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Asian Century or Asian Millennium?

By Tania Cleary - posted Friday, 30 March 2012


Progressive readers will appreciate that the writing or compiling of history is an industry that, like all literature, follows models and is influenced by human ego, bias and partialities. Authors are rarely detached onlookers so when contemporary media frames this century as the Asian century its authors can rightly be accused of drinking too much from the river of forgetfulness. The phrase is misleading, an extension of the Asian millennium more accurate. The Memory of the World International Register – a catalogue that encompasses by far the richest body of documentary heritage the world possesses illustrates this point. 245 collections of universal significance are inscribed in the International Register. Each inscription is secured in place by a powerful body politic - UNESCO - the agency of the United Nations that promotes education and communication and the arts. Since its inception in 1992 the Memory of the World Program has enabled previously inaccessible archival documents to become part of our global common heritage – indeed the whole collection is online including the nomination forms that document national justification for inclusion.

The inscriptions from Asia are numerous and, like links in a chain, they anchor the West to the East. They also remind us that Asia has always been an economic and cultural beacon. The only issue is how to lengthen our perspective? Like the Sybil of Cumae I leave that to fate; I lay our privileged expressions on the cave floor, the wind rushes in. The first leaves to fall are not disordered playthings but rock solid alphabets and scripts.

One of the world's most potent cultural symbols, the Phoenician alphabet, was nominated by Lebanon and inscribed in the International Register in 2005. Incised in one unbroken line along the edge of a decorated sarcophagus lid is a 38-word inscription which Itthobaal the son of Ahiram, king of Byblos, made for his father. It states: Now, if a king among kings, or a governor among governors or a commander of an army should come up against Byblos and uncover this coffin, may the sceptre of his rule be torn away, may the throne of his kingdom be overturned and may peace flee from Byblos. And as for him, may his inscription be effaced.

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The immense limestone sarcophagus, found in the royal tomb, rests on the backs of four crouching lions that jut out from the base at each corner. These regal beasts collectively bear the weight of an unfolding scene carved in low relief. An animated king sits on a winged lion throne. He holds a lotus in his right hand while he gestures with his left, his feet rest on a stool. A long procession of robed figures advances toward him; they place their offerings on a table, women weep.

From their bases on the coast between Syria and the Mediterranean Sea the Phoenicians manufactured purple dye, glass, enamel and metal objects. From Byblos, Sidon and Tyre they shipped grains, wines, textiles and precious stones from Egypt, Crete and the Near East to Greece, North Africa, Italy and Spain. From their garrisons at Cadiz, Carthage and Marseilles, in Malta, Sicily, Melos and Rhodes their abjab or alphabet bound together the East and West in a commercial and cultural hub. Developed from Egyptian hieroglyphic, Mesopotamian cuneiform and proto-Canaanite precursors during the 11th century BC, the alphabet contained twenty-two letters, no vowels and was written from right to left. The first two letters aleph and beth gave the name to the alphabet that influenced all languages with the exception of Chinese and its derivatives. The Greek alphabet and, by extension, its descendants including Latin, Cyrillic and Coptic, was a direct successor of the Phoenician. The Greeks changed some letter values to vowels and reversed the faces of others to accommodate writing from left to right.

The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of the modern Indian, Arabic and Hebrew scripts. The International Register includes the earliest dated Kufic script so far located in the world. Nominated by Saudi Arabia in 2003 the following inscription was pecked and engraved on a sandstone rock located south of Qa'a al Muatadil, north of Sharma in al-Ula, on the ancient trade and pilgrimage route connecting the city of al-Mabiyat with Madain Saleh:

In the name of God

I Zuhair wrote the date of the death of Omar the year four

and twenty (Hegrah)

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While we don't know who Zuhair was, we know that through his actions he forever linked his name with Omar bin al-Khattab, the second Islamic Caliph. Omar was a leading companion and adviser to the prophet Muhammad and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, whom he succeeded on 23 August 634 AD. During his reign Omar introduced Shari'ah (Divine Islamic Law), the Islamic calendar, the Holy Qur'an and the reciting of daily prayers during the Holy month of Ramadan. He seized control of territoriesand created an Islamic state that stretched from Mecca and Medina to Basra, Kufa, Syria, Jazira, Elya (Jerusalem), Ramla, Khorasan, Azarbaijan and Fars and incorporated the Egyptian provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Zuhair's engraving is a calligraphic memorial. The Caliph died from stab wounds on the last night of the year 23 Hegrah (643 AD) after a Persian captive attacked him as he led prayersin Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, the Mosque of the Prophet. Omar was buried in Al-Masjid al-Nabawion the first day the new year 24 Hegrah (644 AD) alongside Muhammad and Abu Bakr.

The third leaf to flutter to the cave floor is the Rigveda, 110 books of divinely inspired hymns of praise nominated by India and inscribed in the International Register in 2007. History places Bronze Age Vedic culture in the north and northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent and the hymns arededicated to the earliest Vedic deities – the elements of nature – sky, sun, earth, fire, light, wind and water. Poetry enabled these natural forces to be personified; the sky for example, became a father, Varuna; the earth became a mother, Prithivi; and vegetation was the fruit of their union. The rain was Paranya, the wind was Vayu, the pestilential wind was Rudra, the storm was Indra, the dawn was Ushas, the furrow in the field was Sita, the sun was Surya, Mitra or Vishnu, and the sacred soma plant was itself a god.

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About the Author

Tania Cleary is a Brisbane-based independant curator and author.

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