Article of the month: October
New Arkhangelsk, modern-day Sitka in south-east Alaska
Near the end of the 15th century a remarkable new chapter in global history began. Several countries in Western Europe launched maritime expeditions of exploration, systematically sailing thousands of miles across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in search of new lands. Sailing the oceans was daring and difficult. And while it may be that other cultures - like the Chinese and the Polynesians - had previously sent out long-distance voyages to explore new areas, there is no evidence that this series of explorations began with the idea of bringing back more and more knowledge about the planet. The Europeans were interested in the size of the continents, their position on the globe, and their relationship to each other. The voyagers were also interested in the people who inhabited lands they did not know, and in the resources of those lands, resources that might be used in European markets. Global maritime exploration and the discovery of new lands and peoples lasted well into the 19th century. Perhaps the most remarkable new lands discovered were North and South America, which the Europeans called the "New World," for their existence had not yet been suspected in Europe. In time the Europeans would discover and map virtually all the land on the globe.
Explorers brought back observations about the continents and the people of distant lands, and information about goods that could be sold for profit by merchants and processed into products that improved the way of life in Europe. Making profit from newly acquired goods and preventing rival countries from gaining control of the supply sources of these goods became driving impulses for exploration. This drive toward making a profit soon drew a number of western European countries into competition. By the beginning of the 18th century, there were only a few regions of the globe they had not probed. One of these was the North Pacific Ocean.
Of the European countries, Russia was the first to explore in the North Pacific. The Russians had been exploring the Arctic, looking for new lands, since the tenth century. Under Ivan IV the Terrible (1547–1582) they began to explore east of the Ural Mountains into Siberia, to trade and to conquer the indigenous people there. By1647, they had crossed Siberia to Sea of Okhotsk, at the northwest edge of the North Pacific Ocean. The next year a Cossack (a special Russian military group who were fierce fighters and loyal to the Russian tsars) named Semen Dezhnev sailed along the Siberian coast and through Bering Strait to the mouth of the Anadyr River.
In 1725 the tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) commissioned Vitus Bering to sail east from the Kamchatka Peninsula. In 1727, Bering sailed north through Bering Strait to the Arctic ice pack and back to Kamchatka. Due to storms and fog in Bering Strait he did not see the North American mainland to the east. In the summer of 1732 a Cossack named Mikhail Gvozdev sailed from Kamchatka northward through the Bering Strait and found the Diomede Islands. They were met with a hail of arrows shot by Eskimos on the second island. The next day they anchored off the American coast at Cape Prince of Wales. Soon after Gvozdev sighted King Island where an Alaskan Native approached the ship in a kayak. Following that meeting Gvozdev returned to Kamchatka. His voyage represents the first Russian contact with the American mainland, and with Alaska Native people.
Published: August 19, 2019
Cyprus was significantly different in character from the crusader states founded on the mainland of the Levant. One key difference lay in the demography. Whereas the crusader states in Syria and Palestine were inhabited by a patchwork of minorities adhering to a variety of different faiths, the Kingdom of Cyprus at the time of the crusader conquest was a homogeneous state inhabited almost completely by Greeks of eastern orthodox rite.
Published: August 6, 2019
Sparta, unlike Athens, was not dependent on the sea for its very existence. Because it was self-sustaining in food and other necessities from ore to wood, Sparta did not need to trade. Because Sparta was not dependent on trade, it did not need to control the trade routes. It did need to control its bread-basket Messenia, but that could be done with its army. Thus, far from being negligent or backward (as some commentators suggest), the fact that Sparta could deploy a fleet at all is rather surprising.
Published: August 5, 2019
The depiction of Helen in both the Iliad and the Odyssey is not the evil, vain, greedy and sex-crazed Helen of Athenian theater but a dignified princess/queen and a wise woman. In the Iliad, Priam honors her, calling her "dear child", while Hektor, the paragon of Homeric virtue, shows her courtesy and respect. Most important, Menelaos takes her back to be his Queen after the fall of Troy.
Published: August 2, 2019
The name Troy refers both to a place in legend and a real-life archaeological site. The idea that the city was Troy goes back at least 2,700 years, when the ancient Greeks were colonizing the west coast of Turkey. In the 19th century, the idea again came to popular attention when Heinrich Schliemann conducted a series of excavations at Hisarlik and discovered treasures he claimed to be from King Priam.
Published: July 12, 2019
In the end it was not Islam or might of some Saracen empire, but Templar wealth – and the greed of a Christian king – that brought down the mighty Order of the Knights Templar. It is one of the many ironies of history that a religious order so poor at its inception that the very “poor” word was incorporated in its name should not only gain wealth but become famed for its financial services. Cynics looking at the record of the Knight Templar might even be justified in suggesting that the Templars were better bankers than fighters.