Tag Archives: sketch

The Ottoman Empire

Well, this stinks.

By the 1300-1400s ad the Ottoman Empire, starting in Turkey, conquered lands to their east and west. The Ottomans wanted to create an empire to spread the religion of Islam. They fought the Byzantine half of the Roman Empire and won. The capitol city Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. In ad 1453 the Ottomans stopped trade with the west and closed that section of the Silk Road. That put an end to Europe’s trade with China. The problem was people in Western Europe liked Chinese silks and spices—and they still wanted to buy them. But how to get to China if not by land?

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New, improved Marco Polo

Yeah, the sketch in my last post was kind of blah. Here he is with improvements: bigger, more active camel; Marco is bouncing around on the saddle. I think it’s better and a little funnier.

Marco Polo

Niccoló Polo begins to regret bringing his smart-alecky kid along on the big China trip.

Probably the Silk Road’s most famous traveler was Marco Polo (ad 1254-1324). Marco’s family were merchants from Venice, Italy. His dad and uncle had already traveled all the way to China and back. They decided to make a return trip and bring 15-year-old Marco this time. Marco Polo wrote all about his travels and his book became a bestseller (remember, this was before moveable type so books had to be hand-copied). He described the romantic places along the Silk Road (Samarkand, the Hindu Kush, Kashmir, Xanadu), the exotic goods that were traded, and the size and wealth of China. The Polos would not return to Venice for 24 years.


The Silk Road

You can see it was no easy trip. When you weren’t sunburnt from shlepping across a desert you were frozen from climbing over the mountains.

I mentioned sometime back that a feature of civilization is that people like to buy and sell stuff. This is called commerce, where you trade something you have for something you want. The people of Western Europe traded with people of other civilizations—even as far away as China.

Trade goods were carried by merchants from Europe to China and back. They traveled along the Silk Road (actually several roads or routes) that crossed the whole continent of Asia. They’d take goods from Europe like horses, grapes, honey, gold & silver and trade them for Chinese goods like silk, tea, spices, rice, paper and gunpowder.

The Silk Road was originally set up by China’s Han Dynasty in 130 bc. Merchants didn’t necessarily travel its entire length—there were trading posts along the way. One section of the Silk Road was the Persian Royal Road. It was used as early as 500 bc to send messages across the MidEast. Messengers would stop at changing posts to hop on a fresh horse.

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Hypatia, the lady philosopher/mathematician/astronomer

Sometimes writing about history is hard. At the beginning of this project, I’d envisioned a fun and slightly wacky tour through Western Civilization presented by a fun and slightly wacky uncle. The story of human beings is often violent and cruel, though. Human beings are flawed creatures. There are parts of civilization’s history that make me heartsick.

I want to tell you about a glorious and brilliant woman who lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th century ad. Her name is Hypatia. She was the daughter of a philosopher and mathematician, and she became a philosopher and mathematician herself. Hypatia was lovely to look at, but her intellect was what made her irresistible. I became interested in her when I read that if she hadn’t outright invented the astrolabe, at the least she played an big part in developing it.

Hypatia helped her dad expand Ptolemy’s work on astronomy. She eventually did her own scholarly work on the stars and the geocentric model of the universe. It might have been she who came up with the idea of ‘flattening’ the spheres to create the star-map that is central to the astrolabe’s design (this is my own conjecture).

Hypatia was also a philosopher. Her philosophy was Neo-Platonism, which adapts Plato’s ideas about what makes the world tick. Hypatia was a gifted teacher. She often gave lectures in the agora (Greek for public square) about philosophy, astronomy, and her many intellectual interests. At that time Alexandria was boiling with religious trouble. Christians and Jews battled with each other and with philosophers who rejected a belief in God. The Roman Empire was in its last days, about to split into East and West. Politics absolutely played a part in the violent clashes between religion and philosophy.

I’m sorry and ashamed to tell you that a mob of Christians ambushed Hypatia, and murdered her. It’s nearly impossible for me to believe that these were followers of Jesus. But it happened. They behaved as a mob—the very opposite of civilization—and murdered a woman for promoting a philosophy that rejects Christianity.

You can read more about Hypatia here and here. There’s a movie about her, too.  Here’s a review—caution: some violence.  (I have a quibble with History Buff’s conclusion that, because of Christianity, scholarship was discouraged in the Dark Ages. Beginning with Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire fostered a culture of learning that was encouraged in the monasteries. Monks copied books by hand—the books from the Greek philosophers that had been translated into Arabic, which the monks then translated into Latin. See How The Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.)

It’s better than bad, it’s good

There is a mention of an hourglass in a ship’s inventory in the 1300s.

When you need to know where you are at sea, this is what you have to go on.

At sea, it’s difficult to know exactly where you are. No landmarks. No way to tell how far you are from land. Sailors had to be creative. To figure out distance, they used time.

Sailors liked the hourglass because it isn’t as affected by a ship’s bouncing around on the waves as a water-clock would be—it still marks an hour accurately. Smaller sandglasses with less sand mark shorter periods of time. Sailors could judge how fast their ship were traveling by ‘casting the log.’ They had a length of line—heavy cord—with a piece of wood (the log) tied to its end, and knots tied in it at regular intervals. They’d throw the log into the sea and turn the glass at the same time. The log dragged behind and pulled the line with it. When the sand ran out, they’d nip the line and count how many knots had run out. Number of knots = distance traveled in a set space of time.

If you know how fast you’re traveling, you can make a guess how far you traveled in an hour or a day or a week. This is how the sailors used to calculate where they were on the ocean.

Casting the log is said to have been invented in the 1500s. The first evidence of a ship’s log-book is from the 1600s. This is a guess, but it seems to me that the log-book would have been originally a record of the ship’s speeds—that eventually became a record of any important events that happened aboard the ship. With time, ‘log-book’ got shortened to ‘log.’

Today, people who post regularly on the worldwide web refer to their sad ramblings as a ‘web-log’ or ‘blog’ for short. Spare a thought for us poor, attention-starved souls.

Here’s an excellent video about casting the log.


The secret origin of “log in”

More about time and distance.

Read this now! Time is running out!

Hourglasses are good timers that are easy to use, so they’ve been part of people’s lives for centuries. My mom used to have a little one that measured 3 minutes—just right for boiling an egg.

The hourglass became a symbol for time itself, and just how quickly it seems to pass. Go into an old cemetery and you might see one carved into a tombstone—eeek!

On some computers a little icon of an hourglass shows up to tell you that your program is still loading.

By golly, I would have committed murder to own that Wizard of Oz hourglass when I was an art student, How about the lucky prop artist who got to design it!

If you ever saw the old Wizard of Oz movie with Judy Garland, you’ll remember that terrifying big hourglass that belonged to the Wicked Witch of the West. Here’s a website that tells how hourglasses are made. This one’s good, too.

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An hourglass is a device that measures time. It’s two glass bulbs joined together by a skinny neck. There’s sand inside, so when you set the hourglass with the sand-filled bulb on top, the sand trickles through the neck into the empty bulb below. The hourglass maker put in exactly an hour’s worth of sand, so when the top bulb is empty, one hour has passed. The whole contraption is contained in a frame so it can be stood on either end.

Hourglassses are sometimes called ‘sand clocks,’ but they’re timers. Remember the early Egyptian water clocks? They were timers, too, until Ctesibius figured how to make clocks out of them.

Legend says that a French monk called Liutprand (Lee-UT-prond) invented the hourglass in the 8th century ad. There doesn’t seem to be solid evidence to support or deny that. Charlemagne is supposed to have owned a 12-hour hourglass—Liutprand was French, Charlemagne was French, so maybe there’s a connection? And I guess I’d have to admit that at 12 hours, that hourglass was a clock.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

Julius Caesar painting exercise

I just got a clamp-on holder for my phone and wanted to try this—

Update: Sorry for any confusion if you visited here in the last hour. I couldn’t get the video to show up. I’ve since added a link to Instagram. I hope that works! Thanks for your patience.


Long time ago in Bethlehem

The custom of naming years after whoever wore the crown lasted well into the time of the Roman Empire.

Two thousand and some years ago, a baby was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea—in the country we now call Israel. The baby was Jesus, son of Mary, the Holy Spirit in human form. He would grow up to begin a ministry that led to His crucifixion and resurrection—in order to save all of humankind. Jesus is the Redeemer; the Christos in Greek; the Mashiach in Hebrew.

The Christian evangelist Luke wrote about the Nativity before there were numbered years. How could he put a date on Jesus’ birth? Here’s how: Luke tells us that Jesus was born while Augustus was emperor of Rome and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Luke knew his readers would remember when those guys were in charge and place Jesus’ birth in that time.

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In fact, it would be 5 more centuries before someone thought of numbering the years.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.