Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Unusual Tomb of Chiltan Mountain

A 12th century Koran on display in the British Museum. "IslamicGalleryBritishMuseum3" by LordHarris - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

A 12th century Koran on display in the British Museum. “IslamicGalleryBritishMuseum3” by LordHarris – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

A lone prayer, lilting and melodic, dances on the arid wind. The sound wraps Chiltan Mountain near Quetta, Pakistan. The baritone praise and wishes bounces through the 30 caves. It caresses those that forever rest, shrouded, silent and forgotten.  The holy mountain tomb offers forgiveness from sins for those who care for it.

The tomb contains no skeletons of bone.  These skeletons are of ink, paper, and parchment.

The written word is sacred to the people of the book: Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Like the Torah, the Koran is too sacred to throw away. Allah’s book is a part of his personality. But what to do when a Torah or Koran is overused? What do you do when the binding no longer holds?

You have a funeral.

The Koran is considered too sacred for anything but a formal burial.

Chiltan Mountain became a tomb of these well loved books. After some 30 years of digging through the mountain’s caves, about 50,000 Koran’s have been found. The books molder in their white shrouds, still out lasting the people that laid them to rest.  Some of the pages discovered date to the first 200 years of Islam. Many of these pages contained text that is accepted as the standard version of the Koran today. The mountain is a gold mine for archeology and scholars interested in how the Korans text became standardized.

Other book tombs have been found. Although none have matched the number of books buried int the Chiltan Mountain. In 1972, laborers working on the Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen found a room long forgotten. In the room, were piles of damaged books and pages of Arabic text.  The room contained nearly one thousand different books of the Koran. Some of these texts also dated to the dawn of Islam.

In 1890, a Jewish book tomb was also found. Unlike the Chiltan Mountain and the Great Mosque, this tomb contained children’s books, poems, biblical texts, letters, bills, lists, calendars, medical texts, and Arabic texts.

Both Jews and Muslims believe in the importance of the written word. Muslims focus on the Koran. Jews venerate the written word in general. As the rabbi Solomon Schechter states:

When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of sight to protect it from abuse. In like manner, when the writing is worn out, we hide the book to preserve it from profanation. The contents of the book go up to heaven like the soul.

Chiltan Mountain, unlike our Western cemeteries, sees frequent visitors. People visit the mountain to pray among the thousands of Korans that are laid to rest. At the base of the mountain, a more traditional cemetery stands. People wanted to be buried as close to their beloved book as they could be.  Mountains have a long history in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic belief. It brought the person closer to God and lifted them away from the concerns of society below. What more fitting place to lay a Holy Book to its final rest? What better place than to be suspended between earth and heaven, just as the message contained in its pages is suspended between earth and heaven.



Battles, M (2003). Library: An Unquiet History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Lester, T. (1999). What is the Koran? (Cover story). Atlantic, 283(1), 43.

Tasgola Karla, B. (n.d). Mountain full of Qur’ans becomes holy site. Toronto Star (Canada).


A Blasphemous Invention–Religious Objections to Ben Franklin’s Lightning Rod

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky c. 1816 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Benjamin West

Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky c. 1816 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, by Benjamin West

The march of science has been a long and arduous one. Over the last 5,000 years since the dawn of history, and for generations before that since lost to time, humans gradually learned the inner workings of the natural world around them. Phenomena once explained by the actions of gods and demons can now be explained in rational terms by scientists.

Of course, this process has never been a smooth one. When the findings of science contradict what people would like to believe about the world, there is naturally resistance. One of the most famous instances of such resistance was the slow adoption of the current model of the solar system with the sun at its center. For centuries, people relied on the Ptolemaic model to explain the movement of the celestial spheres; partially because it worked, and partially because it was the view sanctioned by the powers that be, most notably the Catholic Church. Only after the passage of time, when better technology led to better data that showed unequivocally that the solar model was superior, did the new system gain wide acceptance.

A similar clash between scientific thought and religious dogma occurred in the late 18th century, involving none other than Ben Franklin. Scientist, inventor, and diplomat, Franklin was a child of the Enlightenment who used his curiosity and ingenuity to produce inventions that he believed would be helpful to humanity. Primary among his many contributions to science was his work with electricity, especially the famous experiment we all hear about as kids involving a key, a kite, and a thunderstorm. Franklin’s studies of the strange phenomena of lightning led him to produce the humble lightning rod, a design feature so ubiquitous in today’s world that modern people rarely give it any thought. In Franklin’s day, however, such a device was a revolution. It finally gave people a way to protect themselves against lightning, a frightening and deadly phenomena. Of course, not everyone was on board with the new development; soon after, a strong resistance to Franklin’s invention sprang up among the more religiously inclined. What followed was decades of debate, pitting Franklinian science against long held dogma.


The Wrath of God (or the Devil)

There were two rival religious explanations for lightning. Perhaps “rival” is not the best term, because at times the two seemed to coexist despite their obvious differences. The first and most traditional was that lightning was the wrath of God. Such a notion goes back to Ancient Greece, when Zeus used his famous thunderbolts to mete out divine justice from atop mount Olympus. When the pagan gods gave way to the Christian God, the same notion persisted.

This, of course, raised some difficult theological questions for believers, mostly due to the fact that churches tended to be the tallest buildings in most towns and thus attracted more lightning bolts than “dens of iniquity” like taverns or brothels. Perhaps this fact and the difficult–not to mention potentially embarrassing–conundrum it presented resulted in an alternate hypothesis: that lightning and storms resulted from the air being full of devils.

While the idea neatly solved the theological conundrum presented by the original idea of lightning as God’s wrath, it brought about a deadly custom designed to ward off evil spirits. During lightning storms, hapless bell ringers would be sent up to church towers to ply their trade in an attempt to scare off the demons of the air. Naturally, tugging a rope attached to a large brass bell in the highest point in town during a lightning storm is not a job for those too attached to this earthly life. In Germany alone, 120 bell ringers were killed by lightning in the last 30 years of the 19th century. Despite this, the custom continued in many localities.


Slow adoption

In spite of the obvious advantages that lightning rods presented for owners of tall buildings, particularly churches, their adoption was a slow and painful affair. Superstition and fear prevented people from trying the invention for themselves. Their fear found encouragement from many ministers and priests of the day. In America, Reverend Thomas Price of Old South Church in Massachusetts blamed the earthquake of 1755 on Franklin’s blasphemous invention. Since God could not vent his retribution from the sky, the Reverend said, he did it by shaking the Earth. He concluded by saying that “God’s  wrath will not be thwarted.”

A similar mood prevailed in Europe, where lightning rods sparked borderline riots in many towns and cities. Fearful citizens tore down lightning rods, while in some places those fearful of such mobs removed their newly installed lightning rods to forestall any violence.

Not all of the actions against the hated contraption were violent, of course. Many turned to the law to get their neighbors to take down Franklin’s invention. Robespierre, who would become an influential figure in the French Revolution, got his start in one such case nearly 30 years after the lightning rod was invented, where he was able to successfully defend the right of his client to install a lightning rod despite neighborhood misgivings.

Robespierre was not the only Enlightenment notable to throw himself into the debate. Ben Franklin himself, who normally stayed above controversies caused by his inventions, threw his considerable influence behind the lightning rod. His allies preached the benefits of the lightning rod and spoke out against religious misgivings around the device both in America and in Europe. Their influence went a long way toward demystifying both lightning and the lightning rod, but for some the intervention came too late.

Many churches still refused to install lightning rods, even as the custom of ringing bells during storms began to decline. Even a tragedy seemed to do little to change superstitious beliefs regarding lightning. In 1767, some 16 years after Franklin’s invention, priests at  the Church of San Nazaro in Brecia ignored repeated requests to install what they believed to be a blasphemous device. That year, lightning struck the church tower has it likely had many times before, but this time the Republic of Venice had decided to store thousands of pounds of gunpowder in the  church vaults. The strike ignited the stores, and the resulting explosion leveled 1/6 of the city and killed 3,000 people.

Even with the tragedy, obstinate refusal to install the “heretical rod” would continue for decades, until in the 19th century Franklin’s invention would become a common design feature. Church bell ringers could finally breath a sigh of relief.





Kapitza, P.L. “Experiment, theory, and practice: articles and addresses.” Springer science & Business Media, April 30, 1980. pgs 312-316

Schiffer, Michael B and Hollenback, Kacy L. “Drawn the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment.” University of California Press, 2003. pgs 184-195

Seckel, Al and Edwards, John. “Franklin’s Unholy Lightning Rod.” November 25, 2002. ESD Journal. April 12, 2015.

Edinburgh’s Folly–The Half-Finished National Monument of Scotland

"'Edinburgh's Disgrace,' Calton Hill - - 185368" by Tim Hallam. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“‘Edinburgh’s Disgrace,’ Calton Hill – – 185368” by Tim Hallam. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Monuments are enduring symbols of what a culture values, and are of vast importance to archeologists studying ancient cultures. Given the vast amount of labor and resources required to make them, monuments can tell archeologists a lot about the cultures that built them. Sometimes, all the remains of a culture is its monuments, mysterious reminders of a time long past and a people long dead.

Most of the best known monuments around the world have mysteries of some sort surrounding them. By way of example, the moai of Easter Island have been extensively studied, but only now are archeologists beginning to understand them in greater detail. No one even agrees exactly why they were built, or how much impact if any they had on the catastrophic collapse of Easter Island’s once thriving civilization.

A more modern but probably less well known monument, the Georgia Guidestones, remains an enduring mystery even though it was only built forty odd years ago. The site has stirred up some controversy due to its advice for rebuilding society after an apocalypse, mostly due to the fact that one key tenet of the mysterious builder’s idea for an ideal society involves extensive population control.

One structure that may cause head scratching to future archeologists does not provide advice to future generations, and is no mystery to today’s society. Located on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, the twelve pillars of Scotland’s National Monument stand as a visible symbol of an ambitious project that flopped for the painfully mundane reason that kills many a grand plan: lack of funding.


The Scottish Parthenon

Scotland in the 18th and early 19th centuries was a hotbed of Enlightenment thinking, attracting intellectuals of all stripes from around Europe to discuss exciting new ideas. The city of Edinburgh was in a boom, with construction projects popping up all over the city. One such project was the National Monument of Scotland, later dubbed “Edinburgh’s Disgrace.”

The project had its origins in an 1816 meeting of the Highland Society, when members proposed a monument should be built for Scottish soldiers who fell during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815.) The society nominated Charles Cockerall as architect, and William Henry Playfair as his assistant.

The duo dreamed up an ambitious monument modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. It would consist of an upper building with classical columns, which would house a church. They planned to excavate a massive catacomb beneath the temple that would house Scotland’s best and brightest in death.

In total, the project would cost £42,000, a huge sum for the day. The Society planned to raise the money by appealing to the public, especially the wealthy aristocrats who may wish to populate the catacombs one day. Such luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Elgin, and Lord Cockburn backed the project.

Despite the support of these wealthy men, the project was only able to raise £16,000. Edinburgh’s public works boom was to blame; simply put, there were too many projects needing support, and something had to fall by the wayside. Despite this, supporters of the monument pushed forward. In 1822, the Duke of Hamilton laid the foundation stone and construction began. The first phase lasted from 1826 to 1829, when the twelve pillars that stand today were raised at a cost of £13,500. Once the funds ran out, supporters had trouble finding anymore backers. With no funds, the monument stood half-finished, as it would remain for the next 200 years.


Plans to finish the monument fall through

In the years since funding petered to nothing, some suggested that Edinburgh’s Folly was planned to be just that–a folly. However, plans from the era show that the architects did indeed plan a grand Greco-Roman style monument where only half of one stands today.

The centuries since have produced plans to complete the monument, some stranger than others. One plan put forward in 2004 by Malcom Fraser called for 150 flagpoles to be erected on the site. He wanted to have school children write prayers and messages of good will on the flags to be hoisted onto the poles, so that their well-wishes could be borne on the wind to the rest of the world. He said he was inspired by Tibetan prayer flags, which basically operate on the same principle.

Like every other proposal to finish the structure, Fraser’s met with a mixed response and ultimately failed. As it stands, the monument is both a tourist attraction and a point of pride for Edinburgh’s citizens. Since the people of Edinburgh seem perfectly content with their half-finished monument, it will likely stay that way for years to come.




“Architect flags up plan to finish ‘Edinburg’s Disgrace.”. April 20, 2004. The Scotsman. March 30, 2015.

McManus, David. “National Monument Edignburgh: Architecture Information.” April 8, 2010. Edinburgh Architecture. March 30, 2015.

McLean, David. “Lost Edinburgh: Edinburgh’s Disgrace.” February 17, 2014. the Scotsman. March 30, 2015.