After the Muslims exploded onto the scene in the 7th century, they learned that anyone can take a empire, but holding an empire is another matter entirely. We go to Syria, where Damascus served as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate. The Umayyads were the family who eventually took control following the turmoil of finding successors to Muhammad.
Ali A Olomi, historian and host of Head on History, rejoins us to take us into the next phase of Muslim history, in which the rich and connected Banu Umayya demonstrate the durability of hegemony: after every revolution, the elite and connected always come back in the end.
The Umayyads may get a bad rap in places, but they left an enduring empire in their wake, best shown in the remarkable mosque in their capital.
While we discuss the splendor and tragedy of Damascus, try some tabbouleh, my all-time favorite salad.
Armstrong, Karen. Islam: a Short History.
Donner, Fred McGraw. Muhammad and the Believers: at the Origin of Islam
Ingraham, Christopher. “How rising inequality hurts everyone, even the rich” in Washington Post
Keenan, Brigid. Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City
Kennedy, Hugh. Caliphate: the History of an Idea
Bradt guide to Syria
Footprint Syria handbook
Photograph by wikipedia user Aladdin
We return to China, where the Tang Dynasty has embarked on a golden age of culture and cosmopolitanism. In the valleys of Sichuan, a monk begins to carve the largest statue built in pre-industrial history. And in Chang'an, the world's largest and most international city, a young girl begins the path which would take her to the throne. And in Beijing, a half-Sogdian will launch the revolt that will bring everything crashing down.
Katy and Nathan from the Queens podcast drop by to talk about Wu Zetian, the only ruling Empress in China's long history. The chroniclers reviled her as a monster, but we take a closer look at this woman who dominated her country for 50 years.
Listener Jake volunteers to talk about his time in Sichuan, visiting the Giant Buddha, and eating Sichuan's famously delectable cuisine, fueled by tongue-tingling sichuan peppercorns.
Speaking of cuisine, we dig into Gong Bao Chicken, the real thing, with all its sweet, spicy, crunchy goodness.
Clements, Jonathan. Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God
Keay, John. China: a History
Lewis, Mark Edward. China's Cosmopolitan Empire: the Tang Dynasty
Rough Guide to China
Photo by Ariel Steiner
It's our holiday bonus episode! This time, we're going to Tajikistan, to visit the intriguing murals of the Sogdians, a civilization wedged between Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Chinese, yet rich and remarkable on their own. In Panjakent, we have wall paintings of regular people, preserved for centuries. What they tell us helps explain the links between these great 7th and 8th century civilizations.
Nadeem Ahmad, of living history group Eran ud Turan, drops by to discuss Sogdian society, food, and the challenges of bringing ancient Central Asian and Iranian culture to life.
Plus, medieval Persian poetry and palav, the national dish of Tajikistan, made of rice, fried veggies, spices and sometimes lamb, although every family had their own recipe.
Azarpay, Guitty. Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art
British Library, "Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle"
BBC, "Is Oshi Palav the King of Meals?"
Grenet, Frantz and Etienne de la Vaissière. "The last days of Panjikent" in Silk Road Art and Archaeology
Lonely Planet Guide to Central Asia
Marshak, Boris. Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana
Middleton, Robert and Huw Thomas. Tajikistan and the High Pamirs
Yabukovich, Ilya, "Mugh 1.I. Revisited"
The Maya return as we visit Tikal, nestled in the jungles of northern Guatemala, and pick up the story of Nuun Ujol Chaak, after he left Palenque.
Nuun Ujol Chaak was a rebel, facing unfathomable odds against an evil empire. And even if he might fall in the end, his son Jasaw Chan Kawi'il would take up the mantle and restore Tikal to greatness. It's his pyramids that tower above the treeline, representing the greatest architectural achievement of the Classic Maya.
Nitin Sil from the Flash Point History podcast, appears to talk about his travels to Tikal, from climbing pyramids to avoiding monkeys.
Guatemala is much more than Tikal, and its history as a "Banana Republic" gets a closer look. Its food, with its roots in centuries of Maya culture, merits a taste as well, especially pipian, a pumpkin-seed based sauce that works splendidly with chicken.
Brown, Chip. "El Mirador: the Lost City of the Maya" in Smithsonian Magazine
Harrison, Peter D. The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City
Insight Guides: Guatemala, Belize & the Yucatán
Lonely Planet Guatemala
Martin, Simon and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya
Montgomery, John. Tikal: an Illustrated History of the Ancient Maya Capital
Schele, Linda and Peter Mathews. The Code of Kings : the Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs
Photo by user chensiyuan on wikicommons
Back to Mesoamerica, only this time, we introduce the Maya. At the edge of the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, sits the city of Lakam Ha, today called Palenque. Among its magnificent ruins is the Temple of the Inscriptions, the tomb of king Pakal. His rule was one of the longest in human history; yet how much of his success came from the strong women around him?
We talk about the Mayan calendar, 2012, Pakal's magnificent tomb, and his sarcophagus which was NOT made by aliens.
There's more to see in Chiapas as well, like colonial San Cristóbal, indigenous villages, waterfalls, and Mayan ruins Bonmapak and Yaxchilán. But for food, we head to next door Oaxaca to talk mole and mezcal margaritas.
National Geographic Society. "Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya 'Megalopolis' Below Guatemalan Jungle." 2/1/18.
Pillsbury, Joanne. “The Red Queen and Her Sisters: Women of Power in Golden Kingdoms”
Schele, Linda and Peter Mathews. The Code of Kings : the Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs
Photo by Jan Harenburg
Music by the Orchestra Marimba de Chiapas
It's our SECOND ANNIVERSARY. Two years of history, travel, food, and such. What a ride. To celebrate, let's visit Oregon, a weird, magical place I love. I lived there for three years in the early 2010's and in this episode, I give the 30 things I love most about one of America's least understood states, including its real wonder, a volcanic caldera turned perfectly blue body of water: the imaginatively named Crater Lake.
There's more to Oregon than meets the eye, and I hope you enjoy this little trip down the rabbit hole. Portlandia is reality television, by the way.
Photo by Zainubrazvi on wikicommons.
Another big episode, as Muhammad arrives on the scene. An illiterate merchant in faraway Arabia, Muhammad develops a new faith and community that builds upon the monotheist faiths of his people's neighbors. Ali A Olomi, historian and host of the Head on History podcast, joins me to discuss Muhammad's impact as well as the holiest site in Islam: the Kabaa in Mecca.
But most people are forbidden from visiting the Kabaa, so the wonder for this episode is the holiest site in Islam that others can, in theory, visit: the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Randa Ulankiewicz drops by to discuss visiting those sites and Palestine in general.
From the foundation of the religion to its remarkable rise and conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia, we'll cover the world-changing impact of the world's most unexpected major religion.
This episode is therefore much longer than normal, with significantly more detail than usual. But there's stuffed grape leaves and hummus, so it's worth it.
Armstrong, Karen. Islam: a Short History.
Armstrong, Karen. Muhammad: a biography of the prophet
Donner, Fred McGraw. Muhammad and the Believers: at the Origin of Islam
Lonely Planet Israel & the Palestinian Territories
Lonely Planet Saudi Arabia
Moon Guide to Jerusalem
The classic Istanbul fish sandwich is simple, easy, and delicious. Fish, bread, a little spices, onion, lettuce, lemon. That’s it. Some recipes will include mayo, which isn’t my bag. Others get more complex with the salad topping. I like to keep it simple, to let the taste of the fish shine through.
Photo by Daniel Roy
It's the story of a farmboy, an actress, an unruly mob, and a bacterium. The Roman Empire evolved, and based in Constantinople, it reached a new golden age under the leadership of Justinian. His success is best seen in the masterpiece church: the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish.
The Hagia Sophia was the greatest cathedral in Christendom for a thousand years, then a resplendent mosque, and now a fully restored museum. But shortly after its construction highlighted the peak of Eastern Roman prosperity, a bacterium came to Constantinople and brought the empire to its knees.
Joining me to talk about Justinian, the Hagia Sophia, and the plague is the great Robin Pierson, host of the History of Byzantium podcast. Robin recently visited Istanbul and talks about exploring its Byzantine sites as well as how Turkish food charmed even his palate.
There are fish sandwiches to eat and Ratatouille references to enjoy.
Heather, Peter. The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders
Lonely Planet Istanbul
Lord Kinross. Hagia Sophia
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries
Paul the Silentiary, Descriptio S. Sophiae
Procopius. The Secret History
Procopius. Wars of Justinian
Rick Steves' Istanbul
Rosen, William. Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
Music by Turku, Nomads of the Silk Road from their album Alleys of Istanbul
The best lunch I’ve ever eaten was ceviche in Lima. Hands down.
Traditional Peruvian ceviche is amazingly simple. Seafood, lime juice, red onion, and chile. That’s it. Plus sweet potato and corn on the side.
As I said in the episode, you probably won’t be able to make the real thing, because your seafood, as fresh as it might be, won’t be as fresh as the seafood in Lima. Fed by the Humboldt Current, caught that morning, and served for lunch because dinner would be too late: that’s Limeño ceviche.
But if you do have good seafood available, this will get you pretty darn close!
Etched in the rocky plains of the southern Peruvian coast, the Nazca Lines fascinate visitors and archaeologists. While we still don't know why the Nazca people created lines, shapes and figures that could only be seen from the air, we have some hypotheses. We also know: not aliens.
Max Serjeant from the Latin American History podcast talks about how civilization came to ancient Peru, how the Nazca and their predecessors tamed the desert, and why archaeologists think the Nazca created their geoglyphs.
Tracy DeLuca, an avid traveller who recently flew over the lines, tells about her experience, both the amazing views and the stomach-churning turns.
We also talk about Lima, one of my favorite cities, with its colonial architecture and incredible food scene, featuring ceviche, some of the best food on earth. So grab a pisco sour and enjoy!
Dubé, Ryan. Moon Guide to Peru
Hadingham, Evan. Lines to the Mountain Gods: Nazca and the Mysteries of Peru
Lonely Planet Peru
Masterson, Daniel. The History of Peru
Moseley, Michael E. The Incas and Their Ancestors
BONUS EPISODE! In March 2018, Drew Vahrenkamp appeared on Stephanie Craig's History Fangirl podcast to discuss what was once the largest city on earth, in area at least: Angkor, Cambodia. For the upcoming holiday weekend in the US, we are honored to share this episode with you. Please check out more of Stephanie's interviews with travelers, historians, bloggers and podcasters at https://historyfangirl.com.
Angkor, along with its most famous temple Angkor Wat, is one of the most unique places in the world. The French claim to have discovered it when Cambodia was part of French Indochina, but like so many “lost” places the locals always knew about it. However, much of what we know about the ancient city comes from inscriptions and other artwork on the temple. And because the jungle climate much of the other information we have about the city may be lost forever, but we do know that it was the largest pre-industrial city in the history of the world.
My guest today is Drew Vahrenkamp of the Wonders of the World podcast. We chat about the ancient history of Angkor, how tourism in the city has changed dramatically over the last two decades, and how history lovers grapple with the ancient past of Cambodia, and the more recent reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, is justifiably famous for this dish, a delectable, spicy beef broth served over hand-pulled noodles, with layers of beef and daikon radish on top. Restaurants all over Gansu ladle out this dish as a pick-me-up breakfast.
You can’t make the real thing, because some of the actual ingredients are only available to restauranteurs in China and because hand-pulling noodles is incredibly challenging — they even have schools for it in Lanzhou.
So this is a legitimate home version from the terrific cookbook All Under Heaven.
Really exciting: it’s an excuse to use that InstantPot you got for the holidays and have been struggling to find uses for. Woot! You can do this without a pressure cooker, of course, but it will help to have one.
The challenge here is getting all the ingredients. It will be hard to do if you don’t have access to an Asian grocery.
One last note: this dish will taste much, much better if you let it rest for a day or so to let the flavors blend. Prepare it the day before you plan to serve it, then reheat on the stove.
As usual with red meat, I won’t get to make this at home, so if you can get the ingredients and try it out, please let me know!
Recipe adapted from All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China by Carolyn Phillips
Photo from user N509FZ on wikipedia
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Pašticada is a long-simmered piece of beef, the kind of beef that would normally be tough and chewy, but when you cook it low and slow melts in your mouth. Flavored with vinegar, fruit, veggies, and spices, it’s a traditional holiday or Sunday night meal,
Basically, you take a big ol’ slab of top round, or silverside in the UK, stick cloves of garlic and pieces of prosciutto inside it, douse it in vinegar, and leave it overnight to marinate. The next day, you quickly sear it Then you roast it with veggies like onion, celery root, carrots, plus prunes, and wine and olive oil. Low and slow in the oven.
When it’s done, as the meat rests, you puree the fruit, veggies, spices, wine, and drippings into a succulent sauce. And serve it all over njoki (gnocchi if you’d rather), which is far easier to make at home than you think.
Every Croatian grandmother has her own recipe; this is one that seems like a winner to me. Since, as I may have mentioned, my wife doesn’t eat red meat, I’m reliant on you to try this out.
Recipe adapted from https://www.petersommer.com/blog/another-bite/pasticada
Rome was entrenched in chaos, until one man took charge, and through sheer force of will - and the army - remade the Empire into a completely new government, one that would last for over a thousand years. Then he retired to farm cabbages, moving into an incredible palace on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, a palace which today forms the core of Split, Croatia's old town.
Rob and Jamie from the Totalus Rankium podcast drop by once again to discuss Diocletian, one of the most significant emperors, whose legacy paved the way to medieval Europe. We dig into the good, like his bureaucratic reforms, the bad, like his persecution of Christians, and the ugly, like his edict on prices.
Listener Hrvoje Tolić calls in to discuss Split, the sights, and the cuisine. Pašticada, a long-marinated beef roast served over njoki, is the recipe of the day.
Ma’amoul (Date Cookies)
Ma’amoul are shortbread cookies, filled with a sweetened date puree, baked until just golden, and dusted with powdered sugar. They are traditionally served for Eid, as a welcome sweet reward following the fasting of Ramadan, and for Easter, as a welcome sweet rewards following the fasting of Lent, for Rosh Hashanah for a sweet new year… Basically, no matter what your religion, in the Levant, if you want a sweet treat, these cookies are your go-to.
Making them traditionally requires two things you likely don’t have, but I’ve got ways to work around those. First, you probably don’t have the traditional wooden mold that you use to shape the cookies - but that’s OK. You can use your palm or anything else you have on hand to mold small cookies. Or you can order one online.
Second, traditionally, these cookies include mahlab, a spice made from cherry pits, which gives an amaretto-like flavor. Easy to find at a Middle East specialty market, but not accessible anywhere else. You can substitute almond extract or just leave it out.
Building the cookies are easy. Mix up the dough, knead it and let it sit.
Pit and chop the dates - I like medjool dates for this, but if you have deglet noor, those work too, they just aren’t as sweet. Letting the dates cook a bit helps to break down the fibers, enrich the spices, and build up the sweetness.
Roll out the dough into little balls, then take one, press it out in your hand, add some dates, and fold the dough around it. If you have a mold, put the cookie into it, press gently to get the shape, and then whap onto the counter to release it. If you don’t have the mold, it’s fine - consider using a fork to make indentations to form a pattern.
Then bake until just golden - do NOT overbake - and dust with powdered sugar.
So good. IF you like dates.
FOR THE DOUGH
FOR THE FILLING
Recipe adapted from https://www.munatycooking.com/maamoul/ Image from the Guardian
In 2015, ISIS terrorists destroyed the Temples of Bel and Baalshemin in the Syrian desert city of Palmyra, temples which had remained in pristine condition since their city's glory days in the 3rd century.
Back then, under the capable leadership of its rulers Odenaethus and the "Warrior Queen" Zenobia, Palmyra rose from wealthy caravan town to leader of the Eastern Mediterranean, taking advantage of the chaos of the Roman Crisis of the Third Century. So. Many. Emperors. So. Much. Chaos.
Scott Chesworth from the Ancient World podcast returns to finish his tale of Roman Syria, discussing how Palmyra challenged two empires, and how they very nearly pulled it off.
Also, listener David Adam recounts his trip to Palmyra before the temples were destroyed; you'll appreciate how he brings the humanity of modern Syrians into the story. And you can see his photos here: https://www.wonderspodcast.com/single-post/2018/07/10/The-Temple-of-Bel-at-Palmyra
The destruction of Palmyra and of Syria has been a great human catastrophe, and by acknowledging and remembering lost Palmyra, we might hope to prevent the next one.
Also, there are cookies! Date-filled cookies, in honor of the date palms that gave Palmyra its name.
Kibbeh are delicious Lebanese dishes made of ground meat (usually beef or lamb), bulgur wheat, onion and spices. Very simple, very delicious. Sometimes kibbeh comes as a baked casserole, like a meatloaf, and sometimes it’s a deep-fried croquette, shaped in balls. Sometimes, it’s eaten raw, like steak tartare.
I genuinely like fried kibbeh best, but it’s pretty similar to falafel in looks, and you might be tired of fried food, so y’know what, we’ll try the baked variety. I think you’ll like it, and maybe your arteries will too!
A couple of things: If you can’t get the meat for the kibbeh layer ground finely from the butcher, you’ll need to grind it super-fine yourself, but if you’re like me, you don’t have a meat grinder lying around. So what to do? You may have to use a food processor to grind it down. Not great, but it’ll do.
Second, the meat will stick to your hands. Having ice cold water on hand to moisten your hands and keep them free from stickiness will help a lot. Just make sure not to get too much water into the meat.
For bulgur mixture (kibbeh)
Recipe adapted from Maureen Abood’s Rose Water and Orange Blossoms (https://www.maureenabood.com/baked-kibbeh-you-say-meatloaf-i-say-meatlove)
Photo from sbs.com.au
In the remote Bekaa valley in Eastern Lebanon sit the ruins of the great temples of Heliopolis, some of the largest and most impressive ever built in Antiquity, three times larger than the Parthenon, which columns half again as tall as as those in Karnak.
The temples are mysterious, and Scott Chesworth from The Ancient World podcast helps explain what they might be, and how they might be connected to Elagabalus, one of the most fascinating and least appreciated Roman emperors. Not good, mind, but fascinating.
Elagabalus does not get the coverage of a Caligula or Nero, but maybe he should. The teenage emperor did not kill indiscriminately, but his sexual and religious activities shocked conservative Roman society and make for excellent story-telling.
Some modern writers call Elagabalus the world's first known transgender leader. Maybe? We'll discuss.
There's also the story of how Caracalla meets his untimely demise, thanks to a prescient fortune-teller and a dislike of reading his own mail.
And of course, we'll talk about Lebanon, its Phoenician heritage, and the way Lebanese food has spread around the world. The recipe of the week is kibbeh, a deep-fried croquette of goodness that is as popular in the Dominican Republic as it is in Lebanon.
The trick to wonderful couscous is to steam the grain over the sauce so that the flavors of the stew seep into every little piece. Much fluffier and more flavorful than the store-bought boiled method you’re probably familiar with.
This version also steams onions and chickpeas with the same method. You soften the couscous with chicken stock first, then make a simple stew of chicken thighs, onion, tomato paste, salt and Libya’s favorite Five Spice blend: Hararat. Hararat is cinnamon, coriander, cumin, cayenne, and allspice - I love that concept of earthy, spicy, slightly sweet.
As that simmers, put a steamer over the pot and steam a ton of onions and chickpeas. After they’ve softened, you’ll transfer them to a separate pot to caramelize. Then put the couscous in the steamer and let it steam until pure fluffiness. Then pile it up: couscous, stew, and onions on top.
Recipe adapted from Umm Obabdiah’s website (http://ummobaidahcooks.blogspot.com/2011/11/libyan-couscous-bil-busla-couscous-with.html)
The sadhya is a traditional Keralan feast: a banana leaf covered with small servings of 20 different items, from rice to curries to breads to a banana for dessert. It’s pretty awesome.
It’s also not something you’ll make for a weekday meal. So what I’ve done is to take three vegetable curries and combine them for you for a mini-sadhya of sorts. Delicious, redolent of Keralan flavors, and just fun.
Each dish has a different texture, so even though the flavor profiles are complementary, the tastes are very unique. I loved how they all worked together, so I’m going to present them as such. If you want to make each individually, I got all three recipes (plus the rice) from the cookbook Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal.
Each recipe has its own spice mix, or masala. You’ll note that they are each slightly different, and that difference matters.
Curry leaves are the hardest part of this to get and also the most important. I bought a bunch for $1 at a local Indian grocery, so I’d recommend that. You can also order them via mail, but the premium for shipping has to be crazy.
Read through this first and build your mise en place before starting. Several of the steps go VERY quickly, so it’s best to have everything chopped, mixed, and prepped before you turn on the stove.
This is going to be a bit messy and will use five pots: I’ll note which recipe you’re working on as you go - what can be made first and what can wait until the end.
Start with the:
Move on to the:
Back to the:
Next comes the:
SPINACH with COCONUT (Spinach Tharen)
Proceed to the:
Wow. 23 steps. I know that seems like a lot, but it’s all about careful planning your mise en place.
Trust me - you’ll love this. I did. The chickpeas are my new go-to recipe, and the spinach with the coconut was particularly outstanding.
Recipe adapted from Savoring the Spice Coast of India: Fresh Flavors from Kerala by Maya Kaimal (2000).
So close to the tourist trail, yet so far, Libya sits on the Mediterranean yet has been isolated for decades by poverty, dictatorship and civil war. But should peace return, Leptis Magna is the jewel in Libya's crown: potentially the largest and best preserved Roman city in the Mediterranean. With a resplendent forum, theater, basilica, harbor, amphitheater, and especially, a colossal arch, Leptis is an unvisited gem.
Leptis' golden age came under the leadership of local-boy-made-good Septimius Severus. To help tell the story of how a lad from Leptis became ruler of the "known world," Rob and Jamie from the Roman Emperors: Totalus Rankium podcast stop by.
Not only do we talk about Severus and the disastrous emperor who preceded him (Didius Julianus), but we also discuss Severus' evil son Caracalla. Evil. Oh so evil.
No discussion of Libya would be complete without discussing the cuisine: a blend of North African and Middle Eastern, highlighted by couscous. This isn't your store-bought fluffy cardboard; we'll be properly steaming it this time.