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Human Rites
Harvey Whitehouse
Harvey Whitehouse
is Chair of Social Anthropology, Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, and a Professorial Fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford.

My colleagues and I were pressed up against each other on the back seat of a police car as it wove through the narrow streets of Urfa, a medieval Turkish city nestled in the watershed of the Euphrates. We stopped in traffic. Somewhere behind a tangle of washing on the rooftops a baby was crying and a television was blaring. On the pavement a group of Kurdish youths stared at us. One hour earlier, near the excavations we had come to see, there had been killings. Some said the bomb was launched from over the border in Syria. Others said it was a Kurdish attack on the police. gThe policeman at the wheel glanced at the youths and then over his shoulder at us. ‘Bad people,’ he said.

I found myself wondering how many times that kind of sneering encounter had occurred in this ancient landscape, a cradle not only of civilizations but of the divisions between them. A minaret burst into song. In the distance, another joined in, then another. We turned a corner and the high fortifications of the city loomed into view. Two years before, I had stood at the top tracing ancient landmarks of the silk trade. Now the city gazed out at the troubled hills of an Arab Autumn.

Earlier that day, I had eaten lunch with an archaeologist living in Jordan. He viewed the sufferings of the Middle East through the lens of deep history. His eye twinkled when I pointed out this quirk. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I see it the other way around. Most people view the Middle East through the lens of very shallow history.’

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