Qatar’s Early History.

For this week’s letter – Q – we will be exploring Qatar. The previous places I’ve written about have been more modern history, but my specialism is in Ancient History, so I want to return to this period while exploring Qatar. In this blog, I’ll be looking into Qatar’s earliest history through to the withdrawal of the Seleucid Empire in the region.

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Oman in the Paleolithic: Migration and Desertification

For my second contribution to ABC world history I have found myself with O for Oman! Having never significantly looked into the history of the Arabian Peninsula, let alone the region that modern day Oman covers, I decided to go early with it, and take a general overview of the different Paleolithic periods important to this part of the world leading up to the Neolithic revolution.

The present-day Sultanate of Oman lies in the south-eastern Arabian Peninsula, but there are different definitions for Oman, Oman traditionally included the present-day United Arab Emirates, though its prehistoric remains differ in some respects from the more specifically defined Oman proper which corresponds roughly with the current central provinces of the country. Oman is surrounded by the vast Rub Al-Khali desert to the west and the Arabian Sea and Sea of Oman to the south and east. The country is naturally divided into three geological zones: the Al-Hajar Mountains in northern Oman, the Huqf depression in the interior and the Dhofar Mountains in the southwest. Many wadis (valleys or dry riverbeds) cross the plateaus of the central region that once would have flowed with ancient rivers that led into perennial lakes in the lowlands. There is plenty of evidence that this would have once been a fairly productive landscape of grasslands before the region became the very arid place it is today.

Dhofar region cave art
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Mozambique: Sofala & Chibuene

Welcome once again dear readers to another entry in our ABC of World History. Today I am taking you back to Africa to the area of Mozambique in yet another effort to make this blog less eurocentric. I really hope the importance of this area comes across because as I was doing my research I still found so many sources about Mozambique and the Swahili coast of Africa that seem to ignore anything noteworthy before the European colonialists swinging by. So today I am bringing you some details about the development of Mozambique in the middle ages and the importance of this area for the development of trade.

As you may know, the Indian ocean key for trade in Africa since ancient times, and Mozambique is an important enclave. Evidence suggests however that since the collapse of the roman empire, sea trade may have declined for people living on the east coast of Africa and this may have powered the growth of the interior of countries such as Mozambique. But changes again with the arrival of Islam into Africa in the 7th century when the Indian ocean becomes again a prime hub for the exchange of goods, people and culture. Although it has been debated for a very long time how much interaction and mingling was between the Bantu and Swahili peoples of Mozambique and surrounding areas, it seems to transpire that there was a fair interaction and integration between the Arab newcomers and the natives. Briggs and Edmunds argue that the best evidence of this is in the language. Although Islam triumphs in terms of religious conversion, Swahili became the language used overall, even if with some Arabic borrowings. Now that you have some context I would like to use the following sections to 2 different enclaves in Mozambique that highlight the importance of trade and that show how active this part of the world has been for such a long time:

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Ireland and Imperators: Iron-Age Ireland and the Roman world next door.

While Britain, from AD 43 to the historic date of AD 410, had undergone a cultural and socio-political metamorphosis through its incorporation into the Roman world, the land of Hibernia (modern-day Ireland) remained outside the political sphere of the empire. However, this does not mean that Ireland and Rome remained complete aliens to each other – each being an unknown world to the other, as popular belief may tend to lean to. For this week, the focus will be on prehistoric Ireland up to, and including, its existence with the Roman Empire as it’s neighbour.

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Djibuoti: Punt & Macrobians

We are back one again for the ABC of World history. We have now landed on D and a dice roll determined today I would talk to you about Djibouti which for those of you unaware of its location, it is a country in the Horn of Africa and bordered by Somaliland (that part of Somalia that is desperately trying to be acknowledged a its own state), Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti has had many names throughout history, been part of many states and nations, and governed by different groups, whether it was the local Somali and Afar peoples, the Islamic empires that took over the north of Africa, or the French colonists in its most recent history. However, officially as the Republic of Djibouti, it has existed since its independence granted by French authorities in 1977. It has a long history as anthologist and archaeologist agree that its strategic location would have been key for the crossing of the early homonym groups, and there is consensus that it has been consistently occupied since at least the Neolithic. I must confess that I was incredibly tempted to start talking about the wonderful archaeological remain that are found around this area or the incredible painting of giraffes in Balho, but today I decided to talk about the uncertain history of Djibouti. Because, you see, its geographical location, means that it is a perfect breeding ground for all those potential places of antiquity we are not entirely sure where they exactly were. So today I will briefly cover the potential role of Djibouti as the land of Punt and Macrobians.

The Land of Punt

The majority of the information we have regarding the so-called Land of Punt comes from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians who left records of their mysterious trading partner in this land of Punt. Where was Punt exactly? Well, its difficult to say, and the lack of consensus means that we are currently working with the space between Egypt and the red Sea all the way down to the Horn of Africa, so, you know just a few places…So where do the records come from? The Egyptians started mentioning gold coming form Punt since the Fourth Dynasty, and the first official expedition to this region was organised in the Fifth dynasty by Pharaoh Sahure (around 25th century BC). But it wasn’t until the reign of Hatshepsut that the most famous expedition is organised and from, we get most of the information we have to date about Punt. Her chroniclers describe the land at length even describing it as a rich area with anything imaginable littering the land, a place worthy of Gods. The descriptions of the trade good that came to the Egyptians through Punt, suggest that the Puntites were well established as a mercantile nation, as they also traded with goods from adjacent areas, suggesting they had developed a solid network. Reliefs of these trading missions by ship can still be found in Hatshepsut’s temple at Dayr al-Bahri. We even have mentions of the Puntite rulers of this time: King Parahu and Queen Ati. However after the reign of Ramses III, it seems the majority of narratives about the land of Punt become so unreal that perhaps indicate a certain level of mythification and legendary romanticism which makes us questioned what happened between these two nations or if previous records had also been exaggerated.

Macrobians

The Macrobian are a people that we have record of thank to Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC) the Greek writer and geographer. But, we need to take all we know about Macrobians with a pinch of salt as Herodotus is our main source and from the accounts themselves, these come across as sort of mythological people living in the extremities of the world known to the Greeks. He describes the Macrobians as living somewhere south of Ethiopia, which could fit with the current location of Djibouti. He presents them as tall and handsome people, excellent seafarers and living in a prosperous land, which sort of matches the imagery developed earlier by the Egyptian Pharaoes. Herodotus description of diet (milk and meat), remarks on stature and prowess resonates with the pastoral Somali tribes of the area so, it is likely that if Macrobians was a real place it could be aligned with Djibouti. Another reason to believe this is the same area than Punt and perhaps even the same people is the remark on their wealth and gold, to the point that, probably exaggerating, Herodotus remarks that even their slaves were chained in this metal. The biggest issue that we have with Herodotus Macrobians accounts is that later authors of Greece, refer back to these same people (allegedly the same Macrobians) but then placing them in further remote areas corresponding to locations in India, but this again comes mostly from one source written by Pliny the Elder.

As you can see there is a lot of uncertainty around these areas, and I wish I Could clarify these things a little more for you, however the research on these areas is pretty lacking. In fact there aren’t many sources available in English that talk a bit more in depth about the history of Djibouti and the states prior to its formation that make this such a rich historical land. As usual, eurocentric historical ideas take us away from reachign a better udnerstanding of the world as a whole. So I really hope if nothing else, that this series of ABC World History inspires some of you to go look further south than Gibraltar.

ABC World History: Andorra

Today we start the writing project that we are dedicating the rest of the year to, which is the ABC of World History! We are going to be writing every week and bringing you posts from all over the world following the letters of the alphabet. These were completely picked at random: we opened a list of countries in the world sorted alphabetically and rolled a die for each letter – no fumbles either so we are going with whatever came up first! With this e hoped to open new horizons, keep things a bit less Eurocentric and more diverse. This is also a great opportunity to get our mojo back on the writing game as we have been putting a lot of our energy on the podcast, so we really hope you enjoy it. And, without more delay, today we start with a for ANDORRA!

Having been born and brought up in Spain, Andorra is that country you are aware of, but not many people pay much attention to, unless you like skiing. So I started doing some reading into the history of Andorra and hit my first barrier: languages! This is a recurrent theme when we explore certain topics but, in case you wanted to know what the issues affecting Andorra are from a linguistic viewpoint here we go. First of all there isn’t an awful lo written on the history of this country, due to its size and the fact that has always been wedge between Spain and France, so politically speaking it gets buried under a lot of border and frontier changes. And then, there is the language issue: there is barely anything writing in English. Most sources I have used for this post were written in Catalan (or the Andorran variant of Catalan), a few more in Spanish, but the majority of the useful sources and reports I was able to use were in French. Now that we have cleared this out of the way, I’m going to take this chance to call up some Andorran historians to the front! This is a cool niche that deserves some recognition! And now that we all know where we stand, I’ll tell you more about what the blog post will be about: the prehistoric origins of this region.

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Female Pharaohs: Khentkaus I & Sobekneferu

Today I want to talk about some women often forgotten about in your ordinary history books, and even some academic books depending on the accessibility to materials. These are some of the precursors to later and more famous female pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, and their names are Khentkawes I and Sobekneferu. Why? Because there is such a thing as being cool before being cool – no offence Nefertiti or Cleo. More importantly, these women actually start defining what the reality of female pharaohs was in a much earlier time period, therefore opening the possibility for further historical revisionism and a better understanding of the role of women in ancient history.

Female Pharaoh: More than a Queen

Manetho, the egyptian advisor of the Ptolemies created the royal dynasty system that we use nowadays. There he named 5 female pharaohs, and it is recorded that these existed as early as the 3rd millennium BC.We reckon that there are at least 7 female pharaohs in the Egyptian record, showing that this wasn’t a title exclusive to men. In fact, Aidan Norrie states that the title of pharaoh unlike in the case of traditional European ruling titles, the term pharaoh didn’t have a specific gender assigned. Unfortunately, the fragmentary evidence for these female rulers is a big hinderance to understand their roles and reigns in comparison to those of their male counterparts. Moreover, Joanne Fletcher is of the opinion that this title of pharaoh when associated with women, has traditionally appeared to be downgraded or dismissed despite the blatant exercise of power that these women had. Often, they are referred to as “queens” when, in fact, they were pharaohs in full right.

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Nu History Podcast – Episode 1: History in a Pandemic

Introducing the Nu History podcast! A key feature of our newly re-branded blog!

Our aim with these podcasts is to simply get together and talk about any given topic relating to history! And usually we will plan to have a special guest or two to learn from about their area of expertise.

For our first episode, hosts Lilly and Alex are joined by James to talk about our different perspectives on how the Covid-19 pandemic has and will effect history, particularly in museums, academia and reenactment!

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

The Diquis Spheres – (2019 Update)

Today we will move across the globe to discover the Diquis Spheres. These are some stone spheres found in the delta of Diquis, between the rivers Terraba and Sierpe, in the peninsula of Osa and the Isla del Caño (Costa Rica). They are unique archaeological finds due to their number of existing specimens (over 300!), as well as their sizes, formations and rounded perfection. Their dimensions vary from the 10 cm to 2.57 m of diameter. They can weigh as much as 16 tones and have been found in 34 different archaeological sites. These are the products of the Diquis culture: a pre-Columbian culture, indigenous from Costa Rica. Diquis means great waters or river in the Boruca language (the native speaking tongue), which seems to tie in with the locations of the finds. However, their meaning and origin is a mystery.

According to Ifigenia Quintanilla (University of Costa Rica), the spheres were most likely produced sometime between the 800 and the 500 B.C. However, local archaeologists investigating the subject have trouble dating and interpreting them as 90% of the spheres have been moved and found away from their original locations. The theories on their meaning and purpose get even more obscure and confusing. Most archaeologists and historians support the idea that these artifices had an astronomical function. Perhaps they were a way of timing agricultural cycles, or even maybe representations of constellations. Another supported hypothesis is that these could be used as markers of social status for the leaders of the indigenous tribes. Nevertheless, more fantastical explanations have been proposed:

-Some think these could have been done by the people of Atlantis, or even by extra-terrestrial beings!

-There is also the myth that the Diquis culture knew of a chemical product that could manipulate the physical state and shape of stone.

-Some more logical beliefs consider that perhaps these were used as territorial markers.

-More interestingly, many have found them to be an analogy of a pre-Columbian myth. This is related to the god of thunder Tara, or Tlachque, who used throw some spherical objects against the Serke, or the gods of wind and hurricane, to keep them away from these lands.

The Diquis Spheres in Modern Day Costa Rica:

The spheres were discovered in 1939 when the American company United Fruits made some moves over Costa Rica in order to clear some woodlands for the sake of banana cultivation. And then the mystery and fascination began.

They were first mentioned, and worthy of scholarly consideration, in 1943 when Doris Stone wrote an article for the magazine American Antiquity about them. Since then, many studies have been carried out to try to understand what these items actually are. And it seems that one of the most plausible explanation is that these spheres were used as some form of astronomical tool (Ivar Zapp, George Erikson, 1998). Other theories, such as the work produces by Patricia Fernandez and Ifigenia Quintanilla support the idea that these were public items; symbols of local power (2003). Perhaps this ties in with the theory that the stones were actually used by this society for funerary purposes, and that although no clear dating or chronology has been established yet, the society that produced them were likely to be a splinter group from the Aguas Buenas settlement (Roberto Herrera, 2017). This makes sense if we consider, as pointed out by some of the most striking pieces of goldsmithing does come from the Diquis area as well.

However, the research moves slowly. It took years for scholars to actually show a decent interest in the subject and try to solve the mystery. It seems that for several decades, the spheres lied out in this banana plantation, forgotten, catching the interest of occasional looters. Nonetheless, these stones are part of the collective memory of Costa Rica. They are a symbol of identity for the indigenous and local inhabitants, and they are commonly referenced in their popular culture and the media. Thanks to the superb work of archaeologists Francisco Corrales and  Adrian Badilla (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica) since 2002 to the area has gained some interest, to the point that, it is worth mentioning that the Diquis spheres have as of 2014 – a year after the original introduction to this piece was written – now been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the site, tourism and conservation of the area evolves slowly as this is a new field for the Costa Rican nation.

We can only hope that the new generations of archaeologist will bring us more answers as to the origin and faction of these items, and of course, how they were made!

Lost Cities: Timgad

Returning to our lost Cities series, today we jump back to the African continent, but this time we are going to the north of the Sahara to talk about the formidable city of Timgad. Also known as Thamugas or Thamugadi in old Berber, this settlement dates to Roman times. Located on the northern slope of the Aurès Mountains – the east side of the Atlas system – Colonia Marciana Ulpia Traiana Thamugadi, as Trajan named it, was literally built out of scratch in the year 100AD at a very important crossroad in the Roman province of Numidia; modern day Algeria. According to the volume Archaeology: The Essential Guide to Our Human Past (ed. By Paul G. Bahn), this was originally established as a military colony for the legionary veterans from Lambaesis, corresponding most likely to the 3rd Augustan legion. Trajan gave the place such an elaborate name in honour of several of his family members most notoriously his mother, father and sister (Marcia, Marcus Ulpius, and Ulpia Marcia…). Like with many of the cities we have been looking at during this series, Timgad was once a centre of great importance, which eventually declined and remained hidden from the human eye for centuries. In this particular case, what actually stopped the city from being undisturbed and preserved since its abandonment in the 8th century, was the endless layers of sand blown straight from the Sahara and encroached by the mountains that kept Timgad from harm. According to Donald Langmead and Christine Garnaut, Timgad remained under Arab control until the annexation of Algeria by France in 1830. It was in fact a French architect, Albert Ballu, who commenced the investigations for the site leading to its eventual rediscovery in 1881. Albert was working then for the Service des Monuments Historiques de l’Algerie. Thankfully for us, Albert was a man of integrity and well learned, and advocated for the preservation of the local heritage according to the traditions of the country. Thank to his care of the site, routinary excavations were carried out all the way to the 1960s, exposing what is believed to be one of the best-preserved representations of a grid plan Roman town. In fact, Langmead and Garnaut state that the city became a key source already back in the day for the development of city plans in early modern society, therefore having a direct impact in architectural development and urban planning. It is very likely that this very knowledge, given Albert’s background, is what allowed him to search for the city and recover it from oblivion. Thankfully for Timgad, unlike many of the other sites we have explored so far, the UNESCO recognised its importance very early on, and has been under their listed of protected monuments since 1982. The Algerian government worked closely with the site too to ensure that no modern buildings would cover the ruins either.

So what do we know about Timgad? In order to understand the reason why the place was created, we can make use of the toponomy and the geographical location to see why this area of Numidia was so important for Rome. The words Thamugas/Thamugadi refer to a peak or summit in the Berber language. Considering its location right off the Aures and the Atlas, this probably makes more sense. The Berbers were the original population of this area, and they lived in the mountains as their natural refuge, which is where the Romans would have got the last bit of the name of the settlement. Numidia was known as the granary of Rome, and the area surrounding Timgad at the time of its creation would have been that of a savannah grassland. Several olive presses have been found in the site as well as the nearby area, and there is evidence for an aqueduct that would have carried water for 3 miles. Therefore, as you can see this was killing 2 birds with one stone: cover your basic military threat and farm the land. Interestingly, and despite the threat of the natives, the city was walled but no fortified. The design of the grid plan suggest it was originally intended to host around 15000 people. However, this was outgrown quickly as the city prospered, leaving its perfect orthogonal shape based on the cardo and decumanus behind, and incorporating suburbs for the new inhabitants. This expansion corresponds with the Severan period, when the vast majority of the public buildings of the settlements were commissioned. According to Bahns book by the end of the 2nd century, Timgad already counted with a great public market and a theatre capable of sitting around 3500 people – which by the way is still in use these days for public functions! The total remains of the buildings erected by the state go up to 20, including a curia, thermae, basilica, and a temple dedicated to Jupiter which is roughly the same dimensions than the pantheon in Rome. There is also the famous Arch of Trajan, also known at the Timgad arch, which is a wonderful triumphal arch that got restored to its former glory in 1900. However, one of the buildings that has interested many scholars is the library gifted by Marcus Julius Quintianus Flavius Rogatianus (as stated clearly on the building site itself), which cost 400 000 sesterces. Although no evidence remains from the examples that this library may have contained, the size and distribution of it suggest it had a capacity for at least 3000 rolls. All the building mentioned above and found in the settlement are made from stone and there are clear since of frequent upgrade throughout Roman rule. Furthermore, investigations carried out by Katherine Dunbabi suggest that during the 2nd and early 3rd century Timgad was also an important centre for the production of mosaics. She has identified remarkable work in geometric pavement patterns, as well as finds amounting to 40 pieces contained luxuriously decorated vegetation motives. Finally, another other reasons why Timgad became a renown city was due to its function as a religious centre, which came a bit later in the 4th century. A famous and respected bishopric, the people of Timgad unfortunately carried the enemy within! Some religious disturbances arose in Numidia due to the practice of Donatism. This is a branch of the early Roman church that developed in North Africa as part of the schisms caused by the Church of Carthage and that advocated for a more rigorous and virtuous dogma. The name comes from a Christian Berber bishop who popularised the practice, Donatus Magnus, and who believed the church and clergy should a place for saints and good actions, with no room for sins and sinners. As it stands, Timgad’s role in the spread of this dogma was vital. Standing on a cross road connecting 6 of the most important ‘viae’ in the area, and with ample trade, Donatism flourished where others may have failed.

Once again you may be thinking, okay, so what happened here for the city to end up abandoned and in ruins? Timgad just suffered the fate of the rest of the empire. The 5th century becomes really tricky for Rome trying to fend off the Germanic groups that had been infiltrating the borders for centuries due to lazy and poor management. The Vandals were a greatly mobile group and very quickly they made their way down from the Iberian Peninsula into the north of Africa, resulting in the sacking of several settlements – Thamugadi included. The area was deprived of the means for preservation and decline followed. There was a brief period of resurgent around 535 after the arrival of the Byzantine general Solomon. He came with the intention to occupy the settlement, but he found it empty, so an attempt to recolonise the area took place, with the Byzantine troops building a citadel towards the southeast of the city, repurposing some of the original construction materials from the site. Nevertheless, our good old friends the Berbers gave Solomon and his friends hell throughout the 6th and 7th centuries which led once again to the stagnation of the settlement with the eventual downfall taking place in the 8th century at the hands of the Arabs. There wasn’t much for them to ransack at this stage, so the place was essentially left to rot and be buried by sand.

*references mentioned in text: 

Donald Langmead, Christine Garnaut Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats (Michigan, 2001).
Katherine m. D. Dunbabi, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World (Cambridge, 1999).