Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.
- J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
- But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
- These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
Menu page for Arda.ir, the website of the Persian Tolkien Society.
Where on earth was Middle-earth? Based on a few hints by Tolkien himself, we've always sort-of assumed that his stories of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were centered on Europe, but so long ago that the shape of the coasts and the land has changed.
But perhaps that's too easy and too Eurocentric an assumption; perhaps, like so many other things these days, Tolkien's fantasy realm too is in dire need of mental decolonisation.
And here's an excellent occasion: an Iranian Tolkienologist has found intriguing hints that the writer based some of Middle-earth's topography on mountains, rivers, and islands located in and near present-day Pakistan.
As mentioned in a previous article – recently reposted on the Strange Maps Facebook page on the occasion of the death of Ian Holm – Tolkien admitted that "The Shire is based on rural England, and not on any other country in the world," and that "the action of the story takes place in the North-West of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean."
If you look at it like that, yes: that does resemble Mordor...
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Extrapolating from the location of the Shire in Middle-earth and from other clues dropped by Tolkien, geophysics and geology professor Peter Bird matched the geography of Middle-earth with that of Europe (more about that in the aforementioned article).
However, seeing Middle-earth as a mere palimpsest for present-day Europe is to place an undue limit on the imagination of its creator. As Tolkien also said about the shape of his world: "[It] was devised 'dramatically' rather than geologically or paleontologically."
In other words, certain parts of Middle-earth may very well have been inspired by other places than European ones. It is telling that it took a non-European connoisseur of Tolkien's topography to find some examples.
"Seen that map before"
The Indus river is a prominent geographical feature of Pakistan. Its course is similar to that of the Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth.
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
In an article published on Arda.ir, the web page for the Persian Tolkien Society, Mohammad Reza Kamali writes that during several years of cartographic study, "I found that maybe there are real lands [that] could have inspired Professor Tolkien, and some of them are not in Europe."
Around 2012, Kamali's eye stopped when it came across a Google Map of Central Asia that showed the mountain chain of the Himalayas, the peaks of the Pamirs bunched together in an almost circular area, and the huge, flat oval of the Takla Makan desert, bounded to the north by the Tian-Shan mountains.
"I had seen that map before," he writes. "This is of course Mordor, the land of Sauron and the dark powers of Middle-earth, where Frodo and Sam destroy the One Ring."
In Tolkien's world, the Himalayas transform into Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow; and the Tian Shan into Ered Lithui, the Ash Mountains. And the circle-shaped Pamirs "are the same shape and in exactly the same corner as the Udûn of Mordor, where Frodo and Sam originally tried getting into Mordor, via the Black Gate."
A US Marine Corps helicopter flying over the Tarbela Dam on the Indus river in Pakistan. At its center: a former river island which may have been the inspiration for Cair Andros, a ship-shaped island in Middle-earth's Anduin river.
Image: Paul Duncan (USMC), public domain
Mulling over these similarities, Kamali became convinced that Tolkien's map work was heavily inspired by Asia. Looking further, he found more evidence. Consider Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth, in whose waters the One Ring was lost for more than two thousand years.
On Tolkien's map, the Anduin bends toward the sea in a shape similar to that of another great river: the Indus, which runs the length of Pakistan. Like the Anduin, it flows to the west of a major mountain chain. A prominent feature of the Anduin is the river island of Cair Andros, just north of Osgiliath. Its name means 'Ship of Long Foam', a reference to its long and narrow shape, and the sharpness of its rocks, which split the waters of the Anduin like a prow.
Kamali is not entirely sure, but proposes that Tolkien may have been inspired by a similar-shaped island in the Indus. Now integrated into the Tarbela Dam, which was inaugurated in 1976, it would still have been a separate island in the 1930s and '40s, when Tolkien dreamed up his map.
Kutch as Tolfalas Island
During the rainy season, the coastal region of Kutch, near the mouth of the Indus, turns into an island that resembles Tolfalas Island, near the mouth of the Anduin.
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Turning our eyes to the mouth of the Anduin and Indus, we see another pair of islands, and Kamali is more certain about the real one having inspired the fictional one. The fictional one is Tolfalas Island, the largest island in Belfalas Bay.
At first glance, it doesn't seem to have a real-life counterpart near where the Indus joins the Arabian Sea. But take a look at the coastal part of the Indian state of Gujarat. It is known as Kutch, a name which apparently refers to its alternately wet and dry states. In the rainy season, the shallow wetlands flood and Kutch becomes an island – the biggest island in the Gulf of Kutch, and not too dissimilar to Tolfalas Island.
1909 map showing British India in pink (direct British control) and yellow (princely states). Circled: Kutch, clearly recognisable as an island.
Image: Edinburgh Geographical Institute; J. G. Bartholomew and Sons, public domain
But are these similarities really more than coincidences? Why would Tolkien, who was based in Oxford and steeped in English lore and Germanic mythology, turn to the Indian subcontinent for topographical inspiration? Perhaps because cartographic knowledge of that part of the world was far more general in Britain then than it is now. Until the late 1940s, the countries we know today as India and Pakistan were part of the British Empire. Detailed maps of the region would have been standard fare for British atlases.
Kamali is convinced that the topographical features on Tolkien's map of Middle-earth are not mere fantasy, but derive from actual places in our world, and were 'riddled' onto the map. In that case, we may look forward to more discoveries of Tolkien's real-world inspiration.
From Frodingham to Frodo
J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he was 24. Around that time, he was stationed near the village of Frodingham, which may have given him the inspiration for the name of the main protagonist in Lord of the Rings.
Image: public domain
Here's one example of Tolkienography—if that's what we can call the effect of actual geography on this particular writer's imagination—which I gleaned myself, some years ago in East Yorkshire. A local historian told me that Tolkien had been stationed in the area during the First World War, and had apparently stored away some local place names for later use. The name Frodo, he said, derived from a town where he had attended a few dances – Frodingham, a village across the Humber in northern Lincolnshire, not far from Scunthorpe (Scunto? We dodged a bullet there).
Whether that story is entirely true or not is beside the point. As fantasy fans know, any grail quest is ultimately about the quest, not the grail. In fact, to quote Mr Kamali, the treasure is important only because it's well hidden, "by a clever professor who enjoys riddles."
Strange Maps #1036
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Researchers believe that war exacerbates climate change, threatening the environment and making future wars more likely.
- In times of war, otherwise atrocious crimes against nature become routine.
- The U.S. Department of Defense is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the world.
- By polluting the earth to prepare for war, the Pentagon prepares a world in which war becomes more likely.
The '20s came roaring in with two explosive headlines: reports of Australia's inferno, and the speculation that the United States could be hurtling towards another war in the Middle East after the government's assassination of Iranian military leader, Qassem Soleimani.
The two events seem ominous harbingers of our future, if warfare and the inherent ecocide that comes with it continues into the next decade.
The environmental costs of war
Image Source: Wikimedia
As power struggles between nations escalate to armed conflicts and hot wars, the environment and ecosystems remain silent casualties. War radically changes the parameters for normalcy, and otherwise atrocious crimes against nature become not only justified, but viewed as necessary.
In war zones, land and natural resources are often contaminated by the oil from military vehicles and chemical weapons. Depleted uranium from ammunition rounds used in Iraq, for instance, left behind radiation that poisoned the soil and water in Iraq, creating a carcinogenic environment according to studies that linked the chemical residue of the weapons to increased cancer in the country. Furthermore, there's the pollution caused by toxic fuel spills that can happen at air force bases, and the oil and chemical leaks that happen when infrastructure is damaged in war zones. Another problem is the deliberate destruction of oil fields and military base garbage that goes up in flames in burn pits.
In war-zones, deforestation can be another major issue. When wars drag out for a long time, people in those regions become internally displaced and need to migrate. In those situations, people try to heat themselves during the winter, causing deforestation further facilitated by warlords. In Afghanistan, cutting down timber and capturing wildlife for sale (like tigers) is encouraged by the Taliban to raise revenue for the group.
Fueling an army
War comes with major ecological consequences in terms of greenhouse gases emitted from mobilization, training, and combat.
Though it has cut back, the U.S. Department of Defense is one of the largest consumers of fossil fuels in the world, and consequently one of the world's top greenhouse gas emitters. In 2017, the Pentagon's greenhouse gas emissions totaled more than 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. If it were a country, it would have carbon emissions larger than Sweden, Portugal, or Denmark.Buildings and fuel are the main culprits of CO2 emissions. Forty percent of the greenhouse gases emitted are a result of the over 560,000 buildings and around 500 domestic and overseas military installations maintained by the Defense Department. Military operations account for the rest. For instance, in 2016 the Defense Department consumed approximately 86 million barrels of fuel for operational purposes. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, the petroleum-guzzling vehicles and aircraft used by the U.S. military produces many hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide as well as CO2.
War as a climate feedback loop
The justification for war is often to protect citizens, but human beings aren't separate from the web of ecosystems that they are threaded within. For each violent act of war, there is an equally devastating reaction. Those ripple effects could soon be reaching U.S. shores.
According to Dr. Neta C. Crawford, Department Chair of Boston University's Department of Political Science and the co-director of the study group Costs of War, military aggression and preparation exacerbates environmental problems that could lead to greater security risks and more war in the future as natural resources are depleted, causing a global refugee crisis.
"The Pentagon is very worried about the stresses of climate change leading to displacement... and they're concerned about climate war," Crawford tells Big Think in an interview. "They believe that it's coming to a neighborhood near you."
The problem, she notes, is that the Pentagon is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases and perpetrator of environmental destruction that increases the probability of war.
"They're preparing a world for which the risks and consequences that they fear are more likely," says Crawford, who believes that to decrease the likelihood of climate war, the Pentagon needs to be part of a large scale turn towards clean energy and the reduction of greenhouse gases. "But they don't think that way, they just think war is coming, it will be caused by refugee crisis and fighting over resources such as fresh water, and we have to be prepared for it."
The other option
Crawford believes that if humans can work out ways to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, and work to peacefully prevent any conflicts that are associated with increased environmental stress, war can be evaded.
"We can work out water agreements, we can negotiate prices, or we can provide, instead of a wall, to climate migrants, welcoming and care," she emphasizes.
As tensions escalate with Iran, new war would pour gasoline over an earth already engulfed in flames, increasing the chance for more armed conflict. Perhaps at no time in human history have the stakes for maintaining peace been higher.
Worryingly, these are not just two random collections of countries, but two blocs with a lot of pre-existing enmity.
- The U.S. has urged the world to 'pick sides' in Venezuela's constitutional crisis.
- This map shows which countries continue to support Maduro, and which ones have thrown their weight behind Guaidó.
- Could this be the first intimation of a new Cold War – or worse?
Since last Wednesday, Venezuela has two presidents. The world map above shows which countries (in red) support Nicolas Maduro, whose re-election last May many observers say was rigged; and which ones (in dark blue) support Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader who declared himself 'interim president' last week.
There's something more going on with that map, however – something ominous about the two camps that have coalesced on it. These are not just two random groups of countries. These are two camps, with plenty of grievance and enmity between them. Some of the borders between both blocs are even active frontlines. Could this be the outline of a new Cold War, or if cooler heads don't prevail, a hot one perhaps?
With neighbors like these...
Most of Venezuela's neighbors have recognized the presidency of Guaidó, but Maduro can count on the continued support of Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, and a few others.
All that for Venezuela's sake? If that sounds ludicrous, think back to 1914. Few people back then could find Serbia on a world map, let alone understand what its beef with Austria-Hungary was about. How quickly that escalated into the First World War.
Although the cause might have been obscure, the war itself was not a surprise. Decades-old rivalry between the great powers of that time had escalated into deepening enmity. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 26 of that year set in motion a complex array of alliances and counter-alliances. Just over a month later, on August 4, German armies plowed into Belgium.
Of course, history never repeats itself exactly. But there are patterns. Like the Balkan conflict in 1914, Venezuela's constitutional crisis is a local power struggle with a global dimension. So what do both sides look like?
Europe is on the fence, for now
Europe's compromise position: Recognize the authority of the National Assembly, but not yet the legitimacy of Guaidó's presidency. In darker blue: the handful of countries already agreeing with the U.S. position.
Maduro is anti-U.S. and the U.S. is anti-Maduro. Following the 'enemy of my enemy' principle, the U.S. recognized Guaidó almost immediately after his self-proclamation, followed by most other countries in the Americas. Notable exception: Mexico, which initially took Maduro's side, but has since moved into the neutral camp.
The main international allies of Venezuela are Cuba and Russia, which remained loyal to Maduro's presidency; but he also got official support from other countries friendly to his regime: China, Iran, Turkey and South Africa, to name the most important ones. Regionally, Maduro can also count on the support of Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Suriname.
Europe is colored light blue: The UK, Spain, Germany, France and most other EU members (plus a few other countries, including Ukraine, Norway and, further afield, Japan) have declared a compromise position. They support the National Assembly (run by the opposition and presided by Guaidó) but not yet the latter's presidency. The UK, Spain, Germany and others have called on Maduro to call fresh elections. If he doesn't do so within eight days, they will recognize Guaidó.
The Pro-Maduro Club
From Brest-Litovsk all the way to the Taiwan Strait, this is Maduro country.
In a number of cases, the Maduro/Guaidó split aligns with pre-existing local enmities: Palestine and Israel, Georgia and Russia, China and Taiwan – if one likes Maduro, the other likes Guaidó. Choices can also be markers of allegiance. The darkest blues in Europe (i.e. Georgia, Kosovo, Albania) are also arguably America's most loyal allies in the region. Syria's declaration for Maduro will have something to do with its alliance with Russia. Turkey, traditionally a U.S. ally, is siding with the other camp.
With the backing of globally relevant allies, and that of most of Venezuela's military, Maduro is unlikely to agree to either the demands by the Europeans (for new elections) or the offer by Guaidó (of amnesty, if he leaves office peacefully).
Where does this go from here? On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an emergency session of the UN Security Council that it was "time for other countries to pick a side". One way to take the temperature of the crisis is to monitor this map on Wikimedia Commons, which is continuously being updated as countries do just that – pick sides.
Strange Maps #958
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America treats the world like a board game. That's a problem.
- Make no mistake, says Jeffrey Sachs, America is an empire. The end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles put the United States on a trajectory to exercise political control over foreign governments and topple world leaders on a whim, which, Sachs reminds us, is quite crazy.
- "Remember when President Obama said Assad must go in Syria?" says Sachs. "I scratched my head and said: How can an American president say that the Syrian president must go?"
- When America gets topple-happy, the result is catastrophe — just look at Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran. Overreach of power by the United States destabilizes global politics, threatens U.S. national security, and sets a ticking time bomb for violence and civil war. This kind of foreign policy is doomed to fail.
The Nazis actively searched for Atlantis, seeing it as important to their mythology.
- The mythical city of Atlantis was first mentioned in Plato's writings.
- Top Nazis, including Heimlich Himmler, tried to find the city through expeditions.
- The island was key to Nazi thinking about the "Aryan race".
You might think Spielberg and Lucas just made up all the run-ins Indiana Jones kept having with the Nazis. But the truth is likely stranger than fiction - the Nazis were not only obsessed with the mystical and the undiscovered, they staked a large part of their strategy to winning World War 2 on it. And that may be ultimately why they lost.
While beliefs in fringe sciences, pagan religions and the occult spread like wildfire throughout Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the myth of Atlantis had a truly profound impact that was weaved into the emerging Nazi philosophy.
Historically, Atlantis first came to prominence as an island mentioned within an allegory in Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written about 330 B.C. In these stories, Atlantis is regarded as an enemy force that came to attack the Athenian nation-state. Athens repelled the attack, according to Plato, with island of Atlantis eventually losing support of the Gods and sinking into the ocean. While Plato didn't really say all that much more about Atlantis, he pointed to the supposed location of the island as somewhere "beyond the Pillars of Hercules" (a.k.a. the Straits of Gibraltar). Still, this wasn't much to go on and there's not been strong other evidence to corroborate the existence of Atlantis as more than a fictional creation.
In Nazi lore, however, the legends of Atlantis got mixed with Aryan myths, leading to a resurgence of the concept.
Athanasius Kircher's map of Atlantis, locating it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus 1669, published in Amsterdam. South is on the top in the map's orientation.
Eric Kurlander, the professor of history at Stetson University, traced the strange movements in Germany of about a hundred years ago in his book "Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich". He contends that one of the most influential beliefs was Ariosophy, championed by Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. This esoteric doctrine "prophesied the resurgence of a lost Aryan civilization peopled by Nordic 'God Men.'"
Lanz told the myths of these "God Men" in a magazine called Ostara which he claims to have given in 1909 to none other than a young Adolf Hitler. In the issues, muscular Aryans defended barely-dressed blonde women from scary "ape-men", as wrote Michael Dirda in the Washington Post.
Were there actually such Aryans whose lineage can be traced to the Nazi ideals? The word "Aryan" generally designated people of Indo-European heritage but in racist Nazi thinking, the idea of the "Aryan race" has come to mean the supposed existence of a distinct and superior race of Germanic people – a proposition not supported by facts. The only historical Aryans have been Indo-Iranian people who spread their languages throughout Eurasia from 4000 to 1000 BC.
Germans of early 20th century, however, were looking to root themselves in ancient traditions, pillaging whatever information they found appealing. Lanz's 1905 book "The Theozoology, or the Science of Sodom's Apelings and the God's Electrons" incorporated Hindu mythology – a common feature of German theosophical texts of the time which claimed that somewhere in India and Tibet were hidden societies of ancient Atlanteans or "secret masters".
This possible connection to India and Tibet was a particular obsession for Heimlich Himmler, the ruthless head of the SS and the Gestapo police. For the Aryan myth to be proven true, he figured, the actual location and history of the Aryans needed to be uncovered. Himmler spent a decade on a semi-mystical project that had an SS unit called the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage), which included archaeologists and scientists, searching the globe for the lost Aryans of Atlantis.
As the historian Sir Richard Evans of Cambridge University pointed out: "The Nazis saw world history in terms of a struggle between races and survival of the fittest. They thought all races were inferior to the Aryans. Himmler wanted to press forward with a new religion, including sun worship and old gods. He wanted the SS to become a kind of cult, or Aryan aristocracy."
In 1938, Himmler's interests (which also revolved around finding the Holy Grail of Christian mythology) resulted in sending an expedition team of Nazi scientists, led by the explorer and zoologist Ernst Schäfer, to the Himalayas. The location was chosen specifically thanks to the work of Herman Wirth, a contemporary scholar of ancient religions. Wirth conjectured that there is a reason for why similar-looking symbols can be found in different parts of the world. That reason is the race of people who lived in Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean (likely between Portugal and Britain). The scholar proposed that survivors of sinking Atlantis fled to high places, vowing to avoid the sea that ruined their civilization initially. That's how the descendants supposedly ended up in Tibet.
During the Tibet expedition, Nazi scientists collected thousands of specimens while comparing locals to a list of facial features and concluded that they descended from the Aryans. "Hitler and his anthropologists thought that by measuring people's heads you could tell which race they were," explained Sir Richard.
Ernst Schäfer during his last expedition to Tibet. 1938.
Declaring that they found out what happened to Atlantis was a boost to the myth-fueled Nazi war machine. Becoming convinced that Tibetans were survivors of Atlantis also hardened Himmler's views on racial purity. He decided that the Aryan master race was by now much weaker due to intermixing and needed to be purified (via the ensuing Holocaust).
The mission to Tibet was not the only such endeavor by the Nazis. Similar efforts to find the Aryans were dispatched to Sweden, Scotland, France and Iceland.
One German archaeologist (and eventual SS commander) Edmund Kiss promoted the idea that Bolivia's famous historical site called Tiwanaku was actually Atlantis. He believed in the elaborate and outlandish World Ice Theory, which also had support of Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis. One of the theory's postulates was that Earth at some point collided with its moon, a cataclysm that led to the destruction of Atlantis and an ice age on the planet. Trying to survive their new glacier-filled reality, ancient Atlanteans were believed to have fled to the high Andes, where life could still survive. That's how they would have ended up in Bolivia.
Hypothetical reconstructions of Tiwanaku in Edmund Kiss's book Das gläserne Meer. 1930.
While Kiss's work found enthusiastic support in Germany, especially as he wrote statements proclaiming that "the works of art and the architectural style of the prehistoric city are certainly not of Indian origin." He added that rather they were "probably the creations of Nordic men who arrived in the Andean highlands as representatives of a special civilization."
Nazis publicized such "findings" about the Nordic city of Tiwanaku in Hitler youth publications and other party newspapers. Kiss's larger Himmler-sponsored expedition to Bolivia never materialized, however, due to the start of World War 2, as writes historian Matthew Gildner.
Check out this fascinating documentary on "The Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail" which includes the search for Atlantis here: