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National Geographic History May/June 2018

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from the editor

On September 20, 1932, a click of a camera captured 11 construction workers having lunch or a smoke—while dangling their feet more than 840 feet in the air. Taken on the 69th floor of the building now known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza, “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” exudes camaraderie and good humor, making it safe to assume that these men had no fear of heights. Little else about these workers is known for certain. Researchers have tentatively identified a few of them: Peter Rice, a Mohawk ironworker from Canada; Albin Svennson from Sweden; Gustáv Popovic from Czechoslovakia; and Sonny Glynn and Matty O’Shaughnessy from Ireland. Roughly 40,000 people worked on the Rockefeller Center complex in the 1920s and ’30s, but few personnel records survive, making conclusive IDs difficult. In the early 20th century…

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the chinese emperor who tried to cheat death

Archaeologists in China have found that the first Chinese emperor, who reigned more than 2,000 years ago, ordered a national search for the elixir of life, a substance that would grant him immortality. A series of bamboo strips contain missives from his regional officials, who sent polite and somewhat awkward reports of their findings. These strips, part of a cache of thousands of such documents, were found in Hunan Province in central China. One village’s message deciphered by Chinese scholars hoped a local herb might fit the bill; another noted that no such elixir had yet been found, but tactfully implied they would continue the search. Eternal Empire Qin Shi Huang Di is perhaps best known today for the thousands of terra-cotta soldiers and horses buried in his mausoleum. Their discovery in 1974…

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boundless brutality

WITH HIS puffed-out chest like a hawk and voice of a jackal, Qin [Shi Huang Di] is a man of scant mercy,” wrote historian Sima Qian in the second century B.C. Other accounts tell how Qin Shi Huang Di left his mark on captured warriors by castrating them and keeping them as eunuch slaves. The emperor’s brutality extended into every area of life, including his obsessive quest to find the potion for eternal life. According to Sima Qian’s account, 460 Confucian scholars—whose criticism of the emperor included his impious interest in the elixir—were brought before him and buried alive. Elsewhere, he recounts that the emperor ordered the burning of philosophical books. Modern historians believe that although the burial incident is probably myth, it does reflect Qin Shi Huang Di’s hatred…

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prague’s protector: the golem

The golem is supposed to be the perfect soldier: Mindless and obedient, it serves its creator without question. The fearsome creature was called forth to protect and defend Jewish communities when under threat. The most famous golem tale is set in late 1500s Prague, capital of today’s Czech Republic. The truth and provenance of the story may be shrouded in mystery, but its cultural reach and influence is very solid. Jews had settled in Prague as early as the 10th century, but they were not always welcome in the city. Persecution by Christians in the 11th and 12th centuries led to the formation of a Jewish ghetto, which would remain the center of Jewish life in Prague for centuries. Rampant anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages was fueled by outrageous beliefs about…

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the real rabbi loew

RABBI LOEW’S association with the golem was a 19th-century invention. In life, the chief rabbi of Prague was a revered scholar, and was on friendly terms with Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. In 1594 the rabbi met Rudolf to discuss alchemy. Below, his tomb in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery.…

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interpreting “guernica”

1 Bull Picasso’s use of a bull, a traditional Spanish symbol, is ambiguous here. Does it represent Spanish victims, or Spanish brutality? 2 Mother and Child Wailing with grief, the harrowing figure of the mother mourning her dead child is reminiscent of Michaelangelo’s “Pietà” in which the Virgin Mary cradles her dead son. 3 Broken Man A dead soldier lies on the ground: eyes wide open, one arm outstretched, and one hand clutching a useless sword as terror deluges him. 4 Gored Horse The panicked horse is one of the central figures in the painting; its wounded body blindly charges through the carnage and destruction. 5 Light Bulb Picasso added the bulb late in the mural’s development. Some theorize that the light fixture is there to represent modernity and technology. 6 Woman at the Window One interpretation of this figure emerging…