Saladin- book review

I’ve always been fascinated by Saladin, the great military leader of the Muslim Arabs or Saracens who fought and won victories against Western Crusaders in the 12th century. His victories culminated in him capturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders, but he was also lauded for his generosity and integrity. I was eager to read more about Saladin’s life and John Man’s Saladin – the Life, the Legend and the Islamic Empire didn’t disappoint.

I first heard about Saladin when reading about the Second Crusade and the exploits of the English King Richard I or “Lionheart”, himself another famous military leader, who led the Crusaders. While Richard I was able to achieve some success, he was unable to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin, who had captured it earlier. Richard I negotiated a settlement with Saladin in 1192 and left the Middle East to return to Europe, while Saladin himself would pass away the following year. However, I didn’t know anything about Saladin’s life before that point, when he was in charge of the Arabs and hailed as the savior of Islam.

Saladin was actually a Kurd born in Tikrit, a city in what is now Iraq, and his father was a noted military leader. At that time, the Middle East was divided into Muslim and Christian territories, including several major city states like Jerusalem and Acre. Held by lords and knights who came over from Europe, and reinforced by Crusaders drawn by the goal of taking the “Holy Land” (and pillage) from the Muslims, the Christian city states constantly fought the Muslims, themselves divided into different factions like the Abbasids and Fatimids.

While Saladin had a strong mentor, he reached a point where he surpassed him. He wasn’t above committing brutal acts like ordering the execution of enemies after taking Cairo from a rival Muslim faction, but once firmly in power, he abstained from further killings. He won battles against the Franks, including the Battle of Hattin, where he captured several Christian leaders including the then King of Jerusalem. Also, after taking Jerusalem (my favorite movie Kingdom of Heaven focuses on this event), he prevented mass slaughter and allowed Christians and Jewish residents to go free after paying ransom.

John Man is a famous historian and prolific author who has written numerous books about Genghis Khan, the Mongols, Attila and ancient China. However, this was the first time I’d ever read his work. He writes in a very contemporary style, almost conversational, so much so that the book reads less like history and almost like a novel. Sometimes I didn’t quite enjoy it because it seemed a little simple, but overall Saladin was an enjoyable and fascinating read.

Swiss Watching- book review

I enjoy reading about different countries, but Switzerland has never really struck me as fascinating. Sure, it’s famous for making expensive watches and has stunning mountains, but I’d always considered it to be a bland wealthy country, exemplified by its neutral status. However, my perception has changed thanks to Swiss Watching- Inside Europe’s Landlocked Island by Diccon Bewes, an English expat who moved to the country for love and now lives there.

For one, I learned that the country is way more diverse than I’d imagined. For instance, Switzerland doesn’t have one single common native tongue, but four official languages- French, Italian, German, and Romansh, a truly indigenous language but mainly spoken in just one district. This means that the Swiss have different native tongues, depending on where they grew up, but will also speak one or more other languages, including English. The Swiss are also multi-religious with different parts being traditionally Catholic or Protestant, and they also have a large population of immigrants (21 percent according to Bewes).

This multilingualism is a result of a history in which separate districts or cantons joined together gradually from 1291 whilst retaining a sort of independence. Over the centuries, this loose confederacy endured and solidified into a nation, whilst developing an identity that is both proud but does not rely much on national icons. For instance, there are no great Swiss kings or leaders, and even in modern times, the president is not that important – they only serve one-year terms! The country is also not part of the UN or the EU, and stayed out of World War II, though their banks did hold stolen gold for the Nazis.

The Swiss do take their country seriously. For example, every male must do a period of compulsory military service, then is given a gun to keep at home for use in the event of war (I wish Taiwan would take defense as seriously). In their democracy, public participation plays a big role in the form of referendums. Two cantons even maintain the tradition of having public election meetings on one day every year where local matters are resolved by vote.

Bewes describes familiar aspects of the country like its love for hiking (no surprise given its many mountains), its tasty chocolates, its craftsmanship as exemplified by its expensive watches, its banking service, and the national train service. However, he also points out contradictions such as how the Swiss are both resistant to change but innovative, and treasure their privacy but tolerate a strong level of government intrusion. In fact, Bewes says that this is what makes Switzerland so interesting and I would agree.

There is a lot of interesting facts about Switzerland. For instance, it wasn’t always neutral as it fought wars with the Austrians, the Burgundians and others up until 1515. That’s when the Swiss suffered a bloody defeat to the French at  a village called Marignano. The Swiss decided never to fight again as a nation, though that led to Swiss soldiers banding together and going around Europe to fight for other nations and kingdoms as mercenaries. The Pope’s Swiss Guards, who guard the Pope in the Vatican while holding medieval spears and decked out in resplendent uniforms, are the sole surviving unit of Swiss mercenary tradition.

Also, Swiss people invented velcro, the division sign, aluminium foil, and the LSD (yes, the hallucinogenic drug). But not the cuckoo clock, which actually came from neighboring Germany.

While the book is not a travelogue, Bewes does visit different parts of the country to showcase aspects like the 35-km Swiss Path in which every canton is represented; sites associated with Heidi, the country’s most famous novel, and its writer; and a factory where one can still see cheese being made.

Besides the discourses on Swiss history, politics, society, and economy, Bewes fills the book with lots of humour but it’s clear he has a lot of affection for his adopted country. I admit Switzerland was not at the top of the list of European countries I want to visit, but having read Swiss Watching, it has now moved up a bit.

Milan travel- mighty Sforza castle and Roman-era basilica

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy
Milan might be Italy’s most prosperous and modern city but it also boasts several impressive historical sights. These include the massive Duomo cathedral, Sforza Castle or Castello Sforzesco, and the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, a 1,600-year-old Roman church.

Sforza Castle is a handsome brownish-red castle that was built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan that was one of Europe’s largest citadels at one point. The great Leonardo da Vinci decorated part of the interior. It boasts a central tower that looms high above the walls of the castle, which is built in a quadrangular shape. Inside, the castle is divided into three courtyards, the main one, and the smaller Ducale and Rocchetta.

Nowadays, the castle is also a giant museum complex, housing several connected museums that feature paintings, medieval weapons, musical instruments, tapestries, antique furniture, prehistoric artifacts, and even Egyptian artifacts. There is even the last work of the great Michelangelo, an unfinished marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary carrying Jesus’ dead body.

It is an impressive diverse collection of exhibits that lets you explore the castle, while appreciating great art and artifacts and learning about Milanese history. I do find having museums inside a castle is a great way to make use of such a historic building while allowing visitors to double up on their enjoyment. Even if these museums weren’t in this castle, they would be worth checking out.

The castle is also used as venue for events like a vintage car show that was going on when I visited, which included sports cars from the 1960s and 1970s and antique pre-World War II cars. The castle is in Sempione Park, that also features an aquarium and a modern museum, which unfortunately I didn’t visit.
Milan, Italy

Built in 379–386, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio is a Roman-era church that is also brownish-red, similar to Sforza Castle. As befitting one of Milan’s main churches, the basilica is quite elegant with a smooth exterior, which again is similar to Sforza Castle. It features a triangular roof and a portico with arches with an enclosed open courtyard in front of it, flanked by two bell towers on either side. The shorter tower was built in the 9th century while the other one was built in the mid-12th century. Inside, the crypt features the remains of three saints – Ambrose, who the church is named after, Gervasus and Protasus.
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

How to get there: For Sforza Castle, get off at Cairoli Castello subway station on the Red Line or Lanza station on the Green Line.
For Basilica of Sant’Ambroglio, get off at S. Ambrogio subway station on the Green Line.
Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan
Inside the basilica Continue reading “Milan travel- mighty Sforza castle and Roman-era basilica”

Island People-The Caribbean and the World- book review

The Caribbean often conjures up an image of idyllic white-sand beaches and blue seas with steelpan music or reggae playing in the background. The reality is far more turbulent and fascinating. The Caribbean is a region of multiculturalism and complexity, mixed with arts, poverty and crime.

First off, the Caribbean comprises over a dozen countries ranging from Spanish-speaking nations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic to English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This also extends to current British and American territories like Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Island People- The Caribbean and the World is an excellent guide to this diverse region that covers history, politics, sociology and culture of 14 of these island nations and territories.

As someone from the Caribbean myself, hailing from the southernmost island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I must confess I’m ignorant of the wider region. While I grew up in Trinidad, I’ve never actually traveled to any of the other islands in the Caribbean. But even still, I am not unaware of these other places, especially Jamaica, whose reggae and dancehall music is widely popular in Trinidad, which we had to learn about in school. As a former British colony that that grew a lot of sugar with slave labour, Trinidad shares a common history with many of its fellow Caribbean brother nations like Barbados.

However, Island People, part travelogue and part sociological and historical study, gave me a much greater insight and appreciation of the Caribbean beyond the little I knew from history classes at school and the news. The book is the result of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s lifetime of studying, researching and visiting the Caribbean. Starting from the north and winding its way southwards, Jelly-Schapiro’s book traces the arc of the Caribbean from the Greater Antilles of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola to the Lesser Antilles islands that ends with Trinidad.

Some of the more memorable chapters are those on Cuba, which the author spent a year in and devotes three chapters to; Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere but also the only one where slaves won their independence by force; and the lush island of Dominica that remains the last refuge of the indigenous Carib people, after whom the region is named after. The author certainly enjoyed Jamaica a lot and found its reggae and politics intriguing which he also wrote three chapters about. My own country Trinidad is featured in the book’s finale, and not surprisingly, the author covers carnival, Trinidad’s carefree nature, and crime.

For Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, music is a key theme as Jelly-Schapiro expounds on reggae, rumba, meringue and salsa respectively. For Antigua and Dominica, he focuses on writers like novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea), while in the chapter on Guadeloupe and Martinique, he goes into detail on intellectuals like Aime Cesaire, poet turned statesman, and Frantz Fanon, a fierce critic of colonialism. And for Trinidad, both music and literature are featured (I write with a little pride) in the form of calypso and soca music, and historian and writer CLR James and VS Naipaul, the Nobel Literature laureate.

One thing that plays a major role in the Caribbean is race relations, which is a product both of colonialism and the mix of races and cultures. Going beyond merely black and white (and Indian and Chinese), race relations involve complex hierarchies that encompass not just colour, but also the tone of one’s skin due to the mixing of races. As a result, light-skinned people, whose ancestors were a product of colonizers mixing with their slaves, often form an elite minority. Consequently, this also plays out on a national scale with the lighter-skinned Dominicanos looking down on their mostly black Haitian neighbours.

Island People- The Caribbean and the World is a superb book that will appeal to a lot of people interested in travel and history, even if they don’t have a personal connection or interest in the Caribbean. The book will take readers on a journey through the Caribbean, alright, just not a light-hearted one like the holidays you’d go there for.

Rome travel- Roman glories


It might be long gone but the glory of the Roman Empire still lives on in Rome. Mostly in the form of the city’s most famous attraction, the mighty Colosseum, where gladiators and wild animals fought each other, and the Forum, where Roman senators and leaders used to meet to run their empire, but also numerous other buildings, ruins, castle, and even a 1.5 km road that is still very much in use.

I found the Colosseum impressive as it was built over 2,000 years ago as the Roman equivalent of today’s football stadiums but it was still quite as large as modern stadiums. Obviously, it’s been extensively renovated but it was good to see that the Colosseum is very much still intact. Once inside, you get to walk around the inner bowels and the spectator stands where you can imagine watching gladiators fighting in front of tens of thousands of bloodcrazed Romans.

The Colosseum is next to the Forum, which was the centerpiece of ancient Rome where the government used to meet, but which now exists as an impressive collection of ruins including towering columns, halls, and statues. Next to the Forum is the Palatine Hill, where many rich Romans used to reside.
After you leave the Forum, one can walk straight up the Capitoline Hill to the Piazza del Campidoglio, designed by the great Michaelangelo. A statue of Marcus Aurelius (one of Rome’s greatest emperors and who was in the movie Gladiator) mounted on a horse stands in the middle of a piazza surrounded by three exquisite buildings which house the Capitoline Museum.

My next stop was to fast forward over a thousand years in history to visit a giant hall that pays tribute to the first king of modern Italy, Vittorio Emmanuelle II, who ruled a unified Italy from 1861 to 1878. This massive all-white building fronted by columns looks impressive though apparently some locals feel it looks very out of place and is too extravagant.
From the Vittorio Emmanuelle memorial, one can walk across the roundabout to the Via del Corso, a 1.5 km road which the Romans built. On either side of this straight shopping street are elegant low-rise government and historical buildings, stores, and many lanes. To the east of the Via del Corso are historical structures like the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. I know Rome was full of history, but actually being in the midst of all these historical structures that still existed as part of modern neighborhoods and not as isolated sites was a memorable feeling.

It was notable that Rome’s subway was the grimiest and dodgiest one I’d ever taken (Toronto’s TTC subway was previously the dodgiest I’d ever taken). The trains were covered in graffiti and the platforms were slightly dark, which made me feel a little uncomfortable. Fortunately, I encountered no problems.
All in all, this was a fantastic first full day in the Eternal City.



From the Palatine Hill looking over the Forum. The Colosseum is in the back next to the tower.

Piazza del Campidoglio

Some Romans consider this monument to Italy’s first king Vittorio Emmanuelle II a little too grandiose.
  Continue reading “Rome travel- Roman glories”

Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.