A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Anisa Makhlouf, Mother of Bashar al-Asad, 1930-2016

Anisa Makhlouf, widow of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Asad and mother of President Bashar al Asad, has died at the age of 86. Syrian state media announced her passing on February 7.

Friday, February 5, 2016

More Resources for Arabic Colloquials

After my post yesterday about a language learning blog, reader Mohammad Taha commented that the University of Maryland National Foreign Language Center has an online portal with language learning materials, including Arabic dialects. Though access is by subscription, you can browse the available courses.

While we're on the subject, it's worth noting for those who may not know that the old Foreign Service Institute (FSI) language courses are public domain and that they include books and, on some online sites, tapes for learning a wide variety of languages,including, for Arabic, Written Arabic, Levantine Arabic, and Saudi Arabic (Urban Hijazi Dialect). There are also courses in Spoken Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew,  and some online sites include audio files of the tapes.

You can also find online courses from the Peace Corps and the Defense Language Institute online, offering an even broader range of dialect studies.

And speaking of  FSI, let me plug two little FSI booklets from the 1970s by Margaret K. Omar (Margaret K. Nydell) that I personally found valuable back in the day.

One, from 1974, is called From Eastern to Western Arabic, a 47-page guide for persons familiar with either Egyptian or Levantine Arabic and are tying to learn Moroccan, which at first seems impenetrable to those familiar with eastern dialects. As an introduction, it can be quite useful, and I used it before my first trip to Morocco.

The second, by the same author, is the 1976 Levantine and Egyptian Arabic: Comparative Study. Again it is only 50 pages but is intended for someone familiar with either Levantine or Egyptian and seeking to approach the other. Neither of these little books is a course or a descriptive grammar, but they are useful beginner's guides for those tying to navigate between dialects.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Blog with Useful Material for Learning Arabic Dialects

I've stumbled across the blog of this language learning website and discovered  number of posts useful to students of Arabic, and particularly of the various colloquials. It probably deserves deeper exploration, but meanwhile a few selections:

How different is Moroccan Arabic to the other Dialects, Really?

Learning Arabic in Qatar and the UAE is Easy. Here's Why . . .

If I Stated Learning Arabic Again, This is How I'd Do It

and particularly, a selection of online Arabic TV and YouTube channels: 40 Excellent Arabic listening Resources in All Dialects

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Culture Wars and Cultural Appropriation: Israeli Designer Eroticizes Palestinian Keffiyeh

Cultural  appropriation of indigenous cultures by the mainstream culture is a worldwide complaint, from Native Americans complaining about fashion designers using sacred eagle feathers (or everything about the Washington Redskins) to affluent young whites adopting African American culture: those doing the appropriating usually assert that they mean it as a compliment and an honor to the appropriated culture, but far too often the appropriated culture fails to see the compliment.

I am virtually certain that will be the case here: As the article notes, Israeli high-fashion designer Dodo Bar Or has designed a line of women's clothing drawing its inspiration from the iconic Palestinian (male) headdress, the keffiyyeh or kuffiyah. The keffiyeh is an icon of Palestinian nationalism:  Yasser Arafat wore his draped in the shape of the map of Palestine, and I'm sure I'm not the only foreigner who learned the trick of keeping one visible in your car in the West Bank so it wouldn't be attacked if it had Israeli plates.

I don't want to be a prisoner of gender stereotyping. If a female Palestinian designer derided to feminize and even sexualize the keffiyeh, that might be a suitable protest to the dominant patriarchy. But this is not a Palestinian or Israeli Arab designer.

But when an Israeli designer takes a well-known symbol of the Palestinian national movement (and a distinctly masculine one) and both feminizes and eroticizes it, one has to wonder if the intentions were generally benign but the realization disastrous, or something else. The collection can be seen on Bar Or's website; the two photos reproduced here (one topless but from the rear, the other with some "sideboob") are probably the ones most likely to raise hackles. Neither is overtly offensive as fashion poses go; but each seems deliberately provocative given the cultural context..

Endgame Coming in Northwest Syria as US Preoccupied with Primaries?

At the very moment the United Nations is putting the Geneva peace process on Syria on hold until February 25, the military situation on the ground is evolving so rapidly in favor of the Asad regime forces on the Idlib and Aleppo fronts that the issue may prove moot. Meanwhile the US, which has failed for years to articulate a clear policy in Syria, is so caught up in domestic political navel-gazing in this caucus and primary season, that the media is largely oblivious to the dramatic shifts of fortune on the Syrian battlefield.

With the Syrian Arab Army's success in lifting the siege of the Shi‘ite towns of Nubl and al-Zahra after four years has cut a major supply line between the Jabhat al-Nusra and allied forces in Idlib and key supply areas along the Turkish border, isolating Idlib, regime forces have also been closing the pincers on rebel and ISIS-held territory in eastern Aleppo and also northwest of that city. Supported by heavy Russian airstrikes, recent advances have dramatically shifted the balance in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. Now, with fuel and food supplies threatened, the goal of cutting off Idlib from the outside world is nearly complete. The rebels could quickly wither on the vine.

Meanwhile as the pincers close around Aleppo, it seems even more unlikely that the Syrian opposition will be in a position to demand concessions when (if) the suspension on the talks is lifted at the end of the month. the endgame may be near in Idlib and Aleppo. If it comes, the rebel threat to the ‘Alawite heartland will be eased and Asad and his allies will have little incentive to negotiate.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

When an Ottoman Sultan Sent Aid to the Irish Famine

The Great Famine that ravaged Ireland beginning with the potato blight of 1845 killed a million people and sent another million or more  into exile in America, Canada, or Australia. As a descendant of famine immigrants myself, I realized I haven't blogged about one of the less well-known aspects of what the Irish call the Great Hunger; the effort of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I (reigned 1839-1861) to send aid to Ireland. The subject of a forthcoming film, the tale is better known in Ireland and Turkey than elsewhere. The tale of a Muslim country with problems of its own sending aid to a Catholic country abandoned by its colonial overlords fascinated the Irish. As Joyce put it in Ulysses, "Even the Grand Turk sent us his piastres. But the Sassenach [Saxons, i.e. English] tried to starve the nation at home while the land was full of crops that the British hyenas bought and sold in Rio de Janeiro."
Sultan Abdülmecid I

As the tale is usually told, the Sultan offered to send £10,000 sterling for Irish relief. But because Queen Victoria herself had only contributed £2,000, the British government requested that the Sultan reduce his contribution to only £1,000. (See Joyce's comment above.) But the Sultan did send up to five ships carrying food, and while the records aren't clear, Irish newspaper and other reports say Ottoman sailors landed the food at Drogheda on the River  Boyne  in 1847. (Drogheda is ironically the site of a notorious massacre by Oliver Cromwell, another Sassenach not well remembered in Ireland.)

The Irish still remember.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Is the Geneva Process Doomed?

The UN's negotiator on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, had been struggling the past several days to keep the Geneva peace process on Syria from collapsing in complete disarray. The High National Committee (HNC), representing the anti-Asad side, is balking at talking unless the government side demonstrates sincerity by taking measures to alleviate civilian suffering. That's admirable, but there's little incentive for the government side to comply. (If you're not current on the Geneva process, this excellent guide by Aron Lund is a good briefing.)

I wish I could be as optimistic as de Mistura and Secretary Kerry are trying to be. The facts on the ground are not on the side of the HNC. Hard negotiating is possible only when neither side thinks it can win outright. But in fact the regime forces and their Russian, Hizbullah, and Iranian allies are pushing forward steadily on the Idlib and Aleppo fronts and around Der‘a south of Damascus, and Russian air power is clearing the hinterland along the Turkish border. Assuming the Asad regime would define "victory" not as full control of Syrian territory, but rather as controlling a contiguous corridor of "useful" Syria including the main population centers of Damascus-Homs-Hama-Aleppo and the ports of Latakia and Tartus, the Russian intervention is making that seem like a real possibility. Why make concessions when you're winning? I'm not defending the Asad regime, but where's their incentive to compromise? I wish I could be more optimistic.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Five Years Since the "Friday of Rage"

January 28, 2011 was the first Friday after the outbreak of the Egyptian Uprising, and became a crucial turning point. Protesters called for nationwide demonstrations, clashes were widespread.The Muslim Brotherhood announced it was joining the protests.

By evening the Army rolled into Cairo, and the demonstrators welcomed them, the beginning of  the "Army and People are one hamd" myth which would prove a fantasy. Five years ago today, so much seemed possible.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

January 1916:The Rise of the Arab Bureau

One of the most famous institutions in the Middle East in World War I, though its work was largely secret at the time, was the famous Arab Bureau. This small but growing section of the British Military Intelligence section  in Cairo would eventually count among its members T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, David Hogarth, Aubrey Herbert, Herbert Garland, George Lloyd (later Lord Lloyd), Stewart Newcombe, Leonard Woolley, and others.

You may want to review my posts of a little over a year ago on the British Intelligence Section in Cairo and the complicated chain of command, as well as the new men assigned there. Most of the intelligence section discussed there would either join or work closely with the Arab Bureau; some in Cairo, others with the Arab Revolt which the Arab Bureau would strongly support.

The Bureau's creation was the brainchild of Sir Mark Sykes (later of Sykes-Picot fame) who, after a tour of the Middle East from Egypt to India had ben impressed by the facts that Germany and the Ottomans were doing a better job than Britain in propaganda to the Muslim world outside of India.

In my earlier posts on the Cairo Intelligence Section, we discussed the rivalries between the Indian Government in Delhi and Simla and India Office in London on the one hand, and the Foreign Office and War Office on the other. India was resistant to putting the Arab Bureau in Cairo, since India wanted to maintain control of the Mesopotamia Campaign and its influence on the Arab tribes in the Gulf.

After bureaucratic maneuvering, a compromise was reached: Gilbert Clayton would have direct responsibility for the Bureau bu i would report not to the British military leadership (Archibald Murray) alone, but directly to the Foreign Office (via the High Commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon), and he Governor General of the Sudan/Sirdar of he Egyptian Army, Reginald Wingate. The confusing chain of command masked the fact that Clayton's intelligence section had direct control. David Hogarth, the archaeologist, an occasional spy, became Director,  with Kinahan Cornwallis as Deputy Director

The Bureau and its secret intelligence publication The Arab Bulletin would be major players in the remaining years of the Great War.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Anniversary of a Lost Revolution

Today's fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution was marked quietly, with security forces banning demonstrations; many of the activist of 2011 are now in jail. While President Sisi praised the Revolution, the government normally speaks of "the Resolutions of January 25 and June 30," bracketing the 2011 uprising with the 2013 revolt against Muhammad Morsi. Also, more attention is being de oted to Police Day, also on January 25. (For background, see this post.)

As telling an image as possible is the contrast between Tahrir then and now:

January 25 + 5 Years

"I took part in the January Revolution"

I didn't, but I'll claim credit for it

Friday, January 22, 2016

Tunisia Declares Nationwide Curfew

The recent unemployment demonstrations in Tunisia have continued to spread, and now Tunisia's Interior Ministry has declared a nationwide curfew from 8 pm to 5 am. 

The protests have spread throughout much of he country's hinterland after spreading from Kasserine where one demonstrator was electrocuted last week. President Beji Caid Essebsi has expressed sympathy and promised to work to improve job prospects.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Deir Mar Elia was Destroyed by ISIS in 2014; but it's Making Headlines this Week

There has been a lot of publicity this week about the destruction of what is believed to be Iraq's oldest Christian monastery, Deir Mar Elia (St. Elijah) near Mosul, by ISIS. It is, like all of ISIS' destruction of ancient sites, a barbarous act. But what may be missed by those who read only the headlines, is that it was destroyed in August-September 2014. Iraqi Christian sources from the Assyrian and Chaldean churches throughout last year. What is new is the publication by the Associated Press of DigitalGlobe satellite photos that confirm that the ruined walls of the monastery have been obliterated. It provides a dramatic visual, but the destruction had been reported long before.
Mar Elia was founded as an Assyrian (Nestorian) monastery in the AD 590s. Much of the structure was built from the 11th century onward,  and destroyed in  1743 by the Persian Nadir Shah. Is ruins, though roofless, were cared for by the Chaldean Catholic Church and was a site for pilgrimages. The ruins were used as a military base by Saddam Hussein,  and during the US Occupation a Catholic chaplain celebrated Masses on the ancient altar.

It's another crime against antiquity, but it's not fully new news.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Note for Climate Change Deniers

The road between Mecca and Medina last week:

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tunisia Declares Curfew in Kasserine Amid Protests That Echo 2011

In this month that marks the fifth anniversary of the success of the Tunisian Revolution some may feel a sense of déjà vu. Today Tunisia announced a curfew in the western provincial town of Kasserine, which has been the scene of demonstrations by unemployed young graduates, some of whom have attempted suicide. It inevitably reminds us of the suicide of Mohammad Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid that sparked the uprising.

Though a dictatorship has been replaced with a democracy and has even seen a peaceful transfer of power, for young graduates without job prospects, things have not improved, and the anniversary has underscored that irony.

Lebanon: Geagea Endorses ‘Aoun

The US media is preoccupied with today's announcement that Sarah Palin has endorsed Donald Trump, but a far stranger matchup occurred in recent days when Samir Geagea suddenly endorsed his arch-rival Michel ‘Aoun for the Lebanese Presidency.

You may recall that President Michel Suleiman's term ended in May 2014 and Lebanon has failed to elect a President since. (In the absence of a President, which has been a frequent issue in recent years, the Prime Minister acts as President.) In 2014, Parliament (which elects the President by a two-thirds vote) failed to elect a President due to differences between the March 8 and March 14 movement.

Lately efforts to resolve the situation have revived, though the constitutionality of the present Parliament is itself debatable since it extended its own term. The Maronite Patriarch has sought to encourage a common candidate (the President must be a Maronite).

As far back as 2014 I was noting that the main candidates had the same familiar names as the warlords of the civil war era, being either the same men or the sons or grandsons of he old zu‘ama. That is still the case, but the move by Geagea, a March 14 figure, endorsing ‘Aoun, a March 8 member backed by Hizbullah, is a genuine surprise that reshuffles the deck.

Lately there had been some talk of naming March 8 supporter Suleiman Frangieh (grandson and namesake of the President in the early 1970s), an old rival of Geagea's, though what persuaded Geagea to endorse another old enemy, ‘Aoun.

It is still unclear whether Geagea's move will throw sufficient support behind ‘Aoun to actually elect him but once again it is a reminder that in Lebanon, biter enemies can become allies overnight. (Walid Jumblatt can change sides even faster.)

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Punic Survival in Berber, Even in Siwa?

 I like to think there is some small, eccentric subset of my readers who have been asking themselves, "why is he spending so much time  on history and current events and neglecting posts on obscure linguistics of dead Middle Eastern languages?" I even like to think that a subset of that subset has been mumbling, "You haven't had a single post on Punic since the summer of 2013! " Then, you may recall, we discussed the question of whether spoken Punic (the language of Ancient Carthage) survived until the coming of Arabic.

Actually, maybe none of you are thinking that. But not being a linguistics expert, I have to refer you to someone who is, Lameen Souag over at Jabal al-Lughat, who also deserves congratulations for his 10th anniversary of blogging. I also recently linked to his posts about the officialization of Tamazight in Algeria.

In this particular link. "Raisins from Carthage to Siwa," Souag, citing a Facebook post, notes that the standard word in Tamazight dialects for "raisin" is usually either a Berber phrase meaning "dried grapes" or is a loan word from Arabic, but that in Djerba in Tunisia, Zuwara and other places in western Libya — and, curiously, at Siwa, the only Berber enclave in Egypt —the root in use is found in a late inscription in Neo-Punic. The root is also documented in Hebrew, as is often how Punic and Phoenician inscriptions are deciphered. (Hebrew, Phoenician, Punic and Canaanite are extremely similar languages.)

Souag, who has written a book on Siwi and its relations to other Berber languages, notes that Carthaginian influence, and Neo-Punic, never extended east of central Libya, so what explains the presence in Siwa of all places? He answers:
The answer is simple, as I discuss in the introduction to my book Berber and Arabic in Siwa (Egypt): modern Siwi seems to derive mainly from a Berber variety spoken much further west, which reached Siwa only during the Middle Ages. There very probably was a Berber language spoken in Siwa before that, but if so, it has left very few traces.
 I, at least, find that fascinating.

Media Mispronunciations of Arabic

I'm sure every student of Arabic has been bugged by popular mispronunciations; so here:

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Five Years Ago Today, the Jasmine Bloomed

Stop! I've got a baguette and I'm not afraid to use it!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!--
Oh! times, In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
—William Wordsworth on the French Revolution
Five years ago today, on Friday, January 14, 2011, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis for exile. The first of the revolts we came to call Arab Spring had succeeded. Ordinary people, like the iconic man with the baguette in the photo above, had toppled an authoritarian regime. Everything seemed possible: the "Jasmine Revolution" was already being echoed elsewhere. Wordsworth's words on the French Revolution seemed appropriate.

But the French Revolution led to the Terror, to Bonaparte, and to the return of the Bourbons, who had "learned nothing and forgotten nothing." The second Arab Awakening divided Libya, subjected Syria, Iraq, and Yemen to civil wars,  and saw Egypt return to a military-backed regime. The only good news, and it is imperfect, is where it all began: Tunisia has seen free elections and peaceful transfer of power, despite persisting radical violence.

The lessons of the last five years will be studied for generations. For good or ill the old Middle East is gone, and a new one still emerging. The hopes of peaceful change were disappointed, except in Tunisia. The vibrant excitement of 2011 has been disappointed, and in some ways it seems much longer than five years.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

January 1916: Murray Takes Command in Egypt; Arab Bureau Formed

In January 1916, following the withdrawal of British and Allied forces from Gallipoli, the British reshuffled the command of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and the military force in Egypt. At the same time, the intelligence structure in Cairo was reorganized with the creation of the famous Arab Bureau. This post will deal with the command change; a later post will address the Arab Bureau. You may want to review my posts of a little over a year ago on the British Intelligence Section in Cairo and the complicated chain of command, as well as the new men assigned there.

With the withdrawal from Gallipoli, the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force's sole remaining front was at Salonika in Greece. Overall command returned to Cairo, with General Sir Archibald Murray taking over command from Sir Charles Monro in early January. Murray would continue to be responsible for the logistics of the Salonika front, but a French general took over operational command. The residual British force that had remained in Egypt was left, for the moment, under the command of Sir John Maxwell, but it was responsible only for the Senussi campaign; in March the Force in Egypt would be merged with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force to form the new Egyptian Expeditionary Force under Murray's command; in April Maxwell would be sent to Ireland to deal with the Easter Rising.

Murray trading card
"Archie" Murray arrived in Egypt after a stint as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, but like each CIGS who served under Lord Kitchener's War Office, he was soon replaced. A veteran of the Zulu and Second Boer Wars, he began the Great War as Chief of Staff to Sir John French on the Western Front. Well hear a lot about Murray over the coming year.

Murray does not fare well in David Lean's 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, which portrays him (via actor Donald Wolfit) as irascible, skeptical of the prospects of the Arab Revolt, and contemptuous of Lawrence. In reality he backed the Revolt after being persuaded, and he and Lawrence got along. But the film has probably formed most people's view of the period. Murray was not greatly successful and after two failures to take Gaza he would be replaced by Edmund Allenby,

As Yannayer Approaches, Algeria to Make Tamazight Official

You may think the holidays are over, but don't forget the traditional Berber agricultural New Year, Yannayer, usually celebrated January 14, the new year in the Julian Calendar, though some Algerian Amazigh celebrate today, January 12.

And this year, Algerian Imazighen have some good news for the new year; a proposed constitutional change that would make Tamazight "a national and official language" alongside Arabic. An Academy of Amazigh Language is also promised, perhaps to standardize various existing languages into a national language.

In 2004 a constitutional change made Tamazight a "national" language but not an "official" one. Arabic is still defined as "the national and official language of the state,"  while Tamazight is "also a national and official language." The addition of "official" is new.

See articles: in French here, Lameen Souag on the subject here and on party reactions here and an article on expanding Tamazight language teaching here, and the links to pdfs of the new constitution in Arabic and French.

Yes, Algeria changes constitutions frequently, and President Bouteflika is ailing and there are rumors his brother is calling the shots, but this is yet another example of the growing assertiveness and recognition of the Amazigh role in contemporary North Africa.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Egypt's New Parliament Speaker: Too Old Guard?

 Egypt's newly elected Parliament met for the first time over the weekend, with major tasks ahead, including approving several years of Presidential decrees in the absence of Parliament. There were controversies even over the Parliamentary oath, but the selection of law professor ‘Ali ‘Abdel-Al as Speaker has also drawn criticism.

‘Abdel-‘Alis a veteran lawyer and Parliamentarian, but many see him as a figure of the Old Guard, of the Mubarak and SCAF years. The Old Guard is well represented in the new Parliament, and is much weaker constitutionally than the Parliament elected in 2011.

Friday, January 8, 2016

January 8-9, 1916: the Last Man at Gallipoli

General Maude
 A century ago tonight Britain's Gallipoli adventure ended. The decision to evacuate was made the previous November.  Beginning in December, Britain had been evacuating its troops, under cover of darkness and keeping up artillery cover to distract the Turks. By the new year 1916 the  beaches at Anzac and Suvla were cleared, and troops remained only at Cape Helles. On the evening of January 8, they too began embarking under cover of darkness. By 1:15 am on January 9, the troops were assembled on the evacuation beaches. Guns and ammunition dumps were prepared to be blown up and other supplies burned.

At 2;30 am the 13th Division troops were mostly embarked from Gully Beach but there were insufficient boats for the Headquarters Staff and a storm was rising, so Division Commander then-Major General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, with his staff and the beach pickets, had to make their way overland to W Beach instead. Carrying a valise and  stumbling through underbrush, Maude an his party were an hour late reaching the beach where the last lighter was preparing to leave.

Maude, the later conqueror of Baghdad, came to be known as the last man on the beach on Gallipoli, though some of his staff or the naval landing party may have followed him.

As this page notes, one of his staff composed a parody of the verse "Come Into the Garden, Maud" for the occasion:

Come into the lighter, Maude,
For the fuse has long been lit,
Come into the lighter, Maude,
And never mind your kit,
I’ve waited here an hour or more,
The news that your march is  o’er.

The sea runs high, but what care I,
It’s better to be sick than blown sky high,
So jump into the lighter, Maude,
The allotted time is flown,
Come into the lighter, Maude,
I’m off in the launch alone,
I’m off in the lighter a-lone.

Princess Ashraf, 1919-2016, Late Shah's Twin, Dies at 96

The once powerful twin sister of the last Shah of Iran, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, has died in exile at age 96, Princess Ashraf wielded considerable power during her brother's reign, served as an Iranian diplomat, and played a role in persuading her brother to agree to support the US-British backed Operation Ajax counter-coup in 1953, leading critics of the monarchy to compare her to Lady Macbeth.  A spokesman said she died in Europe but for security reasons did not name he country.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Eastern Christmas Hymns and Eastern Christmas Greetings

For Middle Eastern Christians of all the Eastern traditions who celebrate today according to the Julian calendar:

Coptic Christmas hymns:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Sisi Again Attends Coptic Christmas Eve Mass

Youm 7

Egyptian President Sisi has attended Coptic Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo for the second year in a row.

He was greeted by Pope Tawadros II,and addressed the congregation, conveying holiday wishes and drawing cheers. Video in Arabic.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Rerun for Eastern Christmas: The Coptic Legends of the Holy Family on the Flight into Egypt

Those Eastern Christians who follow the Julian Calendar will celebrate Christmas this Thursday, January 7.

Since 2009, I have annually noted the rich Coptic traditions of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, which expands the couple of verses in the Gospel of Matthew, by offering a detailed story of a three-year sojourn and visits up and down the Nile. More recently I've added a map and some pictures, and fixed a few errors. As always, despite the obvious apocryphal nature of these tales, I intend to respect the charm of the stories while noting some of the improbabilities. My revised and illustrated version:

Since we're in between Western Christmas and Eastern Christmas, I thought it might be a useful time to call to your attention the extremely detailed traditions Egypt's Copts maintain about the Holy Family and the Flight into Egypt. There is hardly a Christian church in Egypt — and there are some mosques, too, since Jesus and Mary are highly venerated in Islam — that doesn't claim that Jesus, Mary and Joseph dropped by for a while. They must have been constantly on the move to have covered so much ground, but you can't build up a good pilgrimage trade if you don't stop frequently.

Now, the Flight into Egypt gets only a couple of verses in the Bible and is only mentioned in one Gospel, Matthew, (Matthew 2, 13-14 and 19) so the extremely detailed accounts of the Coptic stories have more to do with pious elaboration — or pilgrimage tourism — than history, but the stories can be quite charming. Some are based on an apocryphal Armenian infancy gospel, some on local traditions, etc. The Coptic traditions hold that the Holy Family spent three years in Egypt.

I am shamelessly cribbing this from Chapter XXXI of the late Otto Meinardus' Christian Egypt Ancient and Modern, (Cairo: AUC Press, 1965; Revised Edition 1977). Meinardus was a major figure in Coptic studies; German-born, he wrote mostly in English or French, taught at the American University in Cairo, and was an ordained Lutheran pastor. (Judge for yourself what Martin Luther would have thought of some of these stories.) He died in 2005. But I have to condense all the details considerably; his chapter runs over 40 pages. There's also a detailed online site, with pictures (text approved personally by Coptic Pope Shenouda, they say), for those interested. And tours are available;this site also offers a travelogue.

It seems the Holy Family traveled with a midwife named Salome who isn't mentioned in the Gospel but plays a role in the Coptic stories. Instead of heading straight to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, they seem to have zigzagged to the Plain of Jericho, then Ashkelon, then Hebron (at least according to the various churches and monasteries situated in those places), then proceeded to enter Egypt via the Land of Goshen, en route to the town of Bilbays. Along the way they had an encounter with a dragon in a cave, and were approached by wild lions, but of course they all bowed down to the Baby Jesus. At Bilbays they rested under a large tree, which was venerated in the Middle Ages by both Muslims and Christians as the Virgin's Tree, which stood until 1850. Then they headed to Samannud, where there is a church on the site of a well blessed by Jesus. (Early Christian apocryphal infancy Gospels, as well as the Qur'an, have Jesus talking while still in the cradle.) Then they detoured northward to the Mediterranean coast at Burollos, stopping there according to the monks of the place. Then, perhaps at Basus or Sakha in Gharbiyya (Meinardus speculates on the place), Jesus left his footprint on a stone.

Needless to say, they could not ignore the Wadi Natrun, the Coptic version of Mount Athos, where the four great monasteries of the Desert Fathers still stand (but of course didn't then as Christianity hadn't been founded yet), though why they were wandering in the desert instead of the delta in those days isn't explained. Passing by from a distance, Jesus said to his mother, "Know O my Mother, that in this desert there shall live many monks, ascetes and spiritual fighters, and they shall serve God like angels." (Apparently Mary would have known what a "monk" was, though it's hard to know why.) Anyway, you can ask the monks if you doubt any of this.

Even though Cairo wasn't there yet, you know Cairo isn't going to let all these other towns have a claim and not find some of its own, don't you? First they went to On, the ancient Heliopolis, not on the site of the modern suburb of that name but on the site of Matariyya. There Jesus took Joseph's staff, dug a well, and planted the staff, which grew into a tree which became a goal of pilgrimage and was venerated by Muslims as well as Christians. (The Qur'an has a story of Mary resting under a palm tree, and this and the Matariyya tree became conflated in later folklore. The Matariyya tree is a sycamore.) The present tree, still venerated,  is alleged to be grown from the shoot of an older tree:
The Virgin's Tree, Matariyya

Harat Zuwaila Church of the Virgin
From there, the Holy Family went to a site where, centuries later, the Harat Zuwaila quarter of Cairo would rise; the Church of the Virgin there is one of the oldest in Cairo proper, and the convent has a well blessed by Jesus.

(If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned their stop in the Fortress of Babylon, in a church many tourists visit today, it's because they stopped there only after their tour of Upper Egypt. Trust me, it's coming.)

Next they went to Ma‘adi, today an elite southern suburb of Cairo, and attended a synagogue. Joseph got to know some Nile boatmen, who offered to take them to Upper Egypt. (You're wondering how an exiled carpenter and family fleeing from King Herod can afford all this Grand Tour? Don't be so cynical: the legend has it covered: using the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the Magi.)

I'm going to condense a bit here since every Church of St. Mary up the Nile seems to mark a site where the boat stopped and they visited a well or a palm tree. But since Upper Egypt remains one of the more Christian parts of the country, they couldn't skip such Christian centers as Sammalout, Asyut, al-‘Ashnmunein, or the great monastery known as Deir al-Muharraq.

One of the legendary sub-stories here deserves telling, though. Up near al-‘Ashmunein, two brigands who had been pursuing the Holy Family since Matariyya (must be the gold, frankincense and myrrh again) tried to rob them. They grabbed Jesus and Mary cried, and one of the robbers repented, and they left them. And — as any folklorist should have figured out by now — these were the same two thieves, including the same Good Thief, who would be crucified alongside Jesus! How could it be otherwise?

Deir al-Muharraq Today
The constant travels were finally relieved when the Holy Family were taken in by a devout Jew and lived for six months (and ten days: I told you the stories are detailed) at the site of the Monastery of Deir al-Muharraq, south of al-Qusiya. The monks of the monastery say it was the first monastery in Egypt, built just after the arrival of Saint Mark as the Apostle of Egypt. If you doubt that, take it up with the monks, not me. Or with the monks at St. Anthony's in the Eastern Desert, which is usually seen as the earliest.)

Abu Sarga Church Crypt
Then the angel came to Joseph and told him it was safe to go back to Palestine. (That part actually is in the Gospel of Matthew, unlike everything else in this post.) They stopped at pretty much every Coptic village that would ever have a Church of the Virgin on their way back down the Nile, and feeling they had not yet done enough for future Cairo tourism, they stopped inside the Roman fortress known as Babylon and, perhaps having run out of gold and frankincense, stayed in a cave that is today the crypt of the church of Saint Sergius (Abu Sarga), conveniently adjacent to the Coptic Museum and included on many Cairo tours.

I hope I don't sound too cynical here: the stories are charming and are clearly a pious attempt to elaborate on a brief reference in the Gospel in order to make the Christian link to Egypt more tangible to believers. On the other hand, the sense that every Church of Saint Mary in Egypt actually sheltered the Virgin and Child seems a bit credulous.

I hope my Coptic friends recognize that I am helping spread knowledge of your tradition, even if I may not accept every detail as historically attested. I'd really like to know more about that dragon.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Can the Escalating Crisis Be Contained?

Due to rain in the Middle East, many social media users posted New Year's photos of rainbows in Jordan, Gaza, and Lebanon. I thought it might be an excuse to make my first post of the new year an optimistic one. But January 1 was a holiday so I didn't post. And then the region went to hell in a handbasket over the weekend.

The  spiraling escalation of the Saudi-Iranian crisis, beginning with the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the subsequent attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the breaking of relations has happened so quickly that there is cause for concern that the situation could spin out of control. At a minimum, hope for some sort of peace deal in Syria is likely to be a casualty, and the GCC could escalate the proxy war in Yemen. The lack of a common land border makes direct ground clashes unlikely, but in addition to he proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, naval tensions between the two countries could threaten the security of tanker traffic in the Gulf.

Although predictably, much of the analysis focuses on the sectarian angle, seeing the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Sunni-Shi‘ite terms. That isn't wrong, given Iran's revolutionary enthusiasm as a protector of Shi‘ites everywhere, and Saudi Arabia's claim to be a defender of Sunni orthodoxy, but it implies an inexorable rivalry that is not historically the case. A more productive analysis may be to see this as a function of the dramatic change in Saudi policy over the past year. What was once the most cautious of countries has become assertive in the extreme, some would say even reckless.

The year is not beginning well. Toby Craig Jones analyzes Saudi motives here.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Senussi Campaign: Action at Wadi Majid and Gebel Medwa, Christmas Day, 1915

The holidays and a strained back have impeded blogging for a few days, but I wanted to continue my series on the Senussi Campaign in World War  (see Parts I, II, and III) with a discussion of actions which took place on December 25, Christmas Day, 1915. a century ago last week.

After the mid-December clashes at Wadi Senab and Umm al-Rakham, weather conditions made operations impossible between December 15 and Christmas Eve, so the Western Frontier Force remained in Mersa Matruh, where it was reinforced by a battalion of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade while the Senusi and their Turkish advisers concentrated at Gebel Medwa to the west.

A British spotter aircraft identified the Senussi concentration as consisting of 900 troops in three battalions, four mountain guns and two machine-guns, under Gebel Medwa, on the Khedivial Motor Road to the west.

The overall commander of the Western Frontier Force, Maj. Gen. Alexander Wallace, decided to dispatch an expedition to disperse the Senussi buildup. Once again, the force was divided between infantry moving on the Khedivial Motor Road, and the cavalry making a wide flanking movement through the desert. The infantry column was commanded by Lt. Col. J.L.R. Gordon and included the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, a battalion of the 1st New Zealand Rifle Brigade, and the 2/8 Middlesex, a British Territorial unit.The cavalry column was commanded by the WFF's overall cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. J.D.T. Tyndale Briscoe, and consisted of elements of the 1/1 Buckinghamshire Yeomanry Regiment (Yeomanry were the cavalry equivalent of Territorials), Hertfordshire and Dorsetshire squadrons of the Composite Yeomanry Regiment, and Squadron A of the Australian Composite Light Horse Regiment. General Wallace and his headquarters were to follow the infantry as a reserve.

The map above shows the thinking: the infantry would push back the Senussi while the cavalry would come up in their rear and block their retreat.

Beginning the campaign under cover of darkness, Gordon moved the infantry out of Matruh at 5 am Christmas Day. As they proceeded towards their objective, the Senussi sighted them around dawn and the engagement began to develop. The 15th Sikhs were in the lead and Gordon noticed that the Senussi were not in position on Gebel Medwa, he sent one o the two Sikh companies to hold he hill and protect his right flank.  By 8 am the Senussi had brought up a mountain gun, which slowed the advance. A Nottinghamshire battery and the guns of HMS Clematis offshore and firing at a range of 10,000 yards. Once the hostile gun was silent,  Middlesex unit replaced the Sikhs on the Gebel, and ll the Sikhs plus the New Zealanders advanced against a ridge line, which thy had secured by 10 am. The infantry side of the action was largely a success, but the cavalry had still not appeared, having been delayed by difficulty moving its guns over rugged terrain, and had also been delayed by a skirmish with Senussi cavalry that occurred in the morning. The cavalry arrived around 3 pm and sought to drive the enemy towards the coast, but by 5 pm the late December light was failing and Gordon broke off pursuit. Both columns were ordered to return to Mersa Matruh.

But the bulk of the Senussi forces retreated to the west. On paper, it was a British victory. They dispersed the concentration of Senussi. he Empire forces lost 13 dead and 51 wounded; they estimated Senussi losses at between 300 and 400 dead and took 80 prisoners. But the bulk of the Senusi force escaped and lived to fight another day.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Greetings and Posting

A Merry Christmas to all who celebrate on the Western date.

MEI offices will be closed until January 4.  I will be blogging though probably at a reduced rate. Tomorrow, Christmas Day, marks the 100th anniversary of an engagement at Wadi Majid in 1915;  and I'll be writing about that early next week, so as not to have to write on Christmas Day.