In the Court of the Lion of Judah

The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah

He was short and somewhat frail, yet Haile Selassie managed to reign as Emperor of Ethiopia for some 44 years, from 1930 to 1974, when his government was toppled by a revolution. Although his book about Selassie, entitled The Emperor, has come under fire for certain inaccuracies, Ryszard Kapuściński leaves us an unforgettable portrait which is probably mostly true. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

His Majesty spent the hour between nine and ten in the morning handing out assignments in the Audience Hall, and thus this time was called the Hour of Assignments. The Emperor would enter the Hall, where a row of waiting dignitaries, nominated for assignment, bowed humbly. His Majesty would take his place on the throne, and when he had seated himself I would slide a pillow under his feet. This had to be done like lightning so as not to leave Our Distinguished Monarch’s legs hanging in the air for even a moment. We all know that His Highness was of small stature. At the same time, the dignity of the Imperial Office required that he be elevated above his subjects, even in a strictly physical sense. Thus the Imperial thrones had long legs and high seats, especially those left by Emperor Menelik, an exceptionally tall man. Therefore a contradiction arose between the necessity of a high throne and the figure of His Venerable Majesty, a contradiction most sensitive and troublesome precisely in the region of the legs, since it is difficult to imagine that an appropriate dignity can be maintained by a person whose legs are dangling in the air like those of a small child. The pillow solved this delicate and all-important conundrum.

I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth—I say it with pride—His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur. I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors. I personally monitored their storage, constantly, so that fleas—the plague of our country—would not breed there, since the consequences of any such oversight could lead to a very unpleasant scandal.

Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku: Gate of the Sun

I must think I’m going to live forever.Trapped in my apartment during the quarantine, I am thinking more and more about returning to Peru and including the altiplano of Bolivia. Here I am at age 76, thinking of a strenuous trip at high altitude to one of the most fascinating (albeit difficult) places on Earth.

In 2014, I spent some time on the western shore of Lake Titicaca, on the Peru side. I even took a tour on a launch to Isla Taquile and one of the Uros Isles, but as the boat left the dock, I discovered that I was beginning to suffer the effects of food poisoning. The former afternoon at Sillustani, I ate something in a farmer’s house that violently disagreed with me. What is more, I was hours away from a toilet. Under the circumstances, I was not able to appreciate the beauties of Lake Titicaca, and in fact I took no pictures that day.

Map of Lake Titicaca, Showing the Location of Tiwanaku at Lower Right

Just as I returned to Tierra Del Fuego after breaking my shoulder there in 2006, I plan on returning to the Peruvian side of the lake, and adding some parts of Bolivia to the mix. I find myself suddenly interested in the Aymara-speaking peoples of the Andes.

A funny thing happened to me in Puno during my last visit. It was a bitterly cold morning, as it frequently is at that altitude (12,000 feet or 3,700 meters). I had neglected to bring a scarf with me, and I badly needed one. Enter a poor Aymara woman laden down with hand-knitted handicrafts. I walked up to her and brought a beautiful scarf at a reasonable price. Apparently, I made that woman’s day. She broke into a big smile and was almost prepared to welcome me into her family.

Over a thousand years ago, there was an Aymara empire centered at Tiwanaku in modern-day Bolivia. It lasted until AD 1100 when a massive and persistent drought led to a drop in the level of Lake Titicaca, leaving the Aymara fields high and dry. Hundreds of years later, the Inca took over; but their empire was short-lived once the Spanish conquistadores began to move in.

Walls of the Kalasaya Complex at Tiwanaku

Since the eco-catastrophe that destroyed the Aymara empire a thousand years ago, the Aymara have become a scattered people indulging in subsistence agriculture and the herding of llamas and alpacas.

Cerro Rico

The Cerro Rico, or “Rich Hill,” in San Luis Potosí, Bolivia

One thinks of mines as delving deep into the earth. The silver mines at Cerro Rico in San Luis Potosí, Bolivia, are no exception—except for one little fact: The mines are at an altitude of 15,000 feet plus (4,700 meters), high enough that the miners must chew coca leaves so that they could work without the debilitating effects of soroche, acute mountain sickness.

In his book Valley of the Spirits: A Journey into the Lost Realm of the Aymara, Alan L. Kolata writes:

Silver was the prize that inspired unbridled lust in the Europeans who conquered the Andean world in the sixteenth century. The frenzy for veins of silver from the majestic Andes destroyed whole nations of Indians. After decades of warfare, pestilence and famine, the ravaged native populations were subjugated into slave labor in the hellish mines of Potosí in southern Bolivia. Desperate for laborers to work the fabulously rich deposits, Spanish overlords laid claim to the traditional laborers, the mit’a, that the Indian nations rendered to their native monarchs. More than one-seventh of the native population between Cuzco in southern Peru and Tarija in southern Bolivia were pressed into service in the mines of Potosí. Conditions in the mines were bestial. Even the Spanish dogs of war were treated with more compassion than the native conscripts who died in unremembered numbers.

“Conditions in the Mines Were [and Are] Bestial”

They still are bestial. The Cerro Rico is still being mined, though with diminishing rewards. Between the 16th and the 18th century, 80% of the world’s silver supply came from this mine. According to Wikipedia:

After centuries of extractive mining methods that severely damaged the local ecology the mountain continues to be mined for silver to this day. Due to poor worker conditions, such as a lack of protective equipment against the constant inhalation of dust, many of the miners contract silicosis and have a life expectancy of around 40 years. The mountain is still a significant contributor to the city’s economy, employing some 15,000 miners.

According to the Lonely Planet guidebook for Bolivia, it is possible to tour the mines, though I seriously doubt the sanity of travelers who make the attempt.

The silver mined at Potosí was sent by caravan to Lima, Peru, from where it was transshipped from the Port of Callao to Panama, portaged across the isthmus to Colón, and placed on Spanish treasure ships bound for Spain. Many of those ships never made it, being sunk by Atlantic storms and pirates.

And the upshot? For all the gold and silver went into financing Spain’s wars, which were generally mishandled. In the end, Spain was taken by Napoleon who put an end to the Spanish monarchy of the time.

How Do I Ignore an Insurrection?

Oh, Are They Still Fighting That War?

You know that, when the Confederate Battle Flag comes out of the mothballs, that nothing good is going to happen. I wonder what Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson would think of the tattooed monkeys and other deplorables that descended on the nation’s capital yesterday.

I know that I promised not to write political posts any more, but I would like to say a few words about the events of January 6 and why it was such a miserable failure.

Adolph Hitler was nobody’s idea of a capable leader, but he had one quality that the Trumpster lacked. He had more or less capable chiefs at his side that he stood with for the whole duration of his rule. I include Joseph Göbbels, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Albert Speer, and Martin Bormann. Of course, Ernst Röhm of the SA didn’t last out the war, nor did Rudolf Hess—but for the most part, the Führer didn’t change his subordinates as often as he changed his underwear.

Hitler Did Know How to Hang On to “Good” People

Trump, on the other hand, couldn’t abide anyone for more than a few weeks. Then he would part company with them and make noises about never really knowing them that well. When he said that about Steve Bannon or his ex-attorney Michael Cohen, he thought it made him look good. Actually, it showed that he was an ingrate who couldn’t interact well with his subordinates. (Or that he didn’t choose them well to begin with.)

In a way, that’s good. If one has a malignant narcissist leading your country, you don’t want him to be all that effective. At least the Capitol Building is still standing, more or less.

L.A. in the Civil War

Docent at Wilmington’s Drum Barracks (2008)

Southern California was separated from the main battlefields of the Civil War by thousands of miles, yet it was contested territory. The California State Legislature was a hotbed of secessionism, and there was talk of separating the state into two halves, with the southern half being part of the Confederate States of America.

Two military officers stationed in the area became major players in the East: Albert Sidney Johnston becoming a general for the Confederacy, and Winfield Scott Hancock for the Union.

Winfield Scott Hancock, One of the Heroes of Gettysburg

Fortunately for the Union, there was a strong cadre of Yankee sympathizers in town. These included Phineas Banning, responsible for building the Port of Los Angeles; District Attorney Ezra Drown; rancher Jonathan Warner; and publisher Charles Conway.

The only remaining military facility from those days is in Wilmington—the Drum Barracks, just south of Phineas Banning’s palatial estate.

Los Angeles in 1861

If you’d like to read a more detailed account of how L.A. fared during the Civil War, with numerous photos, I recommend you check out this website from TV station KCET, entitled “We Have Been and Are Yet Secessionist”—Los Angeles When the Civil War Began.

It Goes Way Back…

The Roman Senate in Session

Lest you think that what is befalling the United States at present is of recent vintage, I urge you to consider the two great parties of the Roman Republic around 130 BC. There were two main political parties, the optimates (“the best ones”) and the populares (“favoring the people”). The former—consisting of members of the senatorial class and large landowners—were united in opposition to the tribunes Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his younger brother Caius Sempronius Gracchus. According to Wikipedia:

For about 80 years, Roman politics was marked by the confrontation of these two factions. The Optimates favoured the ancestral Roman laws and customs, as well as the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs. They also rejected the massive extension of Roman citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies advocated by the Populares.

How familiar it all seems today! The Republicans, whose entire political platform could be expressed in the phrase “I got mine,” are fearful and apprehensive that the unwashed Democrats and their immigrant allies want a share of their wealth. Like the Optimates, the Republicans are “the best ones,” so whatever they do to hold on to power is quite all right with them.

Yesterday, I ran into an elderly woman at the Farmers Market on Fairfax who was a virulent Trump supporter. She thought that the black and other unwashed Barbarian hordes were after her money. I didn’t bother to try reasoning with her, because she was beyond reason. So I merely insulted her, as did the Afro-American gentleman who was in line with me.

I always thought that the nice thing about having money is being able to spend it in interesting ways. Not necessarily so! At some point, this woman inherited some money, problem from her late husband and decided to build an impregnable fortress around the proceeds against me and my kind.

 

 

Serendipity: Soviet High Society

Stalin and Members of the Politburo 1925

I have just finished reading Italian writer Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball (Material for a Novel), a book that attempts to cover the high society of the Soviet Union as if it were Marcel Proust’s fin de siècle Paris. It is a strange book, probably because Malaparte was never able to finish it after numerous visits to Russia up to 1957, when he died. It makes it a tricky read, as one is never sure exactly what period the author is talking about in a particular chapter. Still, I loved the following picture of all those figures whose lives depended on the whim of Joseph Stalin.

Of that era’s Soviet high society, corrupt, always thirsty for pleasure, greedy for money, glory, and power, proud and snobbish, capable of any infamy in order to maintain their ephemeral power, ready to betray the people, the Revolution, communism, Russia, to deny their own revolutionary past, in order not to have to renounce the honors and privileges of their position, of that Soviet nobility corrupted by Trotskyism and Bonapartism, almost no one was still alive. L’ancien régime of the Communist Revolution, the new nobility that had emerged from the communism of the war and NEP [the New Economic Plan], made up of men who believed themselves to be Marxists and were actually nothing but krasni burjui, red bourgeois, who believed that they were the guardians of Marxist and Leninist theory but were instead Bonapartists, who believed they were leaders of the proletariat but were really leaders of the Trotskyite counterrevolution, had by then given up their positions to the élites of the Stakhanovites and the Udarniks [shock workers], and to the Stalinist élites who were tough and lean but nevertheless more human and born of the Five Year Plans. Of all the merveilleuses of the communist ancien régime, of all those men corrupted by ambition, hatred, jealousy, comfort, pleasures, and privileges, all that remains is memory: the “snapshots” firing squads caught of them in their supreme, ultimate moment, their pale faces turned toward the rifle barrels, their hands clenched in fists, their eyes widened, their brows enraged, the great wind of death unobstructed in the cold, squalid, magnesium light of the camera flashes that lit up, from some invisible height, the scenes of execution in modern Europe.

NKVD Firing Squad

Lend-Lease

American M3 Lee Tank Used by Russians in WW2

I have just finished reading David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House’s The Battle of Kursk, probably the authoritative study of the campaign that turned the tide on the Eastern Front against the Germans. (For some reason, I always spend part of every summer boning up on military history, particularly the American Civil War, the Roman legions, and the Second World War on the Eastern Front.)

The Soviets were greatly helped by the Lend-Lease program that provided the non-Fascist combatants in the war with surplus military equipment. Russia was the beneficiary of $11 million worth of war supplies (though Britain got the lion’s share), including planes, tanks, and miscellaneous trucks and other military vehicles. Even Britain and Canada joined in, as shown in the below photo:

British Valentine Tank Earmarked for the USSR

Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly. You might be interested in reading a memo by a Comrade Korobkov relating to miscellaneous problems with the tanks arriving by convoy to Murmansk.

The Glantz book contains a couple of amusing nicknames assigned by the Soviet troops to the gifted tanks. Because of its odd layout and insufficient armor, the M3 Lee was referred to as a “grave for seven brothers.” The unreliable and flammable British Valentine and Matilda tanks were called “field crematoriums.”

 

Kursk

It Was the Greatest Tank Battle in History

People in the United States know very little about World War Two as it was fought in Europe. The real war in Europe was waged on the Eastern Front, after Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941. At first, it was all blitzkrieg, with German victories on all fronts and horrendous Russian losses. Things began to change after Stalingrad, however, when the entire German 6th Army surrendered to the Soviets.

The next big battle was at the Kursk salient. Hitler and his generals planned to attack the salient from two sides, take Kursk, and trap several Soviet armies. This was the intent of Operation Citadel, as shown in the map below:

Operation Citadel as the Germans Planned It

The German General Staff thought the Russians would take fright at the Nazis’ technologically superior tanks and surrender in droves. But the Russians—beginning with Stalin himself—learned their lesson in 1941 and 1942. In July 1943, Stalin realized he had more human and industrial resources to draw on than the Germans. This was similar to Ulysses S. Grant realization during the American Civil War when, after the Battle of the Wilderness, realized that he could afford to take more casualties than Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and still win.

Instead of pinching off the Russians in the salient, General Walter Model advanced only 10 miles on the north, where he was beaten by Rokossovsky’s Central Front. The real battle was in the south, where General Erich von Manstein battled with Nikolai Vatutin’s Voronezh Front over the town of Prokhorovka. Vatutin kept throwing rifle regiments, tanks, and artillery at von Manstein’s Army Group South until, after a 30-mile advance, the Germans could go no further.

The Russians had a very good idea of what the Germans were planning with Operation Citadel, and they had more men (at a 2.5:1 ratio) than the Germans, and more tanks (though not as good). So they planned carefully to fight to the last man, if necessary.

The Battle for Prokhorovka (The Germans in Blue)

By the time Vatutin and Rokossovsky had finished with the German army, there was no more blitzkrieg. Hitler didn’t know it yet, but from this point his armies were in retreat.
.

Serendipity: A Plea from the Pagans

Winged Victory (Nike) bronze statue against background of Trajan’s Column and dome of Santa Maria di Loreto church. Rome, Italy.

I have always been fascinated by the period of transition from the Paganism of Ancient Rome to the Christianity of the last days of the Western Roman Empire. It was in AD 313 when Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire with his Edict of Milan; and it was in AD 476 when the Western empire fell.

Naturally, the transition was not sudden. In AD 375, the Emperor Gratian had the Altar of Victory removed from the Roman Senate, this despite the fact that most of the members of the Senate were still Pagans. On that occasion, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus complained to the emperor: “Grant, I implore you, that we who are old men may leave to posterity that which we received as boys.” He goes on:

All things … are full of God, and no place is safe for perjurers, but the fear of transgression is greatly spurred by the consciousness of the very presence of deity. That altar contains in itself the harmony of the members of our order and the good faith of each of them individually. Nor does anything so much contribute to the authority of the Senate’s decrees, as the fact that one body, sworn to the same oath, has resolved them. Greco-Roman Paganism is to us a ridiculous body of myths, but to the Roman Senators, making sacrifices to the Altar of Victory was not only patriotic but an act of piety.

Symmachus continues:

Let me use my ancestral ceremonies, she says, for I do not repent me of them. Let me live after my own way; for I am free. This was the cult that drove Hannibal from the walls of Rome and the Gauls from the Capitolium. Am I kept for this, to be chastised in my old age?… I do but ask peace for the gods of our fathers, the native gods of Rome. It is right that what all adore should be deemed one. We all look up at the same stars. We have a common sky. A common firmament encompasses us. What matters it by what kind of learned theory each man looketh for the truth? There is no one way that will take us to so mighty a secret. All this is matter of discussion for men of leisure. We offer your majesties not a debate but a plea.

This plea did not sit well with the new Christian orthodoxy of the empire. St. Ambrose wrote the official response, which was essentially that Christianity was replacing the old order of things.

Interestingly, it is now Christianity that seems to be on the defensive … to be replaced by—whatever.