Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sahara chronicles last stand of a Berber warrior queen

I watched a very interesting two-hour program about the Sahara and the history in that region on History Channel International yesterday. I was particularly interested in the segment about a Berber warrior queen that arose during the late 7th century to lead her people against invading Arabs in 669 CE. It's been many years ago that I read a book entitled "Warrior Queens" by celebrated historian Lady Antonia Fraser. I learned about several female warrior leaders in that book that I had never encountered before but even Lady Fraser seems to have overlooked Al Kahena.

[Image - Berber Woman, Emile Vernet-Lecomte, French, 1870]

I was able to find this interesting article about Dahia Al Kahena on the web though. An abstract:

"According to Arab chroniclers of the time, Kahena was half queen and half sorceress with dark skin, a mass of hair and huge eyes. When she was angry or possessed by her demons, her eyes would turn red and her hair would stand up on end. The chroniclers may have had an interest in painting a fiendish image of this woman. Yet such propaganda may have done more to contribute to her reputation as a fearsome opponent. Kahena amply demonstrated her fiery mettle when, in 696, she led a Berber force which routed an Arab army in the plains below the Atlas mountains spanning modern-day Algeria and Tunisia. So numerous were the Arab casualties that Arab chroniclers renamed the wadi where the battle took place as the `Valley of Disaster'. Like a latter-day Boadicea, or a precursor to Joan of Arc, this female warrior this female warrior was proving a troublesome enemy to the invaders.

Legend may have grown around Kahena, but she was an all-too-real opponent for the caliphs forces. She proved utterly ruthless in conducting a guerrilla war of harassment. She adopted a scorched earth policy by having all the standing crops destroyed in order to deprive the Arab army of any sustenance from the land. This act, however, aroused resentment among settled tribes, who sent emissaries to the Arab commander asking him to come to their assistance.

In 699 the caliph, tired of the interminable struggle, decided to strike a decisive blow. He sent into North Africa the largest army ever seen in the region. The force was made up of Arab troops reinforced by thousands of Berbers who had turned against Kahena."

Like Boudicca, Al Kahena's revolt ended in a slaughter although her final battlefield was the huge colosseum built by the Roman emperor Gordian at the trading crossroads of Al Jem. However, she did not take her sons with her into death but ordered them to go to the Arab commander and offer their service. They were accepted into the caliph's service and later became outstanding leaders in their own right.

According to Wikipedia, her sons' acceptance was accomplished by an Arab officer that Al Kahena had captured early in her career and adopted.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Onassis Cultural Center to host Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens

I really need to plan a visit to the Onassis Cultural Center in New York. I wanted to see the exhibit about life in Sparta they hosted a couple of years ago but the Historical Novel Society conference I attended in Albany was scheduled too late. I'm afraid I won't get to see this excellent exhibit either as I'll be just back from Rome in March and would not have enough "recovery" time to turn around and attempt another trip to New York so soon.

[Image - Although this sculpture of a mid-4th century BCE Attic woman from Acharnae Menidi discovered before 1827 is part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is not part of the upcoming exhibit, it typifies the subtle grace and modesty depicted in sculpture of the period. This image is included in my Flickr image archive. I have licensed all images with Creative Commons for free non-commercial use with the attribution "Photo by Mary Harrsch". Any derivatives must also be shared in like manner]

The galleries of the Onassis Cultural Center in New York will be transformed into evocations of ancient Greek sanctuaries, each filled with artistic masterpieces assembled from international collections, for the major exhibition Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens. On view from December 10, 2008, through May 9, 2009, the exhibition brings together 155 rare and extraordinary archaeological objects in order to re-examine preconceptions about the exclusion of women from public life in ancient Athens. The story told by these objects, and experienced in the galleries, presents a more nuanced picture than is often seen, showing how women’s participation in cults and festivals contributed not only to personal fulfillment in Classical Greece but also to civic identity.

Among the treasures being brought to New York for the exhibition are marble statues of the goddesses Artemis and Athena (National Archaeological Museum, Athens); a white-ground vase with an image of Artemis, by the Pan Painter (State Hermitage Museum, Petersburg); a red-figure vase with an image of Iphigenia, the legendary heroine worshiped as a cult figure and seen as a model for priestesses (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Ferrara); a vase showing the Trojan priestess Theano, another model for priestesses, receiving the Greek warriors who had come to recover Helen from Troy (Vatican Museums); and a limestone grave marker (conserved with support from the Onassis Foundation) carved with the image of a young woman in bridal costume, holding a votive offering (State Museums of Berlin). Interspersed with these and other exquisite artworks are archaeological objects that document the religious practices of Classical Athens and tell the complex story of women’s roles in that society.

Worshiping Women tells this story in three main chapters. “Goddesses and Heroines” introduces the principal female deities of Athens and Attica, in whose cults and festivals women were most actively engaged: Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Demeter and her daughter Persephone. This first section also investigates the role of heroines, a special group of women believed to have lived in the distant past, who like Iphigenia became important figures of cult worship after their deaths.

The second chapter, “Women and Ritual,” explores the practice of ritual acts such as dances, libations, sacrifices, processions and festivals in which women were active in classical antiquity. Here the critical role of the priestess comes to light, specifically in her function as key-bearer for the temples of the gods.

In the final chapter, “Women and the Cycle of Life,” the exhibition explores how religious rituals defined moments of transition. Because the most important transition in a girl’s life was understood to be marriage, the wedding took on great significance, with its rituals depicted on a variety of vases associated with nuptial rites and wedding banquets. Death was another occasion on which Athenian women took on major responsibilities, such as preparing the deceased for burial and tending the graves of family members.

N.S. Gill's post about the exhibit in her "About Ancient History" blog included a link to a fascinating article about the ancient festival of Thesmophoria. An abstract:

Before the Thesmophoria festival itself, there was a preparatory night-time festival called the Stenia. At the Stenia women engaged in Aiskhrologia, insulting each other and using foul language. This commemorated Iambe's successful attempts to make the grieving mother Demeter laugh.

[This almost sounds like modern antics associated with male bonding!]

During the Stenia portion of the Thesmophoria women may have placed fertility objects, molded bread [in the shape of male genitals], pine cones and piglets, in a snake-filled chamber called a megaron.

The objects were later retrieved and ceremonially carried to an altar during a night time torch-lit procession commemorating Demeter's search for her kidnapped daughter Persephone. Aristophanes' comedic play Thesmophoriazusae tells the story of a man trying to infiltrate the Thesmophoria. Maybe Clodius of Roman fame got his idea to sneak into the celebration of the Bona Dea and seduce Julius Caesar's wife after reading the Thesmophoriazusae!

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Has "Timeline" been realized at some point in the future?

This article caught my attention. I enjoyed the late Michael Crichton's book "Timeline" and liked the movie as well although it could have been improved by casting someone besides Paul Walker in one of the leading roles. At least Gerard Butler pretty much made up for that. I considered it purely science fiction though. But this discovery of a 100-year old watch in a 400-year old sealed tomb makes one pause. Perhaps we are going to crack the time travel mystery in the future after all!

[Photo by Europics]

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are stumped after finding a 100-year-old Swiss watch in an ancient tomb that was sealed more than 400 years ago.

The real-life tomb raiders were the first visitors to the Ming dynasty grave in Shangsi, southern China, since its occupant's funeral.

Inside they discovered a miniature watch encrusted in mud and rock in the shape of a ring marked 'Swiss', as reported by the Austrian Times.

Jiang Yanyu, former curator of the Guangxi Museum, said: "When we tried to remove the soil wrapped around the coffin, suddenly a piece of rock dropped off and hit the ground with metallic sound.

"We picked up the object, and found it was a ring. After removing the covering soil and examining it further, we were shocked to see it was a watch."
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Inscription on Sudanese ram statues may hold key to Merotic

I have always been fascinated by the process used to decipher ancient scripts. I think that is why I was so anxious to view the Rosetta Stone when I visited the British Museum a couple of years ago.

Three ancient ram statues newly discovered in Sudan could help decipher the oldest script in sub-Saharan Africa whose secrets are mysterious to the modern world, a Western archaeologist said on Tuesday.

The rams were excavated at El-Hassa, 180km north of Khartoum, on a sacred causeway leading to an ancient temple, said Vincent Rondot, head of the French Section of the Directorate on Antiquities of Sudan.

The site is one of the most southern temples built to Amum, considered an omnipotent god, creator and guardian by people who lived throughout the Nile valley during the Merotic period 300 BC to 450 AD, said Rondot.

Key to the discovery three weeks ago is a royal inscription that bears the name of little known king Amanakhareqerem, said Rondot, whose unit is funded by the French foreign ministry.

"Merotic language is one of the last antique writings that still waits for its understanding... and it is the most ancient (sub-Saharan) African language written in script," Rondot told reporters.

Experts can pronounce the text and can read names, but cannot understand the words. Merotic is a branch of the same linguistic tree as languages spoken in contemporary Sudan and Eritrea, the archaeologist said.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Unlooted Chachapoyan city discovered in the Andes are examining a recently discovered, exceptionally
well-preserved city carved into the Andes mountains by the ancient
Peruvian Chachapoya tribe.According to the Daily Telegraph, local hikers were the first to
stumble upon the city ruins, covering close to 12 acres of a
mountainside in Peru’s northern Amazon.
When the hikers arrived, they found a nearly 500-meter high waterfall
surrounded by lush jungle scenery, and buildings set upon the face of a
cliff. The city’s remoteness has protected it from looters,
leaving “ceramics and undisturbed burial sites” intact.

“We suspect that the ancient inhabitants used this as a lookout
point from where they could spot potential enemies,” said
Archaeologist Benedicto Pérez Goicochea to the Daily Telegraph. - Finding Dulcinea

The Chachapoyas, also called the Warriors of the Clouds, were an Andean people living in the cloud forests of the Amazonas region of present-day Peru. The Incas conquered their civilization shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in Peru. When the Spanish arrived in Peru in the 16th century, the Chachapoyas were one of the many nations ruled by the Inca Empire. Their incorporation into the Inca Empire had not been easy, due to their constant resistance to the Inca troops.

Since the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors
were the principal sources of information on the Chachapoyas, unbiased
first-hand knowledge of the Chachapoyas remains scarce. Writings by the
major chroniclers of the time, such as El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega,
were based on fragmentary second-hand accounts. Much of what we do know
about the Chachapoyas culture is based on archaeological evidence from
ruins, pottery, tombs and other artifacts.

The chronicler Pedro Cieza de León offers some picturesque notes about the Chachapoyas:

"They are the whitest and most handsome of all the people that I have seen in Indies,
and their wives were so beautiful that because of their gentleness,
many of them deserved to be the Incas' wives and to also be taken to
the Sun Temple (...) The women and their husbands always dressed in woolen clothes and in their heads they wear their
llautos, which are a sign they wear to be known everywhere."

Cieza adds that, after their annexation to the Inca Empire, they adopted customs imposed by the Cuzco-based Inca.

The name Chachapoya is in fact the name that was given to
this culture by the Inca; the name that these people may have actually
used to refer to themselves is not known. The meaning of the word Chachapoyas may have been derived from sacha-p-collas, the equivalent of "colla people who live in the woods" (sacha = wild p = of the colla = nation in which Aymara is spoken). Some believe the word is a variant of the Quechua construction sacha puya, or people of the clouds. - Wikipedia

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