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Queen Tomyris of the Massagetai: A woman who dared or a woman who cared?

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Throughout the millenia an image of a submissive and caring woman has been conveyed. Delving into ancient history, one could discover an amazing chronicle of Queen Tomyris who reigned over the nation of the Massagetai. Bold and successful, this woman seemed to challenge conventional views.

Still, as the account is provided by Herodotus, an  ancient Greek historian, it is possible to observe that the image of a successful ruler is reverted to portray a more recognizable and traditional character.

The Massagetai were a nomadic people living in Central Asia and north-east of the Caspian Sea in the VI-V centuries B.C., albeit the precise territory of their dwelling remains so far contested. Meanwhile, the Persian king Cyrus began to consolidate the Achaemenid Empire which soon started to expand. In the Clio book, Herodotus of Halicarnassus recounts the attempts by Cyrus to conquer the nation of Massagetai.

According to Herodotus, at that time the Massagetai were ruled by Queen Tomyris, who was enthroned after the death of the late king (I.205). In the beginning, Cyrus decided to act by craft pretending that he wanted to marry Queen Tomyris. However, Tomyris could decipher that he in fact wished to gain control over the kingdom of the Massagetai, and therefore rejected his proposal. Upon this rejection, Cyrus started to organise a military expedition (Herodotus:I.205). As he was amidst the preparations, Tomyris sent him a herald urging him to refrain from waging a war, reign over his own people and let the kingdom of Massagetai rule those whom they ruled (Herodotus:I.206). Otherwise , if King Cyrus was “greatly anxious to make trial of the Massagetai in fight”,Tomyris called on to commence the battle soon (Herodotus:I.206). In a surprise attack, the army of Cyrus killed many Massagetai warriors and captured Spargapises, the son of Tomyris, who killed himself upon the realization of his “evil case” (Herodotus:I.211-213).

Shortly thereafter, another battle followed, and the Massagetai were victorious this time, as the battle was “of all the battles fought by Barbarians (…) the fiercest” (Herodotus:I.214). The army of Cyrus was completely defeated, and the king himself fell dead. The vengeful Tomyris filled a wineskin with the blood of the fallen soldiers. She ordered then to find the dead kind and to behead him, and put his head down to the wineskin saying “”Though I yet live and have overcome thee in fight, nevertheless thou didst undo me by taking my son with craft: but I according to my threat will give thee thy fill of blood.”(Herodotus: I.214). The chronicle then proceeds to describe the Massagetai people, their ways of life, customs and religion. 

Apparently, Queen Tomyris represents an example of a wise, courageous and an able ruler. First, the Queen reveals her wisdom, as she deciphers the vile intentions of Cyrus in due time. Then, she displays courage in the face of the looming war. Finally, under her guidance the army of the Massagetai was able to destroy the adversary, and thus, win the battle. Arguably, the very fact that this occurrence took place provides a progressive view of a woman as a ruler and a mighty defender of the land.

Yet, in the Clio book a number of restrictive suggestions are introduced in order to ‘reconcile’ the unusual image of a female ruler with the existing perceptions. In the beginning, a subtle explanation, or rather, an excuse is provided for Tomyris being a ruler of the Massagetai Kingdom. Herodotus describes, “now the ruler of the Massagetai was a woman, who was queen after the death of her husband, and her name was Tomyris”(Herodotus:I.205). The chronicles suggest that it is in light of the unfortunate premature death of her husband, the late king, that Tomyris ascended the throne. Furthermore, her being a woman is pointed out in the first place. Then, as the Persian King Cyrus expresses his wish to marry Tomyris, it is implied that being a single woman can be precarious. Following the rejection, Cyrus makes preparations for a military invasion. In a humiliating gesture, the Queen initially sends a herald who calls on the king not to attack the kingdom. Strikingly, this act does not receive any condemnation, and is tributed as an expected move.  It is likely that the existing social perceptions of a woman did not suggest the Queen would be willing to wage a war. To this end, one could also wonder, whether a similar gesture performed by a male ruler could be regarded as cowardly, while in the case of Tomyris a concession is made due to her gender. Finally, the image of a female ruler is supplemented with her motherhood. Suddenly, motherhood intervenes the realm of state affairs, as it is narrated that Tomyris became vengeful only because her son fell dead. In this regard, neither the perished soldiers nor the harm inflicted upon the land are mentioned. Considering this, one could suggest that Tomyris has been implicitly bereft of her role as a ruler, and rather associated with a more traditional image of a grieving mother.

Arguably, in the Clio book, attempts were made to reconcile the unfitting image of Tomyris with the more traditional perceptions held in ancient societies. This was achieved using a number of subtle implications drawing on more familiar notions of marriage and motherhood, associated with women. Reading the last lines, one could particularly observe that the image of a wise, courageous and mighty ruler is strikingly reduced to a grieving mother who indulges herself in revenge. In this light, the outline of Tomyris as provided in the Clio book by Herodotus offers yet another example of the attempts to re-draw the images going beyond conventional perceptions.

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Central Asia

Religious buildings in Kazakhstan to be labeled 16+

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New restrictions on religious activities are emerging in Kazakhstan. Will they help to fight extremism?

According to the Government bill introducing amendments to the laws on religious activities and associations, adolescents should be forbidden from attending mosques, churches and synagogues if they are not accompanied by one of the parents and don’t have written consent of another parent.

Schools and the media are going to be forbidden from talking about the belief systems of various religions as well.

By implementing these and other measures, Astana intends to combat religious extremism. However, the crackdown on religion has already set the country four years back: in 2017 the Republic of Kazakhstan returned on the list of countries where the religious situation arouses concern of the US State Department Commission on International Religious Freedom. Kazakhstan last appeared on the list along with Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and Laos in 2013.

Is the proposed bill really going to help to contain the spread of radical Islam, and to what extent does it conform with international human rights standards?

The Concept of State Policy towards Religion, adopted in 2017, shows that the authorities strive to expel religion from public space altogether and promote an ideology of “secularism”. Their thinking is understandable: with no contact between members of differentreligions, there will be no inter-religious conflicts.

However, according to the European experience, prohibitive policy does not bring the expected results. In a multicultural society, the lack of information about the beliefs of other religions only increases tensions. Silencing the matter of religion and obstructing religious education reduces the ability to critically evaluate the extremist ideologies,while increasing the opportunityto spread false information aimed to promote inter-religious discord.

In addition, various summer camps, excursion and pilgrimage activities organized by religious communities are going to be banned if the bill is adopted. It includes those traditional religious confessions that the Government routinely thanks for promoting the inter-civilizational dialogue, youth development and the maintenance of stability, peace and prosperity in the society. A large number of children and teenagers will be deprived of their usual social circles and leisure activities.

As a result of such unconstitutional state interference and bureaucratic obstacles, children and teenagers will be denied the right to practice the religion of their family even when outside educational, medical and other state institutions. Not to mention that parents will be entitledby law to restrict the right of their children under the age of 16 to choose their faith.

Moreover, according to the proposed legislation, if a minor is found in a prayer room“illegally”, the responsibility will fall on the religious organization in question. Consequently, the clergy will need to alienate and discourage the younger generations from attending their own churches, so as not to get fined and fall within the scope of the restrictions on the religious activities!

At the same time, actual extremist organizations will go underground and get more freedom than their peaceful competitors. Obviously, the unruly youth will turn not to those imams, priests or rabbis unable to go beyond the restrictive framework of formal prohibitions. They will go to the “real” preachers who offer communion, new religious experience, something to devote yourself to, a sense of self-worth (even if as suicide bombers).

It is in the interests of all religious leaders, and indeed the whole world, to prevent such a terrible scenario from happening and to return Kazakhstan on the path of civilizational dialogue and inter-confessional cooperation. Otherwise, any participation in the VI Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Astana Palace of Peace and Reconciliation can be seen as not only dishonorable and hypocritical, but also unsafe.

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Central Asia

Supporting Kazakhstan’s Commitment to Fiscal Consolidation and Long-Term Economic Transformation

Ato Brown

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Kazakhstan’s 2050 Strategy envisages a radical restructuring of the government and the economy by 2050 and recognizes that “the era of the hydrocarbon economy is coming to its end.” The world’s current oversupply of oil adds urgency to the need to accelerate broader reforms of economic structure and fiscal policy.

The World Bank Group’s recent Public Finance Review, Kazakhstan: Enhancing the Fiscal Framework to Support Economic Transformation, provides a set of recommendations to support the government’s move in this direction.

Kazakhstan benefited greatly from the oil boom of 2000–14, which led to income growth and poverty reduction, and helped build a fiscal cushion to stabilize the economy during downturns. As oil output more than doubled during the oil price super-cycle, the Government of Kazakhstan accumulated substantial fiscal savings in its National Oil Fund (NFRK). These funds were used for anti-crisis programs in 2007–10, during which time the fiscal stimulus program totalled US$18 billion (about 15 percent of GDP).

The Government injected more than US$30 billion in foreign-currency interventions in 2014–15, while the current fiscal stimulus package already exceeded US$20 billion (12 percent of GDP) in 2014–17.

As a result, the NFRK balance has fallen from US$73 billion in 2014 to a projected US$57 billion by the end of 2017. The Kazakh authorities moved to a floating exchange rate regime in the second half of 2015 to stop the leakage of foreign exchange reserves. However, an accompanying fiscal adjustment has not materialized. Some policy makers may still believe that the shock is cyclical and maintain hope that oil prices will recover.

Yet that might not be the case.

The low-oil prices environment is not a temporary crisis, but is rather a structural shift to a “new normal”. In this case, Kazakhstan needs to urgently adopt a fiscal consolidation strategy to promote diversified growth and high-quality job creation.

The NFRK’s new management rules, with advice from the World Bank Group and IMF, include:

  • The nonoil deficit, the main anchor of fiscal policy, is to be progressively decreased to 7 percent of GDP by 2020 and 6 percent by 2025;
  • Guaranteed transfers from the NFRK are to be reduced from the present US$8 billion to the equivalent of US$6 billion by 2020;
  • The NFRK is to be maintained at least at 30 percent of GDP;
  • Privatization revenues are to flow to the NFRK; and
  • General government debt and external debt of state-owned enterprises are not to exceed the size of NFRK assets.

Government projections have been made under these assumptions, but it is critical that oversight and reporting of the NFRK rules are applied rigorously.

Failure to consolidate as projected could result in a full depletion of net fiscal savings in around 5-10 years!

At the heart of successful fiscal consolidation should be two things: reducing inefficient expenditure that distorts private incentives while redirecting savings toward productivity-enhancing spending; and eliminating inefficient tax benefits that result in an uneven playing field for investment.

While pursuing a fiscal consolidation effort over the medium-term, there are potential benefits to reviewing Kazakhstan’s fiscal policy framework and institutions with the goal of strengthening their coherence, credibility, and flexibility.

All these major institutional developments will require considerable time, as well as extensive technical support. The World Bank Group suggests to develop a three-phase, time-bound Action Plan consistent with an immediate focus on fiscal consolidation as well as continuing the support programs that are already underway, notably by the World Bank Group, the IMF, and the OECD. Longer-term issues could be discussed at a high level with the authorities in 2018, with inputs from all the involved international bodies.

First published in World Bank

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Central Asia

Great Central Asia, America’s counter measure to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

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China’s ambitious global geo-political objective has raised concern among American strategists, which China attempts to Isolate America at the global level. The claim has become more evident during the G20 summit when China curbed president Trump effort to pass a joint declaration in order to condemn North Korea’s recent ICBM test.

(more…)

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