Saturday, June 27, 2015

Saving History

Columba Stewart is the executive director of Minnesota’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. He’s also been working diligently to preserve papyri, parchments, and other ancient texts in various Islamic nations, where the terrorist group “Islamic State” (ISIS) has destroying artifacts and historical manuscripts.

The “Islamic State” attempts to obliterate large segments of human history, claiming vaguely that it is either blasphemous or idolatrous. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra and Gordon Govier interviewed Stewart and wrote:

The swift ISIS takeover in Iraq meant there was little time to hide thousands of documents, he said. Many have been destroyed.

Zylstra and Govier also interviewed Major Corine Wegener (U.S. Army), who’s been on the ground in the Middle East, leading efforts to preserve not only manuscripts, but also paintings and sculpture: the objects which ISIS works to destroy.

Terrorists from the “Islamic State” adhere to the Muslim belief that artistic images are idolatrous and should be destroyed. Major Weger works with networks of individuals attempting to preserve humanist treasures:

“I tell people, look to yourself and your family first,” Wegener said. “If you are still a caretaker of your collection and you see the opportunity where it looks like things are bad, you have to make that judgment call.”

Although there have been individual Muslim scholars over the centuries who’ve allowed for the possibility that artistic images are permissible, and there have been Muslim artists who’ve created paintings or sculptures, the mainstream of Islam in the Middle East has studiously avoided images. Accepted Muslim artists have kept to nonrepresentational and abstract forms: calligraphy and architecture.

Muslim artists who create representational art, and their artworks, have been safer in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the “Islamic State” has been equally happy to smash classical Greek and Roman sculptures, Buddhist sculptures, or Hindu sculptures. Hellenistic artworks, created in the wake of Alexander the Great, have been destroyed in large numbers.

Major Wegener leads the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, which she coordinates with the Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield and the International Committee of the Blue Shield:

Most stories of saved artifacts won’t come out until the conflict is over, she said. When Islamic extremists were threatening Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, a local library curator created a system for smuggling more than 275,000 pages of priceless manuscripts by donkey, bicycle, or boat to the south of the country.

Both ordinary private citizens and officers in the U.S. Army work to preserve centuries and millennia of human history from the terrorists of the “Islamic State.”

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Your Language, Your Empire

Widespread imperial presence leads to the widespread adoption of the empire’s language for business and political purposes. The peak of an empire’s military and economic influence, however, regularly antedates the peak of the imperial language’s ubiquity.

Greek and Macedonian influence arguably reached its zenith sometime prior to 250 BC, but the Greek language would become most widespread a century or two later.

The Roman Empire arrived at its apogee well before 476 AD, but Latin usage, both written and spoken, continued to expand for several centuries afterward. More texts were composed, and more of them have survived, in Latin after 476 than before.

Visually, this phenomenon could be represented on a Cartesian plane. The horizontal axis shows time, and the vertical axis would represent intensity and geographical spread. Something approximating the familiar bell curve would map an empire’s political, military, and economic significance. A second curve, of similar shape, would mark the spread and use of that empire’s language. This second curve would be offset to the right, such that the peak of an empire’s geopolitical importance would occur temporally prior to the greatest spread and use of its language.

The spatial distribution, and frequency of use, of an empire’s language is still increasing when the empire itself is in decline.

The Spanish, French, and British empires were already in decline while the Spanish, French, and English were becoming increasingly widespread.