Just a dog
A full-scale dog-blog was always on the cards. I came quite close in this one, when a figure in a photo I’d been shown turned out to be a pioneer of Afghan Hound breeding. But this blog is devoted to a single dog, a fox terrier called Dash who belonged to the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein.
Actually Stein owned seven dogs in succession, and every one of them was called Dash. The name was more common at one time than it seems to be now: Queen Victoria’s Dash was a King Charles spaniel. It still seems slightly odd to give every one of a sequence of dogs the very same name, and Stein, whose claim to fame is above all as an investigator of the Buddhist cultures of Central Asia, sometimes toyed with the idea that the latest Dash was a reincarnation of one of its predecessors.
Anyhow, the subject of this blog is Dash II, or “Dash the Great” as Stein liked to refer to his very favourite of them all; he also called him Kardash Beg, “The Honourable Snow Companion”, when he discovered with delight that his new dog had a relish for snow. Pets belonging to Aurel Stein could expect to encounter some pretty gruelling climatic conditions.
Stein acquired Dash the Great in 1904, and the dog accompanied him on his Second Expedition into Central Asia from 1906 to 1908, Stein’s most audacious, most successful, and ultimately most controversial venture into Chinese Turkestan. It was during this expedition that Stein was able to investigate a trove of Buddhist material in the Mogao caves at Dunhuang, removing a large quantity of texts, textiles and paintings. But earlier in the expedition he and his team had made the high-altitude crossing from the very northeastern tip of Afghanistan into Chinese Central Asia, and later he undertook a perilous, and very nearly disastrous, crossing of the Taklamakan desert.
Dash is a regular presence in Stein’s accounts of his expedition, especially the popular Ruins of Desert Cathay (1912), often most visible in moments of particular intensity. As things become very desperate during Stein’s crossing of the Taklamakan desert, his men threatening to mutiny, he is grateful that Dash makes do on “a saucerful [of water] spared from my cup of tea”. As they scale the 16,000-foot Wakhjir pass between Afghanistan and China, the generally irrepressible terrier whimpers with the cold and insists on sheltering beneath Stein’s fur coat. On another occasion he’s roused from sleep in Stein’s tent by the excitement of Stein and Chiang-Ssu-yeh, Stein’s “Chinese secretary and helpmate”, when they find proof that the frontier fortifications they’re investigating date from as early as the first century AD.
Dash chases marmots in the high country, “distinctly provoking for so indefatigable a hunter”, develops a knack of mounting a horse, “jumping up to the stirrup, and thence to the pommel of whoever was offering him a lift”, and gets badly mauled by a pack of semi-feral sheepdogs. When the party finds itself having to cross the Kash river over a ridiculously makeshift bridge, the poor thing is trussed up in a bag and passed along a wire rope along with the rest of the baggage.
The expedition took its toll on Stein. As he crossed back into India in 1908 he suffered frostbite while surveying at high altitude, losing several toes of his right foot after being carried down in agony to Ladakh. When he was eventually fit enough to travel, he describes his departure for Britain at the end of 1908 and enforced separation from Dash, “the last of my faithful travel companions, but, perhaps, the nearest to my heart”: dogs were not allowed on the P. & O. Mail boat. Dash made his own way to Britain on a separate steamer, spent four months in quarantine, and “was joyfully restored to his master under Mr P. S. Allen’s hospitable roof at Oxford.”
P. S. Allen was a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and he and his wife Helen were scholars of Erasmus and two of Stein’s oldest and closest friends; their “hospitable roof” was 23 Merton St., where Stein always stayed on his visits to Britain, and where Dash would actually spend the rest of his life. Stein seems to have decided that his “inseparable little companion” had had enough adventure. At any rate, when he returned to India he left Dash behind with the Allens. The comfortable new home of this canine veteran of the sand and snow deserts of the Taklamakan and Pamir Knot is now part of the Eastgate Hotel.
Dash lived with the Allens for another nine years, and while Merton St. was his home, he was clearly left to wander wherever he liked across Oxford. But as the First World War drew to a close, a new and deadly threat to an increasingly decrepit old dog was being introduced to Oxford’s streets, the motorised Omnibus. Percy Allen wrote to Stein to explain what happened:
He took himself out for a walk one aft. Friday, 27 Sept. , & was run over by a motor bus in Park End St—the street which goes down to the station as the continuation of the High & Queen St. The police brought around his collar next morning, & reported that he had been killed instantaneously, & that they had buried him in their usual place. Helen went to the police station to enquire, as soon as we returned home—10 days later—but by that time it was too late to unearth him & bring him to sleep in the garden where he has so often slept before.
It’s a terribly banal end for a dog who’d seen so much, run over by a bus on Park End St. (Although I’ve subsequently walked the distance from 23 Merton St to Park End St, and Dash clearly hadn’t lost his wanderlust.) Soon the regular letters between Stein and the Allens turned back to the urgent issues of the day, the Armistice just a month or so after Dash’s death, and the Spanish Flu. But for as long as Dash is the focus of these letters between old friends, he provokes a touching outpouring of affection between them. Helen Allen reminisced to Stein about Dash’s life in Oxford:
He has been as outstanding amongst dogs, as his master amongst men; such sagacity & such devotion. I can see him in so many different poses: returning on a Cotswold walk after a chase after a hare, to look which way we were gone meanwhile, locating us & then heading straight for our slow plodding figures; looking up full of enquiry when he heard: “Go and meet him, Dash,” & then bounding forward joyously as he caught sight of Percy…
Such faithfulness as he has shown must surely meet a fit reward.
And we send you many thanks for the added happiness you brought into our lives through Dash.
“Surely a Ulysses among dogs,” wrote Percy Allen to Stein:
full of wise counsel & dignity, & greatly attached to his friends. You brought great pleasure into our lives thro’ him: for wh. we thank you, amice noster, as for so much else. Blessings on Dash the Great.
Stein, in response, thanked his friends for their comforting words:
Never before, I feel sure, had a faithful canine companion’s departure been recorded in words more true and deserved. How grateful I feel to [Helen] for having thus softened the pang which this sad news caused me the enclosed letter for her cannot express adequately. I do not command the inexhaustible goodness of soul which is life’s greatest boon in you both, nor that grace of expressive brief words which mature and constant communion with Erasmus have bestowed upon you both. I never cease to give thanks for all the brightness which you two have brought into my existence for the last twenty years—but my gratitude must be equally great for all you have done to help me in facing sad losses and trials.
Well, we all know dogs can be surrogate objects of affection for people who find it difficult to express emotion. Why else are English people so fond of them? In happier times, too, “Dash” had been a vehicle for the Allens’ affectionate pride in their friend’s success, writing a letter to congratulate Stein on the knighthood he received in 1912:
23 Merton St
Bara din 1912
Many congratulations, dear Master. Am wearing my collar of achievement.
If I had known this was coming, I should not have cried on the Wakhjir.
Whip the young one, and keep him in order.
(Have assumed this title) SIR DASH, K.C.I.E.
Still, just a dog.
On St George & his day
Dragons, heroes & Zoroastrians over at The Nation!
“The Rumi Skandher beg, who is like the vast, open skies…”
“I never saw a more strange man than him. He lives like a hermit among his Tibetan and other works, in the house of the Asiatic Society, which he seldom leaves.”
This post corrects a terrible injustice I committed in my book on Bamiyan, most of which is nevertheless fair and reasoned and even potentially worth a read. On p. 143 I claimed that the “first Europeans to set eyes upon Bamiyan were William Moorcroft and his companions George Trebeck and George Guthrie in August 1824.” I was wrong, as was gently pointed out to me by Edmund Melzl, who knows more about Bamiyan’s history than anyone. In actual fact Bamiyan had received a visit more than two years before Moorcroft from another European, a Hungarian scholar from Transylvania named Alexander Csoma de Kőrös.
I wasn’t the first to overlook Csoma; in fact you could say he was cursed to being overlooked. In March 1822, for example, British agents reporting from Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s capital at Lahore in the Punjab recorded the arrival of three European travellers, two feringhis, the Napoleonic veterans Jean-François Allard and Jean-Baptiste Ventura, looking for employment with the Maharajah’s army, and a ghora, Alexander Csoma. The choice of words is significant, feringhi suggesting status and nobility, ghora a dismissive term for a common-or-garden white man without any distinguishing features.
In a way Csoma asked to be ignored: a naturally reticent man, his “principal trait of character was his regrettable diffidence,” according to his biographer Theodore Duka, “…and his own too modest estimate of himself.” “This has often served as justification for disparaging his unique accomplishments,” Duka adds. He dressed scruffily (“a suit of blue clothes, which he always wore, and in which he died,” according to one witness), and in later life consistently refused any of many offers to supplement his very limited finances. His diet was mainly rice and tea mixed with butter and salt in Tibetan fashion, and his living habits, as the opening quotation indicates, were by his own choice basic in the extreme.
But if Csoma was a peculiar man, it arguably took just that kind of man to achieve what he did achieve.
For starters, no normal person would have walked from Transylvania to Tibet. Everything about Csoma’s education pointed to a comfortable life as an academic quietly employed in his homeland. He was an accomplished scholar, though more by dint of application than natural brilliance: by the end of his life he had mastered somewhere in the vicinity of twenty languages. A successful academic career in Hungary had been rewarded with two years at the prestigious University of Göttingen in Hanover, but as big an influence on Csoma as his formal education was the intensely nationalistic atmosphere of early nineteenth-century Europe, whether in Hanover or Hungary, a nationalism understood in terms of language communities, and thus bound to interest a linguist like Csoma. He later described the motivation for his journey eastwards as “to search for the original seats of the Hungarians, to collect historical data about their deeds, and to observe the analogies which various Oriental languages present with our vernacular.” (A fascinating article by Imre Galambos, ‘“Touched a nation’s heart”: Sir E. Denison Ross and Alexander Csoma de Kőrös’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 21 (2011), 361-75, describes among other things the role played by Csoma in later Hungarian nationalist feeling.)
At any rate, Csoma became determined to apply his academic training to the national interests of Hungary, specifically by pinpointing the Asian origin of the Magyars. “The most ancient homeland of our ancestors,” he declared, lay in “Greater or Little Bokharia,” in other words Bukhara and its environs, north of Afghanistan, and the Tarim Basin to the East, now in the Xinjiang region of China. In November 1819, despite tempting employment opportunities at home, the thirty-five-year-old Csoma set out to test his theory.
Travelling mostly on foot, occasionally by horse or by boat when seas or rivers were available, he made his way to Constantinople, Alexandria, “to Larnica, in Cyprus, thence to Sidon, Beyruth, and then, on another vessel, to Tripoli and Latakia, whence, travelling on foot, on the 13th of April I reached Aleppo in Syria,” Mosul, Baghdad, (on horseback) Hamadan and Tehran. Thence, dressed as an Armenian Christian, and with a miniature Johnson’s Dictionary given him by the British Envoy in Tehran, he headed for Mashad and Bokhara, where he believed the ancestral home of the Hungarians might lie. Here, though, his itinerary took an unanticipated turn: “affrighted by frequent exaggerated reports of the approach of a numerous Russian army,… I left Bokhara… and with a caravan I came to Balk, Kulm, and thence by Bamian; on 6th of January, 1822, I arrived at Kabool.”
Csoma would later become an expert in Tibetan language and culture, and hence in Buddhism, at a time when that religion was very poorly understood in the West. He wasn’t yet an expert when he saw the Buddhas of Bamiyan, but later, with hindsight, he understood what he had been looking at:
There is yet in ancient Bactria, at Bamian, on the road between Kabool and Balk, a large colossal statue, with two others of smaller size at a certain distance from the first, hewn in the mountain-rock. It is very probable this was a representation of Buddha, or Shakya, with his disciples represented in painting on both sides of the wall. The painting is in the same style as is usual amongst Tibetans or amongst the Christians of the Greek Church, to represent saints, with the radiant or solar circle round the head.
Csoma was the first of many Europeans to visit Bamiyan in the first half of the nineteenth century, when it was in the process of becoming one of the most famous places on earth, but, odd as it may seem, very few of them recognised the statues as images of the Buddha.
Kabul, Peshawar, then to Lahore with Allard and Ventura. Csoma was trying an alternative route to his mythical Hungarian homeland, and from Lahore he climbed via Kashmir to the high-altitude Buddhist enclave of Ladakh, “Little Tibet,” hoping to cross the Himalaya to Yarkand in the Tarim Basin. But Csoma, at times a strange combination of anxiety and reckless adventurousness, got cold feet in the Himalaya: “I ascertained the road to Yarkand was very difficult, expensive and dangerous for a Christian.”
But on the road back to Lahore, on July 16, 1822, he had an encounter which changed everything. William Moorcroft is one of the most intriguing of the early European explorers of Central Asia, theoretically engaged in a search for fresh bloodstock for the East India Company’s horse stud in Calcutta, but in his own mind at the cutting edge of British efforts to counter Russian designs on Britain’s possessions in India. He persuaded Csoma (in Latin, since one language Csoma didn’t have at this stage was English) to return with him to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, and with Moorcroft’s encouragement Csoma became fascinated by the Tibetan language and culture he encountered there.
To cut a very long story short, after seven years of intense study at a series of Buddhist monasteries in Zanskar and Kinnaur, under the guidance of a Tibetan Lama, Sangye Puntsog, Csoma produced a dictionary and grammar of Tibetan, eventually published in Calcutta in 1834. These publications are considered to be the foundational texts of the academic discipline of Tibetology.
An impression of Csoma’s working conditions in monasteries like the striking Phugtal Gompa in this photo comes from Dr James Gerard, who encountered and befriended Csoma whilst travelling in the Himalaya introducing inoculation against smallpox and indulging his wide-ranging scientific interests. Gerard would later travel with Alexander Burnes to Bokhara, via Bamiyan. Here in the Himalaya he describes finding fossil shells at high altitude, and a deodar tree “29 1/2 feet in girth”, but Alexander Csoma was “far from the least remarkable of the many objects which have passed before me in this journey”, “like one of the sages of antiquity, living in the most frugal manner, and taking no interest in any object around him, except his literary avocations.” During his first period of research, Gerard records, “[Csoma], the Lama, and an attendant, were circumscribed in an apartment nine feet square for three or four months; they durst not stir out, the ground being covered with snow, and the temperature below the zero of the scale. There he sat, enveloped in a sheep-skin cloak, with his arms folded, and in this situation he read from morning till evening without fire, or light after dusk, the ground to sleep upon, and the bare walls of the building for protection against the rigours of the climate.” Later, as the librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta, Csoma adopted a lifestyle not much less reclusive.
Csoma had his motivations for his strange journey across Asia, as we have seen (and they are well described in this excellent short biography). Extending the boundaries of the British Empire wasn’t one of them. But there’s no doubt that his patron Moorcroft saw in the study of Tibetan something of political value. Moorcroft was considered a hawk and a maverick by the British authorities, and they kept him at arm’s length, but his perception of the political value of the study of Tibetan was mainstream enough: “This will not only promote the commercial and political prosperity of Great Britain and her Indian possessions,” we hear elsewhere, “but may effect the still more important end of teaching to yet semi-barbarous tribes the advantages of industry and civilisation.” It was an issue Csoma was aware of, and in the preface to his dictionary he insists that “he had not been sent [to Zanskar] by any Government to gather political information.” But there were reasons nevertheless for the British authorities’ enthusiastic reception of his project, and for the resources they provided to ensure its publication.
Alexander Csoma continued to research and write on Tibetan topics after his dictionary was published, and for a number of years he was an eccentric but well-liked librarian of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta. But the original ambition that drew him from Hungary remained unsatisfied. In 1842 he left on a third attempt to reach the elusive Hungarian homeland, aiming for Lhasa via Darjeeling, and thence to the land of the Uyghurs (Xinjiang), whom he suspected to be the Hungarians’ Asian kin. But he developed malaria in Darjeeling, characteristically refused treatment, and died on April 11, 1842. A tomb was erected by the Asiatic Society with an epitaph which begins
ALEXANDER CSOMA DE KÖRÖSI,
A Native of Hungary,
Who, to follow out Philological Researches,
Resorted to the East;
And after years passed under privations,
Such as have been seldom endured,
And patient labour in the cause of Science,
Compiled a Dictionary and Grammar
Of the Tibetan Language,
His best and real monument.
What always intrigues me about these European travellers in Central Asia is how they cope with the strangeness of the places they find themselves; how they convince themselves they have a right to be there, I suppose. A lot of Europeans saw it as the scene of the exploits of a great European hero, Alexander the Great, and made it theirs that way. For Csoma, “Bokharia” was the original home of his people, a place where he would be able to say, “At last I am among Hungarians.” There may be a hint of this Hungarian yearning for the East in Aurel Stein’s sense of a home-from-home in the barren borderlands of China.
In general Stein was very much of the Alexander persuasion, but he felt a sentimental attachment also to his Hungarian forerunner. In 1899, visiting Darjeeling, Stein described to his brother Ernst an “evening walk to the well-cared for grave of poor Csoma de Kőrös. The lovely cemetery on a mountain slope would please Hetty [Stein’s sister-in-law] very much.” Then in 1913 Stein composed a moving tribute to the Hungarian émigré Theodore Duka, a mentor of Stein earlier in his career as well as the biographer of their fellow-Hungarian Csoma. Whenever possible, Stein liked to retreat to Mohand Marg, a high meadow in Kashmir where he pitched tent and wrote with his dog Dash at his feet:
How often, looking down from my favourite Alpine camp in Kashmir into the verdant Sind Valley, some 5,000 feet below me, have I thought of the poor Hungarian wandering as he passed here in 1822, and again a year later, on his way to Leh, the chief place of Western Tibet!
Even Stein can’t exclude that note of condescension that always seems to accompany “poor Csoma”. Contrast the words of one of Csoma’s Tibetan collaborators:
The Rumi Skandher beg, who is like the vast, open skies in his unshakable fortitude and his insight demonstrated in sciences, undertaking the arduous journey from the large ocean of the Orient to jasmine-covered Upper Tibet in his search for learning…
An Afghan Evening at Astley’s
Gosh, time flies. Three years ago I was deep in writing The Buddhas of Bamiyan. I’d reached my favourite part of it, the nineteenth century, when a motley bunch of spies, prisoners, missionaries and dreamers brought the giant Afghan buddhas to the attention of the European public for the first time.
It’s a close call, but for me the most charismatic and interesting of all these visitors to Afghanistan was Lady Sale, a tough, opinionated military wife taken to Bamiyan along with her widowed daughter and baby granddaughter as a prisoner of the Afghans in 1842: I’ve blogged here and here about Florentia Sale, her granddaughter, and the enormous celebrity she enjoyed as a result of her captivity. For a period in 1842-4 Lady Sale was the second-most-famous woman in the British Empire, and when her diary of her time in Afghanistan was published in 1843, A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841-2 was a bestseller.
Lady Sale encapsulated a lot about the Western encounter with Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. But back in 2011 there was a detail about her I’d seen but ignored, because I didn’t appreciate its significance. In Punch (1845, p.236) a humorous review of the annual exhibition of paintings at the Royal Academy mentioned “No. 33”, “A Portrait of Lady Sale, with whom we had become familiar at ASTLEY’S.” The portrait in question is presumably this one in the Somerset Military Museum in Taunton: it forms a pair with another, by the same artist, of her husband Maj.-Gen. Sir Robert Henry Sale. Astley’s, I knew, was a circus in London, but that was really all I knew.
It was at this moment that I found myself being dragged, not entirely willingly, to a circus performance in a muddy field one Friday evening. It was Gifford’s, and the best night’s entertainment I’d ever had, a “traditional” circus taking its lead from early circuses like Astley’s. Inspired, I did enough reading to establish that, if somebody’s portrait was being exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and that person was also being featured in an Astley’s production, well, they really were a phenomenon. Lady Sale was the toast of the toffs in their salons at one end of Victorian society, and a 24-carat British heroine in the eyes of the very different demographic of the Astley’s audience: Marius Kwint, a scholar of the early circus, describes the “plebeian elite” of “artisans, governesses and small tradespeople” whose domain was Astley’s Amphitheatre (Past & Present 2, p.109).
So Astley’s circus got a sentence in my book. This year, though, my involvement with the circus reached a whole new level. Well, not really, but I did find myself in a rather giggly, star-struck state at Gifford’s HQ discussing circus-friendly classical myths, and how flexible Greco-Roman myth could be (answer: as flexible as you like). Last week the Morgan family went to see the finished product, Gifford’s funny, thrilling and also very beautiful show The Thunders, and I took away a programme containing something like my name for the scrapbook. To cut a long story short, there’s nothing like having a role in a circus production, albeit a vanishingly small one, to reawaken interest in the subject. As I watched the 2014 Gifford’s Circus, my mind turned back to Lady Sale. I needed to find out what Astley’s had made of the heroine of the hour in 1843.
Our most detailed information about this show is in Punch again (Punch felt a strong affinity for circus, and it’s not too hard to see why). I’ll get to that account soon, but some background first. Lady Sale had been taken prisoner by the Afghan leader Akbar Khan in the course of a massacre of British forces retreating from Kabul, during the First Afghan War in early 1842. She and her fellow prisoners, including a daughter widowed in the retreat, and a baby girl born to her daughter in captivity, were finally rescued near Bamiyan in September 1842, but by that time “the Cabul Prisoners” had become a cause célèbre that has been compared to the US Embassy hostages in Tehran in 1979-81, their situation tracked minutely by newspapers, and sometimes illustrated by letters smuggled out from the captives themselves. In the plight of the prisoners the British public seemed to invest its profound anxiety about the Afghan campaign, culminating as it had done in one of the greatest catastrophes British forces ever suffered. When the captives were rescued, in turn, it was felt as a surrogate victory, and the family, Maj.-Gen. and Lady Sale, their daughter Alexandrina Sturt and granddaughter Julia, toured Britain amid great excitement in 1844.
Meanwhile Astley’s Amphitheatre, the venue of this production, was having its own problems. In 1841 it burned to the ground, the third time this had happened since Philip Astley, the father of modern circus (with an unfortunate penchant for wooden construction), first established it beside Westminster Bridge in 1769. (For an interesting history of the building, see here.) On Easter Monday, April 17, 1843, Astley’s reopened under new management, and with a brand-new show. A report in The Times (April 18, 1843) describes the plush new venue, including drop curtains representing “the procession of the competitors and the glorious Olympians as they progress to the Greek city”, and the show that had been chosen to inaugurate it, “a new piece entitled The Affghanistan War.” The incidents depicted in the production, although “enlivened … by a few drolleries and a little love”, would be all-too-familiar to readers of The Times, but “afforded an excellent means of displaying those equestrian performances for which Astley’s has been so long distinguished, and … received the warmest plaudits of an admiring multitude.” The leading character in the show was obviously Lady Sale, who, according to The Era (April 23, 1843), “stormed through the night with irresistible fortitude at the head of her little band of more timid fellow-captives.” Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine (1843, p. 62) was very impressed, and indicates that the show was both spectacular and a big hit:
The grand military and spectacle of the Affghan war, which has been visited by thousands, continues to draw nightly crowds. It is got up in unparalleled grandeur, and the many scenes throughout the spectacle convey an excellent and true idea of the sufferings of the Caubul army, and the retreat to Jellalabad… [T]here can be little doubt that the heads of families will avail themselves of this great treat, for where do we expect to find amusement for juveniles if it is not at the Amphitheatre?
The equestrian scenes in the circle are novel, and the dresses and decorations are magnificent, exciting praise and admiration.
What The Times and Blackwood’s are describing here, the precise plot aside, is a pretty typical production at Astley’s: horsemanship predominates, as it had since the days of Astley himself, but trick-riding was interspersed with fairground acts like acrobatics, clowning, and tumbling, the classic circus recipe. Over time Astley’s had come to specialise in “swashbuckling melodramas on horseback, or ‘hippodramas’” (Kwint p.95), productions that knitted the various individual acts into a narrative, typically of recent events, and since Astley had been a military man, and his circus always retained a slight military flavour, recent military events fitted the bill nicely. Astley’s staged The Death of Tippoo Sahib; or, the Storming of Seringapatam in 1799, the year Seringapatam was captured, for example. One of the images here is of the staging of a battle during the Crimean War about a decade after The Affghanistan War, again more or less contemporaneously with the real events.
Punch‘s description of the Affghanistan War production appears in Punch’s Pocket Book for 1844 (pp. 128, 131), a diary for 1844 combined with humorous pieces on events of the previous year:
(128) THE CAPTIVES AT CABOOL
[We are enabled to extract the following highly interesting details from WIDDICOMBE’s Journal of the Astley’s Affghanistan Campaign; and offer no apology in bringing them before the notice of the reader.]
THE DISASTERS OF THE KHYBER
THEIR situation was exceedingly distressing. No sooner had they traversed the pass, than the dying English were obliged to throw a white tunic over their uniforms and climb up the ladders to the platforms at the back of the set pieces, whence, as Affghan chiefs, they fired blank cartridges upon their fellows: and when the curtain fell on this dismal tableau, the smoke was most overpowering. The paper snow fell without intermission during the whole of the scene, and the cavalry were sadly harassed by the unceasing volleys of oaths from the prostrate supernumeraries who had laid down upon the sawdust to die.
The behaviour of Akbar Khan, whilst in the green room, surrounded by our officers, was mild and courteous; but the instant he appeared on the stage of his exploits, he became savage and ferocious, offering a fearful example of Affghan treachery.
Amongst the auxiliaries provisions generally ran short and a penny was frequently given in exchange for a meat-pie brought by a camp-follower, who proved to be the emissary of a Feringhee confectioner, and was allowed the entry of the stage door and Khoord Cabool fort, between the acts, upon parole. Higher-priced luxuries were beyond the reach of the supers, who never got beyond the pies, for few could command the necessary sixpence to arrive (131) at Jelly-le-bad–from its indifferent composition very properly named.
CAPTURE OF GHUZNEE
The taking of Ghuznee was not that severe struggle that has been imagined. It was chiefly owing to the tact of General Broadfoot, who, whilst the Affghans were defending only the front ramparts of the first set piece, directed our troops to a ladder placed behind the side-scene at the left second entrance, by scaling which they gained the platform leading through the Canvas Tower direct to the Capital. At the conclusion of the contest, it was pleasing to see the English sharing their accommodations in their dressing-rooms with the Affghans, and drinking together.
RETURN OF THE CAPTIVES
The meeting between Lady Sale and her husband, for the first time after her imprisonment, took place in the prompter’s box, through the exertions of the call-boy. The interview is described as remarkably affective; but as there is a two-and-sixpenny fine for loitering in the first entrance, it was not seen by many. The heroic manner in which she fought the double sword combat with six Affghans, whom she put to flight, drew down the loudest praise; and her beautiful sentiment, that “the heart of the Briton, even amid the snows of India’s icy clime, still beats warmly for his native home upon the sea-bound isle,” threw an enthusiasm into the auxiliaries never before equalled.
This is Punch and satirical, so obviously a very distorted picture of the production. The basic joke is to present the difficulties of staging this ambitious theatrical production as if it were the Afghan War itself: the audience are turned into “auxiliaries”, and the whole account imitates the form of reports, based on letters or diaries of captives, Lady Sale especially, that had appeared in newspapers during and after the First Afghan War, often headlined “The Cabul Prisoners” or “The Cabul Captivity”. The role of Lady Sale, author of the definitive eyewitness account of events, is given to John Esdaile Widdicombe, the ringmaster at Astley’s and a well-known London figure in the first half of the nineteenth century. Dickens recalls Widdicombe in the eleventh of the Scenes in Sketches by Boz, “Astley’s”:
Everybody knows the man, and everybody remembers his polished boots, his graceful demeanour, stiff, as some misjudging persons have in their jealousy considered it, and the splendid head of black hair, parted high on the forehead, to impart to the countenance an appearance of deep thought and poetic melancholy. His soft and pleasing voice, too, is in perfect unison with his noble bearing, as he humours the clown by indulging in a little badinage…
The episodes of the First Afghan War spoofed here are the retreat from Kabul towards Jelalabad through the Khurd Kabul pass in January 1842 (confused, as it often was, with the more famous Khyber Pass); the capture of Ghazni by the British “Army of Retribution” led by General Nott in August 1842 (W.D. Broadfoot was the name of the “Acting and Stage Manager” at Astley’s); and the rescue of the prisoners and reunion of Lady Sale with Maj.-Gen. Sir Robert Sale in September. The references to the prompter’s box and the call-boy seem to suggest that the performers playing Lady Sale and her husband missed their cues, and the description of the transformation of (the actor playing) Akbar Khan from friendly to savage plays off descriptions of the real Akbar Khan’s perceived hypocrisy, at times charming and hospitable, at others bloodthirsty. Lady Sale described an encounter in her Journal: “Mohammed Akbar Khan passed us; bowed, and smiled– ‘he can smile, and smile, and be a villain.'” The London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine of Fashion (1843, p. 48) offers an intriguingly conflicted take on the representation of Akbar Khan, very much the villain in the dominant British narrative of the war and the massacre:
Akhbar [sic] Khan is the very beau ideal of a savage hero, and we could not but feel an agreeable self-congratulation that there is no attempt to represent him in a mean and degraded point of view. We very much doubt, small step as this may seem in liberality, if it would be the case on any other than an English stage.
Two things strike me as particularly interesting about this circus production and Punch‘s reaction to it. The first is what we learn about how the events of the First Afghan War were realised in a circus performance. One of the things I discovered in that meeting at Gifford’s was that, no matter how elaborate the plot of a production, circus is circus, and the individual acts always have priority over the wider narrative. At Astley’s the Afghan War, as The Times report tells us, provided lots of scope for the specialist skills of the circus performers: trick-riding, in particular, but we also get hints of acrobatics and maybe highwire acts. Lady Sale and her husband furnished a handy love motive. It’s harder to see where clowning might come in, but The Era talks of “two or three comic characters … introduced with good effect,” and they may have included that perennial butt of humour, the Welshman (see below). A review in the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine gives an impression of the elaborate scenery: “The Hall of Audience is a very splendid and gorgeous piece of grouping [the impressive tableau, or posed scene, was a stock-in-trade of Astley’s]… The Khyber pass with its rocks heaped on rocks, its snowy summits, and horrid rugged masses and its narrow defile brought forcibly before us the grandeur and romance of the place.” But the most vivid insight into how recent events became circus entertainment is Lady Sale herself, played (according to Theatrical Times 1848, p. 480) by Mrs H. Campbell: given her “double sword combat with six Affghans, whom she put to flight”, it’s clear that her role was acted by a performer specialising in spectacular sword play. I would love to have seen that.
The second thing that intrigues me is how rapidly, on this evidence, the British public processed and came to terms with a catastrophe on the scale of the massacre of 1842, often considered the greatest reverse ever suffered by British arms. Barely a year after the ghastly scenes in the Khurd Kabul pass they were the subject of a popular circus, complete with “drolleries”, making excellent amusement for juveniles. A year on again and Punch is getting a food pun out of the name Jelalabad, the destination of the ill-fated retreat, to which only one man from the whole army, Dr Brydon, succeeded in making it. The appalling privations suffered by the soldiers and camp followers during the retreat, struggling through snow and under withering fire from the heights above them, are turned into a circus audience’s quest for affordable refreshments in the interval. In this version of events, of course, the First Afghan campaign was not ultimately a disaster, because the British are vindicated: the full title of the show was apparently The Affghanistan War! or, the Revolt of Cabul! and British Triumphs in India. “Of course, the British arms are not suffered to be degraded in this national piece,” the London and Paris Ladies’ Magazine explains. “Everything is done to maintain the honour of the nation, alike by a Welshman who fights with his toastingfork, and by Lady Sale, who cannot be affrighted into ignominious terror.”
Certainly, if by 1843 Britain was well on the way to converting humiliating defeat in Afghanistan into moral victory, what comes across clearly from the production at Astley’s (and Punch‘s satirical take on it) is the crucial role that Lady Sale played in that psychological process.
I’ve read some extremely interesting material on early circus in the last few days. I recommend anything by Marius Kwint, for example this, and for the images especially, M. Rendell, Astley’s Circus. Nell Gifford writes movingly about her life in the circus here, the director Cal McCrystal is interviewed about the current show here, and if you are anywhere near the Cotswolds, do please go and watch Gifford’s Circus, this year or someday. Tracy Chevalier’s novel Burning Bright recreates Astley’s circus at the end of the eighteenth century. There are still quite a few copies of The Buddhas of Bamiyan available, too, and they’re going increasingly cheap…
A nice surprise in my email inbox yesterday (July 29th). I had found a reference to an original playbill, or programme, of The Afghanistan War in the Harvard Theatre Collection at the Houghton Library, the special collections library of Harvard University, and I wrote to them, speculatively, to ask if they would send me a scan. An outrageous request, to be honest, but they did, bless them. It’s so well preserved, and the printed text still so vibrantly colourful, that suddenly the whole event seemed to me rather modern and familiar, rather than late-Georgian and strange.
The playbill gives the cast, a sketch of the plot, and some hints as to how the events of the Afghan War were realized by circus acts. My suspicion that a Welshman provided laughs is confirmed by “Taffy a Tap”, played by Mr Robert Power, and it looks like the same applied with an Irish character Mahoney McHard, and three Afghan women Leola, Kela and Balascha. I’m intrigued by the “Captain Vincent” played by the producer/director of the show, W.M. Broadfoot, since one of Lady Sale’s fellow-captives, also the author of a bestselling journal of his captivity, was an officer called Vincent Eyre, an amateur artist who captured the portrait of Lady Sale above and this image of Bamiyan:
Naturally Widdicombe, the ringmaster, was cast as Lord Ellenborough, the Governor General of India.
The circus had three acts, and the playbill advertises, in BIG, COLOURFUL LETTERING, a string of visually impressive set-pieces, including “Interior of the Royal Citadel of Shah Soojah, the DEAN KHANEH, or SPLENDID HALL OF AUDIENCE”, “The CITY OF CABUL!!!“, “The SNOW STORM!” The uprising against the British occupiers was shown in Act 1, the retreat through the passes in Act 2, and Act 3 presented the reconquest of Afghanistan by the British in 1842, culminating in “Lady Sale the Heroine of Cabul with Fame guarding the Sovereign of Great Britain and Watching over her protectors forming a Last Tableaux of ENGLAND’S GLORY!” Needless to say, a very positive spin on a notoriously disastrous campaign, with the character and story of Lady Sale very crucial to that spin.
Astley’s introduces itself on the playbill as “This Established Temple of Equitation”, and there was obviously great scope in all this for performances with horses. The Afghanistan War was also followed on the programme by other acts. But the playbill offers more information as to how circus performers other than trick riders and clowns found a place in a historical hippodrama. A festival in the city of Kabul in Act 1, apparently staged by Kabulis to distract the British from the uprising, featured the “first appearance of the Belechee Tribe, in their Wonderful Jeux Gymnastiques and Incredible Feats, Messrs. Nunn, Honey, Walker, and Felix,” “Kyberee Tribe in their Extraordinary Wonders–Messrs. Twist, Steward, Baker and Boswell,” and (my favourites) “The Dancers of Bameean in their Bell Dance–Principal Dancers, Mdlle. Cromini and Mr. Lake.”
Polo on Alexander on Polo
This New Year I’m going to ask you to watch a bit of Shakespeare, which is no huge imposition. We’re in the first act of Henry V, and the Dauphin of France has dramatically misjudged the new king Henry’s character, responding to his claims on France with a gift “meeter for his spirit”, a box of tennis balls. Henry is just a child and should stick to childish things, the implication is. But Henry proves how mature and resolute an opponent he will be by turning the jibe back on the French.
Brian Blessed making the most of a limited script there. As an O-level student many, many moons ago I studied Henry V (and sniggered at the “turn his balls to gun-stones” line, yes), but it was only very recently, when I was reviewing a very interesting book on the “Alexander Romance” (which I’ll come back to), that I realised that the whole scene is actually based on an episode from the life of Alexander the Great. Shortly after I realised this, I discovered (a common occurrence this, for academics) that someone else has realised the very same thing more than a hundred years before me.
Shucks. But it’s still interesting.
The episode in question was when Alexander, contemplating his invasion of Persia, received an embassy from the Persian king Darius, bearing gifts. The precise character of the gifts varies with the telling, as we shall see, but what is a constant is that the gifts that Darius sends to the Macedonian king imply that Alexander is still just a boy (and so shouldn’t bother himself with grown-up things like conquering the Persian Empire); and that in response Alexander offers his own, opposite interpretation of the gifts, as signs that his campaign against Persia will, on the contrary, be overwhelmingly successful.
So an early telling of the story has Darius send to Alexander a whip, a ball, and a casket full of gold, with a letter explaining their meaning: the whip indicating the discipline that the boy Alexander could still benefit from, a ball for him to play with, and gold to indicate the wealth and power of Persia. But Alexander answers Darius with his own interpretation of the gifts (here in an Armenian version, translated by Wolohojian):
you sent me as gifts, a whip, a ball, and a chest of gold. You gave me this present to make fun of me, but I have received it and taken it as a good omen. I took the whip to mean that by my valour and arms I shall thrash the barbarians and, having given them a mighty beating, shall subjugate them into slavery. And I took the ball, which you had designated for me, to mean that I shall master the world and hold it in my power–for the world is ball-shaped, a sphere. And the chest of gold was a great omen you sent me; for in sending it you announced your obedience to me. For having been defeated by me and fallen into my power, you shall humbly pay tribute to me.
The similarity to Shakespeare’s scene is obvious enough, and the first thing to say is that this is a very meaningful reminiscence: throughout the play Shakespeare is keen to associate Henry with Alexander (“Turn him to any cause of policy,/ The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,” etc.; my namesake Fluellen has something to say on it, too), two unexpectedly but spectacularly able young warrior-kings, and to lend Henry’s righteous invasion of France the status of Alexander’s conquest of Persia. So even though the story of the tennis balls had been told of Henry V for a long time before Shakespeare (who found it in sources stretching almost as far back as Henry V’s actual reign), it clearly retained its original association with Alexander.
Secondly, though, and I should probably have made this clear earlier, the episode of Darius’ gifts was not a historical event in the real Alexander’s life, but one of a host of fanciful stories that came to be attached to Alexander in popular tradition in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and are collectively known as the Alexander Romance. This tradition began with a novel, now lost, written in Greek in Egypt quite possibly only shortly after Alexander’s death, but the story, rewritten and embellished but always recognisably a single tradition, proved astonishingly resilient, ultimately travelling as far as Iceland in one direction and China in the other: Muslim merchants seemingly ensured the presence of these stories in Chinese geographical texts. This mythical Alexander has very little in common with his historical counterpart. He explores the ocean in a diving bell, and the sky in a flying machine; protects the world from the Unclean Nations, Gog and Magog, with a great wall; and goes in search, unsuccessfully, of the water of eternal life.
Here’s just one example of the astonishing diffusion and persistence of the Alexander Romance: the tales that Marco Polo encountered when he passed through Badakhshan, northern Afghanistan, on his way to China in the thirteenth century (Yule’s translation):
Badashan is a Province inhabited by people who worship Mahommet, and have a peculiar language. It forms a very great kingdom, and the royalty is hereditary. All those of the royal blood are descended from King Alexander and the daughter of King Darius, who was Lord of the vast Empire of Persia. And all these kings call themselves in the Saracen tongue Zulcarniain, which is as much as to say Alexander; and this out of regard for Alexander the Great.
What Polo had heard were stories that we find across the Islamic world in Arabic, Persian, Mandinka and Malay. In this fictionalized version of Alexander’s life his bride Roxane (who in fact came from Bactria, not far from Badakhshan) became the daughter of the Persian king Darius, and Alexander himself was identified with the mysterious figure of Dhu’l-qarnayn, the “Two-horned”, described in Sura 18 of the Qur’an. According to Richard Stoneman, author of a brilliant survey of the Alexander Romance, Alexander’s “legend lived on in oral tradition in Afghanistan perhaps longer than in any other part of the world except Greece.” The stories were certainly alive and kicking when the West renewed its acquaintance with Afghanistan: the Alexander folklore that British soldiers encountered in Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, for example, fed their delusion that they were in a familiar and welcoming place. But the same essential tradition of stories was found in Muslim Mali, Christian Ethiopia, in Mongolia, and in England, and pretty much everywhere in between, subtly adapted to suit the host culture, so that in Islamic versions Alexander becomes a thoroughly Muslim figure, in Christian Christian, and in Jewish Jewish. In Mongolia Alexander takes on the attributes of a Mongol Khan.
But I want to concentrate on the scene picked up by Shakespeare, Darius’ gifts, partly because it illustrates the dynamics, but also the essential consistency, of the Alexander tradition, and partly because the way this scene gets elaborated over time and across cultures is simply fascinating.
By the time we get to a tenth-century Latin version of the story by Leo the Archpriest of Naples (translated from a Greek version he found during a diplomatic mission to Constantinople), which became the major vehicle of the Alexander myth in Europe, Darius’ whip and ball have become a ball and a “curved rod”; and in expanded versions of Leo, in the twelfth century, known as the Historia de Proeliis, we find a pila ludrica, “a ball for playing,” and a zocani, an obscure word which in Byzantine Greek is tzukanion but is originally the Persian word چوگان, chowgan, used in the traditional Persian game of guy-o-chowgan, “ball and mallet,” better known as polo.
Over time, it seems, the general implication of childish play borne by Darius’ gifts hardens into a more precise evocation of a formal game. In the Persian tradition, apparently echoed in Leo, Darius encourages Alexander to go and play polo; and in Henry V the young king’s advised to stick to tennis. But what’s the relationship between the Persian versions of the Alexander Romance and the version that feeds into Henry V? Have the two traditions just developed naturally, and quite independently, in the same direction, from generic play to formalized sport? If so, the sports in question are remarkably similar, in England one “royal” sport, Real (i.e. Royal) Tennis, and in Persia the proverbial Sport of Kings, polo.
That’s interesting enough, but the more exciting possibility is that in the fiendishly complex and convoluted history of the Alexander Romance currents from the Persian East fed into European versions of the story, in other words that in the tennis balls received by Henry V of England we have a distant echo of the Persian game of polo.
Well, Shakespeare’s audience knew that they were seeing Henry built up as a latter-day Alexander, but they wouldn’t have had a clue that this story of Henry/Alexander had been forged in the most remarkable international storytelling crucible, the tradition of the Alexander Romance, perhaps with a crucial contribution from Persia.
And as an example of cross-cultural interaction in the Middle Ages, that would frankly take the entire packet of digestives.
Stet Fortuna Domus
I had a feeling I hadn’t finished with this photo. Three visitors to Bamiyan, with local guides, stand in front of the smaller of the giant Buddhas, in about 1926: the photo comes from the archives of the archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. A while back I wrote about identifying the two figures wearing solar topees, Major Leon Williamson Amps on the right and Mary Amps, the latter of whom, I discovered, was in the process of becoming a dominant force in the world of Afghan-hound breeding.
Well, back in September I obviously got distracted by all the dogs. I certainly failed to do justice to Major Amps, and I failed even more abjectly to do justice to the impressive figure standing between Major and Mrs Amps, because at the time I had no idea who he was. I now know a bit more about Major Amps, and a lot more about the Ampses’ companion on their trip to Bamiyan, Sheikh Mahbub Ali Khan.
In 1928 Leon Williamson Amps received a gong for coordinating the construction of the new British Legation in Kabul, a grand construction set in 23 acres to the N-W of the capital city. It was impressive even when I first saw it, in 2008, although by that stage it was a gutted ruin. For me it also had particular associations. A long time ago in Cyprus I met someone who had helped to catalogue the Legation library in the 1970s; more recently I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Jonathan Lee, a truly remarkable man who among many contributions to the preservation of Afghan history and culture had arranged for what remained of the library in 2001 to be transferred to the AREU, a Kabul research institute.
When it was built, in the 1920s, this splendid building fulfilled the Foreign Secretary’s requirement (at the time Lord Curzon, a man with a longstanding interest in Afghanistan and firm views regarding Britain’s proper place in the world) that Her Majesty’s representative in Afghanistan should be “the best-housed man in Asia.” There was more to it than that, of course. Exhausted by war, Britain’s influence on India’s strategic neighbour to the West was on the wane. After a short conflict in 1919, known as the Third Anglo-Afghan War, Britain had handed back to Afghanistan control of its own foreign policy: that moment is celebrated by Afghans as their Independence Day. Britain’s grand new complex just outside the city, constructed in the decade after those political developments, was clearly designed to assert Britain’s ongoing influence in Afghan affairs. Meanwhile the new king of Afghanistan, Amanullah, was doing his own bit of architectural self-assertion, marking his nation’s independence by building an extravagant new administrative district, Darulaman, to the S-W of Kabul, inspired by nation-building architectural programmes at Ankara in Turkey and at New Delhi.
An impression of the grandeur of the British building and grounds can be got from this film, from the fabulous collection on the website of the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University. But this footage in fact shows the Legation after it had come very close to destruction. On the foundation stone outside the front door was engraved Stet Fortuna Domus, “May this House Prosper,” but barely a year after its completion, in 1928/9, King Amanullah was overthrown by a revolt under the leadership of a man known as Bachaye Saqao (“Son of a Water-carrier”). The provocation for the rebellion was a series of reforms that might look innocuous to a Western liberal (for example, measures on education and female emancipation), but which were too radical for the deeply conservative population of Afghanistan outside Kabul. Amanullah’s implementation of his reforms was also far too precipitate. As the rebellion closed on Kabul, the British Legation and its population of men, women and children found themselves on the front line between government and rebel forces for an extended period, trapped and hit by “sixty-six shells and thousands of bullets”, according to the head of the Legation, Sir Francis Humphrys. Some impressive old-school sangfroid was on display: Lady Humphrys, Sir Francis’ wife, describes in her diary the difficulty of using the bathroom one day: “Dressing difficult today. Bath filled with water as a reserve because of pumping difficulties and wash basin in fire zone.” Sir Francis’ pipe, never seemingly extinguished, became key to the morale of the people in the Legation. The story of the successful evacuation to India of the British staff and other foreign missions around Kabul is compellingly told in Anne Baker’s Wings over Kabul, a great read if you can find it. Here, incorrectedly identified by Pathé, is some remarkable film of the uprising against Amanullah, and the airlift (the planes in the snow are RAF Vickers Victorias) that extracted the foreigners:
By this stage the Ampses had left Afghanistan, it seems. But Sheikh Mahbub Ali Khan was in the thick of it at the (effectively besieged) Legation. Mahbub Ali was Oriental Secretary in the British Legation, a Pashtun from Peshawar who had joined the (British) Indian Political Service, and to whose “most wonderful work and courage” was attributed much of the success of the evacuations. In this photograph of the Legation staff Mahbub Ali is third from right, and I think that it’s Major Amps second from right.
Mahbub Ali comes to prominence again, in very different circumstances. It is about 20 years later, by which time he held the position of Political Agent of Malakand, the senior British official in a section of the tribal territories along the border between British India and Afghanistan. In an image that is now iconic, originating in a Life Magazine special issue on the establishment of Pakistan in 1947, Mahbub Ali is shown in an assembly or jirga collecting thumbprints as signatures from tribesmen in Swat, indicating their agreement to be governed by the new state of Pakistan.
Not long before, as India moved messily towards Partition, Mahbub Ali had been caught up in a vicious controversy. In 1946 the leader of the Indian National Congress, Jawaharlal Nehru, travelled to the N-W Frontier in the hopes of garnering support among the Pashtun population there for Congress and its ideal of an undivided India. Nehru was accompanied on his trip by Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun campaigner against British rule whose supporters, the Khudai Khidmatgars, “Servants of God,” or Red Shirts, were allied with Congress and opposed to the Muslim League’s demand for a separate Muslim homeland in Pakistan. Here is Ghaffar Khan with Gandhi in Peshawar in 1938.
Nehru’s visit in 1946 was not a success. It became pretty plain very quickly as the party toured the tribal territories that support for an alliance with the predominantly Hindu Congress was not high. The visitors suspected that, behind the abuse and violence that they found directed at them more or less everywhere they went, were the British authorities, and in his autobiography, My Life and Struggle, Ghaffar Khan reserves his most withering criticism for Mahbub Ali in Malakand:
This Agent, Sheikh Mahboob Ali, was an extremely mean and unscrupulous individual. He had been responsible for great suffering and even spiritual agony among our people. He was the same Mahboob Ali who, when he was in Kabul in the service of the British Ambassador David Humphrey [sic], had made a name for himself for the part he played in overthrowing Amanullah Khan, and placing Bacha Sakka on his throne.
This is a pretty exaggerated claim, even if the job of Oriental Secretary at the Legation suggests its share of local intrigue. But Ghaffar Khan was very supportive of Amanullah’s reforms in Afghanistan, shared his passion for education and women’s emancipation, and felt his demise deeply. In his autobiography he goes on to blame Mahbub Ali for the rough reception that he and Nehru experienced in Malakand, and Mahbub Ali was in fact subsequently suspended and prosecuted (and in the event, I should add, acquitted) for his role in events.
Ghaffar Khan really doesn’t pull his punches when he talks about Mahbub Ali, but in the process he provides (in how distorted a form, I can’t be sure) the only further information about Mahbub Ali’s later life I could find. A deeply religious man, Ghaffar Khan uses Mahbub Ali as evidence of God’s unerring justice:
A man may forget God and become so full of pride and arrogance that he thinks he can get away with anything. But he should remember that the wrath of God may overtake him at any moment. Everyone knows that where Mahboob Ali’s house once stood, now asses bray. At the end of his life he met with so much disrespect and had to bear such terrible suffering that even the hardest of hearts would soften towards him. He had a wife and two daughters. One of his daughters was shot by his nephew, in his own house and before his very eyes. The other daughter also died. His wife ran away, with every penny he possessed. And today no one even remembers his name. He has left neither children nor a good reputation and he himself has already been called to account for his deeds before God, to whom belongs all reckoning.
Vindictive words indeed from a man known as the “Frontier Gandhi”, committed to non-violence and the disinterested service of mankind. His tolerance had limits, and he clearly detested everything that Mahbub Ali of the Indian Political Service stood for. But Ghaffar Khan helped to ensure, despite himself, that Mahbub Ali wasn’t entirely forgotten. I should say that in my own case my first tip as to the identity of Mahbub Ali came from Owen Humphrys, grandson of the pipe-smoking head of the British Legation and the equally indomitable Lady Humphrys, who came along to a talk I gave on Bamiyan last year.
We’re a long way from that sunny image of Bamiyan in 1926. For the British Legation in Kabul, the British Empire in India, Mahbub Ali, Ghaffar Khan, and indeed for Afghanistan and its neighbours in general, there were turbulent decades to follow that peaceful scene. In 2013, though, so a report in the Tribune tells us, the old Legation building, now the Embassy of Pakistan, has been fully renovated. Symbolically, perhaps, while Darulaman, the symbol of Afghanistan’s independence, remains in ruins, Pakistan’s representative in Afghanistan has his “vice-regal seat”, in the words of Hamid Karzai, the current President of Afghanistan. Pakistan inherited the building from the British. It also inherited the role of Afghanistan’s intrusive, overbearing neighbour.
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.
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.
- Athena (brooklynrenee3.wordpress.com)
And the Persian for “Naples” is?
Last week I read the most fascinating book I’ve read in ages. If I go on to say that this book compares the fragmentary papyrus remains of an ancient Greek novel with the fragments of a medieval Persian epic poem, this may well be the moment you and I part company, dear reader. And if you do abandon this blog and find something more interesting to do, I quite understand. It came as a surprise to me too.
But why did I find it so interesting? The Greek text is a few pages of a novel, maybe written in the first century BC, entitled Parthenope or Metiokhos kai Parthenope (“Metiokhos and Parthenope”), while the rather longer fragment of Persian poetry is a chunk of the Vamiq u ‘Adhra (The Ardent Lover and the Virgin), written by the poet ‘Unsuri in Ghazni, now Afghanistan, in the eleventh century AD. By chance, the very small parts of each work that survive overlap, and it’s perfectly clear that the Persian poem is an imitation of the Greek novel. The link or links between the two texts must be pretty close: there may well have been an Arabic or Persian prose intermediary version of the Greek novel that ‘Unsuri turned into Persian verse, but it’s also possible that the “translation” from Greek to Persian was direct–that ‘Unsuri or more likely a collaborator read Greek, in other words. For what it’s worth, mosaics representing Parthenope and Metiokhos in what was the east of the Roman Empire, at Antioch and at Zeugma on the upper Euphrates, indicate the popularity of the story.
It all makes for quite a disorienting reading experience. In this Afghan poem, written a generation or so before the Norman Conquest, we find ourselves reading about ‘Adhra’s father Fuluqrat (Polykrates), tyrant of Shamis (Samos), with his court poet Ifuqus (Ibykos: “In Iran and Rum and Hindustan/ They told good things about him”). Meanwhile Vamiq recounts the story of Hurmuz (Hermes) discovering for the first time how a tortoise shell can be made into a lyre, and compares himself to Landrus (Leander) in his passionate devotion, and ‘Adhra to Haru (Hero) in her beauty. The plots, or rather the plot, of the novel and poem is the classic plot of an ancient novel: beautiful boy and beautiful girl meet, instantly fall in love, are separated by misfortune, and the girl maintains her virginity (‘adhra is Arabic for “virgin”; and parthen- also means “virgin” in Greek) despite numerous mishaps and enforced journeys with pirates and slave-traders far and wide. Among other places, ‘Unsuri’s poem seems to have taken ‘Adhra and the reader to Righiyun (Rhegion) in the south of Italy, and possibly Tarentum (Tartaniyush). Naples may have marked the limit of Parthenope’s travels to the West. Presumably at the end of the story boy and girl were reunited and lived happily ever after, but we’ve no clear evidence for that.
For a Classicist, at least, it’s pretty stunning to find a classical Greek text exerting that kind of influence way to the east in the borderlands of India, a millennium after it was composed. ‘Unsuri was a court poet of Mahmud of Ghazni, and that court, enriched by Mahmud’s military incursions into India, was a major cultural centre. This was where the great polymath al-Biruni was based for the last decades of his life, and also where the national epic of the Persian people, Firdausi’s Shahnama, “The Book of Kings”, was realised. In al-Biruni’s case, we know that his writing was greatly influenced by Greek thinking: al-Biruni is a remarkable figure, simultaneously the author of the first great study of India, and a mind deeply versed in Aristotle, although very prepared to disagree with the Greek master. He may also have had some kind of working relationship with ‘Unsuri, since they shared some topics in common (both wrote about the Buddhas of Bamiyan, for example, and both about Vamiq and ‘Adhra). Nevertheless, the notion that Greek literature, as opposed to philosophy, science or mathematics, could find such a positive reception on the eastern fringes of Islamic world is an arresting one.
This Classicist has a couple more reasons to be interested in ‘Unsuri’s poem, all of them related to my personal preoccupation with Bamiyan. The first is just a tantalising possibility. The text of Vamiq u ‘Adhra was discovered by the Pakistani scholar Mohammad Shafi in around 1950, reused as stiffening in the binding of an old Arabic theological handbook. A note found along with the leaves of poetry seems to be an inventory of books belonging to a man named Zaki b. Muhammad b. ‘Ali ‘Abd ul-Hamid al-Bamiyani, and the al-Bamiyani at the end of this individual’s name may suggest that the library where this copy of Vamiq u ‘Adhra originated was at Bamiyan. The manuscript itself dates to the twelfth century, and at that time Bamiyan was a thriving and important city, as indeed it was right up to its destruction by Genghis Khan in 1221.
An origin in Bamiyan for the manuscript is an appealing possibility, but a less tenuous connection is that ‘Unsuri, author of Vamiq u ‘Adhra, wrote another poem entitled Khing but u Surkh but (The Moon-white idol and the Red idol), another romantic tale, also lost, which offered an explanation of the great Buddha statues at Bamiyan, celebrated marvels in the medieval Islamic world: Khing but, “Moon-white idol” and Surkh but, “Red idol” were the established names in Islamic accounts for the smaller and larger Buddha at Bamiyan. ‘Unsuri’s poem on the Buddhas shared the same metrical and rhyming system with his Vamiq u ‘Adhra, an epic system also used for romances, and in fact it’s often unclear which fragments belong to Vamiq u ‘Adhra and which to Khing but u Surkh but. But we know that the latter poem described how two lovers were separated and died apart, but were buried together, their tombs being the two gigantic Buddha statues.
(Recent research has suggested that these names for the Buddhas originated very early in the Islamic history of Afghanistan. The statues were carved in the sixth and seventh centuries AD, but by as early as AD 800 Bamiyan had been converted to Islam. When Muslim witnesses first described the Buddhas, then, the statues retained some of the rich decoration they’d enjoyed when Bamiyan was still Buddhist. Since the destruction of the Buddhas in 2001 German researchers have established that the statues were repeatedly repainted during the Buddhist period, but in their final form were painted white (khing) in the case of the smaller Buddha, and red (surkh) in the case of the larger. It’s not often that historical and literary sources mesh so neatly with archaeology.)
In my book on Bamiyan I used the fact that ‘Unsuri wrote a poem about them to illustrate how diverse Muslim attitudes to the giant Buddhas have historically been. To listen to the Taliban you would think that, as religious images, they were an obvious affront to Islam. But the fact is that they survived for well over a thousand years in an Islamic culture, treated (as I’ve mentioned) as wonders of the God-created world. Here in ‘Unsuri’s poem they were the romantic leads.
This brings us round to what I think is the most important thing that Vamiq u ‘Adhra has to tell us about Bamiyan. I’ve described ‘Unsuri’s patron, Mahmud of Ghazni, as a great patron of the arts. This was the case in literature and natural science, and also in the visual arts: for example, beautifully decorated Ghaznavid palaces once lined the river Helmand near Lashkar Gah (the Ghaznavids’ winter capital), a place with entirely different associations today. But it’s fair to say that isn’t how Mahmud’s seen in all quarters. Take for example Mullah Omar, spiritual head of the Taliban, who repeatedly in the run-up to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 cited Mahmud of Ghazni as a precedent for his own policy. A story, and it is just a story, is told of Mahmud’s plundering of the Hindu temple at Somnath on the coast of Gujarat: the priests in the temple, so we’re told, tried to buy back their idol, a Shiva linga, from Mahmud, to which he is supposed to have responded, “I am the idol-breaker (but-shekan), not the idol-seller (but-furosh).” According to the folktale Mahmud is the perfect Islamic warrior, undistracted from pious idol destruction by the seduction of money. In 2001, when foreign organisations offered to pay Afghanistan to preserve the Buddhas, Mullah Omar responded with Mahmud’s (alleged) words, and of course proceeded to break the idols of Bamiyan.
But the truth about Mahmud is there, if we look hard enough, in the Vamiq u ‘Adhra. Far from being driven by religious zealotry, Mahmud was motivated by the human and practical demands of an impressive court, a professional army and expansive ambitions: he needed money, and the wealthy temples of India were good sources of it. Cash was his motivation for invading India, not the saving of souls. Now Mahmud no doubt dressed up his activities as the actions of a pious Muslim bringing enlightenment to idol-worshipping Indians. But in actual fact the position of the Ghaznavid empire in the borderlands between the world of Islam and India required a ruler in his perilous position to be quite liberal, for the day, in the relations he maintained with other faiths. For example, there was an Indian quarter in Ghazni, home to Indian contingents which formed an important part of Mahmud’s invading forces. We even hear of the widows of Mahmud’s fallen Indian soldiers committing sati, an entirely unIslamic practice.
In the Vamiq u ‘Adhra Mahmud, or maybe his successor Ma’sud, enjoyed a Greek popular story of a couple that met in the famous haikal or but-khana, temple, of Hera on Samos, one of them an assertive young woman who holds her own in philosophical debate on the nature of Love in the company of men, and later fights in battle. Literature is not life in any straightforward way, of course, but it’s equally clear that the notion of Mahmud as a model of puritanical zealotry can’t survive the sophisticated and gloriously polychromatic environment of his court at Ghazni, or the pleasure palaces beside the Helmand.
I’m deeply grateful to Jean-Marie Lafont, another Classicist who has strayed into Central Asia, for drawing my attention to this remarkable literary phenomenon. The book I’ve been reading is by Bo Utas and the late Tomas Hägg, The Virgin and her Lover: Fragments of an Ancient Greek Novel (Leiden, 2003).