The Beginnings of Sight

May 26, 2009

In the 5’th century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles caused a sensation by explaining how eye sight worked.

The eyes, said Empedocles, were like a lantern. Within each eye blazed a special kind of fire – the fire of the goddess Aphrodite. Her magical flames burned without causing injury, casting forth an ‘inner light’ that emanated outwards from the eye until hitting something… and whatever the light hit, you instantly saw. The inner light projected by your ocular lantern reached around you like sensory tentacles. Sight was the consequence of your light touching whatever you looked at.

Empedocles’ theory resonated with many of his fellow Greeks, who had probably noticed that in order to see something, they had to look at it with their eyes open. It was plain that their eyes were filled with flame, for who had not seen an eye flash, or glint, or shine from within like a beacon?

Not everyone was convinced. If your eye was a lantern, then if you looked hard enough with a truly fiery gaze, surely you should be able to see in the dark! Which, try as they might, no one could do. And if the eye emitted light, how was it that you saw both what was near and what was far simultaneously? How was it that the light of Aphrodite’s fire took the same amount of time to travel distances both short and long?

Empedocles and his followers were unperturbed by these minor empirical details. Greek philosophers of the time perceived reality as but an imperfect manifestation of their carefully constructed models – an implementation detail. If reality did not quite work like the model claimed, then reality must (probably) be broken. The philosophers were typically so confident of their logic that most never bothered verifying anything experimentally – who cared if the data fit the model, as long as the model was pretty?

Plato, who was born not long after Empedocles died, refined his theory to address the concerns raised by its detractors. The reason you could not see in a dark room, he explained, was because you needed more than the inner light of your eye lantern to do so. You also had to open the window and let in some external light. External light was made by light sources such as lamps and the sun and was different, but kindred to internal light. In the Timaeus, Plato wrote that eyes emanated a “a substance akin to the light of every-day life” that flowed “in a stream smooth and dense”. By itself, this “stream of vision” was inert, but the catalytic light of an “external and kindred fire” transformed it. It could then “diffuse the motions” of whatever it touched, “causing that perception which we call sight”.

Plato used his optical model to explain how you saw your face in a mirror. You saw your face because of the interplay between the internal light from your eye, some external light, and a third kind of light being given off spontaneously by your face! Sight happened when your vision stream ran into the light being given off by the objects you were looking at. Your vision stream smacked into the light coming off your face precisely on the surface of the mirror. And on that surface, you saw your ugly mug. 

Plato’s model of vision had most of his students and fellow Greeks nodding in agreement. Except his best student, Aristotle, who thought it such bunk that he ridiculed it for posterity in his book On Sense and the Sensible. Aristotle was convinced that the tired old philosophers of the past had it figured backwards. What looked like fire in the eyes was only reflection and optical illusion. The claim that sight should happen at the point of contact between the many sorts of light – was labored and “irrational”! The simpler and more logical explanation was that sight happened within the eye!

Aristotle theorized that objects somehow managed to perturb the medium (air) that lay in between them and the observer. These perturbations spanned the medium instantaneously, entered the eye and triggered sight. The reason you had to have your eyes open to see was not to let your inner light get out, but to let the perturbations and changes in the medium get in! And color was just variations in perturbation. Different colors generated differing changes in the medium, each of which triggered a unique sensation in the eye.

Aristotle argued his case as only he could – with logical derivation from observation accompanied by the absence of concrete experimental data. But he made no long term headway against the Platonic model, perhaps because unlike Plato, he offered no conjecture on how mirrors worked. For most Greeks, eyes continued to behave like lanterns.

In the 4th Century BC, the Atomist philosopher Epicurus offered a radical alternative, derived from the work of the Atomist pioneer Democritus. Epicurus believed you saw because of what came off the objects you looked at. All sensations, said Epicurus, were the consequence of contact. Vision was the sensation caused by contact with images. And images were immeasurably thin atomic replicas or outlines of objects that the objects perpetually gave off – like a constant shedding of skin. The images or eidola floated away from the objects into the void until they drifted into your eyes, and thence into your mind, where they produced the sensation of sight.

The implications of a universe seething with eidola were immense.  For one, it meant that you did not actually have to look at something to see it – all you had to do is run into its eidola. And eidola also implied that you could potentially see in the dark. Most interestingly of all, eidola could give you a permanent feeling of déjà-vu and genuine hind-sight, since technically, any eidola that was not sensed by an eye just lived on. Critics wondered how the eidola, despite being atomic replicas of their sources and hence of the same size, squeezed through the small aperture of pupil into the insides of the eye! It is not known how deeply Epicurus thought about the miraculous implications of his model (or the logic defying ones) – but clearly, the Epicureans were none too concerned, as they adopted the theory enthusiastically.

Euclid gave Plato’s ideas a mathematical foundation by applying geometry – a subject he knew a thing or two about. In his treatises Optics and Catoptrics, Euclid used the concept of the ray to explain sight, reflection and perspective. There were two kinds of rays – sight rays and light rays. Rays travelled in straight lines and with infinite speed, arriving at their destinations, whether near or far, instantaneously. Why the rays did any of this, or if they did any of this at all, Euclid did not state – probably because he had no idea. Euclid’s sight rays (internal light) shot out of the eye lantern in an expanding cone. Sight rays mixed with light rays (external light) and produced sight by colliding with the light rays emitted by individual objects. Mirrors operated by reflecting sight rays. Euclid’s ray geometry supplied the first understanding of perspective.

And so it went, until by the 1st Century CE, Ptolemy had extended and adapted the Euclidean principles to explain refraction and other optical mysteries. The Euclidean/Ptolemaic theory effectively ended the debate over the mechanics of sight – at least in the Greek and Roman world, for there is evidence that thinkers in ancient India and elsewhere may have developed to a more modern theory of vision. But in much of the world, the lantern of the human eye shone brightly for a thousand more years.

It was not until the 11’th century CE that an Arab genius from an intellectual hotbed called Basra (yes, the same one, and it had already existed for 1300 years before Saddam was even born) finally saw the world with a fresh set of eyes – a distinctly familiar and modern set of eyes. And by the time the great Alhazen was done looking, he had invented the scientific method and penned one of the greatest scientific works of all time: The Book of Optics. Alhazen produced a methodical and experimentally sound theory of sight, of reflection, refraction, of lenses, mirrors, ocular structure, pin-hole cameras, and a whole host of other optical subjects that nobody had ever thought correctly about. Alhazen offered not conjecture, but theories backed by experimental verification! Alhazen was the first recorded individual to scientifically prove that sight was the consequence of rays of light, reflecting off objects and entering the eye to form an image!

The science of Alhazen and the giants who followed – Newton, Huygens, Maxwell – should have extinguished the fires of Aphrodite for good. But they failed. In 2002, a study published in the American Psychologist journal showed that nearly 50% of college students continue to believe that the eye gives off the light that produces vision! Empedocles’ lantern of the eye and the flames of Aphrodite still light the visible world.


The Ship That Could Not Be Sunk

March 15, 2009

1942. An Englishman named Geoffrey Pyke thinks he has a solution to the problem that has plagued ships since their invention – they sink. His idea cannot have come at a better time, for the Royal Navy is in big trouble.

German U-Boats are laying waste to the chilly North Atlantic, littering its bottom with the hulks of sunk Allied shipping. The British are desperate to end the U-Boat menace but know they cannot do so without adequate fighter and anti-submarine air-cover. Their land based aircraft do not have the range to patrol the North Atlantic or accompany the supply convoys lumbering across its icy expanse. Aircraft carriers do exist, but the majority are American and fully engaged in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. New carriers are expensive and incorporate tonnes of valuable materials. And their designs not large enough to support the heavy planes needed for effective anti-submarine duty. Worse, the capital ships require their own flotilla of ships for protection. The expensive submarine hunters can themselves be sunk.

Geoffrey Pyke is an eccentric inventor better known for being out there than being all there. However, he has recently won the confidence of his new boss Lord Mountbatten, who values his unusual approach to problem solving. Pyke turns his attention to aircraft carriers and his fertile mind does not disappoint.

Pyke proposes an entirely new approach to marine architecture. His aircraft carriers are massive – with runways long enough for the big Allied bombers. Even better, though his new ships don’t require very much steel to build, they are virtually indestructible. They cannot be sunk! Amazingly enough, the ships are self-healing and can repair damage to their hulls without external help. Pyke’s idea is to build aircraft carriers out of ice.

The notion of turning icebergs into airfields is not a new, but experiments and common sense have shown ice to be an ‘unsuitable’ material for engineering at this scale.

Pyke’s ice is different. He wants to a use a super reinforced ice that he calls pykrete. Pykrete is made by freezing a combination of water, wood chips and sawdust. Tests show that the resulting material has a strength comparable to concrete. Pykrete is relatively inexpensive, needing but a fraction of the energy used to make an equivalent quantity of steel. It can be cut, carved and molded into any shape. And because pykrete is ice – water – ships made from pykrete cannot sink! Damaged ships can automatically repair themselves by merely accumulating more ice. Just as long as they don’t melt first.

Lord Mountbatten is energized by Pyke’s idea. So passionate is his support that his patron Winston Churchill agrees to aggressively fund further research and development – in complete secrecy, naturally.

Pyke and his team design The Habbakuk - an iceberg ship 2000 feet long and 300 feet wide, with a planned displacement of a mind defying 2.2 million tonnes! The bergship is to be powered by special generators that will send 33,000 hp of power to 26 custom electric motors. The ship is expected to have a top speed of between 7 and 10 knots and will be steered by a rudder 100 feet tall! The natural propensities of ice are to be curtailed by insulation and a network of embedded pipes circulating brine chilled in a special refrigeration plant. The Habbakuk will be slow, but a hull 40 feet thick will make it impervious to torpedoes. Giant four engine Lancaster bombers will take off and land on its stable runways with the same facility as their home bases in the English countryside.

Pyke tests his design by building a scale model. He heads to the stunning Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. There, on picturesque Lake Patricia, he constructs a 1000 tonne pykrete island 30 feet wide, 60 feet long and cooled by a 1 hp motor. Mountbatten flies to Jasper to test the strength of Pyke’s hull design for himself. He takes a shotgun and fires at the structure at point blank range. He discovers that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot cause any damage. Pyke’s pykrete works.

Mountbatten has seen the future and decides to let the Americans into the secret. With Churchill’s backing, in August 1943, he holds a special meeting of Allied generals and luminaries in Quebec, where he demonstrates the new invention. He places two large blocks before his audience – one made of ice, the other of pykrete. Then he pulls out his gun and fires at the first block, which shatters. Before the gathered generals can run from the room, Mountbatten fires a second shot, this time at the block of pykrete.

The bullet does no damage to the pykrete. Instead, it bounces off its concrete hard surface and heads towards the audience. Where it passes clean through the trouser leg of a Fleet Admiral. Mercifully, no blood is spilt.

Soon after, news of the miracle new material and the plans for The Habbakuk land on the desk of President Roosevelt, who finds himself just as intrigued as Churchill. The Americans want islands bristling with planes which they can then launch against the Japanese Navy and Japan itself. The Habbakuk appears to given them what they want. The Allies quickly agree to fund and build this new behemoth motile island of war.

In the end, The Habbakuk is neither built nor begun. Making pykrete consumes wood chips like a fire and the ship design ends up needing more steel than first thought. Insulating and cooling the 2 million tonne bergship is a challenge and nobody quite figures out how to steer it. The Allies find simpler and less grandiose ways to thwart the U-Boats, which fade as Germany crumbles. Land based bombers fly faster and further. And the Americans get their islands full of planes by sending the Marines to capture them from the Japanese. The war ends and when the super aircraft carriers do arrive twenty years later, they are made of steel,  have limitless range and can move at 33 knots powered by nearly 300,000 hp generated by their nuclear reactors.

Pyke’s pykrete prototype floats on Lake Patricia for nearly 3 years, before it finally melts away.


Turning Poop into Gold

October 8, 2008

The bubonic plague was not the only black death to descend upon Europe in the Middle Ages.  A second black death had made its insidious and ultimately more lethal way to European shores from China, and inexorably infected the minds of its alchemists, its generals and its kings. And even as the plague faded and Renaissance brought revolution to thought and ideas, the second black death grew ever more entrenched, and a simple black powder ushered in a revolution in blood and carnage.

The demand for gunpowder was insatiable. Kings, dukes, counts and petty lords loved their new bombards and arquebuses. The more gunpowder they used, the more they wanted. Gunpowder was a fortuitous mix of sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter. It was that last ingredient that was the most vital and the hardest to obtain. Saltpeter is a nitrate salt – usually calcium nitrate – and nobody knew how to make it. Except for some microscopic bacteria, which produced the nitrates as byproducts of eating. Since the bacteria would have to wait another 500 years to be discovered,  the Europeans concluded that saltpeter was spontaneously produced by what the bacteria ate – poop.

Saltpeter was the white frosting one found on poop that had been given time to settle and get comfortable. It was the white icing that grew on barnyard floors, on wet and rotting walls. It layered urinals and cesspits. It even found a home on the floors of people’s huts and manor halls, which were carpeted with reeds, rotting food, sundry varieties of cross species waste, and of course, dog feces. Saltpeter was born of a filthy womb (the medieval Europeans had a more relaxed view of cleanliness), but it was miraculous stuff. Many, if not most, were convinced that the explosive transformation saltpeter wrought on sulphur and charcoal was the work of the Devil.

Rulers needed gunpowder. Gunpowder needed saltpeter. And saltpeter needed poop. And so, the dukes declared a monopoly on their land’s waste. State employees – seasoned professionals called petermen – went from house to house, digging up barns, scraping up urine covered walls and latrines, sifting through manure and rotting vegetation – harvesting saltpeter. But there was never enough of it, and it didn’t help that the medievals did not appreciate having their floors scraped (cleaned) and their latrines violated (cleaned).

And so was born the profession of saltpeter farming. Medieval entrepreneurs found opportunity in poop. There was plenty of it and if they threw it all into a specially prepared pit and let it do its thing, in little more than a year, they could make an easy silver piece or two – even gold! It smelt bad, but it was lucrative.

Saltpeter farming launched a business boom not dissimilar to Silicon Valley in spirit. An untold number of operations were born – not in garages (they didn’t have them yet) – but in backyards. Soon, an entire process and methodology evolved, and saltpeter production became efficient – although they never really could make enough of it. The farmers learnt how to use the soluble properties of the saltpeter to purify and concentrate it. They learnt how to build pits that worked optimally.  They learnt how best to use every and anything that had a tendency to fester. They gathered and saved every piece of s*** they could find. They even figured out the sort of poop that made the best saltpeter. For the best kind of poop was actually urine, the best urine came from drunkards, and the best drunkards, or so the farmers claimed, were Catholic bishops.


The King who would be slapped

September 29, 2008


Esagila. The shrine to the god Marduk, the savior of cosmic order and the creator of mankind. Built by Marduk himself, Esagila is the center of the universe, and dominates the heart of its premier city, Babylon. Nearby, the Etemenanki, multicolored seven leveled pyramid like ziggurat of Marduk, rears 300 feet into the Babylonian sky, its massive bulk encompassing 13 acres, its tiers a veritable stairway to the heavens and the inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel. Atop the ziggurat, whose grandeur culminates a century of effort, a temple complex that is the dwelling on Earth of the great Marduk.

It is the fifth and climactic day of Akitu, the most important of Babylon’s many religious festivals. The new year has dawned, bringing with it a new spring, new beginnings and a spate of ritual activity. The temple priests, whose mythologies sculpt the Babylonian intellect, execute a series of elaborate and arcane procedures, sacrifices and purifications in preparation for the main event of the day. The temples have been exorcised of the year’s accumulated evils, Marduk fed his morning meal, and the king is on his way.

Cyrus the Great is not of Babylon, but he is its new king. His Persian armies have exploded out of their hinterland of Paras, smashed the Empire of the Medes and in 539 BC, conquered Babylon, a city of fabulous wealth, decadence, mystery and sorcery, a city with a history that is already ancient. Cyrus is a shrewd politician who knows that the king who rules Babylon must do so with the approval of Marduk. The vengeful and sulky god who reacts as poorly to disrespect as a gangland don, must be appeased, as kings of Babylon have done annually since their inception. But Marduk is no easy god to appease. It takes more than prayer and spectacular sacrifice to earn the favor of this deity.

Once a year, during Akitu, Marduk definitively shows the ruler of Babylon who is boss. He imposes a ritual humiliation designed to rip the king’s royal hauteur to shreds. However, since Cyrus is also the King of a host of other Kings, this maltreatment, even at the hands of a god, is tantamount to political suicide. At the same time, to defy Marduk is to be cast a heretic, anathema in a Babylon obsessed with its religion. Cyrus cleverly solves the problem by sending his son Cambyses to Esagila in his place.

Cambyses arrives at the gates of Esagila in full royal regalia, his royal circlet on his head, his scepter and symbolic mace in his hands. He is met at the gates by the sesgallu, the high priest, who escorts him into the temple’s sacred inner  sanctuary. The prince’s considerable entourage and bodyguard who surely accompany him everywhere are left behind, for what is to follow is a private matter between Marduk and Cambyses. Only the god’s wily priests receive the privilege of the enjoying their ruler’s embarrassment.

The process starts mildly enough when Cambyses is asked to purify himself by washing his hands. Then – the first shock – and Cambyses, who is no doubt prepared for what is to come (the details are no secret to Babylonians) is surely rattled. The high priest peremptorily strips the symbols of office from the king – an offence that in any other situation would result in the priest’s prolonged and excruciating death. The circlet, the scepter,  the mace, are all taken from Cambyses and placed at the feet of Marduk’s towering golden statue. Then, the priest tenses, focuses his energies and unleashes something unthinkable, unforgivable in any other time, in any other place, in any other land. The priest slaps Cambyses on the cheek as hard as he can. Whack! The slap echoes one the temple’s stone walls in a cruel simile of Marduk’s laughter. The prince of Persia can only swallow his pride and hope his father knows what he is doing.

The sesgulla is not finished. He now reaches out and grabs Cambyses by the ear! He boxes the prince’s ear as one would a mischievous boy, then drags him by the ear into Marduk’s inner sanctuary and casts him before the god. In one symbolic move, the king is no longer king. The king has been dethroned and reduced to groveling for Marduk’s mercy.

Cambyses’s face blazes with fury, but politics is politics, Babylon priceless and the priest granted implicit immunity from being flayed alive and then impaled. Cambyses kneels before the god, a supplicant,  praying that his powers and privileges to rule be restored. Marduk’s domination over him is complete. All that remains is for the god to raise a leg and mark the prince with his scent.

Yet, Marduk is not satisfied. Cambyses now recites a standardized prayer in which he reassures Marduk that despite what the god may think, he has not sinned, has not violated his religion and stayed true to his royal charter of nurturing his charge, Babylon. Miraculously, this magical prayer does the trick and the surly god’s mood turns. Speaking through the voice of the high priest (for high priests everywhere have a private line to their bosses), Marduk informs Cambyses that he has, in his infinite mercy, decided to let his father keep his job for another year. The stewardship of Babylon is summarily restored to the Persians.

Cambyses steps out of Marduk’s sanctuary, his royalty restored, mace and scepter in hand, glad that the ordeal is almost at an end. Almost – because a final humiliation remains.

Whack! The high priest plants a crucial second slap on the prince’s still stinging cheek. The blow so stuns Cambyses that it brings tears to his eyes. The courageous Prince of Persia, future ruler of the largest and most powerful state in the world, reduced to tears by a slap! Amazingly enough, the priests rejoice at the sight, for they have been watching Cambyses for precisely such a reaction. The tears are a sign of Marduk’s favor. The thicker the tears, the happier the god.

In a nation obsessed with foretelling the future, the tears of the king who would be slapped are the truest sign of good fortune to come. No amount of astrology, star gazing, soothsaying or sorcery can come close to the potency of this augury. And the universal relief it brings. For in Babylon, the ultimate harbinger of disaster, the dread beyond all dreads is the the king who would not be slapped.

For ritual details, refer to The Akitu Festival, by Julye Bidmead.


The Revolutionary Work Week

September 24, 2008


The French are famed for their work week. 35 grueling hours, intermingled with scrumptious lunches, glasses of wine, and the expectation of 6 glorious weeks of summer vacation. Life is pretty good if you are a French worker. But for all the stereotyped fun the rest of us overworked and plainly envious suckers poke at the French, the 35 hour week works well enough for them to build and operate the amazing TGV trains, the mighty Arianne space lifter and the ubiquitous Airbus (the latter two in partnership with their European brethren). Not only is your Dior and Chanel French, but so is your Dannon yogurt and the publisher of your World of Warcraft. And in spite of working less and spending a minimum of five more hours a week on eating and drinking than us Americans, the French aren’t nearly as fat.

The French had experimented with the length of their work week once before in their history, although not in a way you might expect. The revolutionaries who began separating head from aristocrat in 1784, wanted liberation from all the old ways. The scientists and rationalists among them held a particular peeve for the antiquated and often conflicting systems of measurement that hobbled their Age of Reason. With universal divisibility by the number 10 as their sworn goal, these visionaries had, by 1793, introduced the most telling contribution of the French Revolution to the world – the metric system. And they applied it not just to distances and volumes, but also to time. For in the new land of liberty, equality and fraternity, there was to be no place for the 7 day week. In addition to not being a factor of 10, the 7 day week had too many Biblical associations for the religiously neutral revolutionaries (as did the Notre Dame Cathedral, which like other churches, was re-christened a ‘Temple of Reason’). With a quick stroke of a reforming quill, on October 24th 1793, the French National Convention replaced the 7 day week with a 10 day one.

The reforms introduced by The French Republican Calendar were dramatic. A single year was split into 36 10-day weeks. The year continued to have 12 months, but like the lunar calendar, each was assigned an identical 30 days. Sensibly, the 360 day year was eschewed and the remaining 5 or 6 days tacked on at the end of the year as public holidays (what were they thinking?). But there were to be no January, February, March… in this brave new year. The newly liberated months now sported poetic names Germinal and Thermidor. And poor January lost more than its name. The French year now began on the Autumn Equinox. 

Clocks changed radically. No more would they strike 12! Their new faces were now divided into a metric compliant 10 hours! And the hours didn’t pass as quickly either. For 10 hours was all the French gave themselves in a day. The 24 hour day was gone! A day with 10 hours, each hour divided into 100 minutes and each minute into 100 seconds!

The metric system made logical sense in every way. Except when it came to time and the 10 day week. As you were no doubt quick to notice, the biggest implication of the 10 day week was that the weekend only came about every 10 days. The poor French men and women had won their liberty only to be cast into an institutional sweatshop where 9 straight days of work before a day of rest – was the law.

The French Republican Calendar hung around for nearly 12 years, until it was finally abolished by Le Empereur Napoleon in 1805. One day of rest in ten had proven so odious that there was little protest and much celebration at the return of the ancient cycle of seven. And their ancestor’s struggle for a little more rest was not forgotten by the children of modern France. In the year 2000, France wrote into law what everyone knew anyway – that working over lunch gives you indigestion and all work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy. 


Guarding Democracy

September 24, 2008


Democracies serve the will of the people. But without ceaseless vigilance, democracies can start serving the will of the few who are willing to turn them into something else. Putins can subordinate the will of the people to their own, and then convince them that they like it. Mugabes can embezzle their very mandate. Bushes can succeed Bushes and Gandhis can follow Gandhis to the throne. Democracies can be possessed by lobbyists, governments turned into funnels for personal fortune. But worst of all, democracies can cease to function at all. Legislation can be smothered by partisan bickering, the greater good can be sacrificed in favor of parochial myopia, democracy itself held hostage by pernicious politics.

The ancient Athenians used an astonishing last resort to guard their nascent democracy against such threats. If a politician came to wield too much power, started taking the people for granted, or became just too big for his boots, the Athenians could call for a special referendum on the errant leader. If two opposing leaders or factions paralyzed the work of government by ceasing to cooperate and compromise, the Athenians would hold the same special referendum on both, to break the deadlock.

On the appointed day, Athenian voters would head to the voting pens set up in their city square, the Agora. Next to the pens they would find stacks of pottery shards known as ostraka, which served as their ballots. Voters would take a shard of pottery and scratch the name of a candidate on its undecorated side, frequently including rude drawings of the candidate and other pithy commentary. They would then throw the shard into the waiting ostraka pen, with election officials watching closely to ensure they didn’t cheat by voting again.

If the citizens had voted to break a governmental logjam, the leader who lost would find himself banished from Athens for a period of 10 years. It was better for the government to do something, the citizens felt, than to do nothing at all. If the citizens had voted on a politician who had become too powerful, or a politician they were just plain sick of, he too could be banished from the Athens for 10 years. The Athenians strongly believed that a little time away from home would take care of the excessive influence, the cults of personality.

In this way, Athenians used the power of their ostraka to ostracize their fellow citizens at annually held ostracisms. Ostracism, they felt, could help restore and protect their democracy. They were only partially right. For although banished and excluded from direct involvement in the democracy, the rich and the powerful lost neither their wealth nor their networks of influence. The state did not confiscate any wealth or property, nor discriminate against the ostracized politician’s family in any way. The rich remained rich and could exercise their power, albeit weakened, at a distance.


When appearances meant everything (Part II)

September 24, 2008


A tale of Mughal India, ..
continued from Part I:

On September 6th, 1657, The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan awoke to discover that he could not pee. He had fallen victim to an overindulgence in a medieval Viagra that had interfered with his ability to urinate. The passion for a silky new Moorish slave girl had driven the ageing monarch to seek an injection of explosiveness into his tired libido. He had consumed quantities of stimulants and aphrodisiacs designed to restore his youthful ardor. Instead, he suffered the agony and ignominy of extreme urinary retention, his limbs swollen, his body bloated, the Emperor of the world reduced to a mere mortal. Or so was alleged by the rumors that arrived on horseback into Mughal cities and towns over the next several days – and spread rapidly beyond. Was the old man dying? Would he be dead soon? Was he dead already? No one really knew. All that was known for sure was that the Emperor had not been seen in public for an entire week! Even a passably healthy Emperor took pains to assure that the world that he lived. A complete absence of appearance did not bode well.

Dead or not – Shah Jahan’s sons were not about to wait to find out. The death of a father, or even the rumor of a death, was not a time of mourning, worry or concern for these imperial princes, but one of war, intrigue and survival. For the best that the losers in the struggle of succession could hope for was to have their eyes put out by the winner. And so, like lions who begin eating their prey while it is still alive – for fear of losing their share – Shah Jahan’s sons made their first moves. Moves that they had been planning all their lives. The horse messengers began racing all over the country, calling in favors, promising positions and gold, mobilizing secret agreements and regiments.

Shah Jahan’s need for his Moorish slave girl was perhaps understandable. Though he maintained a well stocked harem and multiple wives (most just seals on political alliances), he was, in many ways, a lonely man, and had been since the passing of his beloved Mumtaz – whose death in 1631 had left him distraught and alone. The couple had met and fallen in love as teenagers, and remained inseparable companions for over 19 years of marriage and permanent pregnancy. In 19 years of passionate bliss, Mumtaz had conceived and given birth to 12 children, until she had finally perished during the birth of their 13th child. It was presumed that the Emperor had turned to his Moorish temptress to ease any guilt or responsibility he felt for Mumtaz’s death. For the marble of the Taj Mahal he had built in her memory lacked the Moor’s fiery embrace and beguilingly soft skin.

September 14th, 1657 – the eight day since the Emperor’s had been last seen. As the nascent rebellion took hold in the Mughal Empire, the day’s petitioners gathered below the Red Fort’s ramparts, shielding in the shadows from the vicious sun, and gazed up at the window of audience with little hope. Many, if not most, prayed aloud for their monarch, as they had all week, but the prayers found no sympathetic God. Some had already abandoned their posts and begun to retire. But as the rest considered the option, they observed a movement in the audience window. A shout of “Jahanpanah!” went up among the faithful, and those who had drifted away came racing back. For framed in that ornate and intricately carved window stood a man.

Or what seemed like a man. He was dressed in imperial finery, in cloth of gold, with pearls and rubies and diamonds. By his side stood his functionaries, their strong hands supporting him, as he swayed, staggered and barely kept his feet. The man was old, much older than the man that the onlookers recalled. For in the passing week, their memory of their ruler had returned to earlier times, to times when his youth and good looks had been the subject of tale and verse – a man who had looked like an Emperor. This man in the window was weak and withered. This man did not have the appearance of a king. He scarcely had the appearance of a man. This imposter had the appearance of an old palace eunuch dressed up to look like a king!

It took several months for the stories of the eunuch in the window to fade. Shah Jahan eventually convinced his Empire that he was not dead. But he was too late. By June of 1658, he had been overthrown by his wily and cruel son, Aurangzeb, and cast into a prison in his own capital of Agra. His only consolation was that his prison had a view. For from within his comfortable chambers in the Agra Fort, Shah Jahan beheld a vista dominated by his masterpiece – The Taj.

The former Emperor lived on for a further nine years. Some say he died in disappointment, unable to fulfil his last dream – the construction of his own mausoleum – a second, Black Taj on the opposite side of Yamuna river, a perfect reflection of The White Taj, the two linked together by a single bridge. But his soul could take solace in the fact that upon his death, his son Aurangzeb buried him besides his wife in the Taj, where together they give audience to millions of onlookers every day.

And who was the mysterious Moorish girl who proved to be such a potent political catalyst? History does not record her fate. Nor of the inventor of that deadly aphrodisiac. It is not known if the girl remained with her Emperor – if merely to ease the boredom of incarceration. In fact, it is not known if the girl existed at all. Or if Shah Jahan had been laid low by an aphrodisiac or merely the flu. For these were times when rumor was fact and appearances meant everything.

For an account of this episode in Mughal history, refer to the colorful and occasionally tabloid memoirs of the Venetian travelers Manucci and Careri.


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