An 1,100-year-old olive tree on the island of Mallorca

If we are really lucky, we humans might hope to reach the ripe old age of 100 years. Olive trees live on another timescale: they can reach a hoary age of 1,000 years.
An estimated 1,100-year-old olive tree lives on the Spanish island of Mallorca. This specimen was probably planted by Moorish settlers in the ninth century. It has recently been named the 'best monumental olive tree in Spain' for 2020 by the Spanish Association of Olive Municipalities (AEMO).

The olive tree, named Can Det by the locals, is situated in the municipality of Fornalutx, on the terraced slopes of the northerly Sierra de Tramuntana mountains. Its trunk has a perimeter 6.5 meters.
Can Det is also unique for another reason: the tree still produces olives of the Empeltre Mallorquina variety, which is native to Mallorca. Thanks to the dedication of a local farmer, the olives continue to be transformed into oil.

Venice is Sinking

Allegedly founded in 421 AD by a Celtic tribe known as the Veneti, Venice was the main trading hub (especially of slaves) of the known world for centuries until its long slow but sure decline after the centre of gravity shifted from the eastern to the western section of the Mediterranean in the early 15th century. When large amounts of gold entered the Iberian penisula from the newly discovered American continent, Venice found itself at the fringes of the Medival world[1].
The city was built on top of wooden pylons, called the 'upside down forrest', driven into the silt of a tidal swamp at the mouth of the Po River, subsidence (a gradual downward settling of the bottom) was inevitable. Large heavy stone buildings were built on mud, what could go wrong?

The slow-motion sinking of the city was exasperated further in the nineteenth century by many of the early industrial projects that occurred at the time, such as offshore piers and the railroad bridge to the mainland, which all disturbed the sea floor and tidal cycles in ways that made the city more vulnerable to flooding.

Then in the Twentieth-century, local industry made things even more dire by extracting massive amounts of groundwater from the aquifer beneath the lagoon, a situation that lasted for nearly 50 years before the government stopped the practice in the 1970s, but not before the city had sunk by roughly nine inches.
So, Venice has been battling rising water levels since the fifth century. But today, the water seems to be winning. Several factors, both natural and man-made, cause Venice to flood about 100 times a year (usually from early October until late February), a phenomenon called the Acqua Alta ('High Water').

Although tides are minuscule in the Mediterranean (the narrow, shallow Adriatic Sea has about a three-foot tidal range), when a storm approaches the city, the wind pulls the surface of the water up into a dome, causing a surging storm tide, which in turn causes flooding in the city.

Therefore, nothing has changed: the city keeps sinking, while the height of the tides remain the same.

Yet politicians,  scientists and media all try to convince us that we are to blame, because 'we' are causing global warming and thus the rise in sea levels. That's the reason Italians must have to pay more and more for their failed and doomed project MOSE ('Moses') to rescue Venice.

[1] Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads - 2015

The early history of pasta

Pasta. The creation that arises out of the union of wheat flower and water. Its origins are obscure. Popular legend has it the the great 14th century Venetian traveler Marco Polo discovered pasta during his travels throughout China, where a noodle-like food has existed since 3000 BC. Popular legend is so very wrong.
[Greek lagana]
We know that references to a pasta-like pittance can be traced far back to the 1st century AD. Horace, the leading Roman poet during the reign of Augustus, mentions in his writings something called lagana, which were fine sheets of fried dough. The Greek rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis provides a recipe for lagana which he attributes to the 1st century Crysippus of Tyana: sheets of dough made of wheat flour and the juice of crushed lettuce, then flavoured with spices and deep fried in olive oil. An early 5th century cookbook describes a dish called lagana that consisted of layers of dough with meat stuffing, an ancestor of modern-day lasagna.

The works of the 2nd century AD Greek physician Galen mention a certain itrion, a homogeneous compounds made of flour and water. The Jerusalem Talmud records that itrium, a kind of boiled dough, was common in Palestine from the 3rd to 5th centuries AD.

A dictionary compiled by the 9th century Arab physician and lexicographer Isho bar Ali defines itriyya, the Arabic cognate, as string-like shapes made of flour which were dried before cooking. The geographical text of Muhammad al-Idrisi, compiled in 1154 for the King of Sicily Roger II, mentions that itriyya was manufactured and exported from Norman Sicily.

Sicily may well have been the origin of a North African cousin of pasta known as couscous: small droplets of durum dough which are steamed and usually served with a meat stew or vegetables and sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon or sugar.

Food historians estimate that the dish probably took hold in Italy as a result of extensive Mediterranean trading during the Middle Ages. From the 13th century, references to pasta dishes, such as macaroni, ravioli, gnocchi and vermicelli, crop up with increasing frequency across the Italian peninsula.

Was Sodom Destroyed by a Meteorite?

Genesis 19:24
Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;

Deuteronomy 29:23
And that the whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein, like the overthrow of Sodom, and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim, which the LORD overthrew in his anger, and in his wrath:
Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, one cannot help but wonder what really happened to these cities. The land covered with brimstone, salt and burning does sound like an eye-witness account, but of what?

Science has now found a possible answer: a powerful airburst from a meteor colliding with the atmosphere may have wiped out the Bronze Age civilization along the north side of the Dead Sea some 3,700 years ago (1700 BC +/- 50 years)[1].

Many believe that Jordan's Tall el-Hammam, as the archaeological site is now known, could be once have been known as Sodom. Samples from the site show that an extremely hot, explosive event leveled an area of some 500 square kilometers including the Middle Ghor - a circular plain to the north of the Dead Sea. It not only wiped out 100 percent of the Middle Bronze Age cities and towns, but also stripping agricultural soils from once-fertile fields.

The researchers theorize that the intense shockwaves from a meteoritic blast may have covered the area 'with a super-heated brine of Dead Sea anhydride salts'.
[Pottery shard showing thermal impact signs]
They also say that archaeological evidence shows it took at least six centuries for the region to recover and for civilization to return, as a direct result from the contamination and destruction of the soil.

The evidence paints a picture of an event similar to the Tunguska incident in 1908 in which a fireball in the sky was followed by explosions and millions of trees in Siberian forest were later found leveled.

If we assume that Tall el-Hammam (a tell is an artifical mount) could be the site of Sodom, we can theorize that the plain of Ghor might be Gomarrah. Which solves the mystery where Gomrooah could haven been located. Sodom, situated within Gomorroah, were both destroyed in the same event.

[1] Silvia et al: The 3.7kaBP Middle Ghor Event: Catastrophic Termination of a Bronze Age Civilization - Conference Paper of the Annual Meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) - 2018

Mulukhiyah: An Egyptian 'Royal' Vegetable

Mulukhiyah (or mulukhiyyah or ملوخية‎) are the leaves of a herb Corchorus olitorius, commonly known as Jew's mallow, Nalta jute or tossa jute. For millennia, these leaves have been in use as a leafy green vegetable. It is popular in Middle Eastern, East African and North African cuisines.
Mulukhiyah is rather bitter, and when boiled, the resulting liquid is a thick, highly mucilaginous (read: slimy) broth. Mulukhiyah is generally eaten cooked, not raw, and is most frequently turned into a kind of soup or stew, typically bearing the same name as the vegetable in each local language. Traditionally mulukhiyah is cooked with chicken or at least chicken stock for flavour and is served with white rice, accompanied with lemon or lime.

The seeds are used as a flavouring. A herbal tea can be made from the dried leaves. The leaves are said to be rich in betacarotene, iron, calcium, vitamine C and α-tocopherol equivalent vitamin E.

The origin of the name Mulukhiyah is obscure. In ancient Egypt, mulukhiyah was historically prepared for (and eaten) by royalty. That fact gives us a clue about the etymology of its name: mlk in Ancient Egyptian meant 'king', much like Malik (מלך) in Hebrew. So, the word mulukhiyah might mean 'a dish (worthy of a) king'.

Over time though, mulukhiyah became more mainstream in Egypt, enjoyed by all. However, in Egypt mulukhiyah is still eaten at special occasions, especially on those when one has invited a large gathering of family or friends. Old habits die slowly.

Sicilian Orange and Fennel Salad

Everyone seems to agree that the orange and fennel salad (insalata di arancia e finocchio) originated on the island of Sicily, but its history is somewhat obscure. Some say that the successive Arab conquests of the island may have introduced the recipe, but I think that it was just a local poor man's dish that didn't require any cooking and could be made with ingredients that were readily available. On Sicily, the oranges are known as portualle, which is where the original Italian name for this dish comes from – insalata di portualle. The root of this name tell us possibly more of the origin of the salad, because portualle means 'Portuguese (sailors)'.
Elsewhere, this salad is mostly seen as a fresh summer dish, but on Sicily it will be served prominently during the winter months. Both oranges and fennel are ingredients that ripen in winter. 

Similar salads are still found in nearby Algeria and Tunesia, where raw fennel is often used to create distinctive salads. Fennel delivers its aromatic anise-like flavour, which pairs so nice with the tangy-sweetness of the oranges. Today, the orange and fennel salad is known all over the world and in Italy it is served as an appetizer or as a final light dish after a copious meal.

- 3 bulbs of fennel
- 3 oranges
- olive oil

How to:
- Very thinly slice the fennel
- Peel and slice the oranges
- Arrange on a platter
- Drizzle some olive oil over the dish

The Trojan War and the Exodus

After the end of the Trojan War it took Odysseus ten long years wandering around the coasts of the Mediterranean before he could finally take his wife Penelope in his arms again in 1207 BC.
Strange, a hero who has fought in a war far from home for ten long years would probably yearn to go home as quickly as possible, but Odysseus did otherwise. Maybe Odysseus did not simply 'lose track of time' when he wandered along the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean, but was forced to do so because of a general state of unrest and turmoil.

After having conclusively reached an almost specific date of the end of the Troyan Was as the end of June 1218 BC, a valid question would be: what happened after the city was destroyed by the conquering Greeks?

Let us briefly turn to the Bible, where the Pharoah of the oppression of the Hebrews can be identified as Rameses II (1290-1223 BC) and it would appear that the time of the Exodus, a time of great upheaval, coincided with Rameses' successor Merneptah (1223-1211 BC). This Pharaoh fought several battles against the Sea People. It would not take a great leap of imagination to identify the Greeks as these Sea People and it suggests that a long war was fought in the Mediterranean after the end of the Trojan War.

The Great Karnak Inscription, an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription belonging to the Pharaoh Merneptah, mentions some names of these Sea People as I-q-w-š (Ahhiyawa, Achaeans), Tw-r-š (Trojans), R-kw (Lycians), Š-r-d-n (Sherdana) and Š-k-r- š (Shagalasha), being 'northerners coming from all land's[1].

So, Odysseus' adventures might be garbled accounts of a war that the Greeks fought against the Egyptians. After death of the Pharaoh, a sort of power vacuum ensued which resulted in a general state of unrest in the entire region, which might have lasted for about ten years. In Egyptian accounts the Greeks must have been known as the Sea People. It all makes sense.

Part 1 of this series 'When was the Trojan War?' can be read here.
Part 2 of this series 'When was the end of the Trojan War' can be read here.

[1] Edward Lipiński: On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age - 2006. See here.

Santiago de Compostela: The myth decoded?

Santiago de Compostela is an important site of pilgrimage in Galicia that is located in the northwest of Spain. It is the endpoint of a pilgrim route that starts in the northern Dutch town of Sint Jacobiparochie. The first part of that route is called the Jabikspaad ('Jacobspath') in Frisian. The Jabikspaad is 130 kilometers long and runs as far as Hasselt, a city in Overijssel, a province in the centre of the country. The northeastern section of that pilgrims route also connects at that point, and then meanders via the cities of Deventer, Nijmegen and Maastricht to other pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela. Sint Jacobiparochie ('parish of Saint James'), the entire network of pilgrims' ways and Santiago de Compostela itself are all dedicated to Saint James.
The first part of the place name, Santiago, is the local version of the Latin Sanctus Iacobus, meaning Saint James or Saint Jacob. That in itself does not cause any problems, but it does teach us that the place name is a well-known evolution of a Latin name. This means that the second part of the place name must follow the same route.

The second part of the place name, de Compostela, is almost universally translated on the internet as 'field of stars'. It is supposed to be a translation of Latin Campus Stellae, which means 'field of the star'. But the problem is that that translation did not follow the same route as the first part of the place name. According to linguists, a better explanation would be that compostela is derived from the Latin compositum – akin to the contemporary English word 'compound', which means 'fenced piece of land'. That word then evolved via Vulgar Latin into Composita Tella, with the meaning of ['compound (with) tiles'. I suppose that could indeed mean 'cemetery'.

Few can have real problems with that explanation, because the area of Santiago de Compostela was a Roman cemetery by the 4th century and (the head of) Saint James was reputedly once buried there, which was the direct reason for the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela.

And yet...

In some medieval chronicles it is reported that on June 1 of the year 939 AD a large fireball exploded over the northern regions of the Iberian Peninsula[1]. Could parts of that meteorite have crashed near Santiago? Did the city, as a result of those impacts, then receive its toponym de Compostela? It also explains he fact that there's a city called Compostilla in the nearby province of Léon.

[1] Llorca et al: Evidence for an Atmospheric Airburst of a Huge Bolide over Spain in 939 AD as Recorded in Medieval Chronicles, presented at the 40th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2009). See here.

Turkey's Kristallnacht in 1955

Remember the Kristallnacht? It was a cowardly pogrom against Jews and jewish property carried out by the Sturmabteilung (SA),  the Nazi Party's paramilitary force, plus incited civilians throughout Nazi Germany during the night of 9 and 10 November 1938. The pogrom left approximately 100 Jews dead, 7,500 Jewish business damaged and countless schools, homes, synagogues and graveyards devastated. The German authorities had looked on without intervening.
The name Kristallnacht ('Crystal Night') comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.

But you probably do not remember the second Kristallnacht on 6 and 7 november 1955, when the Polites, short for Konstantinoupolites, namely the Greeks of Istanbul, were targeted in a violent pogrom carefully fabricated by the Turkish Security Service.

In what had been described as Turkey’s Kristallnacht, riots that lasted two days targeted the Greek and Armenian communities. The riots were carefully planned by the Turkish government to cleanse Istanbul of the approximately 100,000 Polites, who were excluded from the Turkish-Greek population exchange of 1923-24.
They were triggered by the false fake news that the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece had been bombed the day before. However, the bomb was planted by a Turkish usher at the consulate, who was later arrested and confessed. The Turkish press, conveying the news in Turkey, remained silent about the arrest and instead insinuated that Greeks had set off the bomb.

A Turkish mob, most of which had been trucked into the city in advance, assaulted Istanbul’s Greek community for nine hours. 71 churches, 41 schools, eight newspapers, more than 4,000 stores and 2,000 residences were looted or destroyed overnight.
The human toll and suffering were even more catastrophic, with more than 30 dead, 300 injured and over 400 women, girls and boys raped.

As in 1938, the police remained mostly inactive and the violence continued unabated until the government declared martial law in İstanbul and called in the army to put down the riots. The pogrom greatly accelerated emigration of ethnic Greeks from Turkey, and the Istanbul region in particular. In Istanbul alone, the Greek population decreased from 65,108 to 49,081 between 1955 and 1960. The 2008 figures released by the Turkish Foreign Ministry placed the number of Turkish citizens of Greek descent at 3,000–4,000.
Don't for a moment think that the Turkish government has any regrets over this ethnic cleansing. Even now, Greek schools in Turkey struggle to survive. Only Greek Orthodox students are allowed to study in the Greek schools- a requirement introduced in 1968 by the Turkish Ministry of National Education.

Armenians, Jews, Kurds and Greek. Genocide seems part of Turkey's culture/

Italian pasta originated in Ancient Greece, not China

Contrary to popular belief, which says that pasta originated in China and brought to Italy by Marco Polo, pasta actually has its origins in ancient Greece and from there moved to Italy. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus, god of fire, volcanoes, and blacksmiths, is said to have created a tool which made ribbons of pasta. Ancient Greeks prepared a dish from pasta dough zimarika, meaning a dough of flour and water, cut into long strips, named laganon.
Since time immemorial, Greeks celebrated the life of the dead makaron by leaving a dish called makaria at the graveside. Makaria was made from pasta and was accompanied by olive oil and wine. A variation of this story is that a bowl of pasta dough, makaria, was placed in the hand of the departed to be used as payment for the ferryman Charon taking them across the river Styx on their way to Hades, the Underworld. This 'mercy meal', makaria, is still eaten today after Greek Orthodox funerals.

So, it is certain that the ancient Greeks introduced pasta to Italy probably through Naples (originally called Nea Polis, Greek for 'New City'), once a Greek colony. Today, pasta production continues where Hephaestus left off, producing the tasty traditional Greek pasta. Each region has its favorite pasta, served with meat, vegetables, pulses, or cheese.

Before the large supermarket chains and big pasta factories reached Greece, most Greek pasta was made at the end of the summer and dried, ensuring there was plenty of food to feed large Greek families throughout the winter months.

Greek mamas in villages still bring their own ingredients, with which they produce their own pasta the way it was done millennia ago, with the family’s recipes. This is how it was in the olden days: each village had its own small pasta factory, and all the mamas came there to make their own pasta. It is hard to find today, but a few factories still hold on to the traditional way.

Once the ingredients have been mixed and shaped, the mamas take the pasta home to dry it in the sun the way they used to do in the past, or they dry it for them overnight in industrial driers. In this delightful way, a wonderful, old, Greek tradition is kept alive.


The Roman Empire did not fall in AD 476

History teaches us that the Roman Empire fell in AD 476, but that 'fact' is not based on historical evidence. The Roman Empire had been intermittently split into two halves ever since the later third century and that the eastern half—based at Constantinople—continued in existence for nearly another 1000 years up to its final destruction in 1453.
Although this 'Eastern Roman Empire' is known to most modern scholarship as the 'Byzantine Empire', this name was first coined in the mid-sixteenth century: in the medieval period it was usually known as the Imperium Romanorum, 'the Empire of the Romans', or Rhomania, 'the land of the Romans'.

Indeed, in the Middle Ages the 'Byzantines' were usually considered by both themselves and outsiders to be quite simply Rhomaioi, 'Romans', living in Rhomania under an emperor whose official title was the Basileus ton Rhomaion, 'Emperor of the Romans'. In consequence, any claim that the Roman Empire as a whole ended in 476 is completely without foundation in face of the continuing imperial presence in Constantinople.

So, can we argue that the western Roman Empire collapsed in 476? Although political power had passed to the Ostrogoths under Theodoric, the 'former' western empire continued to be run largely by Romans in the Roman manner. As if nothing had changed. The 'barbarian' Goths actually became Romanised themselves over time, adopting Roman customs, language and religion.

The Catholic church also copied much of the Roman culture and style of decoration, turning itself into an pendant from its opulent Roman predecessor.

So, the Roman Empire certainly didn't cease to exist in 476. What did happen was that the power, might and splendor of that region gradually diminished and 476 is just an arbitrary date. All that seems to have actually ended in 476 was the fiction that the Western Roman Empire still existed in any meaningful form.


The Staff of Moses

The Staff of Moses is a staff, mentioned in both the Bible and Quran. It is traditionally seen as a walking stick used by Moses. According to the Book of Exodus in the Bible, the staff was used to produce water from a rock, was transformed into a snake and back, and was used at the parting of the Red Sea.
Well, that surely must have been a powerful piece of wood. A simple walking stick that could perform magical tricks. That can't possibly be true.

In the original Hebrew, the implement was called matteh (מַטֶּה‎), which can be translated a 'rod'. If this rod, as is said in the bible, could change itself into a snake, maybe what the ancients meant to say was that it was a rod that looked like a snake. It must have been viewed as very powerful too.

So, are there any snakelike rods in nature that can possibly harbour immense power?
Yes, there are and they are called fulgurites (from the Latin fulgur, meaning 'lightning'). They are natural tubes, clumps or masses of sintered, vitrified, and/or fused soil, sand, rock, organic debris or other sediments that can form when lightning discharges into the ground.

Fulgurites can therefore be seen as petrified lightning. Can you think of a more powerful image for a man like Moses?
Even Zeus (Ζεύς), the ancient Greek god of the sky and thunder and ruler of the gods on Mount Olympus, is always depicted with a rod of lightning in his hand. And it shouldn't really come as a surprise that a fulgurite was found within the contents of an altar at the temple of Zeus at Mount Lykaion in Greece.

The first Greek to reach America

As we all know, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was the first to discover the American continent in 1492. Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa, which means that the Italians may bask a bit in the sunshine of Columbus' discovery.
Crews in those days were a mixed lot. When we call a ship Spanish or when an expedition is paid for by a Spanish king or queen, it doesn't follow that the entire crew would be Spanish.

So, who was the first known Greek to have reached the Americas? That would be Theodoros Griego, a sailor who landed on Florida with the Spanish expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez (1470 (or 1478)–1528) on April 14, 1528. The fleet of five ships and 600 men sailed from the Spanish port of Sanlucar de Barrameda to North America. The expedition first reached Cuba and then sailed on to Florida.

Griego was born somewhere in the Aegean and later moved to Spain. Theodoros Griego simply means Theodore (the) Greek in Spanish. His original Greek name was Doroteo Teodoro.

As did most of his companions on this ill-fated expedition, Theodoros Griego did not survive his adventure. After landing on the florida peninsular, the conquistatores were repeatedly attacked by Indians. After de Narváez was injured in such an attack, Teodoro thought it wise to desert[1]. Some reports of the time says he lived among the Indians for quite some time, but others claim he was almost immediately killed by them[2]. Only four members of the original crew survived to tell the story.
Today, a statue has been erected in Florida in the city of Tampa in honour of this Greek conquistador,  explorer and deserter. Ironic seems the correct word to describe this story.

[1] Hugh Thomas: The golden Age of the Spanish Empire of Charles V – 2011
[2] Robin Varnum: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaga: American Trailblazer - 2014

Wine in Ancient Egypt

Many people think that wine must have originated in Ancient Greece or Imperial Rome. In fact, winemaking actually predates the Greeks by at least 4 000 years.
A new study looked at Egyptian winemaking and preservation between the predynastic (3800-3300 BCE) and New Kingdom (1539-1075 BCE) periods[1].

The study also drew upon an unusual kind of ancient text. During its New Kingdom period, Egypt manufactured amphorae (60-cm ceramic bottles, with handles) to contain wine. The containers were inscribed in hieratic script, an everyday, cursive form of hieroglyphs. The inscriptions served the same function as today’s wine bottle labels, and helped in the selection of a good wine. The inscriptions included type of product, year of vintage, quality and sweetness, geographical origin, type of ownership (royal, temple or private), and the winemakers’ details. Analysis of the inscriptions, combined with separate analysis of the jars’ ceramics, will help trace the diffusion of winemaking techniques to Europe.

The project’s preliminary literature review of archaeological evidence reveals considerable information about the role of wine (shedeh) in Ancient Egypt. Tomb-wall paintings are one of several sources of information as they often depict grape harvesting, winemaking and religious ceremonies.

"Egyptians saw a connection between wine’s red colour and the blood of Osiris, god of the underworld and afterlife," says project lead researcher, Dr Maria Rosa Guasch-Jané. "Therefore, grapes and wine in Egyptian culture symbolised revitalisation and rebirth."

Egypt had a very organised system of wine production. Yet, the product was seen as a luxury, suitable for religious ceremonies. Pharaohs and priests used it for temple offerings. Large wine jars displaying the royal seal found in tombs from the Predynastic period (ca. 3800 BCE) at Abydos and Saqqara were interpreted to mean that the wine was meant for the deceased in the afterworld. From the Early dynastic period (ca. 2950 BCE), wine was also consumed during funeral ceremonies. Royalty and the nobility also enjoyed wine at banquets and during festivals.

It seems that Egyptian use of wine ended with the dynastic period around 343 BCE. The Greeks probably picked up Egyptian winemaking traditions during their rule of Egypt from 305 BCE.

The team created a website, ‘Wine of Ancient Egypt’, that elaborates on all aspects of wine in Egyptian life. The site includes an interactive archaeological map of Egypt, showing wine-related scenes from tombs.

[1] Guasch-Jané et al: ‘Irep en Kemet’ Wine of Ancient Egypt: Documenting the Viticulture and Winemaking Scenes in the Egyptian Tombs in Annals of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences - 2013

Was Cleopatra (really) beautiful?

Cleopatra - or rather Cleopatra VII Philopator – lived from 69 until 30 BC. She was and still is renowned for her outstanding beauty, but what does history say about that claim to fame?
[Probably a posthumously painted portrait of Cleopatra with red hair and her distinct facial features
from Roman Herculaneum, Italy (1st century AD)]

Simply based on her famous seduction of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, both powerful Roman leaders, Cleaopatra must have had some redeeming features. But what did she really look like? Is there any solid basis to the claims of unparalleled physical beauty?

The first problem we encounter is that no contemporary accounts have survived. And, even now, after centuries of archeaology, there are no busts that can be reliably attributed to Cleopatra.
[An ancient Roman sculpture possibly depicting either Cleopatra or her daughter Cleopatra Selene II]
But we do have various images of her surviving on ancient coinage. In these images, she is depicted as anywhere from average-looking to hook-nosed and manly. However, it must be remembered that coins in the ancient world were a powerful piece of political propaganda. The deliberate portrayal of Cleopatra with masculine features not dissimilar to her ancestral male rulers the Ptolemies was not an attempt to capture a true likeness, but rather to help legitimise the rule of a young female queen.
[A denarius minted in 32 BC: a diademed portrait of Cleopatra,
The Greek historian Plutarch (circa 46 AD-120 AD), writing more than a century later, maintains that "her beauty… was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her." Another century later, the Roman historian Cassius Dio (155-235 AD) describes Cleopatra as "a woman of surpassing beauty" who was "brilliant to look upon".

As neither are contemporary accounts, there is no good reason to believe any of these writers, who might have had ulterior motives to glorify Roman history and its past Ceasars.

It is also important to keep in mind that ancient ideals of beauty were quite different to those of the modern Western world. Remember the use by Cleopatra of the poisonous atropine from the Egyptian henbane to dilate her pupils, hoping that she would appear more alluring. Or take the use of toxic kohl eye makeup in ancient Egypt. Recent scientific research suggests that galena, the lead-based mineral that formed its base, would have had anti-bacterial properties when mixed with moisture from the eyes.

So, we simply do not know how beautiful Cleopatra really was, but she was young and was a woman in a powerful position. That alone would make her attractive to both Caesar and Antony, who were known to be notorious womanisers and would surely not have fallen for Cleopatra on the basis of beauty alone.

Where was Jesus born?

The New Testament states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, but not all archaeologists agree: one rogue Israeli archaeologist says it is far more likely the Christian savior was born in Bethlehem of the Galilee, more than 175 kilometers from Jerusalem[1].
Aviram Oshri spent nearly eleven years excavating in Bethlehem of the Galilee — an ancient biblical village near Nazareth — which he believes show that the traditional account of Jesus’s birthplace may be wrong.

The town of Bethlehem of Judea, about six miles south of Jerusalem, has always been considered the birthplace of Jesus. According to the account of the apostle Matthew in the New Testament, Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth and later moved to Nazareth up north.

In the more popular account of the apostle Luke, Joseph and Mary, who was then nine months pregnant, traveled more than 175 kilometers from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Judea, Joseph’s hometown, in order to be counted in a Roman census. Almost two days of continuous travel by donkey, when at that time in the Roman period, people didn’t move from place to place. All of his family is from Nazareth.”

That never made sense to Oshri.

"How would a woman who is nine months pregnant travel 175 kilometers on a donkey all the way to Bethlehem of Judea?" he asked himself. "It makes much more sense that she would have traveled seven kilometers," the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem of the Galilee.

"How did Mary and Joseph meet?" he asked. "If she’s from Tzippori and he’s from Bethlehem of Judea, and what are the chances that they would meet when they live so far away from each other in the ancient world? Zero. But Bethlehem of the Galilee and Nazareth and Tzippori are very close to each other."

The Israeli Antiquities Authority wasn't at all pleased with Oshri's theory and he ended up working on other digs.

“The story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem [in the West Bank] was to connect him to King David”, says Dr Uzi Dahari, a fellow archaeologist at the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Did Dahari just obliquely say that Jesus must be born in Bethlehem of Judea because religion demands it?

[1] Oshri: Where was Jesus Born? in Archaeology - 2005

When was the end of the Trojan War?

In our first column (see here), we have proven that Odysseus returned in his beloved Ithaca on the 30th October 1207 BC. Because it has taken Odysseus ten years to return home, the ten year Trojan War must have raged from roughly 1227 BC until 1217 BC. But can we date the end of the Trojan War even more specific?

Can we find corraboration elsewhere in the works of Homer? Stavros Papamarinopoulos and his team think they can[1]. Homer’s Iliad recounts 52 days during the final year of the ten-year conflict.
[Mourners by the corpse of Patroclus]
The night before Patroclus’ death, the Trojans were compelled to make many fires in order to watch better the Achaeans’ possible maneuvers because the night was black. That could signify a moonless night, because a possible new moon, which is a prerequisite for a solar eclipse. Moreover, Diomedes and Odysseus heard the cry of a a heron. Herons arrive to the northern Aegean Sea in the spring and stay there until the summer’s end.

Homer describes the battle, indicated that the time has reached at noon, as connecting it with the time in which the woodman has his meal. During this period, Patroclus was engaged in fighting with Sarpedon whom he eventually killed. Zeus then covered the battlefield by a destructive night en Patroclus himself is slain by Hector.
[NASA's computers forgot there's no year 0]
The only possible partial solar eclipse was the one that happened on the 6th of June 1218 BC and that started at 14.10 local time. This means that indeed a slight kind of darkness is occurred characterized, by Homer, as 'night' (νύκτα) at noon.

But Achilles needs time to create a new shield and to be killed by an arrow to his only weak spot, his ankle, shot by Paris and guided by Apollo. Then the fabled Trojan horse must be made and implemented. These episodes must have taken a few weeks.

The end of the Trojan War can now be definitely set at the end of June 1218 BC. This date corresponds perfectly with the return of Odysseus to Ithaca on 4 November 1207 BC.

Part 1 of this series 'When was the Trojan War' can be read here.
Part 3 of this series 'The Trojan War and the Exodus' can be read here.

[1] Papamarinopoulos et al: A New Astronommical Dating of the Trojan War's End in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry - 2014. See here.

When was the Trojan War?

We know about the Trojan War from Homer, the poet who composed both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad is set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek kingdoms. The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, whose journey home takes ten years (after the ten-year Trojan War).
Scholars continue to debate questions such as whether the Trojan War actually took place and they always ask the same questions: where did it take place and when did it take place.

The first question was answered by Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), who began digging in 1870 (not excavating) at Hisarlik, an artificial hill in western Turkey, now situated approximately 6.5 kilometres from the Aegean Sea and about the same distance from the Dardanelles. He found several layers of occupation and declared he had found Troj (Τροία). Historians now agree that Hisarlik is indeed the fabled city of Troj (in ancient Greek, Ἴλιος or Ilios).

The actual date of the Trojan War remained elusive, but Greek astronomer Stavros Papamarinopoulos and his collegues have found a very credible solution[1]. They looked closely at the astronomical and biological information that Homer included in the Odyssey.

Five days before Odysseus' finally was able to return to Ithaca, Homer wrote: '... and the sun has perished out of heaven and an evil mist covers all.' Papamarinopoulos thinks that this must signify a solar eclipse, but there are several possible eclipses that fit within the historical time frame.
[NASA's computers forgot there's no year 0]
Even Plutarch and Heraclitus believed that the passage in the Odyssey (“Theoclymenus' prophecy”) to be a poetic description of a near total solar eclipse. Baikouzis and Magnasco write that 'close to noon ….the total eclipse of the sun occurred at 12.02 p.m local time'[2].

Homer also gives significant details in connection with the climate, the environment, the plants, the animals and the peoples' habits, which strongly prove the autumn as the season of the Odysseus’s return to Ithaca.

In conclusion, the only possible date for Odysseus’s return to Ithaca is 30 October 1207 BC plus five days. Which means that he finally returned home on 4 November 1217 BC. Given that it has taken Odysseus ten years to return home, the ten year Trojan War must have raged from 1227 BC until 1217 BC.

Part 2 of this series 'When was the end of the Trojan War' can be read here.
Part 3 of this series 'The Trojan War and the Exodus' can be read here.

[1] Papamarinopoulos et al: A New Astronomical Dating of Odysseus' Return to Ithica in Mediterranean Arhaeology and Archaeometry - 2012. see here.
[2] Baikouzis and Magnasco: Is an eclipse described in the Odyssey? in PNAS - 2008. See here.

Territories of Discord [1]

The plazas de soberanía ('places of sovereignty') are tiny Spanish sovereign territories in North Africa. These are separate pieces of land, peninsulas (peñóns) and islands scattered along the Mediterranean coast bordering Morocco.
[Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera]
Most of these territories came into possession of Spain in 1492 when they drove the Moors out of southern Spain, a moment still remembered as the Reconquista. Others were occupied during the various wars that followed.
The territories are usually divided into four groups: the cities of Ceuta and Melilla, the Islas Alhucemas (consisting of Peñón de Alhucemas, Isla de Tierra and Isla de Mar), the Islas Chafarinas (consisting of Isla del Congreso, Isla Isabel II and Isla del Rey) and the Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera. Next, there is the disputed Isla Perejil, a small uninhabited islet close to Ceuta, considered by Spain to be a part of Ceuta and not a territory in its own right. The Isla de Alborán is another small island in the western Mediterranean, about 50 kilometres from the African coast and 90 kilometres from Europe. Some Spanish maps even include Gibraltar to their 'places of sovereignty'.

The problem is that, because these territories are part of Spain, they also are part of the European Union. The cities look like war zones, heavily guarded and surrounded by barbed wire. But desperate people always retort to desperate actions, which means that they go to great lengths to illegally enter Ceuta or Melilla. They have then safely entered in the European Union.
So, why doesn't Spain cede these territories to Morocco? They are of little economic or strategic importance anymore. Like so often the reason is Iberian pride.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain in 1713, but now wants it back (but has no legal right whatsoever), does not want to cede the towns of the towns of Olivença and Talega (occupied in 1801) to Portugal, but does want to retain those pesky little territories in or near Morocco. Whatever the (human) costs.

Was Cleopatra black?

Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-30 BC) is better known as 'simply' Cleopatra. She was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. The Romans portrayed her as stunningly beautiful and she was able to seduce two Roman emperors: Julius Caesar (100-44) and then – after he was assassinated – his successor Marcus Anthonius (83-30).
Nobody ever really thought about the colour of her skin, until black American university students began to ague in the 1980s that Cleopatra might be black. I can understand the reason behind that flawed thinking: America has no collective history and blacks had their history ripped from them when they were kidnapped by their own kinsmen, taken to slave ships and sold in the Americas. These students subconsciously needed a role model, a power woman from Africa.

The point is that by choosing Cleopatra they showed a deeply disturbing level of wishful thinking. Cleopatra came from a family from Macedonia, Greece's most northern province. The people living there were (and still are) white skinned. Those black students then pointed to Cleopatra's grandmother, who was probably a concubine and whose name remains unknown. She might have been black, they argue. If that is the level of reasoning in American universities, I'm deeply worried, because the right argumentation is: if all other family members are white, then the most probable answer is that a concubine was also white skinned.
But if their level of their teachers was somewhat higher they would have understood that there were other female candidates that had a better chance of being black.

Ancient Egypt consisted of two kingdoms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Upper Egypt or Nubia consisted of what is now Sudan and Ethiopia. The people living there were black. Once called the Kingdom of Kush, it was first conquered by Lower Egypt, but later the events were reversed and Egypt was ruled by black pharaohs.
The Bible mentions a visit from the queen of Sheba to King Salomon. While a number theories about the location of Sheba are circulating, there are several clues that are worth mentioning. She came to Jerusalem "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones" (I Kings 10:2) . This wasn't a queen of some obscure little kingdom, this was a queen that equaled Salomon. Egypt was the only kingdom in the vicinity of Israel that could produce such priceless gifts, as Roman historian Josephus attests.

The Queen of Sheba was possibly Hatshepsut (1507–1458 BC), the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt. She is generally regarded as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. She was probably black.

[I hope nobody is offended by my use of the words 'black' and 'white']

The Monastery in Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose'

Who does not remember the imposing monastery in Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose' (1980). Both in the novel and in the movie, it loomed dark and forbidden in the story and the landscape.
In 1327, Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, accompanied by and Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice, arrive at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy. Melk, the unreliable narrator of the story, tells us that "it is only right and pious now to omit [the name of the abbey]"(p11)

Umberto Eco took great care in weaving fact and fiction together in his story. So, the curious among us want to know if Umberto Eco modeled his fictional monastery on an existing one.

"Conjecture allows us to designate a vague area between Pomposa and Conques, with reasonable likelihood that the community was somewhere along the central ridge of the Apennines, between Piedmont, Liguria, and France," writes Adso(p3). That's a rather large area and Adso's remark isn't helpful at all.

So, what other clues can we find in the story? Let's start at the very end. After departing the ruined monastery Adso writes "We headed east. When we reached Bobbio again."(p498) Therefore, the monastery must have been situated to the west of Bobbio.

Are there any existing once great monasteries that stand west of Bobbio? Well, there are a lot of smaller ones, but one seems a very interesting candidate: the Sacra di San Michele, built high on Mount Pirchiriano, looking menacingly down onto the small city of Fonte di San Pietro. For much of its history the abbey was under Benedictine rule. Situated just 20 kilometers or so from Turin, in the region of Piedmont, it might therefore well have been the unnamed monastery of 'The Name of the Rose'.
The monastery fell into a gradual decline and was finally suppressed in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV. The complex includes the ruins of the 12th-15th centuries monastery, which had five floors. The remains of a chapel reproduced, in its octagonal plan, the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. 'This was an octagonal construction,' writes Adso.(p21)
The website of the Sacra di San Michele proudly tells us that Umberto Eco wrote a letter to the rector saying that 'I last visited it (the Sacra di San Michele) with the director of the Name of the Rose, who initially thought to shoot the main scenes there...". (letter of U.Eco to Rector A.Salvatori, dated 20 February 1995)

We now have a number of clues that point to the Sacra di San Michele as being the source or inspiration for the unnamed monastery in Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose'. Can we ever be certain? No, but that's the joy and mystery of a (partly) fictional story.

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.

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 Wine Making

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

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.