Friday, November 20, 2009

The Land Between The Rivers

For millenia, humans settled the land between the two rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, to grow their crops, raise their families, and build great cities. Indeed, the earliest human civilization came about there because of these grand rivers.

Today, due to a number of factors - mostly human - that water flow is in danger and the green Mesopotamian plain is threatened with becoming a desert. The European Water Association warns that the waters of these rivers could disappear by 2040. The amount of water in the Euphrates has already fallen by 75% over the past decade.

The waters of the Tigris and Euphrates originate in Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Syria. Damming and increased water storage upstream are diminishing the water flow into Iraq. Other factors including drought due to climate change, population growth in Iraq, the absence of economic water pricing and a lack of erosion control in Iraq, are heavily exacerbating the situation.

The result is desertification, a reduction of land for grazing, and more severe sandstorms in Iraq as the earth is loosened, gathered up by the winds, and scattered.

Steps are being taken by the Iraqi government to address the matter. However, like many challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere, moving rapidly and with great efficacy is imperative if one of the cradles of civilization is not to exhaust itself.

A recent article in the New York Times describes this critical situation in more detail.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Manual of Astronomy

This text is just one example from the over 10,000 Islamic manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics that have been recorded to date. Entitled Kitab al-Suwar (Manual of Astronomy), this manuscript is attributed to one Abir al-Husain and dates back to 960 A.D. It is housed in the National Museum of Damascus.

Astronomy and mathematics were considered sister sciences in the Islamic world. The former discipline, which Muslim scholars classified as "the science of the aspect of the universe" was treated as a special extension or branch of mathematics. One of the goals of astronomy was to study the visible movements of the stars and provide them with a geometric presentation. This, in part, helped to ensure that the five daily canonical prayers and various religious celebrations be carried out at exactly the right time.

Monday, November 2, 2009


"Seville feels very Arab," I recently told a Sevillian. "What do you mean 'feels'?", he responded. "We ARE Arabs."

This quintessential Spanish Andalusian city does indeed feel very Arab, with an enigmatic oriental spirit, a sense of cunning and a joie de vivre found among its residents. The city holds this spirit despite the echoes of the Inquisition and its very Christian and Catholic past demonstrated yearly in the spooky marches of Semana Santa - with capes, cones, and all.

Seville, once Arab 'Ishbilia', and before that, the Roman 'Hispalis', is a city that during the right season appears like a collection buildings strewn about a large orange orchard with cobbled streets. Some of the remaining Moorish city walls can be seen from the top of the Giralda, the massive minaret turned steeple. The walls embrace and contain this large urban space situated on the Guadalqivir River (from Arabic 'Wadi El Kebir' or the Big Valley). It is here, where the river stops being navigable for ocean-going ships - a convenient stopping point - that Seville was founded.

In the rabbit warren of low rise buildings below the Giralda, a rich history unfolded: Yemenis rose up against the great Abdel Rahman I, the exiled Umayyad king from Damascus; it is where sailors readied to sail to the Americas and drank themselves to oblivion, as many still do today in the Sevillian night; and where the great Ibn Khaldun came to look for his family's roots.

The city was the setting for the infamous Don Juan, from the play the "Trickster (Burlador) of Seville" by Tirso de Molina. Seville was also the centre of the "poetry mad" Abbadids - Muslim strongmen of the 11th century, and rivals of the rulers of Toledo. It remains today a centre for play and cunning.

Many things in Seville are interestingly odd. The city's motto, on its flag, is NO8DO. The "8" apparently represents yarn, or "madeja" in Spanish. The motto when read aloud would be "NO madeja DO" mirroring the words "No me ha dejado" or "it has not abandoned me."

The city's apparent oddness comes from its succesful mix of cultures: the mosque turned cathedral, the minaret turned steeple, the Andalusian Arabs turned Andalusian Spanish, and Hispalis turned Ishbilia turned Sevilla. Castillian monarchs even decorated their palaces with the Muslim inscription: "Wa la ghalib ill Allah" which translates to "There is no Victor but God".

This is indeed still today an 'Arab' city. It is mysterious, on the edge, and full of street humour and trickster-like personages. Like most matters in Seville, the Giralda has a twist: it was built with a ramp, not stairs, to reach its distant top. For centuries, early in the morning, Sevillians would hear the sound of horseshoes on cobble stone as the Muezzin rode horseback up the tower to sound the call to prayer.