Book Review: Bible of Clay

The Bible of Clay by Julia Navarro, 512 pages, Bantam (March 25, 2008)
Last month, Israeli archaeologists found 3000 year old ceramic shards near a hilltop in Jerusalem. It had five lines of characters, believed to be the oldest Hebrew inscriptions ever found. Imagine if some tablets were found, similar to the one discovered in Jerusalem, in which Genesis as told by Abraham is written. Such a discovery proving the existence of a person called Abraham would be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of this century.
An archaeological expedition in search  for this ‘Bible of Clay’ is the main thread of Julia Navarro’s thriller. Finding this artifact is his life’s mission for the dauntless Alfred Tannenberg, a wealthy resident of Baghdad who discovered two tablets when he was young. He wants  his grand daughter, Clara, an unknown archaeologist to discover the rest before he dies so that she gains respectability in the academic circles.
Clara and her family can get anything done in Iraq, since her husband Ahmed is well connected with Saddam’s inner circle. While they have money and power, what they lack is archaeological expertise. For that they rope in a French archaeologist and his team. Time is at a premium since there are rumors that the Americans might invade Iraq.
Besides the time pressure what would a thriller do if there are no bad guys plotting to kill the lead characters? There are in fact two teams tracking them, one with the goal of killing the Tannenbergs and the other to steal the tablets.
Alfred Tannenberg’s history and the motivation for the people out to eliminate him are explained in another thread which takes place during WWII. This structure of two threads in two different period of time was seen in The Betrayal: The Lost Life of Jesus where one set of events happened during the time of the Council of Nicea while the other happened after the crucifixion of Jesus.
Navarro takes it up one more level. There is a third thread  about Abraham’s journey to Caanan and how he narrates Genesis to the scribe Shamas, who inscribes them into clay tablets. Shamas does not complete the journey to the promised land, but turns back and goes to Ur, which is where Clara is digging for them.
With such a structure  which combines the ancient past with the present,you would expect a tight thriller and it does deliver the goods to a certain extent. It combines the recent past and the ancient past with contemporary events like the Iraqi invasion and the subsequent looting of the Baghdad museums to make it an captivating tale.
But it falters on few points which make the book a drag sometimes. First, there are a large number of characters which make it resemble a Robert Altman film. There are various groups with vested interests competing for things and each of those groups have a few people. Some of those characters have minor roles and probably could have been collapsed into one composite character.
The second one is the lack of attention to details. When you write, “the museum administrators had prepared a gallery with every security measure known to man”, it is not show but tell. There is much detail about the dig in Iraq and WWII era, but when it comes to ancient Iraq during the time of Abraham, it pales in comparison to the research of Jason Goodwin or Robert Silverberg.
Towards the end the author is in a rush to finish the book that it just runs all over the place to the point of being illogical. As Americans start bombing Baghdad on March 20 th, Clara is hiding in a hotel frequented by foreign journalists. Meanwhile there is a killer in the hotel looking for her. In the next chapter it is May 1st and the killer is still in the hotel looking for her.
Usually the protagonists of such novels are people who are people whom you like, but in this one the protagonists and antagonists differ on how ruthless they are to attain their goals. At the end you are not rooting for anyone, but hating most of them. With fewer characters and better editing, this could have become an even better thriller.

Book Review: Akhenaten

Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth A Novel by Naguib Mahfouz, Anchor (April 4, 2000), 176 pages

In 1989, M T Vasudevan Nair wrote an interesting movie named Uttaram (Answer). In the movie Mammotty played a journalist who is out to find the reason behind the suicide of his friend’s wife. He travels around, gleans various bits of information from acquaintances of the deceased, and reconstructs what happened.

In Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth A Novel(1985), Naguib Mahfouz follows a similar pattern of story telling where a young man, Meriamun, meets contemporaries of Akhenaten (1353 BC-1336 BCE) to find out the truth about the Pharaoh. Akhenaten, known as a heretic for espousing the worship of one god, was an aberration in polytheistic Egypt. While Egypt had a pantheon of gods with Amun being the supreme deity, Akhenaten believed that Aten, the disk of Sun, was the one and only God.

Early in his reign he allowed other deities to continue, but soon execrated them, changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten and moved the capital from Thebes to a new city named Akhetaten. During his time Egypt faced attacks from enemies and civil dissent and he faced both of them with same aggressiveness that Shivraj Patil shows while facing the Indian Mujahideen. He remained obstinate in his opinion that unconditional love was the panacea for all evils and his one and only God would take care of the enemies.

When Meriamun starts his investigation of the truth, Akhenaten had died, his queen Nefertiti was a prisoner in her palace, and the city the Pharaoh had built had been deserted.

When the scribe meets Tey, Nefertiti’s step-mother, she tells her version of events and warns him, “Do not believe anyone who says otherwise. You will hear conflicting accounts and every man will claim to have spoken the truth, but they all have their biases.” Thus, clouded by their biases every one — from the high priest of Amun to the Akhenaten’s body guard — tells Meriamun their version of events creating a contradictory image of the Pharaoh.

For the priests of Amun, Aten worship was a political ploy created by Tiye, Akhenaten’s mother to control their power. For people who were close to Akhenaten, like his teacher Ay or friend Bek, Akhenaten really had a divine experience. According to some others, it was Ay, his father-in-law, who brainwashed Akhenaten into the worship of Aten and came up with the idea of the One God.

The women had a different take. According to Tadukhipa, the Mittani princess who was married to Akhenaten’s father and was ignored by Akhenaten, not only did Akhenaten had an incestuous relationship with his mother Tiye, he was driven by shame and stigma to destroy himself and his country. According to Nefertiti’s step-sister Moutnemendjet, who too was ignored by Akhenaten, Nefertiti was a whore who married the heretic king with perverse sexuality.

In the movie Uttaram, the character played by Mammotty finds the truth behind his friend’s wife’s suicide, but we are in no luck here. Armed with all this information, it  becomes the reader’s responsibility to average out the multiple histories and infer what must have happened. Was Akhenaten a stoic, 1300 years ahead of Zeno of Citium, or a mad man or someone who had a divine inspiration? We are not left a definite truth, but a set of individual experiences which for them were the truth.

This illustrates the trouble with relying only on literary sources for historical reconstruction. If major changes can be made, just over a period of few years, history can be altered radically over millenia. Without multiple attestation, it is hard to to say if a source is a polemic, apologia or neutral and hence no historian accepts written sources uncritically.

Akhenaten and his work is of importance in world history for he can be called the father of monotheistic intolerance. In a conversation with the High Priest of Amun, he declares that there is the One and Only God. When the priest brands it nonsense, the Pharaoh calls upon him to believe in him. This belief in the exclusivity of monotheistic God and condescension for other belief systems has resulted in much pain and suffering over the past 3000 years.

Book Review: The Betrayal

The Betrayal: The Lost Life of Jesus: A Novel by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

Recently the Israeli Education Ministry decided to ban books which simplified the Bible. The simplified book, the Ministry argued, would not encourage students to read original Hebrew. Besides that simplifying the Bible was “scandalous”. Reading this article, one blogger wrote a spoof as if the Southern Baptist Convention had decided to ban the New Living Translation and other easy-to-read translations of the Bible.

While banning certain versions of religious texts may look ridiculous now, this was a major accomplishment of Emperor Constantine in 325 CE. During that period hundreds of gospels were in circulation and various factions did not agree with each other. At the Council of Nicaea, certain gospels were canonized; others categorized as heretical.

The council had ordained the doctrine of resurrection and established that Miriam was a virgin even though Yeshua had four brothers and two sisters. Copies of the heretic gospels were burned, scribes were banned from copying them, and people who followed them given capital punishment.

This work of fiction is set during the period when Constantine’s minions were visiting monasteries destroying evidence. One such monastery was the Monastery of Saint Stephen the Martyr in Egypt where the library held a vast number of heretical documents. A visit from a Roman Bishop leaves everyone dead leaving four survivors – the scribe Barnabas, two monks, Zarathan and Cyrus and a washerwoman Kalay – to escape and journey to Jerusalem. Their goal: find the tomb of Jesus where his remains still – remain.

What follows is a Dan Brownesque adventure, with secret maps and unknown assassins. While that pattern, also used in books like The Last Cato or the Secret Supper is not new, the book gives a great introduction on how modern Christianity was created by a few bishops under the leadership of an emperor, solely for political reasons.

The book covers many facets of early Christianity which have been documented by historians. For instance Yeshua is mentioned as Yeshua ben Pantera (Yeshua, son of Pantera) referring to the fact that Yeshua’s father was the Roman archer Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, something mentioned in Prof. James Tabor’s book, The Jesus Dynasty.

In this book Maryam is Yeshua’s companion who gets affectionate kisses from the Rabbi and is considered his close confidante. Along their travel, the monks and Kalay reach a tomb in Jerusalem where they find ossuaries containing bones of various people who seem to be the family members of Yeshua. This in fact is a reference to the Talpiot tomb which was the topic of a documentary and various heated debates.

While that forms the primary thread, alternate chapters describe the arrest and trial of Yeshua. That narration comes from the point of view of Joseph of Arimathea in whose tomb Yeshua was buried after crucifixion. Here the authors put the point of view that Yeshua’s body was not burried, but made to disappear by the Jewish council to make people believe he was the Messiah so that they don’t revolt and cause the Romans to destroy the temple.

In fact just this year Prof. Israel Knohl published the translation of a stone tablet pre-dating Jesus with inscriptions suggesting the resurrection of a suffering messiah and scholars believe that Yeshua’s story was made to conform to that pattern.

Nothing mentioned in the book is a surprise since it comes from biblical research. This is the only work of fiction I have read which has 21 pages of notes and four pages of bibliography. Besides this, there is an interview with the authors in which they explain how all this information was deliberately kept out by the church.

The point of the book is to spread the idea that the life of Yeshua as known today is not really history. The earliest Christians did not attribute any significance to the virgin birth or resurrection. They did not make up stories to enhance his divinity for they valued his words. The Church was involved in this re-writing and this book tells the alternate version.

Book Review: The Snake Stone

The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition, 304 pages

“Istanbul of 1830s was a city in which everyone, from sultan to beggar, belonged somewhere—to a guild, a district, a family, a church or a mosque”, writes Jason Goodwin in his second historical murder mystery: The Snake Stone. Sultan Mahmud II is on his death bed in the seventy-three bedroom palace satisfied over his accomplishments which included destroying the Janissaries, modernizing the army and creating a new identity for the citizens by a common dress code with the fez and the stambouline. The Greeks had declared independence from Turkey in 1832, but now in 1839, Greeks were being attacked in Istanbul.

When he came to know that grocer George was beaten up and book seller Goulandris was murdered, Yashim thought they were unrelated events. Yashim the eunuch was affiliated to the palace, but unlike other eunuchs, who worked in the palace as chaperons, messengers, protectors, and mediators, Yashim had his freedom. He could deflect attention, blend into the crowd and be invisible and this talent helped him successfully solve the murders of soldiers in the previous novel: The Janissary Tree. But when Maximilian Lefèvre, the shady French archaeologist who had arrived in Istanbul looking for Byzantine treasures, was found with his sternum split open, Yashim becomes a suspect since Lefèvre had spent the his last moments in Yashim’s apartment.

Yashim has to use his rapier skills — the ability to get information from people and navigate effortlessly through the palace as well as the markets — to unravel the mystery and save himself. A word from the Sultan; that was all that was required to save Yashim from the cloud of suspicion, but a dying Sultan who no longer lived in the Topkapi palace could not do it. The suggestion that Yashim could be connected to Lefèvres’ death could find a life in the palace where not everyone was Yashim’s friend. Even if it was proven that Yashim was not involved, suspicion was enough. Also Yashim had to hurry before others got killed.

As Yashim follows leads, investigating the mysterious Greek group Hetira, he encounters a kaleidoscope of nationalities living in Istanbul. There is his friend Stanislaw Palewski, the Polish ambassador to Sublime Porte; an ambassador of a county which was consumed by its neighbors and Dr. Millingen, the Sultan’s English doctor, who was with Lord Byron when he died fighting for the Greek War of Independence in Messolonghi. As Yashim finds out Lefèvre was looking for Greek treasures based on a Latin book written by Pierre Gyllius, a Frenchman who came to Turkey in 1550, the Jewish money lender Baradossa and the member of the waterman’s guild Enver Xani too get killed.

The history of Istanbul, from the days of Justinian to the time it was overrun by Ottomans, is mixed into the narrative as Yashim finds intricate connections between various nationalities; the history lessons are so delightfully blended that it never appears artificial. The Sultan’s French mother observes dryly that while the Turks wanted to be Europeans, she found the less formal Oriental life more interesting. The reader, through Yashim, discovers the complex relationship between various communities, but also various secrets that are ensconced under ancient monuments and with guilds; secrets for which people can be murdered.

When Goodwin wanted to write a work of fiction on Istanbul, after having written non-fiction books about it, it was his book editor who suggested a murder mystery. To make it engrossing, he chose the style of Dan Brown, writing short chapters interspersed with a few long ones. He also learned enough from Dan Brown not to end each chapter with a cliff hanger. Though a murder mystery, it never rushes forward madly, but even in the midst of deep intrigue, pauses a bit.

Goodwin’s tale is well crafted; like the beads in the hands of one of his characters, the shrewd housewife Mrs. Mavrogordato, he slowly and delicately takes the story forward. The resulting piece is neither an exhaustive longueur like I, Claudius nor artificial like Wilbur Smith’s Egyptian novels, but is a great Turkish dish, like the one which Yashim cooks often. Each character, like the ingredients in the dish has a part and only a careful reading, and sometimes re-reading, will make certain connections obvious. He stays away from the usual historical clichés of large battles, tales of kings and plotting viziers; his narration is along the lines of a Holmesian story, with focus on characters with vested interests. This very readable book recreates 19th century Istanbul splendidly and and the detailed observations of daily life helps in transporting us there.

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Book Review: The Lost Gospel

The Lost Gospel by Herbert Krosney, National Geographic (April 6, 2006), 352 pages

The Lost Gospel

The Gospel of Judas, which disappeared before the 4th century and was discovered sometime in the 1970s  in Al Minya in Egypt takes the story of Judas as the betrayer and turns it upside down, similar to what Malayalam novelist  M T Vasudevan Nair has done many times. According to  this Gospel, Judas did not betray Jesus for money, but because Jesus asked him to.

Also in this Gospel, written in Greek by someone who revered Jesus, Judas is the favorite disciple to whom Jesus imparts secret teachings. Contrary to the teachings of other Christian texts, Jesus came to save the world, predicted his own death and used Judas as an instrument in that process.

This book, published by National Geographic, is written by Herb Krosney, who first alerted the National Geographic Society about the existence of the document and convinced them to publish it. Besides narrating the history of early Christianity and the significance of this new Gospel, the book also explains the 30 year journey of the fragile papyrus from Egypt to the offices of National Geographic.

This Gospel written in the century that followed Jesus’  life gives fresh insight into the evolution of early Christianity like what the Nag Hammadi codices revealed. The thirteen Nag Hammadi codices, again translated from Greek to Copt, contained texts that inspired the Gnostic movement. Gnostics — religious mystics who proclaimed knowledge and not belief in death and resurrection of Jesus as the way to salvation — expanded beyond the teachings of Jesus, were highly intelligent and used symbolism which were difficult to understand.

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