Ancient Damascus: What We Might Lose Next

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

Damascus: the Jupiter temple (III A.C.) in front of Omayyad mosque

Ruins of the Jupiter Temple at the entrance of Al-Hamidiyah Souq. The postcard souq was just to the left.

This week’s destruction of the temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, has brought the Islamic State’s brutality into the international spotlight once again, just like they wanted it to. I’m grateful that at least I got to see the place before it was destroyed. I’ve written about it in my post Memories of Palmyra before ISIS.

Palmyra isn’t just a unique archaeological site, it’s strategically important too. Located at a crossroads in eastern Syria, from there it’s possible for ISIS to supply all their operations in that sector, including their push for the Syrian capital of Damascus.

ISIS is already on the outskirts of Damascus and is renewing military operations there. If they take the city, many more antiquities would be in danger.

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The Guanches: Prehistoric Culture of the Canary Islands

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

Guanche idol. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Guanche idol. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier this summer I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks working on Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. This island chain is owned by Spain and sits just off the coast of Western Sahara. Besides having my first flying lesson, I got to drink lots of wine explore the island’s culture and history. In prehistoric times, the Canary Islands were home to a native people called the Guanche. While they had no writing of their own, some of their language has survived in the local dialect and has similarities to Berber. For thousands of years they kept their culture intact, being visited by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, and Arabs but remaining uncolonized until the Spanish landed in 1402.

The Guanches came to the islands by 1000 BC, although some archaeologists claim they arrived much earlier than that. They survived by a mixture of farming and fishing and were divided into several small kingdoms. Each island was fairly isolated from the others and in fact Guanche is only the term for the people of Tenerife. The other islands each had their own distinct term but Guanche has now become the general term.

Sadly, the Guanches suffered a common fate of colonized peoples. Many died off from war and disease, or merged into the Spanish community through marriage. A significant percentage of modern Canary Islanders boast Guanche blood and names. The coolest survival from those times is Silbo, a whistling language that you can see on this video. The sharp whistles used in Silbo carry far across the mountains and valleys of these rough islands and were a common means of communication until very recent times.

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The Petrie Museum, London’s Overlooked Egyptology Treasure Trove

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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Stone bottle with the names of Rameses II and Queen Neferari, Dynasty XIX, 1295-1186 BC.

London is full of museums. While visitors swarm to the Big Three of the British Museum, the Tate Modern, and the National Gallery, there are dozens more that are worth visiting. One that’s of interest to anyone with a taste for history is the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London.

Most international visitors have never heard of this place and head on over to the British Museum to see its stunning collection of mummies and statues. While that experience is hard to beat, I actually prefer the Petrie Museum. The British Museum is a bit of a victim of its own success, and it’s difficult to stand and enjoy the artwork without being trampled by hordes of visitors.

The two museums also have different purposes. The British Museum focuses on Egypt’s Greatest Hits, with lots of gold, fine artwork and, of course, the ever-popular preserved people. The Petrie Museum is a study museum, where Egyptology students come to compare large numbers of objects packed into the cases and see how they changed over time. Cases have drawers underneath that can be pulled out to view more examples. The collection includes some 80,000 items from both Egypt and Nubia, two of Africa’s greatest ancient civilizations.

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The Altarpiece of the Virgin of the Milk, the Breast of Spanish Renaissance Art

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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Photo copyright Sean McLachlan.

In a previous post about Salamanca, Spain, I talked about Salamanca cathedral’s rich collection of Medieval and Renaissance art, inlcuding a splended retablo and some rare wall paintings. Like many cathedrals in this country, it also houses a small museum of some of its treasures. One of the most unusual items is the Altarpiece of the Virgin of the Milk.

It dates to the second half of the 16th century and was produced by an unknown artist. At its center is a breastfeeding Virgin, “La Virgen de la Leche,” part of a tradition of such depictions dating back to at least the 12th century. She is surrounded by other images detailing her Bible story and also related religious figures. Above is her Coronation. On the upper left is the Annunciation, and to the upper right the Archangel Gabriel.  To the left is the Assumption of Mary, to the right the Birth and Adoration of Jesus.

It gets weirder in the lower register, with Saint Agatha on the lower left offering a plate of breasts to Saints Cosmas and Damien. On the lower right Saint Margaret rounds out the picture.

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Photo copyright Sean McLachlan.

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Salamanca: Medieval Paintings and Preserved Arms in Spain’s Historic University Town

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

The apse of Salamanca's Old Cathedral. Photo courtesy Lourdes Cardenal

The apse of Salamanca’s Old Cathedral. Photo courtesy Lourdes Cardenal

Salamanca is one of Spain’s better-preserved medieval cities. It’s famous for its university founded in c.1130 and chartered in 1218, numerous old stately homes, winding medieval streets, some great bookstores, and a cathedral renowned for its rare medieval paintings. The entire Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The Omnibus Volumes of James H. Schmitz

Sunday, July 5th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

Agent of Vega & Other Stories-small Telzey Amberdon-small TNT Telzey Amberdon & Trigger Argee Together-small

We continue to survey the best omnibus volumes for collectors out there. And at long last, we come to one of my favorite short story writers, and one of my favorite omnibus sets: the seven volumes collecting the science fiction and science fantasy of James H. Schmitz, published by Baen Books.

Baen Books, and especially its long-time editor Eric Flint, have done some really extraordinary work collecting classic SF and fantasy in handsome and highly affordable mass market editions, and they’ve been doing it for decades. Baen has published omnibus collections featuring Andre Norton, P.C. Hogdell, Murray Leinster, A. Bertam Chandler, Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordwainer Smith, Christopher Anvil, Randall Garrett, Keith Laumer, Howard L. Myers, Michael Shea, A. E. Van Vogt, and countless others.

The Baen reprint program largely began with these volumes in 2000, and I still believe they may be their crowning achievement.

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Art of the Genre: Bill Willingham Loved the Ladies, Even if TSR Wouldn’t Always Let Him Show Them…

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015 | Posted by Scott Taylor

Check out the lady below Elric in this Willingham done for White Plume Mountain.  Bet you didn't realize it was cropped, did you?

Check out the lady below Elric in this Willingham done for White Plume Mountain. Bet you didn’t realize it was cropped, did you?

Former TSR Artist and now comic writer sensation [Fables] Bill Willingham wanted to be Frank Frazetta, or so I surmise. I’ve always been a fan of his work, dating back to those early days in the RPG field when he was a member of ‘The First Four’ at TSR.

Along with Jim Roslof, Jeff Dee, and Erol Otus, Bill managed to produce some absolutely lovely interior illustrations and acrylic covers for the first sets of D&D modules, once the business took off and TSR could afford color. His tenure there, which ended with a blow up concerning the termination of artists that removed both he and Dee from the company, ended up being the best thing for him as he went on to relative fame and fortune in comics, a place that his talent certainly spawned from.

I sat with Bill at a seaside café back on 2009 when ComicCon was still a monster, but not the headache it is today and we discussed his work in the field. Nothing too in-depth, and sadly he was unable to add his art to my Art Evolution project because it had been too many years since he’d done that kind of work. Still, he looked over all the other artists who had donated work and was most pleasantly surprised to see his old friend Jeff Dee in there. Obviously Dee was ‘the kid’ during his time in the burgeoning TSR ‘pit’, and at 19 there was no doubt that was the case, but Bill seemed to have a twinkle in his eye for Dee’s version of Lyssa in the project, and I was at least happy to somehow connect the two again, if even for a just a nostalgic moment.

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Vintage Treasures: The Sioux Spaceman by Andre Norton / And Then the Town Took Off by Richard Wilson

Saturday, June 27th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Sioux Spaceman-small And Then The Town Took Off-small

The Sioux Spaceman was one of the very first Andre Norton novels I ever laid eyes on (other than The Last Planet and Daybreak — 2250). It was certainly one of the first Ace Doubles I ever encountered. It was first published in 1960, paired with Richard Wilson’s And Then the Town Took Off, with covers by Ed Valigursky (above).

The Norton volume was the first book in her Council/Confederation series, which eventually grew to encompass four novels:

  1. The Sioux Spaceman (1960)
  2. Eye of the Monster (1962)
  3. The X Factor (1965)
  4. Voorloper (1980)

The entire series was collected in an omnibus volume from Baen in 2009, The Game of Stars and Comets (2009; see below).

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A Tour of the National Museum of Iraq

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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A bas-relief showing an Assyrian king with various symbols of deities around his head. The renovated museum has improved lighting for key pieces such as this one, and has added more detailed signs in Arabic and English.

Iraq gets a lot of bad press. As usual with far-off countries, we only hear about them on the news when something goes wrong, and a lot has been going wrong in Iraq for the past few decades.

As usual, though, the news doesn’t tell the whole story. Iraq may be home to the 21st century’s most psychotic religious group and countless warring factions, but you can also find decent people and bastions of culture. The Iraqi intelligentsia fights a peaceful daily struggle to keep the nation’s culture and history alive.

Nowhere is this more clear than at the National Museum of Iraq. Like the Iraqi people, it’s a survivor, having withstood sanctions, invasion, and looting. That it’s survived at all shows just how dedicated its staff is to preserving humanity’s past.

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The Omnibus Volumes of Steven Brust: The Adventures of Vlad Taltos

Saturday, June 20th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Book of Jhereg-small The Book of Taltos-small The Book of Athyra-small

Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels are unique in modern fantasy. They’re caper novels in which a supremely gifted assassin, Vlad Taltos, teams up with a group of like-minded companions (including pickpockets and vampires) to right wrongs, alter the course of destiny, and sometimes make a little coin. The odds are always against them, and things don’t always go their way, but Vlad, our protagonist and narrator, has a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor that makes the books highly entertaining. There are plenty of great reviews out there I could point you to, but one of my favorites is this concise one-paragraph bit from Amazon reviewer Wizard’s Apprentice:

Vlad is a human in a city dominated by eight-foot Dragaerans, who never have to shave and live to be a thousand. It’s their turf, and their rules, and they routinely conquer and abuse “Easterners” like Vlad. He’s not the type to take this, so he becomes a “Jhereg” assassin, working up the ranks of a criminal syndicate until he comes to boss dozens of Dragaerans around, befriending some and terrorizing others. He adopts a new-hatched mini-dragon or jhereg, finding that the cat-sized beast has a humanlike intelligence and a nasty sense of humor, and wins a grudging respect from the dominant species. All his friends are 900 years old, or undead vampires, or legendary thieves; but don’t hold it against them. Vlad solves mysteries and evades death, and cooks fiery fungus-laced omelets, in a bizarre semi-alien milieu. He finds love. He sharpens knives. He gloomily bandages his jhereg bites. He’d be right at home in a Zelazny novel, which is reason enough to buy this or any other Brust book.

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