Posts Tagged ‘Buddhas of Bamiyan’

Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age

June 4, 2019

91nwQ0TuJhL._AC_UL436_ Some of my readers may be aware of my interest in the early history of Christianity: my wider reading has led me to explore how what seems to have been the original message of the teacher was developed and given a different spin by Paul and others as the new religion gradually spread across the ancient world, and how it gradually moved from an allegedly persecuted creed to one which took over the Roman Empire, and became as intolerant as it accused its predecessors of being…

The Christian world gradually replaced the classical one, and Nixey charts this process in her book. I’m not sure of how academically valid it is, in the sense that she seems to rely on not very many sources very heavily to advance her case, and to follow the modern and somewhat deceptive process of providing reams of notes at the end of the text, most of which merely give the source of a detail, rather than illuminate anything further. However, the general lines of her enquiry are most interesting and I learned a good deal.

Firstly, early Christianity destroyed far more of the classical world than it preserved, and this was for me an unknown story; the deeds of religious bigots and fanatics, egged on by early ‘saints’, were on a parallel with the more recent depredations of the Taliban – destroyers of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – and ISIS, destroyers of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The entire Graeco-Roman religious system was regarded as a creation of demons and therefore to be eradicated completely. The whole picture makes Henry VIII’s cultural vandalism of Catholic England in the sixteenth century seem rather petty…

Secondly, Roman persecution of Christians was far less deliberate and official than we think we know it to have been, largely due to effective Christian propaganda. Martyrdom was attractive, particularly to fanatics (no change there, then) and according to Nixey, possibly fewer than ten tales of martyrdom from the early Church may be considered reliable. On the contrary, Roman officials apparently went to considerable lengths to avoid executing Christians. A good deal of sanitising of history took place, and the lives of many ‘saints’ of the Church were actually full of intolerance and brutality, racism and anti-semitism, rather than their being the exemplars of the holy life that many believe them to be.

Literature suffered as well as the more obvious buildings and statuary; perhaps ten per cent of classical literature has survived, and maybe only one percent of Latin literature. What survived was censored: that of writers such as Catullus endured well into the twentieth century, and I can recall the classics teacher at school jumping over passages that were not considered suitable for mere schoolboys to read… This anti-intellectualism, this cult of ignorance reminds me of what I have read of the appalling behaviour of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. Back in the past, anything was deemed acceptable if it was labelled in the service of Christ; like the later Spanish Inquisition, such behaviour was above and outside the law.

I came across the names of a number of classical writers and historians of whom I had not heard – not for want of looking – in whose writing the other side of the history of those times is recorded. As I mentioned above, it may be that the writer has over-egged the pudding in her enthusiasm for telling her story, but all of this material does need to be much more widely known, researched and documented. It’s a necessary read, a profoundly depressing reflection on knowledge and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance; it shows that human beings do not seem to have grown any wiser two thousand years later, either. And lest anyone should feel that the book is an anti-Christian diatribe on her part, or this post one on mine, it is not so; it is the wilful cultivation and worship of ignorance, and the intolerance which flows from that, that is, and must always be, challenged.


On the fire at Notre Dame

April 17, 2019

I’m one of the many millions of people horrified by the fire and destruction of Notre Dame in Paris. The disaster prompted me to remember that it’s almost exactly fifty years since, as a school student on my first French exchange, I was taken to see the cathedral; I’ve been back several times since. For me and others, it’s not the most spectacular cathedral in France, but its unique site does give it a special aura. And I found myself also wondering, what is is about this enormous pile of stones that exerts such an effect on so many people around the world, many of whom will not be catholics?

I was moved by the comments of the former Afghan leader who said that to see the destruction of Notre Dame pained him as much as when the taliban has destroyed the ancient buddhas of Bamiyan in his country, and I remembered, too, the Islamic state’s destruction of the Roman remains at Palmyra; I has been touched last autumn when visiting the Roman sites at Arles in Provence to see that the local archaeologists had erected a memorial to the curator of the Palmyra site who had been brutally executed by the fundamentalists for wishing to protect his country’s heritage.

From one perspective, these are all piles of stone, old monuments, buildings or statues. Once can visualise far better things on which to spend the hundreds of millions of euros already pledged for the reconstruction and restoration of Notre Dame… and yet, I’m in favour of that rebuilding along with everyone else.

The cathedral is part of France’s cultural heritage, part of Europe’s cultural heritage, part of the Christian past of the world. And statements along similar lines can be made about the other destroyed monuments I’ve mentioned above. It’s the nature of our attachment that interested me. There’s our sense of awe at the endurance through so much time of such a place – over eight centuries for Notre Dame – far longer than any of us will endure, even in the memories of our descendants. There is our connection today with people like ourselves who so long ago created such magnificent buildings. The dimensions are awe-inspiring, the physical beauty breathtaking, and the realisation of the colossal amounts of time and energy our predecessors expended to create such places must bring us up short if we think about it. No cost-effectiveness or economic rationales involved there! For me there’s also the sense that nothing we are building today is likely to last anywhere near that long. And if all these relics from our past did not have a special significance for so many of us, would we in today’s world lavish so much time and money on preserving them for the future?

Then there’s the deeper sense of what ‘the past’ means for us as individuals, the way we see ourselves and our world, perhaps against the background of time and eternity, and whatever one’s attitude to religion may be, I think it’s hard to avoid using the notion of the spiritual to describe the feelings of awe and of reflection that such places steeped in history are able to inspire in us: we are taken outside ourselves, beyond ourselves, in the direction of thoughts and feelings that are very hard to understand. And somewhere, it seems to me, we all can tune in to such feelings and perhaps we all have a need to experience them at different times in our lives…

No-go areas?

November 15, 2015

I try to eschew overt political comment in my posts, because this blog is meant to be primarily about books and literature. However, the combination of the recent appalling events in Paris, and my enjoyment of travel writing combined to produce a small epiphany this morning.

Most of the travel writing I read is about areas of the planet that, over my lifetime, have virtually become no-go areas for (safe) travel. When I was a teenager, yes not all of the planet was safe to visit, but as far as I can recall, South East Asia was the major danger zone, because of the Vietnam War, which ended forty years ago. Now when I mentally review the planet, the entire Middle East stretching as far as India, the states that once formed the southern Soviet Union, most of North Africa, the Sahara and Sudan are pretty much off-limits. I knew people in my younger days who hitch-hiked from England to India, via Afghanistan – how far might one get nowadays, I wonder?

The regions which have interested me most as a reader have been the Middle East, the Silk Road countries, the Sahara and the Soviet Union. I’m astonished when I look at what’s happened to so much of the world and realise the changes which have taken place. And I’m saddened that so much of the mayhem and death which has blighted these countries has been due to interference from outside, and especially from the West. I cannot perceive anything positive or of longterm value that we have achieved by this.

I was particularly struck by something I read during the past week or so, written by an Arab traveller in the twelfth century, who was either on his way to perform the hajj or making his way home from it, I can’t remember which and it isn’t important. He was travelling through Palestine, at the time of the Crusades, and passed somewhere where Christians were in the process of besieging a Muslim stronghold. He and his companions encountered no problems passing through the region, because they were travellers about their own business, and the siege was nothing to do with them! We may well be over eight centuries later in time, but in attitudes and behaviour?

I’m a quiet life merchant generally speaking; I don’t mind the small adventure of driving hundreds of miles across Europe to visit places and people I want to see, but I can do without extra excitement, thank you. And in these pages I’ve often written appreciatively of explorers who have taken great personal risks, venturing into the unknown or unpredictable on their travels and written entertainingly and knowledgeably about what they saw and who they met. I’m struck by how much of humanity’s past history there is in some of these newly-forbidden places, particularly the Middle East. I know that people are more important than places and buildings, and yet I am always horrified when some relic of human history is destroyed by ignorant fundamentalists – the Bamiyan Buddhas, or the city of Palmyra are two recent instances. In some ways we are an astonishing species, capable of great things, and in other ways we seem collectively not very intelligent at all.

So, for all those places which I cannot imagine ever getting to see with my own eyes, I am very grateful to the travellers, explorers and writers who have brought them to my sofa.

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