By Scott S. Smith*
Atlas of Empires
I’ve been hooked on visiting destinations that played some important role in history from the moment I first set foot on foreign soil at 19 in what was then called West Germany (where my jaw stayed dropped for two years just looking at the ancient architecture). I’ve been fortunate in having had a chance to write extensively about the events and leaders of the past, and I’ve learned that there is no book, film, or website that can replace the 3-D experience of being at ground zero of some world-changing moment (usually served by a cutting-edge local museum that can thrive at a place of pilgrimage for history buffs).
That said, Atlas of Empires: The World’s Great Powers from Ancient Times to Today by Peter Davidson (Fox Chapel Publishing, $19.99), a 240-page paperback published in 2018, comes close to being a time machine that immersed me in its pages. When I read history in hard copy, I’m used to having to highlight the text I think I will need when I write (or if it’s an overview covering a topic I think I know, I listen to CDs when on long drives or stuck in traffic, usually from the estimable Teaching Company). I found myself underlining passages on almost every page of Davidson’s tome.
What I don’t tend to do with books is study the graphics, unless they involve battlefield movements. But this Atlas was a revelation of global history for me. Its text and pictures prompted me to make connections between empires and events, reminding me of facts I had forgotten, and enriching my future travels, even illuminating my past trips. Davidson (co-author of Milestones of History and a director of documentaries for the History Channel) wrote a remarkably concise yet thorough summary of the major events of world history, describing how each civilization grew and the causes for its disappearance or its evolution into today’s nations.
Circa 2005, detail showing the destruction of the black Africans painted on the box of stuccoed wood, from the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. (Image by ©Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)
It’s one thing to recall that Egypt’s Old Kingdom, whose pharaohs built the first pyramids, lasted five centuries, B.C. 2686 to 2181 (BCE for the politically correct). But even though I had made my first book report on Egypt in third grade and had the honor of having the country’s head of antiquities, Zahi Hawas, as our guide through the stunning Cairo Museum, I had forgotten that the Middle and New Kingdoms also lasted a half century each. The thumbnail sketches of the great pharaohs highlight their astonishingly long reigns. For example, Thutmose III, who was constantly on the front lines and expanded the empire to its farthest reaches, died after 54 years on the throne. Rameses II built many of the great monuments during his 67 years in power. Yet Tutankhamun, whose treasures are touring the United States as I write, only lasted nine years as pharaoh.
The chapter on Persia is a reminder of how well some far-flung ancient empires were managed, despite staggering challenges in communications, logistics, and cultural differences. The godfather of the study of modern business management, Peter Drucker, was once asked who the greatest leader in history was. His answer surprised many (and implied it’s been downhill since): Cyrus the Great, who became leader of the Persian tribes in 559 B.C. and died in battle in today’s Kazakhstan in 530. He fostered goodwill and loyalty by promoting religious tolerance and is mentioned 22 times in the Bible, having freed the Jews to return to Israel in 538 after 48 years of captivity in Babylonia (Cyrus is said to be the only gentile who was ever declared a “messiah”). With Iran constantly in the news for the past four decades, it’s helpful to know how it fits into the Persian empire it identifies with. That stretched north to include what is now Uzbekistan (the city of Samarkand is one of the world’s great and largely undiscovered destinations), east to encompass Afghanistan and Pakistan, and west to take in part of modern Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.
The text is full of facts that surprised me: Sparta’s population was 80 percent slaves (compared to Athens’ 30 percent); celibacy was only insisted on for all clergy by the pope in 1074; 240,000 were killed in the final battle for the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan; the Inca empire, which stretched 3,000 miles, was managed without writing; 20,000 of the African American slaves who fought against the colonists during the American Revolution left with the British afterwards; in 1839, the Chinese dumped 20,000 chests of opium into the sea, which had been delivered by British traders, so the United Kingdom’s government retaliated by sending gunships to annex Hong Kong and open five new ports.
Use of Greek Fire: Byzantine manuscript illumination from the Skylitzes Codex, 13th-14th centuries.
While the book’s art is often eye-catching (such as statues depicting Genghis Kahn’s mounted warriors near Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, Byzantine sailors spraying Arab ships with mysterious “liquid fire”), the reason this volume is essential for me as a serious history traveler is the maps. By using different shades to denote where and when empires expanded, even newbies to historical geography can quickly grasp the flow of conquest or assimilation. There are also symbols that show what the most important economic resources were for the region, including slaves, obsidian, and hemp. Gold made Mansa Musa of the Kingdom of Mali in northwest Africa the wealthiest man of all time with $400 billion in today’s money (ruling from 1312 to 1337 A.D. BCE). Davidson is particularly good at working in business history, such as how and where tiny Netherlands created a far-flung commercial empire by taking advantage of new technology and financial systems.
The maps make clear the vast territory that the Mongols conquered (from eastern Europe east, including most of the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, and China), where precisely the first global empire, Spain’s, was located; and what it meant for the sun to never set over land where the British queen reigned. The maps that break down Chinese history helped me as a non-specialist understand the territory ruled by the dynasties of the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing, and how they were culturally different (under the Ming, Admiral Zheng’s large fleets sailed as far as Africa. I think Gavin Menzies makes compelling arguments for his foray across the Pacific in 1421: The Year China Discovered America).
The Second British Empire (click to enlarge)
Also valuable is the recommended list of books for each chapter for readers who would like to know more about the people, stories, and meaning of history without being drowned in the details of scholarship. I plan to give this book the time it deserves by taking it on a trip to read the short chapters and study the maps in spare moments, like waiting in line at the airport. If I wasn’t making historical destinations a priority before, I have a much longer bucket list now that I finished reading it.
*Photos courtesy Fox Chapel Publishing
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox*
Bean to Bar Chocolate by Megan Giller
I have had chocolate in a number of forms and locations ranging from exotic and improbable such as a safari lodge and mundane such as my kitchen. I have sampled supermarket milk chocolate bars and dark chocolate gourmet bars, foreign and domestic. Over the years my preference has migrated from garden variety milk chocolate to the more flavorful options offered by specialty brands and artisan vendors. For some time I have been a fan of single origin chocolate bars, especially the plain dark chocolate ones layered with flavors.
My most recent chocolate experiences were enhanced manifold by Bean to Bar Chocolate America’s Craft Chocolate Revolution (Storey Publishing, $19.95), a new book by Megan Giller. Thanks to her detailed descriptions, I became much more aware of the diversity of the domestic craft chocolate movement and dozens of bean to bar makers. The 231-page hardcover book published this year features color photos, color illustrations and chocolate recipes.
Bean to Bar chocolate from Uganda grown and crafted in Africa
My favorite part of reading her book was the gourmet experiences that followed from preparing her recipe for Water-Based Drinking Chocolate (from Aubrey Lindley, co-owner, Cacao). I also tried the Cocoa Tea (from Miss Choco) made with roasted nibs and water, although that was less to my liking. Once I procured the chocolate bars the Water-Based Drinking Chocolate was a cinch. Like the Cocoa Tea the recipe calls for only two ingredients, chocolate (or roasted nibs) and boiling water.
A few ounces of chocolate melted in a little hot water highlighted the qualities of each type we tasted.
For the Water-Based Drinking Chocolate we sampled four chocolate bar varieties, an organic and sustainably produced bar purchased at the supermarket; a bean to bar 70 percent single origin from Uganda made by De Villiers Artisan Chocolate near Paarl, South Africa; and a half and half blend (all we had available were partial bars) of single origin bean to bar Honduras The Lost City 72 percent and Dominican Republic Duarte 70 percent from Castronovo Chocolate from Stuart, Florida.
The beverage made with the supermarket bar was so awful we threw it out without finishing the serving. The Ugandan beverage tasted better although it was lumpy and had a medium to mild flavor, nothing extraordinary. The texture, even after whipping it twice with a small whisk, was lumpy. In defense of the makers it was past its expiration date. It was a good thing that we first tried the recipe with the Castronovo chocolates because we might not have sampled further otherwise.
The Castronovo chocolate bars were our favorites for the chocolate beverage.
The Castronovo blend was delightful, dark and rich with a hint of smokiness and flavors that lingered on the palate. Later, I bought more of the Dominican Republic Duarte, my favorite of the two available at the small shop where I purchased them, planning another Water-Based Drinking Chocolate made with those bars. Also, I want to sample more domestic bean to bar chocolates and plan tastings, maybe even try some of the other recipes in the book.
Megan Giller, author, Bean to Bar Chocolate
Giller, a Brooklyn resident, is a food writer, specializing in New York City and Austin, Texas. She writes Chocolate Noise, a blog. Giller’s chocolate knowledge shines throughout the book and her enthusiasm is contagious. She shares information on the craft movement, the people behind the chocolates from the farms to the makers and their approach to purchasing cacao beans, roasting, processing and making mostly single origin chocolate, mainly with only a limited number of ingredients. She also addresses history, equipment, labels, sustainable practices and pricing. There is a list of her favorite bean to bar makers in the back of the book.
*Book photos: Storey Publishing
Click to buy Bean-to-Bar Chocolate
Paris Metro Photo*
For lovers of the Paris metro and transit fans Actes Sud recently published Paris Metro Photo ($55), a 406-page hardcover volume featuring some 250 photos of the heyday of the Paris metro. It has more than a century of photographic documents and photos from Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Edouard Boubat, Izis (Israëlis Bidermanas), Francois Kollar, Willy Ronis, Robert Capa, William Klein and Johan Van der Keuken among others.
The book features varied genres and photographic practices, including photojournalism, photo stories, street photography, fashion photography, architectural photography and industrial photography all centered around the history of the development of the Paris metro. In 1900, when the first metro rolled from west to east across Paris, from Porte Maillot to Porte de Vincennes it quickly became a cultural symbol of France, Art Nouveau and urban technological innovation. By then photography had been around for five decades and technological advances had made light cameras possible.
The book is divided into twenty year periods beginning in 1900. Each photo is accompanied by a description and date. The photo sources are public and private such as art galleries, AKG Images, Getty Images, libraries, and museums in France, The Netherlands, Scotland, Switzerland, and the United States. The book was published as a project of the Paris RATP (Régie Autonome des transports Parisiens) public transport authority. In addition to the photos there introductory statements by Anne-Marie Garat and Julien Faure-Conorton (he selected the photography) as well as a brief description for each twenty year section of photography.
*Photo courtesy Actes Sud
Click to buy Paris Metro Photo
The Tall Trees of Paris*
In The Tall Trees Of Paris (Overcup Press, $49) art enthusiast Matt Wagner showcases 42 contemporary Parisian artists and their work. The 285-page hardcover color book in English and French, released May 2016, took him a year from idea to publication. There was no cost to the artists to be included.
Each artist profile includes a photo of the artist's work space, a portrait of the artist or the self image of her or his choice, and photos of his or her work. Wagner selected the artists through his contacts in the art world. The handwritten answers to nine identical questions appear on one page and a typewritten translation in English appears on the opposite page. Among the questions are the artist's favorite restaurant, bars, shops and museums.
“Paris is the foundation of contemporary art, the requirement for graduation,” said Wagner in a press release promoting his new title. “Accordingly, it’s also easily overlooked. Like arches that support an ancient aqueduct, nobody even notices them as long as the water is flowing. But without Paris, the flow of art would have stopped. Paris is good at art. Good enough that people have stopped noticing and just take it for granted. Ultimately, the Tall Trees books are about people. The questionnaires introduce the featured artists to readers, detailing their favorite things about the place they live and work. We become invested in the artist’s wellbeing like that of a friend.”
The artists featured are: 2Shy, Alëxone, Alexandra Arango, Céline Artigau, Nicolas Barrome Forgues, Martes Bathori, Blek Le Rat, Agnes Boulloche, Broll & Prascida, Thierry Bruet, Ludovic Debeurme, Veronique Dorey, Dugudus, Elobo, Christelle Enault, Agnès Ernoult, Sébastien Féraut (Niark1), Christian Guemy (c215), HONET, Kerascoët, Koleo, Koralie, Eric Lacan (Monsieur Qui), Hubert de Lartigue, Jean Leblanc, Jean Lecointre, Lek & Sowat, Levalet, Nicolas Martin, Jean-Michel Ouvry, Tristan Pernet, Aurore Petit, Bruno Pontiroli, Francesca Protopapa (il Pistrice), Sebastien Preschoux, RERO, Jérémy Schneider, Supakitch, Sébastien Touache, TYRSA, Amandine Urruty, and Frédérique Vernillet.
Matt Wagner, editor, The Tall Trees of Paris
The Tall Trees of Paris
book is for the curious, the traveler and the art lover," Wagner said, by email through his publisher, when asked who might like his book. "It’s a great travel guide for finding undiscovered spots in Paris and it’s great for learning more about discovered and undiscovered artists." As to the criteria he used in selecting the artists for inclusion, he said,"
I am completely selfish in this aspect. I choose artists that I like their work. Lucky for me that my taste is pretty diverse. That diversity comes through in the curation of the book with the selection of painters, installation artists, sculptors, street artists, illustrators, etc.
With the Paris book I mostly found artists through networking. I would meet one artist or another curator and they would recommend an artist. That artist would then recommend another. I was able to build up quite a roster of artists in this manner."
When asked what was the greatest surprise he had from the book project he said, "My biggest surprise is how hard I fell in love with Paris. I had only been a tourist previous to the book and didn’t really think I would become so enamored with people of Paris."
Wagner is the founder, owner, and curator of Hellion Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Born, raised and educated in Indiana, after moving west, Wagner fell in love with Portland and learned the ropes at several galleries before opening Hellion in 2010. Prior to the Paris book, he published The Tall Trees of Tokyo (2012) and The Tall Trees of Portland (2014).
*Photos courtesy of Matt Wagner
Click to buy The Tall Trees of Paris
Market Food: South Africa
Following the explosion of local markets and the emergence of talented foodie entrepreneurs, Dianne Stewart and her two daughters, Lissa Stewart and Jessica Cairns, felt driven to travel around South Africa in search of the best market food. Two years later, in 2015, they published Market Food: South Africa (Bookstorm), a 167-page softcover book for tourists and locals. The book is divided into six sections: Find Your Local Market, Market Tastes, Market Meals, A Little Extra, Sweet Sensations, and Thirst Quenchers.
"Having experienced numerous food markets abroad, we knew that the world-class South African food markets were worth promoting," Jessica Cairns said via email. "We visited markets nationally, in search of markets with their own unique personality and we sort after talented food vendors who were producing creative food of a very high quality. Market Food includes a directory of markets that we visited around the country and a diverse assortment of great market food recipes accompanied by the foodie entrepreneur’s unique stories. The book aims to promote the food markets and these talented vendors."
Dianne Stewart, Lissa Stewart and Jessica Cairns, authors, Market Food
Their favorite part of the project Cairns said by email was, "Eating our way around the markets! Sampling the delicious food, chatting to the vendors to get the background to their food and how they ended up at the markets. Dianne and Jessica collated the vendors recipes and retold the vendor’s personal stories while Lissa had the task of capturing the market atmosphere and the delicious food through the photographic lens."
The biggest surprise? "The depth of the talent at these markets and the diverse personalities of each market- some tucked away in bustling harbour precincts, others on lush wine estates, in parks or inner-city warehouses," Cairns said.
The three continue the promotion of food markets and talented food vendors on their website and social media channels (marketscoop.co.za) where they feature an updated national market directory (each market has its own page with photographs, maps and opening times), scoops of what is happening at markets around the country and the personal stories of some of the vendors they meet at the markets. Dianne Stewart is author of 30 books, Jessica Cairns is a former international banker, and Lissa Stewart is a food photographer.
Lettuce and a Lady's Breast
In Lettuce and a Lady's Breast Looking back over 50 years of cooking Billy Gallagher (Billy Gallagher and Associates) outlines the highlights of his culinary life from his roots in the United Kingdom to South Africa. He shares insights from his personal life, his life as a chef as well as his work with the South African Chefs Association (SACA) and the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS). The 330-page softcover book, published in 2015, is divided chronologically. It is peppered liberally with black and white and color images and photos.
Babel (Babylonstoren) by Maranda Engelbrecht is a 237-page softcover oversize book published in 2013. The visually appealing book has full color photos of the produce and meals from Babel, its namesake restaurant located within Babylonstoren, a relatively new produce farm lovingly established and nurtured in a former cattle farm, in South Africa's Winelands region near Cape Town.
Maranda Engelbrecht, author, Babel
The self described food stylist's affection for presentation is evident in the page size photos of plants and dishes served at the restaurant as well as the restaurant itself. Many of items on the restaurant menu are routinely made from products grown on the farm and its environs. The book is available for sale at a large shop on the farm.
Photos courtesy of Dianne Stewart, Lissa Stewart, Jessica Cairns and Babel
Click to buy Market Food: South Africa and Lettuce and a Lady's Breast
Birds of Kenya
Photo: Princeton Press
The thousands of flamingos on Lake Nakuru may be perhaps the most famous of bird sightings in Kenya's Rift Valley.
There are many bird other species in that area, which includes four national parks: Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, Mount Longonot, and Hell's Gate. Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley (Princeton University Press, $29.95), a 256-page softcover book by Adam Scott Kennedy published in 2014, features the 320 bird species he believes travelers are most likely to encounter on safari in the region, which runs from Lake Baringo in the north to Lake Magadi in the south.
In the book, there are 500 color photos, most by the author, as well as non technical information on the ecology of the area and bird behaviors by species. It is divided into seven sections: Birds of Lake and Marsh; Up In the Air; Birds of Prey, Birds of Grassland and Open Areas; Birds of Wood, Scrub and Garden; and Night Birds.
Scott Kennedy has served as principal leader on birding holidays in Africa, South America, Europe, and New Zealand. He and his wife, Vicki, operate as private safari guides, specializing in photographic and wildlife safaris in East Africa. He is the author of Birds of the Masai Mara (see New Masai Mara bird book available).
Click to buy Birds of Kenya's Rift Valley (WILDGuides)