God vs. the Gods – The First Known Instance of Monotheism in History

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In the long line of pharaohs of the dynasties of ancient Egypt, Akhenaten was unique. Yet until recently, almost nothing was known about him. Akhenaten lived during the 14th century BC and his reign lasted for 17 years.. Evidence of his existence was discovered only in the late 19th century.

The future king of Egypt was originally named Amenhotep IV, son of pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. He was not first in line to the throne but his older brother died at a young age. Some scholars believe that the young prince was shunned as a child, as he never appeared in family portraits. He later married the well-known Queen Nefertiti.

Once on the throne, Akhenaten made revolutionary changes to Egyptian life. He banished worship of Egypt’s many gods, including Amun-Ra, popular among the priestly class. Instead, only one deity, the sun disk god Aten, was to be recognized as the Supreme Being. Akhenaten considered himself a direct descendant of Aten.

Worship of Aten may have been the first known movement away from polytheism toward monotheism. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once suggested that Moses may have been a priest to the cult of Aten, who later fled Egypt with his followers to maintain their beliefs after the death of Akhenaten.

After changing his name to Akhenaten, the pharaoh ordered grand monuments built for Aten in the Egyptian capital, Thebes. Temples were reoriented toward the east, where the sun rose each day. Icons for other Egyptian gods were removed.

Akhenaten then had a new city built in honor of his god. Two years later, he moved the royal palace there. The new city was located at modern day Amarna and was filled with up to 10,000 people. The population included priests to the sun god, merchants, builders, and traders. Akhenaten lived here for ten years until his death.

Along with statues, there were a number of sculptures portraying the royal family. This was common for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Almost all previous royal portraits depicted the king and queen as rigid. They are serious. They are wearing the royal insignia and their bodies are shaped perfectly and muscular. They look like gods themselves.

Not Akhenaten though. His face looks stretched. The nose is narrow and the chin is pointy. He has large lips and broad hips. A pot belly oozes over his waist. Why does Akhenaten look so different from other sculptures of the period?

One theory is that the king may have suffered some sort of ailment. One of the possibilities is that he had Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. Some of the possible symptoms include a tall and thin body type, long arms, legs, and fingers, as well as curvature of the spine.

Yet, Akhenaten and his family look like real people with physical flaws. It is timeless. The images reach out to us through the many centuries. In one stone relief, the sun god Aten’s light is shining down on Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and some of their children.

The pharaoh is holding one child in his arms, giving her a kiss. Nefertiti is holding two younger kids, one child reaching for the queen’s jewelry. It’s a scene that might look like any contemporary family.

It appears Akhenaten’s rule was not popular, both within the kingdom and beyond. Correspondences from foreign rulers allied to Egypt describe frustration with Akhenaten’s lack of military and financial support. Egyptian power and influence declined during the king’s reign.

Akhenaten’s religious reforms did not outlive him. Almost immediately after his death, the priestly elites of Amun-Ra and the other gods regained their influence. Statues and references to Akhenaten and Aten were removed. Akhenaten’s name was erased from official royal lists.

His temples were destroyed and the material used for new building projects. The city at Amarna was abandoned — even the mummified body of Akhenaten was removed from his tomb, never to be seen again.

Akhenaten’s successor was one of his sons, King Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut. He is more famous today than his father because his tomb was discovered mostly intact by archaeologists in the early 20th century.

As his name suggests, Tutankhamun embraced the old deity of Amun-Ra and the traditional ways of ancient Egypt. During his short reign, King Tut mostly turned away from his father’s legacy, the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten.

 Mark Shiffer

Dragon Lore: Origins of the Fire-Breathing Beast

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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

6 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Ottoman Empire

Turkish artillery of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.  (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
The Ottoman Empire is one of the largest empires in history. In existence for 600 years, at its peak it included what is now Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, parts of Arabia and the north coast of Africa. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history.

Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. Here, Jem Duducu presents six lesser known facts about this exotic, yet still relevant empire.

1

The founder of the empire was a man called Osman

Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire (his name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’). The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, while  Osman had ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).

It was on the coronation day of Osman’s successor that the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the west and was a reminder to all of the 36 sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle. But as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.

Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today on display in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, though it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.

Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west: a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was regarded as unimportant enough that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign, as Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.

Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Turkish state. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Empire. “Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west,” says Duducu.(Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
2

The Ottomans could be unlucky

Only once did a sultan die in battle and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that: “having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, [serb forces] heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.”

While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after 27 years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However, in 1402, he had to face a new threat: that of the legendary warlord Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur), a brutal 14th-century warlord born in what is now Uzbekistan, who amassed an empire that stretched from present day India to Turkey, and Russia to Saudi Arabia. The two met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.

Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century.

Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything – and some elephants. Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.

Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.

3

Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact, not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.

More than 30 of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; it’s unlikely any of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European women, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Turkish.

Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries [an elite fighting corps within the army], including the famous architect Mimar Sinan who started his career as a Janissary, were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.

Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, 1601. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
4

Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

In the west, he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the east, he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However, here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:

“Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah’s deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men’s necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.”

Let’s break things down: the first title is obvious and “Allah’s deputy” implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God). The “possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.

The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of “emperor” and “Caesar” still had importance. Claiming to be ‘”Emperor of the East and West” was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.

“King of Kings” may sound a little biblical, but that’s only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the east, the Safavid Persians.

The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to “Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world”, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.

Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; he swept through everything else before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fitted the bill perfectly.

5

The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and march to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, one Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by over 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.

The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.

Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for the sultan Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).

Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
6

The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just

From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the east, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the tsars of Russia; and to the west, the Habsburgs.

The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736 and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.

Similarly, as the tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the tsars. The most famous of these in the west is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.

The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names sound half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.

 Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu is the author of The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History (Amberley Publishing, 2017).

The Aztec macuahuitl, a sword with obsidian blades, was sharp enough to decapitate a horse

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Since ancient days, people have developed sophisticated weapons to fill their arsenals. In ancient Egypt, the khopesh was a notoriously deadly sword on the battlefield. A khopesh would typically be cast out of a single piece of bronze that was quite heavy, and it looked like a cross between a battle ax and a sword. Even Ramses II is portrayed as wielding one of these.

A Japanese officer of the Edo era would make great use of a sodegarami (the word itself means “sleeve entangler”). This weapon looked like a spiked pole, and it allowed the officers to confront any antagonist with a quick twist, bringing the attacked person to the ground but not necessarily inflicting severe wounds.

When it comes to the Aztec warriors, perhaps their best asset on the battlefield was the macuahuitl. Known as the Aztec sword, this weapon was not a real sword cast in metal but made from oak wood. Its edges were set with obsidian blades (volcanic glass), and Aztec warriors used these to slash throats and inflict painful wounds that caused heavy bleeding.

When Cortés arrived in Central America, he certainly witnessed the strength of the Aztecs on the battlefield. Chronicles of his battles and similar historical documents tell that the Aztecs were fearsome people. Their society and culture were largely built on warriorhood.

Both the jaguar and the eagle were emblematic predators that added to the Aztec culture, and warriors would typically dress to look like one of the two. They believed such appearance would spread fear among their adversaries. If a new warrior was to join the Aztec battle groups, he could do so only if he captured an enemy soldier first.

The Aztec had a well-thought-out system on how the military should function, and a well-developed strategy for the battlefields too. The Aztec warriors who used the macuahuitl would step forward during a battle only when the archers or slingers advanced close to the adversary. In a close encounter with the enemy, the macuahuitl was their best asset in hands.

Resembling a cricket bat, the macuahuitl had a length typically extending some three and a half feet. While numerous examples of this weapon were managed with one hand only, there were others who required two hands to grab and fight.

Depending on its size, the weapon had between four and eight razor-sharp blades along each side, but this varied, with some macuahuitl embracing a complete single edge formed by the unusual volcanic material. No matter the design, the obsidian could not be pulled out. The Aztecs would wield their swords with short and chopping movements, and, as many accounts suggest, they cut off some heads.

Besides the macuahuitl, the Aztec made use of the tepoztopilli, one more weapon carved out of wood and fitted with obsidian blades. However, the tepoztopilli was more like a type of polearm. It was spear-like, with a large wedge head on the front, and at five to six feet long, the entire piece was a bit longer than the macuahuitl.

Cortés’ conquistadors certainly had plenty of opportunities to see the power of the Aztec weaponry demonstrated first hand. Several of the Spanish horse riders reported that the Aztec swords were able to decapitate not only a human head but that of a horse. The blades would inflict a wound so deep in the animal, its head would cleave off to hang only by the skin.

Contrary to popular belief, the deadly macuahuitl was not an invention of the Aztec themselves, but rather a weapon widespread among distinct groups of Central Mexico and likely in other places of Mesoamerica as well.

Even Christopher Columbus was fascinated by the strength of this weapon when he encountered it after reaching the Americas. He gave orders to his people to collect a sample to show back in Spain.

Today, there aren’t any original macuahuitl  surviving, only various re-creations of the weapon based on knowledge extracted from contemporary accounts and illustrations produced during the 16th century or earlier.

It is believed that the last authentic macuahuitl was destroyed in a fire in the Real Armería de Madrid, where the weapon was kept for a long time next to the last original tepoztopilli.

By Stefan Andrews

In fifth-century Europe, socks were usually worn by “holy” people to symbolize purity

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The earliest known surviving pair of socks Author: David Jackson  CC BY-SA 2.0

Although nowadays socks seem to be nothing more than just a simple detail of one’s outfit, the fact is that they have come a long way and dramatically evolved over the centuries. Socks are considered by many as being the oldest type of clothing to have ever existed, dating back to the Stone Age when our ancestors first started using animal skin for the purpose of covering their feet and ankles in order to provide much-needed warmth and comfort.

The oldest known surviving pair of socks was discovered in the city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. They date back to 300-500 A.D. and were created by needle-binding. Today, these strange looking ancient socks are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The museum explains that:

“The Romano-Egyptian socks were excavated in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They were given to the Museum in 1900 by Robert Taylor Esq., ‘Kytes,’ Watford. He was the executor of the estate of the late Major Myers and these items were selected among others from a list of textiles as ‘a large number of advantageous examples.”

It appears that humans have embraced the benefits of wearing socks since the earliest cultures and civilizations, including people of Ancient Greece. The famed Greek poet, Hesiod, gives us one of the first written accounts of the importance of keeping our feet warm by using “piloi,” ancient type of socks made from matted animal hair.

 In his didactic poem entitled Works and Days, Hesiod advises his brother Perses to protect himself by using this particular type of ancient socks: “Around your feet, tie your sandals made from brutally hunted oxen skin and, under these, dress them in piloi.” 

They came, they saw, they wore socks with sandals. As you might have already guessed, we are talking about the Ancient Romans. Several years ago, an archaeological dig in North Yorkshire brought archaeologists to a conclusion that Roman legionnaires wore socks with sandals. Although one can rarely see an Ancient Roman sculpture that features socks, the fact is that Ancient Romans, similarly to the Ancient Greeks, also wore socks for protection against cold weather.

While Ancient Greeks and Romans used socks for functional purposes, among Europeans of the 5th century A.D., socks become known as puttees and were usually worn only by “holy” people to symbolize purity.

Status symbols, both financial and cultural, have existed for quite a long time throughout our history with every era being defined by a different one. We all know the status symbols of our own era, but one might be surprised to find out that around 1,000 years ago a rather strange object was considered a mark of social standing, and that was, believe it or not, a pair of colored socks.

It was not until 1000 A.D. that socks became a prominent object in everyday life and a symbol of wealth among the nobility. However, this changed with the invention of the knitting machine in 1589, which made it possible for socks to be knitted far faster than knitting them by hand as people did before. A strange new substance known as nylon was introduced in 1938 which caused a revolution in the entire textile industry and changed sock production forever.

 

Today in the 21st century, socks can be found for any kind of need, purpose, or style; the only thing that remains a struggle is to keep one pair of socks complete.

 Alex .A

“The sun began to be darkened”: The strange cloud over much of the world in 536 AD changed history dramatically

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In the summer of 536, a strange cloud appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Sometimes referred to as “a veil of dust,” something plunged the Mediterranean region and many other areas of the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness.

This foreboding change was recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” Procopius also wrote of disease and war resulting from the blocking of the sun’s light.

A Syrian scribe described the change as “…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray.” Gaelic Irish records describe a “failure of bread” in the year 536.

For many years, historians and scientists have wondered what may have caused Procopius and others to record notable differences in weather. Modern research has provided some interesting theories.

Much of the rest of the world seems to have been impacted by the cloud as well, at least in the northern hemisphere. Studies of tree rings between 536 and 551 show less tree growth in China, Europe, and North America. Less solar radiation reaching the earth resulted in lower temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. The results for humans included lower food production output, famine, as well as increased social and political disruption.

There were specific events recorded that were likely related to the ominous cloud. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, that became known as the Justinian Plague. Estimates are that up to a third of the population perished during the outbreak. Procopius described some of the horrible symptoms as fever and swelling all over the body.

In 536 China, there was famine and drought with many deaths, as well as reports of “yellow dust that rained down like snow.” At the same time, Korea faced massive storms and flooding. Unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.

Scandinavia seems to have been particularly hard hit. Archaeological evidence indicates that almost 75 percent of villages in parts of Sweden were abandoned in these years. One theory is that this displacement of people was a catalyst for later raids by Vikings seeking more fertile land in other parts of Europe and beyond. A Norse poem of the time reads, “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.”

The severe weather may have impacted other historical trends. Among them is the migration of Mongolian tribes westward, the fall of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and the rise and rapid expansion of Islam.

Some historians mark these specific changes in weather patterns as contributing to the historic transition from antiquity to the beginning of the era of the Dark and Middle Ages. It certainly emphasizes the impact rapid climate change may have had on human populations.

What could have caused such a sudden and dramatic change in weather? Experts are divided, and we may never know the whole answer. One theory is that the climate around the world changed based on one giant volcanic eruption, possibly from Central America. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the planet.

Another suggestion is that there were two large volcano blasts within a couple of years of each other, specifically in 536 and 540, causing darkness and cold around most of the world. Clouds of smoke and debris from massive volcanic fires could have spread rapidly.

Evidence of volcanic eruptions was backed up by material found in both the North and South Poles. In both Antarctica and Greenland, sulfate deposits have been discovered dating back to the mid-6th century.

A third theory contemplates the impact of a comet or meteorite crashing into the Earth. Or the possibility of a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Experts generally think this explanation is less plausible than that of volcanic eruptions.

Whatever the cause, people living at the time noticed and recorded a rapid change in nature. Human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many it would have felt like the world were coming to an end.

 Mark Shiffer