“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 Malbork Castle is the largest castle in the world measured by land area

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The Malbork castle located in the town of Malbork in Poland is considered to be the largest brick fortress in the world measured by land area. It is one of the many castles built by the Teutonic Knights in northern Poland in a form of an Ordensburg fortress.

The construction began in 1275 and since 1309 it has been the capital of The Teutonic Order of Holy Mary in Jerusalem. It is an astonishing example of a medieval brick castle which fell into decay until it was restored in the early 20th century.


It was named after Mary, patron saint of the religious Order and it was called Marienburg. The Teutonic Order built this castle to strengthen their own control of the area and to protect Poland against the attacks of the pagan Prussians of the Baltic tribes. The evidence for the construction can only be found in the architectural studies in the Order’s administrative records and histories.

Siegfried von Feuchtwagen was the Grand Master of the Knights who undertook the next phase of the fortress’ construction when he arrived in Marienburg from Venice. The castle’s construction became more important in 1308 after the conquest of Gdansk and Pomerania.


It was 52 acres in size which is four times bigger than the area of Windsor Castle. Through the years, it was expanded several times because more room was needed for the Knights which at one point were approximately 3, 000. The fortress contains three separate castles– the High Castle, the Middle Castle, and the Lower Castle. Built near the river Nogat, the castle allowed easy access for trading ships from the Baltic Sea and the Vistula which is the longest river in Poland.

The Order was mostly trading with amber. In 1410, the castle was besieged after the Order was defeated in the Battle of Gunwald. In 1457, King Casimir IV Jagellon entered the castle after the Order left in 1456 because during the Thirteen Years’ War they could no longer financially manage the place.



Following severe damage in the Second World War, Malbork castle became a shadow of its former self. After that, the castle has been reconstructed several times. In 1962 it was reconstructed following a fire in 1959 which caused further damage. In 2016, a new restoration has been completed.

Today, it is a well-preserved medieval Gothic castle and museum. It was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. Visitors can walk through the hundreds of empty corridors and there are wooden weapons for the youngest that can be purchased at the gift shops.

 Marija Georgievska

Poland’s Moszna: From a Knights Templar shelter to a 99-spire castle favored by Kaiser Wilhelm

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When taking the route that connects Prudnik and Krapkowice in the western part of Upper Silesia in Poland, it’s a little confusing to come across a refreshment stall and souvenir booth on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

No doubt intrigued, any traveler may choose to slow down and explore, and if so, notice a sign next to the stalls pointing towards Moszna, a small village in the Opole Voivodeship, 22 miles away from the capital, Opole, and 75 miles from the city of Wroclaw.

Take this road and see where it leads, and the traveler discovers a road filled with countless stalls like the first, and only to be met by the sight of a spectacular castle at the end. The 19th-century Pałac w Mosznej, or Moszna Castle, is one from which fairytales are made of. And when seen firsthand, such fairytales truly come alive.

Moszna is a gigantic dreamlike structure spread over 8,400 square yards, an edifice that at first glance, with its grand design and enormity, suggests an English castle from the Elizabethan era. Yet when seen up close, Moszna shows an eclectic style, the result of the place being home to different families, at different times.

And with a history dating back as far as the middle of the 17th century, the place has an interesting story of how a castle composed out of three highly different sections, all built in three very distinctive architectural styles, came to look so mesmerizing and eerie at the same time.

There are many legends and facts behind how these walls were erected and joined together to form the striking structure dubbed the “castle of the 99 towers.”

The name of the village is derived from the surname of a Moschin family who, at the dawn of the 14th century, bought a large estate and moved there. During those times, the village was part of Łącznik parish, one of the church’s many properties held throughout Europe. As the story goes, this family, close to the church, purposely moved there, a village that almost nobody knew existed, to run a monastery and provide shelter for the Knights of the Temple of Solomon. According to local legend, in its early years Moszna was not a castle but a monastery run by the Order of The Knights Templar. This did not last long, as their last leader was burned at the stake in 1314 and the Templars were hunted down, disbanding soon after.

However, bearing in mind that all supposed facts from those early days are murky, to say the least, and taking into account that the Order was a secretive organization, this story is hard to confirm. However, investigations that were carried out centuries later found very old cellars buried deep beneath the gardens of the castles, adding a spark of intrigue to a story already rooted in folklore.

Whether true or only a sentimental story passed from generation to generation, this legend was of interest to the von Skall family, the first ever formally recorded owners who bought the estate in 1679 and built the foundations of the present castle.

According to historical evidence, George Wilhelm von Reisewitz, Great Marshal at the court of Frederick the Great (King of Prussia from 1740 until 1786), and cousin to Urszula Maria von Skall, the very first owner of the Moszna estate, inherited the place after she passed away in 1723. He began remodeling his newly inherited home to his liking, and in no time an aristocrat inhabited an extravagant castle built upon the grounds where once Templars slept, a story that was sold as such among his friends in the aristocracy. Now, his former home forms the baroque center of Moszna Castle.

Jorge Luis Borges, the renowned Argentine novelist, once shared his thoughts on the exuberant style, “I would define the baroque as that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities and that borders on self-caricature. The baroque is the final stage in all art when art flaunts and squanders its resources.” In the same manner, George Wilhelm von Reisewitz squandered his resources, and the von Reisewitz family lost the estate in 1771. Unable to afford its upkeep, they were forced to auction the place. Thus the castle fell into the ownership of Heinrich Leopold von Seherr-Thoss, whose family owned another castle as well as many properties nearby in Dobra village.

This family owned Moszna up until another Thoss, Karl Gotthard Seherr-Thoss, sold it to Heinrich von Erdmannsdorff in 1853, who shortly after, for reasons still unknown, sold it to Hubert von Tiele-Winckler in 1866.

Prior to that, Franz Winckler, a silver-mine worker in the 1830’s, moved from Tarnowskie Góry to Miechowice to work for a mining magnate who owned almost all calamine mines and zinc foundries in the area. This businessman died, and Franz, a former employee of his, ended up marrying his rich widowed wife, and most interestingly, in no more than a decade ended up being knighted by the Prussian king.

In 1854, their daughter, the heiress Valeska, married Hubert, then Hubert von Tiele, and in order to keep the knighthood heritage, both of them decided to use a combined name of Tiele-Winckler. Looking for a new home where they could start a new family, the Tiele-Wincklers stumbled upon the castle.

They bought the Moszna estate, had children, and years later, when his father died in 1893, the eldest male child inherited all of their wealth, including the castle. His name was Franz Hubert and he is now credited as the one who during his residence built the castle we see today.

Only three years after he became sole owner of the place, part of the castle was destroyed by a devastating fire. This meant a whole lot of rebuilding was needed. During the reconstruction, Franz Hubert not only restored it but expanded the castle to the east in a Victorian Gothic style, which was popular at the end of the 19th century. Thus, the Neo-Gothic east wing of the castle was created.

In no more than a decade, the castle had a fully landscaped garden to the front, as well as another wing to the west, built in 1911 in a Neo-Renaissance style to accommodate Emperor Wilhelm II, the last German Kaiser (Emperor) and King of Prussia. A few years earlier, the Kaiser and Franz Hubert had become acquainted, after which Franz was granted the title of earl. As for the Kaiser himself, he got himself a new vacation home, where he soon became a regular.

The castle nowadays is more or less as it was when Earl Franz finished rebuilding it, with its 99 towers and 365 rooms. Due to his son’s negligence and tumultuous married life, the family nearly lost the property along with the family’s fortune. What was left was raided by the Red Army in the aftermath of World War II, leaving an empty and ransacked castle behind.

Nowadays, the whole castle is a reasonably priced hotel and is available for anyone wishing to experience its beauty firsthand, along with the history that surrounds the great building. Set in a beautiful park packed with gorgeous azaleas, rhododendrons, and oak trees that have stood for as long as the castle itself, Moszna is a haven for those wanting to get away from it all in stunning surroundings.

 Martin Chalakoski

The centuries-old “Underground Salt Cathedral” of Poland is so vast, it’s possible to go bungee jumping

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There is an immense mine in a town called Wieliczka in the southern part of Poland at a depth of 1,027 feet and spreading over 178 miles. It is a truly gigantic place and up until the day it closed, it was among the oldest salt mines in the world.

The beginning of this mammoth mine can be traced back to the start of the 13th century. At this time, rock salt was discovered for the first time in Wieliczka and thus the first pits were dug. Over the centuries, the mine kept expanding farther and deeper, with more shafts being added.

Needless to say, over the years, the mine used a number of technologies to bring the salt up to the surface; for instance, there is the so-called “Hungarian-type horse treadmill” technique or the “Saxon treadmill.”

Given the sheer size of this place, it is no wonder that it became known as “the Underground Salt Cathedral of Poland.” Truth be told, this mine does, in fact, have a couple of cathedrals deep down in the darkness, where miners could say a prayer or two and ease their thoughts.

The underground cathedral’s statue and monuments were hand-carved by the miners themselves, except for a few statues made in modern times.The largest of the chapels is called the “St. Kinga Chapel,” itself some 295 feet underground. Found within its dark gray walls are a number of statues that depict the most central moments in the life of Jesus Christ, such as the Crucifixion and the Last Supper.

Even though these cathedrals are hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface, that doesn’t mean that they are any less luxurious than one above ground. In one of these chapels are two colossal chandeliers made exclusively of the salt crystals quarried from this mine.

As a matter of fact, this place is so big that it has several chandeliers hanging from its ceilings, a bungee jump was successfully accomplished, and a windsurfer even glided across one of these vast chambers.

Places this old are not without their fair share of legends, myths, and tales. One such legend is about Saint Kinga of Poland. Back in those days, Kinga was a princess who was about to become the wife of Bolesław V the Chaste, a duke of Sandomierz. For her dowry, she asked for nothing but a piece of salt, for back in those days, salt was a luxury item.

For this purpose, the king took his daughter to a salt mine. Then the princess chose one of the pits and dropped the engagement ring that Bolesław had given her, and left for Poland. Upon her arrival in Kraków, she tasked the miners with the digging of a very deep mine pit.

And they were to continue digging until they hit a rock. Once they did, the miners found a piece of salt. Upon splitting this piece of salt in two, the miners found the engagement ring. From that day on, the princess became the patron saint of the salt miners.

Once the Second World War began, Poland fell under Nazi occupation. Thousands of forced workers were sent deep down this mine, where the Germans had built an armament factory. But things took a different turn and the Germans never got a chance to activate this factory, for the Red Army was closing in.

The mine was officially closed in 1996, for the prices of salt took a nosedive, which subsequently meant that the production no longer justified the costs. On the other hand, the miners were in a constant battle with the water table anyway, and the shafts were all too often flooded.

Today this salt mine is a popular tourist attraction. A great number of famous people, scientists, writers, and composers, such as Dmitri Mendeleev, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Fryderyk Chopin, among others, have seen it. A rough statistic indicates that so far 40 million tourists have come to marvel at the utter beauty of this underground wonder of the world.

 Brad Smithfield

The cheeky Gnomes taking over Wroclaw

Cute as they may be, each statue is a nod to the Orange Alternative, an anti-Soviet resistance movement that helped bring down Poland’s oppressive communist regime in the 1980s.

Wrocław is Poland at its most charming and, for many, its least pronounceable (it’s ‘vrohtz-wahv’). Situated sublimely on the banks of the Odra river, the ‘Polish Venice’ boasts 130 bridges connecting 12 islands, one of Europe’s most breath-taking market squares, and a parade of pastel-coloured Renaissance mansions flanked by gas streetlamps that are still lit by hand each night.

But hidden beneath the city’s Gothic spires and Baroque palaces, there’s a tiny world waiting to be discovered: a legion of little people, each no more than a foot tall, lurking in the alleyways, peeking out from the doorways and swinging from the lampposts. Cheeky, bronze and oozing with personality, these pint-sized statues are the dwarves of Wrocław, and they’ve started running rampant.

A parade of pastel-coloured Renaissance mansions ring Wrocław’s massive Market Square (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

A parade of pastel-coloured Renaissance mansions ring Wrocław’s massive Market Square (Credit: Eliot Stein)


No-one knows just how many of these merry munchkins exist anymore, but officials estimate that there are now more than 400 of the little fellas going about their business. On my way from the bus station to the Old Town, I spotted a reclining dwarf cheerily sunning himself in the park, stubbed my toe on a bearded blighter working on a laptop near a cafe, and instinctively moved out of the way when I saw two boot-sized firemen rushing to put out a blaze.

Most visitors have no idea why these gnomes are so important

Stay long enough and you may find an entire society of dwarf merchants, bankers, buskers, professors and postmen. There’s a doctor holding a mini stethoscope, a gardener pushing a teeny wheelbarrow and a dwarf dentist extracting itty-bitty dwarf teeth. One is snoring by a hotel, two are kissing in front of the marriage registration office and 19 are performing a dwarf symphony outside the city’s concert hall.

“We lost count of their population several years ago,” admitted Robert Rasała, who manages the official dwarf information centre in the city’s market square. “Now, people are coming from all over the world to hunt for them, but most visitors have no idea why they’re so important.”

A tiny bronze dwarf withdraws money at the ATM steps away from a bank in Wrocław’s Market Square (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

A tiny bronze dwarf withdraws money at the ATM steps away from a bank in Wrocław’s Market Square  (Credit: Eliot Stein)

Twee as they may be, each statue is actually a nod to the Orange Alternative, an anti-Soviet resistance movement born in Wrocław that used dwarves as its symbol and helped topple Poland’s oppressive communist regime in the 1980s.

The dwarves gave us something to laugh at

Armed with spray cans and led by an artist at the University of Wrocław named Waldemar ‘Major’ Fydrych, the group peacefully protested the government’s censorship of free speech and public gatherings during the period of martial law from 1981 to 1983 by defacing communist propaganda with surrealist-inspired street art – specifically, paintings of mischievous little gnomes.

“It was a terrible, dangerous time. You couldn’t go out on the streets at night and there were tanks and soldiers in the main square,” said Arkadiusz Förster, a journalist for Poland’s national Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. “The dwarves gave us something to laugh at, and that was the whole idea: to show how absurd the situation was and encourage people not to be afraid.”

Wrocław’s two most famous dwarves, nicknamed Sisyphus, push against each other (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Wrocław’s two most famous dwarves, nicknamed Sisyphus, push against each other (Credit: Eliot Stein)

As the movement gained popularity, Fydrych began leading whimsical public marches through the streets of Wrocław, advocating for ‘dwarves’ rights’. Police tried to crack down on these subversive pro-gnome gatherings, but the resulting arrests made national news and only succeeded in making the authorities look ridiculous. Soon, tiny dwarf drawings began popping up on streets throughout Poland. The movement culminated on 1 June 1988, when 10,000 protestors descended on downtown Wrocław wearing orange cone-shaped hats and chanting ‘Freedom for the dwarves!’.

“That event became known as the Revolution of Dwarves,” Förster said. “It showed the world that communism was unravelling, and that people of all ages could join together to fight against the system peacefully.”

It showed the world that communism was unravelling

In 2001, the city decided to commemorate its history of artistic anti-communist rebellion by placing a bronze statue of a large dwarf – named Papa Dwarf – on Świdnicka street, where members of the Orange Alternative used to gather. Four years later, a local sculptor named Tomasz Moczek had an idea: what if he created tiny bronze dwarves, each representing a different part of Wroclaw’s history or daily life and placed them around the city?

Tomasz Moczek’s favourite dwarf, The Butcher, peers solemnly towards Wrocław’s medieval slaughterhouse (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Tomasz Moczek’s favourite dwarf, The Butcher, peers solemnly towards Wrocław’s medieval slaughterhouse (Credit: Eliot Stein)

Seeing the Dwarves

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Today, there is only one original dwarf drawing on the walls of Wrocław created by the Orange Alternative. To find it, head to St. Smoluchowskiego 22.

Don’t want to download an app or purchase an official Wrocław dwarf map to go gnome-spotting? No problem. Check out this Google Mapof some of the Old Town’s most famous little residents.

Pair history with dwarf-hunting during the free Dwarves and Communismtour.

Wrocław’s mayor commissioned Moczek to create the first five, and his early designs – including a hatchet-wielding butcher staring solemnly at the city’s medieval slaughterhouse and a trio of gnomes working together to push a human-sized shopping cart outside a city market – proved so popular that they’ve now spawned a sizable sub-population.

Today, Moczek has created more than 100 of Wrocław’s gnomes, and inspired a collection of young sculptors to design delightfully quirky dwarf statues for local charities, shops and organisations. As the gnomes’ population has grown, people from all over the planet have started coming to find as many of these remarkably imaginative 1ft-tall wonders as possible.

“I wanted to create something that’s completely integrated into the city – something that seems like it’s always been there that you’re just now discovering.” Moczek said in his studio, holding up a model of the first dwarf he ever created: a crouching gnome washing his clothes in the Odra river.

“How come that dwarf isn’t wearing shoes?” I asked.

“He took them off so they wouldn’t get wet,” Moczek said. “Each dwarf has his own distinct character. I just create them as they are.”

Sculptor Tomasz Moczek insists this dwarf removed his shoes because he didn’t want to get them wet while washing in the river (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Sculptor Tomasz Moczek insists this dwarf removed his shoes because he didn’t want to get them wet while washing in the river (Credit: Eliot Stein)

In fact, the city recently created an official website to help people better acquaint themselves with its littlest residents. Each has a name, a detailed backstory and unique habits. You can vote for your favourites, register new arrivals or catch up on the latest dwarf gossip. There are also dwarf-hunting maps, apps and walking tours; an annual September festival with a ‘Great Dwarf Parade’; and a winter tradition where locals dress the dwarves in little scarves, hats and mittens to help them stay warm.

After inviting me into his workroom, Moczek led me on a walking tour through Wrocław’s Old Town to point out his favourite petite progeny and reveal his process.

It takes three months to create each 4kg to 5kg creation, he explained, and it all starts with a sketch. He then creates a clay mould of the design that acts as a negative for the silicone and gypsum model that follows. Moczek makes four small holes in the model and carefully pours hot wax into it, making sure that the form has the same thickness throughout its body. After he completes any final retouching, he places the model into a 700C oven for 12 hours. The wax melts, leaving a cavity, and Moczek pours molten bronze into this area to make a cast. He then reheats it up to 1200C as the little dwarf gains mass and grows into a street-ready statue.

It takes sculptor Tomasz Moczek three months to make each gnome (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

It takes sculptor Tomasz Moczek three months to make each gnome (Credit: Eliot Stein)

“The hardest part is the moment I have to give them away,” Moczek said, bending down to examine Sleepyhead, who holds a teeny spear and was supposed to guard a knee-high gate leading to the mythical ‘Dwarf City’, but fell asleep on the job. “Sometimes, I like to go to their new resting places to see how they’re doing.”

As we approach Moczek’s most famous figurines – a pair of pals pushing a granite ball in opposite directions (named Sisyphus) – I asked him if he’s old enough to remember life in Wrocław during martial law, and he grew quiet.

“I was nine years old and wanted to get ice cream with my mother,” he said, staring at the ground. “We went outside and saw tanks coming and people running away. My mother fell down and got trampled. I didn’t know what to do so I just threw rocks at the tanks and hoped they’d stop.”

Tomasz Moczek: "Maybe it’s just art, but for me, it’s something more." (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Tomasz Moczek: “Maybe it’s just art, but for me, it’s something more.” (Credit: Eliot Stein)

As Moczek raised his head, a stone-faced older gentleman slowly approached the two bronze figurines. The man bent down, snapped a picture and couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of mischievous little dwarves tramping through the streets.

“Maybe it’s just art,” Moczek said, flashing a smile. “But for me, it’s something more.”

By Eliot Stein 18 October 2017  BBC Travel