Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The bizarre death of the Abbé Prévost

On the night of 25 November 1763, the surgeon at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Nicolas-d’Acy, was sleeping peacefully in his bed when there was loud knocking on his door.
‘Monsieur le chirugien!’ a voice urgently shouted. ‘You must come quickly!  It iz a matter of zee former monk zee Abbé Prévost! His body has been found lying at zee foot of zee Cross of Courteuil. We think zat he iz dead, Monsieur!’

The surgeon quickly got dressed, collected his doctor’s bag, and followed the man, a shepherd, to the presbytery of the church of Courteuil where the body of Abbé Prévost had been taken.
‘He iz dead all right’, said the surgeon when he saw the body lying prostrate on the bed. ‘I will need to perform an autopsy on zee corpse to establish zee exact cause of zee death.’
Then, taking his scalpel from his bag, the surgeon sliced open the belly of the Abbé Prévost, and the old monk’s blood and intestines spurted out onto the bed.

But then, suddenly, mirabile dictu, the quondam corpse of the Abbé Prévost raised itself upright on the bed!!!
‘Nom de Dieu!’ screamed the Abbé. ‘What are you doing?’  
‘A thousand pardons, Monsieur’, said the surgeon, ‘but we thought zat you were dead.’
The Abbé Prévost looked down at his blood and guts.
‘What iz all this?’ he gasped in horror.
But before the surgeon could furnish a detailed, forensic explanation of the entrails that comprise the human digestive system, the Abbé Prévost let out a loud groan and collapsed onto the bed, his eyes and mouth wide open.
'I think now he iz really dead', said the surgeon.
'O, Monsieur le chirugien, you have killed one of France's most greatest men of letters!' said the shepherd.

Antoine-Francois Prévost, known to the world as the Abbé Prévost, was born on 1st April 1697, and had an eventful life. At the age of 16 he fought as a soldier in the Spanish War of Succession, and five years later he served as an officer cadet in the Franco-Spanish War. He deserted soon after and sought refuge in a Benedictine monastery where he took Holy Orders. He was later ordained as a priest and wrote his first novel.

But the Abbé Prévost's life was disrupted when he fell out with the monastery abbot. He went into hiding and fled to Holland and then to England, where he was temporarily imprisoned for fraudulently using bills of exchange and then expelled from the country. But throughout he continued to write, including translations into French of the English novelist Samuel Richardson.

Back in France, after a period spent in hiding, the Abbé Prévost was admitted once more to the Benedictine order, and he wrote his acknowledged masterpiece: Manon Lescaut. But the book was considered to be scandalous and the French Parliament ordered that it be burned.

Abbé Prévost reading Manon Lescaut
by Joseph Caraud 

Now the old monk's body with its entrails hanging out lay motionless on the bloodied bed.
'O, Monsieur, zis will not look good in zee centuries to come', said the shepherd to the surgeon. 'People will make jokes about you. Patricia Cornwell will prove you are a kill-er, and your name will be shit all over zee Internet.'
'Why don't you go and count your sheep, you ignorant shep-herd?' replied the surgeon.

R.I.P. Abbé Prévost. 

NOTE: In the view of the page on Wikipedia (France) this account of the Abbé Prévost's death is apocryphal. 

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Tycho Brahe - the foolish death of a wise man

On a night in October 1601, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Habsburg hosted a lavish banquet at which was present the renowned astronomer Tycho Brahe. But after drinking too much wine, Tycho is filled with the urgent and embarrassing need to urinate.

'What can I do?' he nervously asked himself. 'I can't leave the table, that would be a breach of etiquette. I'll just have to cross my legs and wait.'

And it was an agonising wait, like sitting through a compilation of acceptance speeches from the Oscars: 'I'd like to thank my mom for giving birth to me, my dog for all the love and affection he gives me, God for creating our beautiful planet.....'

Finally, the feasting ended, Tycho rushed to the nearest urinal and hurriedly pointed Percy at the porcelain. But catastrophe! Nothing came out! Panic stricken with severe piss paralysis, Tycho closed his eyes and addressed a silent prayer of supplication to his prostate. A few meagre drops finally dribbled out, but nothing to write home about. 

His friend and assistant Johannes Kepler transported him to his residence in Prague, and ten days later, still unable to relieve himself, Tycho died on the night of 24 October 1601, lamenting that his life had been for nothing. 

But what was the cause of his sad demise? A study at the University of Lund (Sweden) in 1996,which examined hairs from his ample moustache, suggested that it may have been mercury poisoning. Was Kepler the poisoner? Not according to Professor Peter Andersen of Strasbourg who claims to have deciphered a cryptic manuscript which points the finger of suspicion at a distant cousin of Tycho's, who may have poisoned Tycho on the instructions of the Danish King Christian IV, as a punishment for Tycho for having once been his mother's lover, the Queen Sophie of Mecklembourg-Gustrow. 

Another mystery for Patricia Cornwell to solve.

Tycho Brahe, meanwhile, or rather his mortal remains, are interred in the Church of our Lady before Tyn in Prague, where his epitaph reads:
'He lived like a sage and died like a fool'

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Christopher Columbus, Rodrigo de Triana, and the discovery of the New World

On 6 September 1492, the flotilla of vessels comprising the Pinta, the Nina and the Santa Maria, under the command of Admiral Christopher Columbus, set sail from the Canary Islands, and one month later there was still no sight of land. 

With the sailors close to mutiny, on 10 October, Columbus, aboard the Santa Maria, summoned the Pinta and the Nina to draw close so that he could address their crews.

'My brave lads!' he tells them. 'Have courage! It is true that we have yet to sight land, but I am fully trained and highly skilled navigator. I know my arse from my elbow, and my infallible and precise calculations tell me that Japan - yes, Japan! - is just over the horizon. And remember: the Queen of Spain has promised a prize of 10,000 maravedis to whomsoever is first to spy our destination. So forward, my tall fellows!'

The sailors cried 'Hurrah!' and threw their caps into the air, and indeed on 12 October, at two in the morning, a sailor's cry of 'Japan ahoy!' is heard to ring through the air aboard the Pinta. The sailor was Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, also known as Rodrigo de Triana, and soon all can discern the sombre outlines of the coast in the rays of the moon.

At first light, the captain of the Pinta, Martin Alonso Pinzon, clambered aboard the Santa Maria, to claim from the admiral the Spanish Queen's prize for Rodrigo de Triana. But he was in for a surprise.
'What time was this?' questioned Columbus.
'At 2 a.m.' replied Pinzon.
'That's a pity, because I spotted it at 10 p.m. the previous night', replied Columbus.
'But that's impossible!' protested Pinzon.
'No, no, I have two witnesses!' countered Columbus. 'I could even make out the lights and smell the sushi.'
It was pointless to argue, for already it was time to manoeuvre the vessels alongside the green and lush landfall.

Naked and friendly natives came to greet the new arrivals, welcoming them with gifts of cotton and parakeets. But something was not quite right. 
'Are you quite sure that this is Japan, Chris?' Alonso asked Columbus.
'Of course it's Japan! Where else could it be? Where's my interpreter? He'll confirm it', replied the admiral.
At that moment the interpreter rushed forward.
'Well?' asked Columbus.
'I don't understand it!' said the interpreter. 'I've talked to them but they don't seem to understand a word of Japanese!'
'Oops! We must have taken a wrong turning!' said Alonso.
'Well, wherever we are', replied Columbus, 'inform them that I'm renaming their ancient land San Salvador, that they are now subjects of the King of Spain, and can they please tell me where I can get my hands on their gold.'

Communicating through gestures, the explorers believe they have learned that the gold is on an island to the south. They set sail at once, and on 28 October weigh anchor in the new land.
'At last!' announced Columbus triumphantly. 'Japan!'
In fact it was Cuba, but by this time did anyone care?

But the vexing question remains: Who was the first to discover the New World? Was it Columbus? Was it Rodrigo? Or was it a new candidate - Pedro de Lope? Posterity may never know.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Sir Francis Drake and Spanish King's Gold

On 26 September 1580, after a world tour that lasted 2 years and 10 months, Francis Drake arrived back in England.

Bonfires were lit, church bells were rung, Ringo Starr performed a medley of his Greatest Hit, and Queen Elizabeth knighted the returning hero aboard his vessel, the Golden Hind.

He brought with him chests filled with Spanish gold, much to the displeasure of Philip II of Spain.
'Give me back my gold!' tweeted Philip.
'Your gold? You stole it from the Incas, you ratbag!' replied Drake.
'I did it with the full authority of His Holiness the Pope!' retorted Philip. And then in a separate tweet: 'And don't call me a ratbag!'

But all this meant nothing to Sir Francis. He was now a celebrity! And with one woman on his right arm, one on his left, another with her tongue in his mouth, he soon became the talk of the town.

But Philip was not one to give up easily! He demanded that the Queen hand over 'that English pirate Drake', forgetting that the Queen was the English pirate Drake's partner in crime. 

He instructed his Ambassador in England to remind the Queen of the papal bull that appointed Spain the sole guardian of the southern seas, and by extension, the nation with the exclusive monopoly to ravage and to plunder and to rob all and any civilization in the hemisphere of its wealth, its cultures and its traditions.

But the Protestant monarch Elizabeth was not impressed. However, to mollify Philip and get him off her back, she gave him a tiny portion of the loot, which Philip used to finance a revolt against Elizabeth in Ireland.

The shipowners, on the other hand, who financed the expedition, with a return on their investments of 4,700%, had hit the jackpot! 'Better than shares in Facebook!' one was heard to proclaim.

Meanwhile, Sir Francis continued to bask in glory. He became Mayor of Plymouth and a Member of Parliament. But the sedentary life was not for him, and he returned to the high seas as Vice-Admiral and continued to steal the Spanish king's gold. He died at sea off the coast of Panama in 1596 and was buried in full body armour in a lead-lined coffin. 

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Olé ! Islero the Bull gets his Revenge....

On a day in August 1947, in the town of Linares in southern Spain, a great bullfighting spectacle is about to take place. In the red corner: the bulls from the famous ganaderia of Don Eduardo Miura. Facing up t0 them in the blue corner, their bloodthirsty matador adversaries: Manuel Laureano Rodriguez Sandez, known as MANOLETE; Luis Miguel DOMINGUIN; and GITANILLO de Triana (Rafael Vega).

Manolete and Dominguin are two of the most celebrated matadors of their age. Manolete is 30 years old, but with a sad countenance that makes him looks ten years older. Dominguin is 21, and is at the height of his glittering career. Gitanillo is less celebrated, though he has a growing list of bulls' deaths on his conscience.

The first paso is scheduled for 5 p.m. Dressed for the kill, our three heroic matadors salute the 10,500 spectators baying for blood. The bulls, meanwhile, the true stars of the 'spectacle', knowing they are about to die, send farewell tweets to their followers on Twitter, and then smoke a final cigarette. But it is Islero the Bull who is particularly miffed, as he only present at the specific request of Manolete. Already Islero is plotting his revenge.

The contest begins. Gitanillo is the first to draw blood, killing his bull in just 15 minutes. Olé! Manolete is next to enter the arena, and in two passes sends a second victim to the Great Bull Graveyard in the Sky. Then the young Dominguin makes it 3 to the Matadors, Zero to the Bulls. Olé! And then the star of the corrida makes his entrance: ISLERO, 500 kilos of angry beast! A fearful adversary, the more so as his blood is boiling at the massacre of his innocent comrades. His threatening horns want just one thing: REVENGE!

Facing Islero is Manolete. The two adversaries size each other up. Islero brushes against Manolete, makes him shiver. Manolete realises that he is up against a fearsome foe. Time to call in the picadors to soften him up. 

The picadors on their horses stab Islero's neck with their lances. Islero feigns fatigue, and the picadors, thinking their job is done, leave the arena. Now the real contest can begin.

The adversaries continue to spar with one another. Islero makes several charges, testing Manolete's defences. To please the spectators, Manolete takes great risks, indulges in his speciality, the manoletina, in which he holds his muleta in his left hand behind his back. Then, suddenly, Islero lowers his head and charges at Manolete. But Manolete is on his toes and responds by pushing his sword into Islero's neck.

'Is that your best shot?' says Islero, tauntingly, in imitation of Bruce Willis in Die Hard 4.0, his favourite movie. Then Islero raises his body, stamps his hooves in an Ali shuffle, and then charges once more at Manolete and this time plunges his horns into his enemy's groin.

The crowd rise to their feet in stunned silence as their hero flies through the air, then falls to the ground, blood streaming from the wound. Bulls around the world, watching the spectacle of satellite TV, let out a collective and spontaneous 'Olé!' But Islero, too, is greviously wounded. Standing above Manolete, about to give up the ghost, he utters his last defiant words: 'Don't you ever fuck with me and the brothers ever again!' But the crowd's only concern is for Manolete. Talk about sore losers!

Manolete is rushed to the infirmary. He is given a blood transfusion - but it is the wrong blood group! Doctors arrive from Madrid, but can do nothing to save him. He dies at 5 a.m. the following morning. His last words are: 'My mother is not going to like this.'

Thursday, 22 August 2013

22 August 1911 - theft of the Mona Lisa. Chief suspects: Guillaume Apollinaire and his accomplice Pablo Picasso...

On 22 August 1911, the painter Louis Béroud made his habitual visit to the Louvre art museum in Paris and headed straight to the gallery housing the Mona Lisa, as he wished to make a copy of the world's most famous painting. But when he arrived, his artist's eyes, trained to see things in fine detail, noticed that the painting was missing.

But Louis was unconcerned, and even joked with the guard: 'Who knows where women ever get to? When they're not with their lovers they're with their photographers.' Ha ha ha! However, when, hours later, the lady with the enigmatic smile had not returned, Louis despatched the guard to consult the museum photographer in case he had taken it. The photographer's reply? 'Negative.'

Panic ensued! They've stolen the Mona Lisa! Nom de Dieu! The head of museum security and sixty officers searched the building with a fine tooth comb. Nothing doing! The only clue, a lonely fingerprint on the glass recently installed to safeguard the work from....theft!

The fingerprint is compared with the museum's 257 employees, but there is no match. The museum director resigns and the conspiracy theories commence. The far right sees the spectre of a Jewish plot. The German emperor Wilhelm II is a suspect, at least for one newspaper. A reward of 25,000 francs for the painting's recovery is offered by the Society of Friends of the Louvre. A newspaper doubles the amount. Then someone suggests that the only way to solve the crime is to send for Patricia Cornwell, until it is pointed out that she would not be born until 1956.

But the theft is also good for business, as more 'art lovers' visit the art gallery to look at the empty space than ever came to look at the painting!

Then, suddenly, out of the blue, like a clap of thunder, on 7 September, the police make a breakthrough (or so they think). They arrest the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, sling him in the slammer (or slam him in the slinger), and search his rooms. 

Marie Laurencin and Apollinaire
Painting by Douanier Rousseau (1909)
It seems that years earlier the poet had been the recipient of stolen goods, namely primitive statuettes, allegedly levitated from the Louvre by his secretary at the time Géry Pieret. Present on the day the stash was handed over was Pablo Picasso. Then Pieret disappeared, only to resurface after the theft of the Mona Lisa, when, on 28 August, he visited the offices of the publication Paris-Journal with a statuette that he claimed to have stolen from the Louvre in 1904. The next day Paris-Journal published its article, and Guillaume and Pablo were thrown into a wet panic.

What should they do with the statuette bought from Pieret and obviously stolen from the Louvre? The two men consult. Perhaps inspired by Guillaume's most celebrated poem - Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine / Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine - they decide to throw it into the river! 

But Guillaume has cold feet. So instead, under cover of darkness, they deposit the statuette at the doors of Paris-Journal, and then make a run for it. 

After his arrest and detention on 7 September, an investigating magistrate decided that Apollinaire was not behind the theft of the Mona Lisa, and on 12 September he was released without charge.

It was not until December 1913 that the true culprit identified himself as one Vincenzo Peruggia, who, while posing under the name of Vincenzo Leonard, tried to sell the painting to an art dealer in Florence. But the art dealer had him arrested and the painting was returned to the Louvre where it resides to this day, as haughty and enigmatic as ever!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Herman Melville and those nice cannibal people of Typee

In 1840 Herman Melville is 21 years old and is looking for adventure. So he signs up with the whaler Acushnet and on 1st January 1841 sets sail from New Bedford bound for the sperm fishery of the Indian Ocean.

But the ship's captain is not a nice chap, so Herman and his only chum aboard the friendless vessel, Richard Tobias (Toby) Greene, decide to jump ship at the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands.

The captain allows the crew to go ashore but gives them a friendly warning that the island is the home of the Typee tribe of gourmet cannibals that like to dine on human flesh.

'You may only be third-rate sailors to me', he tells them, 'but to a Typee you're a first-rate second course'.

Choosing their moment the pair of deserters make their move and head for the interior in search of the more friendly and non-human eating Happar tribe.

But the island is a jungle labyrinth, with the valley of the Happar adjacent to that of the Typee.

Suddenly the absconders come across two tribesmen. But from which tribe? Happar of Typee? Will they greet them or will they eat them? They decide to take a chance and follow them to their native village.

After a long march they arrive at the village and are surrounded by an excited crowd of natives. But they still don't know which ones they are.

To their consternation they discover that it is the Typee they have fallen among!

They prepare themselves to be sliced and diced and put in a pot noodle. 

But lo! what's all this? The Typee are revealed not as barbarous savages but as generous hosts who offer their guests food, hospitality and tobacco. 

As Melville was to write in his account of his adventures:
'Are these the ferocious savages, the blood-thirsty cannibals of whom I have heard such frightful tales? They deal more kindly with each other, and are more humane than many who study essays on virtue and benevolence, and who repeat every night that beautiful prayer breathed first by the lips of the divine and gentle Jesus.'  [From Typee by Herman Melville]

They have women, too!... 'groups of females fancifully decorated, dancing, capering, and uttering wild exclamations.' [From Typee by Herman Melville]

But despite the warm welcome Toby remains suspicious and he decides to make a run for it. 

Unable to follow because of an injured leg Herman remains in the village under the protection of the chief and continues his idyllic life.

Until, that is, that dreadful day when he discovers - horror of horrors! - a basket with three human heads inside it, of which one is that of a white man.

Then the tribe want to tattoo him. An adoption ceremony? Or sectioning up his body ready for the carve-up?

To add to his woes hostilities break out between the Typee and their Happar neighbours. Several warriors return to the village carrying bloody bundles. 'What in them?' wonders Herman. 

The village chiefs organise a banquet to which Herman is not invited. But what's on the menu? 

Suddenly it all becomes clear. The bloody bundles are steaks cut from the carcasses of the Happar enemy!

Herman's only thought now is to flee. But how? Apart from Jehovah Witnesses, no white people ever come to the village.

Finally, one year to the day since his vacation with the Typee people began news reaches him that a whaler has dropped anchor at the island. This is his chance! 

But the Typee chiefs will only let him go to the ship if he promises to return and if he is accompanied by his adopted parents. 

Herman agrees, but easily gives his naive 'parents' the slip, clambers aboard the whaler, and is back once more in what we amusingly call 'civilization'.


Herman Melville's novel based on his adventures, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, was published in 1846. Unable to find a publisher in the United States, the book was first published in England where it was an immediate best seller.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

George Orwell - plain English and a nice cup of tea.

When George Orwell wasn't lampooning totalitarian regimes in 1984, or maligning pigs in Animal Farm, he was passionate about two other things: The use of plain English; and How to make a nice cup of tea.

In his essay published in 1946 entitled 'Politics and the English language', Orwell set out six rules to follow for writing plain English.

Orwell Rule 1. 
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Included in this rule is the irritating and persistent use of clichés, such as 'What's not to like?', 'Join the club', and 'Try thinking outside the box'.

Clichés are a lazy way of expressing oneself and so are particularly popular with politicians. One cliché that politicians are particularly fond of is'Doing nothing is not an option', which is ironic as they seem to spend most of their time doing nothing.

Another cliché favoured by politicians is 'not acceptable', which they can use in the most inappropriate ways, such as: 'The recent rioting, looting and setting fire to buildings on the streets of London is not acceptable'.

Orwell Rule 2.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.

In practice people often shorten long words in their everyday speech. Thus perambulator becomes pram, refrigerator becomes fridge, veterinarian becomes vet, etc.

Orwell Rule 3.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Avoid too much verbiage.

Orwell Rule 4.
Never use the passive when you can use the active.

An active verb has a subject which is performing the action of the verb while a passive verb has a subject which is undergoing the action of the verb. We could say, for instance: 'Jenny was sent an email'. This tells us that Jenny was sent an email but not who sent it. Presumably the email didn't send itself. But if we put the sentence in the active is becomes: 'Nicky sent an email to Jenny', and now we know who sent the email to Jenny.

Orwell Rule 5
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Jargon are special words used by professionals among other professionals and are therefore the opposite of plain English. We recently heard a librarian on radio say: 'The number of footfalls in libraries is on the increase'. Footfalls here is a piece of jargon used to mean visitors. The librarian could have said: 'The number of visitors to libraries is on the increase'. Or more simply: 'More people are visiting libraries'.

Orwell Rule 6
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous

'...tea is one of the main stays of civilization....'  George Orwell

For lubrication while writing his novels Orwell would often pop into the kitchen and make himself a pot of tea. And on 12 January 1946 the Evening Standard newspaper printed an article that Orwell wrote on the subject and which he called A Nice Cup of Tea.

In 1946 tea was still rationed in Britain (and would remain so until 1952) and Orwell's article was to help people to wring out their 'ration of twenty good, strong cups of tea' that the ration of 'two ounces, properly handled, ought to represent'.

To do this he recommended his own eleven rules 'every one of which I regard as golden'.

The rules include only drinking Indian or Ceylonese (now Sri Lanka) tea, made in a pot and not an urn, with the pot warmed beforehand on the hob and not with hot water.

The teapot, in Orwell's view, should be taken to the kettle and not the other way round, and the water should be boiling 'at the moment of impact'.

The type of vessel from which the tea is drunk is also important, and should be 'a good breakfast cup', though he also wonders why it should be considered vulgar to drink tea out of a saucer.

But the rule that Orwell acknowledges as 'one of the most controversial points of all' is the perennial question of whether one should pour the tea into the cup before or after the milk. 

He acknowledges that the 'milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments', but his own view is that the tea should be put in first in order that 'one can exactly regulate the amount of milk' and so avoid putting in too much.

Both articles are widely available on the Internet.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Henri Matisse and all that jazz....

Was Henri Matisse, the celebrated artist of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, also a jazz fan?

Was he ever Groovin’ High and Scrapplin’ from the Apple to the bebop chops of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie?

To stroll around the park in front of the Matisse Museum in Nice (France), where all the lanes are named after jazz musicians, it might indeed seem that he was.

Not forgetting the book of gouaches paper cutouts that he published in 1947 with the simple title JAZZ.

Picture of Drawing with Scissors by Henri Matisse
in a hotel room in Nice.

But alas, there ain't nothin' shakin'. For the principle theme of the book was not jazz but CIRCUS, the word 'jazz' used only to reflect the rhythm of the pictures.

For all that it was a wonderful book and is now being celebrated as part of the festival A Summer for Matisse (Un été pour Matisse) taking place in Nice from 21 June thru 23 September Twenty Hundred and Jumpin' Thirteen.

Palais Lascaris
15 rue Droite
06300 Nice (France)

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing !

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Atahualpa - the unhappy Inca Emperor

'The time is right to strike the Inca Empire'.
[Francisco Pirazzo in a letter to the King of Spain]

The Incas of Peru worshipped their Sun God Inti.

They built lavish temples to Inti, which they garnished with gold, believing gold to be Inti's tears - 'the tears of the Sun'.

But it was also gold that the Spanish conquerors wanted. 

For them gold was not the Sun God's presence on Earth, but a commodity they could use to finance their wars and conquests.

So the invaders' leader Francisco Pizarro kidnapped the Inca Emperor Atahaulpa and would only free him in exchange for a ro0m full of GOLD.

The Inca people loved their king and they quickly amassed a mighty hoard of gold and silver. 

But Pizarro had never any intention of sparing Atahaulpa, and once he had his gold he sentenced him to death by burning him alive.

Atahaulpa pleaded with his captor, telling him that if he were burnt his soul would be unable to join his ancestors in the afterlife.

His Spanish gaoler listened to his plea and agreed to his request. But on condition that he convert to Christian Catholicism. 

For centuries Catholicism had been the oppressor of Europe, punishing free thought with excommunication and worse, and censoring all forms of scientific progress.

Its founder, on the other hand, Jesus Christ, like Ghandi after him, had been a pacifist, a man of peace, who told his followers that they should not hate their enemies, they should love them.

'I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.'  Mahatma Ghandi.

But the moment Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the all-conquering Roman Empire, it ceased being a peaceful pacifist movement, and became instead one of oppression. 

And in the fifteenth century this meant one thing: the feared, dreaded and unholy INQUISITION

Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition.

Llorente, the historian of the Inquisition, computed that Torquemada and his collaborators, 'in the course of eighteen years, burnt at the stake ten thousand two hundred and twenty persons .... and otherwise punished ninety-seven thousand three hundred and twenty-one'. 
[History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science by John William Draper.]

But if Atahaulpa wished to save his soul then he would have to accept the demands of his captors. 

So Atahaulpa became a Catholic Christian. 

And true to his word, Pizarro did not have him burnt. 

He had him garrotted instead. 

And then he took his gold. 

The tears of his god.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Alexander the Great and the Greek waiter

'I foresee a great funeral contest over me'. Alexander the Great

On 13 June 323 BC, in a room surrounded by his doctors, Alexander the Great died of a fever.

Some said he had been poisoned by the Macedonian general Antipater. Others that the death of their commander was due to excessive drinking. 

But it is more likely that the conqueror of Egypt, Persia, and Asia Minor as far as the banks of the Hyphasis in India, where he wept that there were no more kingdoms for him to conquer, was carried away by the humble mosquito, a victim of West Nile fever or of malaria.

Alexander's body was barely cold when it was embalmed and placed in a human shaped sarcophagus filled with honey. 

But what to do with it then?

Alexander's wish was that they toss the body in the river! 

But his wife, Roxanne, and one of his generals, Perdiccas, decided to evoke the wishes of his mother, Olympias, and transport the remains for burial in the family crypt at Aegae in Macedonia.

A sumptuous funeral carriage was constructed, fashioned out of beaten gold, the top adorned with mother-of-pearl and precious stones. It took one year to complete and needed sixty-four mules to pull it.

But while on route to Aegae it was hijacked by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals! 

Ptolemy took it to Egypt and Alexander's body was buried in Memphis.

Alexander's mortal remains remained in Memphis until the late fourth or early third century BC, and then were taken to a new burial place in Alexander, the city bearing the conqueror's name.

But they did stay in this place. At some time during the reign of Ptolemy Philopator, from 222/21 to 205 BC, they were taken to a communal mausoleum, also in Alexandria, and placed with the bodies of Ptolemy Philopator's dynastic predecessors. 

And there they stayed. The future Roman Emperor Augustus is said to have visited the tomb around 30 BC and placed a golden diadem on Alexander's mummified head. And the last recorded visit to the tomb was by the Roman Emperor Caracalla in AD 215. 

By the fourth century AD all trace of the location had been lost to posterity.

But modern-day Indiana Joneses have not given up the search. For generations streams of distinguished archaeologists from renowned institutions have made their way to Alexandria in the hopes of being the first to claim one of the antiquity's greatest prizes. 

And among them, lost in the throng, was a lowly Greek waiter, Stelio Koumoustos, from Christiana Konstantinou's cafe-bar in downtown Alexandria.

When not serving black tea and Turkish coffee to Mlle Christiana's customers, Stelio was out digging holes wherever he could.

Then, in 1960, convinced that the tomb lay buried beneath Alexandria's Saad Zaghuil Square, he persuaded the United Arab Republic's Department of Antiquities to excavate the site.

Using his salary and his waiter's tips Stelio raised the sum of 500 Egyptian pounds to finance the dig.

The newspapers got interested, among them the The Times of London. 

On Monday 4 April 1960 The Times reported that the excavation had officially begun. Traffic was stopped and large crowds gathered.

The work continued apace, and then, on Tuesday 26 April, the diggers make a discovery! 

But alas it was not Alexander's tomb they had found. Only water. Lots of water.

Then the work stopped, The Times lost interest, and Stelio returned to clearing tables in Mlle Christiana's cafe.

Stelio kept searching for a couple more decades but never found the elusive tomb of Alexander. 

He finally returned to Greece where he tried to share his carefully amassed data in exchange for a pension in dollars and a Mercedes-Benz. 

As a graduate student commented, it would have been a small price to pay for the location of the tomb of a legend that was truly worthy of the name.

The Alexander Mosaic c. 100 BC.
Death of Alexander the Great by (after) Jean II Restout.
Detail of the Alexander Sarcophagus depicting Alexander at the Battle of Issus. [Wikipedia Commons].
Alexander's Funeral Carriage - mid nineteenth century.
Ptolemy by unknown artist 3rd century BC.
Augustus Before the Tomb of Alexander by Sebastien Bourdon.
Reconstruction of Alexander's tomb - source:
Christiana Konstantinou in Alexandria.
Mercedes-Benz 170S [Wikepedia Commons]