Do you ever stop to think how your everyday life has been shaped by people from the past? Well, if you play the guitar, brush your teeth, or eat dessert after a meal, you owe a debt of gratitude to a Muslim musician who lived twelve hundred years ago.
Abul-Hasan, a commoner born in Baghdad around 789 A.D., had a gift for song that so pleased the ruling caliph he gave him the name “Ziryab,” meaning “Blackbird." Ziryab’s natural musical talent made other musicians jealous, however. So, when the caliph died in 813, they exiled the "Blackbird," sending him to wander the Islamic world for a decade. He performed wherever he went and picked up customs from the people he met.
Ziryab eventually found his way to Al-Andalus (today’s Andalusia, Spain). Its ruler loved music. In fact, he valued musicians above all other professionals. He welcomed the refugee. He offered him asylum. Ziryab was an instant sensation. He introduced his instrument, the Baghdadi oud, to his new neighbors. Then, adding an extra string to his oud, he ignited the evolution of the Spanish guitar.
He established the first-ever music conservatory in Córdoba, which gave rise to the genre of Andalusian classical music--musiqa al-ala—that is still a popular in Morocco today.
But Ziryab's influence didn't stop with music. He transformed Córdoban society as well. He taught locals how to make deodorant and toothpaste. He instructed women in how to shape eyebrows, cut their hair into bangs, remove unwanted body hair. He inspired men to shorten their hair, as well, and to shave daily. And instead of piling his food onto platters, as was then the custom, Ziryab ate his meals atop a clean tablecloth and in three distinct courses: a soup, a main dish, and a dessert.
So each time you sit down to a three-course dinner, strum your six-string guitar, brush your teeth, or tidy your hair, you are following in the footsteps of a Muslim musician who lived 1,200 years ago.
In music, Ziryab was the first to introduce the lute (Al-U'd) to Spain and Europe in general. He is credited with the addition of the fifth bass string to it which later paved the way for the development of the guitar. He also established the first conservatory in the world that included the teaching of harmony and composition.
Sarah Towle is an award-winning digital storyteller of immersive tales for educational tourism. With her latest project for secondary school students—the History Hero BLAST—she puts the Story back in History, bringing a fictional flair to factual tales of inspirational figures from around the world and throughout time. A blog and future podcast, the HHBLAST welcomes the participation of published and aspiring authors, including young writers. Click here to find out more Ziryab and other History Heroes and about how to bring the HHBLAST—and Sarah—to your school!
Way, way back in the year 111 BCE (Before our Common Era), thousands of Chinese warriors armed with fine iron swords and lethal crossbows, rode and marched south to conquer the little kingdom of Nanyue. To the people living there, the little kingdom was Nam Viet. To us, faraway in their unimaginable future, their land is northern Vietnam.
After the invaders came all sorts of Chinese colonizers. They would build roads and temples plus new trading ports on Nanyue’s coast, where the Red River empties into the South China Sea perfect for China’s merchant ships, on their way to or just returned from India. The Chinese brought their culture, language, and top-down style of government too. It would all be for the glory (and increased wealth) of the empire and for the betterment of the conquered barbarians. You’d think they’d appreciate it!
Not necessarily. Over the next thousand years or so, the ancient Vietnamese would get fed up with their heavy taxes and harsh treatment. They’d rise up more than once to challenge their Chinese overlords. One particular revolt would inspire stories ever after. It took place around the years 39-43 CE. Who led this famous revolt? Two daughters of a military ruler; they lived in the vicinity of the modern city of Hanoi.
The women of ancient Vietnam enjoyed much more social equality than Chinese women. Females worked in business, as public officials and they could inherit property. They could become proficient in the martial arts, as did Trung Hac and her younger sister, Trung Nhi. With their knowledge of armor and swords and with their fury, they raised up an army of 80,000 soldiers! Other women, including their mother, were generals, mounted on war elephants at the head of the Trung Sisters’ army! They liberated fortresses, battled the Chinese, and drove them out of Vietnam!
Alas, this is not the end of the Legend of the Trung Sisters. The warriors of wealthier, more powerful China returned to defeat them in the year 43. And rather than surrender, the sisters took what was for them the more honorable action: They took their own lives. Some stories say they drowned themselves in a river. Some say they disappeared into the clouds. Whatever did happen, the Trung Sisters are remembered in plays, poems, and songs to this very day, as Heroines of Vietnam.
Even though the Trưng Sisters' revolt against the Chinese was almost 2,000 years ago, its legacy in Vietnam remains as they are seen as symbols of Vietnamese resistance and freedom. To this day, the people of Vietnam perform memorial ceremonies for the sisters every year at a Hanoi temple named for them. This is a statue of the Trung sisters in Ho Chi Minh City.
In a 1776 letter cautioning her husband to "remember the ladies," Abigail Adams made one of the earliest pleas for women's rights in America. How could she have known, in the years to follow, just how many strong and independent women would step forward to forge new paths in their fight for equality?
From Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman to the less well-known but equally important Belva Lockwood and Maya Ying Lin, Remember the Ladies spans the centuries to provide an engaging look at one hundred outstanding women who have helped shape our great nation. Click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Real Life Legendary Trung Sisters of Ancient Vietnam."
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
By Sarah Albee
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Do you like ketchup? Maybe relish is your favorite condiment. Well, people in the ancient world had a favorite condiment, too. It was called garum. The ancient Greeks couldn’t get enough of it. Later, the Byzantines loved it, too. But garum was most popular during ancient Roman times. (The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BC to AD 476, so they must have gobbled down a lot of garum.)
The problem with garum was that making it could be an extremely stinky process. Garum makers were told to move their factories to the outskirts of the city, although probably no one enforced this.
The Romans dumped garum onto practically everything they ate. Should you be curious to try garum yourself, I’ve written out the recipe for you. You’re welcome.
Garum is actually quite nutritious—full of amino acids, proteins, and vitamin D from all that time in the sun. And the rotten sludge left at the bottom is also highly nutritious, so you can save that for another use. Try spreading it on toast!
(c) Sarah Albee, 2014
A Roman banquet
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Something's Rotten in Rome." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/somethings-rotten-in-rome.
For some of us, spring begins when you can go outside in your shorts and not get cold legs. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, spring’s official start is at the vernal equinox, when the sun shines directly on the earth’s equator. For me, here in Missouri, that was March 20, 5:45 P.M. CDT. The autumnal equinox arrives in September— when spring begins in the southern hemisphere! But I digress from today’s theme: May Day. For thousands of years, it’s been a day for celebrating spring, but that’s not all it’s been.
Since the oldest olden days, winter-weary people have gloried when the weather warms and the cold earth comes back to life. Some of their ancient festivals still happen every spring, such as Sham el Nissim, in Egypt. In India, on Holi, dancing Hindus still shower one another with colors; and Iranians still fix a special supper at Norooz, as did their ancient Persian ancestors.
When the Roman armies invaded ancient Britain, in 55 B.C.E. they brought along their spring holy day, Floralia, when they gathered bouquets of flowers for their goddess, Flora. The Celts, who’d been living in Britain for years, celebrated the earth mother’s reawakening with dances and bonfires at Beltane, around the end of April. Over the years, the holidays blended into May Day, a time for giving gifts of flowers and dancing about a Maypole, strung with ribbons.
Then, in the 1880s, May Day celebrations changed. It was like this: For decades, factory owners had been making their employees work anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week (even children!), often in unsafe, nasty conditions. The workers were sick of it! They organized themselves into labor unions. At a Chicago gathering, in 1884, they started a worldwide movement for an 8-hour workday. With a huge demonstration in the city, on May 1, 1886, May Day came to be the first Labor Day, a day of parades. It’s still celebrated as International Workers’ Day in many countries.
But one more thing happened, in 1923. Because ‘May Day’ sounds like the French phrase, ‘m’aidez’ or ‘help me,’ a London radioman turned it into an international distress call. So if you hear “Mayday! Mayday!” on your radio, no one’s wishing you ‘Happy Spring!’ Someone’s in trouble! And once he or she is saved, I’ll bet he or she would like to have some pretty flowers.
Cheryl Harness is the author and illustrator of Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women. One of the 100 Ladies is the great and heroic labor union activist "Mother" Mary Harris Jones. She was born on May Day, 1830. Click here to find out more about about Mary, and about a lot of other great Americans.
MLA 8 CItation
Harness, Cheryl. "May Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 1 May 2018,
Nonfiction is the new black
When he was a young man in his mid-twenties, future Roman leader Julius Caesar was voyaging across the Mediterranean Sea. Pirates swarmed over his ship. They took him to their base on tiny Farmakonisi Island, which lies off the coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and held him for ransom.
When he learned how much the pirates were demanding for his release, Caesar laughed. Do you have any idea who I am, he asked. I belong to one of Rome’s most important families. So you can get more money for me—a lot more—almost three times as much. The astonished pirates were only too happy to oblige him.
Keeping a friend and two servants with him on Farmakonisi, Caesar ordered the rest of his traveling party to go to Asia Minor and raise his ransom. While they were doing that, Caesar acted as if he were the ruler of the tiny island, rather than a captive cowering in fright. He ordered the pirates to attend lectures and poetry readings he gave, and prodded those who nodded off as he droned on and on and on. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered the pirates to either speak in whispers or go to another part of the island. He even played games with them. He also told them that when he was released, I promise I will hunt you down and execute you. In the spirit of bonhomie he engendered, the pirates apparently thought he was joking.
He wasn’t. Though outwardly he was friendly with the pirates, he seethed inwardly at the humiliation of being taken prisoner. After the ransom was paid, Caesar sailed to a nearby port. He raised a fleet of ships and scores of armed men. He returned to Farmakonisi, captured the pirates, and reclaimed the ransom money. He threw his former captors into prison. They didn’t stay there long. Caesar crucified them. He did show some mercy. Since crucifixion was a long, lingering death, he cut their throats so they died instantly.
Jim Whiting has written on many subjects. Check out his page on Amazon.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Man of His Word." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Mar.
Nonfiction is the new black
The Renaissance began in Europe in the 15th century and marked the change from the medieval period to the modern world. Towering figures such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and especially Leonardo da Vinci were known as Renaissance men because of their talents and lasting achievements in several important areas of knowledge. They were also accomplished musicians, public speakers, athletes, poets, and so forth. And they were expected to do all this stuff without breaking a sweat.
You could give the same title to an ancient Egyptian named Imhotep, who lived about 2600 BCE. He was the vizier, the most important government official, during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser. He served as the high priest of the god Ra and was an expert astronomer.
Imhotep designed and oversaw the building of the first major pyramid in Egypt. Located at Saqqara, at the time it was the world’s tallest structure. He innovated the use of stones rather than mud bricks to build it, and it was that added strength that enabled the pyramid to rise so high. He is also credited with the invention of several devices that facilitated the construction.
Many people believe that Imhotep, rather than the Greek Hippocrates who lived more than 2,000 years later, is the real “Father of Medicine.” In an era when most physicians relied on magic spells and appeals to the gods, Imhotep prescribed dozens of effective down-to-earth treatments for illnesses and injuries.
He is credited with ending a seven-year famine in Egypt. He advised the pharaoh to make sacrifices to Khnum, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile River, and thereby provide desperately needed water to farmers. On a more practical level, he invented an improved irrigation system to carry water to the crops even if the river level was abnormally low.
In addition to these accomplishments, an inscription at the base of one of his statues notes that he was “Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief.” In his little spare time, he wrote poetry and dispensed philosophical advice.
Imhotep can also boast of two accomplishments that eluded even Leonardo da Vinci. He was deified after his death and worshipped for many centuries, an honor accorded to hardly anyone besides the pharaohs. And today the comic book community gives him the credit for founding S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Comics espionage and crime-fighting agency that became the basis for blockbuster movies such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Jim Whiting has written a book on another great Egyptian leader -- Ramses the Great who lived about 1350 years after Imhotep. He fully lived up to the "Great" part of his name. His reign lasted for 67 years, the second longest in Egypt’s 3,000-year history. He had dozens of wives and more than 100 children, outliving many of them. He was a military leader who expanded the borders of his country. That resulted in decades of peace and prosperity for his people. He ordered huge statues of himself to be erected all over Egypt. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Renaissance Man - 4,000 Years before the Renaissance."
Nonfiction Minute`, iNK Think Tank, 8 Feb. 2018,