Friday, December 08, 2006

Persia or Iran?

We tend to think of Iran as one of the large Islamic countries in the Middle East, but that perspecitve is relatively recent in history. The area has been known as Iran for only a few years, but for centuries it has been called Persia. For 600 years, its most popular religion was Christianity.

Persia is home to two large groups of Christians, the Assyrian Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church. Although these churches were originally maintaining ties with the Christian churches in the Roman Empire, they were indeed quite different from the churches in the Roman Empire. One reason for this is language.

Another factor that the churches within the Persian Empire did not maintain such close ties with their counterparts in the Roman Empire, was also the continuous rivalry between these two great empires. And quite often, Christians in Persia were (often falsely) accused of sympathizing with the Romans, even though the Roman Empire was persecuting and killing Christians, while the Persian Empire embraced Christianity. In Persia, unlike Rome, it was both legal and popular for people to leave Zoroastriansim (the mythological belief system of Persia prior to Christianity).

But it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. that the vast majority of Christians in Persia broke their ties with the churches in the Roman Empire.

Most of the Christians in the Sassanid empire lived on the western edge of the empire, predominately in Mesopotamia, but there were also important communities on the island Tylos (present day Bahrain), the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, the area of the Arabian kingdom of Lakhm and the Persian part of Armenia. Some of these areas were the earliest to be Christianized; the kingdom of Armenia choose the Christian faith sometime before 100 A.D., and became the first independent Christian state in the world in 301 A.D.; while a number of Assyrian territories had almost become fully Christianized even earlier during the 1st century, they never became independent nations.

Most Christians in the Persian Empire belonged to a number of predominately Christian ethnic groups. Some of these groups were the Assyrians, the Arabs of southern Mesopotamia, the Armenians, as well as some smaller ethnic groups such as the Syriacs. The latter group was taken to Persia as prisoners of war from the many conflicts with the Roman Empire. Conversion was common among ethnic Persians and other ethnicities residing in the empire. Among them were certain small Caucasian and Kurdish tribes which had converted to Christianity.

For approximately 600 years, these groups lived as Christians. In 651 A.D., the first wave of "jihad" from the Islamic Caliphate swept across Persia in a fourteen-year-long bloodbath. Christians could flee, convert to Islam, become enslaved, or be killed. Eventually, the name "Iran" would replace "Persia" as the usual name for the region.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

What Does Wikipedia Have to Say about the Renaissance?

Giorgio Vasari was the first to coin the term Renaissance, in 1550, though an awareness of the ongoing rebirth in the arts had been in the air earlier. Since that time, historians have differed in their interpretations of the meaning of Renaissance. Many historians now view the Renaissance as more of an intellectual and ideological change than a substantive one. Marxist historians, for example, hold the view that the changes in art, literature, and philosophy affected only a tiny minority of the very wealthy and powerful, leaving the lives of the great mass of the European population unchanged.

Many historians now point out that most of the negative social factors popularly associated with the "medieval" period - poverty, ignorance, warfare, religious and political persecution, and so forth - seem to have actually worsened in this era which saw the rise of Machiavelli, the Wars of Religion, the corrupt Borgia Popes, and the intensified witch-hunts of the 16th century. Many people who lived during the Renaissance did not view it as the "golden age" imagined by certain 19th century authors, but were concerned by these social maladies. Significantly, though, the artists, writers, and patrons involved in the cultural movements in question believed they were living in a new era that was a clean break from the Middle Ages.

Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) acknowledged the existence of the Renaissance but questioned whether it was a positive change. He argued that the Renaissance was a period of decline from the High Middle Ages, destroying much that was important. The Latin language, for instance, had evolved greatly from the classical period and was still a living language used in the church and elsewhere. The Renaissance obsession with classical purity halted its natural evolution and saw Latin revert to its classical form. Robert Lopez has contended that it was a period of deep economic recession. Meanwhile George Sarton and Lynn Thorndike have both argued that scientific progress was slowed.

Historians have begun to consider the word Renaissance as unnecessarily loaded, implying an unambiguously positive rebirth from the supposedly more primitive Middle Ages. Many historians now prefer to use the term "early modern" for this period, a more neutral term that highlights the period as a transitional one that led to the modern world.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A 4,000-Mile Journey to Nowwhere - The Harrowing Journey of Exile under Stalin

Josef Stalin is known as the brutal Soviet ruler, responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians, Poles, Ukranians, Jews, and Germans. What is not so well-known is that also arranged for the deaths of millions of Koreans, long before the Korean War. Researchers at the University of Michigan have made a documentary film about Stalin's mass killing of Koreans.

In 1937, Vladmir Tyan watched as soldiers shot his father and older brother. He had no time to mourn. Chased from their house, the rest of the family lived on the street for three days. Then they boarded a train.

“You’d hear in the neighboring car the cries of children, the elderly, and the sick,” Dekabrina Kim recalls. “They took out the dead, and no one knew where they were buried.”

“The train went to a dead halt, and we were told it was our stop,” says Sergei Yun. “Each family dug a hole to live in. There were no trees or charcoal. We lived that way for two or three years.”

The victims’ stories describe what occurred when Stalin deported some 180,000 Soviet Koreans that he dubbed “unreliable people.” Evicted from their homes and farms and locked into crowded cattle cars headed for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - remote destinations nearly 4,000 miles and one month away - they found themselves on desolate lands without housing.


These stories are largely unknown outside of Central Asia, and only a small number of scholarly documents have shed light on this chapter of Stalin’s Great Terror. “Few knew that this 1937 episode served as the opening salvo for a series of similar
ethnic cleansings and deportations that involved Germans, Jews, Ukranians, Poles, Tartars, and Chechens,” says Meredith Jung-En Woo, an LSA political science professor. With David Chung, co-director of LSA’s Archive of Diasporic Korea and lecturer at the U of M, Woo is making this historical event better known to the world. Determined that LSA would be the site of the world’s first digital archive on the history of these Soviet Koreans, Woo and Chung traveled to Kazakhstan. The team bought Soviet and Kazakh newsreels and film footage, and scanned family photos, letters, and official documents. They did extensive interviews with survivors and their children, exploring the memories of the old and the challenges the young still face.

“Time was running out,” says Woo, “because the last survivors of the deportation, well into their seventies and eighties, were dying.” “With materials as compelling as these, a documentary film practically forced itself on us,” says Woo. With seed money from the U of M, they expanded the project.

The film is the harrowing saga of Koreans who were deported from the Soviet Far East, where they had lived in farming and fishing villages, enjoying their own theater, schools, and Korean language newspaper. Told through the eyes of deported Koreans, the film is also a story of multiethnic and multicultural Kazakhstan struggling to forge a new national identity in the aftermath of independence from the Soviet Union - and the place of the Korean-Kazakhs in this struggle. “We have our own soul, our own aura, and you can’t confuse us with anyone,” second-generation deportee and musician Jacov Khan says in the film. “We certainly all feel some envy when looking at Korean-Koreans or Kazakh-Kazakhs,” adds second-generation deportee Svetlana Nigai, who now lives in Almaty. “They have their own mother land. When people ask us what our native language is, we say Russian. But when they ask our nationality, that is a tougher question to answer.”