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.
Years ago, when I first read Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, a passage instantly jumped out at me.
Dostoyevsky tells a fable through the mouth of one of his characters. But it wasn’t just the story itself that struck me. It was also the fact that I had heard it before.
In Dostoyevsky’s telling, the story is of Russian Orthodox origin, and it goes like this:
Despite my atheism, sometimes I read the Bible.
Over the holidays I started rereading my favorite books, Job and Ecclesiastes. Then I turned to the Gospels. And some passages in Matthew struck me as they never had before — how did I miss them the first time?
For example, did you know that Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech takes its central metaphor from Matthew 12:25? “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” (All quotations are from the King James Version.)
In December 1400, just in time for Christmas, the emperor of Byzantium, Manuel II Palaiologos, arrived in England on a state visit.
A professional historian tells the full story better than I can on her blog. In short, Manuel came to Western Europe to solicit aid against the Ottoman Turks who were encroaching upon his territory. He had already stopped in Italy and France, and now he sought the friendship of King Henry IV of England.
Henry welcomed Manuel warmly. But after the emperor’s departure, England (and France and the Italian states) gave the Byzantines very little assistance. The immediate crisis for Byzantium passed because of an unlikely ally: Timur, or Tamerlane, from today’s Uzbekistan, attacked the Turks from the east. But the reprieve was temporary. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
This is an old tale, and many of you may have heard it already. But as it is Hanukkah, I can be forgiven for repeating an otherwise well-known story about the Chinese Jews.
Jews might have migrated into China over the Silk Road since as early as the height of the Roman Empire. One tradition states that the first of them left Jerusalem after the Roman emperor Titus conquered the holy city, arriving in China eventually via Persia.
Ethnographers have also previously identified a population in China that they thought might be of Jewish descent. And because they did not observe Hanukkah, it was inferred that they left the Holy Land before the Maccabean Revolt. But this theory has turned out to be questionable.
Thor (the Norse god, not the Marvel character) is remarkably similar to its Chinese counterpart, Leigong, so much so that I intuit a long-lost cultural connection, even though I am unaware of any scholarship establishing it. If the distance between Scandinavia and the Far East makes you skeptical of this possibility, I’ll note that the Hellenistic inspiration for Asian Buddhist sculptural art is well-established.
Leigong, literally “Lord of Thunder,” is an important figure in the Taoist pantheon. He is, like Thor, depicted as a strong warrior type who wields a magic hammer with which he can send thunderbolts. He is a positive but blunt character, broadly on the side of right but sometimes blunders in rushing to judgment. Much as Thor stands opposed to Loki, Leigong is opposed to characters of mischief such as the Monkey King (who, incidentally, has been shown to be derived from the Hindu monkey god Hanuman).
The Inca Empire, more properly called Tawantinsuyu, had today’s Cusco, Peru as its capital. Designed in the shape of a puma, it stood at the center of the ancient road system known as Qhapaq Nan that connected the whole empire from Chile to Ecuador. After the Conquistadors came, Cusco became the first center in the Americas that taught European painting techniques to native and mestizo artists. In the end it gave birth to a new school of remarkable hybrid religious art that sought to combine, or code-switch between, the Catholic teachings of the missionaries and traditional Incan beliefs.
The missionaries wanted these paintings for didactic purposes, to express Christian doctrines to a native population that mostly could not understand sermons. To make these images acceptable to the native Quechuas, the artists incorporated many ideas already familiar to them.
The figures of warrior angels, for example, became extremely popular because they recalled winged deities in traditional Incan religion. Walking around Cusco even today, you can immediately see this artistic legacy. Seemingly every other storefront has a painting of a Michael or a Gabriel or some other angel on the wall. And they are often depicted in a manner distinct to Cusco, for example as Spanish gentlemen bearing muskets, like in this depiction of Uriel, the guardian of the sun (the sun, Inti, being incidentally a chief god of the Incas).
’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.”
Standing in the snow in Pripyat, the abandoned township across from the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, I kept thinking about how apocalypses are alien to the American historical experience.
Perhaps that means Americans have less instinct for how to behave in such a scenario. And presumably this has much to do with American pop culture’s inclination to imagine destruction, whether through zombies or aliens or, representative of a different type of apocalypse, the collapse of a sociopolitical order thought to be stable, through Nazi conquest (The Man in the High Castle), which all of a sudden doesn’t seem altogether fictional.
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.
From Thamel I caught a cab to Bhaktapur, the ancient city five miles east of Kathmandu proper. The driver was a tallish, chatty man of about forty named Ben.
“Are you married?” he asked. I said I wasn’t. “Good. Single life better. Once you marry, in Nepal, all the responsibility is on the man.” I asked how many children he had. He said he had a 12-year-old daughter.
I asked whether the earthquake last year affected his family. “Yes,” he nodded. “Our house collapsed. Thankfully no one in my family was hurt.”
“Have you rebuilt it?”
“No. We’re waiting for the government assistance. But actually the amount of money they give is only two thousand dollars.”
“That’s not much for rebuilding a house.”
He shook his head in agreement. “It’s not enough. So I hope that God will help me.”
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."