The ‘Christopher Columbus Of China’ May Have Visited Kenya, A New Find Reveals

Kenya
An explorer from medieval China may have visited an island off the coast of Kenya, archaeologists say.

A joint expedition by The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago unearthed a 15th-century Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda, according to a Field Museum press release. Starting around 200 A.D., Manda was a trading hub and home to an advanced civilization.

The coin, shown here, is an alloy of copper and silver and was issued by the Ming Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425 A.D. The coin bears the emperor’s name.

Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, on an epic mission of exploration to find new trading partners. He traveled around the coasts of south and southeast Asia, east Africa as far north as Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. “This finding is significant. We know Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, but this coin opens a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations.”

Sadly, later Chinese rulers took a more insular policy and banned foreign expeditions. If they had continued Yongle’s work, the great Age of Exploration may have been more Chinese than European. Manda was mysteriously abandoned around 1430, shortly after Emperor Yongle’s death.

Chinese contact with east Africa has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Back in 2010, we reported that a DNA study found genetic links between China and Africa.

While the focus has been on Kenya, researchers might want to take a look at the city of Harar in Ethiopia, which has been a trading center for centuries. Some Hararis have vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. When I was doing research there some Hararis told me that the city used to trade with China many centuries ago.

In the nearby early medieval settlement of Harla, which may have been the predecessor to Harar, farmers have uncovered two Chinese coins dated to 1040 and 1080 A.D.

[Photo courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum]

Americans still don’t like dollar coins

dollar coinsAccording to an NPR story this week, the Federal Reserve is sitting on a billion dollars worth of the $1 Sacagawean and Presidential coins, and the program to replace dollar bills with the metal coins has largely been deemed a failure. The government spends millions annually to mint new coins in order to introduce all the US presidents, resulting in millions languishing in vaults a la “Scrooge McDuck” said Planet Money’s David Kestenbaum. Despite the fact that they are legal tender and the government’s many efforts to promote their use, Americans still distrust the dollar coin.

Why the reason for the distrust? Americans claim they are difficult to spend, not recognized by many merchants, or just weigh down pockets too much. Perhaps we should ask our foreign neighbors how they have integrated them into daily life. America is one of the few countries in the developed world to use a $1 banknote and the only one of the top five traded currencies (including the Euro, British Pound, Japanese Yen, and Australian dollars) to use a bill in such a small denomination. Canada replaced the dollar bill with the “loonie” coin in 1987 and the British pound note has been out of circulation since 1983. Is taking away the $1 bill the only way to get Americans to use the coin? We reported earlier this year on a possible way to earn frequent flyer miles by purchasing dollar coins, a legal (but not encouraged by the US Mint) practice that may actually contribute to this back log of currency. Maybe go out and spend the coins instead and hope the trend catches on.

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Photo courtesy Flickr user cometstarmoon. Hat tip to Honza Kerver for the NPR story link.

Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Ethiopia, ethiopia, Harar, hararWhat makes an adventure traveler return to a place he’s been before? When so many other destinations beckon, why spend two months in a town you’ve already seen?

Because there’s so much more to see. Harar, in eastern Ethiopia between the lush central highlands and the Somali desert, can take a lifetime to understand. For a thousand years it’s been a crossroads of cultures, where caravans from the Red Sea met Central African merchants, where scholars and poets have traded ideas, where a dozen languages are heard in the streets.

Harar’s influence spread wide in those early days. Harari coins have been found in India and China, and a couple of my Harari friends have subtly Chinese features.

The Harari have always mixed with other tribes. Some say if you live within the medieval walls of the Jugol, the old city, and follow Harari ways, that you are one of them. Hararis have their own language spoken only by the Jugol’s 20,000 residents, yet this language has created literature, poetry, and song for centuries. As Harar faces the new millennium, a dedicated group of artists and intellectuals are working to preserve and add to this heritage.

But this is no Oxford, no Western-style center of learning. Harar is different. The day starts at dawn with the muezzin’s call to prayer. Hararis are moderate Sunnis with a broad streak of Sufi mysticism. There are more than 90 mosques hidden in the labyrinthine alleyways of the Jugol, and more than 300 shrines to saints. Harar is considered the fourth holiest city of Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.

The morning is a busy time. Oromo farmers from the surrounding countryside fill the markets with their produce. Camels and donkeys jostle each other in the narrow streets. Kids go off to school. Offices and shops fill up. As the sun reaches its zenith and presses down on the city, people retreat to the cool interiors of their whitewashed houses with bundles of qat under their arm. Groups of friends chew this narcotic leaf during the hot hours of the day. As the buzz sets in, people relax and engage in long, animated conversations that after a time lapse into quiet reflection. One man will go off into a corner to write the lyrics to a song, while another will set to work on a Harari dictionary. Others will remain together, sharing stories about Harar. The afternoon and evening are spent in studious concentration, the main benefit of the so-called Leaves of Paradise.

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%Gallery-91809%Night falls and people still work. Ethiopia is a developing country and want is never far away, so everyone puts in long hours. As the final evening call to prayer echoes away, the Hararis set down to eat or chat in cafes over a cup of the region’s coffee (considered by many the best in the world) or retire to a shrine to perform all-night ceremonies of ecstatic chanting.

Then Harar’s other residents appear. Packs of hyenas gather at the edge of town, waiting for the humans to go to sleep so they can prowl the streets, eating the garbage or scraps left out for them. The Hararis consider the hyenas neighbors and they share an uneasy but close relationship. The Jugol walls even have low doorways to allow them to pass. Hyenas are magical beings, able to take the djinn, spirits, out of the city. Some say they’re djinn themselves, or blacksmiths turned into animal form. Sometimes as you walk home along a moonlit alley one will pass by, its bristly fur brushing against your leg.

I’m spending the next two months living here. This is a journey measured not in miles traveled but by people befriended and knowledge gained. I’ll sit with Harar’s great scholars and artists to learn about the heritage of this unique city, and I’ll meet the regular people–the Oromo farmers and Harari shopkeepers, the Tigrinya university students and Somali refugees. I’ll watch traditional blacksmiths working the way their ancestors did, and women weaving the colorful baskets that adorn every Harari home.

As a former archaeologist, there are some mysteries I want to explore. I’ll visit the ruins of Harla, said to be the predecessor to Harar, and investigate the prehistoric cave paintings at Kundudo, the region’s sacred mountain. I’ll descend into the Somali desert to visit Chinhahsan, where the 16th century conqueror Ahmad The Left-Handed is rumored to have had the capital of his vast but brief empire. Among the ruined castle and crumbling city walls I’ll look for the truth behind the legend.

I’ll also venture further afield, taking in the sights of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s bustling capital. If I can assemble the right team, I’ll lead an expedition to Maqdala, a mountaintop fortress deep in the Ethiopian wilderness where the mad Emperor Tewodros defied the British Empire. I might even return to Somaliland.

There’s another reason I want to see Harar again–to catch a feeling that comes only once every few trips. Sometimes you’ll come to a spot where everything falls into place. The person you need to see appears just at the right time, the bit of information you’re searching for comes from an unexpected source, the mood is serene and the hospitality never ends. I’ve had that a few times before, like at Kumbh Mela, a giant Hindu pilgrimage that attracted 20 million people, but this feeling of everyone getting along despite their differences, everyone striving forward despite their lack of material resources, that’s a rare thing to experience.

So I’m going back.

This is the first of a series titled Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints. Join me as I discover more about this fascinating culture. A word of warning: the entire country is on dialup and there are frequent power cuts. I’ll try to post at least twice a week but please be patient! To be sure you don’t miss an installment, subscribe to my Gadling feed and in the meantime check out last year’s Ethiopia travel series.

For some views of my temporary home, see this video of a day in the life of Harar.

Seven things to do with your unused foreign currency

Despite only taking out as much as money from the ATM as you thought you’d need each day, you somehow managed to come in under budget. Now what do you do with this extra foreign currency you’ve got burning a hole through your picket? You could convert it back to your home currency, getting hit with exchange fees again, or you could try one of these seven options.

Save it for next time.

If the currency in question is Euros, it may make more sense to just save the bills for your next trip to Europe. By the time you convert the money back into dollars (or whatever your home currency is), the amount you lose to fees may not make it financially worthwhile, even if the exchange rate eventually changes in your favor. Obviously, with more exotic currencies, this isn’t a good option. Who knows when you’ll be able to return to Uruguay.

Sell it to another traveler.
If you know of another traveler heading to the destination soon, you can offer to sell them your leftover currency. Offer then a rate that is lower than what they pay at the bank or once they arrive in country, but higher than what you would make selling the currency back for dollars. In this way, you both win.Donate it.
You were going to spend it anyways right? Why not give it to a worthy cause? At a few airports, I have seen donation boxes out near the security line. Throw your spare change in here and you may help improve life for someone in that country. You could also convert it and donate the changed bills to a charity at home.

Display it.
I’m fascinated by foreign currency. I always keep one or two of the most interesting or colorful bills and coins from every country I visit. I keep them in a glass jar on my mantel, as both a unique decoration and a subtle reminder of the places I have been.

Spend it on airport souvenirs. …
After arriving at the airport and realizing that (after we took out the money we wanted to keep and take home to display) we still had close to 100 South African Rand (a little more than $10) my husband and I decided to blow it on souvenirs. Since we had some time to kill, we each took 50 Rand and set out to spend as much of the money as we could on last-minute airport souvenir tchotchkes. We had a fun time and came away with a few silly mementos of our trip that we otherwise would not have bought.

Or be a big spender at the airport
I hate spending money at the airport. After spending money throughout my trip, I hate the idea of dumping more money right before I head home. But, when I have some leftover currency to get rid of, it doesn’t seem as annoying. Use the opportunity to get rid of the cash in style. Treat yourself to a a few glasses of quality wine at the airport bar, opt for the more expensive entree, or spring for one of the massages offered in your terminal. It doesn’t make sense to be wasteful of course, but sometimes it is fun to enjoy the little extras that you normally wouldn’t.

Add it to your travel fund.
If you do plan on changing the money back into your home currency, don’t just use the money for groceries or bus fare. Put into a special fund earmarked for travel and contribute to it every time you come home from a trip. After a few trips, you may not have enough to cover a plane ticket, but you might have amassed enough cash to cover a few splurges on your next trip.

Going to the UK? Check your change

If you’re planning a holiday in the United Kingdom this year, check your coins. The Royal Mint at Llantrisant in Wales churned out tens of thousands of 20 pence coins with no date on them, the BBC reported. The mix up happened because on the new design for the 20p coin the date was switched from the tails to the heads, but when the coins were made, the mint used the new tails die and the old heads one.

So what? Well, here’s the kicker–coin collectors say they could be worth £50 ($83) each. This is because such slips are rare and no British coin has been issued without a date for more than three hundred years.

The mint estimates that between 50,000 and 200,000 coins were put into circulation, which means that not only are they lousy at quality control, but they don’t keep track of distribution either.