Six Kings

When Islam first stepped onto the world stage in the seventh century CE, it came as a surprise to the great powers of the day, the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire and the Sassanian Persian Empire. A powerful religious, political, and social movement sprang up from among the Arabs, the fragmented desert-dwelling peoples who had been pushed back and forth by the wars between Rome and Persia for centuries.

Muslims of the early Islamic period were aware that they were stepping into a world of powerful forces, and some examples of early Islamic art reflect the desire to stake a claim for Islam’s place in the world. For example, a wall painting from an early Islamic palace, in modern-day Jordan, shows how early caliphs positioned themselves in relation to the larger world.

This painting, known as the “Six Kings” painting, is in very poor condition today, partly because of some European travelers who saw it in the early twentieth century and tried to chisel it off the wall and take it with them. (This is why we can’t have nice things.) Working from the painting in its current damaged state and an impressionistic copy made by those travelers, though, we can get a sense of what the original looked like.

Six Kings painting, photopgraph by Ghazi Bisheh via Wikimedia (Qasr Amra, Jordan; 710-740 CE; wall painting)
Copy of Six Kings painting via Wikimedia (1907; by Alois Musil)

Six royal figures stand together, all gesturing toward the caliph’s throne. The six figures were originally labeled in both Arabic and Greek. While not all of them can be identified now, we can tell that they include the Byzantine emperor, the Sassanian Persian emperor, the Visigothic king of Spain, and the king of Axum, a nation in what is today Ethiopia that was a powerful political and commercial state at the time.

This painting comes from the early 700s, a time when Islam was barely a century old but the caliphate had already become a major world power. By placing these figures on the wall, the caliphs were placing themselves among the great powers of the day, even positioning themselves as leaders of a world whose boundaries stretched from Spain to Persia and Constantinople to the horn of Africa. That was no small claim for such a young polity to make. The message was clear: Islam had arrived and was ready to be taken seriously as a world power.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Visual Inspiration: Dark Nights in the North

During my years in the U.S., I’ve been asked more than one variation of the question “Is it always cold?” in Finland. (The short answer, of course, is No; the long answer is It depends on your definition, and when and where in Finland you are. It CAN be cold, but “always”, no.)

What southern people don’t usually realize is that it’s not the winter cold but the long dark that affects you most. (Of course, as a counterpoint, we do also have the magical light summer nights.)

Besides, the dark isn’t all bad. Away from light pollution there is the Milky Way on clear nights, and the further north you go, the higher are your chances of seeing northern lights. The latter can range from faint whisps to quite a light show.

For your potential worldbuilding inspiration, here is a small selection of Flickr photos roughly from around where I grew up, including travel destinations in the north.

Flickr Juho Holmi Ritosuo 2

Flickr Juho Holmi Northern Lights over Oulu

Flickr Timo Newton-Syms Northern Lights

Flickr Heikki Holstila Northern Lights II

For me, and indeed most other Finns, winter starts some time in November to December, depending on the temperatures each year. And even though technically I didn’t grow up with the polar night (when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all), it was quite dark especially before the snow fell—which is exactly why getting snow on the ground was such a relief.

Flickr pikkuanna Rantavehnää

Flickr pikkuanna Hiihtolatu

Images via Flickr: Ritosuo 2 and Northern Lights over Oulu by Juho Holmi (CC BY-ND 2.0). Northern Lights by Timo Newton-Syms (CC BY-SA 2.0). Northern Lights II by Heikki Holstila (CC BY-ND 2.0). Rantavehnää and Hiihtolatu by pikkuanna (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Green and Orange Iridescent Turkeys

A lot of us in the U.S. and with U.S. connections are going to sitting down to a turkey dinner this week. A lot of us who live in the woodsier parts of North America also know that the farm-raised domesticated turkeys we put on the table are not the only kind of turkey out there. We have local flocks of wild turkeys around us who periodically come through our yard and entertain us with their antics. (We’re less entertained by the, shall we say, “fertilizer” they leave behind, but that has its uses, too.)

But did you know that there is a variety of wild turkeys found in the Yucatan Peninsula that has blue heads and irididescent turquoise-green and bronze-orange plumage? I didn’t until I stumbled across a reference to them this week. Look at these beauties!

Ocellated turkey, photograph by George Harrison via Wikimedia
Ocellated turkey, photograph by TonyCastro via Wikimedia

Ocellated turkeys, as they are called, are an important part of the local cuisine in addition to being extraordinary to look at.

The next time you’re writing a fantasy world and looking to spice up the local fauna, why not add some big shimmery-winged birds–that could end up roasted or stewed on the dinner table, too?

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Just a Happy Little Sea Monster

Wherever you want it to be, there it will be.

Sea monster, photograph by Carole Raddato via Wikimedia (Casa del Drago, Caulonia, Italy; 3rd c. BCE, mosaic)

 

This particular sea monster is in a mosaic from a house in the ancient Greek city of Caulonia in southern Italy from the third century BCE. Ancient depictions of sea monsters like this one often have long, snaky bodies, spiky fins, broad tails, and wings. These various pieces may have been cobbled together in the imagination from scattered sightings of whales, dolphins, sharks, squid, and other large sea creatures.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Visual Inspiration: Organic Shapes in a Garden Cottage

This ensuite cottage in Pali Hill, Mumbai, sits within a garden and literally brings the nature to your side. There are doors and windows, but both are oval or roundish, and even the former are see-through.

The White Room Garden Room Bed

It was created by the India-based architectural studio The White Room, run by Nitin Barchha and Disney Davis. The organic shapes immediately have an otherworldly effect—at least I’ve never been in and rarely seen a house like this.

The White Room Garden Room Entry Hall

The White Room Garden Room TV

And here’s the ensuite bathroom:

The White Room Garden Room Ensuite

I do have a vague recollection of maybe seeing something like this in Star Trek somewhere. Other than that, the closest existing visuals that come to mind are sets Weta Workshop created for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. It would be nice to see—or read of—more interiors that deviate so starkly from our own.

Found via Colossal.

Images by The White Room

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Skeleton Flowers

There’s this amazing white flower, Diphylleia grayi, whose petals turn transparent in the rain!

Minkara Jiro Skeleton Flower Transparent Blossom

The perennial is sometimes called skeleton flower for good reason. According to My Modern Met, they grow on moist, wooded mountainsides in the colder regions of East Asia and Japan.

My goodness! I could’ve never seen this—wouldn’t have known to look for this—with my own eyes if it weren’t for the Internet.

Found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr. Visit My Modern Met for more photos!

Image by Jiro at Minkara

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Living in a Science Fictional Present: Food from Air, Water from Sunlight

“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” is my favorite line from the movie The Martian. The amazing thing about our species is that we do that every day, and every once in a while it pays off in a phenomenal way. Below are two cases that have the potential to do just that.

Researchers at the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. have created a process for making protein from air. Specifically, it uses carbon dioxide, water, and electricity, plus added nutrients.

Solar Foods Solein Protein Powder Sm

Apparently they’ve had a test installation running since June. The resulting protein powder, dubbed Solein, looks like flaky meal and reportedly tastes like wheat.

Read more at Yle news (Finnish only), or in English at The Guardian or Solar Foods website.

Professor Peng Wang from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia lead a study introducing a strategy to produce fresh water. Essentially, a distillation unit attached to photovoltaic panels evaporates seawater at relatively low temperatures more efficiently than conventional solar stills and yet generates electricity at the same time.

BBC News Wenbin Wang Solar Panel Water Purifier Concept

More at BBC News and journal Nature Communications.

Images: Solein protein powder by Solar Foods. Combined solar panel and water purifier by Wenbin Wang via BBC News.

Black Mermaids Aren’t Far-Fetched

A little while ago there was an Internet brou-ha-ha over Disney’s decision to cast singer Halle Bailey as Ariel in their upcoming live action version of The Little Mermaid. The harrumph is due to Bailey’s skin color.

I say the uproar is silly—it’s a fairytale, and if there’s one carved-in-stone-truth about fairytales it’s that they must and do change with the times. (Besides, I haven’t heard Bailey sing, but apparently she’s got an amazing voice. Scratch that: here’s a video clip of her singing “Unforgettable”, and her voice is indeed awesome. Talent is talent despite the shell it comes in.)

But in case someone’s arguing how black mermaids aren’t historical or some other claptrap (not even starting on mermaids being fictional to begin with), allow me to present a statue of one:

Smithsonian Dona Fish Statue Angola

This statue depicts Dona Fish, part of the many Mami Wata traditions of Africa. As a water spirit that straddles earth and water, she often appears with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish—i.e., just like a (western) mermaid.

Smithsonian had an exhibit on Mami Wata, and some materials are still available online. I encourage you to visit.

Found via Mahealani Uchiyama on Facebook.

Image: Dona Fish, photo by Don Cole via Smithsonian National Museum of African Art  (Ovimbundu peoples, Angola; c. 1950s-1960s; wood, pigment, metal, mixed media)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Ancient Underground City of Derinkuyu

The Derinkuyu (also known as Malakopi) underground city is situated in the historical area of Cappadocia, which is in Central Anatolia in modern-day Turkey. And it’s pretty astounding.

Apparently, underground cities were A Thing thereabouts: according to Wikipedia, there are over 200 of them. Looking at the landscape, it’s no wonder.

Flickr Anthony G Reyes Derinkuyu Pigeon Valley

Much of the rock is easily accessible, i.e., not covered by layers and layers of vegetation, and there are plenty of rock faces to carve into.

The first mentions of underground dwellings in Anatolia come from Xenophon’s Anabasis (c. 370 BCE), but they were probably built much earlier as places of refuge from attacks. Derinkuyu seems to have been in use for millenia: the last recorded use was at least as late as 1909.

According to a tourism site, there are about 600 entrances to the underground Derinkuyu, and some can be closed with a door resembling a mill stone.

Flickr Dan Merino Derinkuyu Stone Doorway

Underground City in Cappadocia

In addition to tunnels and rooms themselves, there are other notable features. There are stairs, ventilation shafts, wells, and storage areas with nooks and crannies of various shapes, including wine troughs.

Underground City in Cappadocia

Flickr Helen Cook Derinkuyu Wine Recepticles

Clearly some areas were left in quite rough shape.

Flickr jyl4032 Derinkuyu Unnamed View

Flickr Patrick Barry Derinkuyu Room w Woman

Others were carefully detailed. For example, there is a room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Flickr Takehiko Ono Derinkuyu Vaulted Room

At its largest, Derinkuyu seems to have been able to house 20,000 people and their livestock and supplies.

Found via Ticia Verveer on Twitter.

Images: Cappadocia: Derinkuyu and Pigeon Valley 2015 by Anthony G. Reyes on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0). Stone doorway by Dan Merino on Flickr (CC NY-ND 2.0). Stairs down by David Welch on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Two levels with steps and corridors by David Welch on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Wine recepticles by Helen Cook on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Unnamed view of rough corridor by jyl4032 on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0). Room with a woman for scale by Patrick Barry on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Vaulted room by Takehiko Ono on Flickr (CC BY-ND-NC 2.0).

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Building a Castle From the Ground Up

An unusual and ambitious project in experimental archaeology has been under way in France since 1997 and will soon reach completion: the construction of a castle entirely using the technology and techniques available in the thirteenth century.

Castle Guédelon is an attempt to recreate the work of medieval castle construction from the quarrying of stone and cutting of timber to the finishing of the completed structure. The construction materials come from local sources and are brought to the site using only the technology available in the thirteenth century where they are assembled according to plans for a typical small French castle of the period. Laborers on the site even wear recreations of period clothes for a fuller immersion in the historical realities of building.

A full fictional backstory has been created for this castle, conceiving it as the home of a local minor noble. Work is imagined to have begun in 1229, and this imaginary timeline helps guide the details of the plan and its construction. The project is expected to be complete in 2020 (or 1252, in the castle’s imaginary timeline).

The site is open to the public. Revenue from visitors helps finance the construction project. This is an extraordinary piece of experimental archaeology with the potential to provide valuable insights into the practical realities of large building projects in the pre-modern world.

Images: Towers and wall under construction, photograph by Christophe.Finot via Wikimedia. Great hall near completion, photograph by Paul Hermans via Wikimedia. Blacksmith at work, photograph by Francois de Dijon via Wikimedia.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.