Saturday 20 August 2011

Black Death caused by Rats ? Not Exactly..

More Archaeology news this week!
A fairly remarkable and interesting read this week was the Guardian revealing a study that shows that rats were not the main carriers of the dreaded Black Death (believed to have been the Bubonic Plague), but in fact, it was their human counterparts!

From the Guardian:

Black Death study lets rats off the hook

Plague of 1348-49 spread so fast in London the carriers had to be humans not black rats, says archaeologist
    Black death victims at Old Royal Mint, London
    Bubonic plague victims of 14th century London, uncovered in the 1980s in an excavation at the Old Royal Mint. Photograph: Rex Features
    Rats weren't the carriers of the plague after all. A study by an archaeologist looking at the ravages of the Black Death in London, in late 1348 and 1349, has exonerated the most famous animal villains in history.
    "The evidence just isn't there to support it," said Barney Sloane, author of The Black Death in London. "We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren't there. And all the evidence I've looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn't time for the rats to be spreading it."

    He added: "It was certainly the Black Death but it is by no means certain what that disease was, whether in fact it was bubonic plague."

    Sloane, who was previously a field archaeologist with the Museum of London, working on many medieval sites, is now attached to English Heritage. He has concluded that the spread of the 1348-49 plague, the worst to hit the capital, was far faster, with an impact far worse than had been estimated previously.
    While some suggest that half the city's population of 60,000 died, he believes it could have been as high as two-thirds. Years later, in 1357, merchants were trying to get their tax bill cut on the grounds that a third of all property in the city was lying empty. Sloane spent nearly 10 years researching his book, poring over records and excavation reports. Many records have gone missing, while there was also a documentation shortfall as disaster overwhelmed the city. Names of those buried in three emergency cemeteries seem not to have been recorded.
    However, Sloane found a valuable resource in records from the Court of Hustings, of wills made and then enacted during the plague years. As the disease gripped – in October 1348 rather than the late summer others suggested, reaching its height in April 1349 – the numbers of wills soared as panic-striken wealthy citizens realised their deaths were probably imminent.
    On 5 February 1349 Johanna Ely, her husband already dead, arranged provision for her children, Richard and Johanna. She left them property, spelled out which beds and even pots and pans each was to receive, and placed them in the guardianship of her own mother. She was dead within 72 hours.
    It appeared to the citizens that everyone in the world might die. Richard de Shordych left goods and money to his son Benedict when he died in early March: his son outlived him by a fortnight.
    Money, youth, and formerly robust good health were no protection. Edward III's own daughter, Joan, sailed for Spain with her trousseau, her dowry and her bridesmaids, to marry Pedro, heir to the throne of Castile. She would never see her wedding day as she died of the plague within 10 days of landing.
    John of Reading, a monk in Westminster, left one of the few witness accounts. He described deaths happening so fast there was "death without sorrow, marriage without affection, self-imposed penance, want without poverty, and flight without escape".
    In Rochester, William of Dene wrote that nobody could be found to bury the dead, "but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard".
    Sloane estimates that people living near the cemetery at Aldersgate, which is now buried under Charterhouse Square, in Smithfield, would have seen a corpse carried past every five minutes at the height of the plague.
    As many wills were being made in a week as in a normal year. Usually these would only be activated months or years later: in the worst weeks of the plague there was barely time to get them written down. Many, like Johanna Ely, probably made their wills when they felt the first dreaded sweats and cramps of the disease. Others left property and the care of their children to people who then barely outlived them.
    The archaeology of the plague also reveals that most people, however, were buried with touching care, neatly laid out in rows, heads facing west, with far more bodies put in coffins than in most medieval cemeteries – but possibly through fear of infection.
    Only a few jumbled skeletons hint at burials carried out some time after death and decomposition; those cases probably arose because bodies were found later on in buildings where every member of the household had died.
    Sloane believes there was little difference in mortality rates between rich and poor, because they lived so closely packed together. The plague, he is convinced, spread from person to person in the crowded city. Mortality continued to rise throughout the bitterly cold winter, when fleas could not have survived, and there is no evidence of enough rats. Black rat skeletons have been found at 14th-century sites, but not in high enough numbers to make them the plague carriers, he said.
    In sites beside the Thames, where most of the city's rubbish was dumped and rats should have swarmed, and where the sodden ground preserves organic remains excellently, few black rats have been found.
    Sloane wants to dig up Charterhouse, where he believes 20,000 bodies lie under the ancient alms houses and modern buildings, including the Art Deco block where the fictional character Hercule Poirot lives in the television series. And, if anyone finds a mass medieval rat grave, he would very much like to know.
 This seems to be going against what was traditionally taught in school, someone ought to tell them the current history lessons are (even for History lessons) obsolete and too old.

This is yet another example of (to copy the phrase) lies my History teacher told me.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

A Short History of Aleppo - From Pre-History till the Medieval Era

Aleppo has been in the headlines recently, for a lot of reasons. I shall not delve into that but merely would like to remind people about its rich history and culture. To simply forget about one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world would be an insult to its legacy. This post aims to summarize and give the reader a historical knowledge of Aleppo.

Geography and Pre-Islamic History:

A map showing Aleppo (I don't own the map!)
First of all, it is important that we grasp in our mind the exact location of Aleppo so that we may refer to it , later in this post. Aleppo is located in northern Syria, not too far from the Turkish border (about 45 kilomtetres). Aleppo is also an inland city. 

Now that the geography bit is covered, we shall delve into the actual history. As mentioned before, Aleppo is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities. 

This is because archaeologists and historians believe that the site of the present city covers the ancient city of Aleppo which was inhabited since 5000 BC.
Aleppo had a bright early history by being the seat of power (the Capital) of an Akkadian kingdom somewhere around the third Millennium BC. Aleppo's name also first appears in old Babylonian records, where it was called Halab.

And as before, it was the capital of another dynasty (the Yamhad dynasty) during its reign of 1800 to 1600 BC, it was believed to have been one of the powerful states in the Near East at the time. The Yamhad dynasty was destroyed by the invading Hittites in the 16th Century BC. During the later centuries, the Egyptians and Hittites battled in the wars of the Levant and Aleppo found itself at the frontline.

By around the 9th Century BC, Aleppo fell to the Neo-Assyrians, and then to the Neo-Bablyonians and finally laid into the hands of the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the 7th Century BC.

As part of his conquest, Alexander II of Macedon (popularly known as Alexander the Great) conquered Aleppo in 333 BC and a new city called Beroea (Βέροια) was built on its site. Aleppo later became a cultural stronghold of Greek Hellenism for centuries to come and was later part of the Seleucid Empire after Alexander's death where it remained so for almost 300 years until Pompeii the Great conquered the city in 66 BC.
The Romans built bridges, like this , in Aleppo

The Roman era saw an increase in the population of northern Syria that accelerated under the Byzantines well into the 5th century. In the Late Antiquity era,  Beroea was the second largest Syrian city after Antioch,  the capital of Syria and the third largest city in the Roman world.

Archaeological evidence indicates a high population density for settlements between Antioch and Beroea right up to the 6th century CE. This agrarian landscape holds now the remains of large estate houses and churches such as the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites.

Saint Maron of the Maronite Church was probably born in this region; his tomb is located at Brad to the west of Aleppo.

Islamic Conquest, The Crusades and the Medieval Era:

The Sassanian Persian Empire briefly took hold of Aleppo from the Byzantines in the early 7th Century AD. At this time however, the Arabs burst out of the Arabian Peninsula and by 637 AD, Aleppo was conquered by the Arabs under the leadership of Khalid Bin Waleed. The city had been relatively prosperous for the following centuries, even being the capital of an independent emirate in the 900s as well as producing fine poets like Al Farabi. 

However, a resurgent Byzantine Empire would later sack Aleppo in 962 AD and occupy it for more than 10 years ( 974-987 AD). During the Crusades, the city was besieged twice by the Crusaders in 1098 and in 1124, but was not conquered.

Perhaps a date infamously known in History was the 9th of August, 1138 : A massive earthquake struck through Aleppo and had completely ravaged the city and the countryside. Records at the time say 230,000 people had died in the earthquake, effectively making it the third deadliest earthquake of all times. Aleppo was never to recover fully from the earthquake.

During the Third Crusade, the city fell under the control of Saladin (Salah-ad Din, the famous Kurdish warrior) and his Ayyubid dynasty. In January of the year 1260 AD, the Mongols struck Aleppo with an alliance of Armenians and Frankish knights. The city fell in under 6 days and the Muslim and Jewish population were massacred. The Christian population was spared. The Mongols handed control of the territory to the Frankish knights.
The mighty Citadel of Aleppo

However, in September 1260 AD, the Egyptian Mamluks negotiated for a treaty with the Franks of Acre which allowed them to pass through Crusader territory freely, and engaged the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut on September 3, 1260.

The Mamluks won a decisive victory, killing the Mongols' Nestorian Christian general Kitbuqa, and five days later they had re-taken Damascus. Aleppo was recovered by the Muslims within a month, and a Mamluk governor placed to govern the city. Hulagu sent troops to try to recover Aleppo in December. They were able to massacre a large number of Muslims in retaliation for the death of Kitbuqa, but after a fortnight could make no other progress and had to retreat.

The Mamluk governor of the city became insubordinate to the central Mamluk authority in Cairo, and in Autumn 1261 the Mamluk leader Baibars sent an army to reclaim the city.

In October 1271, the Mongols took the city again, attacking with 10,000 horsemen from Anatolia, and defeating the Turcoman troops who were defending Aleppo. The Mamluk garrisons fled to Hama, until Baibars came north again with his main army, and the Mongols retreated.

On 20 October 1280, the Mongols took the city again, pillaging the markets and burning the mosques. The Muslim inhabitants fled for Damascus, where the Mamluk leader Qalawun assembled his forces. When his army advanced, the Mongols again retreated, back across the Euphrates.
A portrait of Tamerlane, a cruel and brutal ruler

Aleppo returned to native control only in 1317. In 1400, the Mongol-Turkic leader Tamerlane captured the city again from the Mamluks.

He massacred many of the inhabitants, ordering the building of a tower of 20,000 skulls outside the city. After the withdrawal of the Mongols, all the Muslim population returned to Aleppo.

On the other hand, Christians who left the city during the Mongol invasion were unable to resettle back in their own quarter in the old town, a fact that led them to establish a new neighborhood in 1420, built outside the city walls, at the northern suburbs of Aleppo.

This new quarter was called al-Jdeydeh ("the new district" in Arabic).

 That concludes this post. I hope you enjoyed it :)


1. Battle of Aleppo - War with the Mamluks
2.English Historical Review

For Further Reading:

1.Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo

2.Muslim Fortresses in the Levant: Between Crusaders and Mongols (Culture and Civilization in the Middle East)
3. The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume 4, c.1024-c.1198, Part 2

Thursday 11 August 2011

Marco Polo never reached China ?

Recently, archaeologists have claimed that Marco Polo, the famous Venetian traveler who was said to have traveled from Europe to Persia, Central Asia and China, may have been a fraud !

As said in the Sydney Morning Herald:

HIS journeys across mountain ranges and deserts opened the eyes of mediaeval Europe to the exotic wonders of China and the Silk Road, establishing him as one of history's greatest explorers.
But a team of archaeologists believe Marco Polo never even reached the Middle Kingdom, much less introduced pasta to Italy after bringing it back from his travels, as legend has it.
Instead they think it more likely that the Venetian merchant adventurer picked up second-hand stories of China, Japan and the Mongol Empire from Persian merchants he met on the shores of the Black Sea, thousands of kilometres short of the Orient.
He then cobbled them together with other scraps of information for what became a best-selling account, A Description of the World, one of the first travel books.

The archaeologists point in particular to inconsistencies and inaccuracies in his description of Kublai Khan's attempted invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281. ''He confuses the two, mixing up details about the first expedition with those of the second. In his account of the first invasion, he describes the fleet leaving Korea and being hit by a typhoon before it reached the Japanese coast,'' said Daniele Petrella of the University of Naples, the leader of an Italian archaeological project in Japan. ''But that happened in 1281 - is it really possible that a supposed eyewitness could confuse events which were seven years apart?''
Marco Polo's description of the Mongol fleet is sharply at odds with the remains of ships that the team have excavated in Japan. The Venetian wrote of five-masted ships, when they had only three masts, said Professor Petrella.
''It was during our dig that doubts began to emerge about much of what he wrote,'' he told the latest edition of Focus Storia, an Italian history magazine.
''When he describes Kublai Khan's fleet he talks about the pitch that was used to make ships' hulls watertight. He used the word chunam, which in Chinese and Mongol means nothing. In fact it is the Persian word for pitch. It's also odd that instead of using, as he does in most instances, local names to describe places, he used Persian terms for Mongol and Chinese place names.''
The explorer claimed to have worked as an emissary to the court of Kublai Khan, but his name does not crop up in any of the surviving Mongol or Chinese records.
The Italian archaeologists' scepticism over the extent of Marco Polo's travels adds weight to a theory put forward by a British academic. In a book published in 1995, Did Marco Polo Go to China?, Frances Wood, the head of the Chinese section at the British Library, argued that he probably did not make it beyond the Black Sea.
She pointed out that despite being an acute observer of daily life and rituals, there is no mention in Marco Polo's chapters on China of the custom of binding women's feet, chopsticks, tea drinking, or even the Great Wall.
''There's nothing in the Venetian archives to say that the Polo family had direct contact with China at all,'' Dr Wood said yesterday. ''Nothing from China has ever been found in the possessions they left behind.
''One theory is that Marco Polo copied a sort of guide book on China written by a Persian merchant. Only about 18 sentences in the entire manuscript are written in the first person.''
If proven to be true, this is a complete turn-around from what we've been taught in school. And we can simply say that [if true], Marco Polo may have been one of the greatest conman to ever scam the world!

This would , at least how I view it, an embarrassment to Europe (and to Venice too) to realize that one of their greatest explorers was a fraud.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Debunking 4 History Myths

This post will feature 5 frequently asked questions about various aspects of History ranging from the Roman and Classical era till the Modern day.

  1. Did the Romans keep track of executions and had kept Criminal Records?
Ans:) While most historians do not know if the Romans in fact, kept criminal records, what is known is that it is highly unlikely that Romans had kept records of executions.  In fact, one of the few sources that show the number of executions was recorded, was when Crassus had ordered the crucifixtion of 6,000 slaves at the end of the Gladiator War (read more here).

Another reason why historians believe that Romans didn't keep criminal records was because of the expensiveness of paper at that time.

      2. Why did Most Nazis flee to South America after the Second World War?

Ans:) The best answer historians can say is that South America (specifically Argentina) offered a safe-haven to Nazis, a far place where no one would suspect them being there. Of course, to add to their attractiveness, a large German population was present in Argentina (more information here).

And for one other reason, the Peron regime of Argentina was very profitable for them to work in, compared to war-torn Europe, at the time.

     3. Did an Irishman discover America ?

Ans:) Vikings have been to Vineland (believed to be North America) way before Columbus did. But what most people are asking; did an Irishman by the name of St. Brendan actually discover America before the Vikings had (484 AD).

St Brendan and his monks, landing in Newfoundland ?

Now while there aren't any real records to prove this ever happened, it is deemed plausible by historians, especially when considering that the remains of Catholic missionaries that predated Columbus were found in North America.

So until the present day, it still remains a myth. (Read more here)

     4. Does the crescent really signify Islam ?

Ans:) The crescent is seen as a symbol of Islam these days, ever since it was adopted by the Ottoman Empire. However, during the time of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), There were no symbols so one cannot say that the crescent was an original symbol. Perhaps it is a link to the Hijra Calendar, which itself is a Lunar calendar (based on the moon) ?

Some say it was an old Byzantine symbol that was adopted by the Ottomans after the fall of Constantinople.
Historians believe the symbol dates prior to the Islamic era but was adopted by the Ottomans. It is widely accepted predominately due to its close link to the Hijra Calendar.

That concludes the post for today, I hoped you enjoyed it.

Friday 5 August 2011

An Introduction to Ramadan

Its been a year since the last time I celebrated Ramadan. Yup, the good memories of yesteryear. I remember posting about it here Ramadan: The Month of Spiritual Enlightenment .

Well, I thought that I should recap to our new readers what Ramadan is about.
The crescent of the Moon signals the start of Ramadan

Ramadan Mubarak!
Ramadan is pronounced "Rama-dhan" in Arabic. Its English name removes the "dhan" and hence its Ramadan. (Its Ramadhan! )

Ramadan is a month in the Islamic Calendar (Hijra Calendar which is a Lunar Calendar). Its the ninth month of the (Islamic) year and is considered to be the holiest month of all the months (some say Muharram , the first month, is second to it).

During Ramadan, the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), during Laylut al
Qadr (roughly translating into "Night of Destiny"), where the arch-angel Gabriel (or Jibraeel , as said in Arabic) told the verses.

Ramadan is known as a month of fasting. Indeed, every able-bodied Muslim (usually from 10 years of age until 80 years [depends on if one is fit]) abstains from eating and drinking, as well as intercourse, between sunrise and sunset(not sure about the far latter though..). The sunrises and sunset are marked via the call to prayers , so it is easy for a Muslim to know when it is time to break his fast.

People who are specifically not allowed to fast, many due to health and safety reasons, are the Elderly (I mean REALLY OLD!), the ill (both mentally and physically), Pregnant women as it is seen to have effect on the fetus and others. Also excluded are travelers (typically, people who travel for more than 23 km).

During Ramadan, a Muslim would engage in Spiritual activities. Indeed, Ramadan is a month of spirituality and is meant to teach a Muslim ; Patience, Humility, Spirituality (inner peace, i guess ). People tend to perform extra prayers during this month. Also, (generally speaking), Muslims attempt to read the entire Qur'an during the month. Its a great achievement to finish the Qur'an

Muslims break their fast at sunset , the fast-breaking meal is called Iftar. Usually, the person says a duaa (that is, a prayer) and usually drinks water (or juice) and Dates. And then they feast 
Usually, lots of Sweets will be made for the occasions

During Ramadan, it is a good time for businesses as well, with many food joints staying open until dawn! Also, Ramadan is the traditional time where new TV shows debut (thats how it is these days )

Ramadan is declared whenever a crescent appears on the day before, that is how the exact day is known Of course, this date changes every year (usually reversing by 10 days due to the difference in the Gregorian and Hijra calendar).

 Often, Mosques hold their own iftar meals for the poor. Many people also donate generously during Ramadan (hence, so many good offers on TV during the month )

So, without further to do, I wish all my Muslim friends and brothers across the world a blessed Ramadan.

England's western-most Roman town discovered

On the 4th of August (today), Archaeologists discovered a large Roman town mere miles to the west of Exeter, Devon. This is believed to be England's western-most Roman town ever to be discovered.
Ironically, this find was because of amateur archaeologists who managed to find around a hundred Roman coins in the area. Talk about uncovering the jackpot.

Here's the article from the BBC:

A chance discovery of coins has led to the bigger find of a Roman town, further west than it was previously thought Romans had settled in England.
The town was found under fields a number of miles west of Exeter, Devon.
Nearly 100 Roman coins were initially uncovered there by two amateur archaeological enthusiasts.
It had been thought that fierce resistance from local tribes to Roman culture stopped the Romans from moving so far into the county.
Sam Moorhead, national finds adviser for Iron Age and Roman coins for the PAS at the British Museum, said it was one of the most significant Roman discoveries in the country for many decades.
"It is the beginning of a process that promises to transform our understanding of the Roman invasion and occupation of Devon," he explained.
After the coins were unearthed by the local men out using metal detectors, Danielle Wootton, the University of Exeter's liaison officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which looks after antiquities found by the public, was tasked with investigating further.
After carrying out a geophysical survey last summer, she said she was astonished to find evidence of a huge landscape, including at least 13 round-houses, quarry pits and track-ways covering at least 13 fields, the first of its kind for the county.
Roman coins
The coins uncovered.
The excavation of this unique site will feature in the forthcoming BBC Two series Digging For Britain, which starts the first week in September.
"You just don't find Roman stuff on this scale in Devon," said Ms Wootton.

She carried out a trial excavation on the site, and has already uncovered evidence of extensive trade with Europe, a road possibly linking to the major settlement at Exeter, and some intriguing structures, as well as many more coins.

"This was a really exciting discovery," said Ms Wootton. But she said most exciting of all was that her team had stumbled across two burial plots that seem to be located alongside the settlement's main road.
"It is early days, but this could be the first signs of a Roman cemetery and the first glimpse of the people that lived in this community," she explained.

Not enough excavation has been done yet to date the main occupation phase of the site, but the coins that were found range from slightly before the start of the Roman invasion up until the last in 378AD.
The Romans reached Exeter during the invasion of Britain in AD 50-55, and a legion commanded by Vespasian built a fortress on a spur overlooking the River Exe. This legion stayed for the next 20 years before moving to Wales. 

A few years after the army left, Exeter was converted into a bustling Romano-British civilian settlement known as Isca Dumnoniorum with all the usual Roman public buildings, baths and forum.
It was also the principal town for the Dumnonii tribe, a native British tribe who inhabited Devon and Cornwall. It was thought that their resistance to Roman rule and influence, and any form of 'Romanisation' stopped the Roman's settling far into the south west.

For a very long time, it was thought that Exeter was the limit of Roman settlement in Britain in the south west, with the rest being inhabited by local unfriendly tribes.
Some evidence of Roman military occupation has been found in Cornwall and Dartmoor, thought to be protecting supply routes for resources such as tin.
Devon fields
Could more settlements be found under fields in Devon in the next few years?
However on this site, more than just the coins are Roman. Pottery and amphora fragments recovered suggest the town embraced trading opportunities in Europe that came with Roman rule, and a fragment of a Roman roof tile has also been found.
Danielle Wootton received some funding from the British Museum, the Roman Research Trust and Devon County Council in June to carry out the trial excavation but said more money was needed as they still had not reached its outer limits. 

"We are just at the beginning really, there's so much to do and so much that we still don't know about this site.
"I'm hoping that we can turn this into a community excavation for everyone to be involved in, including the metal detectorists," she explained. 
Sam Moorhead said he believed more Roman settlements may be found in the area in the next few years.

Clearly, a remarkable day for Roman history buffs today. Let us hope something worthwhile comes out of this. If only the Romans had expanded more into the Middle East...

Why More Maps Should Be Upside Down

If you've utilised a map at any point in your life, whether it's Google Maps to find out which right turn you just missed on the hig...