30
Oct

1. Giants win their third World Series in five years
The San Francisco Giants beat the Kansas City Royals 3-2 in a hard-fought Game 7 to win the World Series on Wednesday night. The Giants were the first team to win three Major League Baseball championships in five years since the New York Yankees won four in five years in the late 1990s. Giants ace and series MVP Madison Bumgarner, who had already earned two wins in the series, pitched the last five innings and held on to the team’s narrow lead by allowing just two hits, getting the final out with the tying run on third. [San Jose Mercury News]

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2. Fed ends its bond-buying stimulus
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday ended its longstanding effort to stimulate the economy by purchasing bonds, citing improvement in the job market. The end of the six-year program — called quantitative easing — marked a significant milestone in the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession. The program contributed to a long-running bull market for stocks, and helped businesses and individuals by keeping borrowing costs low. Fed policymakers said that they still planned to keep short-term interest rates near zero for the foreseeable future. [The New York Times]

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3. Nurse tests Maine’s Ebola quarantine policy
Maine Gov. Paul LePage late Wednesday sent police to enforce the state’s Ebola quarantine on nurse Kaci Hickox, after she threatened to sue if the state didn’t let her leave her home by Thursday. Hickox said the policy was “not scientifically or constitutionally just,” and vowed not to “sit around and be bullied around by politicians and be forced to stay in my home when I am not a risk to the American public.” Maine’s Ebola protocol calls for Hickox to remain isolated at home for 21 days after returning from treating Ebola patients in West Africa. [Reuters]

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4. Apple CEO Tim Cook says he’s ‘proud to be gay’
On Thursday morning, Apple CEO Tim Cook came out of the closet. In an op-ed for BusinessWeek, the man who took over the helm of America’s storied tech company from Steve Jobs said, “Let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay.” Cook explained that while his sexual orientation wasn’t a secret at Apple, coming out publicly could “inspire people to insist on their equality.” [BusinessWeek, The Verge]

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5. Mudslide buries more than 100 people in Sri Lanka
At least 10 people were killed and as many as 190 remained missing, apparently buried alive Wednesday by a landslide on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. Survivors and rescue workers dug by hand searching for victims immediately after the disaster. Crews used heavy excavating machines on Thursday to expand the search. More than 300 people survived the mudslide, which was caused by torrential rains, but authorities said the hope of finding more people alive was slim. [Bangkok Post, Bloomberg]

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6. WHO reports Liberia’s Ebola rate appears to have slowed
World Health Organization officials said Wednesday that the rate of new Ebola diagnoses appeared to have slowed in Liberia for the first time since the epidemic started. Liberia is at the heart of West Africa’s outbreak, which has killed an estimated 5,000 people. WHO has warned that if the rate were to continue to rise as it has been there could be 5,000 to 10,000 new cases per week by December. The slowing pace doesn’t mean the worst is over, said WHO’s Bruce Aylward. “It’s like saying your pet tiger is under control,” he said. [The Washington Post]

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7. NATO fighter jets turn back Russian military planes
NATO scrambled jets to intercept at least 26 Russian military aircraft flying over Western Europe and the Black Sea on Tuesday and Wednesday. The unauthorized flights further strained relations already damaged by Russia’s support of separatists in Ukraine. NATO said the violations of its members’ airspace also put civilian planes at risk, partly because the military planes don’t use transponders. The flights came days after Sweden staged its biggest naval mobilization since the Cold War to hunt for a suspected Russian submarine. [ABC News, Bloomberg]

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8. Palestinian suspected in assassination attempt killed by Israeli police
Israeli security forces early Thursday shot and killed a Palestinian man — identified as Muatnaz Hijazi, 32 — suspected of shooting a prominent American-born right-wing Israeli activist. Police said Hijazi fired first. The activist, Yehuda Glick, was seriously wounded Wednesday night in a drive-by shooting outside the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem after a conference promoting Jewish presence at the Temple Mount. Two employees at a restaurant where Hijazi worked were arrested. [Haaretz]

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9. Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Galway Kinnell dies at 87
Poet Galway Kinnell died of leukemia this week at his Vermont home. He was 87. Kinnell won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award in 1983 for his collection Selected Poems. He won a MacArthur Genius Fellowship the following year. Galway, often compared to Walt Whitman, was known for his unique lyrical style, and his ability to evoke everything from urban streetscapes to pastoral scenes in his home state of Vermont, where he was the first person since Robert Frost to hold the title of state poet. [The New York Times, Burlington Free Press]

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10. First piece of Amelia Earhart’s lost plane identified
Researchers say they are highly confident that they have identified a battered piece of aluminum as a fragment of Amelia Earhart’s plane, which disappeared in the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, as she attempted a record flight around the world at the equator. The fragment was found in 1991 on the uninhabited atoll of Nikumaroro, where researchers at the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery believe Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crash-landed and then lived and died as castaways. [Discovery News]

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Article source: https://theweek.com/article/index/270933/10-things-you-need-to-know-today-october-30-2014

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30
Oct

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Article source: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/video/2014/oct/29/london-skatepark-becomes-first-europe-gain-heritage-status-video

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30
Oct

Author Simon Inglis added: “Skateboarding has now been part of the nation’s recreational life for over 35 years, since it arrived in Britain from California at the height of the 1970s. Some of the pioneers are now grandparents, passing on their skills and enthusiasm to the next generation.

“Lots of people thought that like Chopper bikes and Space Hoppers the fad would soon pass, but as we can see in London alone, where there are at least 75 skateparks currently in use, skateboarding is still as cool as ever, and has received a real boost thanks to the growing number of BMX bikers, who now shares the facilities at most skateparks.”

Article source: http://www.itv.com/news/2014-10-29/british-skatepark-becomes-first-in-europe-to-get-heritage-status/

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28
Oct

* Pro-Western parties set to dominate parliament
* Poroshenko holds first coalition talks with PM Yatseniuk
* Obama says election “important milestone”
* Russia’s Lavrov says Poroshenko must heal split in society (Adds U.S., EU, Russian reaction)

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko gestures during a press conference following the parliamentary elections in Kiev (AP)

Pro-Western parties will dominate Ukraine’s parliament after an election handed President Petro Poroshenko a mandate to end a separatist conflict and to steer the country further away from Russia’s orbit towards mainstream Europe.

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U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Sunday’s election as “an important milestone in Ukraine’s democratic development” while top European Union officials said on Monday it represented a “victory of the people of Ukraine and of democracy”.

But, reflecting the geopolitical struggle between Moscow and the West over Ukraine’s future, Russia’s foreign minister reacted cautiously, saying Moscow expected Poroshenko to form a government that would heal the “split” in Ukrainian society.

Poroshenko began power-sharing talks with Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk after their political groups led other pro-Western forces committed to democratic reforms in sweeping pro-Russian forces out of parliament.

“The main task is to quickly form a pro-European coalition for carrying out agreements with the EU,” Yatseniuk said at a meeting with election observers.

International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gave a further lift to the pro-Western Kiev leadership, saying Sunday’s election had “largely upheld democratic commitments” despite the conflict in the east.

It was “an amply contested election that offered voters real choice and (had) a general respect for fundamental freedoms,” Kent Harstedt, OSCE special coordinator, told a news conference.

After months of conflict and turmoil there was no euphoria from Poroshenko’s allies. He faces huge problems: Russia opposes his plans to one day join the European Union, a ceasefire is barely holding between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the east, and the economy is in dire straits.

Russian President Vladimir Putin can also still influence events, as the main backer of the rebels in the east and through Moscow’s role as natural gas supplier to Ukraine and the EU. He could also remove trade concessions from Kiev if it looks West.

But Poroshenko’s immediate task is to cement an alliance with Yatseniuk’s People’s Front, running neck and neck with his bloc on about 21 percent support after more than two-thirds of the votes on party lists were counted.

To secure a majority they are likely to turn to Samopomich (Selfhelp), a like-minded party with 11 percent of votes, whose leader Poroshenko also met on Monday. Final results for party list voting and in single constituency seats are due on Oct. 30.

The tandem between the 49-year-old confectionery magnate Poroshenko and the professorial Yatseniuk, who has gone out ahead as an anti-Russian hawk in recent weeks, was emerging as a relationship likely to dominate the new political scene.

Yatseniuk once called the prime minister’s job “political suicide” but, a favourite in the West, he could now keep the job to oversee deep and possibly unpopular reforms.

RETURN OF NORMALCY

Poroshenko and his allies are trying to restore normalcy to the sprawling country of 46 million and draw a line under a year of upheaval that began with street demonstrations against Poroshenko’s pro-Russian predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich.

Yanukovich was overthrown in February in what Russia called a “fascist coup” after he spurned a deal that would have deepened ties with the EU. Moscow responded by swiftly seizing and annexing the Crimea peninsula and backing the separatist rebellions in which more than 3,700 people have been killed.

Moscow has also halted gas supplies to Ukraine in a row over the price and unpaid bills, causing alarm in the EU which gets a third of its gas needs from Russia, half of this via Ukraine.

Obama, in a statement, said the United States looked forward to the quick formation “of a strong, inclusive government” in Kiev and expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity including the return of Crimea.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council chief Herman Van Rompuy, in a joint statement, said they expected the Kiev leadership now to seek a “broad national consensus” to intensify much-needed reforms.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a more downbeat reaction, said Moscow hoped for the formation of a “constructive government” to would solve social-economic problems, fulfil the terms of peace talks and “not preserve the split in society”.

The Kiev government says it is hoping for modest economic growth next year after a 6 percent decline in 2014, but the World Bank expects the economy to continue shrinking.

In line with measures agreed with the IMF, Yatseniuk’s government has cut budget expenditure and let the Ukrainian hryvnia float. The currency has lost about 40 percent of its value against the dollar since the start of the year.

The economic decline has been aggravated by the fighting in the east, where two more Ukrainian soldiers were killed on Sunday and shelling resumed on the edge of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Monday despite a ceasefire. Despite the violence, Poroshenko insists on a negotiated settlement.

Some allies of Yanukovich will be in parliament in the new Opposition Bloc but communists will not be represented for the first time since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

After months of beating back the separatists, Ukraine’s troops suffered setbacks in August, which Kiev and its Western backers say was caused by Moscow sending armoured columns with hundreds of troops to aid the rebels. Russia denied this.

Voting did not take place in areas held by the rebels or in Crimea. Separatists in the east plan a rival vote on Nov. 2.


Article source: http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/eu-hails-prowest-election-outcome-in-ukraine-30697503.html

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28
Oct

Ancient Roman Gravestone

Back in May, we reported on a 3D design marketplace, Threeding. They had begun scanning and uploading 3D printable models of Egyptian Archaeology to their marketplace, allowing anyone with a 3D printer to pay a fee to download and replicate these artifacts. While this move didn’t gain all that much attention in the public’s eye, this could have been the start of a movement looking to digitize the world’s ancient relics. We have seen in the middle east, many ancient artifacts being destroyed due to wartime activity by opposing sides. We have also seen nature eat away at, and deteriorate relics that have been with us for thousands of years. In some cases it is not possible to preserve all of these artifacts, and certainly there is no full-proof method to do so.

Threeding seems to be focusing on the preservation of artifacts through replication. 3D printed models of ancient artifacts definitely are not as good as the originals, but when it comes to studying these objects, in many cases, they provide just enough information as is needed. Today, Threeding and Artec Group, a leading developer and manufacturer of professional 3D scanners, have announced a partnership that will allow for the 3D scanning of even more historical artifacts.

Under the agreement, Threeding will utilize Artec’s software, 3D scanning technology, and know-how, to make 3-dimensional, printable models of historical artifacts from museums located in Central and Eastern Europe. These models will then be made available for anyone to download and 3D print via the Threeding marketplace. This is the very first large-scale project of its kind, used for commercial purposes, and could provide educational institutes with the ultimate tools when it comes to teaching about ancient history.

Ancient Roman Relief

“We are very excited about this partnership,” explained Stan Partalev, co-founder of Threeding.com. “Offering 3D printing models of historical artifacts is a key priority for us and having access to Artec’s cutting-edge 3D scanning technology will increase significantly the number of models we offer. Their 3D scanners are undisputedly the best devices for the digitalization of historical artifacts.”

Threeding plans to scan additional artifacts at the Historical Museums of Varna and Pernik, using the capabilities of Artec’s scanners to capture small objects with very high accuracy and precision. The goal is to make models that, if printed on the correct 3D printers, could look very similar, if not almost identical to the originals.

“Artec Group pays much attention to application of 3D scanning technology for world heritage preservation,” said Artyom Yukhin, president and CEO of Artec Group. “With a pleasure we participate in such projects and make our little contribution to this highly important initiative.”

This partnership is a commercial one, in that both Threeding and Artec stand to reap the benefits of selling these 3D models to those interested. However, the museums that hold these relics will also benefit financially by collecting royalties from each sale.

“This is an important aspect of the project, due to the fact that most Central and Eastern European museums have limited budgets,” says Threeding. “With this project, Threeding and Artec will help them financially and support the Pan-European effort for the digitalization of European historical and cultural heritage.”

This could very well be the start of the digitalization of ancient history, as well as a new beginning in the teaching methods, not only for museums, but for schools and universities as well. It should be interesting to see if educational institutions begin utilizing some of these models in lesson plans and curricula as a hands-on approach to education.

What do you think? Will this lead to the scanning, digitalization, and eventual replication of the world’s ancient relics? Discuss in the 3D printable ancient artifacts forum thread on 3DPB.com.

Article source: http://3dprint.com/21421/threeding-artec-3d-scanning/

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28
Oct


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The Dresden Castle is a residential palace incorporating baroque, Renaissance and classical styles. Today it houses a complex of great museums, including the Green Vault.

The inner courtyard of Dresden Castle is sheltered by a curved lattice glass roof designed by local architect Peter Kulka.

For Augustus the Strong, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was an idealized figure of absolute power and limitless wealth. This jewel-encrusted diorama of the Mughal court cost Augustus more than the construction of the Moritzburg Castle itself.

The 41-carat Dresden Green is the largest and finest natural green diamond in the world. In 2000 it was displayed at the Smithsonian next to its blue counterpart, the Hope Diamond.

This gold and tortoiseshell notebook was created by goldsmith Pierre Triquet and jeweler Johann Heinrich Köhler. The central focus is a heart-shaped opal topped by a ruby, while the large diamond above serves as a clasp.

The Order of the Golden Fleece was the most prestigious and exclusive award in the House of Habsburg. This medal crafted by Johann Melchior Dinglinger features three flaming rubies surrounded by 70 diamonds.

An epaulette of the Dresden Court showcases over 200 rose-cut diamonds in a double loop motif.

This exquisite frigate of ivory and gold, supported by a figure of Neptune, was the final work of the noted Dutch carver Jacob Zeller. The ship’s billowing sails are wafer-thin slivers of ivory.

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(CNN) — The Green Vault in Dresden Castle houses one of the largest collections of treasure in Europe, with its spectacular baroque chambers filled with jewels and objets d’art. Although these masterpieces are comparable with those of Florence or Venice, they have yet to achieve the renown of the Italian museums.

But with restoration of the castle completed last year, the Green Vault stands out as the jewel-box of Europe for its exceptional art and architecture, and its representation of one of the world’s great cultural cities.

In the early 18th century, Augustus the Strong, ruler of Saxony, worked to establish Dresden as a major center for the arts, inviting talented sculptors, goldsmiths and painters to take up residence. He commissioned a series of magnificent rooms to showcase his valuables as a way of advertising the city’s cultural prominence in addition to its wealth.

The result was the Green Vault, the first public museum in Europe. It is an astounding collection of ornaments, ranging from shimmering bowls carved out of crystal and agate to jeweled gold figurines to the Dresden Green, the largest and finest green diamond in the world.

During the Allied bombing of 1945, Dresden was decimated, and the vault was destroyed. Though the treasures had been relocated to a fortress, they were later confiscated by the Red Army and taken to Russia. In 1958, the jewels were returned to Dresden, but most of the pieces were not on public display until 2004, after a reconstruction project costing over 45 million euros.

Striking photos reveal hidden history of black Britons in the Victorian era

Today, this splendid museum is divided into two parts. In the elegant New Green Vault, individual pieces are shown in modern minimalist cases, with lighting and technology designed precisely to enhance each object.

Downstairs, the Historic Green Vault recreates the grand halls of Augustus, with rooms devoted to specific materials such as ivory and amber, and suites of gems classified by color. These rooms are baroque works of art in themselves, mirrored and painted malachite green with gold trimmings.

The curiosities here include goblets fashioned from gilded ostrich eggs, ivory towers with impossibly tiny spirals and a radiant cabinet of carved amber.

The New Green Vault is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its opening, and it contains over a thousand of Augustus’ best pieces, which were intended to stun visitors and subjects with a show of extravagance and craftsmanship. Among the highlights are drinking vessels engraved with Chinese motifs and jewelry inspired by the royal court of Delhi.

It is fascinating to see how often European ideals of luxury took the form of orientalist fantasies during this period. According to Dr. Larry Silver, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, the Mughal empire had acquired a legendary reputation at this time, becoming a symbol of “power and wealth [that] could only be imagined and envied by European rulers … a fairytale image of magnificence to be admired and imitated.”

How some whisky lovers are now making millions

Augustus’ most valued possession was a miniature diorama depicting the unlimited riches of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Augustus’ contemporary on the Indian subcontinent. Aurangzeb, who was referred to as the “world-seizer,” is seen at his 50th birthday celebrations during the height of the empire.

From his throne, he receives rajahs and princes; dishes filled with gold coins and elephants draped in gems are presented as gifts. In an unusual twist, the walls of the court are decorated with Chinese dragons, so that a dream of orientalism becomes even more fantastic.

This diorama was created over seven years by the great goldsmith and royal jeweler, Johann Melchior Dinglinger, and features rubies, emeralds, pearls, over 4000 diamonds and a single sapphire. Only 58 centimeters tall, it cost Augustus more than the construction of the opulent Moritzburg Castle.

Dinglinger is responsible for several of the masterworks in the collection, including the Jewel of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a prestigious insignia with three flaming rubies used to signify the values of knighthood. His most iconic piece may be the so-called Moor with Emerald Cluster, a statue of a dark-skinned young prince (whose tattoos are actually native American) bearing a tortoiseshell platter of Colombian emeralds.

The memorabilia honoring Soviet space dogs

Like the city of Dresden, the Green Vault has been strategically rebuilt, in a style which combines modern and baroque elements. For Hartwig Fischer, director of the Dresden State Art Collections, the construction of the vault has caused people in Saxony to “fundamentally rethink our architectural heritage,” more than any building of the last century.

The New Green Vault is a triumph of sleek lines and cutting-edge presentation; for its 10th anniversary, a new lighting scheme has been introduced to focus the gaze on individual works. On the other hand, the restored Historic section embodies the total fusion of art and architecture envisioned by Augustus. As such, the vault reflects Dresden’s two sides: its past as the “Florence of the Elbe” and its current status as a hub for contemporary design.

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Article source: http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/28/travel/dresden-green-vault/

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26
Oct

In August, our television screens were filled with biblical images as tens of thousands of Yazidis, an ancient Kurdish minority, fled into the largely barren Sinjar Mountains of northern Iraq to escape Islamic State militants, who regard them as devil worshippers.

The Yazidis are one of many minority religious groups that have survived in the Middle East for thousands of years. Others include the Copts, the Samaritans, and the Zoroastrians. But with the increasing radicalization of Islam and other political pressures, these groups face an uncertain future.

For his book, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, former British and UN diplomat Gerard Russell spent several years traveling to remote corners of the Middle East where these faiths hang on. Speaking from his home in London, he explains what George Clooney can expect from his new wife, why Detroit is one of the best places to hear ancient Aramaic, and why it’s important for us all that these minority religions survive.

Your book is about forgotten religions in the Middle East. Why is it important we remember them?

Book Talk

For several reasons. One, as we saw when the Islamic State [IS, also called ISIS and ISIL] attacked the Yazidis in northern Iraq in August, these religions are still persecuted, and from a humanitarian point of view we need to think about them. We also need to understand them because religion in the Middle East affects us wherever we are in the world. Islam is a global religion. To learn from its history of tolerance, as well as persecution, because both can be found, is important for understanding the future.

George Clooney recently married a British barrister of Lebanese Druze descent. What’s he gotten into?

First, he has married a very lovely woman. I know Amal Alamuddin’s mother a bit; she’s a very talented journalist. Her dad is from a Druze aristocratic family. They’re a really fascinating people. I don’t know if Amal herself is very into the religion. Only 10 percent of the Druze are initiated. Most of them don’t know, for sure, what their religion teaches. Those who know about it have chosen to consecrate themselves to the religion.

As a Druze you can be untouched by any obligations of the religion, though they do pretty much insist on marrying within the religion. In that sense Amal is an exception. The Druze are also exclusive in the sense that they believe they’re reincarnated as each other. So if you’re Druze, you can be reincarnated as Druze. But you’re not going to be reincarnated as Druze if you’re not one.

They’re a select group who believe they have a special mission to discover truth and bring mankind to a revelation. They believe in the imminence of God, that the world emanates from God, like light from the sun. They don’t believe in a creation as such. It’s very much rooted in Greek philosophy, so to understand them you need to go back to Plato and Aristotle. Those are the sorts of traditions they have kept alive.

Some of these faiths date back to the Egyptian pharaohs and the Babylonians. How has geography shaped their survival?

Most obviously, in Iraq, which is a fertile place for religion, there are marshes covering hundreds of square miles in the south. The marshes were a great place in the second and third century A.D. to live a back-to-nature kind of existence, cut off from the outside world. It was very popular for what we would call cults, which, in those days, drew on Jewish and Christian ideas. That’s where the Manicheans emerged, and where the Mandaeans survive to the modern day.

Are you a religious person? Or was this a quest for a religion you could believe in?

I am religious, and this book began when I lived in Egypt. I found religion to be a great source of inspiration and a way for me to identify with a community of some Egyptians. I could go to a Coptic church and find that the service, the nature of the belief, was part of the same community as back home, but with massive differences in language and culture. I found that very comforting.

If you’re in a foreign country, and you really want to be part of it and get alongside the people, it can be quite difficult. There may not be easy common points, particularly with poorer people, who live in more remote places. Religion can give you that leap into the other culture, that crossing point.

You traveled all over the region, often to very remote places. Tell us about some of the highs—and lows—of your journey.

I love the Middle East, and have many friends there of all different religions. Going out to this mountain in Israel and discovering that the Samaritans aren’t just people in the Bible, but exist today and still practice their faith and have their own distinctive script, was quite remarkable.

The hardest part was going to northern Iraq in August and witnessing the great distress in the Yazidi community and hearing terrible stories of suffering. I compare it to the time when Sir Leonard Woolley, the excavator of the ancient city of Ur, one of the great cities of southern Iraq, discovered a small fragment of fabric with a beautiful pattern. It had survived 5,000 years in the sand. All of a sudden it began to rain, and the fabric disintegrated in his hands. He felt such a sense of loss, because it had survived to the modern day, and there in front of his eyes, it had been destroyed. I had that feeling as I looked at these religions that had survived millennia and were now dying, almost in front of my eyes.

One of the most remote places you visited was the temple of Lalish, in Iraq. Give us a virtual tour.

It’s about two hours north of Erbil, in the middle of rolling hills. In the summer, when I was there, [the hills] are quite bare. Then you descend into this wooded valley with stone buildings about a thousand years old. It’s a wonderful contrast. On the day I was there, families were having picnics under the trees. The buildings, some of which are closed to outsiders, have conical, spiral roofs, which represent the rays of the sun. Once a year a bull is chased around the forecourt of Lalish. A priest whispers in its ear before sacrificing it. It’s a ritual that was performed for the sun god 5,000 years ago, as we know from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Yazidis face a vicious new threat in the Islamic State. How do you explain their rise? And do they pose an existential threat to the minority faiths of the Middle East?

The IS is a thing of ugliness that has been born in a very ugly place: the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, which came after the 2003 war. Some of the people who fight in the IS probably endured and saw terrible things before they began to fight themselves. You’ve got a whole generation who’ve been brought up in conditions of terrible suffering and bloodshed. That’s the first thing to say.

The second is that it comes in the wake of a wider ideological shift in the Middle East. People have begun to identify by religion much more clearly than they did 50 years ago. And it’s often a very militant and ugly form of religion, sponsored by people who take a very narrow-minded view of what religion should be and harbor a deep hostility toward those who they think are undermining the true religion.

Take the hostility between Sunni and Shiite, which is not totally unlike the Catholic- Protestant struggles of Europe’s Middle Ages. Sadly, there are people out there, quite a number actually, who, if they’re Shiite, very much dislike Sunnis—and if they’re Sunni, the Shiites. In Egypt, a Gallup poll showed that a very small minority of Egyptians actually believe that Shiites are even Muslims.

The phenomenon of killing people is a very specific, limited problem. The much broader problem is that there is a de-legitimizing of people based on their religious beliefs. This is very dangerous. And very widespread.

Why did Europe lose its pagan faiths—yet they survived in the Middle East? Why aren’t there Druids running around London?

Europe had states that were ultimately more effective. If you look at France or Germany or Britain, the state was, at quite an early stage, pretty effective at imposing itself. Think of the Domesday Book. The Middle East was quite a bit more lawless for quite a lot of time, and that’s partly how these groups survived. Some of it is also topography. Where these groups survived was often the most remote places.

Another reason—and I know this is going to be a controversial thing to say—is that when Christianity arrived, the pagan religions in Europe were not very intellectually sophisticated. In the Middle East, you had a long history in which these religions had become deeply philosophized, with a deep understanding of how to think about their religion in terms of ideas brought by the Greek philosophers. They also had quite strict moral codes.

So when Islam came, it wasn’t entirely sure that it wanted to get rid of people like the Harranians, who were quite useful. They knew a lot of Greek philosophy; they were very good scientists. So a lot of these heterodox religions were allowed to carry on. Some Islamic rulers even made good use of them.

Some readers may be offended by your contention that Middle Eastern cultures fight more over religion because it’s more precious to them than to Americans or Europeans. Is that statement really justified?

The comparison was not meant to denigrate Western religion. I’m a religious Westerner myself. But from the first day I arrived in the Middle East, I found there’s an extraordinary willingness to go the extra mile for religion. Not all of it is for good reasons. So I don’t mean to say that people in America aren’t religious.

But the growth of democracy in the Western world often came at the same time as people began to question religion. Could America have been founded as a nation that separated church from state in the 16th century? Or did it take the Enlightenment before that could be done?

It took a lessening of the passion that people felt about religion before it was possible to say: I’m a Catholic, you’re a Protestant, and I don’t mind. In the Middle East, we haven’t reached that point, where people are willing to say: I’m a Muslim, you’re a Christian, and I don’t mind.

Religion seems to be one of the central causes of turmoil and death in our world today. How would you counter that assertion?

I would say that religion is the most powerful binding agent that humanity knows. For a brief time, in the Middle East, ideologies could do that. Communism, to some extent, did it. So did nationalism. But in the modern day, it’s religion. That’s true of the West too. It’s only at church that I will encounter the full range of people from different races and social classes. It has a power no other force has.

Inevitably there are going to be people who exploit that to abuse people or cause violence. It’s very often used by governments as a means to militate against another government. Iran and Iraq had this terrible war in the 1980s, and religion was used by both sides to motivate their followers. But that doesn’t make religion bad. That just means it’s powerful. The question is all about how it’s used, not what it is.

To a Western observer, some of the beliefs and taboos in these religions are bizarre in the extreme. Tell us why it’s forbidden to eat lettuce, why cats are avoided by Zoroastrians, and why mustaches are imperative for some men.

The Yazidi prohibition on lettuce no one could explain. But there used to be a lot of dietary laws in ancient religion. The Pythagoreans had a rule against eating beans. No one knows why because they refused to explain. It was a sacred secret.

The Alawites in Syria believe you can be reincarnated as a plant. So some plants are taboo because they might be the reincarnations of the souls of people you know.

As for the Yazidi obsession with mustaches, some people say that the long, drooping mustache is a symbol of secrecy, and therefore it’s treasured as a sign that you’re worthy of being entrusted with sacred secrets.

The Zoroastrians had a thing about cats. They liked dogs very much. A house dog in Zoroastrian custom would be “buried” essentially as a human is buried-though they don’t actually bury their dead. They would dress their dog ceremonially, in religious garb, and put it out for the birds to eat, which is what they do for humans. So it was a highly treasured animal, and still is. Cats, on the other hand—and I’m a cat lover myself—were regarded in the same way as ants and flies and other things that are seen as creatures endowed with an evil spirit.

Many people from these embattled religions are choosing to go into exile in the West. Why is it important that they stay in their homelands?

These religions are a part of human heritage, like the pyramids or the leaning tower of Pisa. This is important for us because it’s a survival from our own past, and it helps to explain things about ourselves.

The handshake of the Yazidis, for instance, is part of the reason why we shake hands today. It’s connected to the handshake of the worshippers of Mithras, which was brought to Rome in the second century and then spread across the Roman Empire. The handshake is the way we show friendship. For the Yazidis it’s still a mystical symbol of unity. I give that as an example because so many of these religions connect with us in ways we might not realize.

Understandably, more and more of these minorities are deciding to leave the Middle East and come and live in the West, in Australia, Sweden, or America. The danger is that they’ll lose their identity because their religions aren’t designed to weather the storm of public debate and freedom. They’ll need to change if they wish to survive.

One of the things we can do is help them be a bit prouder of themselves. Most of those who’ve left the Middle East have not emigrated by choice. They’re refugees. Many are poor and have suffered terrible traumas. Showing them that their traditions and culture are valued is a great step to helping them integrate into their new homes.

One of the most poignant moments in your book comes in a supermarket in Michigan, where you hear Aramaic—the language of Christ—spoken by a girl stacking shelves. Tell us about that moment and the religious communities in Detroit most Americans don’t even know exist.

Detroit is one of the few places in the world where Aramaic survives, which is a historical irony on a very large scale. Rewind: The Iraqi Christians were once one of the greatest Christian churches in the world. Ten percent perhaps of all Christians at one point belonged to it. And it had monasteries as far east as Beijing. Today its leader is in Chicago, and an increasing number of its followers are in America too.

There’s a sad side to that. But there’s also a wonderful epiphany, which is, of course, that these religions do survive and exist in our own midst.

I was feeling rather despondent in Detroit one day, walking round a supermarket, thinking, It looks just like every other supermarket; I don’t see anything here that reminds me of Iraq. Then I heard this lady, and I thought, Gosh, that language sounds familiar, yet different. I’d learned a few words of Aramaic from my teacher in Baghdad. And I thought, Golly, that’s it, it’s here! And that’s what it turned out to be. She was having a conversation with her coworker in fluent Aramaic.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

Article source: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141026-yazidis-middle-east-iraq-islamic-state-religion-world-ngbooktalk/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ng%2FNews%2FNews_Main+(National+Geographic+News+-+Main)

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