8.26.2020

The First Christians in Mecca

Musings from Godfrey ...



While refreshing myself on the life of King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, I re-read The Leper King and His Heirs and was reminded of the interesting little tale concerning the first Christians to visit Mecca. Italian traveller and writer Ludovico di Varthema (c. 1470-1517) is generally recognized as the first European non-Muslim known to have entered Mecca. Nearly three hundred years earlier, a pair of crusader knights visited Mecca in far less pleasant circumstances ...

The backdrop is Saladin's war with the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem which began in early 1182. After victories by the Royal Army led by King Baldwin IV (who was by this time suffering terribly from advanced lepromatous leprosy) at Le Forbelet and at Beirut Saladin had withdrawn to Syria to campaign against the Aleppan Muslims who were not subject to him. During this "break" in active combat in the Kingdom of Jerusalem itself in early 1183, Raynald of Ch√Ętillon (a man unjustly villainized by many histories and by that abomination, Kingdom of Heaven), outfitted a flotilla of five galleys which were launched into the Red Sea where they were able to wreak much havoc behind Saladin's lines. Saladin's governor of Egypt, al-Adil, was able to get ships transported by land from Alexandria to the Red Sea and eventually routed this Christian force. After abandoning their ships, they surrendered, being trapped on the sourthern part of the Arabian Peninsula with no way of marching back home. When al-Adil asked Saladin what to do with these prisoners of war, he ordered that they all be executed, and reserved an especially grisly fate for two knights.

It is noteworthy that this episode does not come from European or Christian sources; in fact, the Frankish sources of the time make no mention of this particular expedition. Rather, this comes from Islamic sources, which can hardly be accused of being "Islamophobic" or prejudiced (if anything, they could be accused of being biased in favour of their fellow Muslims). Back to the story: the "special fate" of these two knights I mentioned, was described in a letter written by al-Imad, contained in Abu Shama's (1203 - 1267) The Book of the Two Gardens[1]:
They were taken to Mecca where, during the great annual pilgrimage, they were led outside the city to Medina. This is a stage in the pilgrimage at which the faithful offer animals for slaughter and give their flesh to feed the poor. There, among a zealous and hostile crowd of thousands of pilgrims, the two Christians were slaughtered 'like animals for sacrifice', presumably by having their throats cut.[2]
So, some three hundred years before Varthema these two Christian knights had visited Mecca and were then given the crown of martyrdom in Medina shortly thereafter by members of that great "religion of peace". As to the "honourable", "just", "tolerant" Saladin (who is especially lionised in Kingdom of Heaven)'s part in ordering all of this:
al-Adil had misgivings about executing all these prisoners, for in accordance with Islamic law, their lives should have been spared because they had surrendered voluntarily, but Saladin had no scruples of this kind.[3]
And speaking of martyrdom, this same book (The Leper King) also mentions in the same chapter the treatment of Latin Christians by the Byzantines, a group who, like the Muslems, are made out to be innocent, peace-loving victims of the vicious Franks (cf. the sack of Constantinople) by most popular historians. When Emperor Manuel Comnenus died in 1182, his widow Mary of Antioch (a Latin) was overthrown by Manuel's cousin Andronicus Comnenus. His coup was bloody:
When Andronicus advanced on Constantinople, there was a spontaneous uprising of the mob, who massacred all the Latins in the city, regardless of age and sex, and cut off the head of the papal legate. Even the hospital of St John was sacked and its inmates murdered.[4]
The Franks were certainly guilty of some brutalities of their own, we can't deny that. But on the whole, they were far less barbaric than those around them. Other than the sack of Jerusalem (which is generally exaggerated) their rule of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was quite benign: see Chapter 3: The Kingdom of The Leper King. In fact, read the whole book; it is an excellent account based on primary sources of a very important and misunderstood period of a misunderstood era, that of the Crusades.



[1] An account of the dynasties of Nur ad-Din (Saladin's predecessor) and Saladin, which makes careful use of contemporary sources including letters and a history written during Saladin's life by a Shi'ite scholar from Aleppo named Yahya Ibn Abi Tayy. (Cf. Hilmy, M. and M. Ahmad. "Some notes on Arab Historiography during the Zengid and Ayyubid Periods (521/1127-648/1250)". Historians of the Middle East. Ed. Bernard Lewis and P.M. Holt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962. pp. 90-4)

[2] Hamilton, Bernard. The Leper King and His Heirs: Baldwin IV and the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 183

[3] Ibid., p. 184

[4] Ibid., p. 173

8.21.2020

SHORT STORY: BEASTS IN THE SKY

 By Anna Blackwell (August 2020, age 12)


    Covid 19 pandemic had just ended and things were starting to finally beginning to come back to normal after all the look downs and riots. When something strange happened on September 1, 2022.

    Karen Bosher was driving her car from work. It had been a long day at the office and she was ready for a cup of hot cocoa and a nice cozy bed.

    She was driving through Stone View. Tall Stone walls were on both sides of the road, onto of them grew tall pine trees. Karen admitted, she rather liked the look of the rock walls, it made her feel secure. She had mainly moved there for the scenery.
    
    The sun was just sinking behind the dark clouds when it happened. Karen stirred her car around the bend when something caught her eye, a large bat like shape had just flew over the car. Karen had her eyes on the road so she didn’t get a clear picture of what it was.

    Suddenly the car in front of Karen’s car, went flying backwards like if a huge baseball bat had hit a home run on it.

    Karen pushed hard on the brakes too late! The car sent her car flipping over, Karen felt like she was on a rollercoaster as she was thrown from side to side. Pieces of broken glass where sent flying every where. As soon as her car land on it’s side and stopped flipping, Karen immediately wanted to get out her squished front seat. Carefully, Karen despite her uneasiness managed to crawl out through the destroyed from windshield of her car.

    “Hey, are you alright?” Asked a heavy voice.

    “Uh..I-I think so.”

    Screams come from the other cars which have been hit. Karen breathed a sigh of relief, she had survived a very strange accident but a few others haven’t.

    “My name is Cogsley.” The man with the heavy voice said. ”What the heck was your car flying all over the place for?”

    “I ... I well, the car in front of me just went flying into the air all of the sudden and it hit my car.”

    “Hmph, probably some one put mines on the road,” Cogsley mumbled.

    “What? Mines? You joking or something? What kind of joker would even get his or her hands on those? They are illegal!”

    Suddenly a cry came from a turned over car.

    “Help me! Help me!!” A woman’s voice cried.

    Cogsley and Karen ran over to the car. Looking inside they saw a lady lying on the roof of the upturned car.

    “Help me!” The lady cried. “I think a broke my leg, and my right arm is cut by glass!”

    Cogsley looked over to Karen. “Alright, miss ...”

    “Karen.”

    “Alright, Miss Karen you are small enough, try and squeeze in there and help her get out, I’ll be out her to pull her out.”

    After a bit of squeezing and careful procedures, they got the lady, Polly was her name, out of the car.

    “Thank you so much!” She said.

    Just then, Karen heard a deep rumbling sound. She looked over and shrieked in horror.

    A huge monstrous creature with bat wings, yellow eyes, electric blue scales that lit in the pale moon light and large saber-tooth teeth.

    Karen shriek gave Cogsley just enough time to pick ups Polly and get out of the way before the monster left onto the crushed car.

    “It’s the aliens alright!” Cogsley shouted. “We got to get to my truck!”

    Without further instructions Karen ran as fast as she could to the green truck Cogsley was referring too.

    The monster took notice of Cogsley running with Polly over to the truck and began to pursue them.

    “Get in! In!” Cogsley hollered shoving Polly into the front seat with Karen. The jumping himself in, he thrust a silver key into the ignition.

    “Go! Go! Go!” Karen shouted as the truck took off just in time to escape the hideous teeth of the monster, which chased after them.

    “Can you go any faster!” Karen shouted at Cogsley.

    “I am going 180 kilometres per hour!”

    Karen looked through the back window at the creature as it ran after them, but then she noticed something, something else was moving off to the side of the monster unlike the one following them, it was white, it looked like it had scales but white fur seemed to flow down its spine.

    Then Karen spotted another thing but it was flying in the air, this one reminded her the dragon she had seen from the Hobbit. But just then she realised something. There was more than one of these creatures.

    “Man, we really have to get out of here!” Karen said panic right on the tip of her tongue.

    “Why? What is wrong!?” Cogsley asked.

    “There's more than one of them.”

    Cogsley almost swore in frustration, before saying “You all might want to hold onto something.” And with that the truck drove of road int to the surrounding woods.

    “We are going to Pine Dale Campsite.” Cogsley said.

    Karen looked back through the car’s back window. The monster was no longer following them, but as she looked into the sky, there she saw them.

    Dragons. Dozens of them, they were now rulers of the sky and land. Karen didn’t know why but she knew they were and she was going to have to do every thing she could to survive this.



  The end 

8.19.2020

"Reprehensible Stories"

Musings from Godfrey Blackwell

"Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don't wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment."
Cruz, Gilbert. "10 Questions: Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on the politics of horror movies, living in self-imposed exile and owning a man cave". Time magazine. September 5, 2011. page 80
This isn't the craziest thing I've ever heard, but I still think it's pretty darn foolish and especially coming from a man who's experienced, personally, a taste of what anarchy is like (the banditos who kidnapped Mr. del Toro's his father were not exactly docile pro-establishment drones).

It's also rather odd coming from a man who, like myself, is a big fan of science fiction and fantasy (similarities between myself an Mr. del Toro end there) -- because the genres to be almost exclusively "reprehensible" because they are "pro-institution". Certainly all the best of these genres is heavily pro-institution and the grandfather of them all, The Lord of the Rings series is not only pro-institution through-and-through, but practically a catechism of that institution that Mr. del Toro hates the most, Catholicism.

The theme common to fantasy fiction especially, that makes almost all of it "reprehensible" and "pro-institution", features a sort of "conservative" past social order that has been corrupted and is restored (or sought to be restored) by the heroes. This is certainly true of Lord of the Rings where there is much talk of the glories of the past, the decadence of modern Gondor and Rohan, the emergence of the evil power, and at the end a sort of "Counter Reformation" that restores the old order. Even Star Wars follows this arc, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, with the Rebellion seeking to re-establish the Old Republic and a resurgence of the Jedi Knights who had a long tradition (another "conservative/establishment" thing) of guarding peace and justice. This has lead hacks gentlemen like Michael Moorcock to whine that fantasy is inherently politically conservative.

The inherent "conservativism" (I mislike the word, but continue to use it here for convenience) of fantasy and sci-fi is a reason why children, the most inherently conservative people in the world, tend to enjoy these stories. I say children are inherently conservative because they thrive on order, routine, and stability. It is chaos and anarchy that they find fearful and why the whole "Dr. Spock" liberal methods have been disastrous (but that debate is for another column).

Perhaps Mr. del Toro misinterprets "libertarian" and "back-to-the-land" trends in works like Lord of the Rings (or maybe he despises LOTR and agreed to help write the screenplay for The Hobbit out of a malicious desire to twist it into his own image? I'll give the benefit of a doubt and assume he likes it) as "anti-establishment". Well, it may be anti- the current liberal, French Revolution inspired institutions that people of Mr. del Toro's persuasion centuries ago foisted upon the world through torrents of blood. But that doesn't make it "anti-establishment", it makes it "reactionary" or "counter-revolutionary" which is ultimately the epitome of "pro-institution" since it supports the ancient institutions. I think that this is why I often am able to get along so well with really liberal-types, like a lawyer colleague of mine who has run for the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada; we agree that there are problems with the current system but we disagree strongly on the solution usually because such people (though well intentioned) are ignorant of history and what stuff like communism really stands for.

So it's just plain odd to be a big fantasy fan, but claim to hate it's inherent nature. As to why it is so wrong-headed to consider "pro-establishment" fiction "reprehensible" ... that could be the subject of a multipage rant. But let's just look quickly at Mr. del Toro's quote above, wherein he says that a story that teaches children "always obey your parents" is "reprehensible" is plain lunacy. Certainly, as a parent himself, he does not believe his children should not listen to him. It's just so plainly obvious that parents know more than children and the very purpose of parents is to teach and protect their children. So he's saying a story that reinforces the duty of parents is evil? The great irony is, that it is liberals ( Mr. del Toro acknowledges that he is one) who are the most "pro-establishment" because they tend to be statists who think "the establishment" should control nearly every aspect of our lives and "protect" us from ourselves with myriad regulations and Big Brotherly watchers. The "evil regime" of Generalissimo Francisco Franco that Mr. del Toro hates so much didn't have Child and Family Services who abduct peoples' children for drawing a picture of a gun! To be blunt, it's not just irony, but rather hypocrisy and liberal endeavours are ripe with it.

8.14.2020

LOUISE'S BAD BIRTHDAY! and the Next 1 Hr Fiction Challenge

 By Barbara Blackwell (August 2020, age 10)



We really enjoyed the last 1-hour fiction challenge, and found it to be a great inspiration for sitting down and getting writing (or drawing). So for our second challenge, we chose the theme of "#2 Hits the Fan" or "2HTF" stories about a collapse scenario. Barbara chose a "zombie apocalypse" collapse!

8.12.2020

Clothing - A Juxtaposition

  
A film enjoyed by all members of the Blackwell family is the adaptation of Micheal Chricthton's novel Timeline, featuring historians sent back to 1357 France. What strikes us everytime we watch the film is how much better the characters all look in their mediaeval garb versus modern. After watching them for most of the film dressed as mediaeval peasants, they look rather like "bums" in the final scene where we see them back on their archaelogical dig.

Here is another good shot of their mediaeval garb:



Versus modern:


The change (for the worse) in women's clothing over the centuries is the most striking. Another example snapped by Godfrey at the Tower of London offering further proof of our thesis that even the most basic peasant clothing of the mediaeval period was more gracious, dignified, and even functional than what we must wear today:


Now someone's sure to ask me what solutions we have to offer. Our answer: the tag on this post is "musings", not "answers"! In seriousness though, while we may have a certain affinity for the past, we cannot relive it. But maybe we can get some ideas. 

8.07.2020

SHORT STORY: WAR IN THE ALPS

By Albert Blackwell (July 2020, Age 13)

    A large heavily armoured shoe box shaped machine with three short sturdy legs on each side slowly made its way up the mountainous terrain. Steam billowed out the two chimneys at its rear ,armed with a Tesla coil mounted behind the commander’s cupola.

    A company of Austrian soldiers ,all of them wearing gas masks and heavily sealed suits to avoid the radiation in the air, advanced behind the machine. They were on a mission to investigate a space craft which had landed only a few miles away.

    Captain Fredrick Schmidt gazed out the narrow slit in his cupola, observing the rocky terrain before him. Like the rest of the crew of the steam tank, he wore similar clothing as the rest of the Austrian troops. Because of the nuclear war between France, England, and Germany, most Europe was laid waste and all of it in a state of a nuclear winter. Most people were leaving and moving to Africa, Fredrick and his men were preparing to evacuate with several dozen refugees when a Star Ship landed in the alps very close to the evacuation point. Whatever it was it was the soldiers job to make sure it wasn’t anything dangerous.

    Fredrick’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud explosion which rocked the tank. This was followed by another and then another!

    “We’re under attack!” Yelled Fredrick.

    Stones and other debris were flying in all directions. The tank’s armour protected Fredrick and his crew from the Shrapnel but not the soldiers behind, who were ducking for cover.

    Fredrick stared hard at the terrain before him to identify the attackers. After a few moments he saw them, two four-legged walkers, steam billowing out of their chimneys, each armed with a 67mm canon on each side were slowly advancing toward them.

    “Martians.” Muttered Fredrick, recognising the design. “Gunner! 40 degrees to the Left!” Fredrick yelled.

    Two engineers began turning their cranks rapidly to power the deadly Tesla coils. Using a pyramid shaped outline of 2ft metal rods the Gunner directed the bolts of electricity toward one of the Martian walkers.
    
    The bolts of surging electricity struck the walker, electric pulses flying all around it! A second strike hit the walker! Several seconds later it’s engine exploded, unable to handle the shock.

    The second walker quickened it’ s pace and in minutes was only a few yards away from the Austrian tank. Firing both its canons the walker continued to advance.

    The shells slammed into the tank creating a rupture it’s armour.

    “Full ahead!” Ordered Fredrick. “Gunner prepare to fire into it’ s under belly!”

    Fredrick realised the dangerous situation he was, in if the tank was hit again it would be destroyed.

    The walker spun its guns downward, trying to get at the tank. But it was to slow the electric charges smashing into its under belly destroying it’s engines. The walker crumbled to the ground on top of the Austrian tank.


* * * 


    Fredrick gazed at the destruction before him. His tank was wrecked but his crew escaped through the rupture in it’s armour. The remaining soldiers were able to capture the Martian ship Which would be useful for the evacuation. But why the Martians were there Fredrick would never know.

8.05.2020

Puerto Rico (Board Game Review)

Name: Puerto Rico
Game Designer: Andreas Seyfarth
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary: A unique, and surprisingly enjoyable game of economic management and strategic thought.

Puerto Rico is an "Age of Discovery" game, where the players take the roles of plantation owners in the newly-founded colony of Puerto Rico, competing to amass the most victory points by the game's end. These can be accumulated by shipping goods back to the Old World and through constructing special buildings. The manner of play is very unique; it seems a little complicated at first, but it doesn't take long to get a firm grasp of the rules. Each turn, the players select a "role" such as mayor, builder, craftsman, among others, which guides what they can do. The person to select the role gets a special benefit, then everyone else plays the role normally. Then the next person selects a role, and so on. In the picture below, you can see an example of the board each player has, with a few crops and buildings already in play and some money and victory points in the top right corner; the available roles are laid out above. Crops can be sold for money to purchase buildings with as well as shipped back to Spain for points.

Below: croplands and buildings must be "worked" by colonists, signified by the little brown puck-like tokens.

It sounds a little strange, I know -- this whole "role" thing was what stopped be from buying the game myself for many years (despite rave reviews from other board game geeks of my acquaintance), but my sister bought it for me for Christmas a few years ago and I am very glad she did. Don't let the unique and exotic-sounding rules turn you away -- overall this is an excellent and enjoyable game that anyone can play. I am a huge fan of strategy games myself, However, my wife and sister-in-law, who are not strategy gamers at all, were able to quickly grasp and enjoy Puerto Rico. I think this is a key to games of this type, as you want everyone to have fun. Be warned, though, that this game isn't exactly light -- it does requires concentration and thought! This only makes it more stimulating, in my view, which is what we should be striving for otherwise we might as well rot our brains in front of the TV.
Below: the main game board that houses all the buildings available to be built, and the bank.


Puerto Rico doesn't have as much interaction as The Settlers of Catan does, but it still makes for a very fun evening or rainy-day entertainment. People will have fun trying to out-smart each other with the proper selection of roles, and trying to get their goods aboard ships before the others can, to reap the victory point rewards. The game involves no warfare, or anything objectionable (perhaps some P.C.-types would be offended by the colonial theme -- which makes it even better in my view). In the games we played there was lots of laughter. Luck is a very limited factor in this game, making it more strategy-oriented.

A game of Puerto Rico takes between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how many players you have and whether you're having to explain the rules to others as you go. It seems to average for around $25 USD, which in my view is a bargain for all the stuff that you get in this game, and the replayability. Every game will be different and there are many paths to winning based on the mechanics of the game, and therefore as a strategy game I think this has more replayability than some. In fact, Puerto Rico really demands to be played numerous times because successful strategies are not self-evident.
Overall, I still like The Settlers of Catan better, but Puerto Rico seems to have wider appeal as boardgamegeek.com rates it nearly 10% points higher than Catan. It is definitely an enjoyable game and I highly recommend it to anyone that wants a fun game that doesn't take too long to play and is intellectually challenging. For some more reviews of the game, you can go here.



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