From Gobekli Tepe and onwards (1,050)

A simple indication of how ‘advanced’ a country is is the number of elites which are politically active within it. At the present time, and within countries such as America, Germany and the UK, there are, I would judge, something like half-a-dozen to a dozen elites. For example, there are the politicians, the civil service, the judiciary, the international rich, the media, the bankers and the major businesses. Others, such as the medical profession and research scientists, are bubbling up in power from below while others, such as the army, are gradually settling downwards, with other previous power elites such as organized religion and landed aristocracy fading quietly into retirement.

All these power elites have distinct agendas of their own and all are contending against one another in order to maintain their own power bases or to enlarge them. All these machinations usually take place quietly and far from the madding crowd — who normally only learn about power shifts as vague hints and usually after the event. The ordinary person only learns what happened in some detail (and often not then!) at least 50 or more years after the event when papers become revealed and historians gradually piece together the various vacillations that gradually settled into significant trends.

As historians (and anthropologists and archeologists!) go backwards in time they discern fewer and fewer contending elites within any continent, region or locality until, in hunter-gatherer times, say 100,000 years ago, only one remains — the individual leader (and perhaps his immediate supporters) of small groups. But, even then, life was not quite as atomistic as it seems. For genetic reasons, pubescent girls were innately impelled to eschew their immediately accessible males and move to neighbouring groups before becoming mothers. Also, archeologists can discern the existence in those times of long-distance consecutive trading in personal status goods such as seashell necklaces and tablets of coloured ochres for personal adornment. And, no doubt, the leaders of groups had first — and sometimes only! — say in these matters. Today, all of the power elites within any advanced country are gradually becoming internationalized.

But that’s not quite the tack that my thoughts took this morning. They were more to do with the relative aggressiveness and publicity of the contentions between power groups. Today, in the more advanced countries, as already mentioned, they are quieter and hardly visible to the general public. However, in the least advanced countries of those people who register themselves as ‘nations’ with the United Nations Organizations, the power shifts often involve only two contenders and are not only highly aggressive and public but also involve the deaths of many of ordinary folk.

I was sparked off this morning by reading in the current The Atlantic about how, in Iran, Supreme Leader Khamenei has recently, and publicly, slapped down some of the political decisions of President Ahmadinejad. In that country — by no means among the least advanced in the world — the situation is still mainly a stand-up fight between two contenders. This is between secularism and organization religion. This is still the major problem that besets all Muslim countries.

In turn, reflecting on this took me back to an article in a recent National Geographic about an amazing circular stone construction built by hunter-gatherer people at Gobekli Tepe in what is now Turkey and presently being carefully excavated by German archeologists. This goes back some l1,000 years, and long before stone houses and cities were being built. These only began thousands of years later in times of systematic agriculture. Its beautiful stone carvings of animals suggests that Gobekli Tepe was a religious temple of some sort. Also, the massiveness of its stone pillars means that it took thousands of people to make over, probably, many years. Was this work done by slave labour under the whiplash of an immensely powerful hunter-gatherer overlord on behalf of religious priests? Or was it done by voluntary workers under the guidance of a religious leader? Were there two co-existent leaders (as in Bhutan until recent decades) or was the builder of Gobekli Tepe a politico/military leader and religious leader both rolled into one?

My guess it that it was the latter (in which also the concept of slavery and loyal adherent to the leadership could scarcely be separated). But never mind, at Gobekli Tepe we are discerning the first faintest traces of religion as a power base. Whatever the true nature of its political role 11,000 years ago, religion rose ever since as a separate political elite in most civilizations. By 500BC religion was powerful everywhere in Asia and the Mediterranean region where civilizations existed. However, China managed to exclude it from the highest levels of government power from about 200BC as did the Greeks and, one by one, most civilizations have managed to exclude or sideline organized religion from the portals of power ever since.

But there are some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which religion still has almost total power. There are several other Muslim countries in which there is still great contention going on between power centres. In Pakistan, it’s mainly between religion and the army (with the wannabe power elite hardly getting a look in); in Afghanistan, it’s mainly between religion and tribal chiefs (both presently heaving out the occupying powers in different ways); in Syria it’s between religion and secularism; and so on.

Individual religious belief will probably always exist, even among those who are also scientists, because it is highly likely that there’ll always be questions about existence and the universe that two-and-a-half pounds of grey matter in our heads will never be able to resolve. But, as an organized body of power, the religious elite has to learn at the very least to share its power with other elites but, better still, to retire gracefully from the scene altogether. At least some religious elites have learned to do this in Western countries and in China. It usually takes generations for cultures to change and new elites to emerge so I can’t see anything resembling peace in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa for a very long time to come. We would be very wise not to get involved with their problems and only trade with them with very long spoons — as no doubt hunter-gatherer groups did with their neighbours who could be jolly on market and marrying days but viciously savage on others.

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