Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s Master Architect

Rustem Pasha Mosque in the foreground and the Suleymaniye Mosque, an Ottoman imperial mosque on the Third Hill of Istanbul.
National Geographic Creative/Alamy

Between the 13th and 16th centuries the Ottoman state grew from a small Turkish principality in Anatolia into a sprawling empire that controlled territory in eastern Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. This transformation was accompanied by the development of a distinctively Ottoman style of architecture. Across the diverse territories that had been gathered under Ottoman rule—and that had little in common in terms of language, religion, or culture—monumental buildings featuring massive domes and soaring pencil-thin minarets were instantly recognizable manifestations of Ottoman grandeur.

The individual most responsible for developing and refining the classical Ottoman architectural style was a builder named Sinan (1491–1588), who served as the empire’s chief architect from 1539 until his death in 1588. During that time he designed hundreds of buildings, including mosques, palaces, baths, tombs, and caravansaries, and oversaw the construction of hundreds more.

Sinan was born to a Christian family in southeast Anatolia. When he was 21 he was drafted into the Jannisary corps, an elite Ottoman infantry force who were recruited as adolescents or young men from the Christian territories of the empire and converted to Islam. He participated in the military campaigns of Suleyman the Magnificent, both as a combatant and as an engineer—the latter allowed him to develop the building expertise that he would put to use later in life.

When Sinan was 47, Suleyman appointed him as the chief architect in Istanbul. Sinan embarked on a series of increasingly impressive buildings. His first large mosque was the Sehzade Mosque in Istanbul, dedicated to the memory of Suleyman’s son and heir who died at the age of 22.

Another of Sinan’s most important works is the Süleymaniye Mosque complex, which remains an essential feature of Istanbul’s skyline. It is almost as large as the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church that was converted into a mosque in Ottoman times. The core of the building is a vast dome flanked by two semidomes, which combine to form an awe-inspiring interior space. The ground on which the Süleymaniye complex was constructed slopes toward the Bosporus strait; one of Sinan’s architectural talents was his ability to build on challenging terrain.

The Selimiye Mosque, built in Edirne between 1569 and 1575, is considered Sinan’s masterpiece. In this building, Sinan managed to build a dome roughly as large as the dome of the Hagia Sophia, both having a diameter of about 31 meters. The dome sits on eight piers in an octagon, rather than the usual four larger piers, giving the central space a feeling of openness and weightlessness that is enhanced by the light that filters in from hundreds of small windows.

After completing the Selimiye Mosque, Sinan continued to design smaller buildings until his death in 1588.

 

Malana: A Himalayan village shrouded in myth

India’s Parvati Valley is well known among travellers for its psychedelic parties and free-flowing hashish that originates from the ancient village of Malana in North India’s Himachal Pradesh region. But if you look beyond the haze, you’ll find a treasure trove of legends, intrigue and unanswered questions.

Nestled in the peaks of the Himalayas, Malana is surrounded by steep cliffs and snow-capped mountains. Travellers have long been drawn to this village of nearly 1,700 inhabitants, staying for days on end amid the cold gushes of wind and rows of dark green deodar trees to consume what locals consider the holy herb and what outsiders see as a way to free the mind: the famed and award-winning Malana cream. This cannabis resin or hashish is renowned both for the hand rubbing-technique used to produce it and for its reportedly remarkable intoxicating effects. But I’d come to Malana to try to make sense of the myths surrounding the village.

The ancient village of Malana in India’s Himachal Pradesh is known to outsiders for its hashish (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

The ancient village of Malana in India’s Himachal Pradesh is known to outsiders for its hashish (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Legend has it that some of Alexander the Great’s army took shelter in this isolated village in 326BC after they were wounded in a battle against Porus, a ruler in India’s Punjab region. These soldiers are often said to be the ancestors of the Malani people. Artefacts from that period have been found in the village, such as a sword that reportedly rests inside the temple. However, genetic ties to the soldiers have not been studied or established. In fact, many of the locals I spoke to had no idea where this myth originated.

“The big claim that Malani people have descended from Alexander the Great’s army has become a widely accepted truth, but I have not found any real backing to it. There are some weapons and other things that can be found that have raised these links, but I am certain that there is no evidence to this story,” said Amlan Datta, a filmmaker who has spent a decade working in Malana.

But these theories are fuelled by locals’ noticeably different physical features and their language, which are unlike that of any other local tribe, adding to the enigma surrounding the Malanis and their identity. They speak Kanashi, which is considered sacred and is not taught to outsiders. It is also spoken nowhere else in the world. During my visit, I referred to some of the men I met as ‘Bhaiji’ (a polite way of saying brother), which is a fairly common way to address men in Himachal. Though locals understood when I spoke to them in Hindi, their responses in Kanashi were incomprehensible to me.

The residents of Malana are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s army (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

The residents of Malana are said to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s army (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

A study of Kanashi is currently being undertaken by Uppsala University in Sweden, led by professor of linguistics, Anju Saxena. “Kanashi qualifies as a definitely endangered, as an unwritten and almost undescribed language,” Saxena told me. “It belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, and in all the surrounding villages, Indo-Aryan languages are spoken, which are completely unrelated to Kanashi. This raises interesting questions concerning its prehistory and its linguistic structure.”

Even getting to Malana was a journey into the unknown. There are no motorable roads to the village, and it took me about four hours to trek there from the village of Jari at the bottom of the Parvati Valley. The approach was steep yet breath-taking. It wasn’t long before I started passing Malani people – distinguishable by their light brown hair, light brown eyes, long noses and a distinct wheatish or a golden-brownish complexion of skin – most of whom were traditionally dressed in light brown robes, caps and hemp shoes. To me, they looked more Mediterranean than Himachali.

Malanis speak Kanashi, a language that is considered sacred and is not spoken anywhere else in the world (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Malanis speak Kanashi, a language that is considered sacred and is not spoken anywhere else in the world (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

As I entered the village, I came to a group of teenagers who casually inquired whether I was interested in buying some hashish. Though cannabis has long been the backbone of this small village’s economy, it has led to a host of socio-cultural issues, such as young children being involved in the drug trade. This is perhaps why, one year ago, the village deity Jamdagni Rishi – who is locally nicknamed the Jamlu Devta and is a great sage in Hindu mythology – decreed through his spiritual spokesperson (the Gur) that all guesthouses across the village would be shut, leaving the village open to outsiders only during the day.

Jamlu Devta is an important figurehead in village governance, a political set-up that has long baffled researchers and visitors who cannot comprehend how such an advanced form of governance exists in this quaint and remote Himalayan village.

Malana’s unique democratic system is said to be among the oldest in the world, and, similar to the Ancient Greek system of democracy, it consists of a lower house and upper house. However, it has a uniquely spiritual twist to it: ultimate rulings rest on the upper court, which includes three important figures, of which one is the representative of the local deity, Jamlu Devta.

“Devta is the ultimate word and we have a set-up of a council and three political figures of sorts, one of whom – the Gur, or the vessel who is possessed by Jamlu – communicates to us the decisions of Jamlu Devta,” explained Rohan, one of the hashish-dealing teenagers.

Malanis’ distinct physical characteristics are reminiscent of those seen in Mediterranean populations (Credit: Credit: Jenny Matthews/Alamy)

Malanis’ distinct physical characteristics are reminiscent of those seen in Mediterranean populations (Credit: Jenny Matthews/Alamy)

Datta had told me about a local legend that said Jamlu Devta once inhabited Malana, which he was gifted by the Hindu god Shiva. There are two temples in the village, one dedicated to him and the other, to his wife, Renuka Devi. As I walked through the narrow passageways of this ancient village, dotted with wooden and brick houses, I entered the large courtyard, where the lower court gathers, and a temple dedicated to Jamlu Devta. It was sight to behold against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

The temple, with wide wooden pillars, intricate doors and a host of bones, skulls and other sacrificial animal parts on one wall looked intriguing. But there was a warning sign outside demanding INR 3,500 ‘On touching of this holy place of Jamdagni Rishi’.

This sign is an outward demonstration of another tradition that is very apparent in Malana: a quest to preserve the ‘purity’ of the village. People across Himachal Pradesh will tell you that the Malanis are known to restrict contact with outsiders, particularly in terms of direct physical contact. I personally had been warned to keep my distance by the driver who had brought me to Jari earlier that day.

Malana’s unique democratic system is said to be among the oldest in the world (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Malana’s unique democratic system is said to be among the oldest in the world (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Although I did see some of the younger generations hugging or shaking hands, most people here still strongly hold the taboo of touching outsiders. When I went to pay for a bottle of water, the shopkeeper asked me to leave the notes on the counter instead of handing them to him directly. I also learned that marriages must take place within the village; transgression of this norm invites social boycott.

Well aware that outsiders aren’t welcome here, I felt like an intruder as I kept probing people to find out more information about the village. Himachali people in general are warm and chatty, and they love to share stories and meals with visitors; in Malana, however, long conversations with locals were rare.

Malanis are known to restrict contact with outsiders (Credit: Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Malanis are known to restrict contact with outsiders (Credit: © Sauriêl Creative | Samantha Leigh Scholl/Alamy)

Descending from the hills and coming down from this otherworld, I acknowledged my position as a traveller who would forever be on the outside of this mysterious Himalayan hamlet. Whether I liked it or not, the locals hadn’t taken me in, and I needed to respect their culture.

But now, weeks later, as I look back on my quest to unfold the legends of Malana, I have come to the realisation that the very beauty of my experience was based on the essence of mystery, the unknown. Cherishing that very quality of Malana finally has led me to a newfound appreciation of this strange, cold land of enigmatic people.

By Mehk Chakraborty 22 August 2018

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah MUSLIM EXPLORER AND WRITER

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, in full Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-Lawātī al-Ṭanjī ibn Baṭṭūṭah, (born February 24, 1304, Tangier, Morocco—died 1368/69 or 1377, Morocco), the greatest medieval Muslim traveler and the author of one of the most famous travel books, the Riḥlah (Travels). His great work describes his extensive travels covering some 75,000 miles (120,000 km) in trips to almost all of the Muslim countries and as far as China and Sumatra (now part of Indonesia).

Early Life And Travels

Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was from a family that produced a number of Muslim judges (qadis). He received the traditional juristic and literary education in his native town of Tangier. In 1325, at the age of 21, he started his travels by undertaking the pilgrimage(hajj) to Mecca. At first his purpose was to fulfill that religious duty and to broaden his education by studying under famous scholars in EgyptSyria, and the Hejaz (western Arabia). That he achieved his objectives is corroborated by long enumerations of scholars and Sufi (Islamic mystic) saints whom he met and also by a list of diplomas conferred on him (mainly in Damascus). Those studies qualified him for judicial office, whereas the claim of being a former pupil of the then-outstanding authorities in traditional Islamic sciences greatly enhanced his chances and made him thereafter a respected guest at many courts.

That renown was to follow later, however. In Egypt, where he arrived by the land route via Tunis and Tripoli, an irresistible passion for travel was born in his soul, and he decided to visit as many parts of the world as possible, setting as a rule “never to travel any road a second time.” His contemporaries traveled for practical reasons (such as trade, pilgrimage, and education), but Ibn Baṭṭūṭah did it for its own sake, for the joy of learning about new countries and new peoples. He made a living of it, benefitting at the beginning from his scholarly status and later from his increasing fame as a traveler. He enjoyed the generosity and benevolence of numerous sultans, rulers, governors, and high dignitaries in the countries he visited, thus securing an income that enabled him to continue his wanderings.

From Cairo, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah set out via Upper Egypt to the Red Sea but then returned and visited Syria, there joining a caravanfor Mecca. Having finished the pilgrimage in 1326, he crossed the Arabian Desert to Iraq, southern IranAzerbaijan, and Baghdad. There he met the last of the Mongol khans of Iran, Abū Saʿīd (ruled 1316–36), and some lesser rulers. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah spent the years between 1327 and 1330 in Mecca and Medinaleading the quiet life of a devotee, but such a long stay did not suit his temperament.

Embarking on a boat in Jiddah, he sailed with a retinue of followers down both shores of the Red Sea to Yemen, crossed it by land, and set sail again from Aden. This time he navigated along the eastern African coast, visiting the trading city-states as far as Kilwa (Tanzania). His return journey took him to southern Arabia, OmanHormuz, southern Persia, and across the Persian Gulf back to Mecca in 1332.

There a new, ambitious plan matured in his mind. Hearing of the sultan of DelhiMuḥammad ibn Tughluq (ruled 1325–51), and his fabulous generosity to Muslim scholars, he decided to try his luck at his court. Forced by lack of communications to choose a more indirect route, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah turned northward, again passed Egypt and Syria, and boarded ship for Asia Minor (Anatolia) in Latakia. He crisscrossed that “land of the Turks” in many directions at a time when Anatolia was divided into numerous petty sultanates. Thus, his narrative provides a valuable source for the history of that country between the end of the Seljuq power and the rise of the house of Ottoman. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was received cordially and generously by all the local rulers and heads of religious brotherhoods (ākhīs).

His journey continued across the Black Sea to the Crimean Peninsula, then to the northern Caucasus and to Saray on the lower Volga River, capital of the khan of the Golden HordeÖz Beg (ruled 1312–41). According to his narrative, he undertook an excursion from Saray to Bulgary on the upper Volga and Kama, but there are reasons to doubt his veracity on that point. On the other hand, the narrative of his visit to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the retinue of the khan’s wife, a Byzantine princess, seems to be an eyewitness record, although there are some minor chronological discrepancies. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s description of the Byzantine capital is vivid and, in general, accurate. Although he shared the strong opinions of his fellow Muslims toward unbelievers, his account of the “second Rome” shows him as a rather tolerant man with a lively curiosity. Nevertheless, he always felt happier in the realm of Islam than in non-Muslim lands, whether Christian, Hindu, or pagan.

After his return from Constantinople through the Russian steppes, he continued his journey in the general direction of India. From Saray he traveled with a caravan to Central Asia, visiting the ancient towns of BukharaSamarkand, and Balkh, all of those still showing the scars left by the Mongol invasion. He took rather complicated routes through Khorāsān and Afghanistan, and, after crossing the Hindu Kush mountain range, he arrived at the frontiers of India on the Indus River on September 12, 1333, by his own dating. The accuracy of that date is doubtful, as it would have been impossible to cover such enormous distances (from Mecca) in the course of only one year. Because of that discrepancy, his subsequent dating until 1348 is highly uncertain.

Time In India And Later Journeys

By that time Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was already a man of some importance and fame, with a large train of attendants and followers and also with his own harem of legal wives and concubines. India and its ruler, Muḥammad ibn Tughluq, lived up to Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s expectations of wealth and generosity, and the traveler was received with honours and gifts and later appointed grand qadi of Delhi, a sinecure that he held for several years.

Though he had apparently attained an easy life, it soon became clear that his new position was not without danger. Sultan Muḥammad, an extraordinary mixture of generosity and cruelty, held sway over the greater part of India with an iron hand that fell indiscriminately upon high and low, Muslim and Hindu alike. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah witnessed all the glories and setbacks of the sultan and his rule, fearing daily for his life as he saw many friends fall victim to the suspicious despot. His portrait of Muḥammad is an unusually fine piece of psychological insight and mirrors faithfully the author’s mixed feelings of terror and sympathy. Notwithstanding all his precautions, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah at last fell into disgrace, and only good fortune saved his life. Gaining favour again, he was appointed the sultan’s envoy to the Chinese emperor in 1342.

He left Delhi without regrets, but his journey was full of other dangers: not far away from Delhi his party was waylaid by Hindu insurgents, and the traveler barely escaped with his life. On the Malabar Coast of southwestern India he became involved in local wars and was finally shipwrecked near Calicut (now Kozhikode), losing all his property and the gifts for the Chinese emperor. Fearing the wrath of the sultan, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah chose to go to the Maldive Islands, where he spent nearly two years; as a qadi, he was soon active in politics, married into the ruling family, and apparently even aspired to become sultan.

Finding the situation too dangerous, he set out for Sri Lanka, where he visited the ruler as well as the famous Adam’s Peak. After a new shipwreck on the Coromandel Coast of southeastern India, he took part in a war led by his brother-in-law and went again to the Maldives and then to Bengal and Assam. At that time he decided to resume his mission to Chinaand sailed for Sumatra. There he was given a new ship by the Muslim sultan and started for China; his description of his itinerary contains some discrepancies.

He landed at the great Chinese port Zaytūn (identified as Quanzhou, near Xiamen [Amoy]) and then traveled on inland waterways as far as Beijing and back. That part of his narrative is rather brief, and the itinerary, as well as the chronology, presents many problems and difficulties, not yet surmounted, that cast shadows of doubt on his veracity.

Equally brief is his account of the return voyage via Sumatra, Malabar, and the Persian Gulf to Baghdad and Syria. In Syria he witnessed the ravages of the Black Death of 1348, visited again many towns there and in Egypt, and in the same year performed his final pilgrimage to Mecca. At last he decided to return home, sailing from Alexandria to Tunisia, then to Sardinia and Algiers, finally reaching Fès, the capital of the Marīnid sultan, Abū ʿInān, in November 1349.

But there still remained two Muslim countries not yet known to him. Shortly after his return he went to the kingdom of Granada, the last remnant of Moorish Spain, and two years later (in 1352) he set out on a journey to the western Sudan. His last journey (across the Sahara to Western Africa) was taken unwillingly at the command of the sultan. Crossing the Sahara, he spent a year in the empire of Mali, then at the height of its power under Mansa Sulaymān; his account represents one of the most important sources of that period for the history of that part of Africa.

Toward the end of 1353 Ibn Baṭṭūṭah returned to Morocco and, at the sultan’s request, dictated his reminiscences to a writer, Ibn Juzayy (died 1355), who embellished the simple prose of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah with an ornate style and fragments of poetry. After that he passes from sight. He is reported to have held the office of qadi in a town in Morocco before his death, details of which remain uncertain. It has been suggested that he died in 1368/69 or 1377 and was buried in his native town of Tangier.

Legacy

The claim of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah to be “the traveler of Islam” is well founded: it is estimated that the extent of his wanderings was some 75,000 miles (120,000 km), a figure hardly surpassed by anyone before the age of steam power. He visited, with few exceptions (central Persia, Armenia, and Georgia), all Muslim countries, as well as many adjacent non-Muslim lands. While he did not discover new or unknown lands, and his contribution to scientific geography was minimal, the documentary value of his work has given it lasting historical and geographical significance. He met at least 60 rulers and a much greater number of viziers, governors, and other dignitaries; in his book he mentioned more than 2,000 persons who were known to him personally or whose tombs he visited. The majority of those people are identifiable by independent sources, and there are surprisingly few errors in names or dates in Ibn Baṭṭūṭah’s material.

His Riḥlah, as his book is commonly known, is an important document shedding light on many aspects of the social, cultural, and political history of a great part of the Muslim world. Ibn Baṭṭūṭah was a curious observer interested in the ways of life in various countries, and he described his experiences with a human approach rarely encountered in official historiography. His accounts of his travels in Asia Minor, East and West Africa, the Maldives, and India form a major source for the histories of those areas, whereas the parts dealing with the Arab and Persian Middle East are valuable for their wealth of detail on various aspects of social and cultural life.

On the whole, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah is reliable; only his alleged journey to Bulgary was proved to be invented, and there are some doubts concerning the East Asian part of his travels. A few grave and several minor discrepancies in the chronology of his travels are due more to lapses in his memory than to intentional fabrication. A number of formerly uncertain points (such as travels in Asia Minor and the visit to Constantinople) have since been cleared away by contemporary research and the discovery of new corroborative sources.

Another interesting aspect of the Riḥlah is the gradual revealing of the character of Ibn Baṭṭūṭah himself; in the course of the narrative the reader may learn the opinions and reactions of an average middle-class Muslim of the 14th century. He was deeply rooted in orthodox Islam but, like many of his contemporaries, oscillated between the pursuit of its legislative formalism and an adherence to the mystic path and succeeded in combining both. He did not offer any profound philosophy but accepted life as it came to him, leaving to posterity a true picture of himself and his times.

Ivan Hrbek

Dragon Lore: Origins of the Fire-Breathing Beast

Featured image

From ancient Greek myths to Game of Thrones, the legend of the dragon is one of the most enduring and romanticized throughout history. It has been traced back as far as 4000 BC and exists in all parts of the world.

In and around Europe dragons are viewed mostly as monsters of evil intent. In ancient Rome, the army used dragons as symbols of strength.

During the Renaissance, fear of sea monsters kept sailors from venturing too far from known waters, and the edges of their maps would read “Here be dragons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary explains the etymology of the word dragon, which it says entered the English lexicon in around 1220 and was used in English versions of the Bible from the early 14th century.

Dragon derives from Old French, the language used by nobles and law courts following the Norman conquest of 1066. This in turn stems from the Latin draconem or draco meaning “big serpent,” which was derived from ancient Greek δράκων (drakon).

In Greek mythology, the Hesperian Dragon named Ladon was a hundred-headed serpent that guarded the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides.

Historically, European dragons were viewed as being evil, jealous, and greedy hoarders of treasure.

In the stories, they were generally treated as violent monsters who must be slain by heroes and saints. European dragons could have four legs, two legs, or none, and often had wings.

In Asia, and especially China, the view of these creatures was very different. Dragons were thought to live under the ocean in the winter, arising in the spring with a clap of thunder to bring the rain needed for their crops, according to the American Museum of Natural History.

They breathed clouds and moved the seasons. The dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, and the Imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. Known as the Dragon, the emperor ruled in harmony, and brought peace and prosperity to all.

Chinese dragons are depicted as being more serpent-like, with long, snaking bodies and usually had four legs. They are generally seen as wingless.

How people view them and what they believe about them varies widely, but the idea is too widespread not to think there are some common roots.

What made people from cultures that may have never met all come up with the idea of dragons?

There are several theories about what creatures could have been the source of the dragon myths, any or all of them may be true.

Ancient Origins discusses a number of potential roots. The first one is crocodiles. Saltwater and Nile crocodiles are the two largest living reptiles on earth today.

Currently, saltwater crocodiles live in the eastern Indian Ocean region, and Nile crocs in the rivers, marshes, and lakes of Sub-Saharan Africa. But 1,000 years they had a much larger habitat range, and could have been encountered by people living in Greece, Spain, and Southern Italy.

Bizarre Blue Dragon-Like Creatures Wash Up on Beach, Experts Warn Not to Touch

Nile crocodiles can grow to 20 feet in length, and have the ability to lift much of their bodies off the ground. This may be a hint about why European dragons are often described as rearing up.

Many archaeologists believe that ancient people envisioned dragons when they found the fossils of certain sorts of dinosaurs, specifically, the types that had very long necks.

Having no explanation for the lengthy fossils, they would have imagined a beast that seemed to fit what they were seeing.

There is evidence to suggest that there were discoveries of dinosaur fossils being uncovered in China as early as the 4th century BC. Fossils belonging to flying dinosaurs, such as pterodactyl or pteranodons, could very well be part of why some cultures envision dragons as having wings.

Another, similar, theory is that people imagined dragons when the skeletons of whales washed on shore near early coastal dwellings.

Because early people didn’t have suitable sailing and navigation technology, they would most likely only have seen the immense whales from a distance when the creatures were living.

This could certainly be the root of sailor’s fear of “dragons” in the waters, as well as the ocean-dwelling Asian view. This could also be one of the reasons that some dragons are pictured as having wings.

Snakes are also thought to be a basis for the dragon myth. Although even very large snakes are much smaller than dragons are said to be, humankind has a deeply embedded instinct to fear them.

In ancient Egypt, for example, Apep was a deity known as the Serpent of the Nile. He was viewed as the lord of Chaos, and opposed to light and truth.

Each of these theories show some echo of what we think about when we think of dragons. All of them together show a more complete picture of the huge beasts that feature in so many stories and myths.

 Ian Harvey

Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft reaches cosmic ‘diamond’

RyuguImage copyright JAXA ET AL.
Image caption Scientists will map Ryugu with a view to choosing the best location to sample

A Japanese spacecraft has arrived at its target – an asteroid shaped like a diamond or, according to some, a spinning top.

Hayabusa 2 has been travelling toward the space rock Ryugu since launching from the Tanegashima spaceport in 2014.

It is on a quest to study the object close-up and deliver rocks and soil from Ryugu to Earth.

It will use explosives to propel a projectile into Ryugu, digging out a fresh sample from beneath the surface.

Dr Makoto Yoshikawa, Hayabusa 2’s mission manager, talked about the plan now that the spacecraft had arrived at its destination.

“At first, we will study very carefully the surface features. Then we will select where to touch down. Touchdown means we get the surface material,” he told me.

A copper projectile, or “impactor” will separate from the spacecraft, floating down to the surface of the asteroid. Once Hayabusa 2 is safely out of the way, an explosive charge will detonate, driving the projectile into the surface.

“We have an impactor which will create a small crater on the surface of Ryugu. Maybe in spring next year, we will try to make a crater… then our spacecraft will try to reach into the crater to get the subsurface material.”

“But this is a very big challenge.”

Hayabusa 2Image copyright JAXA / AKIHIRO IKESHITA
Image caption Hayabusa 2 will use a projectile to excavate fresh material from beneath Ryugu’s surface

Why is this story important?

Scientists study asteroids to gain insights into the origins and evolution of our cosmic neighbourhood, the Solar System.

Asteroids are essentially leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.

It’s also thought they may contain chemical compounds that could have been important for kick-starting life on Earth.

They contain water, organic (carbon-rich) compounds and precious metals. The last of those has tempted several companies to look into the feasibility of asteroid mining.

‘Dumpling’ space rock comes into view


DangoImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption From far away, the asteroid seemed to resemble a Japanese dango dumpling…
Spinning topImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption…but now we have close-up images, scientists are comparing its shape to that of a spinning top

Dr Yoshikawa, who is an associate professor at Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), said Ryugu’s shape was unexpected.

He said asteroids with this general shape tended to be fast-rotating, completing one revolution every three or four hours. But Ryugu’s spin period is relatively long – about 7.5 hours.

“Many scientists in our project think that in the past the spin period was very short – it rotated very quickly – and the spin period has slowed down. We don’t know why it slowed down, but this is a very interesting topic,” he told BBC News.

Hayabusa 2 will spend about a year and a half surveying the 900m-wide space rock, which is about 290 million km (180 million miles) from Earth.

During this time, it will aim to deploy several landing craft to the surface, including small rovers and a German-built instrument package called Mascot (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout).

MASCOTImage copyright DLR
Image caption Hayabusa 2 is carrying a German-built lander called MASCOT

Ryugu is a so-called C-type asteroid, a kind that is thought to be relatively primitive. This means it may be rich in organic and hydrated minerals (those combined with water). Studying what Ryugu is made from could provide insights into the molecular mix that contributed to the origin of life on Earth.

The surface of the asteroid is likely to have been weathered – altered by aeons of exposure to the harsh environment of space. That’s why Hayabusa 2’s scientists want to dig down for as fresh a sample as possible.

The onboard Lidar (light detection and ranging) instrument is used partly as a navigation sensor for rendezvous, approach, and touchdown. It illuminates the target with pulsed laser light to measure variable distances between the two objects. On Tuesday, scientists successfully used the Lidar to measure the distance from Hayabusa to the asteroid for the first time.

The mission will depart from Ryugu in December 2019 with the intention of returning to Earth with the asteroid samples in 2020.

The first Hayabusa spacecraft was launched in 2003 and reached the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.

Despite being hit by a series of mishaps, it returned to Earth in 2010 with a small amount of material from the asteroid.

An American asteroid sample return mission, Osiris-Rex, will rendezvous with the object 101955 Bennu in August.

Is it really healthier to live in the countryside?

But evidence-based research that can help us identify the healthiest environments to live is surprisingly scant. As scientists begin to tease apart the links between well-being and the environment, they are finding that many nuances contribute to and detract from the benefits offered by a certain environment – whether it be a metropolis of millions or a deserted beach.

“What we’re trying to do as a group of researchers around the world is not to promote these things willy-nilly, but to find pro and con evidence on how natural environments – and our increasing detachment from them – might be affecting health and well-being,” says Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter Medical School.

White and other researchers are revealing that a seemingly countless number of factors determine how our surroundings influence us. These can include a person’s background and life circumstances, the quality and duration of exposure and the activities performed in it.

Generally speaking, evidence suggests that green spaces are good for those of us who live in urban areas. Those who reside near parks or trees tend to enjoy lower levels of ambient air pollution, reduced manmade noise pollution and more cooling effects (something that will become increasingly useful as the planet warms).

Wellington, New Zealand

The research shows that green spaces are good for urban dwellers, which should be welcome news to residents of Wellington, New Zealand (Credit: Getty Images)

Natural spaces are conducive to physical and social activities – both of which are associated with myriad benefits of their own.

Time in nature has been linked to reduced physical markers of stress. When we are out for a stroll or just sitting beneath the trees, our heart rate and blood pressure both tend to go down. We also release more natural ‘killer cells’: lymphocytes that roam throughout the body, hunting down cancerous and virus-infected cells.

Researchers are still trying to determine why this is so, although they do have a number of hypotheses. “One predominate theory is that natural spaces act as a calming backdrop to the busy stimuli of the city,” says Amber Pearson, a health geographer at Michigan State University. “From an evolutionary perspective, we also associate natural things as key resources for survival, so we favour them.”

This does not necessarily mean that urban denizens should all move to the countryside, however.

City residents tend to suffer from more asthma, allergies and depression – but they also tend to be less obese, at a lower suicide risk and are less likely to get killed in an accident

City residents tend to suffer from higher levels of asthmaallergies and depression. But they also tend to be less obese, at a lower risk of suicide and are less likely to get killed in an accident. They lead happier lives as seniors and live longerin general. (Read more aboutfive of the world’s healthiest cities).

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors (Credit: Getty Images)

Although we tend to associate cities with pollution, crime and stress, living in rural locales may entail certain costs as well. Disease-carrying insects and arachnids can detract from the health factor of that otherwise idyllic cabin in Maine, for example.

In other cases, rural pollution poses a major threat. In India, air pollution contributed to the deaths of 1.1 million citizens in 2015 – with rural residents rather than urban ones accounting for 75% of the victims. This is primarily because countryside dwellers are at greater risk of breathing air that is polluted by burning of agricultural fields, wood or cow dung (used for cooking fuel and heat).

Indonesia’s slash and burn-style land clearing likewise causes a blanket of toxic haze that lasts for months and sometimes affects neighbouring countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Meanwhile, smoke pollution from fires lit in South America and southern Africa has been known to make its way around the entire southern hemisphere. (That said, the air in the southern hemisphere is generally cleaner than in the northern hemisphere – simply because there are fewer people living there).

Pollution can kill more people in the countryside than the cities

Because of practices like agricultural clearing, pollution can kill more people in the countryside than even in cities (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s not just developing countries, either: wildfires in the western US are wreaking havoc on air quality, while pollution from fertilizers used on farms are detracting from air quality in Europe, Russia, China and the US.

What about the idea of that pure mountain air? It’s true that black carbon aerosols and particulate matter pollution tends to be lower at higher altitudes. But trying to move above air pollution may cause other issues.

While people who live in in places 2,500m or higher seem to have lower mortality from cardiovascular disease, stroke and some types of cancers, data indicate that they also seem to be at an elevated risk of death from chronic pulmonary disease and from lower respiratory tract infections. This is likely at least in part because cars and other vehicles operate less efficiently at higher altitudes, emitting greater amounts of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide – which is made even more harmful by the increased solar radiation in such places. Living at a moderate altitude of 1,500 to 2,500 meters, therefore, may be the healthiest choice.

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place (Credit: Getty Images)

There is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water

On the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water. Those in the UK who live closer to the ocean, for example, tend to have a better bill of health than those who live inland, taking into account their age and socioeconomic status. This is likely due to a variety of reasons, White says, including the fact that our evolution means we are attracted to the high levels of biodiversity found there (in the past, this would have been a helpful indicator of food sources) and that beaches offer opportunities for daily exercise and vitamin D.

Then there are the psychological benefits. A 2016 study Pearson and her colleagues conducted in Wellington, New Zealand found that residents with ocean views had lower levels of psychological distress. For every 10% increase in how much blue space people could see, the researchers found a one-third point reduction in the population’s average Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (used to predict anxiety and mood disorders), independent of socioeconomic status. Given that finding, Pearson says, “One might expect that a 20 to 30% increase in blue space visibility could shift someone from moderate distress into a lower category.” Pearson found similar results in a follow-up study conducted near the Great Lakes in the US (currently in review), as did White in an upcoming study of Hong Kong residents.

The more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety

Researchers found that the more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety they experienced (Credit: Getty Images)

Not everyone can live on the coast, however. So Simon Bell, chair of landscape architecture at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and associate director of the OPENspace Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and his colleagues are testing whether restoring neglected bodies of water throughout Europe can help. They are interviewing residents before and after restoration, including at a rundown beach outside of Tallinn, Estonia and an industrial canal near a Soviet bloc-style apartment complex in Tartu, also Estonia, among other places in Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

The team’s second analysis of nearly 200 recently redeveloped water sites will allow them to tease out how factors such as climate, weather, pollution levels, smells, seasonality, safety and security, accessibility and more, influence a given water body’s appeal. The ultimate goal, Bell says, is to find “what makes a great blue space.” Once the results are in, he and his colleagues will develop a quality assessment tool for those looking to most effectively restore urban canals, overgrown lakes, former docklands, rivers and other neglected blue spaces to make residents’ lives better.

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, when it comes to wellbeing, researchers do not know how lakes compare to oceans or how rivers compare to seas. Nor have they compared how beaches in, say, Iceland measure up to those in Florida. What they do know is that complex factors including air and water quality, crowding, temperature and even high and low tides affect how something as seemingly simple as a visit to the beach can influence us.

“There might be a million other important things besides weather and daylight that influence someone in Hawaii versus Finland,” White says.

People who live in less regularly sunny places, like Vermont or Denmark, tend to have higher rates of skin cancer

In terms of health, data also suggest that, counterintuitively, people who live in more intermittently rather than regularly sunny places – Vermont and Minnesota in the US, for example, and Denmark and France – tend to have higher rates of skin cancer, likely because sunscreen is not part of daily routines. (Read more aboutfive countries where people live the longest).

Just as some green and blue spaces may be more beneficial than others, researchers are also coming to realize that the environment’s influence on well-being is not evenly distributed.

People living in lower socioeconomic conditions tend to derive more benefits from natural spaces than wealthy residents, White says. That’s likely because richer people enjoy other health-improving privileges, such as taking holidays and leading generally less stressful lives – a finding with important real-world implications. “Here in the UK, local authorities have a legal obligation to reduce health inequalities. So one way to do that is to improve the park system,” White says. “The poorest will benefit the most.”

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s also important to point out that simply moving to a relatively pristine coast or forest will not solve all of our problems. Other life circumstances – losing or gaining a job, marrying or divorcing – have a much greater impact on our health. As White puts it, no matter what environment you’re in, “It’s more important to have a house than to be homeless in a park.”

Bell adds that proximity to nature actually tends to rank low on people’s lists of the most important factors for selecting a place to live, after things like safety, quietness and closeness to key locations like schools and work. But while the benefits of green and blue spaces should not be overplayed on an individual level, they are important for the scale at which they work.

And even so, one takeaway seems obvious: those living in a clean, oceanside city with ready access to nature – think Sydney or Wellington – may have struck the jackpot in terms of the healthiest places to live.

By Rachel Nuwer 1 June 2018