TOM #6

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the  Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition. 



Who can remember Silkworms?



As junior school kids, our year was demarcated by non-curriculum playground activities that included ‘spinning top’ season, marble season, yo-yo season and silkworm season.  Tops, marbles and yo-yos could be played anytime of the year but silkworms arrived at a fixed time in spring [September in the Southern Hemisphere] when the mulberries trees could provide them with new leaves to eat.

Someone would arrive at school with a shoebox full of tiny black silkworms that had hatched from the eggs laid a year before.  [It appears that a year interval for eggs to hatch is a South African phenomenon.  I see that hatching in other places can be as quick as 2 weeks to 6 months]  Anyone who could find a suitable receptacle would transfer a dozen or two little worms onto a bed of mulberry leaves and head home with his or her own silk production unit!  At first new leaves were placed daily over the feeding worms, as it was very difficult to separate the little worms from the previous layer of shredded leaves and clean the box.  When the worms fattened up, they could be handled and moved onto fresh leaves in a second feeding box, making it easier to clean box no.1!

Watching a worm eating was a fascinating pastime.  It would start on the edge of a leaf and nibble downwards, scooping out a neat curve.  Then it would repeat the action from the top of the curve and chomp off another sliver to enlarge the scoop shape.  I often wished that I could magnify that sound to hear the munching and crunching of a silkworm decimating a mulberry leaf.  I am sure it would sound like a bulldozer ploughing through a forest. 



Keeping the feeding box clean was important as one had to watch to see when a worm was ready to spin.  If left alone, the worm would move into a corner and fix anchoring points around itself with a series of silk threads that it draws from it’s mouth onto the box sides.  Once it has totally wrapped itself up inside a silk cocoon, the miracle of metamorphosis takes place and the worm changes into a pupa, and eventually into a moth.



Of course, we did not leave the worm to enclose itself in its silken hideaway, but put it to work to  spin flat silk shapes for us.  We cut out hearts, diamonds, triangles, circles or squares from thin stiff cardboard and glued these onto the top of a bottle.  The spinning worm was placed onto this platform and it set about trying to escape over the edge and when that was not possible, it released its silk in straight lines from edge to edge of the shape.




As the worm used up its silk supply, it began to shrink in length and turn brown.  It was changing into a pupa and needed to be protected as it did not have a cocoon surrounding it.  We normally ‘buried’ this strange little blob in a layer of cake flour where it continued to change into a furry white moth.  The moths were then put into a clean shoebox where they mated and the females laid tiny sticky yellow eggs.  Having done this, their cycle of life was completed and they all died leaving behind hundreds of eggs stuck all over the sides of the box, ready to hatch in a year’s time for the next ‘silkworm season’.



 This is a silk disc spun on a circular cardboard cutout.  It is being held in front of mulberry leaves.


The silk industry started in China and as its products became known for their value and marketability in the west, a trade route developed.


Silk Road

The Silk Road was the name given by 19th century scholars to the network of trade routes that stretched from Europe, across the Asian continent to China.

Trading along these routes go back to the 2nd century BCE.  Although Chinese silk was undoubtedly the primary item traded, it was not the only goods being transported.  Besides tangible commodities like spices, precious stones and metals moving along the routes, technology, religion and diseases also formed part of the traffic.  It has been suggested that the Black Plague arrived in Europe from China in the 14th century, having travelled along this route.

Traders utilizing the Silk Road included the Chinese, Romans, Arabs, Greeks, Indians, Turks and Persians to name a few.

Primitive tribal societies living along the Silk Road were attracted by the wealth and abundance passing their front doors.  Small wonder that many of them resorted to becoming bandits and robbers, relieving the caravans of their merchandise.  The Mongolians and the Romans deployed mounted soldiers along the route to protect their commercial interests.

A maritime Silk Route opened up between Roman controlled Egyptian ports on the Red Sea, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka to Vietnam and eventually China itself by the 1st century.  Pirates constantly targeted the 120 ships setting sail every year from these Roman Egyptian ports to India.

After the fall of the Mongolian Empire, the great political powers along the Silk Route became economically and culturally separated.  The Roman Empire, and its demand for Asian products, crumbled in the West around the 5th century.  It is interesting to note that by this time, two monks by the orders of Emperor Justinian, had travelled to China and stolen silkworm eggs.  They set up a silk production in the Mediterranean, but never achieved the quality of Chinese silk.

The Silk Road stopped serving as a route for silk in about 1453 as the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople embargoed all trade with the west, effectively slamming shut the door through which the last of the silk products trickled.

It is no accident that 35 years later the ocean route from Europe to the East was discovered by the expeditions of Bartholomew Dias [1488] and Vasco da Gama [1497 – 1499], around Africa, via the Atlantic and Indian oceans, effectively eliminating the need for an overland silk trade route.

VascoDaGamaShip A Portuguese Caravel sailing around Africa, heading for India may have looked like this.



And now Monsters 4 Monsters #3!

This is a combination Tyrannosaurus Rex and a smelly skunk with a very venomous viper for a tail. 




Any young men [or young ladies] out there with vivid monstrous imaginations are invited to create a monster by describing it in a mail to me and I will make a picture of it for this Monsters 4 Monsters corner.

Remember:  Monsters 4 Monsters appear in every even numbered post.

This is TOM #6 so the next one will be found in TOM #8.  It will be numbered M4M #4.

That’s it till next time.  Leave a comment if you feel like it – I’d love to hear what you think!







TOM #5

In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition


trump cloud

Donald Trump is not the first man in history to build a strategic wall right across his country.


The best example of such a mammoth task is of course the Great Wall of China.  In the book: ‘The Other Marco’, TOM visits a section of the wall near the Yellow River.  He is naturally over awed by its size and being told that the wall stretches right across the country.

 Building the Great Wall of China

          Shih-haung-ti, the first Emperor of China started the great wall in 221BCE to stop the invading Turco-Mongolian hordes that inhabited the north-western steppes.  Containing these mounted warriors that had united under the Hsiung-nu or Hun tribesmen was extremely difficult, as they had no permanent cities or towns that could be counter-attacked. They moved from place to place where they found water and grass and could swiftly retreat over the wide Mongolian plain after each successful raid.  At best the Wall helped to kept the Huns out, but when the Ch’in dynasty collapsed in 206BCE they once more raided down to the Yellow River plains and established the Hun dynasty of Emperor Wu-ti.


The utility of the Great Wall as a means of defense has often been seriously questioned.  In spite of its shortcomings, one has to marvel at the logistics in creating and managing this staggering project.

          Emperor Shih-haung-ti sent General Meng-T’ien with an army of 300,000 laborers, plus many more convicts and political prisoners to rebuild and strengthen earlier fortifications.  The Wall reportedly had 25,000 watchtowers within signaling distance of one another, each capable of accommodating 100 men.  The Wall filled the gaps between these watchtowers.

 It is said that the only man-made object that can be seen on earth from the moon is the Great Wall of China.  During the Ming Dynasty [approx. 16th century] the wall was 5500 miles long [8852 kms]


 The only other cross country barricade I was aware of was Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, built by the Romans in the year 122 CE.  Researching these projects I was amazed to find  two more ‘walls’ mentioned in this category that I had never heard of.

Barely 160kms further north from Hadrian’s wall, another fortified barrier was constructed by the Romans 20 years later and became known as the Antonine Wall.  It stretched from Edinburgh [Firth of Forth] to Glasgow [Firth of Clyde].  Live and learn!

  Then the biggest surprise was the revelation of a Benin Wall that claims to have been 4 times longer than the Chinese Great Wall!  Benin is in Nigeria and this earthen wall totaled an incredible 16,000kms long!


It is not a single barrier stretching that distance across the landscape, but a walled maze of interlocking squares and rectangles over a 6500sqkm area!  I checked my reference to see if the Great Wall of China was indeed a quarter of 16000 i.e. 4000kms long.  Confirming that the existing Chinese GW at 8852kms was shorter [but not 4 times] than the Benin wall, I was in for another surprise.  The 8852km is the total defensive length not the actual wall length.  One has to subtract 2232kms where natural obstructions like rivers and mountains exist and a further 360kms of trenches.  We are now moving toward the 4:1 ratio, but not quite.  The actual standing wall is therefore 6260kms long making it 2.5:1.

 I concede that the supporters of the Benin wall must make attention grabbing claims, but asserting that it was 4 times longer than its Chinese counter-part, smacks of deception!

One can take this ‘mine is longer than yours’ claim further by comparing apples with apples.    The Benin wall was destroyed by the British and very little of it exists any longer.  Archaeological surveys in China have uncovered ancient Great Wall foundations where the wall no longer exist either, and have come up with a total distance of 21,197kms!  Let’s deduct the mountains, rivers and trenches from this figure and we arrive at the sum of the existing walls + foundations of walls no longer standing, to give us 18,606kms.  The Great Wall is therefore 2606kms longer than the Benin wall.

If anyone would like you check my figures, I would appreciate it, as I was not the brightest button in the Arithmetic class.

While we are talking about walls, let’s have a quick peek at walled cities.

The concept of building a surrounding defensive wall to protect a city or town from potential aggressors is not new.  Walled cities and fortresses, some dating back as far back as 3500 BCE and before that, are dotted all over the world.  The ancient cities of Uruk in Mesopotamia, Jericho and Babylon existed behind massive walls. So did Mundigak [2500 BCE] in Afghanistan.

Take a look on Google Images at:  The Walls of the Ark of Bukara.

                                                 The Derawar fort in Bahawlpur, Pakistan.

                                                 The walled city of Avila, Spain.

 I have chosen these three cities at random, but there are many more examples of defensive walls around the world.   One cannot help being impressed by the engineering skills and sheer effort that was expended in creating these monuments to man’s ingenuity.  Of course, the primary reason behind building walls was not only to show off man’s inventiveness, but fear!  The bigger the threat, the bigger the fear and hence, the bigger the wall.

It is interesting to note that Venice, where ‘The Other Marco story’ starts, could not build defensive walls on the soft marshes.  They depended on their water barrier to protect them, but did build-up an effective fleet of warships as a mobile defensive wall, and to look after their commercial interests on the surrounding Adriatic and Mediterranean seas.


My apology

Sorry about this posting being 4 weeks overdue.  I could give you a string of excuses to justify my tardiness, but I won’t!  Suffice it to say that I dropped one of the balls I was juggling, and had to  ask young Jason to pick it up and get me started all over again.  Thanks Jason.

Would also like to thank Trevor for sorting out the ‘comments section’ so that the text no longer sits on top of each other.

  As this is TOM #5, the monsters will be back in #6.  [Remember, even numbered postings for dragons!]  The title of the #6 dragon is: The Rex T Skunk with the serpentile tail.  In less than two weeks – promise!



All good things come to an end, including the Great wall of China – into the ocean!