Macedonia: Stepping on Greece's touchy toes [2]

[Part 1 can be read here]

Macedonia seeded peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991 and decided to call itself Republic of Macedonia. Now, finally, Greece and the Republic of Macedonia have finally reached a deal on the name of Greece's northern neighbour.
The history of the region dates back to antiquity, beginning with the kingdom of Paeonia. The region was annexed by the Kingdom of Macedonia in the fourth century BC and then the Romans conquered the region in the second century BC and made it part of the much larger province of Macedonia.

So, the name Republic of Macedonia shouldn't be a problem, but it was. Greece had objected to the name Macedonia, fearing territorial claims on its eponymous northern region. This resulted in Greece objecting to the name and vetoed the neighbour's bid to join Nato and the European Union.

Under the deal, the country now known at the United Nations as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) will be renamed Severna Makedonija (or Republic of North Macedonia). Its language will be Macedonian and its people known as Macedonians (citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia).

Problem solved, you might think, but not so. On both sides of the border emotions soared with calls for coup and/or firing squads. Some Greek and Macedonians thought the deal was a capitulation and it still is far from certain that the deal will clear all constitutional hurdles.

Nothing much has changed since antiquity, but in the end πάντα ῥεῖ.

Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi jailed

Ahed Tamimi (2001) is a Palestinian teenager, living in the Israeli occupied West Bank. She gained worldwide notoriety because she screamed at, punched, slapped and kicked at an Israeli soldier. Her mother streamed the confrontation live on Facebook. The officer faced her impassively, absorbing some blows, evading others, but never striking back at her, then finally turned and, with his comrade, simply walked away. Quelle humiliation.
The event happened on 15 December 2017, just a few hours after 15-year-old Mohammed Tamimi, a cousin of Ahed Tamimi, was shot in the face with a rubber-coated bullet during a clash between villagers of Nabi Saleh and Israeli forces.

Ahed Tamimi's actions got her swiftly jailed without bail. Ahed Tamimi was eventually sentenced in a military court to eight months in prison. Ahed Tamimi, 17, accepted a plea bargain that will end her trial, her lawyer said. The sentence included a fine of about $1,400 and a three-year suspended sentence.

Now, most Palestinians view the blue-eyed teenager as a hero of the Palestinian cause. However, some Palestinians wonder if the actions of Ahem Tamini might even be counterproductive, because the soldiers behaved with restraint and thus showing that Israelis 'are human' after all.
Ahed’s mother, Nariman Tamimi, who was charged with incitement for showing the altercation live on Facebook, was also sentenced to eight months in prison, a suspended sentence and a fine of about $1,700. Mother and daughter are both expected to be released in July.

I wonder why young Palestinian women choose inept violence to counter the Israeli occupation. In my view it would be far wiser to get a proper education, to learn a trade and to work your way out of despair and poverty. And using your child to get publicity in a never-ending struggle is always a reprehensible strategy.

Erdogan: it’s all empty, it’s all a lie

Just a few months after Egyptian singer Sherine Abdel Wahab was sentenced to six months imprisonment and fined for 'insulting Egypt.', because she advised people not to drink from the river Nile, Turkish singer and actress Zuhal Olcay (1957) has been sentenced to ten months in prison for insulting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a performance in 2016.
Olcay was accused of changing the lyrics of one of her songs by adding an extra line that was deemed insulting to Erdogan and making an insulting hand gesture while singing.

A video from the performance showed Olcay changing her song’s lyrics to read “Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s all empty, it’s all a lie, life will end one day and you’ll say ‘I had a dream’,” Turkish newspaper Hurriyet said. Just yesterday it was revealed that the newsaper will be bought taken over by a pro-Erdogan group.

In her testimony, Olcay rejected the accusations, saying she had used Erdogan’s name because it simply fitted the rhyme scheme and had no 'ulterior or insulting motive'. She said the hand gesture was aimed at an audience member in the front row because they had made a negative comment about her.

Olcay was previously fined 10,620 lira (€2,100) for 'insulting a public servant' in 2010, according to the state-run Anadolu agency.

Insulting the president is a crime punishable by up to four years in prison in Turkey. Lawyers for Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, have filed more than 1,800 cases against people on accusations of insulting him.

Erdogan, a bully, is known for his long toes and short fuse. Most European governments have voiced concern that Turkey is sliding toward authoritarianism, criticizing the crackdown which saw some 150,000 people sacked or suspended from their jobs and more than 50,000 jailed pending trial on suspicion of links to the failed coup.

The government says such measures are necessary to ensure stability and defend Turkey from multiple security threats. Yeah right.

Maybe Erdogan should pay more attention to the economy: The Turkish lira is quickly losing ground, down over 11% in 2017, 42% in 2 years, 127% in 5 years.

Do not drink from the River Nile

In November 2017, a public storm of outrage erupted on social media in Egypt after a video was shared on Twitter. It showed Egyptian Pop singer Sherine Abdel Wahab (1980) making a light-hearted comment at one of her concerts about Egypt’s Nile river when her audience requested her to sing her famous song 'Mashrebtesh Men Nilha' (translation: 'Didn't You Drink from the Nile').
During the twelve seconds segment of the video, Sherine quipped: “You’ll get bilharzia [schistosomiasis] if you drink from the Nile.” She then suggested that her audience drink bottled mineral water Evian. “It is better,” she said.

The Egyptian Ministry of Health responded to Sherine’s remark in the video, stating that it has long combated the parasitic disease that once plagued Egypt, and 'reduced its prevalence to 0.2 percent,' reported the news outlet Egypt Today.

While some Egyptian people criticized Sherine and vowed to stop listening to her songs, others supported and defended her. Then, the Egyptian Musicians Syndicate decided, after conducting the necessary investigations, on banning Abdel Wahab from singing in Egypt for two months. This period ended on January 14, 2018.

But her ordeal did not end there. After she was already banned from singing in Egypt for 'mocking' the Nile River, in February 2018, Sherine was also sentenced to six months imprisonment and fined for 'insulting Egypt.' The court also ordered Sherine to pay a fine of 5,000 EGP.

Sherine apologized for her remarks, saying that the video was recorded during her concert in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) in 2016.

This bullying treatment of a woman is a dark and troubling signal of a society ruled by still immature and medieval men.

The French Paradox

The French Paradox is a theory that summarizes the apparently paradoxical observation that French people have a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD), while having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats. This is in apparent contradiction to the widely held belief that the high consumption of such fats is a risk factor for CHD. The paradox is that if the thesis linking saturated fats to CHD is valid, the French ought to have a higher rate of CHD than comparable countries where the per capita consumption of such fats is lower.
The French paradox implies two possibilities. The first is that the hypothesis linking saturated fats to CHD is not completely valid (or, at the extreme, is entirely invalid). The second possibility is that the link between saturated fats and CHD is valid, but that some additional factor in the French diet or lifestyle mitigates this risk.

So, which additional factor in the French diet is the most likely? It has been suggested that France's high consumption of wine is a primary factor in the trend. Some research implies that that moderate drinkers are less likely to suffer heart attacks than are abstainers or heavy drinkers. Therefore, the alcohol in wine might be a factor in the French paradox. However, several studies found no real difference between alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, spirits).

These days, science mainly looks to antioxidants, such as resvertrol, to explain the cardioprotective effects of wine, though definite proof is still lacking[1]. But the bitter tannin in grapes has been largely overlooked. Tannic acid has shown to be antimutagenic, anticarcinogenic and antibactericidal. Tannic acid also displayed cardioprotective effects [2].

In conclusion, the most repeated result of wine consumption is on lipid metabolism (the synthesis and degradation of lipids in cells), attributed mainly to ethanol, while wine's micro-constituents seem to have a role mainly in reducing sub-clinical inflammation[3].

[1] Weiskirchen, Weiskirchen: Resveratrol: How Much Wine Do You Have to Drink to Stay Healthy? in Advances in Nutrition - 2016
[2] Wu et al: Cardioprotective Effects of Tannic Acid on Isoproterenol-Induced Myocardial Injury in Rats: Further Insight into 'French Paradox' in Fytotherapy Research - 2015
[3] Fragopoulou et al: Wine and its metabolic effects. A comprehensive review of Clinical Trials in Metabolism - 2018

The Mediterranean Diet: Wine

By now we all should know that the Mediterranean diet is a healthy diet. All sorts of positive effects are ascribed to it. The diet consists of olive oil, fresh vegetables, beans, nuts and fresh fish. Only modest amounts of meat and carbohydrates are included in the diet.
I myself think that the easier way of life, a sedentary lifestyle also contributes to a physical and mental health. Less chronic stress, means less stress hormones raging through your body. That chronic stress induces low-level inflammation in your body and your brain.

We already know that several fytochemicals in olives and olive oil (Oleocanthal and Oleuropein) can lower this low-level inflammation, leading to less damage to heart and brain[1][2].

New research found that two phytochemicals, dihydrocaffeic acid (DHCA) and malvidin-3′-O-glucoside (Mal-gluc), are effective in promoting resilience against stress by modulating brain synaptic plasticity and peripheral inflammation. DHCA/Mal-gluc also significantly reduces depression-like phenotypes in a mouse model of increased systemic inflammation induced by transplantation of hematopoietic progenitor cells from stress-susceptible mice. DHCA reduces pro-inflammatory interleukin 6 (IL-6) generations by inhibiting DNA methylation at the CpG-rich IL-6 sequences introns 1 and 3, while Mal-gluc modulates synaptic plasticity by increasing histone acetylation of the regulatory sequences of the Rac1 gene. Peripheral inflammation and synaptic maladaptation are in line with newly hypothesized clinical intervention targets for depression that are not addressed by currently available antidepressants.

Sounds interesting? No, the text above is simply the scientific jargon. What it says in normal language is that phytochemicals in grape juice (or wine) may reduce low-level inflammation that is the result of too much stress[3]. It also improves the transmission of signals in the brain.

While the study was done on stressed mice, 70 percent of them demonstrated improved social interactions, which suggests resilience.

Drinking wine and staying healthy was already called the 'French Paradox'. Should I advise you to drink wine or have you reached that conclusion yourself?

[1] Mete et al: Neuroprotective Effects of Oleocanthal, A Compound in Virgin Olive Oil, in A Rat Model of Traumatic Brain Injury in Turkish Neurosurgery – 2017
[2] Casamenti, Stefani: Olive polyphenols: new promising agents to combat aging-associated neurodegeneration in Expert Review in Neurotherapeutics – 2017
[3] Wang et al: Epigenetic modulation of inflammation and synaptic plasticity promotes resilience against stress in mice in Nature Communications – 2018

Italy's Red Olives

In most cases, olives are green of blackish. On Malta grows a rare variety that produces white olives. See here. But there's also a red olive.
The Bella di Cerignola ('beauty of Cerignola') is an olive cultivar, which originates from the south-eastern Italian province of Apulia and is named for the town of Cerignola. The cultivation of the Bella di Cerignola, reputed to be the largest table olive in the world, has ancient origins. Some authors believe that this cultivar derives from the 'Orchite' olives used in ancient Rome.

According to some it was introduced around 1400 AD from Spain, which might justify its now obsolete synonym of 'Oliva di Spagna'. According to others, however, the synonym simply derives from the type of curing used in Cerignola, which is called the 'Spanish' or 'Sevillano' method. However, since no closely related cultivar has ever been found elsewhere, it can be considered a native variety of the Cerignola area.

But how do green olives turn into red olives? The secret is a food dye called erythrosine (or E127). Which is a bit of cheating nature. The black olives are created by soaking them in ferrous gluconate.

Greek cheese: Mizithra

Mizithra (μυζήθρα), also known as Anthotyros, is one of those cheeses that, depending on where you are in Greece, will be completely different. It is a fresh cheese made from milk and whey from sheep or goat. Or both. The ratio of milk to whey usually is 7 to 3. Production resembles that of Italian ricotta, though mizithra is typically drier and somewhat fattier. The cheese is soft, snow-white, creamy, and moist.

Fresh Mizithra should be consumed within days of it being made. It is reminiscent of British cottage cheese or Italian ricotta.

This type of cheese is widespread throughout Greece. On Cyprus, a similar cheese is known as Anari (Αναρή in Greek, Nor in Cypriot Turkish, Lor in Turkish).

Mizithra can be salt-dried to produce a more mature, more salty cheese. It is then known as skliri mizithra ('hard mizithra'). It has a very powerful smell, reminiscent of a sherry. In its salted, aged form it is considered the best grating cheese of Greek cuisine, resembling parmesan. It is especially suited for sprinkling over hot pasta and other dishes.

Early evidence of plant-based dyeing in Israel

Textile-dyeing has been practised since prehistoric times, using dyes extracted from both plant and animal sources, as well as inorganic materials. But the majority of natural dyes are derived from plants. Plant-based dyes such as woad, indigo, saffron and madder were important trade goods in the economies of Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
[Image: Naama Sukenik]
Archaeological textiles tend to be rare finds. Like any perishable organic material, they are subject to rapid decomposition and their preservation requires special conditions to prevent their destruction by microorganisms[1]. Extremely dry or, alternatively, oxygen-deficient permanently wet environments such as in a peat bog, are the most conducive to the preservation of textiles in their original organic state[2].

Central Timna Valley in Israel is an extreme arid environment and perfect for the preservation of textiles. Many fragments of textiles and cordages were found: 116 fragments were uncovered during the 2013 and 2014 excavation seasons and a few dozens of other textile fragments were uncovered in the successive 2015 and 2016 seasons. The textiles were radiocarbon dated to the early Iron Age (11th-10th centuries BC[3].

What plants were used to colour these textiles? Analysis indicated that the textiles were dyed using two different plants: Madder (Rubia tinctorum) for red and - most probably - woad (Isatis tinctoria) for blue[4]. These plants are among the earliest known in the dyeing craft.

[1] Strand et al:Old Textiles–New Possibilities in European Journal of Archaeology – 2010 
[2] Good: Archaeological Textiles: A Review of Current Research in Annual Review of Anthropology – 2001 [3] Ben-Yosef: Back to Solomon’s Era: Results of the First Excavations at Slaves’ Hill (Site 34, Timna, Israel) in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research – 2016 
[4] Sukenik et al: Early evidence (late 2nd millennium BCE) of plant-based dyeing of textiles from Timna, Israel in Plos One - 2017. See here.

The demise of 'real' Chardonnay

Just a few decades ago, Chardonnay was a wine that had a complex and rich taste with notes of oak, butter and caramel. Now, the Chardonnay has been recreated to please the American taste: it has become light, with notes of citrus, peach and apple.
Chardonnay is a cross between two ancient grape varieties, the Pinot noir and the Gouais blanc. The Pinot noir, a red wine variety, is a very ancient variety that was already grown in Burgundy (France) in 100 AD. It may be only one or two generations removed from the wild vines (Vitis sylvestris). The Gouais blanc is said to have been introduced in France by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus (276–282) and the variety is thought to originate in Central Europe, with Hungary, Austria and even southern Germany as the most likely candidates. The name Gouais remains something of a mystery, but it is most probably named after a place name: Gouaix, Gouais-les-Saint-Bris, Gouex or Goix. All four are situated in central northern France.

The buttery taste in Chardonnay is the result of so-called malolactic fermentation. Malic acid is the acid you taste in a green apples. Chardonnay contains a lot of malic acid. During its fermentation, the wine is inoculated with a bacteria that converts that malic acid into lactic acid. The compound created from this process is called diacetyl, a yellow or green liquid with an intensely buttery flavour. So, if you do not inoculate your Chardonnay with that specific bacterium, you end up with a light wine.

The Chardonnay grape takes on the minerals of the soil, which means that if you transplant the vine to, say, another continent, it will taste somewhat differently. Furthermore, the grape can be easily 'trained' to express other tastes. And this is what happened in recent years.

We, Europeans like our wines having robust traditional tastes. The Americans are like children and like their wines to be light and fruity. As they are the largest market of wines, the producers of Chardonney followed suit. As mentioned above, the Chardonnay as we knew it hardly exists anymore. It has been replaced by a ghost of itself. Light and not nearly as tasty.

Italy's oldest wine (residue) found on Sicily

While winemaking probably originated in what is now Georgia during the early Neolithic period (ca. 6,000–5,000 BC)[1], its use spread to the Mediterranean. Traditionally, retrieval of seeds has led to the belief that wine growing and wine production developed in Italy in the Middle Bronze Age (1300-1100 B.C.).

From Georgia to Italy is not such a great distance that wine would need around 4,000 years to reach Italy. New research has dramatically pushed the commencement of winemaking in Italy further back in time. A large storage jar from the Italian Copper Age (early 4th millennium BC) just tested positive for wine[2].
Archeaologists conducted chemical analysis of residue on unglazed pottery found at the Copper Age sites of Monte Kronio and Sant'Ippolito in Agrigento, located off the southwest coast of Sicily. The team determined the residue contains tartaric acid and its sodium salt, which occur naturally in grapes and in the winemaking process. Tests of the residue also showed the presence of malvidin, a pigment that gives wine its red colour.

It’s very rare to determine the composition of such residue, because it requires the ancient pottery to be excavated intact. The study’s authors are now trying to determine whether the wine was red or white.

But Sicily was once a Greek colony. It might well be that ancient Greece is the 'missing link' between winemaking in Georgia and Italy.

[1] McGovern et al: Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus in PNAS - 2017
[2] Tanasi et al: 1H-1H NMR 2D-TOCSY, ATR FT-IR and SEM-EDX for the identification of organic residues on Sicilian prehistoric pottery in Microchemical Journal - 2017

Evidence of Neolithic winemaking

Excavations in the Republic of Georgia have uncovered evidence of the earliest wine making anywhere in the world. Archaeologists excavated the remnants of two villages that date back to the Neolithic period, which began around 15,200 BC in parts of the Middle East and ended between 4500 and 2000 BC in other parts of the world.

The Neolithic period is characterized by a series of related activities that include the beginning of farming, the domestication of animals, the development of crafts such as pottery and weaving, and the making of polished stone tools. Now we can add winemaking to that list of novel activities.
During the excavations in Georgia, archaeologists found eight very large-capacity jars, some of the earliest pottery made in the Near East, dating from the early Neolithic period (ca. 6,000–5,000 BC). They probably served as combination fermentation, aging, and serving vessels. Chemical extraction of the residue recovered from these jars confirmed tartaric acid, the fingerprint compound for grape and wine as well as three associated organic acids – malic, succinic and citric[1]. The findings constitute tthe oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine.

The infinite range of flavours and aromas of today’s 8,000-10,000 grape varieties are the end result of the domesticated Eurasian grapevine being transplanted and crossed with wild grapevines elsewhere over and over again. The Eurasian grapevine that now accounts for 99.9 per cent of wine made in the world today, must have Caucasian roots the research shows.

The researchers say the combined archaeological, chemical, botanical, climatic and radiocarbon data provided by the analysis demonstrate that the Eurasian grapevine Vitis vinifera was abundant around the sites. It grew under ideal environmental conditions in early Neolithic times, similar to premium wine-producing regions in Italy and southern France today.

[1] McGovern et al: Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus in PNAS - 2017

Angeliki Frangou: Greek shipping magnate

Angeliki Frangou (1965) is the daughter of Captain Nikolas Frangos. If you are not earning your living in the shipping business, you may never have heard of her. But Angeliki Frangou is founder, CEO and chairwoman of Navios Maritime Holdings Inc., one of the largest and fastest-growing shipping companies. At last count, the Navios group of companies had 211 ships (149 dry bulk carriers, 50 tankers and 12 container vessels) under its command, plus nearly 300 barges and small tankers that ply the Hidrovia river system between Paraguay and the Uruguayan coast.
The shipping business is one of the most unforgiving businesses in the universe. Angeliki Frangou built her own empire and it started in 1990 with the 'Fulvia' (14,000 dwt), a bulk-carrier that lay unloved in the harbour of Rio de Janeiro. Her father, Nicolas Frangos, provided the funds she needed to buy the 'Fulvia'. At one point, her father had about 50 vessels, so money was not really a problem.

Fast forward and the 'Fulvia' was scrapped ages ago, but it was a start. The headquarters of her business in Piraeus. Inside it is adorned with antiques from China's Tang Dynasty, a three-century reign that ended in the year 907 AD, were made of wood and so didn't survive the centuries. 'Ancient Chinese antiquities, I love," Frangou confesses. Her silver-grey hair is short and elegant, she has brown eyes, her eyebrows are dark and thick.
After the success of the 'Fulvia', Frangou went to ship auctions in Brazil to buy and restore orphaned vessels. In 2004 Frangou bought International Shipping Enterprises, which United States Steel Corp. established in the mid-1950s to transport iron ore from Venezuela to Canada and the United States.

Her new company, renamed Navios, became one of the very first dry-bulk shipping companies to list on a stock exchange. Suddenly, Ms. Frangou was an international shipping magnate. Next to Navios Maritime Holdings, she floated two more companies on the NYSE: Navios Maritime Partners and Navios Maritime Acquisition. The trio of public companies has a combined market value of about $1.8 billion. A fourth company, Navios South American Logistics, runs a barge and port business in Uruguay and Paraguay. Angeliki Frangou said she plans to take the South American unit public also.

It just shows that women can be as successful as men.

Where was the River Styx situated?

In Greek mythology, Styx (Ancient Greek: Στύξ) is both a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and Hades, the Underworld. Hades is also the name of its ruler. Styx is also a goddess with prehistoric roots in Greek mythology as a daughter of Tethys, after whom the river is named and because of whom it had miraculous powers. Charon is the ferryman who transferred the dead to the Underworld.
The river Styx converges with other rivers at the center of the underworld on a great marsh, which sometimes is also called the Styx.

So, we have a river and a deity with the same name and we have an underworld and its ruler with the same name. What do these names mean?

The word 'Styx' is cognate with Greek stygos 'hatred', stygnos 'gloomy', and derives from stygein 'to hate', 'abominate'. Both the words 'Hades' and 'Charon' are reputedly of unknown origin, which always makes me suspicious. Every linguist seems to try to find an etymology by comparing a Greek word to the languages of its neighbours, but always tend to forget its most influential and powerful neighbour: Egypt.

The question is therefore: can we find an etymology in Egyptian that mirrors the Greek version. The answer is: yes, we can.

In Egyptian, stkn (remember they didn't use vowels in Egyptian) is a causative of tkn 'approach' with the specific sense of 'to induct, bring on doom'. Hades received his/its name from ḥdi as a verb with the meaning 'to be destroyed' and as a noun 'damage', 'destruction'. Diodoros believed that the name Charon (Kharon) was Egyptian:
The other myths about Hades, current among the Greeks, also agree with the customs which are practised even now in Egypt. For the boat which receives the bodies is called baris and the passenger's fee is given to the boatman, who in the Egyptian tongue is called charon. And near these regions, they say, are also the 'Shades'.
But the baris was also the ship of Osiris and dead pharaohs were also transported on a baris to their final resting places. The journey from Osiris to the Underworld was therefore reenacted time and time again.

We can identify the Egyptian god of the Underworld Anubis in this description of Hades. 'Anubis' was  the Greek rendering of this god's Egyptian name. In the Old Kingdom (ca 2686 BC–ca 2181 BC), the standard way of writing his name in hieroglyphs was composed of the sound ı͗npw followed by a 'jackal' over a ḥtp sign.

The problem is that there does not seem to be a plausible Egyptian root of the word 'Charon', but it is possible that it has an etymology from the West-Semitic deity Ḥrn, vocalized as Horon in the Bible and known as the 'Lord of Hell'. Still, the region was frequently conquered by Egypt and we might assume that Hades ultimately has Egyptian roots.
[Ancient branches of the Nile]
Thus with a river with several tributaries that end in a great march. Which other river can that be other than the river Nile? But what of all these words that signify death and doom? These are very reminiscent of the spells from the 'Book of the Dead', the ancient Egyptian group of magical and religious texts. The spells are meant to help the dead progress through the many challenges in the underworld (the Duat) to the afterlife. Pharaohs who had died were transferred in boats via the river Nile to their lavishly decorated tombs in the Valley of the Death. These tombs were protected by powerful spells that would ensure that they were not violated.
[Book of the Dead]
Based on the evidence it seems very probable that the concept of the River Styx was borrowed from Egypt and 'transplanted' to Ancient Greece. My conclusion is that the River Styx is non other than the River Nile.

Was Marco Polo born in Croatia?

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant, traveller and citizen of the Venice Republic. He learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa.
The Republic of Genoa defeated Venice in the Battle of Curzola off the coast of Dalmatia in 1298 and Marco Polo, then a galley commander, was taken prisoner to eventually spend his time in a Genoese prison dictating his adventures to a cell-mate. He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married and fathered three children.

So far, so good. But the problem is that Marco Polo's exact date and place of birth cannot be found in the Venetian archives, which is strange because these were among the very best in Medieval Europe. So, while he is mentioned as a citizen, he seems not to have been born in the city of Venice. At the time Venice was a powerful mercantile nation that had vastly expanded its boundaries.

Some historians believe that Marco Polo was born on the now Croatian island of Korčula, then called Curzola by Venetians[1].

So many Slavs (not slaves) from the Dalmatian Coast arrived as sailors in Venice, that the long quay by St. Mark's was and is known as Riva degli Sciavoni ('Quay of the Slavs'). Marco Polo was buried in a Slavic quarter in Venice.

If Marco Polo was originally from – modern day – Croatia, he would also have have a Slavic name. And, as some think, he had: Marco Polo was once called Marko Pillic.
[Supposed home of Marco Polo on Korčula/Curzola]
Is this theory based on fact or is it simply conjecture to boast tourism in Croatia? It might well be that it is a bit of both. If Marco Polo was born on Korčula/Curzola, he would have been regarded as a Venetian, because the island was part of Venice. That the island is now part of Croatia is not important.

[1] Olga Orlić: The curious case of Marco Polo from Korčula: An example of invented tradition in ScienceDirect - 2013  

Malta's white olives

Once, when the Knights of the Order of Saint John, also known as the Knights of Malta, occupied Malta from 1530 to 1798, plump, bone-white olives were known across Europe as perlina Maltese (Maltese pearls).
The white olive is just one of hundreds of varieties of the European olive (Olea europaea). One of its botanical subclassifications is Leucocarpa, from the Greek leukos (white) and karpos (flesh or pulp). White olives not only grow on Malta, but can also be found in Italy, Morocco, Libya, Greece and Portugal, where they often go by local names, including bianca (Italian 'white'), biancolilla or cannellina (after their resemblance to white cannellini beans). Researchers who have studied the white olive’s genetics say that its unique color, or lack thereof, is simply a quirk of nature.

White olives originate from mutations affecting the production of anthocyanins, the pigments typical of what you see in conventional ripened olives, so that at the full ripening stage they do not become black.

White olives are a rare sight. They are seldom commercially available today and, historically, why they have been valued ornamentally and even religiously. In the southern Italian region of Calabria, for example, white olive trees in the gardens of churches and monasteries provided sacramental oil used to anoint high-ranking church officials and Byzantine emperors.
Oil from white olives resembles that from black and green olives, yet it has a much shorter shelf life. That is because it has comparatively low levels of bitter-tasting antioxidants that also make for a natural preservative. Therefore, white olive oil tastes sweeter than many other olive oils.

Italian knights introduced white olives on Malta in the 14th or 15th century. The bajda (Maltese 'white') is probably an Italian cultivar brought from southern and central Italy as an ornamental plant. That's partly the reason why today no wild white olive trees in Malta exist and only a few old, individual trees remain.
[The oldest white olive tree. Designated 'national treasure']
That number of old trees was down to precisely three when Sam Cremona first set eyes on one in 2010. “It was in a nunnery, in a garden that once belonged to the knights,” said Cremona. At first, he thought the startlingly white olives might be diseased or albino aberrations. However, after taking some to an olive conference in Spain, he learned that Malta possessed a rare treasure.

“They told me, ‘Ah, we know about these white olives. We used to have them, but we don’t have them anymore,’ because they were a variety that had disappeared in Spain, where they were known as ‘Maltese olives,’” Cremona stated. Of the island nation’s 12,000 olive trees today, only 70 are white olive trees.

The taste of the white olive is described as delicious—bitter top, citrusy middle, briny finish.

A Cypriot snack: Tsakistes vs. Çakizdez

Elies Tsakistes (ελιές τσακιστές) means 'crushed olives' in Greek and they are - yes - crushed olives which are harvested when green. They are a hugely popular snack on Cyprus.
First the olives have to be crushed (be careful not to break the pip). Then they are immersed in fresh water. You should refresh the water every day. Repeat for as long as necessary until the olives aren't bitter any more. Then drain and salt liberally. Add a slice of lemon. Let stand for 12 to 36 hours, according to how salty you want the olives to be. Transfer the olives to a jar, packing them tightly in order to fit as many as possible.

Right, this is the Greek Cypriot version. However, the island has been divided since 1974 when northern Cyprus was invaded by Turkish troops to 'liberate' the 'oppressed' Turkish Cypriots. The northern part of the island has now been under Turkish influence for almost 45 years and you might wonder if this tasty snack has survived.

Well, it certainly has: Elies Tsakistes is called çakizdez on northern Cyprus and it is just as much appreciated there as by its southern brethren.

A Turkish dictionary claims that çakizdez is related to tsaki'zw which means 'to break' but the word is just a Turkified loan from Greek. It simply shows that occupation cannot conquer taste and kitchens.

Monaco grows (again)

Being just 2,02 square kilometers in size, the Principality of Monaco ran out of space years ago. Monaco is a bit like The Netherlands. Both countries are bordered by the sea and territorial expansion means reclaiming land from that very sea.

Now, a new expansion project is underway in Monaco that will add six hectares of land to the country on the eastern side of the main port. Work on this project is set to begin at the end of 2017 and should be completed by 2025. These 6 hectares are 0,06 square kilometers, which means that Monaco grows almost three percent in size. Which is a lot, relatively speaking.
The project includes the construction of an eco-neighbourhood primarily consisting of 60,000 m² of housing, public facilities, an extension to the Grimaldi Forum, a public car park, a marina with pedestrian wharves, a landscaped park, a seafront promenade and a shaded, planted walkway running the length of the Japanese Garden[1].
The maritime infrastructure will consist of a landfill enclosed by a band of 18 trapezoid shaped reinforced concrete caissons, each one 26 meters tall and weighing 10,000 tonnes. These pre-cast units will be constructed in a floating dry dock and then launched and towed to the installation site where they will be sunk onto a prepared seabed and then filled with rock. These units have wave absorption chambers fitted to their seaward side which will help to reduce breaches by strong swells and protect the exposed areas of the project. Once these outer protection caissons are in place the area behind them will be filled with rock material with most of the 250,000 tonnes of rock needed for this project being shipped in from quarries in Sicily.

Next up: an island.

[1] Monaco Life: First phase of land reclamation begins – 2016

Spain: Gibraltar vs. Olivença

Mention Gibraltar and Spanish pride will take over from their common sense. Gibraltar is located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and measures just 6.7 square kilometers. It was captured by the British in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). The Spanish Crown formally ceded the territory 'in perpetuity' to the British Crown in 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht. Spain later unsuccessfully attempted to recapture the territory, but reclamation of Gibraltar remains government policy ever since.
The Spanish government also refuses to acknowledge Gibraltar's territorial waters or its airport which is built partly on reclaimed land and on the isthmus, claiming that these were not explicitly covered by the treaty.

So, the Spanish lay claim to Gibraltar, but they conveniently forget that they still occupy a territory that it has held illegally for 211 years: the towns of Olivença and Talega (Olivenza and Táliga in Spanish). This border town was Portuguese from 1297 to 1801, when the Spanish army, along with French troops, invaded. The Treaty of Vienna of 1815 returned Olivença and Talega, its outlying villages and a tranche of land near the Guadiana River to Portugal, but Spanish forces never left[1].
They even outlawed the Portuguese language and prevented a bridge linking it to Portugal to be rebuilt until this day. Spain’s refusal to return the town and surrounding countryside (750 square kilometers and home to some 11,000 people) is very reminiscent of the situation of Gibraltar.

If Spain ever wants Gibraltar back, then it should first consider ceding Olivença and Talega to Portugal and honour its obligations under the Treaty of Vienna of 1815.

[1] La Vanguardia: Olivenza todavía es zona de conflicto internacional - 2016

A mother goddess (for sale)

My very own mother goddess (found in southern Italy, near Bari). Possibly several thousands of years old.
The item is for sale at any reasonable offer.

Masticha of Chios

Mastic is an aromatic resin offered to us by the mastic tree (Pistacia Lentiscus), a shrub growing on Southern Chios. It is locally known as 'the tears of Chios'. Since ancient times, mastic has been seen as the emblem of the island of Chios. The mastic tree (or large shrub) can grow up to four meters high. While the tree is endemic in the entire Mediterranean region, the mastic grown on Chios is regarded 'different' than those that grows elsewhere.
The ingredient forms as a droplet (the 'tear') on the mastic tree. It starts its life as a juice. It is dried in the sunlight and then changes into brittle, almost transparent and yellow-colored granules. When you chew these granules, they turn into a bright and opaque sort of gum. At first, the flavour is bitter, but after a while it gets a refreshing pine-like taste sensation.

Mastic is a spice that is used to flavour a liqueur known as Masticha of Chios. It is produced on the island of Chios and is the outcome of the distillation of mastic, a process that distinguishes it from a plain mastic liqueur.

The producers of the island of Chios realized the importance of mastic early on and, as a result, one of their very first products in the 18th century was Mastic Ouzo, resulting from the distillation of anise seeds together with natural mastic.

Later, they experimented on the production of liqueur made of mastic by distilling the mastic’s granules, obtaining a natural mastic distillate and, in turn, adding pure alcohol and sugar to produce the Masticha of Chios Liqueur.
Local tradition has it that the Masticha of Chios Liqueur should be served accompanied by a dessert after each meal or alongside coffee. The traditional Masticha of Chios Liqueur is also an excellent choice in a shot, ice cold at all times, or even as an aperitif, served with plenty of crushed ice.

One of us: Altamura Man

Neanderthals are a species or subspecies of Hominids within the genus Homo that went extinct some 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans share 99.7% of their DNA. Since humans have inherited 1 to 4 percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, we must have had sex with our ancestral brothers and sisters (scientists call this 'interbreeding')[1]. To produce offspring, both species must be genetically very close. Therefore my suggestion is that it would probably be better to regard both modern man (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) as subspecies of Homo sapiens, which means that the former should be called Homo sapiens sapiens and the latter Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
In 1993, a fossil hominin skeleton was discovered by cave explorers in the karst caves of Lamalunga, near Altamura, in southern Italy. The remains were embedded in rock and were covered in a thick layer of calcite, leaving only the head and part of a shoulder visible. They lie in a karst borehole rich in limestone amid running water. It was thought that excavating the remains would cause irreparable damage and thus, they have remained in situ for over twenty years, leaving researchers to rely on casual observation for their studies. For that reason, there was some debate initially about morphology and age.

Recently, the retrieval from the cave of a tiny fragment of the right shoulder blade allowed the first dating of the individual, indicating that it belongs to Homo neanderthalensis (or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), with some peculiarities that appear consistent with a date of around 150,000 years[2]. Thus, the skeleton from Altamura represents the most ancient Neanderthal from which endogenous DNA has ever been extracted. And that's a feat in itself.

[1] Lari et al: The Microcephalin Ancestral Allele in a Neanderthal Individual in PloS One – 2010. See here.
[2] Lari et al: The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura (Italy) in Journal of Human Evolution – 2015

Koum Kuat of Corfu

Kam kwat (金橘) in Cantonese may well originate from kin-ku in Chinese. Translated it means 'golden orange' and it is the origin of the name of both the tree and the fruit called 'kumquat'. The tree grows to about four meters in height and is cultivated for its fruit but it is also a decorative indoor plant. Its leaves are dark green, bayonet shaped and its flowers similar to that of the orange tree. Its fruit is either round or oblong shaped depending on the variety and reaches a diameter of about four centimeters. When raw, its taste is tangy and bittersweet and the fruit is not particularly juicy.
The tree has been extensively cultivated on the Greek island of Corfu since its introduction in around 1860 by British botanist Sidney Merlin (1856–1952). He also introduced a variety of orange, the Washington Navel, to his estate on Corfu in 1925.

Today the kumquat, which has earned a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status in 1994, is mainly cultivated on northern Corfu near the village of Nimfes. Annual production amounts to about 140 tonnes.

Most of the crop ends up as liqueur, but the fruit is also used in cooking. It even finds its way into perfumes.
Kumquats are ideal for liqueurs, jams, marmelades and glyka tou koutaliou ('spoon sweets'), which is fruit in syrup. Koum Kuat of Corfu is a pleasant liqueur made from kumquat fruits, with an aroma and taste that resemble oranges and strawberries. It is produced exclusively on the island of Corfu.

Kitron of Naxos

Kitron of Naxos is a citron liqueur produced solely on the Greek island of Naxos. It is made from the fruit and leaves of the citron tree (Citrus medica), which is similar to the lemon tree (Citrus x lemon) but stronger and slightly different in taste.
Once, the citrons were exported in large quantities preserved in seawater and braced by additional salt. The cultivation of the citron tree and the marketing of its fruit constituted an integral part of agricultural economy. It flourished on the island of Naxos for at least three centuries, before gradually decreasing in the post-war years. The drink was briefly fashionable during the early 1980s, but is difficult to find today outside Naxos due to a shortage of citron trees.

The production of Kitron of Naxos begins with the harvest of the leaves, when their aroma is at its peak, i.e. from October to February. Any dry or unsuitable parts are removed from the leaves, which are then placed into traditional copper stills along with their stems and peels, water and alcohol. They are left to infuse the alcohol for at least twelve hours and subsequently distilled until the 100% citron distillate is obtained.
The distillate is then diluted with water, whereas sugar and natural colorants are in turn added to distinguish the various types of the Kitron of Naxos liqueur. The driest and strongest liqueur (36%) is yellow, there's an intermediate version that is colourless and has less alcohol (33%) and sugar, and there's a green one that has the highest amount of sugar content and the lowest alcoholic strength (30%).

The production of Kitron of Naxos started at least two centuries ago. The first proper distillery was established in 1896 in the village of Halki, while the first export was in 1928.

Mountain Tea is giving Greeks economic hope

It was in 2011 that Demetri Chriss, chief operating officer of Tuvunu—a Greek producer of all-natural beverages, traveled to Trace, near the Greco-Turkish border.

Demetri envisioned a future in which people from the farming communities of Thrace cultivated their land to produce Sideritis for a new, all-natural bottled version of the drink that everyone’s grandmother calls a cure-all. Sideritis (or Greek mountain tea) grows wild in the mountainous areas of Greece. For centuries, it has been used to prepare a hot infusion, a folk remedy for winter colds and sore throats.
Those mountainous villages of Thrace are home to a small community, the Pomaks, Greek Muslims who speak a local Slavic dialect and who, until 1993, were subject to discriminatory policies that barred them from leaving their villages after sunset or having visitors from outside the area without authorization. Now, most of the local men are working at shipyards in Germany.

It still is an extremely poor area that is mostly known for the farming of tobacco, a crop that is under increasing threat from diminishing subsidies and health issues.

Now, farmers gather a large number of seeds from each crop they produce and, along with Tuvunu agronomists, provide new Sideritis farmers both with the plants and the expertise needed for them to obtain optimal results from the very beginning.
The factory receives the dried Sideritis. Local honey and freshly sqeezed lemons from southern Greece are put with the Sideritis in a 17,000-liter tank containing warm water, essentially replicating the way Sideritis has been traditionally boiled in homes around Greece since antiquity, but on much larger scale.
Gathering wild Sideritis plants is strictly prohibited by law and Tuvunu refuses to accept any plants that cannot be traced to a certified grower in order to conserve the wild flora of the species.

Some women have gone from being unemployed to becoming an employer themselves: they hire men to hoe the fields. The cultivation of Siteritis have made a number of women financially independent and that is a tremendous leap forward for women, who until recently were expected to stay at home in their predominantly patriarchal communities.

EU: Western Sahara not part of Morocco

Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated area of mostly desert bordering on Morocco. A former Spanish colony, it was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Since then it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people. A 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN-brokered truce in 1991 and the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place.
Although under the de facto administrative control of Morocco, the status and sovereignty of Western Sahara remain unresolved and numerous direct talks have failed to break the political deadlock.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) on September 12, 2016, ruled that the Western Sahara is not part of the territory of Morocco. The ruling in favour of the Sahrawi people stipulates that the European Union (EU) and its Member States do not recognise Morocco as having sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

According to Advocate General, Melchior Wathelet, the ruling also means that neither the EU-Morocco Association Agreement nor the EU-Morocco Agreement on the liberalisation of trade in agricultural and fishery products apply to the Western Sahara.

A statement from the ECJ highlighted that “since 1963, Western Sahara has been included by the UN on its list of non-self-governing territories, which comes within the scope of its resolution on the exercise of the right to self-determination by colonial peoples.”

Last year the General Court of the European Union annulled the agricultural and fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco stating that the measures were illegally applied to the Western Sahara and infringed upon the fundamental rights of the people of the territory.

Morocco isn't likely to secede the territory because it has large phosphate reserves and rich fishing grounds off its coast, Western Sahara is also believed to have as yet untapped large offshore oil deposits.

Why do I see so many similarities between Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara and Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus?

Europe's oldest tree lives in Greece

A Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii) growing in the highlands of northern Greece has been dendrocronologically dated to be more than 1075 years old. This makes it currently the oldest known living tree in Europe.

"It is quite remarkable that this large, complex and impressive organism has survived so long in such an inhospitable environment, in a land that has been civilized for over 3000 years" says Swedish dendrochronologist, Paul J. Krusic, leader of the expedition that found the tree. It is one of more than a dozen individuals of millennial age, living in a treeline forest high in the Pindos mountains.
In our research, we try to build long chronologies to construct climate histories, so finding living trees of old age is one of our motivations. To age the tree, we needed to take a core of wood, from the outside to the center. The core is one meter and has 1075 annual rings" says Krusic.

The scientists hope the annual variations of the tree rings from trees like this and those fallen in centuries past, yet still preserved on the ground, will provide an informative history of climatic and environmental conditions, going back thousands of years. Considering where the tree was found, and its venerable age, the scientists have named this individual 'Adonis' after the Greek god of beauty and desire.

"I am impressed, in the context of western civilization, all the human history that has surrounded this tree; all the empires, the Byzantine, the Ottoman, all the people living in this region. So many things could have led to its demise. Fortunately, this forest has been basically untouched for over a thousand years." says Krusic.

2,400-year old tomb discovered on Cyprus

Details on a 2,400-year-old tomb of a high-status family that was excavated in Soli or Soloi (Greek: Σόλοι), Northern Cyprus, are finally being unveiled. Jewelry, weapons, human remains, figurines, and so-called symposium vessels were found at the tomb and the early analysis of these artifacts provides a glimpse into the social structure and trade practices of ancient Soloi.

The tomb complex, constructed between 400 BC and 350 BC, consists of three burial chambers, one of which was looted. The others contained the artifacts. Of these objects, one of the most impressive is a golden wreath in the shape of an ivy plant, complete with details such as berries.
These goods led the archaeologists to believe that the tomb belonged to an aristocratic family. In one of the burial chambers the remains of a man, woman, and young girl were found. There were also a woman and young girl buried in another chamber. The looted chamber did not contain any human remains. Hazar Kaba, archaeologist, said that the artifacts further suggest that there was trade between Soloi and Athens 2,400 years ago: "This tomb complex proves that Soloi was in direct contact with Athens. Soloi was supplying Athens with its timber and copper, and in return, was obtaining luxurious goods such as symposium vessels.”

The archaeologist said that the golden wreath is similar to those placed in the tombs of wealthy Macedonians. Furthermore, the 16 symposium vessels and some of the jewelry are comparable to the styles used in the contemporary Achaemenid Empire. Symposium vessels are vessels used to serve people attending a "symposium," an event where men drank, talked and enjoyed entertainment. Some of these symposium vessels also may have come from Ionia and Macedonia. This accumulation of imported high-class objects further supports the idea that the family was part of the elite class in Soloi.

Soloi was one of the most important cities in Cyprus and was first populated by Mycenaean settlers in the late Bronze Age. It was probably chosen because the site was rich in copper, water and had rich soils. Soloi was prosperous for many years and did especially well throughout the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian periods.

The Cretan Earthquake of AD 365

Earthquakes are not an uncommon occurrence in the eastern Mediterranean. Every now and then the earth trembles, but sometimes the earth trembles a lot.
Historian Ammianus Marcellinus (ca AD 325-391) documented the devastating effects of a tsunami hitting Alexandria, Egypt, on July 21, AD 365. He wrote: "For a little before sunrise there was a terrible earthquake, preceded by incessant and furious lightning. The sea was driven backwards ... [then] the waves ...rose ... beat upon the islands and the extended coasts of the mainland, leveling cities and houses wherever they encountered them. ... vessels of great size were driven on shore by the violence of the wind, and cast upon the house-tops. … and some were even driven two miles inland[1].

Based on geophysical surveys and sediment cores from the Ionian Sea research shows that the 20–25 m thick layer of sediment was triggered, not by the perhaps better known Santorini caldera collapse, but by the 365 AD Cretan earthquake cum tsunami[2].
The magnitude of this quake is estimated at 8.3–8.5, which makes it a quite a large one. What happens is that such an extreme earthquake will not 'only' produce a devastating tsunami, but the earth itself can move in unexpected directions. Western parts of Crete rose as much as 9 meters, leaving harbours high and dry. The tsunami destroyed cities and drowned thousands of people in coastal regions from the Nile Delta to modern-day Dubrovnik.

Can such an event happen again in our lifetime? The processes that resulted in the AD 365 earthquake are still at work. Plus, they also occur along the rest of the Hellenic subduction zone. The 1303 AD earthquake (also one of about magnitude 8) and tsunami are thought to have originated near Rhodes, so the entire Hellenic subduction zone may represent a tsunami hazard for the eastern Mediterranean. We should expect an 365-like earthquake every ~ 800 years[3]. That there has been only one other such event (in AD 1303) in the past 1,650 years should focus our attention on the modern-day earthquake and tsunami hazards in the Eastern Mediterranean. Remember that 1303 plus 800 makes 2103, which is already perilously close to our own era.

[1] Marcellinus: Res Gestae: 26.10.16–19. See here.
[2] Polonia et al: Mediterranean megaturbidite triggered by the AD 365 Crete earthquake and tsunami in Scientific Reports – 2013
[3] Shaw et al: Eastern Mediterranean tectonics and tsunami hazard inferred from the AD 365 earthquake in Nature – 2008. See here.

An Ancient Wine from Cyprus

Commandaria's history dates back at least 3,000 years, although it was called Mana for much of that time. The ancient Greeks drank it at festivals celebrating Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who, according to myth, was born from the sea foam on the shores of Cyprus. The wine's modern name can be traced to the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Knights Templar and Knights of St. John established a headquarters (or commandery) in the growing region on the foothills of the Troödos mountains. and began to produce and export the wine commercially. Commandaria proved so popular with European palates that it is rumoured to have been served at King Richard the Lionheart's wedding.

Commandaria is a sweet dessert wine, with a dark amber to light brown color, and an intriguing taste that starts like honeyed raisins and figs and ends like coffee. To some it reminds them a bit of Hungarian Tokaji wine, while others say they find it pleasantly similar to Portuguese Madeira.


This ancient wine is made from two kinds of native grapes: white Xynisteri and red Mavro, which are partially dried in the sun to concentrate the juices even more before pressing and fermentation. While often a fortified wine, through its production method it often reaches alcohol contents of around 15% even before fortification.

By law, Commandaria wines must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels, but many of the best are aged for a decade or more.

Although its international popularity faded in the centuries after the knights lost power, Commandaria has been staging a comeback in recent decades. The name has been given "protected designation of origin status" in the European Union, the United States and Canada, and there is an official Commandaria wine region in southern Cyprus.

If you ever visit Cyprus (again), please give the Commandaria a try. You'll be surprised.

Mediterranean invaded by poisonous lion fish

The common lion fish (Pterois volitans) was originally 'only' found in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, South Africa and east of Sumatra. Lion fish are carnivores with a life span of up to 15 years. The largest of lion fish can grow to about 40 centimeters in length. Predators of lion fish are mostly larger lion fish. Despite the problems it causes, lion fishes are very suitable for human consumption.

The lion fish has now made its way to the Aegean Sea, particularly in the waters around the Greek island of Rhodes. It first appeared in the summer of 2015 after it swam into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.

The Hydrobiological station of the Greek Center of Sea Research based on Rhodes recently issued an announcement on the appearance of the common lionfish in the Aegean Sea. 

The station warned that the fish’s venomous spines inject a powerful protein-based toxin in their prey. In fact they are so poisonous that they even might be deadly to humans. Its population is known for rapidly multiplying and for this reason is listed as an invasive species. First caught in fishing nets in January 2016 in the shallow waters off Faliraki beach and then off Lindos, both specimens are now on display at the Rhodes Aquarium.

But if these lionfishes are caught in waters around Rhodes, the surely must swim around Cyprus too? And yes they do. They are a danger to fishermen, divers, swimmers and spear hunters even though they use their spines to sting for defensive reasons, not offensive. Someone could touch a dead lion fish and still get injured. Even though they are not usually fatal, the pain and allergic reaction can be severe. If stung by a lion fish, it is recommended to immerse the wound in hot (but not scalding) water for about 30 minutes as soon as possible - the toxin quickly– this helps denature the lionfish venom and decrease pain.

Venomous or poisonous?

The terms venomous and poisonous are often used interchangeably, but incorrectly. There is, in fact, a difference between a venomous organism and a poisonous organism. Both venomous and poisonous animals produce a toxin that is injurious or even lethal to another organism. However, the real difference between the two involves how that toxin is delivered.

Venomous organisms deliver or inject venom directly into other organisms. Poisonous organisms, on the other hand, do not deliver their toxins directly. The entire body or large parts of it, may contain the poisonous substance. These organisms may be harmful when eaten or even touched.

The short answer is therefore: if it bites you and you die, it is venomous. If you bite it and die, it is poisonous.

Northern Cyprus and Tobacco

While tobacco production has declined in the rest of Europe, farmers in northern Cyprus have again planted tobacco plants. After a hiatus of twelve years, seedlings have been planted in fields around Karpaz (Greek Karpasia/Καρπασία) in the hope of a growing a sustainable crop.

The Karpaz Cooperative Tobacco Sale Company has been operating in the area since 1976, producing 50 to 60 tonnes of tobacco annually. However, since 2004, there has been no market for the crop. An attempt to grow tobacco two years ago failed.
A representative of the Cooperative told the media that Syria had been their main competitor, but the civil war which had caused a lack of production, had led to a gap in the market.

Previously, farmers around Karpaz grew ‘Yayla’ tobacco, which was said to be native to the region. Now, seedlings imported from Turkey will grow into an aromatic plant for pipe tobacco. The plant should be more resilient, as it is suitable for growing in drier regions.

The villagers have completed planting in March (2015), which traditionally was done in February. They hope to harvest the tobacco in June. A successful harvest will bring a profit in a few short months, bringing a much needed economic boost to the troubled region.

Greek Tobacco Production in Decline

Oriental tobacco or Turkish tobacco is a highly aromatic, small-leafed variety of tobacco which is sun-cured. Tobacco was first introduced into Greece in the seventeenth century, shortly after it was introduced into Turkey. It is also grown elsewhere, notably in Macedonia and Turkey. Oriental tobacco covers about 20% of the total area devoted to tobacco growing in the world.

The problem with smoking is, of course, that it is very unhealthy, leading from COPD via lung cancer to death. That is why governments try to discourage smoking. Large sums of money are needed to treat, cure and prevent the negative effects of smoking.
Since Greece's entry into the EU it is subject to its rules. In 2010 a system was phased out where tobacco farmers in 12 EU countries including Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Italy were receiving around €300 million in subsidies. After the subsidies ended, tobacco farming across the EU sharply declined.

Ah, you might think, that is finally an effective policy by those bureaucrats in Brussels. But no, the old subsidy was converted into direct payments (Regulation (EU) No 1307/2013 simply gives money to the individual farmer) and rural development support (Regulation (EU) No 1309/2013 simply gives money to the region). The EU hoped to tempt farmers to change crops.
Did it work? A bit. Many Greek growers were reportedly abandoning tobacco farming in favour of other cash crops.

However, the decline of Greek production has mostly hurt the country’s Turkish minority, whose livelihood largely depends on tobacco growing. Some 200,000 ethnic Turks live - largely forgotten - in the north-eastern Greek province of western Thrace, which borders Turkey and Bulgaria, and 90 per cent are involved in tobacco production and trade.

Luckily Turkey has also forgotten about the plight of this Turkish minority and Greece won't face another invasion, like on Cyprus in 1974. Oh, wait.

[Missing person] Annie Constantinou

[Update 18 March, 2016] A woman found dead beside her car at the bottom of a 60-metre drop on the Troodos Karvounas road is believed to be missing Annie Constantinou. Her car was spotted in the morning by a motorist who informed the police. When officers went down the cliff they found the dead body of a woman “who looked like the 47-year-old missing Annie Constantinou”, the police said.
[Update 01 March, 2016] Police are still searching for 46-year-old Annie Constantinou who was reported missing last week. Neither Constantinou nor her car has been located.
[Update 06 March 2016] A Facebook-page has been established to help creating awareness. See here.

Annie Constantinou, 46, has been reported missing from her house in Makedonitissa, a suburb of Nicosia, since Tuesday, 23th of Februari 2016. She is described as 1.65m tall with red hair. She was wearing black leggings and a black and white top. She might have driven her beige Nissan March with licence plates AAS735. On the day she disappeared she had not given the impression that she was going somewhere in particular. She was not having marital or psychological problems. The police said that there is at the moment no suspicion of her disappearance being a criminal act.

Strangely, she does not appear to have her mobile phone with her. Police also looked into the possibility that she might have crossed to the north but it appears she did not, they said.
Georgia Agrios, a close friend of appealed for her to come home. “I understand how you feel,” was the message she wanted send to her friend. “If you have problems there is help which we will find. Just come home to your family.”

“Though I haven’t seen her for some time, we were very good friends,” Agrios said, adding that she hoped Constantinou would see her message.

Police are urging anyone who possesses any information that could help trace her to contact the Nicosia CID at 22802222 or the nearest police station. Or to call 1460.