July 22, 2013
The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Suspecting that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.
The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. It was a vital tool in the Persian criminals’ armory, used—after the iron spike had made a breach in a victim’s dried-mud wall—to explore the property’s interior.
We know this improbable bit of information because burglars were members of a loose fraternity of rogues, vagabonds, wandering poets and outright criminals who made up Islam’s medieval underworld. This broad group was known collectively as the Banu Sasan, and for half a dozen centuries its members might be encountered anywhere from Umayyad Spain to the Chinese border. Possessing their own tactics, tricks and slang, the Banu Sasan comprised a hidden counterpoint to the surface glories of Islam’s golden age. They were also celebrated as the subjects of a scattering of little-known but fascinating manuscripts that chronicled their lives, morals and methods.
March 22, 2012
The executioners of the Ottoman Empire were never noted for their mercy; just ask the teenage Sultan Osman II, who in May 1622 suffered an excruciating death by “compression of the testicles”–as contemporary chronicles put it–at the hands of an assassin known as Pehlivan the Oil Wrestler. There was reason for this ruthlessness, however; for much of its history (the most successful bit, in fact), the Ottoman dynasty flourished—ruling over modern Turkey, the Balkans and most of North Africa and the Middle East—thanks in part to the staggering violence it meted out to the highest and mightiest members of society.
Seen from this perspective, it might be argued that the Ottomans’ decline set in early in the 17th century, precisely at the point when they abandoned the policy of ritually murdering a significant proportion of the royal family whenever a sultan died, and substituted the Western notion of simply giving the job to the first-born son instead. Before then, Ottoman succession had been governed by the “law of fratricide” drawn up by Mehmed II in the middle of the 15th century. Under the terms of this remarkable piece of legislation, whichever member of the ruling dynasty succeeded in seizing the throne on the death of the old sultan was not merely permitted, but enjoined, to murder all his brothers (together with any inconvenient uncles and cousins) in order to reduce the risk of subsequent rebellion and civil war. Although it was not invariably applied, Mehmed’s law resulted in the deaths of at least 80 members of the House of Osman over a period of 150 years. These victims included all 19 siblings of Sultan Mehmed III—some of whom were still infants at the breast, but all of whom were strangled with silk handkerchiefs immediately after their brother’s accession in 1595.
For all its deficiencies, the law of fratricide ensured that the most ruthless of the available princes generally ascended to the throne. That was more than could be said of its replacement, the policy of locking up unwanted siblings in the kafes (“cage”), a suite of rooms deep within the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. From around 1600, generations of Ottoman royals were kept imprisoned there until they were needed, sometimes several decades later, consoled in the meantime by barren concubines and permitted only a strictly limited range of recreations, the chief of which was macramé. This, the later history of the empire amply demonstrated, was not ideal preparation for the pressures of ruling one of the greatest states the world has ever known.
March 2, 2012
“Bread and circuses,” the poet Juvenal wrote scathingly. “That’s all the common people want.” Food and entertainment. Or to put it another way, basic sustenance and bloodshed, because the most popular entertainments offered by the circuses of Rome were the gladiators and chariot racing, the latter often as deadly as the former. As many as 12 four-horse teams raced one another seven times around the confines of the greatest arenas—the Circus Maximus in Rome was 2,000 feet long, but its track was not more than 150 feet wide—and rules were few, collisions all but inevitable, and hideous injuries to the charioteers extremely commonplace. Ancient inscriptions frequently record the deaths of famous racers in their early 20s, crushed against the stone spina that ran down the center of the race track or dragged behind their horses after their chariots were smashed.
Charioteers, who generally started out as slaves, took these risks because there were fortunes to be won. Successful racers who survived could grow enormously wealthy—another Roman poet, Martial, grumbled in the first century A.D. that it was possible to make as much as 15 bags of gold for winning a single race. Diocles, the most successful charioteer of them all, earned an estimated 36 million sesterces in the course of his glittering career, a sum sufficient to feed the whole city of Rome for a year. Spectators, too, wagered and won substantial sums, enough for the races to be plagued by all manner of dirty tricks; there is evidence that the fans sometimes hurled nail-studded curse tablets onto the track in an attempt to disable their rivals.
In the days of the Roman republic, the races featured four color-themed teams, the Reds, the Whites, the Greens and the Blues, each of which attracted fanatical support. By the sixth century A.D., after the western half of the empire fell, only two of these survived—the Greens had incorporated the Reds, and the Whites had been absorbed into the Blues. But the two remaining teams were wildly popular in the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire, which had its capital at Constantinople, and their supporters were as passionate as ever—so much so that they were frequently responsible for bloody riots.
September 1, 2011
There is a story, regrettably apocryphal, about Napoleon and the Great Pyramid. When Bonaparte visited Giza during his Nile expedition of 1798 (it goes), he determined to spend a night alone inside the King’s Chamber, the granite-lined vault that lies precisely in the center of the pyramid. This chamber is generally acknowledged as the spot where Khufu, the most powerful ruler of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c.2690-2180 BC), was interred for all eternity, and it still contains the remains of Pharaoh’s sarcophagus—a fractured mass of red stone that is said to ring like a bell when struck.
Having ventured alone into the pyramid’s forbidding interior and navigated its cramped passages armed with nothing but a guttering candle, Napoleon emerged the next morning white and shaken, and thenceforth refused to answer any questions about what had befallen him that night. Not until 23 years later, as he lay on his death bed, did the emperor at last consent to talk about his experience. Hauling himself painfully upright, he began to speak—only to halt almost immediately.
“Oh, what’s the use,” he murmured, sinking back. “You’d never believe me.”
As I say, the story is not true—Napoleon’s private secretary, De Bourrienne, who was with him in Egypt, insists that he never went inside the tomb. (A separate tradition suggests that the emperor, as he waited for other members of his party to scale the outside of the pyramid, passed the time calculating that the structure contained sufficient stone to erect a wall around all France 12 feet high and one foot thick.) That the tale is told at all, however, is testament to the fascination exerted by this most mysterious of monuments–and a reminder that the pyramid’s interior is at least as compelling as its exterior. Yes, it is impressive to know that Khufu’s monument was built from 2.3 million stone blocks, each weighing on average more than two tons and cut using nothing more than copper tools; to realize that its sides are precisely aligned to the cardinal points of the compass and differ one from another in length by no more than two inches, and to calculate that, at 481 feet, the pyramid remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for practically 4,000 years—until the main spire of Lincoln Cathedral was completed in about 1400 A.D. But these superlatives do not help us to understand its airless interior.
Few would be so bold as to suggest that, even today, we know why Khufu ordered the construction of what is by far the most elaborate system of passages and chambers concealed within any pyramid. His is the only one of the 35 such tombs constructed between 2630 and 1750 B.C. to contain tunnels and vaults well above ground level. (Its immediate predecessors, the Bent Pyramid and the North Pyramid at Dahshur, have vaults built at ground level; all the others are solid structures whose burial chambers lie well underground.) For years, the commonly accepted theory was that the Great Pyramid’s elaborate features were the product of a succession of changes in plan, perhaps to accommodate Pharaoh’s increasingly divine stature as his reign went on, but the American Egyptologist Mark Lehner has marshaled evidence suggesting that the design was fixed before construction began. If so, the pyramid’s internal layout becomes even more mysterious, and that’s before we bear in mind the findings of the Quarterly Review, which reported in 1818, after careful computation, that the structure’s known passages and vaults occupy a mere 1/7,400th of its volume, so that “after leaving the contents of every second chamber solid by way of separation, there might be three thousand seven hundred chambers, each equal in size to the sarcophagus chamber, [hidden] within.”
But if the thinking behind the pyramid’s design remains unknown, there is a second puzzle that should be easier to solve: the question of who first entered the Great Pyramid after it was sealed in about 2566 B.C. and what they found inside it.