Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Clay frying-pan vessel with incised decoration of a ship. Found at Chalandriani on Syros island. Early cycladic II period (Keros-Syros culture, 2800-2300 BC)

The Cyclades, because of their central location to trade in the eastern Mediterranean, have a rich and long history. They are a part of the vast number of islands that constitute the Greek archipelago in the Aegean Sea. The name was originally used to indicate islands that formed a rough circle around the sacred island of Delos.

The Cyclades are comprised of around 220 islands, with the major ones being Amorgos, Anafi, Ándros, Antiparos, Delos, Ios, Kéa, Kimolos, Kynthos, Mílos, Mykonos, Náxos, Páros, Pholegandros, Serifos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Síros, Tínos, and Santorini (Thíra). While ancient maritime trade made the region important strategically and geographically, a reliable agricultural base made life on the Cyclades archipelago possible. The Cyclades may have been one of the earliest sites of the worship of the Mother Goddess cult, which became widespread throughout the eastern and western Mediterranean.

All Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures including ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and later on, Greece, would feature prominent goddesses. When the Minoan culture flourished in the islands from about 3000 to 1450 b.c.e., frescoes on the walls of the palace, excavated by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, featured a bare-breasted goddess with snakes. Snakes figured in many of the Mother Goddess cults in antiquity and had its parallel in the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Settlement of the Cyclades was sporadic. The Phoenicians were most likely the first settlers, while around 1000 b.c.e. the island was inhabited by the Ionians. In the case of Síros, ancient ruins, statuettes, and skeletons indicate the island had been settled by the Bronze Age.

The very dispersion of the islands made seafaring a necessary part of survival, as islanders learned that they could gain by trading with—or raiding—other islands in the archipelago. It is in these early boats that one can find the beginnings of the oared galleys that would be a feature of Mediterranean warfare until the 18th century at least, when the Knights of Malta used huge galleys in their wars against the Barbary pirates. Cycladic ships were the prototypes with which ancient Greece would plant its colonies, beginning around the sixth century b.c.e., and with which Rome would become the mistress of the Mediterranean.

The Cycladic culture peaked during the Minoan period, which was brought to life by the work of Arthur Evans with his reconstruction of the royal palace at Knossos. The story of European civilization begins on the island of Crete with a civilization that probably thought of itself as Asian (in fact, Crete is closer to Asia than it is to Europe). Thus, the Cyclades and Cretan Minoan civilization provided the first known fusion of Western and Asiatic culture. With the rise of Alexander the Great around 320 b.c.e., this would become the great Hellenistic civilization, which Alexander’s armies would carry to the very frontiers of India.

Further reading: Bent, J. Theodore, ed. The Cyclades, or Life among the Insular Greeks. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2002; “Tinos.” Available online. URL: http://www.tinos.com.gr (November 2005); Warry, John. Warfare in the Classical World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Mongol Fleets in Southern China

China’s enemies also came overland during this period. However, as the Mongols pressed southward across the Yangzi (Yangtze) River and encountered Chinese resistance along the coastal waterways, they, too, ordered their Chinese prisoners to construct a fleet. The last Song (Sung) emperor drowned at sea after suffering final defeat at the hands of the Mongol navy. In 1274 and 1281, Mongol ruler Kubilai Khan launched two invasions of Japan with a huge armada of Korean and Chinese built ships that carried 140,000 soldiers during the second expedition. The ships were no match against typhoons, and both invasions failed.

Chinese ships, navigated by the compass (first used by Chinese navigators around 1100), with capacity between 200 and 600 tons, dominated the seas, carrying Chinese ceramics and other goods to Japan, Southeast Asia, and southern Asia. Taxes on trade produced the revenues needed to pay the annual tribute to Jin and to pay for the army.

Around 1200 the situation in northern China was dramatically changed by the rise of Mongols under Genghis Khan. After uniting the Mongol tribes under him, Genghis began attacking Jin in 1210. His forces took and destroyed Jin Central Capital (modern Beijing) in 1215 and many other cities in northern China. Genghis left the Jin campaign unfinished to turn westward, destroying Xixia in 1227. In 1232 Song repeated the mistake that Huizong had made in 1118 when he made a treaty with Jin against Liao—it made an alliance with the Mongols against Jin, which was destroyed in 1234. However instead of regaining parts of northern China, Song was faced with the formidable Mongols in 1245. Song forces resisted desperately, both sides using gunpowder and firearms.

Mongol forces were initially stymied by the strongly fortified Song cities and had problems fighting in the river- and canal-intersected terrain of southern China. The great Song fortress Xiangyang (Hsiang-yang) in modern Hubei (Hupei) province north of the central Yangzi valley held up for four years in 1273. Finally Persian siege engineers and starvation forced Xiangyang’s surrender, which opened up the route to conquer the south. The Mongols also built a navy. The last adult Song emperor died in 1274; two years later Hangzhou surrendered without a fight. Three infant emperors succeeded one another until 1279 when the last one drowned near Guangzhou (Canton) in 1279 as his remnant navy was overwhelmed by the Mongol fleet.

Further Reading Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276.