Jalal al-Din Rumi

Statue of Rumi in Buca Photo Credit- İncelemeelemani

The latest news is that Beyoncé named one of her new babies after a Persian poet.  Everyone is abuzz with discussions of who this man was and what exactly this means.  Although the poetry was written in the 13th century, it has gathered popularity in the west beginning in the early 21st century.  So who was Jalal al-Din Rumi?

Jalal al-Din Rumi was born September 30, 1207 in the city of Balkh, which is is in present day Afghanistan.  He lived with his family on this far eastern edge of the Persian Empire, and was raised in the tradition of his family as an Islamic jurist.  His father Baha ud-Din Walad was considered the “Sultan of the Scholars”.  Balkh was a center of Persian culture and Sufism.  There Rumi was exposed to the Persian poets Fariduddin Attar and Sani, who apart from his father were the most important influences on the young man.  When the Mongols led by Genghis Khan began invading, the family moved 2,000 miles to the west to Konya in Anatolia.  On the way to Konya, the family made the pilgrimage to Mecca and met Rumi’s idol, Fariduddin Attar, in the Iranian city of Nishapur.  Attar recognized the eighteen year old’s talent and gave Rumi a copy of his book Asrārnāma, or The Book of God,  a book about the entanglement of the soul in the material world.  This meeting and Attar’s work had a profound affect on Rumi’s later life and work.

In Konya, Baha ud-Din became the head of a madrassa, or religious school.  When he died in 1231, the twenty-five year old Rumi took his father’s place.  He also became an Islamic Jurist, issuing fatwas and giving sermons.  By this time, he had married twice and been widowed once and was the father of four children- three sons and a daughter.  A very respectable life.  However, things changed when he met Shams-e Tabrizi.  Shams was a dervish, or “God-man”, who had taken a vow of poverty.  He was a blunt man who was far below Rumi’s social class.  His nickname was “the Bird” because he could not stay in one place for very long.  Stories say that Rumi was teaching his students by a fountain and Shams crashed the lecture and threw Rumi’s books into the water.  Rumi was horrified as the books he was carrying included his father’s journals, and now they were ruined.  When asked why he did such a thing, Shams replied that now Rumi would have to live what he had been reading about.  Instead of infuriating Rumi, this inspired him.  Later he said that his true life and true poetry began at that meeting, and

“What I had thought of before as God, I met today in a human being.”

Not everyone shared Rumi’s appreciation for Shams. The fact that the two men were in such different social classes was a problem.  The two were not supposed to be interacting on a friendly level.  Plus Shams was irascible and had a terrible temper.  He was said to swear in front of Rumi’s children and generally be anti-social.  He was repeatedly driven away by Rumi’s disciples, and made a bitter enemy in one of Rumi’s sons, Ala al-Din.  One story says, that after being driven off by death threats, Rumi was despondent because he was so lonely for his teacher and friend.  Rumi got a harebrained idea, and married his young step daughter to the teacher to legitimize his presence in their home.  Young Keemia was around twelve and Shams had to be about sixty.  This was a bad idea all the way around.  Keemia later died of an unknown illness and Shams disappears.  Some stories say he reverted to his old wandering ways and ended up in India.  Other stories say he was killed for religious blasphemy.  Still others say he was killed by young Keemia’s step brother, Rumi’s son.  No one knows for sure.  Rumi is said to have gone looking for his lost friend, and wrote the verse:

Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!

Rumi’s mourning for his lost teacher and friend was transformed into a collection of poetry called, Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi or The Works of Shams Tabriz.  This was a collection of over 40,000 lyric verses of all types of Eastern-Islamic poetry and is considered one of the greatest works of Persian literature.  The last years of Rumi’s life, he spent with his scribe and favorite student, Hussam-e Chalabi.  Rumi dictated his masterwork, Masnavi-ye Ma’navi or Spiritual Verses, to Hussam-e Chalabi and it is considered one of his most personal works.  It is regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Koran.

Rumi died of an unknown illness on December 17, 1273 and was buried next to his father in Konya.  A shrine called Yeşil Türbe, or the Green Tomb, was constructed over his burial site.  His epitaph reads:  “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.”


Prester John


Prester John from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the time of the crusades, Europeans were looking for any allies in their battles against the Muslims for the Holy Land.  Medieval writings often feature a fabulously wealthy Christian king in the East.  This was Prester John.  He was believed to be a member of the Nestorian Church, which was an independent Eastern Christian church that did not fall under the purview of the patriarch in Constantinople.  He was supposed to be an ally against the Muslims for the crusaders to take advantage of.

The story of Prester John was first recorded by Bishop Otto of Freisling Germany in his Chronicon published in 1145.  It was based on a report from Bishop Hugh of Gerbal in Syria to the papal court at Viterbo, Italy.  According to the story recorded in the Chronicon, Prester John was a powerful Christian king who was the descendant of the Magi who visited the Christ Child.  He was also said to be a formidable fighter who defeated the Muslim kings of Persia in battle taking their capital of Ecbatana.  The only reason he did not recapture Jerusalem was because he could not cross the Tigris River.  There was no more on the story until a letter appeared in 1165.  Copies of a letter from Prester John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos began circulating.  In this letter, Prester John’s kingdom is described as having crystal clear rivers of emeralds, massive amounts of gold, majestic animals and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  This myth also morphed into having Prester John’s kingdom being next door to the Garden of Paradise.  A good ally to have.  This letter were so persuasive that Pope Alexander III sent a return letter addressed to Prester John in 1177.  It was being taken east by Alexander’s personal physician Philip.  It is addressed to “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.”  Nothing more is mentioned of Philip or what happened to him and the letter.

However, all of this was fictional.  It is thought that the battle being referred to was fought between the Mongol khan Yelu Dashi and the Seljuk sultan Sanjar in 1141.  The Mongol khans who fought in this battle were not Christians, but Buddhists.  However, many of their followers were Nestorian Christians.  It’s also possible that Europeans that were unfamiliar with Buddhists may have assumed they were another sect of Christianity.  The letter published in 1165 was fiction, however, it was translated from its original Latin into a variety of languages and distributed throughout Europe.  Then word returned from the Fifth Crusade that Prester John’s grandson, King David, was fighting the Saracens.  The problem?  It wasn’t King David conquering all these lands.  It was the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.  They tried to bend this new development around the legend by saying one of his favorite wives was a Nestorian Christian and that he was tolerant of other religious faiths as long as they didn’t make trouble.  However, this didn’t really fit the narrative and the legends moved away from Prester John being a central Asian king.

Some additional legends, linked Prester John to kingdoms in Africa even though the original story placed him in Asia.  Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a Christian land fueling the rumors.  In the 15th century, Italian and Portuguese explorers began searching for Prester John in Africa.  Portuguese explorers began connecting a kingdom in present-day Ethiopia with Prester John’s realm.  They made contact with the kingdom of Zara Yaqob, and decided this kingdom was the source of the wealth of Solomon.  Prester John was identified with the negus, or emperor, of the kingdom.  In fact, ambassadors from Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence and identified as representatives of Prester John.  They were extremely confused.

By this time, the legend was dying out as exploration of Africa and Asia by the Europeans were not finding this fabled kingdom.  However, the legend did inspire generations of explorers, soldiers and dreamers


Hürrem Sultan- From slave to queen

Born Aleksandra Ruslana Lisowska around 1502, little Nastia as she was known would never have dreamed she would rise to become a queen.  She was born in the town of Rohatyn in Polish Ruthenia, which is now in Western Ukraine.   Legend has it her father was an Orthodox priest.  Some time in the 1520’s, Nastia’s world turned upside down when she was captured by the Crimean Tartars at the tender age of 12.  Raids by the Tartars into this region were not uncommon, and Nastia was soon taken to the slave markets of Kaffa.  From there she went on to Istanbul, where she was selected for the sultan’s harem.  The sultan of the Ottoman Empire at this time was Süleyman the Magnificent.  He had just recently ascended the throne as the tenth Ottoman Sultan at a relatively young twenty-six.  He was described by Venetian envoy Bartolomeo Contari as “tall and slender but tough, with a thin and bony face. Facial hair is evident but only barely. The sultan appears friendly and in good humor. Rumor has it that Suleiman is aptly named, enjoys reading, is knowledgeable and shows good judgment.”

Young Nastia was sent to the Old Palace to be trained in palace etiquette.  There she was given the name Hürrem, which means “the smiling one” in Persian for her cheerful disposition.  From the moment Süleyman laid eyes on her, he was smitten.  Hürrem became his most prominent consort next to his two previous favorites, Gülfen and Mahidevran.  Mahidevran especially did not take to kindly to this, and Hürrem had rivals.  Mahidevran was the second ranking concubine in the hareem, and mother of the heir designate.  I’m sure she thought she could get rid of this young upstart in no time.  Mahidevran picked a fight with Hürrem and beat her badly, probably thinking that was that.  She did not count on Süleyman’s devotion.  Mahidevran and her son Mustafa were banished to the provincial capital of Manisa.  It was ostensibly to train the heir designate, but in reality it was to rid Hürrem of a rival.  Soon Hürrem was the favorite.  Nine months later, Hürrem and Süleyman’s first son, Mehmed, which gave her the title of Haseki, or mother of a prince.

Hürrem devoted herself to Süleyman and her new country.  She asked for instruction in the Islamic religion and eventually converted.  On her conversion day, he freed her and Hürrem was no longer a slave.  French historian Fontenelle tells this story, and if it is true this woman was brilliant.  Shortly after her conversion ceremony, Hürrem told Süleyman sadly that she was unable to have sexual relations with a man she was not married to according to her new religion.  He didn’t want her to sin, did he?  Süleyman certainly did not want to lead his beloved into sin and tried to abstain.  He lasted three days.  After that, he married Hürrem in a sumptuous formal ceremony that shocked the empire.  There was a 200 year old custom of the Ottoman imperial house that sultans did not marry their concubines.  They weren’t done busting traditions.  Usually to keep a woman from gaining too much power over the sultan and prevent feuds between blood brothers, a concubine was allowed to have only one son.  Hürrem and Süleyman had six children.  Traditionally, a concubine went with her son when he was old enough to a province.  Hürrem  stayed with Süleyman for the duration of her life, moving into his quarters in the Topkapi as the first woman to do so.  She was given the unprecedented title of Haseki Sultan, which put her on the same level as empresses consort in Europe.

Her new position gave her more access to greater education opportunities, and she began learning Ottoman language, mathematics, astronomy, geography, diplomacy, literature, and history.  She also had a great interest in alchemy and chemistry.  In fact, in the excavation of Edirne Palace, her laboratory and tools for perfume making was discovered.  This coupled with her great influence over Süleyman, sent rumors flying that she was a witch.  Anyone caught repeating these slanders were punished harshly.  However, this was a court of intrigues.   Hürrem wanted her children on the throne not Mustafa the son of her old rival.  After Süleyman had been on the throne 46 years, there were rumblings that Mustafa was going to take power.  Rumor had it Hürrem encouraged Süleyman to take Mustafa out.  Whether or not she did, Mustafa was executed and it was Hürrem’s son who eventually took the throne.  However, she did not flinch when her younger son Beyazid stirred up a riot against his father and was eventually executed.  The Ottoman Empire was a tough room.

There is evidence Hürrem used her great influence with her husband in state matters.  In a previous post, we discussed how her relationship with the wife of Sigismund I of Poland may have saved her old homeland from invasion (Please see this post for more information:  http://www.historynaked.com/bona-sforza/ )  It is also believed she may have influenced Süleyman to exert greater control on Crimean Tartar slave raiding.  Known in Europe as Roxelana, or the The Ruthenian One, ambassadors knew she had her husband’s ear.  Like her husband, Hürrem was a prolific builder and commissioned two Koranic schools, fountains, several mosques, a soup kitchen and a women’s hospital.  Her bath, the Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamam, is still in use today.

The türbe (mausoleum) of Hürrem Sultan in Süleymaniye Mosque at Fatih, Istanbul.

Hürrem passed from an unknown illness on April 15, 1558.  Süleyman was devastated and she was buried in a domed mausoleum adjacent to his own.  In honor of her cheerful nature, her mausoleum depicts the garden of paradise.  After her death, Süleyman wrote poetry bemoaning his loss and loneliness.

My resident of solitude, my everything, my beloved, my shining moon
My friend, my privacy, my everything, my shah of beautifuls, my sultan
My life, my existence, my lifetime, my wine of youngness, my heaven
My spring, my joy, my day, my beloved, my laughing rose.
My plant, my sugar, my treasure, my delicate in world
My saint, my Joseph, my everything, my Khan of my heart´s Egypt.
My Istanbul, My Karaman, my land of Rum
My Bedehşan, my Kıpchak, my Bagdad, my Horosan
My long-haired, my bow like eyebrow, my eye full of discord, my patient
My blood is on your hands if I die, mercy o my non-Muslim
I am a flatterer near your door, I always praise you
Heart is full of sorrow, eye is full of tears, I am Muhibbi and I am happy.

Süleyman followed her less than ten years later and was succeeded by their third son, Selim II, as his two older brothers predeceased him.  


The Loves of John Smith

mtiwnja4njmzotc0mtk1nzi0As we discussed in our previous post on Pocahontas (http://www.historynaked.com/pocahontas/), explorer John Smith had his life saved by the Native American princess.  Some historians have cast doubt on this story as the only source we have is a letter Smith wrote to Queen Anne describing the event in 1616 when Pocahontas journeyed to England.  Smith’s only journals from that time make no mention of the event and describe the Powhatan people as nothing but friendly.  What is known is Smith had a thing for princesses as another one made a significant impact on his life.

Before his journeys to the New World, John Smith was a bonafide pirate.  As a boy, Sir Francis Drake had been his hero, and in 1596 went to the Continent to join a company of English mercenaries.  He fought in France and in the Netherlands, picking up practical military skills and education.  He learned riding and Italian from Theodore Palaeologus, the riding master to the Earl of Lincoln.  Theodore was also an interesting character and was the last of the Byzantines.  (For more information on Theodore, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/constantinople-barbados-via-cornwall-strange-fate-last-byzantines/)  Along with his knowledge, Theodore also passed on to John a hatred of the Turks.  With a burning desire to strike a blow against the infidel, John found himself back on the Continent in 1600 looking for “brave adventures”.  En route to Hungary to join the Austrian army against Turks, his ship sank.  John made it to an island off Cannes, and was eventually picked up by a Captain La Roche, who made his living plundering ships in the Mediterranean.  This adventure in piracy  made John Smith a wealthy man and allowed him to finally make it to Graz and join the Austrian campaign against the Turks.

With the Austrians, John made a name for himself as a creative and resourceful soldier.  At the battle of Limbach, he was able to use an innovative system of signals to communicate with the besieged garrison in the town.  Then fooled the Turks into thinking the Austrians were attacking to the west by using string, cloth and powder to create the illusion of an army of flintlock muskets.  Then the real army attacked from the east after the Turks repositioned their troops.  At the siege of Alba Regals, he created “fiery dragons”, which were pots filled with gunpowder, covered with pitch, brimstone and turpentine.  Then these were coated with musket bullets.  These were then set on fire and flung into the Turkish lines.  To top this, he defeated three Turkish champions in single combat and won the right to put “three Turkish heads” on his shield.

This is all well and good, I hear you saying, but where is the princess?  Be patient.  I’m getting there.  After the siege of Alba Regals, he was wounded in a minor skirmish with the Tartars and left for dead.  From there, he was captured and taken to the slave market and in John’s words, “we all sold for slaves, like beasts in a market-place; where every merchant, viewing their limbs and wounds, caused other slaves to struggle with them to try their strength.”  He was bought by a Turkish nobleman, who gifted him to his Greek mistress in Constantinople, one Princess Charatza Tragabigzanda.  Charatza became smitten with her new English slave and even made plans to marry him.  She sent him to her brother to “to learne the language, and what it was to be a Turke, till time made her Master of her selfe.”  However, Charatza’s brother had other plans.  Instead of training him as a bureaucrat as he promised, he made John the slave to the Christian slaves, which was the lowest position in the household.  John was abused and mistreated terribly, and began to look for ways to escape.  One day, he was out threshing wheat and the brother came out to inspect his work and began beating him.  John snapped, and beat the brother with the threshing bat killing him.  He then stole his former master’s clothes and horse and got the heck out of Dodge leaving Charatza behind.

After he escaped, John Smith got bit by the colonization bug and headed to Virginia.  Perhaps he thought it was good a place as any to escape any slave hunters.  There he met Pocahontas and then returned home after a spark from a friend’s tobacco pipe ignited Smith’s gunpowder bag as he slept in Jamestown.  The explosion wounded him severely and blew off his genitals.  He barely survived the two month journey home.  He did return to the New World in 1615, and tried to start the first permanent colony in New England.  Unfortunately, his ships were ravaged by pirates and storms and it didn’t stick.  He did try to name a spot near the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire Tragabigzanda, after Charatza, but that didn’t stick either.  It’s nice to know he didn’t forget her though.

Magic Beans-  The History of Coffee

13620170_300103160331773_3065572534168637032_nJava.  Cup of Joe.  My reason for living.  These are all euphemisms for that most delicious of things-  a cup of coffee.  But how did coffee become the popular pick me up it is today?

There is a legend that coffee was first discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi around 850.  While out with his flock, he noticed that his goats were eating red cherry-like berries off a plant and afterward they were always frolicking and full of energy.  Kaldi tried the fruit and had a similar reaction.  A local monk observed Kaldi and his goats, and took some of the fruit back to his monastery and shared it with his fellow monks.  After eating the berries, they also spent the night awake and alert.  Whether this legend is true or not, we do know that the Galla tribe of Ethiopia mixed the coffee berry with ghee, a clarified butter, making a candy.  They gave these coffee infused bars to their warriors before battle because they were believed to make them invisible.  In present times, similar bars are still eaten in Kaffa and Sidamo, Ethiopia.

In the 11th century, coffee spread to Yemen from Ethiopia.  At this time, the drink was made from the whole fruit, including the beans and the hull.  The physician and philosopher Avicenna Bukhara writes of the medicinal properties of this drink.  The word in Yemen was “qahwah”, which was a romantic term for wine or sometimes “qahwa”, that which prevents sleep.  It was not until the 13th century that coffee people began to roast the coffee beans, and make a drink we would recognize as coffee.  From there, the drink reached Istanbul, where it was called “kahveh” in Turkish.  The Ottoman Governor of Yemen, Ozdemir Pasha brought it back to the court of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.  In Istanbul, the coffee became more refined.  The beans were roasted over a fire, finely ground then slowly cooked with water.  Then spices like clove, cardamom, cinnamon and anise were added.  

Coffee  became very popular in Muslim society for its stimulant powers, making it perfect for staying awake during long prayer sessions.  It also became an important part of palace cuisine.  There was a Chief Coffee Maker, who prepared coffee for the Sultan and was renowned for his ability to keep secrets and give counsel.  Many Chief Coffee Makers rose to the position of Grand Vizier.  What became fashionable at court, soon spread to the homes of the nobility down to the common people of Istanbul.  Coffeehouses opened, first in the district of Tahtakale then all over Istanbul, and became an integral portion of city life.  They became social hotspots as people stopped in to read, play games and discuss literature and poetry.  Coffee is so important that it is legal for a wife to divorce her husband if he does not provide her with her daily quota.  However, there was a coffee backlash.  In 1511, the Governor of Mecca outlaws the beverage and coffeehouses as far away as Istanbul are shut down.  People riot and unrest spreads across the Ottoman empire until the Sultan of Cairo declare it sacred and the Governor of Mecca beheaded.  Do not come between a man and his morning coffee!

Coffee makes its way west and appears in Venice in 1570.  It is sold in lemonade stands to the very wealthy for medicinal purposes.  Then coffeehouses like in Istanbul began popping up all over Italy.  It was there Monsieur de la Roque, the French ambassador, first had a taste.  Declaring it a “magical beverage”, he imported it to Marseilles and then on to Paris.  In Paris, the ambassador from Sultan Mehmet IV, Hossohbet Nuktedan Suleyman Aga further popularizes it.  Guests flocked to his home for witty conversation over steaming cups of coffee.  Paris’s first real coffee house, Cafe de Procope, opened in 1686.  The literati of the age, such as Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire, could all be found sipping a cup there.  Coffeehouses began opening on every street in Paris.  Vienna and London followed suit and coffeehouses were soon a familiar site in both cities.  In London, they were called “penny universities”, where patrons could get an impromptu lesson in art, law, literature, philosophy and politics for the entrance fee of a penny.  These coffee houses were considered a hotbed of controversial thought and revolution.  Tea did not become popular until the late 18th century.  Before that, coffee was what the Brits drank.

Far from being enraptured with its deliciousness, the Dutch smelled profit in the coffee bean.  Prior to 1600, all coffee beans coming from the East were parched and boiled, rendering them infertile.  Therefore, no new coffee crops could be planted anywhere else.  In 1600, Baba Budan, an Indian pilgrim, left Mecca with fertile beans fastened to a strap across his abdomen.  From these smuggled beans, the European coffee trade was born.  The Dutch began planting coffee in their colonies of Sri Lanka, Ceylon and Java.  Throughout the 17th century, the new sources of coffee beans fueled the creation of coffeehouses in almost all major European cities.

During the American Revolution, it became patriotic to switch from English supplied tea, making it much more popular.  The Civil War and other conflicts also boosted coffee consumption as the soldiers used it much like the Ethiopian warriors in the 11th century.  The caffeine kept them awake and made them feel good.  Americans quickly became enthralled to the delicious beverage.  Theodore Roosevelt was said to have drunk a gallon of coffee a day, and have coined the Maxwell House slogan “Good to the last drop”.  

So the next time you pick up your Starbucks, thank a goat herder named Kaldi


Sources available on request