As the rain beats down yet again on the beleaguered concrete path outside my home, my thoughts turn to the ancient world, and how it lived in depressing times.
2020 has been a difficult time to say the least what with COVID-19 forcing us all to be confined to our homes and has denied us our liberty and even in the home, it seems, we cannot be happy (Dr Johnson would be dismayed) for the western nations are engulfed in race conflicts which are causing many to contemplate the past in (any)way: should we judge the past by our modern values or erase it altogether? We cannot, of course, view it as holistic.
To be fair this is nothing new for history has always shifted its pivot in our memories depending on our current mood/circumstances, take communism for example. In Bulgaria, a country to which I have visited with fondness, it’s debate on history is not to do with its heroes but rather what to do with its villains, namely of the communist/Imperial Russian variety for they are intertwined, mutually corrupted by communism. Yet the statues remain dotting the landscapes on top of hills of the ancient, circular, Imperial capital of Turnovo. The Kings in the centre, raising his steed valiantly in the centre as though fending off these marble adversaries; their conflict forever etched in stone. Appropriately anachronistic.
Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi (940-1020) was one such man who managed to construct his own history and it contributed to the salvation of the Persians, even to this day. In the midst of the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century, Islam quickly became the dominant religion however it could convert them to Arabism. In fact the Persians fought a war across centuries, a cultural war, where they fiercely maintained their form of governance, art, and language. It was to main like Ferdowsi that this victory over the Arabs was etched on parchment for evermore.
Ferdowsi was a staunch nationalist who, while a devout Muslim, despised the Arabisation of Persia which, at this point, had been going on for more than two hundred years. He was tasked by the Samanaid prince, Mansur, to write an epic that would preserve their culture and after 30 years or so the work was completed. It’s name was the Shahnameh of the ‘Persian book of kings’. Sadly Mansur was dead and his successor Sultan Mahmud was no fan of the pro-Persian work, he himself was not Persian and did not really speak the language. It is said Ferdowsi’s payment for the commission arrived, as he was leaving in a shroud.
The work has survived, however, and has become the national epic and the man himself is buried in a tomb akin in design to that of the great King Cyrus who first established the Persian empire of yore:
One wonder’s how such a work could survive for so long: was it the content or the intention? A conflict of cultures could forge a fierce vitality which without its enemy might not have survived on its own merits. This is the story of Bulgaria as well, its culture and the pride of its people towards it while deaf to its faults is, I think, testifies to how strife can harden and soften the human spirit at the same time.
We too can learn from this and be inspired to consider different ways to think about the past and even how to move forward with our feet firmly planted on the ground. For my part, I think that such debates provide an opportunity for learning and growth in the midst of the chaos. To appreciate what we all have: roots. It is these that frame the image in which a society views itself and what it ought to do.
In the UK and in many of the nations that have been dominant for so long are now suffering under the weight of its guilt and this has the strength to do what no army could hope to achieve and that is the destruction of its spirit. There are parallels between the ages and these can teach us more than simply to admire/admonish ourselves, but how to heal ourselves of the modern struggles with identity, purpose, and value.
Perhaps this is how we can view it holistically?