Wonders of the World

Wonders of the World: the podcast that visits the great places on Earth to tell the story of our people, our civilization, and our planet.
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Feb 13, 2020


A group of temples sits in the hills of central India, stunningly studded with sculptures. Built by the Chandela dynasty, they are remarkably well preserved testaments to medieval power, but they are best known for their many erotic images.

Anirudh Kanisetti of the Echoes of India podcast returns to discuss the Chandelas, their connection with tantra, their views of sex, their run-ins with the famed Turkic warlord Mahmud of Ghazni, and how all of that relates to India's political environment today.

Medieval India shows the panoply of human experience in all its colors and shades. Nothing is a simplistic black and white.


Bose, Nemai Sadhan. History of the Candellas of Jejakabhukti

Desai, Devangana. Khajuraho

Desai, Devangana. The Religious Imagery of Khajuraho

Dikshit, R.K. The Candellas of Jejakabhukti

Keay, John. India: a History

Lonely Planet India

Miller, Sam. Blue Guide India

Mitra, Sisir Kumar. Early Rulers of Khajuraho

Nasr, Mohamed. The Emergence of Muslim Rule in India

Ramadurai, Charukesi. “India’s Temples of Sex” BBC Travel

Tammita-Delgoda, Sinharaja. A Traveller's History of India

Jan 16, 2020

It's the world's greatest comic strip. The Bayeux Tapestry, technically an embroidery, documents the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest.

We explore this cheeky document and tell its tale: the story of 1066, that most crucial year in English history. It's the tale of Edward the Confessor, powerful earl Harold Godwinson, one-man military machine Harald Hardrada, and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy.  There's battles, invasions, and an insane amount of luck, and the Tapestry covers it all. Or rather the parts it wants to cover.

I've wanted to tell this story since I started the podcast. I hope you enjoy it. Plus, there's an apple pie at the end you won't want to miss.


Bridgeford, Andrew. 1066 : the hidden history in the Bayeux Tapestry

Harper, Damian and Catherine Le Nevez. Lonely Planet Road Trips: Normandy & D-Day Beaches

Howarth, David. 1066: the Year of the Conquest

Marren, Peter. 1066: the Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings

Morris, Marc. The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England

Rick Steves France

Wilson, David M. The Bayeux Tapestry

Dec 25, 2019

It's our bonus holiday episode!

Nestled in the mountains along the border of North Macedonia and Albania sits Lake Ohrid, a deep, blue lake as old as time. On its shores, in the town of Ohrid, Samuel, tsar of the First Bulgarian Empire, directed his kingdom's last hurrah against the mighty Roman Empire to his east. His opponent: Basil II, known now as the "Bulgar-Slayer."  I guess you can figure out how this goes.

Eric Halsey of the Bulgarian History Podcast gives his thoughts on Samuel and his brothers and the epic confrontation with Basil, while Allison Greene from Sofia Adventures and Eternal Arrival shares her experience of visiting Ohrid, whose Byzantine-era churches charm and whose lakeside boardwalk invigorates.

And we talk about Macedonian food, including ayvar, a red pepper spread-slash-dip that pairs with everything.


Crapton, RJ. A Concise History of Bulgaria

Evans, Thammy. Macedonia: the Bradt Travel Guide

Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Knowlton, Mary Lee. Macedonia

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Apogee

Michael Psellus. Chronographia

John Skylitzes. A Synopsis Of Byzantine History, translated by J. Wortley

Photograph by Silfiriel

Nov 11, 2019

THIRD ANNIVERSARY BONUS EPISODE! People often ask me where they should go when they visit the US. Having been to all 50 states (plus DC and Puerto Rico, which should be states), I can actually answer this. And in this not-at-all-serious episode, I try to answer that question.

Being a nerd, I created a spreadsheet and complex formula tanking each state in terms of natural scenery, historical sites, charm, cuisine, and debauchery.  I share the top ten on this episode.

For the full list, check out the website:

When you disagree, and you will, drop me a line or pick a fight on Twitter (@wonderspodcast).

Oct 10, 2019

Europe and North America are drifting apart, and where the plates diverge, an underwater volcanic mountain range has formed.  It peeps above the ocean in several spots, the largest and most magnificent of which is Iceland.  Iceland's underground magma and mountaintop glaciers have conspired to create a wonderland of fire and ice, the perfect setting for the development of a remarkable medieval culture.

In this episode, Noah Tetzner from the History of Vikings podcast joins us to discuss the settlement of Iceland, their literature (the sagas), their government, and their expansion to Greenland and North America.

There's Flóki, the raven-carrying discoverer who gave Iceland its name.  There are Ingolf and Leif, the oil-and-water brothers who first settled the island.  There's Aud the Deep-Minded, noblewoman and matriarch.  There's Þorgeir Þorkelsson, who had to make a choice that would change Iceland forever.  And there's Erik the Red and his son Leif, who set out to find new lands to the west.

In addition, listeners Brian Conn and Quinn Campagna describe their recent trips to the island and all the glorious natural wonders to see. And we'll have hot dogs (really), fermented shark meat (really), and Icelandic yogurt, or skyr, after a dip into the hot springs.



Ari Þorgilsson, The Book of the Icelanders

Averbuck, Alexis.  Lonely Planet Iceland

Barraclough, Eleanor Rosamund.  Beyond the Northlands: Viking Voyages and the Old Norse Sagas

The Book of Settlement (Landnámabók), translated by Thomas Ellwood

Ferguson, Robert. The Vikings: a History


Haywood, John. Northmen: the Viking saga, AD 793-1241

Konstam, Angus. Historical Atlas of the Viking World

Laxdæla Saga, translated by Muriel A. C. Press

Magnusson, Magnus. Vikings!

Rick Steves Iceland

Roberts, David.  Iceland: Land of the Sagas

The Saga of Erik the Red, translated by J. Sephton



Music includes “Gjallar,” “Fólkvangr,” and “The Vikings” by Alexander Nakarada
Music promoted by
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Photograph by Andreas Tille

Sep 19, 2019

Carved by glaciers during the Ice Age, Norway's more than 1100 fjords are spectacular. The sea enters narrow valleys with high cliffs laced with waterfalls. This rugged seacoast nurtured ancient Norway and its ruthless seafaring raiders: the Vikings.

The Vikings came out of the north like a thunderbolt to ravage the coastlines of Europe, but the people of medieval Scandinavia were so much more than just Vikings. 

In this episode, Lee Accomando of the Viking Age Podcast talks about Harald Fairhair, legendary first king of united Norway, and his sons Håkon the Good and the excellently named Erik Bloodaxe.  Lee has a soft spot for Erik's sorceress wife Gunnhild.

Listener and patron Kjartan Bærem talks about his homeland, and tells us which fjords are most worth visiting. We also discuss various lamb dishes before curing our own salmon: dill-scented gravlax.


Alcuin. Letter to Ethelred, King of Northumbria

Alcuin. Letter to the Bishop of Lindisfarne

Ferguson, Robert. The Vikings: a History

Greshko, Michael. “Famous Viking Warrior Was a Woman, DNA Reveals” in National Geographic.  September 12, 2017.

Ham, Anthony. Lonely Planet Norway

Haywood, John. Northmen: the Viking saga, AD 793-1241

Konstam, Angus. Historical Atlas of the Viking World

Magnusson, Magnus. Vikings!

Nozari, Elaheh.  “My Biggest Accomplishment of 2018 Was Making My Own Gravlax” in Bon Appetit. December 13, 2018

Rick Steves Scandinavia

Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla

Music includes “Gjallar,” “Fólkvangr,” and “The Vikings” by Alexander Nakarada
Music promoted by
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Photograph by TomasEE

Aug 29, 2019

You've seen the Pyramid on countless tourism brochures, but what do you really know about the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá and it's magnificent pyramid? Did you know it's built over a cenote, a natural water-filled sinkhole? Have you heard the legend of the Toltec king from Central Mexico who might have conquered the city in 987?

To help explore the answers, Robert Bitto from the Mexico Unexplained podcast appears with his take on the mysteries of the pyramid. We also talk about the Spanish archbishop who first described the city after having burned nearly all Mayan writings and the wild rush that was 2012, the apocalypse that didn't quite come off.

Join us for some cochinita pibil as we talk about the Yucatán!


Carlsen, William.  Jungle of Stone: the True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

Fehrenbach, TR. Fire and Blood: a History of Mexico

Hecht, John. Lonely Planet: Cancún, Cozumel & the Yucatán

Landa, Diego de.  Yucatan Before and After the Conquest

Onstott, Jane. National Geographic Traveler: Mexico

Prado, Liza and Gary Chandler. Moon Handbook: Yucatán Peninsula

Schele, Linda. The Code of Kings: the Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs

Stephens, John L. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan

Weaver, Muriel Porter. The Aztec, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica

Webster, David L. The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse

Music by Los Tres Reyes, Los Montejo, Victor Manuel Aarón Sánchez, and Hidalgo Tzec Haas

Photograph by wikipedia user Cocojorgefalcon

Aug 15, 2019

Sometimes a wonder which no longer exists is worth an episode. In the 9th century, the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad created the Bayt al-Hikma, the House of Wisdom, a great library which served as the starting point for a remarkable intellectual program. There, hundreds of scribes translated as many Greek, Persian, Indian and other documents that they could, and these widespread translations fueled new advances that would make Baghdad the Silicon Valley of the 9th and 10th centuries.  Men like al-Khwarizmi, the Father of Algebra, and al-Kindi, the Philosopher of the Arabs, changed the world.

Dr. Ali A Olomi, frequent guest, friend of the show, and host of Head on History, appears to discuss the House of Wisdom, the thinkers who worked there, and the caliphs who helped make it happen, like Harun al-Rashid and al-Mamun. 

In the process, we'll cover murderous kings, "true crime" mysteries, civil wars that really were brother vs brother, medieval machines, brilliant alchemists and mathematicians, and the guy who gave us the three-course meal and toothpaste. Plus we revisit masgouf, Iraq's favorite grilled fish.


Bobrick, Benson. The Caliph's Splendor: Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad

Hann, Geoff et al. Iraq: the Ancient Sites & Iraqi Kurdistan: the Bradt Travel Guide

Kennedy, Hugh. When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: the Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty

Lyons, Jonathan. The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization

Morgan, Michael Hamilton. Lost History: the Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists

Thousand and One Nights

Photograph of Mustansiriya Madrassa by Taisir Mahdi

Jul 18, 2019

Nestled in the hills of north central Morocco, Fès' ancient walled medina is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, passages, lanes and souks: the world's largest car-free urban space.  Founded by Idris, an Arab refugee-turned-Moroccan king, Fès also claims the world's oldest university, built by Fatima al-Fihri, herself a refugee from Tunisia.

There's no specific wonder here other than the medina, and that's OK. Sometimes a city or neighborhood is exemplary enough to be a wonder in and of itself.

Listener Steve Fait joins us to talk about visiting Fès, navigating its maze, exploring its secrets and managing carpet salesmen.  Plus, we discuss the joys of tagine, although the recipe this week is b'stilla, a savory/sweet Moroccan pot pie that is one of my all-time favorite foods.


Abun-Nasr, Jamil Mirʻi.  A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period

Carrington, Daisy. "This 1,157-year-old library gets a facelift". CNN. 

DK Eyewitness Morocco

Hourani, Albert.  A History of the Arab Peoples

Lonely Planet Morocco

Nader, Emir.  “The World's Oldest University Was Founded by a Woman of Color” in Vice

Othman, Najwa. “Kairouan: Capital of Political Power and Learning in the Ifriqiya”

Sarkeesian, Anita and Ebony Adams.  History vs Women: The Defiant Lives that They Don't Want You to Know

Wolfert, Paula.  The Food of Morocco

Photo by Alina Chan

Jul 4, 2019

On the western fringe of Germany, near the Dutch and Belgian borders, sits Aachen, favored city of Charles the Great, or Charlemagne. He was King of the Franks in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, and through conquest and economic success, he unified much of Western Europe. Crowned Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day, 800, he could be considered the father of Europe.

Or he might just have been incredibly lucky.

Travis Dow from the History of Germany Podcast joins us to discuss Charlemagne, his conquests, reforms, and buildings, including his great chapel in Aachen, one of the best examples of early medieval architecture.  In its central octagonal chapel, you can still see Charlemagne's simple marble throne, where many future German kings would be crowned.

Of course, there's lots of talk of food, from currywurst to döner kebabs, but Aachen is famous for its own special spicy cookies, Aachener printen, as well.  And there's the story of Pippin, which is not at all as the musical described it.


Barbero, Alessandro. Charlemagne: Father of a Continent

Lonely Planet Germany

Schillig, Christiane. "Wider den Zahn der Zeit: Der Dom zu Aachen" Monumente Online: Magazine of the Deutsche Stiftung Denkmalschutz 

Schneider-Ferber, Karin. Karl der Große. Der mächtigste Herrscher des Mittelalters

Wilson, Derek. Charlemagne

Photograph by Jim Linwood

Jun 6, 2019

In the soft volcanic rock of Cappadocia, eroded by wind and water into fantastic shapes, ancient peoples carved dwelling places.  By the Byzantine era, locals created vast underground refuges: places to hide from raiders and foreign armies.  They painted murals on rock-cut churches, exemplars of medieval Roman religious art.

In the 8th century, this art, both here and around the empire, became the centerpiece of a spirited controversy: iconoclasm.  Some, particularly the emperors Leo III and Constantine V, believed that people's venerating religious art was causing God to forsake the empire. Others disagreed.  The argument would have far-reaching consequences for the empire and for history.

Iconoclasm initially ended under the guidance of Irene, the first ruling Empress in Roman history. She was ruthlessly efficient, as seen by her treatment of her son. She's one bad mother....

Listeners Krister and Jacob Törneke come by to discuss visiting Cappadocia, where cave churches and underground cities should the mark of the medieval Byzantines and where the natural landscape inspires jaw-dropping amazement.

Plus, they talk about the Cappadocian Turkish food, including ayran, a salty yogurt drink that goes perfectly with meat kebabs, even if it sounds repulsive.


Brownworth, Lars.  Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization

Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, ed. Norman P. Tanner

Herrin, Judith.  Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

Lonely Planet Turkey

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: the Early Centuries

Theophanes. Chronographia

Treadgold, Warren.  A Concise History of Byzantium

Photograph by Gerardo Lazzari

May 16, 2019

The eighth century's greatest adventure story.  Abd al-Rahman, low-ranking Umayyad prince, finds himself the only male member of his family to survive a massacre at the hands of the Abbasid rebels.  He escapes through many adventures to the Maghreb (present-day Morocco) where he decides to try his luck in Spain, or as it was called then: Al-Andalus.  More adventures await him there before he eventually becomes the Emir of Córdoba, establishing what would become Medieval Europe's richest and most prosperous country.

His greatest achievement is the mosque that still stands in Córdoba today: the Mezquita. Row upon row of red and white double arches fill the immense, contemplative space, except for a giant Renaissance cathedral dropped in the middle of it.

Sarah Kildow, listener and Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Akron, stops by to discuss visiting Córdoba, seeing the Mezquita, eating tapas and enjoying Féria, the great Spring fair.  Plus salmorejo, a chilled tomato soup that's perfect for hot summer days.

Andalucía is one of my favorite places, and I'm excited to bring this story to you.


Ahmed ibn Mohammed Al-Makkari. The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain

Gerber, Jane S. The Jews of Spain: a History of the Sephardic Experience

Jayyusi, Salma Khadra and Manuela Marín. The Legacy of Muslim Spain

Kennedy, Hugh. Caliphate: the History of an Idea

Kennedy, Hugh. Muslim Spain and Portugal: a Political History of al-Andalus

Lewis, David Levering.  God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215

Lonely Planet Guide to Andalucía

Lowney, Chris. A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment

Masood, Ehsan.  Science & Islam: A History

Menocal, María Rosa.  The Ornament of the World

Rick Steves Spain

Photograph by Fabio Alessandro Locati


May 2, 2019

On April 15, 2019, a fire started in Notre-Dame de Paris and caused significant damage.  In its honor, here is a bonus episode on the great cathedral.

We know that Notre Dame will survive this calamity, because it has survived other calamities before.  From Baroque refacing to revolutionary desecrations, Notre Dame had become an absolute wreck. Then Victor Hugo's novel started a restoration movement which led to the appointment of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, whose detailed work created the church we've grown to love.

Beyond talking about the cathedral, we have sidebars about post-war Poland (it makes sense; trust me) and the Montparnasse neighborhood.

Finally, we link to the narrative by discussing the Muslim conquest of Spain and the Battle of Tours (or Poitiers) in 732, setting the stage for the next three episodes.


Eyewitness Travel Paris

Hollis, Edward. The Secret Lives of Buildings

Horne, Alistair. Seven Lives of Paris

Rick Steves Paris

Robb, Graham. Parisians: an Adventure History of Paris

Winston, Richard and Clara. Notre-Dame de Paris

Apr 25, 2019

On the coast of Northern Ireland lies a remarkable feature: a field of more than 40,000 interlocking hexagonal columns, leading down into the sea. To the ancient Irish, the basalt columns -- the result of a long ago volcanic eruption -- seemed like the foundations of a bridge made for giants. And so they are still called the Giant's Causeway to this day.

On this abnormally long episode, we discuss the mythological origins of the causeway and the legendary Irish hero, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, a.k.a. Finn McCool. While the physical bridge to Scotland might be a myth, other connections in the early medieval period were very much evident.

Dr. Lucy Barnhouse (@singingscholar),  medieval historian and contributor to @historyfootnote, drops wisdom about Irish monasticism and its impact in Ireland and abroad. We discuss the beer-multiplying, chariot-riding St. Brigid, the hot-tempered St Columba, and the wandering St. Columbanus.

In addition, listeners Jenn and Diarmuid talk about their experiences visiting the causeway and reflections on the North. We also discuss Game of Thrones locations, surfing off the Antrim Coast, and the joy of grabbing a pint in an Irish pub.

There's Irish butter and soda bread and more Houses of the Holy references than are necessary. (That 1973 Led Zeppelin album features the Giant's Causeway on the cover).


Bitel, Lisa M. “St. Brigit of Ireland: From Virgin Saint to Fertility Goddess”

The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn mac Cumhaill

Bunting, Eve. Finn McCool and the Great Fish

Byrd, Robert. Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife: a Giant of a Tale from Ireland

Byrne, Francis. Irish Kings and High-Kings

Catholic Encyclopedia. “St. Columba”

Cogitosus. The Life of St. Brigid

The Colloquy of the Ancients

De Hamel, Christopher. Scribes and Illuminators

De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts

Lord, Victoria. The Other Irish Saint: Brigid of Kildare

Lonely Planet Guide to Ireland

MacNab, P.A. Mull & Iona

Marron, Emmet. “The Communities of St Columbanus: Irish Monasteries on the Continent?”

McCaffrey, Carmel and Leo Eaton. In Search of Ancient Ireland: the Origins of the Irish from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English

McCullough, David Willis. Wars of the Irish Kings: a Thousand Years of Struggle from the Age of Myth Through the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I

Meehan, Bernard.  The Book of Kells

O’Hanlon, John. Life of St. Brigid, Virgin: First Abbess of Kildare, Special Patroness of Kildare Diocese, and General Patroness of Ireland

Ollivier, John J. Fun with Irish Myths: a Must for Every Irishman or Those Who Have to Live with One

Rick Steves Guide to Ireland

Suehle, Ruth. “The story of St. Columba: A modern copyright battle in sixth century Ireland”

Photograph by wikipedia user Jal74

Music by Aislinn

Mar 28, 2019

While the Silk Road gets the fame, and the catchy nickname, the Indian Ocean maritime trade moved far more goods over a longer period of time.  That trade, combined with its own unique products, made Indonesia and its first great kingdoms possible.  The result were Indian-influenced trading empires and regional behemoths capable of creating the world's largest Buddhist monument on the island of Java.

Anthony Frisina of the History of Indonesia podcast joins the show to discuss how these empires, the Srivijaya and Sailendra, came to be, how they built the great Borobudur, and why we don't know nearly as much about them as we'd like. We'll also discuss the interplay between Hinduism and Buddhism, which led to the creation of Prambanan, a massive Hindu temple just 44 km from Borobudur, that is a wonder in its own right.

There's Chinese monks on pilgrimage, cloves a-plenty, and nasi goreng, a Javanese fried rice that hits all the right flavor notes.


Cœdès, George. The Indianized States of South-East Asia

Forman, Bedrich. Borobudur: the Buddhist Legend in Stone

Guy, John. Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia

Insight Guide to Indonesia

Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia

Marks, Copeland. The Exotic Kitchens of Indonesia: Recipes from the Outer Islands

Viegas, Jennifer. “Madagascar Founded By Women” on NBC News

Mar 14, 2019

Early medieval India saw the rise of an empire based in the Deccan plateau: the Rashtrakutas.  Despite their significant power and influence, their story is little-known and under-appreciated.  From their most remarkable king, Amoghavarsha the author, to their architectural masterpiece at the caves of Ellora, we will remedy this shocking omission.

The Kailashanatha Temple, carved from the Deccan rock, is a true wonder, and Anirudh Kanisetti, historian and host of the Echoes of India, brings its magic to life. We also talk about Indian math, Sanskrit poetry, and chicken kolhapuri, a spicy Deccan specialty.


Keay, John. India: a History

Lonely Planet Guide to India

Mani, Chandra Mauli. A Journey through India's Past (Great Hindu Kings after Harshavardhana)

Reu,Pandit Bisheshwar Nath.  History Of The Rashtrakutas

Rice, Edward P.  A History of Kannada Literature

Sample, Ian. "Asteroid that killed dinosaurs also intensified volcanic eruptions - study" in the Guardian

Photo by Ms Sarah Welch in wikicommons

Feb 28, 2019

We return to the land of the Maya, to visit their most stunning artistic achievement. The stelae of Copán, many constructed to honor Waxaklajuun Ubaad Kawiil, 13th king of the city, are remarkably intricate, humanist yet fantastic. His reign marked the highest point and also the lowest, as within decades of his untimely death, Copán and the other Classic Mayan cities would be abandoned. Or were they?


Listener Richard Dennis describes his impressions of visiting Copán and traditional Honduran cuisine: beans and tortillas, culminating in the baleada.  And we can't talk about Honduras without discussing the Football War.



Bunce, Steve. “How a World Cup qualifier and the suicide of a young girl launched the bloody 100 Hour Football War” in the Independent.

Earley, Caitlin C.  “The Mesoamerican Ballgame” at Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Timeline of Art History.

Footprint Handbook: Honduras

Martin, Simon and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya

Moon Handbook to Honduras and the Bay Islands

Schele, Linda and Peter Mathews. The Code of Kings : the Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs

Webster, David L. The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse

Photo by Dennis Jarvis on wikicommons

Feb 14, 2019

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

Jan 24, 2019

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

Dec 20, 2018

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. 

Follow Nadeem: @eranudturan on Twitter
eranudturan on Facebook
eruanudturan on Patreon


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"

Dec 13, 2018

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

Nov 22, 2018

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.


Deane, Zain. Mexico's Aztec and Maya Empires: an Explorer's Guide
Lonely Planet Mexico
Martin, Simon and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya

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

Nov 10, 2018

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.

Nov 4, 2018

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

Oct 17, 2018

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.

Some notes:

  • If you don’t have fresh mackerel (or smoked), try something like sea bass or haddock.  You’re going for a firm ocean white-fleshed fish.
  • Use an Italian-type bread - not as crusty as a French baguette.  You’re going for pillowy but with a nice chew.
  • Za’atar is increasingly available as prepared blend.  To make your own, mix 1 tbsp (15 ml) each of oregano, sumac, cumin, sesame seeds and 1 tsp (5 ml) salt and black pepper. 

Serves 4


  • 4 fresh ocean fish filets - preferably mackerel, but sea bass or haddock would do
  • handful of arugula
  • 1 small red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 loaf Italian bread
  • 1 or 2 Hungarian wax peppers (optional)
  • 2 tomatoes, thick-sliced
  • 1 tsp (5 ml) za’atar
  • olive oil, for bushing
  • salt


  • Preheat the grill to medium-high.
  • Sprinkle a little salt over the onions and mix well.  Grill the peppers until they begin to char slightly. Remove from the heat.
  • Cut the bread loaf into pieces the same length as the fish fillets. Split down the middle and lightly toast both sides on the grill. Brush the cut sides with olive oil. Keep warm.
  • Lightly brush both sides of the fish with olive oil.  Grill the mackerel fillets over a high heat, skin-side down for 3–4 minutes.  Once the skin has begun to crisp up, flip and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
    1. With an alternate fish, use a fish basket to ensure the fish keeps it shape.
    2. With smoked haddock, you need not cook as long - you just want to warm it up.
  • Take the warm toasted bread and place slices of tomato on one of the cut sides. Place the fish on top of the tomatoes and then add the other ingredients, finishing with grilled pepper and za’atar. Season, squeeze over a little lemon juice, top with the other half of the bread and eat immediately.

Recipe adapted from

Photo by Daniel Roy

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