“I want to fly like an…”

March 3, 2021

As Mehmed II crossed the threshold of the Bucoleon uttering a centuries-old Persian verse, “Thus the spider weaves the curtains in the palace of Chosroes / and the owl calls the watch in the towers of Afrasiab,” it was like a stone dropped into the mud puddle of human history. Waves propagate in all directions, but, insofar as the Byzantine eagle splits its glare west and east, a word about the west.

Constantine XI died in defense of the city of his namesake. His brother, Thomas Palaiologos, fled the despotate of Morea for Rome, by way of Corfu, with children in tow. Pius II greeted him as rightful claimant to the eastern Roman empire. By the time Thomas died, his eldest daughter was married off to the despot of Serbia, also overthrown by Mehmed. Charles VIII of France bought the third child’s claim to the imperial title. Which left Zoe, the second oldest. After three years of proxy negotiations, she was betrothed to Ivan III. En route to Russia, she renamed herself Sophia Palaiologina and converted to Orthodoxy. Ivan adopted the bicephalous raptor for his coat of arms and declared Moscow the Third Rome. Through years of grim machinations – surviving banishment, poisoning one offspring of Ivan’s first wife and plotting, successfully, against a second – Sophia managed to enthrone her son Vasili when Ivan died. In the fullness of time, Vasili the Adequate developed an abscess, asked to be made a monk named Varlaam, and also died. His son, crowned Ivan IV, proclaimed himself Caesar of all Russia and married a woman, Anastasia Romanovna, whose murder by boyars drove him to become Terrible indeed. Ivan flew a banner on which the Roman eagle had swallowed St. George shish kebabbing a wyvern (a heraldic convention of the Moscow principate derived from a numismatic one: since Alexander Nevsky, the saint figured on Muscovite coinage – hence “kopeck”, from the Russian word for “spear”). So did his son, Feodor. And so – when that last Rurik died childless – did the family of his beloved Anastasia, once Michael Romanov (i.e., “son of Roman”) filled the power vacuum and raised the standard of Thomas Palaiologos’ great-grandson, its once-golden eagle stained black with gore.

I was going to also describe how the fall of Constantinople propagated east, and attenuated backward through time, but I’m tired. Suffice it to say that Mehmed declared himself emperor of Rome, the Ottomans themselves emerged from the ashes of the Sultanate of Rûm, and claimed descent from a tribe that made its way to Anatolia from the steppes after they supported the Tibetan invasion of China during the Tang and helped capture its capital, Chang’an. That is to say: eagle hunters.

Update:

It occurred to me yesterday that there might have been a connection between the omphalion in the floor of the Hagia Sophia – upon which Roman emperors were crowned – and the Byzantine eagle. The Omphalos – the “navel” – of Delphi was supposed to mark the center of the world. It’s the spot where two eagles released by Zeus at either end of the earth, flying toward each other at the same speed, crossed paths. The omphalion relocated that center, politically, if not geographically, to Constantinople – the standard of which might not actually be a two-headed eagle; but rather, a frozen moment in which two eagles pass opposite.

Montjoie!

January 27, 2021

In 802, an embassy of the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid (of Thousand and One Nights fame), presented Charlemagne with a water clock and a white war elephant named Abul Abbas, to help seal an Abbasid-Carolingian alliance in the wake of the battle in the Pyrenees that resulted in the death of Roland.

Jinn Sorcery

August 2, 2020

Kitab-al-Bulhan

One of the most expensive books I’ve ever bought was something called Jinn Sorcery. Something I found striking about it is how many of the spells are for revealing hidden/buried treasure. Presumably, this fixation had more to do, historically, with the possibility of discovering and looting archaeological treasure hoards than supernaturally hacking a more quotidian savings strategy among the wealthy elite of the Middle East and Central Asia. I mean, just how many people buried treasures in those days (absent a more formal banking system)? Intriguing to learn that greedy sorcerers used Jinn as a remote sensing technology – as metal detectors or ground penetrating radar. Makes me wonder what other buried treasures the Jinn might be conjured to detect. What do you want to bet that someone on payroll at Saudi Aramco has, at some point, summoned a jinni to help prospect for oil or natural gas? Needless to say, it would also be interesting to get Jinn to help determine the composition of the mantle and core – here and on other planets.

On the Fall of Nineveh

June 7, 2020

A cool story from the second book of the Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, set in the four-year revolutionary spasm that brought down the centuries-old Assyrian empire. As Nineveh fell, king Sardanapallos heaped up his royal fabrics, gold, and silver into a pyre in his palace’s innermost sanctum, lit it, and threw his concubines, personal eunuchs, and then himself onto the fire. Afterward, once Arbaces had been crowned the new king of Asia, Belesus (an astrologer general who would himself go on to found a Neo-Babylonian dynasty) – knowing what was hidden within them – asked to keep the palace ashes as a boon. He proposed to build a burial mound outside Babylon commemorating the fall of the Assyrians. Arbaces agreed and Belesus began transporting the melted gold and silver out of flood and fire ruined Nineveh in shipments of ash. He was later found out, but managed to survive a court martial death sentence. Basically, a Three Kings-like heist story set in an empire-destroying rebellion, in which the thief was a magical warlord.

The Mineral Cocoon of a Pupal God

June 2, 2020

In the second volume of Didorus Siculus’ Library of History, he describes an ancient Ethiopian funerary practice I find fascinating. After someone died, they were first embalmed, then entombed in an effigy of gold, silver, or clay (depending on their resources), then encased in a block of glass and set upon a pillar. According to Herodotus, however, the dead were only embalmed and entombed in glass, like flies in clear amber. The idea of the mineral-effigy-as-armor came later — as an explanation for how corpses might have been protected from gross disfigurement when drowned in molten glass. Either way, if true, imagine what that landscape must have eventually looked like! A deathscape in the Ethiopian highlands functionally equivalent to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field.

Elsewhere, I came across an intriguing, related tidbit as I tried to figure out what became of Alexander the Great’s corpse. Did you know his body was hijacked en route to Macedon from Babylon by Ptolemy I Soter? Alexander was originally buried in Memphis, but later exhumed and reburied in Alexandria. Now, get this. When he was first entombed, he was supposedly wearing a form-fitted, hand-hammered “coffin” of pure gold. This was removed at some point (NB: his tomb wasn’t just looted, it was robbed by queens and kings! Cleopatra, the last of Ptolemy’s pharaonic line, paid for her war against Octavian with gold from it; Caligula and Caracalla also helped themselves to objects on Alexander’s dead person) and his remains were re-encased in crystal or glass, like the mineral cocoon of a pupal god.

February 16, 2020

What Britain called “The Great Game”, Russia referred to as “The Tournament of Shadows”.

Wars of the Heavenly Horses

February 13, 2020

Wu-Ti ruled second century BCE China as a living divinity but was, as one might expect, frustrated by his apparent lack of immortality. He dispatched his Central Asian specialist Chang Ch’ien to negotiate for a herd of supposedly divine horses from the Ferghana kingdom in what is now eastern Uzbekistan, to help China fight its border wars against militarized nomad pastoralists, but probably also to draw his imperial chariot skyward – past Jade Terrace, up, up, and up – into the afterlife. In the end, Chang had to depose the local king, rustle the horses, and drive them 3,000 miles east. Punchline: that herd may have been descended from Bucephalus, the war horse of another living god, Alexander the Great.

Two thousand years later, in the midst of The Great Game, a British spy named William Moorcroft (the first licensed veterinarian in the UK, subsequently appointed head of the Bengal Stud) covered some of the same ground as Chang Ch’ien, and for ostensibly similar reasons. He ventured deep into Central Asia on several occasions – in (pathetically transparent) disguise, with and without permission from the Raj – under a cover story of securing breeding horses for the government in Calcutta. A British subject caught surveying that area would have very likely been executed. So, a boy in his entourage who had been trained to walk in paces of exactly twenty-four inches apiece would periodically scratch the number of steps he’d taken, and an orientation code, with a fine quill pen onto his fingernails. Afterward, valuable maps were reconstructed from the child’s hands. Over time, the walled Uzbek city of Bokhara – where a fabulous herd of horses was rumored to be found – became Moorcroft’s idée fixe. The more I read, the more I think that – unbeknownst to Moorcroft, perhaps – these were the very same horses Wu-Ti sent Chang Ch’ien into the steppes to procure: the progeny of Bucephalus.

The Death of Cain

February 12, 2020

There is a rabbinical tradition in which Cain is killed not in the annihilating flood or when, at the age of 730, the city he founded collapsed upon him (a magnified echo of his bashing in his brother’s skull with a stone), but rather when his great-great-great grandson Lamech, himself old and blind, was led through the forest by his son Tubal-Cain. Tubal-Cain saw what he thought was a deer moving between the trees and pointed his father’s bow-arm at it. When they realized what they had done, Lamech, wild with grief and fear, clapped his hands together with such force he killed Tubal-Cain too – thus ending the direct line of the first fratricide with the first infanticide: a Cartesian murder-axis God targeted with a rainstrike from heaven, having finally had enough of the fourth sapience, despite its resemblance to His own image. Or because of it. 

The Beginning of Postlapsarian Pedagogy

February 12, 2020

In the Quaran, Cain carries the corpse around, not knowing what to do with it until he sees a crow peck dirt, hide another crow’s carcass in the hole, and bury it. In some versions of the story the crow that buries its companion kills it first.

Jade Purity

February 11, 2020

Speaking of the Jade Purity, have you heard of the Ming-era génocidaire Zhang Xian-zhong? He thought he was an incarnated star sent down by the Jade Emperor to destroy humankind. After exterminating 100,000 inhabitants of a Sichuan city, he had a stele erected with the following inscription:

HEAVEN BESTOWS A HUNDRED GRAINS UPON MANKIND.

MAN OFFERS NOT A SINGLE GOOD DEED TO RECOMPENSE HEAVEN.

KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL. KILL.