Thursday, April 17, 2014

A 13-year-old eagle huntress in Mongolia

A friend shared this photographic story by photographer and travel writer Asher Svidensky, and I think it is magnificent. Ashol-Pan may be the only girl apprentice using eagles for hunting in 2000 years. She frees the birds to find their prey. There is so much that is astonishing here. The distance and heights traveled. The beauty and freedom of the eagles aiding humans. The vistas.The evolution of tradition. The photographs. Something in me soars with this!

Read and see the other photographs here: BBC's "A 13-year-old eagle huntress in Mongolia"

photo by travel writer and photographer Asher Svidensky

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Sir Aurel Stein and paper's 2000-year road

I went to the craft store last week to find paper by the pound. I wanted to write out a poem for my granddaughter (due to be born March 12). Used to be I could find sheets of this stationery in 100s of colors with matching envelopes at this store and another, which has closed. I could buy one sheet or twenty, one envelope or many, and I could mix and match colors at a whim. The system fit my dislike of prepackaging. Plexiglass shelving units are there where the paper used to be, but now they are filled with scrapbooking paper. I can infer from this that people are creating scrapbooks about their lives, but they're not writing letters about them on paper to friends and family.

That's not a surprise, and I'm grateful when we can preserve trees, minimize waste and all of that, but I felt the loss of all that paper, of the colors and the ability to send someone special a letter written with a black ink art pen and a few doodles and sketches inserted here and there like we do emoticons now. I have not done this more than once or twice in at least a decade, whereas in the 1970s and 80s I did it often. But I felt a twinge that this product was not available, that people — including me — are not writing letters, and that already a valuable part of my life is past.

Obviously this is not a new topic. It could be that I found this more meaningful because last week I had also read about the origins of paper. I had been under the false idea that paper began with papyrus in Egypt. Although the word "paper" came from "papyrus," paper did not come from the papyrus plant and originated as a pulp papermaking process in China in around 100AD.

Below is a Sogdian scrap again (see last post), but this time it is a piece of the famous Ancient Letters, discovered in 1907 by Sir Aurel Stein, Hungarian-born British citizen, in one of the watchtowers of the Chinese frontier wall (Great China Wall). The Sogdian script derived from Aramaic. These pieces of the Ancient Letters are the oldest existing scraps of paper. Stein thought they were from the decades after the inception of paper, but researchers don't see confirmation of that and believe they could be from the 4th century.

piece of one of the five Ancient Letters
in Sogdian script
photo at Silk Road Foundation,
The International Dunhuang Project

"The group consists of five almost complete letters and a number of fragments of similar letters. Each letter was folded several times and bore the names of the sender and addressee on the outside. Most were tied with string; one letter was wrapped in silk and enclosed in an envelope of coarse cloth addressed to Samarkand, 2000 miles to the west. From the letters themselves it may be deduced that at least two were written in Tun-huang [Dunhuang] and one in Kutsang. The inference that they represent the contents of a “mailbag” lost or abandoned in transit from east to west accords well with the general tenor of the letters, which seem to consist largely of reports to wealthy Sogdian merchants by their representatives abroad." — Encyclopaedia Iranica

Lime Watch Towers, photo by Sir Aurel Stein, 1914
Photo 392/28(479), © The British Library Board
photo from V&A
Dunhuang, China, wiki map

Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943), archeologist, explorer, geographer
wiki photo
Stein found the Ancient Letters and also purchased many discovered manuscripts, including a stash of 500 cubic feet of bundled manuscripts — 10,000 documents and painted scrolls — happened upon by Buddhist monk Wang Yuanlu at Dunhuang. Stein paid him one hundred and thirty pounds.

Paper by the pound! OK, forgive me for that. In this age of digitization, the value of paper is in debate, but as archeological find, it becomes more precious. One can't help wondering what daily paper documents will be left in 50 or 100 years, and if all the world's known books really will be in digital format, available to the masses, thanks to Google Books and other initiatives.

As for my poem and writing it out for my grandchild, I found a cellophane-wrapped package of 5 x 8" card stock that fits the purpose well. When she's my age, if she still has the poem, how strange will it be, and how valuable in an archeological sense? I never met my biological grandmothers and grandfathers, and I know how much I would treasure anything written by hand from them to me.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

being a nomad about what to study

The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question 'Whither?'

— Robert Frost, from "Reluctance"

A list of  'nations' in Sogdian
from the Berlin Turfan Collection
Sogdian script

These scraps of ancient paper with Sogdian writing from pre-Islamic Central Asia, from Sogdiana in fact, are little morsels I glom onto as I slog through information and possibilities to follow. For me, they are representations of the mysterious beauty of the Silk Road. The long tails of letters, the curves and twists — are they not like the long passes through the Pamirs?

Image from Pamir Highway Adventure site

The Sogdians were people in a region north of India and west of China who were the primary traders on the Silk Route. Their borders fluctuated with the spread of their language, Sogdian. This script is similar to medieval Iranian scripts. 

I'm grateful I learned — better said, studied — Turkish in Latin script, not Ottoman:

With so much history, research and scholarship about this part of the world, I have to pick out grains with my fingertips, crumbs to follow that will start to make connections. How is the Sogdian language and script like Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit? Do I care about this? You can see that just following this path of crumbs — the scripts — would take a lifetime's study.

So my feet question, "Whither?" 

I will probably do what I do in a new city when I travel: venture out and turn at corners or into alleys that intrigue. It is not easy finding new points of interest when you travel the same route day after day, like my drive to and from work. In my Midwestern way, I have lived a semi-nomadic life, having lived in 30+ houses in my 57 years. In fact, ten years in this farmhouse is the longest I've lived anywhere.

Monday, January 27, 2014

violence, unanimity and poetry

I have never been competitive in my life. I didn’t play sports or run track in school. I’ve rarely played board or card games. When my husband’s family taught me to play euchre, there were times when I subconsciously wanted the opposing team to take the trick, and I almost played the wrong card. I would have gotten a seething (though comical) look from my partner: my father-in-law.

I was deeply conditioned in my Christian home to be selfless and submissive. Furthermore, we were discouraged to participate in sports or any activities that took time away from church, or God. There was no competing with church. How I felt about things was really of no consequence, so I shaped my life into the borders I was given.

Since becoming a mother in 1981, I’ve imagined what I would do if someone or something were about to harm my child. I believed then without a doubt, as I do now, that maternal instinct would kick in, and I would cover their body with my own. While I doubt that I could stab or shoot to protect myself if an intruder entered my home (maybe I could stun them with a frying pan), I believe I could hurt someone to protect a loved one. I might even protect a stranger. I would rather die than live with myself after making someone else die to protect myself. Thankfully, I have never had to test this theory. (Note here that my husband and I have just begun watching the TV series "Breaking Bad" wherein a regular, nerdy guy enters a world of unthinkable choices and repugnance, and I wonder what morality is, and what choices many people in the world are presented with daily.)

In the 1160s, the mother of Genghis Khan tutored him in the ways of tribal alliances. (Temujin was his actual name. After he and his men destroyed other Mongol tribes the title “Genghis Khan”—meaning “universal ruler”—was bestowed on him by leaders of remaining tribes who wanted peace.) At age nine (or age 16, depending on your source), he killed his half-brother. Was this brother another woman’s son? Did his mother advise him to do him in? When you contemplate the decapitations, boilings-alive, slaughters of whole tribes, and all the other mind-blowing violence that infused the lives of these nomadic peoples (estimates at 40 million killed, so many that Genghis Khan is credited with cleaning 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere according to this study), even inside their own yurts (not so different than Henry I assassinating his brother William Rufus to become king of England at around the same time), and our horror at them in 2014, you have to wonder, What changed?

We know more about what happens in the world now, and more quickly, than ever before. Violence seems more pervasive than ever, from Central and South America across to Africa, and on to Pakistan and Afghanistan. We hear more about mass shootings in the U.S. and Europe, one just yesterday at a mall in Maryland. And yet Steven Pinker and others point out that violence is down drastically since previous decades. A couple of reasons are that we’ve grown more intelligent (IQs are up), and democracies are more widespread. Our media spread fear and doubt. Our planet is being decimated, that's sure. But what is really happening to us as humans?

I watched the 2007 Russian film "Mongol" because I wanted to begin to understand Genghis Khan with as little prejudice and judgment as I could. In some ways it is a sympathetic look at what it means to be born into a culture innately violent. Shamans traveled with the marauders. Were they spiritual counselors or purveyors and protectors of superstitions? It is said that Genghis Khan's ultimate goal was to unify tribes in the largest empire the world has ever seen, from China to the Balkans. He wanted harmony, but he won it by violence.

There is a warrior-poet from 17th century Afghanistan named Khoshal Khan Khattak. He wanted Afghan tribes to forsake their fighting and unite. He wrote this poem.

As I Look On

As I look on I am amazed
At this world's denizens,
Just seeing what these dogs will do
To satisfy the flesh.

Such dealings as are brought about,
Men being what they are,
Satan himself could not devise,
Still less consider fair.

They place before them the Koran,
They read aloud from it,
But of their actions not a one
Conforms with the Koran.

In which direction should I go?
Where should I seek for them?
Wise men have now become as rare
As the alchemist's stone.

Good men are like garnets and rubies,
Not often to be found,
While other common, worthless men,
Like common stones, abound.

It may be that in other lands
Good men are to be found
But they are few and far between,
I know, among Afghans.

However much he counsels him
And gives him sound advice,
Not even his own father's word
Does he consider good.

And yet Afghans, in all their deeds,
Are better than the Moguls;
but unanimity they lack,
and there's is the pity of it.

I hear talk of Sultan Baholol,
Also of Sher Shar Sur:
They were Afghans who won renown
As emperors in Hind.

For six or seven generations
They ruled in such a way
That all the people were amazed
At their accomplishments.

Either they were another kind
Than these Afghans today,
Or else it is by God's command
That things have reached this pass.

Once Afghans acquire the grace
Of unanimity
Aged Khushal will thereupon
Become a youth again.

— Khoshal Khan Khattak (1613-1690)

(I regret not having information 
on the translator.)