Château d'If

Until the 16th century, Île d'If was just an islet about 3.5 kilometers west of the Old Port of Marseille in southeastern France. 'If' is French for 'yew tree', so there probably once grew such a tree. Not anymore.

In 1516, Francois I became aware of the potential strategic importance of the island and thought that a fortress would deter anybody who would dare to attack Marseille. Château d'If was built between 1524 and 1531.
[Château d'If on Île d'I]
Having never experienced war, the decision was taken to convert the fortress to a prison at the end of the 17th century. The isolated location and dangerous currents around Château d'If, made it an ideal location for a prison. It was predominantly used as a tool to let people disappear in much the same way as on Île du Diable (Devil's Island), a penal colony in French Guyana.

Both Île du Diable and Île d'If were made famous in novels. Île du Diable was the scene of 'Papillon' (1969), written by Henri Charrière, while Île d'If remains famous for being the setting of Alexandre Dumas' novel 'The Count of Monte Cristo' (1844).

You can always trust the French to create a couple of prisons to put cold fear in the hearts of convicts that were sent there. For instance, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish French artillery officer who was wrongfully accused of treason and summarily convicted in 1894 in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Île du Diable. Two years later, evidence came to light that the real traitor was a Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. It took another three long years before Dreyfus was offered (and accepted) a pardon and was released from prison. Today the shameful history is still known as the 'Dreyfus affair'.
[Rows of cells on Île du Diable]
John le Carré, in his brilliant spy novel, 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (1974), named one of the potential traitors and Russian spies after Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy: Toby Esterhase.

The lost world of island dwarfs and giants

Until 12,000 years ago, the native faunas on the islands of the Mediterranean were very different than they are now. They included pony-sized elephants, pig-sized hippos, dwarf gorals with continuously-growing teeth like those of rodents (Myotragus balearicus of Mallorca), dwarf deer with simplified antlers that are longer than their bodies (Candiacervus of Crete), giant rabbits (Nuralagus rex of Menorca) and giant dormice (Leithaia of Sicily and Malta). Those were the days of dwarfs and giants. The smallest elephant that ever roamed the Earth lived on Sicily (Palaeoloxodon falconeri). It had a shoulder height of about one meter and a mere 2-4% of the body mass of its mainland ancestor (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), one of the largest elephants to have roamed the Earth. The smallest hippo on record is from Cyprus (Hippopotamus minor), which had dwarfed to 4% of its ancestral size.

The largest mouse (Kritimys catreus) was native to Crete. It was at least eight times the size of its ancestor and would today be mistaken for a large rat. The giant dormouse of Sicily (Leithia melitensis) was up to almost fourteen times as heavy as its ancestor.

These dwarfs and giants were the norm, rather than exceptions. Once isolated on an island, large mammal species evolve dwarf sizes and small mammal species evolve giant sizes. The pattern is so consistent that ecologists call it the 'island rule'.
[Sicialian dwarf elephant compared to its present day cousin]
Food limitation appears to be an obvious factor. The absence of predators is also an essential factor. Absence of competition has perhaps the greatest effect. With no competitors animals are free to occupy new ecological niches that are appropriate for different body sizes and lifestyles.

Extinct dwarf and giant animal forms have been unearthed on practically all islands around the world, and the Mediterranean islands are no exception. Dwarf elephants in particular had extremely wide distributions in both time and space. They are known from about thirty islands, ranging from the Californian Channel Islands (Mammuthus exilis) in the west to Timor (Stegodon timorensis) in the east.

The dwarf elephant of the Greek island of Tilos (Palaeoloxodon tiliensis) may well have continued to exist into the Holocene and protohistoric age. See here. The Aetokremnos site on Crete is known for its rich fossil deposit containing many thousands of hippo bones from the Cyprus dwarf hippo (Hippopotamus minor), apparently in association with artifacts from Palaeolithic people.

Ancient DNA: Ancient Minoans and Mycenaens were (almost) the same

The discovery of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations on the island of Crete and on mainland Greece in the late 1800s gave birth to modern archaeology and opened a direct window into the European Bronze Age. This period of history had previously been glimpsed only through Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey.
The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete beginning in the third millennium BC and was very advanced both artistically and technologically. The Minoans were also the first literate people of Europe. The Mycenaean civilization developed in mainland Greece in the second millennium BC. It shared many cultural features with the Minoans.

The origins of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples, however, have puzzled archaeologists for more than a century. It is widely believed that they derived from different ancestral populations.

Researchers reported the first genome-wide DNA sequence data on the Bronze Age inhabitants of mainland Greece, Crete and southwestern Anatolia[1]. They analyzed tooth DNA from the remains of 19 ancient individuals who could be definitively identified by archaeological evidence as Minoans of Crete, Mycenaeans of mainland Greece and people who lived in southwestern Anatolia.

Next, they compared the Minoan and Mycenaean genomes to each other and to more than 330 other ancient genomes and over 2,600 genomes of present-day humans from around the world.

The results show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically highly similar – but not identical – and that modern Greeks descend from these populations. The Minoans and Mycenaeans descended mainly from early Neolithic farmers, likely migrating thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age from Anatolia, in what is today modern Turkey[2].

"Minoans, Mycenaeans, and modern Greeks also had some ancestry related to the ancient people of the Caucasus, Armenia and Iran," explained Lazaridis.

[1] Lazarides et al: Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans in Nature – 2017
[2] Lazarides et al: Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East in Nature – 2015

Fava beans and salt water wetlands

The borders of northern parts of The Netherlands were always somewhat vague. The tidal Waddensea creates a dynamic landscape. A 'kwelder' is a low-lying part of an intertidal area that isn't regularly inundated anymore. It's both part of the sea and part of the land. But most of all it seems raw nature.
Near the little Frisian village of Paessens appearances do deceive. In prehistoric times kwelders were man-made and there are still farmers who let their cattle graze on the nutritious fields of salt-tolerant plants.

Between approximately 600 BC and 1200 AD, people were making their living on the open, unprotected salt marsh. Archeologist Mans Schepens from Groningen University wondered if you could grow fava beans (Vicia faba) on that rich, but salty ground[1]. To many archaeologists, the fact that crop cultivation was possible at all, is already quite astonishing, but in prehistoric times farmers would grow a smaller variant (Vicia faba minor) on these kwelders. They were known as paardenboon ('horsebean') in the province of Friesland en molleboon (a 'mol' being a kind of wok) in neighbouring Groningen.
Normally a kwelder is wet, cold and windy. Schepers thinks that those are simply the perfect conditions for the fava bean, because lice do not like windy conditions and slugs do not like the marshy environment.

[1] Schepers: Crop diversity in the Dutch and German terps area in 17th Conference of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany - 2016

Where was the River Styx situated?

In Greek mythology, Styx (Ancient Greek: Στύξ) is both a deity and a river that forms the boundary between Earth and Hades, the Underworld. Hades is also the name of its ruler. Styx is also a goddess with prehistoric roots in Greek mythology as a daughter of Tethys, after whom the river is named and because of whom it had miraculous powers. Charon is the ferryman who transferred the dead to the Underworld.
The river Styx converges with other rivers at the center of the underworld on a great marsh, which sometimes is also called the Styx.

So, we have a river and a deity with the same name and we have an underworld and its ruler with the same name. What do these names mean?

The word 'Styx' is cognate with Greek stygos 'hatred', stygnos 'gloomy', and derives from stygein 'to hate', 'abominate'. Both the words 'Hades' and 'Charon' are reputedly of unknown origin, which always makes me suspicious. Every linguist seems to try to find an etymology by comparing a Greek word to the languages of its neighbours, but always tend to forget its most influential and powerful neighbour: Egypt.

The question is therefore: can we find an etymology in Egyptian that mirrors the Greek version. The answer is: yes, we can.

In Egyptian, stkn (remember they didn't use vowels in Egyptian) is a causative of tkn 'approach' with the specific sense of 'to induct, bring on doom'. Hades received his/its name from ḥdi as a verb with the meaning 'to be destroyed' and as a noun 'damage', 'destruction'. Diodoros believed that the name Charon (Kharon) was Egyptian:
The other myths about Hades, current among the Greeks, also agree with the customs which are practised even now in Egypt. For the boat which receives the bodies is called baris and the passenger's fee is given to the boatman, who in the Egyptian tongue is called charon. And near these regions, they say, are also the 'Shades'.
But the baris was also the ship of Osiris and dead pharaohs were also transported on a baris to their final resting places. The journey from Osiris to the Underworld was therefore reenacted time and time again.

We can identify the Egyptian god of the Underworld Anubis in this description of Hades. 'Anubis' was  the Greek rendering of this god's Egyptian name. In the Old Kingdom (ca 2686 BC–ca 2181 BC), the standard way of writing his name in hieroglyphs was composed of the sound ı͗npw followed by a 'jackal' over a ḥtp sign.

The problem is that there does not seem to be a plausible Egyptian root of the word 'Charon', but it is possible that it has an etymology from the West-Semitic deity Ḥrn, vocalized as Horon in the Bible and known as the 'Lord of Hell'. Still, the region was frequently conquered by Egypt and we might assume that Hades ultimately has Egyptian roots.
[Ancient branches of the Nile]
Thus with a river with several tributaries that end in a great march. Which other river can that be other than the river Nile? But what of all these words that signify death and doom? These are very reminiscent of the spells from the 'Book of the Dead', the ancient Egyptian group of magical and religious texts. The spells are meant to help the dead progress through the many challenges in the underworld (the Duat) to the afterlife. Pharaohs who had died were transferred in boats via the river Nile to their lavishly decorated tombs in the Valley of the Death. These tombs were protected by powerful spells that would ensure that they were not violated.
[Book of the Dead]
Based on the evidence it seems very probable that the concept of the River Styx was borrowed from Egypt and 'transplanted' to Ancient Greece. My conclusion is that the River Styx is non other than the River Nile.

Was Marco Polo born in Croatia?

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant, traveller and citizen of the Venice Republic. He learned the mercantile trade from his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, who travelled through Asia and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice to meet Marco for the first time. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa.
The Republic of Genoa defeated Venice in the Battle of Curzola off the coast of Dalmatia in 1298 and Marco Polo, then a galley commander, was taken prisoner to eventually spend his time in a Genoese prison dictating his adventures to a cell-mate. He was released in 1299, became a wealthy merchant, married and fathered three children.

So far, so good. But the problem is that Marco Polo's exact date and place of birth cannot be found in the Venetian archives, which is strange because these were among the very best in Medieval Europe. So, while he is mentioned as a citizen, he seems not to have been born in the city of Venice. At the time Venice was a powerful mercantile nation that had vastly expanded its boundaries.

Some historians believe that Marco Polo was born on the now Croatian island of Korčula, then called Curzola by Venetians[1].

So many Slavs (not slaves) from the Dalmatian Coast arrived as sailors in Venice, that the long quay by St. Mark's was and is known as Riva degli Sciavoni ('Quay of the Slavs'). Marco Polo was buried in a Slavic quarter in Venice.

If Marco Polo was originally from – modern day – Croatia, he would also have have a Slavic name. And, as some think, he had: Marco Polo was once called Marko Pillic.
[Supposed home of Marco Polo on Korčula/Curzola]
Is this theory based on fact or is it simply conjecture to boast tourism in Croatia? It might well be that it is a bit of both. If Marco Polo was born on Korčula/Curzola, he would have been regarded as a Venetian, because the island was part of Venice. That the island is now part of Croatia is not important.

[1] Olga Orlić: The curious case of Marco Polo from Korčula: An example of invented tradition in ScienceDirect - 2013  

Malta's white olives

Once, when the Knights of the Order of Saint John, also known as the Knights of Malta, occupied Malta from 1530 to 1798, plump, bone-white olives were known across Europe as perlina Maltese (Maltese pearls).
The white olive is just one of hundreds of varieties of the European olive (Olea europaea). One of its botanical subclassifications is Leucocarpa, from the Greek leukos (white) and karpos (flesh or pulp). White olives not only grow on Malta, but can also be found in Italy, Morocco, Libya, Greece and Portugal, where they often go by local names, including bianca (Italian 'white'), biancolilla or cannellina (after their resemblance to white cannellini beans). Researchers who have studied the white olive’s genetics say that its unique color, or lack thereof, is simply a quirk of nature.

White olives originate from mutations affecting the production of anthocyanins, the pigments typical of what you see in conventional ripened olives, so that at the full ripening stage they do not become black.

White olives are a rare sight. They are seldom commercially available today and, historically, why they have been valued ornamentally and even religiously. In the southern Italian region of Calabria, for example, white olive trees in the gardens of churches and monasteries provided sacramental oil used to anoint high-ranking church officials and Byzantine emperors.
Oil from white olives resembles that from black and green olives, yet it has a much shorter shelf life. That is because it has comparatively low levels of bitter-tasting antioxidants that also make for a natural preservative. Therefore, white olive oil tastes sweeter than many other olive oils.

Italian knights introduced white olives on Malta in the 14th or 15th century. The bajda (Maltese 'white') is probably an Italian cultivar brought from southern and central Italy as an ornamental plant. That's partly the reason why today no wild white olive trees in Malta exist and only a few old, individual trees remain.
[The oldest white olive tree. Designated 'national treasure']
That number of old trees was down to precisely three when Sam Cremona first set eyes on one in 2010. “It was in a nunnery, in a garden that once belonged to the knights,” said Cremona. At first, he thought the startlingly white olives might be diseased or albino aberrations. However, after taking some to an olive conference in Spain, he learned that Malta possessed a rare treasure.

“They told me, ‘Ah, we know about these white olives. We used to have them, but we don’t have them anymore,’ because they were a variety that had disappeared in Spain, where they were known as ‘Maltese olives,’” Cremona stated. Of the island nation’s 12,000 olive trees today, only 70 are white olive trees.

The taste of the white olive is described as delicious—bitter top, citrusy middle, briny finish.

A Cypriot snack: Tsakistes vs. Çakizdez

Elies Tsakistes (ελιές τσακιστές) means 'crushed olives' in Greek and they are - yes - crushed olives which are harvested when green. They are a hugely popular snack on Cyprus.
First the olives have to be crushed (be careful not to break the pip). Then they are immersed in fresh water. You should refresh the water every day. Repeat for as long as necessary until the olives aren't bitter any more. Then drain and salt liberally. Add a slice of lemon. Let stand for 12 to 36 hours, according to how salty you want the olives to be. Transfer the olives to a jar, packing them tightly in order to fit as many as possible.

Right, this is the Greek Cypriot version. However, the island has been divided since 1974 when northern Cyprus was invaded by Turkish troops to 'liberate' the 'oppressed' Turkish Cypriots. The northern part of the island has now been under Turkish influence for almost 45 years and you might wonder if this tasty snack has survived.

Well, it certainly has: Elies Tsakistes is called çakizdez on northern Cyprus and it is just as much appreciated there as by its southern brethren.

A Turkish dictionary claims that çakizdez is related to tsaki'zw which means 'to break' but the word is just a Turkified loan from Greek. It simply shows that occupation cannot conquer taste and kitchens.

Growing grain in ancient Mesopotamia

A recent study sheds new light on the agricultural and political economy that underpinned the growth of some of the world’s oldest cities in Mesopotamia, in present-day northern Syria[1].

Analysis of charred ancient grains reconstructed the conditions under which crops grew, building up a picture of how farming practice changed over time. Labour-intensive practices such as manuring/middening and water management formed an integral part of the agricultural strategy from the seventh millennium BC.
However, as populations in these early cities swelled, increasing demand for more food, farmers strove to cultivate larger areas of land, rather than plough more resources - such as manure - into existing, more intensively managed fields. Earlier research showed that amino acid δ(15)N values of grains and fava beans could provide proof if crops were grown in manured or unmanured soil[2].

Extensive, land-hungry agriculture relies heavily on the ability to access more arable land and to exploit specialized plough animals, both of which could be monopolized by powerful families and institutions.

The findings of this research therefore reveal how the growing importance of arable land, which could be controlled by the ruling few, led to increasing social inequality as urban populations grew.

‘We found that the rise of early cities in northern Mesopotamia depended on radical expansion of the scale of farming,' Professor Amy Bogaard said. 'As a result, cereals were grown under increasingly poor soil conditions: with less manuring and replenishment of nutrients. It was a solution that enabled enormous urban agglomerations to develop, but was risky when environmental or political conditions changed. Examining how prehistoric farmers coped with changing conditions could yield some useful advice for modern day governments facing similar pressures of growing populations and changing environments.'

[1] Styring et al: Isotope evidence for agricultural extensification reveals how the world's first cities were fed in Nature Plants – 2017
[2] Styring et al: The effect of manuring on cereal and pulse amino acid δ(15)N values in Phytochemistry - 2014 

To bean or not to bean

If you've been paying attention during history lessons at school, you might remember that agriculture was once the key factor that helped people to settle down. The ability to produce and store food-surplus drastically reduced the risk of famine and it was the very first step to create villages, complex societies and eventually entire empires.

It was once thought that cereals were the first agricultural products that were successfully planted and harvested. Plant domestication, most scientists think, made its debut around 8,000 BC, with grain storage cropping up about 9,000 BC. An ancient site in Israel yielded a collection of grains (wild wheat and barley), which was dated to about 21,000 BC[1].

Recent discoveries of early-domesticated cereals show that the Middle East is rich with examples of early forms of agriculture. Several notable examples of cultivation and domestication of legumes such as fava bean and chickpea have been discovered in the Levant[2].
Recently, large amounts of fava beans (Vicia faba) were found in the Lower Galilee in Israel[3]. The remains of the legumes were collected from floors and pits dating to an early phase of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (ca. 9,000 BC). Radiocarbon measurements of the legumes dated the findings between the 8250 BC and 7900 BC. These findings represent the earliest evidence of intensive farming of legumes in the southern Levant.

While findings of lentil and pea are quite common in the Levant in earlier phases, remains of fava beans are rare, and mostly found in the southern Levant. Recently, wild specimens of faba beans have been discovered in the Epipalaeolithic campsite el-Wad and dated to 12,000 BC[4].
Thus, we have people eating wild fava beans since around 12,000 BC and eating domesticated fava beans around 8,000 BC. From then on, the frequency of findings of fava bean begins to increase.

What came first, you might ask, the domestication of grains or the domestication of fava beans? The answer might be lost forever in the mists of time.

[1] Weiss et al: The broad spectrum revisited: evidence from plant remains in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – 2004
[2] Caracuta et al: The onset of faba bean farming in the Southern Levant in Science Reports – 2015
[3] Caracuta et al: Farming legumes in the pre-pottery Neolithic: New discoveries from the site of Ahihud (Israel) in PloS One – 2017
[4] Caracuta et al: 14,000-year-old seeds indicate the Levantine origin of the lost progenitor of faba bean in Scientific Reports – 2016

Still speaking Greek in Italy

When the classic Greeks expanded their empire in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, many colonies were established on faraway maritime seaboards, such as the Black Sea* and Massalia (modern Marseille). Naturally, nearby southern Italy was one of the earliest places where they settled.

The Greek empire finally crumbled in 168 BC, giving way to the Roman empire, but to this day there are traces of those ancient (and medieval) Greek communities. In southern Italy there still remains a linguistic minority known as the Grici people, who live in the region of Calabria and the peninsula of Salento[1].
The Grici speak Italiot Greek otherwise known as Salentino-Calabrian. Italiot Greek consists of two dialects: Salentino Greek (Griko) and Calabrian Greek.

The Italiot-speaking area of Salento comprises nine small towns in the Grecìa Salentina region (Calimera, Martano, Castrignano de' Greci, Corigliano d'Otranto, Melpignano, Soleto, Sternatia, Zollino and Martignano), with a total of 40,000 inhabitants. The Calabrian Greek region also consists of nine villages in Bovesia, (including Bova Superiore, Roghudi, Gallicianò, Chorìo di Roghudi, Bova Marina and Melito di Porto Salvo) plus four districts in the city of Reggio Calabria (San Giorgio Extra, Rione Modena, Arangea and Sbarre), but its population is significantly smaller, with around only 2000 inhabitants.

Once, the two areas were much larger: in the 16th century, the Greek area in Calabria took in about 25 villages, while in Puglia Greek was spoken in the 15th century covering the whole Salento coastal strip between Mardo and Gallipoli in the west up to the edge of Malendugno-Otranto in the east. Outside this area it appears that Greek was also spoken at Taviano and Alliste.

Both dialects are slowly getting extinct. Younger people hardly speak it anymore and a shift to South Italian is proceeding rapidly.

Some Greek linguists consider Griko to be a Modern Greek dialect and often call it Katoitaliotikà (Κατωιταλιώτικα, 'Southern Italian') or Grekanika (Γρεκάνικα). Not so, the dialect comes directly from Ancient Greek and particularly from the Doric Greek once spoken extensively in the region. Griko and modern Greek are partially mutually intelligible. The dialect has evolved and in many cases, the final '-s' has been lost (i.e. gaidaros (donkey) becomes gadaro in Griko. Moreover, a future tense does not exist in this dialect; it is replaced by the present tense.

* On the northern coast of the Sea of Azov in southern Ukraine and Russia, Rumeíka (Ρωμαίικα) or Mariupolitan Greek is a Greek dialect still spoken in 17 villages.

[1] Valeria Baldissera: Il dialetto grico del Salento: elementi balcanici e contatto linguistico - 2013. See here.

Fava: the Ancient Mediterranean Bean

As part of the Old World legumes –together with chickpeas and lentils— fava was a most nutritious bean that fed ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Called ‘broad bean’ by the British and tuinbonen or 'garden beans' by the Dutch, it has been found in Neolithic sites in Israel dated back to 10,000 BC. Fava beans are the only crop known to have been domesticated in what is today Israel.

Fava remained a valuable source of protein throughout the Old World. For Greeks, like for most people in southern Europe and northern Africa, fava –both the fresh pods and the dried beans– remain an important legume and are cooked in a variety of ways. Israelis mix them into their hummus. Egyptians eat them mashed for breakfast.
[Fava bean frittata
A famine was supposedly the origin of the Sicilian tradition. Once fava beans were simply used as fodder for cattle. The hungry farmers cooked these beans and survived. Sicilians serve fava beans in frittatas or cook them with garlic.

Greeks don’t peel the shelled fava, an easy but somewhat tedious kitchen chore. Italians, however, insist that they have to be peeled.
On the island of Crete you get a handful of freshly harvested fava pods with raki (ρακή), the local grape-based pomace brandy. People shell and munch the fava as we do peanuts.

While scientists have been quite successful in tracing the domestication of wheat and other grains to specific areas ranging from Turkey to Iran, they had been less lucky with legumes, said Valentina Caracuta, an archaeobotanist[1]. One problem is that unlike grains, domesticated legume seeds have no visible characteristics that clearly distinguish them from wild varieties, she explains. If it has not gone extinct, the wild ancestor of today’s beans may be found in the area where it was first domesticated, Caracuta said. Recently, she found traces of a wild fava bean, growing on Mount Carmel (Israel), some 14,000 years ago[2].

[1] Caracuta et al: The onset of faba bean farming in the Southern Levant in Scientific Reports - 2015
[2] Caracuta et al: 14,000-year-old seeds indicate the Levantine origin of the lost progenitor of faba bean in Scientific Reports - 2016

Monaco grows (again)

Being just 2,02 square kilometers in size, the Principality of Monaco ran out of space years ago. Monaco is a bit like The Netherlands. Both countries are bordered by the sea and territorial expansion means reclaiming land from that very sea.

Now, a new expansion project is underway in Monaco that will add six hectares of land to the country on the eastern side of the main port. Work on this project is set to begin at the end of 2017 and should be completed by 2025. These 6 hectares are 0,06 square kilometers, which means that Monaco grows almost three percent in size. Which is a lot, relatively speaking.
The project includes the construction of an eco-neighbourhood primarily consisting of 60,000 m² of housing, public facilities, an extension to the Grimaldi Forum, a public car park, a marina with pedestrian wharves, a landscaped park, a seafront promenade and a shaded, planted walkway running the length of the Japanese Garden[1].
The maritime infrastructure will consist of a landfill enclosed by a band of 18 trapezoid shaped reinforced concrete caissons, each one 26 meters tall and weighing 10,000 tonnes. These pre-cast units will be constructed in a floating dry dock and then launched and towed to the installation site where they will be sunk onto a prepared seabed and then filled with rock. These units have wave absorption chambers fitted to their seaward side which will help to reduce breaches by strong swells and protect the exposed areas of the project. Once these outer protection caissons are in place the area behind them will be filled with rock material with most of the 250,000 tonnes of rock needed for this project being shipped in from quarries in Sicily.

Next up: an island.

[1] Monaco Life: First phase of land reclamation begins – 2016

Spain: Gibraltar vs. Olivença

Mention Gibraltar and Spanish pride will take over from their common sense. Gibraltar is located on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula and measures just 6.7 square kilometers. It was captured by the British in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). The Spanish Crown formally ceded the territory 'in perpetuity' to the British Crown in 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht. Spain later unsuccessfully attempted to recapture the territory, but reclamation of Gibraltar remains government policy ever since.
The Spanish government also refuses to acknowledge Gibraltar's territorial waters or its airport which is built partly on reclaimed land and on the isthmus, claiming that these were not explicitly covered by the treaty.

So, the Spanish lay claim to Gibraltar, but they conveniently forget that they still occupy a territory that it has held illegally for 211 years: the towns of Olivença and Talega (Olivenza and Táliga in Spanish). This border town was Portuguese from 1297 to 1801, when the Spanish army, along with French troops, invaded. The Treaty of Vienna of 1815 returned Olivença and Talega, its outlying villages and a tranche of land near the Guadiana River to Portugal, but Spanish forces never left[1].
They even outlawed the Portuguese language and prevented a bridge linking it to Portugal to be rebuilt until this day. Spain’s refusal to return the town and surrounding countryside (750 square kilometers and home to some 11,000 people) is very reminiscent of the situation of Gibraltar.

If Spain ever wants Gibraltar back, then it should first consider ceding Olivença and Talega to Portugal and honour its obligations under the Treaty of Vienna of 1815.

[1] La Vanguardia: Olivenza todavía es zona de conflicto internacional - 2016

A mother goddess (for sale)

My very own mother goddess (found in southern Italy, near Bari). Possibly several thousands of years old.
The item is for sale at any reasonable offer.

Masticha of Chios

Mastic is an aromatic resin offered to us by the mastic tree (Pistacia Lentiscus), a shrub growing on Southern Chios. It is locally known as 'the tears of Chios'. Since ancient times, mastic has been seen as the emblem of the island of Chios. The mastic tree (or large shrub) can grow up to four meters high. While the tree is endemic in the entire Mediterranean region, the mastic grown on Chios is regarded 'different' than those that grows elsewhere.
The ingredient forms as a droplet (the 'tear') on the mastic tree. It starts its life as a juice. It is dried in the sunlight and then changes into brittle, almost transparent and yellow-colored granules. When you chew these granules, they turn into a bright and opaque sort of gum. At first, the flavour is bitter, but after a while it gets a refreshing pine-like taste sensation.

Mastic is a spice that is used to flavour a liqueur known as Masticha of Chios. It is produced on the island of Chios and is the outcome of the distillation of mastic, a process that distinguishes it from a plain mastic liqueur.

The producers of the island of Chios realized the importance of mastic early on and, as a result, one of their very first products in the 18th century was Mastic Ouzo, resulting from the distillation of anise seeds together with natural mastic.

Later, they experimented on the production of liqueur made of mastic by distilling the mastic’s granules, obtaining a natural mastic distillate and, in turn, adding pure alcohol and sugar to produce the Masticha of Chios Liqueur.
Local tradition has it that the Masticha of Chios Liqueur should be served accompanied by a dessert after each meal or alongside coffee. The traditional Masticha of Chios Liqueur is also an excellent choice in a shot, ice cold at all times, or even as an aperitif, served with plenty of crushed ice.

Why did mammoths and mastodons really disappear?

Dinosaur went extinct some 65 million years ago. The rock layers of that time tell a story of a cosmic impact: iridium is found in a thin layer that marks the end of the Cretaceous era and the beginning of the Tertiary era. Which is why scientists call the event Cretaceous-Tertiary (or K-Pg). But it wasn't only iridium that was found in that layer, a similar anomaly was the presence of platinum.

Both anomalies represent the atmospheric fallout of rare elements resulting from an extraterrestrial impact.
Around 12,800 years ago, the mammoth, mastodon and saber-toothed tiger suddenly disappeared. This was the onset of the Younger-Dryas. Although early humans are blamed, nobody knows for certain what the exact cause of the extinction was. The discovery of widespread platinum at archaeological sites across the United States has provided an important clue in solving this enduring mystery[1].

“Platinum is very rare in the Earth’s crust, but it is common in asteroids and comets,” says Christopher Moore, the study’s lead author. He says the K-Pg dinosaur extinction was the result of a very large asteroid impact, while the Younger-Dryas onset impact is likely the result of being hit by fragments of a much smaller sized comet or asteroid, possibly measuring up to a kilometer in diameter. The Younger-Dryas impact event is not yet associated with any known impact crater.

He says the Younger-Dryas coincides with the end of the Clovis paleoindian culture and the extinction of more than 35 species of ice-age animals. Moore says that, while evidence has shown that some of the animals were on the decline before Younger-Dryas, virtually none are found after it. Moore thinks that this would indicate an extinction event for North America.

Current views tell us that the mastodon became extinct in the New World 130,000 years ago, but recently the bones of a mastodon were found under a freeway construction site in California. These bones were battered and broken by modern humans[2]. The problem is that Homo sapiens reached North America only about 15,000 years ago. So, you see, there's a problem. Scientists now speculate about a radical new early date for the arrival of ancient humans in America.

The problem can more easily be solved by stating that mastodons were still alive around 15,000 years ago.

[1] Moore et al: Widespread platinum anomaly documented at the Younger Dryas onset in North American sedimentary sequences in Scientific Reports - 2017
[2] Holen et al: A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA in Science - 2017. See here

One of us: Altamura Man

Neanderthals are a species or subspecies of Hominids within the genus Homo that went extinct some 40,000 years ago. Neanderthals and modern humans share 99.7% of their DNA. Since humans have inherited 1 to 4 percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, we must have had sex with our ancestral brothers and sisters (scientists call this 'interbreeding')[1]. To produce offspring, both species must be genetically very close. Therefore my suggestion is that it would probably be better to regard both modern man (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) as subspecies of Homo sapiens, which means that the former should be called Homo sapiens sapiens and the latter Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
In 1993, a fossil hominin skeleton was discovered by cave explorers in the karst caves of Lamalunga, near Altamura, in southern Italy. The remains were embedded in rock and were covered in a thick layer of calcite, leaving only the head and part of a shoulder visible. They lie in a karst borehole rich in limestone amid running water. It was thought that excavating the remains would cause irreparable damage and thus, they have remained in situ for over twenty years, leaving researchers to rely on casual observation for their studies. For that reason, there was some debate initially about morphology and age.

Recently, the retrieval from the cave of a tiny fragment of the right shoulder blade allowed the first dating of the individual, indicating that it belongs to Homo neanderthalensis (or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), with some peculiarities that appear consistent with a date of around 150,000 years[2]. Thus, the skeleton from Altamura represents the most ancient Neanderthal from which endogenous DNA has ever been extracted. And that's a feat in itself.

[1] Lari et al: The Microcephalin Ancestral Allele in a Neanderthal Individual in PloS One – 2010. See here.
[2] Lari et al: The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura (Italy) in Journal of Human Evolution – 2015

Tilos Dwarf Elephant

When fossil remains of dwarf elephant or dwarf mammoths were found in the Mediterranean basin, these remains were once usually attributed to trade[1].
Two groups of remains of dwarf elephants have been found on the island of Tilos. Since no migration route between the any other island can be proved, the species should be named Tilos Dwarf Elephant (Elephas tiliensi). It was the latest paleoloxodontine to survive in Europe. They didn't become extinct until around 4000 BC, so this elephant survived well into the Holocene and thus was alive during the the start of the Egyptian civilisation.

The Tilos dwarf elephant is the first dwarf elephant whose DNA sequence has been studied. The results of this research are consistent with previous morphological reports, according to which it is more closely related to Elephas than to Loxodonta or Mammuthus[2].

The most recent research confirms that the origin of the Tilos and Cyprus elephantids is consistent with a lineage within the genus Elephas, while the DNA-sequence from the Cretan sample falls clearly within the mammoth clade[3]. Thus, the scientific name of the Cretan Dwarf Mammoth Mammuthus creticus rather than Elephas creticus, seems to be justified for this form.

[1] Theodorou, Symeonides : The excavations of the last ten years at Charkadio cave on Tilos Island, Dodekanese, Greece in The World of Elephants – 2001
[2] Poulakakis et al: Molecular phylogeny of the extinct pleistocene dwarf elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri from Tilos Island, Dodekanisa, Greece in Journal of Molecular Evolution – 2002
[3] Poulakakis et al: Ancient DNA forces reconsideration of evolutionary history of Mediterranean pygmy elephantids in Biology Letters – 2006

Did dwarf elephants survive until the Bronze Age?

Earlier I wrote about the Cretan Dwarf Mammoth and the Cypriot Dwarf Elephant that once roamed the Mediterranean islands. On a beautifully decorated tomb wall of Rekh-mi-Re, vizier during the reigns of Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II (from about 1470 to 1445 BC), we can find a strange image: a small, tusked, hairy elephant, shown as being waist-high to the accompanying people[1].
[Part of Rekh-mi-Re's tomb]
Suppose that the elephant in Rekh-mi-Re's tomb is a depiction of one of the dwarf Mediterranean island-dwelling species. Most of the dwarf Mediterranean elephants were Pleistocene animals that were long extinct by the time of the Pharoahs, but one researcher noted that a population of dwarfed elephants (Elephas tiliensis) seems to have lingered on in isolation on the Greek island of Tilos (located between Rhodes and Kos)[2].
[Detail of image above]
Radiocarbon dating of the Tilos Dwarf Elephants apparently puts some of them as recent as about 4300 years old (+/- 600 years), meaning that they overlapped with the presence of Bronze Age people on the island[2]. If we stretch the dates to its absolute maximum, we get 4300 minus 600 minus 2017 is 1683 BC. As Rekh-mi-Re died around 1445 BC, we're still around 240 years short, but maybe the artist pictured a dwarf elephant as it was known to exist.

Therefore, the remote possibility exists that one or more of these dwarf elephants from Tilos were captured by ancient Aegeans and then traded between Aegeans, Near Eastern people and Egyptians – in fact, trade was already occurring between these regions during the late Bronze Age. This sequence of events might be the answer as to why an image dwarf elephant appears on a wall in a tomb of Rekh-mi-Re

[1] Rosen: Mammoths in ancient Egypt? in Nature – 1994
[2] Masseti: Did endemic dwarf elephants survive on Mediterranean islands up to protohistorical times? in La terra degli Elefanti – 2001. See here.

Koum Kuat of Corfu

Kam kwat (金橘) in Cantonese may well originate from kin-ku in Chinese. Translated it means 'golden orange' and it is the origin of the name of both the tree and the fruit called 'kumquat'. The tree grows to about four meters in height and is cultivated for its fruit but it is also a decorative indoor plant. Its leaves are dark green, bayonet shaped and its flowers similar to that of the orange tree. Its fruit is either round or oblong shaped depending on the variety and reaches a diameter of about four centimeters. When raw, its taste is tangy and bittersweet and the fruit is not particularly juicy.
The tree has been extensively cultivated on the Greek island of Corfu since its introduction in around 1860 by British botanist Sidney Merlin (1856–1952). He also introduced a variety of orange, the Washington Navel, to his estate on Corfu in 1925.

Today the kumquat, which has earned a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status in 1994, is mainly cultivated on northern Corfu near the village of Nimfes. Annual production amounts to about 140 tonnes.

Most of the crop ends up as liqueur, but the fruit is also used in cooking. It even finds its way into perfumes.
Kumquats are ideal for liqueurs, jams, marmelades and glyka tou koutaliou ('spoon sweets'), which is fruit in syrup. Koum Kuat of Corfu is a pleasant liqueur made from kumquat fruits, with an aroma and taste that resemble oranges and strawberries. It is produced exclusively on the island of Corfu.

Kitron of Naxos

Kitron of Naxos is a citron liqueur produced solely on the Greek island of Naxos. It is made from the fruit and leaves of the citron tree (Citrus medica), which is similar to the lemon tree (Citrus x lemon) but stronger and slightly different in taste.
Once, the citrons were exported in large quantities preserved in seawater and braced by additional salt. The cultivation of the citron tree and the marketing of its fruit constituted an integral part of agricultural economy. It flourished on the island of Naxos for at least three centuries, before gradually decreasing in the post-war years. The drink was briefly fashionable during the early 1980s, but is difficult to find today outside Naxos due to a shortage of citron trees.

The production of Kitron of Naxos begins with the harvest of the leaves, when their aroma is at its peak, i.e. from October to February. Any dry or unsuitable parts are removed from the leaves, which are then placed into traditional copper stills along with their stems and peels, water and alcohol. They are left to infuse the alcohol for at least twelve hours and subsequently distilled until the 100% citron distillate is obtained.
The distillate is then diluted with water, whereas sugar and natural colorants are in turn added to distinguish the various types of the Kitron of Naxos liqueur. The driest and strongest liqueur (36%) is yellow, there's an intermediate version that is colourless and has less alcohol (33%) and sugar, and there's a green one that has the highest amount of sugar content and the lowest alcoholic strength (30%).

The production of Kitron of Naxos started at least two centuries ago. The first proper distillery was established in 1896 in the village of Halki, while the first export was in 1928.

Mountain Tea is giving Greeks economic hope

It was in 2011 that Demetri Chriss, chief operating officer of Tuvunu—a Greek producer of all-natural beverages, traveled to Trace, near the Greco-Turkish border.

Demetri envisioned a future in which people from the farming communities of Thrace cultivated their land to produce Sideritis for a new, all-natural bottled version of the drink that everyone’s grandmother calls a cure-all. Sideritis (or Greek mountain tea) grows wild in the mountainous areas of Greece. For centuries, it has been used to prepare a hot infusion, a folk remedy for winter colds and sore throats.
Those mountainous villages of Thrace are home to a small community, the Pomaks, Greek Muslims who speak a local Slavic dialect and who, until 1993, were subject to discriminatory policies that barred them from leaving their villages after sunset or having visitors from outside the area without authorization. Now, most of the local men are working at shipyards in Germany.

It still is an extremely poor area that is mostly known for the farming of tobacco, a crop that is under increasing threat from diminishing subsidies and health issues.

Now, farmers gather a large number of seeds from each crop they produce and, along with Tuvunu agronomists, provide new Sideritis farmers both with the plants and the expertise needed for them to obtain optimal results from the very beginning.
The factory receives the dried Sideritis. Local honey and freshly sqeezed lemons from southern Greece are put with the Sideritis in a 17,000-liter tank containing warm water, essentially replicating the way Sideritis has been traditionally boiled in homes around Greece since antiquity, but on much larger scale.
Gathering wild Sideritis plants is strictly prohibited by law and Tuvunu refuses to accept any plants that cannot be traced to a certified grower in order to conserve the wild flora of the species.

Some women have gone from being unemployed to becoming an employer themselves: they hire men to hoe the fields. The cultivation of Siteritis have made a number of women financially independent and that is a tremendous leap forward for women, who until recently were expected to stay at home in their predominantly patriarchal communities.

EU: Western Sahara not part of Morocco

Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated area of mostly desert bordering on Morocco. A former Spanish colony, it was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Since then it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people. A 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN-brokered truce in 1991 and the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place.
Although under the de facto administrative control of Morocco, the status and sovereignty of Western Sahara remain unresolved and numerous direct talks have failed to break the political deadlock.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) on September 12, 2016, ruled that the Western Sahara is not part of the territory of Morocco. The ruling in favour of the Sahrawi people stipulates that the European Union (EU) and its Member States do not recognise Morocco as having sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

According to Advocate General, Melchior Wathelet, the ruling also means that neither the EU-Morocco Association Agreement nor the EU-Morocco Agreement on the liberalisation of trade in agricultural and fishery products apply to the Western Sahara.

A statement from the ECJ highlighted that “since 1963, Western Sahara has been included by the UN on its list of non-self-governing territories, which comes within the scope of its resolution on the exercise of the right to self-determination by colonial peoples.”

Last year the General Court of the European Union annulled the agricultural and fisheries agreement between the EU and Morocco stating that the measures were illegally applied to the Western Sahara and infringed upon the fundamental rights of the people of the territory.

Morocco isn't likely to secede the territory because it has large phosphate reserves and rich fishing grounds off its coast, Western Sahara is also believed to have as yet untapped large offshore oil deposits.

Why do I see so many similarities between Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara and Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus?

Europe's oldest tree lives in Greece

A Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii) growing in the highlands of northern Greece has been dendrocronologically dated to be more than 1075 years old. This makes it currently the oldest known living tree in Europe.

"It is quite remarkable that this large, complex and impressive organism has survived so long in such an inhospitable environment, in a land that has been civilized for over 3000 years" says Swedish dendrochronologist, Paul J. Krusic, leader of the expedition that found the tree. It is one of more than a dozen individuals of millennial age, living in a treeline forest high in the Pindos mountains.
In our research, we try to build long chronologies to construct climate histories, so finding living trees of old age is one of our motivations. To age the tree, we needed to take a core of wood, from the outside to the center. The core is one meter and has 1075 annual rings" says Krusic.

The scientists hope the annual variations of the tree rings from trees like this and those fallen in centuries past, yet still preserved on the ground, will provide an informative history of climatic and environmental conditions, going back thousands of years. Considering where the tree was found, and its venerable age, the scientists have named this individual 'Adonis' after the Greek god of beauty and desire.

"I am impressed, in the context of western civilization, all the human history that has surrounded this tree; all the empires, the Byzantine, the Ottoman, all the people living in this region. So many things could have led to its demise. Fortunately, this forest has been basically untouched for over a thousand years." says Krusic.

2,400-year old tomb discovered on Cyprus

Details on a 2,400-year-old tomb of a high-status family that was excavated in Soli or Soloi (Greek: Σόλοι), Northern Cyprus, are finally being unveiled. Jewelry, weapons, human remains, figurines, and so-called symposium vessels were found at the tomb and the early analysis of these artifacts provides a glimpse into the social structure and trade practices of ancient Soloi.

The tomb complex, constructed between 400 BC and 350 BC, consists of three burial chambers, one of which was looted. The others contained the artifacts. Of these objects, one of the most impressive is a golden wreath in the shape of an ivy plant, complete with details such as berries.
These goods led the archaeologists to believe that the tomb belonged to an aristocratic family. In one of the burial chambers the remains of a man, woman, and young girl were found. There were also a woman and young girl buried in another chamber. The looted chamber did not contain any human remains. Hazar Kaba, archaeologist, said that the artifacts further suggest that there was trade between Soloi and Athens 2,400 years ago: "This tomb complex proves that Soloi was in direct contact with Athens. Soloi was supplying Athens with its timber and copper, and in return, was obtaining luxurious goods such as symposium vessels.”

The archaeologist said that the golden wreath is similar to those placed in the tombs of wealthy Macedonians. Furthermore, the 16 symposium vessels and some of the jewelry are comparable to the styles used in the contemporary Achaemenid Empire. Symposium vessels are vessels used to serve people attending a "symposium," an event where men drank, talked and enjoyed entertainment. Some of these symposium vessels also may have come from Ionia and Macedonia. This accumulation of imported high-class objects further supports the idea that the family was part of the elite class in Soloi.

Soloi was one of the most important cities in Cyprus and was first populated by Mycenaean settlers in the late Bronze Age. It was probably chosen because the site was rich in copper, water and had rich soils. Soloi was prosperous for many years and did especially well throughout the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian periods.

The Cretan Earthquake of AD 365

Earthquakes are not an uncommon occurrence in the eastern Mediterranean. Every now and then the earth trembles, but sometimes the earth trembles a lot.
Historian Ammianus Marcellinus (ca AD 325-391) documented the devastating effects of a tsunami hitting Alexandria, Egypt, on July 21, AD 365. He wrote: "For a little before sunrise there was a terrible earthquake, preceded by incessant and furious lightning. The sea was driven backwards ... [then] the waves ...rose ... beat upon the islands and the extended coasts of the mainland, leveling cities and houses wherever they encountered them. ... vessels of great size were driven on shore by the violence of the wind, and cast upon the house-tops. … and some were even driven two miles inland[1].

Based on geophysical surveys and sediment cores from the Ionian Sea research shows that the 20–25 m thick layer of sediment was triggered, not by the perhaps better known Santorini caldera collapse, but by the 365 AD Cretan earthquake cum tsunami[2].
The magnitude of this quake is estimated at 8.3–8.5, which makes it a quite a large one. What happens is that such an extreme earthquake will not 'only' produce a devastating tsunami, but the earth itself can move in unexpected directions. Western parts of Crete rose as much as 9 meters, leaving harbours high and dry. The tsunami destroyed cities and drowned thousands of people in coastal regions from the Nile Delta to modern-day Dubrovnik.

Can such an event happen again in our lifetime? The processes that resulted in the AD 365 earthquake are still at work. Plus, they also occur along the rest of the Hellenic subduction zone. The 1303 AD earthquake (also one of about magnitude 8) and tsunami are thought to have originated near Rhodes, so the entire Hellenic subduction zone may represent a tsunami hazard for the eastern Mediterranean. We should expect an 365-like earthquake every ~ 800 years[3]. That there has been only one other such event (in AD 1303) in the past 1,650 years should focus our attention on the modern-day earthquake and tsunami hazards in the Eastern Mediterranean. Remember that 1303 plus 800 makes 2103, which is already perilously close to our own era.

[1] Marcellinus: Res Gestae: 26.10.16–19. See here.
[2] Polonia et al: Mediterranean megaturbidite triggered by the AD 365 Crete earthquake and tsunami in Scientific Reports – 2013
[3] Shaw et al: Eastern Mediterranean tectonics and tsunami hazard inferred from the AD 365 earthquake in Nature – 2008. See here.

An Ancient Wine from Cyprus

Commandaria's history dates back at least 3,000 years, although it was called Mana for much of that time. The ancient Greeks drank it at festivals celebrating Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who, according to myth, was born from the sea foam on the shores of Cyprus. The wine's modern name can be traced to the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Knights Templar and Knights of St. John established a headquarters (or commandery) in the growing region on the foothills of the Troödos mountains. and began to produce and export the wine commercially. Commandaria proved so popular with European palates that it is rumoured to have been served at King Richard the Lionheart's wedding.

Commandaria is a sweet dessert wine, with a dark amber to light brown color, and an intriguing taste that starts like honeyed raisins and figs and ends like coffee. To some it reminds them a bit of Hungarian Tokaji wine, while others say they find it pleasantly similar to Portuguese Madeira.

This ancient wine is made from two kinds of native grapes: white Xynisteri and red Mavro, which are partially dried in the sun to concentrate the juices even more before pressing and fermentation. While often a fortified wine, through its production method it often reaches alcohol contents of around 15% even before fortification.

By law, Commandaria wines must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels, but many of the best are aged for a decade or more.

Although its international popularity faded in the centuries after the knights lost power, Commandaria has been staging a comeback in recent decades. The name has been given "protected designation of origin status" in the European Union, the United States and Canada, and there is an official Commandaria wine region in southern Cyprus.

If you ever visit Cyprus (again), please give the Commandaria a try. You'll be surprised.

Mediterranean invaded by poisonous lion fish

The common lion fish (Pterois volitans) was originally 'only' found in the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, South Africa and east of Sumatra. Lion fish are carnivores with a life span of up to 15 years. The largest of lion fish can grow to about 40 centimeters in length. Predators of lion fish are mostly larger lion fish. Despite the problems it causes, lion fishes are very suitable for human consumption.

The lion fish has now made its way to the Aegean Sea, particularly in the waters around the Greek island of Rhodes. It first appeared in the summer of 2015 after it swam into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.

The Hydrobiological station of the Greek Center of Sea Research based on Rhodes recently issued an announcement on the appearance of the common lionfish in the Aegean Sea. 

The station warned that the fish’s venomous spines inject a powerful protein-based toxin in their prey. In fact they are so poisonous that they even might be deadly to humans. Its population is known for rapidly multiplying and for this reason is listed as an invasive species. First caught in fishing nets in January 2016 in the shallow waters off Faliraki beach and then off Lindos, both specimens are now on display at the Rhodes Aquarium.

But if these lionfishes are caught in waters around Rhodes, the surely must swim around Cyprus too? And yes they do. They are a danger to fishermen, divers, swimmers and spear hunters even though they use their spines to sting for defensive reasons, not offensive. Someone could touch a dead lion fish and still get injured. Even though they are not usually fatal, the pain and allergic reaction can be severe. If stung by a lion fish, it is recommended to immerse the wound in hot (but not scalding) water for about 30 minutes as soon as possible - the toxin quickly– this helps denature the lionfish venom and decrease pain.

Venomous or poisonous?

The terms venomous and poisonous are often used interchangeably, but incorrectly. There is, in fact, a difference between a venomous organism and a poisonous organism. Both venomous and poisonous animals produce a toxin that is injurious or even lethal to another organism. However, the real difference between the two involves how that toxin is delivered.

Venomous organisms deliver or inject venom directly into other organisms. Poisonous organisms, on the other hand, do not deliver their toxins directly. The entire body or large parts of it, may contain the poisonous substance. These organisms may be harmful when eaten or even touched.

The short answer is therefore: if it bites you and you die, it is venomous. If you bite it and die, it is poisonous.

Northern Cyprus and Tobacco

While tobacco production has declined in the rest of Europe, farmers in northern Cyprus have again planted tobacco plants. After a hiatus of twelve years, seedlings have been planted in fields around Karpaz (Greek Karpasia/Καρπασία) in the hope of a growing a sustainable crop.

The Karpaz Cooperative Tobacco Sale Company has been operating in the area since 1976, producing 50 to 60 tonnes of tobacco annually. However, since 2004, there has been no market for the crop. An attempt to grow tobacco two years ago failed.
A representative of the Cooperative told the media that Syria had been their main competitor, but the civil war which had caused a lack of production, had led to a gap in the market.

Previously, farmers around Karpaz grew ‘Yayla’ tobacco, which was said to be native to the region. Now, seedlings imported from Turkey will grow into an aromatic plant for pipe tobacco. The plant should be more resilient, as it is suitable for growing in drier regions.

The villagers have completed planting in March (2015), which traditionally was done in February. They hope to harvest the tobacco in June. A successful harvest will bring a profit in a few short months, bringing a much needed economic boost to the troubled region.

Greek Tobacco Production in Decline

Oriental tobacco or Turkish tobacco is a highly aromatic, small-leafed variety of tobacco which is sun-cured. Tobacco was first introduced into Greece in the seventeenth century, shortly after it was introduced into Turkey. It is also grown elsewhere, notably in Macedonia and Turkey. Oriental tobacco covers about 20% of the total area devoted to tobacco growing in the world.

The problem with smoking is, of course, that it is very unhealthy, leading from COPD via lung cancer to death. That is why governments try to discourage smoking. Large sums of money are needed to treat, cure and prevent the negative effects of smoking.
Since Greece's entry into the EU it is subject to its rules. In 2010 a system was phased out where tobacco farmers in 12 EU countries including Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Italy were receiving around €300 million in subsidies. After the subsidies ended, tobacco farming across the EU sharply declined.

Ah, you might think, that is finally an effective policy by those bureaucrats in Brussels. But no, the old subsidy was converted into direct payments (Regulation (EU) No 1307/2013 simply gives money to the individual farmer) and rural development support (Regulation (EU) No 1309/2013 simply gives money to the region). The EU hoped to tempt farmers to change crops.
Did it work? A bit. Many Greek growers were reportedly abandoning tobacco farming in favour of other cash crops.

However, the decline of Greek production has mostly hurt the country’s Turkish minority, whose livelihood largely depends on tobacco growing. Some 200,000 ethnic Turks live - largely forgotten - in the north-eastern Greek province of western Thrace, which borders Turkey and Bulgaria, and 90 per cent are involved in tobacco production and trade.

Luckily Turkey has also forgotten about the plight of this Turkish minority and Greece won't face another invasion, like on Cyprus in 1974. Oh, wait.