Archive | November 2013

Heaven and Hell


Here, in a nineteenth-century dictionary of the Bible, you will find a very detailed and sober discussion “OF THE SITUATION OF PARADISE: WITH A MAP.”

If you can’t face reading it all, O ye of little faith! But I suppose I can tell you that after lengthy consideration of a number of candidates in what are now Syria, Iraq, eastern Turkey and Afghanistan, the author concludes that the terms of Genesis chapter 2 best suit a valley in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. In other words, the site of the Garden of Eden is Bamiyan.

An arresting theory, I think we can agree, but this account in Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible seems both sensible and succinct alongside its source, “On Mount Caucasus”, a massive, intricate and thoroughly unhinged article written by one Capt. Frances Wilford in the journal of The Asiatic Society, Asiatick Researches, in 1799. And yet, wildly eccentric as Wilford’s article was, it was taken seriously by more than just the editors of Calmet’s Great Dictionary. Its strange geographical claims lie behind Shelley’s “lyrical drama” Prometheus Unbound, for example, and it was Wilford’s article which first gave Bamiyan its celebrity in the West. In the two centuries before they were destroyed, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were the must-see destination for foreign travellers in Afghanistan, whether British agents, French officers or American hippies. Wilford’s specific claims about Bamiyan were abandoned and forgotten, but Bamiyan was irrevocably on the map.

Wilford never set eyes on Bamiyan himself: he formulated his peculiar theories a thousand miles away in Varanasi. But Bamiyan, if not actually the terrestrial paradise, is a very beautiful place. Arnold J. Toynbee tried to convey the peculiar character of the valley in 1960, romantically attributing it to the lingering influence of Buddhism:

The practice of Buddhism has been extinct in Bamian for perhaps eleven hundred years by now, yet the peace which the practice brought with it still reigns there. You will feel it if you look out across the valley in the moonlight. There is peace in the glistening white poplar-trunks. There is peace in the shadowy shapes of the Buddhas and their caves. As you gaze, this Buddhist peace will come “dropping slow” upon your restless Western soul.


The recent history of Bamiyan has been anything but peaceful, and the valley a long way from paradise for its inhabitants. The repeated Taleban incursions into the Hindu Kush during the civil war (up until 2001) witnessed brutal mistreatment of the mainly Shia Muslim population there (the Taleban consider Shia to be heretics). This report of the UN Special Rapporteur Kamal Hossein gives some impression of the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Taleban and their foreign allies.

In the midst of this brutality against the civilian population, the Taleban also blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in March 2001. A question that exercised me while I was writing about the Buddhas, and still bothers me now, is the basic one of why these giant statues were destroyed. A lot has been written about Afghanistan in the run up to 9/11 and the NATO invasion, including the destruction of the Buddhas, but the picture gets no clearer. What I’m going to share here, a fragment of evidence that has emerged recently, won’t make any decisive difference, either, but it highlights one dimension of the process.

The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was an expensive and technologically challenging project. It involved a massive allocation of resources to a remote valley in the mountains for an extended period of time. It all took place in a country which was impoverished, deep in civil war and experiencing an extreme humanitarian crisis. It was a staged media event, too. Mullah Omar’s edict that “all fake idols must be destroyed” was distributed to international journalists, and Al-Jazeera had a cameraman there as the demolition was going on (he was later convicted in Spain of “co-operating with a terrorist organisation”). A group of journalists were flown to Bamiyan after the destruction to witness the scene. It became headline news across the globe.

One way of tackling the question of why the Buddhas were destroyed is to ask Cui bono? Who benefited? Whose interests did it serve?

One of the few things that commentators on events in 2000-2001 broadly agree on is that al-Qa’eda and the Taleban were in essence very different organisations, one with an international perspective, the other with much more domestic ambitions; but that in this period the foreign fighters based in Afghanistan came to exert as much influence over the Taleban as they ever did. How close Mullah Omar and Bin Laden came, and how great the influence exerted, is a much debated point. Some, like Roy Gutman and Finbarr Barry Flood, have seen the attack on the Buddhas, and the vandalism in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul the previous month, as symptoms of a growing influence exerted by bin Laden and his collaborators over elements of the Taleban leadership.

Certainly, viewed in retrospect, Bamiyan had all the hallmarks of an al-Qa’eda action. In a fine (though in retrospect over-optimistic) piece written after the death of bin Laden, Olivier Roy captures the essentially theatrical character of al-Qa’eda. Lacking mass support, it achieves its impact by staging provocative, headline-grabbing spectaculars:

Al-Qaeda always needs a mise-en-scène – the volunteer for death filming himself before carrying out an action, the execution of hostages in front of the camera in a macabre ritual … The staging is then taken up, for free, by the media: rolling coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center, front pages for any attack in which innocent westerners are killed.

The aim of this “propaganda of the deed” is of course to polarise, galvanizing supporters, outraging opponents, and promoting the “Clash of Civilizations” between Islam and the West that figures like bin Laden think is the inevitable upshot of contact between Islam and the West.

Well, coincidentally or not, Bamiyan was in its effects a model jihadi publicity stunt, outraging and alienating the West, while increasing  the flow of foreign jihadists to Afghanistan. Flood describes it as “a performance designed for the age of the Internet.” Bin Laden loved his symbolism, too, and to a Salafist manner of thinking, the Buddhas of Bamiyan and al-Qa’eda’s targets in New York six months later were in the same category, emblems of the ignorance of a time before, or a time outside, Islam. At min. 2.45 here, for example, Bin Laden, talking about 9/11, calls America “the Hubal of this age”. Hubal was an idol worshipped in Mecca in the Age of Ignorance before Islam, destroyed along with all other idols by the Prophet. To bin Laden’s obscenely reductive way of thinking, both events were pious acts of idol-breaking.

The new piece of information is a charge sheet issued by the US Department of Defense against Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi. Al-Iraqi, an ethnic Kurd, is now held at Guantanamo Bay, having been picked up by the US as he attempted to enter his native Iraq from Iran in 2007. Al-Iraqi was a very senior figure in al-Qa’eda indeed, often referred to as “Number 3” in the organisation after bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the most senior commander of foreign fighters in Afghanistan before the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001. Al-Iraqi shared bin Laden’s global perspective, and was also involved in training foreign recruits for activities back in their own countries. He apparently identified the UK as especially promising territory: through al-Iraqi’s capable hands passed two of the 7/7 suicide bombers and other would-be homegrown terrorists such as Omar Khyam, convicted in 2007 of a plot to blow up Bluewater shopping centre and other targets with bombs made from chemical fertiliser.

In other words, al-Iraqi is a ruthless and intelligent man fully in sympathy with bin Laden’s ideal of global conflict.

Allegation 16 on the charge sheet reads,

In or about March 2001, in his role as al Qaeda commander of the region, Abd al-Hadi led a group of al Qaeda operatives who assisted Taliban members in the destruction of the Buddha statues at or near Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

If true, it’s striking that someone so important in the al-Qa’eda network got involved in the destruction of the Buddhas. To me it would suggest that al-Qa’eda had a key role in these events, and I’m not the only one with that suspicion. But at the very least it would establish that al-Qa’eda saw the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan as something that would further their aims, and I think it’s easy enough to see why they might think that.

I started this blog with a search for paradise, which in certain minds settled upon the beautiful valley of Bamiyan. It seems at least possible too that Bamiyan occurred to more recent minds as a means to unleash what most of us would consider hell, global strife: to the jihadi mentality, of course, that conflict also offers some perverse promise of heaven. But if the events in Bamiyan in 2001 were indeed designed to provoke the West, it could be considered the last legacy of Thomas Wilford. If the West cared enough about an obscure valley in the Hindu Kush to be provoked, it was perhaps ultimately Wilford and his wild fantasy that the “progenitors of mankind,” Adam and Eve, originated in Bamiyan that ensured it was a target of fundamentalists in 2001.

Aurel Stein on timelessness

On April 26, 1907 Aurel Stein wrote to his old friend P.S. Allen, in Oxford, from Dunhuang in north-western China. He describes the tricks played on his mind by the archaeological material he was finding in the ancient borderlands of China, as much as two millennia old but perfectly preserved, as if just that moment discarded:

… I feel at times as I ride along the wall to examine new towers, etc., as if I were going to inspect posts still held by the living. With the experience daily repeated of perishable things wonderfully preserved one risks gradually losing the true sense of time. Two thousand years seem so brief a span when the sweepings from the soldiers’ huts still lie practically on the surface in front of the doors or when I see the huge stacks of reed bundles as used for repairing the wall still in situ near the posts, just like stacks of spare sleepers near a railway station. I love my prospecting rides in the evenings, especially when the winds have cleared the sky. That is the time to see many things, the white brick towers glittering far away on the commanding ridges they usually occupy; the track within the wall line trodden by the patrols of so many years as the slanting rays show it up on the grey gravel soil, —and weak points along the marsh edge where prowling Hun freebooters might have lurked for a rush.

Stein’s was a peripatetic life, born in Hungary, by now a British subject based in India, but already embarked on his second ambitious expedition into Chinese Central Asia. Like all travellers, he had his strategies for finding the comforts of home in inhospitable places: reading Horace in the Kunlun mountains, for example, in the course of his first expedition in 1900. Here the place itself makes him feel at home, and he’s not sure why: is it the tangible history he finds around him, the thoughts his environment provokes of his native Hungary, and his father (there’s a jokey hint also of nineteenth-century ideas that connected the Huns of antiquity with the origins of the Hungarian people), or is it some intimation of a past life? It was lost Buddhist cultures he was rediscovering in Central Asia, and the religion held at least a sentimental appeal for him:

I feel strangely at home here along this desolate frontier—as if I had known it in a previous birth. Or is it, perhaps, only because I heard my beloved father tell so often of the Roman walls traversing parts of Southern Hungary. He had spent many a hot day in tracing their lines; but, alas, the day never came when he could show me what had puzzled and fascinated him. The people against whom they were built, may after all have been distant relations and forerunners of those Huns who had haunted these parts about the time of Christ.

I often return to this letter of Stein’s, and I in turn can’t really explain why. Maybe I share his nostalgia for a strange and ancient place, and find in it some kind of essence of what I do as a Classicist, thinking my way into the lives and minds of two-thousand-years-dead Romans. It’s probably not a memory of a past life.

Athena in China


Take a look at the cover of any of Aurel Stein’s books after Sand-buried Ruins of Khotan (1904), and on the title page, and often also embossed on the front cover, you’ll find this image: a vignette of the goddess Athena in confrontational pose, brandishing a thunderbolt in her right hand and holding on her left arm the aegis, a terrifying goatskin shield tasselled with snakes and bearing the head of the Gorgon Medusa.

The picture is the work of Stein’s friend and collaborator, the artist Fred Andrews, and it’s based on a discovery Stein made while excavating at Niya, a site in the Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang, the extreme north-western region of China. Stein was investigating the ancient Buddhist cultures of the Silk Road, and in a third-century-AD rubbish tip (“its odours … still pungent after so many centuries”) he uncovered hundreds of letters written on wood, in an Indian language and script. The letters were sealed with clay, and the clay bore the personal seal-impressions of the senders of the letters:

From an historical point of view they claim exceptional interest, for they have furnished convincing evidence of the way in which the influence of classical Western art asserted itself even in distant Khotan. It was a delightful surprise when, on cleaning the first intact seal impression that turned up, I recognised in it the figure of Pallas Athene, with aegis and thunderbolt, treated in an archaic fashion. This particular seal … was found thereafter to recur frequently, and probably belonged to an official who was directly connected with the administration of the ancient settlement.

Alkidemos seal

On another letter Stein found “a seal with Chinese lapidary characters in juxtaposition with one showing a portrait head unmistakably cut after Western models.” This was quintessential Silk Road, “half-way between Western Europe and Peking,” the arena where Indian, European and Chinese cultural currents intermingled.

But it was Athena who became Stein’s emblem, and I’ve idly wondered for some time what the image meant to him.

Athena was a goddess of the intellect and the arts, an embodiment of those things that make human society civilized. She’s a goddess of war, too, obviously so in an image like this one. But Athena presides over the rational aspects of warfare, the strategy and tactics rather than the bloodletting (though that’s a pretty subtle distinction), justified war rather than aggression. So what a book under the sign of Athena promises is intellectual activity in the cause of human civilization, and that’s a fair summary of what Stein achieved in Central Asia.

But another question I had was how far Stein appreciated the history of his vignette of Athena. Because, coincidentally or not, the image he chose to adorn his books is an extremely significant one.

The best way to communicate this is to show you some coins. One from Macedonia to start with,


followed by one from Sicily,


and rounded off by one from Afghanistan/Pakistan:


These coins are of kings called Antigonus, Pyrrhus and Menander, the first two from the third century BC and Menander’s from about 140 BC. Stunningly, despite being from opposite ends of the known world, they depict the same figure of Athena.

Menander was the most successful of a series of Greek kings who ruled in what is present day Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this Athena remained a consistent feature of the coins of his successors, even one of the very last Greek kings, Strato II, who ruled a tiny kingdom somewhere near Lahore at the end of the first century BC:


This is a very sorry-looking issue indeed, and it speaks volumes about Strato’s straitened circumstances. But Athena is still there, even if she appears to have become left-handed.

Why is this image so important to the Greek kings? The thinking these days is that the Athena represented on the coins is a reminiscence of a particular statue of the goddess: the tutelary deity of Pella, the capital of Macedonia, known as Athena Alkidemos, Athena “Defender of the People.” Athena Alkidemos of Pella in turn evoked Alexander the Great, whose capital was at Pella, and for whom Athena was an important patron. We’re told that when Alexander advanced into battle he was preceded by a sacred shield of Athena from her temple at Troy, carried by a senior bodyguard. What Antigonus, Pyrrhus, Menander and Strato all have in common is a need to associate themselves with the charismatic person of Alexander, who had dramatically changed the face of the Greek world, and in the case of Menander and Strato had made their rule as Greek kings in Central Asia possible in the first place.

Stein’s discovery in Xinjiang throws the net even wider, of course. The functionary in Niya was using as his official seal, half a millennium after Alexander’s death, an image that had originated 3,000 miles to the west.

Did the official have any clue of the significance of the image? It’s doubtful. The knowledge of what Athena Alkidemos meant, the mystique of the long-dead Alexander that these kings wished to confer on themselves, quite possibly disappeared with the fall of Strato’s kingdom. And what of Aurel Stein? What did he understand by it?

Stein was certainly very interested in Alexander. In a career of remarkable discoveries in Central Asia, one thing he never left behind was the deep fascination for Alexander that he’d formed in childhood. Describing a tour of Swat in 1926, for example, Stein candidly admits that his interest in Alexander even exceeds his devotion to Xuanzang (also spelled Hsüan-tsang), the seventh-century Buddhist monk whose account of his travels from China to India guided Stein’s exploration of the Chinese borderlands:

May the sacred spirit of old Hsüan-tsang, the most famous of those pilgrims and my adopted ‘Chinese patron saint’, forgive the confession: what attracted me to Swat far more than such pious memories was the wish to trace the scenes of that arduous campaign of Alexander which brought the great conqueror from the foot of the snowy Hindukush to the Indus, on his way to the triumphant invasion of the Panjāb.

The ultimate aim of this expedition was a longstanding preoccupation of Stein, and indeed an obsession shared by many Europeans who had visited the territory to the west of the river Indus: to locate Aornos, a seemingly impregnable fortress captured by Alexander in 327BC.

An image of Athena carrying associations of Alexander would have been an entirely apt one for Stein to stamp upon his books. But while I’m certain he and Andrews recognised the kinship of the seal image from Niya with the “Greco-Bactrian” coins of kings like Menander and Strato, I’m not so sure he would have read Alexander himself into it. When Stein discusses it, he describes it as as imitating “an archaic type of Athene Promachos”, a similar notion of the goddess as a protective deity, but the link to Athena Alkidemos of Pella and thence to Alexander had not yet been traced.

If so, it is sheer serendipity that it’s Athena Alkidemos that we find at the front of Aurel Stein’s books, since his career could hardly find a more appropriate patron goddess. Like many of the the men who studied the archaeology and ancient history of Central Asia, Alexander drew Stein to places, geographical and intellectual, far removed from the classical education of his childhood, but without ever quite losing his grip. Indeed sometimes it seems to me that the West can never contemplate this part of the world without Alexander the Great muscling in.

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