Oman in the Paleolithic: Migration and Desertification

For my second contribution to ABC world history I have found myself with O for Oman! Having never significantly looked into the history of the Arabian Peninsula, let alone the region that modern day Oman covers, I decided to go early with it, and take a general overview of the different Paleolithic periods important to this part of the world leading up to the Neolithic revolution.

The present-day Sultanate of Oman lies in the south-eastern Arabian Peninsula, but there are different definitions for Oman, Oman traditionally included the present-day United Arab Emirates, though its prehistoric remains differ in some respects from the more specifically defined Oman proper which corresponds roughly with the current central provinces of the country. Oman is surrounded by the vast Rub Al-Khali desert to the west and the Arabian Sea and Sea of Oman to the south and east. The country is naturally divided into three geological zones: the Al-Hajar Mountains in northern Oman, the Huqf depression in the interior and the Dhofar Mountains in the southwest. Many wadis (valleys or dry riverbeds) cross the plateaus of the central region that once would have flowed with ancient rivers that led into perennial lakes in the lowlands. There is plenty of evidence that this would have once been a fairly productive landscape of grasslands before the region became the very arid place it is today.

Dhofar region cave art
Continue reading “Oman in the Paleolithic: Migration and Desertification”

1260: From Mongol to Mamluk Control in the Near East

The following update has been inspired by an article I read by Nicholas Vincent (University of East Anglia) regarding the year 1260 and the incredibly important consequences that this date had for Europe and the Mediterranean world. Vincent declared this to be a dramatic year which is often overlooked despite the serious political change it brought to more than one civilisation, but particularly the changes to the Mongol empire. I have been in a very “oriental/Asian” mood lately – in fact I am writing this whilst listening to some Mongolian throat singing – so I decided to pick up on this topic which I had looked into a while back, so we can all share the mood.

Vincent’s article was mostly focus on the Battle of Ain Jalut, which took place in the Kezreel valley near Jerusalem the 3rd of September 1260. The result was the clash of two great fighting forces. By this moment in time the Mamluk had consolidated power very quickly in the area of Egypt and extended their area of influence all along the Mediterranean coast in the Near East. This was of great threat to the Mongols, who has already started suffering from this shift in power since their ransacking of Baghdad in 1258, thus ending 500 years of Abbasid rule. The leader of the Mongol army at this moment in time was Hülegü Khan – sometimes referred to as Hulagu Khan, who was the grandson of our dear friend Temujin. Hugalu is responsible for the formation of the Ilkhanate of Persia, which will lay the foundations for modern-day Iran. And he was also the man responsible for the siege of Baghdad and the following conquest of Syria. So, as you can see, it is not like the Mamluks were just going against any whatever general. Now the reasons why with this background the Mongols were caught off foot at Ain Jalut are multiple, and there are more than I could cover in a blog post – with intrinsic details I would leave to military historians, a field that as you know is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, I will give you an outline of the issues at this scenario that leads to the Mamluk control of the area and the reason why Vincent determines this was a decisive moment in history.

First of all, the army that Hugalu was commanding ranked around 20,000 people who needed to eat.  Reuven Amitai-Preiss discusses in his study of this period that this proves to be an issue and leads Hugalu to withdraw from Syria. Traditional viewpoints suggest this was due to the unrest that appears in the central domains of the Mongol empire following the death of Mongke Khan, who was Hugalu’s brother. This opens a window for the classic political manoeuvres of succession that end in civil wars. However, Reuven thinks that this was not so much Hugalu’s concern, but rather the fact that with such a big army, he finds himself in an area where supplies are scarce – Syria is not particularly well-known for its grazing fields! There is an exchange of correspondence between him and Louis IX of France where this is discussed. So, although there is evidence that food and graze for the horse was an issue, the fact that Iran was suddenly very exposed to the potential threat of the leader of the Golden Horde, and Hugalu was without his brother as protector, most likely led him to retreat part of his troops over to the eastern border of the Ilkhanate. In addition, it seems that, despite all his military might, Hugalu also made a strategic mistake: he completely undermined the threat that the rising powers in Egypt supposed to his realm. Turns out that the force that was marching over towards Hugalu on behalf of the Mamluk Sultanate was bigger – current estimates range from around 24,000 to the 100,000s…the reason for this disparity in the sources, however, escapes me. Regardless, the thing is the Khan simply did not take his enemy seriously, and the consequences were devastating. Baibars, commander of the Mamluk army, took advantage of the mobility of their units to exercise hit-and-run tactics to lure the Mongols to where the main force lead by Qutuz, the sultan of the Mamluk dynasty at the time. The first attack was gained by the Mongols and they did hurt the Mamluk forces significantly. However, the retaliation of the enemy was great, and their superior knowledge of the area – and presumably the considerably larger army – eventually turned the tables and destroyed Hugalu’s force. In the process of doing so, his designated deputy commander, Kitbuqa, was captured and his head was cut off and sent over to Cairo as a souvenir and proof of the Mamluk prowess.

The thing is, that with the defeat of the Mongols in 1260, and the growing tensions elsewhere in their domains in what is known as the Berke-Hugalu War (as you can see they really did not get along…), they were never able to secure back the area, with the resurgence of Egyptian power to extents that could be compared to the previous Abbassid rule. In fact, it only took the 30 years for the pressure from the Mamluks to be so prominent in the Near East that the Crusader armies started to give up and evacuate the area. This led the crusading efforts towards the Baltic and left the Mongols in a state of crisis and civil war. Interestingly, and despite his amazing victory, Qutuz did not enjoy his success for much longer. On his way back to Cairo, he was assassinated at El Salheya, seemingly due to the scheming of our ambitious friend Baibars, although it appears several Emir’s unhappy with Qutuz own raise to power and policies may have actually been the cause of his death. In any case, Baibars becomes the new sultan and with him a consistent rule, that lead to the consolidation of Mamluk power in the Levant area, and the defeat of the Seventh Crusade.

Petra: The Lost City

For the latest instalment on our lost cities theme I will be writing about the history of Petra. Petra is a historical city located in modern day Jordan, which is renowned for its archaeological heritage and now popular for tourists. It was designated as a UNESCO world heritage cite in 1985.
It was originally known as Ramqu. The area was thought to have been inhabited appropriately in the year as early as 9000BC. Petra was likely established in the 4th or 5th century BCE and is largely attributed to a nomadic Arab tribe, the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans settled the area as a prime trading route, particularly the spice trade, to buy and sell goods between the Mediterranean continent and Asia. This is where caravans of people would cross. 

Trade was relatively successful for the Nabataean inhabitants, until over time nautical trading routes proved more popular. Petra gained some attention from outsiders, notably the Greeks and Romans. One of the first written accounts of Petra was documented by  Greek historians. King Antigonus I a Macedonian ruler planned an invasion in 312 BC. 

The site’s population grew to approximately 10,000-30,000 inhabitants. The Nabataeans were prevailed in attempts to takeover their land. They knew the terrain very well and how best to defend it from outsiders, that was until the Romans invaded in 106CE. Petra, henceforth was incorporated into the Roman Empire as a province.Trade was still customary in those parts, particularly the spice trade. However, over time this particular route steadily declined in popularity. What’s more in 363AD Petra suffered a terrible earthquake which significantly damaged the area. This halted further developments to the area in terms of commerce and population increase. Another earthquake would follow in 551.AD

During the Byzantine era  Petra contained a number of Christian churches In the 7th century AD Petra was seized by neighbouring Muslims in Arabia. This was a significant time for the spread of Islam and its influence as Arabia was was unified by the prophet Muhammed in 622AD. During the Byzantine era  Petra contained a number of Christian churches as the old city was the capital of the Byzantine province, Palaestina III and as a result was a part of the Byzantine empire sandwiching the Mediterranean to the Levant. These churches were excavated at the site and attributed to the Byzantines. Later in the 12th century the was evidence to suggest the area was an outpost of the Crusades, military campaigns from Christian Europe to the Islamic territories in response to their rapid spread. From then there are no accounts from the West about the Petra. However, that is not to say the area was unknown territory completely. Outside of the western world there are accounts during the end of 13th century that Petra was often visited by Egyptian sultans who were interested in the sandstone formations. Nevertheless, there are little to no accounts after this, that is not to say non eurocentric accounts. Nomadic tribes continued to live in the area.  

Moving forward to the 19th century, The ‘discovery’ of Petra was attributed to a Swiss traveller by the name of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. He was the first European to describe the sandstone structures. The remnants of tombs and structures at Petra were visualised by David Roberts, a Scotsman who painted them in 1839. Unfortunately over time the site of Petra was highly vulnerable, its structures were weak and this attracted the attention of thieves hoping to amass its treasures. Petra was surveyed and excavated properly in 1922 by archaeologists along with help from a Physician, expert in local folklore and a scholar. 

A number of scrolls written in Greek were found in the remains of a church, dated in the Byzantine era. These items were found 25 years ago in 1993. This discovery confirms Petra was not an isolated domain despite its land locked location. It shows other ethnic groups were interested in the area and remained for a time.

In the early twentieth century Petra was a focal point in the Arab-Ottoman conflict. In October 1917 during the First World War to intercept the Ottoman forces resources from the British advancement in Gaza, regarding the Sinai and Palestine campaign between the British and the Ottomans. The Arabs led a revolt from Petra against the Ottomans along with British support they managed to halt the Ottomans. Local Bedouin women also took part in the revolt.

Nowadays Petra is waiting to be discovered by tourists and is considered to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the world up with the likes of Machu Picchu in Peru and The Taj Mahal in India. 

The Road to Rebellion- Zanj Rebellion

To start off, I wish all a happy and prosperous new year to those who read and take an interest in our blog. My first post of 2018 will look at the enslaved Zanj peoples of East Africa and reasons as to how rebellion ensued from 869 to 883 AD. for this January’s African History month.


An African History in Mesopotamia

The term Zanj is a name of Arab origin which is loosely translated to “Land and Black” and was coined by Muslim geographers in the Medieval period. The area was in and around the region of the East African coast, now modern-day Kenya and Tanzania and settled by Black Africans of Bantu heritage. Trade was prominent in this region with the Arab world that involved lucrative goods such as ivory and gold.

The slave trade of the Zanj peoples also dominated. They were shipped and important to work on the marshlands in the surrounding area to Basra in Mesopotamia, now Iraq and sold to Wealthy Arabs to cultivate the land, primarily for sugarcane. Basra was an important port city in the region, so it was accessible to transport the produce from the land and to import slaves. These marshlands were left for some time due to flooding, wealthy Arabs saw an opportunity to implement a plantation based economy by converting the disused land for arable farming, using intensive labour. This was why the Zanj peoples were considered and that the East African coast was near the Arab world. Some Zanj peoples worked in Salt flats close to Basra. It was not just in the region of Basra that Zanj peoples were imported for slavery, some were shipped to other Arab speaking regions that bordered the Indian Ocean.


The struggle of the Zanj peoples

The lives of the Zanj peoples were harsh and miserable with many accounts indicating punitive treatment from their masters. The living and working conditions is a major factor that contributed to the Zanj rebellion, but it was not necessarily the only standing factor.


Anarchy of Samarra (861-870 AD.)

The ruling Caliphate, the Abbasid Caliphate was heavily marred and weakened by internal discord relating to the Caliphate’s succession and struggle inevitably ensued. This period was known as the Anarchy of Samarra, seeing as court was held at Samarra at this time. The succession of the Caliph’s was violent seeing as they were killed, disposed, exiled or overthrown. This anarchy allowed rebels to implement their own policies of governance that replaced the existing system. This greatly affected taxation from provinces, the central government would otherwise have had and in turn created a loss. With less revenue from taxation it meant there was less money to pay for resources should external or internal conflict ensue. This, in a way swayed attention from the Zanj slave trade as it meant there was no ruling stability in the Caliphate and it greatly affected the prestige of the central government. As a result, it perhaps allowed a chance for rebellion.


The role of Ali Ibn Muhammed   

So how did Ali Ibn Muhammed attract support from the Zanj peoples in Mesopotamia? As explored previously, the Zanj peoples clearly lived and worked in terrible conditions and that at the time of the Anarchy of Samarra it weakened the ruling system and as such it appears as if the last factor discussed in the form of Ali Ibn Muhammed ties together the previous two factors contributing to the rebellion.

Ali Ibn Muhammed did benefit from hearing the news concerning warring factions, particularly in Basra. Ali Ibn Muhammed eventually seized the opportunity to gain Zanj support in return for their liberation because of this, although initially he struggled to gain support. Some accounts note him as enquiring about their living and working conditions cultivating the land. To some Zanj, this appeared to be the opportunity for freedom, a life free from slavery. He managed to recruit a sizeable amount of Zanj slaves who were willing to rebel for the cause, along side other ethnic groups unhappy with the regime.

Siege Warfare Through the Ages – Which Siege Tactics Are Right For You?

Since before 3500 BC people have been putting defensive walls around their settlements. As I’m sure you all know, these pesky walls and fortifications can be a real pain when you want to get inside somewhere for whatever reason. Maybe you’re at war with the occupants, maybe they have something of yours, like some loot that should clearly belong to you, or perhaps you just happen to have an army and feel like attacking something. Whatever your reasons for laying siege, that’s your business, and I’m not here to judge. No, my purpose today is to let you know which siege tactics and weapons you should be using to get you through those walls and to whatever goal lay within. So whichever period of time in which you happen to be conducting your siege, take a look below at the closest example and you should find the best methods available to you.

New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1077 BC)

Starting as early as we can with any real substance, with the New Kingdom of Egypt. As an Egyptian in this period you could expect to be fighting various different enemies, such as the Canaanites or the Hittites. Many of the enemy held towns that you come across may be fortified, so you should be prepared for a siege. As you will see throughout later periods, it is often the case that you are better off attempting to out-wait the enemy within, just as they try to wait for you to give up and go away. This basic but effective approach can be more seriously applied by preventing any movement into or out of the walls, and thus cutting the enemy off from any new supplies or means of escape. This was done at the siege of Megiddo in the 15th century BC when Pharaoh Thutmose III had a moat and wooden palisade constructed around the city, essentially giving the attackers their own wall to sit behind and wait for the enemy to surrender, except with the important difference being that they had the rest of the outside world behind their walls, rather than a small limited space with ever dwindling supplies. The defenders eventually surrendered after several months and were spared.

The siege of Dapur on a mural in Ramesses II’s temple in Thebes

If such a peaceful outcome doesn’t interest you so much, then there are other options that you have in this period. The Egyptians did use various constructions against fortifications, the most common and basic of which would have been large ladders to scale the walls in order to assault the defended positions atop. Usually an assault like this should be supported by archers, but keep an eye out for the large sails that your enemy may have flying above their walls, as these may render your arrows less effective against the occupants in the city. These tactics would have been used at the siege of Dapur in 1269 BC against the Hittite Empire during Ramesses II’s campaign to conquer Syria. As an attacker you should be able to defend your own troops from enemy arrow shot as well, as there are examples of mobile roofed structures and simple moving towers that you can use in an assault.

Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC)

Moving forward in time as we go, we come to some other good examples of early siege warfare with the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians, after years of war and conquest, had become a most powerful and successful empire, and had also learned a thing or two about how to conduct a siege in the process. During the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883 to 859 B.C.) the battering ram was developed into something more sophisticated than a simple wooden log. These Assyrian rams were heavy, five meters long, and protected by a roof and turret in which archers were placed. The ram was suspended from the roof by ropes so it could swing freely. The ramming end was covered by a metal plate, shaped into a blade that was driven into the bricks of the wall effectively.

An Assyrian siege engine ascends the ramp on the Siege of Lachish reliefs

Once you have a few, or preferably many, of these rams in place on the enemy’s walls and gates, you should then look to combine them with methods of topping the walls during the assault, as the Assyrians had found that a multi-faceted approach is a good idea. As usual it is always the standard to assault the walls with ladders, but there are also other methods for getting higher, most notably the use of great earthen ramps. These would be a huge engineering effort to construct, but they could only have to be built part way up the wall, and from there you could bring a ram up the ramp to demolish the wall at this height where it is usually thinner. This method was proven successful at the siege of Lachish in 701 BC when Assyrian King Sennacherib fought to subjugate the rebelling Kingdom of Judah.

Classical and Hellenistic Greece (510-31 BC)

Moving onto Greece, the later part of the Classical, and then the Hellenistic period of Greece saw a height of military innovation, which in turn gives you plenty of options for how to assault a fortification. In earlier Ancient Greece, siege was never much of a consideration. War at this time was a part-time seasonal affair that would take place when the common farmers had time off between sowing and harvest. It only really becomes more common once professional armies are taken up by the Greek states, allowing for the time it takes to conduct a siege. It also helps that after around 450 BC the Greeks could take some ideas from their Persian enemies, leading to tactics such as surrounding cities, building ramps, and the use of battering rams, similar to what the Assyrians were using some centuries earlier. However, the Greeks did start to develop their own methods eventually.

The siege tower Helepolis

At around 400 BC the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily was in conflict with the Carthaginians. It was here that many Greek artisans and technicians were recruited to create new innovations of war. The first step was the gastrephetes meaning the ‘belly bow’ which was the first crossbow. From the basic mechanics of this weapon, it was possible to scale it up until it was too heavy to carry, and so was placed on a tripod and mounted on a swivel, with a winch to draw it. This was the first catapult (named katzapeltes, meaning ‘shield-piercer’) which was used at the siege of Motya in 197 BC to shoot as far as 300 yards at the Carthaginian fleet. Eventually this weapon was further developed into the oxybeles that used torsion by twisting sinew rather than the tension of a bow. In the following years the Greeks invented many variants of catapult, including lithobolos or ‘stone thrower’, and even a supposed repeating crossbow mechanism that shot bolts from a magazine called the polybolos. Various types and sizes of ballista were even used in the most famous example of a siege tower the Helepolis ‘the taker of cities’ which was used in the siege of Rhodes in 305-304 BC. This tower was supposedly over 40 meters tall and 20 meters wide and ran on 8 huge wheels. It had 3 walls to the front and sides which were all plated in iron to make it fireproof. It weighed 160 tons and had 2 or 3 ballistas on each of its several floors.

The Roman Empire (27 BC – 480 AD)

If you’re Greek or Roman, you’ll mostly be using the same sort of siege machines. Ever since the earlier Romans saw the power of Greek inventor Archimedes’ huge catapults, ship-lifting claws, and even sunlight death beams (apparently) in Syracuse (again) they clearly felt they should probably use some of these. They did make some improvements of their own to these weapons however, such as making them lighter and more manoeuvrable, or combining battering rams and boarding bridges into their siege towers. They also further developed on the torsion powered weapons of the Greeks, resulting in the Onager, which later became the standard use for the term ‘catapult’ which was a stone thrower with a vertical arm. These could be thrown in a great arc, and also use heavier projectiles, great for either going over, or smashing into a wall you wish wasn’t there.

A Roman carroballista (cart-mounted ballista) on Trajan’s Column

Aside from the weapons, the tactics used by the Romans were similar to what is seen before, but executed well. They would surround cities and blockade ports effectively, and then set up their own fortified camps out of range of the enemy and in elevated positions for observation. This helped the Romans defend themselves should they be attacked by enemy reinforcements coming from elsewhere, something easily missed when you’re so focussed on the enemy within. In an assault they would construct ramps and use ladders as usual, but they would also use moving barricades and shields made of wood or wicker to defend themselves, as well as using their own shields in the famous testudo formation as they advanced.

The Medieval Period (up to the 15th Century)

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 480 AD there was very little in the way of siege weapon development. The following Migration Period saw many smaller groups settle and have less need for sieges. Later in the Early Medieval period and Viking Age, there are some examples of sieges, but most of these just use what knowledge is left from contact with the Romans, for example with the Franks, as well as the Byzantines, who would have had the best ability and knowledge during this time. More northern peoples such as the Vikings or Saxons, would have avoided large sieges and aimed more for raiding actions. The Vikings did besiege some large cities however, such as Paris in 845 and again in 885, where they are said to have used ballistae and catapults, although it is unlikely. The Vikings mostly used their advanced ships to their advantage, where attacking Paris was ideal, as it is on a river island. They also attacked London at the end of their era, where they used their ships again to pull down towers, and pulled roofs off of buildings to put over the ships as cover from arrows.

15th Century depiction of a trebuchet

1066 is seen as the end of the Viking age, and shortly after this is when the Normans started to build many stone castles throughout England. During the 12th and 13th centuries, castles evolved into powerful fortresses capable of defying intensive assaults. At the same time, in order to combat strengthened castle defences, siegecraft developed. Sieges became far more common as the use of castles and fortified cities did too, and battles became rarer than in the past. The tried and true method of simply out-waiting the defenders still continues to be a solid choice in these cases, but then again, those defenders were probably expecting a siege and prepared for a long one too. So when it finally came to demolish those walls, something more powerful than a catapult of ballista was needed. The first weapon to be widely adopted was the mangonel. This weapon was essentially a larger swinging-arm catapult that was powered by the pulling force of a team of men. Shortly after this came the more famous trebuchet. This was a similar weapon that could be made very large, but was instead powered by a sophisticated counterweight mechanism. The trebuchet first appeared from the Byzantines, and was quickly adopted by the crusaders, which in turn spread its use throughout Europe. Although these weapons mostly launched stones of 50-100kg at a range around 300 meters, their main advantages over every other type of siege weapon before it was its accuracy and cycle rate, as there was no need for time consuming cranking or winding, but just resetting everything into place. Also, the key to bringing down a heavily fortified wall is to keep striking it in the same place, something a trebuchet could easily do after the first shot was correct. There were some huge trebuchets which supposedly launched stones of 800kg or even 1,500kg, but these would have been very difficult and incredibly slow to construct and use.

The Age of Gunpowder

If you really, truly want to knock down walls, then ignore everything I just said, and get a cannon. Cannons only became viable in the later medieval and renaissance periods, after years of experimentation since the 13th century. Once they stopped trying to use gunpowder to shoot ballista bolts, bundles of arrows, and stones and finally settled on the idea of the cannonball, the previously impregnable castles of Europe were rendered obsolete. The greatest advantage of cannons over other siege weapons is the ability to fire a heavier projectile, further and faster than previous weapons. They could also fire in a straight line, so that they could destroy the bases of high walls. Thus, old fashioned walls that are high and relatively thin were excellent targets, and over time easily demolished. In 1453, the great walls of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, were broken through in just six weeks by the 62 cannons of Mehmed II’s army. However, new fortifications, designed to withstand gunpowder weapons, were soon constructed throughout Europe. In the early 15th century, Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti theorized methods of building fortifications capable of withstanding the new guns. He proposed that walls be “built in uneven lines, like the teeth of a saw”. He proposed star shaped fortresses with low, thick walls. Fortresses built in this style throughout the 16th century did not become fully obsolete until the 19th century, and were still in use throughout World War I.

 The Siege of Orléans in 1429 featuring cannons

With everything thrown into an entirely new state of being by the ever increasing power and efficiency of cannons, and the fortifications to match them, the attackers would now need to prepare for the siege thoroughly. There has always been a need to encircle the enemy and defend your own lines from those within as well as reinforcements from without, but now that so much of your army would consist of vulnerable artillery positions, you would need to think harder about your own defences. So lines of trenches would now be built by the attackers, first starting out of range of the defending artillery, parallel to the walls, and then another line is dug towards the walls in a zig-zag to prevent those using it from being exposed, until finally the forward line would be dug from there in artillery range parallel to the wall again. You can then place your artillery in that forward position, and build other defences around it, and prepare for the long siege ahead. As has been the case forever, it is still in the 17th century mostly about waiting the enemy out, whether you are the attacker or defender. And now that sieges had become so prevalent, and so long, they had become very expensive, and a single siege could take up an entire campaign. Battles arose through clashes between besiegers and relieving armies, but the principle of war was now a slow, grinding victory by the greater economic power. The relatively rare attempts at forcing pitched battles were almost always expensive failures.

Plan of Geneva fortifications in 1841

Eventually, in the 19th century, after hundreds of years of siege warfare settling into a rut, things started to change in a few ways. Advances in artillery made previously impregnable defences useless. For example, the walls of Vienna that had held off the Turks in the mid-17th century were no obstacle to Napoleon in the early 19th. This was starting to lead to a decline in sieges taking place, but when railways were introduced, they made it possible to move and supply of larger armies. It also reintroduced siege warfare, as armies seeking to use railway lines in enemy territory were forced to capture fortresses which blocked these lines. Furthermore, the apparent effectiveness of additional field defences along with improvements to firearms technology made it easier for the defenders again. This then led to the adoption of tactics that would make the defenders surrender by bombarding the civilian population within a fortress, rather than the defences.

By the 20th century, city walls had become ineffective to modern artillery, which could destroy them, or bypass them from miles away. This brings us to WW1, which introduced trench warfare on a mass scale, and essentially a form of siege as it progressed. During the war, many methods and tactics for assaulting enemy lines with special troops developed, but overall the war was dominated by artillery. By WW2 and subsequently, the form of siege was mostly in the form of large forces encircling and bombarding cities into submission before assault. However, the continuing development of armoured vehicles and aircraft meant that mobility was far more important than ever before, and the introduction of long range bombing, and eventually inter-continental missiles make it virtually impossible to defend a position indefinitely without the surrender of either side.

T. E. Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence, or more commonly referred to as T. E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia, as made famous later in the twentieth century by the 1962 film starring Peter O’ Toole. He was a man of many interests and experiences. This post will provide a biographical account of his life but with a particular focus on his involvement during the First World War, the Arab Revolt as part of the First World War specials. Lawrence was born out-of-wedlock in Tremadog, Wales to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner on 16th August 1888. The family lived under the name Lawrence and the young Lawrence went on to study History at Jesus College, Oxford. After graduating with a First Class Honours, Lawrence became an archaeologist and worked in the Middle East on various excavations and became acquainted with David George Hogarth and Leonard Woolley, leading archaeologists of the day.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War in January 1914, Lawrence undertook a survey of the Negev desert, now modern-day southern Israel. Surveying the area of the desert was of high importance against the Ottoman army if they wanted to invade in the event of war looming but it was also done for archaeological research. However considering the circumstances at the time, it was useful intelligence to have as it would strengthen any onslaught against the Ottomans, who were allies of the German Empire.

As tensions rose the First World War was declared. However Lawrence did not straight away enlist in the British Army. So how did he become immortalised figure that we know as Lawrence of Arabia? Lawrence certainly had a great deal of knowledge about the Middle East and travelled extensively in the area including; Aqaba, the Levant, Mesopotamia and Petra. Intelligence staff were aware of this and upon his formal enlistment they placed him in Cairo. In 1916 the Arab Revolt began on the 5th June and formally declared on 8th June by Sherif Hussain bin Ali. The aim of the revolt was to cease the Ottoman influence in the Middle East and secure independence from them in order to create a single Arab unified state. However, Sherif Hussain bin Ali was rather to have said that it was to do more with the dissatisfaction of the Young Turks. The Young Turks was a political movement that wanted to replace the Ottoman Empire’s absolute monarchy with a constitutional government and by stating that they violated the sacred tenets of Islam. The group became synonymous with discord throughout the early twentieth century which include; the Balkan Wars and the Armenian Genocide. The British dispatched a number of officials to help with revolt along with the French.

Lawrence was sent to the Arabian Hejaz in October 1916 to work alongside the Hashemite forces. Later on during the war Lawrence fought under the command of Emir Faisal who was the son of the Hashemite leader and Emir of Mecca, Hussain ibn Ali al-Hashimi. Populist and sensationalist accounts often embellish Lawrence as the sole Allied presence from Britain and France. It was accounts from an American writer and traveller that certainly made the wider public aware of Lawrence and what he did in the Middle East to help secure Arab independence. However Lawrence himself also helped his own experiences in the Arab Revolt by writing an autobiographical account during 1916-1918.

Lawrence was considered to be a brilliant tactician and could liaise with the Arab troops really well. Guerrilla warfare was what Lawrence, Emir Faisal and the Arab troops conducted against the Ottomans and it was Lawrence who was said to have convinced Emir Faisal that attacking Aqaba was more likely to result in a win than trying to raid Medina. Lawrence seeing as their position was weak to attack Medina at that point, decided on Aqaba and had successfully required the support of his comrades. These irregular attacks against the Ottomans proved to be highly effective. When these skirmishes occurred it hit Ottoman communications and supply routes really hard. In 1917 Lawrence was involved in the Battle of Aqaba, a port on the southern coast of Jordan. The battle itself was not a great obstacle as such it was in actual fact obtained fairly easily in the sense that it was not a stronghold for the Ottomans. Aqaba at this time was a small coastal village and Lawrence demonstrated his strategic mentality through convincing the Ottomans that they were going to attack Damascus rather than Aqaba at this point. Lawrence went even so far to go solo by raiding The Arab troops who did lose their lives was mainly down to environmental factors, like scorpion bites than actual battle fatalities. The march to battle was on land from the Nefud desert. This was the first major victory that the Arabs had over the Ottomans as they withdrew from Aqaba. Considering beforehand that a previous raid on Medina was unsuccessful, the capture of Aqaba was vital as Aqaba now had access to the Red Sea to Egypt. After the capture of Aqaba this enabled the territory to be under the rule of Prince Faisal and be known as the Kingdom of Hejaz. The success of this battle was not without concern as Ottoman troops stationed nearby and made threats to recapture Aqaba and outside the city skirmishes ensued. Nevertheless nothing actually happened in Aqaba itself, considering that security was stepped up. Arab reinforcements and the British forces made their presence known to the Ottomans in Aqaba. As time went on the Arab revolt spread north and reached the areas of Damascus and Aleppo in Syria.

There have been reasons to suggest that he did receive help and that they have been linked to Gertrude Bell’s reports in the Middle East. Like Lawrence, Bell too travelled to the Middle East extensively after completing her University studies. It has been argued that from these accounts, Lawrence was able to successfully occupy the Hejaz over the Turkish defence. Although it may be an indirect influence, the claim was still made. However, it is important to recognise that Lawrence was an integral tool for the success of Aqaba and helping to provide a rallying force to the Arabs who wanted independence from the Ottoman Empire. After the events of Aqaba, Aleppo and Damascus, Lawrence still stood by with his comrades and sought for their independence at the London and Paris Peace Conferences. Self-rule was not granted and that these areas were granted under a French and a British protectorate. Syria (French) and Mesopotamia (British).

Aside from his endeavours in the Middle East, the question regarding Lawrence’s sexuality was and still is a major topic for discussion. Living and working in a time when homosexuality was excluded and frowned upon by society, it has been suggested that he was engaged in a relationship with Selim Ahmed. These suggestions had arisen mainly because of a dedication poem at the start of Lawrence’s personal account of his time in the Middle East, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, that is a far stretch and a bold statement, considering it is reliant on the information provided that the poem was dedicated to S. A. It is more probable to think S. A stands for a friend he met whilst there or Arab men and women as a whole. Other claims regarding Lawrence’s sexuality have not ended there. There are further suggestions to state that he was asexual or that he was a masochist. However there has been no solid evidence to confirm this, only the odd statement that he found the experience of being beaten pleasurable and that his friends reckoned he was asexual. It is likely that we will never know.


The British Museum – through the Lens of a Camera pt. 1

So, on Monday 31st of August, I found myself in London, yet once again, as part of what I have called the London August Cultural Rave 2015- watch out for the reviews coming from Somerset House! Now, as we stepped into the British Museum on a rainy day as many others did, I realised every time in the last 5 years I have thought “Should take some pics and put them up on the blog”. Well, this time…I did! The greatness of modern technology-warning, I am not the best photographer, however I hope that my walk around is somewhat thematic and brings through some cultural/historical aspects we sometimes overlook in everyday history talks and even in out updates. So, taken on the spot- me in an intentionally not Western tour of the BM. Enjoy.


Now, in case you haven’t noticed-and despite my wide range- Egypt is not really my thing. So upon entrance I decided that everyone looks lots around mini Cairo-in-London and went straight for the Assyrian culture. Notice the trend in protective spirits, deities and other otherworldly beings…This will continue for the rest of the show.

Statute found in the temple of Nabu c.800 BC
Statute found in the temple of Nabu c.800 BC


Protective spirit from Ninruda, c. 865 BC
Protective spirit from Ninruda, c. 865 BC


The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III 858-824 BC
The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III 858-824 BC


"The capture of Astartu and the king in his chariot", found in Nimrud, c.730-727 BC
“The capture of Astartu and the king in his chariot”, found in Nimrud, c.730-727 BC



Protective spirits from Nimrud, found in the North West Palace
Protective spirits from Nimrud, found in the North West Palace


Symbolic scene found in Nimrud North West Palace
Symbolic scene found in Nimrud North West Palace


General view of one of the Assyrian rooms in the British Museum
General view of one of the Assyrian rooms in the British Museum



Campaigning Assyrian army 7th Century BC
Campaigning Assyrian army 7th Century BC


"Human-headed winged lion", from Nimrud, North West Palace c. 865-860 BC
“Human-headed winged lion”, from Nimrud, North    West Palace c. 865-860 BC


"Eagle-headed protective spirit" from Nimrud, Temple of Ninurta c. 865-860 BC
“Eagle-headed protective spirit” from Nimrud, Temple of Ninurta c. 865-860 BC


Pair of protective spirits c.700-692 BC from the Nineveh Palace
Pair of protective spirits c.700-692 BC from the Nineveh Palace



"Glazed brick relief of a lion from Babylon's Processional Way. Reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 BC). On loan from the musée du Louvre, Paris. "
“Glazed brick relief of a lion from Babylon’s Processional Way. Reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 BC). On loan from the musée du Louvre, Paris. “


"Glazed brick guardsman" from Susa, (Iran), from the late 6th century BC. Supposedly belonged at the palace of Darius I
“Glazed brick guardsman” from Susa, (Iran), from the late 6th century BC. Supposedly belonged at the palace of Darius I


A couple of photos taken from the finds at the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos

Statues in marble of a woman and a man at the mausoleum; Maussollos c. 350 BC
Statues in marble of a woman and a man at the mausoleum; Maussollos
c. 350 BC


Horse from the Mausoleum, which would have formed part of a chariot. Statue in marble dating from c. 350 BC
Horse from the Mausoleum, which would have formed part of a chariot.
Statue in marble dating from c. 350 BC


At WU History it is time for out of your comfort zone! So far I have predominately looked at the eighteenth century and the twentieth century with a particular focus on cultural history. This January post would contain a biography of the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin.

Saladin was the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria during the twelfth century and is considered to be a very wise and effective ruler according to historians. Saladin came from a Kurdish background and in the Islamic world he was known by another name, Salah al-Din Yusuf. In spite of Saladin becoming s great military leader he was in actual fact more interested in other things during his youth. According to source material Saladin had an interest in religion during his early life rather than taking an interest in military. This is interesting as Saladin lived in an area where there were many religions and customs which included Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Saladin also moved to different places within the Arab region, this first instance occurred soon after his birth where his family moved from Tikrit to Mosul and eventually Damascus in Syria.

Saladin was known for his great military prowess during the Crusades, The forces he led were able to triumph over European forces who came to the Holy land in order to control it during the Battle of Hattin in 1187. As a result of this battle the Muslims recaptured the Holy land, which included Jerusalem. However another crusade resulted when the European forces were defeated by Saladin and his men, known as the Third Crusade. Saladin and his forces were defeated by Richard the Lion heart and his crusaders at the Battle of Arsur in 1191. In spite of Saladin losing his territory he was a good negotiator and was able to make a pact with Richard, enabling Muslim control to remain in Jerusalem.

However before he became famous for the Battle of Hattin his military career started with his uncle, Asad al-Din Shirkuh and was a subordinate of the north Syrian military leader of Mesopotamia, Nur al-Din. He aided and eventually led in conflicts with other Muslim territories. An example of this occurred in Egypt, where Saladin offered his military service over three campaigns. In 1169 he rose through the ranks to become an expeditionary leader, after this his position in Egypt improved to the extent that he brought an end to the Shi’ite Fatimid caliphate, a powerful dynasty that ruled not only Egypt but stretching as far as the Maghreb region, North Africa. Upon capturing Egypt, it generated a lot of wealth for Saladin and using this wealth established a dynasty of his own, the Ayyubid dynasty that covered from Egypt towards parts of Mesopotamia, notably Syria and the Levant coast, bringing many major cities in those regions under his control such as Damascus and Mosul, which united the Muslims of those areas before fighting against crusaders again.

As well as being a good military commander and being skilled in battle, Saladin was a wise ruler and ruled efficiently, particularly when it came to foreign affairs. In spite of being of his army killing many of the crusaders in battle and capturing many others to sell as slaves after the warring disputes over who should rule the Holy land, Saladin did allow Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem and Christian merchants to trade there without any interferences or hostility even though Saladin and his forces defeated Richard and his forces, ending the Third crusade.

From Bronze To Iron

The Iron Age is conventionally defined by the widespread use of Iron tools and weapons, alongside or replacing bronze ones. The transition happened at different times in different parts of the world as the technology spread. Mesopotamia was fully into the Iron Age by 900 BC. Although Egypt produced iron artifacts, bronze remained dominant there until the conquest by Assyria in 663 BC. The Iron Age started in Central Europe around 500 BC, and in India and China sometime between 1200 and 500 BC.

Before the start of what can be considered an ‘Iron Age’ there would have been some sort of slow gradual transition, especially in the earlier cases. So there are many examples of iron artifacts being produced in small quantities in places that were still far from their Iron Age. The place and time for the discovery of iron smelting is not known, but archaeological evidence seems to point to the Middle East area, during the Bronze Age in the 3rd millennium BC. One of the earliest smelted iron artifacts found is a dagger with an iron blade found in a Hattic tomb in Anatolia, dating from 2500 BC. By about 1500 BC, increasing numbers of smelted iron objects appear in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt. For example, nineteen iron objects were found in the tomb of Egyptian ruler Tutankhamun, who died in 1323 BC, including an iron dagger with a golden hilt and sixteen models of artisan tools.

Iron artifacts still remained a rarity until the 12th century BC. Although iron objects from the Bronze Age were found all across the Eastern Mediterranean, they are almost insignificant in numbers when compared to the quantity of bronze objects during this time. By the 12th century BC, iron smelting and forging, for weapons and tools, was common from Sub-Saharan Africa and through India. As the technology spread, iron came to replace bronze as the dominant metal used for tools and weapons across the Eastern Mediterranean. Iron working was introduced to Greece in the late 11th century BC and the earliest parts seeing the Iron Age in Central Europe are of the Hallstatt culture in the 8th century BC. Throughout the 7th to 6th centuries BC, iron artifacts remained luxury items reserved for an elite. This changed dramatically after 500 BC with the rise of the La Tène culture, from which time iron also becomes common in Northern Europe and Britain. The spread of iron working in Central and Western Europe at this time is heavily associated with the Celtic expansion.

In most of these places, as expected, the transition from Bronze to Iron as the dominant metal was very slow. To begin with Iron was actually a rather poor material for weapons, particularly early on when iron smelting knowledge was weak. Swords would be liable to bend or break. Yet bronze weapon manufacturing had been perfected after many centuries of use, so it would be more efficient and convenient to stay with the tried and tested. However there is an event which straddled the Bronze and Iron Ages, and may be part of an example of a more sudden change from bronze to iron. This event, known as The Late Bronze Age collapse was a transition in the Aegean Region, Southwestern Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age that historians believe was violent, sudden and culturally disruptive. There are various theories put forward to explain the reasons behind the collapse, many of them based on Environmental and cultural factors.

There are also many theories that may show that it may be no coincidence that the collapse and the transition to Iron overlapped in this area. One suggests that iron, while inferior to bronze for weapons, was in more plentiful supply and so allowed larger armies of iron users to overwhelm the smaller bronze-using armies. Iron’s advantage was that its ores were very easily accessible. And while the smelting process was more difficult, once learned it would allow mass production of iron items. It didn’t matter if the bronze weapons were as good or better, if you could field ten times as many armed men. However, this argument has been weakened with the finding that the shift to iron may have occurred after the collapse instead of before. Another theory is that the disruption of long distance trade during and after the collapse cut the supplies of tin, making bronze impossible to make. Whichever way the Mediterranean cultures came to their Iron age, it was likely from here that Iron production techniques were passed on to eventually become the norm and gradually move north with the expansion of the Celtic cultures throughout Europe.

Timur and Bayezid I: Vivaldi’s Turkish Delight

Today’s musical November post takes us back again to Italy, however this we will be promenading down the 18th century alongside the music of one of my favourite composers since I was a child: Antonio Vivaldi. My dad used to play a lot of classical music to me when I was little, and I grew big in my affection for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, being Autumn- fittingly enough- my chosen one. Nevertheless, I will be talking in here about a piece of his, which perhaps is a bit less known, which is the opera Bajazet. Bajazet, also known as Il Tamerlano was composed in 1735, and tells a story of love and war during the 14th century, with the stage for the action being Turkey and the Balkans area. From the musical point of view Bajazet is a very interesting piece of its period due to its arias. In the 18th century, it was quite a common practice to re-use areas from other operas and musical pieces, creating what is known as a pastiche: so a pick-and-mix of your suitable and favourites from other artists- a bit like creative plagiarism. This may sound bad, but it was quite common; not only Vivaldi but other great composers such as Handel used this technique in their work. However, this is not to say it was not an original piece- it was- and in fact Vivaldi himself did compose the arias for some of the characters in his opera, mainly those for Bajazet, Asteria and Idaspe.

Continue reading “Timur and Bayezid I: Vivaldi’s Turkish Delight”