By John Barker
With some trepidation, I’m weighing in on “the Argument” – but why not? This is a slightly different perspective, informed from our recent 3 months on the “Silk Road” from Xi’an – the ancient, former capital of the Chinese Empire, to Istanbul – formerly Constantinople, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Yes – it was “former empires” all the way – built by Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Timur – all the way down through history to Stalin and his Soviet Empire. Just reading Wikipedia on any one of the countries we visited made me dizzy with the names of numerous conquerors, who, sooner or later became the vanquished. History, of course – but perhaps not Wikipedia – is written by the (latest) victors.
That much we know, or know of. But one has to read a bit closer to find that each of the victors, in turn, was not satisfied to just say “might is right – and we are the mightiest”, but had to overlay this obvious, albeit temporary, fact with some litany related to moral, cultural and religious superiority.
Take, for example, Timur, aka “Tamerlane” (c1336 – 1405). Timur, born and based in what is now known as Uzbekistan, conquered Asia from Turkey to central China as well as Northern India. His favourite cities were Samarkand and Bokhara, which he adorned with palaces, mosques, madrassas (universities of their day) and mausoleums whose splendor has been restored for all to behold. They were mainly designed and built by architects and artisans – and then populated by priests, poets and proto-scientists – all of whom were spared from the cities he conquered. He was, by all accounts, a man of letters, as well as a military genius – and responsible for the slaughter of maybe 20 million people who were not part of the afore-mentioned intellectual elite – about 5% of the World’s population at that time. He died in 1405, on his way to China, which he wanted to re-unite with the Genghis Khan empire, to which he saw himself the rightful heir. His grand mausoleum is in Samarkand, where he is considered the national hero. His statue in Tashkent, recently replaced that of Karl Marx.
The story of Timur in is quite different nearby Turkmenistan. He laid waste to its cities and slaughtered its peoples and made off with their best and brightest. Only a few, mainly-unrestored and forlorn ruins stand as mute witness to the terror of those times. To the Turkmen, Timur was – and still is – an invader who destroyed their precious culture. A myriad of other ancient cultures suffered similar fates under Timur, only to rise and fall again over the six centuries since.
In Timur’s case the overlay of moral, cultural and religious superiority is described in Wikipedia:
“Since Timur had a successful career as a conqueror, it was easy to justify his rule as ordained and favored by God since no ordinary man could be a possessor of such good fortune that resistance would be seen as opposing the will of God. Moreover, the Islamic notion that military and political success was the result of Allah’s favor had long been successfully exploited by earlier rulers. Therefore, Timur’s assertions would not have seemed unbelievable to fellow Islamic people.”
… and not just by “ fellow Islamic people”. Invaders and conquerors from ancient times to the modern day have claimed that God was on their side. Of course He was – as every tribe has a god or two, so whoever won a particular battle could rightly make that claim.
Which brings us, dear Reader, to Australia in January 2018. Two-hundred-and-thirty years ago, a group of Christian warriors from England, led by Arthur Phillip, together with several hundred captives (a few of whom turned out to be architects and poets), came to a this land, which had been populated for tens of thousands of years by tribes with poets (but very few architects – whose presence in a tribe apparently confers moral superiority) and warriors, who, as history records, had inferior weapons and battle tactics. Today, there are monuments to the Christian Phillip, but not even architectural ruins of the indigenous inhabitants – just a few remnant images and words of this complex oral-pictorial (but non-literary and non-architectural) culture.
The British invaded and the Aboriginal Peoples were vanquished. A simple – and as I have illustrated – not an historically unusual event. The only difference is that it happened here – not in somewhere else that is far away in time and space. If this event in Australia is exempt from the historical description of a myriad other similar-looking events, then it is unique.
As we travelled the Silk Road, the faces changed, albeit slowly, from clearly-Mongoloid in the predominantly Han Xi’an in China to the clearly Turkich in Istanbul. Between those extremes, the faces portrayed the millennia of pillage, plunder and rape. ‘Twas always thus. Let’s start from this simple fact.