You would think, 2020 being what it was, this list would be larger. Apparently not. Much of my reading was spent on work-related books not listed, and the 945 page, but yet unfinished ‘Don Quixote.’ As a result, my list is somewhat shameful in scope. My aim is to read 10 in 2021.
John Man – Amazons: The Warrior Women of the Ancient World (2018). An accessible survey warrior women in mythology and historical societies from Scythia to Dahomey. 4/5
Herodotus – The Histories (430 BC). I didn’t ‘finish’ this book so to speak but read large chunks as a reference. Covers the Greco-Persian Wars in detail and explores of the known world of the 5th century BC. 5/5.
A Great Conjunction is when Jupiter and Saturn reach the closest point in their orbit, and appear mere degrees apart, as one bright star from Earth. 21 December 2020 will be the first Great Conjunction in 400 years and the closest since 1226. The next will be in 2080.
Jupiter and Saturn are the two largest planets in our solar system. Both are gas giants over nine times the diameter of Earth and the furthest planets from Earth we can see with the naked eye.
Seeing Uranus, Neptune or Pluto requires a telescope. Jupiter takes 12 earth-years to orbit the sun, Saturn takes 30. During the Great Conjunction, they appear 1° apart with a naked eye and 5° with a telescope.
The Great Conjunction of 2020 will take place on the Winter/Summer Solstice and be best visible in the Northern Hemisphere. The planets will appear in the southwest, with Saturn being above/left of Jupiter in the Northern Hemisphere and below/right in the Southern. With binoculars, you can see Jupiter’s four Galilean moons – Callisto, Europa, Ganymede and Io. With a telescope, you can catch all 75 of its moons and the ‘Great Red Spot’. The conjunction will be visible one hour after sunset.
We know of older conjunctions from astronomical records left by the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and early modern Europeans. Many, however, were either too shrouded or close to the sun to be visible from Earth.
Largest visible recorded Great Conjunctions:
1st March 1793 BC – 0.02°, the closest recorded conjunction.
6 March 372 – 0.03°
6 March 372, 0.1°
13 September 709 – 0.1°
4 March 1226 – 0.03°
25 August 1523 – 0.1°
16 July 1623 – 0.08°
21 December 2020 – 0.01°
Polish astronomers observed the Great Conjunction of 1523 from the Krakow Academy and used it to prove Copernicus’s heliocentric model.
The last Great Conjunction was in 1623, in the early days of the telescope. Jupiter and Saturn appeared 0.08° apart. 2020’s conjunction will be even closer, and the near since 1226 when the hordes of Genghis Khan were ravaging Asia and Saint Francis was in the last year of his life.
Johannes Keppler, the famed German astronomer, suggested in 1614 that the (minor) conjunction of 7 BC was the Star of Bethlehem attested in the Bible. Modern scholarship suggests it is most likely the ‘Star’ was an eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon around 14 April 6 BC, which would have appeared in the west of Judah and thus led the Three Wise Men from the east.
The Queen’s Gambit (2020) is a period drama miniseries about a female chess prodigy. Set in the 1960s, it follows Beth Harmon from her beginnings as a penniless orphan to international grandmaster. The Queen’s Gambit is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 book by the same name. It released on Netflix in November 2020. Anna Taylor-Joy (The Witch) stars, Scott Frank (Logan, Godless) and Allan Scott (Castaway) write and direct.
The Queen’s Gambit is a chess opening where white sacrifices their queen’s pawn to gain control of the centre. Beth employs both the gambit and the ‘Sicilian Defense’ throughout the series.
When her mother dies, eight-year-old Beth Harmon of Lexington, Kentucky transfers to the Methuen Home for Christian Girls. There she picks up a habit for tranquillisers and learns to play chess under the rough but loveable janitor Mr Schaibel. As a teenager Beth plays in local tournaments and rapidly rises through the ranks, becoming state champion by the second episode. Despite her success, loneliness and substance abuse beset her.
Beth is a fictional character. There has never been a female world champion and, to this day, 99 of the world’s top 100 players are male. The Queen’s Gambit presents a heroine who challenges the norm and excels in a male-dominated field.
Her career resembles Bobby Fischer, an American child prodigy who unseated the Russian world champion Lassky in 1973, 18th-century master Charles Morphy and modern female champion Judit Polgar.
You don’t need to be a chess fan to enjoy this show. Its strength lies in its ability to build emotional suspense through games on a board and balance triumph with despair. Without seeing every move, we can tell the way a game’s course through body language. Chess theory is still a common topic, however, and will delight anyone with even the slightest interest in the game. In the US, chessboard sales went up 87% and books about chess 603%. Chess.com saw 2.5 million registrations the week after Queen’s Gambit’s release. I was one of them.
The chess community praised the show’s portrayal of the game. Former world champion Gary Kasparov was a consultant.
The Queen’s Gambit makes chess sexy. Beth Harmon is alluring and sympathetic and her fashion-sense enticing Locations like Las Vegas, Mexico City, Paris and Moscow are gorgeously portrayed. Though Beth is central, a supporting cast of characters includes her orphan friend Jolene, and dorky yet good-hearted Harry Beltik and the cocky Benny Watts. Queen’s Gambit popularity spread rapidly through word of mouth; by December, it was Netflix’s most popular show. The New Yorker called it ‘the most satisfying show on television.’ It will likely scoop Emmys in February.
The Hagia Sophia, meaning ancient wisdom in Greek, is a historic place of worship in Istanbul, Turkey. A Christian basilica for over a thousand years, it became a mosque, then a museum and, as of July 2020, a mosque once more.
Emperor Justinian built the Hagia Sophia in 532, when Istanbul was Constantinople and capital of the Byzantine Empire. Built of marble, concrete, porphyry and stucco, it contained the largest dome and was the largest church for 1,000 years. Hagia Sophia is the crowning achievement of Byzantine architecture. Referencing the old temple in Jerusalem, Justinian allegedly said ‘Solomon, I have outdone thee’. He and his successors filled the basilica with mosaics depicting Byzantine emperors and empresses and Orthodox saints, priceless artifacts today. Byzantine domes as represented in Hagia Sophia became a staple of Islamic architecture.
In 1453, Sultan Mehmet of the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. Rather than destroy or maintain Hagia Sophia, he converted it into a mosque. As Islam prohibits religious icons, he replaced some mosaics with Arabic calligraphy and concealed others. The Ottomans added four minarets to the structure and buried five of their sultans in Hagia Sophia. Orthodox Christians, who form the majority in Greece and many Eastern European countries, mourned the conversion of their holy site.
The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918. By 1922, Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey. A devoted secularist, Ataturk officially closed the Hagia Sophia to worship in 1934. He opened it instead as a museum; a monument to Istanbul’s multicultural heritage and a gallery of its intricate artwork. He commissioned John Whittlemore, an an American archaeologist to restore the damaged mosaics. By doing so, Ataturk hoped to heal old wounds and invoke the image of a new and secular Turkey in place of the theocratic Ottoman Empire. UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 1984, proclaiming its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. As of 2020, Hagia Sophia receives 37 million visitors a year.
Enter 2020. Tayyip Erdogan, a longtime president popular with conservative Turkish Muslims, loses his political hold on Istanbul in a landslide. On 10th July the Turkish court ratifies his decision to annul Hagia Sophia’s museum status and make it a mosque once again. It will be open to all religions and nationalities outside of prayer times, during which its mosaics will be covered up.
Critics accuse Erdogan of firing up his base in the face of a looming election and reversing his souring popularity. Patriarch Bartholomew (right), the Istanbul based Orthodox leader called the decision ‘disappointing’, the World Council of Churches expressed ‘grief and dismay’, Patriarch Kiril of Moscow called it a ‘threat to Christian civilization’. UNESCO mentioned the move was done without their consent and could breach the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Erdogan stated it was in his rights as the site falls under Turkish national authority. Reactions within the country were mixed.
Turkey sits on the crossroads of east and west. Ataturk sought to make it a secular country but since Erdogan took power, Turkey is pulling away from its founding principles to Erdogan’s blend of conservative authoritarianism. Having so dismayed its members, particularly Greece, Turkey is unlikely to join the EU under his rule.
Disclaimer: This post is based on information from the media by someone living outside of North America as I currently understand it. It focuses on events in the world hegemon, the USA.
In January, tensions between the USA and Iran reached an all-time high following the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. World War 3 memes flooded the internet while, in Iran and elsewhere, the protests of 2019 continued. The year’s greatest challenge to the USA and its hegemony proved not an external enemy however, but a global disease and problems within the nation itself.
In February, Covid-19, a deadly virus, spread from a market in Wuhan across China. By March it went global, killing hundreds of thousands. Governments forced their populations into lockdown, closing businesses and urging their people to stay at home. Transmission stalled at the economy’s expense.
By May, the USA had suffered the most, with over a million cases and over 100,000 dead. Black Americans were hit disproportionately.
On May 21st, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin arrested George Floyd, an unarmed black man, for using a counterfeit bill. The officer then kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes as he cried ‘I can’t breathe’ until he died. Floyd’s death, the latest in a long list of documented murders-by-police, was the spark which set the forest ablaze.
Minneapolis, and over 75 other cities, erupted in protests against systemic racism and police brutality. With law enforcement stretched thin, looters took to the streets at night. Businesses big and small suffered. Authorities deployed State Troopers and on, June 1st the National Guard. Currently ongoing, it is the USA’s worst civil unrest since the 1960s.
There has been major unrest in the USA every generation. Unlike the 1965 Watts Riots, or 1992 Rodney King Riots, however, the George Floyd protests have coincided with a pandemic, economic collapse and the century’s most unpopular presidency. Through such concurrences, empires fall.
The USA was already in a fragile state. Millions, particularly those on minimum hour contracts, lost their livelihoods in the lockdown. With a weak social safety net and a terrible healthcare system, America has not weathered the storm well. People are angry and have little to lose.
What happens next?
Donald Trump will run on a law and order platform as Nixon did in 1968. Against the uninspiring Joe Biden, he will likely win.
As for the bigger picture, there are three possibilities:
Cities invoke meaningful steps to reform and demilitarise the American police and the prison-industrial complex. They hold murderous cops accountable.
Protests continue but struggle against heavy law enforcement. Riots abate. Systemic racism enters the public discourse and small steps are taken to meet protestor demands. The status quo prevails.
Riots worsen. Armed groups intervene. Someone fires at police lines and they respond with live bullets. Trump calls the military. The USA implodes as Rome did and the rest of the world fights over its ashes.
Whatever the case, Covid-19 will spike in the USA. It will take months to fully recover.
The LAPD reformed somewhat following the Rodney King Riots of 1992. Now the Minneapolis city government pledges to defund the police and mandate officers intervene against colleagues using excessive force. Proclaiming support for Black Lives Matter has become trendy amongst corporations. Most significantly, the protests have brought attention to the structural inequality that persists in the United States but also highlighted the political and social division which defines our era. Whatever happens in the next six months, historians will study 2020 for years to come.
Qassem Soleimani was Iran’s top general from 1998 – 2020. A US drone killed him and 54 others near Baghdad Airport on January 3rd 2020 on orders of the Pentagon and President Trump. The attack could be considered an act of war against Iran and has significantly escalated tensions between the two states. If worst comes to worst, history will remember him as the Franz Ferdinand of our time.
Soleimani led the Quds Force, the foreign branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He was the country’s second most famous person after the Ayatollah and favoured by 82% of Iranians, according to a 2019 poll. Known for his calm and calculating demeanour, Soleimani had a knack for forging friendships amongst unlikely allies. He coordinated the alliance between Iran, Russia and Syria and allied Shia militias: Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq.
Born poor in 1958, Soleimani supported the 1979 Revolution that established the Islamic Republic of Iran. He made a name for himself in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and by 1998 was leading the Quds Force. Soleimani led the fight against ISIS in Iraq by forging an unlikely alliance between the Iraqi military and Shia and Kurdish militias. With ISIS defeated, Iran contends with Saudi Arabia and the USA for influence over the region.
The US has considered assassinating Soleimani since 2003. Both Bush and Obama recognised his value to rival Iran but considered the implications too risky. Trump authorised the drone strike but did not consult Congress, legal only when responding to an ‘imminent threat’.
The attack was a culmination of a tit-for-tat feud between the US and Iran in Iraq:
27/12/19: PMF (Shia militia) attack a US-Iraqi base, killing one US contractor and two Iraqi soldiers
29/12/19: US airstrikes kill 25 PMF militiamen
31/12/19: PMF storm US Embassy in Baghdad. 0 casualties.
3/12/20: US drones kill Soleimani, the PMF’s second in command and 53 others
The current crisis began in 2018 when the USA pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, which would deter the USA from invading and bolster its international standing. Considering their ties to rivals Russia and China, and hatred for ally Israel, the US wants to stop that. Sanctions can slow the process, but only invasion can prevent it.
Iran’s leadership vowed to avenge Soleimani’s death. Hundreds of thousands attended his funeral in over eight cities, including his hometown of Kerman, where a stampede killed 80 mourners. President Trump responded via Twitter, threatening to bomb 52 sites of cultural significance if Iran retaliates. They did retaliate, but only with a symbolic missile strike on an American base in Iraq that killed no one. On the 9th, January however, a commercial plane bound for Kiev crashed in Iran, killing all on board. The 176 passengers were mainly Iranian and Canadian citizens. Canada’s Justin Trudeau blamed Iran. After initially denying involvement, Iran accepted it had mistakenly shot the plane down.
Soleimani was no terrorist. He had blood on his hands and threatened the geostrategic interests of the USA and her Middle Eastern allies but not American civilians.
His death comes at a crucial time for both countries. Iran is undergoing anti-regime protests and economic hardship. In 2020 President Trump of the US, who promised his voter base both to defy Iran and avoid overseas conflicts, faces reelection and impeachment. Tensions with Iran could rally nationalist support for Trump and get Republican hawks on his side – their support he needs when facing the senate.