12 July 2014

What is an appropriate way to mark the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War?

The phrase ‘lest we forget’ is often bandied around when it comes to Remembrance Day. Every year for 24 hours, we, the British public, are expected to remember one of the greatest losses in human history. With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I just around the corner, we are soon to be asked to remember this event more than we usually are. There will be poppies and silences, books and documentaries, music and wreathes. If you can associate anything with the First World War, it will probably be making an appearance at some point over the next few months. 

All except for one thing of course; some consider this a pretty vital piece in the World War I puzzle: the soldier. Florence Green, formerly of the Woman’s Royal Air Force, was the last surviving Great War Veteran. She passed away in February 2012. This raises a question which much be asked: should we remember an event which no-one can actually remember first-hand? There must be a stage at which we, as a society, have to move on from our past, horrific or not. The nature of what Remembrance Day has been since its inception in 1919 has remained much the same: a chance for those who suffered during the period to reflect and look back on what they endured, remember those whom they knew, that gave up their youth and prospects in order to fight for a cause. With that flame now coming to its smallest embers, we must now take action and stamp it out, once and for all. 

But why is it so important that we move on from our past? Is it such a bad thing that we remember what has happened, regardless if we were there to experience it or not? This is a valid concern, after all, it is often said that the reason mistakes continue to occur and war still persists to this day is because we do not learn from the past. However, I would argue otherwise. We do not learn from Remembrance Day, if we did, would Vladimir Putin still be trying to tighten his grip on Ukraine? Would Tony Blair still have been so complicit in his joint invasion of Iraq with George Bush? There may be words spoken by our world leaders of ‘how such a tragedy should never occur again’, but in reality, if there is an economic or social benefit to going to war, our leaders will be more than happy to do so. At this stage, Remembrance Day only draws attention to the awful events that occurred, but does not inspire action. Year after year the same few lines are said, and the situation never changes because of it.  

 This means that by moving away from Remembrance Day, we can turn public focus onto more pressing issues. The event occurs to allow our government to hide in a shroud of poems and wistful music, and away from scrutiny as they are seen to be doing the “right thing” by laying down their wreathes on national television. Instead of having a day of remembrance of the war, why not have a day of remembrance of what our government has done for us in the last year? In which we can challenge them and force them into change and gain something productive from the whole event. 

Now, this is not to say that there cannot be good things that come out of Remembrance Day. After all, important funds are collected for the aid of families who have been affected by service in ongoing conflicts today. However, this money can be collected through other means throughout the year, and does not have to be done during the month of November; in which it makes Remembrance Day seem like a more worthwhile cause than it actually is.  

 Not only does Remembrance Day not help change many key issues, it also perpetuates images of glory and honour being associated with war. This is something that the media is very intent on us doing. In reality, war is quite the opposite. There is no glory. Soldiers sit around for days, waiting for their next set of orders before they place themselves in the firing line, shooting at targets far off in the distance and dying from bullets that they never saw coming. It is a terrible waste of human life and time, where more diplomatic and peaceful approaches are tossed aside all too soon in place of it. Of course, this is not the image that the media or the political scene of our country would like to present; as war provides interesting headlines, in which the media can show the government’s cause as “just” from the “heroic” deaths of the soldiers. Not only this, but war allows the rich to get richer, as they manufacture weapons and rape the wealth from new lands they have conquered and bombed into ash. It is events such as Remembrance Day which helps normalise this in our society and only allows the elite to continue without question.  

Remembrance Day, is it worth it? It brings with it a multitude of issues, which only serve to continue the problems we see in society and remember a war that has now passed out of living memory. What positives it does bring are not unique to the event itself and are heavily outnumbered by the negatives. So, what is an appropriate way to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War? Let us forget, and focus on our current world; moulding it into one where such an event will never be allowed to occur again.

10 July 2014

How important was the River Nile in Ancient Egypt’s success as a civilization?

The phrase ‘Gift of the Nile’ has often been associated with the Ancient Egyptian civilization. From as early as 3000 B.C, settlers of the Nile were able to live along its banks in comfort and prosperity. It was the cornerstone of the civilization that would emerge over the next three thousand years; providing many of the key beginnings of advanced agriculture, faith and medicinal techniques. However, the extent to which the Nile was the all-important centre of Egyptian success has been questioned. Whilst it did provide certain advantages, there are other factors that have been suggested that can be attributed to Ancient Egypt’s success: its relative location to other civilizations and social structure to name but a few. Nonetheless, it can safely be said that these factors, Nile-related or not, combined together to create one of the most successful and long-lasting civilizations to ever exist.   

When thinking about the functions of rivers, particularly in the context of the ancient world; one advantage they bring to a would-be settler is their steady supply of easy to access water. Now, the idea of a river being an important part to a growing civilization is not all that original. After all, Mesopotamia, often considered the cradle of Western Civilization, literally translates into ‘land between rivers’. In that case, there must be a unique factor as to why the River Nile made Ancient Egypt successful. The River Nile is the longest river in the world, with that comes a particularly large amount of water. The Nile receives its large quantities of water from Ethiopia and its summer monsoons. Each summer the banks of the Nile would swell, creating a lush and fertile land that would allow for easy farming of crops and grazing for animals. This was an integral part of allowing groups of people to survive, considering the harsh conditions of the Sahara desert nearby; in which it would be near-impossible to have a successful agricultural-based society. Agriculture alone cannot make a successful civilization, however. The prosperity that the River Nile brought to Egypt was a means to an end, rather than the end to making it a great civilization. Having such ease of access to food and water allowed Ancient Egyptians to prosper, rather than merely survive. More time could be focused on other aspects of life. Whether this was investing time in art and literature, mathematics and science, the Ancient Egyptians were able to develop at a much faster pace than their contemporaries. The pyramids, for example, were huge feats of engineering and would have vastly outstripped the structures that would have been built by surrounding settlers. Such was the advancement that Egypt had over its surrounding enemies; that even the earliest depictions of Egyptian kings are quick to show the supremacy the Egyptians thought they had as a race over others. The prosperity which the Nile brought put Ancient Egyptians into a mind-set of thinking Egypt was the centre of the universe and that they had the gods on their side. 

Not only did Nile have a practical use as a river, it was deeply steeped in tradition. It informed many parts of people’s lives, including faith and medicine. At the time these two concepts each heavily informed the other. There were many key concepts to do with the Nile which the Ancient Egyptians simply did not understand. These included the monsoon rains which caused the river to rise, where the river originated from and even why it provided continual fertility of their soil. As a result, the Egyptians turned to religion for an explanation. To the Egyptians, the river was Hapi, the god of bounty. He was depicted as a well-nourished, bearded blue man. The reason as to why we know what the particular Egyptian god looked like is thanks to the significant influencing effect the River Nile had on religion. As one of the driving forces of many religious beliefs, the Nile helped create a wealth of art, which almost only depicted religious figures and ideas. It is by this expanse of culture by which we can judge Ancient Egypt as a successful civilization. On the other side to the coin, medicine was also significantly developed by the presence of the River Nile. Perhaps the most obvious theory that was created was one simply called the River Nile Theory. This was based on the idea that the human body, much like the Nile, was made up of channels of running blood from the heart to the other organs. And just like the River Nile, it was believed that if one of these channels got blocked the person would get ill. In addition to this, the River Nile also allowed for fairly easy trade with others. Trading would stretch as far as India and China. Through this trade many herbs and spices were able to be brought into the region, as well as medical knowledge from those places. This proved to form an important basis in which Egyptian medicine was able to develop. The success of this development can be testified with the lasting impact it had, as Aelius Galen (the prominent physician and surgeon in the Roman Empire), can be seen to have formed his own ideas about the circulation of blood in the body from the basis of the River Nile Theory. So, whilst there were immediate ways in which the River Nile helped in terms of medicine and religion, it is the longer lasting significance they had by which we can judge Ancient Egypt’s success as a civilization thanks to the river. 

It would be incorrect to discuss Ancient Egypt’s success without mentioning other aspects outside of the River Nile. Also significant to helping Egypt was the geography of the land which the settlers of the area found themselves in 5000 years ago. The Ancient Egyptians believed that Egypt was divided into two types of land: the ‘red’ and the ‘black’. The ‘black’ land was that which surrounded the Nile. It was fertile and used to grow crops. However, the land which made up the rest of Egypt was known as the ‘red’ land. This was mostly vast expanses of barren desert which at first might not seem all that useful, but arguably was more important in allowing Egypt to be successful. First and foremost, these deserts acted as natural defences against enemies, as it would be very difficult to survive for any amount of time when within them. Not only this, but mountains too provided protection. This can be seen especially in the East with the long mountain range which borders the Red Sea. This meant that only the mightiest of enemies were able to provide a serious threat. This security which Ancient Egypt enjoyed meant that a strong cultural identity was able to be built over many hundreds of years. This ‘red’ land also brought other features the Egyptians were able to take advantage of. These useful geographical features were particularly prevalent in the East of Ancient Egypt, as there were a large amount of mines and quarries. From these precious metals and gems were able to be taken for increased wealth; and limestone mined for the vast amount building materials needed for the many structures the Ancient Egyptians built. It is then perhaps not that surprising to find that the majority of archaeological sites of Ancient Egypt are towards the South-East, in which there was the highest density of quarries and mines.  From this, we can see that how apart from the River Nile, the geography of Ancient Egypt was a major advantage for the betterment of the civilization. It can be said that this factor is what made Egypt truly successful, as it allowed the population to thrive on huge amounts of wealth in relatively safety. 

Finally, the last and perhaps most significant factor when considering Egypt’s success is its society. Egyptian society was structured much like a pyramid, with the single Pharaoh at the top and the slaves at the bottom. Apart from keeping their lands safe and the people happy, one of the key jobs of the Pharaoh was to keep the gods pleased. Having the highest and most important person in society have such an emphasis on religion meant that the rest of society was also based around this key idea. As a result, the Egyptians were not all the militaristic, with their main concern when it came to opponents was keeping them out. Of course, there were exceptions to this rule. For example, the sack of Jerusalem in 10th Century BC. Nonetheless, as the ruler was so focused on religion, a huge amount of time and resources went into this pursuit by the whole population. The emphasis on religion can be seen in many ways: the pyramids, art and even who had power. The second most powerful person in the Egyptian hierarchy was the Vizier. This was the Pharaoh’s chief advisor and was also often the High Priest. As Vizier, they would be responsible for overseeing administration and all official documents would have to have their seal of approval. It is then important to see how significant an impact religion would have had over some of the most important aspects of rule. This prevalence of religion throughout the society created a culture that was dignified and responsible. Whilst this can be seen as an advantage, this ethos has been criticised. Whilst the Egyptians were cultured and ambitious because of their religion, they may also have been too dignified, with many of the men in power not wanting to be seen to “stoop down” and help those in need. This can perhaps be best seen with the mass grave pits slaves were given compared to the mighty temples and pyramids that were built for the Pharaohs upon their deaths. It shows Egyptian society to be one full of inequality, despite having many positive aspects. 

In closing, there is little doubt that Ancient Egypt was a successful civilization. Despite its slow decline since the end of the New Kingdom, it managed to generate a huge amount of literature, art and culture that has remained for us to see thousands of years in the future. Factors such as geographic location and societal structure; whilst being important, were not nearly as influential as the iconic river. It was the Nile which allowed Ancient Egypt to prosper for thousands of years, sustaining not only survival but the ability to thrive. This was something that the Egyptians took full advantage of, creating one of the most fascinating legacies any group of people have ever been able to leave behind.