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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A Geographical History of San Francisco

In Art, History, Poetry, San Francisco, Science, Technology on December 19, 2016 at 11:51 pm


Since we moved back to San Francisco last year, I’ve been taking pictures of places of literary and artistic note in the city. I published a post on “literary life in North Beach” on my agency’s blog. This is an ongoing and less geographically restrictive diary of the city’s literary, artistic, scientific, and political history.


202 Green Street, where on September 7, 1927, under the auspices of William Crocker (grandson of the transcontinental railroad magnate Charles) and the Crocker Bank, Philo T. Farnsworth and his “Lab Gang” sent the first TV signal ever broadcast to the Merchants Club about eight blocks away. Read the rest of this entry »

The Elegance of Technology

In Archaeology, Egypt, History on July 16, 2007 at 5:21 pm

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From the Theban Mapping Project website.

Update: There’s been a significant update to the Theban Mapping Project.


Modern technology? Eh. It’s poetry I’m after. But there are times, rare certainly, when the meshing of computer technology and the humanities is nothing less than elegant. The most recent example of this is in Egyptology. It’s worth a look even if you’re not the archaeology fetishist I am.

The Theban Mapping Project is an astonishing, and super mega ultra awesome, project using 3-D representation to map the entirety of one of Egypt’s richest, and largest, archaeological areas, Thebes. Surprising yet inevitable use of technology. From their website, you can look around, above and below ground, at the myriad tombs, chapels and other structures at both the Valley of the Kings and the Theban Necropolis. Short films give an introduction to each structure. There is also an archive of relevant articles and you can read the “comprehensive site management Masterplan” for the VoK.

Although the project started in 1978, I believe its greatest value to the layman has come about with the confluence of a number of computer technologies: the interknob, 3-D graphics, animation and online video. The only thing the site seems to be missing is a feed. In my opinion, they should have at least a news page, if not an out-and-out blog (and why not that?), equipped with a feed so interested people could keep up-to-date with their activities.

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Zahi Hawass

In Egypt, History on June 1, 2007 at 12:13 am

Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, always made me a bit uneasy. That he was a camera-whore was obvious. I’m no Egyptologist, but I wasn’t sure how reliable his scholarship was considering most of his time seemed to be spent as a talking head for National Geographic Channel, Discovery Times Channel, TLC, PBS, the Game Show Network and others. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Then, in February, he filed an official complaint with Egypt’s Office of the Attorney General, encouraging them to prosecute a Cairo high school for a curriculum that teaches it was the Israelites who built the pyramids.

What, now?

As Dr. James Davila of PaleoJudaica says, “Let us be quite clear: there is no ‘debate’ or ‘dispute’ about this among the people who know anything about Egyptian history.”

But apparently, between Josephus, 19th century European missionaries, Menachem Begin and the possible presence of the Jews in Egypt at one point, allegedly as enslaved or partially-enslaved builders, Dr. Hawass has been provided with enough of a foundation, however shaky and however long ago dismissed by reasonable people, from which to defend the honorable and ancient Egyptians against the insidious Jew threat.

What’s distressing to me is not that Hawass may have been over-reacting in a weirdly strident fashion to an issue that, however backward and irrelevant to most of us and certainly to the academic world he supposedly operates in, may have had some relevance to his home town politics. What bothers me is that this does not seem to be an isolated incident. Dr. Hawass has repeatedly decried plots through the years, including one to date the Sphinx much earlier than it is commonly held to be, plots that he either implied, or said outright, were perpetrated by Jews.

This fixation is rarely visible to Westerners. Most such comments seem to be directed to the Arabic-language press, where they are shielded from critical view and where they do the most “good” in establishing the doctor’s reputation as a fearless decrier of Zionist aggression.

As long as people who give countenance to conspiracy theories and imagined cabals are in a position of scholarly prominence in Egypt it will always be considered backward.

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Envoi—Of Legendary Time

In History on April 14, 2006 at 9:43 pm

From the last chapter of The Civil War in Spain, “Envoi—Of Legendary Time” by Ralph Bates.

“I felt the past as a living thing, the pastness of which I regretted.”

“I felt then that the sense of the passing of time and of past time was one of the principal sources of poetry.”

“The melancholy of past time gets into every image which occurs to me.”

And yet he also said, later in his life (he lived to be 101):

“I have always been able to live with enthusiasm in whatever present I found myself.”

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The Civil War in Spain

In Gypsies, History on March 19, 2006 at 11:23 pm

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After reading “Summer Snow,” by Rebecca Pawel, the fourth and latest in a series of novels set in the years after the Spanish Civil War, I realized that I had never read a history of that war. I had read plenty about the supposed causes of it, I had read memoirs and biographies of lives that been effected by it, but never a history of the war itself. So, I stopped by a local used book store and picked up a paperback version of the 1962 book “The Civil War in Spain” edited by the remarkable polymath Robert Payne.

The book is contructed from police reports, diaries and other accounts by common citizens, military men, writers and journalists who were either Spanish or resident in Spain during the civil war, like Payne himself, who covered the war for a newspaper called the London News Chronicle. Payne provides the connective tissue that brings the disparate accounts together into an extremely lively and moving history of that conflict. Reading it is like reading a dossier. The book can’t be experienced with a sense of history being safely past. It is in the first person and the present time.

I would recommend it for anyone who is a student of that time, interested in Spain or in the phenomenom of civil war.

Simon Wiesenthal

In History, Human rights on September 21, 2005 at 9:35 pm

This machine kills fascists
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Simon Wiesenthal 1908-2005
Nie wieder

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Islamic Spain

In History, Spain on September 7, 2005 at 1:11 am

Maria Rosa Menocal is a professor of Spanish history at Yale and the author of the beautiful book on Arabic Spain, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Wanting to learn more about what happened to the Muslims in Spain after the Reconquest, I had written her asking for a recommendation. She suggested two books by L.P. Harvey, “Islamic Spain: 1250-1500” and “Muslims in Spain: 1500-1614.”

It turns out I had read the first book several years ago and still had it. Upon rereading it, I wound up with a couple questions so I wrote Harvey

“At the suggestion of Yale’s Prof. Menocal, I am rereading your Islamic Spain 1250-1550 (and looking forward to the next volume, which I’ve located). I had asked her where I might read about the fate of Moors in Spain after the dissolution of the Nasrid kingdom. (This in turn was inspired by reading Ford’s Handbook and its description of several villages as being ‘full of Moors’ or something to that effect.)

“Thinking and reading about these things has caused two questions to pop into my head that I find have started to colonize my imagination. These questions may be answered in the next volume of your history, or, admittedly, may be more poetic than historical. But I thought it couldn’t hurt to drop you a line anyway.

“So here are the questions:

“When did the last native Arabic speaker in the Iberian peninsula likely die? (In my poetic imaginings the question was really, “On what day did the last native Arabic speaker in the Iberian peninsula die?”)

“When was the last Islamic prayer likely uttered (out loud or silently) in the Iberian peninsula by a native?

“Impossible questions, perhaps, which is why they may be more poetic than historical. But there they are.”

Harvey responded:

“I am glad to see that Ford still has the capacity to set people thinking. They don’t make guide books like that any more. I am afraid that my answer to both your queries is I just do not know. And although they are both interesting questions, I cannot think how one would set about finding the answers. One has to accept that not all things are knowable.”

At first I was somewhat irritated by the response. Islamic Spain is peppered by statements that one thing or another or unknowable. However, I think it may be a response to the tendency of some historians to caulk the cracks in history by “creatively” imagining what might have happened. It may also be a response to the belief that man, being the measure of all things, in time will be capable of measuring all things. OK, fair enough. But, being a Self-Proclaimed Poet, I am not constrained by the same concerns.

While rereading in that book about the situation for Muslims who dwelt on the estates of Christian nobles and, later, about the intensification of religious violence between Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews, this thought came to mind:

There are too many examples, including modern ones (Bosnia for instance), of people of different cultures living together in peace in the same city or village, sometimes for centuries, often developing an interdependency and even friendships, who suddenly turn on one another, killing their neighbors, imprisoning them, assaulting and raping them, stealing their possessions and property. Why does this happen? How could it happen? Are there always fault lines beneath the surface? Is every instance specific and is it impossible to generalize? I’d like to see a study on this. There must be one, I presume.

After sending Harvey my questions, through the PR department at UCP, I remembered that some blogs were reviewing books. I had had an offer of a review copy previously, but was not interested in that particular book. Harvey’s new volume (Muslims in Spain) was a different matter, however. So, I offered to write a post on the book if the promotions manager would send me a comp copy. To my surprised, she agreed right away. The book came today and I’m going to start reading it immediately. I’ll post about it when I’m finished.

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In History on February 5, 2005 at 6:55 am

There’s a beautiful story on Max Schmeling, the German boxer who died today in BBC News and a much more ambivalent one in the New York Times.

The Sicilian Questions

In History on January 15, 2005 at 10:03 pm

I am searching for the actual text to the philosophic questionnaire Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, King of Sicily and Jerusalem, sent out in1240 which was answered by Ibn Sabin of Ceuta, originally of Murcia.

It concerns the immortality of the soul, the eternity of matter and other issues, apparently of Aristotelian origin.

I can find only references to the contents of Frederick’s questionnaire, not the exact questions.

I can find nothing Ibn Sabin’s responses.

Both Frederick’s questions and Ibn Sabin’s answers, of course, may not be extant. They may exist only in Arabic.

Any help on this would be appreciated.

Foods from the Bible

In History, Religion on January 14, 2005 at 4:35 am

Here is a list of all the foods I could find mentioned in the Bible (Tanakh and New Testament).

Apple / apricot?
(generally all)

(olive oil)
(generally all green, all with seeds)


Legumes & Nuts

Herbs & Spices
(generally all)

(goat, cow & camel)

Meat, Fish & Poultry
(No fat, no blood)
(generally ‘fowl’)


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