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, January 22, 2015

Shendi Bazaar

Shendi Market, on the Atbara River, Sudan, northeast of Khartoum, had a population of only about 6000 in the early 1800s, until Muhammad Ali of Egypt (Khedive Mehmet Ali Pasha) took it, with great difficulty, in the early 1820s. But it was the largest town in central Sudan, a fabulous market and trade center for goods from the Far East, via Arabia and the southern end of the Red Sea, from Timbuktu and Lake Chad via an oasis route just south of the Sahara (central African pilgrims passed through on their way to Mecca), from Ethiopia and the Upper Nile valley, and from Egypt. In the heart of the ancient “Island of Meroë” (Meroë was an ancient capital of Sudan and most of Egypt), it was called “The Gates” - here Cambyses of Persia had been driven back from conquering further south (thus causing him to try going east, where he died in the sands along the Libyan border, if reference to such a hypothetical construct isn’t too anachronistic). Spices (especially cloves), aromatic woods, antimony, agate, leather goods, basket-ware, soap, coffee, textiles, herbal medicines, German swords and razors, Venetian trading beads, writing paper from Egypt, pottery, iron, cows, horses, trained monkeys, slaves and prostitutes were regularly available. At this great crossroads of the Nile, pagans, Copts and Muslims traded in a context completely out of touch with the politics of the rest of the world, in an almost timeless setting where little changed for over a millennia. But from 1803 to 1840 Mohammad Ali of Egypt and his sons fought the Ottoman Empire. They overran most of Syria, and took Mecca and Medina, recently captured from the Ottomans by the Wahhabi House of Saud. At first Muhammad Ali (Wali, or Khedive, Mehmet Ali Pasha, born an Albanian, in Albania) was a soldier in, then commander of, an Ottoman army. Then, thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte, he and his were able to fully separate from the Ottomans. They captured most members of the House of Saud in 1814, and in 1820 Muhammad Ali became, in effect, Sultan, or, if you will, king of Egypt and Sudan. He dispatched an army of 5,000 troops commanded by a son, south into Sudan with the intent of conquering and subjugating the territory. During his reign Turkish, not Arabic, was the official language, but as the ‘Father of Modern Egypt’, he brought change to an area where it’d been well resisted for a millennia. Johann Ludwig (Jean Louis or John Lewis) Burckhardt discovered an important archaeological site at Petra, in modern Jordan, in 1812, and undertook an expedition to Nubia in 1813. There he found the top frieze of the incredible Abu Simbel Nubian Monuments (carved under Pharaoh Ramses II in the 13th century BCE and covered by sand for 2400 years), and surmised the incredible nature of what he was unable to uncover. Burckhardt took the Muslim name Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdullah, and lived as a Muslim, wearing Muslim dress. At first accompanied by a guide, riding dromedaries, carrying but a pocket compass, writing materials, a penknife, tobacco purse, steel for striking a light, a light ax, spare shirt, needles, thread, comb, small medicine box, cooking pots, water skins, typical native food, a small quantity of merchandise and a gun and pistol, plus a woolen mantle (by day a carpet, at night a covering), having assumed the character of a poor trader from Syria, he accompanied a caravan through the deserts of Nubia, to Berbery and Shendi, as far as Suakim, on the Red Sea. From there he travelled to Mecca by way of Jidda. During this journey, he confirmed many of the claims of traveler and writer James Bruce, who’d been ridiculed as another Baron Munchausen. A new addition of Munchausen tales was brought out, dedicated to Mr. James Bruce – who had narrated a fantastic tale of a tightly secured cow or bull from which steaks were hacked from living flesh (amid “prodigious noise the animal makes”), then eaten raw while hide was stitched back over the wound. Regardless of the acceptability of that narration, although Bruce, like many, wasn’t 100% correct in all, Burckhardt began to rehabilitate a reputation which overall deserved to be pretty good. Later travelers also confirmed the accuracy of Bruce’s accounts. That Bruce reported Tisisat Falls wider than they were, and less tall (although “the most magnificent sight that I ever beheld”) can be at least partially attributed to the trouble he admitted to have had in measuring there, dizziness and perhaps malaria, or some other disease encountered in his work as a doctor. It also seems that Bruce had a bone to pick with some Portuguese Jesuit priests who’d visited there 150 years before – he hated Jesuits. At any rate, he did come down with malarial fever soon afterwards, and most of his writings, like those of Burckhardt and Mungo Park (who in 1796 and 97 explored the then mostly unknown Niger River, and was escaped after being imprisoned by a Moorish chief for 4 months), have proven both accurate and valuable. Burckhardt endured hardships and sufferings with aplomb: mad with thirst in the burning desert, he beheld many a mirage, and tried to explain them; he escaped plundering Arabs, and not without material loss; at Darner, to procure provisions for his ass he debased himself, crying out for any to hear, “Beads for sale!” At Jidda, his finances were so low that he was compelled to sell his slave, and almost resorted to manual labor. That didn’t occur, but he did live like poor locals He ate crocodile flesh, every day fetched and cut wood, made a fire to cook, fed his ass, and made coffee to share with his companions, “the only means I possessed of keeping them in a tolerable good humor.” For four months he stayed in Mecca, which had then been under the House of Saud less than a decade, and for a couple of years under Viceroy Muhammad (Mehmet) Ali. His real character wasn’t discovered, and during that time he accurately noted the manners and customs of the holy city. On 28 January, 1815, he reached Medina, and stayed until 21 April, in a state of great mental depression and suffering from intermittent fever. In June, he got back to Cairo, where, after having recovered his health, he wrote up an account of his travels. It was good that he didn’t wait – he anticipated journeying to Fezzan to find the source of the Niger River, but died on 15 October, 1817, of dysentery (and perhaps other complications). His writings include Travels in Nubia (1819), Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (1822), Travels in Arabia (1829), which includes a notable account of Mecca, Notes on the Bedouin and Wahábys (1830), and Arabic Proverbs (1830). The Egyptians, Ottomans and British all fought the Saud Wahhabis; in 1818, Egyptian garrisons were posted to principal towns in what is now Saudi Arabia. The short-lived Wahhābī empire ceased to exist, but its faith lived on in the desert and in the towns of central Arabia in defiance of the new rulers of the land, and a second Saudi state begun in 1824. Turkie, the new ruler, tried to maintain friendly ties with the Ottoman governors of Iraq and the British, nominally accepting Ottoman sovereignty. Back at Shandi, the Shaiqiyah, Arabic speakers who had resisted Egyptian occupation, were defeated and allowed to serve the Egyptian rulers as tax collectors and irregular cavalry under their own sheiks. The Egyptian government encouraged economic development through state monopolies that had exported slaves, ivory, and gum Arabic; in some areas, tribal land which had been held in common, was sold to buyers outside the tribe, or became the private property of sheikhs. Change, so long avoided, had arrived. Khedive Mehmad Ali claimed that, “free from all restraint, I could arouse this land… from the sleep of ages.” With the help of his sons, he did so. An extremely modern man, he was a breaker of traditions, an internationalist, and a political giant towering above his contemporaries. The French invasion under Napoleon had so thwarted traditions that annual pilgrimages to Mecca had been abandoned; the first of the new Kaled Pasha’s foreign conquests began in Arabia (1811); it took him seven years, but he was able to occupy Mecca, freeing it from the new radical Wahabis. In this endeavor, he helped, and was to some degree helped by, Sheikh Ibrahim, JW Burckhardt, who started a journey from Cairo to Mecca in 1813. Of great interest in Cairo were his reports on enemies of theirs retreating up the Nile, and on the incredible Shaiqiya tribes. In their stunningly beautiful area, waterwheels pumped life into the desert sands, wild thyme grew on islands in the river, and water birds in their thousands fed or passed overhead. Arabs of the vicinity had become fiercely xenophobic, and Bedouins there attacked any and all whom they found reason to expect to be able to overpower. Burckhardt presented himself as a poor trader searching for a cousin who’d vanished in the area a few years previously, and so was accepted by a caravan, although still reviled and despised as a Turkic intruder. Having gone quite native, his frequent note-taking had to be carefully hidden, but he did it anyway. The caravan carried sugar, soap, beads, cloth, mirrors and ancient firearms to trade for gum Arabic, ostrich feathers, ivory, and slaves. A fifth of the party perished. In trading centers, they found the Nubian and Abyssinian prostitute-slaves amazingly attractive and astonishingly merry; for the duration of the caravan’s stay, a man could take a girl who would prepare his grog and meals, massage him with grease, and party with him at bouza shops throughout the night. Driven to either lassitude or debauchery by the extreme heat, society was either venal and hedonistic, or fanatically ascetic. Settlements of fakirs abhorred all comforts, and observed Islamic law to the letter, while nearby owners of miserably tiny selling stalls would sleep atop their bundled-up goods, their money buried in the ground. So as to appear poor, few wore more than a loincloth,. Among the exotic variety of peoples accumulated, quarrelling was continuous. By comparison, the Star Wars Bar could be found normal, almost reverently regular. At religious but lawless Shendi, unregulated by time’s cyclic periodicity, was a great microcosm of human diversity, and much freedom. Fair Arabs, totally black Negroes, naked pagans, Coptic Christians, people from Somalia, Eritrea, Uganda – it was the bazaar was a bazaar miscellany of peoples and personalities. Here the Atbara River makes its closest approach to the southern end of the Red Sea: thus, here was the gate to Arabia, India and the Far East. In 1814, Muhammad Ali had yet to arrive, and, protected by the deserts and Nile cataracts, laziness and depravity, or religious extremism were essential to psychological and even physical survival. Within the continent of Africa, human physical diversity is much greater than in all of Eurasia and the Americas - and within Africa, the greatest extent of that diversity is south of the great deserts. Scarification and lip-disks contribute to the sense of variety. Although Pygmies, Dogon and San Bushmen certainly never visited Shendi Market, veiled West African Tuareg guards for camel caravans from Timbuktu, dressed in flowing indigo dyed robes, may occasionally have, as also might a few lean and tall Maasai cattle herders (the Maasi, who often greatly stretch earlobes and wear elaborate beaded neck ornamentation, are the southernmost Nilotic speakers). The Surma (Suri) and Mursi people of the lower Omo River valley in Ethiopia put pegs in women’s lips before marriage, and many Mursi women wear clay plates in their lower lips. The attractive Sara (Sah-ra, kameeni), a Nilotic people of Chad, also artificially elongated their lips using lip plates, perhaps to make themselves unattractive to Arab slave raiders. The Shaiqiyah, formidable, colorful and of a fine, brightly glossy, jet black, with regular features and martial bearing, despised agriculture and any form of work, preferring the sport of war. Firearms they considered cowardly, and horses the best of military accoutrements. Renowned for hospitality, their guests and companions were sacred to them; they had schools and great respect for learned men. They feared nothing, and on riding into battle shouted “Salaam aleikoum” (Peace be with you), by which they meant the peace of death. Their women were said to be as brave as the men, and the horse their symbol of power and life. Sudan had about 600 other tribes – not including smaller divisions. Arab, Central African and Egyptian traders came and went, where the strange and mysterious Funj people had, for 200 years, until just recently, enjoyed a great empire…

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