The Leshan Giant Buddha

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

The Leshan Giant Buddha, located near the city of Leshan in Sichuan Province, China, is a 233-foot (71-meter) tall stone statue built during the Tang Dynasty. It is carved out of a cliff face facing Mount Emei, lying at the confluence of three rivers that flow below his feet. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

Construction was started in 713 under the leadership of Chinese monk named Haitong, who hoped that Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. As it so happens, the mountain range in which the Leshan Giant Buddha is located was thought to be shaped like a slumbering Buddha when seen from the river, with the Leshan Giant Buddha now being at its heart.

However, the project stalled due to insufficient funding and the eventual death of Haitong. About 70 years later, an unnamed jiedushi (regional military commander) decided to sponsor the project, and construction was completed by Haitong’s disciples in 803.

As it turns out, constructing the massive statue resulted in so much stone being removed and deposited into the river below, that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, making the water safe for passing ships as Haitong intended.

In addition to being a marvel of design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is an impressive engineering feat, featuring a sophisticated drainage system carved into various places on the body to carry away rainwater and reduce weathering (hence why it is one of the few stone statues built in a wet environment to remain in fairly good condition). This ancient systems works to this day, although today the Buddha and its surrounding area is threatened by pollution more than anything (the government has promised to restore it).

The Leshan Giant Buddha, along with the Mount Emei area, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The photo below demonstrates just how large and impressive this monument is.

Giant Leshan Buddha

Happy Women’s Equality Day

A good friend of mine reminded me of an anniversary I should have remembered: on this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, prohibiting any citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. This was a culmination of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, which for decades fought at both state and national levels to achieve the vote (indeed, the amendment had first been introduced by suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton many years earlier in 1878).

Prior this amendment,  suffrage for women varied across the country, as the U.S. Constitution allows states to determine qualifications for voting. Since the nation’s independence, only New Jersey had allowed a limited form of women’s suffrage, which was revoked in 1807; the majority of states did not start granting some form of suffrage until the turn of the 20th century, not long before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.

In 1971, Congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced legislation designating August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day; since then, every president has issued a public proclamation for the commemoration.

The full text of the resolution is as follows:

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and [3]
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and 
WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as “Women’s Equality Day,” and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place

The U.S. was among the earliest nations to allow women to vote, but not the very first. Several polities that were briefly or questionable independent had allowed women suffrage for a time, including the Corsican Republic (1755), the Pitcairn Islands(1838), the Isle of Man (1881), and Franceville (1889). Moreover, there were some localities within particular realms, such as in Sweden and Colonial America, as well as among Amerindian groups like the Iroquois, that allowed some form of political participation for women.

But to keep it simple, we will start with what most scholars consider to be the first country to grant women suffrage: New Zealand, then an autonomous British colony, which granted allowed women the right to vote in 1893. It was followed two years later by fellow self-governing British colony South Australia; when Australia was formed in 1901, it allowed female suffrage one year later.

The first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, which elected the world’s first female members of parliament in 1907. Norway followed, granting full women’s suffrage in 1913. It was not until after the First World War that many European, Asian, and African countries allowed women to vote, including most of the Western Hemisphere. Several countries did not adopt such measures until the mid to late 20th century, including France in 1944, Italy in 1946, Greece in 1952 ,Switzerland in 1971, and Liechtenstein in 1984.

Among the most recent nations to join the trend are Namibia (1989), Samoa (1990), Qatar (1997), Bahrain (2002), Oman (2003), and finally the United Arab Emirates (2006, although suffrage is limited for men and women alike). Saudi Arabia remains the only country — unless you count Vatican City, the seat of the Papacy — where women cannot vote nor run for office, although it will presumably allow for both in 2015.

In any case, we have come a long way, even though voting is hardly the only area of concern for women’s rights. Check out this Atlantic article to see where women stand in various metric of well-being — from longevity to reproductive rights — across the world.

The Power of Stumbling Blocks

A stolperstein (German for “stumbling block”) describes one of several monuments created by German artist Gunter Demnig that commemorate a victim of the Holocaust. Stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for an individual victim of Nazism. The idea apparently arose from an old custom among non-Jewish Germans, who, upon stumbling over a protruding stone, would say, “There must be a Jew buried here.” A stolperstein is intended to similarly divert one’s attention. 

Demnig manufactures a concrete cube of four inches that he covers with a sheet of brass and stamps with the following details: the name, year of birth, and fate, if known. The stolperstein is then laid flush with the pavement or sidewalk in front of the last residence (or sometimes workplace) of the victim. The costs are covered covered by donations, collections, individual citizens, contemporary witnesses, school classes, or communities.

Stolperstein in Bonn for Ida Arensberg “Here lived Ida Arensberg. née Benjamin *1870 – deported 1942. Murdered in Theresienstadt on 18.9.1942″. Via Wikipedia.

As one historian noted: “It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.” Simply seeing them in pictures, I can concur. 

Here are a few more examples, many of which can be found in cities across Europe — a grim reminder of the Holocaust’s scope and scale.

You can read more about these powerful artistic works here.

Happy Birthday Red Cross

On this day in 1864, twelve European nations signed the seminal First Geneva Convention, which established “the basis…for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts” and with it what is now called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), conceived and founded by Swiss businessman and social activist Henry Dunant and Swiss jurist Gustave Moynie. 

The organization served as both the catalyst and enforcer of the convention’s articles, which were history’s first legally-binding rules guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict.

The first of several such conventions, this watershed moment for both international law and humanitarianism launched the wider Red Cross Movement (now known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement), which is comprised of several distinct humanitarian organizations geared towards protecting human life and health, ensuring respect for all human beings, and preventing and alleviating human suffering.

The ICRC is one of several institutions in this broad movement, along with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and 189 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Together these groups number around 97 million volunteers, members, and staff across the world, making it by far the largest movement of its kind in history. The Red Cross and Red Crescent remains the most enduring and universally recognized symbol of humanitarianism and compassion. 

The Top Ten Ancient Greek Artwork

As the cradle of western civilization and one of the most advanced societies known to have ever existed in the ancient world, it is little surprise that the ancient Greeks excelled in one of the key marks of an advanced civilization: art and cultural expression. Courtesy of the BBC are ten works that are noteworthy for their innovation and impact both at the time and for centuries after. 
 

Fallen Warrior from Temple of Aphaia (c 480-470BC)

Sculpture of a fallen warrior from the temple of Aphaia at Aegina. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images.

There is a tragic pathos to this mighty sculpture of a dying hero from a temple on the Greek island of Aegina. Tragedy is a Greek concept. The tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus are still performed. This statue shows a strong man fallen, heroic to his last breath.

The Pergamon altar (180-160BC)

Pergamon Altar. Athena against the giant Alcyoneus.

Pergamon Altar. Athena against the giant Alcyoneus. Photograph: Phas/UIG via Getty Images.

Classical Greek art changed rapidly as Greece itself went through wars and imperial transformations. In what is called the Hellenistic age it became much more emotional, sensual and even sensationalist. The furious sculptures on the Pergamon altar – which can be seen in its own museum in Berlin – are full of passion and psychological drama.

The Riace bronzes (460-420BC)

One of the two Riace bronzes: the Warrior

One of the two Riace bronzes: the Warrior Photograph: Alinari Archives/Alinari via Getty Images.

These tremendous statues found in the sea off southern Italy in 1972 are important because so few original Greek bronze statues survive. Most of the classical nudes in museums were carved in marble in the Roman era, as reproductions of such rare, and now largely lost, originals. Here we see the true majesty of Greek art in its classical age, which occurred in the fifth-century BC.

Goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon (c 438-432BC)

Three goddesses from east pediment of the Parthenon

Three goddesses from east pediment of the Parthenon. Photograph: ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Sitting and reclining in graceful unison, these goddesses carved in marble for the Parthenon in Athens are among the most beautiful and mysterious images of the human form ever created. Incredibly, the artist makes the draperies that cover their bodies as real and richly textured as similar garments painted by Leonardo da Vinci a millennium later – and who didn’t have to produce his illusions in stone. These are dream goddesses.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (c 447-438BC)

Metope from Parthenon, battle between Centaurs and Lapiths

Metope from Parthenon, battle between Centaurs and Lapiths. Photograph: DEA/G Nimatallah/De Agostini/Getty Images.

Violence is a favourite theme of ancient Greek artists. Reared on the myth of the Trojan war and experiencing the reality of wars with Persia and between Greek cities, classical artists found new ways to show conflict. This human fighting a centaur, carved for the Parthenon in Athens, is astonishingly real in its detail and dynamic energy.

God from the sea, Zeus or Poseidon (c 470BC)

A bronze sculpture of the god Zeus, or possibly Poseidon

A bronze sculpture of the god Zeus, or possibly Poseidon Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images.

This majestic bronze, found in the sea off Greece, conveys the magic of Greek mythology. The god – probably Zeus, lord of Olympus himself – is caught in the act of hurling a thunderbolt. His body is charged with divine power, and yet, it is a human body, neither colossal nor ethereal but the mirror of ourselves. The Greek gods are human, all too human, and their petty squabbles cause wars and sorrow in the world.

The Siren vase (480-470BC)

The Siren Vase

The Siren vase. Photograph: © Trustees of the British Museum.

In Homer’s Odyssey, one of the founding epics of Greek literature, Odysseus longs to hear the seductive yet dangerous song of the sirens that lure sailors to their deaths. So all his crew plug their ears, and Odysseus has himself lashed to the mast. This powerful painting captures the tension as Odysseus strains at his bonds, his whole body agonised, his head raised in rapt listening.

The Motya charioteer (c 350BC)

The Motya Charioteer

The Motya charioteer. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

This is one of the most startling Greek statues to survive, and highly revealing about the erotic charge of the Greek nude. This youth is not technically nude, but wears a tight-fitting garment that instead of hiding his body, heightens every contour. Greek statues are portraits of human beauty that are meant to be arousing as well as noble. This athlete poses in sensual triumph.

The Dionysus Cup by Exekias (c 540BC)

The Dionysus Cup by Exekias. Photograph: Matthias Kabel / Wikimedia.

Dionysus, god of wine and madness, sails on his boat, surrounded by dolphins, in this delightful painting. Part of the fascination of Greek art is that its themes were taken up by artists down the centuries, as the myths of this culture were constantly being rediscovered. So this image of Dionysus can be compared with later portrayals of the wine god by Titian, Michelangelo, or Cy Twombly.

Mask of Agamemnon (1550-1500BC)

Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Gold funerary mask

Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. Gold funerary mask. Photograph: Universalimagesgroup/Getty Images.

When the enthusiastic, romantically minded archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered this golden mask at Mycenae in 1876, he had no doubt that it must be the death mask of Agamemnon himself, the king who led the Greeks in the Trojan war, only to be assassinated on his homecoming. Of course there’s no proof of that, but it is one of the most compelling faces in art.

PSA: Your Default Narrative Settings Are Not Apolitical

Originally posted on shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows:

Victorian Women SmokingImage taken from tumblr.

Recently, SFF author Tansy Rayner Roberts wrote an excellent post debunking the idea that women did nothing interesting or useful throughout history, and that trying to write fictional stories based on this premise of feminine insignificance is therefore both inaccurate and offensive. To quote:

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN. It’s also a long series of centuries of women’s work and women’s writing being actively denigrated by men. Writings were destroyed, contributions were downplayed, and women were actively oppressed against, absolutely.

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and…

View original 2,546 more words

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

To mark the centenary of the First World War, tens of thousands of blood-red ceramic poppies will be planted around the Tower of London, each representing a life lost in the bloody four-year conflict.

The installation called ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was created by artist Paul Cummins and set designer Tom Piper with the help of a team of around 8,000 dedicated volunteers. Planting began on August 5, the start of the war, and will continue until November 11, Armistice Day (also known as Remembrance Day), which marks the end of the war.

By then, the iconic monument will have 888,246 poppies, a somber reflection of the staggering death toll. Both British and Commonwealth soldiers are represented, including around 74,000 troops from the Indian subcontinent who gave their lives to the empire.

At barely 120,000 or so poppies as of this post, it already looks sobering:

Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London. Between 5th August (start of the war) and 11th November (Remembrance Day), there will be a poppy planted for each death. Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London III Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, Tower of London IV

It is hard to imagine that each poppy represents a single human life, an individual with a name, identity, dreams, ideas, fears, loved ones. To think that all this is but a fraction of the over 16 million people who died, nearly half of whom were civilians (I can only imagined the scale of this project if it entailed all those lives.

The poppy became a symbol of remembrance in Britain during the First World War, inspired by a 1915 poem called “In Flanders Field” by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, which recalled the fragile flower melding with the dead in Flanders, Belgium (the site of many horrific battles).

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The ceramic poppies do an excellent job of visualizing just how many individuals died in this senseless conflict. Each took three days to make and were put up for public sale; after the last poppy is planted in November, the small sculptures will be sent to buyers and the proceeds will go to British charities such as the Royal Legion and Help for Heroes, which serve British veterans.

Source: The Independent

An Excellent Summary of the Tragedy of WWI

As the centennial of history’s first world war falls further behind us, so too will the necessary ruminations and analyses that remain relevant in our fragile international system. While there are nor shortage of well-written and deeply-reflective pieces on the subject, the following one by Burt Solomon of The Atlantic is one of my favorite. Although this excerpt stood out the most, I strongly recommend reading the whole thing — it is succinct but on point.

And for this, more than 16 million men went to their slaughter, many of them in cruel and creative ways. In trenches that stretched an unbroken 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border, the Germans constructed walls using corpses, so that French troops who captured a trench hung canteens from protruding ankles. Along the Somme River, in northern France, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded in 1916 for an Allied advance of seven miles. Poisonous gas filled a quarter of all the artillery shells fired on the western front in 1918. More than a third of German males born between 1892 and 1895 died in the course of the war. The killing spread to civilians in England and France attacked by German zeppelins. War was no longer noble, even as some of the men who fought it were noble beyond compare.

It was a sad, pointless war, for which we’re still paying a price. A hard-hearted peace treaty and a ravaged economy produced a “lost generation” of young Germans and led directly to the rise of Hitler and an even uglier worldwide conflagration. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement reached by Britain and France in 1916 drew arbitrary boundary lines across the postwar Middle East—around Iraq, for instance—that are returning deadly dividends to this day. The toppling of the Russian monarchy and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a balkanized Europe that, as recently as the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over strife-torn Ukraine, pains us still. The world was a nastier place after the war than before it.

All wars tell us something about the basest regions of human nature, the First World War (caustically named in 1918 by an English journalist who thought it would not be the last) more than most. About the nature of covetousness, the perils of insecurity, the ease of losing human control over human events.

We’ve come a long way in many respects, but only up to a point. Complacency with regards to a seemingly stable and prosperous future had also proceeded the First World War. This isn’t intended to be alarmist — I am well aware that the world is a far more peaceful place than it has ever been, relatively speaking — but it is a reminder that peaceful coexistence and the overcoming of our basest motives for violence and cruelty require tremendous vigilance and an understanding of the mistakes from the past. That is pretty much the only good thing to take away from such a horrifically pointless but deadly conflict.

Before They Pass Away

A friend of mine shared some great photos from Imgur of various indigenous and tribal cultures that are quickly disappearing in the face of changing times and social pressures.

I did some research and found that they are from a series I had heard about before called Before They Pass Away, a project that collects photos and accounts of some of the most remote and ancient civilizations in the world. It is the brainchild of British photographer Jimmy Nelson, who maintains a website for the series that documents his three-year journey across 44 countries.

There is already a book about the project that includes over 500 of these excellent photos (you can browse through some parts on the website). I definitely plan on buying it one of these days. The images are captivating both aesthetically and in the stories they tell; I love the expression and demeanor of the subjects — often proud and stoic, though sometimes hinting at deeper uncertainty and worry — as well as the sheer beauty of their settings, which are unsurprisingly some of the most isolated and pristine in the world.

That these groups have endured such typically harsh and untamed areas for generations (if not millennia) is a testament to their sophistication and tenancy.

Here are some of my personal favorites, although I fell in love with them all.

The Kazakhs of Mongolia.

The Huli of Papua New Guinea.

The Maori, New Zealand.

The Gauchos, Argentina.

Nelson also has an interesting TEDx Talk where he discusses his journey and the various connections he made and things he learned. I recommend you give it a listen. It is pretty inspiring and makes me even itchier to travel.

How The Ancient Egyptians Spoke

If you have ever wondered how the Ancient Egyptian language sounded, listen to the liturgical hymns of the Coptic Church, the only place it is still widely spoken.

First recorded in 3400 BCE, Egyptian is the earliest known language in history, rivaled only by Sumerian. Like all languages, it evolved over its long lifespan, becoming Demotic by 600 BCE and Coptic by 200 CE. It began to decline thereafter, going extinct by the 17th century and surviving only as a religious language, with very few fluent speakers outside of some clergy (my research suggests that only one family is known to speak it as a first language).

There have been sporadic but unsuccessful efforts to revive Coptic for mainstream use. Below is one of the few videos I have found of Coptic being spoken outside of a liturgical context. Superficially, it sounds a lot like Arabic, which isn’t too surprising since it falls under the same large language family of Afro-Asiatic and evolved during centuries of Arab rule (some things do sound familiar to me, such as the term for “and”).