Archive for May, 2008

A 2,500-year-old gold cup that has spent the past 60 years in a box under its owner’s bed is expected to fetch up to £100,000 after being rediscovered during a house move.

The cup was given to John Webber by his grandfather, a rag-and-bone man, who acquired it in the 1930s.

Because his grandfather, William Sparks, dealt in brass and copper scrap, Mr Webber assumed that it was made from those metals until he had the unusual piece valued this year.

The cup, which is 5.5in (14 cm) high, is embossed with two female faces, each wearing a crown formed from snakes. It baffled experts from the British Museum until metallurgical tests identified its likely origins as the Middle East or North Africa between three and four centuries before Christ…

Double-headed bowls and tableware depicting the two faces of Janus, the god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings, were common in Roman times. But in Roman mythology, Janus was usually depicted as a hirsute male, not a beautiful female.

Experts from the British Museum advised Mr Webber to have the gold tested to establish its precise make-up. He said: “I paid quite a bit of money for it to be examined by a lab the museum recommended. They found that the gold dated from the 3rd or 4th century BC.

An analysis of trace elements in a gold sample taken from the cup was carried out by Harwell Scientifics, of Didcot, Oxfordshire, and the University of Oxford. The Oxford Materials Characterisation Services, part of the university, concluded that the method of manufacture and the composition of the gold were found to be “consistent with Achaemenid gold and gold smithing”. The Achaemenid empire, the first of the Persian empires to rule over significant portions of Greater Iran, was wiped out by Alexander the Great in 330BC.

Read more from the London Times.

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THE night air was cold and damp on the narrow, walled streets of Tunis’s medina, and the markets and stores all dark and locked up tight for the night. But all it took was a single rap of the iron knocker on the wooden door at 5, rue Dar El Jeld and in that instant a mystical world opened up.

From inside, a man pulled back the arched door decorated with metal studs, and we were escorted through the lobby and into what looked like an Arabian palace. In an enclosed marble courtyard, my fiancée, Elham, and I could see riotously colorful tiled walls, archways covered with arabesque stucco and, at one end, a seated man playing an antique sitar for the patrons who sat around small dinner tables.

Yes, this was only a restaurant — named after the elegant 18th-century private mansion where it is housed, Dar El Jeld. But it happens to be one of Tunis’s finest, with a menu featuring such tangy delights as kabkabou, a tender dorade, with capers, stewed tomatoes and olives, in a delicious lemon, onion and tomato sauce.

But the surprise upon entering Dar El Jeld expresses something you will find more than a few times when visiting this ancient capital city of Tunisia: it is a captivating adventure that exceeds expectations — somehow successfully mixing Mediterranean flavors, Arabic and North African history and a modernist European touch.

Read more about the extraordinary city of Tunis here in the New York Times travel section (and watch the slideshow) then gain a hands-on experience of Tunisia’s synthesis of European, African, and Middle Eastern cultures by joining us on Coexistence of Cultures and Faiths in the Mediterranean this October.

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Starving yourself before a long flight may help prevent jet lag, according to U.S. researchers.

Normally, the body’s natural circadian clock in the brain dictates when to wake, eat and sleep, all in response to light. But it seems a second clock takes over when food is scarce, and manipulating this clock might help travelers adjust to new time zones, the researchers said Thursday.

“A period of fasting with no food at all for about 16 hours is enough to engage this new clock,” said Dr. Clifford Saper of Harvard Medical School, whose study appears in the journal Science.

Read more at the International Herald Tribune.

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Roman liberty coin, 3rd century ADThe BBC News Magazine would like us to remember that times of economic difficulty are cyclical, and helpfully notes some penny-pinching periods of the distant past. It notes England of the 1440s, still recovering from the Black Death; the economic competition and workhouses of the 1830s and ’40s, when an onslaught of imports caught England unawares; and this cautionary lesson about inflation from Rome, circa 270 AD:

In the third century AD the Roman Empire was in a bit of mess.

A bad year came in 260 when the Emperor Valerian died in Persian captivity after a period of war in what is now Iraq. The empire effectively split into three and there were numerous mini-crises.

By 274, the Emperor Aurelian was determined to shore up stability, with a reform of the silver coinage high on his manifesto. Sadly, says Dominic Rathbone, professor of ancient history at King’s College London, the result was chronic inflation.

“He introduced a new silver coin but retariffed it. They would only accept the new coins back [as taxes].”

In effect, people were receiving their incomes in old debased coins, but were being asked to pay their taxes in the new improved coinage, a major change. While those who had their money in silver and gold bullion could remain relatively immune to the inflation, anyone in the empire who dealt in mere bronze or silver coinage suffered badly. Soldiers were among those worst affected.

And at the time, the mechanics of economics would not have been understood by many. Often a moral aspect would be factored into equations.

“There was a vague realisation that if you suddenly minted a lot of money interest rates would fall. Not only was it economically bad but it was morally bad to use debased silver coins.”

The problems dissipated under the Emperor Diocletian but were not finally resolved until the issue of the gold “solidus” coin under the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The lesson learned was that coinage was something that had to be handled very carefully for the sake of the whole empire.

“Fundamentally it was the government stopping messing about with the coinage,” says Prof Rathbone.

You can keep your silver, and gold, and copper, and bronze safely stowed aboard Travel Dynamics International’s voyage from Rome to Greece — all excursions are included.

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The Byzantine Empire is so remote, so strange, and so sunk between the two falls – the fall of the Roman Empire and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 – that it’s really hazy in the memory. For Byzantium, these days, there’s little room in the braincase, excepting an adjective (“byzantine,” synonymous with “annoying archaic superfluous complexity”) a mosaic, and a Yeats poem or two. So any news about the Byzantines would be interesting and weird. But this strikes me as conspicuously weird and kind of jaw-dropping. The next time you want to astonish people at cocktail parties with obscure factoids, bring up this little titbit:

Constantinople was guarded by an elite mercenary squad of Russianized Vikings (who apparently were fond of the Mediterranean climate) named the Varangian Guard. According to a wonderful entry in this History of Warfare blog, (and we pick this story up in medias res)

In early 989 AD a Viking fleet arrived with the promised 6000 Norseman. A few weeks later they crossed the straits of the Golden Horn under the cover of darkness and took up positions a few hundred yards from the rebel camp. At first light they attacked, while a squadron of imperial flame-throwers sprayed the shore with Greek fire. Phocas’s men awoke to the terrifying sight of the Varangians swinging their swords and battleaxes. The result was a massacre. Basil with the aid of the Varangians soon crushed the rebellion entirely.

After the rebellion, the Varangians were immediately established as the emperor’s personal bodyguards. Anna Komnena writing in ‘the Alexiad’ claimed that the Guard were far more reliable and trustworthy as bodyguards than native Byzantine troops.

Read the whole story of the Varangians here. If you, like Yeats, would like to sail to Byzantium, you can do so here, on Rediscovering the Classical World: From Rome to Constantinople. And if you have an interest in the history of warfare, we strongly encourage you to consider joining us on Turning Points of History: Power and Conflict from Antiquity to World War II, from Athens to Rome in June 2009, with an itinerary that includes Marathon and Thermopylae.

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Hat-tip to National Geographic Traveler‘s excellent Intelligent Travel blog for some great links to make your summer travel plans with TDI go even more smoothly. Chief among them are this site that gives you average wait times at U.S. airports and this site that gives you up-to-the-minute flight delay information.

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Lake Superior’s granite coves and sheer cliffs, backed by deep pine, birch and fern forests, are reminiscent of the coast of Maine, right down to the vast expanse of lead-gray water that disappears into a shoreless horizon — the higher parts of the Michigan coast on the other side can only be glimpsed on clear days.

“Lake Superior is like a freshwater ocean where the light is always changing,” said Ron Ankeny, a Minneapolis architect who has a Scandinavian-style cabin perched on the edge of the granite shoreline.

So says The New York Times, which has this lovely piece on Lake Superior and Minnesota’s north shore, which you can see in all its majesty on board the Corinthian II while cruising The Great Lakes: A Voyage through North America’s Majestic Inland Sea.

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The Guardian’s travel section introduces us to Istanbul via the musings of Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk in his Istanbul: Memories and the City, a memoir of the ’50s and ’60s:

“To savour Istanbul’s back streets, to appreciate the vines and trees that endow its ruins with accidental grace, you must, first and foremost, be a stranger to them.”

The Guardian‘s writer, Ben Quinn, continues:

Like an eastern cousin to the old quarter of Lisbon, the winding, steep streets are too narrow for vehicles in many parts, while the only sound to accompany your footsteps during a stroll may be that of the call to prayer.

On a bright day, the sun’s rays bounce off sandstone-coloured walls and occasionally, you’ll pass by a decaying three-floored Ottoman-style home, its wood-planked walls looming precariously over the street, or the open shutters of a teahouse with a group of old men sipping cups of Cay inside.

He notes the Chora Church:

Built by Constantine the Great nearly 1,600 years ago, its ornate interior of Christian mosaics depicting the lives of Christ and Mary have largely stood the test of time. Inside, the temperature sharply falls and whispering visitors shuffle around its spartan floorspace, eyes drawn upwards towards 50 mosaic panels spread around arching ceilings. Highlights inside a small side church include a harrowing fresco of Christ attempting to pull Adam and Eve from their tombs after apparently forcing open the gates of hell with his feet.

Read more about Istanbul here, and experience for yourself the unique atmosphere of Istanbul on one of Travel Dynamics International’s voyages like this one.

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The New York Times today reports a very exciting development: the great Arabic texts from the medieval Golden Age of Timbuktu are being digitized and made available online by aluka.org, in a joint project with Northwestern University. At least 300 of these texts are expected to be online by the end of this year.

According to Aluka.org’s news page,

The manuscripts and their covers demonstrate a sophisticated visual and technical artistry and reflect a rich intellectual and scholarly tradition. They cover a diverse range of topics and genres, including the natural and physical sciences (astronomy, mathematics, botany, and medicine); the literary arts (poetic verse, panegyrics, grammar); the Islamic religious sciences such as theology (kalãm), jurisprudence (fiqh), legal opinions (fatawa); and historical accounts (tarikh). Many of the manuscripts are written in local vernaculars (some of which are archaic forms of the present-day languages of Songhay, Tamasheq, and Fulfulde, among others) with Arabic script. Charts, diagrams, commentaries, and marginalia are plentiful; some recount complex genealogies and scientific theories, others record intellectual disagreements among scholars, teachers, and commentators.

The scanned documents so far collected can be browsed here, although you will need to register at the site. To see where they come from, join us on The Road to Timbuktu and the Rivers of West Africa.

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Now, lest you think that, as per the last post, TDI voyages are overly eggheady, we wish — with this post — to assure you this is decidedly not the case. We have blood pumping through our veins too.  And since we’re all mature adults here, we can let you in on a secret. We normally don’t publish this in the brochure, but as a special, optional extra available only on our Historic Cities of the Sea, Mediterranean Music FestivalJourney of Aeneas, and Journey of Odysseus voyages — as well as a devious little departure from your kids on board Voyage to the Lands of Gods and Heroes

we can take you to a brothel.

Don’t worry. This brothel’s been out of service for 1,928 years. After painstaking restorations, ancient Pompeii’s brothel was opened to tourists in 2006. Known as the Lupanare (after the Latin for she-wolf, which was ancient slang for a prostitute) it contains naughty frescoes much, much more salacious than

this one — which we will not show you, but we won’t mind terribly if you peruse them here. “It’s like a menu,” is what the tour guides like to say. But, according to Spiegel Online, these were highly idealized sexual images; the reality of prostitution in Pompeii was less erotic:

The windowless chambers where the prostitutes worked were separated from the anteroom only by curtains. Archaeologists discovered marks on the stone blocks that indicate customers didn’t even remove their sandals during sex… “In fact, this place where people went in search of pleasure was probably profoundly joyless.” That’s how an article in the German archaeology journal Abenteuer Archäologie sums up what scientists know about the brothel. “The cramped and uncomfortable chambers, stuffy and blackened by soot from candles, couldn’t have offered any very cultivated form of pleasure,” according to the article.

Pompeii’s prostitutes were mainly slaves of Greek or Oriental origin. But that’s only one reason why they were available so cheaply. Former slaves often continued to work in the sex trade. They hadn’t been trained in any other profession, and so they often had no real alternative. And not all women who worked as prostitutes were slaves. Customers had all sorts of women to choose from, and this may have helped to keep prices low.

However the London Times article notes that

There was even some evidence that Roman women frequented brothels for sex with male prostitutes.

It is lucky that we can see the more “adult” side of ancient Pompeii. The Times also notes that

Erotic objects found during the 18th and 19th-century excavations were considered so salacious they were kept in a “secret cabinet” at the National Archeological Museum in Naples, to which only those deemed to be of “mature age and respected morals” were admitted. The objects include a statuette of the god Pan copulating with a goat, and numerous phallic symbols, considered by the Romans to be good luck or fertility charms.

In other words, what TDI offers isn’t your grandfather’s Baedeker cruise.

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