The problem with historical non-fiction is that topics get trotted out again and again. Ever since I was a small boy I have loved history and I devoured it until I felt I knew enough about these key topics. I then wanted new stories; I wanted to be surprised again by real tales from the past. So I started a journey into the more obscure eras and moments of history. I discovered many fascinating people and events that never got the same level of interest as the Late Roman Republic or the First World War.
I wanted to share my love of these forgotten moments with others. So I put these more obscure facts on a Facebook page @HistoryGems and Twitter too. Eventually, the years of collecting the weird and wonderful evolved into a book, and I now share with you some of my favourite obscure historical facts from Forgotten History...
The god Ba’al wasn’t so bad
The most mentioned god in the Bible after, well, God is Ba’al (the lord), who gets numerous mentions in the Book of Kings [two books of the Hebrew Bible or the Protestant Old Testament] and the Book of Judges [the seventh book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible].
There’s plenty of archaeological evidence to show that Ba’al had a widespread following around the southern Mediterranean and the Near East in the first millennium BC. He was so popular with both Semitic and non-Semitic communities that early monotheistic Jews saw him as an obvious threat, thus every time he or his priests are mentioned in the Bible, it’s in a negative context. After all, you’re not going to put the competition in a positive light, are you?
This theme is echoed in the Qur’an, which also mentions Elijah (Elias) arguing with the priests of Ba’al. The name is distorted into Beelzebub, meaning ‘lord of the flies’, a slightly obscure name for the devil. This was picked up by 19th- century occultists, and Beelzebub became frequently referred to as the true name of the devil or as having other nefarious or black-magic connotations.
This is downright libellous for a god once associated with nothing more sinister than the weather. Ba’al was mainly associated with rain and storms, and while storms may have been considered bad news, rain in the arid Middle East was much needed. Ba'al, then, was not a deity of any particular notoriety; he was merely part of the pantheon of the many gods that existed in that part of the world at that time.
Indeed, Ba’al was not among the mightiest of the gods, and his followers were certainly not devil worshippers. In fact, all the existing iconography of Ba’al shows him in a benevolent god-like state, not as a source of wickedness. However, the cult gradually died out, and today there’s nobody left to defend him. Thanks to his legacy in Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, he is remembered as an ancient evil, best forgotten. Poor old Ba’al.
The Hagia Sophia is the most important building in the world
In the early sixth century, Emperor Justinian [Justinian I, aka Justinian the Great] ordered the construction of a new Hagia Sophia to be built on the ruins of an older, smaller structure. What rose out of the ground in Constantinople was the largest ancient dome ever built; a structure that wasn’t to be matched for nearly a millennium.
For nearly 1,000 years this was the world’s largest church – a record that’s still unbeaten. The church is also the pinnacle of late antiquity architecture and a sign that the early Byzantine Empire was every bit the match of the fallen Western Roman one.
It is said that the reason Russia is Orthodox Christian, rather than Catholic Christian, is that the envoys sent from the Rus' capital of Kiev said that when they walked into the church, it was as if they were walking into heaven itself. Had Hagia Sophia been smaller, Rome might well have swayed this potential eastern ally.
In 1054, in the Hagia Sophia, papal legates excommunicated the entire Eastern Orthodox Church, which resulted in the ‘Great Schism’ – a fracturing of the two largest church groups, which continues today (more on that later). Then, in 1453, Constantinople was defeated by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, and this great church was turned into a great mosque.
Indeed, to the modern eye Hagia Sophia looks like a mosque. Prior to 1453 there had been some mosques with domes, but most ancient mosques only had open courtyards (there was no need for a roof to keep out the rain in Saudi Arabia). But after the conquest, this beautiful structure heavily influenced architecture throughout the Islamic world, so mosques were made to look like an ancient church, not the other way around.
When the Ottoman architect Sinan recognised that the building needed additional support, he built buttresses. Without this extra support, the building would not be standing today. Following its illustrious history as a church, Hagia Sophia was, for more than 450 years, one of the largest and most venerable mosques in the Islamic world. After Ataturk came to power in Turkey in the 1920s, the structure became a museum, and quite fittingly it remains so to this day.
This one impressive structure has been home to two major religions and has influenced architecture in countless countries. The Hagia Sophia is, I would argue, the most important building in history.
The Hagia Sophia. (© Serhii Liakhevych/Dreamstime.com)
The humble 0 was banned for centuries
Please count aloud the first ten numbers in the number line. Done it? Did you just count 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10? In which case, your count was wrong. 0 is the first positive number, and it’s an oddity as numbers go. For example, if you look at a calculator, you’ll see it starts at 0, but it’s set on its own relative to other numbers grouped above it. Look at a keyboard, however, and you’ll see that starts with 1; 0 is at the other end after 9, which is not where it should be. No other number is treated so ambivalently as 0, and there’s a reason for this.
Roman numerals work for lower numbers but become increasingly unwieldy the higher the count. For example, MCMLXXIII is the Roman for 1973. Which would you rather write? To make things even more complicated, the Romans had no 0 value.
And fast-forward to Christian Europe, 0 is associated with a null point or void. The void is where the devil (supposedly) lurks; you can’t have a demonic value, so the humble 0 was banned for centuries. It’s also why our calendar is wrong. You can’t have Jesus born in a year 0, so he was born in year 1, and the year before was 1 BC (ignoring completely any need for a year 0).
0 originated from India and came to Europe via Islamic scholars, and all of our numbers are based on Arabic numerals, not Roman ones. Don’t believe me? Look at an Arabic clock and you can see the similarities, although their 0 is more of a dot, and 5, to the European eye, looks more like a 0 than anything else. The point is that repeating values, based on a decimal system, come from the Middle East, not the Romans. The fact that the 0 arrived so late in the numbers game explains why we have so many different names for it. We only have one name for the 1; it’s one. 2 is two. However, 0 can be zero; nought or, in football, nil.
Alfred the Great shouldn’t have been king
The problem with history is that we look at it the wrong way round. It seems obvious to us that certain events were inevitable, and that’s because the human brain works to find a pattern, even when there isn’t one. A great example of that is Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, grandfather to the first king of England... who started life very low down the pecking order.
Alfred was the youngest child of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. In order to become king, he first had to get past this lot:
Æthelstan, King of Kent
Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia
Æthelbald, King of Wessex
Æthelberht, King of Wessex
Æthelred, King of Wessex
…before we finally come to Alfred, King of Wessex.
As you can see, Alfred was so far down the line of succession that he didn't even have the ‘Æthel’ bit in his name. That’s important because Æthel is a regal prefix meaning “noble” (but it is sometimes translated as ‘elf’). It wasn’t that Æthelwulf disliked his youngest son; it’s because there was no expectation that Alfred would ever be king.
However, as the years rolled by a few of Alfred’s brothers died, some in suspicious circumstances, and Alfred began to rise up the pecking order. To be clear, the culprits of the murky deaths are unknown. It could be that the brothers were getting rid of each other while Alfred remained bottom of the heap, no threat to anyone – or Alfred could have been the Anglo-Saxon version of a serial killer. We just don’t know. The arrival of a massive Viking army in 865 resulted in the deaths of large swathes of Anglo-Saxon nobility, and the house of Wessex also had its fair share of young men who fell to Viking axes.
Eventually Alfred became a co-ruler with his older brother Æthelred (the first; it was the second Æthelred, born more than a century later, who was the famous ‘unready’ one). When he died, Alfred was left to rule on his own, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Had power politics gone a different way, or had the Vikings chosen to attack mainland Europe rather than England, Alfred would probably have been nothing more than a forgotten Anglo-Saxon aristocrat. Instead, he is the only English monarch to have ‘the Great’ in his title.
King Alfred the Great, c890. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The biggest loser in history was Ala ad-Din Muhammed II Shah of the Khwarazmian Empire
Who? What? Where’s that? Bear with me, this is a good story.
In the early 13th century, the Khwarazmian empire was spread over most of central Asia. Parts of Georgia, most of Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – among others – were all included in this vast and powerful empire, which at the time was the largest Muslim empire in the world. It was about the same size as western Europe. Its ruler was the hugely powerful and tremendously pampered Ala ad-Din. His fawning followers described him as the new Alexander the Great, and he believed the hype.
The spanner in his works was his neighbour, the not exactly mild-mannered Genghis Khan. Genghis had a simple rule: if the enemy capitulated unconditionally, it could expect mercy as long it did as told. Any resistance would result in total war, with killing, pillaging and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Ala ad-Din ignored his bellicose neighbour and continued to enjoy the pleasures of his palace.
But then Ala ad-Din murdered the Mongol emissaries sent by Genghis as an act of defiance. After all, was the emperor not the new Alexander and an awe-inspiring leader? Well, no, but he was now the first ruler to renege on a deal with a man who was possibly the most volatile in history.
In 1219, Genghis sent an army of at least 100,000 (the whole of western Europe at this time would have had difficulty scraping together an army of that size) and descended on the Khwarazmian empire like the hounds of hell. When the city of Urgench had the audacity to hold out against the Mongols, they were eventually punished with one of the worst massacres in human history. And all because their leader thought he was a greater man than he was.
One after another, the cities of the empire fell to the Mongols. Ala ad-Din found out the hard way that he was no Alexander the Great, and spent the last few months of his life being chased across Asia by Mongol scouts. They never quite caught him, but the once-great shah died a broken man on an island in the Caspian Sea. His only remaining possession was his cloak, which he was buried in by his handful of followers.
Ala ad-Din went from being one of the richest, most powerful men on the planet to a deposed and destitute ruler, who saw his empire go up in flames: in the modern parlance, a total loser. The Mongols did their best to erase him (and his empire) from history, which is why there are no surviving images and why you’ve probably never heard of him.
And the moral of Ala ad-Din’s story? Don’t do anything stupid. Specifically, don’t do anything to provoke a blood-thirsty neighbour. Oh, yes – and never, ever believe your own hype.
The battle of Portland: the decisive victory that both sides won
It was 1653 and Cromwell ruled England (and the Commonwealth). After the civil war, England continued to press towards becoming a maritime superpower and was increasing its dominance of trade routes. However, England’s ambitions threatened the Dutch, the maritime power that had most to lose from this plan, and the result was the First Anglo-Dutch War (there were four of them, the last ending in the 1780s; more on this later).
As might be expected, there were numerous sea battles all over the Atlantic and the North Sea. The Dutch were, at this time, the larger naval power and, in 1652, began dominating the English Channel. This meant that as well as invasion, Cromwell faced the strangulation of England’s communications with its overseas territories. So the English fleet, under Admiral Robert Blake, confronted the experienced Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp with roughly identically sized fleets in the English Channel at Portland.
The battle lasted three days. The English planned to disperse the Dutch fleet, but as the battle wore on the English failed each day to break up the Dutch formation.
By the evening of the third day, Tromp knew that his fleet had, at best, half-an-hour’s ammunition left for fighting on the fourth day, so Tromp and his fleet sailed away. Blake had cleared the English Channel of enemy vessels and, shortly after that, captured five Dutch warships and around 30 Dutch merchant ships.
Tromp claimed victory because he was undefeated, and his lines had held against successive English attacks. Blake also claimed victory because he had cleared the area of enemy vessels and came home with a large number of Dutch ships. Both are valid points of view.
That said, it was a major English victory, and the Dutch never again (during this war) threatened the English coastline as they had done at Portland. This major naval win resulted in an English victory in the war, even though the Dutch didn’t see it that way. The result was clear and spoke for itself.
Oliver Cromwell, 1656. Oil on canvas. Located in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
The story of the Nazi super-cows
This may sound like an internet hoax, but it isn’t. In January 2015, Devon farmer Derek Gow had to put down seven of his rare breed Heck cows. The reason for this? The cows were so aggressive that they had tried, on multiple occasions, to attack him and his farm hands. Heck cows are a breed with large horns, so attacks could lead to very serious injuries. Farmer Gow shouldn’t have been surprised by their violent temperament, however, because the Heck cow was the result of Nazi breeding experiments.
It is a well-known fact that Hitler and Himmler were obsessed with the Aryan history of Europe, and when they couldn’t find it, they made it up. Archaeological finds were faked or the wrong information was assigned to innocent artefacts in order to support the idea of a pre-Christian nirvana in northern Europe.
Well-respected archaeologists of the day were co-opted to look for pagan Germanic ancestors. Some of the research and conclusions were legitimate, but when the facts didn’t match the fantasy, they were discarded in favour of Aryan propaganda.
All of these were attempts to get back Europe’s ‘true’ roots, which included looking at bloodlines and lineage. Nowadays we would call this looking at the human genome or DNA, but DNA was unknown in its importance to genetic inheritance in the 1930s. There is footage of Nazi researchers in places as far afield as Tibet taking head, nose and eye measurements, looking for ‘racially pure’ subjects.
Prior to the 1940s, experiments on humans were limited, but experiments on livestock were not. Animal husbandry was then (and still is) a standard way of creating new breeds of animals for various purposes. The Nazis wanted to selectively breed cows to get them back to an early form, and the Heck cow was a result of this programme. They were specially bred by German brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck, both zoologists, to simulate what – according to Nazi theories – a ‘racially pure’ cow would have looked like.
In particular, the Nazis wanted to recreate the long-extinct auroch (a kind of ancient bovine species), but as they also wanted the cows to be aggressive, part of the managed breeding programme involved the use of Spanish fighting bulls. So, the Heck cow is a kind of Nazi super-cow.
Jem Duducu is the author of Forgotten History: Unbelievable Moments From the Past (Amberley Publishing, 2016).