21 May 2011

How to Deal With a Corpse in 35 C Weather

How DO you deal with a corpse when it's sweltering?

At one point while I was living and working in the Venezuelan Jungle, this issue became relevant to me.  The short answer, used by our poorer ancestors, was to bury Dad.  Quickly.  Modern Hasidic Law and the Sharia still mandate “deposit” within 24 hours maximum.  For our somewhat wealthier ancestors, the answer was to use deodorant on Dad - and then bury him.  For our really wealthy ancestors, it was to use deodorant, can the internal organs, paint what’s left with pitch, let Dad dry out, and build a huge mausoleum around him... maybe even a pyramid.

The preferred deodorant du jour from well before 600 BC until the Middle Ages is golden brown in color. It’s still used in Catholic and Orthodox funerals in fragrant-smoke-distribution devices called censurs.   It is found as sap leaking out of the slashed trunk-bark of an unassuming bush found mainly in Oman.  I have a sack of it in the drawer right here next to me: it’s called Frankincense.  A tiny nugget of it with some raisins will do wonders for a huge bowl of basmati rice.

A careful reading of 1 Ne:1 through 1 Ne:17 comes across to a modern archeologist or geographer as a startlingly accurate description of the Frankincense Trail - the biggest trade route of antiquity, predating the Asiatic Silk Road.  Anthropologists have even recently found a small tribe on the northwestern Yemeni coast whose name is, using the standard three consonants for an Arabic word:  نءم : N-H-M.  This could be pronounced ‘naheem” “nuhom”, “niham” - or Nahom.  The land a tribe occupies is traditionally named after that tribe (America –> Americans).  Think: make a left turn at Nahom.

Cities along the Frankincense trade route from Jerusalem to the Nile Valley, and from Jerusalem to the southern Arabian Peninsula were largely Jewish cities.  With one exception, that tidbit was figured out only in the past century.  When Mohamed first arrived in Madinah (where I spent time managing a volcano-seismic monitoring network) around 632 AD, he encountered two warring Jewish tribes, and set himself up as a judge and dispassionate arbiter of their conflicts.  It worked - and 1.3 billion people today speak his language as a result.  The trading lingua franca of 600 BC in the region, however, was Egyptian - the language of the Nile River Valley that was the geographic center of the huge trading network in spices.  Egyptian by that time had evolved its written form from clumsy and tedious hieroglyphs to a phonetic shorthand called Demotic.  That’s a long way of pointing you at 1Ne 1:2.

The Frankincense Trail was actually a series of sub-parallel routes mainly predicated on where the oases were.  One chain followed the uplifted scarp left over when the Red Sea originally split apart the Arabian-Nubian continental craton 35-30 million years ago.  These cliffs rise to nearly 2,000 meters (7,000 feet) and trap passing clouds.  As the air rises, it cools and drops out its moisture, which collects in a line of springs at the base of the scarp, a line hundreds of kilometers long running parallel to the Red Sea.  One of those springs is the famous Zamzam Well of Makkah.  A devout Moslem wishes to be buried in a shroud dipped in Zamzam water, lying on his right side, with his face towards Makkah.  Another chain of springs runs close to the coast where the groundwater finally reaches the sea.  The city of Jeddah, where we lived as a family for four years, has several of those springs.  The humidity, heat, and salt in the air from the proximal Red Sea were murder on our car - and for that matter on any iron or steel, including steel bows that became available to wealthier traders around 600 - 700 BC.  Think Shazer (1 Ne 16: 13-14).

In the Yemen part of the route, you had a choice: one choice was to pay a tax that helped sustain the great Sabaean Kingdom (think Queen of Saba or Sheba).  The alternative was to take a sharp eastward turn at a place called Nahom and risk crossing the desert... where for over 5,000 years bandit tribes have survived by preying upon caravans.  If you took the cheap route, you sure didn’t want to light any fires to give your location away - even if you could find enough firewood in the edge of the incredibly desolate Empty Quarter to burn in the first place.  You had to eat raw or sun-dried goat meat.  You could still nurse your babies, however (1 Ne 17:2).

There are lots and lots more, but this is getting too long already.  By the way, who do you suppose could make their way through such a dangerous trail, and could communicate with the people controlling the towns around the oases in the trading language of the day?  How about a family of Jewish traders?


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