Last Stand of the Swiss Guard

The Swiss like to talk about their neutrality like it has always been that way. The truth is, until they realized that they could stay out of wars by giving money to the bigger side, they were a country of ravenous mongrels. Not entirely true, but for a very long time, before they were making watches, one of Switzerland’s chief exports was mercenaries.

If you go to the Vatican now, you will see a bunch of dudes wearing garish outfits wielding halberds. Don’t laugh. Those guys are dangerous. I once saw him eviscerate a German tourist because the guy asked for change. Regardless, those guys are a remnant of a tradition that goes back to the 1400’s. In fact, these guys are credited with saving the life of multiple Pope’s including one of the most overmatched battles in history.

In 1527, it was basically the Holy Roman Empire vs the Pope (and others). The Holy Roman Emperor ran over a city with 34,000 guys, and then did not pay them. They mutinied, and then went towards Rome, to kill the Pope (Clement VII). They tried to lay siege to the city, but when Duke Charles, the last real authority figure left alive in the army, was killed, all hell broke loose, and the Imperial Army descended on the city.


A painting depicting the Sack of Rome

189 Swiss Guard lined up in St. Peters Basilica, and held off the army so that Clement could escape through a secret tunnel. Only 42 survived. Pope Clement made it to safety and grew a beard out of mourning of the sack of Rome.

So next time the Swiss start jabbering on about neutrality, remind them cautiously that at one point their country was a factory for the halberd wieldin’est mercenaries this side of the Rhine.

Published in: on October 1, 2009 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Digging up hippies

I hate to break it to you, children of the ’60’s, but your former drum circles now qualify as sites of archaelogical interest. An old commune is being excavated in a state park north of San Francisco. Thank you for your contribution to history, baby boomers. Here’s the full article:

Groovy artifacts

Published in: on September 8, 2009 at 11:32 am  Leave a Comment  

Library of Alexandria

One of the greatest historical “what if’s” that I think about is “what if the Library of Alexandria hadn’t burnt down?” I literally get goose-bumps when I think about all the knowledge that circulated between those columns. It was only around for about 150 years, but it collected knowledge and research from all over the Mediterrannean.

The biggest mystery is what happened to the library of Alexandria (the Straight Dope, as always, has a great explanation of this). There is a new library that has been constructed on the site of the former scholastic paradise. Here are some electronic reconstructions of the library:

The interior. Beautiful.

The interior. Beautiful.

Exterior. Awesome.

Exterior. Awesome.

Here are a bunch of links about the library, in descending order of which I like the most:

God I love the Straight Dope

History Magazine Article

Decline of the Library of Alexandria

Alexandrian Scholarship

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 11:24 am  Leave a Comment  

How not to Investigate Old Stuff

2000 was an exciting year for old stuff. It looked like ancient history was about to be re-written. The Indian science and technology ministir released a story alleging that ruins were found 40m below the surface of the Bay of Cambay. They had found structures that resembled cities found in the Indus Valley. This was found by using sonar to map the rocks underneath a layer of sediment. A year later they dredged up some of the sediment and found a block of wood that was dated to 9,500 BCE. By the beginning of 2002, the BBC was reporting on the new city that would rewrite the way we look at the development of civilization.

Does anyone see the problem with this? First, there had been absolutely no real investigation of these ruins. They were simply lying under a pile of dirt. Second, the wood block could in no way be significantly linked to the ruins. The bay was at the mouth of the river, so this wood could have come from anywhere. Third, and most importantly, none of this had been peer reviewed before the press got ahold of it. Ironically the BBC article brought the attention of archaeologists from all over the world, who quickly debunked the idea that we had completely overlooked a 9,500 year old civilization.

Moral of this story? Check your sources. Try to read through the lines. Also, if you’re out there digging stuff up, make sure you do it in a sound manner. I’ve already posted occasions where people dug stuff up in good faith, but it turns out they were ruining any hope of further investigation. Not to get too preachy, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Also, these guys should have given up way long ago, I mean, the world is only 5,000 years old. Geez.

Published in: on August 27, 2009 at 4:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Brief History of Jerusalem: Part III


If you’re just finding this, I would recommend the previous articles I have written about Jerusalem:

A Brief History of Jerusalem: Part I

A Brief History of Jerusalem: Part II

Ok, I’ve given you some time to shake off the bloodbath that was classical and medieval Jerusalem. Fortunately, things are pretty sane for a while. As it stands the Ottomans took over the city in 1517, and for the first time ever, Christians, Jews and Muslims all lived together, equally in their holy city. The walls were rebuilt, and the “Old City” as we know it today was constructed.

Although religious tolerance flourished, this was not the best time economically for the city. The population, although incredibly diverse, declined, and by the beginning of the 19th century, as the Ottoman empire waned, it was only at around 8,000.

At this time, several things started to happen. First, we have to understand that although there was a diverse population, each denomination lived in their own community, generally based around each population’s holy shrine. Because of the

Medieval Jerusalem

Medieval Jerusalem

weakness of the Turks, immigrants started pouring in from all over the globe. Some were old Jews who wanted to be buried in their holy city. Others were young families, who wanted to experience the second coming in Jerusalem. In addition, Europeans took a stern interest in the city, and many people moved there in hopes of gaining influence after the inevitable collapse of the empire. This, in coincidence with a Christian revival, meant that there were a good number of people proselytizing all over the city.

The city of Jerusalem is only 1 kilometer square, meaning that there was an obvious population problem. So, various ethnic groups started constructing residential communities outside of the city walls, in what is now called the New City. What started as a small patchwork of communities eventually grew into a full blown city.

On 11 December 1917, the British walked into the Holy City, and the Ottoman era came to an end. At that point, the zeitgeist of Jerusalem was very interesting. Where the new influx of immigrants staking their claim outside of the city, there was an obvious disparity in between the Old and New Cities. The Old City was considered decrepit and impoverished. The British were clever and required all buildings in the New City to be built with a sandstone finish, like the buildings in the Old City, to preserve the tone.

Unfortunately here is where the modern Jerusalem starts to evolve. No one really knew what to do with the new region called Palestine, where Jerusalem served as the capital. The Jews wanted their homeland restored; the Arabs felt that, geographical and historical precedent meant that the land was theirs. The tension grew, and they started bombing each other. Jews intent on living in their homeland moved in from all over the world, increasing the tension. This finally exploded in 4 days of riots in April of 1920, in which the Old City was ruled by a mob of Arabs. The Jews no longer trusted the British to protect them, and resented their being on holy land. The Arabs hated the Jews and the British because they felt entitled to the land. The Jews hated the Arabs for all of the violence. The British tried to restrict immigration, which ended in a an attack on a hotel, killing many soldiers. Things were starting to get really messy.

In 1947, the UN divided Palestine and Jerusalem into two parts, Arab and Jewish, with 3

How would you divide this up?

How would you divide this up?

crossing points, to be controlled by an international party. This backfired. Now each side had a border to attack. Oops. If you take a look at this map of the partition, you can see that this idea was flawed right from the beginning. I mean, there is no clear boundary between the two communities, and the establishment of an arbitrary line is really going to screw things up. The Jews and the Arabs really started wailing on each other, and Britain was becoming increasingly more reluctant to intervene. In March of 1948, the Arabs laid siege to the Old City which was eventually broken with significant civilian casualties on both sides.

Two months later the British mandate ended. Things only got worse from there. Because the Old City was technically supposed to be under Arab control, all Jews left to a Western Settlement. Israeli soldiers forcibly displaced Arab villiages that were within their territory. The violenc extended to foreigners, with the assasination

Israeli Soldiers at the Western Wall in 1967

Israeli Soldiers at the Western Wall in 1967

of the US Consul and the UN mediator.

Eventually Western Jerusalem belonged to the Jews and Eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City were annexed by Jordan. The arabs knocked down many Jewish holy sites, and likewise many Arab sites went into disrepare and were knocked down. In 1950, Jerusalem became the capital of Israel. In 1967, the Israeli Army rolled into Eastern Jerusalem, bringing it under Israeli control. All religions were allowed access to their holy sites. Honestly, I am not going to relate everything that has happened in Eastern Jerusalem since the June War, because it is very complicated and is basically the same thing over and over. However, you can see where the current Israeli – Arab conflict stems from.

Man. That was rough. I hope this history has helped you understand the modern moment in Jerusalem. This has been a project I have been waiting to undertake for a very long time. Although we hope for peace in the city, history tells us that this is probably a losing proposition. In researching these articles, I have seen how mired the study of the city is in controversy. Every side jockeys to show that their faction had a temple at a certain site earlier than the other. Each side tries to prove that the other side murdered more people during a raid. It was interesting, and I really wish I could say it was fun, but the nicest thing I can say is that it was eye opening.

Published in: on August 25, 2009 at 4:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Brief History of Jerusalem: Part II Romans to the Ottomans

Ok, where were we. The last time we checked in on our fair city, the Jews were pissed that they were being forced to adopt Greek culture, so they rebelled and became the capital of the Hasmodean kingdom. The Hasmoneans were nothing to write home about, it lasted for 103 years until 37 BCE, when the Romans rolled in and calmed things down. To put this all in perspective, Julius Caeser was murdered in 44 BCE. The kingdom was marred by the normal things that plague a hereditary monarchy, fratricide and regicide. There were varying blocks of civil war until the Romans rolled back in in 27 BCE.

Finally in 19 BCE, Herod was installed by the Romans. He married a Hasmonean princess to make himself seem more legitimate, and then murdered all of her relatives. To his credit, he built a huge complex around the Second Temple. He also greatly expanded the minting of currency in the city. After he died in 6 BCE, Jerusalem and the Judea came under direct Roman rule.

Siege and Destruction of Rome

Siege and Destruction of Rome by David Roberts

Without going into details, we know that Early Christianity began to evolve in the city at this point in time. Jerusalem was allegedly the site of the original crucifixion, and was where the Apostles really started preaching the Gospel. The Romans tended to be decent about letting a race keep its culture once it was a province of the empire; however in 66 CE, the Jews revolted in opposition to the Roman taxation as well as cultural imposition. The soon-to-be emperor Titus brought in 60,000 troops, and beseiged the city, crucifying the thousands that attempted to flee. Finally he broke through and destroyed the Temple and the better part of the city. Only a section of one wall of the temple was left, what is now known as the Wailing Wall.

Jerusalem remained a relatively unimportant colony of the Roman and Byzantine empire for nearly 600 years. During that time the city was rebuilt, and the Jews rebelled unsuccessfully against the Romans two more times. In 335, the emperor Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, turning the city into the epicenter of Christian worship. It is worth noting that Jews were banned from the city during this time.

Things really start to get messy when Muhammed allegedly ascended into heaven from Jerusalem in the mid 630s. Islam had spread through the Arabian peninsula, and they wanted to take over their holy city. The Jews, as they had been banned from their holy city for nearly 600 years allied with the Muslims in their conquest. In 638 the Arabs overwhelmed Jerusalem, slaughtering everyone who was garrisoned there. 60 years later, the calphate built the Dome of the Rock, on the spot where Muhammed allegedly ascended into heaven. The Dome would come to be the second most sacred site in the Muslim faith.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock

Jerusalem did very well during the early years of Arab rule. Christians and Jews, were treated as somewhat second class citizens. They could not practice their religion, but for the most part were tolerated, which was very kind of the Muslims if you ask me. This all changed in 1009, when the acting Caliph ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, started killing clergy, and harassed pilgrims. 30 years later his successor tried to make it right by allowing the church to be rebuilt, realizing the the reason Jerusalem was doing so well was because of the pilgrims.

But the damage was done. In 1095 the Byzantine Emperor and the Pope called for all good Christians to take up arms. This was not 100% religiously motivated, the Arabs were weakening, and Christianity in general needed some good news. But, the crusades had begun. The Crusaders reached Jerusalem in 1099, tired and hungry, a fraction of the size when they had begun. The Jews and Muslims did their best to keep the crusaders out of the city, but in the end they didn’t stand a chance. The Crusaders murdered as many Muslims and Jews as they could get their hands on, and burned all the synagogues and the mosques oftentimes with their respective worshipers inside. Please keep this in mind next time you hear a politician use the phrase “crusade”.

The New Christian Republic of Jerusalem lasted until 187 when Saladin took it back. He went out of his way to make it known that all religions would be tolerated under his rule. This was unacceptable to the Christians, and another crusade was lead by Richard I. At one point on his trek, he took over a city by telling them that they would be spared, only to massacre the residents when their gates were opened. Richard made it to the city walls, but never took the city, instead arranging a deal where unarmed Christian pilgrims could come to the city whenever they wanted.

For one reason or another in 1219, the acting caliph destroyed the walls of the city, rendering

Badass statue of Saladin in Damascus

Badass statue of Saladin in Damascus

the city completely defenseless. 10 years later the Germans came under control of the city, and tried to rebuild the walls, but they were again knocked down 10 years later when their lease ran out (no joke). Again in 1243 the Christians took control of the city, but ended up staring at a massive army of Mamluk Turks that easily took over the city and murdered all but 2,000 Christians and Jews.

Jerusalem is so vulnerable at this point that there is a possibility that Mongols periodical wailed on the city from time to time during this period. There is no evidence to support this, but the general area was always on fire it seems. The Mamluks did their best to rebuild the city, but eventually in 1517 the Ottomans took it over. And that is where I will stop the summary.

Living in Jerusalem was seemingly a death sentance in the 1500 years after the death of Julius Caesar. Some of the worst atrocities in the brief history of humankind were committed during that period. At this point now the Muslims are the top dogs in the region. Next time we’ll start with the Ottoman Empire and take it to our modern period.

Published in: on August 7, 2009 at 3:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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A brief history of Jerusalem, Part I

The city of Jerusalem is always in the news. The conflict that rages through its streets does not seem to end despite the entire world calling for sanity. A lot is at stake in the city. It plays a major role in 3 of the world’s major religions. It has been at the epicenter for nearly every major geo-politcal movement in the region for nearly 3000 years. The only way that the city can be understood today is by stepping back to 1000 BCE, and following the conflict to today. Over the course of 3 posts I will show you all the events that led to the modern city of Jerusalem.

Although burial sites dating back to 4500 BCE have been found, popular thought has it that the earliest reference to the city is in Genesis 18:14, wherein the city of Salem is mentioned. The first concrete reference, however, are clay tablets dating to the mid 1300’s BC which show correspondence between the pharaoh of Egypt and the king of a kingdom based out of the city of Urasalim. It seems that he was a puppet of the kingdom of Egypt. Liberal estimates put the population of his realm at around 1,500.

The wall that David built

The wall that David built

In 1025, the tribes of Israel united to form a kingdom. At this point in time, Jerusalem was inhabited by a race of people called the Jebusites. The Isrealites tried several times unsuccessfully to invade the city. It was only when King David used some form of sneakiness (historians cannot agree on what means) to take over the walled hill city. He then built a temple at the top of the hill. A sanctuary exists at the alleged spot today. He also commenced a temple that was to house the Ark of the Covenant.

King Solomon succeeded his father Kind David, and finished the temple for the Ark. He not only built this temple to Yarweh, but shrines to many different deities. He also built a palace for himself, secured a significant water supply for the city, and significantly strengthened the fortifications. Although there are records of these things being built, there is a lack of supporting archaelogical evidence. Many sources claim that this was a time of prosperity for the city, while others say that Jerusalem could barely function as a city state.

In 935 King Solomon died, and 10 of the tribes refused to accept his son as their king. So they split from Israel, and formed the kingdom of Judah. This marks the end of what is called the First Temple Period, in reference to the Temple of Solomon. Jerusalem at this point was the only real religious shrine in the kingdom, and evidence has been found of pilgrims at this point in time.

Jerusalem remained the capital of Judah for nearly 400 years. During this time the city survived an assault by an Assyrian force that not 20 years earlier had taken out the capital of the Israeli kingdom. Not necessarily by means of force. Legend has it that an angel came down and took out the force of 185,000. Another source at the time says that the Judean kind gave a lot of gold to the invading force, convincing them to go away. Another theory is that the Assyrian troops contracted cholera. Regardless, in 597 the Babylonians invaded, and it was not pretty. A governor on behalf of Nebuchadnezzar was placed in the city, however he rebelled. This was a dumb idea. Nebuchadnezzar was the ruler of the most powerful kingdom in the region, and he sent an army that captured the rebel, killed his family before his eyes, and then plucked out his eyeballs so that his families demise would be the last thing he ever saw. The Babylonians burned the temple and the city walls. A year later, a distant relative of the rebel assasinated the current king. The remaining population of Judah then fled to Egypt.

In 537 the Persian empire, under Cyrus II, took over Jerusalem and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild their temple, which was completed in 516. The walls were rebuilt and the currency of Persia was circulated throughout the former kingdom (consider my previous post on Roman Currency, to understand how important this fact is). Jerusalem remained the center of Jewish worship.

More stuff left over from the time of David

More stuff left over from the time of David

The next regime to roll through was Alexander the Great in 312, and then quickly came under the control of Ptolemy I, where they kept the some currency. Then, in 198 Jerusalem the Seleucids took over the city using a bunch of armoured horses. During this time, many Jews started to come under the influence of Greek culture, and turned their intentions towards Jerusalem. They didn’t so much care for this, and in 165 rebelled as chronicled by  Maccabeas, forming the Hasmonean empire. This was done with an alliance with the Romans. It was this rebellion that lead to the creation of the holiday Hanukkah. The Hasmonean Empire lasted for 104 years, and ended when Pompey took control. I will, however, end things here.

We can already see a number of themes emerging already. First we have already seen how the city is constantly under bombardment. However, despite this, the Jewish residents of the city have been remarkably tenacious in their beliefs, culminating in a rebellion when the Greeks tried to exert their culture. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but its a lot of the same.

Published in: on July 22, 2009 at 2:23 am  Comments (1)  
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Kowloon Walled City

Have you seen the movie Blade Runner? Or Batman Begins? Or really any movie where it is dark all the time in the streets of a dripping city? Well, that zeitgeist is based off of a real place, a walled city outiside of Hong Kong that dates back to the 10th century. It no longer exists, it was knocked down in 1993. It occupied 31,000 square yards and, at the time they decided to tear it down, had roughtly 50,000 occupants, giving the city one of the highest population densities in history. This enclave was created by the inabilities of both the British and Chinese governments to effectively negotiate.

A rare rootop view of the "Ghettopolis"

A rare rootop view of the "Ghettopolis"

The Kowloon Walled City started off as an outpost for the Song Dynasty to look for pirates and to manage the booming salt trade. There are no specific dates as to when it was first constructed, but we do know that it was tured into a fort in the mid-1800’s. In 1842, the nearby Hong Kong island was given to the British, so the Chinese used this fort as a means to check up on their British neighbors. 47 years later, the area that became Hong Kong was given to England. However, the Walled City was excluded, despite being well withing this territory, and still belonged to the Chinese. China was allowed to keep troops there, as long as they didn’t interfere with Britains rule. Britain was supposed to keep out, but a year later, in 1899, they attacked, but found a deserted city. The British abandoned the fort, and in so doing left ownership of the city to be a legal grey area. Until WWII, the city was a tourism hot spot, as the architecture was the same as in “Old China”. The population at that point was estimated to be roughtly 700, with most living in tents. In WWII, the Japanese demolished the surrounding wall to be used in the construction of a nearby airfield. It was after the Japanese departure, at the end of the war, that the modern iteration of Kowloon City begand to emerge.

Squatters moved in, and the area quickly became a criminal hotspot. Despite the terms of various treaties, Britain tried several times in 1948 to drive people out. This proved a distinctly poor choice, as any attempts at incursion were met with riots. Mainland China was having its own problems, as this was a particularly tumultuous time for the country. In fact, with the success of the People’s Revolution, thousands of refugees came to the city because of the hands off attitude of the enclave. In 1959 there was a murder in the city, and both governments responded by trying to prove that the other government was in charge. The crime was eventually forgotten.

 The city slowly came under the control of The Triad, a gang based out of Hong Kong. Despite their presence, the better part of the population was not involved in criminal activities. In fact, the Triad had little impact on the day to day lives of the residents. Many people came to the city because there were no taxes or licenses. For example, many dentists operated there because they did not want to have to deal with Hong Kong’s expensive and complicated licensing system. Many factories sprung up in the cities, and by the late ’60’s there was even a kindergarten. There was a food court (no joke, but it served dog meat) and even a temple in the heart of the city. In many ways it was a self-sufficient colony. In between 1971 and 72 the Hong Kong police launched over 3,000 raids against the Triad. Over 2,500 people were arrested, and the organized criminal element was elminiated. The city still was a center for the opium trade, and was well known for its brothels and gambling.

The KWC, circa 1980, with approx. 40k residents.

The KWC, circa 1980, with approx. 40k residents.

With the Triad out of the picture, the population exploded. Electicity was flagrantly stolen from Hong Kong’s main lines. Water was taken from a series of deep wells, and was pumped to tanks on the top of the city. The water made its way down the city through makeshift pluming. Because of this, it was always dripping, and an umbrella was almost always necessary to bring along. The citizens built their own strutures one on top of the other. No engineers or architects were present, and the city quickly became one giant superstructure. The only rules for its construction were that buildings could not exceed 14 stories, as there was an airport nearby, and electricity had to be pumped in. One of the biggest hazards of day to day life in the city was fire. Many humianitarian organizations donated flourescent bulbs to the city to keep it from burning up. Despite this organization, there was a general lack of sanitation. There was no system for getting rid of refuse. One of the reasons that there was so much upward growth was due to fact that refuse was just thrown out of the windows, and streets were made on top of previous piles of trash. Sewage flowed out of the city in canals. In fact, the common knowledge had it that if you were an ousider and you dared enter the Walled City, you would most likely exit face down in one of those canals.

Despite the rampant anarchy, by all counts the crime rate was lower in the Walled City than in either Hong Kong or the average for urban China at the time. However, the city was always in the news, and the coverage was overwhelmingly negative. In 1984, the Chinese and British governments came together to evacuate and demolish the city. Residents were offered due compensation, and in 1992, demolition was completed. Some Japanese explorers took a week to go through the city and document its interior. This seems interesting, but I can’t look at their website for more than ten seconds without getting dizzy:

Expedition Story

There is a City Park on the site now, which gives reverence to the history of the 7 acre plot of land. You can still even find pieces from the original wall, dating back to the Song Dynasty. As I mentioned earlier, the Walled City plays a very important role in our modern culture. Jackie Chan even filmed there at one point while the City was being knocked down. The film Bloodsport took place in the actual city, checkit:


Here’s another film of the city, it definitely captures how its just a wall of buildings in the middle of Hong Kong:

Kowloon Walled City

You can definitely tell where we got the mood of Blade Runner and Batman Begins. Part of me wishes it was still around today, and the other half of me is glad that it is only a memory.

Published in: on July 20, 2009 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Economy, PA

In 1703, George Rapp, persecuted because of his split with the Lutheran Church, purchased 3,000 acres of land in what is now Pennsylvania, and left Germany forever with 400 of his followers to found a town with hopes of economic and religious freedom. They would go on to build a society that, at one point, Thomas Jefferson hoped would be a model for new United States of America. The Harmonites, as they called themselves, were together for almost 100 years, but then they went the way of the rest of the new American Utopias.

The Harmonites called their first town Harmony, go figure. They pooled all of their goods, and called themselves a commonwealth, working for the common good of their religious  and economic ideals. They believed that in their lifetimes they would see the second coming of Christ, and for that reason they lived their life purely. This meant that they remained celibate, saved lots of money, and strived to maintain a high quality of life. The town of Harmony exploded, and by 1814, their numbers were at 800, there were 140 buildings in their town, and had all the modern trappings of a well to do town, without sacrificing the religious ideals that they held so dear. That year, they sold the land for 10x its original price, and moved to Indiana, where they purchased a 25,000 acre plot of land, and did the same thing all over again. Then, for the last time, in 1824, they picked up, and moved back to Pennsylvania, where they founded the town of Economy.

This is George Rapps house, very elegant.

This is George Rapp's house in Economy, very elegant.

It was here, that, by 1830, it is considered that they built the most economically successful independant society in colonial America. It had stone paved roads with drainage. Several buildings were heated with steam. Behind the great hall was a sizeable greenhouse that was put on tracks, so that it could be removed during the spring and summer. Many outside of the commune called for its dissolution by the state of Pennsylvania because their textile manufacturing was considered to be a monopoly. In addition to this they had bountiful farmlands. It was because of this success of the “manufacturer next to agriculture” that T.J. took a keen interest in the society.

They kept all of their wealth for the good of their church. It is estimated, that at its height in 1868, their great hall heald over half a million dollars in gold. They also kept an extremely high standard of living. Their city was spotted with well maintained parks, one of which had a labyrinth. At one point they had a decent orchestra. Many of their constituents

A garden in Economy

A garden in Economy

collected art. They were always on top of the latest technology, and were considered instrumental in the development of the railroad in Pennsylvania. They even donated land that would eventually become Geneva College.

Despite their wealth, there were serious problems afoot, rooted in their religious convictions. The no procreating rule really was a problem. Not only for the fact that no children were around, but because no one wanted to join their world. It so happened that in 1832 almost a third of their membership left with a man who proclaimed himself to be a prophet. Also, he would let them finally bang each other. Then George Rapp’s brother, who was considered the mastermind behind the economic efficiency of the commune, Frederick, died in 1847. As the population grew older, they hired out more and more of their work, and eventually were deep in dept. In 1906 they sold all but 6 acres to the American Bridge Company, who renamed the town Ambridge. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania bought up the final 6 acres in 1916, containing the better part of the original buildings, and the entire town is maintained in very good condition. You can still go see it today, and it is on the National Historic Register.

Published in: on July 16, 2009 at 6:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Great Zimbabwe

Scene: 1531, South Africa. You are the leader of a band of Portuguese traders. At the port of Mozambique you heard tales of an enourmous stone complex which possibly was the palace of the Queen of Sheba. You’re wandering around and all of a sudden you see a set of stairs, you follow them up between two gigantic rocks and see what you describe thusly:

Wherever could this lead?

Wherever could this lead?

“Among the gold mines of the inland plains between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers there is a fortress built of stones of marvelous size, and there appears to be no mortar joining them…. This edifice is almost surrounded by hills, upon which are others resembling it in the fashioning of stone and the absence of mortar, and one of them is a tower more than 12 fathoms [22 m] high. The natives of the country call these edifices Symbaoe, which according to their language signifies court.”

It turns out that what was stumbled upon in the mid-1500’s, in the middle of one of the most expansive continents, was arguably the most important archaeological find in sub-Saharan Africa. The discovery rocked the world. It was so huge that the country Zimbabwe eventually took its name from the ruins. The ensuing investigation is hands down one of the most mishandled operations conducted, and was riddled with opportunism, racism, and general idiocy, and eventually became a symbol for the colonialist oppression in Rhodesia. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The ruins themselves are expansive. There are over 300 buildings within a 100 mile radius. It is estimated that 18,000 people lived there in its heyday.  It is divided into 3 major sites, with the most impressive being the Great Enclosure, the residence of the king, with walls 36 feet tall, and being almost 830 feet long at its longest. Not only that, but the walls are made out of slabs of granite, with no mortar to hold them together.

Inside the Great Enclosure

Inside the Great Enclosure

Who were these people? Well that’s when things start to get tricky. We know that the height of their civilization was between 1100 and 1450, basically during the high Middle Ages. Portuguese traders frequently traded with them through the port of Mozambique. In addition, items from China and Arabia have been found all over the site. They were truly a civilization driven by international trade. For some reason the site was abandoned around 1450. We really have no idea why, but it could easily be any number of things. Regardless, the fact is that this whole operation was conducted by black people. I say this in jest, but the color of the skin of the inhabitants of Great Zimbabwe was extremely controversial until 1970. I am not even joking.

After its decline, Europe slowly forgot about Great Zimbabwe until 1871 until Carl Mauch found some ruins which “could not have been built by a black man”. In fact this was the line for the next hundred years. Cecil Rhodes was intent that he had discovered a long lost white civilization. Despite the fact that the majority of the artifacts which they pulled from the ground were nearly identical to the tools of the local tribes, the conclusion was that some Phoenicians had come here and set up the greatest civilization ever. This is not a direct quote, but is pretty close.

Later on, a man by the name of Richard Hall, who was charged with preserving the monument, not investigating it for science. Instead he basically dug up the entire site, looking for any evidence that the builders were white. Of his investigation it was said, to be “reckless blundering, worse than anything I have ever seen” and that “Hall’s disasterous activities left only vestiges of archaelogical deposits within the walls, a paucity that was to inhibit future scientific work.” During this time virtually all the artifacts were lost to looters.

Cecil Rhodes: Idiot Racist

Cecil Rhodes: Idiot Racist

The terrible legacy doesn’t stop there. The idea that white guys built Zimbabwe was what everyone thought, until 1929, when Gertrude Canton proved explicitly that Zimbabwe was built by black Africans. This didn’t stop the powers that be. The fact was that at the time, Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia, and was controlled by white colonialists, and they used the Zimbabwe ruins as a propeganda tool. Since whites had had this giant civilization in the middle of Africa, it only follows that they should be in charge now. Obviously, this changed when the power turned over in the 70’s.

Zimbabwe is truly one of those mysteries of prehistory. Here are many of the things we do not know:

-Who, specifically were the inhabitants of the area

-Basically anything about their culture

-Why they abandoned the site

Zimbabwe is a cautionary tale of what happens when we find something new and attack it with preconceived notions. Regardless, the Great Zimbabwe is awesome. Its huge, and its in the middle of nowhere. And it was the seat for a civilization that we know next to nothing about.

Published in: on July 10, 2009 at 3:38 am  Comments (1)  
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