Friday, 29 April 2011

Ceausescu's Romania

At Easter 1974 I went on a school visit to Romania. The country was supposed to be a totalitarian dictatorship under Ceausescu, but I had difficulty recognising this. Everything seemed much more relaxed and generally inconsequential than in Russia the previous year. There were no political slogans on the streets, and although there were armed guards at the hotel, they completely failed to deter adults from proposing currency transactions, and small boys trying to cadge chewing-gum, often right under the guards’ noses. In any case, the guards were only spotty teenage conscripts, who looked more afraid of us than we were of them. Although there were signs at military installations warning us not to take photographs, soldiers would lean out of the barracks and wave to us. We saw monks walking on the streets and greeting tourists at the Snagov monastery; and our guide, Michaela, lit a candle to the saints at the cathedral – for her mother, she said. . Michaela and the other guides made no attempt to feed us propaganda, and the name of Ceausescu was simply never mentioned.

Our first sight proved to be rather misleading: as we drove into Bucharest from the airport, we passed a huge field where a long line of women was hoeing the soil. We wondered if it was a labour camp, but when we had seen more of the country, we realised it was probably that they just didn’t have any tractors. The chief initial impression of Bucharest was that it all looked very French: the 19th-century terraces, the pavement cafes with their umbrellas, the titles of the shops (A bookshop was a “Librarie”, a grocer’s an “Alimentara”). The language seemed about two-thirds French, which made it easy to talk to the locals, whose French was generally better than ours. We went to see the huge and impressive monument to Gheorghe Gheorghiu- Dej, the hero of Romanian communism. It was a kind of tower of connected arches, in red granite.

Inside was a circle of tombs for other heroes, some of them already occupied. We asked Michaela what would happen if they ran out of space for heroes in the future, and she said they would probably have to move up a layer. This hardly seemed a serious attitude. (I couldn’t find any mention of the monument in a recent guidebook to Bucharest, and I wondered whether it had been destroyed, which I think would be a pity from an aesthetic point of view) When I showed Michaela and her friends the communist party card-holder I had got in Russia the previous year, they were far more interested in the picture of Olga Korbut I had stuck inside it. I found a bookshop with English-language books, including a very cheap edition of Kipling’s “Just So Stories” with footnotes in Romanian, presumably explaining what a “bi-coloured python rocksnake” might be. There was a particularly charming incident when we drove back into Bucharest at the end of our tour. Our coach overtook a kind of cortege of limousines, and a bit further on, we met masses of flags and troops in their best uniforms pulling on white gloves. It turned out that we had overtaken the ceremonial state visit of the president of Costa Rica, but nobody much seemed to care. The best thing we saw in the Bucharest area was the “Village Museum” just outside the city, which had reconstructions of peasant huts and churches from all parts of the country. It could have looked thoroughly bogus, but we found it fascinating.

After two days we drove to Predeal, up in the Carpathian mountains, and entered a different world. It was an isolated town surrounded by threatening peaks rising to six thousand feet, with impenetrable forests on the lower slopes and deep snow above the tree-line. When we went in a cable car up to the summit, we saw that the whole place was clearly virgin skiing territory, but there was nobody there. We stayed in a chalet. Nights were very cold, but the windows were triple-glazed and our rooms kept warm with very attractive porcelain-tiled stoves with gas-rings inside. From here we visited Peles castle, an elaborate 19th century hunting lodge built for the Romanian royal family, and the town of Brasov. This looked exactly like somewhere in southern Germany, which was not surprising because it was originally built and inhabited by Germans. Before the war, its name was Kronstadt, but after 1945 the surviving Germans were all driven out and the place was renamed. Alongside the church we found a statue of Romania’s only humanist. We had a very nasty incident at night in Predeal. Two of the boys drank too much Chinese vodka from the local store, and, in a confused state, decided to go for a midnight walk in the woods. They were wearing only t-shirts and jeans. Inevitably, they got lost, and then began to suffer from exposure. We were roused at 3 a.m., and then one of them staggered back to the chalet, too incoherent to explain anything, and so far gone that he had taken off his boots at some point and continued his walk barefoot. The other was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, he was safe, and we found him the next day. He was lucky enough to collapse in the front garden of a local peasant, who took him in and put him to bed, but had no idea where he came from. A day later, both were recovered. A strange part of the story was that, when we first discovered the two were missing, Michaela tried to ring up the local militia, but there was nobody on duty there. So much for a police state, we thought: there’s no-one down the cop-shop when you want them!

Then we drove through more mountains to Curtea de Arges. The town itself had a fine early mediaeval Princely Church, and an elaborate later cathedral. When I wandered around on my own, I found a little painted church, with pictures of the saints around the outside. We had seen these in the Village Museum, but for the most part this style was to be found in Moldavia, up in the north-east of the country . But the main reason for this stop was that it brought us into Dracula territory. The original Count was actually a prince of the 15th century, Vlad Tepes: Vlad the Impaler, or Blood-drinker (see footnotes): so called not because he bit people in the jugular, but because of all the Turks he managed to slaughter as they tried to invade his territory. This made him very much a local hero. Already the Romanians were cottoning on to the fact that money could be made out of this link: we found pictures of Vlad in imitation of church icons, and bottles of “Dracula” plum brandy in the shops. We toured a local castle called Castle Bran, which was very picturesque and frequently appeared on Dracula movies, though there is little evidence that he actually stayed there. The real Dracula’s castle was in a very remote place up in the mountains, and after climbing up the 1400 steps to the ruins, with an icy wind hissing through the pine trees and shreds of mist boiling up from the valley below, it was easy for us to see how Bram Stoker believed the place was haunted – though in fact he never went anywhere near the Carpathians in his life, and drew all his information and atmosphere from travel books!

We were equally fascinated by the peasant villages through which we passed. There were a great many tiny wattle-and-daub cabins which could have come straight out of the Village Museum, though these were being replaced by brick cottages. All, new or old, had gaudily-painted porches. There was a well every so often, suggesting they had no running water, but on the other hand every home had a TV aerial. We passed old women spinning wool by hand. Once when we stopped, a peasant came by with his ox-cart. I took a photograph of him, and he made signs indicating he wanted pencil and paper. He then wrote down his name and address, so I could send him a copy of the picture, which I later did. Again, this hardly seemed the behaviour of a people terrified of the secret police. But our drive did bring home the level of poverty still existing in Romania, and made us wonder what it must have been like before the war.

Our experiences at the airport awaiting departure summed up our visit. We realised we’d never had a group photo of the trip, so we went out onto the tarmac and took one. No officials seemed to mind this serious breach of security. While we were hanging about in the departure lounge someone managed to upset a large ashtray container, and a live bullet fell out of the rubbish. We felt the only thing to do was replace it quietly and move on.

Our overall impression of Romania was of friendly and harmless inconsequence. Comments made after the fall of communism, about how it was a ruthless totalitarian dictatorship, have always puzzled me. Possibly things got much harsher in later years. It should also be remembered that Ceaucescu was viewed for many years in the west as the “good guy” of communism, because he obstinately refused to follow the Russian line in foreign policy. Romania refused to sent troops to help crush the “Czech Spring” in 1968, and equally refused to join the Russian boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It is ironic that Ceausescu, who refused to follow the Russian line, was the only eastern European leader to be executed after the collapse of communism in 1989; just as Yugoslavia, which under Tito was communist but neutral in the Cold War, was the only ex-communist state to disintegrate into violent civil war!

“Count Dracula” was a prince, not a count. He lived in the 15th century in Wallachia rather than Transylvania, and became a local hero through his ferocious battles against the Turks, who were spreading their empire northwards through the Balkans. His name was Vlad, the same as his father; who was known as “Vlad Dracul”: “Vlad the dragon”; so our man was styled “Vlad the little dragon”: “Vlad Dracula”. Stories of his bloodthirsty deeds, such as impaling thousands of his enemies alive on stakes, spread to western Europe. But before Bram Stoker I don’t think anyone connected him with the old folk-legend of the Vampire: the ghost that drinks the blood of living people at night. (Vampires occur in British horror-stories before Stoker). Incidentally, since the collapse of communism historic properties have been handed back to the families of their pre-war owners, so Castle Bran now belongs to the Habsburgs!

Friday, 22 April 2011

Free-Market Economics

"If the market is blind to need or merit, how can those who have no reasonable expectation of benefitting from it be reconciled to their situation?" (Friedrick Hayek)

This is indeed a problem for free-marketeers. Ever since the days of Adam Smith, the fundamental notion has been that the "hidden hand of the market" has meant that, while I work to make money for myself, I also benefit the community as a whole. But supposing this is not the case? If the working of the market means that I lose my job, or my hard-earned skills become worthless, or the goods I produce can no longer be sold at a profit, what possible motive can I have for supporting this system? If I, or my family, have urgent needs (such as sheer starvation) which the market is not satisfying, surely I am entitled to demand some other system? I suppose that some appeal could be made on the grounds that I ought to subordinate my personal wellbeing to some greater cause: patriotism, the "general good" and so forth, but such metaphysical notions really have no place in free-market theory.

Intellectuals of all kinds, from Karl Marx to D. H. Lawrence, have despised the mercantile approach. This is because intellectuals want to discuss questions such as "Is it good?", "Is it beautiful?", whereas all the market wants or needs to know is "Will it sell? And for how much?"

Monday, 18 April 2011

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw

The mysterious aspect behind this famous ghost story (published in 1898, but referring back to events of the 1860s) would seem to be not so much "were the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel actually there?" but "what precisely had been going on between them and the two children, Miles and Flora, over whom they still exert some kind of a hold?" We are never told the answer to this. Words like "evil" and "horror" are constantly being used, but are never explained. Miles, we are told, has been expelled from his prep school for telling certain "stories", which upset the other boys and appalled the masters, but once again, we are never told the nature of these "stories".
We as readers are of course free to place whatever interpretation we like on the novel, but at the same time we must wonder what exactly Henry James had in mind when he wrote it. My suggestion is that it is concerned with sex, a topic which James, a lifelong batchelor, was always reluctant to write about directly. Had Quint and Miss Jessel been caught "in flagrante" by the children, who were then sworn to secrecy by the threat of dire punishment? Or was it, more darkly, that this pair had been sexual abusing the children? Obviously we shall never know what James intended, but I think that, if we assume sexual abuse of the children, that explains the underlying mystery of the novel better than any other theory. The constant references to evil and horror, Miles's disgusting stories, the strange hold that Quint and Miss Jessel still have over Miles and Flora, all fall into place.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Storm from the East; Part 3; Mongols

Various nomad peoples had roamed the vast plains of Mongolia, northern China and eastern Siberia since time immemorial: Mongols, Tatars, Huns, Turks and others; tending their vast flocks of sheep, horses and camels, and feuding with each other. Every so often they would ravage the lands of the settled civilisations to the south and south-west, spreading terror with their lightning raids. Their favoured weapon was the composite bow, which could be fired from horseback and had enormous penetrative power.

Around the year 1160 there was born a certain Temujin. His early life was one of constant warfare, couple with astute political dealing, but by around 1206 he had united the tribes under his leadership, and took the modest title of "Lord of the World" - Genghis Khan. The limitless ambition implied in this title he was now determined to fulfil. His first target was China. He invaded 1211, and over the next few years overran the north of the Chinese Empire, and also received the submission of Korea, before turning his gaze to the south-west. The Moslem Turkish Kharazmian Empire, in what is now Uzbekistan, wantonly antagonised Genghis by seizing his merchants and killing his envoys. In 1220 Genghis with a vast army crossed the deserts undetected and seized the city of Bokhara. Some 30,000 of its people were then slaughtered, with only some women, children and useful craftsmen being spared and marched back to Mongolia. The city was razed to the ground,with only the Kalyan minaret left standing (It is still there today). The message to others was clear: only immediate surrender and heavy tribute could save a city from annihilation. The Mongols pursued their fleeing foes through Afghanistan as far as the Indus, destroying Herat, Merv and Balkh on the way. Another army drove on south of the Caspian Sea, upthrough Azerbaijan and Georgia, across the Caucasus to Astrakhan and deep into the Ukraine, before returning home in 1225 through Siberia, laden with plunder. Genghis died in 1227. The total death-toll resulting from his raids must have amounted to at least a million. 70,000 were killed at Merv: Balkh and other ancient cities were reduced to ruins and never recovered. In many of these arid regions, civilization depended upon an effective system of irrigation, and if the slaughter of the population meant that the ditches could not be properly maintained for several years, then an area could quickly revert to desert.

It is a great mistake to believe that the Mongol armies were simply wild undisciplined mobs of horsemen. On the contrary, their campaign were far better planned and organised than anything seen in western Europe at the time. They amassed troops which were well-ordered and disciplined, stockpiled weapons and supplies, and sent spies in advance to scout the land and report back on opponents' strengths and weaknesses. Subject peoples were conscripted to fight for them, including men from the more advanced civilizations, particularly from China. It was not mere numbers that overwhelmed their enemies, but careful preparedness.

Genghis left four sons, and it was only after a couple of years that one of these, Ogodei, emerged as the new Great Khan, and continued the attempt at world conquest. His first campaigns were in northern China, but after a successful conclusion there he turned his attention to Europe. In 1237 his generals, Batu and Subedei, were sent across Siberia into Russia. Their army is estimated as consisting of some 50,000 Mongols and 60,000 conscript allies, including engineers from China & Persia, with giant catapults capable of hurling huge stones and firebombs. This mighty force crossed the Volga north of Kazan. The Russian cities fell one by one: Ryazan, Suzdal, Moscow, Vladimir: Novgorod was saved only by onset of spring, turning the land into swamp. The army spent the winter of 1239-40 in the Don valley, then renewed the attack. In 1240 Kiev, the cradle of Russian Christian civilization, was attacked. The city refused to surrender and was stormed and sacked and its population slaughtered; the great cathedral was spared but everywhere else was destroyed. The Mongol forces then divided. One section marched westwards; in March 1241 took and burnt Krakow, and pressed on through southern Poland to meet the knights of Prince Henry of Silesia at Liegnitz. It is said that perhaps 30,000 German warriors were killed that day. This force then headed south, because King Bela of Hungary had defied the Mongols. Budapest was taken, the Danube crossed and the Hungarian force of 60,000 men was trapped between two Mongol armies and slaughtered. There was panic amongst the kings of the west as Mongol scouts raided as far as Vienna, while the main army pursued Bela through Croatia, destroying Zagreb en route reaching Adriatic just south of Venice in May 1242 - but then, with western Europe at their mercy, the Mongol armies turned round and went home, because news reached them that back in Mongolia Ogedei Khan was dead, and the succession was disputed! This may be counted as one of the great turning-points of history: if the Great Khan had lived just a couple more years, the Mongols could have been in Rome and Paris, and heaven knows what would have happened to European civilization. As it was, they never reappeared in Europe. (see footnote)

In 1245 Pope Innocent IV sent missionaries and delegates to the Mongols, in the hoped the might be be ripe for convertion to Christianity. There was a longstanding legend that somewhere out in the east was the realm of "Prester John", John the Priest, a Christian emperor. The Pope's mission came to Kiev, where they found nothing but great pyramids of skulls, but they met and talked with Batu, who sent them on into Central Asia. Eventually they reached Karakorum, the Mongol capital, now being built up into a major city by captured and enslaved craftsmen. They failed to find Prester John, but they did come across Christians in Asia; members of the Nestorian church, which had been deemed heretical by the Byzantine Empire. Neither they nor later missions had any success in converting the Mongol leadership, but they did bring back reports of Mongol and Chinese society.

The new Great Khan, Guyuk, proved incompetent, but he died in 1248 and was succeeded three years later by Mongke Khan, one of four brothers. He renewed the attempt at world conquest, but decided to leave Europe alone. One of his brothers, Kubilai, was sent to destroy the remains of the Sung Empire in China, while another brother, Hulagu, was despatched against the Islamic world. Hulagu's campaign was planned in great detail: spies were sent to survey enemy lands, and envoys to the crusader states in Palestine and Syria promised alliances. Weapons and food supplies were stockpiled, and in 1256 the greatest army yet seen inworld history set off from Samarkand: perhaps as many as 300,000 men, including Chinese engineers equipped with giant catapults, missiles of an unknown chemical substance that would spontaneously burst into flames, even gunpowder. The expedition made first for the Elburz mountains south of the Caspian Sea, the home of the Assassins, the dissident Islamic sect, who had apparently plotted to murder the Great Khan. The Assassins felt secure in the remoteness and inaccessibility of Alamut and their other fortresses, but in an amazing logistic achievement the giant siege catapults were brought up the mountain slopes. Alamut was bombarded into submission, and two hundred other "Eagles' Nests" were stormed one by one and their entire populations slaughtered down to the last infant. The last Grand Master of the Assassins was taken to Karakorum, where he was killed. The verdict of Persian historians was, "The world has been cleansed", and Edward Gibbon wrote that the the campaign "May be considered a service to mankind". In 1248 Hulagu's forces approached Baghdad, where for the last five centuries the Abbasid Caliphs had ruled as spiritual leaders of the Moslem world. But the current Caliph, Mustasim, dithered: he failed to proclaim a jihad of all Moslems against the pagan invaders, and seemed to believe Baghdad could hold out on its own. He was wrong: after only a week, the city was stormed and sacked. The number of dead has been estimated as anything between 800,000 and two million. The last Caliph and his family were sewn into an enormous carpet and trampled to death beneath the hooves of the horses. The Caliphate was at an end. The Crusdaders, by now largely confined to the coastal strip, were agog with hope as Hulagu advanced into Syria. It was said that his favourite wife was a Christian, and so was Ketbugha, his leading commander. Aleppo fell in January 1260; the moslem population was slaughtered, but the christians were spared. Damascus then surrendered without a fight; Ketbugha entered the city in triumph alongside King Hayton of Armenia and Bohemond, Prince of Antioch; and the principal mosque was converted into a church. Together they planned the next stage of the campaign: to Jerusalem, and then on to Egypt, the last remaining powerful Moslem state left in the world. The extirpation of Islam as a serious force looked imminent. But then there ensued an eerie reprise of what had happened less than twenty years earlier. In February 1260 Mongke Khan died of dysentery on campaign in China, and Hulagu abandoned his campaign and pulled the bulk of his armies back to Iraq to await developments, leaving only a skeleton force of 15,000 under Ketbugha in Damascus. Islam was saved. With the crusader states staying neutral, Qutuz the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt decided to march out to meet the Mongols. Against all expectations he defeated and killed Ketbugha in a hardfought battle at Ayn Jalut in Palestine. Hulagu himself died in 1265: his successors, the Il-Khans, ruled Iraq for some time afterwards, and were converted to Islam. There were occasional battles, but never again was there a concerted attack on such a scale. (Incidentally, there has been much talk of Western leaders "apologising" for the crusades. Hulagu must have killed many more Moslems in his single campaign than all the crusades put together, but I have come across no sign of Mongolia offering to apologise!)

In fact, this was to prove then end of the great Mongol raids westwards. The next Great Khan was Kubilai, brother of Mongke and Hulagu. He concentrated on China (see footnotes), and the vast empire soon split up into separate Khanates. But just for a while, everywhere from the Black Sea to the Pacific was united under Mongol control, and it was possible for travellers and merchants to undertake this immense journey without fear of bandits. Thus it was that Marco Polo was able to set out for China in 1271, and brought back to Europe amazing stories of the wealth and wonder of the East.


1. The country most affected was Russia, which continued to be dominated by a Mongol (more usually known as Tatar) khanate known as the Golden Horde until the 16th century. It was only then that Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan and put an end to Tatar power; by which time western Europe had experienced the Renaissance and the Reformation. It could be said that as a result, the Russian experience was always going to be totally different from that of the west.

2. Kubilai destroyed the Sung Empire in China and established his own Yuan dynasty. He was converted to Buddhism, and abandoned Karakorum to centre his rule in northern China. There he built a new city, planned on strictly Chinese principles, named Shang-Tu ("The Upper Capital"). Marco Polo called the city "Ciandu", and in English translations it became "Xanadu".
"In Xanadu did Kubilai Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree...."

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Storm from the East; part 2: Turks

(The previous entry looked in overall terms at how Europe and the Near East were periodically under attack by nomads from the East, and outlined the invasions of the Huns, Avars and Magyars. This entry will cover the Turks).

At the start of the 11th century, a degree of stability had been achieved between the frontiers of the Islamic and Christian worlds. The strongest Christian state, the Byzantine Empire at Constantinople, ruled modern Turkey, the Balkans and parts of Italy. Spain, the whole of the African Meiterranean coast, Syria, and eastwards to the frontier of China was Islamic. For more than a century, the only territories to change between the two were the frontier islands: Sicily, Crete and Cyprus. But the Islamic world had long ceased to be a political unity. The Caliph at Baghdad was accepted as the Successor to the Prophet by Sunni Moslems, but Spain had its own Umayyid Caliphate and Egypt was ruled by the Shia Fatimids. This disunity was to prove a great weakness.

In many ways the Byzantine empire and the Caliphate were quite similar. Both were based upon a large capital city with a cultured court and an absolute monarch, assisted by a tax-collecting bureaucracy, hiring mercenary armies & ruling a peasant population. There appeared to be a stable civilisation throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East, with a few great cities, Baghdad, Cairo, Constantinople, Salonika, Palermo, and Cordova, controlling a trading network reaching all the way from the Baltic down into Africa and across to China. But this stable situation was about to undergo a revolutionary change in the 11th century - beginning, appropriately enough, around the year 1000.

Umayyid Spain was noted for its learning and tolerance. Almost the whole peninsula was under Moslem rule, and Christian kingdoms survived only in the far north. But under Hisham II a new spirit of intolerance emerged. Berber tribesmen from north Africa were recruited as mercenary soldiers, the great Christian pilgrimage centre of St Iago of Compostella was sacked in 997, the library of Cordova was purged of heretical books and heretical Moslem scholars were crucified. Soon, savage fighting broke out between the Berber troops and their Umayyid employers, and in 1013 the Berbers attacked Cordova and pillaged it. The Umayyid caliphate was permanently ruined and never recovered: Moslem Spain disintegrated into petty princedoms of Berber warlords. The way was opened for the Christian reconquest: in 1085 King Alfonso VI of Leon bloodlessly occupied Toledo. It would be 400 years before the last Moslem cities were captured, and for the moment religious toleration continued, but from this time onwards the Moslems of Spain were always on the back foot.

There were disturbing developments in Egypt at the same time, where in 1009 a new Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim, ordered the destruction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which caused a shock-wave of horror throughout Christendom. Al-Hakim was soon assassinated, the church was allowed to be rebuilt, and pilgrims continued to visit as before (including, Sweign, brother of King Harold of England) but the damage had been done.

Then two new menaces appeared. In Italy there were the Normans, who first coming as mercenary soldiers, soon managed to carve out a state for themselves in southern Italy, attacking local nobles, Byzantine bases and Moslems indiscriminately. In 1060 the Normans began the conquest of Moslem Sicily, which took 30 years. The Normans were not interested in city culture: what they wanted was land. (The Normans in Italy and Sicily have been covered in an earlier blog entry) And in the east came an even greater threat, which was to end the great days of both the empires.

When we first hear of the Seljuk Turks, they were living in what is now Uzbekistan in central Asia. They were a nomadic people, whose wealth took the form of their huge flocks of sheep, for which they were always searching for fresh pastures. They were noted warriors: horse-archers riding sturdy little ponies. In battle their wives would wait in the rear, with fresh mounts and supplies of extra arrows. They would signal their presence, and frighten their enemies, beating drums made by stretching sheepskins over their cooking pots (hence being known as kettle drums!) They originally appeared in Afghanistan and eastern Iran as mercenary troops, but by the 1030s they were territorial rulers in their own right, and in 1044, under their leader Togril Beg, they moved westwards. In 1055 the feeble Caliph in Baghdad was forced to grant Togril Beg a series of unprecedented titles: “Sultan, Ruler of the east and of the west, vice-regent of the successor of the Prophet, lord of the Moslems”. The Caliphate continued in existence, but was reduced to a mere puppet of the Seljuks. Soon Seljuk territory extended down through Palestine to Mecca itself.

The next Sultan was Alp Arslan, who led his people into the territory of the Byzantines. The Emperor Romanus IV thought this invasion threat should be crushed, and in 1071 assembled a vast army and advanced to meet them at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia: but, in one of the most crucial battles in world history, Romanus’s army was unable to cope with the Turkish warfare of fast-moving mounted archers, varied with occasional feigned flights to lure the enemy into making rash charges. The Byzantine army was destroyed and Romanus himself captured. Next year, 1072, Alp Arslan was killed by one of his own commanders, but was succeeded by son Malik Shah, under whom the advance continued. Soon vast numbers of Turks were flooding westwards, almost reaching the coast. They destroyed the farms to make pasture for their sheep, and many towns were abandoned. The empire at a stroke lost one of its main sources of food, and also of soldiers for its armies. The very survival of the empire was in danger.The result was the appeal by the new Emperor Alexius Comnenus for help from western Europe, which was converted by Pope Urban II into the preaching of the First Crusade.

But in fact, menace less than might seem. Sultan Malik Shah died 1092, and the vast Seljuk territory disintegrated into petty states ruled by Seljuk chieftains or local warlords. Anatolia and Syria had a mixed population of Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and others, with Greeks still in a majority in some areas. Also, there was deadly rivalry between the Turks and the Fatimids of Egypt. The Turks had taken and pillaged Jerusalem, but it was later regained by the Egyptians.

The crusaders (whose best warriors were Norman knights from Italy) first came up against the Turks at Dorylaeum in north-western Anatolia in 1097: they found Turkish tactics of endless volleys of arrows from fast-moving mounted archers very difficult to cope with, and were fortunate to win the battle. But the route across Turkey was never safe, and later crusading expeditions there were massacred. The early successes of the crusaders was very largely due to disunity on the Moslem side. Once Saladin in the late 12th century had abolished the Fatimid caliphate, returned Egypt to the Sunni fold and united it with Syria under his rule, the crusader states were doomed. But Saladin was not a Turk or an Arab: he was a Kurd, the son of a mercenary soldier. The Turks were later reunited under the Ottoman dynasty, but that is another story.

(The next entry will cover at the great Mongol raids of the 13th century)

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Storm from the East; Part 1: Huns

The frontispiece of volume 2 of my copy of H. G. Wells's "Outline of History" is a painting of a man of Central Asian appearance mounted on a small but wild-looking horse against a desolate and entirely treeless background. It is entitled "The man of the great plains". This is entirely appropriate, since for more than a thousand years, the settled communities of Europe and the Near East (not to mention China and northern India) were terrorised by sporadic irruptions of invaders from the steppes. From the 4th to the 16th centuries, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Turks and Mongols would appear without warning and sweep westwards, spreading chaos and slaughter. Then, quite abruptly, these invasions ceased, and from then onwards the movement was all in the opposite direction.

The great steppe stretches for thousands of miles, from the Carpathian mountains across the Ukraine, southern Siberia and central Asia, all the way to China. It has few trees and in places is extremely arid, watered by only a handful of great rivers, on whose banks are found the few cities of the region. It is stiflingly hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. Most of the inhabitants were nomad clans, living in tented encampments, constantly on the move in search of grazing for the immense flocks of animals, sheep, horses or camels, which constituted their wealth. They grew no crops, subsisting on meat and cheese; they had little in the way of industries, and obtained necessities by trading with, or raiding, the settled communities on the fringes of their territory. They had no writing, and followed primitive shamanistic religions. Their strength lay in their numbers and their mobility. A charismatic leader who could unite the clans, as happened from time to time, could call upon tens of thousands of warriors to follow him. They were accustomed to travelling vast distances, were not deterred by harsh weather, and were not encumbered by much in the way of possessions.

Their fighting methods reflected this. Whereas in the tangled hills and forests of western Europe the typical warrior was a heavily-armed infantryman, good at holding defensive positions but moving only slowly, the typical warrior of the vast open spaces of the steppe was a mounted archer. The principal weapon was the composite bow, made of horn, wood and sinew glued together, immensely stronger than the short European bow, and less cumbersome to use than the English longbow; ideal for use on horseback. For tactics in battle, we should think of the old cowboy movies of Red Indians circling round a wagon-train. The nomads would keep a distance from their opponents, firing endless arrows, often feigning flight to lure them into reckless charges and then swiftly turning to counterattack, and only themselves charging in for the kill when the foe was completely disorganised and exhausted. It was by these methods that the Parthians slaughtered the Roman legions of Marcus Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BC, and the Seljuk Turks crushed the army of the Byzantine Empire at Manzikert in 1071, thus permanently changing the map of the Near East.

Under a charismatic leader like Attila, Arp Arslan or Genghis Khan, nomad empires could grow extremely fast. Surrounding peoples would be given the stark choice: join us and fight alongside us, or be slaughtered! Not surprisingly, many chose the former option, and the empire would expand at a tremendous pace - as long as battles continued to be won! But what if the momentum halted? or if the charismatic leader died, and there was a disputed succession to his crown? Then, very quickly, rebellions would break out, the different clans would go their own way, and the empire would disintegrate as fast as it had grown, leaving nothing behind except a trail of destruction. This too was a frequent outcome of the great nomad irruptions. But why did these irruptions occur when they did, and why did they abruptly cease? That remains a mystery. Climate change is a likely explanation: the increasing aridity of the central Asian steppe, combined with overpopulation, creating the need for fresh pasture-land. When Edward Gibbon wrote his great history, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" late in the 18th century, he concluded with the belief that European civilisation was by this time strong enough to resist any future barbarian attacks from the east. But already fear of any such invasions was anachronistic. Already the Russians had penetrated across Siberia to the Pacific coast, and had found that the steppe was empty. In the mid-19th century the armies of the Tsar experienced little difficulty in conquering the ancient cities, Samarkand, Bokhara and Merv, and imposing order on the nomad tribes, the Turkmen, Kazakhs and others. They subdued the vast plains by building railways across them. Later, Stalin crushed any remaining spirit of independence in the nomads by forcing collectivisation upon their flocks and herds. Much the same happened in Mongolia too, which was also under Communist rule. Today nothing survives but the legend.

Let's examine the first of these invasions in more detail. The Huns seem to have originated south of Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia.By the mi-4th century they had moved westwards to the region north of the Caspian Sea, and from there they advanced to the Danube in the 370s, driving the Germanic tribes of central Europe, the Goths, Vandals and others, to take refuge inside the Roman Empire. Quarrels soon broke out between these newcomers and their reluctant hosts, and in 378 the Emperor Valens and his army were destroyed by the Goths at the battle of Adrianople. In midwinter 406 the northern frontier of the empire collapsed: the river Rhine froze solid and a vast horde of Vandals, Suevi, Franks and other tribes flooded across into Gaul. In 410 Rome itself fell to Alaric, King of the Visigoths. By this time the Roman Empire was permanently divided. The eastern empire continued strongly at Constantinople, whereas in the west, the later emperors were mere puppets in hands of German mercenary warlords. But as long as the threat of the Huns remained, the Germanic tribes wished to keep the empire going. In 433 Attila, “the scourge of God” became king of all Hun tribes. (Tolkien suggested that his name seemed to be Gothic in origin, and probably meant something like "little father"). He assembled a vast force, which included levies from the subject Germanic tribes. In 451 Attila invaded Gaul, spreading panic and devastation in his wake. Facing him was Aetius, “the last of the Romans”. A composite army of Romans, Franks, Burgundians and Visigoths fought the Huns to a standstill in a gigantic battle near Chalons, following which Attila retreated back across the Rhine. This has to be counted as one of the great decisive battles which changed world history. Next year, Attila invaded Italy (thus according to tradition forcing refugees to flee to the islands that eventually became Venice). He approached Rome, but was somehow persuaded to withdraw by Pope Leo I: a famous scene depicted in one of Raphael's frescoes in the Vatican. (In fact, Attila's withdrawal would have been effected by huge payments of gold rather than any miraculous intervention). Within a year, Attila was dead, choked to death after a wedding feast; his German subjects rose in revolt and his mighty empire fell apart. The Huns withdrew to their base in eastern Ukraine and never again troubled western Europe. But their savagery lived on in legend, with the saying, "Where Attila set his foot, the grass no longer grew".

The Avars were a Turkish-Mongol tribe, who migrated westwards in the mid-6th century after their kingdom in central Asia was destroyed. At first they fought as mercenaries for the Emperor at Constantinople, but then set up their own Khanate, based on a city of tents in present-day Hungary. They quickly defeated the surrounding German and Slavic tribes, until their empire stretched from the Black Sea to the Alps and down throughthe Balkans. It was pressure from the Avars that forced the Lombards to migrate from the Danube down into northern Italy around 590, and in 624 the Avars even besieged Constantinople itself. They were then weakened by internal quarrels, the subject Czechs and Bulgars rose in revolt, and in 803 their power was destoyed by Charlemagne. Apart from a small tribe remaining in the Caucasus mountains, the Avars entirely disappeared from history.

The Magyars did not originate in the Far East, but their impact was similar to the other invaders. They were a nomadic people from western Siberia, who began to migrate westwards from the Don valley in the latter part of the 9th century. They settled on the Danube, from where they raided into Germany, France and Italy. Their ferocity awakened folk memories of the Huns five centuries earlier, and hence they were given the name "Hungarians". Eventually they were defeated at Lechfeld in 955 by the German Emperor Ottos the Great, and soon afterwards converted to Christianity. Their descendants still speak a language utterly unlike any other in Europe.

In the next post we can look at the invasions of the Turks and the Mongols.