Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Story With Legs

The old woman, chewing some khat (qāt), took her time to get started, but when she did, her words quickly gained steam. This is what she told:

Long ago, a story goes, 3 boys saw, in each other, much more than they saw in others. And so they excited each others’ ambition, and promised mutual assistance, to help those ambitions along. Then, later, they naturally fought.
The story has been retold, changed, and made to serve a variety of differing purposes, pruposes, though, mostly not about transmitting understanding of the human condition. No-one really thinks it wrong that the great no longer are as they were when young, and no longer see things as they did then. And a story is just a way to tell other things, things that come with the story itself.
The three became kings, or heroes, or villains – it doesn’t matter which. They became important, and thus, rivals. Instead of doing each other good, they sometimes did each other harm, much as we sometimes do to ourselves. For though we like to be part of something big, we like even more to be big. And that makes us small.
Over a thousand years, this story travelled 10,000 miles, and then did that again, all the while becoming more and more a part of us, until what had been wrong and tragic had become no more than normal. This happens with stories. So, that three united would unceasingly fight became not a marvel, but expected. And that one might leave honor behind, for another kind of success, became normal too. And bad became good, and good bad, in the swirling eddies of our minds… and what once was laughed off as a Million, a whopper, a Really Big One, became somehow like truth itself, repeated so often and changed so very well that arrogance became idolized, and who was admired despised. It’s an old story indeed, and in many an ancient story you can find its seed.
Consider: those who went out to do good, but did more bad, return to brag on what they learned, telling others of things they’ve been told, and misunderstood.
Consider the story of Nizam, Omar and Hasan, and that of the Peach Tree Vow.

Abu Ali al-Hasan al-Tusi Nizam al-Mulk (or Qiwamu ad-Deen, Abu Ali al-Hasan bin Ali ibn Ishaaq at-Tusi, or Abu Ali al-Hasan al-Tusi Nizam al-Mulk, best known now as Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk al-Tusi) was a Persian scholar, and became (albeit briefly) sole ruler of the Seljuk Empire. Born about 1018, in Tus (now the Iranian city of Imam al-Ghazali), he was educated for administration. When still young he chose to enter into the service of the foreign Seljuks, and in the mid 1040s became an adviser to a commander in Balkh (now part of Afghanistan). It was the custom for the Seljuk princes to rule a portion of the empire in order to gain experience for running the entire empire, and Nizam al-Mulk was able to quickly demonstrate his genius by advising the Turkic prince and heir to the Seljuk throne who became Sultan Alp (or Alab) Arslan. After serving brilliantly as Alp Arslan’s secretary, he became the vazir (like a prime minister) of the new sultan, around 1054. Later, he was also vazir to that sultan’s son, Malik Shah (ruled 1072 to ’92).
By 1059 he was chief administrator of Khorasan province. Despite early poverty, by diligence, perseverance and the strength of a strong persona, he gained great success. Vizier for 30 years, from 1063 to ’92, under two sultans, he abolished taxes, made a new military system, built libraries and paid salaries for both teachers and students. One of the most illustrious ministers of the East, known for redressing the wrongs that occurred under his government and with great ability in organizational matters, he encouraged study of Islamic sciences and arts, and spent much money on the seekers of knowledge, yet, still, he seemed to many aloof and autocratic, and was the subject of much satire. And he irritated Shi’ites, by showing preference for fellow Sunnis.
The Seljuks, a tribe of the Central Asian Kazakh Steppes, driven west by other tribes, entered Anatolia soon after 1000CE, and captured Baghdad in 1055. They soon completely overpowered the Abbāsids but left to the Abbasid caliph his position as religious leader, leaving the caliphate some authority. They built a powerful empire centered on Persia, and came to be seen as the restorers of Muslim unity under the Sunnite caliphate. Soon after 1060, their empire included Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and almost all of what’s now Iran; somehow they considered themselves as rightful heirs to all conquered for Islam in Prophet Mohammed’s time. Like the Mongols who came after, they were great horsemen. They were also Sunni Moslems, but with little of Islamic tradition, let alone literary heritage. They adopted much of Abbasid Persian culture. The first invade all of Anatolia, with them Turkey became Islamic.
Malik’s empire controlled much of Arabia, Mesopotamia, and other areas near the Persian Gulf, with a policy of utilizing diplomacy rather than military conquest. Nizam al-Mulk earned the title al-Wazir al-Kabir, meaning “The Great Minister;” Nizam al-Mulk means “the order of state”. A brilliant leader, modest and devoutly religious, brilliant at mathematics and eloquent in his writing, his work did much to smooth over the political gap between the Abbasids (who had the 2nd great Muslim empire, after the Umayyad caliphate) and the Seljuks, and also against their various rivals. He wrote a voluminous treatise on kingship, the Siyasatnameh (Book of Government, King’s Policies or Rules for Kings), a treatise on kingship and governance. A devout Sunni, Nizam founded a number of theological schools, the famous Nizamiyyah schools, which were named for him. He built the famous madrasa (university) in Baghdad named for him, the An-Nizamia, and several other schools (one in his hometown, another in Basra, others in cities you may not have heard of, Nisapur, Marw, Harat, Balkh and Isbahan). He also built and funded hospitals. But his schools were Sunni oriented, the Shia group Ismaelia accused him of being a tyrant, and rebelled against him. After administering affairs of state for 30 years, Nizam-Al-Mulk was overthrown. The principal sultana has been accused of instigating this, and utilizing the aid of the Chamberlain, an enemy to Nizam. Perhaps he was impeached for having rashly declaring that his cap and ink-horn badges of office were connected by divine decree with the throne and diadem of the Sultan. That’s claimed too. At any rate, at age 93, Nizam-Al-Mulk was dismissed from office, and at almost the same time, murdered. The assassination may have been about a rivalry between two groups of religious jurists (Shafi’ites and Hanafites), also, it mioght have been ordered by Hassan i-Sabah, who’d become a personal enemy of Nizam-Al-Mulk, and at odds with the state for at least 15 years. This also involved religious differences. You can decide which seems most likely, as proof, one way or another, is unlikely now to be discovered.

Legend tells that Hasan al Sabah, Omar Khayyam and Nizam al Mulk became tight friends while studying together. They decided to cement their bond, and in a pact just a bit too reminiscent of the Peach Garden Pact at the start of the famous ancient Chinese classic “The Three Kingdoms”, those three swore that, since at least one of them was bound to attain wealth and power, “to whomsoever this fortune falls, he shall share it equally with the rest, and preserve no pre-eminence for himself.” The three personalities, though, or however, were hardly compatible. The story of the three school-fellows is also unlikely to have much truth as Nizam ul-Mulk was at least 12 years older than Hasan, maybe almost 40. Omar Khayyám may have been younger than Nizam, but was also at least a decade older than Hasan. While it’s true that Hasan started his studies at an early age, and friends can have age differences, the age difference is simply too great. But maybe they knew each other: it’s said that while Khayyam was reforming the calendar, Hassan Sabah became mace-bearer to Sultan Alp-Arselan, and that enmity between Hasan and Nizam occurred only after that.
Their agreement, that if one should gain prominence, he’d help the other two to do likewise, meant that when Nizam became vizier, and so the most powerful of the three, he offered both friends positions of rank in the court. It’s significant that he’s now the least (by far) remembered – although it was perhaps he who had the most lasting impact. Omar’s calendar should have been more important – it’s better than the one commonly used now. Omar asked only to be given the means to continue his studies indefinitely; he didn’t want responsibilities at court. So Nizam built him an observatory. Hassan rose to become the court’s Intelligence Chief, but the vizier, whether once a friend or not, became vexed at his ambition, and deviously undermined Hassan’s growing power by pushing Hassan into agreeing to furnish records for the entire kingdom, after just 40 days preparation. Going to make his presentation, Hasan found the records tampered with; the report was ruined, and Hasan shamed before the court. The king, furious, sentenced him to death. Omar Khayyám, pleading for clemency, got the sentence reduced to banishment. Or so one story goes. Some say he was forced to flee after plotting to dispose Nizam as vizier.
Nizam was assassinated much later, in 1092. Some have said he was stabbed by the dagger of a member of the Assassins (Hashshashin), disguised as a dervish. Others tell of a Sufi who pretended to hand Nizam al-Mulk a gift while he was being carried on his litter. As Nizam al-Mulk reached out to take the gift from him, the esoteric stabbed him with a knife in his chest. Nizam al-Mulk died from the wound, and his soldiers later killed the assassin. Another report says he was killed in secret by Malik Shah in an internal power struggle, and his murder avenged by the vizier’s loyal academics. It’s also been insinuated that Nizam al-Mulk was murdered from within the government at the orders of a governor. This governor did not live for more than a few months after Nizam al-Mulk’s assassination. The last words Nizam al-Mulk uttered purportedly were, “Please do not kill my assassin because I have forgiven him. There is no god but Allah.”
Perhaps the top of the whoppers is that he was assassinated with Malik, after a he prepared a debate between Sunni and Shi'a scholars on Malik’s orders, a debate which resulted in both him and the king converting to Shi’a ideology. This story was told by Nizam al-Mulk’s son-in-law Muqatil bin Atiyyah, who attended the debate.
Revolts soon ended Malik Shah’s reign. The empire dissolved. The glorious years for the Seljuqs were over; with Malik’s death came sudden decline. A practice of dividing provinces among a deceased ruler’s sons led to numerous independent and unstable principalities, and internecine war. The last Iranian Seljuqs died in battle in 1194; by 1200 Seljuk power was at an end everywhere except in Anatolia. For a short time a few emirs maintained small principalities in mountainous districts, but soon Mongols were galloping all over the region.
Crusaders and other Europeans, enchanted by highly exaggerated stories of daring-do by Nizari fida’is (self-sacrificing devotees), longed to hear more. Tales were told of people who’d selectively target, then eliminate, prominent enemies of their community – tales of underdogs revenging themselves on overlords.
As Nizari Ismailis became famous as Assassin followers of a mysterious “Old Man of the Mountain,” truths and fictions about them got harder and harder to separate. Marco Polo and his “Million” tall tales, which tens of thousands read in the early 1300s, increased the confusion. One reason for the legend of the longevity of the “Old Man” is that it’s based on two people, one of whom died 70 years after the other. The first was Hasan i-Sabbah, the 2nd, Rashad Sinan. Sinan’s said to be the real “Old Man”, but his castle, Masyaf, stands on a platform only about 60 feet above its surrounding plane. Nearby are the An-Nusayriyah Mountains, of which he’s said to have been a “shaykh al-jabal” (Arabic for “mountain chief”), but the likelihood of mistranslation playing a part in the legend’s development can’t be discounted. Which is much the point here. Sinan’s story was confused with, then grafted onto, that of Hasan-e Sabah. Even now, narration about all this is difficult, as not just names, but other significant terminology relevant, indeed crucial, to explication of what might, or likely did not, occur, does not have standardized spelling. Of course, interpretations of much terminology vary too!
Omar Khayyam may never have written poetry - in a peculiar inversion of “intellectual property,” verses used mostly as quotations were attributed to him, perhaps because of his scholarly reputation. Contemporaries never commented on his verse, and not until two centuries after his death did a few quatrains appear under his name.
By the 1200s, Western writers were telling of Turchia instead of Anatolia. First came the Seljuqs, then other Turkic (Tatar or Tartar) tribes, including the tribe of Osman Gozi, son of Ertugral. He and his Ghazi warriors soon became the Ottomans, with a new empire which stretched from Yemen and the Crimea to Morocco. The rise of the quick-witted, flexible Ottomans in the early 1300s was as swift as that of the Muslim Arabs had been, and by the end of that century, they had a regular, standing army, the 1st professional paid army in Europe (they controlled Bulgaria) since the Romans.
The Mongols had come and gone, and the Ottomans had fought their way to power… To the Ottomans, these stories of a vizier and friends weren’t important. This isn’t history written by the victor. So, who gained? Maybe just the story-tellers, and listeners. Maybe the stories got varied to suit the occasion for telling, Books were still quite rare, and story-telling greatly valued as quality entertainment. And perhaps, really, that’s all these stories are, still…

Here, the teller nodded off.



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