Derbent, Russia's Oldest City

Located on a narrow strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains in the far western end of Eurasia, is the city of Derbent. With a history going back by five thousand years, Derbent is said to be Russia’s oldest city. It is also the southernmost city in Russia. Derbent’s position between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus mountains is strategically important in the entire Caucasus region. It is one of only two crossings over the mountain range; the other being over the Darial Gorge. This position has allowed the rulers of Derbent to control land traffic between the Eurasian Steppe and the Middle East and levy taxes on passing merchants. In fact, the city’s present-day name comes from the Persian word Darband which means “barred gate”.

Being at such a strategic location, it has long been a target, or a prize, of states with imperial ambitions. The city was historically an Iranian city, and its first intensive settlement in the 800s BCE was Persian. The city’s modern name came into use during the 500s CE, when the city was re-established by the Sassanid dynasty of Persia. In 654 CE, Derbent came under the hands of the Arabs. They called the city Bab al-Abwab, or “the Gate of Gates”, signifying its strategic importance. The Arabs transformed the city into an important administrative center and introduced Islam to the area. After the Arabs, the region came under the Armenians who established a kingdom there which lasted until the Mongol invasion in the early 1200s. After the Mongols, Derbent changed hands relatively quickly, given its history, coming under the rule of the Shirvanshahs (a dynasty in modern Azerbaijan), the Iranians and the Ottomans before finally being ceded to the Russian Empire as part of the end of the Russo-Persian War.

“Swallow-Tailed Hawk.” It is plate 72 from John James Audubon's famous work of natural history "The Birds of America," which contained just over 700 North American birds. Aududon based his work on detailed studies of birds, both dead and alive, in their natural habitats. And every depiction is life-sized! This plate is actually pretty big, at 20 inches by 27 inches (53 x 69 cm). Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Where are Witches?

A belief in witches -- and consequently witch-hunts -- have been found in every single inhabited continent of the world, and most of the peoples who have lived on it. But belief in witches is not entirely universal: the largest witch-free area is Siberia, covering about a third of the northern hemisphere, and the ancient Egyptians were notable for their lack of belief of witchcraft and embracing magic, instead of fearing magic.

No one actually knows where the Koh-i-Noor diamond came from. Who first discovered it, how big it was before being cut -- all unknown. The famous diamond can concretely be placed only starting in 1739, as one of many jewels seized and shipped from Delhi to Iran by an upstart invader named Nader Shah. He was one of many local rulers who were taking advantage of the collapsing Mughal Empire. With a couple tons of loot being sent back to Nader Shah's capital in Iran, historians are lucky anyone thought to note the Koh-i-Noor!

Remember the Alamo!

The real name of the mission where the famous battle happened during the Mexican-American War is San Antonio de Valero. But it has always been known by its nickname, Alamo. Where did that come from? Well, there are two competing theories.

Did you know that “alamo” is the Spanish word for “cottonwood”? One theory says that when the Spanish missionaries came to the spot in central Texas where they would locate the mission, they were struck by the lushness of the land and a grove of cottonwood trees growing nearby along the San Antonio River.

The second, competing theory, says the name came not from trees, but from a Spanish battalion of soldiers who were stationed at the mission after it was abandoned by missionaries. The battalion was named the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras. No “alamo” in there. But the soldiers were originally from a small town called San Jose y Santiago del Alamo, in Coahuila, Mexico. Eventually that very long name got shortened, to La Compañía del Alamo, or just El Alamo.

Neither theory has been proven absolutely. Which do you prefer?

La Llorona

In English, her name means "the Weeping Woman." She is a legendary figure in Mexico, who wanders for eternity, seeking her lost children. To hear her cries brings misfortune. According to legend, La Llorona was once a living woman, whose husband on day left her for a younger woman. In her grief and anger, La Llorona drowned her children, to hurt their unfaithful father. When she realized what she had done, she drowned herself too. According to some versions, La Llorona will kidnap wandering children who even vaguely resemble her dead children. Crying and apologizing, she will then drown the children, so they can take the place of her own. La Llorona is understandably a popular threat to keep Mexican children from wandering.

The Tragic Tale of Krishna Kumari of Mewar

The Rajput princess’s life is worth remembering, for its briefness and its tragedy. She was famous and fought over, influencing political alliances and causing wars, as recorded in annals and letters composed during her life and immediately after her death. But after Krishna Kumari's death she was largely forgotten. Maybe because of how shamefully she died? Or because it is easier to forget than remember the wasteful tragedy of her short life. Read about her story for yourself, and come to your own conclusions

Why Is The French National Anthem Named After A City That's Not Its Capital?

The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, was originally titled the "War Song of the Army of the Rhine." It was just after the French Revolution, and the various monarchies of Europe were not happy. They were terrified that a similar revolution would come to their nation, and in 1792, a coalition army had invaded France, intent on restoring the king. The mayor of the city Strasbourg, which was in the invaded Alsace-Lorraine region, asked his guest Rouget de Lisle in April to compose a song "that will rally our soldiers from all over to defend their homeland that is under threat." de Lisle composed the melody and named it after the army which had just been formed to bring the revolution to German states along the Rhine River -- well, eventually, after it defended France from the immediate invasion. In fact, Strasbourg was attacked just a few days after he composed the song! Luckily for de Lisle, the coalition army was repulsed.

The War Song of the Army of the Rhine was a quick hit. It was first sung on the streets in July 1792, by army volunteers from Marseilles. They knew the song because a young volunteer from Montpellier had sung de Lisle's new tune at a patriotic gathering in Marseilles, and the troops loved it so much they adopted it as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseilles, renaming it "La Marseillaise." It became the rallying cry of the French revolutionary forces during the "War of the First Coalition" as it became known, and even had a version published in German in October for the German-speaking residents of Alsace-Lorraine. In 1795 La Marseillaise was decreed France's first national anthem.

an original piece by historical-nonfiction

The Sauds and the Salafis: The History of a Political Alliance

Born in 1703, Muhammad ibn Wahhab came from Najd at the heart of Arabia. After study in Medina and 12 years of travel and study in Iraq, he returned to Arabia to launch a puritanical reform of Islam. He took aim at popular piety, destroying saints' tombs and cutting down sacred trees. He ordered the stoning of adulterous women, and preached jihad against unbelievers -- Shia Muslims among them. In short, he rejected 1,400 years of Muslim thought. But his message was popular. By the mid-1700s, Wahhab's "True Muslims," or Salafis, were powerful enough to be making alliances with the Bedouin Saud family against the Ottomans. In return, the first Saudi state endorsed the Wahhab movement. It benefited both sides: the Wahhabs had support for their extreme religious reforms, and the Sauds had given their new state legitimacy that came not from royal blood but from religious purpose. This symbiotic relationship remains today: Saudi Arabia supports Wahhabist schools around the world, and Wahhabists recognize the Sauds as deserving to rule due to their commitment to purifying Islam.

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    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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