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Great Empires of Central Asia, Part 1: Primeval Beginnings

They inspired Sumerian cities, Indian trade and Persian art. Meet the most influential civilization you’ve never heard of. In the 1970s, Soviet archaeologists traveled deep into Turkmenistan’s Kara-Kum Desert, which most people can’t even point to on a map. This bleak desert might seem a strange place to seek the ruins of a lost civilization. […]

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Great African Empires, Part 6: The Tattooed Lords of the Desert

Meet the nomad warriors who conquered Egypt, battled Rome, and ruled Spain. If you grew up watching Star Wars (like I did), you probably dreamed of visiting Tatooine, the desert planet where Luke Skywalker gazed up at the twin suns and imagined becoming a Jedi. Like a surprising number of people and places in sci-fi […]

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Great African Empires, Part 5: The Richest Man in History

His spending sprees were legendary. His entourage crashed whole cities’ economies. Meet the flashiest emperor in African history. Imagine a billionaire arriving with his entourage in London, or Las Vegas, or Rome; and completely taking over an entire city block— turning a five-star restaurant into his exclusive kitchen; a skyscraper into his private office; a […]

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Great African Empires, Part 4: Philosopher Kings of the Sahara

They turned a Saharan trade route into a world-class center of Islamic learning. Meet the first medieval empire in West African history. Some empires blossom around central seaports, or on the banks of vital rivers. But the Kingdom of Wagadu’s wealth was born — at least, in the beginning — thanks to a tall, long-legged, bad-tempered animal. […]

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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 […]

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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 for thousands of years. Meet the Nubian Kushite 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 […]

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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, […]

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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. […]

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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 […]

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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 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 […]

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