Monday, March 13, 2006

How the Kurds saved the West?   posted by Razib @ 3/13/2006 03:29:00 PM

There is a reason that history has the fragment story within it. While popular science often has to enliven the narrative with biography, scholarly history often drives the personalities into the background as it attempts to extract the general trends and social dynamics which scaffold the lives which we find so compelling. Because of its openness to story-telling history can spawn titles like How the Irish Saved Civilization. Many historical narratives are begging to be shaped into an evocative yarn.

But aside from its narrative magnetism history can also illuminate the way we view the world around us, our biases and blinkers. Though I believe that the depredations of "Post Modernism," broadly interpreted, have done a disservice to genuine scholarship, modern skepticism's emergence in the humanities was likely an inevitable byproduct of the excessive hubris of scholars and thinkers who remade the past in their own image (I'm looking at you Will Durant!).

Stripping away a name can change perspective a great deal sometimes. Consider this, until yesterday I did not know that the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno, was born with the name Tarasicodissa. Zeno is a Greek name, so though I knew that this emperor's origins were a bit rough, I did not think much upon his background. But it turns out that Tarasicodissa was an Isaurian! This did not surprise me, I knew he had some association with the Isaurian soldiers recruited from the depths of Anatolia. Who were the Isaurians? A group of barbarians who provided troops for the Eastern Roman Empire who resided somewhere in central Anatolia. That was all I knew...until I read this Wikipedia entry. Wikipedia can be unreliable, so I doubled-checked some facts in google print. The fact of interest to me is that the Isaurians are likely the ancestors of the local Kurds of southern Anatolia! Another fact of interest is that the emperor Leo III was also an Isaurian.

Why am I going over this? Here are the dates of the reigns in question:
Zeno: 474-491
Leo III: 717-741

Here are two other dates of interest:
September 4th, 476, the last Western Roman Emperor is deposed
717-718 The Second Seige of Constantinople by the Arabs

In other words, Zeno and Leo III occupy essential hinging points of Western history. Zeno consolidated the Eastern Roman Empire as the Western Empire fell to barbarians. Leo III battled back the last attempt by the Arabs to conquer Constantinople. Nevertheless, the title is probably deceptive. We have no way of knowing whether the West would or would not have survived the fall of Constantinople, or if Byzantium would have been weakened if Zeno had been more proactive in defending the interests of civilization in the West (the barbarian rulers of Italy were generally not a big change from the Roman ruling class in any case). Also, the "Kurds" as we know them did not exist over 1,000 years ago, the tribe of the Isaurians did. It seems likely that the Isaurians spoke an Iranian language which is genetically ancestral to the local dialects of Kurdistan in the region of Southern Anatolia where they once resided. But the historic origin of the Kurds is to some extent a recent creation of post-18th century nationalisms, the Kurdish language is characterized by wide dialetical range.

My point is that we tend to see the past as an extension of the present, and we foist upon it our modern categories. It might be a curiosity to us that Byzantium was fundamentally a Greek culture which perceived itself as Roman and was led by Emperors of non-Greek origin (often Armenian). That this warrants our notice tells us about our modern notions of the nation-state, and less about the tensions which existed in the undiscovered territory of the past....