Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review-Drink up!

At midnight, people around the world will celebrate the changing of the New Year from 2011 to 2012. And at the infamous hour, there is no drink quite like Champagne to help celebrate.

I read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about Champagne, and it touched a bit on the history. The drink is specific to a region in France; for this reason, Champagne from other areas are not considered “true” Champagne. In essence it is just a sparkling, carbonated wine.

Dom Perignon, a Monk, is said to have invented the drink in the mid 17th Century. In the beginning the drink was red, but today champagne is traditionally white.

A Year in Review Last year I started a tradition by selecting some newsworthy events I thought would be historical. 2011 has certainly been a colorful year; continuing the tradition, here are some events I believe have made history in 2011.

January 2011- Present- The Arab Spring- Beginning in Tunisia, and spreading through the region via social media, people in the Middle East began rebelling against oppressive dictators and protesting for change. Some important dates:
Jan. 14- Ben Ali flees Tunesia
Jan. 23- Protests in Yemen
Jan. 25- Mass protests against Mubarik begin in Egypt
Jan 28- Protestors gather and demand change in Jordan
Feb. 11- Mubarik resigns
Feb. 16- Protest erupt in Libya
Feb. 25- “Day of Rage” in which many protest across the region
March 19- Syrians begin to protest
Oct. 20- Gaddafi killed

March 11, 2011- The Japanese earthquake- At roughly 2:46 p.m. a terrible earthquake struck the northern part of Japan. Aftershock caused a deadly tsunami, destroying parts of the country, and killing thousands. The event left chaos and destruction in its wake, but unlike many naturally disasters the people of Japan banded together, helping those affected rebuild their lives.

April 29, 2011- The Royal Wedding- Women state side celebrated the union of Prince William and Kate Middleton, getting up as early as 2 a.m. to watch the ceremony live. Personally, I slept and watched reruns.

Mat 1, 2011- Osama Bin Laden is killed by U.S. military personnel, almost ten years after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

October 5, 2011- Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple, dies from cancer. Since his death, the man has been controversial, but regardless his ideas and marketing strategies have changed the face of technology.

October 20, 2011- Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is killed. The brutal footage of his death was leaked online.

December 19, 2011- Kim Jung Il, dictator of North Korea dies.

December 2011- The End of the Iraq War. Troops are in the process of being withdrawn from the country, ending a way started ten years ago.

It is amazing to think it is the end of another year. 2011 has held many personal ups and downs for me, but overall I think I can look back and think fondly on the year. I do know 2012 holds promise of greatness, and promise of my history reported.

Thank you all for reading, and wishing you a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Solstice

Synchronization: in history, a term used to describe when religious practices are recycled in newer religions, making adoption of the newer religion easier to adopt.

You are probably wondering why I begin my blog with a vocabulary lesson, especially considering my track record with spelling (yes, I am fully aware). But keep this idea in the back of your mind as you read on; I’ll come back it at the end.

Solstice comes from two Latin words: sol (sun) and sistere (to stand), meaning the sun has reached the northernmost ecliptic, and appears to stand still.

For centuries, and across cultures, the winter solstice has been celebrated. In my Medieval England class I learned a bit about the winter solstice, and how Christianity adopted the holiday. But I was curious about the history of the festival.

The winter solstice is rooted in many ancient religions. Almost every one of them celebrated this important day as a seasonal milestone. Because this is the shortest day of the year, many saw this day as a day of fertility; the days only do get longer after this pint. Another way to think about the festival is that if the sun has been diminishing, it would make sense to appease the Gods so they will bring the sunlight back.

In Scandonavia, the festival was called Yule. The Druids began the tradition of the Yule log; it was lit to banish evil spirits, defeat darkness and bring good luck for the coming year. The logs would be lit for twelve days, before another ceremony was held to extinguish the fire. Sprigs of holly and ivy were brought into the home to celebrate the solstice. Both plants are evergreens, so they signify the eternal nature of the sun.

The Chinese people gave this holiday a great importance, saying it was as important as the Spring Festival. During the Zhou Dynasty it was known as the New Year. During the Tang and Song Dynasties it was on the winter solstice that heaven and ancestor worship was performed.

In the Persian and Egyptian cultures the start of the solar year was marked to celebrate the victory of light over darkness; thus it would make sense to celebrate during this time of year when the sun once again come to prominence. The Persians adopted their festival of Daygan from the Babylonians. The celebration, called Shab-e yalda, included feasts, fires being burnt all night and a temporary subversion of order where masters and servants would switch roles. This would allow chaos to reign for one day before order was restored and succeed at the end of the festival.

The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which was one of the most important celebrations on their calendar. While it was originally a one-day celebration, it grew to last from three to seven days. People celebrated with drinking gift-giving, bonfires, candles and role reversals for slaves and masters; yes, this practice was adopted from the Persian practice.

Also important to Persian celebration of the winter solstice was Mithra, the Sun God. The winter solstice was his birthday.

So now back to my vocabulary lesson at the beginning of this blog. The similarities in how different cultures celebrated the winter solstice would suggest that cultures took traditions and repurposed them for their own holidays.

Now, winter solstice falls pretty close to Christmas doesn’t it? Think this is a coincidence?

It is not.

Around the time that Christianity began to spread, Mithraism (the worship of Mithra) has spread from Persia into the west. The religion was popular among the Roman army, and some scholars would even argue that Mithraism was a rival religion to Christianity. Around 4 C.E. miscalculations in leap years etc placed the birthday of Mithra at December 25.

Christians took a pagan holiday, already in practice, and repurposed it to make it easier for people to practice Christianity. Prior to 4 C.E. Christ’s birth was celebrated around January 6; the popularity of Mithra made the church rethink the holiday, and change the date to December 25.

Accepting a new religion is much easier when the holiday adopts old traditions. This is exactly what the Christian Church did with Christmas. If you truly read the Bible, you’ll see that it was actually summer when the birth story takes place, not winter.

Tonight is a snowy night in Colorado, perfect for ushering in the winter solstice. I hope everyone has a bright holiday season, regardless of the holiday you celebrate, or the traditions you keep. And remember, as always, Happy History!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jerusalem Part 4: Al-Aqsa Mosque

I think the Al-Aqsa Mosque takes a back seat to the Dome of the Rock; many visitors flock to the ornate Dome of the Rock that commemorates Mohammad’s night journey.

But what about the Al-Aqsa Mosque?

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is located along the southern edge of the temple mound.

This summer I was fortunate to work with Dan (no last name’s allowed), who is a CSU graduate also. He actually helped inspire me to persue going on the dig; while in my Ancient Israel class he came and spoke to us. Even better, he was my square supervisor at the site, and we recently presented together for the Ancient Israel class our professor is teaching this semester.

The background information aside, Dan had taken a crusades class while at CSU, and he told about an attack the crusaders waged against the Muslims, an attack that did not end at the doors of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but that continued inside and included the slaughter of innocent women and children. These moments in our past are really unfortunate to hear about, but this fact stood out in my mind and is what inspired me to really look into the background of this site.

One fact: did you know it is this Mosque, not the Dome of the Rock, that is the third most holy site in the Islam religion?

Al-Masjid El-Aqsa is an Arabic name meaning furthest Mosque. As told before, ten years after receiving his first revelation, Mohammad spent a night journey that culminated in Jerusalem. It is said the Prophet stopped to pray at the rock now covered by the Dome of the Rock, and was transported up to Heaven to meet God, where he received the commandment to prey five times a day.

Today, Mecca is the direction of prayer, but for 16 months following the Prophet’s journey, Jerusalem was the direction of prayer. And during the Prophet’s life, he instructed Muslims not only to visit the Mosque in Mecca, but also the “furthest mosque” from them, or the one in Jerusalem.

Al-Aqsa Mosque is the second oldest Mosque, and the third most important Mosque in Islam.

I did look up Crusade information, and found the Jews were burned alive in their synagogue at this same time. A gold cross was placed on top of the Dome of the Rock, and it was renamed Templum Domini, while the Al Aqsa Mosque became the Temple Solomonis. The Al Aqsa Mosque was subdivided to serve as a palace for the Knights Templar.

I’m glad I did a bit more research on the site I was fortunate enough to see! Hop everyone enjoyed reading, and happy history all!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hot Chocolate

Colorado has an average of 300 days of sunshine every year; so it’s usually not too unbearable during the winter here. However, we have an Arctic front coming through this week, so the high today was somewhere around 10 degrees, and the low is in the negatives tonight.

That is why when I saw the link to this NPR article about Hot Chocolate I became particularly interested and inspired; there is nothing quite like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day after all.

So what is the history of hot chocolate? On this cold night I think I’ll make myself a cup, curl up next to my computer and answer that very question.

Archaeological evidence suggests chocolate was being cultivated some 4,000 years ago. In the Mayan culture cocoa pods symbolized life and fertility, and was used in religious rituals and was considered the food of the gods. The Aztecs believed wisdom and power came from eating the fruit of the cocoa tree. It was even used for currency in the culture.

For most of its history chocolate was consumed in drink form; it wasn’t until the late 1800s that chocolate bars became fashionable. I do have an earlier blog about chocolate, visit it here.

It is said George Washington drank hot chocolate with his breakfast. The recipe included grated chocolate and sugar mixed into a cup of warm water, milk or even brandy (for a real kick). New world flavors like chili powder, vanilla and allspice created a complex concoction, making it richer and sweeter than the hot chocolate of today.

Usually Europeans did not like to experiment with the New World foods, but chocolate was the exception. Who can’t love chocolate? In 18th Century Europe chocolate was a status symbol a treat of the rich and royals. But in the United States everyone, rich and poor, enjoyed chocolate alike. This is probably because the chocolate was located much closer geographically to the United States that Europe.

Chocolate was also valued as a high-energy food in Colonial America, one that didn’t spoil.

And so is the history of hot chocolate. Hope everyone finds their own way to survive the cold weather this winter, and happy history!