You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Central Asia’ tag.

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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was a glorious golden age of China when trade brought enormous prosperity to China and cosmopolitan city culture flourished.  This exquisite wine cup came from the Tang capital, Chang’an, around 750 AD (the chalice was excavated in the city of Xi’an–which is Chang’an’s modern name–in 1957). According to the census of 742 AD,  Chang’an had 1,960,188 people living in the metropolitan area (which included smaller suburban cities within the larger city).  Such numbers make Chang’an the largest metropolis of its day (the other contenders would have been Baghdad and Constantinople, which were both about half the size).

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This year, I want to talk more about Chang’an and about some of history’s other great super-cities.  They tell us about the roots of contemporary urban culture (more than half of the world’s people today live in a city) and they maybe afford us a peak at the great cities of the future.  For now though let us just savor the details of this solid gold goblet.  Look at the birds and the design elements which come from coastal China and Central Asia! Cities ideally combine the best aspects of different groups of people and different cultures. MY home city, New York City certainly does that, on its good days, when it is not squeezing people to death for nickels.  Speaking of home, this chalice is currently in New York, at the incomparable Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Enjoy the goldsmith’s birds and the flowers–we will be back in Tang-era Chang’an for a real look around a few posts from now.  And if, like me, you live in a city, start looking at it with a fresh critical eye.  Cities are an even bigger part of the future than of the past, and we are going to need to make them better.  Golden cups are not the only place where an idealized natural world of handmade beauty belongs…

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It is International Cat Day!  I should probably feature my beloved pets Sepia & Sumi, but, although I love them with all of my heart and never tire of their astonishing antics and loving personalities, I am not very good at photographing them (in real life, Sumi is the cutest person in the world, but in photos she always just looks like a squiggling black blob with scary needle teeth).

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Scary?

So, until I master cat photography, cat bios of my two little friends will have to wait, and today’s post whisks us off instead to the great inclement steppelands of Mongolia and Central Asia.  Here in the endless desolation is the habitat of nature’s grumpiest-looking cat, the irascible yet magnificent Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul).  Pallas’ cats are almost the same size as housecats, however because they are lower to the ground and have incredibly long two-layer coats, they look like comically puffed-up owlcats.  The cats live in steppes, deserts, mountains, and scrub forest from Afghanistan through the Hindu Kush and Pakistan up into Russia, Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia (China).  They are solitary predators living on whatever birds, invertebrates, lizards, rodents, and other small mammals they can catch in their range. Pallas’ cats give birth to litters of 2-6 kittens and they live up to eleven years in captivity.

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Like all cats, Pallas’ cats are astonishingly adept predators, but the barrenness of their range, climate change, and habitat loss makes life chancy for even the most gifted hunters.  Additionally,  humankind has long overexploited the cats for their astonishingly warm fur.  The outer fur and the dense inner fur form an airtight insulation around the cats which keep the tiny creatures toasty even in the godforsaken peaks of the Hindu Kush or in Gobi desert winters.  Portions of the cats are also used by worthless dumbasses for ineffectual traditional medicine.  As you might gather, the species are not exactly doing great, but their range is so large and SO inhospitable that humans haven’t pushed them to the edge of extinction yet.

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For a long time, the Prospect Park Zoo had a pair of Pallas’ cats named Nicholas and Alexandra.  Nicholas looked pretty sweet–like a big furry gray marshmallow, but Alexandra looked like she ate the devil-cat from “Pet Semetary” for breakfast.  She liked to sit in her rocky enclosure and stare through the thick glass at the tamarin enclosure across the corridor.  If zoogoers got in her sightline, she would put her ears back (and they were tiny ears to begin with), and hurl herself at the glass hissing and clawing.  The effect was sort of like being attacked by Yul Brenner’s demonic disembodied head (if it were fat and covered with fur).   I once saw her clambering on the high granite boulders in her habitat and poor Nicholas jumped up to see what she was doing.  She hurled him off the 10 foot tall rocks (onto some other sharper, lower rocks) with nary a qualm, like a kid tossing his schoolbag on the floor.  Her casual ease with ultra-violence was chilling. For a while there was a video online which featured a solemn cat-loving child asking a Brooklyn zookeeper if Pallas’ cats could be kept as pets and the young zookeeper got a scared look and said “That, um, would be a really bad idea.”

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Apparently Pallas’ cats have trouble reproducing in captivity for some reason, but I have always hoped that Alexandra clawed a hole in causality and had kittens. Also, on International Cat Day I like to hold Sepia in my lap as she purrs happily (in my 98 degree bedroom) and imagine the wild Pallas’ cats leaping magestically through the high mountain peaks of the jagged mountains of Central Asia.  May it ever be so and may cats of all sorts ever flourish.

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Today, through the magic of the internet, Ferrebeekeeper is visiting a graveyard halfway around the world in Armenia (alas, I am visiting through words and images only; as always, my body remains stubbornly in New York City shackled to an office chair and a bunch of elusive dreams).  This exquisite spot is Noratus Cemetery, beside Lake Sevan, in eastern Armenia, not far from the Azerbaijan border.  This region has been a crossroads for people for millennia.  Although Noratus is today a small village, during the Middle Ages it was a large prosperous town.  A bronze-aged hillfort stands nearby. Prehistoric travelers passed through this region on humankind’s great migrations, and the region is not far from the first palace civilizations of the ancient world. Persians, Greeks, Romans, mysterious steppe peoples of all sorts, Turks, Mongols, Russians, caravan folk from east and west, Chinese, Soviets, and contemporary world travelers have all passed through the region.  However, this post is not a history of Armenia (thank goodness: I could never begin to explain the beautiful tangled chronicle of that crossroad nation): we are talking about Noratus Cemetery.  The oldest stones in the complex date back to the 10th century, but the cemetery has been utilized off-and-on right up to the present.

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The most famous stones of Noratus are the khachkars—the cross stones.  These are intricately carved stele with Christian crosses carved upon them in syncretic Asian styles.   Once upon a time (by which I mean, in the nineteen nineties), the greatest concentration of ancient khachkars was in the Armenian cemetery in Julfa (in Azerbaijan), but the Azerbaijan government destroyed these beautiful ancient works in order to further some self-aggrandizing lie or another, so today, the largest concentration of medieval khachkars is in…Noratus cemetery.

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You can see here how the maelstrom of cultures has influenced khachkar makers from over the centuries.  The mysterious gravestones look, by turns, Scythian, Romanesque, Persian, Indian, and even Jewish: yet they are none of these styles (although they are influenced by each)—they are Armenian.  But beyond the ancient exquisite graves, and the Romanesque chapels, look at the mountains and the lake beyond.  I have stolen these pictures from around the internet so I don’t really know what is in each (apparently the cemetery is easy to visit (if you are in the hinterlands of eastern Armenia) but badly labeled so it might take some specialists in Eastern medieval art to unravel the meanings and eras of these stones anyway, but their artistic excellence and spiritual splendor is readily evident.

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A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

The common onion (Allium cepa) is one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables: indeed, the onion goes so far back that now Allium cepa is known only as a cultivated vegetable. As with the cow, the actual wild version of this organism has been lost (although there are other edible allium species around the world which go by the name “wild onion”). Common onions probably originated in Central Asia: the oldest archaeological evidence we have of onion farming puts the vegetables in Ancient Egypt 5,500 years ago, in India and China 5,000 years ago, and in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago, however it is likely that they were grown as a crop long before then. Onions are in the most ancient Chinese and Indian texts and likewise they are in the oldest chapters of the Bible. The classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were heavily dependent on onion cultivation. When Rome fell, onions became a staple of the medieval diet. Emmer wheat, bitter vetch, and bottle gourds have come and gone from fashion, but the onion is more popular today than ever. There is a huge bowl of them in my kitchen right now (and I cook them into pretty much every savory dish).

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Onions are easy to grow in many different types of soil in many different ecosystems. They are also easy to store all winter and plant from seeds or bulbs. They can be dried or pickled for long term storage. They can be cooked in every conceivable way, or just eaten raw. Clearly humankind has an ancient relationship with onions and they have kept us alive in many a jam (myself definitely included).

An onion field...hmm, not much to see here...

An onion field…hmm, not much to see here…

Indeed, onions are such a bedrock part of human culture, that we don’t too have much to say about them aside from boilerplate comments about their tear-inducing properties (which are caused by sulfenic acids released when onion cells are damaged). The ancient Egyptians thought of onions as sacred, and made them a part of funeral ritual and a symbol of the cosmos, but subsequent generations have become distracted by flashier vegetables, and pay the ancient onion little tribute (although I suppose there are arguments that onion domes, my favorite architectural flourish, are a sort of homage).

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

I was hoping to feature some onion-themed deities or deep and troubling myths about these edible bulbs, but I haven’t really been able to find too many (although the satirical website is messing up my ability to search for material). So, instead of citing ancient literature or art, here is my own tribute to Allium cepa. This is a small oil painting which I made back in 2002. It pays tribute to the modest but very real visual beauty of onions. I painted the three main colors commonly available (after looking through all the bins for the right subjects for my still life like a crazy person). The painting makes me smile and it reminds me fondly of all the chili, curry, Chinese food, pasta, and porridge I have eaten which would have been thin and bland without this amazing vegetable. Hooray for onions!

The Scythians, the wild horse-mounted warriors of the Steppes, sometimes ride onto these pages and off again, back into the billowing mists of Central Asian history.  Their name straddles myth and reality: the Scyths were there at the fall of the tower of Babel.  They were the children of Echidna and Hercules. They lived in a swath of land somewhere from Romania to Korea in a swath of time from 800 BC to 300AD.  They were Europeans with pale skin and blue eyes or Asians with dark slanted eyes.  They were fighters, shamans, traders, slavers, and peerless artisans. To Greeks they were the opposite of Greeks. To the Chinese they were the opposite of Chinese.

But really who were the Scythians? Well we don’t exactly know.  We have some partial answers to some of these questions, but “Scythian” was a word that was used in classical antiquity the same way we use “Gothic” today (indeed–the last Scythians, who played such a role in the histories written by Byzantine historians from the 2nd through the 5th centuries AD were literally Goths).  The word denoted an outlander from the steppes—an ideal of living rather than an ethnicity. Upon the Steppes, in the land the Greeks called Scythia, there were indeed pastoral tribes of equestrian herdsmen (who sometimes turned to war and plunder when circumstances were unusually bad or unusually good) but since they did not write it is difficult to untangle their history.  This society was made up of confederated tribes–which tended to specialize at different tasks (herdsmen, ploughmen, smiths, etc.). However above the other tribes were the warrior elites, the royal Scyths, who according to Herodotus, regarded the other tribes as little more than slaves.  These closely allied elites were formidable warriors. Without stirrup or saddle they rode horses to battle: even while mounted bareback they fought with composite bows laminated together from horn, hood, and sinew.

They don't really look super friendly, but maybe it's just a bad likeness.

The ruling Scythian warriors, or Royal Dahae, were inhumed in spectacular kurgans along with great hordes of treasure.  Much of what we know about the Scythians comes from these archaeological finds (and the rest mostly comes from Herodotus who was probably making a lot of it up).  A kurgan consisted of a great mound of earth over a central tomb constructed of sacred larchwood.  Animal or human sacrifices were draped over the outside of the tomb.  Inside the warrior elite lay in state with hordes of treasure.  Some of the most spectacular treasures known come from Scythian graves (which definitely deserve their own posting) and consist of golden statues depicting sacred creatures like lions, antlered reindeer, and gryphons. Kurgan tombs of the Scythian warrior elite contained weapons, armour, sumptuous clothing (woven of silk, gold, and hemp) and bowls of coriander seeds and cannabis–which was used in purification rituals and shamanistic rites.

Kurgan tombs from the Altai Mountains which stretch across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China

Although the Ancient Greeks might have looked down on the Scythians, numerous modern groups have claimed to be their direct descendants.  Among the peoples who have claimed or currently claim Scythian blood and heritage are the Ossetians, Pashtuns, Jats, Parthians, Poles, Picts, Gaels, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Scots, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and sundry Germans.  Like all such ancestral claims, many of these are disputed by scholars, nationalists, rivals and so forth (although Slavic people most certainly have Scythian ties).  Being American, I am inclined to think that anybody who wants to claim a particular ethnicity or heritage is welcome to do so, but perhaps that is my mixed Scythian blood talking!

Scythian Shield emblem (end of the 7th century B.C. Northern Caucasus from the
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A pika (from a breathtaking gallery of photos of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam by Yathin)

Hooray! This week Ferrebeekeeeper officially celebrates small herbivorous ground mammals! There are several reasons for this adorable theme, but chief among them are the week’s two prominent holidays:  1) Groundhog Day is on February 2nd, 2011; and 2) the first day of the Chinese year of the rabbit takes place on February 3rd, 2011.  Also I hope an endearing parade of little bewhiskered faces will help you forget your cabin fever and stay warm as this oppressive winter rages on.

Since humankind does not hibernate, I thought I would start the week with a non-hibernating lagomorph which, though not actually a farmer, is renowned for its haymaking abilities. This animal, the pika, is a close cousin to the rabbit (which will itself be amply celebrated on Thursday. Additionally, a world famous cartoon character, the Pikachu, may or may not be a pika.

A Pika Gathers Hay

Pikas are small densely furred animals of the family Ochotonidae which is part of the lagomorph order.  Lagomorphs most likely split from rodentlike forbears as far back as the Cretaceous–so the lepus and pikas both have an ancient heritage.  Pikas are generally diurnal or crepuscular and they eat grasses, sedges, moss, and lichen.  Most pikas are alpine animals, living on the mountain skree at or above the tree line (although a few burrowing species have moved down the mountains to the great central Asian steppes).  The 30 or so species of pikas are divided between Asia, North America, and Europe. Most Pikas live together in family groups (with the exception of North American Pikas which are maverick loners). Additionally, in Europe and Asia, pikas frequently share their burrows with nesting snowfinches.

Since pikas do not hibernate and they live on resource starved mountaintops, the animals harvest grasses in the summer and create little hay stacks so that their harvest will dry and be preserved.  Once these grasses dry out, Pikas store they hay in their burrows in order to provide both food and shelter during the brutal mountain winters. Unfortunately, the pikas are greedy.  They attempt to steal grass from their neighbor’s haystacks while simultaneously defending their own.  The ensuing fights are a major cause of pika mortality because the distracted combatants are easy prey for high altitude predators like hawks and ferrets.

Another pika (I'm sorry--online sources never tell me which species)

Even though Pikas have apparently been around for more than 65 million years, they get scant respect. Both Google auto-populate and my spell checker refuse to acknowledge the creatures and keep pushing me towards “pica”, an eating disease characterized by the consumption of non-food substances such as dirt or paper, or “Pikachu,” the mascot of the Pokemon children’s brand. This latter entity is a fictional yellow magical creature captured and made to fight as a gladiator by cruel Japanese anime children.  The Pikachu is capable of some sort of electrical attack. Pikachu may or may not have been based off of either the animal pika or a Japanese portmanteau combining the words for ‘spark’ and the noise a mouse makes.  The Pikachu’s cartoon features provide no help in assessing whether it is a pika or not, since the character looks eerily similar to a pika but doesn’t present any definitive trait (and possesses a most un pika-like tail to boot).  Although Pokemon’s star is mercifully beginning to set, the brand ruled childrens’ entertainment completely during the late 90’s.  Pikachu was ranked as the second best person of the year by Time magazine Asia edition in 1999 (finishing just below the not-quite out of the closet Ricky Martin, but ahead of Mini-me and J.K. Rowling).

Pikachu Float in the 2005 Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

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