History Today magazine lists its top ten history movies

And here they are:

1. Mirror (Andrei Takovsky, 1975, USSR)

2. Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson, 1974, France)

3. A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946, UK)

4. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985, USSR)

5. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1969, Italy/US)

6. Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966, USSR)

7. A Canterbury Tale (Powell and Pressburger, 1944, UK)

8. La Reine Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994, France)

9. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden)

10. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980, West Germany)




Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages

English: Map representing the advance of the C...

English: Map representing the advance of the Christian Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula from 790 to 1300 Deutsch: Die Karte zeigt den Fortschritt der Wiedereroberung (Reconquista) durch die Christen auf der Iberischen Halbinsel in der Zeit von 790 bis 1300 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a long time, Spain struggled to suppress or forget the centuries of rule under the Islamic caliphate. In the year 711, only decades after the death of the prophet Mohammed, the Iberian peninsula was invaded right up to the Pyrenees and beyond. In fact, the Muslim army got as far as the city of Tours in France before it was repelled. But from then until the 12th century AD, most of what we now call Spain and Portugal was under Islamic rule. And it’s a fact that the majority of the population – based in the southern half of the peninsula – became or was Muslim.

The high point of the caliphate’s rule was from the 800s to the 1000s when the emirs of Cordoba oversaw the creation of great cities, places of learning and a flourishing culture. Their libraries would transmit lost portions of Greek and Roman literature and learning to the rest of Europe.

The Christian fight back started from 711 and continued until 1492 when the last Islamic foothold in Grenada was dislodged.  It was a slow process called the ‘Reconquista’ and the kingdoms that emerged were hugely different from the Visigoth, Germanic rooted Christian Spain that that had been overrun in the 8th century. For a start, the Islamic influence was everywhere – particularly in the buildings. And if you go to Toledo, Cordoba and Seville – you just can’t avoid it….as my photos from my visits below prove!

Outside the mosque/church

Outside the mosque/church

Started as a Visigoth church, became a mosque, then back to a church

Started as a Visigoth church, became a mosque, then back to a church

A church then a mosque and back to a church

A church then a mosque and back to a church

Formerly a synagogue in Toledo - a city of three Abrahamic faiths in the Middle Ages

Formerly a synagogue in Toledo – a city of three Abrahamic faiths in the Middle Ages

A door in Toledo

A door in Toledo

A sea of arches inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba - converted later to a cathedral

A sea of arches inside the Great Mosque of Cordoba – converted later to a cathedral

The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century

The Great Mosque of Cordoba built by Abd al Rahman in the 9th century

A door in Cordoba - the city was once the largest in western Europe

A door in Cordoba – the city was once the largest in western Europe

The Alcazar in Seville - remodelled by Christian rulers who used Moorish builders

The Alcazar in Seville – remodelled by Christian rulers who used Moorish builders

The Alcazar in Seville

The Alcazar in Seville

The Alcazar or ruler's home in Seville

The Alcazar or ruler’s home in Seville

A Moorish tower in Seville

A Moorish tower in Seville

The walls of medieval Seville

The walls of medieval Seville

Now a restaurant but once a Moorish dwelling

Now a restaurant but once a Moorish dwelling

Toledo is a city I visited in 2010 along with Segovia, Cordoba and Seville. You can do all of them and Madrid in one trip very easily. Toledo was the capital of Castile after being conquered from the Moors – the Muslim rulers of medieval Spain and Portugal, who had invaded the Iberian peninsula in 711 AD. After the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Navarre were united to become Spain in the 1490s, the kings of the new country wanted a more central location to keep an eye on their unruly subjects so the capital moved from Toledo to Madrid. And this means that Toledo feels a bit like a city lost in time – as if it was frozen some time around 1500. The medieval flavour is very strong and I thoroughly recommend a visit. It’s also proud of its Templar heritage!

Starting Now

I took a few day trips from Madrid, and my favorite was Toledo.  I arrived quite late in the day but it didn’t disappoint. It’s easy to imagine knights on horse back riding through the narrow streets as fair ladies wave scarves.


The only attraction I ended up visiting was the cathedral, and it was worth every penny.  I walked in and began to continually strain my neck.  The ceiling soars and the faith of the people who built the cathedral is felt. Really the entire space is uplifting and to date it is my favorite cathedral.


Afterward I thought I would ramble about and found myself on a path that took me around the outside to the old city walls with spectacular views on the other.   If I ever come back I’m having a picnic on the far bank.


My final Toledo moment was walking back to the…

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Game of Thrones may be closer to the medieval mindset than we give it credit for – or it may just be a load of tosh that’s fun to watch. Take your pick. It’s coming back to our screens. May have mentioned that an actor friend of mine, Simon Lowe, has been in previous episodes!

Color Me Bacon

This trailer for the next season looks incredible. Dragons, wildlings, and all the Winterfell mead you can drink. Well maybe not that last one. But if medieval fantasy and epic facial hair is what you want, look no further then this exciting trailer for the third season. KHALEEEEESIIIII!!!!!!!

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Templar HQ and the mysterious fire

English: The doors of Saladin's minbar in the ...

English: The doors of Saladin’s minbar in the al-Aqsa Mosque (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Al Aqsa in Jerusalem ‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Al-Aq...

Al Aqsa in Jerusalem ‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Al-Aqsa Moskeen i Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem was once the platform on which the great Temple of the Jewish people had stood – destroyed or severely damaged in turn by pharaohs from Egypt, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greek and finally by the Romans.

Recognising the holy nature of the site, the conquering Muslims of the 7th century AD built a structure we now call the Dome of the Rock. The Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik constructed the Dome staking a decisive claim by Islam to Temple Mount.

Before this caliph, it is believed that the second or Rashidun (righteous) caliph after the prophet Mohammed built a small prayer house on the mount that was later expanded into the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The reason for Islamic veneration was that Mohammed was believed to have been transported to this place from Mecca during the so-called “Night Journey”, which took only a single night to achieve. It was here that Allah commanded Mohammed to tell Muslims to pray facing Mecca and not Jerusalem.

Successive Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs rebuilt the mosque until the year 1099 when Christian crusaders audaciously took the city. After 450 years of Muslim rule, Christians were back in charge. The last Christian rulers had been the eastern Roman (or Byzantine if you prefer) emperors governing from Constantinople.

The mosque was immediately regarded as the Temple of Solomon built on top of his stables and it was soon suspected that secret treasures of the great king lay underneath the structure. A new order of knights dedicated to protecting Christian pilgrims took over the building and called themselves the Knights Templar. Our very own Templars then set about extensive building work to convert it to a church and include military installations.

When the Muslim ruler Saladin seized Jerusalem back in 1187, he undid much of the Templar work though the large stone extensions remained and today are the Womens’ Mosque and Islamic Museum. Saladin installed a new minbar and for the centuries that followed it reverted to being a functioning mosque.

After 1967, Jerusalem came totally under Israeli control and in 1969, a fire swept through the mosque incinerating the minbar of Saladin and other decorative features. At first, Palestinians blamed Israelis while some Israelis wondered if the Palestinians had done it themselves. But then it emerged that the real culprit was an Australian called Denis Michael Rohan.

Rohan claimed that he believed if the mosque was destroyed, it would hasten the building of the third Temple – one that would replace the second Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans. This, he asserted, would hasten the coming of Jesus Christ.

Jesus didn’t come. And Rohan was detained in a psychiatric facility until he died in 1995.

Pope Benedict XVI resigns – is this unprecedented?

English: Pope Benedict XVI in Italy

English: Pope Benedict XVI in Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pope Benedictus XVI

Pope Benedictus XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Historical map of the Western Schism Caution, ...

Historical map of the Western Schism Caution, this map may contains errors. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pope Benedict IX (1032–1044; 1045; 1047–1048) ...

Pope Benedict IX (1032–1044; 1045; 1047–1048) served three non-consecutive terms as pope. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Pope announced that he intended to resign today on grounds of ill health and age – leaving office before the end of the month. In recent centuries, the view has been that popes continue until they croak but Pope Benedict’s decision to leave before dying is not without precedent. If you head back into the Middle Ages – popes stepped down for any number of reasons.

Pope Benedict IX (1032-1948) for example found the burden of the papacy too much for his eleven year old shoulders – yes, he was eleven when his family arranged for him to become pope! And why not – two of his uncles had been pope before him. He got fed up with his duties and sold the papacy to his godfather though changed his mind later on and seized it back.

Pope Celestine V (six months in 1294) decided the job really wasn’t for him and passed a law permitting a pope to resign, which he duly did. Celestine rather fancied the thought of retiring to peaceful contemplation. But his rather overbearing successor, Boniface VIII, decided to imprison him instead and possibly had him murdered. His confinement certainly didn’t last very long and was followed very shortly after by his funeral.

Pope Gregory XII (1406-1415) was caught up in the Western Schism where, for several decades, there were two and sometimes more popes. One sat in Rome and the other in the French city of Avignon. To try and end this crazy situation that divided Europe, a decision was made that if one pope stepped down, the other one would. Of course, there then followed a game of brinkmanship to see who would blink first but in the end, Gregory did the noble thing. He was allowed to retire to Ancona where history records nothing terrible happening to him.

Recent times have not been without papal controversy with claims that Pope John Paul I was murdered – I have no view on this – and reports that Pius XII wrote a decree insisting that if the Nazis kidnapped him, he should be deemed to be no longer pope. I’ve no doubt in the next few days and weeks we will hear many salacious theories as to the stepping down of Benedict. Just be aware that the Vatican has been here before!

The Knights Templar and money lending

English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři

English: Knights Templar Česky: Dva templáři (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Knights Templar were warriors, monks, farmers, royal advisers and bankers all rolled into one. Whether they sat on fabled mountains of gold – it was certainly widely believed (particularly by certain monarchs) that they did – they certainly lent vast sums to popes and princes. The Paris Temple in particular was a heavily fortified bank in the eyes of the French kings.

As today’s banking system sees its reputation torn to shreds, it’s worth recalling that our banks owe a debt to the Templars for creating an early system of lending and credit. So how did it work?

Well, in a pre-capitalist age without modern banking, you might have to haul large amounts of bullion around with you when you went off on crusade or even dig a hole in the ground to hide it. Not exactly sophisticated. Your wealth would largely be based on land and that was at risk of being seized by somebody unscrupulous while you were away. So step forward the Knights Templar with an easier way to access your money while on crusade without having to heave great sacks of it with you.

They issued letters of credit – a promise to pay the bearer the designated amount. These could be cashed in – bit like old fashioned travellers’ cheques – at Templar houses or preceptories. The order would charge a kind of administration fee to avoid the charge of usury. It was sin to charge interest on loans – a religious rule still followed today by Islamic financial institutions where ‘enhanced capital’ is OK but not outright earning of interest.  Jewish lenders were permitted to charge interest, which contributed to anti-Jewish feeling in times of economic crisis or political upheaval.

Templar enthusiasm for the world of high finance may have originated at the Champagne Fairs – a massive market held in Troyes and other towns in the Champagne district of France.  This was where the first Templars originated from so the order had strong links to this part of the world. Merchants would come from all over Europe bringing goods from further afield including the Middle East. To ease the flow of transactions, the Templars developed their credit note system. The knights themselves would have been selling their wool and other produce from their manors to fund their crusading activities in outremer.