“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

The People of Ellis Island- Portraits of immigrants arriving in the U.S.A from the early 1900’s

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Ellis Island was the gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States as the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. Between 1905 and 1914, an average of one million immigrants per year arrived in the United States.

Immigration officials reviewed about 5,000 immigrants per day during peak times at Ellis Island.Two-thirds of those individuals emigrated from eastern, southern and central Europe. The peak year for immigration at Ellis Island was 1907, with 1,004,756 immigrants processed.

The all-time daily high occurred on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 immigrants arrived. After the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, which greatly restricted immigration and allowed processing at overseas embassies, the only immigrants to pass through the station were those who had problems with their immigration paperwork, displaced persons, and war refugees.

Today, over 100 million Americans—about one-third of the population—can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America at Ellis Island before dispersing to points all over the country. Here are some photos of immigrants from the early 1900’s. All photos by  New York Public Library

A Bavarian man


A Danish man

A Dutch woman


A Greek Orthodox priest


A Greek woman

A Guadeloupean woman


A man whose descent was not identified, possibly Russian


A Romanian man


A Ruthenian woman


A Slovak woman with her child

During World War I, the German sabotage of the Black Tom Wharf ammunition depot damaged buildings on Ellis Island. The repairs included the current barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Main Hall.

During and immediately following World War II, Ellis Island was used to intern German merchant mariners and “enemy aliens”—Axis nationals detained for fear of spying, sabotage, and other fifth column activity.

In December 1941, Ellis Island held 279 Japanese, 248 Germans, and 81 Italians removed from the East Coast. Unlike other wartime immigration detention stations, Ellis Island was designated as a permanent holding facility and was used to hold foreign nationals throughout the war.A total of 7,000 Germans, Italians and Japanese would be ultimately detained at Ellis Island. It was also a processing center for returning sick or wounded U.S. soldiers, and a Coast Guard training base.


An Albanian soldier


An Indian boy


An Italian woman


Another man whose descent was not identified, possibly Russian


Several Romani people


Several Romani people


Three Dutch women


Three Russian Cossacks


Three Scottish boys


Two Romanian women

Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried.

It was important to the American government that the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time.

More than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge.” About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity.

Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island”because of those 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where new arrivals were greeted by their relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs and kisses.


With thanks to the Dark Web, a 17th century letter from Satan to a nun is deciphered

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Millions of people surf the internet every day. What most don’t know is that, lurking encrypted and hidden within the everyday web that we all use for news, games, and social media sharing is also the Dark Web, full of bitcoin, drugs, cybercrime, and other shady matters.

But in this case the Dark Web was useful, revealing a code breaker that recently allowed scientists to translate a letter an Italian nun said that Satan wrote to her.

For over 300 years, researchers have been stymied, unable to decipher the symbols and letters in the strange document. According to Live Science, the director of the Ludum science museum in the province of Catania in Sicily, Daniele Abate, said that the Dark Web provided an intelligence-grade code-breaking system that enabled them to decipher the letter.  “We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for codebreaking. We primed the software with ancient Greek, Arabic, the Runic alphabet and Latin to descramble some of the letter and show that it really is devilish,” said Abate. “The letter appeared as if it was written in shorthand. We speculated that Sister Maria created a new vocabulary using ancient alphabets that she may have known. We analyzed how the syllables and graphisms [thoughts depicted as symbols] repeated in the letter in order to locate vowels and we ended up with a refined decryption algorithm.”

The story begins in 1676, when Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione of the convent of Palma di Montechiaro in Sicily, 31 years old, claimed to be possessed by Satan. Records of the convent written by Abbess Maria Serafica show she struggled on a daily basis with her belief, fighting and screaming almost every night against the evil spirits that would not leave her alone.

Sister Maria, born Isabella Tomasi, had joined the Benedictine convent when she was 15 and she was well known and liked by the other Sisters and the Abbess. One August day they found Sister Maria in her quarters on the floor with an ink-stained face, clutching a letter she had written during an episode of possession.

 The letter was 14 lines, written in an undecipherable language. Sister Maria claimed the letter was written though her by Satan in his efforts to steal her away from God. The characters used in the letter looked like a combination of runes, modern shorthand, and alphabetic letters from other languages. According to Abbess Maria Serafica, Sister Maria refused to sign the letter, instead writing “Ohimé” (oh me), for which she was later blessed.

No one could decipher the letter in the 17th century or for decades afterward. Now that it has been deciphered, researchers say the letter rambles on about how humans invented God and Zoroaster. It claims that God and Jesus are “deadweights” and that “the system works for no one.” It also speaks of the River Styx, saying, “Perhaps now, Styx is certain.”

The River Styx appears in Greek mythology as the separation of the living world from the dead. When one died, the soul reached the River Styx and waited for Charon the ferryman to deliver the soul to the Underworld. If the family had buried the deceased with a coin, Charon would gladly take them across the river to await a new body and life.

If not, one had the choice to try to swim the river or be left to haunt the family that did not provide the coin. The River Styx was also used by Thetis the nymph to make her son, Achilles, immortal by dipping him into the river–except for the heel with which his mother held him that turned out to be his weak spot, allowing Hector to kill him with a poisoned arrow supposedly directed by Zeus.

Abate knew that discovering more about Sister Maria would allow insight into the letter. It is his opinion that Sister Maria, who was well educated, suffered from schizophrenia or perhaps bipolar disorder. It would seem that schizophrenia is the most logical answer as those who are afflicted often hear voices telling them to do specific things.

Researchers around the world were excited to learn that the letter had finally been translated, but the actual research and findings have not yet been published, allowing for peer review.


Restoration work in Rome’s ancient catacombs reveals 1,600-year-old hidden frescoes

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Since their rediscovery in the 16th century, Rome’s catacombs have dazzled the archaeological community. The ancient underground burial networks are a famed burial site both for Christians and for people who worshiped any of the earlier Roman religions.

Underneath the city, people were either placed in distinct catacombs or buried together. It began as early as the 2nd century AD, when inhumation had become a more common funerary practice. Christians at the time typically opted for burials instead cremations, as they believed in bodily resurrection at the Second Coming.

As an extremely important site, Rome’s ancient catacombs represent an epic monument of the ancient empire and the inception of Christianity. Moreover, the catacombs also provide an invaluable contribution to the history of early Christian art. They have been a treasured site with a plethora of frescoes, sculptures, or gold-glass medallions among other items, which widely exemplify the artwork done before 400 AD.

The exploration and excavation of Rome’s hidden tunnels seem to be a continual work in progress. The discoveries have never ceased to surprise us. Not only have new chambers been identified in recent decades, but so have new precious artifacts.

In May 2017, restorers put the finishing touches on a seven-year restoration work of two underground burial rooms in the Catacombs of Domitilla. Thanks to their effort, two long-hidden frescoes, which were likely commissioned approximately 1,600 years ago by bakers in the city, have been revealed.

The Catacombs of Domitilla, named after Saint Domitilla, expand over 11 miles of underground caves. As large and impressive as they are, they are exceptional for several other reasons. They are the oldest of Rome’s catacombs, and the only ones still containing bones. Reportedly, they alone have been the burial site of almost 150,000 bodies.

The Domitilla Catacombs are also the best-preserved and the most extensive of all ancient burial networks beneath the city. Among their treasures and invaluable artifacts is a 2nd-century fresco of the Last Supper.

Lurking under a chalky deposit and algae domesticated after centuries of being abandoned, new frescoes have been found. Experts have used lasers and scanning technology to restore the paintings, stripping away the deposits, layer by layer. The technique used has never before been applied in catacombs.

As the layers have been removed, numerous images have slowly started to emerge on the surface, depicting figures from the Old and New Testament, and also vignettes related to the baker’s trade.

According to Barbara Mazzei, who had been supervising the restoration work on behalf the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, the restorers have accomplished the work “millimeter by millimeter.”

One of the scenes revealed in the frescoes depicts the deceased accompanied by two saints. The saints may be Nereus and Achilleus, who were two martyrs, most likely killed under Emperor Diocletian and buried here. According to the experts, all evidence shows the frescoes’ origin dates back to the second half of the fourth century when a similar type of iconography was common.

Restoration projects at the catacombs are set to continue further, as there are still more chambers that are in poor condition. It might mean that new finds just may be on their way.

A new museum, to be inaugurated in June, is to showcase artifacts dating from the 2nd to the 5th century from several catacombs in Rome. The collection is certain to shed light on how paganism and Christian faith were mysteriously intertwined together in the early Church.

By  Stefan A

Trulli: The unique stone huts of Apulia

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A trullo is a small, conical stone hut that was traditionally constructed in the Italian region of Apulia. The remarkable houses were built with the dry-stone technique, which has been used since Neolithic times. That was how people built structures from stones without any cement or mortar to bind the stones together.

The small town of Alberobello, in the province of Bari, is the most famous example, with the highest concentration of trulli. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. The trulli have whitewashed walls with white symbols painted on their conical roofs. Most of them are Christian symbols, such as a cross or a heart pierced by an arrow that represents Santa Maria Addolorata, Our Lady of Sorrows. The roof of each trullo is topped by a “pinaccolo,” or pinnacle. Some believe it is an ornament, while others suggest it represents the social status of the trullo’s inhabitants.

The origin of the trullo is unclear, but most scholars agree that the first trulli could have appeared in prehistoric times. Many examples of dry-stone dwellings dating from ancient times are found all over the Mediterranean.

In the 8th century BC, the Greeks colonized Apulia. The tholos tombs that the Greeks used for burial are connected with the origin of the trullo. It is probably from the Greek work tholoi that we get the modern word trullo.

Some of the trulli in the Apulia region date back to the 14th century. The then-unpopulated land was given to Robert d’Anjou, Prince of Taranto and the then-King of Naples, as a reward for his service during the Crusades. After that, the land was inhabited with feudal settlements that later became the modern villages of Aja Piccola and Monti.

In 17th century Italy, the nobility imposed heavy taxes on every permanent residence. Supposedly the peasant families started to build dry-stone homes so that they could dismantle them in a hurry, thereby avoiding paying the taxes. The owner was able to demolish the house at a moment simply by pulling the topmost stone on the cone roof that prevented the roof from caving in. However, most historians don’t agree with this theory and suggest the building technique is a result of the geographical conditions of the area, which is abundant with limestone that could be collected from the land and used as part of these huts.

The inhabitants were mostly peasant families. They built roughly circular or square-shaped trulli. In the center of the trullo was the fireplace, used for heating and cooking. It had thick walls, which kept the trullo cool during the summer and warm in the winter. Families would often share two or three cones, and as the family grew, a new trullo was constructed next to the existing ones. The livestock occupied their own trullo. In 1797, the King of Naples, Ferdinand IV de Bourbon, gave the village the title Royal City.

At the end of the 20th century, local craftsman Guido Antionetta brought new life and purpose to the half-abandoned town. He bought a few dozen abandoned trulli, modernizing and renting them as rustic apartments.

Many others followed his example and in doing so, they preserved the last of the area’s unique trulli and made Alberobello a popular tourist destination. Today, these tiny trulli houses, besides being apartments, also serve as restaurants, a museum, and even a church.


In 16th century, Villa d’Este and its magnificent gardens were commissioned by a cardinal disappointed he never made it to Pope

Since ancient times, Tivoli has been a favorite location for the extravagant residences of the wealthy and powerful. It enabled them to escape the noise and crowds of Rome, while still being close enough to visit the city whenever needed. In the 16th century, one especially beautiful residence, and even more beautiful Renaissance gardens, were built in the hilly area of Tivoli.

If it had not been for the personal disappointment of Ippolito II d’Este, this architectural masterpiece would probably not exist today. He was born into a rich and powerful family, became a cardinal, and was firmly convinced he would become the next Pope. However, his great expectation turned out to be unattainable, and he instead became the governor of Tivoli.

A monastery at Tivoli was granted to him as an official residence. However, Ippolito II d’Este could not just settle in the modest building someone had selected for him. He wanted his home to be bigger, more glamorous, and more extravagant. That is when the cardinal decided to completely remodel the existing monastery.

Tivoli, Italy – 9 September 2016: View of the long rectangular fish ponds (Peschiere) below The Fountain of Neptune at Villa d’Este, UNESCO World Heritage Site, 16th Century Italian villa.

Ippolito II d’Este commissioned some of the greatest contemporary artists for the project. The leading architects and painters were Alberto Galvani and Pirro Ligorio.  However, Mannerist artists such as Livio Agresti, Durante Alberti, Federico Zuccari, Antonio Tempesta, and Cesare Nebbia were also included, especially for painting the interior walls of the new villa.

Fontana Dei Draghi, Villa d`Este fountain and garden in Tivoli near Roma, Italy

The construction of his new home began in 1560. The ceilings and walls of rooms in the villa are painted with beautiful scenes from Roman mythology and history, but scenes from the Bible are also present. All in all, the interior of Villa d’Este is like walking through an impressive art gallery. The villa is really remarkable, but this is not the only reason for its worldwide fame. The magnificent gardens are the main reason for its international renown.

The Villa d’Este is a villa situated at Tivoli, near Rome, Italy. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, it is a fine example of Renaissance architecture and the Italian Renaissance garden. In this photo the Fontana dell’Ovato was taken in HDR by combining several photos with different exposures to retain details both in shadows and highlights. The long time of exposure in daylight was obtained by using a ND400 9 stops filter.

The garden is full of colorful flowers, waterfalls, remarkable sculptures, and grottoes, as well as many extraordinary fountains. Many of the garden statues date back to ancient times and were removed from excavation sites and brought to the villa. Mythological animals and statues of Roman gods and goddesses also decorate some of the area’s famous fountains.

View of Rometta’s Fountain in villa d’Este in Tivoli in Italy

The most famous fountains are the Fountain of Neptune, the Fountain of the Dragons, and the Fountain of the Organ. In honor of the eternal city, one fountain was built in the shape of a miniature of the city of Rome, known as The Rometta. Ippolito II d’Este hosted many celebrations in his home, leaving a great impression on his guests with the beauty of his villa and its gardens.

Ornamental garden

A controversy about the estate was that he supposedly approving the pillaging of the estate of Emperor Hadrian to obtain statues and other things for his own property.

When Ippolito II d’Este died, most of the work in his home was completed. The project continued under the supervision of Alessandro d’Este. He made small alterations on the gardens, focusing especially on the ornamented fountains. In the 1660s, one of the greatest architects and sculptors in the world, Gianlorenzo Bernini, was commissioned to improve the gardens. One of his creations is the Bicchierone fountain.

Central view of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli during the day.

However, in the 17th century, the villa and its gardens were neglected. During this period, many statues and sculptures of the garden were stolen and many frescoes inside the villa were damaged. After they ended up as a property of the Habsburg monarchy, Villa d’Este and its garden didn’t see improvements either. No one showed interest in restoring them until the 19th century.

The magnificent fountains of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy. Commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, son of Alfonso I d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia and grandson of Pope Alexander VI. The Villa’s architectural elements and water features had an enormous influence on European landscape design.

Gustav Adolf, Cardinal Prince of Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst, revived the property. The residence was restored to its former glory and once again the garden hosted many celebrations and concerts, including the final one of Hungarian musician Franz Liszt.

When World War I began, Villa d’Este and its gardens were in possession of the Italian state. Two years after the war finished, they were restored, although the procedure had to be repeated after the Second World War. Today, they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remain one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, visited by hundreds of tourists every year.

By Kate Bulo