Friday, May 27, 2011

Mongolia | Chingis Rides West | Jurchens | Jin Dynasty | Part I

Earlier I wrote about the Uighurs and the Xi Xia. Now I must finally turn my attention to the Jin Dynasty, also known as the Jurchen Dynasty (1115–1234).

The people known as Jurchens who went on to found the Jurchen, or Jin Dynasty, originated around the timbered basins of the Amur, Ussuri, and Sungari rivers in Manchuria, in what is now northeast China. Their language was Tungusic, an eastern extension of the Altaic language family and closely related to Manchu, the language of the people what would later create the Qing Dynasty. 

Almost nothing is known of their history prior to the tenth century a.d. Apparently they began to use iron only in the early eleventh century. One tribe of the Jurchen, the Wanyan, began making farming tools and weapons from iron and on the basis of this new technology soon dominated their neighbors. Under the leadership of a chieftain known as Wugunai (1021–1074) the Wanyan soon assumed leadership of a loose confederation of the various Jurchen tribes. Wugunai, according to contemporary histories, “was addicted to wine and women and could outdrink anyone,” but he was also a warrior of legendary stature  . . . Continued.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Baga Nuur | Zevgee’s Family

Wandered on out to Baga Nuur to visit the family of my friend Zevgee, who recently transmigrated. My last visit to Baga Nuur, to celebrate Women’s Day, was a happier occasion.
Saraa, Zevgee’s wife Tümen-Ölzii, Zevgee and Enkha  celebrating Women’s Day
This time Zevgee was no longer with us, but I did have the opportunity of meeting up once again with his family members, many of them from Bayankhongor Aimag, where Zevgee was born. 
 Five of Zevgee’s brothers, to the right, in Baga Nuur
A few years ago I did a camel trip from Amarbuyant Khiid in Bayankhongor to Shar Khuls Oasis with Zevgee, his wife, and two of his brothers, Davakhüü and Khaidav, following the Route Of The 13th Dalai Lama and The Roerich Expedition.  
Khaidav, Zevgee’s son Bira, his brother-in-law Shoovoi, and Davakhüü loading a camel at Amarbuyant Khiid
 Davakhüü and Khaidav with four of their magnificent camels at Amarbuyant Khiid
 Zevgee, Khaidav, and Davakhüü taking a rest break in the Gobi
Davakhüü, Zevgee, Khaidav, and Tümen-Ölzii (standing) at the ovoo of The Ja Lama at Ekhiin Gol Oasis. Assistant Camel Wrangler, Historical Consultant, and Fox Zolzaya is sitting front right. 
Khaidav with his grandchildren at his ger in Bayankhongor
 Zevgee’s sister in Baga Nuur. We stayed at her ger in Bayankhongor Aimag and she and her husband Shoovoi cooked a goat with hot rocks—a dish known as Khorkhog—for us in honor of our visit. 
Khorkhog. The entire goat (not including head and innards) is cut up and cooked with heated rocks in a big milk can. This is the serving dish. You should always juggle one of the hot rocks in your left hand while eating with the right hand. 
Zevgee’s sister with her husband Shoovoi in Bayankhongor
 Another one of Zevgee’s brothers
  Another one of Zevgee’s brothers
  Another one of Zevgee’s brothers. This man was once the mayor of Shinejinst, a village in Bayankhongor Aimag. We stayed at his ger at the beginning of our camel trip.  
Ger in Shinejinst where we stayed

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Uzbekistan | Khorezm | Khiva | al-Khwārizmī

After viewing the Summer Mosque in Khiva I wandered outside the city walls and soon found myself in front of the statue of Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780–c. 859). Sources vary on the birthplace of al-Khwārizmī, but at least one historian, Ibn al-Nadim, asserts that he was born in Khorezm (also known as Khwarizm), and local boosters insist that despite all the various nay-sayers he was born right here in Khiva, hence his statute here on the main drag in front of the city walls. Al-Khwārizmī was a celebrated geographer, astronomer and mathematician and is acknowledged as the inventor of Algebra, a dubious accomplishment which has earned him the well-deserved opprobrium of generations of high school students the world over.
Statue of Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c. 780–c. 859)
Al-Khwarizmi's most famous (or perhaps most notorious) book, in which he formulated the basis principles of algebra, was entitled Hisab Al-Jabr W'al Mugabalah, translating roughly as "the science of reunion and reduction”.
A page from al-Khwārizmī's Hisab Al-Jabr W'al Mugabalah
Our current word algebra is indeed a corruption of the word “Al-Jabr in the title. This book is still in print for the benefit of those few interested in such folderol: The Book of Algebra.

I myself have no interest whatsoever in wasting any more of my time discussing anything so jejune as algebra; if you are really interesting in this subject and have nothing better to do see A History of Algebra: From Al-Khwarizmi to Emmy Noether and/or Al-Khwarizmi: The Inventor of Algebra.

On a more salubrious note, later translations into Latin of al-Khwārizmī's other books, notably On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals (c. 825), led to the introduction of the so-called Hindu-Arabic Numeral System (complete with a decimal point and the all-important value of zero), and “Arabic Numerals” (i.e., the numbers we now use), into the Occidental world. Otherwise we would probably still be hammering Roman numerals into granite with a chisel. So al-Khwārizmī did have his redeeming qualities. 

In any case, al-Khwārizmī eventually washed up in Baghdad, where he became an integral part of the so-called Bayt al-Hikmah, or House of Wisdom, an institute of advanced studies in various sciences which had sprung up during the time of Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, he of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights fame, and eventually flowered under the patronage of his son al-Mamun (r 813–833 AD).  

Indeed, I have just recently added The House of Wisdom to my Scriptorium and even more fortuitously a Review has just appeared in the New Year Times:
Abdullah ­al-­Mamun, caliph of Baghdad in the early 9th century, was indispensable to this intellectual flowering. The city was only four decades old but had already become the largest in the world. In this vibrant setting, al-Mamun established an institute, the House of Wisdom, the likes of which had not been seen since the great library at Alexandria. The author compares Baghdad in those days to Renaissance Florence or Athens in the age of Pericles. At first, the caliph followed his great-grandfather’s practice of pushing his savants for Arabic translations of Greek books in the country’s possession, a legacy of Hellenistic rule for several centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Over the next two centuries, more works of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates, as well as Persian and Indian thinkers, were rendered into Arabic. It became a lucrative business, abetted by advances in papermaking learned from captive Chinese soldiers. Other wealthy patrons, not only the caliph, supported the translation movement, al-Khalili points out, “in part for the practical benefits it brought them in finance, agriculture, engineering projects and medicine, and in part because this patronage quickly turned into a de rigueur cultural activity that defined their standing in society.” A modern budget proposal from a science-funding agency could not have put it better.
 The Bayt al-Hikmah has now been recreated in cyperspace. See The House of Wisdom, a blog about the latest developments in Arabic science.
Stamp commemorating al-Khwārizmī's 1200th birthday. Al-Khwārizmī also has An Area On The Moon named after him.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mongolia | Töv Aimag | Zevgee — 1938–2011

Zevgee (1938–2011)
My good friend Zevgee transmigrated on the Full Moon Day of May 17, which by coincidence (or maybe not) was the day of Vesak, the Buddhist holiday observing the Buddha's Birth, Enlightenment, and Death, and also, according to Some Interpretations, the anniversary of the day the Buddha first taught the Kalachakra Tantra.

I first met Zevgee in 1997, as described in Part Three of my book Travels in Northern Mongolia. I eventually did twelve Horse or Camel Tripwith him, including a horse trip last summer to Onon Hot Springs. He will be missed. 
 Zevgee last summer at Onon Hot Springs
Zevgee, with his wife and two brothers at Shar Khuls Oasis