Archive for the ‘1300s’ Category


Kilwa (900s to 1700s), also called Quiloa or Kilwa Kisiwani, was the richest city in eastern Africa from 1000 to 1500. Today no one lives there. It is just some broken down buildings in a nearly forgotten corner of Africa.

Kilwa stood on an island on the coast of what is now south-eastern Tanzania. Then it was in the land of the Zanj. Only the old buildings remain. Even the book that once told its story, the Kilwa Chronicle, is lost (though parts of it appear elsewhere). But the society of Kilwa has lived on, becoming the pattern for Swahili-speaking Africa.

Kilwa was the first city in eastern Africa to have a domed building, the city’s great mosque. It also had its largest stone building, the palace of Husuni Kubwa with a hundred rooms.

Kilwa grew rich by trading the gold, iron and men of Africa for the riches of the east: the cloth and jewels of India, the porcelain of China and the spices of the Indies.

It was a beautiful city built of stone and coral. Ibn Battuta, the Marco Polo of the Arab world, arrived there in 1331. He was amazed by its beauty.

The people were black Muslims who spoke Swahili. But by the time the Portuguese arrived in 1500 half the people were Christians from India and Abyssinia.

The city was founded by Ali bin al Hasan. He came in the 900s on a ship from Shiraz (south-western Persia).

Kilwa was as far south as Arab traders would go. Like Timbuktu, Kilwa got rich by controlling the trade between the Arabs and its part of Africa.

Its glory days came to an end in 1500 when the Portuguese arrived. It was Cabral who first came, on the same voyage in which he discovered Brazil. Two years later Vasco da Gama arrived and asked for tribute. In 1505 Francisco de Almeida came and destroyed the city, taking it outright. He built Gereza, a fort that later became a prison.

Some years later the Portuguese lost Kilwa to the Arabs. Later it was ruled by Zanzibar. But the city never recovered: the Portuguese had taken control of trade with the east.

In the 1700s Kilwa did see something of its old wealth return by selling slaves to Brazil. But then in the early 1800s the British brought an end to even that. Kilwa died. There was no reason to go there any more.

You can still see the remains of the mosque, the Kubwa palace, the old Portuguese fort and some other buildings. They are falling apart with the wind and the rain and the years.

It is not a tourist attraction, though the curious do show up from time to time.

In 1981 UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site, one of the several hundred places in the world worth preserving – not that UNESCO has any money to save what is left of Kilwa.

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Byzantine empire


The Byzantine Empire (476-1453) never called itself that. That is a name made up by the French 400 years later. The Byzantines called themselves Romans: when Rome fell, in 476, the richer, eastern, Greek part of the Roman empire still stood. It did not fall for good till nearly a thousand years later in 1453. Its glory days were from 500 to 1000.

There is no real break between the Roman and Byzantine empires – they are just names. But because the Byzantine empire was Greek and Christian it is hard to see it as the same empire that Augustus had founded. And yet even Justinian, its most famous ruler, spoke mostly Latin and, unlike us, considered the loss of the west as only a passing thing.

At the heart of the empire stood the city of Constantinople. It was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Constantine I had founded it in 330 as the “New Rome”. It became the seat of Roman power in the east.

Just as the law, religion and ways of Rome form the foundation of the West, so the Byzantine empire forms the foundation of eastern Europe and especially Russia. Russia is the daughter of the Byzantine empire and Moscow the third Rome.

The Western system of laws (except for the English-speaking world, which follows common law) is Byzantine. Justinian made Roman law into something that can apply to Christian society in his Corpus juris civilis.

The Byzantine empire was the universal state of the Christian world until two things happened:

  1. Charlemagne was made the ruler of the west in 800 by the pope.
  2. The Christian church broke in two in 1054 into Catholic and Orthodox churches.

From this point on the Byzantine empire was simply a Greek empire. Even its religion was no longer a universal faith.

In the 500s Justinian sent Belasarius to take back the west. He conquered quite a bit of it, but he left the cities of Italy in ruins. Most of what he conquered was soon lost.

The First Crusade was called in 1095 to save the empire: Romanus IV lost the battle of Manzikert to the Turks and was in danger of losing all of Anatolia and Constantinople itself. The Crusaders drove back the Turks before going on to the Holy Land to conquer kingdoms of their own.

The Fourth Crusade broke the empire’s back. The Crusaders took over Constantinople in 1204 and set up the Latin empire. It was short-lived – the Byzantines took back Constantinople in 1261. But from 1261 till 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, the empire was no longer an empire – just a kingdom centred on Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade also destroyed a great deal of Greek learning and literature.

Better dates for the Byzantine Empire would be from 395 to 1204. That is when it was an empire and when it had its own emperors. As late as 395 the western and eastern Roman Empire still had a common emperor.

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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the famous poet of Florence, Italy who wrote the “Divine Comedy”. It tells of a journey through the worlds of the afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. He is the greatest Italian poet of all time. So far.

Dante wrote works in both Latin and Italian, showing that Italian and not just Latin could be a language of high art. The Divine Comedy, in fact, is the first great work of art in the West that was written in neither Latin nor Greek. His use of Italian helped to shape the language.

Dante is led through hell and purgatory by Virgil and through heaven by Beatrice, the love of his life who died young. There Dante meets many famous people, all put in their proper places in the afterlife according to their sins or saintliness:

  • hell: devils, unbelievers, sinners, Homer, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Caesar, Ptolemy, Galen, Averroes, Cleopatra, Alexander, Nicholaus III, Odysseus, Muhammad, Brutus, Judas, Satan
  • purgatory: the repentant, Cato, Dante, Cain, Adrian V, Statius
  • heaven: angels, saints, Aquinas, Augustine, Francis, Dominic, Peter, James, John, Beatrice, Bernard, Mary, Christ

The sin which will put Dante in purgatory is his desire to be famous.

Note that Statius, the Latin poet of the first century, worshipped the Roman gods as far as we know, but Dante supposes that he converted to the Christian faith sometime before his death.

Although it is a work of fiction it is based on the best knowledge of his day. In fact, it beautifully presents in verse the same view of the world that Aquinas wrote about in his long books of philosophy.

According to Dante, hell is under the earth, purgatory is a great mountain in what we call the South Pacific, on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem, and heaven is the heavens from the Moon up to God Himself, who is beyond the stars, outside the universe, outside of space and time. As Dante confesses, much of heaven is beyond the power of language.

The southern island of Marotiri in French Polynesis - the closest thing to Dante's Mount Purgatory.

The southern island of Marotiri in French Polynesia – the closest thing to Dante’s Mount Purgatory.

At age 37 Dante lost everything: he was out of town when the party of the Black Guelphs took over Florence. As a White Guelph he could never return to Florence and spent the rest of life in Ravenna where he wrote the “Divine Comedy”.

Dante greatly admired Virgil, of whom he said, “Honour and light of the other poets, you are my master and my author, you are alone the one from whom I draw the beautiful style for which I am honoured.”

His house still stands in Florence.

Dante influenced the English poet Blake, among others.

Dante assumed that his readers knew about the history of Italy during the 1200s (especially the history of Florence) and about ancient writers, especially Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid and the Bible (as did most writers in the West from 1250 to 1650). If you have not read these, then read Dante with footnotes if you can. If you cannot, still read him!

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