A Grab-Bag of History Documentaries

As part of their first-anniversary celebration*, DocumentaryStorm.com, a curated resource for watching documentaries on-line, hand-picked a selection of history documentaries for me to share with you.  They’re very much in keeping with the non-Western, eclectic nature of History in the Margins. I think you’ll find them fascinating.

Make yourself a bowl of popcorn, kickback, enjoy the show–and wish the folks at Documentary Storm a happy anniversary.

The Emperor’s Tram Girls:Hiroshima, 1945. The Emperor’s Tram Girls were trained to drive tens of thousands of Japanese troops through the town. The drivers were young, pretty, bubbly girls who were picked for their winning personalities. They had their whole lives ahead of them. Then the bomb dropped.

The Pyramid Code, Part One: The Band of Peace. The Band of Peace is the area in which six different sites sit, among them the Great Pyramid at Giza. One scholar insists the pyramids were not built by slaves. So who actually built these structures?

Last Christians of Bethlehem. Barely any Christians still live in the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Christians have lived in Bethlehem for centuries, but in today’s political climate, they have fewer reasons to stay. See why.

Secrets of the Maya Underworld. Unlike other great empires, much of the Mayan world is in fact devoid of even the smallest river or lake. Then why did they populate Yucatan? The Maya believed that the freshwater pools, ëcenotesí, dotted across the area were sacred portals to the underworld.


*History in the Margins recently passed the one year mark, too.  I just had my head too far down to notice.  Why don’t we consider this a double celebration.

History on Display: Genghis Khan

I want to make it clear right from the beginning that I think Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes have gotten a bum rap in the annals of history. Most of our ideas about the ferocity of the Mongol invasion come from contemporary accounts of Genghis Khan’s admittedly ferocious campaign against the Turkish kingdom of Khwarizim: one of the rare cases where the losers wrote the history.* While there is no doubt that the Mongol invasions were bloody, violent, and cruel, it’s not clear to me that they were any more blood-thirsty than the Vikings**, the Romans ***, or the Crusaders****

The more I learn about the man I like to call Genghis the Great, the more fascinated I am. So I was really excited when a Genghis Khan exhibit opened at the Field Museum here in Chicago.

Like most exhibits at the Field Museum these days, the exhibit is an engaging multi-media blend, with artifacts from Mongolian museums as well as its own collection, filmed interviews, video reconstructions of historical events, and 21st century relatives of that old natural history museum staple the diorama. They do a good job of balancing the different views of Genghis Khan as conqueror, state builder, and father of modern Mongolia, both figuratively and literally. (Recent studies suggest that a substantial proportion of the modern population of Mongolia is descended from Genghis Khan. ) Some of the most fascinating exhibits look at Genghis Khan’s life through the lens of modern Mongolian nomads. Personally, I was fascinated by the working model of a trebuchet and thrilled to see one of the metal passports that gave travelers free passage through the enormous Mongol empire. (Yeah, yeah, I’m a history geek. Who else would write a history blog.)

The exhibit runs through September 3. If you’re in Chicago, make time to see it. If you can’t make it to Chicago, you’ll have another chance. It will open at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History in October.

In conjunction with the exhibit, I’m giving away a copy of Jack Weatherford’s excellent Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World . Just leave a comment on the blog to be included in a random drawing. (Sending me a private e-mail, as many of you do, doesn’t count for this. If you don’t know how to leave a comment, let me know.) My Own True Love will chose a name on 6/26.

* The Persians and Turks had an advantage in the history wars. There was no written Mongol language until Genghis Khan commissioned its creation.

**Whose annual raids were so fearsome that the Christian liturgy in the British Isles included a special prayer: “Save us, oh Lord, from the fury of the Northmen.”

***Who not only sowed salt in the fields of Carthage after they razed the city, but invented a nasty form of execution known as crucifixion. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

****Who by their own accounts practiced cannibalism after the siege of Ma’arra in the First Crusade.

Why the Mayflower?

Image coourtesy of the Library of Congress

There is a statistic floating around that irritates me. The words aren’t always the same, but the factoid is: “Today 10% of all Americans are descended from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower.”

No one ever says where the number came from. That’s enough to make my teeth grind all by itself, but it’s not the main thing that bothers me about the statistic. I’m perfectly prepared to believe it’s true, given the realities of geometric progression and population growth. *

What I don’t understand is why it matters. I’ve never seen a statistic on the number of modern Americans descended from the original Jamestown settlers, the earliest Spanish colonists in the American southwest, or the first Dutch settlers on the Delaware River. (Not to mention the number descended from the refugees from British debtor’s prison who settled colonial Georgia.) ** I don’t want to disrespect the courage or importance of the Plymouth colonists. *** They sailed across the Atlantic in a frighteningly small ship to start new lives in a wilderness. But so did the first Jamestown settlers–and all the rest. The Plymouth colony wasn’t even the first settlement.

So why have the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and the stories related to them elbowed their way to the front of the line in America’s foundation myths? Why does anyone think it’s meaningful that 10% of Americans today are descended from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower?

Personally, I blame it on an effective PR campaign.  Of course, American history is not my field, so maybe I’m missing something here. Anyone have a better explanation?

[Rant over.]

* I’m equally prepared to believe someone made it up.
** The numbers may well exist, buried in specialized academic papers or the reports of local genealogical societies, but they don’t show up as an accepted fact in popular history.
*** Okay, I admit it. On a bad day I can work up a little historical indignation about their vision of religious freedom, or more accurately, how it has been transformed in popular history. But that’s a post for another day. And it in no way diminishes their courage or importance.