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Hatchepsut, The Female PharaohHatshepsut (or Hatchepsut – Wikipedia favours the former, Tyldesley the latter) lived about 3,500 years ago and was, apparently, one of the most successful rulers of 18th Dynasty Egypt. She was the daughter of Thutmose I (AKA Tuthmosis I) and the sister and wife of Thutmose II, and, when her husband died after a fairly short and unimpressive reign, she took over the reins of power. However, she was always, officially a co-regent with her nephew, Thutmose III; but, as he was only two at the start of his reign, she was able to become the dominant co-king.

Tyldesley points out that, as there is no ancient Egyptian term for ‘queen’ (just titles like ‘pharaoh’s wife’ or ‘god’s wife’), it is appropriate to regard her as a female king – pharaoh was a male position and was only taken up by women in extraordinary circumstances. At the beginning of her reign, she was portrayed as quite feminine and girlish, but later, as she became the de facto sole ruler, the images she had made of herself became more and more masculine. One photograph shows a relief of the two co-pharaohs and they are pretty much identical.

Hatshepsut and Thutmose III

Hatshepsut reigned for 22 years and, once she came into her own as the senior pharaoh, ruled very effectively, bringing peace and prosperity, initiating successful military campaigns and trading missions. After her death, however, Thutmose III – another highly successful pharaoh – seems to have waged a campaign to excise his aunt from history: her name and image were hacked from her public monuments.

This backlash and the pre-eminence of Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s senior advisor, has apparently led generations of egyptologists to make assumptions and concoct stories of palace intrigue. Thutmose III nursed his resentment for years and may even have done away with his co-ruler then blasted her name from the record in personal hatred and reactionary zeal. Senenmut gained his position from being his mistress’s lover – and may, too, have been murdered when he rose above his station.

Joyce Tyldesley paints a rather more measured picture, saying simply that there is no evidence to support such lurid conjecture. The reali story was probably a lot less fraught and dominated by convenience and real politik.

Joyce Tildesley

There are some interesting parallels made between Hatshepsut and other prominent female leaders from history – Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher all also led successful military campaigns and took on some masculine qualities to better appeal to conservative populations. (Cleopatra, on the other hand is rather dismissed as a Hatshepsut analogue, being a scion of a Greek dynasty rather than a native Egyptian.)

The book is written in lucid and mildy dry style. It’s not too long – mainly perhaps because of the dearth of historical information about Hatshepsut – and covers the background history of the 18th Dynasty, the main periods and themes of the female pharaoh’s life, as well as the aftermath of her reign. I think there could have been a bit more about the sweep of Epygtian history and Hatshepsut’s place therein; and I was often confused about the (admittedly decidely bewildering) family relationships surrounding the woman king. Well worth reading, though.

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The author of this book, a former BBC producer, died in 2011 shortly after completing it and I imagine that the title was imposed on the text after his death. ‘Babylon’ is quite a misleading name, as that is only one Mesopotamian city that came to prominence fairly late in the region’s history. Instead, this book is about the culture that arose between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, where civilisation began about 5,000 years ago and history was initiated not long after with the invention of writing. Babylon is a sweeping account of the whole period up to the end of Mesopotamian civilisation in the first millennium BCE, covering the rise and fall of various constituent empires – Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian.

(The author points out more than once that Mesopotamian civilisation lasted about 2,500 years – roughly the same as the age as our own, Greek-rooted civilisation – with the implication that Western culture is due for a fall.)

One of the most striking things about the way this volume is written is the number of digressions that either draw parallels with later periods of history (the first paragraphs describe Saddam Hussein’s use of imagery from Iraq’s ancient history to aggrandise his regime), highlight the Mesopotamian underpinnings of Judeo-Christian-Islamic and generally Western culture (for instance, the Biblical Flood is evidently based on Mesopotamian legends; we have hours of sixty minutes and minutes of sixty seconds because the Sumerians used sexagesimal (base-60) numbers (although they were pretty cumbersome – 59 was represented by five wide wedges and nine narrow wedges)) and the history of Mesopotamian history (like the four Assyriologists who were given a tablet to translate and when their translations agreed with each other it was decided that the language (Sumerian, I think) had been cracked).

So the book isn’t a dry, chapter and verse recitation of everything that’s known about the subject, but is more like listening to a raconteur tell a story with lots of fascinating diversions and insightful comments. A couple of my favourite bits of information were the story of the gardener who had been made into a temporary fake king in order to protect the real king, but, when the real ruler died, the gardener took over in earnest (although this may have been ancient spin on a palace coup); and also that the earliest cuneiform pictograms for man and woman were an ejaculating penis and a female pubic triangle respectively (Kriwaczek speculates that writing beyond merely functional accountancy notation may have developed as a kind of play; looking for images of these pictograms, I’ve learnt that the word ‘cunt’ may have come from the Latin ‘cuneus’ – ‘wedge’).

Another thing that strikes you is that, despite the fact that Babylon is quite a powerful image (because of Biblical slander), is how little Mesopotamian culture is known about today. Most people, I think, can easily reel off a good few Greek, Roman and Biblical gods, characters and cities; not so with the Mesopotamian equivalents (except, perhaps, the ones that appear in the Old Testament (or the Civilization games)). Yet the history and culture of that time and place is an essential part in the development of our own. Naturally, the main reason for this lack of familiarity is the great age of the subject, meaning that once-great cities have been built over time and again or simply lost in the desert.

But on the other hand, the fact that cuneiform was written on clay means that millions of tablets have been preserved – and most of them have yet to be translated, or even discovered. Later cultures’ papyrus and parchment have turned to dust leaving only monumental inscriptions, but the Mesopotamians have left us written records from their king list that details historical rulers and legendary one who reigned for 30,000 years, to notes from nagging wives telling their husbands on trade trips to send more goods or money.

But when clay tablets were made obsolete by less durable writing materials, a whole swathe of history was lost to the ravages of time, meaning that Assyriologists know more about the earlier periods than the later. Throughout the book, indeed, Kriwaczek is at pains to highlight how much Assyriology is subject to guesswork due to a lack of evidence. He also paints a few images of his own that are more works of imagination than history, like his description of a young scribe working on the roof of his building because there would be little light inside.

Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization is a fascinating and engaging book that illuminates an important place and time for readers who don’t know much about it.

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This short book describes in ten chapters what life was like in the English village currently known as Elton (but formerly known as Aethelintone, Aethelington, Adelintune and Ailington) from roughly the 12th to 14th centuries. Each chapter looks at a particular area of village life including ‘The Lord’, ‘The Village at Work’, ‘Village Justice’ and so on. The book is full of quotations from historical documents such as the Elton manorial rolls (court records) and treatises advising lords and preachers; there are also numerous black and white photographs of medieval village ruins and manuscript illustrations.

It was an interesting read, presented in as easy-to-understand a fashion as is likely possible, given the amount of information and unusual terminology the reader needs to take in. The historical quotations add a lot of context and flavour. The plentiful facts and figures help to visualise what’s being described.

The book describes how the village (at the period under discussion, at any rate) was primarily an economic, food-producing unit. Villagers farmed their own land as well as the land of their lord (the demesne). They had various fees and fines to pay. In fact, much of the information presented in the book – coming, as it does, from legal records – revolves around financial penalties. Villagers were fined (usually sixpence) for sowing seed badly, for letting their animals stray, for brewing weak ale (which was tested by annually elected ale-tasters), as well as more expected crimes such as violence and sex outside of marriage.

The picture painted of the medieval village is one of pretty unremitting hard work, of numerous financial burdens, but also one of autonomy – the lord and his representatives were by no means hands-on micro-managers – and community – in order to function, the peasants had to work together to plan how and when to work their and their lord’s fields.

I liked the book and its subject enough that I’ve decided to base some of the Monday Masterclasses on my other blog, Elements of Fantasy. So far I’ve done The Medieval Village and Its Lord and The Medieval Village and Its Land.

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I read a little about Korea before the first time I came here and have subsequently picked up a reasonable amount of disjointed information through visits to museums and such like, but this book, which covers pretty much the entire history of the peninsula, was long-overdue reading for me. I was looking forward to getting a stronger grip on Korean history, but that hope was thwarted in large degree by the dryness, obscureness and incohesiveness of the text.

Korea has a long history, and for much of that history has regarded itself as the little brother of China – even in Korean, the name for China is ‘middle land’, referring to its place at the centre of the world. In recent centuries though, it has also been terrorised by the upstart Japanese (which culture, the author asserts, lagged behind Sino-Korean culture for a long time) – the Japanese tried and failed to use the peninsula as a staging post for an invasion of China in the late medieval period, and later occupied Korea until the end of the Second World War.

Pre-war Korea is the first main part of the book, and the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Shilla, Baekje, Goryo, Goguryeo and so on are described in fairly brief detail. The Korean War takes up a fair amount of space, and the development of modern South and North Koreas are gone into fairly comprehensively. The last two chapters are a tangential look at Koreans in America and a more relevant exposition of Korea’s place in the world. This last chapter is given over quite a lot to criticising American media coverage of North Korean affairs.

I’m sure I learned a lot from this book, but I can’t really remember most of it. I found the writing style to be the enemy of comprehension on various levels. Firstly, it’s written in a strange amalgam of, on the one hand, a very dry academic style full of difficult vocabulary, fact and figures and references to writers I’ve never heard of and world events I know little about, and on the other, what seems to be a deliberate attempt to get the reader to love, or at least forgive, the Koreas, both North and South, despite all the atrocities that have been committed on either side of the border since the war, and which the author freely describes.

Another stumbling point is the disjointedness of the narrative. Some of the chapters are thematic – so a pair of chapters describe South Korea’s economic development and politcal development during the same period. But even within these chapters, the author refers forward to things I didn’t know about and backward to things I’d forgotten about – or didn’t know about either. Part of this, I’m sure, is an editing problem. For instance, one apparently relevant writer is mentioned a couple of times before he is actually introduced. There are many minor typesetting problems early in the book. It also used the old-fashioned McCune-Reischauer system of Romanisation, which was continually distracting.

Some of the specific incidents described are quite fascinating. The chapter on the Korean War was particularly interesting. Apparently, some in the US military – MacArthur, in particular, if I remember rightly – wanted, in the wake of the success of nuclear weapons in precipitating Japan’s surrender, to drop atomic bombs all along the North Korea-China border, thus preventing both the DPRK army’s escape into China and China’s forces entering the peninsula. After the war, it was mere indecision that led the Allies to divide Korea between American and Soviet administration, thus allowing Kim Jeong Il to establish the Democratic People’s Republic.

And after the Korean War, Syngman Rhee (or Yi Seung-man), the South’s first president, was a wily manipulator of competing US interests (military, intelligence, diplomatic etc), and was, apparently, continually champing at the bit to provoke the North into attacking and therefore force the US to lead a war of reunification. Rhee was the head of a police state just as brutal as anything the North. Such regimes only ended in the Republic of Korea in the late eighties, and it was only in the nineties that truly independent reformers were elected to the ROK presidency. Modern South Korea is painted as a land of capitalist aristocracy, where a handful of powerful families run the all-encompassing jaebol (Korean for zaibatsu) and the government, marrying off daughters to form alliances like the medieval yangban (Korean aristocracy).

As I mentioned before, the author lays into western coverage of Korean affairs, stating that American broadcasters and newspapers simply parrot hysterical reports from South Korean government bodies about Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il’s psychopathy. In the chapter on North Korea, while the author doesn’t neglect to mention famine and brutal re-programming camps for dissidents, he does imply that the country is a pleasant, quiet, well-run and egalitarian society. He asserts that if it weren’t for the controversial 2000 presidential election requiring Bill Clinton’s presence in the US, a major breakthrough might have occurred leading to a groundbreaking warming in relations with the ‘Democratic’ People’s Republic of Korea.

It is undoubtedly part of the contemporary American grand narrative that there are evil countries in the world that need combating and that are unrelentingly demonised in the popular media – which leads to great ignorance about the truth about such countries. The corollary of which is that the US is the heroic good guy righting wrongs across the globe, bringing the white light of democracy to benighted regions. North Korea does itself no favours by being so eccentrically isolationist, still less by the ruthlessness with which it punishes dissidents and perceived dissidents.

In the end, this was an interesting but disappointing book. I wanted more of a blow by blow narrative, but the book was almost random in its continual back and forth and in what it included and what it left out. I also would have prefered something less polemic, but the book was full of loaded vocabulary implying the greatness of both North and South Korea. I have no doubt that Bruce Cumings loves Korea – both Koreas, the whole historic nation – and that comes across, but it didn’t help him construct an easily comprehensible narrative of the thousands of years of history in the Land of Morning Calm. Now, I feel that I want to read more books that focus on specific eras – the Three Kingdoms, or the Korean War – to really get a strong feel for Korea’s history.

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Source: FailBlog.org.

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