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Posts Tagged ‘ancient history’

Dictionary of Plant Names, Allen J. Coombes (1985)

Rich and fascinating in their own right, scientific names add greatly to the pleasure of natural history, commemorating both its roots in ancient history and the scientists who have laboured to systematize and classify the living world. So you can move from Achillea millefolium, “the thousand-leafed (medicinal) plant of Achilles” to Lonicera hildebrandiana, “Hildebrand’s plant of Lonitzer”. Achilles will need no introduction; Adam Lonitzer (1528-86) was a German naturalist and A.H. Hildebrand (1852-1918) a British plant-collector. I was disappointed at first to learn where Lonicera came from, because it’s an attractive name that I thought would have some suitably attractive meaning in Latin or Greek. After all, the most famous member of the genus is L. periclymenum, or honeysuckle.

But beauty from banality is appropriate enough for plants, and there are countless beautiful meanings elsewhere. Strange ones too, like Lycopersicum esculentum, “tasty wolf-peach”, a.k.a the tomato, and Dranunculus muscivorus, “fly-eating little dragon”. That last plant reveals one of the book’s minor flaws, however, because it’s also listed under its alternative name of Helicidiceros muscivorus. But the listing refers you straight to D. muscivorus and you’ll have to go outside this book to find out what Helicidiceros means (“the helical plant with two horns”, apparently).

That apart, Dictionary of Plant Names should fascinate and delight any serious gardener or plant-lover and almost all of the names vanish into mystery in the end, because even the ones that have millennia of written history in Latin or Greek go back into many more millennia of prehistory.

The man ultimately responsible for this feast of mystery and meaning, beauty and strangeness, was the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), who invented the binomial system — generic name with initial capital (Achillea) plus specific name in lowercase (millefolium) — and who commemorated himself in his favourite plant, the delicately beautiful Linnaea borealis, “the northern Linnean”, whose common name is “twin flower”. It was a humble choice for the greatest of all systemizers and classifiers, but humility is a Christian virtue (albeit a little-practised one) and Linnaeus was a staunch Protestant.

That isn’t a coincidence: Protestantism was one of the foundation-stones of modern science and though that wasn’t necessarily good either for Protestantism itself or for the wider world, it may reflect the more introverted psychology of northern Europeans. As God and our relation to Him slowly slid off-stage, the natural world slid on and we eventually discovered that we were part of it. The staunchly Protestant Linnaeus led to the agnostic Darwin, the agnostic Darwin to the staunchly atheist Dawkins. Orbis redit in orbem — “the cycle ever repeats” — but science can still offer quiet aesthetic pleasures as it marches us back towards fanaticism and worse, and you can find some of them in books like this.

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Guida alle Piramidi d'Egitto Alberto SiliottiGuide to the Pyramids of Egypt, Alberto Siliotti, preface by Zahi Hawass (White Star Publishers 2000)

When Herodotus was young, the pyramids were ancient. That was in the fifth century B.C., when the pyramids were already two millennia old. And if that’s not astonishing enough, consider how long the pyramids had been in the making. Not just the building: the evolution of a civilization that could conceive and complete them. Homo sapiens was not capable of building pyramids when he first emerged in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, some modern human races still aren’t. Something special took place in the populations that migrated into the Nile delta and Mesopotamia. It probably centred on something much smaller but much more significant than the pyramids: the invention of writing.

If literacy enhanced reproductive success, it would have altered the genetics of Egypt, raising intelligence, enhancing foresight, improving the ability to delay gratification. All of those were necessary for the construction of those mountains of stone that have awed men for more than four millennia. Shelley’s famous poem about the vanity of megalomaniac monuments was based on the legs and “shattered visage” of an Egyptian statue. But the poem doesn’t apply to the pyramids:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (Ozymandias, 1818 )

A lot remains in Egypt beside the pyramids, which number far more than the famous three at Giza. And that’s also home to the mysterious and oneiroleptic Sphinx. But this is really a study of two great civilizations: the ancient Egyptian one and the modern European one that began to study its predecessor and eventually deciphered its forgotten hieroglyphs. The mountainous bulk of the pyramids is founded on minute symbols, because civilization can’t exist without record-keeping and bureaucracy. That demands counting and the pyramids are monuments not just to the pharaohs, but also to mathematics:

In fact the British museum has a famous mathematical papyrus, known as the Rhind Papyrus, which dates back to the Second Intermediate Period [1750-1550 B.C.] and includes a series of arithmetic and geometry problems such as: “A pyramid is 93 cubits and 1/3 high. What is the angle if the height of its face is 140 cubits?” A study of this papyrus has, among other things, made it clear that the Egyptians were familiar with and made practical use of Pythagoras’ theorem, although they never theorized or enunciated it. (“The Construction of a Pyramid”, pg. 41)

Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt by Alberto Siliotti

(English edition)

The Greeks were awed by Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilization, but they built on what they inherited from their predecessors. Unlike the Egyptians, they didn’t just practice maths, but proved it. Proof is a leap into the abstract and the infinite that the Egyptians never seem to have made. Greek sculpture and stonework achieved new freedom too. It wasn’t static and stylized like the sculpture here. But Egyptian sculpture has its own genius and the Greeks never matched the pyramids, only marvelled at them.

And misinterpreted them. The pyramids weren’t simply commemorations of the pharaohs, but stairways to heaven for their souls. Literally so, with the early step pyramids, but later:

As religious thought developed, it was no longer considered necessary to have a celestial highway, for the steep sides of the pyramids, a materialization of the rays of the sun in stone, also permitted the pharaoh to make his heavenly ascent. (“Egypt in the Old Kingdom”, pg. 13)

So pyramids on the outside were vast, awe-inspiring and austere. On the inside, they could contain other aspects of Egyptian genius, like star-strewn ceilings and the delicate and intricate “gold pectorals with amethysts, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and vitreous pastes” buried with Princess Mereret in the pyramid of Sesostris III (Middle Kingdom, 1878-1839 BC). Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt is a feast for both the eye and the intellect, a well-designed and well-translated book with one big flaw: there’s no index. So it’s rather like the noseless Sphinx: magnificent but with something important missing.

The pyramids are missing something too: the limestone sheathing that would once have made them blaze in the sun. What must Egypt have been like in her heyday? Or rather: her hey-centuries, because civilization lasted there a very long time. To glimpse that grandeur, open this book.

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