GREEK TEMPLES OF SICILY:
THERE are at least a thousand reasons to visit Sicily, the great island – indeed the largest in the Mediterranean – that forms the triangular football to the boot that is the Italian peninsula. They are all very good reasons, including amazing landscapes, a uniquely complex and delicious cuisine, a history that is diverse and multifaceted beyond belief, excellent wines, a vast array of archaeological sites, an even vaster one of historical towns and villages. But one key reason to visit the island is missing from the list above: Greek temples!
Greek temples are one of the earliest well-defined expressions of what we now recognise as the Western tradition in architecture, and one of the most influential ones by a vast margin to this day. They go back to the 8th or 7th centuries BCE, and, as the name entails, they are indeed a key achievement of the Archaic Greeks. They originated in what is the south of modern Greece, namely the Peloponnese and Central Greece, where Greek temple architecture appears to have its main roots, probably derived from local wooden predecessors.
The Greek mainland’s architectural style is the Doric one, considered to be the most austere and ‘male’ in character. The eastern Aegean and Asia Minor were famous for their own development, the more elegant and ‘female’ Ionic style, conceived about a century after the Doric one. Its most prominent examples at Samos, Ephesus, and Didyma (much better preserved than the other two) are also marked by their vast monumental size. What is so remarkable about the Greek temples of Sicily then?
MONASTIC ORDERS OF THE MIDDLE AGES:
THE monastic orders of the Middle Ages developed from the desire to live a spiritual life without the distractions of the world. Men and women who took religious vows were seeking a purity of experience they found lacking as lay people. Their ultimate role model was Jesus Christ who owned nothing and devoted his energies toward others in articulating a vision of communal awareness and self-denial at odds with the human inclination toward self-interest and self-promotion.
Christ’s apostles, according to the biblical Book of Acts, followed his example and provided a model for later adherents. The first Christian hermit is generally considered to be Paul of Thebes (also known as Paul the Hermit, l. c. 226-341 CE) who inspired Anthony the Great (also known as Saint Anthony of Egypt, l. 251-356 CE), one of whose epithets is ‘The Father of All Monks’. Anthony’s life was popularized by the bishop Athanasius of Alexandria (l. c. 296-373 CE) who wrote his biography. This work and others which followed introduced the concept of monasticism to medieval Europe.
YAZIDISM is a syncretic, monotheistic religion practiced by the Yazidis, an ethnoreligious group which resides primarily in northern Iraq, northern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. Yazidism is considered by its adherents to be the oldest religion in the world and the first truly monotheistic faith. The Yazidi calendar states that the religion, as well as the universe, is almost 7,000 years old, which is 5,000 years older than the Gregorian Calendar and 1,000 years older than the Jewish calendar. Yazidism has had a rich history of syncretic development. For thousands of years, Yazidism incorporated elements of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which coalesced from 1162 CE to the 15th century CE. Ultimately, this process created Yazidi culture and ethnic identity. However, to understand Yazidism, its history must first be explained.
Almost nothing is recorded about the history of the first Yazidis. The etymology of the word ‘Yazidi’ is uncertain. Scholars debate whether or not it comes from the Middle Persian and Kurdish Yazad, which means ‘God.’ Other scholars believe that the Yazidis originated in the Zoroastrian city of Yazd in Iran. Another theory is that the Yazidis are descended from the Umayyad caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, who reigned from 680 to 683 CE and killed the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein ibn ‘Ali. After the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 CE, descendants of the royal family and other Umayyad sympathizers fled into the Kurdish mountains from the rival Abbasid Caliphate. There, they were welcomed by the Kurds, who remained loyal to them. The theory concludes that the Umayyad refugees intermarried with the Yazidis, passing along their admiration for Yazid ibn Mua’wiyah, their ancestor and former ruler.
BATTLE OF CARRHAE, 53 BCE:
THE Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE was one of the greatest military catastrophes in all of Roman history when a hero of the Spartacus campaign, Marcus Licinius Crassus (115-53 BCE), initiated an unprovoked invasion of Parthian territory (modern Iran). Most of the information concerning the battle and its aftermath comes from two major sources: the 1st-century CE historian Plutarch’s biography of Crassus and Roman History by Cassius Dio (c. 155 – c. 235 CE).
Carrhae proved to be a complete disaster from its beginning. Not only were the Romans not used to fighting on the open terrain and in the unbearable heat of Syria but they also had never seen anything like the Parthian cavalry: the cataphracts or armored camels. Iain Dickie, in his article on the battle in Battles of the Ancient World states that Crassus attempted “to score one over his political rivals Pompey and Caesar. He hoped for glory and riches but got tragedy and death” (140). In the end, 20,000 Romans were killed, 10,000 were captured, and only about 5,000 escaped the carnage.
THE samurai (also bushi) were a class of warriors which arose in the 10th century CE in Japan and which performed military service until the 19th century CE. Elite and highly-trained soldiers adept at using both the bow and sword, the samurai were an essential component of Japan’s medieval armies.
Samurai may have been excessively romanticised since the 18th century CE as the epitome of chivalry and honour but there are many examples of them displaying great courage and loyalty to their masters, in particular, even committing ritual suicide in the event of the defeat or death of their lord. Warfare in medieval Japan was, though, as bloody and as uncompromising as it was in any other region and money was often the prime motive for many samurai to participate in battle. From the 17th century CE, and no longer needed in a military capacity, samurai often became important moral teachers and advisors within the community.
Electra is a play written by the 5th-century BCE Greek tragedian Sophocles. Similar to Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, Electra focuses on the return of Electra’s brother Orestes from exile and the plot to murder their mother. Years earlier, their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus killed their father Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan War. In this version of the story, Electra has been treated as a slave since the death of her father. She tries to procure the assistance of her sister Chrysothemus in her plot but fails. With the return of Orestes and his friend Plyades, Electra is able to successfully avenge her father’s murder.
The play begins with Orestes, son of Agamemnon and brother of Electra, returning to Mycenae and plotting his revenge against his mother. He tells his old slave to go to the palace and announce to Clytemnestra that Orestes is dead. He and Plyades will use the urn containing his supposed ashes to gain access to the palace. Meanwhile, Electra is pacing before the palace, bemoaning her plight in life and ranting against her mother and her lover, Aegisthus. The years have not quelled her intense hatred. Her sister, Chrysothemis, exits the palace and is confronted by Electra. Over the years, Chrysothemis has become complacent and somewhat accepting of her mother’s role in her father’s death. Later, when asked to join in a plot to kill their mother and Aegisthus, she will refuse.
When Clytemnestra and Electra meet outside the palace, they argue; Electra is even threatened with exile. The old slave arrives and speaks to Clytemnestra, telling her of her son’s valiant death in a chariot race. Electra is heartbroken. When Chrysothemis returns from offering libations at their father’s grave, she tells her sister that she believes Orestes is still alive and in Argos. Electra informs her of the news of Orestes death. Shortly, Orestes and his friend Plyades arrive with the urn, and, after convincing Electra of his identity, they enter the palace, killing Clytemnestra. Later, when Aegisthus returns, he, too, is killed.
THE RYUKYU CASTLES OF OKINAWA:
THE medieval Ryukyu castles on the island of Okinawa, Japan are impressive testimony to the kingdom’s power and wealth from the 12th to 16th century CE. Notable castles include Shuri Castle, the royal residence, and four excellent examples of medieval fortresses built in the Okinawa style: Nakijin, Zakimi, Katsuren, and Nakagusuku. Another star attraction is the religious shrine at Seifa Utaki considered the place of creation in Ryukyu mythology. All of these monuments are collectively listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Ryukyu Islands (Ryukyu Shoto) are an archipelago of around 70 islands located at the very southern end of Japan. The largest island by far is Okinawa and its name is sometimes used to refer to this whole group of subtropical islands. The islanders of Ryukyu were independent for most of their history which goes back some 30,000 years. With genetic and cultural connections to the ancient Jomon and Ainu, the islanders have also regarded themselves as distinct from the Japanese occupying the more northern islands. Even their language, although similar, is different from the Yamato spoken in the rest of Japan. Japan only formally claimed the Ryukyu islands as part of its territory during the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE) when they became the Okinawa Prefecture in 1879 CE. Prior to that, the archipelago enjoyed some seven centuries of independence or semi-autonomy.