March 23, 2003
Historical Illiteracy Watch

The Rottweiler quoted a bit of a Robert Fisk article that was so ignorant I had to go and look up the whole thing. Here is the part that struck me (and the nice doggie) most, from Fisk's pseudo-profound peroration:

In the early hours of yesterday morning, I looked across the Tigris at the funeral pyre of the Republican Palace and the colonnaded ministry beside it. There were beacons of fire across Baghdad and the sky was lowering with smoke, the buttressed, rampart-like palace sheets of flame soaring from its walls looked like a medieval castle ablaze; Tsesiphon destroyed, Mesopotamia at the moment of its destruction as it has been seen for many times over so many thousands of years.

Xenophon struck south of here, Alexander to the north. The Mongols sacked Baghdad. The caliphs came. And then the Ottomans and then the British. All departed. Now come the Americans. It's not about legitimacy. It's about something much more seductive, something Saddam himself understands all too well, a special kind of power, the same power that every conqueror of Iraq wished to demonstrate as he smashed his way into the land of this ancient civilisation.

There are at least three problems with this:

  1. There is no such city as 'Tsesiphon'. The Parthian city on the Euphrates near modern Baghdad, burned by the Romans in A.D. 165 and again in 198, is 'Ctesiphon'. (I get two Google hits for 'Tsesiphon', both from an Indonesian site with 'Islam' in its URL. I can't read Indonesian. It's possible that 'Tsesiphon' is the proper Indonesian spelling of the Parthian city: initial CT is a difficult combination in just about any language except Greek. It's also possible that the resemblance is coincidental and the word refers to something else entirely.)
  2. Alexander did not merely 'strike north of Baghdad', he captured all of Mesopotamia, and much more besides.
  3. It is highly misleading to say that "Xenophon struck south of here" and imply that he was a conqueror of Iraq. He was just one of 10,000 Greek mercenaries in the army of Cyrus, younger son of Darius II. Cyrus invaded the Persian Empire to overthrow his elder brother Artaxerxes II, but was defeated and killed at the battle of Cunaxa, which is indeed near Baghdad. Even as the rest of his army was being slaughtered, the Greeks on his right flank were victorious, and eventually fought there way north through what is now Kurdistan to the Black Sea and passage home. But Xenophon was not one of their leaders until after the battle, when Artaxerxes had treacherously murdered all the original Greek generals.

I suspect that there are more inaccuracies in the non-classical parts, but I hope I have shown that Fisk is as ignorant of ancient history as of contemporary politics. I suppose we should all be grateful that he didn't mention the fall of Troy.

One more fiskable bit of Fisk: "there has been no attempt by the US to destroy the television facilities because they presumably want to use them on arrival". Apparently it hasn't occurred to him that we might also be leaving Iraqi television on the air so Iraqis can count the hours and days that go by without any untaped appearances by Saddam, Uday, Qusay, and the rest. Totalitarian television tends to discredit itself.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at March 23, 2003 04:20 PM