The Ark of the Covenant

What Was Actually Inside The Ark of the Covenant? | uCatholic

The Ark of the Covenant is the most sacred object in Judaism. According to the Hebrew Bible (or Christian Old Testament), it houses the original Ten Commandments and the sceptre of Aaron. The power of God is said to live in the Ark, and the Hebrews used it to conquer their Promised Land. Its current location is the stuff of legend.

The Book of Exodus says the Hebrew God instructed Moses to build the Ark during his forty days at Mount Sinai to exact measurements and specifications. Moses had a craftsman named Belazel and his assistant Oholiab build the Ark out of acacia and coat it with gold.
The book of Deuteronomy claimed Moses made the Ark himself. The Hebrews housed the Ark in the portable Tabernacle until the construction of Solomon’s Temple.

The Ark granted the Hebrews divine favour. With it in their control, rivers opened, and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. When the Philistines, stole it, disease and famine struck the Hebrews until it was recovered. Only in the presence of the Ark could sinners atone.

Living embodiments of gods were common in the Bronze Age. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Philistines and others housed statues to their gods, which they protected fiercely. If the statue were stolen or destroyed, its people would lose their god’s favour. The statue of Marduk was stolen and recovered five times over a thousand years.

The Ark of the Covenant disappeared in the 530s BC when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. Most scholars believe it was lost forever.

The Book of Maccabees – canon to Jews, Catholics and Orthodox Christians – claims Jeremiah hid the Ark in a cave near Mount Nebo (modern West Bank). There it would stay “until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy.” As the Biblical stories spread over the following centuries, so did legends about the Ark’s location.

Some believe the Ark resides in a secret tunnel beneath Jerusalem and that the Dead Sea Scrolls are a map to its location.

Replica of the lost ark or African treasure? - Deseret News

The Lemba people of Zimbabwe are descendants of Yemeni Jews. They claim their ancestors brought the Ark south on their migration to Africa until it crumbled. The Lemba priests built a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, allegedly on God’s command. In the 1940s, German scientists carbon-dated the Lemba Ark and found it dated to 1350, around the collapse of the Great Zimbabwe civilization. Today it is housed in the Museum of Harare, Zimbabwe.

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The Ethiopian Tewehado Orthodox Church has a different story. According to the Ethiopian National Epic, King Solomon’s fathered a son by the Queen of Sheba. Their son was Menelik I, who became the first emperor of Ethiopia. He brought the Ark from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. The Ark allegedly resides in the treasury of the Church of Our Lady of Zion in the holy city of Axum to this day, where only the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is allowed to view it.

In a 1992 interview, Professor of Ethiopian Studies Edward Ullendorf claimed he saw the Ark firsthand in 1941 while working for the British army. The priests tried to stop him, but he forced his way into the chamber:

“They have a wooden box, but it’s empty,” Ullendorf claimed. “Middle- to late-medieval construction, when these were fabricated ad hoc.”

Sources: King James Bible, Live Science
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America’s Empire and the Twenty Years Since 9/11

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On the 11th of September, 2001, members of terror group Al Qaeda hijacked two US passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Centre in New York City. 2,997 people died and US foreign policy changed irrevocably. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in history. Twenty years and two wars later, the USA enters the twilight of its superpower years.

The Second War World War ended dreams of German world domination, but it also helped end the British Empire. After fighting two world wars on their soil, the old empires of Europe were exhausted. In the following decades, their colonies in Africa and Asia gained their independence. Britain, who had ruled a quarter of the world’s people, resigned from its place as a global superpower and its two wartime allies – the United States and the Soviet Union, took its place.

When the USSR collapsed
in 1991, the USA became the world’s undisputed superpower. The nations of Eastern Europe, now free from the shackles of Soviet-enforced communism, embraced American-style liberal democracy, and it seemed for a time the rest of the world would follow suit. Capitalism, democracy and mass media would unite the world and there would be no need for wars. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama called it ‘The End of History.’

But it wasn’t. Wars continued, most notably in former Yugoslavia and Kuwait. In Afghanistan, the rebel factions who had defeated the Soviets with American support turned on each other. In 1996, the Taliban seized the country.

Al Qaeda began as an Arab volunteer force that fought the Russians in Afghanistan. They saw themselves as Jihadis, protecting the Muslim world against aggressors like the Soviet Union. In the 90s, now based out of Afghanistan, they turned against the other remaining superpower.

Al Qaeda saw the encroachment of the USA’s political and cultural influence
across the Muslim world, particularly after the fall of the USSR, as a threat to Islamic civilization. They deplored American support for dictators, its pursuit of Middle Eastern oil and, in particular, its support for Israel, a Jewish state on Arab land. As Al Qaeda could not match the military might of the USA and its allies, they turned to terrorism.

Their attack on the World Trade Centre shattered hopes of world peace and the security of the United States. The Bush Administration demanded the Taliban government hand over Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. They refused, and the United States invaded.

The Bush Administration also used the post 9/11 climate of fear and nationalism to invade Iraq in 2003 – a country with no link to Al Qaeda – on the false pretence of its leaders harbouring ‘weapons of mass destruction.

Both Afghanistan and Iraq fell quickly, but the US military found themselves bogged down supporting flimsy new governments and fighting vicious insurgencies. The Bush, Obama and Trump presidencies fought a practically invisible enemy for over twenty years.
If anything, the USA’s ‘War on Terror’ justified Al Qaeda’s worldview. The fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq birthed a climate of war and instability, giving rise to the Islamic State – a militant group who committed genocide from 2014 – 2016, while in Afghanistan, the Taliban rose once more. US special forces killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

At home, a recession hit in 2008, from 2016 the political divide reached its widest since the Civil War and, in 2020, a global pandemic hit that exacerbated all its problems.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2020 was overdue, but it was also clumsy and rushed. In a matter of months, the USA pulled out its military, and the Taliban took back control, this time with the millions of dollars worth of tanks and guns the US left behind. For the second time, the US has lost a war to an underequipped and canny opponent in a decades long insurgency.

Empires do not last forever, nor do superpowers. While the US has wasted its resources and reputation fighting the War on Terror, rival China has built its strength and bided its time.

The USA spent over 780 billion dollars on the War on Afghanistan. When they invaded in 2001, the Taliban controlled 90% of the country – they now control 100.

See Also:

Arab Nationalism

Why Islamists hate Arab nationalism? | Books on Trial

Arab Nationalism asserts that Arabs are one nation, bound by a common language, religion and culture, and should unite. Its heyday was the 1960s when Arab nationalists overthrew the corrupt monarchies of the Middle East, but its popularity waned after their defeat in the Six Days War.

Key figures: Gamel Abdel Nasser, Yasser Ararat, Muammar Gaddafi, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein

Tenets: Republicanism, secularism, anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism, socialism and pan-Arabism

Like Islamic fundamentalists, Arab nationalists seek to reclaim the glory of ages past and defy the Western powers who stand before that dream. Unlike Islamic fundamentalists, Arab nationalists are secular. Islam may be important, but Arab identity is the ultimate guiding principle – transcending differences between Sunni, Shia and Christian. Its colours are red, black, white and green.

The Ottoman Turks ruled the Arab world until 1918. The British and French who defeated them drew up the new borders. Rather than granting a single state, they split up the Arab territories into borders that suited their interests and appointed pro-Western kings out of touch with the people they ruled. Of particular frustration was the creation of Israel – a Jewish state on Arab land.

Egypt announced revolutionary new beginning today | Gamal ...

In 1951, Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser and a group of like-minded young officers overthrew King Farouk of Egypt. Charismatic and driven, Nasser dreamed of uniting the Arab world into one state. Ending British and French influence and reclaiming Palestine from the Israelis required Arab unity. In 1956, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canel and defied the Anglo-French-Israeli force who tried to reclaim it, instantly becoming the hero of the Arab nationalist cause.

Nasser’s triumph inspired nationalist coups in Iraq (1963), Algeria (1963), Libya (1969) and Sudan (1969). Arab nationalists established presidential dictatorships based on socialist principles and aligned with the Soviet Union against Israel and the West. In 1958, Syria and Egypt united into a single country – the United Arab Republic – until Syria seceded in 1961.

Baathism is a form of Arab Nationalism which grew out of the Palestinian struggle and Syrian intellectual circles that favoured a strong vanguard party. Syria under Hafez Al-Assad and Iraq under Saddam Hussein were Baathist states.

Arab Nationalism failed to catch on in the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf. To this day, most remain in the hands of pro-Western monarchies.

The Six Days War of 1967
crushed the pan-Arab dream. Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan and ended hopes of a united front. Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, and the movement split between different factions. Local rulers gave up on pan-Arabism and focused on maintaining power. In 1977, Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel. Many Arab nationalists and their successors ruled until the Arab Spring of 2011.

The Saudis had rejected the socialist and revolutionary aspects of Arab nationalism and championed Islamic fundamentalism instead. From the 1980s onwards, Jihad took over as the main ideological struggle against Israel and the West. Fatah, who rules the Palestinian West Bank, is an Arab nationalist movement, while Hamas, who rules the Gaza Strip, is fundamentalist.

Moses

Biography of Moses, Leader of the Abrahamic Religions

Moses is the prophet who wrote the Hebrew code of laws. He is Judaism’s most revered figure and is mentioned in the Quran more than any other person. According to Jews, Christians and Muslims, Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and received the Ten Commandments from God.

  • Hebrew: Moshe
  • Arabic: Musa

According to the book of Exodus, which Moses allegedly wrote, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt at the time of his birth. When the pharaoh ordered the death of all newborn Hebrew boys to quell their population, Moses’s mother hid him in the bullrushes of the Nile. Here the pharaoh’s daughter found him and raised him as her own. Moses grew up in the Egyptian court until discovering his true parentage. He murdered an Egyptian slave-driver and fled to Midian, where he met his wife, Zipporah. 

Instructed by a burning bush, Moses returned to Egypt. He promised the Hebrews a ‘land of milk and honey’ if they submitted to Yahweh, the God of Israel and demanded the pharaoh release his people. He refused, and ten plagues then befell his country. Forced to comply, the pharaoh freed the Hebrews but then sent his army against them, trapping them against the Red Sea. Moses parted the sea and allowed the Hebrews to cross. It then closed and drowned the pharaoh and his army.

God spoke to the Hebrews through Moses, who could see and hear him, atop Mount Sinai and dictated his laws – the Ten Commandments, an eye for an eye. Moses slaughtered the 3,000 who worshipped a golden calf instead then led the Hebrews through forty more years in the wilderness. When the Midianites tried to turn the Hebrews from their god, Moses ordered their destruction. He died on Mount Nebo by the banks of the Jordan River.

 The Quran affirms the Exodus narrative, adding the following details:

  • The pharaoh’s wife, not his daughter, raised Moses
  • Moses offered salvation to the pharaoh through worship of Allah 
  • Moses spoke to Muhammad in heaven

Was Moses real? The Torah claims Moses lived around 1100 BC, but historians have found no evidence in archaeology or contemporary Egyptian records. Most consider him a mythical figure, believing the Hebrews grew out of Canaan’s indigenous population. If a component of their people came from Egypt, their numbers were small. 

‘Moses and Monotheism’ (1939) by Sigmund Freud claims the prophet was an Egyptian nobleman who supported the heretic Akhenaten. This pharaoh had tried to replace the Egyptian pantheon with a single deity named Aten, but when he died, the priests of Egypt destroyed his cult and restored the old gods. According to Freud, Moses escaped the purge and brought his Egyptian god to Israel. There Aten became Yahweh. While mythologist Joseph Campbell embraced Freud’s theory, both theologians and Egyptologists reject it.

According to some Islamic traditions, Moses is buried in Nabi Musa in the West Bank, Palestine.

Sources: King James Bible, World History Encyclopedia

See Also:

Nagorno-Karabakh

Republic of Artsakh

Nagorno Karabakh, or Artsakh, is a disputed territory in the southern Caucasus. While officially part of Azerbaijan, it has self-governed since 1994. Its ethnic Armenian population contest Azerbaijani rule. In October 2020 Azerbaijan mobilized to retake the region. Neighbouring Armenia supports Nagorno-Karabakh while Turkey supports Azerbaijan. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War is the first international conflict of the 2020s.

Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, between Russia and the Middle East, Nagorno-Karabakh is a green and mountainous land home to over 4,000 ancient monasteries and forts. Its name roughly means ‘Upper Karabakh. While Christian Armenians have the oldest presence in the region, Arabs, Persians, Turks, Azeris and Russians have also ruled. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia claim it as their own.

Timeline:

  • < 180: Indigenous states
  • 180 – 387: Great Armenia
  • 387 – 600s: Sassanian Empire (Persian)
  • 600s – 821: Arab Caliphates
  • 821 – 1261: Kingdom of Artsakh (Armenian)
  • 1261 – 1500s: Principality of Khachen (Armenian)
  • 1500s – 1806: Five Melikdoms (Armenian governors ruling under Persian and Turkic overlords)
  • 1806 – 1918: Russian Empire
  • 1918 – 1991: Soviet Union
  • 1991 – 1994: Disputed between Azerbaijan and Armenia
  • 1994: Republic of Artsakh (de facto)

The Soviets ended fighting between Armenians and Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh when they took over in the 1920s. To divide-and-rule, they made Nagorno-Karabakh a part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. By 1991 Nagorno-Karabakh was 25% Azeri and 75% Armenian. 

In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh voted to join Armenia, then still a part of the Soviet Union. Both Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union rejected the move and when the latter collapsed in 1991 both Azerbaijan and separatists took arms. Armenia backed the rebels and a bloody war ensued. Both sides committed atrocities and over 40,000 died. In 1994 they called a ceasefire. Azerbaijani forces withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving it under rebel control but officially Azerbaijani. Low-level conflict continued for the next 25 years.

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On September 27th 2020 Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev launched a surprise rocket attack on Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia retaliated and immediately called the draft. President Erdogan of Turkey promised to aid Azerbaijan by whatever means necessary. For the past nine days, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh exchanged rocket fire with Azerbaijan. Civilians have been the main victims and both sides have used cluster bombs, which international law prohibits.

Armenia is not without allies of its own. As a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Russia is its greatest ally. Said nation has pushed for a peace settlement but has allegedly deployed mercenaries to Armenia’s aide. Russia does not recognize Nagorno-Karabakh however and therefore will likely only intervene if Armenia itself is attacked.

Turkey is already engaged in proxy conflicts with Russia in Syria and Libya and is pushing territorial claims against Greece and Cyprus. They have deployed Syrian Jihadi mercenaries to Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey shares an old rivalry with Russia and a bitter relationship with Armenia ever since the genocide of 1916. Kurdish militias in Iraq and Syria have also rallied to Armenia’s side. Israel supplies weapons to Azerbaijan, including high-tech ‘kamikaze drones’.

Iran is pulled by both sides. On one hand, Iran has 2 million Azeri citizens and Azerbaijan is a fellow Shia Muslim country while Armenia is Christian. On the other hand, Iran and Armenia have long been close while ally Russia backs Armenia and rivals Turkey and Israel back Azerbaijan. At worst, this conflict could spin out of control and put regional powers Turkey and Russia into direct confrontation. 

Nagorno-Karabakh dispute: Armenia, Azerbaijan standoff ...

No countries officially recognize Nagorno-Karabakh’s statehood except the fellow Caucasian disputed territories of Abkhazia, South Transnistria and North Ossetia. It shares close ties to Armenia and animosity with Azerbaijan.

Karabakh Armenians plead their right to self-determination. Azerbaijanis, meanwhile view Artsakh as an illegitimate rebel state who unlawfully displaced its Azeri inhabitants in the 1990s. As the international community sees Nagorno-Karabakh as an Azerbaijani province, they have every right to take it back. While this may be a repeat of the first Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, both sides now have stronger militaries and regional politics are far more fraught.

Sources: Ahval News, BBC, Lonely Planet, Mountainous Karabakh, The Nation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

See Also:

Second Temple Judaism

Second Temple Judaism, Christianity, and the Emergence of ...Second Temple Judaism is the period of Jewish history between the reconstruction of their temple by Cyrus and its destruction by the Romans in AD 71. Rabbinic Judaism took shape in this time.

In 515 BC, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jewish elite to return from their 70-year exile in Babylon. Under Persian rule, they rebuilt the temple the Babylonians had destroyed and resumed their religious practices. In exile, the Jewish religion changed. New writings joined their holy book and new beliefs developed:

  • Only one God. Before the Babylonian Exile Jews believed other deities existed but only worshipped one.
  • Individuals, not entire nations, are held accountable for their sins.
  • There is an evil angel who rules in Hell.

Some of these ideas may have come from Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persians which worships one god.

Jews accepted and tolerated Persian rule but not the Seleucids or Romans who followed. They rebelled many times and refused to recognise kings who called themselves gods. Judea became notoriously difficult to control.

In 160 BC, fundamentalist Jews gained independence after a long guerrilla war and cleansed the country of Greek and pagan influences.

Why the Maccabees Aren't in the Bible | My Jewish Learning

The Book of Maccabees describes this war and the origin of Hannukah. Whilst a part of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, it is seldom included by Protestants. The Romans annexed Judea in 63 BC.

By the first century AD there were six Jewish political movements:

  • The Pharisees were the largest and most popular among the common people. They believed in the Exile teachings and followed not priests but ‘teachers of the Law’ or rabbis. Pharisees believed everyone should follow Jewish dietary restrictions, not only priests. Saint Paul was originally a Pharisee.
  • Sadducees belonged to the Greek-speaking elite that supported foreign rule. The high priesthood and puppet kings like Herod were of this sect. They rejected most of the Exile teachings and did not believe in life after death.
  • Essenes lived in remote rural areas and were obsessed with cleanliness and ritual purity. We know of them mainly through the Dead Sea Scrolls. John the Baptist may have been one.
  • Zealots violently resisted Roman rule. They believed the Kingdom of God was imminent. Their Sicarii (dagger-men) murdered Roman officials, tax collectors and collaborators.
  • Nazarenes followed Jesus of Nazareth, a 1st-century preacher. By the 2nd century, they would break with Jewish tradition.

The First Jewish-Roman War (AD 70 – 74) began when the Jews rebelled over heavy taxes. In AD 71 Romans captured Jerusalem and burned the Second Temple to the ground. The Zealots made their final stand at the fortress of Masada. Using earthen ramps and siege ladders the Romans scaled the desert fortress until its 960 defenders killed themselves rather than surrender.

"Masada" The Most Popular Tourist Attractions in IsraelMost of the Judean sects died out by the 200s. Pharisee beliefs became the basis of modern Judaism while the Nazarenes evolved into a new religion altogether – the Christians.

The last Jewish revolt was in 132-136 under Simon bar Khokba, who claimed to be the messiah. By this point, the Romans had had enough. In its aftermath, Emperor Hadrian slaughtered the rebels, renamed both Judea and Jerusalem and expelled the Jewish people from its borders. They did not return en masse until the 19th century.

Sources: Ancient History Encyclopedia, Live Science, Livius

See Also:

The Armenian Genocide

armenian genocide 1The Armenian Genocide is the second most studied after the Holocaust. From 1915 – 1923, the Ottoman Empire murdered 1.5 million of its Armenian subjects and destroyed their 3,000-year-old presence in eastern Turkey. The Assyrian and Greek Genocides happened at the same time, claiming the lives of a further 350,000 Greeks and 300,000 Assyrians. Today (April 24th 2020) marks its 105th anniversary.

The Armenian people are indigenous to the mountains of eastern Anatolia and the lower Caucasus. When the Ottoman Empire took over, the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, clung to their Christian faith. Though this put them at odds with the Muslim Ottomans, relations were largely peaceful until the 19th century. A smaller part of Armenia fell under Persian, then Russian rule.

In 1908 a clique of ultranationalist, European educated officers called the Young Turks overthrew the Ottoman government and established a new regime. They sought to modernise the empire, restore its former glory and create an ethnically and religiously homogenous state. Under the new regime, the sultan was a figurehead and a junta called the ‘Three Pashas’ held power. Grand Vizier Talaat Pasha (right) engineered the genocide.

By World War One, the Ottoman Empire was crumbling. Starting with the European Greeks in 1830, many of its subject people had already gained independence and the Armenians were demanding greater rights and representation. Ottoman Armenia was on the border with arch-rival Russia and when WW1 started, the regime feared they would back their neighbour. Stirring ethnic hatred also deflected criticism towards the new regime

armenian genocide 5In 1914, the Ottoman army transferred all its Armenian soldiers into forced labour battalions. The genocide officially began on April 24th 1915, when they arrested and executed 250 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul.  Ottoman authorities then evicted the Armenian population from their homes, seized their property and forced them on a 2,000-kilometre march into the Syrian Desert.

The Assyrian Genocide happened at the same time. Turkish and Kurdish militias pillaged Assyrian villages, killing the men and kidnapping women and children. In 1915, they crossed the Persian border and repeated the process. Those who survived were made to join the Syrian death march. Assyrians call the events of 1915 Seyfo, meaning ‘Year of the Sword’.

Pictures - Armenian Genocide Education Australia
The Young Turk regime formed a ‘Special Organisation’
of freed convicts to escort the refugees into the desert and left them without food or water. The Special Organisation and Kurdish brigands killed as they pleased. Armenian and Assyrian women were raped, forcibly converted and sold as slaves in neighbouring towns.

In the city of Trebizond, the governor loaded 50,000 Armenian women and children onto boats and drowned them in the Black Sea.

Two million Armenians lived in Turkey in 1914. By 1923, there they had virtually disappeared. Survivors – mainly children – fled to Greece, Russia, Syria and the United States with the help of Near East Relief. The modern country of Armenia consists of the smaller Russian territory, only 10% of their former homeland.

armenian genocide 2

Armenian orphans in 1918

The word genocide was coined in 1943 to describe the events of 1915-1923 and, five years later, the Holocaust. It means the deliberate attempt to annihilate a specific ethnic group. However, the modern Turkish government has repeatedly denied  the events were genocide, refused to aplogise and urged other countries to do the same.

Arguments against classification as genocide are usually the following:

    • The word genocide had not been invented in 1915. Therefore Armenian massacres were not genocide.
    • Genocide requires intent to wipe out a people. The Young Turks only sought to relocate the Armenians.
    • Atrocities against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks did happen, but the numbers are grossly inflated.
    • Armenians killed Turks too.
    • The Armenian genocide is a conspiracy designed to undermine Turkish sovereignty

In 1919, the Turkish government convicted the Three Pashas with ‘the massacre and destruction of the Armenians’. By then, however, they had escaped the country, and ultimately no one was held accountable.

armenian genocide recognition

Green – countries that officially recognise the events as genocide

Today most nations refuse to recognise the genocide in order to stay in Turkey’s good books. Though the western powers condemned the genocide when it happened, during the Cold War they changed their tune. Turkey is a major power in the Middle East and a leading member of NATO. The United States did not recognise the genocide until 2019 when, despite President Trump’s objection, the Senate voted unanimously to do so. Other western countries like Britain, Australia and New Zealand still do not. The events of 1915 might count as atrocities, ethnic cleansing, a tragedy even, but not genocide.

Turkish activists who condemn the genocide receive death threats and sometimes criminal prosecution. The majority of Kurdish political organisations, such as Rojava, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Workers Party, have recognised and apologised for the Kurdish role in the massacres of Armenians and Assyrians.

Denial is the eighth and final stage of a genocide.

armenian genocide 3
Sources: Armenian Genocide.org, Combat Genocide.org,  Greek Genocide.net, NPR, Raymond Ibrahim, University of Minnesota

See Also: 

The Sassanian Empire

simorgh banner
The Sassanian Empire (224-651) was the last pre-Islamic dynasty to rule Iran.
They called their dominion ‘Iranshahr’, meaning ‘Empire of Iran’. The Sassanians reinstated native Persian rule after centuries of foreign dominion and codified Zoroastrianism as their state religion. They were nemeses of the Roman Empire, and the two powers fought incessantly. The Sassanians ruled modern Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Caucasus and the Stans of Central Asia (except Kazakhstan).sassanian coin

  • Capital: Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad)
  • Official language: Middle Persian (Pahlavi)
  • State religion: Zoroastrianism
  • Government: Absolute monarchy
  • Dynasty: The House of Sasan

The Sassanians were an old Persian family claiming descent from Cyrus the Great. Having conquered Persia in 330 BC, the Macedonians ruled three centuries. The Parthians who followed were of north-east Iranian stock but adopted Greek customs. In the third century AD, Ardashir of the House of Sasan overthrew his Parthian overlords and was crowned ‘Shahanshah’ – king of kings. His dynasty turned the feudal Parthian Empire into a centralised, urban state and restored the Persian Empire of old.

sassanian empire map

Zoroastrianism was the Sassanian state religion. The high priest Kartir put its oral traditions to paper and pushed an orthodox Zoroastrianism that left no room for differing interpretations. The clergy became a privileged and influential caste alongside the seven noble families of Iran.

Two heresies threatened the Sassanian order.  Early in the Sassanian Empire, the Manichaeans accepted a new prophet and threatened the clergy’s hold on power. The followers of Mazdak (Mazdakites) arose in the 6th century. They were a proto-communist cult advocating social revolution. Spurred by the clergy, the Sassanian rulers uprooted both and killed their prophets.

sassanian cataphract 3The backbone of the Sassanian army was its cataphracts – armoured men on armoured horses fighting with mace and lance. The Romans copied their design and it later influenced European knighthood. The Sassanians also used Indian elephants in war. 

The Sassanian Empire was one of five world powers alongside Rome, Ethiopia, India and Tang China. Their tug-of-war with the Romans over Armenia and Mesopotamia lasted four centuries. In 260, Shapur I annihilated a Roman army at Edessa and inflicted one of Rome’s worst-ever defeats. Emperor Valerian was taken captive and made Shapur’s footstool until he died. In the west, the Sassanians defended Iran against migrating Hunnish and Turkic tribes.

khosrauKhosrow I (reigned 531-539) gave the empire a second wind. He reformed the inefficient tax system and eased persecution of Christians and Jews while crushing the Mazdakites. His occupation of Egypt, Anatolia and Yemen brought Sassanian Persia to its greatest extent. When the Romans closed the Athenian Academy in 529, Khosrow welcomed its scholars to his court. An admirer of Plato, he sought to emulate the ideal philosopher-king.

The final Roman-Persian war of 602-628 bled the empire dry. Four years later, the Arabs, now united under Islam, invaded and destroyed the Sassanians within twenty years. In focusing so much on the Romans, the Sassanians had neglected their neighbours to the south. The last Shahanshah, Yazdegerd III, fled east and was murdered for his purse.

Today Persians consider the Sassanians the most authentically ‘Iranian’ Empire. The older Achaemenid Persian Empire belongs to an ancient, almost mythical past. By contrast, the Sassanians left ample records. They created truly Persian literature, practised a Persian religion and wrote in a Persian script. Chess was popularised and backgammon invented in the Sassanian court. Stories that would later make Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahnameh’, the Iranian national epic, were first collated in Sassanian times. The academy at Gundeshapur translated hundreds of philosophical and medical texts from Greek and Sanskrit into Persian which in turn laid the foundations of the Islamic Golden Age.

Nestorius | borderlessbloggerCtesiphon today

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Richard N Frye – The Heritage of Persia (1962)

See Also:

Mani of Babylonia

mani 3Mani (216 – 277) was a painter and theologian who preached in 3rd century Persia. His teachings became Manichaeism, a religion that peaked in the 9th century and rivalled early Christianity. Mani envisioned a global faith that combined the teachings of Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and could breach cultural and linguistic divisions. Persecuted in Persia and Rome, Mani’s teachings spread as far as China and North Africa.

Mani was born to a Jewish-Christian sect near modern-day Baghdad. He was of Parthian descent and lived under the Sassanian Dynasty, who were staunch Zoroastrians. At age 20, Mani heard the voice of his ‘divine twin’ urging him to leave home and preach the word of God. Mani travelled the Silk Road to India, where he learned from Hindu and Buddhist sages. In his lifetime he gained more followers than Jesus. He detailed his teachings in six known books that he wrote and illustrated:

  • Shapuragan
  • Book of Giants
  • Fundamental Epistle
  • Living Gospel
  • Mani Codex
  • Arzhang

Mani wrote the Shapurangan for Emperor Shapur of Persia. It failed to convert him, though Shapur tolerated and protected Mani’s followers. As none of the originals survive in full, what we know comes from fragments, quotations and discussions by other authors.

Manichaeans believe in a dualistic universe. Good and Evil are separate and equally powerful forces. Both are uncreated and eternal. Originally the worlds of Light and Darkness were separate and the Earth was born from their collision. Humans are essentially (Good) spiritual beings trapped in (Evil) material bodies. The battle between Good and Evil takes place in the human soul. The Divine Father sent prophets to guide humanity back to him. These included Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Mani. Only through prayer, fasting and the and rejection of evil can one’s soul escape the cycle of reincarnation and reunite with the World of Light. The truly evil join the World of Darkness when they die.

mani 4

The faith combines Zoroastrian dualism with Biblical revelation and Buddhist enlightenment. In his books, Mani detailed his cosmology with coloured illustrations. He sought to reform Zoroastrianism and turn it from its ethnocentric origins as a religion for Persians and Medes to a universal missionary faith for all mankind as the early Christians did with Judaism. As a painter, he believed the arts in all their forms were sacred and divine.

After years abroad, Mani returned to Persia in AD 272. The Zoroastrian clergy considered his teachings a dangerous heresy. In 273 the new king, Bahram I, imprisoned Mani and ordained his execution. Mani was flayed alive, his body stuffed with straw and crucified over the gates of Gundeshapur. Bahram banned Manichaeism and expelled its followers from Persia.

Spread of manichaeism

In the West, Manichaeism spread across Roman Italy and North Africa. Saint Augustine was a Manichaean before converting to Christianity. Through him, dualistic tendencies seeped into Catholic thought, particularly regarding Heaven and Hell. Manichaean teachings strongly influenced medieval heretics like the Cathars, whom French crusaders exterminated in the 14th century.

The Uighurs adopted Manichaeism and it spread through western China. Their empire collapsed in the 840s, however, and they later converted to Islam. Manichaeism thrived in China until purges drove it underground. Today only a few sects still practice the faith, and only one temple remains – a remote shrine in Ca’oan, China that was long disguised as a Buddhist temple.

manichaean temple

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Iran Chamber, Kaveh Farrokh

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Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the GreatCyrus II (Kūruš in Old Persian) founded the Persian Empire (550-330 BC). Once ruler of an insignificant city, he overthrew his Median overlords and established the greatest empire of its time. Cyrus is revered in Iran and is the Hebrew Bible’s only non-Jewish messiah. Like his admirer Alexander the Great, who would conquer his empire, Cyrus was among the greatest rulers of the ancient world. Unlike Alexander, his empire outlasted him by two hundred years.

When Cyrus was born
, four powers ruled the known world:

  • Median Empire (Iran)
  • Babylonian Empire (Iraq and the Levant)
  • Lydia (Turkey)
  • Egypt

According to Herodotus, who wrote the oldest account on Cyrus’s life, King Astyages of Media had a daughter called Mandane who married his vassal the king of Persia. One day Astyages had a disturbing dream: Mandane urinating over the world. The court magi interpreted it as prophecy. Her child would overthrow Astyages and destroy his empire. When Mandane gave birth to a son, the king dispatched his commander Harpagus to kill him. Unwilling to murder a baby, however, Harpagus gave the infant to a shepherd couple and presented their stillborn baby to the king instead. Years later Cyrus, now king of Persia, rebelled against Astyages. Harpagus defected to him and Cyrus overthrew his grandfather and seized his empire.

median empireCyrus then invaded Babylon. After defeating its unpopular king, he entered the city peacefully and portrayed himself not as a conqueror but a saviour restoring legitimate rule. Cyrus allowed the captive people of Babylon to return to their respective homelands, declaring so in the famous Cyrus Cylinder (below), which Iranians claim to be the first declaration of human rights.

The Cyrus Cylinder as Design Object | The Getty Iris

Hearing of this upstart king, Croesus of Lydia consulted the Oracle of Delphi, at least according to Herodotus. The oracle told him that if he goes to war with Persia, a great empire will fall. Croesus sent his armies against Cyrus, only to find the empire that fell was his own.

Cyrus ruled his empire indirectly. The Persians were far more merciful and less imposing than the Babylonians and Assyrians who went before them. Cyrus often spared his enemies; he retired Astyages to a summer house and made Croesus a leading advisor.

So revered was Cyrus, that for centuries later, Persia’s male beauty standards were based on one’s resemblance to him.

Scholars disagree on Cyrus’s fate. Herodotus claims he died fighting Tamyris of the Massagetai, a barbarian queen to the east. Other accounts claim he died peacefully in his capital. His tomb still stands in modern-day Iran. Though the inscription has faded away, Strabo recorded it saying:

Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who gave the Persians an empire and was king of Asia. Begrudge me not, therefore, this monument.

Since the early 2000s, thousands of Iranians gather at his tomb to celebrate ‘Cyrus the Great Day’ every October 29th, the day Cyrus entered Babylon. Iran’s government does not recognise or condone the event.

cyrus the great day
Xenophon’s ‘Cyropaedia’
depicts Cyrus as an ideal ruler all others should emulate. Its fans included Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Machiavelli, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Cyrus promoted religious freedom. Although likely Zoroastrian himself, he portrayed himself as chosen by the gods of all his subjects, be it Ahura Mazda, Marduk or Yahweh and patronised temples across his empire. Cyrus ended the Jews’ 70 year ‘Babylonian Exile’ and helped rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Of this ‘Second Temple,’ only the Western Wall stands today and is the religion’s holiest site. The Persian king’s decrees ensured the Jews did not assimilate into mainstream Babylonian culture. Without Cyrus’s intervention, there might be no Judaism, no Christianity or Islam today.

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Herodotus – The HistoriesReuters

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