Saint Francis

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181 – 1226, San Francesco in Italian) is a Catholic saint and founder of the Franciscan Order. Like the Buddha, he traded a life of luxury for one of poverty and spirituality. He was known for his love of the world and is regarded as the patron saint of the environment. San Francisco, California and the current pope take their names from him.

Francis was born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and his French wife in the Italian town of Assisi. His name means ‘the Frenchman’. A strongwilled and fashionable young man, he originally followed in his father’s footsteps and gained a reputation as a partier and spendthrift.

During Assisi’s war with neighbouring Perugia, Francis was captured spent a year in a dungeon until his father ransomed him. He returned to his old ways until on impulse he embraced a leper and give away all the money in his pockets.

After an alleged vision from Jesus in a crumbling cathedral urged him to ‘rebuild the church’, Francis gave away some of his father’s gold to its priest. Furious, his father beat him and demand he return what he stole. Francis laid all his possessions, including his clothes at his father’s feet and disowned himself of any inheritance. They did not speak again.

Reinventing himself as a man of God, Francis travelled across Italy helping the poor and caring for the sick. He and his followers founded the Franciscan Order of friars for men and the Poor Clares for women, who dedicated themselves to lives of poverty in service to local communities in emulation of Jesus and the apostles. He allegedly performed miracles. Within ten years, the order swelled to 5,000 followers from all social classes. In 1231 he attempted to convert the Sultan of Egypt to Catholicism and end the Crusades but was captured instead. The sultan released him but did not convert.

Saint Francis and the wolf | Mark McMillion

Legend claimed Saint Francis could communicate with animals. It was said he tamed the voracious wolf of Gubbio by acknowledging its hunger and forging a pact between the wolf and the local village. They fed the beast and in return, it ceased its attacks. Francis was particularly fond of birds.

The Canticle of the Sun is a religious poem Saint Francis wrote towards the end of his life after he went blind. It venerates the sun, moon, natural elements, animals and finally death, whom he describes as his ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. Francis believed the world was inherently good and beautiful but polluted by humanity’s misdemeanours. Pope Gregory IX canonised him in 1228. Before he was even dead, local towns were competing for his body.

Sources:, Catholic Encyclopedia

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Turkic Migrations

possible turksThe Turkic Migrations were the greatest population movement before Colombus.  Throughout the Middle Ages, Turkic speaking nomads conquered and settled across Central Asia and Anatolia – assimilating some, replacing others. Once slave-soldiers, they came to rule the Muslim world.

Today there are seven Turkic nations, ordered by population:

  • Turkey
  • Azerbaijan
  • Uzbekistan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Kyrgyzstan

Significant minorities also live in Russia and China.

The Turks originated in the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. Their name comes from the Chinese Tujue, meaning combat helmet, after a hill where they once lived. The early Turks were horse nomads and raiders who wrote in a runic script, worshipped the sky and worked iron.

The Gokturk Khaganate (Celestial Turks) ruled the Asian Steppe from 552-744. Under the Gokturks a common Turkic identity was born and when the confederation fell, Turkic peoples migrated in all directions, intermarrying with and absorbing native peoples where they went. Accordingly, the wider Turkic ethnicity encompasses a range of peoples and appearances.

Their migratory waves are reflected through language.

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Speakers of the Oghur branch were the first Turks to migrate west (unless counting the Huns, who may have been Turkic). They included the Khazars, Bulgars and Chuvash. The Khazars, who converted to Judaism, ruled Ukraine from 648 – 1048. The Bulgars forged an empire in the Balkans, became Orthodox Christians and assimilated with their Slavic subjects. Only Chuvash in Russia is still spoken. In the Oghur languages, the common ‘z’ suffix becomes ‘r’: both ‘Oghur’ and ‘Oghuz’ mean tribe.

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The Kipchak Branch is named after the Kipchak Confederation (1067-1271) of southern Russia. They fought against, then for the Mongols when they invaded, from whom many descend. Most were Muslim by the 1300s and, of all the Turks, stayed nomads the longest. They include the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tatars and Bashkirs.

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The Siberian Branch
migrated northward before the rise of the Gokturks and mingled with the indigenous forest people. They traditionally herded reindeer and bred cattle and ponies to withstand Siberian winters. Today they mix Turkic shamanism with ‘modern’ religions – Christianity for the Yakuts and Buddhism for the Tuvans.  

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The Southeastern Branch includes Uzbek and Uyghur.  The Uyghurs of Mongolia overthrew the eastern Gokturks and in the 800s, migrated to western China. They settled down, adopted agriculture, a written script and Manichaeism. They were Buddhist for a time then Muslim.  The Uzbeks settled the oasis cities of Central Asia as soldiers in the Mongol Horde, ruling until the Russians came.

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The Oghuz
of Central Asia were heirs to the Gokturks. After converting to Islam, Oghuz Turks served as slaves, mercenaries and bodyguards for Persian and Arab lords. So reliant did the caliph in Baghdad become on his Turkic generals, that by the 900s, the Seljuk tribe was the power behind the throne.

In 1071 a Seljuk army defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert and seized Anatolia.  Turkic tribes flooded the region and over time native Greeks and Armenians adopted Islam and the Turkish language. The remainder were killed or expelled in the early 20th century. The modern Turkish are genetically closer to Greeks and Armenians than other Turkic people: only 15-20% of their ancestry being Central Asian. Azeri, Turkish and Turkmen belong to the Oghuz Branch.

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Turkic migrations. Sakha – Yakut, Cuman- Kipchak.

The Diplomat,, Science on the Web, Wikipedia

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The Moor’s Last Sigh

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On the road south from Granada, high along the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, there is a pass where one can see the Alhambra palace for the last time. El Puerto del Suspiro del Moro is named for Spain’s last Moorish king, who turned to look back on his birthplace before he left forever.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII, known as Boabdil to the Spanish, was Emir of Grenada, the last Moorish stronghold in Iberia and the peninsula’s most sophisticated city.  The Emirate of Grenada covered most of Andalusia, the far south of Spain. It was here Boabdil’s forbearers first invaded six centuries before.

As the Moorish yoke waned the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Portugal and Navarre grew ever bolder. By the 1000s their petty raids and skirmishes had evolved into full-scale crusades. In 1236 the Castilians conquered the capital of Cordoba and reduced the Muslim presence to a handful of petty kingdoms in the south.

Two factors spared Grenada the fate of its peers; geography and diplomacy. The Sierra Nevada sheltered the Emirate just as the Cantabrian Mountains and the Pyrenees restricted the Moorish advance of the 800s. The Emirs of Granada could feel the winds of change. Knowing it was better to work with, rather than against, their aggressors, they accepted protectorate status. For two hundred years Granada paid tribute to Castile in exchange for its autonomy.

In 1469 Queen Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, uniting the kingdoms into what we now call Spain. Though the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ shared their ambition, piety and zeal, Isabella was the true power behind the throne. She had earned her spurs in the court politics of Castile and proved an adept politician with a strict sense of justice. Isabella eliminated Castile’s violent crime and the crown debt within twenty years.Isabela of Castile.jpg

Previous Castilian kings had let Granada be, as a friendly Muslim neighbour provided a conduit to the lucrative West African gold trade. Isabela’s Catholic faith was paramount; she would complete the Reconquista no matter the cost.

The opportunity arose when Boabdil, then a mere prince, rebelled against his father over an inheritance dispute. Captured by the Spanish, Boabdil promised to swear fealty if they helped overthrow his father. The Pope called a crusade and the Catholic Monarchs assembled the largest army Spain had seen. The conquest was swift. Spanish cannons made short work of the Moorish castles that would have held out for years a century earlier and Boabdil’s plan to fight back was ruined.

When the Spanish besieged Granada, the Emir knew resistance was futile.  Boabdil surrendered on the condition Ferdinand and Isabella would spare the libraries and mosques of Granada and respect the faith of its subjects. They agreed, seized the city then broke their word. The Spanish burned the library to the ground and converted by the sword.

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On the road out of the city, Boabdil turned to the distant walls of the Alhambra where he had spent his days and emitted his famous sigh. His mother was not impressed: “Weep like a woman,” she chided. “For what you could not defend as a man.”

The episode has captured the western imagination ever since. It was the subject of numerous paintings, and the allusion behind Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’.

An Italian merchant in the Castilian employ was present at Granada:

“I saw Your Highnesses’ royal banners placed by force of arms on the towers of the Alhambra, … and I saw the Moorish king come out to the city gates and kiss Your Highnesses’ royal hands and those of my Lord the Prince.”

1492 ranks among the most significant dates in world history. Since the fall of Rome, the East had led the world in science, technology and culture. Even Constantinople, not Rome, was the centre of Christian civilization until its fall to the Ottomans.  In 1492 not only did Isabella and Ferdinand drive their Moorish nemeses from Europe forever but, with Moorish gold, gave this Italian merchant the funding he needed to sail west. The wheels were in motion. No longer would Eurasia’s Atlantic fringe be a backwater, but the seat of world power for years to come.

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The Caliphate of Cordoba

moors caliphate 2.jpgThe Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1031) was the greatest kingdom in Islamic Spain. It covered most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) save for the independent Christian states of the far north. The Caliphate was originally the Emirate of Cordoba (756-929), which was the same government by a different name. When the rest of Europe was sunk in the Dark Ages, Cordoba was a cultural capital of the world.

  • Capital: Cordoba
  • Official Language: Classical Arabic
  • State Religion: Sunni Islam
  • Government: Theocratic monarchy
  • Dynasty: The Ummayads

The Umayyad Dynasty first conquered Christian Spain in AD 711. Then barely a century old, the Muslim world still belonged to one government, the Caliphate of Damascus. In 750 the Abbasids of Baghdad overthrew the Ummayads. Only a single prince escaped the slaughter by swimming across the Euphrates River. Assisted by a Greek freedman, Abdal Rahman escaped to Egypt and crossed North Africa in secrecy to the furthest corner of the empire.

On arriving in Al-Andalus, as Iberia was known in Arabic, Abdal Rahman mustered an army. By 756 he had defeated the local emir. Lacking a banner, he unravelled a green turban and tied it to his spear. This was the emblem of the Cordoban Ummayads ever since.

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Unfortunately, Abdul Rahman’s dreams of revenge were never realised. He spent his remaining years suppressing rebellions by dissatisfied Arab and Berber vassals, some of whom Charlemagne backed in the northwest.

The Frankish King’s retreat through the Pyrenees is immortalised in the Chanson de Rolande, the oldest piece of French literature. The Frankish rear-guard, commanded by the paladin Roland, were annihilated in an ambush. The epic records the assailants as Moors when they were, in fact, Christian Basques.

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Abdar Rahman III

Abdal Rahman III, the seventh Emir of Cordoba declared a caliphate in 929. This made him one of three: alongside the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Shi’ite Fatimids in Cairo.

The Ummayads were tolerant rulers who intermarried with their Spanish subjects. Abdal Rahman’s mother was a Christian princess and he had blue eyes, though dyed his beard black. His son, the blonde-haired Al-Hakam II, was openly homosexual and kept a male harem. The mother of his children, a Basque concubine, first seduced the caliph by dressing as a male bodyguard!

Wider society was strictly hierarchical. Ethnic Arabs formed the top strata, followed by Berbers and native converts. Sephardi Jews, who formed 10% of the population, were integrated into Muslim society and served as businessmen, officials, scholars and poets. The wider Catholic population were denied full rights, but granted protection and freedom of religion so long as they, like the Jews, paid a special tax. Cordoba itself was roughly split between Muslims and Jews.

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The Ummayads introduced rice, bananas, watermelons, toothpaste and deodorant to Iberia. The ideal of courtly love began with  the Arabic poets of Cordoba, from where it spread to the troubadours of southern France.

Cordoba was built with the opulent splendour of Moorish architecture. The ‘historical centre’ is now a UNESCO world heritage site. The Great Mosque, with its marble columns and red and white striped arches, is a marvel.

Under the Ummayads, Cordoba became the largest, and most advanced city in Europe. The library of Al-Hakam contained up to 400,000 texts. Headed by Al-Hakam’s secretary Lubna, a team of Muslim and Catholic scholars translated Ancient Greek works into Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. Cordoba’s university was the largest of its time, attracting students from not only Al-Andalus and the Maghreb but across Western Europe. Unfortunately the library was destroyed by Al-Hakam’s de facto successor, the pernicious vizier Almanzor.

After Almanzor, the caliphate crumbled into petty kingdoms. The Moorish Almoravid and Almohad dynasties who followed were puritanical and heavily persecuted both Christians and Jews. The Catholic Spaniards of the Reconquista were even worse; the 1492 Alhambra Decree expelled all non-Catholics from Spain. Remaining converts were left to face the Inquisition.

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Basil the Macedonian

From peasant to Byzantine emperor: the remarkable career ...Basil I (811-886 AD) was the 50th ruler of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. His story is remarkable: He was born a peasant, spent his formative years a slave and died an Emperor.  Basil’s 19 year reign was a golden age of Byzantine resurgence, peace and prosperity. He is regarded as one of their greatest leaders.

Basil was born in eastern Thrace, modern day Turkey, in the then province of Macedonia, to an Armenian family. Greek, the Byzantine Empire’s spoken tongue, was his second language and he maintained a heavy accent throughout his life.

In the early 800s the Byzantine Empire was in decline. Years of civil war over the violent iconoclast movement had sapped the once proud Empire, a weakness exploited by Bulgars in the north and the Arabs in the east. In 813 the Bulgar Khan Krum invaded Thrace and enslaved thousands, including two year old Basil and his family.

Basil spent his next 23 years a slave in Bulgaria. He escaped to Constantinople in 836 and slept his first night in the antechamber of a church.  Nicolas, the local monk, noticed and allegedly had a vision proclaiming that this striking vagabond would one day sit on the throne. Eager to assist, Nicolas found Basil employment as a horse groom, a role in which he excelled. Basil travelled frequently with his new master and one day caught the eye of Danelis, a wealthy Greek noblewoman. She bestowed a generous fortune on the handsome young man, and assisted in his rise, a favour he would later repay in kind.

On returning to Constantinople Basil gained a reputation for both his physical prowess and skill in taming horses. Once, while watching a wrestling match he was invited to take on the reigning champion, a Bulgarian.  Basil defeated him with ease.

News of his victory spread rapidly around the capital, eventually reaching the ear of the reigning emperor, Michael III. After Basil successfully tamed the Emperor’s unruly new horse, Michael was so impressed he granted Basil a slew of government positions and made him the new court favourite.

The Emperor grew to trust Basil so much, that when Basil convinced him his uncle Bardas was plotting treason he had Bardas killed. Believing Basil had saved his life, Michael III adopted Basil and appointed him coEmperor.

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A few years later Michael had a new favourite and Basil began to fall from favour. In 867 he murdered Michael and seized the throne.  In just six years since his liberation, Basil the Macedonian had ascended to the highest office in the Empire.

As Emperor, Basil I proved effective. He reversed the war with the Abbasid Caliphate in the East, who just forty years before had besieged Constantinople, and destroyed the Paulicians, their troublesome allies in Armenia.  The Adriatic was cleared of pirates and Cyprus and southern Italy were retaken from the Arabs.

At home, Basil settled church disputes and introduced a new law code, the Basilika, which remained until Constantinople’s fall in 1453. He also oversaw the ‘Macedonian Renaissance’ a revival in Byzantine artistry that lasted well beyond his reign. Basil made peace with the Bulgars by converting them to the Orthodox Christian Faith. His success undoubtedly owed to Basil’s familiarity with Bulgarian culture – he grew up there after all.

Emperor Basil’s one mistake was the fall of Sicily. When the Arabs attacked the capital at Syracuse he requisitioned ships to carry marble for a church project instead of providing relief.

Basil’s cruel streak that won him the crown also spilled into personal relations: he beat his scholarly son Leo and imprisoned him for three years, regularly threatening to gouge out his eyes.

In 886, aged 75, Basil was out hunting when a deer’s antler lodged itself in his belt. The deer dragged the emperor through 25 kilometres of forest before a local saved him. Before his wounds could be properly treated Basil had the man executed in paranoia. He died from the infection soon after. Basil’s hated son, Leo the Wise, ruled for the next 46 years. The Macedonian dynasty lasted another 200.