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.
Despite all the discoveries that have been made about Ancient Egypt, archaeologists are confident that there’s more to be found, new riches sleeping under the vast dunes of the desert. They seem to be right, as a tomb was recently unearthed that belonged to an important ancient priestess, a precious discovery that provides insights into the life of an ancient Egyptian woman of high rank more than four millennia ago. The recent find happened close to the country’s renowned Pyramids of Giza and roughly 12 miles to the south of the capital of Cairo.
The newly uncovered tomb, as old as 4,400 years, includes rare decoration such as intriguing wall paintings. Some of them feature portrayals of what is believed to be the high priestess named Hetpet, Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry officials stated while announcing the discovery on February 3, 2018. One of the spokespersons, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri, remarked that the site was found in “very good condition.”
“There are colored depictions of traditional scenes: animal grazing, fishing, bird-catching, offerings, sacrifice, soldiers, and fruit-gathering,” Waziri said of the paintings that adorn the tomb of the priestess.
Hetpet was a priestess to Hathor, the Ancient Egyptian deity of fertility, motherhood, dance, and music. In general, female priestesses were not common in that era, but worshiping Hathor was well known. Typically represented with a head of a cow, Hathor had a number of priestesses. Hetpet, as one of them, is considered to have been closely affiliated with the royal family of the Fifth Dynasty. Though a notable figure of antiquity, her mummy was never found.
Archaeologists conclude that the tomb belongs to the period of the Fifth Dynasty due to the featured decoration as well as the style in which the tomb is built. The priestess herself is depicted standing in various scenes. In some, she is presented offerings by children. In others, she appears to look on hunting and fishing activities. Inscriptions of her name and titles have also been found at the site.
One of the most dazzling scenes of all includes one with a monkey, animals which were back then domesticated and helped their owners in activities such as collecting fruit. Among the paintings in Hetpet’s tomb, a monkey can be seen dancing in front of an orchestra, what some commentaries have described as a rare portrayal. In previously discovered scenes, the animal has been found dancing in front of a guitarist alone.
The latest archaeological mission, which is being carried out in the wider area of the western necropolis of Giza, commenced in the last quarter of 2017. However, the same area that contained Hetpet’s tomb has been already noted among archaeologists for hiding other treasures, included tombs dating to the Old Kingdom as well as more pieces of artifacts related to the figure of Hetpet. Unearthing some of them took place as early as the mid-19th century and early 20th century.
Near the excavated area, construction of a new facility that will serve as a museum has been commissioned too. While the new edifice is expected to feature Egypt’s numerous authentic artifacts, including belongings of the world-famous King Tutankhamun, the entire facility should be completed by 2022, the Telegraph reports.
The recent period has been marked by numerous significant discoveries for Egypt, spanning different periods and dynasties. In September 2017, Egyptian officials announced the discovery of a 3,500-year-old-tomb close to Luxor, one that belonged to a goldsmith and his spouse.
As tourism in Egypt has stagnated in the last couple of years due to safety concerns, Egyptian authorities are hopeful that with all the latest discoveries, including the tomb of the priestess, people will once more wish to visit the country.
Hypatia, (born c. 355 CE—died March 415, Alexandria), mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who lived in a very turbulent era in Alexandria’s history. She is the earliest female mathematician of whose life and work reasonably detailed knowledge exists.
Hypatia was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, himself a mathematician and astronomer and the last attested member of the Alexandrian Museum (see ). Theon is best remembered for the part he played in the preservation of Euclid’s Elements, but he also wrote extensively, commenting on Ptolemy’s Almagest and Handy Tables. Hypatia continued his program, which was essentially a determined effort to preserve the Greek mathematical and astronomical heritage in extremely difficult times. She is credited with commentaries on Apollonius of Perga’s Conics (geometry) and Diophantus of Alexandria’s Arithmetic (number theory), as well as an astronomical table (possibly a revised version of Book III of her father’s commentary on the Almagest). These works, the only ones she is listed as having written, have been lost, although there have been attempts to reconstruct aspects of them. In producing her commentaries on Apollonius and Diophantus, she was pushing the program initiated by her father into more recent and more difficult areas.
She was, in her time, the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer, the only woman for whom such claim can be made. She was also a popular teacher and lecturer on philosophical topics of a less-specialist nature, attracting many loyal students and large audiences. Her philosophy was Neoplatonist and was thus seen as “pagan” at a time of bitter religious conflict between Christians (both orthodox and “heretical”), Jews, and pagans. Her Neoplatonism was concerned with the approach to the One, an underlying reality partially accessible via the human power of abstraction from the Platonic forms, themselves abstractions from the world of everyday reality. Her philosophy also led her to embrace a life of dedicated virginity.
An early manifestation of the religious divide of the time was the razing of the Serapeum, the temple of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, by Theophilus, Alexandria’s bishop until his death in 412 CE. This event was perhaps the final end of the great Library of Alexandria, since the Serapeum may have contained some of the Library’s books. Theophilus, however, was friendly with Synesius, an ardent admirer and pupil of Hypatia, so she was not herself affected by this development but was permitted to pursue her intellectual endeavours unimpeded. With the deaths of Synesius and Theophilus and the accession of Cyril to the bishopric of Alexandria, however, this climate of tolerance lapsed, and shortly afterward Hypatia became the victim of a particularly brutal murder at the hands of a gang of Christian zealots. It remains a matter of vigorous debate how much the guilt of this atrocity is Cyril’s, but the affair made Hypatia a powerful feminist symbol and a figure of affirmation for intellectual endeavour in the face of ignorant prejudice. Her intellectual accomplishments alone were quite sufficient to merit the preservation and respect of her name, but sadly, the manner of her death added to it an even greater emphasis.
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is a well-known list of the most impressive constructions from classical antiquity. Even today, they never fail to dazzle the human imagination.
As most of us know, only the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest of the ancient wonders, has survived to present day. The Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Statue of Zeus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and the Temple of Artemis are all sadly gone, and we will never see their beauty as the ancients did.
The final item on the list, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, has disappeared as well, although nobody is quite sure where exactly it was in the ancient world. In fact, some historians speculate that this seventh wonder might have never existed at all.
Today we have many literary accounts of these architectural masterpieces from ancient travel pamphlets and poems, especially from Greece. The set list of seven as we know it today did not emerge until the Renaissance, though.
By the fourth century BC, the Greeks had conquered much of the then-known world. They came into contact with many ancient civilizations like the Egyptians, Persians, and Babylonians. Astounded by the grand buildings of these societies, Greek travelers began to record what they saw. Consequently, the first writings that referred to a list of wonders of the world appeared around the first century BC, in Greece.
At first, the ancient Greeks spoke of “theamata,” meaning “sights,” or “things to be seen” (Tà heptà theámata tēs oikoumenēs [gēs]). The word “wonder” came around later. Diodorus Siculus, a first-century BC Greek historian, provided one of the first references to a list of seven landmarks. The poet Antipater of Sidon, who lived around 100 BC, mentioned a list as well. He described the wonders in a poem, which goes as follows:
“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Sun, and the huge labor of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.’” — Antipater, Greek Anthology IX.58
Philo of Byzantium also produced a short writing called “The Seven Sights of the World,” which only survives in fragments. It covers six of the supposed seven wonders, and matches up with Antipater’s description. There were earlier lists too, from the historian Herodotus and the architect Callimachus of Cyrene, but these survived only as references in the Museum of Alexandria.
According to literary accounts, the Colossus of Rhodes was the last of all seven wonders to be completed, probably around 280 BC. It was also the first of the seven to be destroyed, by an earthquake around 226-225 BC. This means that all seven landmarks would have existed at the same time for fewer than sixty years.
Most of the landmarks were around the Mediterranean, with the exception of Babylon. This was the world as the ancient Greeks knew it, so sites beyond this realm were never considered. Five out of the seven wonders are in fact Greek architectural and artistic accomplishments, which did not go unnoticed by Hellenic writers. Only the Egyptian Pyramids of Giza and the mysterious Mesopotamian Hanging Gardens of Babylon were non-Greek.
The Temple of Artemis and the Statue of Zeus were destroyed by fires, while the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Colossus of Rhodes, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus all fell in violent earthquakes. Sculptures from the Mausoleum, as well as some from the Temple of Artemis, survived — they can now be seen in the British Museum in London, England.
This practice of cataloging the greatest human architectural achievements continued beyond the times of Ancient Greece. Later Romans similarly indexed wonders from around their empire, reflecting the rise of Christianity and celebrating both Roman and Christian sites. Such lists included the Colosseum in Rome and Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, incorporating the traditional pagan culture with those of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Writers continued to produce lists of wonders throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even as recently as 2006, as people continue to celebrate their contemporary achievements of engineering. The original list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World may never be surpassed in grandeur, though, having set the standard for such a practice.
According to legend, a donkey dragging a cart filled with stones in Alexandria, Egypt, accidentally fell into a pit in the ground. If true, the donkey may have earned the honor of discovering one of the most fantastic sites in history. Namely, we are talking about the Kom El Shoqafa here, ancient catacombs unlike any other in the world of antiquity.
Whether the part with the donkey is correct or not doesn’t really matter. The important part of the story is what was lurking inside the hole. As the historic records go, it was a man known as Monsieur Es-Sayed Aly Gibarah who informed the local museum about the site in 1900. He told the museum authorities that he had come upon an underground tomb while digging and collecting stones in the area. At first, the curator of the museum was dubious about the report, but his doubts soon turned out to be unfounded. The shaft was indeed a discovery of a lifetime.
According to archaeologists, the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa resemble the largest burial site dating from the Greco-Roman period. Discovered in Alexandria, a particularly interesting city of antiquity, it was no surprise that what was hidden in the underground burial tunnels for centuries was a blend of different ancient arts and cultures.
As a city, Alexandria had picked its name after probably the most famous warrior history has ever witnessed, Alexander the Great. Founded in 331 BC, Alexandria became a prominent center of power, culture, and knowledge. It was here that for the very first time, a line of Greek rulers brought together the ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures. At least until 31 BC when the Romans took power, making Egypt one of its numerous provinces, and further influencing Alexandria with their own culture.
The Kom El Shoqafa catacombs served their purpose around the 2nd century AD. There are not many surviving sites that can depict the mixture of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman ancient cultures, but these catacombs illustrate exactly that and for this reason, are deemed to be the most striking remnant of ancient Alexandria.
The name Kom el Shoqafa itself is derived from the ancient Greek, translating to “Mound of Shards” as the area used to contain piles of shattered pottery, normally used for drinking wine or eating food, brought here and left by those who paid visits to the tombs.
As further archeological evidence suggests, it is likely that the site initially served as the tomb for one family only, but was later extended into a bigger burial site, the reasons unknown. Of course, the Kom El Shoqafa are not the only catacombs that were built in Alexandria. Plenty more burial sites were part of the Necropolis, the so-called City of the Dead, that was probably located in the western part of the city as traditions in Ancient Egypt suggest. While the Necropolis diminished over time, Kom El Shoqafa endured.
There was probably a huge funerary chapel occupying the surface above Kom El Shoqafa. There is only an 18-foot-wide and round shaft descending underground that is left of this upper funerary structure. The shaft may have also enabled the process of lowering the bodies of the departed, perhaps by making use of a rope and pulley system. Windows placed in the shaft enable light to fall onto a spiral staircase that moves down the site.
There is nothing much at the uppermost part of the burial site, but it is still the passage to the heart of the structure, the middle section of the catacombs. The middle level very much resembles a Greek temple structure and here can be seen some of the most prominent features of the site. Where the steps that lead to this part of the catacomb end, and in between two columns, open the “pronaos” of the temple.
In the chamber located behind the “pronaos,” there is the first fascinating work of art: intricate statues of a male and female, maybe the depictions of the original tenants of the tomb. While their bodily depictions are carved in a typical Egyptian manner, the head of the man bears a Greek style. In a similar way, the head of the woman is done in a Roman-like style.
Another intricate relief in the middle section is the one with the two serpents. Supposedly, they illustrate the Greek “Agathodaimon,” or “the good spirit.” However, it is even more interesting how the serpents are also adorned with elements that belong to the Roman and Egyptian cultures. Just above the head of the serpents, there is one more astounding depiction, that of Medusa. A notorious creature of the Greek mythology, she guards the burial site against intruders who might be trespassing.
In the beginning, the middle section was solely a u-shaped corridor, but as more deceased were buried here, the section eventually transformed into a labyrinth composed of more rooms and more halls. The level beneath the middle section adds to this time capsule of the lost ancient world, but unfortunately, this area is flooded and visitors cannot really see what’s hiding there.
Nevertheless, Kom el Shoqafa is one of the best-preserved ruins of the whole of Egypt and its rich mix of ancient cultures is what makes it so special. The site, though built much earlier, has further been featured as one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Other sites typically featured on this same list are also the Colosseum, Hagia Sophia, the Great Wall of China, the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and believe it or not, Stonehenge too.