Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

THE problems relating to asylum-seekers have hit the headlines again. The concept of asylum is ancient, and the problems not new.

Asylum derives from the ancient Greek asulos, 'inviolable' (noun asulia).

Its basic meaning was `protection against the right of reprisal, especially seizure of goods', but it had wider applications.

It could be applied to individuals seeking protection over their own borders, ambassadors (visiting foreign states), traders (who needed to visit foreign ports) and to areas, like religious shrines. Since everything in such sanctuaries was under the protection of a god, shrines could develop a whole range of useful services. The temple of Artemis at Ephesus functioned as a bank; the island of Delos, one vast sanctuary, became one of the most important trading centres in the Mediterranean. Further, asulia agreements could be drawn up between whole communities, especially in areas where piracy and brigandage were common. Communities could also claim temporary asulia during religious festivals. Festivals were major sources of revenue and would attract pilgrims in great numbers only if the pilgrims knew that, in leaving the safety of their own states, they would still be protected in foreign parts. …

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