I have to say, I don't envy either the First Emperor or the Last Emperor of China. First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi united the country for the first time in 246 BCE through military skill and ruthlessness, only to have it fall apart again soon after his death. A death that came from lead poisoning, ironically, caused by his search for the Elixir of Life.
On the other hand, the Last Emperor Puyi of the Qing Dynasty nominally ruled China as a small child in the early 20th century, but then spent the rest of his life as either a puppet or a prisoner. As emperors go, he definitely was dealt a terrible hand. In fact, I'm not sure which of them had it worse... but on the whole, I'm inclined to think it was Puyi. He didn't even get any terracotta warriors - just a simple cremation.
The Crimean Tatars have a long history in Eastern Europe, reaching back to the Mongols' Golden Horde. However, Joseph Stalin accused them as an entire people of collaborating with the Nazis, and deported them en masse to Uzbekistan in 1944.
In the decades since the Soviet Union fell, Crimean Tatars have been making their way back to the Crimean Peninsula. Today, slightly less than half of the total Tatar population lives there, in what is now Ukraine. They make up just 15% of the population of the Crimea region, though.
In the last week, delegates to the World Congress of Crimean Tatars met at Simferopol to draw up a political agenda. Their issues range from provision of water and electricity to Tatar settlements, to the use of Tatar as an official language.
Photo by timurberk on Flickr.com.
This year's Commonwealth summit in Colombo, Sri Lanka, has been dominated by the question of whether the host government has been guilty of war crimes. Both Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, and Stephen Harper of Canada boycotted the summit. British Prime Minister David Cameron attended, but called for "proper inquiries" into the final phase of the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983 - 2009), in which as many as 40,000 civilians may have died, mostly from government shelling of Tamil Tiger strongholds in the north of the island.
Over the decades of the conflict, the Sri Lankan government allegedly used torture, rape, disappearances, and massacres of civilians in its fight against the Tamil Tigers. The guerrillas used car bombings, assassinations, and massacres as well. In fact, war crimes investigations would have a lot of ground to cover on both sides of the conflict.
Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images.
In 1727, the Russian Empire and the Qing Dynasty, rulers of China, decided to clarify the border between their empires. The line was supposed to run between Siberia and Mongolia, which was under Chinese rule at the time.
Diplomacy was complicated, however, by the fact that the negotiators had no languages in common. The Qing negotiators spoke Manchu and some Mongol, but they also had brought along a couple of Jesuit missionaries. The Russian negotiators spoke Russian, Latin, and a bit of Mongol.
Oddly enough, as a result, the Treaty of Kyakhta was negotiated and drafted in Latin, with the Jesuits acting as interpreters for the Qing diplomats. Unofficial communications were carried out in Mongol. The completed treaty was published in Latin, Manchu, and Russian - but not in Chinese.
Photo of northern Mongolia by John Lind.
Since the end of World War II, the Emperors of Japan have played an unique role in the country's political life. Japan's wartime ruler, Hirohito, was forced to renounce his divine status in 1945. The current emperor, Akihito, is supposed to play no actual role in politics; he is simply a figurehead.
A member of Japan's parliament, however, has broken that rule. This week, Taro Yamamoto attended an event at the imperial palace and handed Akihito a letter about the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Whether this breach of protocol will result in any action on Fukushima is an open question. It has certainly raised awareness of Akihito's odd non-role in politics, however.
Photo by Koichi Kashimodo/Getty Images.
According to Japanese legend, when samurai of the Minamoto clan defeated those of the Heike (Taira) clan in the 1185 Battle of Dan-no-ura, a magical event took place. The Taira warriors and the six-year-old Emperor they supported, Antoku, jumped into the sea to avoid capture. As they drowned, their souls passed in to a type of crab that lives in the Shimonoseki Strait called the Heike crab. The mark of this wonderful transformation remains, in the form of an angry samurai face visible on the crabs' shells.
The story also notes that before they jumped, the Taira threw overboard the insignia of the Emperor, which were gifts from their goddess-ancestor, Amaterasu. The insignia included a mirror, a sword, and a string of jewels. The Minamoto claimed that their divers recovered the mirror and the sword from the ocean depths; these artifacts now reside in the Ise Shrine's inner sanctum, according to tradition.
Nobody told the samurai crabs about the divers, evidently. Local people believe that the angry samurai still march around the ocean floor in search of the lost insignia.
Detail from print "The Ghost of Taira Tomomori" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi via Wikipedia.
In recent weeks, the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has made a point of reaching out to the United States and other western nations. He has also attempted, somewhat gingerly, to begin repairing relations with Israel, by rejecting his predecessor's Holocaust denial.
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, however, is adamant that Iran is simply trying to trick the world, in order to buy time to build nuclear weapons. He charges that President Rouhani is just a cat's-paw for the Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.
The historian in me can't help but contrast the present situation with what happened in the 500s BCE. The Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire, defeated Babylon and freed the Jewish people from their Babylonian captivity. He also ordered support for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
A later Achaemenid emperor, Darius the Great, gave the Jews financial assistance that allowed them to finish building the Second Temple in 518-517 BCE. This sacred temple stood for more than 500 years, until the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE. All that remains now is the Western Wall.
It's such a shame that today, the leaders of Persia (Iran) and Israel feel like they have to approach one another with suspicion and fear. I wish that they could look back to the time of Cyrus and Darius, and overcome their differences.
Image from Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
General Vo Nguyen Giap of Vietnam has died at the age of 102. A farmer's son with no formal military training, this natural strategist founded the Viet Minh, and engineered the defeat of not one but two of the western Great Powers in Vietnam.
General Giap was the mastermind behind the Vietnamese victory over their former colonial masters, the French, at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. That defeat spelled the end of French imperialism in Southeast Asia. He also planned and executed the Tet Offensive against US and South Vietnamese forces in 1968. While Tet was not a military success, it turned American public opinion against the war, and was a key to North Vietnam's eventual victory in the Vietnam War.
Photo via Wikimedia.
We know that the man depicted here, Jean d'Alluye, was a Crusader and that he went to Damascus (now in Syria). We also know that he died in 1248, and was buried in a limestone vault topped with a carved effigy. His tomb effigy, though, highlights some of the things we don't know about this French knight from the Loire Valley. Most intriguing of all: Where and how did he get a Chinese sword?
The sword carved onto the effigy is unlike any other known from 13th century Europe. Jean d'Alluye's sword has a pommel shaped almost like a fleur de lis, rather than the usual European sword design which had a simple cross-shaped pommel with an oval tang. It's not a Middle Eastern sword, either - the "Saracens" used swords very similar to those of the Crusaders. D'Alluye's almost looks like a lotus blossom. It's almost certainly from China.
As Helmut Nickel of the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out in his article, "The Crusader's Sword: Concerning the Effigy of Jean d'Alluye," there are a couple of ways that a European knight in medieval times could have come by a Chinese sword. It may be that the sword was traded from hand to hand along the Silk Road, finally winding up in Damascus, where d'Alluye bought it.
Perhaps more likely is the theory that the sword traveled to Syria on the back of a Mongol pony; in the same period as d'Alluye's travels to the Middle East as a Crusader, the Ilkhanate horde of the Mongol Empire was establishing control over Persia and trying to extend its power west and south. The Frenchman might have bought or traded for it, or captured it in battle.
We will never know exactly how this knight came by his unique sword. Obviously it was a treasured possession, however, since he chose to have it carved into his tomb cover. It holds value for us, as well, as a reminder that "globalization" is not really a new phenomenon.
Photo by Sharon Mollerus on Flickr.com.
According to Outside Magazine, however, the Sherpas face a terrible risk in the mountains - their death rate is more than 10 times that of commercial fishermen in the US, our most dangerous profession. They face danger from rockfalls and avalanches, stroke and edema from the high altitude, and frostbite. In fact, the magazine notes, historically Sherpas have more than three times the on-the-job death rate of US military personnel in the Iraq War (2003 - 2011).
How will history judge the recreational climbers who rely on Sherpas to do the hardest work on Everest and other high peaks? Is it really an acceptable form of sport, when it kill so many of the local guides and porters?
Photo of Sherpa climber Karma Gyalzen's funeral in Kathmandu, after the 28-year-old died on Mt. Everest in 2003. Paula Bronstein / Getty Images.