Monday, May 5, 2014

Origins of might not like the answer.

East to West

A little background is in order:

"Under the last of the Umayyad, the Arabian empire extended two hundred days journey from east to west, from the confines of Tartary and India to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. And if we retrench the sleeve of the robe, as it is styled by their writers, the long and narrow province of march of a caravan. We should vainly seek the indissoluble union and easy obedience that pervaded the government of Augustus and the Antonines; opinions, but the progress of Islam diffused over this ample space a general resemblance of manners and opinions.. The language and laws of the Quran were studied with equal devotion at Samarcand and Seville: the Moor and the Indian embraced as countrymen and brothers in the pilgrimage of Mecca; and the Arabian language was adopted as the popular idiom in all the provinces to the westward of the Tigris."  

"Manners and opinions..."  The Islamic invasions that began in the 7th century were not about selling monotheism to the locals. Instead, it was an expansion based on commerce; i.e., expanding trading opportunities in a wider world, this due largely to the political and military vacuum created by the decline of both the later period Western Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. These two had been fighting a long war of attrition that basically exhausted the resources of both states and eventually led to the complete collapse of the western half of Rome's great power base. The Arab expansion was also precipitated by conflicts within the Arab world itself and subsequently, a broader unification of Islam occurred following the death of Muhammad in 632, which established his right-hand man, Abu Bakr as the 1st Caliph -- if you like, the equivalent of Pope, General and Emperor of the existing Islamic world.  And as an aside, created the first sectarian riff within Islam itself, a conflict that remains to this day.    

Other historians suggest "that formation of a state in the Arabian peninsula and ideological (i.e. religious) coherence and mobilization was a primary reason why the Muslim armies in the space of a hundred years were able to establish the largest pre-modern empire until that time. The estimates for the size of the Islamic Caliphate suggest it was more than thirteen million square kilometers (five million square miles), making it larger than all current states except the Russian Federation."  Key word: "mobilization." 

But before putting forth the rest of my hypothesis on the development of farriery, a few myths need to be dissolved:  A good many amateur scholars, authors and other assorted pundits have prophesied much and proved little under the empirical model. Truth is, I don't plan to either, as I deal in the realm of history...which unlike the sciences, incorporates all the other academic disciplines to propose "a reasonable and rational conclusion."  A lot like anthropology...we think this is, but we don't really know for sure. So feel free to stone my temple. 

First and foremost, Charleton Heston did NOT invent horseshoeing, even though the producers of Ben-Hur thought it might be otherwise.  Yes, the Romans did bring much to the world (most of it swiped from the Greeks), but farriery wasn't one of the benefits.  What originally fueled this assumption can be attributed more to bad science and wishful thinking than anything based on fact. The assumption seemed to have come to fruition during the last heyday in horseshoeing literature: 1830-1900, where authors of the day often pointed to horseshoes dug up around England and France, attributing them to the Roman occupations that occurred over a 500 year span or so. Seems logical...perhaps?  Except for the fact that radio-carbon dating had as yet, to be invented, complicated further by the inability of this process to carbon-date inorganic material. Meaning that the only way to date these horseshoes would be to dig up one with the horse still attached to it.  Not a likely scenario.  So sure, they might be old, but how old?

Another tale dealt with the Roman poet, Gaius Valerius Catulus, who hung around Rome around 60BC. A well-known poet and social critic (the latter most likely an unhealthy habit in Rome at the time), but even so, many of his works managed to survive over time. Often critical of Rome's social schisms, his poetic license was often misinterpreted by later scholars, embracing poetic metaphor in favor of realistic scrutiny. Certain references exist to horses hooves, these related to 'adornments' often misconstrued as a shoe of some kind. The reality was that the hooves of horses and burros were often decorated for festivals and celebrations to advertise the status and wealth of the owner.  We do the same thing here with a high-end Mercedes. But let's back up a minute.

When I re-entered academics in my 40's, I was a little shy about the whole thing. So the first class I took was Art History. Figured it would be a class full of bored housewives and I could waste a few bucks to see if I really owned a brain. Well, I became a little amazed by the whole thing, for you see, much of antiquity is only explained through the surviving art of the time: statuary, frescoes, architecture, even the most utilitarian objects like pottery and utensils.  It is all that survives of a long-lost culture, and it is here where the forensics of history begin. And yes, like this particular blog -- speculative, but that's about all we've got. So the job then is to NOT let the thesis define the interpretation.  Not always an easy task. but back to the streets of Rome:

[2nd Century AD]
Fast forward:  Marcus Aurelius (original bronze, circa 175AD). The Romans very much adopted the Greek style of 'realism.'  Yet in the few remaining bronzes from the Roman period, none were shown shod.  This particular piece (life-size) did survive the centuries, but only by chance. Many of these bronzes were melted down as dynasties (leadership) changed. Most to make new coins of the realm, but once Christianity took hold, many were destroyed because they were considered 'pagan idolatry' -- Christianity already becoming a religion of intolerance. See, the locals assumed that this was a statue of Constantine, Rome's first Christian emperor and so quite remarkably it was spared destruction.                 
[Date unknown]

Two other issues play into Roman history. The first concerns the 'Roman roads,' a network of highways that existed throughout the vast realm. The obvious question is, "Why?" Certainly for expanding commerce, but more likely as an adjunct to move armies and logistical supplies quickly and with little attrition to wagons or horses.  As all of us know, a paved road is a lot less abrasive or destructive to a horse's hooves than rocky or sandy ground, not to mention the toll wrought on axles and wheels. And most of these roads were highly engineered -- constructed using the most direct route possible. (Even today, much of the M1 in the UK -- the main north to south route -- is constructed on top of a Roman road.)  Yet it is here, in the middle Roman years that we encounter the infamous: Hippo-sandal.

I've always had a few issues with this particular notion. First, it is not farriery. (Yeah, I'm nit-picking.) In fact it reminds me of the current 'barefoot movement,' which rescues the failure of their ideology by the application of a boot.  Secondly, the engineering, particularly in the bottom specimen, seems highly flawed. But perhaps the biggest issue is trying to imagine these devices used on uneven terrain, in the mud...charging wildly at a bunch of angry barbarians.  And the maintenance and application must have been a horrendous undertaking.  Spare tire?  Perhaps. What these devices do show however, is that all armies were limited by how much wear a hoof could tolerate over distance; in the case of the Roman Empire, over some of the most inhospitable ground on the planet.  

The Caveat:

The first thing to appreciate is that the Arab invasions were NOT conducted by a bunch of ragged Bedouins on camels. Hardly. They numbered in the thousands, sported a well-disciplined cavalry and yes...they had a formidable navy; so powerful, that by 700AD, they owned both sides of the Mediterranean Sea and had advanced from Damascus, all the way to the Atlantic and into western Europe.  And a good portion of their armies were also composed of Christians -- persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church as heretics to the one great Christian religion.  And yes, sectarianism and politics permeates all organized religions. But the key to the success of the Arab military advances seemed to lie in how they covered such tremendous amounts of ground with their horses -- over some of the harshest terrain in the known world -- and to do it with incredible speed. However, it should not be construed that the invasion went off like clockwork. The Islamic armies had many setbacks, including outright defeats, and continued to experience a great deal of internal dissent.  But in the end, they prevailed, marking the end of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire.

The Arab Dynasty

The Quran:

Now I suppose that for some, the Holy Book of Islam would not necessarily be the first choice for seeking out historical facts. The same could easily be said for Christianity's Bible. Yet, behind the poetic metaphors, the moral chastisements and the rest of the God is Great sale's pitch, they nonetheless can offer a peek at the culture and societal norms of the time.  They can even offer a clue to something as utilitarian as horseshoeing:

Verses from (1 - 5)
1- I swear by the runners breathing pantingly,
2- Then those that produce fire striking,
3- Then those that make raids at morn,
4- Then thereby raise dust
5- Then rush thereby upon an assembly

Strikers of Fire...

Hmm. Poetic it is, but how else do you make sparks with a hoof, other than having a ferrous metal of some kind attached to said hoof?  And knowing what we know to be true today, how do armies move that far and that fast with a finite number of horses? Sure, it is NOT proof, but I can accept the notion by what little evidence that actually exists today. But a few of things are also important to consider, whether you are willing to accept this conclusion or not:  1.) Farriery is much older than we might have previously assumed -- meaning that the skill pre-existed the Quran. 2.) The shoe itself was not the critical matter here.  It was the nail.  And 3.) The Arab armies made it into western Europe and subsequently the craft appeared in various literary references within a hundred years of the final Arab invasion. Even during the First Crusade, it has been noted that a widespread call went out for those skilled in the art of farriery.  And in later European conflicts, their existed a protocol within all armies, that when it came to farriers, the policy was "to capture, not kill" these skilled artisans. That was how valuable farriery became in the Age of the Horse.     

{The following section is a little tedious, but it attempts to explain the origins of the Quran itself:}

The compilation of the written Qur'an (as opposed to the recited Qur'an) spanned several decades and forms an important part of early Islamic history. Muslim accounts say it began in the year 610 when Gabriel (Arabic: جبريل, Jibrīl or جبرائيل, Jibrāʾīl) appeared to Muhammad in the cave Hira near Mecca, reciting to him the first verses of the Sura Iqra (al-`Alaq), thus beginning the revelation of the Qur'an. Throughout his life, Muhammad continued to have revelations until before his death in 632.[1] Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike disagree on whether Muhammad compiled the Qur'an during his lifetime or if this task began with the first caliph Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (632-634). Once the Qur'an was compiled, due to the unanimity of the sources, Muslims agree that the Qur'an we see today was canonized by Uthman ibn Affan (653-656). Upon the canonization of the Qur'an, Uthman ordered the burning of all personal copies of the Qur'an. The reason why Uthman gave this order is discussed further in the section below entitled "The Collection of the Qur'an". The copy of quran kept with wife of Mohammad named Hafsa was accepted for public. Until then, several copies of Quran were available in different regions of Arabia with some grammatical errors, so Uthman's order allowed only one version of Quran to exist to prevent any misinterpretation of quranic text or word of God (Allah).

So that's what I know and think about the whole matter. Couple of interesting side-notes in wandering down the yellow brick road of horseshoeing. Rome should get the Guinness Record for the most assassinations of Emperors in history.  Islam gets second for bumping off Caliphs and the Vatican runs a close third.  The production of crude carbon steel dates back to 8500BC.  Damascus steel to 300BC...only it originated in India as Wootz steel. And if you ever want to read an fascinating history on crucible steel: "The Arms of Krupp," William Manchester; 1968. Much more in this read than you might think.   Oh...and Genghis Khan showed up about 1200AD and trashed Europe all over again. Yet oddly, many Mongols remained in eastern Europe and central Asia, as permanent settlers, and eventually converted to Islam.  I suppose in this age, some folks might find it odd perhaps, but once the fighting ended, Islam offered the benevolent hand of their faith to all who cared to embrace it.  Other faiths were not so generous.  Oh, one more thing. The Arabs were the only outside force to ever conquer Afghanistan. Pentagon should have asked for a little advice before wading into that mess.