Author: Historical Nonfiction

Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian Empire, conquered the millennia-old city of Babylon on October 12th, 539 BCE. Local inscriptions tell us it was without a fight, or even a siege. This was probably because local rulers recognized all was lost and decided to give in and hope for a good settlement.

But Greek historian Herodotus tells a more exciting version. According to him, the city’s walls crossed the river Euphrates. Unable to get past the walls, Cyrus had sappers drain the river upstream into a nearby lake, until the river’s level fell “about to the middle of a man’s thigh.” As the Babylonians celebrated a religious festival the Persians simply walked – dripping – into a dancing city.

Whether it was surrendered or it was captured, Babylon would belong to the Persian Empire and Cyrus’ descendants for the next 200 years.

Miniature folio from Bundi, Rajasthan, India, around 1680. It illustrates a scene from the Ragamalas, a series of musical modes that combined poetry, classical music, and art.

Archaeologists worked with primatologists to re-examine wall-paintings of monkeys in a Minoan building buried in volcanic ash around 1600 BCE. at the site of Akrotiri, which is located on the Greek island of Thera in the Aegean Sea. No monkeys are known to have lived in Greece at the time. Most of the monkeys in the painting have been identified as olive baboons, which are native to Egypt, but one monkey, with distinctive fur and an S-shaped tail, was identified as a grey langur, a species that lives in Nepal, Bhutan, and the Indus Valley of India.

It was already known that the Minoans had contact with Egypt. And this wall mosaic hints at contacts with the Indus River Valley civilization, as well. Or perhaps it demonstrates the far-reaching and interconnected nature of the trade networks even in the Bronze Age.

Bust of the Roman Empress Tranquillina (reigned 241 – 244 CE). She was wife of Emperor Gordian III thanks to her father, the prefect of the Praetorian Guards, who were the emperor’s personal bodyguards and by this point controlled who ran the empire. Empress Tranquillina reigned with her husband for just three years before her father died and the emperor lost power – and his life.

A 110-foot-long courtyard surrounded by a majestic Minoan building have been found at Sissi on Crete’s northern coast. It was built around 1700 BCE and with its fine plastered floors, the site is similar in size and opulence to other palaces on the island from the same period. But Sissi lacks many typical palace features. It has no storage rooms, no administrative materials, and no industrial areas. A variety of ritual objects have been found, suggesting that it was used for religious purposes more than governmental ones.

Nearby, a tomb of a woman dating to about 1400 BCE has also been found.  The lady was buried with an ivory-handled bronze mirror, a necklace of gold beads, and bone and bronze pins which held her clothing. The tomb is typical Mycenaean, making it the first such grave found so far east on Crete. Her grave is contemporary with a Mycenaean-era complex constructed around 1400 BCE and abandoned around 1200 BCE.

The Sasanian Empire (224 CE – 651 CE),  which was a contemporary of the Roman and later Byzantine Empires, was once a great power. And like other great powers it built great walls to mark and control its borders. These included the Wall of the Arabs (in the southwest), Walls of Derbent (in the northwest at the Caspian Mountains) and Great Wall of Gorgan (in the northeast). Remains of the Sasanian border walls still exist, particularly in Derbent where they are a UNESCO world heritage site.

Coral reefs have existed for over 400 million years!

Did you know that handwritten sheets – called avvisi – circulated among the cities and courts of Europe in early modern Europe after public mail routes became common? They were bought on the streets or by subscription, and had information and news from cities like Warsaw, Paris, and Madrid. They sometimes even had information from further afield such as Ireland or the American colonies. It is hard to understand now, by the once or twice weekly avvisi were a revolution in news, connecting Europeans more than ever before.

One newsletter, dated March 19th, 1588, describes the famous Spanish Armada which sailed against Queen Elizabeth I of England. It was described as having “140 or more sailing ships and eight months of provisions” plus “17,000 combat soldiers and 8,000 sailors.” The same avvisi also discusses the reconstruction of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, and how problems with pilings were fixed on-site rather than being replaced due to the “inconvenience” of closing the Grand Canal.

It is known that animal herding, which had been in northeastern Africa since about 8,000 years ago, made it to southern Africa by about 2,000 years ago. But it has been an open question whether the pastoral life was brought south by immigrants, or whether it was adopted by hunter-gatherers already in the area.

A multinational team of scientists recently examined 41 genomes from individuals who lived in Africa between 4,000 and 300 years ago. The genomes suggested that pastoralists migrated from southwestern Asia into eastern Africa around 5,000 years ago. They interbred with local foragers, mixing genomes.

However, about 3,300 years ago, the inbreeding ceased. Pastoralism had already been established by this point. The immigrants were now locals. So this study creates a new question: why did the genomes separate? What happened that pastoralists and hunter-gatherers suddenly stop intermarrying?

While people talk about modern beauty standards being artificial and western, it can be easy to not understand the true diversity of beauty standards across time and across history.

For instance, the ancient Maya thought being cross-eyed was highly desirable. Parents would hang an object between their infant’s eyes hoping to induce permanent cross-eyes.

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In Iran until modern times, women were more desirable if they had unibrows and mustaches and many used darkening products to achieve them.

No matter what you look like, there was probably a time and a place when you were the height of attractiveness. Think about that the next time you look in a mirror!