Space debris or an alien satellite: Unraveling the mysteries behind the “Black Knight”

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What most people don’t realize is that 6,000 satellites have been launched into Earth’s orbit since the Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1 into space back in 1957. These man-made satellites have served various purposes, such as means of communication, navigation, and exploration. Estimates suggest that around 3,600 so far have remained in orbit, out of which far fewer are still operational. Once these satellites fulfill their purpose and reach life expectancy, they become nothing more than a space debris.

It is very easy to spot some of them, orbiting in the skies, including the largest one of all, the International Space Station. However, none of them match the Black Knight, a highly mysterious and much-debated satellite, in the power of storytelling.

While some argue the Black Knight has been in orbit for some five decades already, others say it is less time than that–and there are those who argue it was there 13,000 years ago. Its purpose and origin have remained well hidden, although there are claims it has already beamed signals to the Earth. Who gave this object its ominous name adds to the spine-tingling nature of the enigma, and it is uncertain who was the first to discover it, either.

Unsurprisingly, conspiracy theorists have come to the table. As they explain it, the Black Knight’s origin is linked to extra-terrestrials. The scientific and academic community dismiss all such talk. So how to explain the buzz surrounding the Black Knight?

The root of the story begins with Nikola Tesla, who supposedly had heard sounds from space back in 1899. He deemed the sounds were possibly from intelligent life not on Earth, perhaps inhabitants of Mars. Decades later, in 1968, astronomers confirmed that he indeed heard radio signals, but they came via other natural objects in space.

Tesla never claimed he heard signals coming from a satellite orbiting the Earth, but there are those who still believe he was listening to transmissions from an orbiting satellite, one that was none other than the Black Knight.

In 1954, some newspapers, including The San Francisco Examiner and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published certain opinions, made by Donald Edward Keyhoe, a former Marine Corps naval aviator and famed UFO researcher. Keyhoe continually published stories in various magazines such as Weird TalesFlying AcesThe Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest.

Published in the newspapers was Keyhoe’s belief that extra-terrestrials had visited the Earth. He also wrote a couple of books in which he stated that the U.S. Air Force detected two satellites orbiting the Earth in 1954, when in fact, no such technology existed.

On the other hand, the mid-1950s were times when science fiction was moving towards its peak in popularity.

Keyhoe’s books were rivalled by those written by H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, and Issac Asimov. Along with a range of movies and television shows, these stories fueled the public imagination about space travel and possible alien life encounters. Skeptics decided that much of what Keyhoe wrote was to help the promotion of his own books.

However, in 1960, during the Cold War, Time Magazine further claimed the U.S. Navy was aware of a satellite that had an unusual orbit. Initially, the magazine claimed it was a Soviet spy, but later it stated concern that a U.S. satellite broke out of orbit.

Over the years, reports of the Black Knight satellite have accumulated, but according to many, they are the result of unverified stories, overzealous reporters, and over-interpreted photographs. As NASA astronaut Jerry Ross says, the object and all the speculations about it are simply the results of a mistake.

Furthermore, senior education support officer Martina Redpath of the Armagh Planetarium in Norther Ireland doubts that the Black Knight is anything but a “jumble of completely unrelated stories.” Redpath had also claimed that many of the related reports on the matter are “unusual science observation” that have nurtured the myth of the Black Knight.

A possible explanation to the mystery can be found in December 1998, when a space shuttle mission was conducted at the International Space Station (ISS). During the mission, which involved spacewalks, Colonel Ross and Dr. James Newman were attempting to install thermal blankets to make adjustments that would reduce heat loss and save energy at the ISS. As the blankets were fastened to Col. Ross’ spacesuit, one of them was lost. Once he had realized it was gone, it was already far away from the astronauts and they were unable to retrieve it.

As NASA explains, debris regardless of its size escapes the stations at missions that require a spacewalk. Such was the case in December 1998, when a few more items had ended up as space debris. Usually, the majority of those objects are officially cataloged by the US SSN (Space Surveillance Network) too.

Therefore, the object photographed during the mission in 1998 known as STS-88, widely claimed to be the Black Knight satellite, is, according to the space journalist James Oberg, probably the thermal blanket that has been reported lost during the extravehicular activity conducted by Col. Ross and Dr. Newman.

In an interview given in 2014, Col. Ross has also stated that “conspiracy theories are fun for those working on them, but a waste of valuable brain power,” in the context of all the surrounding Black Knight theories.

Will these statements put an end to the intrigue of the Black Knight? The answer is: probably not.

 Stefan Andrews


The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet

The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan is changing its alphabet from Cyrillic script to the Latin-based style favoured by the West. What are the economics of such a change?

The Economics of Change

The change, announced on a blustery Tuesday morning in mid-February, was small but significant – and it elicited a big response.

“This one is more beautiful!” Asset Kaipiyev exclaims in surprise. The co-founder of a small restaurant in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, Kaipiyev had just been shown the latest version of the new alphabet, approved by President Nursultan Nazarbayev earlier in the day.

The government signed off on a new alphabet, based on a Latin script instead of Kazakhstan’s current use of Cyrillic, in October. But it has faced vocal criticism from the population – a rare occurrence in this nominally democratic country ruled by Nazarbayev’s iron fist for almost three decades.

(Credit: Piero Zagami)

In this first version of the new alphabet,apostrophes were used to depict sounds specific to the Kazakh tongue, prompting critics to call it “ugly”.

The second variation, which Kaipiyev liked better, makes use of acute accents above the extra letters. So, for example, the Republic of Kazakhstan, which would in the first version have been Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy, is now Qazaqstan Respýblıkasy, removing the apostrophes.

“It is more beautiful than the former variant,” says Kaipiyev. “I don’t like the old one because it looks like a tadpole.”

Then it hit him. His restaurant, which opened in December, is called Sa’biz –spelt using the first version of the alphabet. All his marketing materials, the labelling on napkin holders and menus, and even the massive sign outside the building will have to be replaced.

In his attempt to get ahead by launching in the new alphabet, Kaipiyev had not predicted that the government would revise it. He thinks it will cost about $3,000 to change the spelling of the name on everything to the new version, Sábiz.

What Kaipiyev and other small business owners are going through will be happening at a larger scale as the government aims to transition fully to the Latin-based script by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal in a nation where the majority of the population are more fluent in Russian than in Kazakh.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Asset Kaipiyev, co-founder of Sa’biz, changed the spelling of his restaurant – now he has to change it again (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Mother tongue

According to the 2016 census, ethnic Kazakhs make up about two-thirds of the population, while ethnic Russians are about 20%. But years under Soviet rule mean Russian is spoken by nearly everyone in country – roughly 94% of the more than 18 million citizens are fluent in it. Kazakh fluency is at second place, at 74%.

Years under Soviet rule mean Russian is spoken by nearly everyone in country – roughly 94% of the population is fluent in it

Frequency of usage depends on the environment. In the Russian-influenced northern provinces and city centres, like Almaty and the capital Astana, Russian is used both on the street and in state offices. But in the south and west, Kazakh is more regularly used.

That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

(Credit: Piero Zagami)

The cost of change

So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

According to state news media, the government has allocated roughly 300 million tenge each ($922,000) for 2018 and 2019; this money will go towards education in primary and secondary schools, says Eldar Madumarov, an economist and professor at KIMEP University in Almaty.

The government’s total budget for the seven-year transition will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge, or $664 million

Meanwhile, the translation of teaching kits and textbooks will begin this year, according to state media, while teachers nationwide will start teaching pre-school and first grade students the new alphabet in 2020, adding a grade each year until 2025, when all levels from pre-school to the final grade will have fully transitioned.


There is also budget for developing a language converter IT program to recode Cyrillic script into Latin in the third quarter of 2018 (approximately $166,000), improving the qualifications of secondary school teachers ($33.2m), and hiring influential bloggers to push forward an awareness campaign for the final stage of the transition, beginning in 2024 ($1.4 million).

But without a clear breakdown provided by the government, some economists have found it difficult to properly assess the direct costs of this massive undertaking. (The ministries of foreign affairs, education, and culture did not respond to requests for comment and clarification.)

Hidden costs

The piecemeal reporting of how the transition will happen makes one economist worried about the unexpected costs.

“If this reform is not properly implemented, the risks are high that highly qualified people from the Russian-speaking majority, which includes also ethnic Kazakhs, may want to consider emigration,” says Madumarov. “The risks may be that some of their opportunities would be cut.”

If this reform is not properly implemented, highly qualified people from the Russian-speaking majority may want to consider emigration – Eldar Madumarov

In late February, the extent of the issue was on display when Nazarbayev – who is comfortably bilingual – ordered that all cabinet meetings be held in Kazakh. Since Russian has long been the lingua franca of state affairs, government officials’ command of Russian often surpasses their Kazakh. One meeting was broadcast over TV, and it showed officials struggling to express themselves. Some even opted to wear translation headsets.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

City librarians take a class on the new alphabet at the National Library in Astana, Kazakhstan, on 21 February 2018 (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Bureaucratic characters

There’s also the cost of changing the language of government affairs. IDs, passports, printed laws and regulations – all the paperwork that governments need in order to function will have to be translated. While this has been reportedly part of the second and final stage of the transition, there has been no listed amount for this expense, says Kassymkhan Kapparov, director of the Almaty-based Bureau for Economic Research of Kazakhstan.

For things like passports and IDs, there is already a fixed fee to renew, “so the only thing that would change is that the letters would just change in the software,” Kapparov says, adding that a new passport costs roughly $60 while an ID card is about $1.50. “The government left it blank. I think the logic is that it would not cost anything.”

But he remains most curious about the third stage, which reportedly begins in 2024 and includes the translation of internal business documents within the central and local state bodies, while state media would also need to implement the new alphabet.

“For the state’s own media to use the new alphabet, you have to train people first of all, then you have to change all the IT infrastructure to embed this script. And then you have to change all the planks [signboards] and the letterheads and stamps and signs,” he says. “For that, they didn’t provide the estimate… based on my estimates, it would be somewhere between 15 to 30 million [dollars].”

That number is only for the public sector, though. “For the private sector, of course they would have to do it themselves. It could be double, it could be ten times,” Kapparov says. “It depends on how hard the government goes about it, like would they require it to change in a single year? It’s possible. With our government, you never know.”

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

It will cost about $3,000 for Sa’biz restaurant to change the spelling of its name the new version, Sábiz (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Kapparov also worries that people, especially the older generation, would struggle to read and write in the new Latin script, so communications within the public sector may have to be in several languages at once.

“You can call it the language burden, because when you write a letter inside the public sector, you would have to write it in Russian, in Kazakh, and in Kazakh in the new script… and for that you would need to employ translators,” he says. “This creates additional costs and additional inefficiencies and of course the government doesn’t show it in their budget. But it will create an additional burden on the government.”

When it comes to direct costs, Kapparov is confident that his estimates – which he did in 2007 after the first feasibility study came out and again in January of this year when budgetary information started trickling out via state media – would not be more than $1bn for the entire transition.

But the director of Kazakhstan’s Centre for Macroeconomic Research, Olzhas Khudaibergenov, believes the whole transition will cost far less than Kapparov’s estimate. He thinks all paper documents costs will just be folded into the government’s usual budget. “Real expenses will be only for informational and explanatory programmes to support the transition.

“I estimate that the annual budget will not exceed two to three billion tenge [$6.1m-$9.2m] within 2018 to 2025.”

Economic benefits?

Kapparov says this alphabet transition is “hard to sell” for the government, and there won’t be a direct return on investment.

The alphabet change should be seen as more of a social and cultural development programme – Kassymkhan Kapparov

Rather, it “should be seen as more of a social and cultural development programme of the government,” he says.

Khudaibergenov agrees. “It is more a question of national identity which we are trying to find, and are ready to pay for that.”

KIMEP University professor Madumarov believes the economy could be slowed by political ramifications of the language change. While some have speculated that Nazarbayev’s decision to switch might signal cooling ties with Russia, the gradual shift to a Latin-script language could also weaken trade relations with post-Soviet countries.

Currently, up to 10% of the current trade flow between Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine can be explained by the convenience of a shared language, which in some ways translates to a shared culture and mentality, says Madumarov. This also means that Russian-speaking Kazakhs have more economic mobility between countries. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Georgia, nations that are not as fluent in Russian, have weaker trade links.

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Russian is the language of choice in Kazakhstan’s cities, such as the capital Astana (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Inversely, he says that the benefits to having a Latin-script alphabet means being better integrated with most of the Western world. As an example, Turkey, which switched to a Latin-based alphabet from its former Arabic script in 1928, has managed to form alliances with the European Union and was in negotiations – up until recently, when the government moved towards a more autocratic direction – to be a member.

Turkey has long been used as an example of how modernisation of the language and legal systems led to its position today as an economic power, says Barbara Kellner-Heinkele, a Berlin-based expert in Turkic languages and Turkic history. But she says this progress is due more to growing literacy and republic founder Ataturk’s firm grip over every aspect of society.

Turkey’s 1928 switch to a Latin script “was done in no time”, but back then, few Turks could read and write: Ataturk needed educated people for his country to be on the same level as Europe and the US, “and part of the education drive was the new alphabet”, she says.

An independent nation

Kazakhstan’s transition is more about setting itself apart from its Soviet past than literacy or economics, Kellner-Heinkele says. “It is a political argument to show that they are an independent state and they are modern and they are a nation.”

Fazylzhanova Muratkyzy, a linguist who worked with the government to create the new alphabet, echoes this assessment, and says many Kazakhs associate the Cyrillic-based script to Soviet control.

Young people, especially, are welcoming the change.

Based on surveys that her linguistic institute have conducted over the last decade, Muratkyzy says that 47% of the younger generation – aged 18 to 25 – supported a switch to a Latin-based script in 2007; that number jumped to 80% in 2016.

47% of the younger generation supported a switch to a Latin-based script in 2007; that number jumped to 80% in 2016

“It is the choice of the people, of the nation. And with this new alphabet, it is connected to our dreams and our future,” she says. “It shows that our independent history is finally beginning.”

(Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Head of national academics Munalbayeva Daurenbekovna discusses the new alphabet at the National Library in Astana (Credit: Taylor Weidman)

Munalbayeva Daurenbekovna, head of the National Academic Library, has been holding open classes for librarians and other interested parties to help them get used to the Latin script. She is optimistic the that young people especially will have no trouble learning the new script.

“Teachers would have to learn every day for one month. For children, it would only take 10 lessons, because children learn faster than adults.”

For Kaipiyev, the owner of Sa’biz, moving away from the Cyrillic script – no matter how tedious it is for him as a small business owner – is something he fully supports. “We want to connect with Europe and America, and with other foreign countries. This will help us turn the page to the next chapter,” he says.

As for changing his restaurant material to reflect the latest version of the alphabet?

“I think I will leave it the same for now,” Kaipiyev says, after a moment’s consideration. “We will change it when the people can actually read it.”

By Dene-Hern Chen 25 April 2018

Additional reporting by Makhabbat Kozhabergenova. Additional research by Miriam Quick.

“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

When her husband was killed by the Nazis, she bought a tank and went on a rampage on the Eastern Front

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World War II devastated families and separated countless lovers. In some cases, the ones who lost their loved ones hurried to avenge them. Mariya Oktyabrskaya was one such person. As news of her husband having died on the Eastern Front reached her, she decided to sell everything she owned and invest in the production of a T-34 tank. Then she went a step further and applied for training to receive her tank driving license. The following step was vengeance like no other.

But let’s get back to the beginning. Mariya Oktyabrskaya was born on the Crimean Peninsula to a poor Ukrainian family which nurtured 10 children. Before the war, she worked in a cannery and was at one point a telephone operator.

She met her husband, the future Red Army officer, in 1925. The two married that same year. Mariya became very interested in her husband’s line of work and joined the Military Wives Council and acquired training as an army nurse. Soon after, she learned how to use weapons and drive, which was very uncommon for women at the time.

When asked about her unusual interest, she reportedly replied: “Marry a serviceman, and you serve in the army: an officer’s wife is not only a proud woman but also responsible title.”

As the war closed in on the Soviet Union in 1941, she was evacuated to Siberia, where she spent the next two years. It took a long time for the news of her husband’s death to reach her, but as soon as she got the letter, she knew what to do. Oktaybrskaya was so enraged by the death of her beloved husband that she wrote a letter to Stalin directly:

“My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose, I’ve deposited all my personal savings–50,000 rubles–to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the front line as a driver of the said tank.”

Stalin felt he had no choice but to accept. The State Defense Committee advised him that the move could have a positive effect as a morale booster on both the desperate population and the troops. It wasn’t uncommon for citizens to donate money for war production in the Soviet Union, but usually, those making the donations were men.

Nevertheless, in dire times every bit of help is welcome, and so Mariya received five months of training in order to master the skills of operating the T-34.

This too was uncommon―during the Great Patriotic War, as WWII was dubbed in the U.S.S.R., tank crews received shorter training, as they were needed almost immediately on the front. In Stalingrad, tanks would enter combat unpainted.

The five-month training was also part of the propaganda effort―the Soviet government didn’t just want to send Oktyabrskaya to battle. They wanted to make sure that she would be effective.

After training, the 38-year-old Oktobrskaya got transferred to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade in September 1943 and soon participated in the Second Battle of Smolensk. Even though other tank crews looked at her as some publicity stunt, she got the chance to prove them wrong.

During her first battle, Oktobskaya showed some extraordinary maneuvering skills and assisted in neutralizing machine gun nests and artillery positions, while under heavy fire. Her tank, “The Fighting Girlfriend,” pushed through enemy lines, but was badly damaged.

Under intense fire, she rushed out of the turret to repair her tank. Her fellow crewmen provided covering fire while she fixed the tank and jumped back in. Everyone in the unit was amazed, and she was promoted to the rank of Sargent.

A similar situation happened a month later, when “The Fighting Girlfriend” was raining fire around the town of Novoye Selo in the region of Vitebsk. Her track was hit and the tank was immobilized. Sargent Oktobrskaya rushed out and, with the help of another crew-member, managed to put the T-34 back in running condition.

But just two months later, her courageous tactic would prove to be the last. As the tank once again suffered damage after destroying entrenched positions and an enemy self-propelled gun, Oktobrskaya tried to pull the trick once again. She managed to fix the damaged track but was hit in the head by shell fragments and lost consciousness during her return.

Mariya Oktobrskaya was transferred to a military field hospital near Kiev, where she spent two months in a coma before passing away on March 15, 1944.

Her actions did not go unrewarded, nor were they in vain. She was declared a Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously, as her bravery inspired thousands of women to join the fight and make their contributions.

 Nikola Budanovic

The Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg: One of the most dazzling Fabergé eggs was Tsar Nicholas’s Easter gift to his wife

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To say that Fabergé eggs are among Easter’s most elegant decorations doesn’t come close to describing their historical and artistic significance. These gem-encrusted items represent so much more than other forms of decorative art.

The story of these pieces, decorative art at its finest, goes back to the 19th century, inextricably linked to Imperial Russia and the Russian royal family. It is a story about power, glory, luxury, prestige, revolution, tragedy, and, above all, exceptional craftsmanship. Here is how it all began.

Easter of 1885 was a day of great significance for the Russian royal family because it marked the twentieth anniversary of Tsar Alexander III and Tsarina Maria Feodorovna’s engagement. A special occasion like that deserved to be marked in a special way and that is exactly what Tsar Alexander III had in mind when he placed an order for an egg from Fabergé as an Easter present for his wife. At first, the gift seemed to be just a simply decorated piece, but it had a hidden surprise. Inside was a golden yolk. And inside the yolk was a plump golden hen. And inside the hen, there was a diamond-set crown and a tiny ruby pendant.

Maria Feodorovna liked the gift so much that the Tsar decided to turn this into a yearly tradition, which was apparently taken quite seriously by the royal family in the following years. The Tsar’s successor, Nicholas II, followed the tradition, presenting eggs to both his mother, Maria Feodorovna, and his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, every year.

Around 50 Easter eggs were made for the imperial family between 1885 and 1917, but only 42 have survived. Each of the eggs is unique in its own way, having an original design and containing a different hidden surprise. One of these Imperial Easter Eggs is the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg, also known as the Madonna Lily Egg.

Presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife for Easter 1899, the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg is among the largest of all Fabergé eggs ever produced.

Workmaster Michael Perkhin, who worked on this particular egg under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé himself, was clearly inspired by the design of French Louis XVI-era clocks, but what makes his creation unique is that he cleverly used the egg as a face of the clock.

In the creation of this egg, Perkhin apparently made a good use of the symbolic language of flowers. He combined roses (symbols of romance, love, beauty, and perfection) and white lilies (symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity and innocence) with burning torches that ultimately emphasize the significance of family love.

Two eggs planned for gifts in Easter 1917 were never delivered because of the Russian Revolution, and the royal family being overthrown. Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children were all killed.

Today, the Bouquet of Lilies Clock Egg, along with nine more Fabergé eggs, resides in the Kremlin Armoury Museum in Moscow, one of the oldest museums in Russia. Many of the other Imperial Easter Eggs can be seen in different museums across Russia and some are housed in museums in the United States.

Nine of them are owned by Viktor Vekselberg, an oil and gas tycoon who bought the eggs for around $100 million in 2004. His collection can be seen at the Fabergé Museum, located in the Shuvalov Palace in St. Petersburg.

 Goran Blazeski

Which Waters Do You Pass Through When You “Sail the Seven Seas”?

Sailboat against a beautiful landscape
© Eva Bidiuk/

Pirates and their sailing ships are inexorably linked to the romantic concept of the seven seas, and some variation of the phrase “sailing the seven seas” has existed since ancient mariners plied the Mediterranean Sea and the waters of the Middle East. But which bodies of water are those seven?

A definitive list of the bodies of water that made up the seven seas varied from one culture to another and changed over time. To complicate matters, seven was likely not literal, but rather it was probably used by some cultures as a stand-in for the word many. (The significance of the number seven may be related to its status during biblical times as a symbolic number to exemplify both good things and bad things. There are seven deadly sins and seven days in a week.) For some, the seven seas were simply parts of trade routes. For others, the seven seas were familiar baysgulfs, seas, and stretches of ocean.  In yet other cases, the term had the effect of inspiring a spirit of adventure by referring to waterways that were both strange and distant.  “Sailing the seven seas” meant one thing to people living in the Middle East and another to people living in Europe or eastern Asia.  Moreover, sometimes the “seas” weren’t even true seas. As a result, there was no true universal understanding of what the seven seas were.

Fortunately, various cultures kept fairly decent records on this topic. The seven seas of the Persianswere composed of a handful of major rivers of Central Asia and their tributaries, whereas those of the ancient Arabs spanned the coastal waterways that connected the lands bordering the Persian Gulf to those of the South China Sea. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service, the seven seas of the ancient Greeks were the Aegean, the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, the Black, the Red, and the Caspian seas and the Persian Gulf. However, other sources might have swapped in the Indian Ocean for the Aegean Sea. Possibly as a reflection of the growth of knowledge, the seven seas of medieval Europeans shifted to include the Atlantic Oceanand the Arabian, the Baltic, the Black, the Mediterranean, the North, and the Red seas. During the period of European exploration, the list of seven seas changed again, this time using the four traditional oceans (the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Indian, and the Arctic) as the list’s backbone, along with the Mediterranean and the Caribbean seas and the Gulf of Mexico.

Between the 19th century and today, the seven seas could have been renamed the seven oceans, since no seas make the list anymore. Yet, doing so would risk the loss of this familiar romantic alliteration. The four traditional oceans are represented here, of course, and the division of the Atlantic and Pacific into their northern and southern basins brings the tally to six. The seventh body of water on the list is the Antarctic Ocean (Southern Ocean), a region of cold water that surrounds the continent of Antarctica, which is often considered separate from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans by the presence of a barrier of powerful winds and turbulent seas.

WRITTEN BY:  John P. Rafferty