Saturday, October 18, 2014

History, memory and the interpretation of relics

Recently one of the big web magazines ran a by-now stock piece questioning whether Jesus of Nazareth existed.  This sort of thing pops up regularly, resting on such shocking facts as discrepancies between the gospels, their conventional dating, the latest best-selling proof that Jesus was a Zealot or a magician or a mushroom, or the failure of Plutarch or Suetonius to write about religious controversies in the province of Judea.  They also garner astronomical numbers of impassioned comments.

For myself I try to stay away from such things and keep in mind the opening sentence of the Appendix (“Sources for the Reign of Alexander”) to Simon Hornblower’s The Greek World, 479-323 BC:  “The surviving accounts of Alexander’s reign were all written down centuries after the events they describe.”  In a sense all history rests on rather slender reeds.

It seems to me axiomatic that history is not a science in the sense that, say, physics is a science.  Natural laws (so far as we know) are constant over time, so that, if I have doubts about the accuracy of a law of physics, I can try to verify it this afternoon, or tomorrow, or next year, and it should come out the same.

Now there is a science of history in the sense that there are conventional methods used by professional historians to evaluate evidence:  canons of interpretation, standards of verification, sub-disciplines like graphology, and sister disciplines like archaeology.  But a proposition like "Jesus lived in first century Judea," or "Alexander conquered the Persian empire" can't be tested like the gravitational constant.  Sometimes new evidence is unearthed.  Sometimes old evidence is re-interpreted.  And I would be very surprised if sometimes the standards for evaluation didn't change.  But these differences are normal because the subject matter of the disciplines is different in one very important respect:  The force of gravity is always out there to measure; the Persian empire fell in the distant past.  We can't reach it to verify it directly.

So, in that sense, it's quite possible that Jesus didn't exist.  It's possible that Alexander was simply a founding myth to explain the appearance of the Hellenistic dynasties that sprang up in the territory once ruled from Persia.  It could even be that Plato and Xenophon were so taken with a fictional character in Aristophanes' Clouds that they adopted him as their spokesman for various ideas.  All of these things are possible only because scenarios can by imagined which might leave behind the same remains from which we have inferred the real existence of Jesus, Alexander and Socrates.

Now most of us don't care two straws about such possibilities.  We know that such things as lies, forgeries, and conspiracies exist.  But we are content to let the professionals weigh the evidence and publish their conclusions.  Otherwise the past, about whose entirely-conventional course we are mostly ignorant, would become an incomprehensible and almost infinite morass of exploding possibilities.

So we require some consensus-based narrative, certain enough to ground our ordinary human understandings, but open enough to allow the normal correction, revision and re-assessment that regularly accompanies historical reflection.  But it can be tenuous.  Consider memory, and the basis for our understanding of the past.  I am thinking, at first, of the long discussion of memory in Augustine's Confessions.  It's well worth a look.  He considers how insubstantial the present is, how vanishingly small, each duration, of lesser and lesser extent, itself divisible into a past, present and future.  The now that is our eternity is an infinitely small slice of time, and consider how little of what we know and who we are is comprised of the present sense impression of this very now.

Rahner uses an expression I didn't get at first:  "suchenden memoria," "seeking memory."  I'm not entirely convinced even now that what I think of it is what he meant by it.  But it's a good phrase for the continuing present,a "now" not separate from past and future, a "now not passive," but "now" as a meeting, a present memory, all that I am and have been, all that can be called to mind, actual and potential, recent and long past, but oriented toward a future, seeking, willing, intending, pushing into that next ever-changing indivisible succession of moments.

What I know, all that I know, all that I can know, of the past, is what exists, and continues to exist, in my present.  I have memory, personal memory, of all that I have experienced and not forgotten.  I have second-hand memory, what others have remembered and told me or written down for my reading--what we attorneys call "hearsay."

The one other way we learn of the past is inference from what I call relics.  We know and remember that some things vanish with time, that some other things continue, much altered, and that some things continue, little altered.  These I call "relics," the things that remain, altered or unaltered, the things to which, like gravity, we can still have recourse.  "Relics" does indeed have a religious sense that I am trying to expand on.  Religiously they are links to the past, but tenuous links.  We picture them as knuckle bones and scraps, a material connection to a much larger material and spiritual reality, just as the remains in the Roman forum, which anyone today can still see and walk through, are in a sense the knuckle bones of the ancient Roman city.  The image is also apt, I think, because of the obvious difficulty of working back to historic reality from the bones alone.  The madeleine sent Proust back, a relic of the past, but you can't reproduce the recovered narrative from the madeleine.

So, in addition to now, I have personal memories that seem mostly accurate.  My first visit to New York City when I was eight years old, for example.  I remember historic events that happened in my lifetime, but mediated.  John Kennedy was assassinated about a hundred miles from where I lived on that terrible day in 1963.  I saw the funeral on television, in black and white.  I made a scrapbook, since lost, of the Dallas Morning News stories.  The historical events were experienced second-hand.

Moving out from these, I have been educated, have read, over a lifetime, hundreds of histories, biographies, novels, epics, letters, and have seen paintings, sculpture and films, depicting their own time, or times other than that of their creation.  So out of this I have a very vivid, detailed, and concrete sense of the past.  That I have literally forgotten more than I know only reinforces that sense of historical knowledge.  I am reminded of things I once forgot, such as how Prussia gained ascendancy over the Austrian Empire.  This past is very real to me, but my knowledge of it is a construction from many sources, and contains a hefty portion of interpretation and judgment.

And it occurs to me that, apart from my own judgments, my own sense of the history of the world (or any smaller history within that larger field), is necessarily going to be different from that of others, not only because of the idiosyncratic content of my own judgments, but because every single person's set of memories, experiences, classes, books, sights and sounds, direct and indirect, is individual to himself.  It is no wonder that we see the world so differently from each other.  The wonder, in fact, may be, that even with those disparate sources of input, we come to so much in common.

We have to assume, I think, that the past is common to all.  Memory is individual, and the relics are so numerous that none of us can have direct experience of all or even most of them.  Nevertheless, we remarkably have a rough consensus.  It cannot be proven.  But I don't know how we can have a common life without that unproven common past we all seem to come out of.     

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A second shameless plug

My younger sister, who styles herself "S.J. Allen" in the learned world, along with her co-editor and old friend, Emily Amt, have just brought out the second edition of their sourcebook, The Crusades:  A Reader.  It's published by the University of Toronto Press in its "Readings in Medieval Civilization and Cultures" series.

A sourcebook is always, I think, a good way to balance the unitary point of view of the narrative historian.  The sourcebook's editors, of course, have their own points of view, and an overall interpretive organization, but the presentation of blocks of material almost entirely in the voice of contemporaries helps avoid some of the modern biases and assumptions that can enter into any narrative. 

Among the additions to the second edition are a final group of pieces, from the Enlightenment on, ranging from David Hume to Pope John Paul II.  There is also a new chapter on a woman crusader, Margaret of Beverly, who participated in the defense of Jerusalem in 1187.

The collection, though centered on the conventional campaigns which we call the first, second, third, etc. crusades, includes other material relating to Christian/Moslem conflicts, including a 1530 treatise by our old friend Erasmus on an expected conflict in eastern Europe with the Ottomans.  The atmosphere he describes is strangely contemporary:

"...[W]henever the ignorant mob hears the name "Turk," they immediately fly into a rage and clamor for blood, calling them dogs and enemies to the name of Christian; it does not occur to them that, in the first place, the Turks are men, and, what is more, half-Christian; they never stop to consider whether the occasion of the war is just, nor whether it is practical to take up arms and thereby to provoke an enemy who will strike back with redoubled fury."

Erasmus is no pacifist, but he takes some exception to the stirring up of war fever by the circulation of graphic depictions of Turkish atrocities:

"...[P]ictures are painted showing examples of Turkish cruelty, but these ought in fact to remind us how reluctant we should be to make war against anyone at all, since similar "amusements" have been common in all the wars in which, over so many years, Christian has wickedly fought against Christian.  These paintings condemn their cruelty, yet worse crimes were perpetrated at Asperen, not by the Turks, but by my own countrymen, many of them even my friends."

I am therefore happy to again recommend the work of a more-talented family member.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Pericles' Funeral Oration

As suggested by an earlier post, I began last year to read Thucydides in Greek.  After the Republic I thought that it might be best to next tackle something heavy on sentences like "They built a wall" or "Then all the ships sailed out."  I had forgotten, of course, (as indicated by the op. cit. post), that there is quite a lot of talk in Thucydides.  And the most famous bit of talk is the Funeral Oration.

It is conventionally understood as the great expression of the Athenian spirit, and it is short enough that I hope I can cover it, section by section, occasionally and sporadically, as was the case with the Finnegans Wake posts.  My idea is to begin each post with a part of the oration, copying the Greek text from Book II of the Wikisource History of the Peloponnesian War cite and the English from the Pericles' Funeral Oration cite in the "Links" list to the left.  I will then make whatever comments come to mind.  If I have trouble coming up with interesting things to say I will make some lame excuse for quitting that, with a little luck, won't sound like just some lame excuse for quitting.  I should also note that it looks like it's going to be an unusually busy fall and winter both at work and with my family, and that these occasional fits and outbursts, as always, will remain subject to the requirement of non-virtual life.

Just a note on transliteration of Greek into Roman letters:  When commenting on a word or short phrase I will try to copy out the Greek and follow it with a transliteration.  My only limitation is that I have not yet figured out how to make a "long" sign over Roman vowels, so I will have to use "o" for both omicron and omega, "e" for both eta and epsilon.

How much of the speech is Pericles' and how much is Thucydides' is apparently a vexed question.  Plutarch's Life of Pericles contains not a hint of it.  For our purposes here I won't go much into the question, but plainly it can have some bearing on how we understand it, because Thucydides knew what Pericles could not, that Athens would lose the war.  That awareness goes very much to how to understand Pericles' repeated reasons why the Athenians should prevail.

Here is the introductory material, just before we begin with the speech proper:

᾿Εν δὲ τῷ αὐτῷ χειμῶνι ᾿Αθηναῖοι τῷ πατρίῳ νόμῳ χρώμενοι δημοσίᾳ ταφὰς ἐποιήσαντο τῶν ἐν τῷδε τῷ πολέμῳ πρώτων ἀποθανόντων τρόπῳ τοιῷδε. τὰ μὲν ὀστᾶ προτίθενται τῶν ἀπογενομένων πρότριτα σκηνὴν ποιήσαντες, καὶ ἐπιφέρει τῷ αὑτοῦ ἕκαστος ἤν τι βούληται· ἐπειδὰν δὲ ἡ ἐκφορὰ ᾖ, λάρνακας κυπαρισσίνας ἄγουσιν ἅμαξαι, φυλῆς ἑκάστης μίαν· ἔνεστι δὲ τὰ ὀστᾶ ἧς ἕκαστος ἦν φυλῆς. μία δὲ κλίνη κενὴ φέρεται ἐστρωμένη τῶν ἀφανῶν, ο῏ ἂν μὴ εὑρεθῶσιν ἐς ἀναίρεσιν. ξυνεκφέρει δὲ ὁ βουλόμενος καὶ ἀστῶν καὶ ξένων, καὶ γυναῖκες πάρεισιν αἱ προσήκουσαι ἐπὶ τὸν τάφον ὀλοφυρόμεναι. τιθέασιν οὖν ἐς τὸ δημόσιον σῆμα, ὅ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τοῦ καλλίστου προαστείου τῆς πόλεως, καὶ αἰεὶ ἐν αὐτῷ θάπτουσι τοὺς ἐκ τῶν πολέμων, πλήν γε τοὺς ἐν Μαραθῶνι· ἐκείνων δὲ διαπρεπῆ τὴν ἀρετὴν κρίναντες αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸν τάφον ἐποίησαν. ἐπειδὰν δὲ κρύψωσι γῇ, ἀνὴρ ᾑρημένος ὑπὸ τῆς πόλεως, ὃς ἂν γνώμῃ τε δοκῇ μὴ ἀξύνετος εἶναι καὶ ἀξιώσει προήκῃ, λέγει ἐπ' αὐτοῖς ἔπαινον τὸν πρέποντα· μετὰ δὲ τοῦτο ἀπέρχονται. ὧδε μὲν θάπτουσιν· καὶ διὰ παντὸς τοῦ πολέμου, ὁπότε ξυμβαίη αὐτοῖς, ἐχρῶντο τῷ νόμῳ. ἐπὶ δ' οὖν τοῖς πρώτοις τοῖσδε Περικλῆς ὁ Ξανθίππου ᾑρέθη λέγειν. καὶ ἐπειδὴ καιρὸς ἐλάμβανε, προελθὼν ἀπὸ τοῦ σήματος ἐπὶ βῆμα ὑψηλὸν πεποιημένον, ὅπως ἀκούοιτο ὡς ἐπὶ πλεῖστον τοῦ ὁμίλου, ἔλεγε τοιάδε.

"In the same winter the Athenians gave a funeral at the public cost to those who had first fallen in this war. It was a custom of their ancestors, and the manner of it is as follows. Three days before the ceremony, the bones of the dead are laid out in a tent which has been erected; and their friends bring to their relatives such offerings as they please. In the funeral procession cypress coffins are borne in cars, one for each tribe; the bones of the deceased being placed in the coffin of their tribe. Among these is carried one empty bier decked for the missing, that is, for those whose bodies could not be recovered. Any citizen or stranger who pleases, joins in the procession: and the female relatives are there to wail at the burial. The dead are laid in the public sepulchre in the Beautiful suburb of the city, in which those who fall in war are always buried; with the exception of those slain at Marathon, who for their singular and extraordinary valour were interred on the spot where they fell. After the bodies have been laid in the earth, a man chosen by the state, of approved wisdom and eminent reputation, pronounces over them an appropriate panegyric; after which all retire. Such is the manner of the burying; and throughout the whole of the war, whenever the occasion arose, the established custom was observed. Meanwhile these were the first that had fallen, and Pericles, son of Xanthippus, was chosen to pronounce their eulogium. When the proper time arrived, he advanced from the sepulchre to an elevated platform in order to be heard by as many of the crowd as possible, and spoke as follows."

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Running with the wolves

Please forgive a little re-cycling.  The following is a slightly-modified Amazon review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.  The New York Times Book Review just this last Sunday featured the title story from her newly-published anthology, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher."  Both Wolf Hall and its first sequel, Bring up the Bodies, took Britain's Man Booker Prize, a remarkable achievement, and many are waiting with anticipation for the promised third and final installment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.  My review of the first:    

One difficulty with reviewing a historical novel is determining the importance of historical accuracy. The very name "historical fiction" assumes a certain license with the facts, and its appeal often lies precisely in the freedom of a novelist to propose a fresh take on a story we already know. But there are limits, and it's not easy to say when revisionist history impermissibly blurs into "Springtime for Hitler."

Thomas Cromwell is one of the great stock villains of English history. Some few years ago I read G.R. Elton's England under the Tudors, in which Cromwell was famously re-evaluated as the genius of the Tudor revolution, an unsung visionary of the modern practice of reform by parliamentary legislation. Elton's limited rehabilitation didn't, however, go so far as to elevate Cromwell's character.

One has to give Hilary Mantel credit for taking on such a task. Wolf Hall opens with Cromwell being beaten senseless by his father, a somewhat manipulative way of initially engaging our sympathies. Mantel's Cromwell is not only capable and resourceful; he is a loving husband and father, a loyal retainer to his beloved Wolsey, and a semi-secret adherent to the new religion of simple goodness for simple people through the translation of the scriptures into English. The problem with this characterization, of course, is squaring it with what the historical Cromwell actually did: enabling the absolutism of the English crown (and the political, dynastic, and sexual desires of Henry), and the destruction of all who stood in its way. The result is a Cromwell who is sometimes a modern secular liberal, sometimes a Machiavellian, sometimes a proto-Protestant. This succession of personalities gives the novel a certain variety, but at the expense of consistent characterization. Like Stendhal's Julien Sorrell, Cromwell has memorized the Latin New Testament; also like Sorrell, it seems to have had no effect on him. There is no apparent progress or corruption; the Cromwell who takes in hapless children at the beginning is the same Cromwell who destroys Thomas More, John Fisher and the Carthusians at the end.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised by my registering some protest at the characterization of More. Yes, of course, this is fiction, and there is plenty to criticize in More's conduct as chancellor. But Mantel has taken the leading light of English Renaissance humanism and cast him as a sadistic, arrogant bigot. Anyone familiar with More's own writing, or the writing of those who knew him, or even the most critical of his modern biographers, will not recognize the nasty character that Cromwell finally sends to the block. And, given the announcement of film deals, it's hard not to suspect that Mantel will be shaping the popular public image of More for the foreseeable future.

Mantel's writing style is vigorous, and her characterizations have force and life. The overriding atmosphere, though, is one of claustrophobia--both physical and moral. There is a recurring theme of incest: Henry and Arthur with Catherine, Henry with Ann and her sister (and perhaps their mother), Cromwell with his wife's sister, Ann with her brother, and anybody and everybody in the Seymour clan at Wolf Hall. These inbred loves, and the squalid, violent conclusion, made it, for me, a relief to reach the end, and I doubt I'll be returning for the sequels.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sacred languages

ἔγραψε δὲ καὶ τίτλον ὁ Πιλᾶτος καὶ ἔθηκεν ἐπὶ τοῦ σταυροῦ· ἦν δὲ γεγραμμένον· ᾿Ιησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν ᾿Ιουδαίων....καὶ ἦν γεγραμμένον ῾Εβραϊστί, ῾Ελληνιστί, ῾Ρωμαϊστί.

"Pilate wrote a placard and placed it upon the cross, on which was written, 'Jesus the Nazorean, the king of the Jews....And it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin."

Many religions have what can be called a sacred language.  Hindus have Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the great epics, and the Bhagavad Gita. Therevada Buddhism, I understand, privileges the Pali canon, as Islam gives pride of place to Quranic Arabic.

The inscription over the cross in St. John's gospel has always suggested to me the three sacred languages of Catholic Christianity:  Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, Greek, the language of the New, and Latin, the language of the Church.  One might even, with important qualifications, call them the languages of the Holy Trinity, the historic languages of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I don't mean to suggest that facility in a language has anything to do with entry into or the depth of one's practice of Christianity.  The majority of Christians through the ages may well have been illiterate, and obviously there are illiterate Christians whose devotion, charity and Christlikeness would put the average literate Christian to shame.  It's more a question about whether those Christians who have the opportunity, and the capability, to learn something of the sacred languages, should do so.

If, for instance, we ought to promote biblical literacy--as undoubtedly we should--does that not suggest that knowing the testaments in their original languages (to the extent that we have them) is of prime importance?  But, the objection runs, I'm not a genius--how can I learn Greek?  Well, however highly we think of the Greeks, they certainly weren't a race of geniuses.  I remember having this conversation with a young woman, objecting that she just wasn't smart enough or educated enough to know a second language.  During our conversation her gardener came in with his helpers.  She gave them their instructions in English, and they walked out speaking among themselves in their native Spanish, and she went back to telling me that only intellectuals could handle more than one language.

Learning another language certainly takes time and commitment.  But it's more a matter of will than intellect.  Poor and uneducated people, whether in the Old South or first century Palestine, will learn as many languages as it takes to get by.

Latin is sort of a special case.  It has no particular standing for the Eastern Orthodox, or for Protestants.  But for Catholic Christians it is the official language of the Church, the Church as Mater et Magister, Mother and Teacher.  Within living memory the most solemn worship of the Church was conducted in Latin (putting aside the Eastern Rites).  And though vernacular worship has been the norm since the promulgation of the Mass of Paul VI, the vernacular is still a translation from a Latin Roman rite, and there remains a vocal minority that prefers a Latin mass.  In that regard I think it's something of a shame that the appreciation of Latin in worship has come to be identified with reaction.  I understand full well that the majority of Catholics have neither the time nor inclination to learn Latin and I have no quarrel with mass in the vernacular.  But some limited availability of worship in Latin in no way threatens the prevailing approach.

I needn't mention how the acquisition of these ancient languages of the faith also opens up a world of incomparable literature.  Virgil and Homer, Plato and Cicero--these are names to conjure with.  Latin went on to become the common language of the West and remained the chief means of transnational learned communication through the day of Spinoza and Newton.  (It even occasionally shows its head in the title of blogs.)    

Latin is extolled within the Church as a common language, if not for the faithful, at least for the clergy.  Canon law requires that it be taught in ordinary seminary education.  How far that requirement obtains in real life I have no clue.  But it does promote, to some extent, that dream of a common language throughout the orbis terrarum.  If its usage today is limited, it can still be extolled, not only for its aspiration to universality, but for its long continuity.  As Pope St. John XXIII put it in his apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia:

Neque solum universalis, sed etiam immutabilis lingua ab Ecclesia adhibita sit oportet. Si enim catholicae Ecclesiae veritates traderentur vel nonnullis vel multis ex mutabilibus linguis recentioribus, quarum nulla ceteris auctoritate praestaret, sane ex eo consequeretur, ut hinc earum vis neque satis significanter neque satis dilucide, qua varietate eae sunt, omnibus pateret; ut illinc nulla communis stabilisque norma haberetur, ad quam ceterarum sensus esset expendendus. Re quidem ipsa, lingua Latina, iamdiu adversus varietates tuta, quas cotidiana populi consuetudo in vocabulorum notionem inducere solet, fixa quidem censenda est et immobilis;

Furthermore, the Church's language must be not only universal but also immutable. Modern languages are liable to change, and no single one of them is superior to the others in authority. Thus if the truths of the Catholic Church were entrusted to an unspecified number of them, the meaning of these truths, varied as they are, would not be manifested to everyone with sufficient clarity and precision. There would, moreover, be no language which could serve as a common and constant norm by which to gauge the exact meaning of other renderings.  But Latin is indeed such a language. It is set and unchanging. it has long since ceased to be affected by those alterations in the meaning of words which are the normal result of daily, popular use. 

I don't know if this is good linguistics.  This alleged immutability of Latin may be as aspirational as its universality.  But Latin certainly carries a kind of patina that no other Western language can claim.  I think of even the Harry Potter books, where Ms. Rowling put her spells into a kind of pidgin Latin.  Even children know that that's the language of antiquity, and of linguistic power.

Dr. Johnson once remarked, "Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can."  We have to admit that precious few of us aspire to "getting" much Greek.  Latin may still carry some of that allure, however much it has faded.  For those with the time to take it up, I think it very worthwhile.  And most of us would have plenty of time, even with full time jobs and families, were we not preoccupied with television, and smart phones, and the web.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A shameless plug

Skill, I think, can be acquired by training and practice.  Talent may be more of a gift. I haven't got it.  So I married it.

My wife Jeanine is a painter who works primarily in pastels, mixed-media, and oils.  The October, 2014, issue of Pastel Journal has an article entitled "Creative Beginnings," featuring Jeanine and two other artists on their paintings' foundations.  I can't take you to the article itself, but the link below shows a little more of their work:

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Traveler from the Maghrib

I have started reading an abridged translation of the Rihlah--the Travels--of Muhammad Ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah, whose wanderings from his native Morocco, between 1325 and 1354, took him as far east as China, and as far south as Timbuktu.  Living roughly a generation after Marco Polo, he exceeded the journeys of the better-known Venetian, and arguably anyone else we know of for centuries.

It was a time of relative peace between the Christian and Islamic worlds (the key word here being "relative").  In 1291 the last Christian stronghold in Syria, the fortress of Acre, fell to the Mameluke sultan al-Ashraf Khalil.  The Reconquista in Spain was mostly accomplished, save for the Muslim kingdom of Grenada.  The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks was still a century in the future.  Trade continued, as it always does, whenever it can, and pockets of minorities got on as well as they could within the larger civilizations. 

I have only gotten so far as Ibn Battutah's first pilgrimage to Mecca, by way of Syria.  Along the way he visits well-known shrines and tombs and consults with holy men, much as Christian pilgrims did.  He occasionally comes across heterodox groups, such as the "revilers" of Sarmin, and is careful to relate their extraordinary doctrines--here, an extreme hatred of the Ten Companions of the Prophet, to the extent that they cannot bear ever the number, "ten."  But their presence in an orthodox Sunni world is taken pretty much for granted.

He relates the following from his first visit to Syria:

"I witnessed at the time of the Great Plague at Damascus in the latter part of the month of Second Rabi of the year 749 [July 1348] a remarkable instance of the veneration of the people of Damascus for this mosque [the Mosque of the Footprints]....[A]fter performing the dawn prayer on the Friday morning they all went out together, walking barefoot and carrying Qur'ans in their hands.  The entire population of the city joined in the exodus, male and female, small and large; the Jews went out with their book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, their women and children with them; and the whole concourse of them in tears and humble supplications, imploring the favor of God through his Books and his Prophets."

There appears, to me, a great humanity in this joint response to a common calamity.  It is not, of course, what we would call religious freedom.  But it is an unusual marshaling of everyone to common prayer, of the sort that would be unusual even today, either in the secular West or in the Islamic states of the Near East. 

And it calls to mind an earlier incident, a Phoenician ship foundering in a great storm,

 וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים, וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אֱלֹהָיו, ...; וְיוֹנָה, יָרַד אֶל-יַרְכְּתֵי הַסְּפִינָה, וַיִּשְׁכַּב, וַיֵּרָדַם.  ו וַיִּקְרַב אֵלָיו רַב הַחֹבֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַה-לְּךָ נִרְדָּם; קוּם, קְרָא אֶל-אֱלֹהֶיךָ--אוּלַי יִתְעַשֵּׁת הָאֱלֹהִים לָנוּ, וְלֹא נֹאבֵד.

In great fear the sailors cry, each to his own god....Jonah, though, slinks down into the hold, to be interrupted by the captain:  Why are you sleeping?  Get up!  Call upon your god!  Perhaps he will act for us, and we will not be destroyed.

We all know the story--at least the whale part--but of course it ends in Ninevah, where the purported tomb of the reluctant prophet has only lately been destroyed. 

I am always dismayed when I hear the ISIS militants called "medieval."  Of course medieval people could commit atrocities and acts of cruelty.  But we moderns have often given them a run for their money on that score.  The demolished tomb, before its destruction, was a simple but strikingly beautiful building, where both Christians and Moslems made pilgrimage for centuries.  It was medieval people who designed and built it, the work, roughly, of contemporaries of Ibn Battutah.  The iconoclasts who blew it to rubble, disdaining tradition and all reverence for a common (if very human) prophet, were, distressingly, thoroughly modern.