“The Oldest Profession in the World”: Prostitution or Gardening?

Former president of the United States Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) allegedly once said, “Someone once said that politics is the second-oldest profession. I’m beginning to think it bears resemblance to the first”, unfavorably comparing politicians to prostitutes.

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“Sorrow” by Vincent Van Gogh (1882), Van Gogh is reported to have encountered Sien Hoornik (the lady posing for this drawing) wandering the streets of The Hague with her five-year-old daughter Maria Wilhelmina in January 1882. She was destitute and pregnant, with addictions to alcohol and tobacco and reportedly working as a prostitute. 

Sex workers are rightly avoiding the term “prostitute” because of what we equate with it (dirty men, sadness, a woman selling her body, etc. Perhaps even its comparison with politicians?). It’s a word filled with a great deal of cultural baggage, and none of it good. Research after research have shown that our damaged view of the “prostitute” is far from real, but we persist in trying to define and classify this figure as such throughout history. Despite the old adage, prostitution is not “the oldest profession in the world”. Anthropologist George Peter Murdock of Yale University found that prostitution did not occur in many so-called primitive cultures, but the medicine man was universal. Mary Breckinridge, an American nurse midwife and the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service, have suggested that midwifery is the oldest profession, “The midwife’s calling is so ancient that the medical and nursing professions, in even their earliest traditions, are parvenus beside it”. I often find myself getting mildly irritated when I hear prostitution being referred to as “the world’s oldest profession”. It is not. I would actually argue that the world’s oldest profession is gardening, but trying to work out what is the “oldest” profession is actually something of a wild goose chase as professions (and money) are recent inventions.

Homo sapiens have been roaming around the world for around 200,000 years, and the earliest evidence of coined money dates back to 640BC in Lydia, Asia Minor. Even the systems of bartering products, rather than currency, rely largely on the domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops, and this dates back to about 9000 BC. This means that we managed to live quite happily without money for much of human history. Given that money is perhaps the most influential factor on how we live our lives these days, it is sobering to note that the only value that money really has is what we as a society collectively connect to it. At the end of the day, “money” is bits of paper and metal disks, which we have all agreed upon, are unique. We lived perfectly well without it before our ancestors decided that the gold rocks were nicer to look at than the other rocks.

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“Socrates finds his student Alcibiades at heterai” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843 – 1902)

But let us ignore that for a bit and talk about gardening. The inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia were already urban and literate around 3000 BC and the evidence for their gardens comes from written documents, pictorial sculpture and archaeology. The 7th century BC Assyrian King Assurbanipal (King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from the death of his father Esarhaddon in 668 BC to his own death in 631 BC) is seen on a sculpture featuring his wife, sitting on a couch beneath the vineyards, attended by musicians. Trophies of conquest are on view, including the dismembered head of King Elam hanging from a fragrant pine branch. The Babylonian text of the same time is divided into parts, as though it were showing soil beds with names of medicinal, vegetable and herbal plants written in each square.

At Mari on the Middle Euphrates (c. 1800 BC), one of the great courtyards of the palace is crossed by elevated walkways of baked brick; the king and his entourage will dine there. At Ugarit (c. 1400 BC), there was a stone water reservoir, not centrally positioned as in later Persian gardens, since the central feature was probably a tree. On a larger scale, royal hunting parks were set up to house the exotic animals and plants that the king had collected during his international campaigns. King Tiglath-Pileser I (c. 1000 BC) mentions goats, oxen, asses, two-type deer, gazelle and ibex, proudly saying “I numbered them like flocks of sheep.”

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“Morning mood at the lake of Karnak” by Karl Wuttke (1849 – 1927). The sacred lake of the Karnak Temple was dug by Tuthmosis III (1473-1458 BC). It is lined with stone wall and has stairways descending into the water. The lake was used by the priests for ritual washing and ritual navigation.

The history of ancient Egyptian gardens, like all aspects of Egyptian life, relied on the Nile and the network of canals that drew water from it. Water was hoisted from the Nile in leather buckets and carried to the gardens on the shoulders, and later, starting about the 4th century BC, it was raised from the wells by hoists with counter-balancing weights. The early gardens consisted of planting beds divided into squares by earthen walls, so that the water could soak into the soil rather than be lost. The gardens belonged to the temples or to the residences. Secular gardens were situated near the river or canals and were primarily used for growing vegetables. Beginning in the New Kingdom, the gardens were connected to more spacious homes and were often surrounded by walls. Temple gardens were used to grow some vegetables for rituals, Palace Gardens first appeared in Egypt just before the Middle Kingdom (2035–1668). These gardens were very large in size and were arranged in geometric patterns. The ponds in the palace gardens were enormous and numerous. In the second millennium BC, King Snefer ‘s garden pond was wide enough for boats to be rowed by twenty oarsmen. The rulers of ancient Egypt, such as Queen Hatshepsut (1503–1482 BC) and Ramses III (1198–1166 BC), used pots to bring back to Egypt new kinds of trees and flowers found during their conquests in Libya, Syria and Cyrene.

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Pond in a garden. Fragment from the Tomb of Nebamun, 1400 BC

Ancient Indian gardens are listed in several ancient Hindu texts, including Rigveda (1500–1200 BC), Ramayana and Mahabharata. Buddhist accounts mention the bamboo grove that King Bimbisara gave to the Buddha. Digha Nikaya, a Buddhist text, also mentions Buddha living in the mango orchard of the Jivaka monastery, donated by the physician Jivaka. The inscriptions of Emperor Ashoka (304 – 232 BC) mention the establishment of botanical gardens for planting medicinal herbs, plants and trees. They had pools of water, grid patterns, and chattri pavilions.

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A border of trees, palms and herbaceous plants from a Roman garden in the 1st century AD. Coloured photographic reproduction of a wall painting, c. 1891.

Sumerian documents dating back to the c. 2400 BC is the first recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation. They describe the temple-brothel run by Sumerian priests in the town of Uruk. Now, if we want to be a little divisive, we should take holy prostitution into account. Sacred prostitution is a ritual consisting of paid intercourse conducted in the sense of religious worship, probably as a type of ritual of fertility or hieros gamos (“divine marriage”).The Old Near East was home to several shrines, temples or “houses of heaven” dedicated to various gods. The 5th-century BC historian Herodotus’ account and some other testimonies from the Hellenistic era and Late Antiquity indicate that ancient societies fostered the tradition of sacred sexual rites not only in Babylon and Cyprus, but in the Near East. Herodotus writes:

“The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants. But most sit down in the sacred plot of Aphrodite, with crowns of cord on their heads; there is a great multitude of women coming and going; passages marked by line run every way through the crowd, by which the men pass and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her place there, she does not go away to her home before some stranger has cast money into her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple; but while he casts the money, he must say, “I invite you in the name of Mylitta”. It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her. So then the women that are fair and tall are soon free to depart, but the uncomely have long to wait because they cannot fulfil the law; for some of them remain for three years, or four. There is a custom like this in some parts of Cyprus.”

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A visit to the hetaeras. Attic red-figure hydria. Dated somewhere between 490 – 480 BC

So how did prostitution become the “oldest profession in the world”?

“The oldest profession in the world” did not start to acquire its association to prostitution until 1889. But, in fairness despite my preference to gardening, there are a lot of other professions that can legitimately claim to be the “oldest” profession such as farmers, horticulturalists, barbers, engineers, gardeners, the military, doctors, nurses, teachers, priests, and even lawyers.

Perhaps the earliest recorded claim to be the world’s oldest profession was made on behalf of tailors. The Song in Praise of the Merchant-Taylors from 1680, which was routinely performed at pageants at the Lord Mayor’s Show if the current mayor of London happened to belong to the tailors’ guild, began:

“Of all the professions that ever were nam’d,
The taylor’s, though slighted, is much to be fam’d’:
For various invention, and antiquity,
No trade with the tayler’s comparèd may be:”

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“Phyrne” by Francesco Barzaghi (1839-1892). Phyrne was (born c. 371 BC) was an ancient Greek courtesan (hetaira), from the fourth century BC. She is best known for her trial for impiety, where she was defended by the orator Hypereides.

After pointing out that Adam and Eve made garments for themselves, and were therefore tailors, it continued:

“Then judge if a tayler was not the first trade.
The oldest profession, and they are but raylers,
Who scoff and deride men that be merchant-taylers.”

(Again. To be fair, I should also note that by that logic Adam was put into the garden of Eden and given the task to tend to it and was therefore a gardener.)

The Irish poet Henry Brooke (1701–1783) declared that humbugging (i.e. scamming) was the oldest profession:

“Of all trades and arts in repute or possession,
Humbugging is held the most ancient profession.”

The phrase began to be associated with prostitution in the last decade of the nineteenth century following Rudyard Kipling’s short story about an Indian prostitute, On the City Wall (1889). Kipling writes: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as every one knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.”

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“Campaspe taking off her clothes in front of Apelles by order of Alexander”, by Auguste Ottin (1811-1890). Campaspe was a supposed mistress of Alexander the Great.

Perhaps due to our tendency to attribute the best qualities to men and believe in the worst qualities in women, this became the one association that sticks, apparently, because five years later, in a scathing article on the morals of the aristocracy in the mass circulation Reynold’s Newspaper, 22 July 1894, the reference was repeated:

“In ancient Rome, under the empire, ladies used to go to baths to meet a certain class of men, while men resorted thither to meet a certain class of ladies. The ladies belonged to what has been called “the oldest profession in the world”, a profession which is carried on in Piccadilly, Regent street, and other parts of London with great energy every night …”

In the same year the Pall Mall Gazette reported a speech in which “Mrs. Ormiston Chant … implored us to stand shoulder to shoulder and destroy what Kipling has called ‘the oldest profession in the world'”.

Very Short Story about Voting in Ancient Greek and Rome

Sortition by lot was a form of selecting public officials in some ancient Greek city-states. It has been used particularly in the democracy of ancient Athens from which most information on the practice is derived. This procedure overturned the electoral races and allowed for the daily succession of the office holders. Therefore, the government’s activities were not in the hands of experts, but through the sorting system which at least gives the people some practical political education.

The Pnyx, a hill in central Athens – a place of popular assemblies, thus making the hill one of the earliest and most important sites in the creation of democracy.

The justification for this sortition system was the dignity of all men. Only those who put themselves forward as candidates were selected by lot to occupy the public office. Although military officers and some financial officials were chosen by polling rather than by sorting, most of the executive roles were broken down into small assignments, each of which was assigned to an annual board of ten members selected by lot.

In both Athens and Sparta, the male citizen body was relatively small (less than 40,000 in Athens, and perhaps a quarter of the number in Sparta). In Athens, they all came together and voted by a show of hands; in Sparta, they voted by shouting (those who shout the loudest won).

The Pnyx with the carved steps of the speaker’s platform in the centre

Bearing in mind the shouting alone, privacy would have been an issue. The Romans faced the question of privacy in the ballot box even more explicitly than the Athenians who had a form of secret ballot in legal cases, but nowhere else despite their democratic credentials. In the second half of the second century BC , the Romans adopted a number of laws to protect the privacy of the electorate. We know nothing about this in any depth, but Cicero ‘s conservative huffing and puffing makes it clear that this was a politically charged change which aimed to stop the elite putting pressure on the votes of the poor. And it was important enough to be shown on coins. Coins from that era suggest that voters individually picked out their ballot slips (wax on wood, most likely) from a basket as they walked across some form of “bridge”, then wrote the name of their candidate in the wax as they walked, and finally dropped it into the ballot box.

A 63 BC coin depicting a Roman casting a ballot

The sheer number of Roman citizens at the time would also have somewhat complicated things. There were some 200,000 voters in Rome by the middle of the first century BC and many more in Italy. The Roman people have always been divided into groups of voters who, through a series of extraordinarily complex and subtly shifting processes which proves to be a giant pain in one’s bottom to learn centuries later, cast one vote per party. The whole thing was quite modern as each group of voters delivers one vote and the person who gets the largest number of group votes wins, and the process saves time, and manages a massive electorate, because all the groups of voters vote simultaneously and conveniently in a location near their home.  Again, we have been voting in very similar fashions for more than 2000 years. However, the Romans never seem to have invented a local voting scheme, because anyone who wanted to participate had to come to the city itself and they never seem to have hit the idea of a party voting at the same time. Instead, each party voted sequentially, one after the other, so that it could take more than a single day to deliver the vote and an awful lot of waiting around for the average voter.

For those who wanted to be a politician, an electoral handbook survives from the Roman world full of advice on how to run an election campaign. The book is credited to Marcus Cicero’s younger brother, Quintus, and purports to be his advice to Marcus for securing his election to the consulship of 63 BC. It’s awfully modern in many ways, such as its advice to stay out of shaking hands and to make sure you still know people’s names. So really, politicians have been playing the same tunes for more than 2000 years and we fall for it every time.

The relief representation depicts the personified Demos being crowned by Democracy. About 336 BC

It was possible that Julius Caesar was working on some kind of reform of this. And by the time of his assassination, some brand new voting halls (saepta, or “sheep-pen”) had begun in the city to give a new home to the voting process. The irony, of course, was that Caesar’s dictatorship was in fact the end of free democratic elections anyway — and within fifty years the Saepta had been transformed into an up-scale shopping mall and antique market.

Scar Removals and Breast Reductions: Graeco-Roman Practices of Plastic Surgery

In the 6th Century BCE, an Indian physician named Sushruta, who was widely regarded in India as the “father of surgery”, wrote one of the world’s earliest works on medicine and surgery. The work included the method of skin grafting, which entail transplanting pieces of skin from one part of the body to another. His treatise also provides the first written record of a forehead flap rhinoplasty, a technique still used today, in which a full-thickness piece of skin from the forehead is used to reconstruct a nose. However, Sushruta was not the first inventor of plastic surgery. The first known record of plastic surgery was in 1213 BCE, when ancient Egyptians tried to preserve the nose of their dead king by surgically inserting bones and seeds into it.

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Inscribed tablet on the wall of the temple of KOM-OMBOS, upper Egypt, built by Ptolemy VII (181-146 BC) Temple date (100 c BC)

For centuries, tribes would stretch their earlobes, bind their feet, file their teeth, as well as tattoo and scar their skin – these practices have not lost their cultural powers. Plastic surgery gained momentum and sophistication during the lifetime of the ancient Roman physician Galen (129-216 CE) due to increased obsession with the human body. Galen himself attempted to cure eyes that squinted and drooped. He also performed aesthetic rhinoplasty on wealthy men and women who simply wanted a new nose. However, after the fall of Rome, many of Galen’s medical texts were lost – only 20 out of his 600 books survive – and the practice of plastic surgery was in decline. In the Middle Ages, despite discussions of proper dental care, surgery in general was deemed to be pagan and sinful because the spilling of blood by a surgeon and the power he held over the body were akin to magic. Plastic surgery, therefore, has always existed and was shrouded in mystery, magic, and eroticism.

Greek legends recount the Graiai, sea god desses who lacked teeth and eyes but successfully passed one of each between them for use. On the utopian island described by Iambulus around 100 BCE were tortoises whose blood had a glue powerful enough to reattach severed body parts. In Apuleius’s circa 160 CE, Latin retelling of the Greek tale The Golden Ass, the hero’s nose and ears are removed by witches and then replaced with wax.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Perseus and the Graiae, 1877-1880

Also in Greek mythology, there is the story of Tantalus, king of Phrygia and son of Zeus. Tantalus was one of the few mortals invited to Mount Olympus. After getting away with some minor infractions, Tantalus thought he was immune from any punishment due to his being the son of Zeus. He then committed a heinous crime by killing his own son, Pelops, and serving him at a banquet to the Olympian gods. Enraged, Zeus hurled Tantalus to Hades to suffer eternal torture of hunger and thirst. Zeus then ordered Hermes to collect all the pieces of Pelops from the dinner table and reconstruct them together. However, the shoulder was missing as Demeter, preoccupied with her daughter Persephone’s disappearance, had accidentally eaten it. Hephaestus reconstructed the shoulder with ivory and Zeus breathed life into him. Legend has it that any one who has a birth mark on the shoulder is a descendant of Pelops.

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Pelops and Hippodamia, eastern pediment of the temple of Zeus, Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Homer stated “One surgeon was worth an army of men” recognizing the value of a surgeon during frequent wars that raged those days. This illustrates nicely a discovery made in Abdera (Thrace), dating to the middle of the 7th century BCE where the remains of a woman were discovered with what seemed like an injury on the rear of the skull consistent with a lead shot from a sling. This injury looked like it had been successfully operated on and, judging from the recovery growth around the area, it has been estimated that the woman had lived for 20 years or so following the surgery. This gives us us an early look into early treatments to trauma injury and the care it took to cover the subsequent scarring.

By the first century BCE, perhaps prompted by the very public Roman baths, the Romans were also practicing advanced plastic surgery procedures. In a culture that praised the beauty of the naked body in both art and poetry, the ancient Romans viewed any sign of abnormality, particularly around the area of the genitalia, with both suspicion and amusement. Consequently, one of the most popular plastic surgery procedures appeared to be circumcision removal, which is described in a rather detached way by Cornelius Celsus’ text De re medicina during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 CE) where he describes a breast reduction surgery on an obese man whose breasts were “unsightly” and “shameful.”

Roman surgeons would also remove scars, particularly those on the back, which were marks of shame because they suggested that a man had turned his back in battle or, worse, he had been whipped like a slave. The poet Martial (40-104 CE) suggests that some slaves had their brands removed by surgeons during this time. Surgeons would also often operate on gladiators who had noses and ears chopped off and on foreigners who would try to fit into Roman society.

Dewi Sri, Nang Khosop and the Bountiful Body of a Goddess

For centuries, rice has been a staple diet and plays an important role in Asian culture. Although rice farmers have found their lives to become more difficult due to climate change, Bloomberg states in 2016 that 16 million people still farm rice in Thailand alone. Commemorating the beginning of the rice growing season with an annual Royal Plowing Ceremony in the month of May is an ancient tradition for countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Sri Langka among others. Some of the duties of the Emperor of Japan as chief Shinto priest is the ritual planting of the first rice seeds on the grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace as well as performing the first harvest ritual. Rice fields in Asia are generally protected by goddesses.

Although these goddesses, as well as their many variations of legends, may be overshadowed by the famous Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, they exhibit many of the elements of Demeter’s characteristics. They all journeyed to the underworld in one way or another. They also resembles Demeter in their association with snakes, fertility and motherhood. In 1849, German Classicist Eduard Gerhard speculated that the various goddesses found in ancient Greek paganism (including Demeter herself) had been representations of a singular goddess who had been worshipped far further back into prehistory – associating this deity particularly with the concept of Mother Earth. Evidently, the influence of the Mother Goddess reached further than ancient Greece.

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Dewi Sri 36 cm tall bronze statue, Central Java art. Her left hand is holding a rice plant.

The story of Dewi Sri also takes her to the three realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. Dewi Sri is ancient goddess of rice and fertility even before the Hindu and Islamic era of Indonesia. Despite her mythology being native to the island of Java, after the adoption of Hinduism in Java as early as the first century CE, Dewi Sri became associated with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity.

Dewi Sri and the origin of rice as written in Wawacan Sulanjana (“The Tale of Sulanjana”), which contains Sundanese local wisdom through reverence of rice cultivation in its tradition. Once upon a time in heaven, Batara Guru, the king of the gods, commanded all the gods and goddesses to help build a new palace. Upon hearing this, the naga god Antaboga became anxious as, although he was fiercely loyal to his master, he was a great serpent and did not have arms or legs to help with the building. His anxiety became too much that three teardrops fell from his eyes to the ground where they became three beautiful jewel-like eggs.

With the three eggs in his mouth Anta flew to the heavenly palace to offer them to Batara Guru. On his way there, he was approached by an eagle whom asked him a question. As Antaboga was holding his eggs in his mouth, he had no choice but to keep silent. The eagle, feeling insulted, furiously attacked him – leaving him with only one egg to offer Batara Guru. Batara Guru accepted the egg and asked Antaboga to nest the egg until it hatched. The egg hatched into a beautiful baby girl who he then gave to Batara Guru.

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Statue of Dewi Sri — Ubud, Bali

The girl grew up into a beautiful princess in the heavenly palace, so beautiful that her foster father, Batara Guru, started to feel attracted to her himself. To protect the girl’s chastity, the gods poisoned the girl and buried her body below the earth. However, from her remains grew plants that would forever benefit human kind. Coconut grew from her head, various spices and vegetables grew from her nose, lips, and ears. Grass and flowers grew from her hair, trees grew from her arms and hands and rice grew from her eyes. The girl was then known as Dewi Sri (“Great Goddess”) venerated and revered as the benevolent goddess of rice and fertility.

Dewi Sri was not the only goddess who had to die so that mankind could live. According to the Laotian origin myth in a manuscript in Wat Si Saket (built between 1819-1824 CE), one day after a thousand-year famine, a young hermit caught a golden fish. The king of the fish heard his subject’s cry of agony and asked the hermit to free the golden fish in exchange for a treasure. The treasure was Nang Khosop, a maiden who served as the soul of the rice. The hermit let Nang Khosop live in a rice field where she then nourished humans for many generations. However, one day an unrighteous king brought about a famine on the land by storing the rice that was due to the people to acquire luxury goods for himself. During this famine, an old couple of slaves met the now old hermit in the forest. Seeing that they were famished, the hermit appealed to Nang Khosop to feed them. However, she refused as, unaware that the king had been keeping her rice, she felt that she had given the people sufficient food to survive. The hermit then slaughtered Nang Khosop and cut her into many little pieces. The pieces of Nang Khosop became different varieties of rice. The old couple then went on to teach humans how to cultivate this new rice in small grains.

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Buddha statue located in front of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane.

The Fallen God and the Power of Humility

Semar is probably one of the oldest characters in Indonesian mythology who was not derived from Hindu mythology. He was made famous by performances of Wayang (Shadow Puppets) in the islands of Java and Bali as a rather unattractive, short man with breasts, a great sized behind, and uncontrollable urge for farting. However, underneath his peculiar appearance, Semar plays a major part in the Indonesian creation myth as the elder brother of the supreme god Batara Guru (the Hindu god Shiva).

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The Candi Semar, one of the temples of the Candi Arjuna temple complex at the Dieng Plateau (photo taken in 1864)

The book Purwacarita says that Semar is actually Sang Hyang Ismaya, elder brother of Batara Guru, and father of Batara Surya (the Hindu sun god Surya). He was one of the three powerful warrior gods born from a single divine egg. His brothers are Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Manikmaya (who later took on the name Batara Guru). When it was time to decide which one of them was to be the ruler of heaven, Sang Hyang Antaga and Sang Hyang Ismaya quarreled for the position in a battle that went on for forty days. Their father, the ruler of heaven, finally decided to hold a contest. The brother who was able to swallow the heavenly mountain would be crowned as the next ruler of heaven.

As their father looked on sadly, Sang Hyang Antaga tore his lips in his attempt to swallow the mountain. He lost a lot of blood and collapsed on to the earth. Sang Hyang Ismaya choked as the mountain entered his throat and fell unconscious. When the two brothers regained their consciousness, they could no longer recognize each other. The mighty warrior figure of Sang Hyang Antaga had changed; His body now short and bloated, his mouth huge, ripped by his effort to swallow the mountain and forever marked his face. Sang Hyang Ismaya, whose face was fair like the sun, had turned into a little old man with small limbs and sad eyes. His mouth gave a perpetual clownish smile which makes him look rather frightening.

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Shadow puppet representing Semar

Their father banished them both to earth. Sang Hyang Antaga was renamed Togog Wijomantri and was assigned to care for the giants, whose natures were filled with rage. Sang Hyang Ismaya was renamed Semar Bagranaya. He was charged to care for the kings, Brahmins (priests and wisemen) and knights of the world, whose natures were filled with pride. Thus the two brothers bowed their heads and accepted their fates. Semar came down to earth to serve as servants to the kings and warriors. 

According to Babad Tanah Jawi, Semar was a spirit who looked after a small field near Mount Merbabu ten thousand years before there were any other people in the island of Java. His descendants, the spirits of the island, came into conflict with the first people as they cleared fields and populated the island. To end this feud, a powerful Hindu priest provided Semar with a role that allowed him and his descendants to stay. The role is that of a spiritual advisor and divine supporter of the royalty. As this is a hereditary role, his descendants who are willing to protect the humans of Java also remain there.

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Wooden wayang golèk doll, depicting the Semar.

Although he was banished to the human realm, Semar was blessed with eight divine virtues: He would never feel hungry, never feel sleepy, never fall in love, never feel sad, never feel tired, never be sick, never feel heat and never feel cold. Those eight virtues are represented by the eight hairs on his crest. Those eight chest hairs are not the only unusual quality of Semar. In fact, Semar’s very being is full of contradictions. He has a man’s face, but he has a woman’s breasts. He has wrinkles on his face like an old man, but his hair is cut like a child. His lips always smile but his eyes are sad. He is a deity, but he wears kawung motive sarong, as other retainers wear. His outward appearance is considered grotesque, but he has a kind heart.

Semar is the symbol of the duality of life, like yin and yang, where opposites exist side by side in harmony. Any attempt to change his appearance, if it was even possible, would prove disastrous. For example, a forelock is often something that children have, whereas on Semar, an old man, it shows child-like qualities such as honesty and lack of prejudice. If his forelock were cut off, he would lose these qualities and became suspicious and prejudiced like other adults. This symbolizes the importance of balance and acceptance of the good and bad qualities, as one cannot exist without the other.

In every Wayang performance, Semar is the only character who dares to protest to the gods, including Batara Guru and Batari Durga, even compelling them to act or desist. He often represents the realistic view of the world in contrast to the idealistic view held by the heroes. His role is somewhat similar to Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV as critic of the play’s worldview and antidote to pride.

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 On the play Hanuman Obong, and the army of monkeys helped Anoman semar

The Ancient Magic of Hygiene

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Cabinets d’aisances des fosses inodores.” (1830)

The proverb of cleanliness being “next to godliness” is popularly credited to John Wesley’s 1778 sermon. But it also came from writings in the Talmud. Washing oneself in clear water before paying homage to the gods and deities became part of the ceremonies in many ancient religions. In ancient Egypt, people washed their faces and hands before praying to the goddess Isis, and the priests bathed their bodies at least twice every night and twice during the day. Christian author Tertullian (c. 155 – 240 CE) tells us that water had inherent natural cleansing properties and, as an essence of holiness, water could remove all taints and open the way to the new state of existence.

In India, water had the power of giving life, strength and purity. The followers of Brahma bathed once or twice a day and rinsed their faces and hands several times a day. Hinduism imposed on its followers the duty of ritual bathing in the waters of the rivers which are still regarded as sacred. Muslims wash their hands, faces and feet before each of the five obligatory prayers in a day. Ablutions in the fountain are executed when they pray along the way, because, as Sahih Muslim says, “Cleanliness is half the Emaan (“faith”).” The Islamic culture led to the development of the ancient idea of public baths. However, the hammam (from the Arabic word “hamma” means “to warm”), known to us today as “Turkish Bath”, carries with itself more than just a bath. Practices of the hammam are an integral part of the Turkish and Arabic lifestyle. In the hammam, it is considered possible to clean the body as well as to relax and to recreate.

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Open air museum Petronell ( Lower Austria )

Very early toilets that used flowing water to remove the waste are found at Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland, which was occupied from about 3100 BCE until 2500 BCE. The people of the Harappan civilization in Pakistan and northwestern India had primitive water-cleaning toilets that used flowing water in each house that were linked with drains covered with burnt clay bricks. The flowing water removed the Human waste. Around the 18th century BCE, Minoan Crete improved the toilet by adding the capacity to flush. In 2012, archaeologists found what is believed to be Southeast Asia’s earliest latrine dating back to 1500 BCE during the excavation of a neolithic village in Rach Nui, southern Vietnam.

In the Japanese culture, the bath is dominant in most areas of life. It has also become a model indicator of family and social organization. The development of commercial bath houses occurred at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth century CE. By the nineteenth century CE, there were 600 public baths in the capital of Japan alone. Public baths were the most popular meeting place as it was considered a way to meet new friends and for different social classes to interact with each other. Baths were also of vital importance for the Japanese gods. After escaping from the world of the dead, the god Izanagi took a bath in the river to wash away death from his body. It was also said that Izanagi initiated the tradition of washing one’s hand before entering a Shinto shrine.

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Leaflet advertising Bromo paper toilet tissue manufactured by Diamond Mills Paper Company of 44 Murray Street, New York, probably about 1878 or early 1880s. The paper contained the “disinfectants and curatives” Bromo chloralum and carbolic acid “as to render its use not only a positive preventive of that most distressing and almost universal complaint, the Piles, but also a thorough deodorizer and disinfectant of the water closet.” 


The main Babylonian medical text, the Sakikku, a diagnostic handbook written by chief scholar Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, describes a demon called Sulak, who hides in places where its victims would be alone and vulnerable such as the toilet. He is a guardian who is held responsible for causing strokes and seizures if toilet users do not abide by its bathroom standards of modesty and silence. The Talmud also tells us about Shed Bet ha-Kise. Going to the privy alone and being respectful of Shed Bet ha-Kise by keeping quiet are key to avoiding his attack. Upon returning from a trip to the toilet, one must walk at least half a mile away before having sexual intercourse to prevent Shed Bet ha-Kise from ensuring the children resulted from the sexual act to be epileptic.

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Chinon (Indre-et-Loire). The fortress for latrines in the Clock Tower.

In the first century BCE, bathhouses and public latrines became a major feature of Roman infrastructure and nearly all city dwellers had access to private toilets in their residences. Throughout the Roman empire, spells meant to ward off demons were scrawled on lavatory walls. The Roman goddess of Fortune, Fortuna, seems to have had a special relationship with toilet users as people prayed to her for their safety on the toilet. The waste water from latrines, along with what came out of private homes, was collected into a giant sewerage system originally built by Etrucan engineers and improved by the Romans called Cloaca Maxima. The goddess who presided over the good functioning of the sewerage system is Cloacina – named from the Latin word cloaca (“sewer”). Cloacina was assisted by city officials, called Aediles, who were in charge of supervising and improving the sewerage system. Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines from Cures was said to have built a shrine to Coacina in his toilet and invoked her when the sewers became blocked.

In ancient Asia, the toilet god was considered to be beautiful. Therefore, the toilet in a household would be nicely decorated and kept as clean as possible. There was also a belief that the state of the toilet in the house would affect the physical appearance of unborn children. Pregnant women would ask the toilet god to give boys a good nose and to give the girls dimples. A dirty toilet would lead to ugly and unhappy children.

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Room with latrines in the interior of the castle of Mauléon-Licharre, (Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France).

8 Ancient Roman Love Hacks

The Roman author Ovid was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He wrote various works throughout his long career, but none so insightful for the everyday person as his Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”).

At first glance, the three books of Ars Amatoria are a collection of short poems playing with the common tropes of love stories – the locked-out lover, the slave go-between, the symptoms of love-sickness, the rich rival, the poor poet, infidelity and occasionally successful erotic encounter. But, they also include advice to the reader on how to be a good lover. Here are some of them:

1. Manage Your Smell

“[address] the odor in your armpit so that it does not go rancid and your legs so they are not rough with hair.” he says.

He also says, “See to it that he is well-composed, and his toga without stain. That the tongue not be unbending, and that your teeth be without tartar, Nor let your foot swim about while walking in a loose shoe(s). Don’t let a hair-cut badly fashion your stiff hair; Let your hair and your beard be trimmed by a familiar hand. And that it doesn’t stick up too much, and that your nails are without dirt. And no hairs stand out in the cavities from the nostril. Nor let the breath of your sad mouth be badly scented, Nor [smelling] as a man or billy-goat annoy nostils.” (I. 514-522)

2. Know Your Limits and Work Your Assets

“With little gesture make, whenever she may speak the woman who will have fat fingers and dirty nails. And to the woman whose breath of her mouth is burdensome, never speak hungry and always keep some distance away from your lover’s mouth. If your teeth are blackened, large, or not in line from birth, you will carry the greatest error by laughing.” (III. 280-286)

3. Make Your Choice and Own it

Ovid tells us, “you must act the part of a lover” in order to really become one. But, first of all, “choose someone to whom you can say “you alone please me”’ – that is, choose someone to be the recipient of your loving discourse. With this opening, Ovid goes right in to the heart of the conflict between love as a conscious, rational choice and as an irrational, overwhelming emotion. In the art of love, emotion and logic need to be balanced.

4. Go Out and Find Love

In any case, this section advises the reader to not sit complacently waiting for love, and instead to make an effort to go out and find it. “This woman will not come having fallen to you through thin airs: You must look with your eyes for a suitable girl” (I. 43-44)

Ovid’s favorite local hotspots for singles mingling included the circus, the arena, and even the open-air public market. But the go-to place for a veritable “galaxy” of beauties was the theatre. There, a Roman could find “crowds of lovely women, gaily dressed,” in search of art and culture.

4. Beware of Alcohol and Bad Lighting

Ovid explicitly advises his audience to beware of the combination of alcohol and low lighting in finding a lover, describing them as ignis in igne fuit (“a fire within a fire”) adding that “Nighttime darkness and wine harm your decision making and standards” (I.247) If you really want to know what she [or he] is like, look at her by daylight, and when you’re sober.”

5. Be Friends

Another possibility of finding love is, of course, through friendship. “Let love appear disguised by the name of friendship. With this entrance, I have seen the surrendering words of fierce women. This which has been the cultivator, a lover was made”. (I. 720-722)

6. Pay Attention to the Red Flags

Ovid also recognizes that there are always undesirable men, and warns women to be cautious. “Avoid those men who swears by looks and culture, who keeps their hair carefully in place. The things they tell to you they’ve told a thousand girls: their love wanders and lingers in no one place”. (III. 433-442)

7. Do not Brag about Your “Conquests”

Those notches on the proverbial bedpost might be a pleasure to brag about, Ovid suggests, but they won’t help your or your paramour’s reputation. If you really must spill the juicy details to a friend, at least refrain from painting yourself as the gods’ gift to women or men: “Let us… speak sparingly of our real amours, and hide our secret pleasures beneath an impenetrable veil.”

8. Pick Up a Book

Seagoing hero Ulysses was eloquent and so fluent in ancient tongues and storytelling that he had two goddesses after him. A good brain and sense of refinement matters in love. Ovid says, “Youths of Rome, learn, I recommend you, the liberal arts; and not only that you may defend the trembling accused. Both the public, and the grave judge, and the silent Senate, as well as the fair, conquered by your eloquence, shall extend their hands.”

9 Ancient Ways to Everlasting Fame

Although not everybody wants to be famous, it is still a natural human desire to receive some recognition for one’s talents and contribution. For the more ambitious, those who aim for everlasting fame must deal with numerous challenges from jealousy of rivals to possible extinction of their own civilisation and language.

What ultimately claims everyone is simply the steady march of time. Most people who have risen to dizzying heights of fame seems to be largely forgotten. The steamy verses of the Greek poet Sappho titillated audiences for much of antiquity. They were so enchanting, one Athenian lawmaker said he felt that once he’d heard them he could die a contented man. The celebrity gladiator Spiculus was so admired by the emperor Nero that, when he sensed that his own murder was imminent, Nero requested that Spiculus would be the one to kill him instead. Sappho and Spiculus are now largely forgotten except by historians and people who actually have to study them. But, in their day, they were hot stuff. So how is it that some people are almost instantly forgotten when they have gone, while others cling on, embedding themselves so deeply into our culture that we’re still studying them, writing about them and even depicting them in films millennia after they’re gone?

“In the Days of Sappho” (1904)

1. Be Hungry for It

A fitting place to begin the search is Ancient Greece, where achieving everlasting glory was a national obsession. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles says that he was given the option between living a long but undistinguished life or a brief life that would give him a chance to achieve immortal glory. Achilles chose the second option – preferring to be a subject of song for all eternity. However, a more subdued Achilles later reappeared in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus sails to the underworld and converses with the shades. One of these shades is Achilles who, when greeted as “blessed in life, blessed in death”, responds bitterly that he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than be king of all the dead.

“The Wounded Achilles” by Filipo Albacini (1825)

Another hero, Ajax, is said to have been driven mad when he lost to Odysseus in a contest over who is the best fighter in the Greek army. Believing that he is avenging himself upon the judges of the contest, Ajax goes on to slaughter a herd of cattle. Once he returns to his senses, the humiliated hero commits suicide by falling on his spear.

Suicide of Ajax, 530 BC

2. Hire Your Own Publicist

Master of self-promotion Alexander the Great ruled the kingdom of Macedon from 336-323 BC, expanding it from mainland Greece and a scattering of Mediterranean islands to a global power that stretched all the way to northwest India. His advanced propaganda machine included a troop of historians who accompanied him on campaigns. These historians write the history of his campaign as it was happening. He also authorised only one sculptor to carve his portrait and carefully planned the details of any likenesses that appeared on coins.

Bust of Alexander the Great

Nicias (c. 470 BC – 413 BC), an Athenian Politician and General in the Peloponnesian War, engaged the services of a publicity manager named Hieron to help him cultivate the image of a hard-working and self-sacrificing public servant. It was Hieron who helped Nicias to act out this part by investing him with an air of solemnity and self-importance.

3. Have the Right Career

Those not lucky enough to be born into power still have a decent chance of being remembered if they focus on changing the world through their ideas. Back in antiquity, philosophers weren’t particularly well known by the general public. But thousands of years later, their work still guides modern thinking and they are so widely known they can be considered to be household names. However, ancient philosophers had the added advantage of fewer competitors since most people of their time were illiterate. Finding fame gets harder to achieve without original ideas, but it is still possible to come up with revolutionary thought experiments.

Later, as Da Vinci, Galileo, Einstein and Isaac Newton inch towards a millennium of fame, it might be tempting to opt for a life in the laboratory. Unfortunately, nowadays even a Nobel prize probably won’t do the trick as science is now much more collaborative and you’ll more likely to be noted as just one name in a group of clever people.

In ancient Rome, Gladiators were mainly drawn from the ranks of convicted murderers and slaves. Most of them would only appear in the Colosseum once as they would be killed in the match. However, the best of them achieved great fame. Such was the attention that they received that others, including freeborn women, senators, even the Emperor Commodus (161 – 192 CE), offered their own services as gladiators. Unfortunately, sporting heroes impact a generation, but once they start to go out of living memory they decline.

4. Sleep with Someone Famous

Incidentally, gladiators were thought to be exceptionally potent, and women sleeping with them could achieve fame for themselves. The poet Juvenal scorned a woman named Eppia, the wife of a senator, who eloped to Egypt with a gladiator called Sergius – thus elevating and immortalizing her through his writing. “What was the attraction? The fellow was a physical wreck”’ Juvenal demands. “Ah, but he was a gladiator.” Eppia replied.

A certain degree of self-validation through sleeping with someone famous also emerged in Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, when Dionysus became angered after his aunt Agave claimed that his mother Semele had never slept with Zeus and slept with a mortal man instead – thus denying Dionysus’ divinity and the high profile he would have gotten by being the son of Zeus.

Zeus and Semele

5. Be Outrageous

The man who brought down ancient Rome’s political system was a wealthy nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher (c. 93 BC – 52 BC). Well-known in Rome even before his foray into politics, Clodius had already shocked and amused the Roman public by his eccentricities and unpredictable ways.

Clodius entered politics to secure the acceptance and respect of the ruling class who quickly dismissed him as a buffoon. After the elite rebuffed him, Clodius positioned himself as the leader of the angry Roman working classes. This surprised Rome’s ruling classes who continued to despise Clodius. Rome was so divided during Clodius’ campaign for the praetorship that the elections had to be postponed twice due to fighting in the streets between his followers and the faction of his opponent, Annius Milo.

When Clodius happened to meet Milo along the Appian Way, a fight broke out between their guards and Clodius was gravely wounded until Milo ordered his men to finish him off with a consideration that a popular dead opponent was less harmful than an alive and angry one.

6. Look Pretty

Helen of Troy, with her “face that launched a thousand ships” is one example of being famous for one’s beauty as men came to see her all the way from distant lands. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, is another example as she was forced to devise various strategies to delay marrying one of her 108 suitors while she spend twenty years waiting for the final return of her husband.

The fourth century BC Greek courtesan Phryne had clients visited her from all over the Greek world and showered her with gifts. After she became rich, Phryne offered to use her wealth to rebuild the walls around the city of Thebes which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great with a condition that the walls should bear an inscription recording, or rather promoting, her and her generosity.

Her efforts of self-promotion were not in vain as rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis provides many anecdotes praising her beauty and generosity. Praxiteles, a sculptor who became her lover, was also said to have used her as the model for the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos – the first nude statue of a woman from ancient Greece.

Aphrodite of Knidos

7. Be Really, Really Lucky

When Tutankhamun took his last, feverish breath in 1323 BC, he was just a boy king of 18. He’s not known to have achieved anything particularly remarkable – understandable, given his age. Then something extraordinary happened. His tomb was discovered in 1922. Its location and size had kept them safely hidden away, while all the tombs around it were being plundered by looters.

The memory of Tutankhamun has been ensured by the large number of physical artefacts he left behind. His mummy alone has been intensively studied as experts unravel the mystery of his short life and how he died. His fame increases with every headline and documentary. When we think of ancient Egypt, we think Tutankhamun. It doesn’t matter that it was all a fluke.

Bust of Tutankhamun

8. Leave Stuff Behind

Leaving any kind of physical legacy is extremely helpful. This could come in the form of the many, many descendants of the 13th-Century Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, whose prolific loins sired one in 200 men alive today, or the numerous monuments and coins on which Alexander the Great stamped his image. In China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang secured his lasting memory with the Great Wall of China and the vast Terracotta Warriors buried with him – not to mention that he founded an entire country.

China’s Terracotta Warriors

9. Be a Villain

Another route to enduring fame that should not be encouraged is to seek notoriety. From Jack the Ripper and Captain Blackbeard, to Hitler and Ivan the Terrible, many of the best-known characters in history are infamous. The most charismatic have been remembered, with a shudder, for generations. This has led some to pursue fame the nasty way. When Mark David Chapman was being charged for murder for shooting John Lennon, he said ‘in order to be the most famous person in the world, I have to kill the most famous person in the world.”

Painting on the Building of the TEmple of Artemis at Ephesus

Thousands of years ago, an arsonist called Herostratus set fire to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey in 348 BC. Herostratus later confessed under torture that his crime was driven by his wish to be a celebrity. Hearing this, the Ephesians decided to execute Herostratus and ban all mention of his name – dubbing him instead as “That Who Is Not Lawful To Mention”. However, the ancient historian Theopompus mentions the name of Herostratus in his his book Hellenics and the name appears again later in the works of Strabo. Unfortunately this banning tactic was a failure as Herostratus is remembered to this day. The term “Herostratic fame” refers to Herostratus and means “fame [sought] at any cost”.

What’s left of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Golden Age of Java

Mendut Temple

The Medang kingdom or the Mataram kingdom was a Javanese Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which flourished between the 8th and 11th centuries. It was based in Central Java, and then in East Java. The first account of the Medang Mataram Kingdom is in the Canggal inscription, dated 732, discovered in the Gunung Wukir Temple compound in the village of Canggal, southwest of the town of Magelang. This inscription, written in Sanskrit using the Pallava script, tells of the erection of a lingga (symbol of Shiva) on a hill in the Kunjarakunja district , located on a noble island called Yawadwipa (Java), blessed with abundance of rice and gold. The lingga was founded by order of Rakai Mataram Sang Ratu Sanjaya (King Sanjaya Lord of Mataram) the founder of the kingdom. At its peak, the kingdom had become a dominant empire—not only in Java, but also in Sumatra, Bali, southern Thailand, Indianized kingdoms of the Philippines, and the Khmer in Cambodia.

His successor, Panakaran (r. 760—780) was an enthusiastic developer who was credited for at least five major temple projects conducted and started during his reign. According to the Kalasan inscription dated 778, the Kalasan temple was erected by Panangkaran as a holy building for the goddess (boddhisattvadevi) Tara. The temple connected to this inscription is the Kalasan temple that housed the image of Tara, and the nearby Sari temple that was probably functioned as the monastery.

Ngamper Temple

Panangkaran was also responsible for the construction of Abhayagiri Vihara, connected to today’s site of Ratu Boko. This hilltop consists of a series of gates, ramparts, fortified walls, dry moats, walled enclosure, terraces and building bases. It displays attributes of an occupation or settlement site, although its precise functions is unknown. This led to a suggestion that this compound probably was served as the palace. Initially probably it was intended as a secluded hilltop Buddhist monastery, as mentioned in the Abhayagiri Vihara inscription. However, later it seems to be converted to become a fortified palace or a citadel, which evidence in the remnant of defensive structures.

The period between the reign of King Panangkaran and King Balitung (range 760—910), which lasted approximately 150 years, marked the apogee of Javanese classical civilisation. This period witnessed the blooming of Javanese art and architecture, with majestic temples and monuments erected and dominated by the skyline of Kedu and Kewu Plain. The most notable of these temples is Sewu, Borobudur and Prambanan temple.

Prambanan Complex

Other than examining bas-reliefs carved on the temple’s walls, the study of ancient Javanese society is also conducted through archaeological relics. The artefacts show the intricate artwork and technical mastery of the ancient Javanese goldsmith. The hoard was estimated to date from the reign of King Balitung. The treasure has been identified as belonging to a noble or a member of the royal family.

The earliest temple in the Southern Central Java Mataram region was the Hindu Shivaist Gunung Wukir temple, built by King Sanjaya. Almost 50 years later the oldest Buddhist temple was built in Prambanan region, the Buddhist Kalasan temple, by King Panangkaran. From this time, the kingdom saw exuberant temple construction projects, such as Sari, Manjusrigrha, Lumbung, Ngawen, Mendut, Pawon and Borobudur, the massive stone mandala completed in c. 825 CE.

Borobudur Temple

The monumental Hindu temple of Prambanan in the vicinity of Yogyakarta — initially built during the reign of King Pikatan (838—850), and expanded continuously through the reign of Lokapala (850—890) to Balitung (899–911) — is a fine example of ancient Medang Mataram art and architecture. The grand temple complex was dedicated to the Trimurti, the three highest gods in the Hindu pantheon (Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu). It was the largest Hindu temple ever built in Indonesia, evidence of the immense wealth and cultural achievement of the kingdom.

Other Hindu temples dated from Medang Mataram Kingdom era are: Sambisari, Gebang, Barong, Ijo, and Morangan. The Sewu temple dedicated for Manjusri according to Kelurak inscription was probably initially built by Panangkaran, but later expanded and completed during Rakai Pikatan’s rule. The Buddhist temple of Plaosan, Banyunibo and Sajiwan were built during the reign of King Pikatan.

Relief found all over the Borobudur temple. This particular relief is of Prince Savarthasiddha, the esoteric name of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama

From the 9th to mid 10th centuries, the Medang Kingdom witnessed the blossoming of art, culture and literature, mainly through the translation of Hindu-Buddhist sacred texts and the transmission and adaptation of Hindu-Buddhist ideas into Old Javanese text and visual bas-reliefs rendering. The bas-relief carved on each sides of Mendut temple stairs and also on the base of Sojiwan temple for example, narrating the popular Jataka Buddhist tales, the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha, in both human and animal form. The Borobudur bas-relief particularly, contains the most complete rendering of Buddhist sacred texts.

Passage in the Prambanan Temple

Inclusivity, Tolerance and the Golden Age of Islam

To this day, poems by Muhammad Jalal ad-Din Rumi have sold millions of copies. This makes him one of the most famous poets in the world. His poems were often compared to Shakespeare’s for their resonance. Rumi lived in the close of the Golden Age of Islam. His writings on tolerance give us further value in offering a glimpse of the beliefs and tradition in which Rumi experienced in his lifetime.

Traditionally, the Golden Age of Islam is dated from the seventh to the 13th century. It was during this period that artists, scholars, poets and traders in the Islamic world made their biggest contribution to a wide range of disciplines both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding innovations of their own.

Through trading, the Islamic empires significantly contributed to globalization when the knowledge, trade and economies from many formerly isolated regions and civilizations began integrating through their contacts with explorers and traders. As the empire’s trade networks extended from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indian Ocean and China Sea in the east, it helps to establish the Islamic empires as the world’s leading economic power. As a result, Islamic civilization is unique in that it grew and expanded based on its merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who generally expanded their societies from agricultural landholding nobility.

Tomb of a Sufi Chief

In the middle of all these exchanges, the first stage of a mystic movement known as Sufism appeared in the early Umayyad period (661–749 CE). Islamic mysticism is called tasawwuf which literally means “to dress in wool” in Arabic. However, since the early 19th century, the movement has been called “Sufism” in western languages. Sufism derives from a somewhat looser Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which is in turn derived from ṣuf, (“wool”). This may be a reference to the woolen garment of early Islamic ascetics.

One of the Sufi orders’ contribution to the rise and expansion of the Islamic civilization was their missionary activities. This extensive networking allowed the Bayt al-Hikma (“House of Wisdom”) to be established in Baghdad, where scholars from different cultures and faiths gathered and translated the world’s knowledge into Arabic. Knowledge was synthesized from works originating in all the ancient civilizations, and many classic works of antiquity were translated into Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew and Latin.

This inclusiveness extended to the labor force. Both men and women were involved in diverse occupations and economic activities. Women were employed in medicines, scholarships, as well as a wide range of commercial activities and diverse occupations such as farming and construction work.

Islamic Spain Agricultural Scene

A number of distinct features of the modern library were introduced in the Islamic world, where libraries expanded the primary function of ancient libraries as center of collection of manuscripts. A library became a public and lending library, a center for the instruction of sciences and ideas, a place for meetings, discussions, and sometimes lodging for scholars or boarding school for pupils. The concept of the library catalogue was also introduced in medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.

Rumi showing his love for his disciples

These developments would have demanded a great degree of knowledge and flexibility from workers and scholars alike to be able to compete with their countrymen and the rest of the world. This gave birth to the large number of Muslim polymath scholars, who were known as Hakeems, each of whom contributed to a variety of different fields of learning comparable to the later European renaissance men such as Leonardo da Vinci. Due to the demands in this period, polymath scholars with a wide breadth of knowledge in different fields were more common than scholars who specialized in any single field of learning.

Apart from the demand at the time for people to have a wide variety of knowledge and interests, an extensive range of Islamic writings on love, poetry, history and theology show the thought at the time as being open to a broad spectrum of philosophical ideas. Although society was controlled under Islamic values, a certain degree of religious freedom helped create multi-faith, cross-cultural networks by attracting those of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths.

Al-Wasiti Discussion

Another example of how inclusive the Islamic world at the time comes from the most well-known work of fiction from the era – The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The book was a compilation of many earlier folk tales from different cultures such as China and Africa translated or retold to Persian.

Arabian Nights was translated in the 18th century by Antoine Galland and since then became an influential work of literature in the west. Various characters from this epic, such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba, have become cultural icons in western culture. A number of elements such as genies, magic lamps and magic carpets from ancient Arabian and Persian mythology retold in the epic are now common fixtures in modern fantasy.

Another literary genre benefitted from the development of the Golden Age of Islam is Science Fiction. Theologus Autodidactus (“Self-taught Theologian”), written by polymath Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), is an early example of this. It uses various elements such as spontaneous generation, futurology and doomsday, all of which would not be out of place in the science fiction works today. However, rather than giving the supernatural or mythological explanations for these events which were common then, Ibn al-Nafis attempted to explain these plot elements using the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology and geology known in his time.

From the book “The Birth of Iskandar”

A number of musical instruments utilized in classical music today are believed to have been derived from Arabic musical instruments. Later, Ottoman military bands, known by the Persian-derived word Mehter, are thought to be the oldest variety of military marching band in the world. Some standard instruments employed by a Mehter are the bass drum, the kettledrum, the cymbals, oboes, flutes and triangles. These military bands inspired many marching bands and orchestras in the west, which then heavily inspired the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Rumi would have experienced this early in his childhood. His father, Baha al-Din, was a teacher of Islamic law, with Sufi inclinations, in Khorasan. By 1215, Baha al-Din chose to move his family to Konya, where Rumi stayed for the rest of his life. Baha al-Din became the principle teacher of one of Konya’s religious colleges. He died in 1231, and the then 24-years-old Rumi inherited his father’s teaching position. Rumi, at this time, was already well-versed in both Islamic law and Islamic mysticism. Following the inclusive nature of society and education at the time, the college where Rumi taught had over ten thousand students from every class of society, including grocers, weavers, tailors, and bookbinders. Also recognized as an Islamic Jurist, Rumi often involved himself in the lives of his community members, solving disputes and facilitating loans between nobles and students.

Bowl of Reflections, Early 13th Century

In 1244, Rumi met Shams al-Din Tabrizi, who introduced Rumi to the Rejoicing Sufism, which inspired Rumi’s subsequent works though its music and spiritual dances. Their meeting is considered a central event in Rumi’s life. They were close friends for about three years. In fact, their relationship was close enough to spark theories of homoeroticism by modern historians, which would have again fitted the level of tolerance and inclusiveness of the time. Over the course of that time, Shams was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s jealous disciples, including one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din, until Sham’s sudden disappearance in 1247. Rumi left the college to travel in search of his friend. He eventually made peace with his loss and returned home.

Rumi’s mourning for the loss of his friend led to the outpouring of more than 40,000 lyric verses, including odes, eulogies, quatrains, and other styles of poetry. The resulting collection, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi (“The Works of Shams Tabriz”), is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.

Meeting of Rumi and Molla Shams Al-Din

Rumi died in Konya in 1273 CE and his remains were interred adjacent to his father’s. The Yesil Turbe (“Green Tomb”) was erected above their final resting place. Now known as the Mevlana museum, the site includes a mosque, dance hall, and dervish living quarters. Thousands of visitors of all faiths visit his tomb each month, a testament to not only Rumi and his relatable works, but also the inclusiveness of society at the time.

Mevlana Museum