Cultural Geography

How cultural differences, ranging from language and religion to sports and music, influence geographical patterns

Mapping the Historical Distribution of Alcohol Consumption Circa 1500

I am currently teaching a class for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program on the history and geography of natural psychoactive substances. Over the next nine weeks, I will be posting GeoCurrents articles derived from these lectures.

I have mapped the global distribution of each substance under consideration at the beginning of the early modern era (circa 1500). Creating these maps was tricky, and I cannot vouch for their accuracy. In many cases, the only information I was able to find was through ChatGPT. The responses that I received from the chatbot the were often too vague to be of much use. For example, when I asked, “Did the indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Archipelago have alcohol?” ChatGPT told me that “The indigenous peoples of the Bismarck Archipelago, located in the western Pacific Ocean, did not have traditional alcoholic beverages in the same way as some other cultures did. Alcohol consumption in these communities was not widespread before the arrival of European colonial powers.” I also know from experience that ChatGPT sometimes provides nonsensical answers, and a few of its responses to my alcohol-distribution questions are contradicted by other sources. As a result, these maps must be taken with a grain of salt. Note that I have put question marks in areas where the information that I found is conflicting.

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The first map in this series, posted above, shows the distribution of alcohol (ethanol) consumption circa 1500 CE. Alcohol was at the time the world’s most widely distributed psychoactive substance used for “recreational” purposes. It was known almost everywhere in Africa and Eurasia. Much of the Eurasian Arctic, however, was an exception owing largely to its lack of fermentable substances. Alcohol was not traditionally consumed over most of the Pacific. Some coastal populations in New Guinea made alcoholic beverages from abundant and easily fermented palm sap, but ethanol was apparently not known in the more densely populated central highlands. In Polynesia and most of Micronesia and Melanesia, alcohol was unknown, but kava (Piper methysticum) served a similar function in many areas.

Alcohol was widely used almost everywhere in South America and Mesoamerica. This “drinking zone” extended into some parts of what is now the southwestern United States, particularly among the so-called Pueblo Indians. Over the rest of North America, however, ethanol consumption was either unknown or very rare. There are reports that indigenous groups in what is now the southeastern United States sometimes made alcohol and some sources claim that Iroquoian peoples in the northeast fermented maple syrup. Overall, however, it is something of a mystery why alcohol was either unknown or little-used over most of North America.

Although alcohol was the most widely used psychoactive substance at the beginning of the early modern era, it was also subjected to the most widespread prohibitions, as the second map shows. In the Islamic world, alcohol was religiously prohibited, although some lax interpretations of the Quran held that only the consumption of wine was banned. And even though wine was forbidden in all interpretations of Islamic law, it was still widely consumed, especially in the Persian-speaking region. In the Hindu communities of India, traditional prohibitions of alcohol were largely based on caste membership. In general, high-caste Brahmins (“priests”) and Vaishyas (“merchants”) were not permitted to drink, although high-caste Kshatriyas (“warriors” and “rulers”) were. Low-ranking Dalits (“untouchables”) could drink. Customs varied among the middling Shudra groups, although the general rule was that a rejection of alcohol enhanced a group’s purity. Alcohol consumption was strongly discouraged by Theravada Buddhism, the dominant sect of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Ethanol was certainly consumed in these lands in the early modern period, but a degree of stigma surrounded its use.

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It is intriguing that the zone of widespread alcohol prohibition is essentially located in the center of the region of historical alcohol consumption. Although Egypt and Iraq today have very low drinking rates, in ancient times alcohol had important religious implications in both lands. In Sumer (southern Iraq), usually regarded as the world’s first civilization, beer was viewed as an essential attribute of civilization. In Gilgamesh, the world’s first epic, the wild man Enkidu was domesticated by, among other things, the consumption of beer.

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Sumerian beer was so thick and porridge-like that it had to be consumed through special straws that could filter out the solids, as is seen on many images from the era. Today, curious brewers are reproducing Sumerian beer and drinking it in the same manner.

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Mapping the Historical Distribution of Alcohol Consumption Circa 1500 Read More »

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself?

In the United States, fertility rates increasingly correlate with religiosity. Those who regularly attend religious services have more children than those who irregularly attend, who, in turn, have more than nonreligious people (see the graph below). Does this generalization hold for South Korea, a predominantly secular country with substantial Christian and Buddhist minorities? (A 2021 Gallup Korea poll found that 60 percent of South Koreans have no religion, with 16 percent following Mahayana Buddhism, 17 percent Protestant Christianity, 6 percent Roman Catholic Christianity, and 1 percent other religions.) Apparently, it does so only to a slight degree. According to a study published in Demographic Research in 2021, the Total Fertility Rate by faith in South Korea in 2015 was as follows: no religion, 1.13; Buddhist, 1.33;  Catholic, 1.16; Protestant, 1.28; and “other religion,” 1.20.

A number of scholars, however, have linked South Korea’s ultra-low fertility rate to Confucianism, a largely secular philosophical system with religious undertones. In the Joseon period (1393-1894), Confucianism was the dominant belief system of the Korean elite. Confucian ideas and practices still pervade South Korean society, probably to a greater extent than any other country. Intriguingly, other countries of Confucian heritage also have low (North Korea, Vietnam) or ultra-low (Japan, China, Taiwan) fertility levels (although that of Vietnam is just under replacement level and is currently holding steady). Japan and China are also, like South Korea, afflicted with high rates of withdrawal from marriage and the work-force by disaffected young people, a phenomenon known in China as the “lying flat” movement (tang ping).

Scholars who have posited a link between Confucianism and ultra-low fertility in South Korea have generally focused on women, highlighting the increasing numbers of whom are intentionally foregoing marriage and childbearing. Standard Confucianism is decidedly patriarchal, with wives placed in a subservient position to their husbands. Family solidarity is highly valued, with mothers expected to devote themselves to their children. As a result, pursuing a career is often deemed incompatible with childbearing and rearing. Faced with such a dilemma, increasing numbers of young Korean women are choosing career development over marriage and motherhood.

In an interesting article called “Ultralow Fertility in East Asia: Confucianism and Its Discontents,” Yen-hsin Alice Cheng argues that the East Asia has a unique fertility regime characterized by male-skewed sex ratios at birth (due to son preference), low rates of non-marital birth, rising prevalence of bridal pregnancy, and low rates of cohabitation. These attributes, she argues, are “closely linked to a patriarchal structure based on family lineage through sons, strong parental authority, and emphasis on women’s chastity (i.e. sanctions for premarital sex and ‘illegitimate’ births outside of marriage) and the belief that women are obliged to bear sons to continue the patrilineal bloodline” (p. 98-99). Faced with such expectations, she argues, many young women are simply opting out.

Although the connection between low fertility and Confucian patriarchy has been made by many others, Cheng also links it to Confucian-inspired “credentialism.” Here she focuses on the legacy of the highly prestigious imperial civil service examinations that selected elite bureaucrats based on their exam performances. This heritage has resulted, she argues, in a “low regard for vocational education and craftsmanship in Confucian societies,” with “academic success in the educational system considered a life goal that is of paramount importance …, with parents doing their best to make sure their children advance as far as possible academically” (p. 102). Today, academic success translates into coveted positions in South Korea’s world-class corporations and allows entry into prestigious professions. Such jobs, however, are limited, relegating even some of the most diligent students to non-prestigious jobs that are regarded as humiliating. Faced with such pressures, many young people prefer social withdrawal.

Scholarly attitudes toward Confucianism in the West have oscillated from condemnation to commendation, depending in part on economic and political conditions in East Asia. In the eighteenth century, when Qing China was the world’s most powerful country, Enlightenment philosophers celebrated the rationalism, secularism, and meritocracy of Confucianism, marveling at a society in which elite status was determined more by exam performance than by aristocratic birth and in which the military was subservient to civil society. Some writers even claim that Confucius was the “patron saint of the Enlightenment.” But as China declined in the nineteenth century while the West advanced, attitudes changed. It eventually came to be argued that the inherent conservatism of Confucianism, marked by undue submission to authority and rigidly hierarchical lines of power, prevented innovation, adaptation, and modernization in East Asia. But the mindset shifted again in the second half of the twentieth century as Confucian societies underwent extraordinarily rapid economic growth and modernization. It then came to be argued that Confucianism’s profound respect for education propelled economic development while its emphasis on family cohesion ensured social stability. But now the tables are again turning, with Confucian patriarchy and credentialism blamed for South Korea’s demographic collapse and the concomitant crisis of disaffected young people abandoning social expectations and dropping out.

None of these interpretations are either “correct” or “incorrect,” and all probably contain an element of truth. A belief system as comprehensive as Confucianism has many different aspects and pulls in different directions. It influences social structures but does not determine them, and thus provides partial explanations at best. A significant amount of evidence, moreover, suggests that today’s supposedly Confucian-generated social pathologies are not limited to East Asia. Ultra-low fertility, for example, is found elsewhere, including much of Europe. But here too historically patriarchal social structures seem to play a role, as Europe’s more gender equalitarian societies now have higher fertility levels than those with traditionally stronger gender roles; compare, for example, the TFR charts of Sweden and Italy posted below.

The most important issue is probably the extent to which the social withdrawal phenomenon is unique to South Korea and other countries of Confucian heritage. Similar although less extreme developments do seem to be occurring in the United States and Europe, as is noted in the Wikipedia article on South Korea’s Sampo (“Giving Up”) Generation. Rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation among young people in the U.S., moreover, are also surging. Although many explanations have been offered and debated, this phenomenon is complex and pervasive, leading some to suspect that modernity itself is the ultimate culprit. By this interpretation, modern societies are much better at generating goods and technologies than meaning and real social connections, yet meaning and real social connections remain essential for psychological health. Jon Haidt has been arguing for some time that social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, are responsible for much of the mental-health crisis among American girls; he now argues that the much more gradual psychological decline found among boys began decades earlier with the arrival of computerized gaming, which pulled them out of real-world encounters and into simulated environments. In some regards, South Korea is the most technophilic and modernistic country in the world, and, by this reasoning, it would be expected to be at the leading edge of a modernity-generated social crisis.

Is Confucianism Responsible for South Korea’s Demographic Collapse? Or Could It Be Modernity Itself? Read More »

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa)

The Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in the world. In a 2022 survey, 57 percent of its people reported “no religion,” 18 percent Catholicism, thirteen percent Protestant Christianity, and 5.6 percent Islam. Many of those who profess Christianity, moreover, are not very religious. In 2015, 82 percent of the Dutch population indicated that they “never or almost never” set foot in a church. But despite such widespread secularism, religion plays a significant role in Dutch politics. Three of the 15 parties in the country’s parliament officially signal their Christianity and another has roots in Christian democracy. Such a seeming discrepancy calls for further analysis.

Historically, the Dutch people were often noted for their religiosity. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they formed the core group of the influential Devotio Moderna movement that sought to revitalize Christianity through devotion to piety, humility, and simplicity of life. Learning was important as well, as exemplified by Erasmus of Rotterdam. In the mid-sixteenth century, conversion to Calvinism, or Reformed Christianity, was widespread, especially in Holland and Zeeland. This religious change helped spark rebellion against Spanish rule and the creation of the Dutch Republic in 1579. Although the Dutch Republic was noted for its religious toleration, it was closely associated with Calvinism, which continued to spread across its seven constituent provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen, Overijssel, and Gelderland). Territorial gains made with the Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought substantial Catholic territories into the republic, most notably in North Brabant, which were long ruled on a semi-colonial basis. As the intensity of Dutch Protestantism declined in the nineteenth century, religion conflict intensified, pitting Catholics, Calvinists, and post-Calvinists against each other. The main response was the “pillarization” of Dutch society, defined as the “the vertical separation of citizens into groups by religion and associated political beliefs.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, four main pillars had crystalized: Catholic, Protestant, Liberal, and Socialist. As Wikipedia notes:

Each pillar [had] its own social institutions and social organizations. These [included] its own newspapers, broadcasting organisations, political parties, trade unions, farmers’ associations, banks, stores, schools, hospitals, universities, scouting organisations and sports clubs. Such segregation [meant] that many people [had] little or no personal contact with members of other pillars. [Note: quotation edited to put it in the past tense.]

Depillarization began after World War II, but remnants persist, especially in education. The Netherland’s several Christian political parties might also be seen a holdover of the pillarization era, although some of their sectarian lines have blurred over time. The Christian Union party is rooted in the Reformed Church and thus takes a conservative stance on social matters, but it now leans to the left on economic and environmental issues, based on the Biblical precepts of charity and stewardship. The somewhat more conservative Christian Democratic Appeal originated in 1977 through the confederation of three religious-political groups, two Protestant and one Catholic. The third explicitly religious party, the Reformed Party (SGP), represents unreconstructed Calvinism and is decidedly rightwing. It is sometimes even regarded as advocating theocracy, although that allegation is controversial. SGP is the Netherland’s oldest political party, having been established in 1918. One of its founders envisioned a Netherlands “without cinema, sports, vaccination, and social security.” While the antipathy to sports has dissipated, opposition to playing games on Sundays has not.

Although religious affiliation has declined more sharply in the traditionally Protestant parts of the Netherlands than in the traditionally Catholic ones (see the first map below), intense religiosity is more common in the former region. The Old Reformed (strictly Calvinist) congregations have a membership of roughly 400,000, although some sources claim that over a million Dutch people remain affiliated with their version of the Reformed faith. Staunch believers are concentrated in a discontinuous “Bible Belt” that stretches from Zeeland in the southwest to the Netherlands’ center-north. It is often mapped based on support for the Christian Union and Reformed parties (see the map below). Intriguingly, the Dutch Bible Belt is located just north of the historical divide between the Protestant and Catholic parts of the country. This distribution pattern has been used as evidence that the Netherlands’ Bible Belt originated from Protestant stalwarts fleeing Catholic domination before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but this interpretation remains uncertain.

In the 2023 general election, the (Calvinist) Reformed Party had its best showing by a wide margin in Zeeland, where it took almost 10 percent of the vote. But it came in first place in only one of the Zeeland’s municipalities. Nationwide, it did so in eight of the 342 municipalities into which the Netherlands is divided. Rather than forming a contiguous belt, these municipalities are widely scattered. One lies in the country’s demographic core (Woudenberg in Utrecht Province) and another, Urk, is found in Flevoland, a land that did not even exist until it was diked and drained in the 1950s and ‘60s. As a new province, it might seem surprising the Flavoland would be home to such a traditional community. But Urk is an old fishing town that sat on an island before the massive drainage projects of the mid twentieth century. It is often regarded as the country’s most conservative municipality. Its politics have long been dominated by Christian parties, particularly the SGP and local offshoots, although in recent years the right-populist PVV and FvD have gained considerable support. The 21,000 residents of Urk have also maintained their own distinct dialect, usually called Urkers As noted in Wikipedia article on Urk:

One of the oldest and most distinctive dialects of Dutch is the language spoken in Urk. Nearly everyone in the village speaks this dialect and uses it in daily life. The dialect deviates considerably from contemporary standard Dutch and has preserved many old characteristics that disappeared from standard Dutch a long time ago. The Urkish dialect also includes elements that are older than standard Dutch  and were never part of the standard language.  … The dialect developed this way because until World War II, Urk was an island and could only be reached by boat. Radio was unknown, and the poor population did not have much money for newspapers and books. Until the modern era primary education for the children typically lasted only two years; afterwards children had to help maintain the family and formal schooling ended.

The hardline Calvinist communities in the Bible Belt have been subjected to harsh criticism in mainstream Dutch society. Opposition to vaccination has long generated opposition. Recent censure often focuses on their steadfast hostility to gay rights and gender ideology.

The deep conservatism of old-school Dutch Calvinism is politically reflected in places far from the Netherlands, most notably among the Afrikaners of South Africa. It can also be seen in the United States, particularly in a few counties in southwestern Michigan and northwestern Iowa that were heavily settled by Dutch immigrants. This correlation can be seen in the paired maps posted below, one showing the prevalence of the (Dutch) Reformed Church in Iowa and the other showing the results of the 2020 presidential election in the same state. Donald Trump is anything but a reflection of Calvinist values, but the overwhelming support that he received in northwestern Iowa does indicate an abiding hostility to liberalism and leftism in this region that has deep roots in the Dutch Reformed Church.

As a final note, it is intriguing that the centrist Christian Union party had by far its best showing in the 2023 general election in Bonaire and the two other special Dutch municipalities located in the Caribbean.

The Dutch Bible Belt: Religion and Voting in the Netherlands (& Northwestern Iowa) Read More »

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited

Australia is an unusual country in having two metropolitan areas of roughly equal population that overshadow all others. As the tables posted below show, Melbourne and Sydney each have around five million inhabitants, roughly twice as many as third-ranking Brisbane. It is also not entirely clear which metropolis is larger. Although Sydney has generally received the honor, Melbourne is growing more rapidity and has reportedly “snatched back its crown as Australia’s largest city, knocking Sydney off the top spot.” (Different population figures are derived from different way of spatially delimiting the metro area.)

Few other countries have such dual top cities. The only one that come readily to my mind is Vietnam; Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) both have around eight million inhabitants, with the next largest, Haiphong, coming in at only two million. Such urban duality can lead to sharp cultural rivalry, which is indeed the case in both Australia and Vietnam.

Given their shared top position, Melbourne and Sydney’s differences are worth exploring. As a recent GeoCurrents post noted, Melbourne leans much more to the political left. But how else do they differ? Internet queries deliver mostly tourist-oriented information, focused on climate, sights and scenery, and dining and nightlife. Cultural, social, and economic comparisons are more difficult to find. Several sources, however, note that Melbourne is less expensive, which might be one reason why it is growing more quickly:

The rental prices in Melbourne are a lot more affordable than those in Sydney, which is probably the best thing about Melbourne  when compared to Sydney. It is estimated that the rent for a one-bedroom apartment located in the central business district of Sydney will be approximately AUD $2,689 (US $2127) per month. The same thing in the Australian city of Melbourne will set you back approximately $1,725 (or $1,364 in US currency).

Elevated housing costs in Sydney reflect the fact that it is wealthier than Melbourne, as can be seen on the paired maps posted below. Note that the top three categories on the Sydney median-family-income map are missing from Melbourne, while the lowest one is missing from Sydney (in Melbourne it is limited to the far peripheral division of Indi). I also included Perth, Western Australia’s only metropolis, in this map set for broader comparative purposes; its income profile is much more like that of Melbourne than that of Sydney. I was surprised to see these lower income figures for Perth, as Western Australia is the country’s richest state on a per capita basis, with a much higher level of GDP per person than either New South Wales or Victoria (see below). Non-metropolitan regions of New South Wales, however, do generally have lower average incomes than non-metropolitan parts of Western Australia (compare, for example, WA’s sparsely settled but mineral-rich Pilbara and NSW’s agrarian New England on the map below).

 

 

The more important distinction in income between Sydney and Melbourne, however, is that of differentiation. Although Sydney’s wealthiest division are richer than those of Melbourne, Sydney’s poorest division are slightly poorer than those of Melbourne. The areas of greater Melbourne with median weekly household income below 1,600 Australian dollars are all located in the exurban fringe, whereas those of Sydney form one the city’s main suburban cores. One might expect such income differentiation to lead to a more leftwing voting pattern in Sydney, but the opposite situation holds.

The remaining set of maps show some relatively muted but still significant differences between Australia’s two largest cities. Regarding educational attainment, central Melbourne and central Sydney look quite similar, but Melbourne’s suburbs have a slightly larger percentage of college graduates. Suburban Sydney is somewhat more religious than suburban Melbourne, which reflects the fact that it has a higher percentage of people born outside Australia (see the first to maps below). Both central Melbourne and central Sydney, however, have large immigrant populations and low levels of religious belief. In both metro areas – and presumable across the country – peripheral divisions have mostly Australia-born populations. Regarding marital states, it is notable that Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs report higher rates of marriage than any electoral divisions of Melbourne.

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited Read More »

Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country

Wikipedia’s “list of on-going armed conflicts” (see the previous post) had some surprises for me, as it includes a few insurgencies that I had thought were over. One example is that of the Paraguayan People’s Army, or EEP Rebellion (from the Spanish label, Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo). Wikipedia gives a 2023 death toll of seven for this conflict, and a cumulative count of 145+ since its beginning in 2005. These figures do not seem to be reliable, however, as the listed source for the 2023 figure is from 2022. I was not able to find any information on deaths this year in an admittedly cursory internet search. The Wikipedia article on the EEP, however, emphasizes its continuing activity, claiming that it can field up to 1,000 militants. As the article notes:

[T]he EPP has millions of dollars collected in kidnappings, extortion, expropriations and even contributions from neighbors and supporters. To this day, they continue to gain followers in the area, given the void left by the Paraguayan State.

The EEP is in many respects a typical Latin American Marxist-Leninist insurgency. It aims its attacks on wealthy landowners and security official, both private and public. Its operations have been focused in the central-eastern part of the country not far from the boundary with Brazil (see the map below), a restive region that has seen the development of large, mechanized farms over the past few decades. A few years ago, the EEP gained some global notoriety for kidnapping Mennonite farmers, one of whom was killed when his family was unable to come up with the $500,000 demanded for his release.

Conflict over land use and ownership in eastern Paraguay is an issue of the political far-right as well as the far-left. In Paraguay’s April 2023 general election, the populist and self-described nationalist-anarchist candidate of the National Crusade Party, Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas, surprised many observers by coming in third place, taking almost a quarter of the votes cast. In 2019, then-senator Cubas was impeached after he called for the genocide of Brazilians living in his country. As reported by Folha de São Paulo:

Brazilian bandits, bandits! Invaders! Now deforesting the country,” he shouts. “At least 100,000 Brazilians must be killed here,” he continued, mentioning that 2 million Brazilians are living in the country. The Brazilian government estimates that there are 350 thousand.

Following his failed bid for the presidency, Cubas was arrested for “disturbing the peace” after he refused to accept the election results and led anti-governmental protests. This was not the first time that he found himself in legal trouble. In 2016, Cubas was arrested “after hitting a judge with a belt and defecating in the office of the judge’s secretary.”

The large Brazilian presence in eastern Paraguay dates to the 1960s. These so-called “Brasiguayos” (“Brasiguaios” in Portuguese), many of whom were born in Paraguay, are now thought to number around half a million, a little less than 10 percent of the country’s population. They form the dominant group in several border towns, which are now mostly Portuguese speaking. This fact is almost never noted on language maps of Paraguay, although I did find one somewhat dated example (posted below). This map, not surprisingly, comes from the extensive archives of Reddit’s “Map Porn” community.

The initial Brazilian immigrants in Paraguay were mostly landless peasants who cleared the land for agriculture. They were later followed by well-off farmers who developed mechanized, commercial agriculture, usually focusing on soybeans. As commercial farmers moved in, many of the earlier migrants were forced back to Brazil, where they often found themselves unwelcome. Settling mostly in the new agricultural areas of Matto Grosso do Sul, their plight gained the attention of Amnesty International, which claimed in a 1992 report that were the victims of “illegal detentions, allegations of excessive use of force by the police, intimidation and a possible extra judicial execution.” The irony inherent in the situation has been noted. As one author put it, “Brazilians living in Paraguay wound up being expelled by their own countrymen.”

Anti-Brazilian agitation in Paraguay over the past few decades has generally focused on landownership issues. It seems to have reached a peak between 2008 and 2012, when Paraguay was under a leftwing government, an unusual condition in that country. As noted in a 2012 article in Gazeta do Povo:

The epicenter of the most recent agrarian conflict in Paraguay is located 75 kilometers from Foz do Iguaçu, in the department of Alto Paraná. A group of 6,000 landless Paraguayans, called “carperos”, have been camped for almost a year in the municipality of Ñacunday, on the border between two rural properties owned by producers of Brazilian descent. They threaten to take by force an area of 167,000 hectares spread across the departments of Alto Paraná, Canindeyú and Itapúa on the border with Brazil and Argentina. Armed and willing to radicalize the movement, they claim that the lands occupied by Brazilians belong to the Paraguayan government and should serve the agrarian reform project undertaken by President Fernando Lugo.

Cultural and even racial issue are also at play. As reported in a 2001 New York Times article:

They complain that the only television available locally is Brazilian and that their children grow up rooting for Brazil’s national soccer team instead of their own and speaking Portuguese as their second language instead of the Indian language Guaraní [Note: Paraguay is almost completely bilingual in Spanish and Guaraní].

Radio broadcasts in Guaraní urging landless peasants to rise against the Brazilians continue to be heard here. About 80 percent of San Alberto’s 23,000 residents are of Brazilian descent, and by voting as a bloc they have succeeded in electing one of their number, Romildo Maia de Souza, as mayor. …

One source of friction, all sides agree, is racial. Many of the Brazilians are blue-eyed, fair-skinned descendants of the German, Italian and Polish immigrants who flocked to Brazil’s three southernmost states a century ago. Many of the native-born Paraguayans most resentful of the Brazilian presence are of [indigenous] Indian stock.

Finally, geopolitical implications further complicate the situation. A 2019 scholarly paper by Andrew Nickson warns that Paraguay might be a Brazilian “protectorate in the making,” which seem a bit exaggerated. A big up-coming issue in this regard is the renegotiation of the Itaipú Treaty, which covers the shared Itaipú dam, the third largest hydroelectric facility in the world.

Insurgency in Paraguay – and Genocidal Agitation Against Brazilians in the Country Read More »

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People

The civil war raging in Burma (Myanmar) is one of the world’s longest running conflicts, stretching back to 1948, the year of Burma’s independence from Britain. But as hostilities ebb and flow in both time and place, the current war is dated by some as only having begun in 2021, the year of the country’s most recent military coup and crackdown on civil society. But no matter how one measures it, this struggle is bloody and grim. According to the Wikipedia article on “ongoing armed conflicts,” the Burmese Civil War currently has the third highest death toll of 2023, following only the war in Ukraine and the insurgency in western Africa that stretches across more than a dozen countries. Almost 11,000 people have lost their lives this year alone, with a casualty count of perhaps more than 20,000* in 2022. But despite the ongoing and persistent carnage, this conflict rarely makes the news in the United States.

To follow the Burmese civil war, one can consult Burmese sources, available online in both Burmese and English. I especially recommend The Irrawaddy, produced by Burmese journalists in exile in Thailand. One of its most interesting recent articles highlights the importance of the country’s smallest state, Kayah (formerly Karenni), in successfully taking on the Tatmadaw, the brutal Burmese military. The article claims that resistance fighters in Kayah have killed 2,065 junta soldiers while losing only 153 of their own in the past two years. Leading the charge is the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which was formed shortly after the February 2021 coup. Some of its fighters had previously been affiliated with the Burmese military as border guards but switched sides after the military take-over. As The Irrawaddy notes, the “KNDF supports federalism, or power-sharing between the Union and state governments with self-determination and self-administration for ethnic states.” According to one recent report, the Burmese government currently controls only some ten percent of Kayah state (including its capital, Loikaw), with the rest of it either contested (20 percent) or under the control of insurgents (65 percent). If this report and others like it are true, the Wikipedia map posted below is highly inaccurate, or at least out of date, as it significantly exaggerates the extent of governmental control.

Despite the success of their military resistance, the people of Kayah (Karenni) State have experienced intense suffering over the past two and a half years. (For those interested, the assaults on their state are regularly tabulated and mapped in detail by the Karenni Civil Society Network; see the map below). According to one recent report from a different agency:

At least 180,000 Karenni people have been forcibly displaced, which is more than 40 percent of the estimated total Karenni population. …. Some families have been displaced multiple times, as IDP sites come under attack by junta forces. Based on legal analysis of the data collected, the report finds that members of the Burmese military have committed the war crimes of attacking civilians, attacking protected objects, pillaging, murder, torture, cruel treatment, and displacing civilians in Karenni State.

As is often tragically the case in Burma, extremist Buddhist monks have been encouraging military assaults and worse. According to a recent United States Institute of Peace report:

Under the hot sun, a Pa-O monk spoke to the rally and characterized the Karenni people as a lower race, describing the KNDF and the Peoples’ Defense Forces broadly as worse than the Islamic State. Another Pa-O monk called for the burning of Karenni villages if the KNDF did not stop the alleged violence, declaring: “They say it is not a religious war. But our three monks have died.” … These alarming speeches carried themes of ethnic hierarchy, Buddhist nationalism and zealous hatred.

Surprisingly, the “ethnic hierarchy” and “Buddhist nationalism” evident in this monk’s speech do not come in their usual form, which is associated with the majority Burman (Burmese-speaking) population and directed against Muslims and members of the so-called hill tribes. In this case, both the Karenni and their Po-O antagonists are historically regarded as “tribal peoples,” both belonging to the larger Karen ethno-linguistic group, at least as it is sometimes reckoned. But the Pa-O people are almost entirely Buddhist and have aligned closely with the Burmese military, which has pursued a “divide and rule” strategy among the country’s minority populations. The strategy had been largely successful before 2021 but is currently failing. The Karenni, in contrast, are religiously divided, with some following Buddhism, others Christianity (of several sects), and others traditional animism/shamanism. They are also, needless to say, firm opponent of the Burmese military.

The success of little Kayah State in resisting the Burmese military probably has roots in colonial history. Kayah was never integrated in British Burma and largely escaped British rule. In the 1870s, the Kingdom of Burma, having been reduced to a rump state after losing two wars against the British, was trying to expand into upland regions. Threatened by this policy, the tiny principalities of the Karenni people sought help from Britain, leading to an 1875 treaty between the United Kingdom and Burma that recognized their independence. In 1892, however, Karenni leaders agreed to accept a stipend from the British government in return for allowing it some local oversight. But domestic policies remained under the control of local leaders. As a result, the Karenni lands were usually mapped as not falling under direct British rule, the only part of Burma generally given that distinction (see the map below). A fascinating 1931 map, however, classified Karenni State as one of four regions in Burma that were “loosely” administered by the British Raj, with two others depicted as “unadministered” (see below). (Intriguingly, Karenni state was reportedly the world’s largest producer of tungsten in the 1930s; geologists affiliated with the Oxford Burma Project currently hope that political stabilization will eventually allow the reestablishment of extensive commercial mining there and elsewhere in mineral-rich Burma.)

As Burma was preparing for independence after World-War II, it sought to incorporate the Karenni states into its coming union. Its 1947 constitution insisted on the amalgamation of these small indigenous realms into one Burmese state, but also allowed the possibility of secession after a ten-year period. But with independence the following year, as tersely noted by the Wikipedia article on the state, “the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re was assassinated by central government militia for his opposition to the inclusion of the Karenni in the Union of Burma. An armed uprising swept the state that has continued to the present day.”

Despite its formidable power, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) does not seem to be doing well in the current conflict. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations claims that it has lost half or more of its troops since the 2021 coup, due to death, desertion, or defection, and that it has retreated on several fronts. The Tatmadaw is also evidently having difficulty filling the classes at its military academy. According to one report, the government now has stable control over only around twenty percent of the country’s townships. Due to recent military reversals, the Tatmadaw is now engaging in extensive air attacks, often directed against civilian targets. Such a strategy is of little military significance and greatly intensifies animosity against the regime.

The Council on Foreign Relations report mentioned above also contends that the Burmese government is facing growing international problems:

Even China, which has backed the junta and sees Myanmar as a strategically critical investment destination, is playing both sides of the fence. Beijing has continued to plow money into the country and supplied the military with weapons, despite its pariah status, and it has provided the junta with diplomatic cover at international forums. Yet it has also maintained links with the ethnic militias and their political wings, and its backing of Naypyidaw has grown more tepid as the army continues to lose ground. As for Russia, though it too has supplied the junta with arms, Moscow is facing its own obvious problems right now and may not be able to ship weapons abroad for long.

Due to these reversals, Burma’s military government may be reconsidering its strategy. Or perhaps not. Another article from the United States Institute of Peace nicely summarizes the current situation:

Are conciliatory winds stirring among the leaders of Myanmar’s coup regime, or is the junta engaging in deception and distraction as it struggles on the battlefield against a broad range of resistance forces? The answer is almost certainly the latter. It would not be the first time the ruling generals have sought to stimulate international interest in promoting dialogue solely to enhance their legitimacy abroad.

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People Read More »

The Geography Indian Chess Grandmasters

The prolific blogger, economist, and public intellectual Tyler Cowen recently reposted a map on the geography of Indian chess grandmasters (reproduced below). The map was originally posted on X [Twitter] by “The_Equationist” under the heading “This chart speaks for itself.” I am not sure that it does, nor do several of Cowen’s commenters. But for those who understand the basic spatial contours of socio-economic development in India, the map does show a familiar pattern. Almost all Indian grandmasters come from the more economically vibrant and educationally developed states of southern and south-central India. Conversely, few come from the densely populated and economically lagging Ganges Valley, India’s historical core, or indeed from any other northern part of the country. Based on socioeconomic development alone, one might expect a few more grandmasters from Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi, but the pattern remains unexceptional.

What is especially striking is that three states in particular stand out for producing grandmasters: West Bengal (labeled here simply as “Bengal”), Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. But again, for those familiar with the geography of Indian intellectual life, this pattern is not particularly surprising. West Bengal has long been famed as India’s intellectual center, particularly in fields in the humanities. This feature of Indian geography has occasionally hit home. I few years ago, I was peripherally involved in a search at Stanford University for a new faculty member specializing in the history of modern South Asia. Well into the process, a South Asian member of the search committee asked whether the rest of us had noticed that all the top candidates were Bengali, hailing from West Bengal. I had not noticed.

Tamil Nadu, which really stands out on the map, is also famous for the intellectual achievements of its inhabitants, which veer in a more scientific and technical direction. Such intellectuality is particularly notable among the Tamil Brahmins (or “Tam Brahms”), who have been subjected to some reverse discrimination in their homeland and are thus well represented abroad. Maharashtra does not have the same intellectual reputation as the other two states, but it is, in many regards, India’s economic standout and its center of popular-culture production.

One of Cowen’s commenters, Sathish, mentions that almost all of Tamil Nadu’s grandmasters come from its largest city, Chennai (formerly Madras), noting as well that 15 of the 29 studied at the same school. Another commenter, sxb, provides the necessary background information:

It started in the 50s with the first Indian international Master, Manuel Aaron. He started the Tal chess club in Chennai, brought in Soviet chess books and even a Soviet Grandmaster for a month with more visiting and Anand, the Indian prodigy, was his pupil. Basically all the local players worthy of note went through that chess club. It blossomed from there.  Anand was born and lives in Chennai and has been a great role model for chess in India and got many youngsters interested in the game.

 

As geographers have long noted, place matters. So does personality, as this story so well demonstrates.

The Geography Indian Chess Grandmasters Read More »

The Taliban’s Renewed Assaults on Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia Community

I was surprised to recently read that the Taliban are trying to marginalize the Persian language in Afghanistan, given its near majority status, stature, and role in inter-ethnic communication (see the previous GeoCurrents post). On resuming power in 2021, moreover, the Taliban had promised to pursue less brutal and divisive policies. In their first stint (1996-2001), they had viciously attacked the country’s minority Shia population, mostly found among the Hazara people in central Afghanistan. Some observers viewed these campaigns as almost genocidal (see this earlier GeoCurrents post). But as Radio Free Europe framed the Taliban’s new attitude:

After regaining power, the Sunni militant group tried to assuage Hazaras’ fears of discrimination and persecution. The Taliban visited Shi’a mosques in the Afghan capital and deployed its fighters to protect ceremonies marking the Shi’ite month of Muharram.

Given the Taliban’s previous animosity toward Shia Islam, I had expected that that any reversal of its newly formulated toleration program would be directed against the Hazaras, and perhaps also the smaller non-Hazara Shia communities in western Afghanistan. Yet I had encountered nothing of the sort. It turns out, however, that my reading on this subject had been far too limited. The July 17, 2023 Radio Free Europe article cited above went on to note that:

Last week, the Taliban prevented Shi’a from celebrating an important religious festival. The militants have also restricted the teaching of Shi’a jurisprudence in universities in Afghanistan. In February, the Taliban reportedly banned marriages between Shi’a and Sunnis in northeastern Badakhshan Province.

The Shi’ite community has accused the Taliban of failing to prevent deadly attacks on Hazaras by the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group. Meanwhile, rights groups have documented the forced evictions of Hazaras by the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, in several provinces.

Other reports are even more worrisome. As noted by Jurist, “The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) issued a statement on Friday calling for an end to the systemic killing of Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan in order to prevent a possible genocide under Taliban rule.” According to Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, “These violent deaths are further shocking proof that the Taliban continue to persecute, torture and extra judicially execute Hazara people.”

Also shocking is the lack of reporting on this situation in the American media. Afghanistan’s Shia population is massive, constituting something between 9 and 29.5 percent of the country’s population of 40 million (see the two highly divergent pie charts below). Continuing attacks on these people could quickly generate a humanitarian crisis of the first order.

Although most Shia Muslims in Afghanistan follow the Imami, or Twelver, majority sect of the faith, a significant minority adhere instead to the minority Ismaili sect. Most Afghan Ismailis are also ethnic Hazaras, but a few are ethnic Tajiks (both of which are Persian-speaking peoples). One might expect that the Taliban would be especially hostile to the Ismailis, given their heterodox, esoteric, and cosmopolitan orientation. Scant information, however, is readily available on this group. But according to one prominent 2001 report:

Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnic groups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. Although Ismaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operate well-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals and cooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities. Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to follow their leaders uncritically.

The news searches that I conducted for information on Ismailis in Afghanistan mostly returned articles about a recent deadly knife attack by an Afghan refugee on women in an Ismaili center in Lisbon, Portugal. A Shia Wave article, however, notes that the Taliban are trying to convert Afghan Ismailis to Sunni Islam, and evidently with some success. I was disappointed to find no information on Afghan Ismailis on the website of the Aga Khan Foundation, the well-funded and highly effective humanitarian wing of the global (Nizari) Ismaili community. The Foundation does highlight its extensive humanitarian work in Afghanistan, but sidesteps the country’s sectarian divisions.

The Taliban’s Renewed Assaults on Afghanistan’s Hazara Shia Community Read More »

Afghanistan’s Language Policies and the Cartographic Marginalization of Persian (Farsi)

A fascinating recent article in The Diplomat (“Decoding the Taliban’s Anti-Persianism” by Javeed Ahwar) outlines how the new government of Afghanistan is attempting to sideline the country’s dominant Persian language in favor of Pashto, the main language of its Taliban rulers. As Ahwar writes, “One of the first things that Taliban did after taking over in August 2021 was to remove Persian from public billboards,” noting that the new policy “came at the cost of marginalization of the Persian-speaking population and undermining their rights to political participation.” As he further argues, the drive against Persian is rooted in a quest for Pashtun political dominance and reflects the overriding influence of the harsh South Asian Deobandi school of Sunni Islam, which favors Urdu over Persian. It also stems from the desire of the Taliban to disconnect the people of Afghanistan from the extraordinary riches of the Persian literary tradition, much of which is too cosmopolitan and secular for their taste.

Although the word “Afghanistan” literally means “land of the Pashtuns” – the Pashto-speaking people – Persian is still the country’s first language. As can be seen in the table posted above, roughly half the people of Afghanistan speak Persian as their mother tongue, with more than three quarters speaking it as either their first or second language; the comparable figures for Pashto are 40 and 48 percent. Persian is clearly the country’s main language of interethnic communication.

The importance of Persian in Afghanistan, however, is commonly obscured both in written depictions and especially on maps. Consider, for example, the Wikipedia map “Languages of Afghanistan,” posted below. Although it purports to be a language map, it is actually a map of ethnic groups that are only partly based on linguistic affiliation. Importantly, the term “Persian” does not appear on the map. Instead, the Persian-speaking population of Afghanistan is divided into three ethnic groups: Hazara, Aimak, and Tadjik [Tajik]. Although minor dialectal differences separate these groups, they are mostly divided by religion (the Hazaras being Shia) and traditional lifestyle (the Aimaks being pastoralists). The map also minimizes the extent of the Tajik people, especially in western Afghanistan. The second map rectifies these problems, but still avoids the term “Persian” in favor of “Dari,” following the long-established usage of the Afghan government. But Dari is merely the main variant of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and in written form is essentially identical with Farsi, as Persian is labeled in Iran. The terms Persian and Farsi denote the same language and are themselves variants of the same word, “Persian” being “Farsi” as translated into Greek; the term “Dari,” on the other hand, is generally thought to mean “court,” implying the “language of the court.” Occasionally one finds a map that portrays most of northern Afghanistan as Farsi-speaking, such as the Deviant Art map by H.G.[TRKM_JOSE] posted below. Such depictions, however, are relatively rare in scholarly and journalistic sources. Finally, some maps, like the last one posted below, do  show northern Afghanistan as Persian speaking.

According to the erudite scholar Nile Green, current holder of the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, “the impulses behind renaming of Afghan Persian as Dari were more nationalistic than linguistic.” The Wikipedia article on Dari summarizes Green’s argument as follows:

Afghanistan’s Persian-speaking population still prefer to call their language “Farsi”, asserting that the term “Dari” has been imposed upon them by the dominant Pashtun ethnic group as an effort to detach Afghanistan from its deep-rooted cultural, linguistic, and historical connections with the wider Persian-speaking world, encompassing Iran, Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan.

The broader context and consequences of Afghanistan’s anti-Persian/Farsi policies will be considered in the next GeoCurrents post

Afghanistan’s Language Policies and the Cartographic Marginalization of Persian (Farsi) Read More »

India’s Kota Factory: Producing Enhanced University Entrance Exam Scores

To an American viewer, the premise of the Indian television show Kota Factory (available on Netflix) might seem absurd. The show is set in a city of over a million inhabitants that is economically based on a single “industry,” that of tutoring teenagers preparing for college entrance exams. Yet the city of Kota, located in India’s northwestern state of Rajasthan, is real, as is its focus on exam preparation. More than 150,000 students are reported to come annually to this city, most of them staying for two or three years. Dozens of exam-coaching companies – private schools, essentially – compete for students, most of whom live in cramped hostels. The aim of most students is admission into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), a highly prestigious 23-campus institution with branches scattered across the country.

Kota Factory is shot in black-and-white, with camera angles and other techniques reminiscent of those of an art film. It is best described as a serious sitcom. According to the Wikipedia article on the show, its creator “aims to change the popular narrative surrounding Kota and preparation for [entrance exams] in Indian pop culture to a more positive one via the show.” Despite the popularity of studying in Kota, the city’s educational industry has acquired a somewhat negative perception due partly to a string of well-publicized suicides linked to its extraordinarily competitive atmposphere.

I find this show particularly interesting for the light that it sheds on the differences between the Indian and American educational systems. In Kota, a successful teacher – meaning one whose students have a relatively high acceptance rate at IIT – can have something of a celebrity status. The show’s most interesting character is a charismatic physics lecturer who is harsh but caring, deeply involved in his students lives. He is precisely the kind of mentor who can successfully shepherd shell-shocked 16-and 17-year-old pupils through the grueling process. As noted by the Wikipedia article on the show, this character is played by “Jitendra Kumar as Jitendra Kumar a.k.a. Jeetu Bhaiya: a fictionalised version of himself.” (Kumar was a civil engineering student at IIT Kharagpur before going into acting.)

Kota’s rise as an educational coaching center began in 1980s, when it was an industrial town producing, among other goods, polished building stone and synthetic fabric. At the time, however, many of its local industries were failing, a process that accelerated after the Indian economy opened to global forces in 1991. Adversity, however, generated some creative responses. As explained by Neelam Gupta in a 2016 Governance Now article:

The story begins with Vinod Kumar Bansal, who was once an employee of JK Synthetics. … As he had good mathematics skills, children from the neighbourhood flocked to him for help. One day he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a condition that rapidly weakens one’s muscles and bones. This disease restricted his movement and he could no longer work in the factory. Fearing he might lose his job, Bansal started giving maths tuitions at his home. In 1986, one of his students cracked the IIT joint entrance exam (IIT-JEE). Next year, some 100 students had joined his classes and by 1998, Bansal was coaching more than 1,000 students. Soon he built a big building in the city’s industrial area and set up Bansal Classes. In 2000, one of his students topped and 300 others cracked the IIT-JEE. It created a stir. “There was a long queue outside my study centre and I finally selected 18,000 students that session,” he recalls.

As often happens, Bansal’s success generated spin-off companies founded by his own employees. Students increasingly flocked to Kota partly because few Indian secondary schools offer adequate preparation for the demanding higher-education entrance exams. It is perhaps not coincidental that the state of Rajasthan, in which Kota is located, has one of India’s worst educational systems (see the literacy map below). Another draw is social. Many students find that it is much easier to devote themselves to intensive study in a city where tens of thousands of people their own age were doing the same than they would at home, as the show itself emphasizes. By 2010, 40,000 students a year were coming from all over northern India to study in Kota. Enrollment jumped a few years later when some key entrance exams changed from a state-level to a national basis. The annual figure, as noted above, is now around 150,000.

Not surprisingly, other Indian cities are hoping to profit from the educational coaching boom. A 2018 Hindustan Times article features the headline, “Why Are There ‘Education Malls’ in Ranchi? Inside the New Kotas of India.” Ranchi, like most rising coaching centers, and Kota itself, is a sizable but secondary city located in India’s poorer and educationally lagging north-central belt (see the map posted below). An exception is Madurai in the south, which has long been noted as a major university city and as the “cultural capital” of the state of Tamil Nadu. As Wikipedia notes, “Madurai has been an academic centre of learning for Tamil culture, literature, art, music and dance for centuries.”

As the creators of Kota Factory know what they are writing about, one can even learn a little science from watching the show. Episode Three, which focuses on inorganic chemistry and the many exceptions to its rules, including exceptions to the exceptions, is the prime case in point. The prolonged diatribe of Mayur More (playing the student Vaibhav Pandey) about the frustrations of studying the subject is one of the most amusing and riveting bits of acting that I have ever seen – and by far the most intellectually informed.

India’s Kota Factory: Producing Enhanced University Entrance Exam Scores Read More »

Religion Trumps Language in Turkey’s Hatay Province in the 2023 Presidential Election

Turkey’s Hatay Province, which forms a small “panhandle” extending southward along the eastern Mediterranean, is one of the most distinctive parts of the country. Hatay is characterized by linguistic and ethnic diversity. It has the highest percentage of Arabic speakers in Turkey. It is also home to several Christian communities (Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Maronite, Antiochian Greek, and Armenian Apostolic) and minority Muslim sects (Alawite and Alevi). As noted by Wikipedia, “Unlike most Mediterranean provinces, Hatay has not experienced mass migration from other parts of Turkey in recent decades and has therefore preserved much of its traditional culture.”

Hatay did not join Turkey until 1939, having previously been part of the French-ruled Mandate of Syria. When the French departed Syria, a referendum in Hatay led to union with Turkey, which was the outcome favored by France. Many observers, however, question the legitimacy of the vote. Many Syrians, moreover, reject the Turkish annexation of the region.

In the 2023 Turkish presidential election, incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won the vote in Hatay by a relatively small margin. As the map below indicates, Erdoğan took some of Hatay’s districts handily, while his challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu won others by an overwhelming majority. What might account for these differences? Following to the Wikipedia language map posted above, language does not seem to be the main factor, as some Arabic-majority districts voted heavily for Erdoğan and others for Kılıçdaroğlu.

The language map in question, however, is imprecise. Another Wikipedia map, limited to Hatay, provides a much better depiction, although it does not take population density into account (see the second map posted below). Here Arabic-speaking areas are noted with green markings, with Turkish speaking areas marked in red. Three districts in Hatay have Arabic-speaking majorities, which I have indicated on the paired electoral with the letter “A.” As can be seen on this map, one of these districts overwhelmingly supported Erdoğan, one overwhelmingly supported Kılıçdaroğlu, and the either had mixed results.

The key to explaining this seeming discrepancy is found in religion, which is also noted on the Wikipedia map in question. Here Arabic-speaking Sunni areas are marked with green squares while Arabic-speaking Alawite districts are marked with green circles. As can be seen by comparing these maps, the Alawite-dominated areas strongly supported Kılıçdaroğlu, whereas the Sunni-dominated areas strongly supported Erdoğan – as did Arabic-speaking Sunni areas elsewhere in Turkey.

Alawites should not be confused with Alevis, although they often are, and they do have a number of similarities. Both are members of highly heterodox Shia offshoot sects who generally favor a resolutely secular political order. The Turkish-speaking population of Hatay includes some Alevis, although they are not indicated on the map posted above, or on any other map that I have found. Alawites, in contrast, are almost entirely Arabic speaking. Most Alawites live to the south, in the coastal area of Syria, where they form the majority population. The Assad government of Syria is dominated by Alawites, although they have been long disparaged and are often despised by their country’s Sunni majority. Alawites in Turkey’s Hatay province show pronounced hostility to Erdoğan, who supported the “Arab Spring” movement to overthrow Syria’s Alawite-dominated Assad regime. Erdoğan also gave sanctuary to millions of Syrian Sunni refugees, who tend to exhibit hostility towards Alawites.

This situation was depicted by Soner Cagaptay in a 2013 article:

Warning signs of this have been evident for months. For example, local Alawite groups such as the “Platform Against Imperialistic Interference in Syria” have been organizing pro-Assad rallies for some time — the largest, held last September, drew over ten thousand people. As one Alawite put it during an interview with Aljazeera, “Western imperialistic powers, along with Sunni-led regimes, are trying to topple a legitimate regime in Syria.” Minor tensions between Sunni refugees from Syria and Hatay Alawites have been reported as well. Alawite business owners and civil servants complain of Syrian refugees questioning them over their sectarian identity, with some claiming they have been blacklisted and harassed by Sunni Arab emigres.

For more information on the similarities and differences between Alevis and Alawites, see Cagaptay’s interesting but no doubt controversial 2012 article, “Are Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis the Same?”

Religion Trumps Language in Turkey’s Hatay Province in the 2023 Presidential Election Read More »

Economic Disparities and Election Results in Turkey

The Republic of Türkiye (Turkey) is characterized by stark discrepancies in regional economic productivity. In 2021, nominal per capita GDP figures ranged from 153,479 Turkish Lira (17,089 US$) in Kocaeli Province, located east of Istanbul, to 26,837 Turkish Lira (2,988 US$) in Ağrı Province, located along Turkey’s eastern border. Although maps of Turkish per capita GDP by province are readily available, I made my own to highlight these regional disparities, accomplished mainly by using a two-color scheme.

The correlation between economic productivity and ethnicity in Turkey is close, at least on the low end of the spectrum. As can be seen by comparing the two posted above with that posted below, Turkey’s least economically productive provinces are all located in the primarily Kurdish southeast. The most economically productive provinces are concentrated on the other side of the country, in the northwest. This latter region includes both coastal provinces and provinces located in the northwestern quarter of the central Anatolian Plateau.

Historically, Turkey’s western coastal strip was much more productive than most of the rest of the country. Over the past several decades, however, a number of cities on the Anatolian Plateau have seen significant industrialization and rapid economic growth. Several have been deemed “Anatolian Tigers,” defined by Wikipedia as cities that “have displayed impressive growth records since the 1980s, as well as a defined breed of entrepreneurs rising in prominence and who can often be traced back to the cities in question and who generally rose from the status of small and medium enterprises.” Some of these “Tiger cities,” however, are located closer to the coast than the plateau. (The locations of the “Anatolian Tigers,” as defined by Wikipedia, are shown on one of the maps below.)

A comparison of the map of Turkish economic productivity with that of the 2023 presidential election (see the previous post) reveals some interesting connections. To illustrate these patterns more clearly, I have outlined in red the provinces that supported challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, superimposing them on the per capita GDP map.

As can be seen, a majority of the Turkey’s richer and poorer provinces supported Kılıçdaroğlu, whereas most of its mid-level provinces supported Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Closer analysis, however, reveals that other factors are more important than per capita GDP for understanding the election results. For example, Kocaeli, Turkey’s most economically productive province, supported Erdoğan, as did most of its prosperous northwestern neighboring provinces. Support for Kılıçdaroğlu in the poor southeast, moreover, is less a reflection of economic standing than of Kurdish ethnicity, as most Kurds reject Erdoğan’s pronounced and ethnically inflected Turkish nationalism.

An interesting exception to the general patterns of anti-Erdoğan sentiments in the southeast is Şanlıurfa, which is one of Turkey’s poorest provinces; it also has, according to Wikipedia, a Kurdish majority. Yet Şanlıurfa decisively supported Erdoğan, as it had in the past several elections. But Şanlıurfa is more ethnically mixed than the Wikipedia article on it indicates; a 1996 study found that it had a Kurdish plurality but not a majority. Şanlıurfa is home to a substantial Arab community, as well as a very large refugee population. As the paired set of maps post below shows, the Arabic-speaking part of Şanlıurfa voted overwhelmingly for Erdoğan. (The pattern is markedly different, however, in Turkey’s most heavily Arabic-speaking province, Hatay, as will be examined in a later post.)

Kılıçdaroğlu’s other main region of support was the far west and southwest, covering the European portion of Turkey and the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Historically, this was the wealthiest part of Turkey, and it has long been the most liberal and Western-oriented part of the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that it supported the more liberal and Western-oriented candidate.

As the upper map posted above shows, Erdoğan’s main bastions of support are located in the core Anatolian Plateau, with the important exception of those areas dominated by the Alevi religious minority, and the Black Sea coast. Much of this region has seen substantial economic growth and infrastructural investment under Erdoğan’s leadership, has long been noted for its more conservative interpretations of Turkish nationalism. Many of the districts along the eastern half of the Black Sea coast had been heavily populated by ethnic Greeks before the early 1920s; when the local Greeks were expelled, Turks moved in, many of whom had themselves been expelled from Greece at the same time. It is not surprising that the descendants of such people are noted for their pronounced Turkish nationalism.

Two important provinces in the western portion of the Anatolian plateau supported Kılıçdaroğlu the 2023 election. One is Ankara, where the national capital (of the same name) is located, and the other is Eskişehir, which is noted for its large and strong universities. It is not surprising that these more cosmopolitan provinces voted against Erdoğan. Yet both provinces, and that of Istanbul as well, supported Erdoğan in the 2018 election, when his opposition was divided (see the maps below). From 2018 to 2023, Erdoğa lost ground in major urban areas, along the southern Mediterranean coast, and in the far northeast (another area with large ethnic minorities). Yet his overall vote stayed roughly the same, indicating a solidification of support over the core Anatolian region. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi faith may have played a significant role here.

Economic Disparities and Election Results in Turkey Read More »

Georgia’s Three Unique National Scripts

Although many writing systems have been developed over the years and across the world, relatively few are still in use. As the Wikipedia map posted below shows, most countries today use either the Latin, Arabic, or Cyrillic scripts for their own national (or major regional) languages. Only a handful or countries have their own unique scripts that are used to write their own national and official languages. Determining which countries fall into this category – shown on the second map below – is somewhat tricky. The Hangul script, for example, is unique to the Korean language and nation, but that nation is divided into two states: North Korea and South Korea. The Greek alphabet is essentially limited to the Greek language, but Greek is the national tongue of two countries, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus (although the break-way Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus uses the Latin alphabet). The Ethiopic script, or Ge’ez, is employed for official purposes only in Ethiopia, but is also used extensively in neighboring Eritrea (along with the Latin and Arabic scripts). I have included all three of these scripts in the map below. I did not, however, include the Chinese writing system, because it is also used in three countries other than China (exclusively in Taiwan, alongside the Latin and Tamil scripts in multi-lingual Singapore, and in combination with two indigenous scripts [hiragana and katakana] in Japan).

Other than Israel (which uses the Hebrew script), the remaining countries with their own unique scripts used to write their national languages are located either in mainland Southeast Asia (Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia) or the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia). In the Caucasus, the Georgian language stands out for having three separate scripts of its own: Mkhedruli, Asomtavruli, and Nuskhuri. Mkhedruli was at one time the country’s “royal script,” but is now used for almost all secular writing. The Georgia Orthodox Church, however, still uses the other alphabets in “ceremonial religious texts and iconography.” As a result, the “living culture of three writing systems of the Georgian alphabet” was granted the national status of intangible cultural heritage in Georgia in 2015 and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016” (direst quotation from this Wikipedia article).

 

(The Wikipedia table above above shows only 14 of 33 letters in the 33 letters of the current Georgian  alphabet.)

Today, the Georgian script (Mkhedruli) used mainly for the Georgian language, but it is also sometimes employed for the three related Kartvelian languages of northwestern Georgia and northeastern Turkey: Mingrelian, Svan,* and Laz. When the Georgian script is used to write Mingrelian and Svan, three additional letters are employed. Svan and Laz are rarely written, however, and Laz is now also expressed in a modified Latin alphabet and may at any rate be dying out as a spoken language. In earlier times, Georgian scripts had been used for several unrelated languages of the Caucasus, including Chechen, Ossetian, Abkhazian, and Avar. As this example shows, Georgian culture was historically influential over a much larger area than that currently included within the Republic of Georgia.

 

*Despite their different languages, Mingrelian and Svan speakers are counted as ethnic Georgians, and almost are fluent in Georgian and generlly employ Georgian when writing.

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Ancient Transsexual Pot Smokers? Wildly Divergent Interpretations of Ancient Scythian Culture

The Scythians, who maintained a powerful nomadic state north of the Black Sea during the classical period, have been interpreted in many ways. As we saw in the previous post, historian Christopher Beckwith go so far as to credit them with the origin of philosophy. Ancient Greek thinkers usually viewed Scythians as quintessential barbarians – the cultural opposite of the Greeks themselves. But some Greek thinkers turned the table, portraying the Scythians, or at least some of them, in highly positive terms. According to the historian Ephorus (cited by Stabo), “[T]he modes of life of the Scythians are unlike, for, whereas some are so cruel that they even eat human beings, others abstain from eating any living creature whatsoever,  … and excel all other men in justice …”  The original vision of the “noble savage” thesis is arguably found in the pro-Scythian views of some ancient Greeks. Alfonso Moreno** writes of continuing depictions of “the Scythians of Homer and the Ephorus: the justice and wisest, drinkers of mare’s milk, frugal, nomadic, wagon-dwellers, strangers to money making, communists, invincible warriors, lords of wheat and livestock, the people of Anacharsis …” But as is true of all such “noble savage” depictions, the aim is not that of accurate description but that of criticizing one’s own society. The ancient Scythians of the fourth-century BCE, after all, were very familiar with money-making and their society organized in a class- or even caste-based manner.

Such alternative visions of Scythian society persist to the present. Rather than emphasizing formidable Scythian warriors, some modern writers turn instead to Scythians shamans and healers, especially the enarei. The enarei, a caste-like group, are traditionally depicted as transvestites, as they were biological men who wore women’s clothing and acted in a feminine manner; today they would be more precisely depicted as transsexuals. As such, they are now in fashion – literally.  The design firm Lila Bare, for example, offers a clothing line called “The Enarei,” marketed as the “epitome of non-binary clothing.” The feminine nature of the enarei is also attracting attention. It has been reported, for example, that “Ovid wrote about Scythian shamans known as ἐναρής who were born male, presented as women/feminine, and feminized their bodies using a potion made from the urine of mares in heat.”

The Scythians, and especially their religious practitioners (whether transsexual or not), have also been linked to the use and spread of cannabis as a drug. Recent genetic research indicates that cannabis was domesticated in China, where it was valued for its fibers, seeds, and medicinal properties. Breeding high-THC cannabis for mind-altering purposes, however, is usually credited to either the Scythians or earlier Indo-European pastoral peoples of Central Asia. For interesting and informative YouTube videos on this subject, I recommend “Survive the Jive’s” “Scythian Gods” and “Ancient Cannabis Cult.”

The Scythian use of mind-altering drugs is also linked to that of their Indo-Iranian forebears, who referred to themselves as Aryans. Both the Rig Veda and the Avesta, the earliest accounts of Indic and Iranian peoples, refer to a powerful ritual substance known as soma and haoma respectively. The mystery of the source of soma/haoma has not been solved, and several interpretations are still debated, ranging from the currently favored Epheda, a simple stimulant, to Amanita muscaria, a powerful psychedelic mushroom, to Syrian rue, another hallucinogenic substance. Some writers have speculated that it might have been a combination of cannabis, ephedra, and opium, the residue of which has been archaeologically attested from ritual vessels. It has also been argued that Soma/Haoma was not used by the earliest Indo-Europeans, but was rather borrowed from the people of the Bactria-Margiana Archeological Complex, who had an urban-agricultural society and interacted extensively with the early Indo-Iranians.

** Cannabis was not directly smoked by the ancient Scythians. Rather, it was burned in braziers in enclosed spaces, where the fumes were inhaled.

* Alfonso Moreno, 2007.  “Athenian Wheat Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture. In The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges, edited by Vincent Gabrielsen and John Lunn. Aarhus University Press

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The Circassian Genocide and the Cartographic Erasure of Circassia

The current ethnographic map of the northern Caucasus mountains shows scattered groups of Circassian people, now numbering roughly 750,000 in Russia. In 1850, however, the Circassians occupied the entire northwestern quadrant of the Greater Caucasus range. But as the Circassians refused to submit to imperial Russian rule, the Russian military engaged in a campaign of displacement and extermination. As reported by Wikipedia, “The Circassian genocide, or Tsitsekun, was the Russian Empire’s systematic mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion of 80–97% of the Circassian population.”  Most of the few Circassians who managed to remain in their homeland were Kabardians, members of the easternmost of the twelve Circassian groups (or “tribes”). The western groups were essentially eliminated. As noted in a different Wikipedia article:

The Zhaney were a very powerful Circassian tribe in the past. They lived the north of the Natukhai tribe’s land on the coast of the Black Sea and Azov Sea in Eastern Europe. … As a result of the bloody Russian-Circassian War,  Zhaney tribe was almost wholly destroyed, as only 3 families survived.

After their genocide and expulsion, the Circassian people largely vanished from the historical memory of the West, just as “Circassia” disappeared from its maps. In earlier times, Circassia had been well-know and well-represented, appearing prominently on many maps. On a 1744 map of Asia by George Willdey, for example, “Circassia” is depicted as one of the primary divisions of the Asian continent. As it is difficult to see this representation on the map as it can be reproduced here, I have re-outlined and re-labeled Willdey’s divisions on the second map posted below.

Willdey’s map seems to be an outlier, as no others that I have seen give Circassia such a prominent position. But Circassia was often mapped as covering a large area – much larger, in fact, than the area occupied by Circassian people circa 1850. In a Latin-labeled map of 1716 by Johann Baptist Homann, for example, Circassia is shown as extending along the eastern shore of the Sea of Azov, covering much of the steppe zone north of the Caucasus Mountains. Intriguingly, Homann labels the area as a kingdom: “Circassia, seu Regio Circassiorum.” Similar patterns are seen on French-language maps of the same period. An uncolored Nicholas Guedeville map of 1718, for example, shows “Circassie” as extending from the Sea of Azov to the Caspian Sea. It excludes, however, part of the Circassian homeland along the Black Sea coast, labeling it instead as belonging to Abkazia (“Abcassie”).

Nineteenth-century depictions of Circassia typically exclude some of the northern lowland areas included on Homann’s and Guedeville’s maps, but cover most of the northern Caucasus and its lowland fringe, often extending to the Caspian Sea (see Woodbridge map of 1828 posted below). In an unusual French map of 1863, the coloring scheme depicts “Circassie” as a two-part region, interrupted by the lands of the Ossetian (“Ossetes”) people of the central Caucasus  Range. Maps published in the United States at the time often depicted an expanded Circassia, shown as extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea (see the detail from a Jacob Monk map of the world, published in Baltimore in 1859, that is posted below).

The geographical category of “Circassia” could even extend into the Black Sea itself. In a 1693 map by Vincenzo Coronelli, for example, the waters of the northwestern portion of the sea are labeled “Mare de Circassia Caucaseum”

By the late 1800s, however, the label “Circassia” had essentially disappears from maps made in Western Europe and the United States. Genocide, in other worlds, was followed by cartographic erasure, as will be explored in more detail in the next GeoCurrents post.

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