The Most Contentious Patch of Land In Human History

“The situation in Palestine” has become something of a cliche; the definitive example of terribly serious discussion taking place during a dinner party talked about by middle class men with glasses and a humanities degree. It also happens to be about the single most politically delicate and contentious issue in the world today, and indeed concerns a patch of earth that could be said to have spilt more blood and caused more destruction in fighting over it than any other. Palestine’s is a long and bloody history, but it is a story often presumed rather than explained in full: so here is my effort to explain, in about as much fullness as a blog post will allow, what ‘the situation in Palestine’ actually is.

Palestine is an old geographical term that originally referred to a Roman province in the area in and around what is now the country of Israel (although that statement is contentious enough on its own, for reasons that will become clear later). However, included within its borders is the city of Jerusalem and many of the holiest sites of the religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and having three conflicting and very… forceful ideologies trying to share the same space was just never going to work. When Islam began to realise the potential of several hundred zealots and a lot of swords put together, the Holy Land (which included Palestine) came under Islamic rule and, as my previous posts on the Crusades explained, two thousand years of throwing the military might of Christendom against it failed to make any long-term difference. In time, Palestine was to come under the control of the mighty Ottoman Empire that would come to dominate the Middle East right up until the end of the nineteenth century. However, prior to the First World War what was left of the Empire, by that time a relatively technologically backward state compared to the industrialised powers of western Europe, threw its lot in with the Triple Alliance (ie the Germans), and during the war itself Palestine was invaded by the British. Post-war, the British were given a mandate to manage the region by the short-lived League of Nations as it attempted to organise the remnants of the Empire, and thus the territory effectively became part of the British Empire.

Prior to that, and with Muslims proving difficult opponents for Christianity to fight, successions of Christian rulers turned on a far easier target: Jews. The New Testament forbade moneylending, but it was such an economically useful practice that Jews were often able to make a good living out of providing the service to Christians. This meant the Jewish population was rich and sinful by Christian ruling, and combining that with their ethnic differences and the fact that they had no distinct nations or military power made them very, very easy for the Christian world to hate and persecute. During the Norman period (and probably quite a while since then), the main entertainment for residents of London appears to have been trashing the Jewish quarter every time a significant effect of some sort occured/they got bored on a Friday evening. People have come up with all sorts of regions for why Hitler and his ilk had such a vehement hatred of Jewish people, but the simplest explanation is also the most likely; that anti-Semitism was just, very, very common at the time and Hitler was just one Jew-hater of many.

However, it was actually prior to the Second World War that tensions in the region of Palestine began to intensify. The British had promised the Jewish population of the world in general a homeland in the area, perhaps as a retroactive apology for the years of persecution they’d suffered at the hands of the British and others, and hoped that the Jews and Arabs could live side-by-side with one another. This didn’t really work, mostly since the Muslim population in the area was (at the time) ten times that of the Jewish one, and tensions in the region escalated; there were three rebellions against British rule whilst they governed, partly in response to this Jewish repatriation policy. By the time the Second World War ended the western world was justifiably shocked at the sheer scale of genocide perpetuated by the Nazis, but a collective look back over their own history ended in cringes of guilt as they realised they had very little in the way of moral high ground. This guilt, combined with the very liberal, democratic and anti-imperialist sentiments gripping Britain at the time (its first labour government had, after all, just been installed), led Britain and the new United Nations, successor to the League of Nations who’d created the mandate in the first place, to push forwards with their plan to give the Jews a homeland. In 1947, the UN decided that having the two groups living alongside each other was just asking for even more trouble than was already present, and proposed a new, partitioned state of Palestine. Palestine would be divided, into one area governed by the Jews and three separate areas within the country’s borders that would be Muslim-controlled. Jerusalem was to be under the UN’s jurisdiction (this was back when this was something the UN would do) and would be a free city, available to everyone. Which all sounds great in theory, but the thought of giving up yet more of their land to the Jewish occupiers was the final straw for the Arabs. This new border lasted less than a week before war was in full swing.

The Arab Higher Commitee rejected the UN’s partition proposal, and civil war erupted in the new country, mostly thanks to disorganised groups of unofficial Arabic soldiers and snipers (there was no organised Israeli army and the politicians from other countries were still arguing in the UN). Thousands were killed, and thousands more left the country in search of pastures less violent (mostly Arabs, who at least had other homelands to go to). The British were supposed to be keeping order in the region during the transition phase, but were mainly interested in covering themselves whilst they evacuated as many troops as possible. By May 1948, the Jewish population in the region had got themselves sufficiently organised to declare the new, Jewish state of Israel over the entirety of Palestine, and the civil war segued into a more official conflict as the newly formed Israeli army began squaring up against the local Arab countries (mainly Jordan and Egypt). Supplied and trained by the USA (whose population have historically supported the state of Israel for an apparently bizarre reason concerning the Biblical prediction of Jesus’ second coming- I’m not even joking), the Jewish forces took control of much of the area originally allotted to the Palestinian Muslims (including most of Jerusalem) and left them only with the areas we now call the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Since the Arabs wouldn’t accept having control over only part of the country they considered theirs, and did not recognise the state of Israel anyway, no official Muslim state of Palestine was declared (since the Arabs believed the old one had never actually ended), hence why these different areas don’t show up separately on maps.

With the new Jewish state formed and many Arabs driven from their land (in total nearly one and a half million Arabs were displaced or left the area of their own volition as a result of the two-part war, a refugee crisis that has yet to fully resolve itself), a sizeable chunk of the Jewish population in the Arabian peninsula immigrated to Israel, with the consequence that over three quarters of the current population of Israel are Jewish. This did not help the smouldering tensions along the borders Israel had with its Arab neighbours, and for nearly two decades open hostility and sporadic outbreaks of fighting were the norm. On June 5 1967, the Israelis (in the latest of what was becoming a long series of aggressive political manoeuvres) launched a pre-emptive strike against their key enemies of Syria, Egypt and Jordan, using their US-made aircraft to annihilate the air forces of all three nations whilst they were still on the ground in what became known as the Six Day War (some people wonder how they ever got away with this. These people forget that this was the Cold War, and you did not go telling the USA’s allies what they could or couldn’t do). With control of the air now theirs, Israeli ground troops took full control of the city of Jerusalem, drove back Arab attempts at a counter-attack, took the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai desert from Egypt, increased fivefold in size (now it also had control of the West Bank and Gaza strip) and eventually destroyed around 80% of Egypt’s military capacity and killed around 30,000 Arab troops. In six days. It was one of the bloodiest, and militarily most impressive, weeks in modern history.

Now the Arab world was doubly furious, but there was little they, in their weakened state, could do about it. Israel hoped this would draw the Arabs to the negotiating table in pursuit of peace and prosperity, but (perhaps understandably), they still wouldn’t have anything to do with them, not even recognising the existence of the state of Israel. After six years of brooding and rebuilding their military strength, the Arab world launched an invasion of their own, called the Yom Kippur war after its timing to coincide with the holiest day of the Jewish Calendar and backed by the Soviet Union, and the Egyptian army* crossed the psychologically significant Suez Canal that had marked the border. Although the war eventually cost over 18,000 Arab lives to around 8,000 Israeli ones, with Israeli air power eventually winning them the day and forcing a UN-backed ceasefire (and nearly precipitating nuclear war, but that’s another story), it deeply damaged the Israeli’s confidence that their military might could be used to bully their Arab neighbours. In November 1977, Egypt recognised the state of Israel and in 1982, Israel gave back the Sinai desert.

On the map, very little has changed since then; but the fundamental argument as to who the land of Israel/Palestine belongs to has yet to be settled, and probably never will be. Indeed, the situation has only intensified as great barriers have been built by the Israelis and they have attacked Muslim communities (both, they say, in an effort to combat terrorism). Indeed, to this day, Israel and Syria are still technically at war, even though there is an Islamic . Some blame the Isrealis gung-ho attitude, whilst others claim they are only acting in response to Muslim aggression (and anyone who’s ever travelled into Israel via their national airline can tell you how stringent their security policy is). The only things that can safely be said without picking sides is that ‘the situation in Palestine’ has claimed thousands of lives, ruined countless others, has no side who are clearly on the ‘right’ side and doesn’t look like it will be ending any time soon. It is a sad state of affairs.

*The key instigator for the invasion was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who would be assassinated in 1981 by militants opposed to his peace treaty. His replacement was welcomed by the western world for bringing stability to Egypt; and Hosni Mubarak was still ‘bringing stability’ to his nation right up until the Arab Spring of two years ago. Another key ally was president Hafez al-Assad of Syria, who kept office from 1971 to 2000 when his son Bashar took over. This is the same Bashar al-Assad currently accused of using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels. I don’t know that this is relevant, just thought it was… interesting.

The Third Crusade Onward

When we think of the crusades, the subject of my previous two posts and this concluding one, it is primarily the third that springs to mind. This is partly because it was one of the biggest,with the three great European powers of England, France and the Holy Roman Empire uniting for the cause against the might of Islam behind Saladin, and also one of the simplest to understand; one lot of Christians fight one lot of Muslims and whoever ends up with the Holy Land is the winner. However, the main reason it is so well remembered is thanks to Richard I, also known as Coeur-de-Lion or Richard the Lionheart. Richard is a strange figure in English history; a Frenchman who never learnt English, visited England three times in his life, was a decidedly useless ruler who sold and taxed to death everything in England he could in order to pay for his wars, then completely bankrupted it by forcing his subjects to levy the single largest ransom in history to pay for his release and who is STILL somehow considered this great hero of English history. This is almost entirely due to the enduring tale of Robin Hood, whose struggle against Richard’s even more incompetent brother John (who acted as interim ruler during Richard’s absence), and the fact that Richard did some good PR work by forgiving John immediately after returning, before going off to war again, getting himself killed besieging a castle in France and forcing the country to put up with John as an actual king.

Richard was, however, a brilliant warrior and military strategist (which is presumably why he spent his entire life at war), and nowhere was this as well-illustrated as when he went crusading. Even when the vast armies of the Holy Roman Empire almost all went home after Emperor Frederick’s death, he was able to conquer the great walled city of Acre in little over a month. The city would go on to become the new home of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, previously destroyed by Saladin. The subsequent arguments over the city would result in all the remaining German forces and all but 10,000 of the French leaving the Holy Land, which didn’t prevent Richard from routing Saladin’s army when it ambushed his in the Battle of Arsuf, boosting the morale of his men. He captured several more cities, only being forced back from taking the severely weakened Jerusalem due to bad weather, lost the city of Jaffa to a large Muslim force and then defeated them too with a small force of just 2,000; no mean feat given Saladin’s known prowess as a general. Through Richard’s work, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was refounded, albeit without much of its original land or the titular city that Richard, for various reasons, neglected to capture.

In many ways, it’s a shame he was so successful and that his name, and that of his crusade, has lived on so long; Richard was by all accounts an all round terrible person, sanctioning the massacre of civilians at Acre and the mass beheading of prisoners in full view of the Muslim army after the battle because negotiations were taking too long to name but two things. By contrast, even European history has remembered Saladin as more than an ‘infidel’, but as a man of honour and chivalry; when his army retook Jaffa, he reportedly ordered the Christians to take shelter as he attempted to regain control of an army maddened with rage and with thoughts of revenge for Acre in its collective mind. He even sent exotic fruits and healers to his enemy when Richard was nearly dying of fever. He was also known to be supportive of scientific and academic advances in his realm, and died poor after distributing most of his money among his subjects. Richard, by all accounts, respected the hell out of his adversary for precisely these reasons, but couldn’t manage to be as good a man as him.

The Christian attempt to take back the Holy Land would never come close to Richard’s successes. The Fourth Crusade, declared by Pope Innocent III just 10 years later ended in disaster when the crusaders couldn’t find a way to pay the Venetian shipbuilders who built the largest fleet since Roman times to accommodate them, with the crusade sacking the Christian cities of Zara and Constantinople before being excommunicated by the pope and utterly falling to pieces, in the process signalling the end of the once-great Byzantine empire. Innocent III declared the last official papally-sanctioned crusade for the Holy Land 15 years after that, whereupon the crusading army was forced to surrender to Muslim forces in Egypt, No. 6 was little more than a series of non-papally sanctioned political manoeuvres by the excommunicated Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire that did nonetheless give the Kingdom of Jerusalem actual control of Jerusalem for 20 years, but then Muslim forces invaded and took it back. Three subsequent crusades attempted to win it back, but none made it beyond North Africa. In 1291, the once-prosperous Kingdom of Jerusalem set up by Richard fell with the recapture of Acre by the Muslims, and the crusading dream finally ended. Not that anyone told the King of Jerusalem; officially the Kingdom merely moved to Cyprus and the title has lived on for many centuries. Nowadays many people, including King Juan Carlos I of Spain, have a claim on the title.

In many ways, the crusades were a reflection of the age, and particularly the role of the Church within it. The role of the Pope has (reportedly) existed for 2000 years, but it was during the medieval age, between the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance, that it really became a political force. Once just a voice on religious matters, it was during this time that the Christian world embraced religious zealotry; the age where the bishop was the most powerful voice in a community, and was just as much a political leader as the most powerful king or emperor. And, really, this was a direct result of the crusading idea, of the idea that violence in the pursuit of better things was justified, for this gave the church earthly power that it had never previously held. It can be easy to ignore the wills of the Church when all they can physically do to you is waggle a finger and talk about heaven and hell, but when an army marches under a cross, when people are prepared to kill and to die for God, then it becomes one hell of a lot harder to ignore. The Church fully embraced this power, calling crusades not just in the middle east but also for political reasons across Europe (even if not many people went on them), and crusades were even called as late as 1444 in the Balkans. The growing power and influence of the church in this age was perhaps best indicated in the Thomas a Becket incident, when Henry II (in a fit of rage) accidentally ordered the assassination of his archbishop. Henry, one of England’s greatest ever kings, was forced pretty much solely by public pressure to spend vast amounts of money on numerous acts of penance and his reputation has only just begun to recover. Even nowadays, with the role of the church vastly diminished (and to a far lesser extent), this idea of the Christian faith as a political force and even a tool for violence is still very much with us; it provided the moral justification used by the KKK, for example. The story of the crusades is an ugly one, packed to the brim with zealotry, bigotry, hypocrisy and violence on a truly appalling scale; but they are a lot more than just ancient history. The legacy of the crusades will be rattling around our world for many years to come.

Taking the Cross

My last post provided some theological and historical background to the crusades of the early medieval period, concerning the rise of

Islam and the theological debates of the time concerning the concept of a just war (there were also a few other reasons, such as the Byzantine Empire appealing for help after a long and tiring series of wars against the Turks and a general bout of religious mania that collectively gripped the Catholic world at the time, but these kinds of things are boring and can be summarised in an overlong clause-laden sentence.). Today is going to cover history in a more conventional manner: specifically, the early history of the crusades themselves.

The triggering act of the First Crusade was the Council of Clermont in July 1095, when Pope Urban II (in response to the Byzantine Emperor Alexios the First’s call for aid) made an impassioned speech to a large crowd of French nobles and clergymen. After beginning with the predictable rabble rousing stuff, detailing the atrocities performed by the Muslims on Christian pilgrims and other such bits of religious fervour, Urban moved on to propose a new type of ‘armed pilgrimage’ aiming to take back the Holy Land (although he didn’t specifically mention Jerusalem) from the Saracen infidels. And, like any good salesman, he ended with a special offer to nail down the deal; remission of sins (ie direct route to heaven) for all crusaders who either died in the attempt or successfully completed the crusade’s objective.

Whilst he had hoped for a big response, Urban never quite anticipated the sheer scale of what his crusade would become. Whilst he had anticipated (and got) a good number of knights and nobles making up his crusading army (mostly from France where he toured, but also from the Holy Roman Empire and Italy where local priests were encouraged to preach), what was not expected was the popular response. Thousands upon thousands of common people across Europe pledged to ‘take the cross’, armed with little more than religious fervour and a near-total lack of fighting ability, despite Urban’s attempts to make some of them (such as the women) stay home. Indeed, some 20,000 such pilgrims led by a successful Crusading preacher named Peter the Hermit were so wrapped up in zealotry that they set off for the Holy Land six months before anyone else (the disorganised mob were ambushed halfway through Turkey and only 3,000 escaped with their lives).

When the official crusade of some 30,000 relatively organised men finally kicked off in August 1096 and, despite nearly precipitating war with the Byzantines they had gone to help with regards to sourcing supplies, was reasonably successful. They took back Nicaea, a city a little way to the south east of Constantinople, for the Byzantines, defeated a large Turkish army in the Battle of Dorylaeum, before laying siege to the large, historic Muslim city of Antioch (close to the border between modern-day Turkey and Syria). The siege lasted for nearly a year and the crusading army had to deal with an Islamic relief army shortly after capturing it, but the area was eventually subdued (read; the entire Muslim population were slaughtered) and the first European Prince of Antioch put in power. The remaining troops then marched to Jerusalem, dealing with plague, cannibalism and more enemies than you could shake a stick at on the way, but managed to force their way into the city, massacred the local Muslims and Jews who had fought against them in one of the most horrific acts of genocide in human history (the persecution of the Jews in Europe following Urban’s Christian, anti-semitic rabble rousing has been referred to as ‘the first Holocaust’), sacked every non-Christian building they could find and installed Godfrey of Bouillon as the first King of Jerusalem. Thus he became head of the most powerful and significant of the four ‘crusader states’ that the First Crusade founded in this region of the world. There was the landlocked County of Edessa in modern-day south-east Turkey, the Principality of Antioch in western Syria (on the mediterranean coast), the somewhat confusingly named County of Tripoli that covers modern-day Lebanon and is nowhere near Libya, and the largest and greatest of the lot: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, stretching from the County of Tripoli to the Sinai desert, taking in the Lebanese city of Tyre to the north, the walled city of Acre further south, and of course the city of Jerusalem itself.

That should have been that, and a new Christian land should probably have entered the world; but we must remember that most of those on the crusade had plenty of responsibility and property waiting at home for them. This meant the entire army pretty much dissipated in a few years, leaving Godfrey (who died a year later) and a small group of a few hundred knights to their fate in Jerusalem. Thanks to infighting amongst the Muslims however, there was initially no organised attempt to conquer the new Christian states, so the crusaders were able to survive and prosper. Indeed, even when some of them finally united (after a fashion) under Imad ad-Din Zengi, efforts to recapture the Holy Land were slow. Aleppo fell in 1128, but it wasn’t until 1144 that he caused the European world to sit up and take notice, when he conquered the County of Edessa (by far the weakest of the crusader states both militarily and financially). This prompted a second crusade, ordered by Pope Eugenius III, that completely failed to take it back; French and German troops were harassed by Muslim forces throughout their march through Turkey, arriving in Jerusalem with only enough men to launch a failed siege of Damascus (although one does have to wonder why they bothered, given that Damascus is miles away from Edessa). This failure, on it’s own, still wasn’t a massive issue, with the Kingdom of Jerusalem still together prosperous. Indeed, other aspects of the crusade were a resounding success: perhaps emboldened by the success of the first crusade, the powers that be decided that the second one would attempt to push back the Moors in Spain, and the men who arrived to do that job managed to make significant territorial gains in both Cataluña and Portugal. However, by the 1180s there was real trouble brewing in the Middle East. The great Muslim leader Salah al-Din, best known by his western name Saladin, had united much of the Muslim world behind him, using his not inconsiderable military nous to great effect. As well as building a sultanate so large and powerful that it spanned Egypt, Yemen, Iraq and Syria, he brought the full might of the Islamic world to bear on the crusader states. The Principality of Antioch and County of Tripoli were both reduced to slivers of their former selves, and in September of 1187 Jerusalem was overrun and the Kingdom of Jerusalem destroyed, prompting Pope Gregory VIII to prompt a third crusade. And we will pick up the story of that next time (which will be the last one of these, promise).

A History of Justified Violence

The Crusades rank among the most controversial wars in the history of mankind, and they go up against some pretty stiff competitors (WWI, the Boer War, and every time the English have fought their Celtic neighbours to name but a few). Spanning two hundred years, the historical view of the Crusades has changed slowly at the time; at the time they were thought a holy mission from God, at a later date a noble but ultimately flawed idea, and now many historians take the view that crusaders were little more than a bunch of murdering rapists plundering their way across the holy land. In fact, throughout history only one thing has been agreed on; that they were an abject failure.

The story of how the crusades came to be is a rather twisted one. During the early years of the second millennia AD, Christianity and Islam were spoiling for a fight that has, in some respects, yet to end. Christianity had a head start and had taken firm root in Europe, but over the last few centuries Islam had been founded and spread across the world like wildfire. Zealots, often with a Qur’an in one hand and a sword in the other had spread the word of Allah and Muhammed across the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and pretty much all of Spain & Portugal south of Barcelona. Indeed, they probably would have gone further (given their immense technological, financial and military clout), had Islam as a religion not descended into infighting with the creation of the Sunni and Shia denominations and the collapse of the unified caliphate. Nevertheless, many Islamic empires were vast and incredibly powerful, and a serious force to be reckoned with.

The rise of Islam was an interesting phenomenon, unique to the world at the time, because of the way it is backed by the principle of jihad. Nowadays, the word tends to be taken to mean ‘holy war’, which is misleading- jihad refers to a Muslim’s attempts to struggle (‘struggle’ being the literal meaning of the word) against non-Muslims, both in a spiritual and worldly capacity. This can be taken to refer to a literal physical struggle against the enemies of Islam, and it was under this guidance that Muslim armies swept across the world under the banner of their religion. This was a strange concept to Christian nations, for whilst they had certainly fought before they had never done so for religious reasons. The Bible’s main messages are, after all, of peace and love for thy neighbour, and the Ten Commandments even state explicitly that ‘You shall not kill’. War was many things, but Christian was not, up until this point, among them.

However, the success of the Islamic approach, demonstrating just how powerful war and faith could be when they went hand-in-hand, lead the Church to reconsider, and added fuel to the fire of an already heated debate regarding whether the use of violence was ever justifiable to a Christian. There was already enough material to provoke argument; particularly in the Old Testament, God is frequently seen dispensing his wrath upon sinners (including one apparent count of genocide and a systematic cleansing of pretty much the entire world, among other things) in direct contravention of his son’s teachings. Then there were the questions of how one was otherwise meant to fight back against an invading force; ‘turn the other cheek’ is all very well, but loses its attractiveness when one is faced with someone attempting to kill you. Other schools of thought held that sin could be justified if it prevented a greater evil from occurring; but others stuck to the old view, claiming that violence could never be justified and only begat, or was begotten by, other violent acts.

It should also be remembered that the medieval Church was a distinctly political entity, and knew perfectly well that to attempt to tell, say, the vastly powerful Holy Roman Empire that it couldn’t declare war was just asking for trouble. Indeed, in later years the HRE even set up its own puppet papacy of ‘antipopes’, allowing them to excommunicate whoever they wanted and thus claim their wars were righteous.

However, the real trump card for the ‘just war camp’ was Jerusalem. The city of Jesus’ Crucifixion, the capital of Israel under the rule of King David (it is worth remembering that Mary’s spouse Joseph was of the House of David, hence why he returned to Bethlehem, the city of David when the Roman census was called), thought by many to be the place of Christ’s hidden tomb, it was the holiest city in the Christian (and Jewish) world, as even the Vatican would admit. However, it was also where, according to Islamic scripture, Muhammed undertook ‘the Night Journey’, in which he travelled to Jerusalem on a winged mule, and met with several prophets before ascending to speak directly with God (apparently the main source of discussion was an argument between God and the prophet Musa concerning how many prayers per day were required, with poor Muhammed acting as a messenger between the two. I would stress, however, that I am not especially knowledgeable with regards to Muslim scripture; if anyone wants to correct me on this, feel free to do so in the comments). This made it one of the holiest cities in the Muslim world, and Islamic forces had captured it (and the rest of Palestine to boot) in 636. The city had changed hands several times since then, but it had remained Muslim. For a long time this hadn’t been too much of a problem, but come the 11th century the Muslim rulers started acting against the Christian population. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed, the Byzantine Empire (which, although Orthodox, was still technically on Catholic Europe’s side) was getting worn down by near-constant war against its Muslim neighbours, and Christian pilgrims started being harassed on their way to Jerusalem.

It was this that really tipped the Catholic Church’s ‘just war’ debate over the edge, and the Church eventually adopted the stance that war could be justified in the eyes of God if it was pursued in His name (a concept similar in nature to the jihad principle of justified warfare in fighting against the enemies of one’s religion). This was a decision made with one thing in mind; to win back the Holy Land from the Saracen infidels (Saracen being the coverall name given by Catholics to the Muslim occupiers of Jerusalem). To do that, the church needed an army. To get an army, they called a crusade…

The Cross

Humankind has long been inventive when it comes to the sphere of killing one another; I could probably write a whole other blog solely on the subject of weaponry for the next 50 years before running low on material, and that doesn’t even approach the field of organised execution. Hanging and stoning are two old-as-the-hills methods still, unfortunately, in use in some parts of the world, and countless others have been developed with varying degrees of complexity, pain and success involved. However, one execution method has proved to carry more cultural weight than all others, and mostly thanks to one man; I speak, of course, of crucifixion.

We all think of crucifixion as a Roman punishment, but like so many Roman things it wasn’t their invention (seriously, even their religion was nicked from the Greeks). Crucifixion first started off in Persia in around the 6th century BC, in the area that would later become the Seleucid Empire after Alexander the Great went and conquered all of it. Like so many other things, the practice later spread across the remnants of Alexander’s Empire, including his native Greece, and here it began making its way towards the ‘civilised’ world of the time. The Greeks were, apparently, generally opposed to this horrible method of execution and used it very sparingly, but much of Alexander’s old Empire would later find its way into Roman hands, and so the idea eventually made its way to Rome. Given that this was a culture whose primary form of entertainment (garnering hundreds of thousands of spectators, something even modern sporting culture can’t match) involved various people and animals dressing up to kill one another in as ‘entertaining’ a fashion as possible, it is perhaps not surprising that the Romans thought crucifixion showed potential as an execution method, particularly for those they wanted to make an example of.

This is hardly surprising; of all humanity’s execution methods, few can rival crucifixion when it comes to being horrifying and showy. This is partly helped, slightly bizarrely, by its cheapness; to show them off to the general populace, something like hanging or beheading would require some sort of raised platform, which covers only a small area and takes a decent amount of time and energy to create. The Roman alternative (the arena) was even more expensive, requiring an investment in either animals or an elaborate set of costumes and procedure in order to provide an ‘entertaining’ execution, and given that games were generally free to go and watch (paid for by the emperor or local governor to curry goodwill with the populace) it wasn’t going to pay itself back. By contrast, the sum total of all monetary investment required for crucifixion is two long sticks, some rope or nails, and a bloke to affix the resulting structure to; the crosses were even moved to the required site by the prisoners themselves, and erecting them took a few soldiers almost no time at all. This cheapness made it easy to show off their victims on a vast scale; after the gladiator Spartacus’ slave revolt was crushed in 71BC, the 6,000 captured prisoners were all crucified along the Appian way, a trail of crosses stretching from Rome to Capua. That’s 200 kilometres (125 miles), along both sides of the road. A forceful example indeed.

The very nature of crucifixion itself also helps when it comes to being showy. The crosses used in crucifixion were big old things, three or four metres tall if they’re an inch, just to ensure the unfortunate victim could be seen from great distances away. The mechanics of the execution build on this; it is often assumed that death by crucifixion comes from exhaustion, hunger, pain and blood loss, but in fact crucifixion causes death by suffocation as much as anything. With one’s upper body held only by spread eagled arms, it becomes very tiring to keep it in position, and one’s head and torso tend to fall forwards after time. However, with the arms pinned in position this stretches out one’s joints extremely painfully, offering no respite from the agony, and pulls upwards on the ribcage. This in turn puts extreme stress on the diaphragm, meaning it has to pull one’s entire weight upward every time you attempt to take a breath, and crushes the lungs under one’s own weight, slowly squeezing the air and life out of the victim. If the executors were feeling kind, then the victim would be tied to the cross, resulting in a slower but slightly less agonisingly painful death. However, Jesus was famously attached to his cross by nails through his feet and wrists (some versions say the hands, but the flesh there isn’t strong enough to hold up the weight of a body properly), and whilst this could offer the possibility of blessedly quick unconsciousness and death due to blood loss and the extreme pain, the sheer agony of the experience doesn’t bear thinking about. No matter how devoted to their cause the victim was, their screams must have undoubtedly echoed for miles as they died, just adding to the showiness of their death. Crucifixion was the ultimate tool, for the Romans, for sending out a warning, a very obvious, demonstrative way of discouraging people from following the lead of the victim.

That this approach failed somewhat is like saying the Pope thinks God is a kinda alright guy; crucifixion has guaranteed martyrdom for countless early saints and, of course, Jesus. The concept of ‘he suffered and died on the cross for us’ is, more than anything, the fundamental message of Christianity, embodying the idea of undergoing extreme pain and hardship simply to try and do right by the world and emphasising the pure and unadulterated goodness of Jesus as a person. But this has had an unexpected effect in the long run; since the story is told so often to children, the gory details are often glossed over, or the story simply because so fundamental and oft-told that it becomes very easy to forget just how horrific his agony would have been. Even this post has treated the subject of crucifixion with a decidedly neutral tone, without considering properly just how horrible it is to inflict this level of pain onto a fellow human being. Crucifixion might have been abolished by the Roman Empire 1600 years ago (by Emperor Constatine, if you’re wondering), but it would not do to forget it. Very few things are ever worth forgetting, and torture and murder are most certainly not among them.

Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so…

In the dim and distant past, time was, to humankind, a thing and not much more. There was light-time, then there was dark-time, then there was another lot of light-time; during the day we could hunt, fight, eat and try to stay alive, and during the night we could sleep and have sex. However, we also realised that there were some parts of the year with short days and colder night, and others that were warmer, brighter and better for hunting. Being the bright sort, we humans realised that the amount of time it spent in winter, spring, summer and autumn (fall is the WRONG WORD) was about the same each time around, and thought that rather than just waiting for it to warm up every time we could count how long it took for one cycle (or year) so that we could work out when it was going to get warm next year. This enabled us to plan our hunting and farming patterns, and it became recognised that some knowledge of how the year worked was advantageous to a tribe. Eventually, this got so important that people started building monuments to the annual seasonal progression, hence such weird and staggeringly impressive prehistoric engineering achievements as Stonehenge.

However, this basic understanding of the year and the seasons was only one step on the journey, and as we moved from a hunter-gatherer paradigm to more of a civilised existence, we realised the benefits that a complete calendar could offer us, and thus began our still-continuing test to quantify time. Nowadays our understanding of time extends to clocks accurate to the degree of nanoseconds, and an understanding of relativity, but for a long time our greatest quest into the realm of bringing organised time into our lives was the creation of the concept of the wee.

Having seven days of the week is, to begin with, a strange idea; seven is an awkward prime number, and it seems odd that we don’t pick number that is easier to divide and multiply by, like six, eight or even ten, as the basis for our temporal system. Six would seem to make the most sense; most of our months have around 30 days, or 5 six-day weeks, and 365 days a year is only one less than multiple of six, which could surely be some sort of religious symbolism (and there would be an exact multiple on leap years- even better). And it would mean a shorter week, and more time spent on the weekend, which would be really great. But no, we’re stuck with seven, and it’s all the bloody moon’s fault.

Y’see, the sun’s daily cycle is useful for measuring short-term time (night and day), and the earth’s rotation around it provides the crucial yearly change of season. However, the moon’s cycle is 28 days long (fourteen to wax, fourteen to wane, regular as clockwork), providing a nice intermediary time unit with which to divide up the year into a more manageable number of pieces than 365. Thus, we began dividing the year up into ‘moons’ and using them as a convenient reference that we could refer to every night. However, even a moon cycle is a bit long for day-to-day scheduling, and it proved advantageous for our distant ancestors to split it up even further. Unfortunately, 28 is an awkward number to divide into pieces, and its only factors are 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14. An increment of 1 or 2 days is simply too small to be useful, and a 4 day ‘week’ isn’t much better. A 14 day week would hardly be an improvement on 28 for scheduling purposes, so seven is the only number of a practical size for the length of the week. The fact that months are now mostly 30 or 31 days rather than 28 to try and fit the awkward fact that there are 12.36 moon cycles in a year, hasn’t changed matters, so we’re stuck with an awkward 7 day cycle.

However, this wasn’t the end of the issue for the historic time-definers (for want of a better word); there’s not much advantage in defining a seven day week if you can’t then define which day of said week you want the crops to be planted on. Therefore, different days of the week needed names for identification purposes, and since astronomy had already provided our daily, weekly and yearly time structures it made sense to look skyward once again when searching for suitable names. At this time, centuries before the invention of the telescope, we only knew of seven planets, those celestial bodies that could be seen with the naked eye; the sun, the moon (yeah, their definition of ‘planet’ was a bit iffy), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It might seem to make sense, with seven planets and seven days of the week, to just name the days after the planets in a random order, but humankind never does things so simply, and the process of picking which day got named after which planet was a complicated one.

In around 1000 BC the Egyptians had decided to divide the daylight into twelve hours (because they knew how to pick a nice, easy-to-divide number), and the Babylonians then took this a stage further by dividing the entire day, including night-time, into 24 hours. The Babylonians were also great astronomers, and had thus discovered the seven visible planets- however, because they were a bit weird, they decided that each planet had its place in a hierarchy, and that this hierarchy was dictated by which planet took the longest to complete its cycle and return to the same point in the sky. This order was, for the record, Saturn (29 years), Jupiter (12 years), Mars (687 days), Sun (365 days), Venus (225 days), Mercury (88 days) and Moon (28 days). So, did they name the days after the planets in this order? Of course not, that would be far too simple; instead, they decided to start naming the hours of the day after the planets (I did say they were a bit weird) in that order, going back to Saturn when they got to the Moon.

However, 24 hours does not divide nicely by seven planets, so the planet after which the first hour of the day was named changed each day. So, the first hour of the first day of the week was named after Saturn, the first hour of the second day after the Sun, and so on. Since the list repeated itself each week, the Babylonians decided to name each day after the planet that the first hour of each day was named, so we got Saturnday, Sunday, Moonday, Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday and Venusday.

Now, you may have noticed that these are not the days of the week we English speakers are exactly used to, and for that we can blame the Vikings. The planetary method for naming the days of the week was brought to Britain by the Romans, and when they left the Britons held on to the names. However, Britain then spent the next 7 centuries getting repeatedly invaded and conquered by various foreigners, and for most of that time it was the Germanic Vikings and Saxons who fought over the country. Both groups worshipped the same gods, those of Norse mythology (so Thor, Odin and so on), and one of the practices they introduced was to replace the names of four days of the week with those of four of their gods; Tyr’sday, Woden’sday (Woden was the Saxon word for Odin), Thor’sday and Frig’sday replaced Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday and Venusday in England, and soon the fluctuating nature of language renamed the days of the week Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

However, the old planetary names remained in the romance languages (the Spanish translations of the days Tuesday to Friday are Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi and Vendredi), with one small exception. When the Roman Empire went Christian in the fourth century, the ten commandments dictated they remember the Sabbath day; but, to avoid copying the Jews (whose Sabbath was on Saturday), they chose to make Sunday the Sabbath day. It is for this reason that Monday, the first day of the working week after one’s day of rest, became the start of the week, taking over from the Babylonian’s choice of Saturday, but close to Rome they went one stage further and renamed Sunday ‘Deus Dominici’, or Day Of The Lord. The practice didn’t catch on in Britain, thousands of miles from Rome, but the modern day Spanish, French and Italian words for Sunday are domingo, dimanche and domenica respectively, all of which are locally corrupted forms of ‘Deus Dominici’.

This is one of those posts that doesn’t have a natural conclusion, or even much of a point to it. But hey; I didn’t start writing this because I wanted to make a point, but more to share the kind of stuff I find slightly interesting. Sorry if you didn’t.

The Seven Slightly Harmful Quite Bad Things

The Seven Deadly Sins are quite an odd thing amongst western culture; a list of traits ostensibly meant to represent the worst features of humanity, but that is instead regarded as something of a humorous diversion, and one, moreover, that a large section of the population have barely heard of. The sins of wrath (originally spelt ‘wroth’, and often represented simply as ‘anger’), greed (or ‘avarice’), sloth (laziness), pride, lust, envy and gluttony were originally not meant as definite sins at all. Rather, the Catholic Church, who came up with them, called them the seven Capital Vices (their original religious origin also leads to them being referred to as ‘cardinal sins’) and rather than representing mere sins in and of themselves they were representative of the human vices from which all sin was born. The Church’s view on sin is surprisingly complex- all sinful activity is classified either as venial (bad but relatively minor) or mortal (meant to destroy the inner goodness of a person and lead them down a path of eternal damnation). Presumably the distinction was intended to prevent all sinful behaviour from being labelled a straight ticket to hell, but this idea may have been lost in a few places over time, as might (unfortunately) be accepted. Thus, holding a Capital Vice did not mean that you were automatically a sinful person, but that you were more naturally predisposed to commit sin and should try to exorcise them from you. All sin falls under the jurisdiction (for want of better word) of one of the vices, hence the confusion, and each Deadly Sin had its own counterpart Heavenly Virtue; patience for wrath, charity for greed, diligence for sloth, humility for pride, chastity for lust (hence why catholic priests are meant to be chaste), kindness for envy and temperance for gluttony. To a Catholic, therefore, these fourteen vices and virtues are the only real and, from a moral perspective, meaningful traits a person can have, all others being merely offshoots of them. Pride is usually considered the most severe of the sins, in that one challenges your place in comparison to God, and is also considered the source of the other six; Eve’s original sin was not, therefore, the eating of the fruit from the forbidden tree, but the pride and self-importance that lead her to challenge the word of God.

There have been other additions, or suggestions of them, to this list over the years; acedia, a neglect of ones duty based on melancholy and depression, was seen as symptomatic of a refusal to enjoy god’s world, whilst vainglory (a kind of boastful vanity) was incorporated under pride in the 14th century. Some more recent scholars have suggested the addition of traits such as fear, superstition and cruelty, although the church would probably put the former two under pride, in that one is not trusting in God to save you, and the latter as pride in your position and exercising of power over another (as you can see, ‘pride’ can be made to cover a whole host of things). I would also argue that, whilst the internet is notoriously loath to accept anything the Christian church has ever done as being a remotely good idea, that there is a lot we can learn by examining the list. We all do bad things, that goes without saying, but that does not mean that we are incapable of trying to make ourselves into better people, and the first step along that road is a proper understanding of precisely where and how we are flawed as people. Think of some act of your behaviour, maybe something you feel as being good behaviour and another as a dubiously moral incident, and try to place its root cause under one of those fourteen traits. You may be surprised as to what you can find out about yourself.

However, I don’t want to spend the rest of this post on a moral lesson, for there is another angle I wish to consider with regard to the Seven Deadly Sins- that they need not be sins at all. Every one of the capital vices is present to some degree within us, and can be used as justification for a huge range of good behaviour. If we do not allow ourselves to be envious of our peers’ achievements, how can we ever become inspired to achieve such heights ourselves- or, to pick a perhaps more appropriate example, if we are not envious of the perfectness of the Holy Trinity, how can and why should we aspire to be like them? Without the occasional espousal of anger and wrath, we may find it impossible to convey the true emotion behind what we care about, to enable others to care also, and to ensure we can appropriately defend what we care for. How could the Church ever have attempted to retake the Holy Land without the wrath required to act and win decisively? Greed too acts as a driving force for our achievements (can the church’s devotion to its vast collection of holy relics not be labelled as such?), and the occasional bout of gluttony and sloth are often necessary to best aid our rest and recuperation, enabling us to continue to act as good, kind people with the emotional and physical strength to bear life’s burden. Lust is often necessary as a natural predisposition to love, surely a virtuous trait if ever there was one, whilst a world consisting solely of chaste, ‘proper’ people would clearly not last very long. And then there is pride, the deadliest and also the most virtuous of vices. Without a sense of pride, how can we ever have even a modicum of self-respect, how can we ever recognise what we have done well and attempt to emulate it, and how can we ever feel any emotion that makes us seem like normal human beings rather than cold, calculating, heartless machines?

Perhaps, then, the one true virtue that we should apply to all of this is that of temperance. We all do bad things and we may all have a spark of the seven deadly sins inside us, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that the incidences of the two need always to coincide. Sure, if we just embrace our vices and pander to them, the world will probably not end up a terribly healthy place, and I’m sure that my description of the deadly sins is probably stretching the point as to what they specifically meant in their original context. But, not every dubiously right thing you do is entirely terrible, and a little leeway here and there can go an awfully long way to making sure we don’t end up going collectively mental.

We Will Remember Them

Four days ago (this post was intended for Monday, when it would have been yesterday, but I was out then- sorry) was Remembrance Sunday; I’m sure you were all aware of that. Yesterday we acknowledged the dead, recognised the sacrifice they made in service of their country, and reflected upon the tragic horrors that war inflicted upon them and our nations. We gave our thanks that “for your tomorrow, we gave our today”.

However, as the greatest wars ever to rack our planet have disappeared towards the realm of being outside living memory, a few dissenting voices have risen about the place of the 11th of November as a day of national mourning and remembrance. They are not loud complaints, as anything that may be seen as an attempt to sully the memories of those who ‘laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom’ (to quote Saving Private Ryan) is unsurprisingly lambasted and vilified by the majority, but it would be wrong not to recognise that there are some who question the very idea of Remembrance Sunday in its modern incarnation.

‘Remembrance Sunday,’ so goes the argument, ‘is very much centred around the memories of those who died: recognising their act of sacrifice and championing the idea that ‘they died for us’.” This may partly explain why the Church has such strong links with the ceremony; quite apart from religion being approximately 68% about death, the whole concept of sacrificing oneself for the good of others is a direct parallel to the story of Jesus Christ. ‘However,’ continues the argument, ‘the wars that we of the old Allied Powers chiefly celebrate and remember are ones in which we won, and if we had lost them then to argue that they had given their lives in defence of their realm would make it seem like their sacrifice was wasted- thus, this style of remembrance is not exactly fair. Furthermore, by putting the date of our symbolic day of remembrance on the anniversary of the end of the First World War, we invariably make that conflict (and WWII) our main focus of interest. But, it is widely acknowledged that WWI was a horrific, stupid war, in which millions died for next to no material gain and which is generally regarded as a terrible waste of life. We weren’t fighting for freedom against some oppressive power, but because all the European top brass were squaring up to one another in a giant political pissing contest, making the death of 20 million people the result of little more than a game of satisfying egos. This was not a war in which ‘they died for us’ is exactly an appropriate sentiment’.

Such an argument is a remarkably good one, and does call into question the very act of remembrance itself.  It’s perhaps more appropriate to make such an argument with more recent wars- the Second World War was a necessary conflict if ever there was one, and it cannot be said that those soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan are not trying to make a deeply unstable and rather undemocratic part of the world a better place to live in (I said trying). However, this doesn’t change the plain and simple truth that war is a horrible, unpleasant activity that we ought to be trying to get rid of wherever humanly possible, and remembering soldiers from years gone by as if their going to die in a muddy trench was absolutely the most good and right thing to do does not seem like the best way of going about this- it reminds me of, in the words of Wilfred Owen: “that old lie:/Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori”.

However, that is not to say that we should not remember the deaths and sacrifices of those dead soldiers, far from it. Not only would it be hideously insensitive to both their memories and families (my family was fortunate enough to not experience any war casualties in the 20th century), but it would also suggest to soldiers currently fighting that their fight is meaningless- something they are definitely not going to take well, which would be rather inadvisable since they have all the guns and explosives. War might be a terrible thing, but that is not to say that it doesn’t take guts and bravery to face the guns and fight for what you believe in (or, alternatively, what your country makes you believe in). As deaths go, it is at least honourable, if not exactly Dulce Et Decorum.

And then, of course, there is the whole point of remembrance, and indeed history itself, to remember. The old adage about ‘study history or else find yourself repeating it’ still holds true, and by learning lessons from the past we stand very little chance of improving on our previous mistakes. Without the great social levelling and anti-imperialist effects of the First World War, then women may never have got the vote, jingoistic ideas about empires,  and the glory of dying in battle may still abound, America may (for good or ill) have not made enough money out of the war to become the economic superpower it is today and wars may, for many years more, have continued to waste lives through persistent use of outdated tactics on a modern battlefield with modern weaponry, to name but the first examples to come into my head- so to ignore the act of remembrance is not just disrespectful, but downright rude.

Perhaps then, the message to learn is not to ignore the sacrifice that those soldiers have made over the years, but rather to remember what they died to teach us. We can argue for all of eternity as to whether the wars that lead to their deaths were ever justified, but we can all agree that the concept of war itself is a wrong one, and that the death and pain it causes are the best reasons to pursue peace wherever we can. This then, should perhaps be the true message of Remembrance Sunday; that over the years, millions upon millions of soldiers have dyed the earth red with their blood, so that we might one day learn the lessons that enable us to enjoy a world in which they no longer have to.