Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Eve Middle Eastern blogging

If reader statistics mean anything, few people are looking for intellectual stimulation on Christmas Eve. Surprise! But I've run across a couple of items that I want to point to before I forget.

First is an amazingly meaty article from Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt) on a huge surviving Christian library which holds manuscripts from both the Coptic (Egyptian) and Syriac (Syrian) tradition. There are a couple of things worth noting about the article. First, it has the kind of intellectual heft you'd expect from a really good feature article in the New York Times. Second, it provides a reminder of something that my students in History of Islamic Civilization have heard me say: Egypt, Syria and a number of other Middle Eastern countries were once predominantly Christian, and the continuing Christian tradition is very poorly known. This could apply to any country. There's a politically dominant culture or identity that gets all the press, and then there are the more obscure traditions that despite the fact that they are adhered to by thousands or millions, seldom or never get mentioned at all. Not until one of those traditions "comes out of nowhere" to become a world-beater (like, say the Arabic tradition in the time of the Prophet).

The other item comes from the Washington Post where Syrian writer Sami Moubayed summarizes the history of Syrian women in the 20th century. In connection with my class I've done a bit of research into the topic of feminism and female emancipation in the Middle East, and what struck me was that the issues of the late 19th century and early 20th century weren't all that different from those of Europe, America, or Australasia. Nor does the chronology look amazingly different. Because those times are relatively close, we sometimes think a gap of 20 or 30 years is hugely significant. In the longer term, however, many very important developments look a lot more like world movements and not so easily identified (as so often) with a specific "Western" style of modernization.

Image of a 13th century Coptic New Testament from Al-Ahram. Interestingly, the main Coptic text is annotated in Arabic, or at least in the Arabic alphabet. Thanks to David Meadows at Explorator for catching that article.

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