Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I shall complete the tetralogy on my time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia soon enough. But because tomorrow is Inauguration Day, a.k.a. America-Becomes-a-Vassal-State Day, I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming and suggest — however tentatively as though in a late-night college dorm room discussion — new analogies for U.S.-Russian relations and for Mr. Trump.
During the Cold War a favorite comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War — on the one hand, a raucous democracy prone to hubris, and on the other, a militaristic authoritarian regime. The analogy seemed so appropriate that the American service academies started teaching Thucydides to officers and cadets.
Another celebrated strain of thought (for example, in George F. Kennan’s Sources of Soviet Conduct) was to see the contest through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville. Back in the early 19th century, in Democracy in America, de Tocqueville had declared that America and Russia “each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world,” so that they were headed toward inevitable contest. And in that contest, America “has freedom as the principal means of action,” while Russia “has servitude.” Kennan extended and revised de Tocqueville’s remarks, concluding that to prevail in the Cold War, all that the United States had to do was to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
’Tis now the day after Christmas, when the Three Wise Men would have set out to find Jesus. Although Nativity scenes typically show the Three Wise Men alongside the shepherds, the Gospel of Matthew indicates that the men arrived some time later. After all, they had to follow the star and travel for some time before they could reach Bethlehem. Christian tradition fixes their arrival on the Epiphany, thirteen days after Christmas, giving the three men just shy of two weeks to travel, a very tight schedule for the ancient world.
Most of what Christians now believe about the Three Kings do not come from the Bible. In Spanish-speaking countries, the kings are called Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar, representing Arabia, the Orient, and Africa. Others of the Western Christian tradition deem Melchior as being from Persia, Gaspar (or Caspar or Jasper) from India, and Balthazar from Babylon. Traditions relating to the three treat them as largely symbolic, representing three different parts of the world and also three ages of man. But most significantly, they represent the nations who would come to embrace Christ — hence the name “Epiphany,” a revelation of Jesus as “a light to the Gentiles” described in Isaiah 49:6.
But the sole biblical account of the visit, Matthew chapter 2, says none of this. There aren’t necessarily three of them, they’re not said to be kings, they’re not said to be wise, and they’re only described as being from “the east.”
Once there lived a man named Muḥammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, (محمد بن موسى الخوارزمی). He was born into a Persian family in Khwarezm (hence the last name “al-Khwarizmi,” meaning “of Khwarezm”)), also variously spelled Chorasmia, Khwarezmia, Khwarizm, Khwarazm, Khorezm, Khoresm, Khorasam, Kharazm, Harezm, Horezm, and Chorezm. It was Χορασίμα (Chorasíma) to Herodotus and 花剌子模 (Hualazimo) to the Chinese. According to local tradition, Shem, son of Noah, founded the city of Khiva, a center of Khorezm life, soon after the flood.
Once an independent Khanate and slave-trading entrepot, Khorezm was incorporated into the Russian empire in the 19th century before becoming part of the Soviet Union, and now of Uzbekistan. When I visited Khiva in the summer of last year, I found a dreamy medieval town ringed by crenellated mud fortifications, with a cityscape punctuated by magnificent minarets.
In the Islamic tradition, the Quran is believed to be a recitation that the Prophet Mohammed made under divine inspiration. The angel Gabriel or Jibreel (he of the Annunciation in Christian tradition) is believed to have given him the text. Therefore Mohammed is not considered the author of the Quran but only a conduit for the divine.
But the words and deeds of Mohammed when not divinely inspired are also important to Islam. A report describing such words and deeds is called a hadith (Arabic: حديث). And in fact, hadiths are the source of many important Islamic teachings, including rules relating to prayer.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."