Monday, April 13, 2015

Churchill - De Gaulle Exhibit opens in Paris

A history resource article by  © 2015

Winston Churchill at Madame Toussaud's Wax
Museum in London.  Photographed by
Mary Harrsch © 2006
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of famous British statesman Winston Churchill and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of France during World War II, the Musée de l'Armée in Paris is hosting a joint exhibition examining the intertwined careers of Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

The exhibit begins with the Munich agreement, a settlement permitting Nazi Germany's annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country's borders mainly inhabited by German speakers, for which a new territorial designation "Sudetenland" was coined. The agreement was negotiated at a conference held in Munich, Germany, among the major powers of Europe, excluding the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Today, it is widely regarded as a failed act of appeasement toward Germany. The agreement was signed in the early hours of 30 September 1938 (but dated 29 September).

"In 1938, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle did not know yet each other. Their notoriety, for which they were responsible, was not in proportion with one another. However, they shared a very close vision of the rising dangers of the Thirties, as well as the strategic and diplomatic shortcomings of their respective countries. But the politician “in the wilderness” and the military theorist ignored by the military hierarchy were isolated and in the minority in the face of public opinion which was convinced that the Maginot line and the concessions granted to the dictators would prevent a new war. Both therefore react very strongly following the signing of the Munich accords, a simple of this policy of renunciation and cowardice."

Servicemen and politicians, Churchill and De Gaulle were also writers, orators and even, in Churchill’s case, a journalist and a painter. The intersecting paths of these major figures - both allies and enemy brothers - will be explored through objects, paintings, uniforms and archives, some never before exhibited or published. Multimedia displays will provide the military and historic context.



The exhibit will be accompanied by lectures on Churchill and De Gaulle in the media, in North Africa and as subjects of sculptors.  There will also be concerts and a film festival including the late Sir Richard Attenborough's 1972 film "Young Winston", the 2009 Thaddeus O'Sullivan film "Into the Storm" as well as the popular films "The Eagle Has Landed" and "The Day of the Jackal".

The exhibit will be on display until July 26, 2015.

The last time I was in Paris in 2008, I didn't have an opportunity to visit the Musée de l'Armée but I hope one day to return and will place this museum on my itinerary.


Thursday, April 09, 2015

Taharqa, The Black Pharaoh exhibit coming to Copenhagen April 26, 2015

A history resource article by  © 2015

As someone who became fascinated by the Nubian period in ancient Egypt after watching "The Silver Pharaoh", an episode of "Secrets of the Dead" on PBS, I was especially excited when I received a press release today about a new exhibit coming to the NY Carlson Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark - TAHARQA THE BLACK PHARAOH.

A pharoah of the 25th Egyptian dynasty and king of the Kingdom of Kush, located in Northern Sudan, Taharqa was the son of Piye, the Nubian king who conquered Egypt in the 8th century BCE.  His reign was marked by conflict with the Assyrians and their emperor Sennacherib.  As a builder, Taharqa built the largest pyramid in the Napatan region and completed additions to the Temple at Karnak, a new temple at Kawa and a temple at Jebel Barkal.

It is thought by some scholars that Taharqa is the Kushite king Tirhakah, referred to in the Bible, who waged war against Sennacherib during the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah although the biblical dates are off by about ten years.  He may also be Sethos who achieved victory over Sennecherib by praying to the gods and winning when the gods sent  "a multitude of field-mice, which devoured all the quivers and bowstrings of the enemy, and ate the thongs by which they managed their shields." - Herodotus, The Histories (450 BCE)

It was not all victories for Taharqa, however.  In the 20th year of his reign, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon captured and sacked Memphis, taking hostage many members of the royal family including Taharqa's young son, Ushankhuru.  Taharqa fled south but continued to direct resistance efforts in Lower Egypt.  When Esarhaddon died and his son Ashurbanipal ascended the Assyrian throne, Ashurbanipal once more invaded Egypt and soundly defeated Taharqa, who fled to Thebes.  Taharqa died there in 664 BCE.  


Bronze statue of Ashurbanipal outside the Asian Art Museum
in San Francisco, CA.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2006
Taharqa was succeeded by his nephew, Tantamani, who marched north and, temporarily, reoccupied all of Egypt, killing Necho I, appointed king by the Assyrians.  But the Assyrians returned and defeated Tantamani in the Delta then marched as far south as Thebes and sacked the city.  The Assyrian reconquest effectively ended Nubian control of Egypt although Tantamani's authority was still recognized in Upper Egypt until the 8th Year of his reign. In 656 BCE the navy of Psamtik I, son of the slain Assyrian client king Necho I, peacefully took back control of Thebes and effectively unified all of Egypt.

Press release excerpt:

Egyptian with a twist
Featuring more than 70 archaeological finds, the exhibition sums up a time when Egyptian and African traits and cultures fuse together. The invading forces from the south appear almost more Egyptian than the Egyptians themselves. Pyramids are built, old traditions and gods are revived, and hieroglyphs and Egyptian iconography are appropriated by the new regime. Very notably, this revival prompts a highly distinctive mode of expression, as is evident in the depiction of Taharqa’s clearly Negroid features on an otherwise classical sphinx, a prominent loan from the British Museum, which has made the extraordinary gesture of allowing the Glyptotek to display one of the highlights from its own collection.

The exhibition also points to how the African roots of the Nubians are apparent in connection with their funerary customs, as well as to how their culture remained strongly influenced by Egypt even after they retreated back to Nubia.

Closer to Taharqa
The exhibition zooms in and out on its subject, presenting temple finds of varying scope and scale as well as small, but highly sophisticated artefacts from Nubian tombs and palaces. The vast majority of the archaeological finds on display were excavated in Meroë and Kawa in present-day Sudan, where large-scale archaeological excavations are still in progress. Through photographic documentation, including reports from the Glyptotek’s most recent expedition in the area, and through reconstructions of the arrays of objects that appeared to the archaeologists working there in the present, some 2,500 years after the last black pharaohs trod the Earth, the exhibition seeks to capture echoes of the glories of the past.

The exhibition supplements the Glyptotek’s rich collections from the period with important loans from the National Museum of Denmark and the British Museum. In preparation of this exhibition, the Glyptotek has carried out extensive restoration and conservation work on a number of archaeological finds. Two large stelae that were completely smashed during transit from Sudan some hundred years ago have now been put back together, like a particularly challenging puzzle, and are now ready to be put on public display for the first time ever. They are presented here alongside two other stelae, also owned by the Glyptotek, which were found at the same site: Taharqa’s large temple in Kawa.


The exhibit will be on display from April 26 - June 28, 2015.  Sadly, I won't be able to attend this exhibit personally but encourage anyone planning to be in Denmark in the next couple of months to add this exhibit to your itinerary.  As a descendant of Harald Bluetooth (at least according to one of my cousins who is a hard core genealogist), I do hope to visit Denmark someday, but I'm afraid I have other commitments in the next few months.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Acorn TV to feature "World War One: The People's Story"

A history resource article by  © 2015

Today I received an email about the upcoming release of "World War One: The People's Story".  The documentary aired in the UK last August and will now be released on DVD on April 14, 2015. It will also be available on Acorn TV, the British streaming service available on Roku devices, iPads and iPhones, smart Samsung TVs or through your web browser on your computer.

Through original diaries, letters, and memoirs, this unforgettable documentary tells how the lives of regular British men and women were transformed by the Great War. A reservist leaves for the front determined to write to his mother every few days. A newlywed says goodbye to his pregnant wife. A young woman fears that when her fiancé sails for France, her hopes of marriage will disappear. For parents and children, soldiers and factory workers alike, life and love go on but never again as they did before. Few could imagine the horrors ahead: hundreds of thousands would never return, and those who did would carry wounds—physical, emotional, psychological—that would change their lives forever.

Along with historical footage, an outstanding cast of actors reenact first-hand accounts uncovered from attics, archives, and libraries across Britain. Narrated by Olivia Colman, this four-part series re-creates the extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told in their own words.

The DVD includes a 12-page viewer’s guide with a map of the western front; an overview of WWI; and articles on trench warfare, the suffragist movement, and the WWI poets.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Typhus, Typhoid Fever or Avian Influenza? What plague killed the father of the Parthenon?

A history resource article by  © 2015


Portrait of Pericles 1st century BCE Roman
copy of 5th century BCE Greek original from
Lesbos.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Note: this is a crosspost from one of my other history blogs, History's Medical Mysteries.

"Fever, headache, sore throat, and vomiting developed in a 65-year-old man.  He had been in excellent health until approximately 1 week earlier, when he had sudden onset of headache, ocular erythema, and halitosis.  On the third day of illness, he began to sneeze and cough, and noted bilateral pleuritic chest pain.  On the sixth day, he developed projectile vomiting of dark, bilious fluid.  At this time, he complained of fever so intense that he would not allow himself to be covered with even the lightest clothing.  He also complained repeatedly of intense thirst.  Although he drank copious amounts of water, his thirst persisted, worsened by frequent vomiting."

Thus begins a study to determine what may have caused the death of the famous Athenian stateman, Pericles, as a clinical exercise at a 2000 clinical pathologists' conference at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Each year, a team of practicing pathologists and historical consultants select a famous individual from the past whose manner of death remains speculative and attempts to derive a definitive cause of death.

The death of Pericles is examined by Drs. David T. Durack, MD, Robert J. Littman, PhD, R. Michael Benitez, MD and Philip K. Mackowiak, MD. Their paper, Hellenic Holocaust: A Historical Clinico-Pathologic Conference was published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2000 (Volume 109: pages 391-397).

Phidias showing the Parthenon frieze to Pericles, Aspasia, Alcibiades and Friends
by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thucydides reported that desperate patients racked with thirst and fever plunged into cisterns and wells seeking relief. Of the few survivors, some lost fingers and toes from peripheral gangrene, others suffered blindness, and there were also reports of survivors experiencing a complete loss of memory.
Bust of the Greek general and
historian, Thucydides at the
Royal Ontario Museum.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Research indicates the disease originated in Africa then spread to the Persian Empire and ultimately to a beseiged Athens via the port of Piraeus where it attacked a population of almost 400,000 condensed into 4 square miles. But which variety of plague was it?

What do the experts say? (PDF of original article reprinted with permission)

Update: In 2006, a research group led by Manolis Papagrigorakis of the University of Athens extracted pathogen DNA from three teeth recovered from skeletal remains found in the ancient necropolis of Kerameikos dated to approximately 430 BCE and assumed to be victims of the great plague.  The only pathogen Papagrigorakis and his team could identify was a strain resembling Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi (typhoid fever).  Papagrigorakis' report that appeared in May 2006 in Volume 10, Issue 3, Pages 206–214 of the International Journal of Infectious Diseases entitled DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens (full text) was immediately refuted by Beth Shapiro and Andrew Rambaut of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre at Oxford University as well as M. Thomas P. Gilbert of the Niels Bohr and Biological Institutes, University of Copenhagen in a letter (full text) to the same journal.

Shapiro points out, "The authors’ diagnosis is based on a similarity score, resulting from BLAST comparisons between their amplified fragments and published sequences. Specifically, the authors report a 7% divergence between their sequences and S. enterica serovar Typhi, and 8% divergence between their sequence and the next most closely-related Salmonella strain, S. typhimurium. Based on the closer match to S. enterica, the authors conclude that ‘‘[if] another, yet unknown pathogen... was the actual cause of the Plague of Athens, it would have to be closely related to S. enterica and definitely closer than S. typhimurium.’’

Greek warriors depicted on a 5th century BCE gravestone.
Permanent collection of the British Museum.
Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2012
"This statement, however, is simply not true. Although the Athens sequence is indeed slightly more similar to S. enterica, the two cited Salmonella species are actually much more closely related to each other, with less than 1% divergence for the sequenced gene. In fact, if a simple phylogenetic analysis is performed, the ancient sequence is shown to fall outside both S. enterica and S. typhimurium, as well as several other Salmonella species (Figure 1). While this analysis confirms that the Athens sequence is possibly Salmonella, it demonstrates clearly that it is not typhoid (97% bootstrap value). Based on the evolutionary timescale inferred for Salmonella and E. coli, the Athens sequence and typhoid would have shared a common ancestor in the order of millions of years ago."

Then, in 2013, a thesis, entitled A novel offering of Avian Influenza as the causative agent of the Plague of Athens: contextual and paleopathological analysis of the 5th century BCE Plague of Athens via primary resources and modern DNA sequence-based identification strategies of dental pulp from a mass grave at Kerameikos, was published by Karen Spence.  Although Spence was less critical of the Papagrigorakis team's conclusions, she pointed out that the sequencing procedure used would not have identified any RNA-based pathogens.  She acknowledged the Maryland pathologists' conclusions that human-to-human communicated influenza would not have had a high enough mortality rate to be a good match for the Athens pathogen (which had an estimated mortality rate of 25%).  But, she proposes that zoonotic avian influenza passed from domestic poultry to humans would have.  Spence points out that when refugees from the surrounding countryside flooded into Athens, they probably brought smaller animals with them like pigs and chickens.  She proposes that some of the poultry were carriers and quickly infected other birds in the confined quarters.  The animals then passed the disease to their human caregivers.  Birds often carry the pathogen without succumbing to the disease themselves.  Even if some of the birds died, they were probably eaten, due to the conditions of the siege.  She postulates that an infected reservoir of birds would have retained the pathogen over a long period of time accounting for several years of plague rather than a flare up that would quickly die down as in the case of human-to-human transmitted influenza.

Roman mosaic of doves drinking from a bowl from 2nd century BCE
Greek original by Sosos recovered from Pompeii.
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch
© 2009 
Although Spence makes a convincing case, she indicates in her table comparing symptoms of  the Athenian plague with Typhoid Fever and Avian Flu that neither pathogen usually results in the survivor pathologies described by Thucydides.  It is the survivor pathologies that are carefully addressed by the Maryland pathologists in their conclusion that the most likely causative pathogen was typhus and why I find the Maryland analysis most convincing.

Since avian flu cannot be transmitted from human to human, I was also skeptical that Pericles, a wealthy statesman, would have had contact with chickens, other than to eat one.  Likewise, I would doubt his household steward would resort to obtaining a dead chicken from a lower class meat market that may have procured diseased carcasses. I also question why the disease would first appear in Piraeus, the port, as most refugees came from the surrounding countryside. The affliction was also reported as previously occurring in Ethiopia and Persia.  Neither location suffered from siege concentrations where poultry may have been in particularly close contact with humans.

Of course there is the possibility the besieged Athenians imported poultry as a protein food source since they no longer had access to cattle that were left behind in the fields. But it is more likely that being a seafaring people, they would have relied upon fish instead.

However, I appreciated the comparative table Spense uses to clearly demonstrate typhoid fever's lack of many of the attributes of the plague described by Thucydides.  I would have liked to have seen such a table covering all 29 pathogens that have been proposed over the last 150 years of study.

In my research I also found an interesting article about new DNA extraction techniques developed in just the last five years that were used on victims of the Justinian plague at the Ancient DNA Centre of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.  It made me wonder if the new method would be more successful with the Athenian samples.  I would also like to see an attempt made specifically on adult females from the Kerameikos remains. Thucydides recorded that caregivers suffered an extremely high rate of infection and mortality and in ancient Athens, as today, most caregivers would have been female. There did not seem to be any reference to gender in the Papagrigorakis report. If gender was not considered I think this could be a significant barrier to more conclusive results.

The idealized Spartan warrior, Leonidas
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  Edited by Mary Harrsch.
At the time of the plague, Athens was besieged by Sparta and male corpses from the ongoing conflict could have been included in the mass burial. Some historians would disagree on this point because death in battle would have a significant element of honor involved and mass burial of such individuals would have been particularly impious. But, a community in the grip of a severe plague where there were large accumulations of unburied corpses and a shortage of able bodied men to dispose of corpses, could have resorted to mass burial of at least some war casualties.  Thucydides said the population of Athens was so morally distressed by the plague that funerary rituals were "universally violated" (History of the Peloponnesian War - 2.52.3) - clearly supporting the possibility of mass burial, even of war casualties. Also, the Papagrigorakis study was conducted on only three teeth from randomly chosen victims apparently without regard to gender.  I would feel much more confident in the results if more victims were sampled.

Of course, we cannot even be sure the mass burial at Kerameikos was even a result of the so-called Athenian plague. Although excavators dated the burial fairly precisely to 430 - 426 BCE, dating methodologies are not so precise. The burial could be from an epidemic occurring before, concurrent with, or after the plague onset. The crowded siege conditions could have easily resulted in several concurrent diseases that would not necessarily include the pathogen responsible for the symptoms reported by Thucydides and observed in Pericles.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Feasts, Dancing and Tournaments Draw Medieval History Enthusiasts

A history resource article by  © 2015

The Middle Ages has attracted a lot of history enthusiasts and over 30,000 have gone on to relive this vibrant historical period by joining the Society for Creative Anachronism, an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe. I received an email from one of these young men, Euan Forrester, a talented photographer who produced an excellent video about medieval reenactment actitivities:



This Game We Play from Euan Forrester on Vimeo.

The “Known World” of the SCA consists of 19 kingdoms worldwide, each overseen by a royal court. Members, dressed in clothing of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, attend events which feature tournaments, royal courts, feasts, dancing, various classes, workshops and more.

By checking the SCA website, I learned that I resided in the kingdom of AnTir that encompasses Oregon, Washington and the northern tip of Idaho as well as  British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories.  I am presently being ruled by King Savaric and Queen Dalla.  I even discovered there is the Egil Skallagrimmson Memorial Tournament scheduled not far from my home May 22 - May 25, 2015 under the supervision of the baron of Adiantum.

Although I will probably only participate as a photographer (after all, my heart lies with the Roman Republic much earlier in history and I prefer a Roman gladius to a European long sword), I would definitely encourage anyone interested in the Middle Ages to check the SCA website for reenactment activities scheduled near you!

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Knight of Jerusalem by Helena Schrader



A history resource article by  © 2014

Although most of my reviews focus on books about the ancient world, I couldn't resist accepting a review copy of Knight of Jerusalem, about Balian d'Ibelin, the famous defender of Jerusalem, from author Helena P. Schrader a couple of months ago.  I had enjoyed Ridley Scott's film "Kingdom of Heaven" but like Helena, I, too, had wondered how much was actually true.  Since Helena has a Ph. D. in history from the University of Hamburg and assured me that her biographical novel, the first of a trilogy, used the actual historical record as the framework for her tale, I agreed to read it.

I was not disappointed!  The novel not only closely follows Balian's rise to prominence, meticulously tracing his career trajectory, but Schrader fills his life with vibrant characters, many representing real people struggling with the social requirements of medieval society while facing a cataclysmic upheaval between diverse cultures with opposing religious beliefs.

Like Balian, I was drawn to the tragic predicament of the young leper king, Baldwin IV, a courageous boy who struggles with a body disintegrating moment by moment yet with an awareness of the problems of others  and a determination far beyond his years to serve his people until his last breath.

Schrader admits in the author's notes that there is no mention of Balian serving as a riding instructor to young Baldwin in the period's sources. But this fictional association between Balian and Baldwin she incorporates into the story serves seamlessly to support two historical facts about these men that are known.  Baldwin, though a leper, was renowned for his horsemanship and Balian did manage, despite the strict social hierarchy of the period, to obtain permission to marry Baldwin's stepmother, Queen Maria Zoe Comnena (not Sibylla as depicted in the film) even though Balian was a landless knight due to his birth position as third son of a local baron.  Although the historical record is silent about how Balian accomplished this  amazing social feat, it seems totally plausible that he did so because of a close bond forged between himself and the young king in some shared activity or momentous event.

As a U. S. Foreign Service officer, Schrader has traveled extensively in the Middle East so I felt totally immersed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem by her descriptions of various locales and castle structures.  She has also obviously thoroughly researched the trappings and weapons of armored knights and refers to each piece with precise terminology.  I just wish she had included a graphic of an armored knight with each piece labeled.  Although Schrader thoughtfully included noble family genealogical charts and maps, as well as a clinical discussion of leprosy, there was no glossary so I had to use context to help me define some of the terms.

Of course a novel about Crusader knights would not be complete without a major battle and the Battle of Montgisard that took place in 1177 is the climactic action in this first book of the trilogy.

"On the afternoon of November 25, [1177] King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne).  The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon or “the Ibelin brothers” had smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream." - Helena Schrader, Defending Crusader Kingdoms.

Schrader deftly turns up the dramatic tension as each unit of the Crusader army impatiently reacts to the carefully measured  advance of the highly disciplined Knights Templar, given the lead position by young King Baldwin.  I felt I was riding alongside the Crusaders as they finally explode with pent up fury and charge into the heart of the Saracen camp.

After reading Schrader's tale, I cannot imagine why Ridley Scott chose to veer so far from the historical record in his film.  Balian's actual life was full of intrigue, heart-wrenching personal choices and courage.  I am definitely looking forward to Schrader's next installment, Defender of Jerusalem, due to be released in September 2015.