The Arab World

Morocco was the last Arab country on our itinerary, and so I thought it fitting to do a brief recap of the Arab world, as visited by us. (Note: The Arab world should not be confused with the Muslim world, which includes non-Arab Muslim places.) As “Arab” is, at its most basic level, an ethnic designator, my survey will focus on demographics and cultural identity within these states.

Our entry into the Arab world on this trip began with a stopover in the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Not only by its membership in the Arab League and the (Arab) Gulf Cooperation Council, but also through its name, the UAE reminds us that it is Arab. And, given its location in the Arabian Peninsula, one could hardly disagree, on many levels. However, as most who have visited the UAE know, the UAE is a country that may be owned and operated for the benefit of the local Arabs–called Emiratis–but is primarily inhabited by outsiders (80% of the population), some of whom are Arabs from other parts of the Arab world, but most of whom (perhaps a majority of the population) are from the Indian Subcontinent. One proud Indian resident told us that Dubai is the most modern Indian city–and in some ways it is hard to dispute the description of Dubai as an Indian city. Could South Asians at some point overwhelm the locals and take over the country? Have they already? Oman, though also solidly “Arab,” and populated far more by “natives” than overseas workers, has a distinct cultural identity owing to its former colonial empire, and dark skinned Omanis of clearly African descent but Arab identity seem to fit in quite seamlessly into Omani society–a multicultural vision of what it means to be Arab.

From there we traveled to Syria and Jordan. There is a dost-protest-too-much quality to Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. As I described in my posts of 2008.04.16 and 2008.04.25, Syria may be squarely in the center of Arab history, as the base of the Umayyad Caliphate responsible for most of the expansion of Arab identity and Islam, but the actual ethnic makeup of Syria, in some genetic sense, is incredibly diverse and clearly not the same as the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Basic awareness of history points out that the population must be not only of Arabian descent but of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Turk and Roman (and perhaps even some Crusader and Mongol). Jordan is somewhat more Arabian, its royalty claiming descent from Mohammed, but the many Palestinians living in Jordan no doubt share the same genetic background as the Syrians.

After some more stops in the Gulf and a hiatus from the Arab world in the Turkic world (see post of 2008.11.05) and Iran-e Bozorg, or Greater Iran, by which I mean all of the areas in the Near East where Iranian languages are spoken, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan (see posts of 2008.05.12 and 2008.06.12), as well as Muslim East Asia, we returned to the Arab world in Cairo.

Is the official name of Egypt–the Arab Republic of Egypt–as misleading as Syria’s? I would argue yes. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab League (more than twice as much as the next most populous country), may have a good claim to represent modern Arab identity today, but a comparison of the reliefs and paintings of Ancient Egypt–created hundreds and thousands of years before “Arab” existed as a significant cultural designator–with the faces of modern Egyptians shows that the population of the Nile seems to have remained largely constant. Egyptians may consider themselves Arabs, but they really are Egyptians first.

Again after leaving the Arab world, we returned in Mauritania, one of the newest members of the Arab League (see post of 2008.12.12), and one that somewhat straddles Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. This was followed by Morocco, a country that is increasingly recognizing its Berber identity as well as its Arab (see post of 2009.01.21).


Is there such a thing as the Arab world? A common sense of identity that the countries of the Arab League truly share? Yes, of course, but it is one of significant diversity–diversity of ancestry (with people of many different ancestries now claiming Arab ethnic and cultural identity), as well as diversity of religion (in particular the Christian populations of Egypt and the Levant, see posts of 2008.10.01 and 2008.04.16) and many minority groups (from the South Asians of the Gulf, see posts of 2008.04.03 and 2008.04.04, and the Kurds and Armenians of Syria, see post of 2008.04.16, to the black Africans of Mauritania, see post of 2008.12.12).

Persistence of Iconography

It’s amazing how some images persist through the centuries and are reused again and again, sometimes in entirely different contexts and with totally changed meanings. In this post, I thought I would show you some symbols we have run into on this trip, repeatedly and unexpectedly.

Caduceus of Hermes

The caduceus (or wand) of Hermes is a symbol of somewhat uncertain origin of the Greek god, and it is still used as the astronomical symbol for the planet Mercury (and sometimes mistakenly in place of the rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine). We saw this image in two odd places on our trip.

The first, the Roman-era catacombs in Alexandria. Alexandria, founded centuries earlier by Alexander the Great, remained a great center of Greek culture for many centuries. This tomb complex is believed to have been built by the resident Greeks; however, it was built largely in Egyptian style, showing that local Greeks had to some extent adopted Egyptian art and forms. Here, the caduceus is shown (on left) with a snake wearing the pharaonic crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The second, Mount Nebo, Jordan. Mount Nebo is an important pilgrimage site for Christians (and presumably Jews, although we did not see any Jewish pilgrims), who believe that it was the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (and passed away). On this spectacular vantage point are located ruins of Byzantine churches and an active Franciscan complex of worship. Why a caduceus? No clue.

Four Evangelists

It is believed by some that the popular depiction of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, John and Luke) as four “animals” (bird, bull, bear and human, respectively) is derived from ancient Egyptian funerary tradition, in which bodily organs were placed in four canopic jars of which the lids depicted four Egyptian gods (Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef) in four animal forms (human, baboon, jackal and falcon, respectively). If so, Egyptian Coptic depictions of the four Evangelists in animal form–here they even look like canopic jars–must be some of the earliest.

Chapel, Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea, Egypt

An illustration of the animal forms of the four Evangelists from the medieval Irish Book of Kells

All-seeing Eye

The “all-seeing eye” or “eye of providence,” the cyclopean eye at the apex of a truncated pyramid, is one of the best known of icons and features prominently in some of the most persistent conspiracy theories. Here is the all-seeing eye on the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the U.S. one dollar bill.


Part of the all-seeing eye is of course the pyramid. The pyramid form has been used as tombs from the 26th c. BC on, as other examples from the 4th c. AD and 19th c. AD below show.

Red Pyramid of Dahshur, the first true Egyptian pyramid

Pyramidal Byzantine Christine tomb at al Bara, one of the Dead Cities of Syria

Tomb of sculptor Antonio Canova inside the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

Why are these images and forms used again and again? In part, I think it’s becuase they’re what artists know how to draw and are used to drawing (or, in the case of the pyramid, a shape of simplicity of stability to which architects may be attracted). But mainly I think it’s because the new tradition (whether the Franciscan priests in Jordan or the Catholic Church in Slovenia looking to ornament their place of worship or the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing brainstorming designs) wants to latch on to the talismanic power that such icons have derived over centuries of use, to base their images on ones that are accepted or believed to be powerful, the grafting of a new idea on an older tree, the same reason that religious sites are so often re-used (see post of 11.10) and ancient stories (from Isis to Mary and the flood of Gilgamesh to the flood of Noah) are incorporated into newer faiths.


Our trip may be focused on the world of Islam, but our route took us through a great deal of the former Greek and Roman worlds, from the birthplace of Aphrodite on Cyprus and the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria to the Roman ruins of Baalbek and the Byzantine Dead Cities of Syria. Traipsing through such ruins, one sees a great deal of columns and inscriptions–carved in heavy stone, masonry stands the test of time. But another form of ornamentation is apparently delicate and durable in equal parts, and comprises a core bulk of ancient artwork that survives today: the mosaic.

Mosaics are the main representational artwork that survives from ancient times; when paintings have disintegrated or faded, they provide insight into the styles, tastes and beliefs of the day. In this post, I thought I would show you photographs of some of the most impressive or otherwise noteworthy mosaics from our trip, from all over the (expanded) Greek and Roman worlds.

From Palmyra, now in the National Museum in Damascus

Some masterpieces from the Syrian Hauran:

The cities of Suweida and Shahba possess some of the most remarkable mosaics of the Roman world. The second picture below in particular struck me for its sophisticated sense of light.

From Bosra. Bosra and Palmyra may have been part of the Roman Empire, but, in speaking Aramaic and Greek, and using camels, life in the Syrian desert certainly wasn’t the same as life in Rome.

The “Map Mosaic” of Madaba, Jordan, is famous for its depiction of the eastern Mediterranean. The second image is a close-up of the Jerusalem portion of the map, showing not only the major gates and streets but also churches, many of which have survived to this day.

Other works from Madaba. The second image shows “editing” that was done during the iconoclastic period, when depiction of living animals was held improper (as in Islam)–the equivalent of the modern black box over nipples or *bleep* over swear words.

Some masterpieces from Paphos, Cyprus:

These two mosaics from the House of Aion featured some of the smallest tesserae we’ve seen–they are high resolution mosaics.

The house in which this mosaic was found is called the Villa of Theseus; this grand work shows the Minoan labyrinth of Theseus, complete with Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur in the center.

This mosaic in the House of Dionysus is a true standout for its sense of the third dimension and perspective.

Mosaics were not always original creations, but were often ordered from a catalog of designs. This Rape of Ganymede mosaic was apparently larger than the space for which it was intended, leading to the eagle’s clipped wings. In another instance in Paphos, a tableau was bungled by the mistaken placement of a wrong character (of the same name as the right one), presumably picked, like clip art, from a stock selection of representations.

From the Sassanid city of Bishapur, Iran, on display at the National Museum in Tehran. The Persian Sassanids were, for a period, Rome’s greatest enemy, once capturing the Roman Emperor. Some say that this mosaic in the Sassanid capital of Bishapur was made by Roman captives.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. The Umayyad Mosque was built during the Islamic era, but it is said that its construction was very much in the Christian Byzantine tradition, perhaps utilizing Byzantine artisans (and was in fact built on the site of, and perhaps utilizing some remains from, a Christian church). Almost all of the mosque’s surfaces were covered in mosaics, although few of the original works survive today. (See also post of 4.10.)

I can speculate on several reasons mosaics survived so well over time. First, most mosaics were designed to be walked on, and so must have been able to take a fair amount of wear and tear. Second, mosaics were already made up of small pieces, and so there is nothing really to break apart. Since they were already on the ground, they had nowhere to fall, and the collapse of walls and other debris thereon served as protective layers. Finally, another reason that mosaics survived was that they are made of stone–the colors are not pigments that are quick to fade with exposure. Given the beauty and durability of this art form, it seems a shame that we don’t make more mosaics today. Madaba today has a mosaic school, and great quantities of mosaics are produced for the souvenir trade. What do you think are the most memorable mosaics of the modern era? The ones that come to my mind include the mosaics of the New York subways, the Tiffany mosaics inside the Marquette Building in Chicago and the mosaic of 1980 Hong Kong inside Wan Chai’s Hopewell Centre.

Modern mosaic in Penjikent, Tajikistan

Gay Jordan–A Pilgrimage

Jordan is fairly liberal and tolerant for an Arab country, and there is even genuine gay nightlife in Amman, including bar/club RGB (on the Third Circle). But RGB is hardly the sort of place that a first world gay tourist would find too exciting–nothing compared to what is on offer in Beirut, I’m sure, and in some ways not even matching Bahrain’s bars. There is, however, one place I felt strongly about visiting, a Biblical site not featured on too many Holy Land tour itineraries, but one that has made a genuine impact on the relationship between sexual minorities and the world’s great monotheistic religions: Sodom.

Sodom today is known as Bab adh-Dhraa, and it is not much more than a tell, or archaeological hill, with parts of wall and gate peaking through a jumble of rocks. But back in Old Testament times it was the foremost of the five “cities of the plain,” the town’s whose attempted gang rape of two male angels resulted in its total destruction.

From Genesis 19:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. . . He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
“Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door.
The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it. . . . “
Early the next morning Abraham got up and returned to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the plain, and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace. So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, he remembered Abraham, and he brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.

By its destruction (some say that an earthquake released trapped gases, which ignited and set the town aflame) Sodom became the most vivid evidence that the Judeo-Christian God disapproves of homosexuality. Of course, reading the passage it would seem that it actually condemns gang homosexual rape (while condoning or even encouraging the offering up of one’s own daughters for the same treatment). More progressive religious types read the passages as condemning Sodom for its ill treatment of guests, and Sodom and the other cities of the plain were known for generally being miserly and cruel. If Sodom never existed, or if it had not gotten such a memorable mention in the Bible, would the great Semitic religions have a different relationship with sexual minorities? At the very least, would anti-gay attitudes be less infectious without such a graphic example of God’s wrath?

I am inclined to think not, given the confused and twisted message in the remainder of Genesis 19. If this latter passage doesn’t give cause to question the moral compass of the entire chapter, I’m not sure what would–if the story of Sodom had never been told, people would just pick another part of the Bible to support their prejudices:

Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father.”
That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and lay with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I lay with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and lie with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went and lay with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.
So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father.

Whether offering up your daughters for gang rape or drunken incest is worse, the Bible is unclear–both seem acceptable (or even admirable) under certain circumstances. The message I take away from Genesis 19 is hardly “God hates gays.”

Faces of Jordan

Politically, the region that is called the Levant is now divided into five pieces–Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. But there are ways to divide the area into historically/culturally meaningful chunks beyond national boundaries. One is to consider Jewish Israel as a separate entity onto itself, while considering the predominantly Arab regions of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan together. Another is to consider the region as made up of three major religious communities: Arab Muslims, Arab Christians and Israeli Jews. A third is to consider Syria and Lebanon together, as they share a great deal in common and were the countries of the early twentieth century French Mandate, and Israel, Palestine and Jordan together, as being part of the British colonial world. No doubt there are many other ways to think about this complex region.

I believe, however, that the best way of thinking about the Levant is coastal and non-coastal. Over much of history, whether a given region was within striking distance of an active port meant a great deal (most of the world’s population still lives near a coast or navigable river), and this was no less the case in the Levant. Coastal Levant, meaning Lebanon, Syria as far east as the great cities of Aleppo and Damascus and Israel/Palestine, had constant communication with the Mediterranean world, for better or for worse. Over thousands of years these areas saw countless empires, people and ideas come and go. The desert interior, meaning most of Jordan and the Syrian desert, were one step removed from the great movements on the coast, a relative wilderness. Coastal Levant is a world of ancient walled cities, such as Acre, Byblos and Tartus, and the more inland Damascus and Aleppo. While there are cities of historical importance in the non-coastal Levant as well, including Palmyra and Petra, they are more the exceptions than the rule, and faded with the growth of maritime trade–even today, the non-coastal Levant is populated in significant part by nomadic Bedouin, herding sheep (see post of 4.15).

That it is largely desert/non-coastal gives Jordan a unique character among the countries of the Levant. Jordan has a desert/bedouin identity, a very much “Arab” identity not made murky by the history of the coastal Levant (see post of 4.25). Rather than being associated with great Mediterranean empires, contact with the West and the luxuries of Silk Road trade, Jordan far more sees itself as a creature of the desert, a country that looks eastward to Arabia rather than westward. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is almost always portrayed in a western suit or military uniform. King Abdullah of Jordan is seen in posters just as often in Arab jelabiyyah and keffiyeh. Jordanian currency? “Dinars” (as in other Arab countries) rather than the “pounds” used in Syria and Lebanon. The Jordanian monarchy traces its roots to Mohammed and the WWI Arab Revolt, and to the familial and loyalty bonds of the Arab bedouin. In Jordan, bedouin culture is to some extent placed on a pedestal as national heritage, while one Syrian man from coastal Lattakia told us (contrary to fact) that Syria had “only a few bedouin families” (perhaps somehow embarrassed of their existence and preferring to think of Syria as a country of ancient and sophisticated cities and not desert nomads). Another Syrian man questioned Syrians’ “Arabness” altogether, saying that despite the name of the country–Syrian Arab Republic–Syrians weren’t Arab at all but a mixture of many races (see post of 4.25).

Modern Jordan is in part a creation of the British, and Jordanian King Abdullah’s mother is British–there is no doubt that it is today one of the most “western-friendly” of the Arab countries. But it is with this frame of mind, that Jordan is just as much a country of the Arabian desert as it is a country of the Levant, that I wished to preface some portraits from Jordan.

Bedouin boy, Wadi Rum

Among the most interesting bedouin populations of Jordan that travelers are likely to run into are the Bdul of Petra. The Bdul are the most recent “residents” of Petra, having moved into the rock-cut tombs and facades in the last few hundred years. Historically, the Bdul have been the most down-trodden of the Bedouin groups of Jordan, among the poorest and most looked down on. Most recently, in an effort to further the preservation of the World Heritage Site, the Jordanian government has evacuated the Bdul from the Petra ruins, placing them into a town settlement nearby and reportedly offering modern conveniences, health care and education. But many continue to live in rock-cut caves just outside of the central ruins and others commute in to conduct business with the tourists. In a “power sharing” agreement set up by the government, businesses and horses/carriages “up to” the Treasury (just short of Petra “city center”) are operated by “outside” Jordanians (and Egyptians) authorized by the government, while those “past” the Treasury are run by the Bdul. (See post of 10.9 on Petra.) The Bdul who work in Petra are among tourists’ greatest resources, offering friendly chatter in multiple languages, directions and tea almost everywhere you turn, either gratuitously or in exchange for a quick look at their merchandise. Careful though, or you’ll end up being dragged into a confusing sort of air arm wrestling, as happened with us on more than a few occasions.

Elderly Bdul woman and daughter, both souvenir vendors (and damned compelling ones), Petra

Bdul boy in front of the Treasury, Petra

Amman (then known as Philadelphia) was one of a string of Roman cities located in now western Jordan, but presents relatively little in terms of Roman ruins, far less than the ruins of Jerash to the north or cities in now Syria. That said, Amman is today a fairly dynamic capital, with ample investment coming in from both the West and the Gulf, and a steady flow of expats and tourists.

Some residents of Amman

Modern Amman was actually founded by Circassians, Muslims from the Caucasus who moved into the Ottoman Empire who now constitute a significant ethnic minority in Jordan. The “suburb” of Wadi as-Seer near Amman remains a center of Circassian Jordan.

Circassian brother and sister in headscarf and karate gi.