Category Archives: Middle East

Revisiting the era of my namesake

A fort near the Valley of Elah, where David is said to have slain Goliath, is shedding new light on the period when David is said to have reigned.

The city needed 200,000 tonnes of stone and it is, as yet, unclear how it relates to the persons mentioned in the biblical tale — or indeed if it has anything to do with the Israelites at all.

“This is a new type of site that suddenly opens a window on an area where we have had almost nothing and requires us to rethink what was going on at that period,” said Aren Maeir, professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University and the director of a major Philistine dig not far from here. “This is not a run-of-the-mill find.”

The 10th century B.C. is the most controversial period in biblical archaeology because it is then, according to the Old Testament, that David united the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, setting the stage for his son Solomon to build his great temple and rule over a vast area from the Nile to the Euphrates Rivers.

But the archaeological record of that kingdom is exceedingly sparse — in fact almost nonexistent — and a number of scholars today argue that the kingdom was largely a myth created some centuries later. A great power, they note, would have left traces of cities and activity, and been mentioned by those around it. Yet in this area nothing like that has turned up — at least until now.

An enormous amount of work remains to be done, and nothing has been published on the artifacts uncovered by the archaeologists. There are also concerns about the project’s financing:  it is funded by a group that seeks “to strengthen the tie of the Jewish people to the land”.

But regardless of what is uncovered for certain, or to whom the city belonged, this is a wonderful site for work on the period. As the team has noted, there is very little evidence about the time. This means that anything that can be discovered is fantastic for historical and archaeological research and can add just a little more to the pool of human knowledge.

Saudi stands up to be counted

The kingdom is making progress, according to Emile Hokayem, a columnist for my former employer, The National.

While the hardware remains firmly in the hands of the ruling elites, the state is reasserting ownership of the “software” through gradual educational and judicial reform. Clerics are gradually losing their dominant say in courts and classrooms while the civil service and merchant class, the country’s lead reformers, are empowered.

Plainly, without the leadership of King Abdullah – whom many Saudis regret came to power too late – this progress would not have happened. At a time when his country was facing threats from radicals at home and challenges abroad, his personal credibility shifted the debate from whether the Saud family could still hold the reins of the country to whether the progress of the past few years will be sustained.

But the thrust of Hokayem’s argument is that greater Saudi independence from the United States enhances its position as a regional power and global force. Its massive oil wealth already gives it importance, but it is actively seeking friendly terms with the likes of Russia and China.

The rise of Asian consumers makes the Saudis less susceptible to leverage or pressure from their Western partners. One can already see a more evenly balanced set of “special” relationships between Saudi Arabia and its key customers, although it is doubtful that any of these new friends could provide the security guarantees that are implicit in the US-Saudi strategic partnership.

It will be interesting to see how far this political change goes, and whether Saudi can consolidate its position as a global actor.

Links o' the day, 23/10/2008

The journey so far… in numbers (Kathy Foley)

My Saks spree: How to spend $150,000 like Palin (Slate, chosen more for its oddness than me having an interesting in such shopping :P)

Is this the most eco-friendly car innovation since the hybrid? (Treehugger)

Leukemia drug halts, reverses MS (AFP)

New car targets 1,000mph record (Sky)

In Jordan, prayers for the persecuted (The National)

Fake cop busted after stopping real one (AP)

The return of micro-states? (Catholicgauze)

Dolls and toys that creep us out (Dark Roasted Blend)

X-rays made from Scotch tape (Boing Boing)

DNA and doggie do

The Israeli city of Petah Tikva is building a DNA database to help reward and punish dog owners.

The animal is taken to a vet for a swab and the results are kept on file.

Owners who scoop up their dogs’ droppings and place them in specially marked bins on Petah Tikva’s streets will be eligible for rewards of pet food coupons and dog toys.

But droppings found underfoot in the street and matched through the DNA database to a registered pet could earn its owner a municipal fine.

It’s certainly a novel way of doing things. But, as one Slashdotter muses, ” I wonder what sin you had to commit in a previous life to find yourself the official dog poop examiner of Petah Tikva, Israel”.

The Gulf and world heritage

Nabatean tombs at Al Hijr, Saudi Arabia

The latest additions to UNESCO’s World Heritage List include a healthy number of sites in the Gulf and wider Middle East.

Saudi Arabia makes its debut on the list, with the Al Hijr archaeological site (also known as Madain Saleh) deemed worthy. The complex of about 100 tombs is an important Nabatean ruin (the Nabateans built Petra in Jordan, perhaps best known as the location of the Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

The Socotra Archipelago in Yemen was one of the natural sites added to the list. It is a location of great biodiversity and home to many unique plants.

Other new inscriptions on the list include Armenian monastic sites in Iran, which the UN agency said represented “the last regional remains of this culture that are still in a satisfactory state of integrity and authenticity”.

UNESCO also inscribed the Bahá’i Holy Places in Israel as being of cultural significance. These include houses as well as tombs and modern buildings.