Category Archives: Asia
Julian Droogan, Macquarie University and Malcolm Choat, Macquarie UniversityDespite cliched talk of a “graveyard of empires”, what we now call Afghanistan has for thousands of years been an important part of many sophisticated cultures.
Situated along the Silk Road — a tangle of Eurasian trade routes stretching back to the days of the Roman Empire — Afghanistan and its people have long served as a place of connection between Mediterranean, Persian, Indian and Chinese civilisations.
It has been home to Hellenistic cities populated by the successors of Alexander the Great, glittering Buddhist monasteries that served to transmit early Buddhism from India to far away China and Japan, and a series of Medieval Islamic kingdoms at the forefront of the literature and science of their day.
This dazzlingly diverse heritage is preserved in over 2,600 archaeological sites scattered across its rugged terrain, numerous regional museums and galleries, and, most famously, the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Refurbished in 2007, the museum holds a collection of over 80,000 artefacts from throughout the region.
All of this is now under renewed threat by Taliban forces, whose fanatical interpretation of Islam forbids representative imagery, and is particularly dismissive of anything it considers to be non-Islamic.
While remaining focused on the plight of the Afghan people, countries such as the US, UK, and Australia need to also start planning how they can reduce the coming assault on Afghanistan’s art, history and material culture.
A history of destruction
In the 1980s, whole ancient sites were illegally excavated with artifacts sold off under cover of war. The Hellenistic Greek city of Ai-Khanoum, dating from the 4th century BCE to the mid-2nd century CE and discovered in the 1830s, was destroyed, including its Greek theatre, gymnasium and temple to Zeus.
During Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s, items from the 12th century palace of Mas’ud III were looted and distributed through international black markets.
The National Museum in Kabul, established in 1919, was extensively damaged and looted in the period immediately following the end of communist rule in 1992.
The “Dead Seas Scrolls of Buddhism” — thousands of scrolls and fragments written on leaves, bark, parchment and copper containing Buddhist sermons and treatises from as early as the 2nd century AD — were smuggled out of Afghanistan and dispersed among various manuscript collections from 1994 to 2001. Some were looted from the Kabul museum, but most were found in caves in the region of Bamiyan in the 1990s.
The Taliban were ruthless in their destruction, but also strategic. They saw Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic art and culture as a resource to be used and abused where possible to aid their international objectives.
Just two years earlier, in 1999, the Taliban Minister of Culture had assured the international community Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage would be safe under his custodianship. In 2001, the Bayiman Buddhas were held hostage — and ultimately destroyed — while the Taliban demanded international recognition.
What does this mean for Afghanistan today?
The Taliban are again claiming Afghanistan’s heritage will be safe under their rule.
Statements have been released instructing fighters to protect and preserve historical sites, halt the plundering of archaeological digs, and forbid the selling of antiquities on the black market. Guards have been posted at the National Museum to prevent looting.
However, this initial charm offensive could just be the opening move in a longer strategy in which Afghanistan’s history and heritage will be once again held hostage. Priceless cultural treasures may be threatened with destruction.
Archaeologists and curators responsible for preserving Afghanistan’s national heritage were caught off-guard by the Taliban’s rapid advance. Many are now seeking to flee the country or are going into hiding.
The loss of these experts and custodians of Afghanistan’s rich heritage will mean there is nobody to protect its material past from neglect or looting. Nor will future generations of young Afghans be able to learn about their past from fellow citizens who have dedicated their lives to preserving it.
Australia’s part to play in stopping illegal trade
Markets for illegally looted artefacts only exist while international collectors — including museums and galleries — continue to acquire stolen antiquities.
Afghanistan remains, first and foremost, a humanitarian tragedy and we must do what we can to assist the Afghan people.
But now is also the time for Australia and other liberal democracies to put in place stronger legal safeguards to prevent the trafficking of antiquities, in particular much stronger border security and customs measures for the detection and ending of this illicit trade.
How ancient Babylonian land surveyors developed a unique form of trigonometry — 1,000 years before the Greeks
But in 2017, I showed the ancient Babylonians likely developed their own kind of “proto-trigonometry” more than 1,000 years before the Greeks. So why were the Babylonians interested in right-angled triangles? What did they use them for?
I have spent the past few years trying to find out. My research, published today in Foundations of Science, shows the answer was hiding in plain sight.
Many thousands of clay tablets have been retrieved from the lost cities of ancient Babylon, in present-day Iraq. These documents were preserved beneath the desert through millennia. Once uncovered they found their way into museums, libraries and private collections.
One example is the approximately 3,700-year-old cadastral survey Si.427, which depicts a surveyor’s plan of a field. It was excavated by Father Jean-Vincent Scheil during an 1894 French archaeological expedition at Sippar, southwest of Baghdad. But its significance was not understood at the time.
It turns out that Si.427 — which has been in Turkey’s İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri (Istanbul Archaeological Museums) for several decades and is currently on display — is in fact one of the oldest examples of applied geometry from the ancient world. Let’s look at what makes it so special.
A brief history of Babylonian surveying
The ancient Babylonians valued land, much as we do today. Early on, large swathes of agricultural land were owned by institutions such as temples or palaces.
Professional surveyors would measure these fields to estimate the size of the harvest. But they did not establish field boundaries. It seems those powerful institutions did not need a surveyor, or anyone else, to tell them what they owned.
The nature of land ownership changed during the Old Babylonian period, between 1900 and 1600 BCE. Rather than large institutional fields, smaller fields could now be owned by regular people.
This change had an impact on the way land was measured. Unlike institutions, private landowners needed surveyors to establish boundaries and resolve disputes.
The need for accurate surveying is apparent from an Old Babylonian poem about quarrelling students learning to become surveyors. The older student admonishes the younger student, saying:
Go to divide a plot, and you are not able to divide the plot; go to apportion a field, and you cannot even hold the tape and rod properly. The field pegs you are unable to place; you cannot figure out its shape, so that when wronged men have a quarrel you are not able to bring peace, but you allow brother to attack brother. Among the scribes, you (alone) are unfit for the clay.
This poem mentions the tape and rod, which are references to the standard Babylonian surveying tools: the measuring rope and unit rod. These were revered symbols of fairness and justice in ancient Babylon and were often seen in the hands of goddesses and kings.
Babylonian surveyors would use these tools to divide land into manageable shapes: rectangles, right-angled triangles and right trapezoids.
Earlier on, before surveyors needed to establish boundaries, they would simply make agricultural estimates. So 90° angles back then were good approximations, but they were never quite right.
Right angles done right
The Old Babylonian cadastral survey Si.427 shows the boundaries of a small parcel of land purchased from an individual known as Sîn-bêl-apli.
There are some marshy regions which must have been important since they are measured very carefully. Sounds like a normal day at work for a Babylonian surveyor, right? But there is something very distinct about Si.427.
In earlier surveys, the 90° angles are just approximations, but in Si.427 the corners are exactly 90°. How could someone with just a measuring rope and unit rod make such accurate right angles? Well, by making a Pythagorean triple.
A Pythagorean triple is a special kind of right-angled triangle (or rectangle) with simple measurements that satisfy Pythagoras’s theorem. They are easy to consturct and have theoretically perfect right angles.
Pythagorean triples were used in ancient India to make rectangular fire altars, potentially as far back as 800 BCE. Through Si.427, we now know ancient Babylonians used them to make accurate land measurements as far back as 1900 BCE.
Si.427 contains not one, but three Pythagorean triples.
Crib notes for surveyors
Si.427 has also helped us understand other tablets from the Old Babylonian era.
Not all Pythagorean triples were useful to Babylonian surveyors. What makes a Pythagorean triple useful are its sides. Specifically, the sides have to be “regular”, which means they can be scaled up or down to any length. Regular numbers have no prime factors apart from 2, 3 and 5.
Plimpton 322 is another ancient Babylonian tablet, with a list of Pythagorean triples that look similar to a modern trigonometric table. Modern trigonometric tables list the ratios of sides (sin, cos and tan anyone?).
But instead of these ratios, Plimpton 322 tells us which sides of a Pythagorean triple are regular and therefore useful in surveying. It is easy to imagine it was made by a pure mathematician who wanted to know why some Pythagorean triples were usable while others were not.
Alternatively, Plimpton 322 could have been made to solve some specific practical problem. While we will never know the author’s true intentions, it is probably somewhere between these two possibilities. What we do know is the Babylonians developed their own unique understanding of Pythagorean triples.
This “proto-trigonometry” is equivalent to the trigonometry developed by ancient Greek astronomers. Yet it is different because it was developed in response to the problems faced by Babylonian surveyors looking not at the night sky — but at the land.
The weird world of one-sided objects
Ian Hall, Griffith UniversityThis piece is part of a new series in collaboration with the ABC’s Saturday Extra program. Each week, the show will have a “who am I” quiz for listeners about influential figures who helped shape the 20th century, and we will publish profiles for each one. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
Jawaharlal Nehru was not just the architect of modern India and the country’s first prime minister. He also played a central role in the discrediting of European imperialism and gave a voice to people across Asia and Africa struggling for self-determination and racial equality.
An unlikely revolutionary, Nehru was born in 1889 into wealth and privilege. His father was a Kashmiri, a high caste Brahmin and a successful barrister, able to fund the best education for the young Jawaharlal the British system could offer.
After attending Harrow School and Cambridge University, Nehru, too, became a lawyer and could easily have settled into a comfortable life.
Instead, Nehru was swept by the enigmatic Mahatma Gandhi into the campaign against British rule in India. For the next 25 years, he dressed in homespun cotton, endured long terms in prison and campaigned relentlessly for the cause.
Successes and failures
Once the British were overthrown and he rose to power, Nehru quickly set about ensuring his vast, impoverished and hugely diverse country was governed by democratically elected leaders and the rule of law.
In parallel, he tried to make India economically self-reliant, so that it could no longer be exploited or manipulated by foreign powers.
Perhaps inevitably, given the scale of the challenges involved, the results of these efforts were mixed.
Nehru’s hopes for a peaceful transition from British rule were dashed by the horrific violence that accompanied partition — the division of the British colony into the separate states of India and Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands died in clashes between Hindus and Muslims, and millions more were displaced and traumatised.
Nehru did succeed in the herculean effort of transforming India into a constitutional democracy, but his ambitious plans to modernise the economy proved harder to realise.
To be sure, India avoided mass famines like those that ravaged Bengal in mid-1940s and China during the so-called “Great Leap Forward” in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But most Indians did not see major improvements in their standard of living.
A vision for a post-colonial world
Where Nehru really shone was on the world stage. Urbane, well-read, charismatic and eloquent, he was convinced India had a special role to play in international politics, despite its poverty and relative weakness.
And to ensure that happened, Nehru served as his own foreign minister and ambassador-at-large.
Initially, Nehru’s principal concern was the struggle against European imperialism, especially in Asia. Britain, France and the Netherlands all reasserted control over their colonial possessions in the region after the second world war. In response, Nehru and Gandhi rallied anti-colonial leaders, holding the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947 to chart the way forward for the continent.
In Nehru’s view, Asia’s newly liberated or soon-to-be liberated states should show the world a different way to conduct international relations.
They need not be suspicious of each other’s intentions, nor greedy for each other’s territory, he argued. And they should not waste their scarce resources on building armies or atom bombs. Committed to social and economic development and to treating others with mutual respect, they could — and should — create a more just and peaceful world.
He campaigned against nuclear weapons, calling in 1954 for the superpowers to halt their tests of increasingly destructive bombs. This paved the way for a partial ban on testing in 1963.
He called for an end to racial discrimination, most notably in South Africa. He also commissioned India’s diplomats to offer their services to mediate in a series of disputes, including the Korean war and France’s disastrous attempt to cling to its colonial possessions in Indochina.
The birth of non-alignment
Throughout, Nehru made the case for what became known as “non-alignment” — perhaps his greatest contribution to the 20th century world.
India and other post-colonial states, he argued, had no good reason to take sides in the Cold War and plenty of reasons to maintain cordial relations with both the US and Soviet Union.
Allying with one or the other was too costly and compromising. It brought obligations to build armies and fight distant wars. And it meant renouncing the ability to criticise your ally when it did things with which you disagreed.
Non-alignment annoyed Cold Warriors in both Moscow and Washington. But it proved popular elsewhere, especially among newly independent states.
It helped inspire a series of major meetings intended to promote African and Asian cooperation in the shadow of US-Soviet competition, including the Bandung Conference in 1955, as well as the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1970s.
Today, 120 states belong to the movement, though India’s interest in the bloc has waned as it has grown stronger and wealthier.
Nehru’s greatest failure
Nehru helped delegitimise imperialism and usher in a new world no longer dominated by the Europe powers. He laid out principles that he hoped would encourage mutual respect in international relations – principles eagerly embraced, if not always followed, by other post-colonial leaders.
It is ironic, then, that arguably Nehru’s greatest failure – the one that irreparably tarnished his leadership and broke his health – concerned foreign policy.
Convinced China would abide by the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” agreement it struck with India in the mid-1950s, Nehru failed to anticipate a military conflict over the long-disputed frontier. When Mao Zedong ordered a surprise attack in 1962, India’s forces were humiliated. And to Nehru’s dismay, neither the UN, nor the superpowers, intervened.
To critics, the Sino-Indian war exposed Nehru’s naivety and the limits of non-alignment. It compelled India to retrench and rearm, and laid bare his dream of an Asia free from “power politics”.
India has travelled far since Nehru’s time and left much of his legacy by the wayside. It now possesses the world’s second largest military – after China – and a nuclear arsenal. It has forged a strong security partnership with the United States.
But New Delhi still remains wary of alliances or anything that might compromise independence of voice or action. And it is as convinced today as when Nehru was in power that India is destined to play a special role in the world.
Sayan Dey, University of the WitwatersrandWhen I was a child growing up in Kolkata, I would hear stories about the European colonisation of Bengal – the precolonial name of India’s West Bengal. These were selective narratives from a particularly male perspective, and presented colonisers as transforming social benefactors installed to provide a civilising influence. The rich histories of Indian philosophy that were once associated with religion, education and health were replaced by the colonial philosophy of conversion, modernising and improvement.
But it was not just European men; women too played a pivotal role in normalising colonisation in Bengal in the 19th century. The wives and daughters of merchants, engineers, ministers, doctors and architects came to India and not only supported their husbands and families, but took on what they saw as humanitarian roles where they felt they could be useful in the community.
But you wouldn’t know this from reading any European colonial histories of Bengal, because the stories of these women have largely been ignored. The majority of existing narratives about the Scottish influence on the colonisation of Bengal reduces women to just “partners”, or those who came to India “because they wanted to find husbands”.
My research rediscovers the stories of such women interred at the Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata, the West Bengal city that was once the administrative HQ of British India (previously called Calcutta). I wanted to highlight and explore these forgotten social histories through a “hauntological” perspective. Rather like a ghost, these unearthed stories were a returning of the past to “haunt” the present.
By uncovering the complicating histories of colonial women, I wanted to highlight the challenges of the decolonial gaze, which seeks to counter traditional historical narratives created by colonisers. In other words, the untold stories of the Scottish women in Calcutta revealed in my documentary (below), returned to the present to disrupt the accepted interpretations of European colonial history in West Bengal. This now invites people to engage with a different and overlooked perspective of the period.
While their husbands were building, buying, managing and administrating British India, wives and daughters were working in hospitals, teaching in schools and helping to provide community services. But their efforts and contributions went unacknowledged in the historical unfolding of empire.
A documentary approach
In 2019, I collaborated with academics from Bridgewater State University in the US in making my documentary to unpack these issues. The documentary argues that the physical death and decay of the human body does not necessarily erase the social and historical narratives that have shaped a person’s existence.
Through their discovery and circulation, the cemetery stories of the Scottish women endure beyond graveyards that decline with time, and now exist in the present and the future. The women’s stories make an effort to “honour and resurrect the future inside the past” because they have laid bare another dimension to European colonisation that previous interpretations had overlooked.
The documentary engages with the narratives of 11 Scottish women, selected from the available list of names in the cemetery records. Initially, 24 women were identified for documentation, but less than half could be used as the carvings on so many of the gravestones were too faded or degraded to use. The film shows that these stories have not come from existing written or oral accounts. Instead, these tales of real and often difficult lives have been resurrected from the information chiselled onto gravestones.
Here we find stories of Scotswomen like Jane Elliott, who worked as a missionary and looked after homeless children in Calcutta; or Christina Rodger Wighton who worked with people suffering from cholera, malaria and dysentery and died herself of cholera aged just 27; or Caroline Leach who arrived in India in 1850 just as epidemics broke out and worked as an apothecary in a leper colony; or Anne Baynes Evans who worked with the poor through the Baptist Missionary Society and was committed to educating young Indian women. Apart from their gravestones and cemetery records, no account of these women’s lives and achievements exist.
Many other colonial women’s lives in India follow the same pattern. Here were Scotswomen who saw their role as benevolent colonisers, contributing towards the “growth” and “development” of Calcutta by establishing schools for girls, health centres, nature parks and places of worship. But the ultimate goal of their high-minded and no doubt well-meaning contributions was to justify why colonisation was necessary.
Voices from stone
But these women played an important role as doctors, teachers, apothecaries, nurses, missionaries and even piano tuners. The gravestone stories reveal the various ways Scottish women independently played an active role towards shaping the European colonial administration in Bengal, and particularly in Calcutta.
But their stories have remained mostly undiscussed due to lack of documentation – their lives not seen as even deserving a note for posterity. The stories that remain on their gravestones function as what anthropologist Fiona Murphy calls “unpacified ghosts”. Their stories call out to be heard, and to challenge the practice of “conditional inclusion” which preserves historical colonial power structures, by unearthing untold stories of women’s lives and contributions.
This research not only makes an effort to document the historical narratives of these Scottish women, but also illustrates how cemetery gravestones literally remind us of the past, revealing stories that show once again how history is so often written from a singular – and male – perspective. But now the lives of these woman have at last been illuminated. Even in their silence, the dead have a story to tell.