Mercurius Maghrebensis

A personal view of Maghrib and Mashriq

Month: August, 2015

The Jew of Carlisle again


After writing last week about William Mountsey’s Persian inscription at the Dwarfie Stane on Hoy, I came across a short and interesting booklet about him by Charlie Emett, called William Mounsey and the ‘Jew’ Stone (Giggleswick, 1990). It adds something to the story of Mounsey’s life, gives a little context for his family, and tells the story of the re-erection of the Jew Stone at Outhgill in 1989. (I assume in fact that most of the information in other sources comes from Mr Emett’s essay, so ‘add’ is simply a matter of the order in which I happened on them.)

Captain Mounsey (the author doesn’t bother with the assumed ‘Major’) was an intriguing man. His family was a prosperous one, its fortunes made in ecclesiastical law (for the diocese of Carlisle), legal work for several of the great landowners of Cumberland, political agency and the calico-printing which was booming at Carlisle in the late eighteenth century. Mounsey & Giles was a imagesleading Carlisle solicitor’s firm; Mounsey, Lawrie & Co. a leading calico-printer. On the strength of this, William Mounsey’s father, who took on the family businesses, bought Rockcliffe manor and built a large villa, Castletown House, while cannily managing the enclosure of much of Rockcliffe’s common land.

William, born in 1808, was destined to be a solicitor like his father, but first had a fairly undistinguished military career in Persia of which nothing significant is known at all, other than that during it he clearly learned Persian and Hebrew, and began his fascinated exploration of Jewish culture and history. He bought commissions in three regiments (ensign in the 30th Foot, lieutenant in 15th and Captain in the 4th, King’s Own). He sold his captaincy in 1844, perhaps on his father’s death, and returned to England.

Back in Carlisle, William took over the family firm and maintained his antiquarian and linguistic interests. He wrote at least one article, on mazes, for Notes and Queries, the leading forum for scholarly antiquarian research (today, sadly, given over almost entirely to literature, reflecting the disappearance of the learned amateur antiquarian like Mounsey). But the traces he has left are concrete, cut into the landscape he loved. He walked widely in Cumberland, and carved his name in a variety of languages. In the Eden gorge near Armathwaite he chiselled in 1855 a mischievously amended verse by Isaac Walton as well, perhaps, as a number of curious faces.  At St Constantine’s Cells, also on the Eden, he added in 1852 to existing Roman graffiti a ninth century Welsh verse meaning This leaf which is being persecuted by the wind, let her beware of her fate: she is old though only born this year, and a verse of his own in praise of Ituna, the Eden. His inscriptions were full of cryptic, sometime astrological references, and he had a imagespenchant for reversing letters, and frequently his own name, which often (as on Hoy) became YESNOUM SUMELILUG or (at Wetheral) MHW.

He also had an interest in the mazes cut by shepherds on the Solway marshes, of which there were three in his youth (the illustration above is said to be of one). In Notes and Queries he wrote that “the herdsmen at the present day are also in the habit of cutting labyrinthine figures which they also call ‘the walls of Troy,’” and related this to the Welsh Caerdroia, the word for a shepherds’ maze in Wales. Quite what they were for is debated, and shepherds may have cut them and perhaps danced them by Mounsey’s time simply because their fathers and grandfathers had. They are found across northern Germany and Sweden, and may have been used as a way of enticing and trapping evil spirits  by leading them noisily into the maze and then leaving them trapped at the centre. Mr Emett suggests that foreign sailors may have brought the original pattern, but in fact the Rockcliffe mazes are only three of the twenty-nine listed in Britain by W H Matthews in 1922, ten of them having ‘Troy’ in their names. I am interested by this, living as I do within a mile of another turf maze on the common at Saffron Walden, with a similarly intricate path-pattern designed only to lead from the edge to the centre.

But the focus of Mr Emmet’s essay is the Jew Stone. Mounsey, as I noted in my last, was clearly fascinated by Jewish culture and adopted a costume and beard based on Jewish practice, presumably as he had seen it amongst the Jews of Persia. We have to imagine his walking about the country heavily bearded and perhaps dressed in robes of some kind – hence his name, ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ There certainly weren’t any local Jews there in the mid-nineteenth century from whom he could draw clues. And to judge whm2 (2)by his inscriptions, although he was interested by Kabbala and Jewish scholarship, he remained an orthodox, if rather florid, Anglican. The Jew Stone was cut and mounted in a lonely spot on Black Fell Moss. Seven feet high and covered in inscriptions, it must have been an odd thing to encounter near the source of the Eden – odd enough to provoke a bunch of navvies engaged in laying the Carlisle-Settle railway to smash it in 1870. Inscriptions in Greek and Latin were supplemented with a Star of David – Solomon’s Seal – and a triple T sigil symbolizing the Trinity. The Greek inscription reads Seek the river of the soul – whence it springs, whence thou hast served the body in a certain order – when thou hast acknowledged thy duty to the sacred scriptures – thou shalt be raised again to the order from which thou art fallen. Let us flee with the ships to our dear native land; for we have a country from which we have come and our Father is there.

In 1989 a group of local people in which Charlie Emett was a moving force worked with an Israeli called Shalom Hermon to replace the stone with a carefully made replica. Hermon had been an artillery officer with Jewish Brigade, training at Catterick in 1945 and intrigued by the Jew Stone marked on his Ordnance Survey map, but not to be found where marked. By the eighties a minister in the Israeli government, Hermon was able to help with fund-raising, and attended the inauguration of the new stone on Outhgill village green, where it should be safer from vandals.  A curiously interesting story, which leaves one wondering what else William Mounsey did, read and thought about – and where else he carved his name.


Post-holiday miscellany

Brummie Qur'an
 Fresh back from a holiday in Orkney, where watery sunshine more or less staved off the cold. The extraordinary remains of the islands’ neolithic cultures mesmerised us, as did the ghosts of the German Imperial Fleet, scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919, just below our windows. Three short notes today, rather than an essay.


The TLS published on August 7th a fascinating article by Gabriel Said Reynolds (Variant Readings: The Birmingham Qur’an in the context of debate on Islamic origins) about the recently identified pages of an early Qur’an that may have been brought to Birmingham from Fustat in the nineteenth century. What is fascinating about the two leaves is their date – carbon dating places them between 548 and 645, earlier than any other known copy of the Qur’an with perhaps one exception – while the text is virtually identical with the standard text traditionally believed to have been assembled for the Caliph ‘Othman (644-656). Carbon dating, in fact, almost certainly places this apparently ‘Othmanic text well before Othman’s caliphate, upsetting the accepted history of the revealed text. If the dating is good (and it is said to have 95% accuracy) then this Quran was written when the revelations had hitherto been assumed to have been preserved in conflicting versions only on palm-leaves and the shoulder-bones of camels. It raises a whole lot of questions about textual history and textual variation (Reynolds reminds us that the text of the Quran as it now exists, the King Farouk Qur’an, was finalised and published in 1924 and revised in 1936), suggesting that the story of ‘Othman’s scholars agreeing a single text, and consigning bones and palm-leaves to the flames, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. “The dates,” as Reynolds puts it, “are not simply early. They are too early. Instead of rejoicing, the news about this manuscript should lead to head-scratching.” It poses some very fundamental questions. “The upshot of all these early dates is that the Qur’an may well date earlier than Uthman, possibly much earlier. It may be time to rethink the story of the Qur’an’s origins, including the traditional dates of Muhammad’s career.”


As sad coincidence would have it, one of the last generation’s most glittering and controversial Qur’anic head-scratchers, Patricia Crone, died in July. There have been many obituaries, that from the New York Times here. Its author quotes Fred Donner of Chicago as saying that she had “made it clear that historians of early Islam had failed to really behave as historians — that is, had failed to challenge the validity of their sources, but rather had accepted complacently what I call the ‘traditional origins narrative’ created by the Islamic tradition itself.” Her books caused much argument and not a little bitterness, and particularly Hagarism which questioned radically the origins and nature of early Islam: she wrote, as she said, as “an infidel for infidels,” meaning that she was not hobbled by sacred orthodoxies and had the privilege of an objective approach to the texts. I remember very well attending, as a postgrad in 1982, her undergraduate history class in Oxford, which she opened with a virtuoso performance, a scintillating hour on pre-industrial societies which formed the germ of her remarkable book Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (1989). I’d have loved to hear her on the Birmingham dating conundrum.



On the island of Hoy, off Orkney, there is an interesting trace of the Middle East in the form of a line of Persian cut into the granite of a neolithic rock-tomb. The tomb is 5000 years old, a chamber-tomb carved into a glacial erratic: it is unique in Britain, and known as the Dwarfie Stane, having gathered a trail of stories about its being the home, or the tomb, of dwarves or trolls. Among the other laboriously cut, and often well-lettered, Victorian graffiti, is the line of Persian which translates as I sat here for two nights and have found patience. It was cut by ‘Major’ William Mounsey, whose name is also carved, backwards, in Latin script, apparently in 1850. Some say that his patience was learned of the midges.

Mounsey was an intriguing and eccentric character, born near Carlisle in 1808, and returning there after a military career abroad. For a start, he almost certainly wasn’t a major, army lists giving him the rank of captain right up to the end of his career. He is said to have been an intelligence agent – a spy – for the British army in Persia and Afghanistan, though I can find no easy corroboration of this. He seems to have been easily competent in Hebrew, Persian, Greek, Latin and Welsh, and was an amateur antiquarian as well as a soldier and a solicitor. He wandered widely, cutting curious inscriptions into ancient monuments and hillsides, often in Welsh and frequently backwards. He may have been responsible for a series of five faces, various stars of David and a fish carved in rocks in the Eden valley. Later in life he wore a large beard and dressed, in a priestly costume he designed himself, based on his studies of Jewish history and culture, and was known as ‘the Jew of Carlisle.’ One venture was a walk (in full sacerdotal fig) along the river Eden from sea to source, cutting his name as he went. He commemorated the walk with a monument called ‘the Jew Stone,’ at Black Fell Moss which was destroyed by malignant navvies and survives in a facsimile standing at Outhgill. It reads, predictably in Greek, Hebrew and Latin: William Mounsey, a lone traveller, commenced his journey at the mouth and finished at the source, fulfilled his vow to the genius and nymphs of the Eden, on 15th March 1850.



One of the infinitely many personal tragedies of Syria took place last week, in the death of Khaled al-Asaad. He was the archaeologist in charge of the site at Palmyra: he had been there more than half a century, and knew its every nook and cranny, writing about it with incomparable authority. The Daesh were convinced, probably correctly, that he knew where Palmyra’s moveable treasures were concealed. They wanted them for loot and resale, and threatened al-Asaad with death if he did not reveal them. Al-Asaad refused to do so, and was killed, his decapitated body strung up from a pillar in the centre of Palmyra.

A personal tragedy certainly, but also a vignette of real nobility. This was a man who understood very well the way in which human and material culture are inextricably entwined, and how the destruction of cultural heritage is part-and-parcel of atrocity and genocide. Christopher de Bellaigue reports asking a Zoroastrian priest “what happens if the flame [in the Zoroastrian temple] at Yazd goes out?” The priest replies: “Nothing. Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to naught.” And that’s exactly it – the destruction of material culture is both everything and nothing, and those who sneer at concern with stones ‘when human beings are dying,’ fail to understand the intimate ties of past and future, of stone and flesh. Across Syria and Iraq ancient peoples whose bloodlines go back thousands upon thousands of years into prehistory are being slaughtered, enslaved and exiled by incoming Chechens, Arabs, Punjabis, Maghrebis and Europeans. Destroying and looting the warp and weft of their history and identity is part of the process of removing them as though they had never been.

In a particularly good article last week in the Evening Standard, Robert Bevan, a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, discusses this whole issue very wisely, writing that “until the West can demonstrate that it understands that the fate of peoples and the fate of their culture are interlinked, there can be no resolution to the ongoing attacks on both.” He discusses the insights of Raphael Lemkin, the Byelorussian Jew who drafted and promoted the 1948 Genocide Convention (having coined the word). Lemkin linked the two voices of annihilation – against people and against their culture – in his drafting of the Convention, but the UN removed reference to the destruction of culture, with disastrous results. Not that Lemkin confused the two. Bevan quotes him as saying, luminously, “Burning books is not the same as burning bodies, but when one intervenes against mass destruction of churches and books one arrives just in time to prevent the burning of bodies.” That early warning function is long past in Syria, but we ignore at our peril the systematic campaign by barbarians to extirpate any culture that is not their own poor, two-dimensional figment of one. And not just in Syria.



Finally a note that the recently published number 15 of the excellent Critical Muslim is focussed on Educational Reform, and is full of good things. I have an article in it on education reform in North Africa, called The Sheepskin Effect, and there is much more, all of it worth reading, intelligent, though-provoking and often important.

Arab Hyphen

Arab Arts and Literature


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