Random, Worthwile Links

Brilliant Comedian Ricky Gervais on Genesis and Evolution. Very funny. He’s also openly atheist, and said this in an interview with John Humphrys in the Radio Times:

“Being an atheist makes someone a clearer thinking, fairer person. They [atheists] are not doing things to be rewarded in heaven; they’re doing things because they’re right, because they live by a moral code.”

10 Myths and 10 Truths about Atheist by Sam Harris

Inventor Ray Kurzweil (Video)

About Stem Cell Research (Harris)

What is winter solstice? …And Pictures of Analemmas

George Carlin’s Classic Rant on Religion

This is basically my “To-Do list” of things to catch me up from my holiday vacation to Hawaii.


Conquering Afghanistan–
Over and Over Again

Enlarge this ethnic breakdown

Friends, the war in Iraq may grab more headlines (especially today), but the war in Afghanistan isn’t over either. On Thursday, NATO said its forces had killed up to 150 Taliban fighters near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in some of the most intense fighting there in months.

“Two large groups of insurgents were observed infiltrating [Afghanistan] from Pakistan,” a NATO statement said. “The insurgents were monitored, tracked and subsequently engaged in Afghanistan through the coordinated use of both air and ground fire.”

This wasn’t the first time insurgents have infiltrated Afghanistan. Not by a long shot. Squeezed between China, the Indian subcontinent, and Iran, Afghanistan has long been a geographic and cultural crossroads. For centuries, merchants, pilgrims, refugees, and soldiers have come from all directions, lugging their ethnic traditions over the mountain passes. Many of history’s greatest conquerors came, too–and not for the flatbread. Here’s a look back at Afghanistan’s long history of conquest.

Daring Darius

Prehistoric evidence suggests that some of the world’s first farming communities cropped up in Afghanistan more than 6,000 years ago. But Afghanistan doesn’t really show up in written history until around 550 BC, when the region became part of ancient Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

Based in what’s now Iran, the Achaemenid Empire stretched from Egypt to India, and reached its zenith under Darius the Great (522-486 BC). Darius tried to conquer ancient Greece, too, but his army famously failed to defeat a smaller but better armed Greek force at Marathon in 490 BC.

Alexander the Great

Marathon wasn’t the last time Greeks gave the Persians fits. One hundred and fifty years later, with the Achaemenid Empire fraying, Alexander the Great carried Greek culture into central Asia. The mighty Macedonian pounded the Persians and swept through modern Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in just three years, from 330 to 327 BC.

Four years later, Alexander died. Then his cavalry commander, Seleucus, seized control of the eastern part of his empire. Greek rulers would maintain control over most of Afghanistan until 150 BC, when Parthian nomads arrived.

Kanishka the Kushan

The Parthians crashed the Greek party, but an Indo-European tribe called the Kushans got the next dynasty rolling. After arriving from the north around the time of Jesus, they conquered their way across central Asia, building an empire that stretched from Iran to Tibet.

The Kushans’ glory days came under Kanishka, a 2nd-century patron of arts and religion. During Kanishka’s reign, Buddhism boomed in Afghanistan, and it remained the dominant religion until the 8th century. (Many sacred Buddhist monuments, some dating back to Kushan times, remained much longer–until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001.)

Islam’s Armies

In the mid-7th century, Islam’s armies reached central Asia, making Muslim converts as they conquered. By the end of the 9th century, most of the people living in what’s now Afghanistan were Muslims.

A hundred years later, Afghanistan’s first major Muslim empire, the Ghaznavid, took shape. The most renowned Ghaznavid ruler, King Mahmud (971-1030), was also the first Muslim warrior to carry Islam into the heart of India. Mahmud’s armies raided the subcontinent repeatedly, seeking booty from Hindu temples and converts among Hindu souls.

With the money they brought back, Mahmud built schools and mosques and turned his capital, Ghazna, into a great cultural center. He also helped ensure Sunni Islam’s domination in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Muslim parts of India.

Genghis Khan and Tamerlane

The Ghaznavid Empire fell apart almost as soon as Mahmud died, but other Muslims maintained control in Afghanistan until 1220, when the marauding Mongol Genghis Khan overran central Asia. Eventually, Genghis and his successors conquered everyone from Persia to Peking. Still, they never defeated Islam. In fact, a few generations after Genghis’s death, his own descendants were Muslims.

The most fearsome heir to Genghis’s Khanate rule was Timur (a.k.a. Tamerlane), who rose to prominence in the late 14th century and spread his unique brand of ruthless military rule from Moscow to Delhi. Timurid rulers would reign in Afghanistan until the turn of the 16th century.

Babur and Nadir Shah

Then, in 1504, a central Asian prince named Babur–a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur–conquered Kabul. Twenty-two years later, Babur invaded India, where he founded the Mogul dynasty, which ruled there until the 18th century.

At first, Afghanistan remained under Mogul control, though more as an imperial outpost than as a major Mogul thoroughfare. In time, the outpost became a contested border region, squeezed between the Moguls and the Iranian Safavid Empire–with a variety of smaller players scrambling for stakes in the game.

Finally, the “Persian Napoleon,” Nadir Shah, swept through the region in 1738. Nadir Shah conquered Afghanistan, outmatched a Mogul army in India, plundered Delhi, and massacred thousands of Hindus before heading home to Iran. Then he died, just a few years later.

The Pearl of Pearls

After Nadir Shah’s death, Afghanistan fell to homegrown rulers. From 1747 to 1973, a long line of ethnic Pashtuns from the Abdali group of clans governed the land–though sometimes only nominally. The first Abdali Pashtun to seize control was Ahmad Shah, who adopted the title “Durr-I-Durrani,” meaning “pearl of pearls.” The Abdali Pashtuns have been known as the Durrani ever since.

The last Durrani king, Muhammad Zahir Shah, abdicated after a coup in 1973, then spent 28 years of exile in Rome. After he was gone, Afghanistan descended into factional violence. Conditions only got worse when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to prop up a communist government. When the Soviets pulled out in 1989, Afghanistan slipped into civil war.

In 2002, the 87-year-old Zahir Shah finally returned home–not to assume his previous position, but to help Afghanistan move toward peace and democracy. Now that’s a “Durr-I-Durrani” worth pursuing.

–Steve Sampson

Remember the Taliban?

Taliban Though they no longer rule Afghanistan, Taliban forces still cause plenty of trouble in that land. They regrouped along the border with Pakistan–their original base–and fight on. Just who are these guys? Find out now.

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