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National Geographic HistoryNational Geographic History

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…

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the chinese emperor who tried to cheat death

QIN SHI HUANG DI, born Zhao Zheng, in a 19th-century Korean illustration (AKG/ALBUM) THE EMPEROR’S TERRACOTTA ARMY (detail) near Xi’an, China (STUDIOEAST/GETTY IMAGES) 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…

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boundless brutality

CONFUCIAN scholars are shown being buried alive in an 18th-century painting. (UIG/ALBUM) 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…

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crude and shapeless

(THIERRY ESCH/GETTY IMAGES) ALTHOUGH the term “golem” appears in the Bible with the sense of “formlessness,” the Talmud (Jewish commentaries on the Bible) understands the golem as an uneducated person. From this combination, a tradition of a monstrous, ugly, and clumsy figure emerged, typified in this 20th-century painting of Rabbi Loew with the golem, by Karel Dvorák. ■…

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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…

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“then the lord god formed a man from the dust”

THE CREATION OF ADAM MINIATURE FROM A 1332 ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT OF THE HISTORIA SCHOLASTICA (AKG/ALBUM) JEWISH SCHOLARS have debated whether a golem might exist, or whether it serves as a symbol of how life comes about only through God’s transforming power. Some scholars contrast an empty, soulless golem with the humanity of Adam. Talmudic tradition, however, considers that, for the first hours of his life, Adam was golemlike, “his dust kneaded into a shapeless hunk.” ■…