Great African Empires, Part 3: Kingdom of Gold

They traded with Egypt, Israel and Babylon. But when they turned to the Christian God, East Africa would never be the same.

In the 200s CE, the Persian prophet Mani referred to the “four great powers” of the world. The first three empires are easy to guess: Rome, Persia, and China. Mani’s fourth choice might come as a surprise. He named the Aksumite (or Axumite) Empire of East Africa —

As equal in importance to the other three.

The Aksumites never made any significant attempts to expand outside their own continent (but then again, neither did the Han Chinese). The Aksumite army wasn’t particularly formidable. The empire’s geographical extent was fairly small. Its language never became widely known in the outside world.

Yet Aksum’s wealth was the stuff of legend.

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Great African Empires, Part 2: Pharaohs of the Upper Nile

They conquered Egypt, battled Assyria and Rome, and ruled the Upper Nile Delta for thousands of years. Meet the pharaohs of Sudan.

You know that feeling when your favorite actor or musical artist makes a mass-market hit — and you realize that’s the one thing they’re going to be remembered for? From now on, no one’s going to care about all their brilliant early albums, or all the great dramatic roles they’ve played. Instead, this complex, talented artist is going to be known for a one-hit wonder, or a brief role in a historical epic.

That’s essentially what happened to the Kingdom of Kush. This civilization (not to be confused with the Kushan Empire of Asia) is remembered mainly as “the Nubian Pharaohs who conquered Egypt” — which they did, it’s true; at one particular period —

In their thousands of years of cultural history.

 

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Great African Empires, Part 1: Staggering Timescales

Who ruled Africa while Rome ruled Europe? How did they come to be forgotten?

A quick scan of online message boards will tell you that worldwide awareness of African empires — aside from ancient Egypt — is seriously limited, to say the least.

A Quora commenter asks, “Why hasn’t a single prominent civilization come out of Africa?” On Reddit, someone poses (or rather, begs) the question, “Why were there so few empires in Africa?” Although responders quickly mopped the floor with those commenters’ loaded questions, millions of other people around the world have never bothered to ask in the first place.

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When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenment

Who ruled the East while Rome ruled Europe? Meet four of the greatest empires in the history of Asia.

This week, the BBC announced the discovery of two “ethnically Chinese” skeletons at an ancient Roman burial site in England. Who were they? What drove them to the far end of the world? We don’t know, yet.

But for once, an article’s clickbait headline may not be exaggerating. If the genetic identity of these skeletons can be confirmed, it could indeed “rewrite Roman history” — or at least, a whole lot of long-held assumptions about who was in contact with whom in the days of the Roman Empire.

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A Cemetery of the Living

How my friend’s art connects Hollywood and ancient Egypt

Last weekend, I took a trip up to Milan. My friends and I hit all the usual sightseeing spots — the big famous Gothic cathedral, the sprawling neoclassical shopping mall known as the Galleria — but I had one special destination in mind.

My friend, the painter Tracy Molis, had a gallery show there.

Two things made this show especially interesting to me.

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A (Somewhat) NSFW History of Dirty Jokes

The best naughty one-liners, setups and punchlines, from the bronze age all the way to to the 20th century.

So a Sumerian walks into a bar.

Doesn’t really have to be a Sumerian, actually. A guy. Any guy.

Guy walks into a bar, orders a drink, tries to join in on the conversation. But none of the regulars seem to be telling stories or jokes. One of them just says a number — “243!” — and everyone laughs. Then somebody else answers, “17!” and everybody laughs at that.

Guy asks the bartender, “What the hell’s goin’ on in here?”

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Across the Aegean

A tale of a time when East met West

When Aristagoras, Greek sea-trader of Piraeus, first laid eyes upon the treasures amassed by his distant cousins in the Asian provinces of Lydia and Ionia, more than just his avarice was awakened. When he studied the layers of gold inlay on an earring crafted on the shores of the Oxus, and ran his hand over a luxuriant, thick robe woven high in the Zagros, he did something a Hellene rarely did:

He stared in shock.

 

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Fear and Loathing in World History

"The Opium Eater" (1913) by N. Wyeth

From hash-smoking Assassins to Nazis on meth, take a ride through the facts (and myths) of drugs in history.

“We were somewhere around Greece, at the edge of the Iron Age, when the drugs began to take hold…”

Alexander the Great probably fought his battles drunk.

I say “probably” because no historical source explicitly says this — but let’s look at the facts.

Fact 1: Alexander was a legendary high-functioning alcoholic.

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How Real Aliens Killed Sci-Fi For Me

A tale of waking up from geek dreams to geek reality

The day the ship came from the other world, Fox was bringing in the last of the fall harvest. He tossed a handful of ripe squash into one of the woven baskets that stood at intervals around his field, then stood up, cracked his back, and surveyed his work. Plenty of veggies for winter.

A young man tore through the village, breaking the silence with excited shouts. He was screaming what sounded like nonsense — some kind of gigantic craft had materialized off the coast. It had enormous white wings, and many mouths from which smoke poured. The elders were down by the shore now, debating whether to go out for a closer look.

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