This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Yasuke, the first foreign-born samurai, as depicted in a Japanese children’s book by Kurusu Yoshio.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the lost chapter of the world’s first novel to the lost world of Ottoman cosmopolitanism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Lost chapter of world’s first novel found in Japanese storeroom

Alison Flood

The oldest written copy of part of the 11th-century Japanese epic The Tale of Genji, has been found in the home of a Tokyo family with ancestral ties to a feudal lord. Seen as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji was completed around 1010 by a woman of the 11th-century Heian court of Japan, who was later given the name Murasaki Shikibu by scholars. It centres on the fortunes – amorous and political – of Genji, the son of an emperor. The original manuscript of the story no longer exists, with the oldest versions of the story believed to have been transcribed by the poet Teika, who died in 1241.

Until now, just four chapters of the 54-chapter story are confirmed to be Teika’s transcriptions, but now a fifth chapter, which depicts Genji’s encounter with the girl who becomes his wife, Murasaki, has also been identified as Teika’s. The manuscript had been kept in an oblong chest in a storeroom at the Tokyo home of Motofuyu Okochi, a descendant of the former feudal lord of the Mikawa-Yoshida Domain in Aichi Prefecture, the Japan Times reported. [continue reading]

The Secret Origins of the U.S.-Kurdish Relationship Explain Today’s Disaster

Bryan R. Gibson
Foreign Policy

On June 30, 1972, two Kurdish men, Idris Barzani and Mahmoud Othman, arrived nondescriptly at the CIA’s sprawling headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and were led into the office of the agency’s legendary director, Richard Helms. They discussed a stunning shift in U.S. policy. Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, had personally authorized Helms to express American sympathy for the Kurds’ plight and assure them of his “readiness to consider their requests for assistance.” For more than a decade, the Kurds had been fighting against the Iraqi government and had made countless pleas for American assistance to no avail. Helms was now declaring that the United States had changed its mind. He failed to mention it would soon change again.

The long history of U.S. abandonment of the Kurds is well understood by most observers. What has mostly gone forgotten is that such eventual betrayals were entirely predictable given the way the two sides came together in the first place. Indeed, it’s impossible to understand President Donald Trump’s decision to support Turkey in waging war in Syria against U.S.-allied Kurds without understanding the largely untold origins of the U.S.-Kurdish relationship. [continue reading]

Yasuke: The mysterious African samurai

Naima Mohamud
BBC News

Almost 500 years ago, a tall African man arrived in Japan. He would go on to become the first foreign-born man to achieve the status of a samurai warrior, and is the subject of two films being produced by Hollywood. Known as Yasuke, the man was a warrior who reached the rank of samurai under the rule of Oda Nobunaga – a powerful 16th Century Japanese feudal lord who was the first of the three unifiers of Japan.

In 1579, his arrival in Kyoto, the capital at the time, caused such a sensation that people climbed over one another to get a glimpse of him with some being crushed to death, according to historian Lawrence Winkler. Within a year, Yasuke had joined the upper echelons of Japan’s warrior class, the samurai. Before long, he was speaking Japanese fluently and riding alongside Nobunaga in battle. “His height was 6 shaku 2 sun (roughly 6 feet, 2 inches (1.88m)… he was black, and his skin was like charcoal,” a fellow samurai, Matsudaira Ietada, described him in his diary in 1579. The average height of a Japanese man in 1900 was 157.9m (5 feet 2 inches) so Yasuke would have towered over most Japanese people in the 16th Century, when people were generally shorter due to worse nutrition. [continue reading]

This extroverted German baron helped a ‘pluralistic, sophisticated’ Islam bloom in Australia

Alice Moldovan
ABC News

Baron Friedrich von Frankenberg was an unusual pioneer of the Sufi movement in Australia. The German aristocrat was known as a bon vivant with an early and strong spiritual compass. But his real quest for meaning came after he was conscripted to the German army during World War I. “He prayed to whatever God he conceived, that if he could be released from the army he would devote his life to spiritual matters,” says Celia Genn, vice president of the Sufi Society of Australia.

While Sufism had been present in Australia well before 1927 — some of the cameleers who came from Afghanistan, India and surrounding countries in the 19th century were Sufis — the baron’s arrival reinvigorated the mystical religion. And it signalled the start of the multi-ethnic blooming of Islam in Australia, which would expand when new arrivals from across Europe, Russia and Cyprus gathered after World War II to form a diverse group. [continue reading]

Cosmopolitan Ottomans

Ussama Makdisi

The Arab East was among the last regions in the world to be colonised by Western powers. It was also the first to be colonised in the name of self-determination. An iconic photograph from September 1920 of the French colonial general Henri Gouraud dressed in a splendid white uniform and flanked by two ‘native’ religious figures captures this moment. Seated to one side is the Patriarch of the Maronite Church, an Eastern Christian Catholic sect. On the other side is the Sunni Muslim Mufti of Beirut. Gouraud’s proclamation of the state of Greater Lebanon, or Grand Liban, which was carved out of the lands of the defeated Ottoman empire, served as the occasion. With Britain’s blessing, France had occupied Syria two months earlier and overthrown the short-lived, constitutional Arab Kingdom of Syria. The pretext offered for this late colonialism was one that continues to be used today. The alleged object of France in the Orient was not to aggrandise itself, but to lead its inhabitants, particularly its diverse and significant minority populations of Lebanon, towards freedom and independence.

France separated the Christian-dominated state of Lebanon from the rest of geographic Syria, which itself was parcelled out along sectarian Alawi, Druze and Sunni polities under overarching French dominion. This late colonialism was allegedly meant to liberate the peoples of the Arab world from the tyranny of the Ottoman Muslim ‘Turk’ and from the depredations of notionally age-old sectarian hatreds. Thus General Gouraud appeared in the photograph not as a vanquisher of supposedly barbarous native tribes; he was neither a modern Hernán Cortés toppling the Aztec Montezuma nor a French reincarnation of Andrew Jackson destroying the Seminoles of Florida. The French colonial general who had served in Niger, Chad and Morocco was portrayed as an indispensable peacemaker and benevolent arbiter between what the Europeans claimed to be the antagonistic communities of the Orient. [continue reading]

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