The Biblical “Unicorns” of Israel’s Deserts

Dec. 11 2019

The Bible makes frequent mention of a horned animal called a r’em, often invoked as symbol of might or majesty. Following the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, which render the word as monoceros and unicornis, respectively, the King James Bible translates it as “unicorn.” Other translations include wild ox, buffalo, and rhinoceros, but there is reason to think that the r’em is in fact an oryx, found in Israel’s deserts since ancient times. Amit Naor speculates that this beast may be the inspiration for legends of unicorns, and certainly for the reports of unicorn sightings in the Land of Israel:

The oryx is a type of large antelope; there are several different species of oryx living around Africa and the Middle East. The kind found in Israel and the surrounding countries is the white or Arabian oryx, its coat mostly white, with two long, straight horns on its head.

Wait a minute—two horns? . . . Bear with me.

[I]n one of the first [printed] books containing an account of a journey to the Holy Land, composed by the German traveler Bernhard von Breydenbach around 1485, we find an illustration of various animals he spotted during his travels. Breydenbach traveled from Venice to Jaffa, making his way to Jerusalem before later heading south to the Sinai desert. The illustration shows a number of exotic animals including a camel, a crocodile, a goat, a salamander, and—a unicorn. Breydenbach wrote that he got a brief glimpse of one in the Sinai.

According to one theory, the oryx’s long, straight horns may appear as a single horn if the animal is viewed from the side. A viewer who is only able to get a quick glimpse from such an angle might mistake the oryx for a large horse with a single horn. . . . [A]nother theory suggests that the stories are based on oryxes who lost one of their horns at some point, as these protrusions never grow back.

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Read more at The Librarians

More about: Animals, Hebrew Bible, Land of Israel, Translation

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy