National Geographic History July/August 2020

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United States
National Geographic Society
6 Issues

in this issue

1 min
from the editor

Historians like to debate about “watershed moments.” I won’t go into the origins of the phrase here, but it’s often used to describe an important moment in history. But true watershed moments are more than important. They are events where a hard line can be drawn between before and after. On one side of the line is life as we knew it, on the other is life as we know it, and the two look nothing like each other. It’s not often that HISTORY has one issue feature multiple watershed moments, but this one does. The eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, passage of the 19th Amendment, and deployment of the nuclear bomb all qualify. Each one of these events is a marker that clearly divides history into a distinct…

4 min
rare find reveals new insights into black death

Digging in the English countryside, archaeologists have found evidence that gives valuable insights into the catastrophic effects of the Black Death. A mass grave containing 48 bodies was found on the grounds of Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire, 150 miles north of London. The Black Death In 1347 the bubonic plague began its deadly sweep across Europe, reaching England a year later. It would kill an estimated 25 million people, about a third of Europe’s population, by 1351. Common symptoms of the disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, were fever, vomiting, and swollen lymph nodes, called buboes. These enlarged glands often turned black, which gave the disease its dark nickname. The Black Death caused chaos in cities. In Florence, Italy, the poet Giovanni Boccaccio observed how frightened city-dwellers often fled to the country:…

8 min
al-jazari, medieval master of robotics

Fountains that could be programmed to switch on and off. A model of an Indian mahout (driver) who struck the half hour on his elephant’s head. Automatons in the form of servants that could offer guests a towel. These are just some of the marvelous inventions of the 12th-century Muslim inventor Ismail al-Jazari, who laid the groundwork for modern engineering, hydraulics, and even robotics. While some of his lavish and colorful creations were made as novelty playthings for the very wealthy, al-Jazari also made practical machines that helped normal people, including water-drawing devices that were used by farmers for centuries. A Passion for Inventing Badi al-Zaman Abu al-Izz Ismail ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari was born in 1136 in Diyarbakir in what is today central-southern Turkey. The son of a humble craftsman, he was born…

7 min
everyone screamed for ice cream

Modern refrigeration might seem absolutely required for creating and enjoying frozen desserts, but indulging in cold treats goes back thousands of years. These prized indulgences were enjoyed by people living all over the ancient world—from China to Mesopotamia. As early as 4,000 years ago, Chinese people enjoyed a kind of frozen syrup. Centuries later around 400 b.c., sharbat was a popular treat in the Persian Empire. This cold drink featured syrups made from cherries, quinces, and pomegranates that were then cooled with snow. The modern words “sherbet,” “sorbet,” and “syrup” can trace their linguistic recipe origins back to sharbat. Historic accounts tell of Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire in 330 b.c., enjoying flavored ices sweetened with honey. The Greeks, and later the Romans, adopted the custom of cooling their…

12 min
the painters of egypt

Painters in the Western tradition strive for “originality,” stamping a style on their work to ensure their name will be remembered forever. The painters of ancient Egypt could not have been more different: Creators of some of the world’s most iconic art, they worked anonymously, continuing a style whose precepts were laid down at the dawn of Egyptian culture in the third millennium B.C. From its distant origins to the peak of its splendor in the grand tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Queens, Egyptian painting was not created to please a public, but for more transcendent needs. The ka, the vital essence of the deceased, needed nourishment in order to survive in the afterlife. To supply it, Egyptians looked to the magic (heka) of painting. By representing an…

13 min
mystery of the missing wonder

Around 225 b.c. a Greek engineer, Philo, produced a list of seven temata—“things to be seen”—that are better known today as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Pyramids at Giza; the Statue of Zeus at Olympia; the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus; the Colossus of Rhodes; the Pharos of Alexandria; and, most mysterious of all, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Many revisions of Philo’s list followed, and other sites were added and removed according to the tastes of the times. But the Philo seven have become canonical, a snapshot of the monuments whose size and engineering prowess awed the classical mind. Only the Pyramids at Giza (built in the mid third millennium b.c.) remains intact today. Although five of the others have disappeared, or are in…