Hernan Cortes: 1485-1547
In the spring of 1519, a Spanish mercenary and conquistador called Hernan Cortes landed on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico with eleven ships, carrying around 110 sailors, 530 soldiers, a doctor, a carpenter, a few women and some slaves. He was actually defying a last minute order from the Spanish governor of Cuba to abandon his mission. The governor knew of Cortes’ ambitions and tried to revoke his commission shortly before he was due to leave. But it failed and Cortes landed in the New World with the ambition of conquest in the name of the Spanish King.
At the time of his arrival, the land that we now call Mexico was ruled by the Aztec Empire which in turn was ruled by a king called Moctezuma, who was renowned for his hospitality. His palace had more than 100 bedrooms, each with an en-suite bath. His grounds contained zoos, elaborate botanical gardens and even an aquarium. Within just 18 months though of Cortes’ arrival, the great city that was the key to the entire Aztec Empire was in Spanish hands. Despite initially welcoming the Spaniards as guests, the Aztec Emperor soon found himself a captive inside his own palace. The Spanish quickly set about emptying the palace of treasure and slaughtering hundreds, if not thousands of the local population.
Cortes himself took little part in the capture of the palace, as he was forced off to fight off Spanish troops sent by the governor of Cuba to arrest him for his earlier defiance. Cortes did manage to persuade many of the troops to switch sides by regaling them with tales of riches and gold. But among the arresting party was an African slave carrying smallpox. This highly infectious disease was all too familiar to Europeans, but nothing like it had ever appeared in the Americas, thus the Native Americans lacked the necessary immunity against it. Unsurprisingly, within a year of its appearance, more than 40 per cent of the Aztecs were dead. Over the coming centuries, the native population would crash by around 90 per cent from the 500 million it had been just before the arrival of Columbus. The actions of Hernan Cortes and contemporaries such as Francisco Pizarro, who wiped out the Inca Empire, resulted in the most devastating conquest in all of human history.
Mohammed: 570-632 AD
Mohammed is one of the most instantly recognisble names in all history. He was a prophet and the founder of Islam, a religion that has helped change the course of human and natural history. Around 1400 years ago, this merchant who hailed from the Arabian city of Mecca was seized by a series of visions in which he saw the Archangel Gabriel reveal the true and final word of Allah. His family and followers then proceeded to write down these revelations in a series of verses called the Koran. Today, there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, making it the second most popular religion behind Christianity.
During his lifetime Mohammed built up a loyal community of followers, although the Jews stubbornly refused to part with their own traditions and texts, remaining highly sceptical about the possibility of a non-Jewish prophet. Even so, it seemed as though nothing would stem Islam’s growth, within a century of Mohammed’s death its simple and powerful message had penetrated the whole Middle East. By 651 AD, it had engulfed the previously strong Sassanid Empire of Persia and had reached the north of what is now Pakistan. Further west, Muslim armies conquered North Africa and Spain, and if not for a miraculous victory in 732 AD by the Frankish ruler Charles Martel at Poitiers, they may have conquered Western Europe. Islam’s greatest legacy was the rise and spread of political and trading empires spread over vast swathes of Eurasia that ultimately helped to connect both the Eastern and Western cultures.
Jesus Christ: 2 BC- 36 AD
From one religious giant to another; Jesus Christ was the son of a Jewish carpenter, whose miraculous powers helped to convince his followers that he was the son of God. He was a highly charismatic man who delivered a rather simple message, be peaceful. Love your neighbour as yourself. If someone strikes you on the cheek, don’t hit back but offer them the other. Don’t worship false idols such as money or material possessions, and above all, be humble for one day the meek will inherit the Earth. Amazingly, Jesus is only ever known to have lost his temper once, in the Temple of Jerusalem, where markets had been set up for traders to make a profit.
His followers saw him perform unbelievable miracles and quickly came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God, which had been prophesied by Isaiah and others in the Jewish Torah. However, this soon caused consternation among the Jews as it was believed that the Israelites had been identified as God’s people. Yet, here was a man, whose followers already claimed he was King of the Jews; here was a man who offered eternal salvation to anyone and everyone regardless of their colour, creed or race.
Eventually Jesus was given over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate as a heretic who condemned him to die by crucifixion like a common criminal. However, the act of crucifying Jesus only served to strengthen his message and image. Three days later, his body mysteriously vanished from the tomb he’d been incarcerated in. His followers wrote about these events, calling it the Resurrection and believed it was their divine mission to spread the good news about the son of God coming down to Earth and dying on a cross so that everybody who believed in him might have an everlasting life.
The legacy of Jesus Christ was the development of Christianity as the world’s biggest religion, with more than two billion claiming to practice it. Its spread wasn’t quite as fast as Islam, but within three centuries of his death, the Roman Empire had adopted it as a state creed.
Ashoka: 304-232 BC
Ashoka, a great Indian King started out his reign as a typically ruthless and violent ruler, controlling his Empire through the threat of force. Indeed his name means ‘without sorrow’ in Sanskrit. But in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest wars of the time, he underwent a profound and complete conversion.
The Kalinga War ended with the famous Battle of Kalinga which left more than 100,000 dead on the battlefield. A day later, Ashoka walked out across the city where, as far as his eye could see, the only sights were burned out houses, dead horses and scattered bodies. At that moment, he let out a cry, saying ‘What have I done?’ over and over again.
From that moment hence, Ashoka committed his life and his reign to non violence. He became a devout Buddhist and over the next twenty years devoted himself to spreading the message of this powerful religion. Prisoners were freed and given their land back, the unnecessary slaughter of animals was forbidden as was hunting for sport. Branding animals was also outlawed and vegetarianism was encouraged as official policy. Ashoka built rest houses for travellers and pilgrims, universities so people could become more educated and hospitals for people and animals alike throughout India. Ashoka was the first ruler in history to put animal and human rights on an equal footing.
Hammurabi: 1810-1750 BC
Hammurabi, the famous King of Babylon set out a code of laws that helped transform and stabilise his city into the most powerful of all Mesopotamia. A copy of his code of 282 laws was prominently displayed on an eight foot tall slab of stone in the centre of the city, so that everyone could see it, thus ignorance of the law was never accepted as an excuse, this principle lives on in most societies today. Hammurabi had the laws chiselled on to stone so that they were unchangeable; this is where we get the phrase ‘set in stone’ from to describe something permanent.
Hammurabi’s laws were copied by other civilisations and they set several important principles that are still cornerstones of justice in many parts of the world. For example, they established the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty. But to maintain proper order, these laws were necessarily harsh, for example: ‘If a man put another man’s eye out, his eye should be put also.’ Another one that probably didn’t give them the biggest incentive to study medicine was as follows: ‘If a patient dies in or after surgery, the doctor’s hand will be cut off.’
Of course, the laws were useless if no one could read them. So for the rules to gain effectiveness, a strong emphasis was placed on education. Most Mesopotamian cities had public libraries. Both men and women were encouraged to learn how to read and write. However, the golden age of Babylon wasn’t to last, the people soon learned that living life in a fixed place wasn’t sustainable. After many generations of intensive farming, the land became less and less fertile, until finally all of the nourishment was exhausted. By 2000 BC, the land around the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris was as it is today, a barren desert. The once great cities of Ur and Uruk fell into permanent decline.