Historical Geography

How maps of past times can inform current issues

Two Additional Maps on Urban Population Change in the United States

In October 2023, GeoCurrents ran several posts on the historical and recent population growth of major American cities. These posts were envisioned at the time as the beginning of a large project on mapping the expansion of urbanism in the United States. That project, however, has been put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. But there are two remaining maps from this endeavor that are worth sharing.

The first is a schematic map that takes the sixteen largest cities in the U.S. in 1950 and shows their relative population in that year 2020 and in 2020. As can be seen, 12 of these cities experienced population loss in this period, several to a significant degree. Detroit, Cleveland, Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo have greatly diminished. Other declining cities, especially Boston, Milwaukee, and Washington, saw much smaller losses.

Only four of 1950’s largest cities gained population over the next 70 years. Two made marginal gains (New York and San Francisco), one expanded significantly (Los Angeles), and one boomed (Houston). Significantly, all four lost population from 2020 to 2022, although in Houston the decline was insignificant (0.07 percent).

The second schematic map turns from city population to metropolitan area population, which in many ways gives a better sense of U.S. urban dynamics, given the country’s extensive suburbanization. Here we see relative population size, again depicted by the area of each polygon, and population growth from 2010 to 2020, coded by color. As can been seen, all the top 60 metropolitan areas in the U.S. gained residents during this period, but they did so at very different rates. As would be expected, sunbelt metro areas saw the fastest growth and rustbelt ones the slowest. Only a few metro areas in the northern half of the country experienced major growth in the period, with Seattle, Minneapolis, and Omaha standing out. In the South, the relatively slow growth of New Orleans, Birmingham, Memphis, and Virginia Beach stands out, as does the rapid population expansion of the Austin, Nashville, and Raleigh metro areas.  

Two Additional Maps on Urban Population Change in the United States 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 »

Former Imperial Boundaries and Population Density in Poland’s 2023 Election

Poland’s October 2023 election saw a sharp rebuke to the country’s illiberal, governing right-wing coalition. The United Right (ZP), led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), saw its vote share* drop from 44.6 percent in 2019 to 35.4 percent, undermining its ability to form a new government. But this election was not a victory of the left, but rather of the center, or perhaps even the center-right, depending on how one classifies some of Poland’s political parties. The democratic-socialist Lewica Party (“The Left”) also saw a sharp decline, its vote-share dropping from 12.6 percent to 8.6 percent. In contrast, a sizable gain was realized by the main oppositional group, the centrist Civic Coalition, whose vote share rose from 27.4 to 30.7 percent. The biggest change, however, was the rise of the new Third Way (TD) coalition, which secured 14.4 percent of the vote. Although Third Way is usually regarded as centrist, the Wikipedia classifies it as center-right. Such discrepancies arise from the fact that this coalition’s various factions are ideologically diverse, some being much more centrist than others. But as Third Way overall is pro-EU and favors renewable energy, it is perhaps most accurate regarded, at least in the Polish context, as firmly in the center. It is also noteworthy, however, that Poland’s extreme-right did relatively well in this election, with the anti-EU Confederation for Liberty and Independence taking 7.2 percent of the vote, up from 6.8 in 2019, and the new There Is One Poland (PJJ) gaining another 1.6 percent. The PJJ party, which claims to be the “true right,” grew out of opposition to COVID restrictions and vaccine policies; it also seeks to increase coal mining.

Cartographically informed analyses of this election typically note that the imperial political boundaries that were imposed after the partition and annihilation of Poland in the late 1700s are still visible on the country’s electoral map. As The Economist’s article and accompanying map (see below) show, areas that were under Prussian (subsequently German) rule tended to vote for centrist, pro-EU parties, whereas those that were under Austrian and Russian rule were more inclined to support Euroskeptical, populist-nationalist parties. The same correlation was present in several earlier Polish elections. As The Economist explains:

[M]ost of the east belonged to tsarist Russia, where serfdom remained legal until 1861. By 1900 incomes in what is now western Poland were five times higher than in the east. This gap remains today: Poland’s four eastern provinces are all among the EU’s poorest 20 sub-national regions. Young people growing up in the east quickly move to larger cities, seeking education and private-sector jobs. Those who feel left behind have flocked to PiS, which offers both nationalist rhetoric and monetary hand-outs.

Such analysis is complicated, however, by the fact that most of the areas that had been under German rule had also been mostly populated by ethnic Germans. They were expelled after WWII, replaced mostly by ethnic Poles who had lived in the Russian-ruled east. The Economist explains this seeming paradox as follows:

The Soviet Union claimed a chunk of eastern Poland as the spoils of victory, while Germany was forced to relinquish its own eastern borderlands to Poland. The Polish government responded by resettling millions of people from the territory it lost to the areas it gained. Separated from their families’ fields and villages, these “repatriates” developed a more open and cosmopolitan identity, and grew less receptive to fist-thumping nationalism. Meanwhile, Catholicism remained strongest in Poland’s historic eastern heartland, which developed a fiery sense of pride and suspiciousness of change.

 

But while Poland’s former imperial divisions are an important factor in its current electoral geography, the situation is not a clear-cut as it might seem. The Economist’s featured map, for example, is based on administrative divisions at the powiat level; if one dives down to the more local gmina level, however, the correlation is no longer as obvious (see the maps below). Nor is The Economist’s economic generalizations about these former imperial divisions entirely accurate. As the Statistics Poland regional GDP map posted below shows, the Warmian–Masurian Voivodeship, formerly the southern half of Germany’s East Prussia, has Poland’s second-lowest level of per capita economic production. Another challenge to the imperial-legacy model of Polish electoral geography comes from comparisons of voting behavior and population density. A X-poster Thorongil notes – and maps (see below) – “a normal map shows the historical partition borders but the truth is that the opposition coalition’s most powerful vote centers are in Poland’s cities, big and small.”

As Thorongil’s map is difficult to interpret, I have tested his assertion by making a series of simpler maps. The first simply locates Poland largest cities on a detailed map of the 2023 election. As can be seen, urban gminy** gave a higher level of support to the centrist Civic Coalition than surrounding areas, but the correlation is by no means overwhelming. Comparing the electoral map to one of population density allows more precise assessment. To do so, I extracted spatial information from a detailed density map (below) and overlaid it on the 2023 electoral map; I also added dotted lines to roughly show the old imperial divisions. The first of these maps outlines Poland’s most sparsely inhabited areas, those with fewer than 50 persons per square kilometer. As can be seen, many of these areas in the former German zone supported United Right, seemingly upholding Thorongil’s density thesis over the imperial-legacy model. The next map outlines high- and medium-high density areas. As can be seen, high-density areas, marked with red and pink borders, had relatively high levels of support for the political center, but this linkage is stronger in the German zone than in the former Russian and Austrian zones. The correlation is not as close, however, in areas of medium-high density (200-100 persons per square kilometer). As can be seen, such areas surrounding the city of Poznan in the former German zone voted strongly for centrists, but most of those in the Katowice area, also in the former German zone, supported the United Right. A number of medium-density gminy in the Krakow (former Austrian) and Warsaw (former Russian) regions also supported United Right.

Both population density and imperial legacies were important factors in the 2023 Polish parliamentary election. But the situation is more complicated than it might appear, and other issues, many of which are of a more local nature, must also be considered. The next post will try to tease out some of them.

** This post considers only the election returns for Poland’s Sejm, its more powerful house of parliament, ignoring the senate vote.

** “Gminy” is the plural form of “gmina.”

Former Imperial Boundaries and Population Density in Poland’s 2023 Election Read More »

U.S. City Size, Density, & Population Change, 1950 to 2022 – and the Dream of the “15-Minute City”

Many environmentalists now advocate the development of “15-minute cities,” urban areas dense enough to allow residents “to access most of the places [they] need to go within a 15-minute walk or bike.” This vision has much to recommend it. Many people find neighborhoods of this sort deeply attractive, both as places to live and visit. I count myself among them. My ideal living arrangement would be to divide my time between an apartment in such a city and a house in a remote rural area. Instead, like most Americans, I live in a medium-density suburban environment – which sometimes seems to offer the worst of both worlds.

But although I understand the appeal of 15-minute cities, I also recognize that creating them would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible in the United States. Evidence from both polling and actual residential choice indicates that most Americans dislike dense cities and prefer suburban living. Ironically, moreover, environmentalists themselves are one of the main obstacles to the urban intensification that such a vision requires. Construction projects of all sorts, after all, often face environmental lawsuits, which can bring them to a quick halt.

An equally severe problem is the fact that the few cities in the United States that approach the required degree of walkability have been deintensifying, shedding residents over the past several years. From 2020 to 2022, New York City lost 3.5 percent of its population, Philadelphia 2.3, Chicago 3.0, and San Francisco a shocking 7.5. This decline was at first mostly a matter of people fleeing crowded conditions during the COVID pandemic, but it is now being driven primarily by safety and property-security concerns. For the same reasons, many of the mass-transit systems that are required for urban intensification are losing ridership and find themselves financially troubled. As a result, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, at least in the United States, the 15-minute city is little more than a fond dream.

Some of the maps that I have been making for my prospective historical atlas of urban development in the United States might prove useful in examining the urban growth and density issues surrounding the 15-minute city idea. These maps, to be sure, are unusual, as they depict no geographical features beyond city size and density. The spatial patterns that they show are also wildly distorted. As a result, they might more properly be regarded as graphic visualizations. But I still view them as maps, as all GeoCurrents posts focus on map explication.

The first map shows the size, density, and rough relative locations of the twenty most populous cities, as formally defined, in the United States in 2022. The numbers in the bottom corners of each urban polygon indicate the population growth rate, in percentage terms, of that city from 2010 to 2020 (left) and from 2020 to 2022 (righ). As can be seen, most large American cities lost population in the latter period. More important, such losses were concentrated in more densely inhabited cities. Several of the more sparsely settled cities, in contrast, gained population during this period. But as can also be seen, all these cities added residents from 2010 to 2020, some of them to a significant degree. This was true even in the country’s most densely inhabited urban areas. New York grew in this period by 7.7 percent and San Francisco by 8.5 percent. But with the exceptions of Seattle and Denver, all cities expanding by more than ten percent from 2010 to 2020 are characterized by low population density.

The overall impression conveyed by this map is one of low population density in America’s largest cities. Some of them have annexed such extensive suburban and rural hinterlands that they do not really count as cities in the informal sense. Jacksonville, Florida, for example, consolidated with Duval County in 1968, and as a result, its 971,319 residents live in a “city” that sprawls over 874.46 sq mi. This gives Jacksonville a population density of 1,270.73/sq mi, a figure lower than that of the typical American inner suburb. The contrast between Jacksonville and San Francisco is instructive. Although the city of San Francisco is also consolidated with its county, its population density is of an entirely different magnitude. In 2022, San Francisco’s 808,437 residents inhabited an area of 46.9 sq mi, giving it a density of 17,237.5/sq mi. But if San Francisco is thickly populated by U.S. standards, it is not by that of New York City. In 2020, Manhattan had 1,694,251 residents living in an area of 22.83 sq mi, giving it a density of 74,780.7/sq mi.

As the next map shows, in 1950 the 20 largest cities in the United States were considerably denser that those of 2022. 1950 was arguably the heyday of American urbanism. Driven in part by the war-economy of the first half of the decade, all large U.S. cities grew during the preceding census interval, some by considerable margins. Extremely rapid growth occurred both in sparsely inhabited cities (see Houston on the map below) and in densely settled ones such as San Francisco and Washington, DC.

Seven cities are found on the lists of the 20 largest U.S. cities in both 1950 and 2022. As can be seen on the map posted below, the country’s two densest major cities, New York and San Francisco, experienced relatively little change in either population size or density in the intervening 72 years. Two relatively densely settled cities, Chicago and Philadelphia, saw significant populations losses in the same period, reducing their densities. In contrast, two West Coast cities, Seattle and Los Angeles, experienced major increases in both population and density. Houston, in contrast, saw a huge population increase but did not more into a higher population-density category, as it also expanded in area.

The next map, indicating population size but not density, shows which cities dropped out of the top-20 list between 1950 and 2022 and which ones were added to it. The geographical pattern seen here is stark but not surprising. Except for New Orleans, all the “drop-out” cities are in the northeastern quadrant of the country. In contrast, with the exceptions of Indianapolis and Columbus, all the additions are in the southern half of the country. Interestingly, Columbus has many attributes of a sunbelt city, although it experiences very little sunshine from November through March. The concentration of emergent, low-density, large cities in Texas is also noteworthy.

The final map addresses a question that probably crossed the minds of some readers: where are such major cities as Atlanta or Miami? With just under half a million residents, Atlanta is not a particularly large city, although its metropolitan area certainly is. The same patterns holds for Miami. The map below thus shows the locations (but not the populations) of cities that anchor metropolitan areas in the top 30 by population in 2022, but did not themselves place in the top-20 city lists of either 1950 or 2022. It is not coincidental that three of the eight are in booming Florida.

The first two maps in this post are somewhat misleading, as they do not adequately convey the population density of New York. To do so properly, the city must be broken down into its five constituent boroughs. This will be done for the next GeoCurrents post.

U.S. City Size, Density, & Population Change, 1950 to 2022 – and the Dream of the “15-Minute City” Read More »

Mapping the Development of the Urban Framework of the United States, 1790-1830

I am currently working on an online historical atlas of the development of the urban framework of the United States. The maps and commentaries that will constitute this atlas will be posted gradually over the next few weeks or months, interspersed with regular GeoCurrents posts. The first of these installments, showing the situation in 1840 and outlining the “Philadelphia problem,” appeared on October 13, 2023. Today’s post examines the development of the network of cities in the United States from 1790 to 1830. The population figures in today’s post, like that of October 13, are derived from a Wikipedia article called “List of Most Populous Cities in the United States by Decade.” In subsequent posts, covering the period after 1840, a more comprehensive data source will be used.

The United States had few cities of any size in 1790. New York City tops the conventional list, with 33,131 inhabitants, and Philadelphia comes in second, with 28,522. But Philadelphia at the time was limited to what is now called Center City. If one includes what were then the separate cities of Southwark and Northern Liberties District, which were annexed in 1854, Philadelphia ranks first, with a population of 44,096, and is mapped accordingly.  As can be seen on the map posted below, the country’s main cities – or towns, in one prefers – of the time were all ports, located on the coast or along estuaries. Except for Charleston, South Carolina, all of them were in the greater northeast. The prominence of New England on this map, with more than half of the cities depicted, will not persist into the 1800s as the urban center of gravity shifts south into the Mid-Atlantic states.

The largest cities on the 1790 list significantly expanded from 1790 to 1800, with New York growing from 33,131 to 60,514, Baltimore from 13,503 to 26,514, and Boston from 18,320 to 24,937. Philadelphia, in the larger sense, still vies with New York for top position. Norfolk, Virginia appears on this map, but the year 1800 marks its only inclusion in the top-ten list.

The rapid expansion of the country’s largest cities is a persistent feature of these maps. By 1810, the population of New York City approached 100,000. By this time, New York was clearly the country’s largest city, a position that it will retain and amplify in the following decades. The 1810 map includes the first truly inland city, Albany, New York. Located on the Hudson River, Albany’s appearance reflects the growing importance of trade with the interior. More important is the inclusion of New Orleans on the southern Mississippi, which became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

In 1820, Albany drops of the map, replaced by Washington DC, which had 13,247 inhabitants in that year. But as the nation’s capital experienced relatively slow growth after this period, it falls off the top-ten list in 1830 and does not reappear until 1950. In the early nineteenth century, Washington was derisively called “the city of magnificent distances” due to its small number of residents living in an urban framework designed for a larger population. In 1842, Charles Dickens claimed that “Its streets begin in nothing and lead nowhere.” The fact that capital of the United States was such a small city reflects the limited extent of the federal government before the Civil War. As its constituent states were arguably more important than the country itself, the common locution at the time was “The United States are…,” rather than “the United States is… .”

The major changes on the map of 1830 reflect the opening of the Erie Canal (the dotted blue line on the map) in 1825. The Erie Canal facilitated the emergence of an extensive water-based transportation network, linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, and, by extension, to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Not surprisingly, Albany reappears on the 1930 map. More important, Cincinnati emerges as the first significant Midwestern city. Cincinnati will remain in the top-ten list until 1910. Today, with a population of 309,51, it ranks in the 64th position, surpassed by a few suburbs of little historical significance. In the early and mid-1800s, however, Cincinnati was a major and rapidly growing city, due in part to its role in butchering and processing hogs for the national market. This industry was so important that the city was deemed “Porkopolis.” As is explained in a 2016 Cincinnati Magazine article:

“Porkopolis” is one of the names by which Cincinnati is known, and its origin is explained in the following manner: About 1825 George W. Jones, president of the United States branch-bank, and known as “Bank Jones,” was very enthusiastic about the fact that 25,000 to 30,000 hogs were being killed in this city every year; and in his letters to the bank’s Liverpool correspondent he never failed to mention the fact, and express his hope of Cincinnati’s future greatness as a provision-market. The correspondent, after receiving a number of these letters, had a unique pair of model hogs made of papier mache, and sent them to George W. Jones as the worthy representative of ‘Porkopolis.’”

… Frances “Fanny” Trollope is infamous for publishing a scathing indictment of Cincinnati in her 1832 book “Domestic Manners of the Americans”. A great deal of her bile is directed at our pigs:

“If I determined upon a walk up Main-street, the chances were five hundred to one against my reaching the shady side without brushing by a snout fresh dipping from the kennel; when we had screwed our courage to the enterprise of mounting a certain noble-looking sugar-loaf hill, that promised pure air and a fine view, we found the brook we had to cross, at its foot, red with the stream from a pig slaughterhouse while our noses, instead of meeting ‘the thyme that loves the green hill’s breast,’ were greeted by odours that I will not describe, and which I heartily hope my readers cannot imagine.”

It is not coincidental that the Procter & Gamble Company is headquartered in Cincinnati. As explained in Encyclopedia Britannica:

The company was formed in 1837 when William Procter, a British candlemaker, and James Gamble, an Irish soapmaker, merged their businesses in Cincinnati. The chief ingredient for both products was animal fat, which was readily available in the hog-butchering centre of Cincinnati. The company supplied soap and candles to the Union Army during the American Civil War and sold even more of these products to the public when the war was over.

Although candles are now usually made of wax, historically they were mostly made from animal fat. In earlier times, only prosperous people could afford wax candles.

Mapping the Development of the Urban Framework of the United States, 1790-1830 Read More »

Favorable Climatic Conditions and the Flourishing of the Tibetan Empire, 618-842 CE

I have long been perplexed by the Tibetan Empire, which existed from 618 to roughly 842 CE. The Tibetan Plateau is a sparsely populated land with a challenging physical environment. Not surprisingly, for most of recorded history it has played a minor geopolitical role. Yet for more than 200 years, the Tibetan Empire was something of a superpower, fully competitive with the Tang Empire of China, the Muslim caliphates of the Middle East, and other great Eurasian states. As the maps posted below indicate, the Tibetan Empire’s territorial sway extended, at various time, well beyond the plateau itself. At its height it covered the Tarim Basin of northwestern China (Xinjiang), the Yunnan Plateau, and more.  

The most extensive depiction of the Tibetan Empire that I have found was published in a recent Science Direct article (Hou et al., 2023). On this map, posted below, the Tibetan Empire in 820 CE is shown (with a dashed yellow line) as having included most of what is today Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as much of Bangladesh and lowland north India. Most maps of the empire show it as having exercised only indirect power over a much smaller part of northern South Asia. Animated maps, moreover, indicate that its power over this area was brief. The map posted in Hou et al. thus seems to be exaggerated, as is so often the case in the mapping of empires.

Regardless of cartographic hyperbole, the article in question does offer an intriguing and largely convincing explanation for the rise and fall of the Tibetan Empire. As the authors’ investigation shows, between 600 and 800 CE the Tibetan Plateau experienced both relatively warm and wet conditions, allowing both agriculture and pastoralism to thrive. Such circumstances, in turn, provided the economic basis for a strong and expansionistic state. Importantly, this period was the only time in the past several thousand years that saw both warmth and “exceptional” humidity on the lofty plateau. Significantly, the collapse of the Tibetan Empire coincided with a return to drier conditions. As the authors write:

A closer examination at the precipitation records revealed that periods when Tibetans actively invaded Tang territory mostly coincided with humid periods, while conversely, Tang invasions into Tibetan territory occurred during relatively dry periods on the TP [Tibetan Plateau].

The peak of the drought at approximately 840 AD coincided with the collapse of the Tibetan Empire. Cold and dry events would be expected to lead to a decline in crop production, breaking the balance between population and resource supply.

Other major episodes of imperial expansion in Central Eurasia also seem to have been linked to favorable climatic conditions. A 2014 article, for example, found something similar in regard to the Mongol Empire. As the authors summarized their findings:

A 1,112-y tree-ring record of moisture shows that in opposition to conventional wisdom, the climate during the rise of the 13th-century Mongol Empire was a period of persistent moisture, unprecedented in the last 1,000 y. This 15-y episode of persistent moisture likely led to a period of high grassland productivity, contributing fuel to the Mongol Empire.

A century ago, leading geographers argued that climate and other aspects of the physical environment determine the course of human history. Such overweening determinism weakened the discipline, contributing to its subsequent marginalization. Today, however, historians and physical scientists are reviving the study of the influence of climate – and of climate change – on the course of history, but are doing so in more modest, rigorous, and productive manner.

Environmental determinism reached its height in the early twentieth century in the works of Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington. In 1907, Huntington argued in The Pulse of Asia that a long period of intensifying droughts beginning several thousand years ago forced Central Asian pastoral nomads out of their homelands, impelling them to conquer sedentary states located in more climatically favorable areas. As he put it (page 393-394):

If the rainfall fell from 20 inches to 10, the number of sheep would decrease from 60 to one. Manifestly, if such a change took place in the course of a few hundred years, most of the inhabitants would be obliged to migrate. As the nomads pressed outward from the dryer central regions of Asia, we can imagine how they were obliged to fight with the neighboring tribes whom they tried to dispossess. The older inhabitants and the newcomers could not all live together; new migrations would be a necessity; and the confusion would spread in every direction. Meanwhile, Europe, after this long period of blighting cold, was becoming warm and habitable, and the migrants pressed into it, horde after horde. No one tribe could stay long in its chosen abiding-place, for new bands of restless nomads pressed upon it. Rome fell before the wanderers. Nothing could stay their progress until the turn of the tide.

Per chance, though this is only vague conjecture, the legends of King Arthur and his Knights bear a hint of what might have occurred all over central Europe if it had not been for the influx of Barbarians. England, in its remote corner of Europe, far from the dry plains of Asia, responded at first to the influence of improved climatic conditions, until it, too, was reached by the migrating hordes of invaders. Meanwhile, in the most densely populated part of Asia, another movement of nations had begun, presumably because of the distress due to rapid desiccation. The Arab migrants carried with them the fanatical faith of Mohammed, and were by it inspired to remoter conquest.

Such conclusions are directly opposite of those now being advanced by scientifically informed historical studies. One could not, of course, expect Ellsworth Huntington to have had a modern conception of environmental and historical processes and conditions in 1907. Still, to have argued, if only as “vague conjecture,” that the mythical glories of Camelot might have been replicated over central Europe in the early Middle Ages, had it not been for the drought-driven barbarian invasions, is more than a stretch. Unfortunately, the excesses of Huntington’s determinism led geographers to largely abandon the idea that the physical environment has any significant influence on human history, much to their detriment. Today, scientific studies of the changing physical environment are clarifying our conception of the human past are helping to solve historical mysteries.

Favorable Climatic Conditions and the Flourishing of the Tibetan Empire, 618-842 CE Read More »

Mismapping the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the Caucasus

As noted in a recent post, maps of empires tend to exaggerate their territorial extents, and the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BCE) is no exception. Most maps of this important empire depict it as covering all or almost all the South Caucasus region, with its border extending to the crest of the Greater Caucasus range (see the top maps from a Google image search posted below). Some show it as pushing even further to the north, encompassing the historically Circassian lands to the north and west of the Caucasus and sometimes even extending completely around the Black Sea (see below).

There is little if any good evidence, however, that the Achaemenid Persian Empire ever included the Kingdom of Colchis, located mainly in what is now the western half of the Republic of Georgia. The Wikipedia map of the early Georgian states posted below gives a much better depiction of the geopolitical situation of the time. The notion that this ancient Persian empire extended to the crest of the Greater Caucasus range derives essentially from a passage written by the ancient Greek scholar Herodotus. Although there is much to admire in the works of Herodotus, it has long been known that many of his assertions were far from accurate. It is for good reason that Lloyd Llewellyn Jones recently decided that it was necessary to write a book on the Achaemenid Empire based mostly on Persian sources, rather than on Herodotus and other Greek writers. But Jones, unfortunately, also maps western Georgia as having been under Persian control.

There is, however, some scholarly disagreement about which polity (or polities) had ultimate sovereignty over what is now western Georgia between 550 and 330 BCE. The Wikipedia article on the history of the Republic of Georgia provides an excellent summary:

Between 653 and 333 BC, both Colchis and Iberia survived successive invasions by the Iranian Median empire. The case is different for the Achaemenid Persians, however.  According to Herodotus (3.97), Achaemenid power extended as far as the Caucasus mountains, but the Colchians are not included in his list of the twenty Persian satrapies. Nor are they referred to in the lists of Achaemenid lands (dahyāva) given in the Old Persian inscriptions of Darius and his successors. In Xenophon’s Anabasis (7.8.25; probably an interpolation) the tribes of Colchis and East Pontus are referred to as independent (autónomoi). On the other hand, Herodotus mentioned both the Colchians and various Pontic tribes in his catalogue (7.78-79) of approximately fifty-seven peoples who participated in Xerxes’ expedition against Greece in 481-80 BC. As the Encyclopaedia Iranica states, it is thus probable that the Achaemenids never succeeded in asserting effective rule over Colchis, though local tribal leaders seem to have acknowledged some kind of Persian suzerainty. The Encyclopaedia Iranica further states, whereas the adjoining Pontic tribes of the nineteenth satrapy and the Armenians of the thirteenth are mentioned as having paid tribute to Persia, the Colchians and their Caucasian neighbors are not; they had, however, undertaken to send gifts (100 boys and 100 girls) every five years (Herodotus 3.97).

The giving of gifts and the supplying of troops by a polity to a much more powerful neighboring empire, however, does not in itself indicate inclusion in that empire. It must also be noted that careful historical cartographers, such as Thomas Lessman, do not map western Georgia as having been part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (see the map below).

The issue at stake here is not merely that of the inaccurate mapping of empires. What I am more concerned about is historical amnesia about the Caucasus, coupled with its pervasive historical misrepresentation. To put it simply, this key region of the world does not get its due in most historical and geographical accounts. All too often, it is simply appended to one or more empires based in other lands. Many such empires did covet the region, and in some periods they did control, directly or indirectly, large parts of it. But the Caucasus also had its own kingdoms and other polities, which deserve recognition.

I recently gave a keynote address about such issues at a conference on the Black Sea region held in Batumi in the Republic of Georgia. I hope to convert this talk to a video later this year; if I do so, I will post it on this website.

Mismapping the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the Caucasus Read More »

Sparta Was Part of the Persian Empire? Cartographic Exaggeration and Geographical Misconception in Modern Accounts of the Ancient World  

I have long been frustrated by the way that historical empires are conventionally mapped. It often seems that most maps of most empires exaggerate their size and solidity. This is typically done by portraying them when they reached their greatest territorial extent, even if their newly acquired gains were held for very short periods. Client kingdoms and vague zones of tribute exaction, moreover, are often depicted as intrinsic parts of the empire under consideration.

The Roman Empire is a prime example of such cartographic exaggeration. I recently tested this assertion by doing a Google image search for “Roman Empire map.” The results are posted below. As can be seen, 10 of the 14 top hits show central and southern Mesopotamia (which I have indicated with heavy black ovals) as having belonged to the Roman Empire. Most of these maps specify that they depict the Empire in 117 CE, the year of its greatest extent. What they do not indicate is that central and southern Mesopotamia had only been conquered by the emperor Trajan in 116 CE, that Roman control was never fully consolidated, and that the new emperor, Hadrian, abandoned the region almost as soon as he gained power in late 117 CE. As the Wikipedia article on Trajan correctly notes, “The Parthian [Mesopotamian] campaign had been an enormous setback to Trajan’s policy, proof that Rome had overstretched its capacity to sustain an ambitious program of conquest.” All told, the conventional mapping of central and southern Mesopotamia as belonging to the Roman Empire is misleading at best.

Mesopotamia is not the only area in which Roman power is often cartographically inflated. In some respects, the exaggeration of control in depictions of the Caucasus is more pronounced, as will be explored in a later post.

The control of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (558-330 BCE) over the Caucasus region is also exaggerated in conventional historical cartography. Yet in general terms, this empire is more faithfully mapped than that of Rome. A map in an important new book on the Achaemenid Empire, however, reverses this tendency, egregiously depicting most of Greece as falling under Persian control (see below). Although the map correctly notes that the Greek Kingdom of Macedon was conquered by Persia in 492 BCE, it fails to indicate that Persian control here came to an end roughly a dozen years later. More important, the map’s shading scheme clearly indicates that central and southern Greece, including Sparta, had at some unspecified time been incorporated into the Persian Empire. In actuality, the Persian army never even entered the Peloponnese Peninsula in its failed attempt to subdue defiant Greek city-states.

 The book in question is The Persians: The Age of Great Kings, by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (Basic Books, 2022). Llwellyn-Jones is an accomplished and prolific scholar who certainly knows that the Persian Empire never conquered, let alone ruled, central and southern Greece. Could this absurd map merely be an oversight, a simple illustration given over to an anonymous cartographer that the author neglected to examine before publication? Or was it crafted intentionally, perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek gesture designed to deflate the pretensions of the ancient Greeks? As Llwellyn-Jones makes clear, his central aim is to tell the story of the Achaemenid Empire based on Persian sources rather than on the standard Greek accounts, and a seeming desire to belittle the Greeks is encountered at various points throughout the book. Llewellyn-Jones tells us, for example, that “To visualize themselves as the Great King’s nerve-wracking nemesis gave the Athenians a sense of worth.”

Llewellyn-Jones’s goal, that of removing Greek bias from the story of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, is worthy and generally well accomplished. But although he is a fine historian and an adept storyteller, Llewellyn-Jones is a poor geographer. This a significant problem, as the Persian Empire was a vast polity that encompassed a great diversity of places and peoples. As such, it must be grasped in its spatial and well as temporal dimensions.

Although many examples of geographical misunderstanding could be outlined, I will limit my case to just two. On page 7, Llewellyn-Jones tells us that, “The empire encompassed Ethiopia and Libya … .” Libya?  Greek Cyrenaica yes, but certainly not “Libya” as either we or the ancient Greeks conceptualize the term (to the Greeks, “Libya” essentially meant “Africa”). Ethiopia? Surely, I assumed when reading this passage, the author must be thinking of “Ethiopia” as did the ancient Greeks, who generally used this term to refer to Nubia, located in what is now the core area of Sudan. If so, the passage is still misleading, as the Persian Empire never extended beyond the northernmost part of this region. But on page 95, he tells us that the Persian emperor Cambyses was “determined to push into Nubia – modern Ethiopia …” Modern Ethiopia? The modern country of that name is, of course, far removed and utterly distinct from ancient Nubia (see the map below).

Llewellyn-Jones even makes some serious geographical errors in regard to the core region of the Persian Empire. On page 43, for example, he tells us that  “A particularly strong cultural bond between the Persian tribes and the Elamites emerged in an area of lowland Elam called Anshan …” Anshan is actually located in a valley in the Zagros Mountains in what can only be described as upland Elam; lowland Elam, the area west of Susa, is located instead on the greater Mesopotamian alluvial plain just to the east of Sumer. Llewellyn-Jones’s map of the Persian Empire also misconstrues geographical relations in this area. It depicts Anshan as separate from Elam even though it was part of Elam; it places Anshan east and slightly north of Susa, but it was situated much more to the south; and it places the label “Elam” in an area that was, at the time, probably under the waters of the Persian Gulf (compare the map below with the first map posted above).

Over the past several decades the much of the discipline of history has undergone a profound “spatial turn” that has resulted in far more nuanced understandings of the geographical patterns and relationships of earlier times. One can only hope that geographically informed scholarship on the ancient world will be increasingly embraced by younger scholars.

Sparta Was Part of the Persian Empire? Cartographic Exaggeration and Geographical Misconception in Modern Accounts of the Ancient World   Read More »

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

Ancient Transsexual Pot Smokers? Wildly Divergent Interpretations of Ancient Scythian Culture Read More »

A Scythian Origin of Philosophy? Christopher Beckwith’s Scytho-Centric Interpretation of Eurasian History

Christopher Beckwith is, in my opinion, the most interesting world historian of our time. He is prolific, deeply erudite, and extraordinarily audacious. Although not necessarily convincing, his more outlandish claims are always thought-provoking. In his most recent book, The Scythian Empire: Central Eurasia and the Birth of the Classical Age from Persia to China (Princeton University Press, 2023) Beckwith outdoes himself in propounding a Scytho-centric interpretation of Eurasia in the early period of classical antiquity (circa 700-300 BCE).

The Scythians were probably the first people to master cavalry warfare, which they developed sometime after the year 1000 BCE. Chariots had been used for almost a millennium, but mounted archery was new. This innovation allowed the Scythians to expand rapidly and gain immense military power and wealth. Beckwith argues that the Scythians united the entire steppe zone, something that had never happened before and would only happen in the future on two other occasions (by the Göktürks in sixth century and by the Mongols in the thirteenth). Scythian influence, he further claims, was instrumental in the creation of the Median and Persian empires, and led to the emergence of the first powerful states in China. Beckwith also thinks that the Scythians developed the idea of universal empire, which they bequeathed to other pastoral peoples and ultimately to all of Eurasia. Like all steppe peoples, he argues, the Scythians did everything that they could to facilitate trade, helping their rulers accumulate vast amounts of wealth.

Beckwith credits the Scythians not only with pivotal political and economic innovations, but also with key intellectual developments. He links the very idea of monotheism to the Scythians. His most audacious arguments concern the supposed Scythian origin of speculative philosophy, which he uses to explain the emergence of the so-called Axial Age of universalizing thought in early classical Eurasia. His interpretations here are pointed enough to deserve extended quotation:

Could philosophy be a Scythian invention too? The first part of this chapter shows that the Greeks, Persians, Indians, and Chinese were each taught by an early Scythian philosopher and thus experienced Scythian philosophy first-hand at about the same time, before there is any other sign of Philosophy per se in the lands where they taught. …

The first great philosophers of Greece, China, India, Iran, and Scythia, who flourished between approximately 600 and 400 BC, were revolutionaries. They did something entirely new and unprecedented: all of them criticized and rejected the traditional beliefs and practices of the countries where they taught. Each one was arguably his adoptive culture’s earliest philosopher – in this strict modern sense of the world – with the addition that in Antiquity philosophers were expected to practice their philosophy.  Chronologically, they are:

Anacharsis the Scythian, a half-Greek Scythian who taught in Greece.

Zoroaster, a Scythian speaker who taught in the Scytho-Mede Empire.

Gautama the Scythian sage (Gautama Sakyamuni) who taught in northern India. [The Buddha, in other words]

Gautama (Lao-Tan, Laotzu) who bears a Scythian name and taught in early China. [The founder of Taoism].

(Beckwith 2023, Pages 234-235)

 

On the surface, this has the look of a crank theory of the kind turned out by enthusiastic but inadequately educated amateurs. But as Beckwith is extraordinarily learned, these ideas need to be taken seriously. Yet no matter how I look at them, they still seems severely strained. Consider, for example, the origin of Greek philosophy. Anacharsis, the half-Greek, half-Scythian gadfly of sixth-century BCE Athens, was widely reckoned as one of the “seven sages” of ancient Greece, but he did not establish a school of philosophy. Philosophy as a focused discipline, moreover, emerged in the Greek city of Miletus, not Athens.

It is possible, however, that there was a Scythian connection with the so-called Ionian Enlightenment of sixth-century Miletus. But before delving into this issue, I must first admit that I am not an expert in this fields, and as a result my own speculations here are rather amateurish. It is also possible that other scholars have come up with similar ideas; if so, I must apologize for not citing them.

To put it simply, I think it is possible if not likely that the first Greek philosophers were inspired to think about the nature of existence by their encounter with Scythian beliefs. Their city, Miletus, was deeply involved in Black Sea colonization and trade, and had extensive mercantile connections with the trade-oriented Scythians. As is generally accepted, the pre-Socratic Milesian philosophers sought above all else to explain nature by identifying its fundamental element, or arche. For Thales, often regarded as the first Greek philosopher, the arche was water, whereas for Anaximenes it was air and for Anaximander it was the “unlimited primordial mass” (apeiron). The Scythians, it turns out, had very firm ideas of their own about this issue.

Scythian religion evidently focused on the idea that fire is the source of all creation, and therefore forms the fundamental substance of the universe. Whereas most ancient Indo-European peoples placed a sky god at the top of their pantheon, the Scythians worshipped above all others a goddess of the hearth, Tabiti. Elements of ancient Scythian fire worship arguably survive in the Zoroastrian faith, which still maintains 167 Fire Temples. They can even be found today in Iran in the secular observances of Chaharshanbeh Suri carried out by on Nowruz (Iranian New Year), which entail jumping over bonfires.

It is not possible to fully understand how the first Greek philosophers derived and framed their ideas about the nature of existence, as their writings survive only in fragments preserved by later Greek thinkers. But it does seem possible that curious Ionian thinkers were taken aback by the Scythian insistence that fire is the fundamental principle of the universe. This oddity may have led Thales and Anaximenes to propose a different element (water or air, respectively), and for an Anaximander to imagine something deeper than any of four of the classical elements (earth, water, air, and fire). Such speculation could have led to further basic inquiry, giving rise to philosophy as a sustained intellectual pursuit. I also find it highly significant that the earliest Ionian philosophers were also deeply invested in geography, which led them to think seriously about the Scythians, the powerful and wealthy people who inhabited the northernmost reaches of their (known) world, and whose practices and beliefs differed so markedly from those of the Greeks.

A Scythian Origin of Philosophy? Christopher Beckwith’s Scytho-Centric Interpretation of Eurasian History Read More »

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.

The Circassian Genocide and the Cartographic Erasure of Circassia Read More »

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens

As noted in the previous post, the “marginal sea” concept has little utility for geo-historical analysis. More useful is the idea of what might be termed an “enclosed sea,” meaning one whose entrance to the open ocean, or strait, is narrow enough that it could have been controlled by a strong state in the ancient, medieval, and early modern periods. Such enclosed seas are few. If we limit our attention to parts of the world that had states during these times, there are really only four straits that count: the Strait of Gibraltar, separating the Mediterranean from the Atlantic; the Danish straits, separating the Baltic Sea from the open margins of the Atlantic; the Strait of Hormuz separating the Persian Gulf from the Indian Ocean; and the Bab-el-Mandeb, separating the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean. Of these, the 13-kilometers-wide Strait of Gibraltar is the narrowest. The Bab-el-Mandeb, in contrast, is 26 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, whereas the Strait of Hormuz is 39 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent. The Danish Straits do entail some narrow passages, but there are three of them, and the most important, the Great Belt, is 16 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

 

The Mediterranean is not only the most enclosed sea, but is also the largest by far. More significant, it opens up to its own enclosed seas, all of which are connected by even narrower passages. The long and meandering Dardanelles, which links the Mediterranean’s marginal Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, is only 0.75 kilometers wide at its narrowest extent, as is the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The Strait of Kerch, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, is much wider, 3.1 kilometers at its narrowest extent, but is still significantly narrower than the Strait of Gibraltar.

Such observations lead to an inescapable conclusion: the Black Sea system, including Marmara and Azov, is a unique physical-geographical entity. There is nothing else remotely like it on earth, an oddly unrecognized fact. It is also noteworthy that the Black Sea lies near the center of the segment of the world that includes the other enclosed seas, as can be seen on the maps posted below.

The enclosed nature of the Black Sea system has been geopolitically important during several historical periods. Consider, for example, the situation of Athens during its heyday in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. After the defeat of the Persian Empire, Athens was eager to secure access to the Black Sea and its many resources. The Delian League that is soon created maintained control over both the Dardanelles and the Bosporus. After its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, Athens lost this informal Aegean empire, and thus found itself in a strained situation. It eventually cobbled together a new but less-imperial Second Athenian League, which included cities along the Dardanelles and Bosporus. It was at this time that Black Sea grain became essential for the sustenance of Athens (and several other Greek city states). Securing access to the essential grain supply also entailed maintaining a tight alliance with the culturally hybrid Greco-Scythian Bosporan Kingdom, which sat astride the Strait of Kerch (then called the Cimmerian/Kimmerian Bosporus). Fish supplies from the highly productive Sea of Azov and the rivers that flowed into it were also an important resource for Athens, underscoring the significance of its connection with the long-lived (438 BCE –527 CE) Bosporan Kingdom.

For a fascinating account of this relationship, I recommend Alfonso Moreno’s “Athenian Wheat-Tsars: Black Sea Grain and Elite Culture,” which is found in an important book entitled The Black Sea in Antiquity: Regional and Interregional Economic Exchanges. Moreno highlights the close ties between Athenian elites associated with the school of Isocrates (an extremely important although under-appreciated intellectual and political operative), and the Greco-Scythian elites of the Bosporan Kingdom. His final words are worth quoting:

Two things only were needed to ensure the permanence of this system: the good-will of the Bosporan kings, and Athenian control of the route between [the Cimmerian Bosporus and Athens]. As long as Athenian political leadership could provide this, Athens would be fed and a few of its politicians gain enormous power. If correct, we may have here a very different way of understanding this trade: an oligarchic grain supply sustaining a professedly democratic state.

Although the fifth century BCE is usually considered the golden age of ancient Athens, the fourth century BCE was in many respects a more intellectually vibrant period. To a large extent, the culture that allowed such intellectual flourishing was underwritten by the grain and other resources that flowed in from the Black Sea, which in turn entailed maintaining close relations with the states that controlled the crucial choke points leading from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Azov.

The Unique Multiply Enclosed Back Sea, and the Crucial Grain Supply of Ancient Athens Read More »

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires Read More »

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection?

The Kurdish national myth links the origin of the ethnic group to the ancient Medes, an Iranian people who supposedly carved out a large empire that was quickly supplanted by that of the much better-known (and closely related) Persians in the 6th century BCE. As the Wikipedia article on the Kurds notes:

Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, and even use a calendar dating from 612 BC, when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes. The claimed Median descent is reflected in the words of the Kurdish national anthem: “We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow.”

Few if any scholars give credence to this theory. The poorly documented language of the ancient Medes does seem to have been closely related to Kurdish, with both languages placed on the Northwestern side-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language tree. But the Median language does not seem to be any more closely related to Kurdish that it is to any of the other modern languages on the same branch. More to the point, historians increasingly doubt whether the Medes ever created a coherent state, let alone a vast empire. What little is known about their political organization comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, with Assyrian cuneiform archives providing a little additional information. Herodotus certainly assigned a prominent position to the Medes, but otherwise evidence about their geopolitical role is essentially lacking.

The Kurdish emphasis on their supposed Median progenitors is not surprising. In ethno-nationalist discourse, powerful and illustrious peoples from bygone eras are often enshrined in an ancestral position to bolster feelings of national pride. Such self-serving stories usually have little historical support and are therefore regarded with suspicion or outright contempt by most impartial scholars.

But if there is no solid evidence that the Kurds are the descendants of the ancient Meads, that does not necessarily mean that they have no cultural, historical, or genetic roots in ancient ethnic formations. Scholarship on such topics is often precarious, however, as the evidence is generally murky and national ideologies tend to intrude. But as long as they are based on some reasonable evidence, such “primordialist” ideas should not be rejected out of hand. Many of them warrant further inquiry, regardless of whether they seem farfetched.

To my mind, the most intriguing thesis on ancient Kurdish roots is found in the early works of Michael Mehrdad Izadi, one of the world’s most preeminent historical and cultural cartographers (his map collection, found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, is a cartographic treasure trove). Born to a Kurdish father and Belgian mother, Izadi has deep and abiding interests in the Kurdish people. Some of his early writings on this topic can be found at Kurdistanica.com. Here he expounds his thesis of partial Kurdish descent from the ancient Hurrians, a Bronze-Age people who were associated with a powerful state (or empire) called Mitanni. Although the Hurrians, unlike the Kurds, were not an Indo-European people, some of their leaders, experts in chariot warfare, evidently were; their personal names, and even some of their deities, link them to the Indic (or Indo-Aryan) branch of Indo-European language family.

If Izady’s thesis is correct, the Kurds would have originated from an amalgamation of the ancient Hurrians and more powerful, mostly male, Indo-European-speaking intruders (initially speaking an Indo-Aryan language and later speaking one or more Iranian language). In global historical terms, this scenario fits into a common pattern. The languages of more military powerful peoples often supplant those of less powerful peoples, but other cultural aspects of the original group often survive with relatively little change. This is what Izady sees when he peers into the distant Kurdish past:

The legacy of the Hurrians to the present culture of the Kurds is fundamental. It is manifest in the realm of Kurdish religion, mythology, material and martial arts, and even the genetics. Nearly three-quarters of Kurdish clan names and roughly half of topographical and urban names are also of Hurrian origins, ….  Mythological and religious symbols present in the art of the later Hurrian dynasties, such as the Mannaeans and Kassites of eastern Kurdistan, and the Lullus of the southeast, present in part what can still be observed in the Kurdish ancient religion of Yazdanism, better-known today by its various denominations as Alevism, Yezidism,and Yarisanism (Ahl-i Haqq).

Izady’s interpretation of Kurdish origins and religious beliefs, it must be noted, has been rejected by many experts in the field. The Wikipedia article on Izady includes some crudely dismissive comments, albeit made by some equally controversial scholars. In the long run, it is usually best to neither embrace nor dismiss evidence-based but non-mainstream interpretations of deep historical processes. Most of our key theories in both the natural and human sciences, after all, were once roundly rejected for contravening the established consensus.

When the language of an elite population replaces the language of a subordinated group, traces of the older language often persist in the form of vocabulary elements, sounds, and even grammatical structures. If Izady’s thesis is correct, one might expect to find such a Hurrian “substratatum” in the modern Kurdish language(s) (or, more precisely, a Hurro-Urartian substratum, as Hurrian’s only known relative was the language of the Iron Age Kingdom of Urartu in what is now eastern Turkey and Armenia). As it turns out, evidence does exist for such linguistic traces. Several years ago, the blogsite Within the Lands of Kurda ran a three-part series on this topic, entitled “The Hurro-Urartian Substratum in Kurdish.” Each of these posts is worth quoting:

It has long been shown by scholars that significant portion of Kurdish toponymy originates from Hurro-Urartian; examples are ”Barzani” which was name of a Hurrian god …

Indeed, there are hardly any cases where there is not a ”native” [i.e. Hurro-Urartian] Kurdish equivalent for the superimposed Irano-Kurdish words.

As can be seen, Kurdish language appears to be a creole language formed after an amalgamation of Hurro-Urartian and Iranic languages. The Hurro-Urartian layer, showing itself as an older substratum in which Urartian is stronger, while the Iranic layer, which began undoubtedly with the Scytho-Cimmerian invasion of Urartu emerges as a superstratum. The Iranic layer was further intensified with a wave of clearly identifiable Middle Persian loanwords under the Sassanid period, during which, Iranic aristocrats played a prominent role in local affairs

The author received some harsh criticism, however, in the comments section of the blog, particularly regarding the idea that Kurdish is a creole language. Linguists have very strict rules for determining such matters, and the author probably took a step too far. All that I can conclude from my own cursory investigation is that a major Hurrian-Urartian substratum in Kurdish as an intriguing possibility that deserves further inquiry.

Perhaps the most interesting line of evidence for the Hurrian roots of the Kurdish people comes from the realm of tattooing. Tattoos are haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, but Muslim Kurds – particularly women – have nonetheless maintained this ancient practice to this day, although it does seem to be slowly disappearing. Traditional Kurdish tattoos, primarily placed on the hands and face, are called deq. They are based on an elaborate symbolic system, sometimes deemed a “secret language.” Izady sees a clear Hurrian linkage here as well:

It is fascinating to recognize the origin of many tattooing motifs still used by the traditional Kurds on their bodies as replicas of those which appear on the Hurrian figurines. One such is the combination that incorporates serpent, sun disc, dog and comb/rain motifs. In fact, some of these Hurrian tattoo motifs are also present in the religious decorative arts of the Yezidi Kurds, as found prominently engraved to the wall at the great shrine at Lalish.

Regardless of any connections to the ancient Hurrians, deq tattooing is a fascinating topic in its own right. Several recent articles have focused on this endangered cultural tradition. I will  conclude this post with quotations from two of these publications. First, from The Bajer:

DEQ is a secret language, mainly among women. … In some cultures, tattoos stand for religion, power, and joy; others believe the practice of DEQ has therapeutic power. According to some women I have interviewed, DEQ is a reminder of loss, a way to immortalize their loved ones. They keep essential memories constantly in mind with powerful symbols on apparent parts of the body, such as the face, feet, arms, hands, and chest.

DEQ differs from the modern tattoo with its unique ingredients and recipe, which varies across different ethnic groups. DEQ tattoo ingredients include sheet metal soot or ash, coal dust, milk from a lactating mother who has weaned a female baby, which is believed to make the tattoo stick permanently, and liquid from an animal’s gallbladder. The application of DEQ includes embroidering the mixture into the skin through one to three needles.

Second, from Daily Sabah:

Deq symbols have different connotations but most of them are believed to protect women from evil forces. They are said to bring good health, cure illnesses and be associated with fertility and tribal affiliations. The figure of an eye is said to divert the evil eye, while an image of a gazelle brings luck. The figure of the sun or the moon refers to an endless and healthy life and an illustration of a millipede is associated with good housekeeping. For beautification, the figure of the moon or a star is preferred. The common “V” symbol is a tribal identifier. Certain geometrical figures or animal images refer to fertility. “Deq” is seen as an accessory, something that elderly women in Turkey’s southeast proudly show. Jodi Hilton, an American photojournalist, visited Syrians who have been displaced by the DAESH [ISIS] siege and now live at refugee camps in Turkey. There, she documented some of the last-remaining tattooed women from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection? Read More »

Historicity: New Geo-Historical Podcast

For those interested in world history, architectural history, urban geography, and exploring on foot the world’s most important cities, I highly recommend Angus Lockyer’s new blog, Historicity.  In the first three installments, Angus walks along the streets of London and explains the history and significance of important buildings and monuments. Although Historicity would be best enjoyed while retracing his steps, my wife and I found it both entertaining and illuminating while driving through the Montana countryside. Angus’s ability to weave the main threads of world history through an intimate urban landscape is impressive.  We look forward to a forthcoming installment on Tokyo, as the presenter is a retired professor of Japanese history.

Historicity can be found at:

Angus Lockyer can also be heard speaking about Japan in two episodes of another great podcast, the BBC’s In Our Time. This engaging radio show, which has been running weekly since 1998, has a misleading name, as its content is usually historical. We affectionately call it “Melvyn and His Guests,” after its delightful octogenarian host, Melvyn Bragg, and the scholars he interviews.

Historicity: New Geo-Historical Podcast Read More »