Celebrating Christmas in Kabul, 1833…

An article in yesterday’s Guardian by Huma Qureshi on how Muslims in Britian celebrate Christmas today put me in mind of an account of how Christians celebrated Christmas in Afghanistan, but 180 years. It comes from a British traveller, Charles Masson, who lived in Kabul in the 1830s in the decade before Britain’s first invasion of Afghanistan in 1838. Masson was an extraordinary character: a wanderer, scholar, deserter from the army, amateur archaeologist who uncovered the earliest traces of the Silk Road and Alexander the Great’s empire in Afghanistan, as well as reluctant spy and first outspoken critic of western involvement in Afghanistan; he deserves to be much better known today (I have written a biographical article on him here). However, his account of the Armenian Christians in Kabul in those years (there was a substantial population there in those times) reminds one that happy co-existence and mingling of religions was something that belongs not just to our own times. Masson’s account also makes us ask how things could have gone so badly wrong…

“The Christian is respectfully called a ‘kitabi,’ or ‘one of the book.’ The dissolute Vizier [prime minister] Fateh Khan, when, occasionally, an Armenian Christian presented himself, desiring to become a convert to Islam, was wont to inquire what he had found deficient in his own religion that he wished to change it? And would remark, that persons who possessed a book, and would adopt a new faith, were scoundrels, actuated by love of gain, or other interested motive…

“Living with the Armenians of the city, I witnessed every day the terms of equality on which they dwelt amongst their Mahomedan neighbours. The Armenian followed the Mahommedan corpse to its place of burial; the Mahomedan showed the same mark of respect to the deceased of the Armenian community. They mutually attended each others’ weddings, and participated in the little matters which spring up in society. The Armenian presented gifts on Id Noh Roz, or the Mahomedan New Year’s Day; he received them on his own Christmas day. If it happened that a Mahomedan had married an Armenian female who was lost to the Church of the Cross, I found that the Armenians had retaliated, and brought Mahomedan females into their families, and inducted them into their faith. An Armenian, in conversation with the present head of the Wais family said, that some person had called him a Kafir or infidel. The reply was, ‘he that calls you a Kafir is a Kafir himself.’”

[From A Narrative of various journeys in Baluchistan, Afghanistan and the Punjab including a residence in those countries from 1826 to 1838, published in London by Richard Bentley]

I don’t believe in Saturn, but I do believe in the Saturnalia…

Jake Wallis Simons, writing in a Telegraph Blog yesterday, injected some much needed sense into the debate over the 2011 census figures on religion in England. Taking issue with Nick Cohen of the Guardian, who claimed that of the 75% of the population who still identify themselves as followers of religion only a tiny handful actually adhere strictly to their creeds, Simons eloquently reminded us that this laxity and vaugeness is meant to be at the heart of religion in England. This vagueness, he points out is its strength: ’It is the very anathema of fanaticism, and the epitome of good-natured tolerance. The Englishman may not be “faithful” to the Church’s “creeds” all of the time, but his life drifts along in general compliance with its more sensible teachings, and he pops in to church now and then.’ Hence, Simons, like many others, might not believe in God, but he can certainly believe in the Church of England.

However, we should remember that it is not only the English who managed to get themselves into this state of happy detachment from the kernel of their religion, whilst wholeheartedly supporting its form. The Romans, as ever, led the way in this regard. By the first century BC, Rome staggered under the weight of pious observances and antique rituals, the origins and meanings of which could scarcely be understood. As with bishops in England today, senior clerics such as the Flamen Dialis (Priest of Jupiter) were given a place in the senate by right of their office. There were colleges of priests, hoary temples, and strange festivals – think, for example, of the Salian rites where a man was ritually beaten with long white sticks, or the Lupercalia where magistrates would run through Rome naked beating women with leather thongs. Yet, as fiercely as the educated classes of the Roman people adhered strictly to the rituals and competed for places on the priestly colleges, so equally were they non-committal about the actual metaphysical truth of the gods and goddess they were worshipping.

They did not get themselves into this state, like the British, on account of a civil war. Rather, it was probably their encounter with Greek philosophy and Greek religion from the 3rd century BC onwards. Intellect took over from wholehearted acceptance of ancient religion, and the philosophical schools of stoicism, epicureanism and scepticism provided a far more satisfactory account of man’s place in the world. Discussions of religion, for example Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods (De natura deorum) give first place to a combat of philosophies rather than gods or diffierent religions.

For all this, the Romans kept the old forms of their religion, with many refusing to surrender them until well into the period of Christian domination of the Empire. The likely reasons for this are important for us to ponder, as they suggest why we should hold fast to the Church of England. It is not, as some upper-class Romans held, that religion should be maintained as a means of social control and keeping the masses quiet – western religion would never work in that regard nowadays, and television has solved the problem of social control. Nor was it the political and social standing that went with the priestly offices. Rather, it was their attachment to the idea of the mos maiorum, or the “Customs of the Ancestors”. The Romans, as they saw it, should only do as their ancestors had done before them, as their adherence to custom and the piety towards their religion had been the key to their success. Yet, they wisely understood that the new philosophical ideas could be easily clothed in the vestments of the old religion. They might not believe in a literal Jupiter thundering from a cloud, but Jupiter could happily stand for the Stoic principle of cosmic fate and the ordering mind of the universe. Venus might not be a goddess about to seduce Mars in an etherial bower, but Lucretius would still invoke her to stand for the principles of attraction which brought atoms together in his Epicurean epic, De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things“).

Hence, the preservation of the old forms of religion gave a means for Romans to develop and understand their new ideas of philosophy, metaphysics and their place in the world, by supplying a pantheon of shared vocabulary, imagery and myth. More than this, Roman religion had never been exclusive. As a colossal range of deities and rituals had their place and were accepted from outside, so as new ideas of philosophy developed, the old forms of religion gave them space and a legitimacy to develop. Nonetheless, despite these divisions of ideology, they were able to come together under the welcoming aegis of the old faith; there was nothing in the way of excommunication or anathema, just as long as one followed the mos maiorum.

Returning to our own time, the Church of England, delightfully hollow and vague as it is, provides – or should provide – by its myth and ritual a language, imagery and space for every adherent’s ideas, philosophy and contemplation about their place in the universe. There is room in the Christian story for every shade of thinker, from extreme existentialist doubt, to the mystic, to homely and uncomplicated piety; all of this variety in a unified and native English dress. If we take it too seriously and demand of its members exacting submission to its creeds, or even worse just throw it away, then all that liberty of individual response and creativity in a recognisable framework is lost.



Smart Arses – Saving the Bodleian Library’s toilet inscriptions…

This is the text of an article I published in the Spectator in 2002. The online version has recently disappeared behind a paywall on their new website, so I am reposting it here.


Bijan Omrani says that the graffiti on the lavatory walls of the Bodleian Library must be preserved for posterity.

The Spectator, May 04, 2002

IN the last few weeks, a great hue and cry has been raised among academics over the fate of the Villa dei Papyri in Herculaneum. Hundreds of scrolls, preserved underground in the great library of Lucius Calpernius Piso since the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, are in imminent danger of destruction from flooding caused by adjacent archaeological work. Papyri already recovered have yielded up the lost works of the philosopher Philodemus, and provided better texts of the poet Lucretius. Scholars fear, however, that without the necessary support damp may ruin the many unexcavated scrolls, and the last opportunity to find the missing plays of Aeschylus and Euripides, the histories of Livy or writings of Aristotle may soon be gone for ever. However, while attention is focused on Italy, texts of perhaps equal importance are being lost daily here in Oxford through the negligence of authority: the toilet graffiti of the Bodleian Library.

In Pompeii, every phrase scratched into the ancient walls — whether it be the drunken effusion of a guest returning from a dinner party, or the plaint of a lover shut out from his mistress — is greedily catalogued. Professors rejoice when even the most opaque fragment of Greek lyric emerges from the darkness. How can we rest easy with ourselves, knowing that the most private thoughts of the nation’s premier scholars are falling prey to the janitor’s bucket and mop?

When historians come to record this fascinating yet depressing period of the university’s history, they will doubtless ask whether there was any real change in the social composition of the student body: is this still the Oxford of Waugh, Beerbohm and the Bullingdon, or is it now the furry, Blairite, socially inclusive change so beloved of our government? The Bodleian’s lavatories would provide the best source of evidence: ‘In Oxford one day in a punt,/I tried a remarkable stunt./The girl was from Merton,/Of that I am certain,/Because of the size of her…’ ‘… bank balance’, adds a later hand. And again: ‘When I was just a little boy/I asked my mother what should I be./Should I be Worcester, should I be Queen’s?/Here’s what she said to me — You’re going to Brookes.’

Dr Johnson once lamented a plan to break with tradition by inscribing epitaphs at Westminster Abbey in English rather than in Latin. He was outraged that its venerable walls might be defiled with the ‘vulgar tongue’. It is lucky that he is not with us now; were he to take a break from his philological pursuits in Duke Humfrey’s Library to powder his wig, he would now find only one Latin epigram by the urinals: ‘Veritas liberabit,/Bonitas regnabit’ (Truth will set free and goodness shall reign). Whether these are the millennial musings of a Christ Church canon, or the sublime prayers of a classicist stricken with constipation, we shall never know.

Matters of faith are certainly not underrepresented. The morphing of scatology into eschatology is arresting. In one place, the first line of Langland’s mystical work ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’: ‘In a summer season, when soft was the sun’; in another, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ In large letters below a cistern, the whole ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, to which another writer appends the question, ‘Where have all the radical Christian bigots gone?’ When one reads the assortment of highly perceptive answers: ‘The New Jerusalem’, ‘Your Mum’, ‘Hell’, ‘Sainsbury’s’, one wonders how the Alpha Course and evangelicalism have been able to make such inroads into the student body. The Battle Hymn hand also writes, ‘Our God is a devouring fire’; another replies, ‘Does that make Jesus a bonfire? How on earth does he buy his trousers?’ Considering that the first-known representation of Christ’s crucifixion is a mocking graffito of a soldier praying to a donkey nailed to a cross, with the Greek inscription ‘Alexandros worships his god’, this badinage gives the reader a wonderful sense of continuity.

The dialogue is not just theological, but ecclesiastical as well: ‘From the crypt of the Church of St Giles/Came a scream that echoed for miles./The vicar said, “Gracious,/I fear Father Ignatius/Has forgotten the Lord Bishop’s piles.”‘ Someone replies, ‘As a member of St Giles’s choir, I object to this — the Bishop rarely visits, and I have never heard that he has piles.’

The Bodleian fragments often have as much of an arresting enigmatic quality as those surviving from early Greece. From Archilochus (7th century BC) we have, ‘What breaks me,/Young friend,/Is tasteless desire,/Dead iambics,/Boring dinners’; from the Oxford Poet we have, ‘Always take a pen to the loo,/Always give the porter a moo,/Never give the master a screw’; and also: ‘Those clever men at Oxford/Know all there is to be knowed./But none of them knows half as much/As intelligent Mr Toad.’ Beneath these verses, a debate continues: ‘Is knowledge really quantifiable?’ ‘Yes, you arse. Intellect may not be, wisdom isn’t, wit isn’t, but knowledge certainly is, you smartarse twat.’ ‘Isn’t it true that to know anything is to know the good, and so to know everything?’

It is a melancholy thought that in my years as an undergraduate I never found so much energy and eloquence expended over intellectual disputation as in these cubicles. Go to a college bar or formal hall, and although you will hear stirring orations on the size of a graduate’s starting salary, or fierce colloquies on the respective merits of flavoured and ribbed, no one will speak up to defend the philosophy of Plato. Cerebral expression has become as shameful as the bodily functions, and must be locked away in private. ‘Is the world really everything that is the case?’ scribbled above the loo-roll holder is not just the passing thought of an idle hour; it is an active attempt to defy the prevailing student culture. As one hand puts it, ‘You can wash away our scribblings,/but you can’t silence the soul./Fight the rower, my brothers.’

Look closely, and you can see what has been washed away: furious arguments over Kierkegaard’s concept of irony; the arrogance of the British; ‘What have the Muslims ever done for us?’; other verses and Oxford ditties lost for ever. Priceless literature and historical source material are disappearing every day. Let our antiquaries for a moment put aside the Villa del Papyri, and hasten hither with their notebooks; else, what writings will we leave to rival the Greeks in the eyes of posterity?


Tweaking Virgil’s 4th Ecolgue

Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue is one of those works which pass AE Housman’s test of a really fine poem: making the hair stand up on the back of one’s neck. Written in about 40 BC whilst Rome was still in turmoil after the assasination of Caesar, it looks forward to the arrival of a “Messiah” in the person of a child who will bring back the Golden Age to Italy and the rest of the world. It was never determined who Virgil meant as the child saviour in the Eclogue, and Christians after the 4th century, following the lead of the Emperor Constantine understood the poem to be a pagan prediction of the advent of Christ. There is little wonder they should have thought so. The poem is filled with imagery reminiscent of Isaiah and Hebrew prophecy, and it is not unlikely that Virgil was influenced by Graeco-Judaic texts such as the Sybilline Oracles, which were freely circulating around the Roman Empire in that time.

There is one particular problem about the text which has caused much debate. Lines 26-30 read in translation (addressing the young saviour):

“As soon as you are able to read of the praises of heroes and the deeds of your parent, then shall the fields little by little grow yellow with soft ears of grain; blushing clusters of grapes will hang on unkempt brambles, and the hardy oaks will sweat dewy honey.”

It will be observed that grapes growing on brambles would certainly be miraculous, and honey harvested from oaks likewise. However, a field (campus) growing yellow with corn is not something anyone would count as particularly miraculous. The offending line is 4.28 (molli paulatim flavescet campus arista). Together with Professor David Kovacs of the University of Virginia, we have just published in the latest edition of Classical Quarterly about how the text could have been corrupted in transmission, and suggesting what the Latin might originally have been. Read all about it here.

Pass the Peerage

Victoria Lambert, or more properly the Countess of Clancarty, complains in today’s Daily Telegraph about the rules of primogeniture and male succession in the British Peerage. Although it will shortly be open for male and female heirs to the British Throne to be treated equally for the purposes of succession, the same is still not the case for a host of British titles of nobility. Families such as her own, where there are daughters but no male heir, are bound to see the extinction of their titles, which are tied to descend only by the male line. Her daughter, she laments, will be the last Lady Le Poer Trench, and in time we will see the end of their familiy’s titles of distinction - a range of baronies, viscouncies, and even a Dutch title, the Marquisate of Heusden.

While one might be sympathetic to her call for equality in the rules for succession to peerages – why should the Crown be exceptional in this matter? – perhaps it might be better to look at the problem from the long perspective of history. This would remind us that families, far from complaining about losing their titles after many generations, should be thankful that they were able to inherit them at all. In its beginning with the development of feudalism in Europe, the peerage was not hereditary at all. A territorial lordship was simply an office held at the pleasure of a King, Emperor or Pope. It was not legitimately passed on at death to a family member, let alone an eldest son, without the express permission of the same king. Kings would frequently remove these “lords” from their office, or compel them to exchange one for another. The tenancy of such a title was never something that was assured.

Thus, if we are looking to revive the oldest traditions, let us not see the Earldom of Clancarty extinct. Yet, instead of tying it to the Le Poer Trench family, let it be bestowed on someone who has merited the title in the course of their lifetime, for their lifetime. Is there a better way to serve the cause of equality, not just between the sexes, but between those who have merited distinction in our own age and also in the ages of the past?

The border that never was – the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan

It is difficult for outsiders to understand the depth of feeling and sense of national injustice that possesses Afghans when they cross – or even consider – the Durand line, the line defining the southern border of Afghanistan drawn by the British Raj and the Afghan King in 1893. A foreigner crossing at any of the passes that pierce the Hindu Kush between Afghanistan and Pakistan will be harangued by Afghans on the iniquity of what they consider a colonial imposition and be assured that the tribal territories of Pakistan belong to Afghanistan. It is a fact of Afghan political life that someone suggesting  recognising the Line also commits political suicide.

The US Government’s affirmation in October of the current configuration of the Durand Line  has added vigour to a long-running debate about its practicality and worth. Established in an 1893 treaty between British India and Afghanistan, the Line has been troubled from the start. It has been a cause of upset for Afghans as it cuts through the middle of the Pashtun heartland, Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group. Kabul has long cherished the idea of bring all Pashtuns back under its aegis, and Afghan governments since independence have agitated for the Line to be redrawn. In the 1960s the Afghans upped the ante by proposing the creation of a state of Pashtunistan, thus implying the break-up of the Pakistani state. Partly on this account, it has been the scene of endless cross-border intrusions by both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two countries came close to war in 1948 and again in1960. One reason why Pakistan feels driven to intervene in Afghanistan via its Taliban proxies is through its long-term feeling of insecurity about the frontier. The present raids by Pakistani Taliban and retaliation by US drone strikes are just the latest chapter in interference by either side over the frontier which goes back to the end of the 19th century.

Recently in the FT, Javid Ahmad (“Securing the Durand Line could bring peace to Afghanistan”, FT 5 November) recently argued that the border should be secured. The Afghan Government should finally recognise the Line. The weak parts should be fenced and mined to prevent the infiltration of militants and drug smugglers, and full travel documents should be issued to allow cross-border travel with appropriate security checks. Yet, as sensible and obvious as this idea sounds, there is no possibility that it would deliver the desired result of peace. To understand why, we must look at the intentions of the Line’s creators.

The Durand Line is a child of the Great Game, the Anglo-Russian rivalry for dominance of Central Asia in the 19th century. Britain’s first consideration for drawing a frontier between India and Afghanistan was not the practical convenience of governing the territory, but obtaining defensible forward positions in the mountain passes to guard against any Russian attack via Afghanistan. Hence, the frontier cuts through not only Pashtun tribes, but even through villages. The Line is convoluted, and in many places unclear without any physical features to support it. The difficulties of securing it along its predominantly mountainous 1,900-mile length render such a solution practically impossible.

The fact that Britain was so cavalier about drawing a border which could not be practically administered springs from an important fact. The Durand Line was never intended by its creators to be an international sovereign border. It was only a line beyond which either side was bound not to extend its influence or send their troops. The British never intended to extend regular sovereignty and government up to the line. British Indian sovereignty ended at the foothills of the frontier. In the 10,000 square miles of the mountainous Pashtun tribal areas, tribes were either left to administer their own affairs, or were in certain areas governed by a mixture of often barbaric tribal custom – women are still used as currency to settle vendettas between clans – and British martial law (the “Frontier Crimes Regulation”) which is for the most part contrary to international norms of human rights. For example, government officials – the romantically named “Tribal Agents” – have powers of arbitrary arrest and detention, hearsay evidence may be used in the makeshift courts, and the accused has no right to a lawyer. This situation has continued with little variation to this day.

British officials of the 19th century even foresaw the need for hot pursuit across the frontier from the Afghan side. In 1897, Sir Denis Fitzpatrick, Governor General of the Punjab wrote that there would be places on the frontier “where it would be difficult for us to prevent the tribes from raiding on [Afghan] territory and in which accordingly we should in a proper case have to allow the [Afghans] to counter-raid…”. The current use of US and UK drone strikes across the frontier would in no way have surprised the old administrators of the Raj.

This line of control, which was an answer to a 19th century colonial problem, has no place in a 21st century world. A border which its creators foresaw would require hot pursuit and which was not designed to be a practically administrable international sovereign boundary line cannot be successfully administered as such. The current settlement, which holds the Pakistani tribal territories in the legal limbo of the Frontier Crimes Regulation, prevents the effective rule of law or any prospect of external investment in those areas. In fact, it is part of the cause of Afghanistan’s instability in the first place. The chronic lack of education, infrastructure and employment in the Pakistani Tribal territories is a result of the current configuration of the Durand Line and the territories’ legal isolation. These conditions make the inhabitants easy fodder for radicalisation. This isolation also favours elements of the Pakistani intelligence services, who use these areas hidden away from international scrutiny to prepare covert operations in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir.

If the problem of the Durand Line could be resolved, then many of the factors destabilising Afghanistan would disappear. Pakistan would lose one of its main strategic reasons for supporting the Taliban. The opportunities from economic and political development of the tribal territories would divert the energies of the deprived tribesmen from fighting. The tribal territories sit on huge mineral reserves, and stability there would pay a serious peace dividend in the long run. The best solution would be full cross-border administration with the co-operation of all regional actors, and a pooling of sovereignty between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would allow a coherent approach to security, policing and development which is not currently possible. To break a culturally unified region even further apart by fencing the border without facing the fundamental problem of governance in the Pakistani tribal areas will only cause the troubles there to fester and get worse.