East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


The lost army of Cambyses

There’s a number of lost armies in the ancient world – lost legions, lost expeditions. According to Herodotus, Cambyses II’s expedition to subjugate the priests of Ammon in what is today the Siwa Oasis took a very bad turn, fast. The 50.000 men sent by the Persian king to give a hard lesson to the priests marched for ten days in the desert known as the Great Sea of Sand, got completely lost, and when last heard of were considering cannibalism as a way to survive.

When he came in his march to Thebes, he parted about fifty thousand men from his army, and charged them to enslave the Ammonians and burn the oracle of Zeus; and he himself went on towards Ethiopia with the rest of his host. But before his army had accomplished the fifth part of their journey they had come to an end of all there was in the way of provision, and after the food was gone they ate the beasts of burden till there was none of these left also. Now had Cambyses, when he perceived this, changed his mind and led his army back again, he had been a wise man at least after his first fault; but as it was, he went ever forward, nothing recking. While his soldiers could get anything from the earth, they kept themselves alive by eating grass; but when they came to the sandy desert, certain of them did a terrible deed, taking by lot one man out of ten and eating him.

Herodotus, Book III, chapter 25

I have stumbled on the fifty thousand men that Cambyses lost in the Sahara while working on a project I am not at liberty to describe in detail – suffice it to say that it does have a vague connection with Robert E. Howard, and now will feature – among other things – undead Persian soldiers emerging in full Harryhausen mode from the Great Sea of Sand.

Destruction of Cambyses’ Army by a Sandstorm Source Internet

And really, nobody knows what happened to Cambyses’ men – OK, we know they died in the desert, and various causes, from sand storms to dehydration, have been proposed through the years. Indeed, roughly once every twenty years some archaeological expedition claims to have found the remains of the Persians somewhere. So far, all claims have been debunked.

Reading on the subject these last two days has been a nice opportunity to find out about desert survival (or lack thereof), about the Persian military structure, and about sandstorm physics.
Isn’t this writing thing a blast…?

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Liberation Day

We are approaching the end of a month that’s been particularly complicated, and painful. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and let’s hope it’s not the incoming train. In the meantime, today is April the 25th, and in my country we celebrate the Liberation from the Nazi occupation and the Fascist Regime.

As I think I mentioned in the past, my grandfather was one of the men and women who came down from the mountains where they had been fighting as partisans, and took control of our cities, waiting for the Allies to roll in. On this day he met his old friends, they remembered, and they cried, and it was weird, as a small kid, seeing big grown up old men crying.

This morning, as I wandered on my socials, I got the usual rubbish – a well known politico suggesting we celebrate less the Liberation day and “work more”, and also a friend, that posted a long piece about how he will not celebrate, because he was born free and we that are celebrating are the ones whose freedom is an illusion.

That gave me pause.
Because it is absolutely true – my friend was born free.
And he was born free because the people we celebrate today laid their lives on the line, and risked everything, not only for their freedom, and the freedom of their families, but for our freedom, the freedom of those that would come.
And indeed, had they not done what they did, probably posting on the socials about our freedom, and our choice of not observing a national celebration, would be met not with a shake of the head and a post on some backwater blog like mine, but with a bunch of guys in black shirts, armed with truncheons.
Maybe, who knows, there would be no socials.
Maybe there would not be us.
The same goes for the dork recommending us to work instead of celebrating – the Regime he likes so much would never allow him or his friends to step out of line.

And finally there is the young woman I’ve been knowing since she was in middle grade, that posts about “history being written by the winners.”
Oh, baby, we should thank our good stars that the winners were those men and women that cried along with my grandfather, all those years ago.


Ruritanias of today

As assiduous readers of Karavansara know, I have always liked The Prisoner of Zenda – I first saw the movies (first the Stewart Granger film then the Ronald Colman) as a kid, and only later read the novels, and the whole concept of a pocket-sized state tucked away in some nook of the European map is a classic of belle epoque adventure fiction: operetta-style places, with Old Europe pomp and circumstance, the odd Strauss waltz, dashing men in uniforms and women with daring necklines and corsets…

The whole “there is this small state in the Balkans” thing of course also worked in the early years of the Cold War – Eric Ambler wrote such sorts of novels, off the top of my head. Uniforms took a more Soviet-style, old German scientists lingered in the shadows, and women wore berets and tight skirts. Music became less Strauss and more Bernard Herrman.

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Rorke’s Drift (and Hope & Glory)

It is the 140th anniversary of the battle of Rorke’s Drift, a minor engagement in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. Contravening orders, Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande led a force of roughly 4000 Zulu warriors against a unit of 150 British soldiers led by lieutenants Chard and Bromehead, based at the mission station in Rorke’s Drift. On the 22nd and 23rd of January, the Zulu forces repeatedly attacked the British defenses, and were pushed back, in a battle pitting numbers against technology. An estimated 350 Zulu warriors were killed and 500 wounded, and 17 British soldiers died and 15 were wounded.

I first heard of Rorke’s Drift when I was ten or twelve, when I first saw the film Zulu, directed in 1964 by Cy Enfield and featuring Stanley Baker and Michael Caine. It’s still one of my favorite movies, and back in the day it made a colossal impact – the Anglo-Zulu war is not something you get in the history curriculum in Italian middle grades, and therefore the movie was, to me and my friends, first, basically an adventure story, and secondly, totally open-ended; we had no idea of how it would end, every twist and turn, every new charge was a surprise.

Zulu is a great movie (yes, I know, it is historically inaccurate, so sue me) and I guess my interest for colonial history and the British empire started there.
It was therefore only to be expected that I would do my own take on Rorke’s Drift sooner or later.
Cue to Hope & Glory.

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The war is over

Today is the 4th of November, and in this day in Italy we celebrate “National Unity”.
On the 4th of November 1918 the armistice became official between Italy and Austria-Hungary – and this is the reason why this day is special.
It’s the day the Great War ended for us Italians.

Fortunino Matania (1881-1963). Поле великой скорби и великой славы- поле битвы при Ипре - Посещение старых сражений Западного фронта

Now it’s the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.
I don’t know if there will be any celebration hereabouts – we are after all in the wild hills of Astigianistan, but if on one side we’ve been subjected recently to a revision of those events, on the other it is also true that we are going through a very unpleasant resurgence of the sort of mindless and ignorant “patriotism” that is fed by slogans and only profits cunning rabble-rousers. Continue reading