The Broadway Musical Missing From Your Life – Hamilton, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Let me just start by saying that I didn’t want to watch this. It was forced down my throat, and now I’m here to tell you that you have to watch it! I am aware that generally speaking, only annoying people tell you about new broadway musicals that you simply must watch, but this time it’s different! I’m kidding of course, people have been going to see broadways for centuries now, and it’s because they’re often fantastic. That being said! In my life, I haven’t experienced many things as creative as the play named Hamilton. I don’t quite know how to praise it. It was spectacular, it was captivating.
I guess I should tell you what it is: Hamilton is a broadway musical about the life of the famous historical character, Alexander Hamilton, who is one of America’s founding fathers. Hamilton was a young, destitute orphan when he immigrated to the British colonies that would become the United States. Fueled by a unique drive, he became a self taught workaholic who wanted to be at the center of something big. He got his wish, and lived an extremely eventful life, where he commanded soldiers in battle, served as George Washington’s right hand man, worked as a politician, as a legal scholar, as a lawyer, as a banker, and as an economist. He, and those others who make up the cast of this story, are worth remembering. Many revolutions that successfully throw off the clutches of their oppressor, tear themselves apart with infighting. In the case of the American revolution, it gave rise of a great nation, and this might have something to do with the quality of the individuals who spent their lives to achieve it. Alexander Hamilton was not perfect, but he was not like anyone I knew.
Hamilton’s life is indeed the perfect setting for an exciting movie or play, but the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, decided to imaginatively capture the era through the lens of modern popular music; namely, through Rap. 18th century America is convincingly brought alive in the surprisingly fitting lyrics written by Miranda, and sung by his actors, who rap and sing songs that bring alive the colourful lives of these figures from revolutionary America. I have heard more than one person say that Miranda’s telling of the story opened their interest in the period, which had otherwise seemed dry and boring until they saw the play. Watch this play, and get personally invested in the success and failures of Alexander Hamilton. The quality of the performances was absolutely top notch. In the following video, the creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, performs one of the play’s songs at the white house, years before the eventual release of the play. Today, if you want to watch it, you can see it wonderfully brought to the screen on Disney Plus.
Song Stuck in my Mind – Someday Never Comes, by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I love this band, but this song is pretty different from their regular repertoire in my opinion. It plays with dissonance in ways that CCR isn’t known for, and it has been stuck in my head since I first heard it last week. To me, this song sounds like melancholic nostalgia. Listen to it on Youtube, Spotify.
Great Course I Recently Finished – The High Middle Ages, by Philip Daileader, Professor of History at The College of William and Mary in Virginia, produced by the Great Courses. One thousand years ago, Europe not a nice place to live. Where the literate, engineering and densely populated Roman Empire had once thrived, now resided a destitue community of small kingdoms. Illiterate, poor, and often hungry, these states had been existing in a world of penury for centuries. As we know, when there is abundance, we are likely to seek peace and cooperation in order to enjoy that abundance, but when there are shortages, we make sure that we get ours first, just like when Covid reduced us to hoarding toilet paper. This made for an often violent time in history. It is not clear why the early middle ages were so bleak. Barbarians have often been blamed for the destruction of the Roman Empire, but diseases also played a role, as did civil wars, and many other factors. More and more, it appears likely that climate change was the overarching catalyst that ruined everything.
Rather than the global warming that threatens us today, the Romans might have been caught in a cooling period, which resulted in poorer crop yields around the world, and colder climate, which forced northern peoples into migrating southwards in search of more temperate climates to cultivate and graze. Therefore, climate change would have forced the desperate migration of millions southwards, creating humanitarian crises, wars and rebellions. Further mismanagement combined with less sunlight and colder years resulted in failed crops, weaker immune systems and massive plagues. that claimed up to a quarter of Europe’s population. Following all of this, was the breakdown of trust between strangers. One thousand years ago, people in Europe had been doing the best they could in the situation that resulted from the collapse of the Roman Empire, and their world may have been dangerous and dark, but it was about to become very bright indeed.
This sets the stage for Daileader’s class. This colder world was more challenging, and thus society had gradually been reorganized into the feudal system, made up of three classes: those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed. To us today, these might seem like silly categories, or even as exploitative, but they appear to have served their purposes, and been some sort of adaptive response to the unique challenges that nature imposed on human life. From the 11th century onwards, this feudal system evolved, and grew into various styles of kingdoms and republics. The centuries following the 11th century saw Europe emerge out of it’s poverty and disorganization, and grow into a continent that built great buildings again, that created fantastic works of literature and art. Along with the cathedrals came the development of the constitutional system government in England, where parliamentary power learned to check the authority of kings. Europe became strong again, and started reaching it’s arms outside it’s continental borders for the first time in centuries, sending off tens of thousands of it’s soldiers, priests and peasants on crusades in the ancient extent of the Roman Empire, and beyond. The high middle ages were a times of knights, of great story telling, of nation building, and even includes stories of great women, such as the fantastically interesting Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The people who lived in this era were different from us. It is difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors, and few shoes are harder to fit than those of our medieval ancestors. Their mentality was strange, their beliefs were outlandish and their way of life was hard, but they eventually became us, and for that reason, I recommend that you learn about them. This course, just like all other Great Courses, was fantastic, and Professor Daileader was entertaining throughout the whole twelve hours of the course. Listen to this course if you want to know how the rowdy and rag tag kingdoms of the middle ages entered the high middle age, how the concepts of chivalry were used to rein in the violence committed by those who fought, and how everything went from the way it was, to the way it is.
If you wish to listen to the Great Courses but do not wish to pay the 50+$ it costs to buy one their courses on Audible, I recommend you subscribe to Audible’s monthly membership, where for 15$ per month you get access to any title in their catalogue, including any of these expensive courses. No, I’m no making any money off this.
Documentary For Music Lovers – Beware of Mr. Baker.
I watched this documentary some years ago, and decided to revisit it this week. It focuses on an individual by the name of Ginger Baker, who was one of the greatest musicians of the last century. He was also a bastard, who never seemed to care what anyone thought. This documentary wont make you love Mr. Baker, in fact you might develop a deep dislike for him, but you wont be able to help yourself from admiring him. Ginger Baker is perhaps most famous for being the drummer in the band Cream, along side Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, but his contribution to music is much greater than one band could ever be. Throughout his life, Mr. Baker was present at the birth of Rock and Roll, he played and partied with all the greatest musicians you’ve ever heard of, from Mick Jagger to Jimi Hendrix, and he scared the shit out of all of them. He led the charge, and was uniquely placed to influence the direction of music for a time. He saw himself as a jazz musicians, and constantly set up “battles” with the most famous jazz drummers, but simultaneously became the first drummer rock god. He pioneered the drum solo, and reinvented the popular rhythm, but he was much more than a drummer. He was also a band leader, a creator of music and an organizer of people. He did it all for the sake of music.
Drunk, outrageous, constantly addicted to drugs, a terrible father and husband, he became the mould in which rock and roll drummers would be cast for the next half century. If that was all Mr. Baker had done, the documentary would be worth watching, but in reality, this was only the start for him. When he was 32, Ginger Baker drove across the Sahara, determined to explore the world which had provided his primary musical influence: Africa. Obsessed by traditional African drumming since he was a boy, Baker had always looked to Africa as the golden standard. He set up a recording studio in the city of Lagos, in Nigeria, the first of it’s kind in the country. It is not a place that wealthy and famous musicians tend to visit, and back then, it was a far more dangerous and squalid place than it is now. Never the less, Baker lived there, and not in luxury. He became friends with the local legend, Fela Kuti, a terrifically important musician in his own right, who was a force of nature, and an outspoken rebel who used his music to publicly denounce the military junta that controlled his country. More on him next week, probably. Baker spent his time in Africa learning everything he could, recording everyone he could out of his good will, but even there he managed to make enemies and to alienate his friends.
This documentary, created by the Rolling Stone writer Jay Bulger, is about an extremely complicated figure who played a pivotal role in music history. It manages to gather together just about every important musician since the 50s to tell you how Mr. Baker influenced their music. He was a force of nature, and one of the greatest examples of what not-giving-a-fuck can help you achieve. It is simultaneously a cautionary tale about the downsides of not-giving-a-fuck too much.
Once there was a man name Diogenes. He lived in ancient Greece, where he was willfully homeless, malnourished, and absolutely scandalous. He masturbated in public, insulted kings and tyrants to their faces, and was known by all the ancient world as a great philosopher.
Every time I read his name, I begin to smile, knowing some of the great stories about him. For example, the most famous story happened after Alexander the Great had decisively subdued Greece and stood poised to invade Persia. Alexander, a famously volatile individual, was now the supreme leader of most of Greece, and was spending some time in Diogenes’s city of Corinth. The young king knew of Diogenes, and expected the famous philosopher to come congratulate him on his recent victory, as others had done before. Diogenes, however, took no notice of the king, and never presented himself. Alexander decided to go see him himself, never the less wanting to meet the famous philosopher. He made his way through town with his friends and his guards, and found Diogenes naked, sunbathing in an open space.
Approaching the old man, Alexander said some nice things about Diogenes, and asked him if there was anything at all that he could do for him. Diogenes replied “Yes, stand out of my sun!” Alexander’s entourage then started to laugh, and even made fun of their king, but Alexander was still young, and appreciated the brashness with which Diogenes led his life. As they walked away, Alexander said loudly that “if I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes”. Diogenes couldn’t help himself but to call out that “if I were not Diogenes, I would also want to be Diogenes!”
Alexander had power over the life and death of all his subjects, but he also had the power to grant all your wishes. Irreverent, uninterested, and completely self-absorbed, Diogenes just didn’t care.
When I read this story some years ago, I found it funny but I didn’t think much of Diogenes. It just reminded me of teenage rebellion and of angry music. Reject authority for the sake of rejecting authority. It’s fun for a while but it doesn’t do much for you. Today however, I read Diogenes slightly differently. He isn’t only crazy for the sake of being crazy, although he was that sometimes. Diogenes, like many of us, searched for freedom. He wanted to be free to do what he wanted when he wanted. I will tell another story to explain this point.
Upon meeting a deposed tyrant who was living in exile, Diogenes publicly insulted this tyrant, stating that his life in exile was far too good for a man such as he. He told the tyrant that he deserved death, not a wealthy exile. Indeed, this tyrant lived lavishly despite his exile, and he loved to host illustrious philosophers for sumptuous dinners. Later, Plato saw Diogenes washing some lettuce for his dinner. Plato said something like: “if you would have just been respectful to the tyrant, you would not have to wash lettuce now, you could be dinning easily in his home right now!” Diogenes replied that “if you would just wash your lettuce, you would not have to be respectful to a tyrant”.
Though this story shows us the kind of freedom Diogenes wanted, it also has a subtler point. Diogenes wanted to unburden himself as much as possible of obligation. He determined that all luxuries costed money, and to get money we needed to work. This means spending time doing something you probably don’t like for things you think you need (and probably don’t). Therefore, if you can convince yourself that you don’t need luxuries, then you need less money, and therefore you can spend more of your life doing whatever you want; freedom.
To most of us, Diogenes took it too far. After abandoning almost all his possessions and moving into a large barrel that was inhabited by a pack of dogs, Diogenes watched a child drink water with his hands. Diogenes then threw away his cup, one of his last possessions, stating that the child had showed him that he didn’t need it. We have trouble respecting this; it is in utter contrast to the life we all live. Indeed, it was in utter contrast to the life that the Greeks at the time of Diogenes lived. But we should be careful before judging him, least we forget his role and ours. Henry David Thoreau once said: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. [That is because] to be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, [. . .] but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates […]. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” Diogenes was a philosopher, but we would have trouble recognizing him as one today, for our sense of the word has been corrupted to suit people with shinny shoes that speak well.
Despite his scandalous attitude, the principles of Diogenes would eventually be admired and emulated (in certain ways) by early Christians and Stoics, who might be the furthest thing from scandalous. The vows of poverty seen in many religions, notably Christianity, probably take their root from the teachings of the vulgar Diogenes.
I must give credit to the History on Fire Podcast which reminded me of Diogenes in it’s latest episode, and that provided me with the quote by Henry David Thoreau used above. It was so perfect that I had to include it in this text.
Everyone has heard of the Trojan War, and this is astonishing! For three thousand years this story has fascinated humankind, and as a little boy, I found my own passion for the story. As you might expect from a child, I didn’t immediately care much for history, study or difficult books, but I became captivated nonetheless. These stories were just the thing for a young boy who loved the thought of adventure.
First thanks to a video game, and later through
books, I learned everything I could about it. The legend of the Trojan War,
where to start? I read of a boy raised by shepherds who became a prince. I read
of a woman so beautiful that an army set off in ten thousand ships after her
when she ran away with this same prince; I read of epic heroes blessed by the
gods themselves; I read of a terrible siege that lasted 10 years, where one of
the greatest cities on earth was destroyed by a vengeful Greek Army. What I
read, the Iliad, was the oldest surviving work of fiction in western
literature, and it’s survival has been assured all these millennia because of its
breathtaking content. For me, and for the last 150 generations of humans, the
great and mythical city of Troy has inspired a passion for the past.
But was it really fiction? Through time, the
general feeling about this has changed a lot. In Roman and Greek times, it was
taken for granted that the story was true. For instance, we are told that
Alexander the Great stopped at the ruins of Troy to pay homage to his ancestor
Achilles, who died in the conflict. But by the 19th century, it was generally
accepted that the tale of the Trojan War was nothing more than fiction, and
this is understandable: the story places Gods and mythical beings in prominent
roles; the human characters are over the top; and the sequel to the story, the
Odyssey, is among the most exciting fantasy adventures anyone can stumble upon
to this day, involving mythical beasts, magic and gods. By the 19th century,
the industrial world had moved past this far away world, and held its
superstitions with contempt. Troy was nothing more than a fairy tale. Or so it
Despite this overwhelming prejudice, some nonetheless believed the stories, and staked their reputations and fortunes in order to prove that they were based on fact. In doing this, they would give birth to the science and discipline known today as Archaeology. These characters were exciting in their own right, and when I was a child learning of the Trojan War, my interest shifted from the story of the ancient heroes to that of those moderns who went looking for the ruins of Troy. We might want to call them archaeologists, only they might deserve to be called treasure hunters. At the time, I did not worry so much about these distinctions. I wanted to know if this story was true. I thought that would make it so much better somehow. Could the mythical city of Troy actually be real!?
Heinrich Schliemann, Self-Made Millionaire
Heinrich Schliemann believed it was real. Born in 1822 to a poor pastor, in a region of modern day Germany, Schliemann became a fascinating story in his own right. He had very little schooling, and by the age of 14 he had to quit school due to his parents’ poverty. For the remainder of his adolescence, he got a job, apprenticing to a grocer. Schliemann tells us that from a very young age, he too grew a fond appreciation for the Trojan Myth.
Eventually, Schliemann’s promise of a comfortable
life as grocer was interrupted by the fortunes of life; he was injured. He had
to quit his job, and he took new one as a cabin boy on a steamship heading to
Venezuela. After twelve days on board, his second prospective career was also
cut short as the ship sank in a storm, and a 19-year old Schliemann had to
start over from the shores of the Netherlands.
From this point on, a pattern emerged in
Schliemann’s life. He exemplified the driven man who would try anything and
everything to get rich. He took every risk, traveled across oceans at hints of
opportunities, started businesses, wrote books and learned languages
everywhere. Schliemann was apparently quite the people person; charismatic,
very talented, and very intelligent. His worldly abilities, as well as his
ability to adapt socially, is best demonstrated by his grasp of many languages.
After having been sent to Russia by an
import/export firm as their general agent in charge of negotiation and
representation, Schliemann taught himself Russian and Greek. In doing so, he
developed a system of learning languages by which he claimed he could learn a
new language in just six weeks. That’s a bold claim, but by the end of
Schliemann’s life, he supposedly could converse in English, French, Dutch, Spanish,
Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic, and
Turkish as well as German. Apparently, he would also write in his diary in
whatever local language he was immersed.
Schliemann would become fabulously wealthy through
his life. He had done well in Russia, but he got his first major break at the
age of 29, when he got news of his brother’s death. His brother had started an
investment business that speculated in the California gold fields, and had just
gotten it running when he died. Heinrich left Russia for America, and took over
his brother’s business. Within a year, he had turned a major profit, and was
even made an American citizen when California was made the 31st U.S. State.
After a year, he would sell his business and return to Russia in 1852 now in
his thirties. He does not appear to have had business interests awaiting him in
Russia, but perhaps he simply felt more at home in Europe and Russia than in
the American Frontier.
In Russia, he married his first wife, with whom he
had three children. It would be an unhappy marriage, but the timing of his
return was perfect; he would make a lot of money in the next few years. He
first cornered the market of indigo dye, a very lucrative business, and then
became a military contractor for the Russian Government during the Crimean War
of 1854-56, where he held the market for saltpeter, sulfur, and lead, all
constituents of ammunition, which is naturally in big demand in wartime. By the
end of the war, Schliemann was 34, and rich enough to never work again. He kept
at it for another decade, but eventually he left his businesses to run
themselves. As we will see, he had other interests.
In 1866, at 44 years old, Schliemann went back to
school. Like many who are deprived of education as children, Schliemann
probably saw it as a privilege he needed to have. He enrolled at the
prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris, and took classes in Poetry, French,
and Greek and Arabic philosophy. But spending time in school was perhaps not
the end all and be all that Schliemann had hoped it would be. This is a
man who did not smoke or drink all his life. He swam in cold water everyday
because he believed it was good for his health. He wanted to do more and more
and more! As it was, his studying reinvigorated his childhood interest in the
Trojan myth, and eventually he became consumed by it.
All the ambition and drive that had led this man
across the world was now focused on discovering the legendary city of Troy. He
believed it was all true, and he had sworn to find the lost city. He set up a
base of operations for himself in Athens, which quickly became his favorite
city in the world. He took the classical lore of the place more seriously than
did the locals and would even implicate himself in politics to lobby for the
preservation of the purity of ancient sites. He would make himself enemies by
having medieval structures destroyed on the Acropolis because he believed that
only ancient Greek architecture should be allowed. He even decided that he
needed a new wife, and that she had to be Greek. He wanted a companion to share
in the thrill he felt at discovering the Greek past. So he asked a friend for
help introducing him to suitable women in Athens, and was eventually introduced
to a young girl named Sophia. She was 17, and he was 47. Despite the large age
gap between them, she happily agreed to marry him. He asked her at once why she
had agreed to marry him, since he was so old and all; to which she immediately
replied that it was because he was rich. Somehow, they were honestly happily
Schliemann’s belief was that the Iliad was a
historical document based upon truth, and not a fantasy. In this way, he was
going against all the credible historians of his time. His reasons for
believing this are unclear, but if anything about Schliemann should be obvious
by now, it is that he did not mind going against the grain, and was exceedingly
Eventually, he left for Troy, employing as his
guide the verses of Homer’s Iliad. He looked in the book for descriptions of
locations, and tried to find them in the world. He went to Turkey, since the
Iliad situates the Trojan city on the eastern side of the gates of the
Hellespont. There, the Aegean Sea situated between modern day Turkey and Greece
slims down to a narrow passage which winds north, into the Dardanelles.
Accordingly, at the mouth of the Dardanelles, Schliemann went looking for his
At first Schliemann was unsuccessful. The book
placed the city atop a hill, overlooking the Hellespont. After digging in
several locations, Schliemann was going nowhere. Even if the book could have
provided useful information once upon a time, the geography had changed
dramatically over the three thousand years that had past. The fact that
geography was dynamic was not necessarily well understood at that time, and he
had no luck. However, after beginning his search, a man named Frank Calvert
introduced himself to Schliemann. Calvert and his brother had been living in
the Ottoman Empire for a long time, where they worked as consuls for Britain.
Frank Calvert had already discovered the legendary city of Troy.
Calvert had determined that the city was located on
a hill named Hissarlik, and in 1863 he had excavated a temple on the site to
prove his point. Despite being wealthy enough to purchase the majority of the
land around Hissarlik, he did not have the leverage necessary to begin major
excavations. And to be clear, excavating old sites suspected of harboring
hidden ruins was not the norm at that time.
Schliemann would rectify this situation. He reached
a deal with the Ottoman Empire, by which it was determined that if any treasure
was found, it would be split between the Ottomans and himself. The generous
nature of such a deal on the part of the Ottomans just goes to show how little
they expected him to find. Schliemann accepted this heartily, but did so with
Discoveries were slow to come. He was not finding what he was looking for at Troy, no treasure at all. Even worst, he and Calvert could tell that the Homeric Troy which interested them was still deeper than the ruins they were excavating. Schliemann therefore opted for a new method. With a large force of laborers, Schliemann dug a large trench strait through the hill, removing all that he found until he thought he had reached the Homeric period of habitation.
This trench is an archaeologist’s worst nightmare.
He destroyed everything he passed over. Threw out god knows what pieces of
evidence might have instructed more educated archaeologists. I have to admit,
when I visited Troy, this trench stunned me.
When you first arrive at the site today, you walk
down into a corridor located between two huge, thick, intact walls that tower
over you. Later excavated by Wilhelm Dörpfel, these walls are more than three
thousand years old and blow you away. They protected the old palace, and as you
walk around the walls to the palace entrance, you pass from a breathtaking
sequence of ancient architecture to a broken, unrecognizable pile of debris. As
you walk into the sections that Schliemann excavated himself, you walk into a
sad place of broken history. I never had a bad feeling for my childhood hero
Schliemann before I stumbled upon that sight. Calvert and Schliemann fell out
over this trench when Calvert publicly criticized Schliemann for the first
time. As much as I admire Schliemann, I respect the story of Troy more, and I
wish another had financed it’s excavation.
What he was trying to get at however is a common problem in archaeology. As time goes by, layers of homogeneous sedimentation accumulate one atop another in a uniform manner. This is a geographical principle named stratigraphy; it states that as you dig down into the earth, you will come across distinct layers of soil, like many sheets of a bed layered on top of each other. If you find something in one layer, and another thing in a different layer, then you know that they are from two different time periods. Herein lies the problem: if you have 2000 years of occupation in one place, the oldest stuff is beneath the newest stuff. Therefore, if you want to get at the oldest stuff, you will have 1999 years of history in your way.
late 19th century, the field of geology was only beginning to be codified, but
Schliemann and Calvert understood that their first findings near the surface
corresponded to later periods of Hellenistic and Roman occupation. They could
easily tell from the architecture, building methods and style that they found.
They understood that if this site was indeed Troy, they had to go bellow these
later constructions. Today, this would have been achieved slowly, methodically,
and every stone and artifact found would be documented and it’s location of
discovery would be shown on a precise grid map of the excavation site, and
sonar and radar and ultrasound technology would have probed the ground
searching for appropriate dig locations, and would have informed of probable
building locations, and the meticulous process would have permitted the
discovering, and maybe even understanding of an ancient past! Of course, by
stating that today technology makes archaeology far superior, is not meant to
discredit early efforts at archaeology. It is rather that Schliemann’s work is
more comparable to fishing with dynamite, and he is hated for this in
I have to admit, as a child, and even all the way
up to my visiting Troy in August 2019, I didn’t much care. I had heard others
say these things about him, but I thought Schliemann had to be forgiven for
these trespasses for a number of reasons that still hold significant weight.
First, archaeology was not some well understood science as it is today. There
was no standard method of excavation. Even Arthur Evans, an archeologist who
was contemporary to Schliemann destroyed any future possibility for excavation
in his Cretan sites by reconstructing ancient buildings in their original location!
He had no idea how they should look! He only knew the layout of their
foundation! This is also a nightmare! Schliemann, Evans, they were all just
learning. Then there was the notion that Schliemann was bleeding money here,
and couldn’t possibly know if he was in fact spending his money wisely. Could
he truly KNOW that he was at Troy? At the end of the day, Schliemann was among
the first private sponsors of Archaeology, so we should give the guy a break! I
thought Schliemann’s impatience could be justified, and moreover, the work
conditions were bad for everyone. Malaria was a serious problem, as was the
heat, cold and nature of the work. It was clearly not an ideal working
environment, and anyone would have wanted to get the job done as soon as
This brings us to the question; what did Schliemann
really want to get out of finding Troy? What was his reason for spending so
much time and money on this? On the one hand, there is the simple story of
fascination we began with, but this seems hard to digest at this point. What I
think, is that Schliemann wanted to be famous. Not famous like normal
celebrities today; he wanted to be remembered by history. This naturally
strikes us as megalomaniacal, but it make’s me think of a story from the Iliad,
in which the great hero Achilles is told a prophecy. He is told that if he is
to go to Troy, he will die, but be remembered for all eternity as a great hero.
Alternatively, if he is to stay away from Troy, he would lead a long and happy
life of anonymity. Achilles chose an early death and eternal fame. Since
reading that story, that part has intrigued me about what this meant about the
average person, but Schliemann appears to have shared Achilles’ desires. We are
after all talking about him now.
After all this however, we are still left with Schliemann’s destruction. Ever since Schliemann plowed through Hissarlik, archaeologists have struggled and strained to put things right at Troy. Meticulous reconstruction of sections hurriedly destroyed by Schliemann has been undertaken ever since. For one reason or another, it has been mainly Germans that led excavations at Troy, and when I visited, I was there with a friend from Germany. He communicated to me that these German archaeologists must have lived with so much shame at the handiwork of one of their countrymen upon one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.
Somehow, still to this day Calvert’s name barely
comes up, but it is he who pointed Schliemann to the correct location, and who
assisted the amateurish Schliemann at the beginning of his archaeological
Clearly, Schliemann had a dark side. The sort of ambition that fueled Schliemann’s rise is very often found harboring a flexible morality. For starters, Schliemann would have made a fine politician considering his relationship with truth. Throughout his life, Schliemann was called a liar, fabricator, con artist, and a great many things he said were later refuted. He has one of the most confusing Wikipedia pages you might find, and all the contradictory facts are supported by citations. I have three books about him that contradict one another on a variety of facts. He wrote a piece in 1851 pretending to be an eyewitness to the San Francisco Fire when in fact he was nearly a hundred miles away in Sacramento. He didn’t even get the date of the fire right. He might have lied about when and how he got his American Citizenship. He definitely lied to the city of Indianapolis in 1868 when he moved there to take advantage of their liberal divorce laws. He claimed he would settle in Indianapolis and bring all of his assets if he could get a divorce, then left for Athens, never to return, the moment the divorce was finalized.
His career as a liar was only getting warmed up at
this point. Though grateful to Calvert, Schliemann never shared an ounce of
success with him. Calvert had submitted a paper in 1865, before Schliemann was even
on the scene, making a case for his discovery of Troy, but he was apparently
not nearly as loud as Schliemann was, when he claimed all the credit for the
discovery in 1868. On first inspection, Schliemann seems a brilliant mind
capable of making money and connections in uncertain times, and probe a little
deeper and his abundant repertoire of lies inevitably makes him look slimy.
His character is best demonstrated by the following events. On a certain day, all the efforts and money that Schliemann had invested in Troy payed off. Having dug the previously mentioned trench, Schliemann thought that they were at the level corresponding to Homeric Troy, and there they literally struck gold. Schliemann sent the workers home and excavated the remainder of the section himself. He gathered all the gold, and hid it in the bottom of food baskets. After a few months, he took a boat back to Athens, and smuggled all the treasure to Greece with him.
This was a crime, Schliemann was now by definition a treasure hunter and a thief. He could no longer call himself an archaeologist. Any authentic desire he might have had to be a respected student and authority on history was dashed in this moment. He showed in this action that he was in it for the publicity, and now he had his ticket to fame. He publicized his discoveries every which way he knew; he called it Priam’s Treasure, after the Trojan King in the Iliad; he even had his wife wear the treasure at public high society events. He kept the treasure for a time, and took the following photo of his wife Sophia adorned in gold jewelry thousands of years old.
Clearly, the main ethical problem with treasure hunters is that they are more concerned with extracting specific objects of value than with the development of the historical record. Normally their goal is to bring artifacts to sale on the market (or black market). Archaeologists work like crime scene investigators, and consider every aspect of the areas that they excavate. They want to understand the nature of the items they find, of the location and orientation of these items. Like anyone taking something from a crime scene before an investigator shows up, treasure hunters can really ruin an archaeologist’s ability to learn from a site. Beyond that, if ancient items are important because of the way they tie us to our past, it seems right that they should primarily belong in publicly owned collections located in the region of discovery, and not be hidden away in foreign and private collections. Moreover, Calvert and others at the time criticized Schliemann’s actions on the basis that in the future, foreign authorities would never trust the word of an archaeologist again. In this way, he rightly argued that Schliemann’s publicized treasure hunting was creating obstacles to attaining knowledge about the past.
His theft led to the Turkish government revoking
his digging permits, and forbidding him from returning to Turkey, though these
decisions would be overturned in the future. He defended his theft to the
general public by stating that he was protecting the treasure from corrupt
Ottoman officials. This might not be as silly as it seems on the surface, but
would certainly have be well received by the general European public of the
time. He would eventually take his cue from Indiana Jones by donating the
treasure to a museum. Unfortunately for Greece or Turkey, Schliemann appears to
have made a deal with the German University of Pergamon in Berlin, whereby he
gave them the treasure in exchange for a Ph.D.
Schliemann had wanted to be recognized as the best
authority on Troy, and ultimately wanted to be admired by those professors of
history that he looked up to. He wanted to be the living breathing image that
people conjured up when they thought of Troy. The universities however,
couldn’t stand him, and were his harshest critics. They hated that this
outsider, who had barely spent any time at all in an institute of higher
learning was telling them that he had made this great discovery about the past.
Newspapers published whirlwinds of letters from Schliemann defending his
discoveries, and professors debunking successfully and unsuccessful his
so-called theories. It never really ended, but esoteric debates about history
have largely faded from mainstream news.
The treasure remained in the Pergamon museum until it went missing in World War II. No one seemed to know of it’s whereabouts until 1993, when the treasure turned up at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Germany, Greece, and Turkey now claim the treasure, but Russia is unlikely to give it up anytime soon; in 1998 they legalized the possession of war plunder taken from German cities in World War II. That same law prevents Russian authorities to enact restitutions.
The Birth of Archaeology
In any event, Schliemann had not found Priam’s treasure. It could not be since he found it too deep. Recalling our discussion of stratigraphy, Schliemann had dug to one of the deepest layers to find the treasure. But this layer was not the Homeric Troy. Today we understand that the site of Troy has been occupied by a number urban iterations. It was first occupied by humans around 5000 years ago. The lowest layer of excavation, Troy I, as it is now known, is made up of a small citadel that was used from 3000-2600B.C. Troy II, the next urban iteration was built on top of Troy I, and features a larger elevated citadel, surrounded by a sprawling lower town beneath. This second city is considered to have existed between 2600–2250 BC, some 4600-4250 years ago. Priam’s Treasure was found in this layer, and years after it’s discovery, Schliemann’s assistant, a man named Wilhelm Dörpfeld, declared that Schliemann had been wrong. This created a fuss, but Schliemann eventually admitted that Dörpfeld was right.
Dörpfeld would become an important component in this story. He was an architect by training, but immediately after graduating went working in Athens, participating in ancient excavations. His talent was recognized, and he would eventually be put in charge of those excavations. Archaeology, however, was never a lucrative job, and Dörpfeld was a poor man who had borrowed money to become educated. He went back to Germany, got married, and was looking for a job as an architect when he fortuitously met Schliemann. Schliemann caught him at just the right time, and probably persuaded Dörpfeld to follow his dreams with ease. Dörpfeld would be an asset. He was meticulous, worried and patient, and less interested in fame than Schliemann.
Schliemann would give Dörpfeld control over Troy,
and trust him to continue excavations. He would develop the theory of
stratigraphy we elaborated earlier at Troy, and described all past and future
excavations he undertook at Troy according to it. After Schliemann’s sudden
death in 1890, Sophia Schliemann would pay for Dörpfeld to continue the
excavations, believing it was what her husband would have wanted, and perhaps
she also cared herself. Dörpfeld described 9 layers, and though some of the
details he elaborated would be found imprecise, his general theory was
validated by the credentialed archaeologist Carl Blegen in the 1930s as well as
by all others that have excavated Troy since then. Schliemann has been called
the father of Archaeology, but I now disagree. If anyone deserves that title,
it is the assistant Dörpfeld. Thanks to him, scientific sense was made of
Schliemann’s excavations, and many sites were saved from his destructive
methods. A strict method of digging and of note taking was established under
Dörpfeld’s leadership, whereby sites were to be understood, not plundered until
they yielded grand artifacts. In fact, though this title is not given to him on
his English Wikipedia page, it is given in his German Wikipedia page as of
It is worth describing the 9 strata of Troy, to
demonstrate the power of Archaeology. Troy I and II have already been described
briefly, but it is important to note that it is visible that Troy I was
destroyed in a fire, and that Troy II was built by the same people on the ruins
of the previous iteration. This statement can be validated by reference to
architecture, building methods, types of pottery found, and it can be
extrapolated to indicate that the fire that destroyed Troy I was accidental.
Troy II on the other hand was probably destroyed by war. Marks of fire are also
visible at the end of this strata, as well as evidence of conflict, such as
arrow heads in walls and etc. Troy III, IV and V (2300B.C. – 1700B.C.) each got
larger than the previous iteration, with the citadel remaining mostly the same
size. The walls got higher and the outer city walls spread further and further.
Troy VI is contained within a strata that places it
between 1700-1250 B.C. This city was the largest iteration and most grandiose
yet. The city was clearly rich, and artifacts collected in this layer have
their provenance as far as from the island of Crete. This city would be
destroyed by an earthquake in 1250 B.C. and would be rebuilt immediately after
by the same population. Throughout these iterations, the people that did the
building often reused materials from older sites while building new ones. In
this way, certain layers are depleted of evidence, and can reveal very little.
As seen in the image below, Troy II is shown in Yellow. Despite being a very
old layer, it is mostly intact since the citadel walls created in this period
would not move or be destroyed for the following millennia. As such, this layer
was always added to, not recycled, as is the case for layers III, IV and V. In
those layers, new building methods and styles were elaborated, by which old
buildings were torn down and rebuilt using most of the old materials. As such,
little remains of these iterations.
Troy VIIa is where it gets interesting. It is contained between 1250-1180B.C. It was destroyed by fire, it was organized to hold more supplies than any other Troy, and arrowheads were found planted in the city walls. It is also the only strata in which human remains were found. Moreover, these remains were fire-damaged, and not intentionally buried, but were found in what looked like random places. This was Homer’s Troy, the city that was besieged by the Greeks for 10 years, if the story is exact. The vast storage space in the city was meant as an insurance during threat, when it was not possible to cultivate or forage. Troy VIIb is contained between 1180-1000B.C., and it was occupied by the survivors of the siege. They lived in haunted ruins, surrounded by ghosts of a glorious past. Troy VIII and IX were later Hellenistic and Roman settlements, respectively, and these layers are contained between 1000 B.C. and 600 A.D. In fact, before the Roman Emperor Constantine declared that Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, was to be the new capital of the Roman Empire, he had first considered the city of Troy.
As Nick McCarthy wrote, archaeology requires money, patience, and the willingness to seek out a variety of views to explain findings. Schliemann only had one of these three virtues. But I would argue that Schliemann had fourth virtue which makes him an important cog in the creation of archaeology; Schliemann reminded the world that the stories of our past are more often than not based in some kind of truth. From biblical stories involving massive floods, to ancient Greek epics about divinely ordained war, to who knows what else; these stories have been imperfectly passed down from true event, to word of mouth, to pen and paper.
As we have previously mentioned, Calvert had
publicized his discovery of Troy years before Schliemann was ever invested in
its search. The fact that no one listened, and that it didn’t become big news
says a lot about Schliemann. It is rare that people today become uproarious and
excited about the ancient world, but with Schliemann around they did. The
newspapers really were all covering his story. Everyone knew of him, of his
discovery at Troy, and of the fierce debate that raged between him and
academics. He was certainly a genius of communication, marketing and publicity.
It seems obvious that the discipline of archaeology could not have found a
serious place in academia without Schliemann rubbing their nose in his “amateur”
discoveries. Moreover, Schliemann’s publicity would inspire countless youths to
enter the field of history. He made it exciting. I personally know
archaeologists who found their passions reading about Schliemann.
I myself almost became one because of him. It would take me time, but I would later realized that what I was actually in love with that the cliché of the archaeologist explorer, not so much the actual doing of science. I guess I had to grow up; but after all of this, that’s the reason I still like Schliemann. He doesn’t seem to have ever grown up or listened when people told him he couldn’t do something. Seems like he did everything he wanted. I began this text believing I was about to write about the story of the discovery of Troy, but by now I realize that what I’ve laid out is my internal debate about one of my childhood heroes, Heinrich Schliemann. So be it, I hope that it may be interest to others to know how Schliemann has captivated me.
At Troy, Homer created the character of the noble
ancient hero. In the same place, Schliemann created one of it’s modern day
counterparts in the archaeologist explorer. It seems that as humans, we always
need some kind of hero in our narratives. Let this be the moral of this story;
give people facts and events, and they probably wont care; but fit your actions
in a narrative with heroes and villains, and they will listen. In those two
lines is written the story of every successful and unsuccessful political
campaign, war and civilization. We are all tied together by the narratives we
write about ourselves, and the victor is he who’s narrative is taken by others
as their own. Schliemann was a master of story telling, and he used this skill
to gain fortune and fame. Let us not forget that he had Homer as his favorite
The collapse of civilization has occurred regularly
in history; the Bronze Age that these Greeks and Trojans fought in would
collapse soon after the story’s events, and it was so bad that the Greeks
forgot how to write. Yet we still have this story, which we now know is based
in truth. I believe that by promoting
his controversial discovery at Troy, in the face of an establishment that
ridiculed his efforts, we were taught to marvel when looking back, for our
ancestors have been through hell and back to create the world we have now. Our
ancestors have endured war, famines, crises, all to be forgotten, and for
however brief a time, Schliemann brought one of their stories to the fore of
our existence. He remains inexorably
attached to Troy, and will go down in history as a piece of the story of the Trojan
War, to be judged a hero or a crook by generations to come.
McCarty, Nick. Troy, The Myth and Reality behind the Epic Legend. Carlton Publishing Group and Barns & Nobles Inc. New York. 2004
One of the greatest testaments to human brilliance is located in the city of Istanbul, Turkey. Completed in 537 A.D., the Hagia Sophia was built to be the greatest church on earth by one of the Roman Empire’s most ambitious and controversial Emperors. In a recent post, I told the story of the city of Istanbul. As I had traveled there very recently after nearly two decades of waiting, I was excited to share my wonder for the place. However, throughout that post I omitted any discussion of the Hagia Sophia, which is the building that convinced me to visit the city when I was just 10 years old. I admire that building and those who built it, and the story leading up to it’s construction captivated me. It still does! I thought that it deserved it’s own uninterrupted story; but to tell it, I’ll need to tell you about the extremely violent sport of chariot racing, about a blood thirsty tyrannical Emperor, about massive riots and massacres, about engineering and scientific achievements, and about wars of conquest. This building has been through a lot.
Our story begins in 532 A.D. on a particular day at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, where some chariot races were taking place. Throughout the Roman Empire, public sports were perhaps even more popular than they are today. That is a bold statement, considering how seriously they are taken today, and by how many. But to make a point, back then, the world’s population was a lot smaller, but their stadiums were often just as big as they are today! We all know of Rome’s Colosseum and of gladiatorial games, but at this point in time, the most important sport in the empire was that of chariot racing. These races were held in hippodromes, where two long parallel tracks were tied together by semi circles at either end. In the hippodrome of Constantinople (now Istanbul), up to 100,000 people might be in attendance at once. But to give some perspective on how big these games could get; in the Circus Maximus of Rome, arguably the largest hippodrome ever built, around 250,000 people might have been able to attend; a quarter of Rome’s population at that time. Consider your local stadium, does it compare to what Rome could offer it’s people 2000 years ago?
As with most things that existed in antiquity, chariot racing is very little understood. So much is unknown to us about how it was organized, how the races went, and most of what we do know comes from poems and from mosaics and paintings. In the poems, we get wonderful imagery, describing the feeling of being at one of these games, but nothing is said about how the games were played. This is a common problem in history, because just like us today, people in the past took their world for granted. No one felt the need to describe something in detail that literally everyone understood very well. Ask yourself this: if you knew nothing about the sports common in the country you live in, but you could read the text messages exchanged between two of your friends about a match that they witnessed; could you guess at the rules of that sport? Chances are you wouldn’t even know that hockey was played on ice if you only had the correspondence between two fans to look at. That’s why history is such a puzzle sometimes. But back to the point; Chariot Races.
Our ancient poets nevertheless give us a wealth of information. Races normally figured teams of two or four horses, and depending on the arena, there could be up to twelve chariots racing at once. They tell us that the games were brutal, and that there were few rules; in other words, racing was violent. Some of the standard strategies in these races included striking horses and other drivers with whips and fists, slamming chariots into others, cutting off opponents and driving opponents into walls. Charioteers almost always started off as slaves, usually made to start racing around the age of 9 years old, and if they were successful, they could be freed and become fabulously wealthy. Moreover, these were some of most famous men alive in their world. Much like today, where everyone has heard of Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, these charioteers could be better known than those ruling the nation. The same can be said of the horses. Though race days were horrific and brutal for these animals, their time in stables were made up of unbridled luxury. Horses were loved by crowds as much as were the drivers, and horses that won 100 races were publicly honored. But to be clear, crashes were part of the fun for the audiences. This was a blood sport as much as a competition, and pile ups involving many numbers of chariots were lovingly refereed to as Shipwrecks. We’re strange, aren’t we?
In this city, there were four main chariot teams: the Blues, the Reds, the Greens, and the Whites. Audience members supported their favorite team by wearing jerseys of corresponding color, much like today. But these teams and their fans weren’t like any sports associations you might see nowadays; these teams were the equivalent of political factions that brought together masses of civilians with street thugs and politicians. They had power. Normally they fought one another, but alliances and coalitions were common.
At this moment, Constantinople was in an uproar, and everyone was furious with Emperor Justinian I. This emperor had been born a peasant, and had risen up to the greatest position of power existing in Europe at that time; needless to say, he was an astonishingly energetic man, and once he bore the mantle of empire, he set himself on making changes. He had a war to end with the Persian Sassanids, so he raised taxes. Next he went after all that he considered immoral; also known as fun stuff. He tried to eliminate all old pagan religious ceremonies, the study of ancient philosophers, adultery, prostitution, Christians that had different opinions, homosexuality, and the Jews. People didn’t like that, and all these people suddenly felt a little enemy of my enemy is my friend. These chariot races became the focal points from which their discontent was manifested. The greatest place that the citizens of Constantinople had to gather together was the Hippodrome, and the Emperor often attended from his palace balcony, which was integrated in the design of the hippodrome.
One day, the normally opposed teams and fans came together and begun to chant a slogan towards the palace to voice their resentment. Nika; win, they chanted! These crowds were legendarily chaotic, but on this day, they rampaged into the streets, set fire to buildings, and besieged the Emperor in his palace for five days. Moreover, the politicians and aristocrats in the city saw this as a perfect opportunity to try to overthrow their Emperor. This was a perfect storm, and it is likely that the politicians had conspired through their team affiliations to make it happen this way. The ambitious emperor was stunned. We are told that he thought about running away; but no peasant that ever made himself emperor should be underestimated. He also had a pretty ruthless wife.
On the fifth day, Justinian sent soldiers to the Hippodrome, where the teams and rioters had been assembled in a pretense, that the emperor was willing to compromise and would meet them. There, under the leadership of the general Belisarius, loyal to his emperor, soldiers barricaded the stadium, entered in formation, and went to work killing every last man. It is said that 30,000 were killed in that place. By hand.
The Nika Riots, as they would come to be known, were over. In less than a week, half the city had burned to ashes, most of the population had been displaced, and tens of thousands had died. This was the greatest riot that this city ever faced in its history. However, now that Justinian’s power was uncontested, he was intent to show his people that he was worth the blood he had taken from them. He first sent armies west under the leadership of Belisarius. Though his promotion to commander of the western push was a reward for loyalty shown at Nika, it would eventually turn into a curse, for he had the monumental responsibility to reconstitute the old Roman Empire, which had fallen on dark times by now. Most of the Western Empire was now under the control of various conquering hoards. But the astonishing campaigns and bittersweet achievements of Belisarius are a subject for another post.
In addition to setting out to fight wars of reconquest, Justinian began a series of monumental building projects to cement his authority. Nothing say’s I’m in charge like I paid for that. One of these would be the crowning jewel of Justinian’s legacy. The city’s Cathedral had been burned down during the riots, and Justinian would build the city a new basilica on the site of the old one. A devout Christian, Justinian decided that his engineers would build the greatest Church in the world. Perhaps he felt as though he had some things to atone for. The fact is that Justinian was not so different from other Roman Emperors, or to other leaders all around the world at that time; dissent was crushed however it needed to be. Today we do that too, just more cleanly; we just throw tear gas at it and hope it goes away. Regardless, today we don’t remember Justinian for his ruthlessness, but for his building programs, which are still visible in their glory.
He tasked two professors of mathematics and physics with no experience in construction, Isidorus and Anthemius, with building the church. He only had two demands; that they build it very quickly, and that the building should be completely different from anything preceding it. Under pressure from a murderous emperor, the two set to work. After just six weeks, the two had a design and had begun constructing the largest building in the world. Forget how long it takes to begin construction anywhere in our day in age for a small building, Justinian was throwing all that was needed at this project, from slaves to materials. Interestingly, upon my own visit to the Hagia Sophia, I asked my guide why there were so many different types of columns in the church, and he answered that the builders had recycled many columns from older sites within the empire to cut down on the time to manufacture new ones, and since this church was so big, no single other location had sufficient matching columns to fulfill its building needs.
The dome was another special feature in this building. It would be 100 feet across, about 33 meters, and the largest masonry dome in the world; and therefore extremely heavy, which is a major concern in building. The engineers would need to become very crafty in constructing this structure, because should the weight of the dome be badly distributed, the dome, or the building supporting the dome, would collapse.
You have to imagine that the weight of the dome created a force that pushed directly down on its supports. That’s difficult enough to engineer at a height over 50 meters, but the nature of a dome’s shape creates horizontal outward forces upon the supports as well. Lateral shearing forces. Now the supports have to withstand the downward force but also the secondary sideways force, all created by the weight of the dome. Supporting the sideways force is commonly referred to as buttressing. To do this they relied upon architectural structures called pendentives, which help distribute the weight of the heavy dome downwards. These pendentives can be described as four roman arches set up in a square, as shown in the pictures below. Rounded arches were a very standard architectural solution to the distribution of building weight, and allowed for very tall stone and brick building projects in the ancient world. The pendentive brought this solution one step further.
Pendentives were commonly used during the roman era to support the weight of smaller domes, but these mathematician architects brought the technology to a new level; they decided that if one set of pendentives was good, then more had to be better. They began to combine pendentive structures, layering them away from each other, almost creating a giant brick hill. The end result was a central pendentive supporting the world’s biggest masonry dome, followed by rows and rows of smaller pendentives extending away. The picture bellow shows a midsection cut view of the Hagia Sophia, and shows well how all the layered pendentive structures support the centre of the church.
As you can tell from this picture, the engineering elements which meant to prop up the ancient dome came to determine its unusual and exotic architecture. Nothing like this existed before it, and after it, the style became an architectural standard for much of the East Mediterranean Religions. Just look around Istanbul today for evidence of that.
The construction of the church began in 532 A.D. It was completed in 537. This stunning construction time amazed all those that witnessed this site, but it probably also explains the fact that the dome collapsed in an earthquake in 558. The building had been built too quickly, and had some flaws. The dome had been too flat, which drove the weight disproportionately sideways, putting the buttressing ability of the pandentives beyond their limits. The new dome would be taller, and thus would drive its own weight as directly into the ground as possible. Since then the problem has been largely solved; however, another earthquake shifted the dome’s current alignment in the last few centuries. Guides in the Hagia Sofia like to bring tourists to the center point directly beneath the dome (it is indicated with a small X that was carved into the floor by Ottoman architects some 500 years ago, before this last earthquake) in order to point out that the displacement is visible. Indeed, a chandelier hangs directly from the centre of the dome and comes down from the ceiling to within 3 meters of the floor. It rests at least 50 cm away from the center mark in the floor.
But since 558, the same dome stands. In 565, Justinian would die and be remembered as Justinian the Great, and despite his amazing, bloody, and revolutionary life, this building is still the biggest reason that he is remembered today. Perhaps this is a lesson to any who would like to leave a mark on the world. No one remembers the name of those two architects nor those of any of the workers. I had to dig to find those. We only remember the name of the one who paid for it.
When the Hagia Sophia was built, it was the biggest building in the world, and it would remain the largest church in the world for nearly one thousand years. However, surprisingly it was not displaced as largest by the construction of a bigger church elsewhere. Those who read my previous article about Istanbul will know that in 1453, about 900 years after Justinian’s death, the city of Constantinople was conquered and occupied by a new empire; the Ottomans. Under the leadership of Mehmet II, troops had besieged the city for months before finally breaking into it by force of cannon.
The Ottomans brought with them another religion that they would vigorously encourage in their empire; and yet the Hagia Sophia amazed the conquerors. Mehmet never even thought of tearing down this church. That was not standard practice at that time in history. The Ottomans were rather pragmatic, and converted the world’s biggest church into… just another mosque. Mosques were already really big. But I think many mosques dedicate quite a bit of room to open air sections that count towards this size calculation, whereas most churches don’t have significant open air spaces considered part of the church. Regardless, after World War One, the nation of Turkey was born, and its leader, Ataturk, converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum, as it still is today. However, upon opening the Hagia Sophia to the world as a museum, Ataturk also had the plaster covering the Christian symbolism removed. Naturally, the conquerors had covered up the Christian symbolism in the Hagia Sophia when they converted the church into a mosque. It is quite a blessing that they did not destroy it instead, because the Roman mosaics and paintings are beautiful. Today, the Hagia stands as one of the only buildings in the world to incorporate both Christian and Islamic symbolism in a harmonious manner, with the giant name of Muhammad and Allah framing a picture of Jesus and Mary on a throne.
Now I love this building. So much has happened around it, and if you could be a fly on the wall in a building like that through history you would gain such a significant sight into the past. My point is that, the building was so astonishing that it became a focal point for so many famous individuals, emperors, charioteers, generals, scholars, architects, slaves, peasants, worshippers, tourists, and people from all over the world at all times in history since it was built. The Romans who built this structure had an empire ranging from Egypt to the Balkans; you can be certain that individuals from all those places visited and spent time in this building. And then imagine all the visitors from the bordering regions.
One of my favorite stories about the Hagia Sophia involves graffiti. There are two places where there is runic graffiti in the Hagia Sophia. Runic was the writing style of people we think of as Vikings; what was it doing there?! This might be explained by the fact that the emperors of Constantinople were all protected by a legendary bodyguard made up of Norsemen, named the Varagian Guard. As part of a diplomatic agreement with the Norsemen that ruled the territories of modern-day Russia, the Emperor was protected by some Norse fighters sent from the north, who would come to be known as some of the best soldiers in the Mediterranean. Though hardy fighters, they lived up to their stereotypes; one story about them tells of a Norse leader visiting Constantinople; upon spending time with the guards, he gave them a speech in which he reprimanded them for drinking too heavily and being so rowdy. He told them that they should moderate their drinking to present a better image of the Norsemen. He said that to the personal body guards of the most powerful man in Europe.
Well, these men had to accompany the Emperor everywhere, even to church, and probably from one of these guards, bored on duty, maybe even hung over, we have the runic graffiti which reads : “Halfdan was here”. Carved into the Hagia Sophia.
Halfdan could have written that anywhere, but then none of us would have known about Halfdan. The Hagia Sophia, and the city of Istanbul, are great testaments to the collective achievements of humanity thus far; but they are also portals through which we can know our ancestors. I don’t want us to stop improving because we’ve done enough; but take a look a monument some day. A striking building, or perhaps even an ordinary one; pause and try to see time pass through it. Try to imagine all that might have happened there because someone decided to build something.
I finally made it to the legendary city of Istanbul. I have been waiting since I was 10 years old to see this city, and in August, just a few weeks ago, I was there for over two weeks.
The land upon which Istanbul is built has been occupied by humans for at least 5000 years, but the site does not appear to have experienced any significant development until the Greeks founded a colony here in 657 B.C. The Greeks named the site Byzantium, after the king Byzas, who founded the colony. This is considered to be the city’s first name, and it bore it for nearly a millennia. Though the Romans would eventually give the city a new name, the city would remain primarily Greek speaking for the next two thousand years.
Over time, this insignificant town called Byzantium would catch the eye of a Roman Emperor. The Romans had been increasingly struggling to manage their enormous empire from distant Rome; worst of all, most of the Empire’s wealth lay in the Eastern provinces. For these reasons, the Emperor Constantine wanted a more central location than Rome from which to engage in Empire. Constantine eventually decided that the site of Byzantium would become the next Roman capital in 330 A.D. The central location that the city occupied, literally forming the border between the European and Asian half of the Roman Empire, made it the perfect location from which to administer the empire. He would spend lavishly on building up the city as a rival to Rome, and as is the prerogative of emperors, Constantine renamed Byzantium after himself. It would be known as Constantinople, or Constantinopolis, for the next thousand years.
As the Western half of the Roman Empire fell to repeated raids and corruption over the next two hundred years, the Eastern half of the Empire remained strong, administered behind the fortress that was Constantinople. The Roman Empire would survive in the east until the 15th century. History remembers this entity as the Byzantine Empire, but they thought of themselves as Romans, pure and simple.
The city spent centuries fending off foreign attacks, by northern barbarians, horse nomads from the Far East, and would even be the victims of crusader treachery. The Byzantines have a fantastic and exciting history: the Emperor had legendary viking body guards named the Varangian Guard; the Empire is largely responsible for the development of Russia; the Byzantine navy and army had flamethrowers that threw a still unknown substance that could not be extinguished by water; and they were fabulously wealthy and literate.
Over time, through corruption and subpar leadership, the Byzantine Empire was whittled down until nothing was left except the city of Constantinople itself. The word “Byzantine” is today understood to mean excessively complicated. In many ways, this statement can shed light on why it might have become impossible to maintain such an empire.
However the empire atrophied, in 1453, the Ottoman conqueror, Mehmed II, at 21 years of age, led an army in the siege and capture of the city, using some of the first cannons seen in Europe to batter down Europe’s greatest fortifications. Three sets of massive walls lined one behind another separated by deep moats; an entirely fortified seaside; as well as a chain dragged across the sea at the mouth of Golden Horn to hold back naval invasion into the city ports. These fortifications had held off one thousand years of would be conquerors, but they could not withstand the coming of the age of gunpowder. From this point on, the city would be renamed Istanbul, and would become the Capital of its third empire, the Ottoman Empire.
Interestingly, the name Istanbul might have Greek origins. Though meaning something along the lines of Plenty of Islam, or Find Islam, in Turkish, the local Greeks might have refereed to the city by something sounding quite close to Istanbul, meaning in their language To the City. They would use this name the same way we often refer to our closest city when we live in a suburbs or nearby village. Historians suggest that Mehmed and his entourage might have found inspiration upon hearing the Greek speakers refer to the city this way.
With Istanbul as its capital, the Ottoman Empire rose to a massive size, stretching from Baghdad to Yemen to Morocco to Hungary. Over time, the empire became stagnant, swamped in bureaucracy and given to poor leadership. History teaches us that this is the fate of all empires. It was dissolved at the end of the First World War, in which the Ottomans fought a heroic and loosing campaign alongside the Germans. Legendary figures, were born in this fighting: people like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Lawrence of Arabia had their stories set in one of the world’s most ancient places. As such, they share their legacies with greats such as Cyrus of the Persians, Alexander of Macedon, Julius Ceasar, and Salahadin. Indeed, the cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse population of Istanbul reminds us that we all do, as human beings.
Though the war was lost, the Turkish nation appears to have found its own identity in the conflict, and in individuals such as their father, Ataturk. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Istanbul has not been the capital of any state, but remains one of the world’s critical arteries. In world trade and Turkish politics, the city retains a loud and stern voice. Today the city is often considered to be the world’s 3rd largest city by population. Yet I found it to be clean, safe, progressive and welcoming. Finally, she and I have been acquainted.
See my Instagram post, with the same featured photo, for more of my pictures of this great city!
“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
Thomas A. Edison
Why have I started a blog, and what kind of content can you expect to find here?
I have been writing 500 words a day consistently for the past couple years. I took up this habit at the suggestion of a friend: after completing my philosophy degree in 2015, I was at a loss for what to do with my life and time. Upon visiting this particular Swiss in Montreal one summer day, he asked me what skill I believed I possessed that I desired to improve. I answered writing. Philosophy proved to be quite a stern teacher of writing. The topics were difficult to understand and even more so to express, but clarity was primordial.
Clarity served me as much as it did my school work because I found that I best understood a topic after I tried to put it to paper. In this way, I wrote for myself first, and for my teachers second. The holes in my reasoning were as obvious to me while writing as they were when discussing a topic with an adversary or friend. As it was, I began to write my daily quota, merely to maintain two toes dipped in the art. But, I got bored.
After about two years of writing for myself, I found that there was something missing. “Why do I spend so much time on this?”; “Who the hell do I think I am, some kind of writer?”; “What is the point?”. I harassed myself this way until I stopped writing altogether. I was busy with lots of stuff anyways. But once it was gone, I felt myself lesser. Worst, I felt anxious, just as we feel when we put off a task too long. Writing had taken an important role in my life. The role of understanding and release. I resolved against throwing away such a tool. Measures had to be taken.
This blog is my way to attempt to develop a skill into an art. I don’t know if it’s in me to do so, but I’ll try. If invention really needs a good imagination and a pile of junk, I’m counting on both those being in my head right now. As such, this blog’s audience should expect a great variety of subjects from me, because I’ll write about anything that grabs my attention, and I also tend to get bored. My blog will cover subjects ranging anywhere from sweeping stories of significant historical events, all the way to articles about the surprisingly fascinating industry of recycling. I will write about my travels, and the lessons they taught me. Moreover, I will post a number of book reviews, and not only my own. My final goal will be to incorporate a spoken word compliment to this blog in the form of a podcast.
In the meantime, I mean to post one short, regular contribution every week as well as longer texts when possible. I am a full time engineering student in my final year of study and have many interests, so time is not one of my luxuries. Never the less, this blog will be a high priority of mine, and is already a joy to work on.
“You are an explorer, and you represent our species, and the greatest good you can do is to bring back a new idea, because our world is endangered by the absence of good ideas. Our world is in crisis because of the absence of consciousness.”
My name is Nicolas Lemay. I am a 26 year old french Canadian, I have traveled a lot, I have studied a lot, I’ve played a lot of music, and I am about to embark upon a technological adventure within these pixels. This website is an extension of me, but soon, it will become and extension of you as well. As I write them, and as you read them, these words will change the both of us.
Within these lines, we shall fray some understanding of our strange world, and we shall do this for the same reasons as all our curious fore bearers before us; because the world is beautiful. This blog is for any who might find themselves bewildered by the vastness of the universe. It is made for all those who have ever tried to wrap their head around the enormity that it’s cataloging would entail. But mostly, it is made for any that believe in learning. It is the not the vastness, nor the impossibility of understanding the world which deters us, because we do not expect to become masters. We are merely artists who love our muse, and find satisfaction in elaborating its curves. We cannot help it.
As we can all tell, there is much for us to learn together. Subscribe so that you don’t miss any compelling content from this blog. Never stop wondering.