The Lighter Side of History

01 October 2018 Comments Off on The Lighter Side of History


The title of this column implies that history has a heavier side as well – the side that we mostly confront in elementary through high school. History is a fascinating subject. It contains most of the elements of absorbing fiction – adventure, suspense, intrigue, mystery, interesting personalities, a social setting – with the difference that it is real. It is hard to understand how anyone can not enjoy history, but the way it is taught at school leaves us with a sense of dread, and many continue through life considering history to be one of those things they are just not interested in. The goal of this column is to help eliminate that dread by reviewing historical content that will hopefully be found interesting and entertaining.
A place to start may be David Christian’s TED talk “The History of Our World in 18 Minutes,” for an account of the natural history of the world starting with the Big Bang. If you prefer the history of civilization to natural history, consider watching Eric Cline’s “1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed,” which is about the Late Bronze Age, the time of the Hittites and their contemporaries. The parallels with the present day are striking. The many civilizations of the region are shown to have had a high degree of interaction compared to other periods, mirroring today’s globalized world. But these civilizations collapsed during the period in question, entering a dark age, meaning that there was a failure of administrative organization and the economy, and population decline, due to a combination of droughts, famine, climate change, invasions, rebellions and earthquakes, made worse by a domino effect resulting from the significant degree of interdependence among the several civilizations. Cline argues that similar conditions exist today as well, implying that civilizational collapse is potentially imminent. If you do not have over an hour to watch this video, look for “The Bronze Age Collapse,” a part of the YouTube series “Extra History.” These videos excellently explain how the many parts of complex civilizations are dependent on each other, and how fragile these systems are, to the point that if even one part fails, the aforementioned domino effect proceeds to bring down everything. Having mentioned the Hittites, an excellent documentary on them is to be found on the site While at the site, consider looking through the history section for other titles, such as “The Great Plague” and “Harem,” the latter providing insight into the role of women in Ottoman politics from Hürrem Sultan to Kösem Sultan.
The “Extra History” series is a part of the popular YouTube channel “Extra Credits.” Its creators produce various series of videos explaining historical events or periods, typically four to five episodes per topic, most under 10 minutes. Taking a look at the topics, we see they cover a wide range, from the Crusades to the Hawaiian king Kamehameha the Great. The animated and narrated videos offer a very colorful and entertaining experience, and it is hard to stop watching them once you start. For instance, everyone has heard about the Crusades, but maybe you want to learn more. Start with “The First Crusade” video and continue from there. Among other things, it is explained in simple terms how the Crusades were not so much about religion as they were about political power in Europe. Or maybe you know that Simon Bolivar is a very important figure in South American history, but never quite understood exactly what he accomplished (and what he did not). The “Extra History” episode on “Simon Bolivar” allows you to compare and contrast his quest for independence with that of other nation builders, and to learn about the tragic downfall that followed his accomplishments. The various individual series within the overall series do not cover every area of history one might wish to see, but those that do exist show considerable attention to detail and are quite witty. However, the videos consist mainly of descriptions and explanations of events, with limited attention given to analysis and discussion of the many connections between events that form the essence of what history has to teach us.
The YouTube channel “Kings and Generals” looks at famous battles or conquests throughout history, together with the political and diplomatic contexts existing before and after the battles. The focus is mainly on the battles themselves: the middle portions of the videos illustrate, through animated maps, how various troops and regiments moved on the battlefield during major battles of history and the details of the strategies involved. If you grew up in Turkey, you surely know about the “Battle of Manzikert [Malazgirt] 1071,” considered the critical step in establishing Asia Minor as the Turkish homeland, and the “Fall of Constantinople 1453,” whose military details you can learn on this channel, along with those of countless other well-known battles of history. There is extensive explanation of how the battle in question came to occur, as well as its aftermath. As such, “Kings and Generals” is more analytical than many other history channels. However, economic and social factors are more or less overlooked, resulting in a one-sided approach.
And then there are the “Alternate History” videos. These start with a map of some part (or all) of the world at a given date in the past. Starting from that date, the creator of the video speculatively outlines wars, treaties, diplomacy and other events involving various countries, leading to an alternative unfolding of historical events. These videos are not really about history, and the quality varies greatly from channel to channel. An example is the “Alternate History of Europe” series on the channel “Imperial Mapping.”
To conclude on an even lighter tone, I must also mention the kids’ show “Horrible Histories.” According to the Guardian (March 17, 2011), the show has attracted a considerable audience of adults as well.