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Banners in the Mist:
a quarterly newsletter
delving deep into the past

World News

Dateline April 1, AD 1376

reprinted April 1, 2015     - - -     Volume 2 Number 2

Birth of
  an Empire

Chilling With Xocolatl

Tenochtitlán, Mexico
The streets and canals of our shining city still teem with merry folk this morning after a night-long celebration.
illustration: turquoise
Yesterday Acamapichitli the Wise ascended the throne as Tenochtitlán's first great One-Who-Speaks.

Beyond all doubt, Acamapichitli deserves the role of first Emperor. During his years of governance thus far, his innovations have brought prosperity to every citizen on the island.

  Under his direction, stone buildings now stand in place of the first cane and reed huts. Two pyramids rise at the heart of our city, to be crowned before long by magnificent temples. Work recently finished on large warehouses near the palace.

<< Stone channels drain our streets, hidden under the pavement. Every part of town can be reached by foot or by canoe, thanks to the network of orderly canals Acamapichitli ordered dug.

The causeways to shore have been strengthened and widened, with drawbridges to allow boat traffic through--and to provide defense, in case of war. There has been no need, thus far, for defensive maneuvers, but all can see the wisdom of our far-sighted One-Who-Speaks.

Much traffic tromps across those bridges, bringing trade goods from afar: copper from the Arizona folk in the north, furs and wild fruit from the jungles, and from the south, many bags of cacao beans hauled by long lines of porters.

This morning, one bag of cacao beans split while being carried to the royal warehouses, and city guards had to leap in with spears and clubs to break up the mob of onlookers diving for the precious kernels. Rumor has it that cacao beans may soon become our unit of currency since many folk already use them as a standard in barter.

On this second day of feasting, our new emperor and his noble guests in the palace will savor the luxurious royal drink of xocolatl, drunk cold. (None of that hot cacao brew the Mayans liked.)

Meanwhile, the whole city will feast and rejoice, following today's announcement of Acamapichitli's grandest accomplishment:

The lakebed gardens designed by our emperor have produced seven crops within the space of one year!
Who but our One-Who-Speaks, the wisest of the wise, would ever have thought to create man-made fields from cane-sided structures planted on the shallow lake bed? And then fill them with lake sediment to make a rich and fertile soil?

The markets now overflow with maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, chilies, and a riotous, colorful panoply of flowers, all grown in the ever-bearing chinampa fields that ring our island city.

All hail Acamapichitli the Wise!

diagram of a chinampa plot


The decimal system uses ones, tens, hundreds (ten tens), thousands (ten hundreds), and so on. This is also called "base ten."

The Aztecs use a vigesimal counting system, with ones, twenties, twenty-twenties, and so on. This is also called "base twenty."

A dot represents 1
A flag represents 20
A feather represents twenty twenties, or 400
An incense bag represents twenty 400's, or 8,000

      In 1376AD, the Mexica Aztecs had been building the island city Tenochtitlán for this many years:

(two times twenty, plus eleven ones)

A later Aztec document will list these prices:         (in cacao beans)
a large tomato
    or a tamale =

(1 cacao bean)

an avocado
    or a turkey egg =  

(3 cacao beans)

a pumpkin =
(and so on...)

a small rabbit =

a forest rabbit
    or a turkey hen =  

a turkey cock =

a slave =

If you worked as a porter, you earned 100 beans a day.
What bunch of symbols would the Aztecs use to show 100?

  Coming on July 1:
   Cacao beans cross the Atlantic, from Honduras to Spain

Uros vs Incas
A return to dry land

Kotakawana (Copacabana), Bolivia
Two winters of heavy rain have swollen the waters of Lake Titicaca beyond the highest previous high water mark. The deluge over the past few weeks has led to a surge, flooding the banks.

High water or low water, it makes little difference to us Uros, for our homes float with the waves. Ever since the Incas took over our lands, we've had to retreat to our man-made islands, built of layer after layer of totora reeds.

On shore, though, many of the Incan houses, made of adobe, are turning to mud and collapsing. We watch with soft laughter as the haughty Incans, looking quite bedraggled, pack belongings on their alpacas and head inland.

        From our island perch, we watch the commotion on shore with smug satisfaction. Inca persecution has made life difficult for us.

With no resources but what the lake gives us -- totora reeds and other aquatic plants, fish, snails and waterfowl -- subsistence has been a grueling struggle during the occupation.
Now, with the Incan oppressors gone, we can return to hunting vicuña, guanaco and deer in the highlands. Everyone is heartily tired of roasted cuy (guinea pig), the only livestock fit for raising in the tight quarters of our reed islands.

We'll soon go back to farming on lakeside terraces: corn, beans, barley, quinoa, potatoes and other tubers.

If the fleeing Incas have left any alpacas behind, we'll be able to spiff up our wardrobes as well. Good alpaca wool, the best fabric to ward off the perpetual chill.

Oh yes, we go barefoot more often than not even in winter. And yes, we boast that our blood runs black to protect us from year-round frigid temperatures out here on the lake.

But nothing beats a thick alpaca-wool shawl when the ice glistens on Lake Titicaca.

Rising from Ashes and Dust
The revival of an ancient capital

ASIA: Samarkand, Uzbekistan— Today the last stone was laid in the new city walls of Samarkand. Amir Timur himself attended the ceremony at the new tower overlooking the gates of the city.

With the aquaduct also nearing completion, the folk of Samarkand look forward to a future of prosperity. Folk tales abound on the streets, retelling the wonders of our city before Ghengis Khan laid it waste. After more than 150 years languishing in a pale shadow of our former glory, fields in the surrounding desert will once again bloom like a garden, and the market will overflow with produce.

Artisans have returned to Samarkand, as well. Known in the olden days for saddlework, copper lamps and silver lamé, Samarkand will once again attract merchant caravans that pass by on the Silk Road from the east.

Under the Amir's direction, work has begun on the public square, which townspeople are already calling Registan, the Place of Sand. The new dzharchis have already been installed at the square. Blasts on those enormous copper pipes should be audible in any quarter of the city, calling folk to hear public announcements. There is talk about a madrasah soon to be built at Registan, as well. Everyone agrees such a school of Islamic learning will light up our realm with knowledge and wisdom.

Local potters have begun firing tiles in light and dark blue. Samarkand’s mosques and madrasahs will call for tens of thousands of the glazed tiles for creating geometric patterns on wall surfaces.

A scuffle broke out at an inn near the gate when a traveler from Constantinople pointed at Amir Timur and asked if that was the notorious Tamerlane. The Amir's limp was, of course, obvious even at a distance, but no one uses that slur of a nickname within the hearing of Timur’s soldiers.

When the infidel regained his feet after the thrashing, the innkeeper explained that “Timur-i-leng” means Timur the Lame. Our Amir earned that limp in battle as he gathered all the lands of Central Asia under his control.

The halfwit from Constantinople asked if that made Timur our khan, which led to a lengthy discourse on the proper use of that title, to be used only by descendants of Genghis Khan. Timur cannot boast that lineage, though his fifth wife can. Marrying the lovely Saray Mulk Khanum, daughter of the khan of Chagatay, gave Timur an indirect claim to be the rightful heir of the Mongol Empire.

Timur-i-leng, sometimes called Tamerlane

A Tantalizing Entree:
Roast Yolla

Feast on the Beach

Ringarooma Bay,
Trowena (Tasmania)

Adult yolla, or short-tailed shearwater
*photo credit below
This spring's foraging trip to Big Dog Island reaped a larger-than-normal catch. One canoe was so heavily loaded with bags of yolla fledgling carcasses that it sprang a leak and had to be towed by the others while its own paddlers madly bailed with their kelp-leaf water pails.

The young women of the venture also returned pleased with their catch. They had filled several baskets with the tiny maireener shells so valuable for trading with land-locked clans in exchange for obsidian tools and ceremonial ocher.

The rest of Ringarooma village welcomed the foragers home with a bonfire on the beach, blazing hot and ready for roasting yolla. Everyone was so heartily tired of their winter diet of wallaby and echidna that there were more than enough hands to get the first batch of yolla cleaned and plucked and scalded and onto the spits.

The delectable feast of juicy, succulent yolla was rounded out with baked canagong leaves and crabmeat, and followed by songs and tales of the ancestors under the star-speckled warrangelly (sky).

  * "Puffinus tenuirostris Bruny" by JJ Harrison ( - Own work.
        Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Coral and Pearls
Splendor on the Coast

AFRICA: Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania— According to roaming journalist Ibn Battuta of Morocco, Kilwa Kisiwani is "one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world." *

Where and what is Kilwa Kisiwani?

Simply put, a city upon an island clinging to the east coast of Africa. But Kilwa Kisiwani is not simple at all.

Of the dozens of Swahili trading centers on the east coastline, Kilwa Kisiwani is the most splendid. The city has built upon four centuries of trade across the Indian ocean to become a magnificent monument to civilization.

As another traveler reports, "The city comes down to the shore, and is entirely surrounded by a wall and towers, within which there are maybe 12,000 inhabitants. The county all round is very luxurious with many trees and gardens of all sorts of vegetables, citrons, lemons, the best sweet oranges that were ever seen..."

Venture within those walls and stroll down the city lanes. On every side you will find architecture built with coral quarried just off the coast.

Meander past the Great Mosque -- pictured on the right -- now three centuries old. A complex system of arches and pillars supports sixteen domes overhead, some of which glitter with Chinese porcelain. The central dome boasts to be the largest in all of East Africa.

Pause outside the Small Domed Mosque--of all the mosques in town, the most elaborate and ornate.

Even the dwellings of the residents stand tall and proud. The grandest of mansions is the Great House, home of the sultan.

Do not leave the island before paying visit to the Husuni Kubwa, or Queen's House. "House" falls far short as a name for this wonder, found apart from the town proper, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. Husuni Kubwa is a huge complex with more than one hundred rooms, many courtyards, a vast tiered hall, and an 18-domed mosque. And don't miss a glimpse of the large octagonal bathing pool.

artist's rendering of Husuni Kubwa

If you wander through the grand market of Husuni Ndogo, you will find to your delight quartz from Arabia; bright-hued cloth and glittering carnelians from India; porcelain from China; spices from the East Indies; gold and iron from Zimbabwe; ivory from Tanzania; pottery, perfume, tortoise shell and pearls--all to adorn this magnificent crown of the eastern coast.

* The Rihla, Ibn Battuta, 1331AD

Last in a Long Line
A Noble Heritage
      Spanning Half a Millenium

EUROPE: Slagelse, Zealand, Denmark

Breaking news: An hour ago the Danish Parliament made the formal announcement:   The successor of the late King Valdemar will be his grandson, Olaf Haakonsson, age 6.

coat of arms: Slagelse, Denmark

Ever since Valdemar's funeral late last year, members of Parliament, the Danehof, have been debating over two candidates to take the reins of our elective monarchy:
  • Olaf, son of Valdemar's younger daughter Margaret, or
  • Albert, son of Valdemar's elder daughter Ingeborg.
Plan C was to go with neither cousin but to begin a new dynasty, an option that garnered few votes.

Albert, age 13, stands in line to rule his father's duchy of Mecklenburg in Germany. Unfortunately, recent anti-German sentiment weighs heavily against him.

  Young Olaf, however, is the crown prince of Norway. Olaf and his father, King Haakon VI, trace their ancestry clear back to Harald Fairhair, greatest of all Norse kings in the Viking era: an astounding 500-year legacy.

Some also call Olaf the rightful heir to the Swedish throne, being in direct line of descent from the former king of Sweden, Magnus IV--Haakon's father and Olaf's grandfather. (Twelve years ago, Haakon's cousin rose up in revolt and ousted his uncle, King Magnus, who spent his last decade of life in exile.)
Over these last few weeks of deliberations, little Olaf's popular mother Margaret spoke passionately before Parliament. It is rumored that her charm helped sway the decision--and gained her a position of power as well. Named as regent, Margaret will rule in Olaf's stead until he reaches age 15.

When asked his reaction to this breaking news, Olaf the Second declared he would name his puppy as captain of the guard, and demanded sweet cardamom bread on the table at every meal.


Overheard at the palace of Denmark:

Lady Margaret's ladies-in-waiting have recently been heard tittering about a song making the rounds among the commoners. Not a bawdy drinking song, but a nursery ditty. Why the hushed giggles, then?

One line has to do with Margaret herself as a toddler. As is the custom with royalty, she had been betrothed since birth to the young princeling of Norway, who would indeed later become her husband.

This ditty is sung, it is said, while bouncing a little child on the knee, with verses about the tot going riding on a horse named Blanke. So Margaret is not the only one to huff at the mockery. Her mother-in-law, Blanche of Namur, is in Norway called Blanke.

"Bounce a little boy on your knee," one Danish informant said, "and sing about riding to the king's court to go wooing a little maid called Margaret the Thick and Fat."

Queen Blanche of Namur with her little son Haakon
by Finnish artist Albert Edelfelt, 1877
A Swedish courtier gave us this version:

Rida, Rida, Ranka!
Hästen heter Blanka.
Vart ska vi rida?
Till se pa liten pega.
Vad kan hon heta?
Jungfrau Magretta.

Nå vi kom dit,
Där vara ingen hemma,
Bara utom hund,
Han koppla i bunken
Reste i planken
Och sade, Woof! Woof! Woof!
    Ride, ride, sitting tall!
The horse’s name is Blanka.
Where shall we ride?
To see a little girl.
What is she called?
Maiden Margaret.

Now, we come there.
There wasn’t anyone home,
Except only a dog
Who was tied up near his dish,
And rose up on the fence,
And said, Woof! Woof! Woof!

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