This Week in History: Althing

This week in 930 CE, the chieftains of Iceland established the Althing, which remains the country’s parliament. It’s the world’s oldest surviving legislature. Northmen (sometimes called Vikings) had arrived on the island about 60 years before, and now they set about to govern themselves – meeting outdoors at a place called Thingvellir, which means “assembly fields,” near modern-day Reykjavik.

Continue reading “This Week in History: Althing”

This week in history: Kublai Khan

This week in 1260, Kublai Khan became ruler of the Mongol Empire. Grandson to the great Genghis Khan, the empire’s founder, Kublai was the fifth Khagan, or Great Khan. He succeeded to the throne after the death of his eldest brother, Mongke. The latter died in 1259 without naming a successor, and almost immediately Kublai’s younger brother, Ariq Boke, held a Mongol great council and had himself named Khagan. But Kublai then held his own great council, which declared him Khagan, and went to war against Ariq Boke. The Mongol civil war that lasted four years, and of course Kublai won. Continue reading “This week in history: Kublai Khan”

Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives

A virus circles the world, killing 1% of the population or more, particularly the elderly … and people just go about their business. Even in countries that understand contagion, no one healthy stops working, and neither do most of the sick. In fact, if you suggest staying home, most people think you’re crazy. Why manufacture an economic disaster? That’s how our ancestors would react to coronavirus, from the ancient world through early modern times. Their lives already involved a steady risk of death from acute, fast-acting disease, so this comparatively mild new illness would hardly set them back.

Europe's history of pandemic inspired Breugel's famous painting
The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. c. 1562. Click for a closer view of death’s regular assault on our ancestors.

Continue reading “Coronavirus Would Not Have Disrupted Our Ancestors’ Lives”

This week in history: Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia

This week in 537, eastern Roman emperor Justinian I finished construction of the Hagia Sophia: the great cathedral of his capital, Constantinople. Upon completion and for centuries thereafter, it was the largest building in the world. Justinian’s realm was the remainder of the Roman Empire: the original mega-state’s eastern half, which survived the fall of the West and which we call the Byzantine Empire. And the Hagia Sophia became the central cathedral of the eastern region of the Roman Christian Church, not to mention the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Eventually, the two great sections of the church broke into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church — the latter led by the Patriarch of Rome, a.k.a the Pope. The Hagia Sophia remained the central cathedral of the Eastern church and the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when Constantinople fell to Muslim invaders and became the capital of the Turks’ new Ottoman Empire. The conquerors turned the cathedral into a mosque and added its now-iconic minarets: the slender towers you see on many mosques, used for the call to prayer. In the 1930s, however, the new, secular state of Turkey closed the mosque and transformed it into the Ayasofya Muzesi, or the Museum of the Hagia Sophia. You can visit the museum to this day, in Istanbul: the Turkish name for Constantinople. Continue reading “This week in history: Hagia Sophia”

Star Wars and History: Samurai and Nazis

~ This is the last of a six-post series called Star Wars and History. ~

Samurai_on_SS_Kamakura_Maru_menu -- cropped
Samurai with faceplate

Star Wars draws on history for its look and feel as much as for its plot choices. In particular, the samurai of Medieval and early modern Japan contribute their style both to good guys and bad buys. Darth Vader’s armor looks like a night black, plastic version of samurai armor, and the Jedi’s robes have medieval Japanese feel too. Continue reading “Star Wars and History: Samurai and Nazis”