Heinrich Barth: An Incredible Explorer And Ethnographer

The name Heinrich Barth is almost unknown today.  But he is without doubt the greatest explorer that Germany produced in the nineteenth century, and probably even in the twentieth.  Not only did he penetrate completely unknown regions of Africa, but he kept a meticulous record of his travels, to such an extent that his published works are still useful to scholars today.  Even in his own day he did not receive the recognition that he deserved; central Africa was then so unknown even to educated Europeans that a balanced appraisal of his work was not possible at the time.  Yet a review of his life and travels leaves little doubt that he must be ranked among the bravest and most resourceful of all explorers of the African continent.

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The Remarkable Memoirs Of Madame Roland

When a writer composes his or her memoirs while in prison awaiting execution, we owe it to ourselves to consider what they have to say.  It may be a cliché that the prospect of death focuses the memory and concentration, but it is a cliché that is powerfully true.  In Chapter 5 of Thirty-Seven, I discussed the fate of Boethius, who wrote his Consolation of Philosophy while languishing in a dungeon (and awaiting execution) for a crime he did not commit.  I recently heard of another last testament written during captivity:  the poignant memoirs of Jeanne Manon Roland (1754–1793), known to history simply as Madame Roland.

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The Fragility Of Historical Knowledge: The Case Of Lorenzo Boturini In Mexico

In the modern era we like to think of knowledge as something indelibly fixed and permanent.  We take it for granted that it will always be here, like the Great Pyramid, and are apt to overlook the bitter struggles that our ancestors may have endured to acquire such knowledge.  Information has not always been as easy to obtain as it is now.  As we read about the adventures of scholars of the past, we get the distinct impression that the learned men who came before us had a hardiness and tenacity that is lacking in the modern era.  I will let the reader judge for himself.

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Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg: An Early Pioneer In Mesoamerican Studies

We have previously discussed the career and work of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  Another major pioneer in the study of early Mexican antiquities was the intense French abbé Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg (1814–1874).  He remains another name nearly lost to history, but a good case can be made that without his work, we would know far less than we do about the culture of old Mexico and Guatemala.

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Yuri Andropov: A Missed Opportunity For Reform Of The Soviet Union?

One of the forgotten names of recent history is Yuri Andropov, the fourth General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the successor to Leonid Brezhnev.  In the West at least, his name seems to have become buried among the pile of relics that accumulated in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  As far as I can determine, there is still no comprehensive English language biography of him currently in print; what studies do exist were written years ago and do not incorporate the latest research.  This is unfortunate.  His career spanned an important period of Soviet history, and his policies have proven to be more influential than is generally believed.  The student of modern Russian history owes it to himself to examine his life and career diligently.

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The Wisdom Of Ibn Al-Sammak

The biographical encyclopedia of Ibn Khallikan–that deep well of collective anecdotal wisdom–has an interesting entry for one Abu Al-Abbas Muhammad Ibn Sabih.  His surname was Al Mazkur, but like many famous figures it is his nickname that posterity recalls best.  This nickname is Ibn Al-Sammak, which literally means “son of a fish-monger” in Arabic (the word for fish is samak, سمك).  It is not clear where this name came from; perhaps he had a fish-merchant as an ancestor.

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Steven L. Myers’s “The New Tsar: The Rise And Reign Of Vladimir Putin” (Book Review)

For many years in the West there has been a lack of understanding of Vladimir Putin and his policies.  His personality, motivations, and objectives have been clouded in obscurity by the Western press, which almost always reverts to its simplistic “black and white” view of the world.  Not all of the fault for this lies with the West, of course.  The Russian president’s own media apparatus has little interest in encouraging critical analysis or speculation that falls outside the range of permissible opinion.  But leadership is as much about perception as anything else, and every leader in the modern age must take care to cultivate his image.  In this regard, Russia is no different from the United States, France, or England.  In the media age, it cannot be otherwise.

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