventually encapsulating the West more generally: its materialism, individual freedoms, economic system, racism, brutal boxing matches, “poor” haircuts,[5] superficiality in conversations and friendships,[32] restrictions on divorce, enthusiasm for sports, lack of artistic feeling,[32] “animal-like” mixing of the sexes (which “went on even in churches”),[33] and strong support for the new Israeli state.[34] Hisham Sabrin, noted that:

“As a brown person in Greeley, Colorado in the late 1940’s studying English he came across much prejudice. He was appalled by what he perceived as loose sexual openness of American men and women (a far cry from his home of Musha, Asyut). This American experience was for him a fine-tuning of his Islamic identity.”…

Qutb concluded that major aspects of American life were primitive and “shocking”, a people who were “numb to faith in religion, faith in art, and faith in spiritual values altogether”. His experience in the U.S. is believed to have formed in part the impetus for his rejection of Western values and his move towards Islamism upon returning to Egypt.

The man has a point. American art has a lot of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol schtick.

In 1952, the Egyptian monarchy–which was pro-western–was overthrown by nationalists (?) like Nasser. At first Nasser and Qutb worked together, but there was something of a power struggle and Qutb didn’t approve of Nasser organizing the new Egypt along essentially secular lines instead of Islamic ideology, at which point Qutb tried to have Nasser assassinated and Nasser had Qutb arrested, tortured, and eventually hung.

Aside from the fact that Qutb is Egyptian and Muslim, he and the alt-right have a fair amount in common. (Read his Wikipedia Page if you don’t see what I mean.) The basic critique that the West is immoral, degenerate, has bad art, bad manners, and that capitalism has created a “spiritually numbing” network of control (your boss, office dress codes, the HOA, paperwork), and a return to spirituality (not rejecting science, but enhancing it,) can fix these things.

Unfortunately, the ideology has some bad side effects. His brother, Muhammad Qutb, moved to Saudi Arabia after his release from Egyptian prison and became a professor of Islamic Studies,[96][97] where he promoted Sayyid Qutb’s work. One of Muhammad Qutb’s students/followers was Ayman Zawahiri, who become a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad[98] and mentor of Osama bin Laden.

Soraya, empress of Iran, (1953) has no interest in Islamic veiling rules

My impression–Muslim monarchs tend to be secular modernists. They see the tech other countries have (especially bombs) and want it. They see the GDPs other countries have, and want that, too. They’re not that interested in religion (which would limit their behavior) and not that interested in nationalism (as they tend to rule over a variety of different “nations.”) Many monarchs are (or were) quite friendly to the West. The King of Jordan and Shah of Iran come immediately to mind.

(I once met the Director of the CIA. He had a photograph of the King of Jordan in his office. Motioning to the photo, he told me the King was one of America’s friends.)

But modernization isn’t easy. People who have hundreds or thousands of years’ experience living a particular lifestyle are suddenly told to go live a different lifestyle, and aren’t sure how to react. The traditional lifestyle gave people meaning, but the modern lifestyle gives people TV and low infant mortality.

That’s the situation we’re all facing, really.

So what’s a society to do? Sometimes they keep their kings. Sometimes they overthrow them. Then what? You can go nationalist–like Nasser. Communist–like South Yemen. (Though I’m not sure Yemen had a king.) Or Islamic, like Iran. (As far as I can tell, the Iranian revolution had a significant communist element, but the Islamic won out.) The Iranian revolution is in no danger of spreading, though, because the Iranians practice a variety of Islam that’s a rare minority everywhere else in the world.

I hear the Saudis and certain other monarchs have stayed in power so far by using their oil money to keep everyone comfortable (staving off the stresses of modernization) and enforcing Islamic law (keeping the social system familiar.) We’ll see how long this lasts.

So one of the oddities of the Middle East is that while other parts of the world have become more liberal, it appears to have become less. You can find many Before-and-After pictures of places like Iran, where women used to mingle with men, unveiled, in Western-style dress. (In fact, I think the veil was illegal in Iran in the 50s.) War-torn Afghanistan is an even sadder case.

Mohammad Zahir Shah was king of Afghanistan from 1933 through 1973. According to Wikipedia:

“After the end of the Second World War, Zahir Shah recognised the need for the modernisation of Afghanistan and recruited a number of foreign advisers to assist with the process.[12] During this period Afghanistan’s first modern university was founded.[12]… despite the factionalism and political infighting a new constitution was introduced during 1964 which made Afghanistan a modern democratic state by introducing free elections, a parliament, civil rights, women’s rights and universal suffrage.[12]

Mohammad Zahir Shah and his wife, Queen Humaira Begum, visiting JFK at the White House, 1963
credit “Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

While he was in Italy (undergoing eye surgery and treatment for lumbago,) his cousin executed a coup and instituted a republican government. As we all know, Afghanistan has gone nowhere but up since then.

Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after the US drove out the Taliban, where he received the title “Father of the Nation” but did not resume duties as monarch. He died in 2007.

His eldest daughter (Princess of Afghanistan?) is Bilqis Begum–Bilqis is the Queen of Sheba’s Islamic name–but she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. The heir apparent is Ahmad Shah Khan, if you’re looking for someone to crown.

Back to the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the big differences between elites and commoners is that commoners tend to be far more conservatives than elites. Elites think a world in which they can jet off to Italy for medical treatment sounds awesome, while commoners think this is going to put the local village medic out of a job. Or as the world learned last November, America’s upper and lower classes have very different ideas about borders, globalization, and who should be president.

Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood seems perfectly happy to use democratic means to come to power where it can.

(The MB apparently does a lot of charity work, which is part of why it is popular.)

The relationship between the MB an Saudi Arabia is interesting. After Egypt cracked down on the MB, thousands of members went to Saudi Arabia. SA needed teachers, and many of the MB were teachers, so it seemed mutually beneficial. The MB thus took over the Saudi educational system, and probably large chunks of their bureaucracy.

Relations soured between SA and the MB due to SA’s decision to let the US base troops there for its war against Iraq, and due to the MB’s involvement in the Arab Spring and active role in Egypt’s democracy–Saudi monarchs aren’t too keen on democracy. In 2014, SA declared the MB a “terrorist organization.”

Lots of people say the MB is a terrorist org, but I’m not sure how that distinguishes them from a whole bunch of other groups in the Middle East. I can’t tell what links the MB has (if any) to ISIS. (While both groups have similar-sounding goals, it’s entirely possible for two different groups to both want to establish an Islamic Caliphate.)

The MB reminds me of the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on returning to the Bible as the sole sources of religious wisdom, the establishment of Puritan theocracies, and a couple hundred years of Catholic/Protestant warfare. I blame the Protestant Revolution on the spread of the printing press in Europe, without which the whole idea of reading the Bible for yourself would have been nonsense. I wager something similar happened recently in the Middle East, with cheap copies of the Quran and other religious (and political) texts becoming widely available.

I’ll have to read up on the spread of (cheap) printing in the Islamic world, but a quick search turns up Ami Ayalon’s The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership:

so that looks like a yes.

Locations of the African Ethnic Groups in Haak et al’s dataset


This is the small version, which does not show all the groups. The larger version, with all the groups, is below.

Continuing my quest to produce a handy guide to the many obscure ethnic groups found in Haak et al’s dataset, here are all of the African groups I could fit on a map. Since many of these groups are extremely small and live near each other, it was impossible to fit them into their exact locations, but I hope my approximations are sufficient.

Here’s the more detailed map:


Note that there’s a ton more genetic data in the actual study; this is just a reference map. Also, “Bedouins” have an extremely broad range, from Morocco to Oman,  but I think these are the locations where these two samples were taken. Please ask if anything is unclear.

Anthropology Friday: Smith’s Sacrifice Among the Semites

Guys, I was really excited to bring you W. Robertson Smith‘s Sacrifice Among the Semites, (1889) but it turned out kind of disappointing. It contains, in fact, very few descriptions of sacrifice, among the Semites or anyone else.

Like Tyler, he has an “evolutionist” view of religious history, but the essay feels more proto-Freudian; it was with no surprise that I found that the very next essay in my textbook deals directly with Freud.

Nevertheless, it does have some interesting parts that I think are worth sharing. Smith doesn’t offer (at least in this essay) much support for his claims, but he did spend much of his life studying Semitic religion. According to Wikipedia,

After graduation he took up a chair in Hebrew at the Aberdeen Free Church College in 1870. In 1875 he wrote a number of important articles on religious topics in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. … took up a position as a reader in Arabic at the University of Cambridge, where he eventually rose to the position of University Librarian, Professor of Arabic and a fellow of Christ’s College.[1] It was during this time that he wrote The Old Testament in the Jewish Church (1881) and The Prophets of Israel (1882), which were intended to be theological treatises for the lay audience.

In 1887 Smith became the editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica after the death of his employer Thomas Spencer Baynes left the position vacant. In 1889 he wrote his most important work, Religion of the Semites, an account of ancient Jewish religious life which pioneered the use of sociology in the analysis of religious phenomena. He was Professor of Arabic there with the full title ‘Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic‘ (1889–1894).

However, it also says (regarding the work from which today’s quotes are taken):

After 75 years Evans-Pritchard, although noting his wide influence, summarized criticism of Smith’s totemism, “Bluntly, all Robertson Smith really does is to guess about a period of Semitic history about which we know almost nothing.”[25]

With those caveats, let’s begin (for readability, I am just using “” for Smith’s portions):

“The sacrificial meal was an appropriate expression of of the antique ideal of religious life, not merely because it was a social act and an act in which the god and his worshipers were conceived as partaking together, but because… the very act of eating and drinking with a man was a symbol and a confirmation of fellowship and mutual social obligations. The one thing directly expressed in the sacrificial meal is that the god and his worshipers are commensals, but every other point in their mutual relations is included in what this involves. Those who sit at meat together are united for all social effects, those who do not eat together are aliens to one another, without fellowship in religion and without reciprocal social duties. …

“Among the Arabs ever stranger whom one meets in the desert is a natural enemy, and has no protection against violence except his own strong hand or the fear that his tribe will avenge him if his blood be spilt. But if I have eaten the smallest morsel of food with a man, I have nothing further to fear from him; “there is salt between us,” and he is bound not only to do me no harm, but to help and defend me as if I were his brother. So far was this principle carried by the old Arabs, that Zaid al-Khail, a famous warrior in the days of Mohammed, refused to lay a vagabond who carried off his camels, because the thief had surreptitiously drunk from his father’s milk bowl before committing the theft. It does not indeed follow as a matter of course that because have eaten once with a man I am permanently his friend, for the bond of union is conceived in a very realistic way, and strictly speaking lasts no longer than the food may be supposed to remain in my system. …

“The Old Testament records many cases where a covenant was sealed by the parties eating and drinking together. In mot of these indeed the meal is sacrificial, so that it is not at once clear that two men are bound to each other merely by partaking of the same dish, unless the deity is taken in as a third party to the covenant.”

The Lord makes a covenant with Abraham:

15 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,[a]
    your very great reward.[b]

He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring[d] be.” … He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 …

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram… (Genesis 15:1-18)

Isaac and Abimelek make a covenant:

26 Meanwhile, Abimelek had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces. 27 Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?”

28 They answered, “We saw clearly that the Lord was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’—between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you 29 that you will do us no harm, just as we did not harm you but always treated you well and sent you away peacefully. And now you are blessed by the Lord.”

30 Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank. 31 Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they went away peacefully. (Genesis 26:26-30)

But the covenant between David and Jonathan involves no food:

16 So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the Lord call David’s enemies to account.” 17 And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.

“Now in the most primitive society there is only one kind of fellowship which is absolute and inviolable. To the primitive man all other men fall under two classes, those to whom his life is sacred and those tho whom it is not sacred. The former are his fellows; the latter are strangers and potential foemen, with whom it is absurd to think of forming any inviolable tie unless they are first brought into the circle within which each man’s life is sacred to all his comrades.”

EvX: The gist of this is, I suspect, basically true, and I note it for its contrast with the modern world, in which not only are we supposed to be concerned with the lives of all strangers, but simultaneously, there is no longer anyone (outside of our nuclear families) to whom our lives are sacred.

“But that circle again corresponds to the circle of kinship, for the practical test of kinship is that the whole kin is answerable for the life of each of its members. By the rules of early society, if I slay my kinsman, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, the act is is murder, and is punished by expulsion from the kin; if my kinsman is slain by an outsider I and every other member of my kin are bound to avenge his death by killing the manslayer or some member of his kin. It is obvious that under such a system there can be no inviolable fellowship except between men of the same blood. For the duty of blood revenge is paramount, and every other obligation is dissolved as soon as it comes into conflict with the claims of blood. I cannot bind myself absolutely to a man, even for a temporary purpose, unless during the time of our engagement he is put into a kinsmans’ place. And this is as much as to say that a stranger cannot become bound to me, unless at the same time he become bound to all my kinsmen in exactly the same way. Such is, in fact, the law of the desert; when any member of a clan receives an outsider through the bond of salt, the whole clan is bound by his act, and must, while the engagement lasts, receive the stranger as one of themselves.

“The idea that kinship is not purely an affair of birth, but may be acquired, has fallen out of our circle of ideas; but o, for that matter, has the primitive conception of kindred itself.”

EvX: I don’t know about you, but I remember as a kid declaring myself “blood brothers”* with my friends, often with some kind of made-up ritual. Perhaps we’d gotten the idea from TV (I remember a scene in something or other I’d watched in which two or three kids cut their thumbs and pressed them together, then declared themselves blood brothers, but I never did that because AIDS is icky.) and perhaps the TV got the idea from the Indians or something like that. But either way, it was a thing we kids did.

*Yes we were girls but we still called it that.

“To us kinship has no absolute value, but is measured by degrees, and means much or little, or nothing at all, according to its degree and other circumstances. In ancient times, on the contrary, the fundamental obligation of kinship had nothing to do with degrees of relationship but rested with absolute and identical force on every member of the clan. To know that a man’s life was scared to me, and that every blood-feud that touched him involved me also, it was not necessary for me to count cousinship with him by reckoning up to our common ancestor; it was enough that we belonged to the same clan and bore the same clan name. … But the essential idea of kinship was independent of the particular form of law. A kin was a group  of persons whose lives were so bound up together, in what must be called a physical unity, that they could be treated as parts of one common life. The members of one kindred looked on themselves as one living whole, a single animated mass of blood, flesh, and bones, of which no member cold be touched without all the members suffering.”

EvX: There is a play by Voltaire which I read some years back, Zaire. The story, shortly, is of a slave girl (Zaire) in the Sultan’s court. The sultan has fallen in love with her and because of her virtue and modesty they are going to get married. But then Zaire discovers her father (whom she’d never met before, having been raised in the sultan’s court) is a French Christian. Her father dies a few minutes later and Zaire is now wracked with doubts because how can she marry a Muslim when she is a Christian? The sultan observes her strange, secretive behavior, concludes that she is having an affair, and kills her.

Back when I read this, it made no sense at all. Zaire’s spontaneous adoption of Christianity had nothing to do with a theology or belief–all that happened in the play to make her suddenly become Christian was that she discovered that her dying dad, whom she’s known for all of five minutes, was Christian.

I was attempting to understand the play’s actions through the lens of our modern understanding of religion as a matter of personal conscience, and ethnicity a matter of background genetics.

But Voltaire was clearly working within a tribalist framework, where Christianity = ethnicity, and ethnicity = tribe and you cannot marry outside your tribe.

Continuing on:

“This point of vie is expressed int he Semitic tongues in many familiar forms of speech. In a case of homicide Arabian tribesmen do not say,”the blood of M. or N. has been spilt,” naming the man; they say,
Our blood has been spilt.” In Hebrew the phrase by which one claims kinship is “I am our bone and your flesh.” Both in Hebrew and in Arabic “flesh” is synonymous with “clan” or kindred group.”

In the days when the judges ruled,[a] there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. …

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. Ruth 1:1-19


The Bronze Age Collapse (pt 3/3)

Go back to Part 1, Part 2

Fall of Troy
Fall of Troy

So what caused the Bronze Age Collapse?

  1. Greek gods threw a party and forgot to invite the goddess of Discord.
  2. Volcanic eruption => famines => migration.
  3. Chariots, iron, and swords that hack.
  4. Famine/Deforestation
  5. Systemic collapse.

I. Love and War

Earliest known depiction of the Trojan Horse (I think)
Earliest known depiction of the Trojan Horse (I think)

We are all familiar, of course, with the Homeric (and Vergilian) version of the Greek assault on Troy. Though Homer does not actually detail the war’s initial causes, nor its end, these parts of the tale are famous enough in their own right.

[Oh goodness, I just realized that I am assuming that everyone knows the story of the Trojan War. Let me know in the comments how much of the story you’re familiar with. :)]

By the time Homer composed his epics, the assault on Troy had fallen into the realm of legend; for the next 3,000 years, myths of the “golden age” of the late Greek Bronze Age dominated European art and culture.


By the 1800s, scholars assumed the war had never happened–and then Heinrich Schliemann managed to actually find Troy. Wikipedia further notes:

In the twentieth century scholars have attempted to draw conclusions based on Hittite and Egyptian texts that date to the time of the Trojan War. … Hittite archives, like the Tawagalawa letter mention of a kingdom of Ahhiyawa (Achaea, or Greece) that lies beyond the sea (that would be the Aegean) and controls Milliwanda, which is identified with Miletus. Also mentioned in this and other letters is the Assuwa confederation made of 22 cities and countries which included the city of Wilusa (Ilios or Ilium). The Milawata letter implies this city lies on the north of the Assuwa confederation, beyond the Seha river. While the identification of Wilusa with Ilium (that is, Troy) is always controversial, in the 1990s it gained majority acceptance. In the Alaksandu treaty (ca. 1280 BC) the king of the city is named Alaksandu, and Paris’s name in the Iliad (among other works) is Alexander. The Tawagalawa letter (dated ca. 1250 BC) which is addressed to the king of Ahhiyawa actually says:

Now as we have come to an agreement on Wilusa over which we went to war…

Formerly under the Hittites, the Assuwa confederation defected after the battle of Kadesh between Egypt and the Hittites (ca. 1274 BC). In 1230 BC Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (ca. 1240–1210 BC) campaigned against this federation. Under Arnuwanda III (ca. 1210–1205 BC) the Hittites were forced to abandon the lands they controlled in the coast of the Aegean. It is possible that the Trojan War was a conflict between the king of Ahhiyawa and the Assuwa confederation. This view has been supported in that the entire war includes the landing in Mysia (and Telephus’ wounding), Achilles’s campaigns in the North Aegean and Telamonian Ajax’s campaigns in Thrace and Phrygia. Most of these regions were part of Assuwa.[69][217] It has also been noted that there is great similarity between the names of the Sea Peoples, which at that time were raiding Egypt, as they are listed by Ramesses III and Merneptah, and of the allies of the Trojans.[218]

800px-Homeric_Greece-en.svgNow someone needs to find a reference to Helen.

That said, the historical sack of Troy was a much smaller even than Homer recounts, and is certainly inadequate to explain the large-scale collapse that consumed the entire region (and possibly a good chunk of northern Europe, as well.

For that matter, the Greeks themselves were invaded and their own cities were sacked. Historians attribute this to the Dorians, a Greek-speaking tribe that invaded from somewhere up north. As Carl Blegen wrote:[25]

“the telltale track of the Dorians must be recognized in the fire-scarred ruins of all the great palaces and the more important towns which … were blotted out at the end of Mycenaean IIIB.”

But archaeology isn’t always easy, and it isn’t totally clear that the Dorians actually existed:

“It has of late become an acknowledged scandal that the Dorians, archaeologically speaking, do not exist. That is, there is no cultural trait surviving in the material record for the two centuries or so after 1200 which can be regarded as a peculiarly Dorian hallmark. Robbed of their patents for Geometric pottery, cremation burial, iron-working and, the unkindest prick of all, the humble straight pin, the hapless Dorians stand naked before their creator – or, some would say, inventor.” — Cartledge

Somebody burned a bunch of Greek cities. We’re just not exactly sure who (or why.)

II. Farewell, Atlantis

Santorini /
Santorini / Thera

One of the largest volcanic explosions in the past few thousand years happened round about 1500 BC on the island of Thera (aka Santorini) in the Mediterranean (potentially ejecting 4 times more material than Krakatoa.)

Unfortunately, we’re not sure exactly when Thera blew its top:

Archaeologists have traditionally placed it at approximately 1500 BCE.[14][21] Radiocarbon dates, including analysis of an olive branch buried beneath a lava flow from the volcano which gave a date between 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE (95% confidence interval), suggest an eruption date more than a century earlier than suggested by archaeologists.[22][23][24]

In 2012 one of the proponents of an archaeological date, Felix Höflmayer, argued that archaeological evidence could be consistent with a date as early as 1590 BCE, reducing the discrepancy to around fifty years.[26] …

At Tell el Dab’a in Egypt, pumice found at this location has been dated to 1540 BCE… . Tree-ring data has shown that a large event interfering with normal tree growth in North America occurred during 1629–1628 (+-65 years) BCE.[37] Evidence of a climatic event around 1628 BCE has been found in studies of growth depression of European oaks in Ireland and of Scotch pines in Sweden.[38]

A volcanic winter from an eruption in the late 17th century BCE has been claimed by some researchers to correlate with entries in Chinese records documenting the collapse of the Xia dynasty in China. According to the Bamboo Annals, the collapse of the dynasty and the rise of the Shang dynasty, approximately dated to 1618 BCE, were accompanied by “yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals”.[8]

The downside to the Thera Theory is that even if we use the latest dates, it’s still too early–by 2 or 300 years–to explain the Bronze Age Collapse. Widespread famines in some far-off place certainly could have triggered migrations that, three hundred years later, ended in the Mediterranean, but it seems more likely that widespread famines would have caused immediate collapse in the area right around the volcano.

Thera might have inspired Atlantis and certainly caused some destruction on Crete, but I think it’s a stretch to blame it for events some 2-400 years later. Unless someone comes up with a bunch of evidence for a more recent eruption, I think it’s an unlikely cause.

III. Faster, Cheaper, Better: a revolution in military technology

Three new military technologies “diffuse” through Europe right around the time of the Battle of Tollense and the Dorian Invasion: spoked-wheeled chariots, true swords, and cheap iron.

spread of spoke-wheeled chariots
spread of spoke-wheeled chariots

Chariots were invented out on the vast Eurasian plain around 2,000 BC, which sounds like a recipe for invasion if I ever heard one. They arrived in Anatolia and Egypt around 1500 BC, but didn’t make it to Greece and Germany until 1300 BC–just in time for an invading army to sweep through the Tollense valley or into Greece, driving a wave of displaced folks into the sea and across to Egypt.

According to Wikipedia, the Battle of Kadesh, fought by the Egyptian Empire under Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II in 1274 BC, was “was probably the largest chariot battle ever fought, involving perhaps 5,000–6,000 chariots.[12]” (Warfare on that scale between two of the biggest political entities in the region may have contributed on its own to general collapse.)

1280px-Ramses_IIs_seger_över_Chetafolket_och_stormningen_av_Dapur,_Nordisk_familjebok 1280px-Parade_charriots_Louvre_CA2503

Were any chariots found in conjunction with the Tollense battlefield, or in local burials of the time?

Naue II Sword
Naue II Sword, found in association with the Nebra Sky Disk

Swords, I was amazed to discover, were invented around 1600 BC in the Aegean. Before the Bronze Age, people just didn’t have materials suitable for making long blades and had to content themselves with daggers or clubs. (Sometimes clubs studded with daggers.) A new variety of sword, the Naue II, appears around 1200 BC and quickly spreads around the Mediterranean–just in time for the collapse.

Early iron was, ironically, inferior to bronze. Steel will hold an excellent age, but primitive iron working did not, and early iron swords were inferior to bronze ones. But iron had several advantages over bronze: it was cheaper, required less fuel to work, and didn’t have to be mixed with tin imported from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

As a result of these technological developments:

Robert Drews argues[26] that the appearance of massed infantry, using newly developed weapons and armor, such as cast rather than forged spearheads and long swords, a revolutionizing cut-and-thrust weapon,[27] and javelins. The appearance of bronze foundries suggests “that mass production of bronze artifacts was suddenly important in the Aegean”. For example, Homer uses “spears” as a virtual synonym for “warriors”.

Such new weaponry, in the hands of large numbers of “running skirmishers” who could swarm and cut down a chariot army and would destabilize states based upon the use of chariots by the ruling class and precipitate an abrupt social collapse as raiders began to conquer, loot and burn cities.[28][29][30]

I’m putting my money on this theory.

IV. Lean times

According to Herodotus:

In the days of Atys, the son of Manes, there was a great scarcity through the whole land of Lydia … So the king determined to divide the nation in half … the one to stay, the other to leave the land. … the emigrants should have his son Tyrrhenus for their leader … they went down to Smyrna, and built themselves ships … after sailing past many countries they came to Umbria … and called themselves … Tyrrhenians.

Wikipedia continues:

Connections to the Teresh of the Merneptah Stele, which also mentions shipments of grain to the Hittite Empire to relieve famine, are logically unavoidable. Many have made them, generally proposing a coalition of seagoing migrants from Anatolia and the islands seeking relief from scarcity. Tablet RS 18.38 from Ugarit also mentions grain to the Hittites, suggesting a long period of famine, connected further, in the full theory, to drought.[68] Barry Weiss,[69] using the Palmer Drought Index for 35 Greek, Turkish, and Middle Eastern weather stations, showed that a drought of the kinds that persisted from January 1972 would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse.

Anatolia appears to have been fairly hard-hit by the collapse, with many cities completely abandoned and  some regions not regaining their former levels of complexity for a thousand years.

Alternatively, (or relatedly,) I’ve seen it suggested (though I don’t remember where) that deforestation caused by burning trees to make charcoal in order to forge bronze weapons had advanced to a point where the locals just ran out of trees. (See: Easter Island.) No trees=no cooking, no building, no ships, no chariots, no forging, pretty much nothing. (This, in turn, could have spurred the adoption of inferior but easier to make iron weapons.)

Famine in Anatolia or deforestation in parts of the Middle East would be unlikely, however, to have much effect on Tollense. (Of course, the Tollense battle may be no more than a coincidence.)

V. Diamondian Theory: General Systems Collapse

Systems collapse is what it sounds like: the theory that the systems just got too big, too unwieldy, and could no longer respond adequately to stresses like broken trade routes, famines, invasions, massive military spending, social unrest, deforestation, migration, etc., and so the system crumbled. I admit that this is a kind of “all of the above” (except for maybe the volcano.)


At any rate, whatever caused the collapse, it happened. The Dark Ages reigned, then the world recovered. The Greeks and then the Romans ruled; then Rome collapsed and the Dark Ages returned.

The Dark Ages will come again.

Go back to Part 1, Part 2