Tag Archives: Middle East

Saddam’s kin

December 2003-August 2005

After the American-led invasion of Iraq, it took more than eight months before Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of the country, was captured, on December 13, 2003. Tracking down Saddam was less a matter of deploying cutting-edge super-technology, and more a matter of rediscovering basic social anthropology. Here is a news story on the topic.

The gist is that two junior American military intelligence analysts began with a long list of about 9,000 names. They gradually narrowed this down to a “Mongo List” of about 300 people, tightly interconnected by blood and marriage, who were involved in the resistance and connected with Saddam. Rounding up and interrogating central figures on the list ultimately led to Saddam himself. This approach was successful because Saddam’s immediate power base was his clan and kin.

In previous blogposts we have considered how different Eurasian civilizations developed different compromises between state power, established religion, and patrilineal clans. In the Middle East, clan-based politics have continued to be important right up to the present. In China, a millennia-old tradition of patriarchal clan authority was violently assaulted in the course of the Communist Revolution. In Europe, the move away from clan-based politics came much earlier. The decline of royal and aristocratic rule in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and the rise of mass politics further weakened the rule of the clan (except insofar as the nation itself operated as a kind of imagined kin group). Hence the contrast between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Western Europe’s premier Evil Dictatorship: compiling a “Mongo List” of 300 of Hitler’s closet relations by blood and marriage wouldn’t get you far in understanding Nazi rule.

Here’s a valuable book on The Rule of the Clan, and a different take on “clannishness” across cultures.

The veil


From Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi.

Before the Iranian Revolution, a number of Western scholars wrote books attempting to develop general theories of revolution. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is an early classic in the genre, treating different political trajectories – liberal, reactionary, and communist – as the outcome of different bargains between landowners, peasants, and bourgeoisie. Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions covers some of the same ground with an added focus on states and war-making.

But the class-centered theories that these authors develop don’t do a very good job of accounting for the Iranian Revolution or broader political currents in the Islamic world. It’s difficult to map Middle Eastern political movements onto a Left-Right spectrum. And both democracy and communism made far less headway in the Middle East than in either Latin America or East Asia. Nor do the class-based theories have much to say about gender relations and patriarchy, major issues in Islamic politics.

One of our themes in the past few months of Logarithmic History has been how the major civilizations of Eurasia have found different ways of combining patrilineal clans, state formation, and major world religions. From this perspective, the Islamic world is distinctive in several respects. The custom of marriage within the patrilineage (stemming from a culture of honor long predating Islam in the Near East, but spread far and wide by Muslim conquests) probably contributes to making the Muslim Middle East exceptionally fragmentary and fissiparous. And Islam has been exceptionally successful in overriding alternative identities based on nationality and class. Today for example, according to surveys, most Pakistani Muslims think of themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second, while most Indian Hindus think of themselves as Indians first and Hindus second. Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics makes the case for Muslim exceptionalism in some detail in comparing the Islamic world with Hindu India and Catholic Latin America.

Culture of honor


The major civilizations of Eurasia found different ways to integrate (a) systems of kinship and descent, with roots stretching back into the deep history of Neolithic demic expansions, (b) states and state formation, along meta-ethnic frontiers and elsewhere, and (c) major world religions. In Classical Greece and Rome, devotion to patrilineal descent groups was edged out by wider loyalties to the city state. And in Late Antiquity and later, Christianity in Europe would also encourage the weakening of extended family ties. China took a different path, upholding state patriarchy and the rule of the clan, and eventually suppressing Buddhist monasteries.

In the case of the Islamic world, something about (a) kinship, marriage, and descent is reflected in this map, which shows percentages of consanguineal marriages (first and second cousins) around the world today.
Southern India has a tradition where men from group A take wives from group B and vice versa, which can result after a generation in cousin marriage. (Aboriginal Australia has similar marriage rules.) The Islamic Middle East and Central Asia, a culture area formed in the course of the great Arab conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, have another kind of cousin marriage, where marriages are kept within a patriline: i.e. it is common for a man to marry his father’s brother’s daughter. Such marriages are not directly encouraged by Muslim law. However Muslim rules of inheritance may indirectly encourage them. Under traditional Muslim law, each daughter gets one share of inheritance; each son gets two shares. This is a better deal for women than the one where sons get everything (as in traditional China, for example). But it means that a lineage can expect to lose a third of its property with each generation if it lets daughters marry out.

There is probably more going on, though, than just inheritance law: marriage within the patrilineage long predates the rise of Islam among Near Eastern pastoralists. It is probably connected with another characteristic of this culture area: an intense culture of honor, including a high premium on female purity (guaranteeing the integrity of the patrilineage). To allow a daughter or sister to be seduced by an outsider is deeply dishonorable. But even a legitimate marriage to an outsider carries some shame, putting the wife-giving family in an inferior relation to the wife-takers. Not letting daughters and sisters marry outside the patriline is one way for a lineage to advertise its honor.

One of the classic studies of the culture of honor in the Mediterranean is entitled The Fate of Shechem. The reference is to the story of Shechem and Dinah and her brothers in Genesis 34. Shechem, prince of the city, seduces (or maybe rapes) Dinah. His father, the king, proposes to make things right: “Make marriages with us; give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You shall dwell with us; and the land shall be open to you; dwell and trade in it, and get property in it.” Dinah’s brothers, who are Jacob’s sons, pretend to agree to the bargain, but use a ruse to kill Shechem and his father and plunder their city. Jacob is upset that he has acquired a whole new set of enemies, but his sons ask “Shall he make our sister a whore?” A remorseless sense of honor, a determination to avoid a humiliating sexual dependency, trumps the need for a marital alliance.



The world at 1000 BCE

Logarithmic History today covers 1137-964 BCE. Here’s a quick look at the world around 1000 BCE

The world population is about 50 million.

The Bantu expansion is just beginning, from a homeland on the present Nigeria/Cameroon border. It will eventually cover most of Africa south of the equator. The expansion is sometimes told as a story of first farmers replacing hunter-gatherers. But, as with the Indo-European expansion, this now looks to be too simple. Other farmers and herders reached east Africa before the Bantu; traces of their languages survive as eastern Bantu substrates. So the Bantu had something extra – social organization? malaria resistance? – going for them.

Seafarers with roots in the Lapita culture have already reached Western Polynesian – Samoa and Tonga, previously uninhabited.

The Olmec are flourishing in Meso-America. A controversial find (the Cascajal block) suggests they are just taking up writing.

In China, the Mandate of Heaven has passed from the Shang Dynasty to the Zhou.

In the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, the Late Bronze Age collapse has opened up space for smaller states. Tyre and other Phoenician city-states are sailing the Mediterranean. Phoenicians using an alphabet that Greeks will eventually adapt. Further south, Philistines and Israelites have been duking it out, with Israelites gaining the upper hand under David* (king from 1010 to 970 BCE). The Iron Age conventionally begins now, with the widespread use of iron – more abundant and cheaper than bronze.

On the steppe, horses have long been domesticated, but people are now learning to make effective use of cavalry – fighting in formation and firing volleys from horseback. This is the beginning of 2500 years in which the division between Steppe and Sown will be central to Eurasian history.

* Everybody knows that David killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17). However, according to 2 Samuel 21:19, Goliath was killed by Elhanan of Bethlehem. Probably the Elhanan story is the original one, and the whole David-and-Goliath story amounts to later resume-padding at the expense of a subordinate. See The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero for this and other demonstrations of how we can recover likely truths from historical texts.


1628 BCE, and later. There are two great stories in the Western tradition that stand somewhere between legend and history: The Flight from Egypt and the Trojan War. Both have been scholarly battlegrounds, dismissed as pure invention by some, accepted as at least partly historical by others. In the case of the exodus story, a great many archeologists nowadays are strong skeptics. Here I’ll summarize what I think is the best argument for the other side.

Barbara Sivertsen, in her book The Parting of the Sea, argues that the exodus story combines oral traditions arising from two different flights from Egypt. First, she suggests that some of the story reflects events around the time of a huge volcanic explosion, the largest in the last five thousand years, which destroyed most of the island of Thera (= Santorini) in 1628 BCE. Most of the Biblical plagues fit what would have been expected in northern Egypt at the time. A tsunami reaching the Nile delta would have contaminated water, and caused fish to die off. Frogs would have been driven from the water. Caustic ash would have stung human skin (in later recountings, “stinging like gnats” was remembered as “stinging gnats”). Insects affected by ash would have sought shelter in people’s houses. Livestock outdoors would have died from breathing ash, and humans and livestock would have developed blisters. Eventually dust in the atmosphere would have precipitated hailstorms. The arrival of the heaviest part of the dust cloud would have shrouded the land in darkness. (Locusts, however, don’t fit the volcano story, and may be an embellishment or a coincidental plague.) All these developments would have precipitated a panicked flight from Egypt on the part of Israelites, led by Moses. According to the archeological evidence, the Wadi Tumilat, an oasis/caravanserai east of the Nile commonly identified as the Biblical Land of Goshen, is abandoned at this time and left uninhabited for centuries.

Other authors have suggested that the Thera eruption had some role in the exodus, but Sivertsen thinks there was also a later flight. In the mid-1400s, Egypt had a significant population of prisoners of war employed as slaves at Tell el-Da’ba, a naval base on the Mediterranean. In Sivertsen’s account, a wave of deaths of Egyptian children led Pharaoh Tuthmose III, frightened of the Israelite god, to expel a group of Israelite slaves. The pharaoh changed his mind, however, and sent an army in pursuit of the slaves along the northern shore of the Sinai. We know that in the mid-1400s, another volcanic eruption, on the Aegean island of Yalli, sent a tsunami around the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. This tsumani caught up with the Egyptian army, but missed Israelites camped further inland. The event was spectacular enough to be melded with the earlier exodus story.

A major reason for skepticism about the exodus story is that it has been very hard to find evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan in the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE, which is when many accounts place the exodus. But if we follow Sivertsen in putting the first exodus much earlier, and allow that the “forty years” in the wilderness was really eighty years, then there is plenty of evidence for massive invasion and destruction of cities in Canaan in the mid 1500s, at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Israelites could have been among the invaders of Canaan. Around 1550 BCE, the city of Jericho suffered an earthquake that knocked down some of the city walls. The city then burned to the ground, and was largely abandoned subsequently.

We saw earlier on Logarithmic History that oral history can preserve detailed memories of natural catastrophes for long periods of time. At the same time information about numbers and absolute dates mostly gets lost. It will be interesting to see how Sivertsen’s work holds up in the face of further discoveries.

Think like an Egyptian

houdin2560 BCE. You might think that with the Egyptian pyramids being famous for thousands of years (they’re the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing) there wouldn’t be much new to say about them. But you’d be wrong. The Egyptians wrote down virtually nothing about their architectural methods; they may have worked with some kind of 3-D models – the Bronze Age version of Computer-Aided Design – rather than anything like blueprints. So we haven’t really known much about how the pyramids were built. In particular, it’s been a real puzzle how they moved building blocks to near the top of the pyramid in the later stages of construction. If blocks were moved along a straight ramp up the side of the pyramid, the ramp in the last stages would have had to be a mile long, and contained as much material as the pyramid itself. It also wouldn’t have fit on the Giza plateau. Recently, Jean-Pierre Houdin, a French architect, may have figured out how the problem was solved in the case of the largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid built for King Khufu (Cheops). According to Houdin, the builders used an external ramp for the early stages of construction. But they also built a vaulted internal ramp, spiraling around inside the pyramid, and moved blocks up it for the later stages. (And the builders economized by dismantling the external ramp and using it for construction material.) Houdin revealed his theory in 2005. Both before and since then he has put a huge amount of work into understanding how the Great Pyramid was built. For example, he may also have come up with an explanation for the 150 foot-long, narrow, slanting Grand Gallery in the pyramid: it looks like it was used to run counterweights on a trolley that helped to bring up some of the heaviest stones, the granite blocks used to reinforce the King’s Chamber.

Here’s a short video on the latest.

Uruk and the empires before history

3500 BCE. The story of the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia used to go like this. As people settled the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, from the late fifth millennium BCE on they organized themselves around temples that controlled irrigation and distributed rations. From the late fourth millennium, when the written historical record begins, temples were consolidated into city states that warred with one another, until eventually they were united by Sargon of Akkad (in northern Mesopotamia), who founded the first empire in the region around 2300.

But lately it’s been looking like there might have been a whole cycle of empire formation before the invention of writing. The archeological evidence shows that one city, Uruk (home of the legendary Gilgamesh, and probably the same as the Biblical Erech) in southern Mesopotamia had grown to dwarf others in the region by the mid fourth millennium. We find Uruk artifacts over a wide area, from western Iran to northern Syria and southeast Anatolia. These might reflect trade, and probably also settlement, with the establishment of Uruk trading colonies. But at one site at least, something else was going on. Homoukar, in northern Syria, is the site of a city contemporaneous with early Uruk. In 3500 the city was destroyed by hostile forces armed with slings and clay bullets. (The attackers also wiped out what looks like an Uruk trading settlement at Hamoukar, who maybe picked the wrong side to fight on.) The evidence points to Hamoukar having been subsequently occupied by forces from Uruk. We don’t know what kind of administrative control Uruk established, if any, but this does look like long-distance imperialism. Hamoukar is more than 400 miles north of Uruk.

The advent of writing (coming up tomorrow on Logarithmic History) marks a watershed in our knowledge of the past, but we might get a distorted view of social evolution if we assume that the only empires are the ones we know about because people wrote about them. Here are other possible Empires-Before-History, supported by varying levels of evidence or speculation, that we may consider as we continue: