Thursday, April 30, 2020

1580 – Taqi al-Din Arrives in Marrakesh

After decades of a life dedicated to science, Taqi al-Din found his career derailed by politics. He had studied endlessly in Syria and Egypt, collecting friendships with others who were interested in natural philosophy. These relationships gave him access to some of the leading private libraries in the world as scholars shared with one another and brought Taqi al-Din into a rapport of the governor of Egypt Samiz al Pasha, whose clock collection was a marvel of advanced mechanics. In 1570, 44-year-old Taqi al-Din arrived in Istanbul with enough clout that, following death of the head Ottoman astronomer the next year, Taqi al-Din became the empire’s official timekeeper and recorder of astronomical observations.

Taqi al-Din dedicated his work to improving observations he had made in Egypt and drafting new records using the towers of Istanbul. The physical limitations prompted him to appeal to the court for a new observatory. It was completed in 1579 and became the greatest center for astronomical research in the world, but imperial edict ordered it demolished just a few months later in 1580. Historians disagree on the reason with some pointing to Taqi al-Din falling out of favor after stating that the Comet of 1577 was to be a sign of great success for the empire when the year proved one of bitter plague. Others suggested the tower was seen as a decadent waste while military spending needed to be kept high. Still others say that religious leaders pressured the sultan to put Taqi al-Din on trial for heresy and cutting back the astronomer’s efforts was a way to spare his life.

Whatever the reason, Taqi al-Din felt that his life in Istanbul had ended and sought a new life at another court: that of Ahmad al-Mansur in Morocco. Ahmad al-Mansur had traveled a good deal as a young man avoiding his older brother to ensure he could not be seen as a threat to be removed. While in the protective Ottoman Empire, Ahmad al-Mansur studied voraciously, consuming every subject scholars could teach him. In 1578, Ahmad al-Mansur’s brother died while defeating the Portuguese at the Battle of Alacer Quibir. Ahmad al-Mansur arrived as the new sultan and established himself by taking an aggressive stance against Portugal on ransoms for prisoners from their defeat. Flush with gold, Ahmad al-Mansur began construction projects such as the El Badi Palace and deepened a military alliance with England, exchanging valuable saltpeter for naval-grade timber.

Ahmad al-Mansur welcomed Taqi al-Din, although he was slow to set him to astronomical work that might be seen as thieving from the Ottomans. The Saadi dynasty in the west had maintained independence by careful diplomacy, and Morocco was hardly in a military position to face invaders from the east with Spain and Portugal just on the north side of Gibraltar. Instead, Ahmad al-Mansur turned Taqi al-Din to some of his earlier work with mechanics, specifically the movement of water for irrigation in the dry nation. Soon Moroccans began drilling wells and raising water from unheard of depths, expanding farmland and flocks to great wealth.

Taqi al-Din also furthered his research on self-moving machines. In Egypt in 1551, he had designed a spit that rotated itself using steam from the fire below. After further years of studying steam pressure, he created a specialized solar-driven furnace that could turn seawater into steam to push a ship in the notoriously windless doldrums and horse latitudes. Ahmad al-Mansur kept the device a military secret, and Moroccan ships became feared for their uncanny speed. They outpaced the Portuguese merchants so regularly that rumors began to spread of captured djinn being somehow driving the ships. Superstition and sheer velocity devastated the Portuguese trade with India, which ultimately became a monopoly for Morocco and its allies in England.

With his country’s wealth blossoming, Ahmad al-Mansur worked to expand his rule. In 1590, his forces marched into the divided Songhai Empire south of the Sahara, seizing powerful centers of trade like Timbuktu and Gao. The enormous distance across difficult terrain caused new problems for Saadi rule, and Ahmad al-Mansur set Taqi al-Din to task resolving it. His solution was to construct and maintain a smooth roadway that could support wheeled vehicles rather than the journey being limited to camel caravans. The work fascinated him with self-propelled vehicles, drawing him back to steam-driven engines powered by water pulled from deeply drilled wells. Many of his designs would be put into action after his death in 1601.

Ahmad al-Mansur sought new mechanically-minded individuals for his court, famously bribing Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont to leave Spain after being granted a patent by the crown for his steam-powered water pumps in 1606. The Spaniard applied his steam-powered water pumps to work in the burgeoning iron and coal mines in Morocco and the expanded gold mines along the Niger River. Shortly before Ahmad al-Mansur’s passing in 1616, Italian Giovanni Branca arrived with a notebook of potential mechanical devices automating numerous tasks and was awarded a role that would lead to Morocco’s position as the leader of manufacturing in the world.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Morocco would be one of the leading powers of the world. Ahmad al-Mansur’s descendants made real his dream of Muslim colonies in the Americas by seizing Brazil and much of South America east of the Andes from Portugal and, later, Spain. Moroccan trade eastward blocked the efforts of Christian settlements in Africa and India, both of which adopted Islam in urban centers. The Moroccan-English Alliance supported the growth of Islam in England, leading to the chaos of the Religious Wars well into the eighteenth century. Although its empire has broken into more of an economic commonwealth today, Morocco continues to serve as the technological research center of the world, dispatching aid to less advanced northerly nations.


In reality, Taqi al-Din continued life in Istanbul, where he passed away in 1585. Ahmad al-Mansur died in 1603 from plague, and the kingdom fell into two decades of civil war among his sons.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Guest Post: 8 February, 1943 - Madame Kollontai recalled to Moscow

This story originally appeared on Today in Alternate History.

"The fear that Moscow and Berlin might again come to terms preoccupied American and British statesman long after Hitler had forced the unwilling Stalin to join the Allied coalition." ~ Stalin and the Prospects of a Separate Peace in World War II by Vojtech Mastny (1972)

In 1930, the aristocratic daughter of a Tsarist general, Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai, had been an unusual choice to head the Soviet legation to Sweden. Nevertheless, over the following thirteen turbulent years, she had achieved much to ensure Swedish neutrality and was even considered for promotion to ambassador. However, at seventy years of age, her health was rapidly failing, and she was forced to check into a sanatorium. She then returned to Moscow during late February 1943. Her remarkable contribution to the Revolution was praised by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov.

Socialist Convention, 1910
Mikhailovna had been a long-term compatriot of Rosa Luxemberg, a leading Polish-born communist who was brutally murdered by German right-wing elements during the Spartacist uprising twenty-five years earlier. Given the circumstances of this atrocity, she nurtured a deep-seated hatred of the Nazis that made her totally the wrong person to open peace feelers.

But with her colourful presence suddenly removed from the scene, Hans Thomsen, the German diplomat in Stockholm, sensed a stronger appetite for compromise in the new Soviet legation. With the annihilation of German forces at Stalingrad, the power between the two belligerents had temporarily reached a moment of balance. None of these developments would have changed calculations in Berlin because of the planned offensive to launch Operation Citadel. However, the prospect of peace certainly did appear to change the assessment of officers in the Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front. Consequently from Thomsen's reported encouragement, Hitler (and also Himmler to avoid a civil war breaking out between the Wehrmacht and the SS) were assassinated on the orders of Major Georg von Boeselager during a visit to the headquarters in Smolensk on 13 March.

The new Fuhrer Hermann Göring, having been a member of the Nazi Party since 1922, was no more likely to be accepted by the Allies than Hitler's former deputy Rudolf Hess. However, there were valid reasons for Stalin to show a great deal more trust in Göring than Hitler. A veteran World War I fighter pilot ace, Göring was a recipient of the "The Blue Max" and also the last commander of Jagdgeschwader 1, the fighter wing once led by Manfred von Richthofen. In short, his military judgement was far more sound, and Stalin did not so much as trust Göring on a personal level rather to be convinced that he and the Germany military leadership were committed to peace given their action in assassinating Hitler. Ultimately, Stalin believed that Göring, had he been in charge of the Third Reich two years earlier, would not have launched Operation Barbarossa and was, after all, willing to cancel Operation Citadel. Göring and Stalin were able to negotiate a separate peace. Göring, privately, realised that the German army was lacking experienced soldiers and, even equipped with the new models of tanks, were unlikely to triumph, which contributed to his friendliness with a strong enemy.
Operation Citadel was cancelled, but so too was the flow of Allied supplies to the Soviet Union as the separate peace deal caused an anti-red backlash in the West. With a presidential election looming in the United States, and Franklin D. Roosevelt himself in declining health, time was of the essence as far as the Western Allies were concerned. As a demagogue playing the long-game, Stalin might have been prepared to cede territory, at least for the time being, but the elected democracies in the West were never going to agree to anything short of unconditional surrender. Instead, the Western Allies remained stubborn even though the end of hostilities on the Eastern Front enabled Göring to reinforce the Atlantic defences

The Wehrmacht gained a full year equipping troops with brand new equipment that had time to fully work out the bugs from the Panzer and Tiger tanks and the new semi-automatic carbines. They also gained the resources necessary to improve their surface-to-air missile program that used homing missiles against bomber formations. Nevertheless, within twelve months, Allied forces had landed in Normandy and the Third Reich was doomed by the overwhelming military power of the West. It was now Stalin's turn to abrogate a peace deal, but his Red Army was equipped with American vehicles and no spare parts.

It was re-election year in the United States, and with the strong possibility of a Republican isolationist being voted into office, there was hesitation to restart the Lend-Lease programme. Stalin watched in powerless horror as a tank carrying General Patton entered Berlin in triumph.

Author's Note:

In reality, Madame Kollontai remained in Stockholm and her diplomatic initiatives with Thomsen are disputed. Mastny later blamed Kollontai for the failure of the talks.
Provine's Addendum:FDR narrowly won his fourth term in office through vigorous campaigning that seemed designed to show he was in full health. Most of his energy was devoted to distancing himself from Stalin, while the Republicans lambasted his previous outreach to the Soviet Union. Despite the show, or perhaps because of it, Roosevelt was exhausted and passed away in April of 1945, never seeing the end of the wars he worked to win. Truman received the mantle and continued the fight with Allied soldiers slogging away both in Europe and the Pacific. Germany was the foremost opponent, whom Allies attacked through Churchill's preferred "soft underbelly of Europe," encouraging local resistance to frustrate German defenses as much as possible on the long road to liberation. Berlin finally fell in winter of 1945 with another coup fueled by starving civilians breaking the Nazi grip. In 1946, Japan fell after the fourth use of atomic weapons when a counter-coup wrested control from the Kyujo militarists who had seized what was left of the government after the destruction of Tokyo to drive the islands to fight to the last man.The war ended, but occupation and rebuilding was a long process. War-weary citizens voted out Churchill and Truman, but the driving anti-red sentiments continued conflicts to stamp out their influence, such as American aid in Kai-shek's elimination of Mao in China. The Soviet Union became isolated, and efforts to push for an expansion of influence in Eastern Europe ended with severe crackdowns by allies of the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization. As communist ideals crept up in revolutionaries in South America and Africa, NATO extended its reach to become the World Treaty Organization. Driven by trade agreements and international military action to keep friendly governments in power, many see the WTO as a biblical new world order holding egregious power with little concern for means of maintaining that power. Not that anyone would dare say such a thing too loudly.

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