Mystical Imperialism: Afghanistan’s Ancient Role
“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.” – T.E. Lawrence from Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Lawrence of Arabia)
Mystical imperialism is a term used to describe 19th century British efforts to colonize the world by bringing Judeo-Christian ethics, morals and philosophies and applying them to the pagan world. In effect what Mystical imperialism became was a philosophy that rationalized the expansion of empire by infusing a sense of the divine into the raw politics of empire building. Today’s version of mystical imperialism applies to a hardened core of ideological defense intellectuals who combine their own esoteric and religious beliefs with Washington policy making. This revelation came to us as we moved further into the motivations behind the secret war against the Soviet Union.
It was at the time of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 when we were working on the film version of our Afghanistan experience under contract to Oliver Stone, that we started to piece together the mythic implications of the story. During the research for the screenplay many of the documents preceding the Afghan crisis were declassified. One such document, the Report of Team B, contained language and religious allusions that were surprising for a government publication. Completely overruling any chance for the peaceful cooperation promised by SALT, Team B claimed the Soviets were engaging in a Nazi-like build-up of forces and were preparing for a third world war as if it were inevitable. But it was in the Team B’s charge that the Soviet Union’s world view was “Manichean” that we found reason to wonder. Manicheanism, once one of the major Gnostic religions which, spread from the third to the seventh century from the region of Afghanistan to the east and west. Originating with the prophet Mani in the late 3rd century, the dualist Manichean philosophy divided the world between the two main forces of good and evil, with good equated with heavenly light and evil equated with the dark and material world. In 382 A.D. Roman Emperor Theodosius I declared Christianity to be the only legitimate religion in the empire, deeming Manicheanism a heresy and declaring that Manicheans be put to death. From then on, Manicheanism came to be used as a veiled metaphor for the enemy of any officially approved truth, defined in stark pseudo-religious terms of good versus evil. But what was such a quasi-religious metaphor doing in the Team B Report?
Over the next decade we trailed a labyrinth of clues and ultimately found Team B’s Manichean references mirror-imaging Washington’s own strange policy, a policy which at first had labeled Soviets as the evil and fiercely-religious, Muslim holy warriors as the good, now reversed after 9/11 to cast America as the good and Muslims as the evil. It is an analogy whose likeness grows more visible as America’s involvement deepens
More Mystical Imperialism – the text that didn’t get in Invisible History
Forgotten or unknown by historians, but of no small importance to this part of the world were the activities of European secret esoteric societies known to be heavily involved in espionage on both British and Russian sides. Reflected in the quasi-Masonic exploits of Kipling’s two soldiers in The Man Who Would be King, the “hidden” or occult game for control of Afghanistan and Central Asia was very much a factor in the foreign policy of the era.
As the ancient home of Zoroaster and the mystical Avesta as well as Gandhara Buddhism, the Illuminated Ones or Roshaniya cult and the Order of Bektashi Dervishes, 19th century Afghanistan and its surroundings provided a mystical underpinning to what today is dryly regarded by many as mere geopolitics. With every advance of the industrial era, the quest for meaning and spiritual enlightenment among Western intellectuals grew while hypnotism, spiritualism and occultism found great popularity in European “parlor” society.
With the expansion of empire interwoven with the expectations of end-time prophecies about to come due, a spiritual movement linking biblical prophecy and Britain began to grow. Guided by religious zeal and a great deal of imagination, a British-Israel movement emerged from the shadows in 1794 with the publication of Richard Brothers’ A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times. Sharon Turner’s 1827 On the Asiatic Origin of the Anglo-Saxons sought to establish greater Persia as the ancestral home of “the progenitors of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors.” Some in the movement proclaimed British army officer Sir Henry Rawlinson’s successful 1835 translation of the Persian “Behistun inscription” as positive proof of a link between Britain and the northern migrations of 10 lost tribes of Israel while the 1840 publication of the Rev. John Wilson’s Our Israelitish Origin tapped biblical scripture to draw a direct connection between ancient Israel and Britain’s Anglo-Saxon empire.
But while providing an acceptable Judeo/Christianized veneer for justifying Britain’s imperial destiny, the practical foreign policy aspects of solidifying the empire took a more secret if not magical turn. Grounded in British Freemasonry, but organized around the exotic rights and practices of the Near and Middle East a kind of mystical, esoteric foreign policy gained favor within London’s elite during the 19th century. Drawing on Anglo and Franco-Egyptian Masonic societies for inspiration, this “mystical imperialism” sought to create a syncretistic cult-like religion with the over-arching goal of uniting the various factions and cultures within the empire.
According to author Robert Dreyfus in his book, Devil’s Game, during this time, “Many British intellectuals, and not a few imperialists, were seized with a desire to find a sort of Holy Grail, a unified field theory of religious belief.”1
Led by the most noted Orientalist of the day, Edward Granville Browne this passion for a radical pantheism brought the foremost elites of the empire into contact with numerous mystical movements, cults and mystery religions throughout the East, including the progressive Arab Masonic society. But though a “unified field” may have motivated Britain’s intellectuals to seek out Islam’s enlightened modernists, the majority of Britain’s imperialists favored the more traditional divide-and-conquer technique by courting regressive, violent and fanatic factions within Islam. While gaining Britain control of the Middle East’s oil fields, the divisiveness and political destabilization caused by this policy would contribute to a future with apocalyptic overtones. In hindsight it would appear – at least – short sighted that the 19th century’s greatest empire should ultimately embrace the outer fringes of Islamic radicalism at the expense of political moderation. But when viewed with a Neoplatonist’s eye to mystical imperialism, the choice may not seem so surprising.
The pendulum-like competition between a two-track foreign policy – one with overtones of enlightenment, the other cloaked in darkness was not new to late 19th century Britain nor would it end at the turn of the century. In fact Britain’s entire program for empire began with a heavy dose of occult philosophy inspired by a vision of sacred destiny during the Elizabethan Renaissance.
In their effort to establish a protestant anti-Catholic empire, influential courtiers invoked Renaissance Neoplatonism, Rosicrucianism , Hermetic-Cabalism, alchemy and numerology with the hope of transforming Britain into a new kind of empire. Utilizing Elizabeth I as their living virgin-Monad, Britain’s astral Neoplatonists sought to reform the world (with Britain as its imperial center) in harmony with the stars and their own mystical vision of the universe.
According to Dame Frances Yates in her 1979 study, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, that vision was one of three worlds; elemental, celestial and super-celestial – an intellectual realm “where the platonic ideas merge with angelic hierarchies.” Recruited by the head of Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, Sir Francis Walsingham, John Dee brought a background in astrology, mathematics and alchemy to his service as a psychic spy in the court of Emperor Rudolph II at Prague. According to Deborah E. Harkness in her book John Dee’s Conversations with Angels, Dee’s belief in Revelation and an immanent apocalypse fueled his mystical efforts on behalf of the new empire. With Natural philosophy as a curative to a nature gone horribly wrong, (as represented by the Holy Roman Empire) Dee, his associates and his intellectual inheritors – Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton – would build a bridge from this world to the next by helping to close out human history and opening up a biblical utopia.
Linking Arthurian-Britain to Israel through the magic of Christian Cabala, Dee and men such as Sir Philip Sydney, Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spencer merged the ideas of continental philosophers Giordano Bruno, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Francesco Giorgi into a form of British-Israelism with Elizabeth in a messianic role. According to Yates, Dee justified that role through the writings of the 12th century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth whose Historia Regum Britanniae traced the origins of the British kings to Wales and Troy. As told by Yates in her book Astraea, The Imperial Theme in the 16th century, “The Tudors were Welsh or ancient British descent. When the Tudors ascended the throne of England, so runs the myth, the ancient Trojan-British race of monarchs once more resumed the imperial power and brought in a golden age of peace and plenty.”2
Dee’s General and rare memorials pertayning to the Perfect art of Navigation (1577) sets out this vision of Britain’s imperial destiny and how it should be acquired. According to Yates, “Expansion of the navy and Elizabethan expansion at sea were connected in his mind with vast ideas concerning the lands to which (in his view) Elizabeth might lay claim through her mythical descent from King Arthur.”3
Though Masonic lore suggests it was Francis Bacon – the philosopher viewed as a transitional force between magic and mechanism – who transferred the theme of British Masonry from Egypt to Jerusalem, Yates believes it is Giorgi’s influence over the Elizabethans that added the ‘British Israel’ mystique to the Arthurian-British mythology.
In Spenser’s work alone, the ancient Zoroastrian metaphors of good-versus-evil/light-versus-dark abound. According to Dame Yates, “The Spenserian magic [of his poem the Faerie Queen] should not be read only as a poetic metaphor (though it is that) but also in relation to contemporary states of mind… The white magic of the pure imperial reform is opposed to the bad necromancy of its enemies.”4
In Spencer, Renaissance Neoplatonism helps to form the mystical black-versus-white/good-versus-evil framework for an empire that is in harmony with universal laws and a higher ideal; an empire governed by celestial white knights conquering the power of a lower, inherently evil and unredeemable earth in preparation for judgment day.
In this rhetoric of white knights wielding “white magic” can be seen the seeds of a gnostic self-righteous “exceptionalism” that makes the bearer immune from judgement. Legitimized by British/ Israelism and embedded firmly into the empire’s mystical-esoteric subculture this immunity would grow and evolve from Francis Bacon’s 17th century New Atlantis into the refined geopolitical concepts of Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But the first real challenge of Elizabeth’s mystical imperialists was the conquest of nearby Ireland and the impact of their Neoplatonic holy war would leave that country scarred and divided for four centuries. Known as the Desmond wars for the family of Irish Catholic earls that opposed them, some of England’s most notable families found a holy cause in the contest. The Desmonds – ancestors to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and mystical Catholics in their own right – would command a version of the Catholic Just War doctrine tailored especially by a Papal Nuncio to counter it.
Largely unknown in the United States and scarcely mentioned in the history of Europe, the Desmond wars would serve as a template for British Imperial design and a metaphor for imperial mysticism. In what a modern, rational political scientist might refer to today as a colonial conquest, the struggle possessed both traditional and non-traditional aspects. While armies clashed in a brutal and often genocidal conflict reminiscent of a modern day “ethnic cleansing,” behind the scenes some of Britain’s foremost nobility engaged in a war of the occult. Gathering in secret societies like Walter Raleigh’s “School of Night” or Sir Phillip Sydney’s magic circle, England’s foremost poets, soldiers and scientists mixed magic, mathematics and religion while practicing alchemy and cabala.
As long established competitors to the crown for control of Irish real-estate and Irish taxes, the Desmond Geraldines also laid claim to kingship through a Tudor ancestry5 and through that ancestry a competing claim on the magical tradition stretching back to King Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth aside, all royal houses were given to proving their legitimacy by lineage and no King of Britain could have greater legitimacy than to trace his roots to Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Numerous legends told of the Geraldine’s fondness for shape-shifting and magic and popular tradition linked the Desmond earls to messianic prophecies of a magical Celtic revival. In the 12th century a Desmond ancestor, the redoubtable Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) had written a competing volume to Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae with his own family at the center. Based on the prophecies of Merlin Ambrosius and an original copy of the prophecies of Merlin Celidonius, Cambrensis skillfully matched his own family’s successful invasion of Ireland in 1170 to the fulfillment of Merlin’s 6th century mystical prophecies. The Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland) is filled with dreams, visions and ghosts and was intentionally written in a common idiom to make it accessible to all. It still reads as if it were written yesterday. One account, referred to as The Subjugation of the Men of Osraige (an independent city state near Dublin, occupied for centuries by Vikings) testifies to the mystical aspects of the 12th century struggle for the Irish countryside. “On one occasion the army was spending the night encamped in an around the old fortification in Osraige,… Suddenly there were, as it seemed, countless thousands of troops rushing upon them from all sides and engulfing all before them in the ferocity of their attack. This was accompanied by no small din of arms and clashing of axes, and a fearsome shouting which filled the heavens. Apparitions of this sort used to occur frequently in Ireland around military expeditions.”6
Originally called the Prophetic History of Ireland, Cambrensis also traced the lineage of his family’s race – the sons of Gerald of Windsor or FitzGeralds – to Troy; the gift of end-time prophecy to the Jews.
He had suppressed the volume, for fear of offending “the powers that be” in London. But even suppressed, the message was clear. The Desmond Fitzgeralds had come to Ireland steeped in the mythology of mystical imperialism and found a match for it in Ireland. Over a period of four hundred years they attained near total sovereignty over southern Ireland and withstood numerous attempts from London to unseat them. But something in the Renaissance revival of Neoplatonic thought convinced the powers-that-be at Windsor Castle that the Geraldines stood in the way of a divine plan which justified their extermination. Preserved in the allegory of Spencer’s Faerie Queen, the Desmond wars more than justified the mystical imperialism of the Reformation for Queen Elizabeth’s white knights. Through cadence and number, Spencer aligns the conquest of Ireland to the stars and planets- structuring his vision of historical events to the mythology of empire and winding them into the clockwork mechanism of Time. In this holiest of missions religious warfare is a curative and not an ailment, while Time is the theater where the decayed Eden (Ireland) is restored to its original state through the application of natural philosophy (war) in order to gain a more perfect understanding of the divine intention.
But whether mystical, magical or simply a practical accomplishment of religious warfare, the conquest of Ireland was only the first step in the mystical destiny of British Imperialism.
Whether through war or magic, by the late 19th century the expansion of empire had reached Eurasia and in so doing butted up against an equally magical and warlike Russia. Described as the “World-Island” by British geographer Halford Mackinder, imperial Russia’s geographic position at the center of the Eurasian land mass more than rivaled Britain’s as an island fortress. But unlike Britain, Russia’s island stood virtually impregnable – overflowing with resources and beyond the reach of Britain’s ocean going armada. Possessed of its own mythology and mystical inheritance, Mackinder foresaw Russia finally escaping its history and with the advancement of railroads, expanding with ferocity beyond its borders. Work had begun in 1879 in conjunction with the Russian military conquest of all the territory east of the Caspian Sea and by 1900 was considered a major economic and military threat to British India. Likened to the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan, the very idea of a Russia unleashed on the world helped to inspire an entire century of religious and geopolitical panic in the West. Between Mackinder, Nazi Germany’s Karl Haushofer and American Cold Warrior James Burnham, Russian dominance of Central Asia spawned nightmares of an apocalyptic horde sweeping from the Russian steppe across Europe and into the Middle East. Born of Victorian England’s now matured belief in the supremacy of its own destiny as the purveyor of a New Atlantis, Russia was fast becoming the new source of darkness in a world defined by Manichaen opposites. But like John Dee’s imperial isle of Britain, the “World-Island” described by Mackinder (Russia) had its own mystical tradition and by the late 19th century an equally determined core of believers in the righteousness of its destiny.
The Russian Mystics
Preaching a “Secret Doctrine” reportedly taught to her by hidden masters in Tibet, the mystic Helena Blavatsky made her way from Moscow to India to New York and back, weaving herself and her Theosophical society into British and Russian intrigues. A close friend of Russian Tsar Nicholas II and the so called “mystic Eurasian scholar” Prince Ukhtomsky, she was accused more than once by British authorities of conspiring with the Sikhs to overthrow the British occupation of India. Her association with Ukhtomsky’s mysterious Tibetan friend Shamzaran Badmaev who actively lobbied for the unification of Russia with Mongolia and Tibet and her close relationship to the right-wing Russian Imperialist publicist Mikhail Katkov stands in mute support of this belief. But Blavatsky’s mission was as much mystical as political. Blavatsky fascinated the Tsar and Tsarina with her book The Secret Doctrine – its cover adorned with the ancient Indo/Tibetan sun symbol, the swastika. However political or mysterious, her quest to uncover the hidden city of “Shambhala” (sometimes referred to as the Shambhala project) and usher in a New World Order, was the main purpose of her endeavors and continued long after her death as the central theme of a variety of both British and Russian mystical societies. To many in the Blavatsky camp, Nicholas was the prophesied northern “White Tsar,” the only European leader strong enough and saintly enough to thwart the ruthless mercantile evangelism of the British Empire. Prior to the turn of the century this too had become something of a holy cause, with Nicholas viewed as much a messiah as potential Eurasian Emperor. It has been speculated that Blavatsky most likely found in her own Russian (Ukrainian) culture, a natural mysticism that exclusive British secret Masonic societies like the Order of the Golden Dawn were trying to lay claim to.
That natural connection to the East found a powerful source of inspiration in the Slavic cultural revival of the 19th century – recognized internationally in Russian literature, music and spiritual movements. Blavatsky’s Imperial Russia rejected the materialism and rationalism of the West while foreshadowing the longed-for spiritual revolution-to-come by offering a purer form of society modeled on the peasant commune. This innocent dreamlike utopia combined with beliefs of a hidden kingdom of enlightened adepts (Shambhala) was a direct competitor to the Western dream of a new Atlantis with Shambhala representing the natural freeing of the human soul and Atlantis its fall into technological enslavement. But Blavatsky was no Russian peasant. Born of Russian-German nobility, her Theosophical Society founded in 1875 was the original “New Age” cult, attracting multitudes of disillusioned middle and upper-class Spiritualists bent on finding the path to higher wisdom. An eclectic mix of philosophies, Blavatsky’s Theosophy also mirrored John Dee’s 16th century efforts to “heal” the natural world by channeling conversations with angels from the astral plane. Through this “astral language” as it was described by the early 20th century Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov, the practitioner took a step in gaining a greater knowledge of God’s imperial plan and how to manifest it on earth. In fact, Dee’s counsel had been sought in Russia as well as Britain over three hundred years before. Cited by numerous historians in the establishment of the Muscovy Company in 1555, a joint English/Russian trading company that lasted until the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Dee’s expertise was sought by no one less than the Tsar Boris Gudunov himself who offered Dee the astonishing sum of £2,000 a year, a house and all provisions to enter his service. “Dee’s son Arthur, who was also an alchemist did in fact go to Moscow and had a successful career there as a court physician. He actually wrote a major alchemical work, the Arcana arcanorum in Moscow.”7
Another seer known to have had a hand at late 19th century mystical imperialism was the Greek/Armenian George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff whose unusual mix of Islamic mysticism (Sufism) numerology and a vision of humans as machines was said to have influenced the German, Karl Haushofer and perhaps even the young Russian seminary student, Joseph Stalin. Haushofer would come to play a major role in Nazi Imperial design as a Geopolitician and University professor by adapting Halford Mackinder’s geography based “World-Island” concept to formulate a policy of Lebensraum (living space) as justification for German territorial expansion. It was Haushofer’s fascination with the East that would impel him to personally facilitate Nazi Germany’s alliance with Japan prior to World War II and it was Haushofer who would inspire both Rudolph Hess and Adolph Hitler with Vedic Wisdom acquired from his travels in Central Asia. But it was the Jesuit trained Heinrich Himmler over whom Haushofer may have had the most influence, with his Manichean black uniformed SS and his German Ancestry – Research and Teaching Society (Ahnenerbe), created to trace the cultural origins of the German race.
Himmler sent an expedition led by Nazi, Ernst Schäfer to Tibet in 1939 in the hopes of uncovering proof of Aryan links to modern German society in the soil of Central Asia. Official Tibetans greeted the swastika-bearing Germans warmly, granting them permission to enter the Yarlung Valley and examine the ancient stronghold of Yumbulagang – a permission earlier denied to British officials. An American OSS expedition led by an old friend of Schäfer, Brooke Dolan followed in 1942 – presumably on a diplomatic/intelligence mission. But there are hints of something more. Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President had supported an expedition by Russian mystic and Blavatsky-successor, Nicholas Roerich (also known as Nikolai Konstantinovich Rerikh) in 1934. Intent on establishing a settlement somewhere in the vicinity of the Himalayas, “The Plan,” as it was known by Roerich, his wife and their financial supporters was a continuation of Blavatsky’s “Shambhala Project” and was clearly millennial in scope. An acolyte of Blavatsky and Roerich, Wallace expressed his enthusiasm for the project, stating “the political situation in this part of the world is always rendered especially intriguing by the effect on it of ancient prophecies, traditions and the like,” and Wallace anticipated that those prophecies were at last coming due. Hidden to human eyes, Shambhala was said by Tibetan Buddhists to lie somewhere to the north or west of Tibet and that although not a physical location would finally be revealed at the end of time. Others believed in a more substantial Shambhala and spoke of it hidden somewhere in the valleys of the Pamir mountain range in Northeastern Afghanistan. This was the Shambhala that concealed the lost wisdom, the secrets of immortality and the purest beginnings of the human race. The setting for Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, the 19th century Russian Futurist and Orthodox Christian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov considered the region the single most important geographical location on the planet. As George M. Young Jr., an expert on Fyodorov notes “Here, according to local legend, was the original site of Eden , and the visible desolation in contrast to biblical and other lush images of the garden emphasizes what we have lost and how great a task of restoration remains.”8 Referred to as the “Moscow Socrates” by his followers, Fyodorov’s belief in the resurrection of humanity profoundly influenced Fyodor Dostoevsky and mystic poet Vladimir Soloviev. According to Young, Fyodorov’s spiritual geography made the Pamir range the symbol of all that must be surmounted in the task to make humankind one. Similar in tone and intention to the 16th century Neoplatonists like Dee and Spencer, he even proposed a joint Anglo/Russian archeological expedition “in search of common ancestral remains as a first step in restoring the wasteland to a garden…”
With Russian and the British armies encroaching on the borders of Afghanistan – Fyodorov was pleased that the region was finally gaining the attention it deserved in order that the spiritual plan for the human race could proceed and the resurrection of the dead, begin. But it would take an additional century to map out the spiritual geography on the path to Shambhala while the collision of the mystical imperialists over Afghanistan would unfold in ways that were both prophetic and apocalyptic.
Copyright © 2009 Gould & Fitzgerald All rights reserved
2 thoughts on “Mystical Imperialism”
[…] to its 19th century advocates as mystical imperialism, the term can be traced to both Britain and Russia’s 19th century efforts to establish dominion […]
[…] Herbert’s novel, adapted into a film by David Lynch, is a fantastical blend of Islamic mysticism and imagery that immediately brings to mind ancient Afghani Sufism. The the opium trade has long been a center of global chess moves, particularly with the British Empire’s control and use of opium and its Great Game espionage maneuvers with Russia. Herbert is clearly aware of this global alignment and includes these very human drives in his futuristic, anti-imperial novel. The novel immediately made me think of Gould and Fitzgerald’s famous Invisible History, which details the importance of Afghanistan i…. […]