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

Featured image

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 unsolved mystery of “Mary Celeste”: Found adrift in 1872, the captain and family and crew all vanished, but cargo and possessions intact

Featured image

Can you imagine how creepy it would be to sail across the ocean and suddenly run into a ship drifting, unmanned and yet completely intact?

In all honesty,  nothing compares to a scene such as that, really. The MV Lyubov Orlova, a long-lost abandoned cruise ship believed to be infested with flesh-eating cannibal rats heading right toward you might make for an even scarier scenario, but that’s another story for another time. Let’s focus on this other ship, and the mind-boggling mystery about its missing crew.

It has been tickling people’s imaginations for over a century. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Stephen King wrote about it, and many of us probably heard something about it. A whole century has passed, and still no one really knows for sure what had happened to those who boarded the Mary Celeste, probably the most famed of all the ghost ships.

The mystery is still very much not solved, and there are tons of plausible scenarios drifting around about what happened to the ship that set sail on November 7, 1872, from New York Harbor towards Genoa, Italy, and never reached its destination but was found abandoned “in mint condition” with everything intact–except for the men and the lifeboat.

Without survivors to tell the tale in detail, we offer some hard facts so you can try to decipher the solution for yourselves and decide what could, or couldn’t, have happened to the crew on board the Mary Celeste back in 1872.

According to nautical testimonies and maritime records, the 282-ton brigantine co-owned by James H Winchester, Sylvester Goodwin, and Benjamin Spooner Briggs, deemed seaworthy, insured, and loaded with 1,701 barrels of American alcohol (separately insured), began its journey from New York to Italy.

On board were Benjamin Spooner Briggs, one of the owners and the ship’s captain; his first mate, Albert Richardson; the captain’s wife, Sarah; their two-year-old daughter, Sophia; and the other six crewmen, all considered to be experienced and trustworthy. It was Captain Briggs’ first trip on the ship for which he bought shares earlier the same year, hoping to retire from the high seas and live a calm family life, earning money as a shipowner instead.

This was a try-out and Arthur, their seven-year-old son cared for by his grandmother (Briggs’s mother), was waiting for them back home in Rose Cottage, in Marion, Massachusetts. A few day before the journey, Briggs wrote his mother:

“My dear Mother…We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage. We both have missed Arthur and I believe we should have sent for him if I could…We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don’t get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shall have a fine passage but I have never been in her before and cant say how she’ll sail… Shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa…Hoping to be with you in the spring with much love. I am Yours affectionately, Benj.” – New York, Nov. 3d, 1872.   

It was not Tuesday but Thursday when the ship sailed and the crew was last seen alive.

About a week later, another ship previously docked on the same harbor in New York, set sail to cross the Atlantic, the Dei Gratia or By the Grace of God. Both ships had similar routes, somewhat parallel paths, and one strange encounter on the open sea.

Scattered somewhere around 800 miles west of the coast of Portugal, nine larger volcanic islands and a whole bunch of smaller ones comprise what is today considered by many one of the “best-kept secrets” of the Atlantic. The Azores.

And not far from these gems of nature, precisely halfway between the Azores and Portugal, on December 5th, Captain David Morehouse, of the Dei Gratia, along with every single member of his crew, witnessed a strange sight: a ship at full sail was swinging wildly with the ocean waves. There were no signs it was guided by a man. Captain Morehouse recognized it as the Mary Celeste,but the ship was meant to be in Geneva by know. Realizing that something must have happened, they changed course to intercept the drifting vessel.

The ship was reportedly intact and empty. There were no signs of struggle, no explosions, nothing. Just a lifeboat missing and a crew that apparently left everything behind, including the captain’s journal. The cargo was there, the food was there, their clothes were, everything. It was as if the whole crew just vanished into thin air. Except for the ship’s chronometer, the celestial navigation book, and a log not entered in the captain’s diary of why they left the boat in such a hurry, everything was inside. The last entry said that after a long battle with a harsh storm they finally saw land in sight and were heading towards it. It was 5 A.M., November 25, 1872, and the land in sight was Santa Maria, one of the Azure Islands. In a strange twist of events, a crew that mysteriously went missing was last recorded heading towards one of the “best-kept secrets” in the Atlantic.

Captain Morehouse and his crew took the boat they found abandoned and sailed it to Gibraltar, for the ship was seaworthy and a reward was to be given to those who would find a lost ship at sea. He knew Captain Briggs personally, and that he was an adept sailor. He believed that something dire must have made him believe that the boat was about to sink, explode, or something of the sort.

The British Vice Admiralty Court called for a hearing to investigate if the finders were entitled to a reward from the insurance company. The ship was thoroughly examined and believed to be seaworthy but in very bad shape. A court statement reads: “The Galley was in a bad state, the stove was knocked out of its place, and the cooking utensils were strewn around. The whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess. The Captain’s bed was not fit to sleep in and had to be dried.” Moreover, they found one of the pipes to be broken, the ship’s floor flooded three and a half feet high in water, and nine of the barrels empty, as Captain Morehouse and his crewmen reported when they docked the ship in Gibraltar and asked for salvage rights.

Acting as Attorney General for Gibraltar in the investigation, Frederick Solly-Flood, who actually was an Advocate General for the Queen in Her Office of the Admiralty, made sure to accuse everyone of everything; even Briggs himself as an accomplice in an insurance fraud, but in the end, after more than three months, not a shred of evidence of foul play was found and Sir James Cochrane, the Chief Justice of Gibraltar presiding as judge in this specific case, “cleared the men of all charges” brought upon them and granted them salvage rights in accordance with maritime law. According to him and the investigation conducted, the crew left the ship in a hurry in a state of panic.

The story continues to intrigue people a century and a half later after the “Mary Celeste” was discovered, with the crew missing and one of the recently refitted ship’s pumps dismantled in the flooded hold. A letter from the 1940s confirms that “harsh stormy conditions prevailed in the Azores on the 24 and 25 November 1872″ – Servico Meteorologico dos Açores Angra do Heroismo, Azores Islands, May 27, 1940.

Was the mystery blown out of proportion by an investigator who wanted to make a name for himself at the time, thus opening the way for a lot of speculation in the future, as many suggest he did?

Or could it be the case that Briggs made a bad judgment about the state of his ship and, under harsh storm conditions, fearing for his family and his crew, left it all together in an attempt to reach land–but failed and drowned as a result. No one really knows for sure, and perhaps we never will. The case of the Mary Celeste is still a mystery unsolved.

 Martin Chalakoski

Portuguese missionaries brought bread to Japan in 1543, and today it’s more popular than rice

Featured image

Certain foods seem inextricably linked to their countries of origin: think pasta in Italy, curry in India, teff in Ethiopia, baguettes in France, rice in China. Say Japan, and you probably conjure sushi, sashimi, yakitori. But bread? Not so much.

Brace yourself. Bread consumption in Japan has risen faster than a yeast-laden loaf. In 2011, the Japanese spent more on bread than they did on the more tradition-seeming staple rice.

It wasn’t always so. Bread first landed on Japanese soil along with the first Europeans, Portuguese traders, in 1543. Subsequent ships came bearing missionaries, weaponry, and unusual food, namely bread and wheat. The Portuguese, who looked, smelled, and sounded so different, were called “Southern barbarians.” But the Japanese, in the midst of a civil war, tolerated the outsiders for a time because they were keen to purchase Portuguese firearms.

That tolerance ended, and the last of the Portuguese missionaries were banished from the island in 1639, but before they left, they traveled inland trying to convert more Japanese to Catholicism. (The missionaries were remarkably successful, which is what got them banned. Historians estimate there were 500,000 converted Catholics in Japan.) They carried with them their unusual foodstuff, that is, bread. Interestingly, the Portuguese Catholics also introduced to Japan the concept of batter-frying food coated in wheat. Today tempura seems as synonymous with Japanese cuisine as sushi.

With the Sakoku edict of 1635, Japan famously closed its borders to outsiders, becoming an insular and isolated country. For more than two centuries, trade was severely restricted and nearly all foreigners were prohibited from entering the country.

Most Japanese lived on rice, millet, and barley, supplemented with vegetables and the occasional bit of fish.

Bread fell off the Japanese table until the Opium War in 1840, when it was mass-produced as a convenient field ration to feed hungry soldiers, under the recommendation of a military science researcher, according to LiveJapan.com.

Even among the military, bread was not universally admired. When the Japanese Navy tried to introduce Western-style bread and a dry wheat cracker called kanpan in 1890, the servicemen went on strike, according to Slate magazine.

With its borders opened to the rest of the world by the late 1800s, bread and other wheat products came back to Japanese menus, though in limited quantities. Working-class laborers ate wheat udon noodles; aspiring middle-class salarymen went to Western-style cafes, where they sampled unusual treats like pastries, cakes, and anpan, a sweet cake filled with black bean fudge.

During World War II, rice was reserved for soldiers. Civilians subsisted on rations of crude bread, dumplings, kanpan, and udon noodles. The situation got worse after the war, and Japan was on the brink of starvation when the U.S. sent in emergency rations of wheat and lard. As they already were in the U.S., sandwiches became a staple in subsidized school lunches in urban areas, a practice that lasted until the 1970s and that normalized sandwiches as a part of daily lives.

“In demographic terms, the reason the Japanese diet has shifted so markedly toward bread consumption in recent years is that those who have grown up with bread as part of their everyday diet now constitute a majority of the population,” as Iwamura Nobuko recounted on Nippon.com.

The Japanese government encouraged a Western diet of bread, meat, and dairy products in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Nobuko, as a way to build strong bodies, and set up policies to encourage wheat farming. Bread soon became emblematic of a trendy Western lifestyle.

Today in Japan, as in other parts of the industrial world, contemporary busy families are dependent on quick, portable, individual meals with easy cleanup. Rice traditionally requires the preparation of at least three side dishes; a bread sandwich is easier to prepare and to customize for various family members’ tastes.

Between slices of bread, however, you’ll find something more indigenous than ham and cheese. Popular Japanese sandwiches include Yakisoba Pan, with fried soba noodles and pickled ginger; a Toyko favorite called Katsu Sando, deep-fried pork, with pickled cabbage and barbecue sauce; and Kurama, a fruit and cream filled dessert sandwich. Yum! What’s for lunch?

 E.L. Hamilton

A castle built by the Moors, taken by the Vikings, and conquered by the King of Portugal

Featured image
Castle of the Moors. Author: Alex LA. CC BY 2.0

The charming Portuguese town of Sintra is famous for its fairytale palaces and enchanting gardens. Although Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira are the highlights of the hilly region, the Moorish Castle has recently gained the attention it deserves. The castle lacks the extravagance of the other two palaces, but that doesn’t make it unworthy of a visit. On the contrary, the unique structure is a perfect spot for every history lover.

The Castle of the Moors, or Castelo dos Mouros, was built in the 8th and 9th century by the North African Moors during their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, hence its name. The Moors chose a strategic military location high in the mountains over the River Tagus. Once it was completed, the castle was of great significance for the Moors and remained so until the end of their rule.

The Norwegian Viking Sigurd I Magnusson, a king better known as Sigurd the Crusader, took over the castle in 1108. The Vikings were headed to Jerusalem and as soon as they left the castle, it was once again in the hands of the Moors. Finally, after a couple of attempts to expel the Moors from the castle and the country itself, it was conquered by the King of Portugal, Afonso I “the Conqueror” Henriques, in 1147.

Archeological excavations at the site have discovered remains of a mosque and a few houses that used to be inhabited by the North African Muslims. On the location where once the mosque stood,  Afonso I “the Conqueror” Henriques built a small chapel. Although it remains undiscovered until today, one legend has it that under the cistern is the burial site of one of the powerful North African Kings.

The monarchs of Portugal continuously used the castle; however, it wasn’t as important as it had been during the Moorish rule. The last king of Portugal believed to have used the castle was Fernando I. The monarchs kept the original Moorish architecture of the castle but made small alterations. After the 14th century, it was neglected. For a short period, Jewish families lived in the castle. However, it was once again abandoned after they were banished from the country.

The Moorish Castle didn’t see any improvements in the following centuries. In fact, its condition has only gotten worse. Vegetation took over the castle and a big fire damaged most of the towers and rooms. Also, the tremendous earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 affected the architecture of the castle. But no one was willing to repair it and everything was indicating that nature would eventually destroy the castle. And so it would have probably ended up if it weren’t for King Ferdinand II.

 In 1842, he built the Pena Palace and enjoyed looking at the Moorish Castle from his residence. However, the condition of the medieval fortress troubled the King, so he started to make plans to restore it. Ferdinand II was a great admirer of the arts, and the castle was his favorite spot for painting. Everyone who has visited the castle would be unsurprised by this fact.

It has breathtaking views: from one side is the magnificent Pena Palace, and on the other is the oldest palace in Portugal, the National Palace of Sintra. Beautiful landscapes and the fairytale town of Sintra beneath the fortress are also part of the unforgettable panoramic views. And when the weather permits, it is possible to see the Atlantic Ocean from the highest spot of the castle, known as the King’s Tower.

Ferdinand II liked the Moorish Castle very much and did everything he could to maintain it. In the 20th century, it was once more restored as part of the commemoration of the foundation of Portugal. Archeological excavations continue to this day, and so far the archeologists have also discovered a Christian graveyard and many artifacts on the site that are now on display in the castle. Today, the remarkable Morish Castle is a National Monument, open to visitors and since 1995 has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


The Neo-Gothic Santa Justa lift in Lisbon, inaugurated by royalty in 1901, elevates its visitors to a gorgeous vista


In the last decade, Lisbon has become one of the most popular cities in Europe. It takes only one visit to this European gem to understand why: pleasant climate, delicious food and wine, enjoyable music evenings, and a myriad of sights.

Moreover, this so-called City of Seven Hills offers spectacular panoramic views over its picturesque architectural structures. Lisbon’s seven hills have had a crucial influence on the urbanization and intra-city transportation systems.

The viewpoints, or miradouros in Portuguese, can be found in lots of places around Lisbon, however, there is one popular tourist hotspot which takes visitors to a unique belvedere–the ornate elevator Santa Justa or Elevador de Santa Justa (Port.)

Light post in Lisbon, beside the “Elevador de Santa Justa”.

In Lisbon, there are four historic elevators that are national monuments-the Lift of Glory (1885), the Ascensor de Bica (1892), and Ascensor de Lavra (1884), although the Santa Justa, a 45-meter construction in Neo-Gothic style, is the most attractive. This lift was built in the 19th century and opened in 1902 when wrought iron was considered both a construction material and art form. The work began two years prior to the opening in order to replace the initial animal-powered inclined rail lift with a vertical elevator. In 1901, King Carlos inaugurated the lift, which became fully operational the following year.

Lisbon, Portugal – May 14: The Santa Justa Lift in Lisbon on May 14, 2014. Elevador di Santa Justa – an elevator lift in Lisbon,

The construction of the Santa Justa was funded by the royal house, and on the opening day over 3,000 tickets were sold. By the end of the first year after its opening, over half a million passengers were estimated to have been in the lift, so its popularity flourished and kept on rising.

Santa Justa elevator in Lisbon Portugal during day of autumn

The elevator Santa Justa’s structure is embellished with appealing Neo-Gothic arches and geometrical patterns, while its inside includes two wooden carriages that transport passengers up the steep hill in the Baixa district to the ruins of the Carmo convent and church through the exit at the upper level. In the past, this lift was a very useful service, which eased the difficulty in climbing up the steep Carmo Hill. However, nowadays it’s one of the most valuable landmarks in Lisbon.

Close up on Santa Justa elevator in Lisbon Portugal during day of autumn

Elevador de Santa Justa was designed by the architect Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard, the former apprentice and civil engineer of the now celebrity architect Gustav Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. When Ponsard finished his studies, he returned to his hometown and decided to put his knowledge into practice.

Famous Santa Justa elevator in the Baixa District in Lisbon, Portugal, 19th century project by Raul Mesnier de Ponsard

This fact explains the similarities concluded between the Elevador de Santa Justa and the Eiffel Tower and the epithet “the Eiffel Tower of Portugal.” The lift includes two cabins which can carry 25 people at once, both decorated with wood panels and brass fittings that take off every morning early at around 7 AM and finish work at 11 PM.

Famous Iron Santa Justa Lift (or Carmo Elevator) in Lisbon, Portugal

Initially, the elevator was powered by steam, but since 1907 it has been using electricity with a safer and cleaner motor which still powers the lift. When visitors reach the top, they step on the platform which can be reached by a spiral case, and relax with a coffee in the cafe while drifting away into the magnificent view of the Baixa neighborhood, the Rossio square or the castle on the opposite hill. At night, the Santa Justa belvedere becomes a real romantic oasis in the crowded urban Portuguese jungle.

Lisbon, Santa Justa Elevator at night

In 1973, the Elevador de Santa Justa came under public ownership and was taken over by the Carris Corporation, the executive manager of Lisbon’s tram network. This act has integrated the elevator in the public network of the city, thus, today, a ride on the lift can be obtained with the 24-hour public transport ticket purchased at any metro station. The Santa Justa is open seven days a week and works around 16 hours a day. In 2002, Elevador de Santa Justa, along with the Gloria, Bica, and Lavra cable railways, were all recognized as national monuments.

The authentic ambiance of Santa Justa continues even after its closing hours in the summer with street music bands that perform in front of the lift’s entrance, entertaining the late night audience who enthusiastically enjoys the colorful vibes and sensations of Lisbon.

By Magda Origjanska