Sunday, March 30, 2008

Intrigues of the Umayyad

Under the rule of the Umayyad caliphs, the then young Muslim world reached its maximum expansion and the greatest levels of culture and creativity. However, it was a highly unstable empire, in which the caliph's power was continuously questioned by rebel factions. During about one hundred years, from 644 to 759, up to fifteen caliphs reigned, of which six were eventually murdered. There were three great civil wars and more than ten generalised revolts.

The family descended from Umayyad, who shared a great-great-grandfather with Muhammad, from the Hashemite family. As both families belonged to the same tribe -the Quraysh-, and close to power, they hated each other. In fact, the Umayyad were the main opposers to the new Muslim religion, until they were subdued by Muhammad and converted in 630.

The first Umayyad caliph was Uthman, elected in 644 by a community of tribal leaders (shura) according to the Quraysh tradition, as he was one of the first to be converted to Islam, with the opposition of his entire family. Nevertheless, when caliph, he started creating a dynasty, prioritizing Umayyad members to become governors. His prosperous and politically liberal reign gave place to the first intrigues, caused by tribal fights, personal enemies of the caliph and foreign powers afraid of the Islamic expansion -Uthman multiplied by three the Empire's territory-. But it was especially Ali, another disciple of the prophet, who denied the validity of shura decisions and defended Muhammad had personally designed him as successor before his death. A revolt appeared in Egypt eventually finished with the caliph's assassination in 656.

Sunnites, shiites and kharijites

Officially, Ali was proclaimed caliph by the families from Medina. However, Muawiyah, governor of Siria and Uthman's cousin, accused Ali of inspiring the murder and doing nothing to convict the murderers. After supporting, but not participating, in the rising led by Aisha, Muhammad's widow, which eventually failed, he organised his powerful Syrian army and confronted Ali in Siffin. The battle was a draw, and Ali finally bargained with Muawiyah a truce -Adroj arbitration (658)-, by which both kept their former positions. This caused a faction of Ali's followers, belonging to Hanifa and Tamin tribes, consider him a traitor and separate, named kharijites and under the motto "there is not rule but God's", defendind the caliph cannot decide the partition of power in the World. Ali could not crush all the rebels during the mutiny, and they eventually killed him three years later.

Muawiyah, already self-proclaimed caliph in 660, hurried to the capital, Kufa, with his reorganised army from Damascus, to get the throne. Ali's first-born son, Hasan, not counting with enough forces, fled to Medina and left free space to Muawiyah. His brother Husayn tried to get his rights back, but was defeated and killed in Karbala in 680. At his death in the beginning of that same year, the caliph Muawiyah had officially created the Umayyad dynasty, when forcing the noblemen to accept his son Yazid as his successor. This allowed him to consolidate caliphal power, but he also gained many enemies that continuously fought for the throne.

From this moment on, authority was always divided in the Islamic World. Opposing Muslim orthodoxy, or sunnism, the defeated followers of Husayn constituted the Shiite sect, that would be back to war several times, specially in Arabia and Irak, and was eventually a key element in the fall of the dynasty. Basically, shiites did not accept Umayyad authority, and created the Imam title instead, as spiritual leader -in order to differentiate it from the more terrenal caliph title- for Ali's heir. Centuries later, an imam died without any descendants, which made the Shiism break into several rival sub-sects.

Meanwhile, kharijites were a faction self-declared as the defender of Islamic purity. This sect, now practically disappeared, argued the caliph should not be designated in an hereditary way, but it should arise from the community. After killing Ali, they constituted an important opposition focus against the Umayyad, causing several local revolts specially among berbers of recently conquered Maghreb, in Mesopotamia, Irak and North Arabia, although Shiism became a larger problem.

Caliph at the caliph's place

Yazid died in 683 while besieging Mecca, trying to defeat Abdallah ibn Zubayr, who had supported Husayn and, at his death, proclaimed himself caliph in Arabia and Egypt. Abdallah caused great headaches to Damascus caliphs, as he had the main Islamic pilgrimage place under control. In order to compete with it, the Umayyad built the Mosque of the Rock in Jerusalem. The existence of two caliphs lasted for ten years, as one of the main Syrian tribes, the Qaysites, supported him against the Kalbites, allied to Damascus. The fight between these tribes was a long civil war, which a third faction joined, that of rebel al-Mukhtar, strong in Irak and defending the rights of another Ali's heir -Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya- without his permission.

The new Damascus caliph, al-Malik, chose to wait until both rebel factions destroyed each other, instead of attacking openly. Eventually, al-Mukhtar was defeated in Kufa by Abdallah in 687. That was the momento to attack his weakened army, that fell in Mecca five years later, after a harsh siege which destroyed the Holy Place of the Kaaba. Abdallah was beheaded, and his body exposed for potential rebels. The new sovereign of the whole Islamic world had a reign of centralization and internal peace. Thanks to the governor of Irak and personal lieutenant, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, no revolt was succesful during those years. This allowed carrying on the conquests and reaching the maximum extension of the Empire, from Spain to India.

When great al-Malik's sons, less authoritary, reigned, rebels stroke back. When inheriting such a large and heterogeneous Empire, in which Arabs enjoyed privileges and tax exemptions over non-Arabs, union was progressively more difficult to keep. Although one of the sovereigns, Umar, tried to abolish this differentiation, the consequent tax income drop became impossible, and going back to tax raising led to general revolts, specially in Transoxiana in 734. To make things worse, the caliph Hisham was defeated all along the Empire borders (Tours, Samarkand, Akroinon, etc.) and more unhappiness caused new rebellions in a territory impossible to control: Zayd's shiites in Irak, Berbers in North Africa -Morocco and Spain were lost in 740-, kharijites in Iran, and the feuds of conflictive Syrian tribes bleeding each other. Meanwhile, decadence and palace intrigues were increasing: the family members, togethers with generals and governors, were fighting each other for the power -the drunkard, corrupt al-Walid II was murdered by his own cousin Yazid, who proved no more brilliant-.

The Abbasid executioners

The end of the Umayyad came from the hand of the Abbasids, descendants of Abbas and -far- political family of Muhammad. It is in fact believed that they were not Arabs, but converse Persians, which explains why they had the support of non-Arab citizens from Iran. Using the excuse that the Umayyad had betrayed the Islam spirit, they attracted shiites and kharijites, gathering all possible opposition -needless to say that, after the dynasty overthrown, they kept opposing the new caliphs-.

The Abbasids consolidated their power in Khurasan, North-eastern Iran, far from central power, and started an open revolt in 747. In 749, the Abbasid Abu proclaimed himself caliph in Kufa. Next year, they defeated the Umayyad in Zab, and the caliph Marwan II was persecuted and killed in Egypt. Liberating all the resentment of a century, the winners outraged the tombs of the Umayyad and killed the remaining members of the family. Only one saved, Abd al-Rahman, who fled to the border province of Cordoba, and there extended the dynasty, but that is a different story.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Science and technology in Nazi Germany

That should be admitted. Germany during the years 1932 to 1945 became une of the main World centres, maybe even the main one, in scientific and technologic research. During that period, the bright German engineers created more than 300,000 patents, which, after the war, were appropiated by the Allies, who took advantage from them in further developments, that lead to many products we use nowadays.

This post is not at all a support or identification with National-socialist ideology or Hitler's regime. It just tries to show the technological advances achieved during this time and political context.

Military advances

Considering Hitler's military objective, there was a strong financial support to war oriented research. However, many of the achievements in weaponry were unused because of confrontations between different factions of the army, as well as Hitler's unstable planning abilities. Many resources were wasted in politically impressive but unrealistic projects, while little effort was made to make the new inventions practical. Despite all that, the Germans had technological advantages in the war, as they used inventions such as the first automatic rifle and the first railgun type guns.

The Messerschmitt Me 262 -called "Schwalbe", the swallow- was the first oprational jet plane in History. After a series of changes and failures, technically due to the lack of alloy able to resist the overheating due to high velocities, but also to Hitler's conviction in a quick victory and the unnecessarity of the new model, in May 1943 the prototype was ready. During the test flights, it reached nearly 900 kmph, what made Adolf Galland, chief of the Fighter Aviation, exclaim: "It looks like pushed by the angels!". However, Hitler's obsession for turning it into a bomber delayed its production in one year, and suppressing the great advantages it provided, speed and fire power against bombers. In the end, less than 300 units ever engaged in combat. Despite some punctual successes, such as the legendary actuation of the JV44 squadron, involving J. Steinhoff and Galland himself, which shot down more than one thousand planes, the jet fighter had no repercusion due to the general lack of fuel and expert pilots -it became a deadly trap for novices-. Besides, the confrontations of Göring with Galland caused it not to be built at the necessary scale. After the war, the Allies took possession of the remaining intact models, from which directly they developed the American F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG-15.

The U-boot, German submarines, were the most operative naval weapon they had during the whole war. Specially, the U-boot VII model was the most advanced model of the time, armed with five torpedo launchers while reaching 18 knots at surface. The tactics proposed by the Kriegsmarine commander Dönitz, the "wolf pack", was based in night group attacks to English convoys, which led to huge losses to the Royal Navy. Anyway, it took too long to the admiral to convince Hitler of the convenience of submarine war considerably decreased its scale. From 1943, the Allies learnt to face the U-boot by means of radar detection and torpedo launcher planes.

However, the major German innovation in submarine warfare was the U-boot XXI. This new-generation submarine, directly related to the design of the first American nuclear ones, combined novel technologies that could have made it into one of the greatest challenges for the Allied navy and decisively influence the war outcome. It included a new hydraulic reloading system, which granted a fire power six times larger than the VII type U-boot. On the other side, its sonar system allowed non-periscope-aided shooting, thus increasing its stealth. But mainly, the combination of its stylish hull design with the wide electric battery capacity, granted a higher speed when inmersed than on surface -17 knots vs 15- and a larger inmersion time, what made it specially difficult to hunt. From 1943 to 1945, 118 units were built. However, only two of them -U2511 and U3008- took part in combat missions before the end of the war, due to the large period needed to crew training in such a novel technology.

The first ballistic missile, the Vergeltungswaffe 2 ("Weapon of Revenge"), or V-2, was developed by a group of engineers led by Wernher von Braun in 1942, after a decade working on alcohol and liquid oxygen propulsion. But, even if it had all the support from Hitler, its mass production did not begin until the end of 1943. The rocket had its huge speed as an advantage, which made it virtually impossible to locate and destroy by the Allies. However, its short autonomy (little more than 300 km) and no precision, made it only useful for the indiscriminate bombings Hitler carried out in the English south coast. Until the beginning of 1945, almost 1500 rockets fell into British territory. Once the war was finished, both the USSR and the USA rushed to take the rocket specialists back to their countries. Among them, the team of Von Braun himself created the Saturn V rocket for the NASA, which -supposedly- took the man to the Moon in 1969.

V-1 should also be mentioned, developed in parallel to the V-2, and considered the first guided missile. Same as V-2, traditional defense measures used by the Allies -interceptor fighters, anti-aircraft guns, balloons, ...- proved uneffective for these new threats. The only adequate defenses were the destruction of launching bases and counterinformation activities (in which souble agent actions of the XX system, and specially the Spanish spy Juan Pujol, "Garbo", were of vital importance-.

It is also suspected that the Germans carried out nuclear tests in Thuringia in March 1945, two months earlier than the Americans. However, the classification of the documents that supposedly prove it has made it impossible to find out the degree of development they had.

Other inventions

In 1935, the engineer Fritz Pfleumer developed the K1, first magnetophonic recorder. This provided, the first concerts and political speeches in History were the German ones. Its military use was extensive, as a recording medium of both friend and intercepted transmissions. The Allies knew that the Nazis had such a device, but did not find it out until they invaded Germany in 1944. There, the American engineer Jack Mullin analyzed the device, a great invention for its time, which was commercialized by the firm Ampex and revolutionized the American media industry of the '40s and the '50s.

The first machine working with binary arithmetics, the Z3, including programming capacity, was developed in 1941 by the German engineer Konrad Zuse, and became in essence the first digital computer. Although it was destroyed in a bombing in 1944, it meant a step forward to the development, in 1948, of the famous American computer ENIAC, that added decimal arithmetics.

Infra-red devices were included in German interceptors that proved very usefil in night missions, while the Americans were starting to wonder if such a technology was possible.

In medicine, we will not point out the infamous pseudo-scientific experiments Dr Mengele carried out with concentration camp prisoners. From a more constructive side, German scientists of the time achieved the first direct relation of tobacco with lung cancer -and smoking was even banned in the Luftwaffe for several years-. They also were the inventors of methadone and modern pesticides.