Sunday, 25 August 2013

My open letter to the Netherlands and its people

My open letter to the Netherlands and its people

     Hallo! Mijn naam is Miguel, en ik ben portugees. Unfortunately, this is as far as my Dutch goes, but bear with me, as you read this letter which I respectfully wrote with your country in mind.

    My country’s economy is in a state of disarray since… I’ve been born, I believe. Though in the last few years Portugal’s presence in the news has been much amplified, the truth is that, for my generation, this seems to have been the only reality we have known. And this is not a unique time in our History; much like the Dutch, this has been a country made of travelers, of people who dared to push beyond the known barriers of the world to seek their luck and fortune. We did get started before the Dutch; I dare say, before the whole world, but we were soon left lagging behind. It is a recurring thing for us, to stay behind and below those who seem so much more efficient in what they do. But enough about that.

    I’m young, barely into my twenties, and with a finished graduation in History, from Lisbon’s University, with a higher-than-average classification. Does that mean anything, in a country with a shattered economy? No. My skills in languages, writing and research are seen as a waste of a body and brain that could otherwise be used for the only thing useful in today’s society: some sort of engineering. I always knew that, but as a person who sternly believes the importance to live your life to the fullest, I followed my dreams, knowing that nightmares would also lie in store for me. Besides, I only seem to be comfortable around letters, not numbers, and that would have resulted in a deeply unqualified, and frustrated, engineer.

    I’m a single drop, in an ocean of people facing exactly the same frustration as me, being forced to give up on their dreams, instead having to work part-time in some call center, their creativity crushed under the weight of four claustrophobic walls, and their only reward is some bad payment at the end of the month, which barely lets you survive. Like many of these drops, I intend to leave a country not able to absorb or benefit from my individual skills and ideas. It is a new wave of Portuguese explorers; this time, we do not seek the Indies or the Americas, just a check at the end of the month that allows living with dignity, independently, with a family of our own, all things currently impossible in Portugal. And what country, in this old Europa of ours, would I rather live, and work in? The answer is easy: The Netherlands, of course!

    Your country is forward. Your weather is cold, but your people warm. You value culture, arts, literature; knowledge, as a substantial and integral part of a nation’s development. There is no other country I would rather be in. But this is where we come to the difficult part: how?

    Learning Dutch on my own, I’m still not sufficiently fluent to be comfortable around Dutch Job Searching sites. The English ones I find, seem to list only engineering jobs. I know times are tough for all of Europe, but are you going to tell me the Netherlands doesn’t have space for a willing young mind, who doesn’t shy away of hard and stressful work (they are, in fact, a strange addiction of mine)?

    I wrote this hoping the right people would see it, appreciate its honesty and hopefully give me a chance. My intention isn’t to beg for things to fall down from the sky, I’m merely carving out my future in the best possible way, so that I won’t have to look back with a regretful soul. That is my only fear. So, if any of you awesome Dutch people is willing to believe in me, I’m waiting for your response (e-mail:, I can send you my C.V. from there). And don’t mind telling me my intent is hopeless; my dreams are mine alone, and I’ll wake up only on the day I die.

    Just keep the following in mind, Netherlands: be it 3 months, one year, or a decade, I intend to one day live amongst you. So why not shorten the trip? The sooner, the better, I say.

Hopen op een spoedige van u horen!

Vriendelijke groeten,

Miguel Boronha

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Ascent of Bird

I find it funny that although we have all seen thousands, if not millions, of examples depicting the Ascent of Men, we rarely get to see the same type of picture for other species. So, in that spirit, I came across this wonderful picture about the Ascent of Bird, and decided to share it here for all to see!

Friday, 1 February 2013

Arabic Calligraphy: recent developments

Having had the pleasure to visit London very recently, I bought two new inks to use in Arabic Calligraphy. Awkwardly, I think I am much better now at it, compared to when I used to practice much more often about two years ago. My strokes are more precise, my gesture is smooth. Although I'm still far from reaching the desirable skill for this kind of art, I'm improving, and that is good. Here are some of my recent works, based on the works of much more experienced artists than myself:

"No riches are greater than the interior ones"

"Now I know what love means"

"You are my love"

Monday, 7 January 2013

A video of me in action!

Hi guys!

I have posted, in the past, about my interest - and amateurish practice - in Arabic Calligraphy. Today, after a few months without practicing anything, I wrote a little something ("Al-Hubb", which is the Arabic for "The Love") and filmed the process, which I'm now sharing with you! It is accompained by some arabic music, sung by Natacha Atlas, just to set you in the mood. Hope you enjoy it ;)

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Al-Andalus and it's fascinating gaze

Detail of the Cathedral-Mosque of Cordoba, Spain

Hi there!

On the beginning of this month, I finally started my Masters' course on "History of the Medieval Islamic Mediterranean". It lasts for two years, at the end of which I have to present a thesis.

Being taken in Lisbon's University, it is only natural that the course focuses mainly on the History of Al-Andalus. At first, I was holding back, as I never had a profound interest in the History of the Iberian Peninsula during Muslim occupation. But, as I still have no idea for my thesis, I have been diving on many of the arabic sources related to this subject, and reading some associated bibliography as well, and have been finding myself more and more enthralled with this matter.

From a first perspective, Al-Andalus seems to be a political and social construction of immense complexity, with different social forces fighting for prominence. It has periods of great instability, but it also has periods of great economic, social and intellectual prosperity.

Al-Andalus has all the ingredients to keep any medievalist interested. And I hope to "dig deep" into its' issues, in the months to come, so expect some related posts in the upcoming time!

Monday, 18 June 2012

The privilege of a very medieval perspective

Hello there, everyone! Been a long time since I last wrote a post for this blog, been extremely busy with other things, like life. I also got some work done for university, and I know had finally the time to translate it into English, and give it a slight adaptation for the blog. This is an excerpt of one of my essays, about the Travels of Ibn Battutah, a topic which I have already talked about in the blog. Enjoy!


Through a medieval sight
-Miguel Boronha

In the context of this essay, it is essential to make a brief approach to the content of the source, to illustrate some of the examples of how one can use Travel Literature as a viable tool for the construction of Medieval Urban History. I should also underline the fact that I use an English translation of the source, by Tim Mackintosh-Smith.

Al-Iskandariyah, according to the Piri Reis' map

For this study, I'm using the testimonial of Ibn Battutah, in particular what he has to say about the city of al-Iskandariyah, or Alexandria, in Northern Egypt. The specific interest of this description in particular is due to the fact that a monument as emblematic and famous as Alexandria's Lighthouse is being described, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This has a special value because it is a monument that no longer exists, and Ibn Battutah provides such an in-depth description that it may help to fill some of the gaps that exist, at least to a certain extent, and that not even Archaeology may be able to help with. But, before we deal with the Lighthouse in particular, let us first see a general description of the city, which also has important elements for the understanding of the historical reality:

“After that, on the 1st of First Jumada [5 April 1326], we arrived at the city of al-Iskandariyah, may God protect her! She is a well guarded frontier citadel and a friendly and hospitable region, remarkable in appearance and solid of construction, furnished with all that one could wish for in the way of embellishment and embattlement, and of memorable edifices both secular and religious. Noble are her dwellings, graceful her qualities and to imposing size her buildings unite architectural perfection. She is a unique pearl of glowing opalescence, and a secluded maiden arrayed in her bridal adornments, glorious in her surpassing beauty, uniting in herself the excellences that are shared out by other cities between themselves through her mediating situation between East and the West. Every fresh marvel has there its unveiling, every novelty finds its way thither. Among all the ports in the world I have seen none to equal it, except the ports of Kawlam and Qalicut in India, the port of the infidels [Genoese] at Sudaq in the lands of the Turks, and the port of Zaitun in China, all of which will be mentioned later.”

Firstly, we should pay attention to the military aspect which is underlined, in this excerpt. It is a frontier citadel, well guarded, and in a crucial position between East and West. It also has that which the author describes as one of the biggest ports he has ever seen (and remember, Ibn Battutah saw quite a few in his lifetime). It is impossible not to make a connection between these military aspects and the commercial importance of the city, naturally. In fact, we are in a period which is posterior to the most significant Crusades, but it is still a period of great political instability in the regions of the Maghrib and Middle East. Egypt is now in the hands of a recent power, the Mamluks, and the economical consolidation of these political agents is indispensable. Despite this, Ibn Battutah makes reference to a certain tranquility in the region, which might suggest that there is indeed a focus on the maintaining the security in a territory with such economical importance. Still in terms of an economical perspective, take note that Ibn battutah makes reference, very specifically, to the "fresh marvels" that one can expect to find in Alexandria; this puts in evidence the successful functioning of the commercial routes, capable of presenting fresh goods with considerable regularity.

Modern drawing of what the Pharos might have
looked like
Also, we cannot ignore the fact that, between considerable "poetic exaggeration" of the author, it is the historian's job to set aside what is considerable useful from the undesirable. But, despite this, this status of a Golden Age that Ibn Battutah transmits is not so far from the truth, in the case of Alexandria. I mean, the city is a cultural beacon, which manifests itself in various ways: her beautiful appearance, the memorable buildings, the architectural perfection, and the perfection of the things found there. The truth is that Alexandria had always been of special importance, since pharaonic times. As Ibn Battutah himself says, this is, in part, due to its strategic location and as a bridge between the East and West. By land or sea, the main commercial routes went through the city, promoting not only an important economical stimulus, but also cultural and scientific, through the divulgation of books and knowledge brought from other parts of the world. But, let us now see what the author has to say about the famous Lighthouse:

“I went to see the lighthouse on this journey and found one of its faces in ruins. One would describe it as a square building soaring into the air. Its door is high above the level of the ground, and opposite its door and at the same height is another building; (...) Inside the door there is a place for the guardian of the lighthouse to sit in, and within the lighthouse itself there are many chambers. The breadth of the passage in its interior is nine spans; and the breadth of the Wall ten spans; the breadth of the lighthosue on each of its four faces is 140 spans. It is situated on a high mound and lies at a distance of one farsakh [three miles] from the city on a long tongue of land, encompassed on three sides by the sea up to the point where the sea is immediately adjacente to the city Wall, so that the lighthouse cannot be reached by land except from the city.”

As we can see, the level of detail in Ibn Battutah's observation is imbued with such specificity that it is almost possible to make a very complete mental reconstruction of the monument. We are told that it is a very tall building, as it is "soaring into the air", square shaped, and with various chambers. But he goes even further, giving us exact measurements, like the width of the wall and the passage in the Lighthouse's interior; we also get to know that it stands on the top of a small elevation, and that it is located three miles (five km) away from the city. And all this that here has been pointed out, is related to external elements, many of which we are still able to get through Archaeology. But informations like the purpose of the said chambers, the colors on the walls, the height of the building; such elements would, otherwise, be unknown to us if not through these detailed testimonials.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Birth of a genius

Today, Mozart would be 256 years old. He died at the age of 35, but during such a short lifetime, he gave humanity too much.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Chained Prometheus

Those who know me personally have been witnesses, during the last 9 months, to a transformation that I've been suffering, both physically and mentally. During the same time that the body of a woman takes to generate new life, I was able to build for me a renewed present and, above all, a promising future. It all began when, on the day of my 20th birthday (6th of May, 2011), I decided to become a vegetarian.

It was not a completely spontaneous and unexpected decision, but almost. In fact, if I had already thought many times about that, I never considered it to be a real prospect, but instead an alternative reality in which I didn't eat both meat nor fish. It may be worth mentioning the fact that food had always been one of the most important things to me and, maybe as a proof of that, I had 101,3 kg (222 lbs) at the time. For almost everyone, my decision came as a shock. For a very restrict group, it was a pleasant surprise. And, for others, it was the beginning of a game of bets, trying to guess the length of my vegetarianism (some predicted a week, other, more optimists, a month) - no one seemed to have much hope in me, and, looking back, I can say that maybe even I was skeptical about myself.

From May to July, there I was, joyful, eating a lot of italian Pasta, without meat nor fish. I never payed much attention to my weight, but, around the end of July, I thought that I should see how much I had, at least to see if my vegetarian diet had any positive effect. Of course, when one has too many carbs and doesn't practice any exercise, the calories have to go somewhere, and there was no denying that: I had gained weight, and was now with 102,8 kg (224 lbs). So, if I, Miguel, had been able to say no to meat and fish, two great passions of my life, it was also time to say no to another aspect of me: my awful physical condition. And so, from one day to the other, I changed my lifestyle. I transformed my diet (started to eat huge amounts of Soya, Tofu and Seitan, and, of course, vegetables and fruit - and I also said arrivederci to pasta!), and I started to workout.

I can say that I'm very proud of my dedication. In the hellish heat of Algarve (southernmost region of Portugal) during August, I went running outside, and at home I did abdominal crunches, weights and planking. Sometimes, this would go on for 2 to 3 hours, without any break-time, and without eating anything for the duration - only a lot of water (I'm aware that this was too extreme and even dangerous for me, but well, I survived and came out stronger than ever before). My days would start with exercise, immediately on the morning, and I counted every single calorie that went into my body. If during the first 15 days there were no visible results, and I started to get demoralized, it seems that my body then came into action, and my weight started "evaporating" to the point of making me think if my weighing-machine was functioning properly.

In the beginning of September, I was already with 89 kg (195,8 lbs). Surely, I was no model for the human physique, but for me, this meant already less 13 kg (28,6 lbs). And, even with the beginning of one more university year after summer vacations, my progress was maintained. Even during Christmas, when I ate huge amounts of cakes and stuff, I kept doing my workouts, and I even lost weight.

Today, while I'm writing this post, I have 76 kg (167,2 lbs). If we consider the fact that I am 1,74 m (5' 8,5" ft) tall, there is still a road ahead of me before I get to the ideal weight, an objective which I'm absolutely convinced I will be able to meet soon. But, during these last few months, it was not only my body that suffered tremendous changes: I transformed as a human being. I'm more confident, secure, and, above all, I feel free. It is as if I was being kept chained by my body, like some sort of punishment - I felt like the Prometheus in Greek Mythology.

But today is also the date of a new change: my return to the omnivorous condition - and, I can say, I'm more omnithan ever before, as I learned to enjoy a lot of new stuff. There were various reasons for me to become a vegetarian, something worth of a post per si, and now there are many others for me to eat fish and meat again; I can only say that the main one is that I felt like I was despising one of the great pleasures of life, which is gastronomy. Not that I don't like vegetarian food, because I love it, but because I also love fish and meat. 

Maybe I should feel defeated, but I don't. I remained, for 9 months and a half, vegetarian, and I'm not sorry for that - not even a little. If for nothing else, being a vegetarian showed me that I had enough force of will to cause a great rupture in my life, and to go up another stair. Now, I'm not getting down on the staircase, but rather I'm still going up. And I should also note that I'm not going to start to eat meat 14 times per week! Soya and Seitan will forever be an important part of my diet, because I love them. I will be a  true omnivorous - when I want something, I can eat it, as long as it is in a healthy portion. I feel no guilt, and that is the most important thing. Who knows, maybe one day I'll try again to be a vegetarian? Like the winds, I am also capable of fast and unexpected changes; those who know me, know very well that I'm a little box full of surprises. 

Above all, I can tell you one thing: the moment in which we start to believe in ourselves, is the moment in which we come face to face with the infinitude of the universe. True story.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

"Sailors, fighting in the dance hall"

I couldn't let the opportunity to wish one my musical heroes (they are Bowie, Kate Bush and Freddy Mercury), a happy birthday. Even though he has been quiet for these last few years, he has already given us too much.

Here is his performance of 'The Jean Genie' on Top of the Pops, in 1973:

Friday, 18 November 2011

For each Tale, there is a Storyteller

"We want you", the famous phrase immortalized in the image of Uncle Sam. This time, though, what we want you for, does not mean putting your life at risk. Or does it?...

Maintaining a blog is not an easy task. It requires effort, time and commitment, among other things, and it may, at times, feel like an "unrewarded" job. It can also feel lonely, when you are the only writer. That is why I had the idea to start a project, where you send me an article, which I will then post on the blog, with full credit given to the author. I may write a small introduction to the subject, in case some contextualization is needed, and the text would follow.

With this in mind, I require the following:

  • The article must be about History (anything between 3500 b. C. and World War II)
  • Between 1000 and 1500 words
  • May include up to 3 pictures
  • Must include between 1 and 3 bibliographical references
  • Must be written in English

Because it is never a good idea to leave the obvious out, I want to make it clear that the article should be written by YOU, the person who submitted it. Plagiarizing the work of others, or "copy+paste" content from Wikipedia, will not be tolerated. Also, your English should be clear and fluent.

In order to submit your article:

  • Send an e-mail to, with the subject "1001 Tales of History - Article Submission", and a Word or PDF attached file of the article.
  • In the body of the e-mail, specify:
    • Personal details (Name, age, nationality, profession, etc.)
    • Links to any other articles that you have written / your blog or website
    • The name of the University where you studied, or currently study

I will answer to your e-mail as soon as I can, asking for any further details that I may need. I also suggest following the blog's page on Facebook, and my twitter account, for any updates. Take note that these articles will only start getting published in February 2012, after they've been reviewed by me.

Submission period:
20 November 2011 - 20 January 2012

So, get your hands to work, or start searching for those old works of yours, because I'm anxious to see your submissions!

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Oh, you make me blush!...

Hey there, guys!

Just wanted to update you on what I've been up to lately. One of the subjects that I'm having at University, this year, is "Personal Life in the Medieval Period", and it's title is self explanatory about what we deal with. I must say that I've been finding it profoundly interesting, for it has shed a lot of light on some misconceptions that I had about family life in Medieval Europe, that relations within society's groups (and among those same groups, and the material culture of the time - like clothing and so on.

The Professor has also demanded for each student to prepare a small work (something around 15 to 20 pages, maximum), in which we have the liberty to work on anything related to personal life during the Medieval period. Being as interested as I am in Medieval Islam, I immediately knew what to work on: "Erotism in Classical Arabic Poetry". It is a vast, vast theme, which still has much work to be done, and that a 20 pages work can hardly even begin to grasp the entirety of its problematics. But I will do my best to write a small, introductory text into this interesting theme, which I hope to develop during my academic life.

Statue of Abu Nuwas, one of the most important names in Classical Arabic Poetry

So, I'm glad to say that these last weeks I've been busy conducting the necessary research for this project, and once I start to write the text, I will post a smaller, more concise version here on the blog. I'm really hoping that you guys will enjoy the result of this work! :-)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

In the Face of many Books

Due to the beginning of a new year at University, it has been a bit stressful to find any time to write a decent post for the blog, but I've been updating the blog's Facebook page much more regularly, with some interesting historical facts that I come across.

So, if you haven't already 'Liked' the blog page on Facebook, just follow the link (, and be sure to share the page with your friends!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Greek heritage in Medieval Islam: an introduction

After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the people of Arabia faced a new chapter of their History, suddenly realizing that the world was incredibly larger than they perceived - and due to the weakened state of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires, the doors to this world were open for the Arabs. The Arab conquest was one of the fastest expansions the world has ever seen: it started soon after Muhammad's death, in 632 C.E., during the rule of the Rashidun Caliphs, and barely a century later they were facing the Franks in Europe, at the Battle of Poitiers, as well as having reached the Indus river in the indian subcontinent.

The Umayyad Caliphate, c. 750 C.E.

In the previous map, it is possible to see that the Arabs inherited a big slice of what had been, in the past, the Roman Empire. This is very important to understand how various elements of Ancient Greek culture (and to a minor extent, Roman culture as well) were able to reach the Caliphate, gaining such a fertilized ground to prosper. The fact is that early Islam has an highly assimilative character, which creates this ever-thirstful need to develop further knowledge. There are many hadith's of the Prophet which create an incentive to seek "proper knowledge" of the world, and criticizing ignorance. In this way, the Greek culture starts getting absorbed by many Islamic thinkers, starting with the translation into Arabic of various Classical authors and books - Plato, Aristoteles, Galen; just to name a few.

There were, still, some contrasts between the Greek and the Islamic way of thinking: the first is greatly anthropocentric, while the second finds the root of everything to be in Allah, or God - it is an essentially theocentric approach. Also, Greek authors look to perpetuate themselves through their works, as well as their City-State; on the other hand, Islamic authors, at least admittedly, do not seek to make themselves more prestigious: what they want, is to see the Ummah, the Islamic community, closer to perfection. Finally, it is important to note that the Greek way of thinking is considered a more Rational one, while in Islam, especially in Shiism and Sufism, a great deal of attention is given into Mysticism, and more esoteric approaches to the texts and their meanings. These contrasts between Greek and Islamic thinkers can be easily seen on the annotations present at many of the translations in Arabic.

"Anatomy of the Eye", by Al-Mutadibih (1200 C.E.)
Some of the most important scientific works, like Galen's books on Medicine, are translated immediately in the 8th century, with many insightful comments added by the translators. This is known as the "translation movement", and is of crucial importance for the Arabs to develop a whole new vocabulary of medical terms that they previously didn't have, many times adapting from the original Greek word, but also creating completely new terms with Arabic roots. And, the comments added show that the knowledge was not only being transmitted, but, almost at the same time, was experiencing new developments. So much so, that Arabic medicine during the Middle Ages was even recognized by the Western thinkers, and the presence of Arabic physicians in European courts was not uncommon. And to add to this, the development of medicine in the West was incredibly slower, when compared to the Arabs - one of the most common "treatments" for many common (but eventually mortal) diseases, like fevers, was the use of blood leeches. This pales in contrast to the fact that, as soon as the 13th century, it was possible to get your cataracts cured in the Muslim world, with a "simple" surgery.

And it is not only Medicine which captures the interest of the Islamic thinkers: Astronomy and Mathematics, both of them have a pivotal role in Islamic society. And all of them have obvious reasons which explain their interest: Astronomy is fundamental for a society which has a lunar calendar, and has to know the exact position of the Sun at least five times a day, for the realization of the prayer; Mathematics is crucial in a world where the central place is hold by the Merchant, having to know the percentage of the loans, the proper amount of money available, among other things. So, the need of something is the driving force behind it's development, and that is what we can clearly see in the Medieval Islamic world. Astrology was also important in this society, but it was as much a Persian heritage as it was Greek.

The name of the Prophet Muhammad in Calligraphy. This
form of Art was developed due to the Islamic restriction on
any human representation.

It is important to take note, however, that not all the aspects of Greek culture were inherited by the Arabs. Such examples are Literature and Art. While types of literature like Epic poems or Tragedies were the most common among the Greeks, these were almost totally ignored by Arab writers. They would write their own Epic texts, but in contexts which had nothing to due with their Greek counterparts. And in terms of Art, the Arabs gave a great deal of attention to smaller details, while developing forms of Art that never had any prominence in Greek society, like Calligraphy. The attention to human anatomy would be ignored by Muslim artists, to the point of prohibiting any anthropomorphic representation of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad.

So, in conclusion, and although there is much more to explore around the subject of this text, we can see that Medieval Islam not only recovered much of the Ancient Classical heritage, but also developed it, through the hands of great thinkers like Ibn al-Haytham, al-Biruni or Ibn Sina. During the Abbassid Caliphate, with its center of power in Baghdad, the mythical Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom (though its existence is subject to much debate) stood as a shining example of Science, Culture and the Arts. It was not until the Renaissance that Europe started rivaling with the Muslim world, and it was only centuries later that it was able to clearly surpass it.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Back [to Black]

After more than three months without updating the blog, it is time for me to get back to work. Hope you had a nice time, or even better, if it's your case, vacations! Sad things happened during this time, but life goes on. I updated the look of the blog, to something more artistic, and I already have something in mind for my next article, which I will post in the next couple of days.

Stay tuned!