19 October 1469: The day that changed the world

All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The year was 1961. A US meteorologist Edward Lorenz was working on a mathematical modeling of a weather prediction system, using a digital computer Royal McBee LGP-30. In the simulation he wanted to recreate a weather sequence that he had simulated a year earlier, but this time he began the sequence midway and used only 3 decimal places instead of the 6 decimal places in his original simulation.

This minor and seemingly insignificant change, to his surprise, dramatically changed the sequence and made both the old and new calculations become comparatively different. Moreover, in what become known as Lorenz Attractors, this discovery suggested that even the most detailed weather modeling could only predict weather pattern no more than 1 week, due to the system’s sensitivity towards the tiniest random changes.

This accidental occurrence intrigued him, and over the next several years he researched this chaotic phenomenon even further, which culminated in 1972 when he presented a paper to American Association for the Advancement of Science with the title “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

The paper coined the term Butterfly Effect, and received positive feedback from the scientific community, in which some even praise his findings as 1 of 3 scientific breakthroughs in the 20th century, alongside Theory of Relativity and Theory of Quantum Mechanics. Edward Lorenz became the father of Chaos Theory.

The Butterfly Effect

A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil may represent a very small and largely insignificant event in the overall atmospheric system. But just like changing the decimal points from 6 to 3, when the butterfly flaps its wings it might start-off some kind of chain reactions that ultimately could cause a tornado in Texas.

Just like the butterfly effect, sometimes 1 seemingly small and insignificant point in history is all it takes to start-off series of chain-reactions that would eventually changed the world. Had this point of history not occurred, Spain wouldn’t become a country, the Dutch Golden Age might not happen, the global financial market might not exist, the country of Philippines would have a different name, my country Indonesia would still consist of individual kingdoms, Maya Inca Aztec empires might still exist till this day, and we all would still rely on candles as light bulbs would never exist. Hence, had this point of history not occur, the world that we currently live in would be completely different.

To be exact, this 1 small and seemingly insignificant point in history occurred on 19 October 1469.

The day that changed the world

Isabella of Castile was born on 22 April 1451 in Madrigal de las Altas Torres. When she was 3 years old her father King John II died and was replaced by her 26 year old half-brother Henry IV.

King Henry IV originally intended to put his daughter Joanna as the heiress to the throne, but the nobles in the kingdom of Castile wanted Alfonso (Isabella’s younger brother) as the heir, which sparked the Second Battle of Olmedo in 1467. The battle was a draw, and Henry agreed to make Alfonso the heir if he would marry Joanna. This agreement, however, was short-lived when Alfonso died because of the plague, and when Henry discovered that Joanna might not be his biological daughter.

Isabella, whom got the backing from the nobles, then offered a truce with Henry to end the war with the arrangement that Isabella would be named the heiress and in exchange Isabella would have to ask for Henry’s consent if she wants to get married, giving Henry the power to still control the succession line of the throne. Henry agreed on the truce, and afterward several match-making candidates were offered to Isabella by Henry, with the likes of King Edward IV of England, Alfonso V of Portugal, Pedro Giron and Charles (the Duke of Berry). But Isabella fell in love with Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Like any romantic tales their love was prohibited, because they didn’t get the consent from Henry on the basis that their grandfathers were brothers, making them second cousins. But this didn’t stop them from getting married, when one day Isabella managed to escape the surveillance of Henry with the excuse of visiting her brother’s tomb, while Ferdinand managed to smuggle himself into Castile in a disguise as a merchant. Finally, in the Palacio de los Vivero, in the city of Valladolid, Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabella of Castile on 19 October 1469. The butterfly began to flap its wings.

Ferdinand and Isabella got married with a clear prenuptial agreement on power sharing. And when Henry IV died in 1474 Isabella became Queen Isabella I of Castile, while in 1479 Ferdinand succeeded his father and became King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Together, Ferdinand and Isabella united the various states in the two kingdoms under the same political Crown, making the base of the creation of the Kingdom of Espana (Spain) that would be realized later by their grandson.

In 1492 Ferdinand and Isabella further expanded their kingdom in the Iberian peninsula by conquering the Islamic kingdom of Granada. Meanwhile at the same year Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree, a religious purification document in which Jews had to convert to Christianity or faced with expulsion from Aragon and Castile. This triggered a mass exodus of Jews to other European kingdoms, and gave Ferdinand and Isabella the nickname of the “Catholic Monarch.”

The Alhambra Decree was also signed by the defeated Emir of Granada Muhammad XII, where Muslims in the kingdom received an exemption for not converting to Christianity. But later on in 1502 this agreement with the emir of Granada was broken by Ferdinand, and the expulsion of the Muslims alongside the Jews, as we will see later, became a chain reaction that will eventually contribute to the bankruptcy of Spain.

But for now in 1492, the Jews were the only ones having a mass exodus out from Aragon and Castile, leaving behind a financially broke kingdom after Ferdinand and Isabella’s expensive conquest to capture the kingdom of Granada. It is in this context that a desperate explorer from Republic of Genoa came forward to Isabella for the second time to get a funding from her, after numerously failed to convince other monarchs in Europe of his audacious plan. The desperate explorer’s name was Christopher Columbus.

The road to the Indies

There were once stood in the face of the earth the second largest empire in the history of the world, the Mongol Empire. Consisted of several tribes, the empire was first united in 1206 under the leadership of Genghis Khan. Over the next several decades the genius but brutal strategies of Genghis Khan and his successors vastly expanded the empire (Genghis Khan himself subjugated more lands and people in 25 years than the Romans did in 400), which at its height stretched from Budapest in the west to Shanhaiguan in the East, from Russia in the north to Tibet in the south.

The large area of the Empire across Eurasia under one political control made the West-East trade route (the legendary Silk Road) safe once again. Thus, in what became known as Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace) the trade routes was re-established, and international trade and commerce was booming.

Traveling caravans came to the West from what then known largely as the Indies (places in South and South East Asia such as India and Spice Islands) as well as Persia and China, bringing silk, pepper, nutmeg, cottons, pearls, precious stones, carpets and leather goods, among others. And in return Europeans brought fine cloth, silver, horses, linen and others to the East. Along with these goods, people, techniques, information and ideas also moved across the Silk Road, created wonderful travel tales along the way such as the great journeys of Marco Polo and Ibn-Batuta.

However, just like the decline of the Roman Empire, the Mongol Empire started to decline when it became too big to manage. Regional struggles, corruption, rivalries between leaders, separatist revolts and diseases brought the empire down slowly and hence began to threatened the Pax Mongolica. And then in 1453 Constantinople was defeated by the Ottoman Turks, and along with the fall of this last remaining Eastern Roman Empire, the land route to Asia became dangerous and difficult once again.

One of the earliest pioneers who tried to solve this trade-route problem was King John II of Portugal, who sought to reach the Indies by sea. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias achieved this conquest by finding a route through sailing around Africa, where he reached his furthest point when his ship anchored in Kwaaihoek, a small island off the eastern coast of the present day South Africa. Dias initially wanted to continue to sail to the Indies, but several difficulties prevented him to go further. But his pathway discovery was enough to set numerous expeditions by Portugal in the next decade, which all ended in failure, that is until Vasco Da Gama finally landed in Kappad, India, on 20 May 1498.

Meanwhile back in 1480s, with land routes considered dangerous and eastwards sea route hasn’t been found yet, a 34 year old Christopher Columbus had another idea, he constructed an alternative plan to reach the Indies by sailing west across the Atlantic. Initially, Columbus presented his plan to John II of Portugal in 1485. But his idea was rejected by the king’s team of experts on the base that Columbus travel distance estimation of 3860 km was too short. In the next few years Columbus also traveled to Genoa and Venice to present his plan but with no success, while he also sent his brother to present to Henry VII of England but the king lingered in making any decision.

In 1486 Columbus sought out Queen Isabella of Castile, but her team of experts too judge Columbus’ estimation of the distance was too short. Based on the advice of her experts Isabella rejected Columbus’ plan, but to keep her options open she gave him annual allowance of 12,000 maravedis and ordered all cities and towns in the kingdom to provide him food and accommodation without cost. In 1488 Columbus appealed to the court of Portugal but was also rejected for the second time, mainly because Bartholomeu Dias had just returned successfully from circling Africa, thus Portugal’s focus is now to control the Eastern sea route.

It is in this desperate time that Columbus (now 41 years old) came forward to Isabella for the second time in 1492. Financially broke from the expensive conquest of Granada, and after the unpopular expulsion of the Jews in the same year, Isabella had no desire to implement a risky bet and turned down Columbus’ plan once more. But when Columbus was about to leave the kingdom in despair, Ferdinand intervened. After much consultation with her husband, Isabella then sent the royal guard to pick Columbus back, where his plan was finally accepted.

The Gold Rush

Christopher Columbus began his westward journey to the Indies on 3 August 1492, funded by various private Italian investors and ultimately by the sponsorship of the kingdom of Castile. On 12 October 1492 he landed in the Caribbean island of Guanahani (The Bahamas), and accidentally became the first European todiscover the American continentafter the Vikings in the 11th century, and 70 years after the Chinese set foot in the continent. Columbus however, insisted that he had reached the Indies (East Indies), thus called the indigenous people the Indians, while in fact he landed in what later to be known as West Indies (This partly explain why the continent wasn’t named after Columbus, but instead named after a Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whom later in 1508 was made the chief navigator of Aragon and Castile by king Ferdinand, and controversially became the first person to correctly claim the discovery of the new continent).

Ever since his discovery, between 1492 and 1503 Columbus completed 4 round-trip voyages between Europe and America, conquering first the islands in the Caribbean and later expanded into Central America. Columbus’ discovery in 1492 also marked the beginning of the European Exploration Era and the long and brutal colonization of the American continent, which over the first century and a half the native population plummeted by approximately 80%.

In 1504 Queen Isabella died, and after the death of King Ferdinand in 1516 their grandson Charles I became king (he took the throne due to the mental illness of his mother and the death of his father) and effectively founded the sole kingdom of Spain. Under the rule of king Charles I the Spaniards defeated the Aztec Empire in 1521, in which they looted the riches in the capital Tenochtitlan. They then continued to raid the Chibcha people of Colombia (the original El Dorado) before battling the Inca Empire in the 1530s.

Among the riches that they looted from the natives, gold and silver were abundant. And it is estimated that from the beginning of the European Exploration in the early 1500s till 1800, around 2739 to 2846 tons of gold (around 70% of world production at that time) were shipped out from the Americas, which at the price of $400 per ounce would have the approximate value of $36 billion.

The Spaniards melt most of the gold and silver that they “found”, so that they could be shipped efficiently back to Spain. Their shipments from the Americas arrived once a year in Spain, but the monarchs who got accustomed to the luxury started to spend their portion before the shipments even arrived. To do so, the monarchs borrowed money in advance from their citizens, with the promise to pay it back once the gold and silver arrived. But the monarchs never take into consideration the potential amount of lost due to piracy, or whether the ship ever arrived at all. This, as we will see later, contributed to the bankruptcy of Spain and became one of the main reasons of the Dutch revolution.

Meanwhile, thanks to the big inflow of gold import from the Americas, apart from the luxury of gold that the monarchs enjoyed, it is estimated that between 1500 and 1600 prices in Spain rose significantly by 400% while wages remained relatively stagnant for its civilians, thus created poverty.

Most Christian Spaniards at that time worked as peasants, farmers, manufacturers, ranchers, craftsmen or served as soldiers. And due to the ever increasing inflation, their money lost its value and became so limited that they were only able to produce few goods. Hence Spain had to import the supply of goods from other states. This added pressure to the already dying national industries and further spread the gold rush to these importer states in a form of payments.

Moreover, regardless of their profession, the Spaniards had little education and could not read, write nor work with numbers. The educated middle class in the kingdom used to be the Jews and Muslims that they kicked out and without them the Spaniards proved highly ineffective in managing their commercial and financial matters.

In the rush for job and commerce opportunities, people from many states began to come to Spain to fill the role as the middle class society, with the likes of Italian merchants, German moneylenders and Dutch manufacturers. These people, however, took their profit back home without reinvested it back to the Spanish economy, which resulted in a a further outflow of capital from Spain to these states (which among other causes led to Spain’s eventual bankruptcy), flourishing these states’ economies and partly contributed to what later became the Dutch Golden Age.

The battle of the 17 Provinces

Through complicated series of dynastic marriages, succession lines and conquests, at the beginning of the 16th century most European kingdoms were inter-connected with each others.

When Charles I of Spain was born in 1500 in Ghent, Ghent was part of the Burgundian state of the Netherlands, and the Netherlands was part of the Habsburg Empire since 1477. While in 1516 Charles inherited Aragon and Castile (due to his maternal line from Ferdinand and Isabella), in 1519 he also became ruler of the Habsburg Empire and became Charles V of Holy Roman Emperor (due to his paternal line, which he succeeded from his grandfather Maximilian I), making the Netherlands automatically part of the Spanish Empire ruled by the Habsburgs, or simply called the Spanish Netherlands. The Spanish Netherlands consisted of 17 provinces and around 300 cities, with population estimated at 3 million.

During Charles’ reign, the Protestantism movement was starting to gain ground in Europe. Initiated on 31 October 1517 in the university town of Wittenberg, the Protestantism movement began when a German Augustinian priest, Martin Luther, posted 95 theses that protested the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church. In his theses Martin Luther mainly criticized the Church’s doctrines of purgatory, the authority of the Pope and in particular the Church’s sale of indulgences as a mean of funding a massive construction project to build the St. Peter’s Basilica.

Based on the 95 theses the Protestantism movement soon spread across Europe, especially northern part of Europe, in 3 waves. While the first wave of the original movement did not spread to the Netherlands, the second wave, the Anabaptism, reached the Netherlands and became very popular especially in the counties of Holland and Friesland. King Charles I as a devout Catholic tried to fight the rapidly spreading new religion from 1523, he made Protestantism a capital offense and prosecuted more than 1300 people along the way. This put gasoline in an already burning fire, as his action further escalated the anger of the Dutch people towards the Spanish ruler.

The Dutch people’s early resentment towards Spain was rooted in the empire’s taxation on them. In those days, the Netherlands was a wealthy state that thrived in trade and industry. And the “overseas” Dutch workers who sent back money home from Spain also contributed to the flourishing economy. Hence, the Netherlands became an important source of income for the treasury of the Spanish Empire, which Charles imposed heavy taxation to the Dutch people to fund his wars and conquests against the Turks, French and Germans.

But on the other hand, with all the taxed money taken away from them, guidance and support for the Dutch was almost none existence from the Spanish government. This, along with Charles’ quest to fight Protestantism fueled the anger of the Dutch people, and became the root cause of what years later became known as the Dutch Revolution.

Meanwhile back in Spain, with gold and silver shipments often being disrupted in the Atlantic sea, the Spanish monarchs found themselves increasingly in debt to its citizens. However the monarchs never pay back their debt, as they felt no obligation over their ruled subjects. Subsequently, the citizens started to hide their money from the ruler and quit lending money altogether.

In order to maintain their lavish lifestyle, the monarchs then seek fund from foreign bankers and creditors in Genoa, Germany and Flanders at rates of interest up to 18% per annum. Needless to say, although the Spanish Empire ruled one of the largest area in the world, from the Americas to the large area in Europe, their economy was a mess, they were constantly living in debt, had a huge trade imbalance and at the mercy of their creditors.

It was in this situation that in 16 January 1556 Phillip II of Spain became king. Philip succeeded his father Charles I, whom left Philip with a debt of around 36 million ducats and annual deficit of 1 million ducats. Charles also left Philip a federation of separate states (instead of a single monarch with 1 unifying legal system) under the control of the Spanish Empire, with boiling resentment in the Netherlands towards the Spanish ruler. Just after a year of Philip’s reign, Philip defaulted on their enormous debts and declared Spain’s first bankruptcy in 1557.

In the 1560s the third wave of Protestantism, Calvinism, arrived in the Netherlands. The Calvinists was more successful than the Anabaptists in becoming a significant influence in the Netherlands, with them able to convert the common population, mostly in the southern province of Flanders, as well as the elites. King Philip II as a devout Catholic followed the footsteps of his father Charles and his great grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella, by declaring war towards the Calvinists to preserve the “purity” of the Catholic religion in his Empire.

In 1566, Philip’s army started to engage in a brutal war with the Calvinists in the Beeldenstorm Battle. This war worsen the condition in the Netherlands after the bad harvest of 1565 that spread hunger among the people. This finally exploded the anger of the Dutch people, which prompted William the Silent (or better known as William the Orange), a Calvinism convert, to lead the Calvinist Dutch in Eight Years War against the Catholic Spain. The provinces of Holland and Zeeland eventually fell into the hands of the Calvinists in 1572.

In 1575 Philip defaulted Spain’s huge debt once again. Philip acquired these debts to fund simultaneous wars across Europe, and with his unwillingness to pay his debts, the creditors completely stopped the funds flowing to him, including the funds to pay his troops. The troops rebelled in 1576, and in what later to be known as “Spanish Fury” they attacked, mutinied, plundered and burnt the city of Antwerp to make up for their unpaid salary, killing around 8000 lives.

This violent episode strengthened the resolve of 7 provinces (out of 17) in the Netherlands to set themselves into the path of independence. In 23 January 1579 these 7 provinces were united by the Union of Utrecht, and formed the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (or in short United Provinces). Few days before, in 6 January 1579 some of the southern provinces in the Netherlands (mostly present-day Belgium) formed another union, the Union of Arras, and declared their support for the Spanish government.

Effectively, the 17 provinces of the Netherlands were divided into a southern group loyal to the Spanish king, and a rebellious group in the north. The rebel north formally signed it’s declaration of independence through The Act of Abjuration, on 26 July 1581.

The making of the modern financial market

At the beginning of the 16th century, the city of Antwerp was the richest city in Europe. As the largest city in the Netherlands, it was the cultural, economic and financial center of the 17 provinces and north-western Europe, and in fact it was also the center of the entire international economy, which accounted for 40% of world trade.

In its glory days, hundred of ships would pass Antwerp’s ports in a day, 2000 carts would entered the city each week and many foreign merchants resided in this vibrant city. In addition, it was estimated that the port of Antwerp earned the Spanish Empire 7 times more revenues than the expeditions in the Americas. With its yearlong permission of continuous fair and fast moving flow of goods, Antwerp gave birth to the first settled “bourse”, a gathering place for buy and sell interactions, named after a merchant gathering place in Bruges with the name Hotel des Bourses.

When United Provinces was formed by the rebel north, Antwerp became the capital city of the Dutch Revolution, making it a strategically important target for the Spanish troops. During the war between Spanish Empire and the United Provinces, king Philip’s troops looked set to completely reconquer the whole Netherlands, when another war broke between Spain and England. Short of men, the Spanish troops withdrawn their advances in the Netherlands and was forced to retreat. However, before retreating they had managed to reconquer the strategically important trading cities of Bruges and Ghent, while on 17 August 1585 the Spanish troops managed to recapture the city of Antwerp.

Like Ferdinand and Isabella who got rid of the Jews and Muslims from their kingdom in 1492, under the terms of surrender in 1585 Philip asked the Protestant population of Antwerp to reconvert to Catholicism, or else they were given 2 years to settle their affairs before leaving. Many chose to leave, and so a mass exodus of protestants moved from Antwerp to the United Provinces in the north, with most moved to Amsterdam, marking the beginning of the Dutch Golden Age.

Among those who left, the merchants and traders who made Antwerp such a glorious city migrated to Amsterdam, brought their capital and trading skills with them and created the “new Antwerp.” Subsequently, by the early 17th century Amsterdam became the financial capital of Europe, with the management of established pool of double-entry bookkeeping, banks and joint-stock companies. And in 1610 a new “bourse” or exchange was born, providing the trading platform for various types of financial products and services such as stock market, current exchange, money market, finance market, maritime insurance and commodities. The world’s first modern financial market in history was born.

Alternate History

3 scientific breakthroughs in the 20th century have changed the way we see the world. While the Chaos Theory implies that one seemingly small and insignificant thing can create chain-reactions towards something big, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity shows that everything is relative against its comparison. And then there’s Theory of Quantum Mechanics, with one significant form of the theory called the Many-World interpretation. Many-World interpretation views reality as many-branched tree in which every possible outcome of every event exist and are realized in other parallel worlds. One practical implementation of this theory comes in the form of Alternate History, a genre of fiction filled with stories of “what ifs” in the history book.

19 October 1469, the day Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile got married, was the day that changed our present world. Despite looking like just another small event in history, their marriage sets some kind of chain reactions like the butterfly who flap its wings in Brazil created chain reactions that could eventually cause a tornado in Texas.

Such is the magnitude of this important day, that the Alternate History of this marriage would realize very different parallel worlds indeed. First of all if Ferdinand and Isabella did not get married the kingdom of Aragon and Castile would not be united, then they would not invade the Islamic kingdom of Granada, and hence Spain would not be united. Nor would Spain exist if Isabella’s brother did not die, or king Henry IV did not discover that his daughter Joanna wasn’t his child.

If Ferdinand did not marry Isabella, he would not had the chance to persuade Isabella to finally accepts Columbus’ expedition plan. Thus the Americas might not even been found by the Europeans, the kingdoms of Maya Inca Aztec and others would probably still exist, the mass exodus of people from around the world to the New World would not happen, thus the great heroic story of Simon Bolivar in 19th century Latin America would not occur, and neither would the declaration of independence of the United States of America on 4 July 1776 from colonial Britain.

If the US did not exist, current global politics and economics would be very, very different indeed. No Bretton Woods conference, no Washington Consensus, no Latin American lost decade, no CIA-backed dictators scattered across the globe. If the US did not exist, there will be no Cold War so countries such as North and South Korea, among others, would not be separated. If the US did not exist, there will be no oil politics in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East hence no Al-Qa’eda to begin with, and no New Great Game in the Caspian Sea thus Central Asian countries would be very different indeed.

Perhaps more directly significant for most of us, if the US didn’t exist our technology and our lifestyle would be very different too. Light bulbs would not be invented, no telephone, no computers and internet, no aeroplanes, not even Hollywood entertainment, its music industry and other brand associations that define global consumerism.

While internal changes could alter the course of history dramatically, external factors could also provide inter-connected influences. If Genghis Khan did not unite the Mongol and Turk tribes at the very beginning, the Mongol Empire would not exist, and Pax Mongolica would not happen. If the Turks did not make a westwards conquest towards modern-day Turkey, Constantinople would not fall and Columbus’ alternative westward journey to the Indies would be unthinkable, hence no gold rush would occur from the Americas to Europe.

If Martin Luther did not declare the 95 theses, or if the Roman Catholic church did not do the things Martin Luther resented, Protestantism would not be born, the spread of Calvinism would not occur to the Netherlands, and the religious purification act by Charles and Philips would not happen, hence the Dutch Revolution would not get sparked.

If Isabella did not marry Ferdinand, their grandson Charles would not be born, and so the Spanish Empire would not automatically merged with the Habsburg Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish would not got into economic problems that was caused by Charles’ greed and mismanagement, and the Netherlands would not be imposed with such heavy taxation. If Charles did not born, Philip would not be born either, and the Philippines would have a different name, Philip would not attack the Protestant Netherlands, would not seize Antwerp, and the people of Antwerp would not move to Amsterdam, hence the first modern financial market might not exist.

Indeed, we live in a very inter-connected world, where 1 secret marriage in the 15th century can set such chain reactions that lead to these many events in history, and also lead to the weird coincidences that set the paths toward my very existence in this world.

When the first modern financial market was born in Amsterdam, its first ever listed joint-stock company was the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie in Dutch, or in short VOC). As the first ever multi-national company in the world, VOC was listed in the exchange to seek funding to invade and manage a large South East Asian archipelago which later got united to fight back the colonial rulers and became my country Indonesia.

Among many other things that they did in their 350-years-or-so of occupation in Indonesia, the Dutch ruler cultivated huge area of rubber forests in Sumatra. In 1908 Henry Ford revolutionized the US automotive industry by introducing the Model-T cars, and subsequently triggered the booming demand of rubber raw material for making the tires. At that time Brazil, as the leading rubber producer in the world, was suffering from a long drought, hence the focus of rubber supply switched from Brazil to Malaya and Sumatra. High on demand, the rubber forest in Sumatra needed to maintain the quality of the materials that they exported, and they hired rubber specialists to do so. One of the rubber specialists that they hire was my British great grandfather.

Indeed, without all of the chain-reactions that created these many events in history, without all of these events that led to the creation of the first modern financial market in Amsterdam, and without the subsequent funding of VOC to invade and govern Indonesia; Sumatra would not be one of the rubber suppliers for US automotive industry, my great grandfather would not come to Indonesia, thus he would not met my Indonesian great grandmother and ultimately, more likely than not, with one smallest random change along this historical chain, I would never have existed in the first place to write this article.

This is Chaos Theory.

The engineering of our consent

“Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.

In almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses.

It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

Edward Bernays, in his book Propaganda (1928)

Arab World’s Sinatra Doctrine

In the very first line in chapter 1 of the book Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wrote “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

Sparked by the dreadful natural disasters from freak weather around the world, at the end of 2010 and start of 2011 UN Food Price Index reach its record high, surpassing even the peaks of 2008 global food crisis. Analysts warned that food riots, geopolitical tensions, global inflation and increasing hunger for the planet’s poorest are the likely effects. And it didn’t take long for a chaos to take place.

What began as a protest over food price rise and unemployment in Algeria and Tunisia, the protest soon started to escalate in Tunisia into a bigger protest: people’s long-kept dissatisfaction towards their corrupt and totalitarian leader, along with his cronies. As more people broke their fear barrier towards the government (something unheard of in the Arab World) the protest began to boil up.

Similar incident occurred in my country Indonesia in 1998, when a currency peg to the US dollar began to backfire in South East Asian countries, triggering a currency sellout that began in 1997, with the value of our currency plummeting from Rp.2000/USD to as low as Rp.16,800/USD. The currency crisis soon escalated into students’ protest over dissatisfaction towards President Soeharto’s 32 years dictatorship, with a firing incident by the police that killed few students became the trigger that sparked a riot. In a matter of days, Soeharto, a CIA-installed president, ended his regime.

The riot in Indonesia 1998 could not be anymore similar than the riot we have in Tunisia, which derived from frustration over class struggle, between the corrupt regime and the ordinary people. In Tunisia, the boiling anger of the protesters was finally burst when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, after years of frustration on the corrupt and unfair system finally gets the best in him. Bouazizi’s death became the trigger for larger nationwide protest, which became more violent with clashes with the police, with the 23 years dictatorship of Ben Ali finally collapse in 22 January 2011.

As Ben Ali fled from Tunisia, the people of the rest of the Middle East awakened, and the other Arab World dictators are getting anxious. It seems that a Pandora’s Box has been opened.

The case with the Soviet Union

Class struggle created by long-serving dictatorship is a typical case for the Arab World, just like it was typical for the former Soviet Union member countries. And with Tunisia as the trigger, the Arab World might undergo a revolution that would completely change the blue print of global politics once more, like the one we experienced through the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When Karl Marx’s book “Communist Manifesto” was published in 1848 Europe was filled with monarchic countries, with class struggles exist between the people and the rulling monarchs, making Marxism a romantic dream for the citizens especially the working class. But it is not until the early 20th century that the dream started to become reality, when Lenin (with the help of Young Stalin, among others) engineered the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 Russia. The revolution was brutal but effective, and as the last monarchy in Russia fell to the ground, Marx’s ideology of communism started to come to life.

In the next few decades, communism spread like a domino effect, which, among others, spread through the establishment of Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) that covered Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Transcaucasia (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan); and through the Nonagression Pact with Germany that made possible of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bessarabia, Northern Bukovina and Eastern Poland.

In its core, the very ideals of communism consist of a fair Utopian dream: classless and stateless society built on common ownership of the means of production and resources, for the good of all. But as in the case of the other extreme, Milton Friedman’s version of extreme free-market ideology, any Utopian ideology will never work in its fullest in real world, because it failed to take account of human irrationalities.

In reality, during the leadership of USSR corruption was rampant, environmental damage was common and it is estimated that the total of 94 million people were killed to justify its totalitarian rule. Needless to say, just like the story in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the communist party had produce the same kind of struggle and inequality to their people as much as the monarchies they overthrew. Hence, another wave of revolution was inevitable.

By the 1980s almost all the economies of the Eastern Bloc had stagnated, in which during the period of 1982-1987 inflation was 1500% in the Soviet State of Poland and more than 60% of its population lived in poverty. In the middle of this economic chaos, labour turmoil started to occur in Poland, which over time the formation of the independent labour union called “Solidarity” became a political force.

At the same time, similar uprising was boiling across the Eastern Bloc, and USSR’s decision to invade Afghanistan made the regime deeply unpopular, and sparked more anti-communist sentiments. The backfiring effects of the Afghan war made it increasingly impractical for the Soviet Union to dictate its will to its state countries.

Bow to the pressure, in the late 1989 USSR government abolished the Brezhnev Doctrine and produced a new doctrine, or a new policy, to allow Warsaw Pact countries (Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East German, Hungary, Poland, Romania and USSR) to finally determine their own internal affairs. The new policy added fuel to the already burning fire, and became the trigger, or the tipping point, of the fall of USSR.

The new policy was dubbed The Sinatra Doctrine.

The Sinatra Doctrine

Inspired by Frank Sinatra’s song “my way”, the informal term Sinatra Doctrine was coined by USSR Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov on a US talk show. In effect, the Warsaw Pact countries became a satellite countries for USSR, thus was allowed to run their country “their way.” That opened the pathway for the fall of communism in those countries.

After being outlawed for several years and became an underground movement, a nationwide protest finally forced the government of Poland to legalized “Solidarity” movement and allow them to participate in parliamentary election, in which they won 99 out of the available 100 seats. This practically ended the Polish communist regime.

One by one, the fall of Communist regime that began in Poland soon spread like a domino effect to Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania; and it inspired the courageous Tiananmen Square protest in China that sadly ended in massacre. By the end of 1991, however, the Berlin Wall fell and destroyed and became the symbol of the fall of communism, and in the same year USSR was dissolved to 15 countries: Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The domino effect took its toll in Albania and Yugoslavia, with Yugoslavia splitting into 5 countries by 1992: Slovenia, Croatia, Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). Communism was pronounced dead. And along with the death of the ideology, the global political blue print that dominated the Cold War era began to change, as the majority of the world embrace the free-market ideology.

The Awakening of the Arab World

The history of USSR in one way or another has a degree of resemblance with the history of modern Middle East. Just like the Soviet Union member countries, most of the Arab countries have similar characteristics and similar political landscape among several groups of countries, which was derived from their shared history.

In the Middle East, the grouping of the countries occurred when Ottoman Empire was defeated in 1918, as the British and French governments created the Sykes-picot Agreement to divide the Middle East between them. Syria and Lebanon became French protectorate, joining Tunisia and Algeria; and British mandate territories consist of Iraq and Palestine, joining Egypt, South Yemen and Qatar.

After relatively short colonial ruling period, in the 1920s-1950s anti-colonial movements rose and secured independence in these countries. And over the next decades one dictatorial coup after another, the establishment of Israel and the discovery of oil in Western-Ally Saudi Arabia in 1937 that brought the destructive US Foreign Policy to the region (which are massive stand alone topics) dominates the colour of the Middle East politics.

Like their communist counterparts, over time, these dictatorship regimes amassed huge sums of wealth while a bunch of its citizens live in poverty. Like the communist countries, corruption and nepotism are widespread, unemployment rates are high, media are controlled and unjustified executions are not uncommon. The divisions between the ruling class and its citizens are apparent, and the presence of US Foreign Policy to secure its “US Interests” in the region ensures that their dictator allies remain in control. Needless to say, people are oppressed, tired and angry.

As with the case of the fall of communism in USSR that started in Poland then spread to other Warsaw Pact countries, soon after the fall of dictatorship in Tunisia, a wave of awakening rise up in the Arab World, with protests starting to occur in Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Bahrain, Algeria, Libya and most notably Egypt.

As few weeks have passed since the first Tunisian domino fell, as things currently stand, Jordan King Abdullah has abolished his government and elected new government, and Yemen long-serving dictator has vowed not to participate in the next election. And of course there’s Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who has taken some desperate moves from vowing not to participate in election next September, to appointing a new Prime Minister and Vice President for the first time in 30 years; all of which defy what the protesters want, for him and his entire regime to step down.

As I continue writing this, the scene on Al Jazeera English in front of me is showing the Tahrir Square of Cairo in an euphoric atmosphere, anxiously and eagerly waiting for Hosni Mubarak’s statement on national TV for his resignation, as rumour spread that earlier in the day the military has stepped up and intervened on Mubarak’s secret power-succession plan to his US-Israel-Saudi?-Approved Vice President Omar Suleiman. The truth, however, remains to be seen.

If history is any indicator, Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship will eventually end based on the inevitable change of situation that has tipped, just like the inevitable separation of the Warsaw Pact countries from USSR. If history is repeating itself, if Mubarak steps down the second domino of Egypt (the most populated Arab country and a vital key US ally for Arab-Israel “peace” agreement) might become Arab World’s version of Sinatra Doctrine, further spreading the end of dictatorship regimes in the Middle East, just like Sinatra Doctrine spread the end of the communist regimes in USSR. And maybe, just maybe, if history is any benchmark, if Mubarak fall the political balance in the Middle East could and would change, most significantly in the position of Israel and US interests in the region, and in time could lead to many other political chain reactions across the globe. This is not chaos in the Middle East, my friend, this is history in the making!

What’s the price of your dream?

“If you ask a thousand people if they want to be rich, every one except the poet and the mystic will say yes. When you explain what is needed to become rich, maybe six hundred of that initial 998 will say, ‘no problem, I can do that.’

But when push comes to shove, when they have to sacrifice everything else in their lives – having a spouse and children, a social life, possibly a spiritual life, maybe even pleasure – to meet their goal, almost all of them, too, will fall away. Only about six of the original thousand will continue on the hard path.

Most of us don’t have the discipline to stay focused on a single goal for five, ten, or twenty years, giving up everything to bring it off, but that’s what’s necessary to become an Olympic champion, a world-class surgeon, or a Kirov Ballerina.

Even then, of course, it may be all in vain. You may make a single mistake that wipes out all the work. It may ruin the sweet, lovable self you were at seventeen. That old adage is true: You can do anything in life, you just can’t do everything.

That’s what Bacon meant when he said a wife and children were hostages to fortune. If you put them first, you probably won’t run the three-and-a-half minute mile, make your first $10 million, write the great American novel, or go around the world on a motorcycle. Such goals take complete dedication.

Of course, not all of us believe that the goals the obsessive among us take on are good things. Was it sane of Captain Ahab to chase Moby Dick? Was it necessary for Roger Bannister to break the four-minute mile? Was it essential for Edmund Hillary to be the first man to climb Everest?

These were goals to which each man was willing to dedicate himself. Ahab drove his men with him to his goal, where all but one died. Even though he may be remembered with affection after he’s won the war, during battle the colonel is hated for pushing his men into the enemy’s jaws.”

– Jim Rogers, in his best-selling book Investment Biker

100 things I learned and did in 2010

  1. Time is the most precious commodity.
  2. Twitter made me become a lazy blogger.
  3. This year I fulfilled 2 of my 10 things to do in life.
  4. It’s estimated that illegal trade accounts for one-fifth of the global GDP.
  5. Indonesia stock exchange and Thai stock exchange are 2 of the best performing exchanges in the world, with more than 40% increase ytd.
  6. But the winner is Mongolian stock exchange with 133.79% increase ytd, followed by Sri Lanka stock exchange with 95% increase ytd.
  7. The separatist rebel group in Southern Philippines is called Moro Islamic Liberal Front, or in short MILF. HA!
  8. The term MILF hunting has a completely different meaning for the Philippines government.
  9. I proposed a marriage at a Slash live in concert, using a t-shirt that says: Mimi will you marry me?
  10. The best thing in life doesn’t always have to be expensive.
  11. In Varanasi, India, people live side by side with corpses.
  12. The government of India doesn’t count Sadhu (holy men) as exist.
  13. Aghory Sadhu is a cannibal.
  14. Cannibals don’t eat random people, they usually have a purpose on eating that particular person.
  15. Myanmar changed their national flag from uptight to Rastaman. This is what happened when a bunch of military junta is having a midlife crisis.
  16. Miyabi has a tattoo in her body, but always edited in her movies.
  17. Raila Odinga, the Kenyan Prime Minister, is actually the victim of a much larger political mafia.
  18. I take back everything bad I said about him. I took news at the face value, without understanding the big picture.
  19. Joined the global hype and got married at 10-10-2010. At 10am.
  20. Much of current Europe’s culture were developed during the Renaissance period. And all thanks to the Medici family of Florence.
  21. Jakarta’s governor, Fauzi Bowo, cut all benefits for its DKI employees and force its department heads to provide him monthly money for his travels to Europe.
  22. There’s a town in Canada called Dildo.
  23. And there’s a city called Batman in southeast Turkey.
  24. Despite billions of dollars in oil revenue, 70% of people in Nigeria live below the poverty line.
  25. 31 “security” contractors control Iraq. Blackwater controls these contractors. CIA controls Blackwater. CIA is, well, the US government. Therefore, despite saying they have withdrawn troops from Iraq, the US still pretty much control Iraq.
  26. The more I travel the more I’m convinced that my character have most in common with backpackers, regardless of nationality.
  27. The German beer Erdinger is ubber expensive.
  28. After being suspicious for quite some time, I’m now sure that The Economist is biased towards the Western Governments’ interests and hidden agendas.
  29. Google isn’t a country, but if it were it would be the world’s 87th biggest economy, just behind Ethiopia and just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago.
  30. Kosovo has a cool-looking flag.
  31. Finally accept that Goldman Sachs is evil. Read: http://bit.ly/bFMlHH
  32. Flash Forward is the smartest TV series I’ve ever watched.
  33. And the award for this year’s hardest word to pronounce goes to: Eyjafjallajökull.
  34. Found myself another role model: Cyrus the Great.
  35. This year I broke my own rule of not exchanging contact details with fellow travellers.
  36. I swap name cards with a German environmentalist lawyer in Halong Bay, Vietnam.
  37. Justin Bieber brings out the inner Japanese-schoolgirl in me.
  38. Sometimes aid supplies unintentionally feed the warring militants, making the aid a big part of the problem. Like in Rwanda 1994 and DR Congo.
  39. I think everyone can agree with me, this year’s best movie got to be 3 idiots.
  40. Whoever invented Egg McMuffin should win a Nobel Prize, pure genius!
  41. The word Sudan means ‘the land of black people’, but it’s always been ruled by an Arabic-speaking (from the North) representing less than 6% of the population.
  42. Hence, South Sudan partition is inevitable, but oil, as always, get in the way.
  43. The Temples of Angkor are much much MUCH better in person. Pictures don’t do any justice to their absolute beauty and charm.
  44. The creation of Israel in 1948 was illegal, violating 1947 UN Partition Plan.
  45. The British was irresponsible, setting a leaving date without first mediate the clash between the Jews and Arabs, which Israel took advantage by claiming “Independence” on 14 May 1948, 1 day before Britain leaves.
  46. UN and the international community shockingly recognized Israel’s claim of independence, and a brutal ethnic cleansing for Palestinians followed shortly. (Read: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe)
  47. Why did the squirrel swim upside down? To keep his nuts dry.
  48. Kim Kardashian is a big-time self-centered diva. But a smoking hot diva at that.
  49. I haven’t had a decent sleep since the first day of World Cup, 19 June.
  50. Bank Indonesia was right to bail out Bank Century during a very sensitive time.
  51. But the real question is why did Bank Indonesia allow Bank Century to keep operating that long, while having big troubles, till it’s dead crucial to be bailed out?
  52. Georgia’s Finance Minister, Vera Kobalia, is a hottie.
  53. According to the book “MI6: The History of the SIS 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery” James Bond character was inspired by a Dutch spy Pieter Tazelaar.
  54. Got lost in Hanoi’s Old French Quarter, and discovered for a glimpse what Lonely Planet describe as Nowhere.
  55. My person of the year is definitely Julian Assange.
  56. WikiLeaks does not violate any US law. This is based on US First Amendment, and is enforced by 1971 US Supreme Court case “New York Times Co v the government of the United States” in which New York Times won the case to publish then-classified Pentagon files.
  57. And WikiLeaks does not violate any International Law. Read this joint statement by ‘UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection the Rights to Freedom of Opinion and Expression’ and ‘Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.’
  58. So the US can only charge Assange with a hideous sex allegation in Sweden, in an attempt to extradite him to the US. The most senior prosecutor in Sweden was strangely removed and replaced, after he said there was no evidence or even suspicion of rape for Assange.
  59. In Guatemala, their Air Force is called Fuerza Aerea Guatemalteca, or in short FAG.
  60. The first banking system wasn’t established by a group of merchants, but by a strict religious sect called The Templars. Amazing story.
  61. During the colonial times in Africa, the British Army only allow 2 Africans to rise up in the military ranking. 1 of them happens to be Idi Amin. Whoops.
  62. In Saudi Arabia, the locals really appreciate us if we dress up like them.
  63. I did that, and got warm receptions everywhere I went, and quickly made some friends.
  64. Lee Evans is my new stand-up comic favourite.
  65. The nicest person I’ve met this year is indisputably OL, my tuk tuk driver during my stay in Cambodia. If ever you’re in Siem Reap, just give him a call: +85592186578
  66. There’s a city in Mozambique called Tete (Indonesian-English dictionary: Tete is tits). It’s the capital for Tete Province, in Northwestern Mozambique.
  67. Tete has a huge coal mine, and once production begins Mozambique’s GDP could grow by a staggering 30%. Wow, well done Tete.
  68. In forming Nazi, Hitler studied the propaganda techniques of Marxism, Britain in WW1, US Advertising, Freudian psychology and the organisational of Catholic Church.
  69. Sometimes in the financial market it helps to be nuts to stay sane.
  70. Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is a slamming hottie.
  71. FARC (the Colombian rebel group) direct cocaine sales to Mexico Cartels, cutting the middlemen, has generated them $1 billion a year. That’s business acumen right there.
  72. In the aftermath of Asian Crisis 1997, $200 billion of Indonesian capital was in Singapore, compared with Indonesian GDP of $350 billion.
  73. The thing is with momentum… Sometimes when the right one comes, it comes in a rush, when you’re least expect it.
  74. The word ‘Konak’ is Turkish for ‘mansion.’ (Indonesian-English dictionary: Konak is having a boner).
  75. Book of the year: McMafia by Misha Glenny.
  76. Africa by Richard Dowden and Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald are also fantastic books.
  77. Went for Umroh pilgrimage, touched the Ka’abah, left the earthly pleasure for a week and devotedly praying and reading Al Qur’an translation at all times.
  78. And I learned that I can’t live without music.
  79. Since 25 November me and my missus wears a red string in our right hand. It was blessed by a Buddhist in Angkor Wat.
  80. In Cambodia, wearing a red string in our wrist also mean married.
  81. Astronomers have discovered a potentially habitable planet of “Gliese 581g” in Goldilocks Zone, 20 light years away from earth.
  82. The movie Lord of War is inspired by the life of real-life criminal Viktor Bout.
  83. Shiva is one cool Hindu god.
  84. Sahara is Arabic word for desert. So Sahara desert literally means desert desert. That’s not really creative is it?
  85. The asshole of the year award goes to: it’s a tie between George Gillett and Tom Hicks.
  86. The word ‘boker’ is Polish for book. (Indonesian-English dictionary: boker is having a crap).
  87. The Venezuelan band Los Amigos Invisibles is still the coolest band in the world for me.
  88. Their collaboration with Mexican singer Natalia Lafourcade in ‘Vivire Para Ti’ gives a new vibe to their music.
  89. US is supplying Israel with $2 billion each year, thanks to AIPAC. Who’s your daddy?
  90. Iraq war: civilian deaths 66,081. That’s equal to one 9/11 every 4 months for the last 7 years. No monuments. No minute silence.
  91. People who live in heaven shouldn’t judge those who live in hell.
  92. According to a Pew Forum survey, only 54% of Americans know that the Qur’an is the holy book of Islam.
  93. And the notoriously right-wing and highly bias Fox News that stirs false propaganda is “America’s most trusted TV news outlet.”
  94. Ignorance is stupidity in action.
  95. Bangkok has a seriously long official name: Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwer mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit.
  96. How to mess with an auditor’s head: give him a huge pile of random data, and tell him that they’re all connected.
  97. Peru gave Bolivia a beach this year. How nice. Now the Bolivian Navy no longer look like an idiot in a river, and have an actual sea to operate in.
  98. I believe the sentence that I use the most this year is holy crap!
  99. My motto in life is enforced with all the things I did this year. Life is indeed an adventure.
  100. The adventure of 2010 has been phenomenal!

Something I found during my backpacking trip to Indochina

“There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones! They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding.

When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion, or political correctness.

They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, if they only know it. It is the nation of nowhere.”

– Jan Morris

The Infinite Abyss

It’s Friday, 2nd April 2010, 4 A.M. in Mecca. Less than 100 meters away from Ka’abah, there I sit waiting for sholat fajar time. As I read through the verses of Al Qur’an translation, large mass of Muslims from different parts of the world gathered forming a unity in front of me, circling the sacred place built by Abraham in the Paganism days. It is a beautiful sight, it is truly a blissful moment.

In exactly 2 1/2 hours’ time, in Luang Prabang, Laos, the Buddhist monks will be preparing their morning ritual in the village, while in Amritsar, India, the Sikhs will conduct their clean up ritual of their beautiful Golden Temple. But today, the day belongs to the Christians, who are commemorating good Friday and the joyful Easter celebration in the upcoming Sunday.

Indeed, in its core, religion is a peaceful ideology that puts order out of chaos in a society. It is a unifying way of life, with beautiful rituals and celebrations that have heavily influenced our many societies in the world for the past 2000 years or so. Today, from around 6 billion people in the world, there are around 2 billion Christians, almost 1.5 billion Muslims, more than 900 million Hindus, 400 million Buddhists, 24 million Sikhs and 13 million Jews, among the largest religious population. The statistics show it all, a proof of how big religious influence is in the world today, as the generally accepted answer of our existence in this life.

One deep look into history, however, and all of this mindset will be seriously challenged, as the world doesn’t always operate this way before. Most scientists agree that the world is now around 4.5 billion years old, with the origins of man can be tracked back to 6 million years ago in Africa. Having said that, the oldest civilization ever found up until now is in Mesopotamia at around 7000 years old.

Hence, when all put together, these facts leave us with a really big mystery on our very existence as human beings. If the cave men of the stone-age lived only 6 million years ago while the earth has existed 4,494 million years before that, then what really happened before the period of origins of man? And what happened along the way, between the stone age and Mesopotamia? Now this right here, I believe, is the defining line between human ability and the infinite abyss.

At the mercy of a mysterious fate

We all are at the mercy of a mysterious fate. In 24 February 1582, A Roman Catholic Pope Gregory XIII changed the commonly used “Julius calendar” with “Gregorian calendar”, a calendar system referring to the date of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the calendar system that we all now eventually use, except in few cases like in Ethiopia. The adoption of the Gregorian Calendar sets the date straight between BC (roughly interpreted as the lost period before Jesus was born) and AD (the time when Jesus was born as the guide for humankind).

The same approach can also be found in Al Qu’ran, where the Islamic calendar began from the moment the prophet Muhammad Hijra or moved from Mecca to Ancient Yatrib (modern-day Medina) with the early Muslim community; leaving behind a period called the Jahiliyah, a period described as the lost and chaotic period where the Paganism was the majority faith.

However, a reading into the history of Paganism will give us a completely different view on this polytheistic religion, a different approach of order out of chaos, similar with other polytheistic religions in our first 5000 years of civilization. Ancient cultures such as Greek, Egypt, Mayan, Roman and the still existing cultures in Indian subcontinent all have beautiful sets of believe and live their whole life truly believing in multiple gods as the generally accepted answer to their existence in the world. They stored order in their society with sets of rules and rituals, with core values similar with today’s monotheism religions.

Had we live in the BC era, or the Jahiliyah era, where the polytheism was the generally accepted answer to our existence, would we become lost? Would we not have the chance to enter heaven? Who would get to heaven for that matter, as nobody believed in monotheism yet?

The Axial Age idea of heaven

Then come a period what theologian Karen Armstrong called the Axial Age, the period where the social-political circumstance in the world at that period of time has created a cultural shift in their respective regions, which eventually gave birth to the Abraham Religion in the Middle East, Confucius in China, and Logic in Ancient Greece, among others. The spread of these ideologies across the world, especially the Abraham Religion (Judaism, Christianity and later on Islam) as the majority monotheistic religious idealism, started to change the way human kind see their existence in this world, in the form of the Sole Creator and the idea of heaven and hell.

Heaven, it is commonly believed, is reserved for those who do good in life, while hell for those who do bad in life. But after 2000 years-or-so of existence, the religious bibles of the Abraham Religion, though written in a vast analogical context, could only cover up to such limited modern contexts. Can the killings conducted by US Soldiers in Iraq be justified religiously? If so what’s the difference with the “Jihad” conducted by Iraqis on killing the occupying US Soldiers? Would the derivatives traders who shorted the sub-prime mortgage CDOs in 2007, thus contributing to the crash of the sub-prime mortgage market, can be held accountable of ruining many lives in today’s crisis-ridden world? Will their profit-making trade reserve them a place in hell?

Slowly but sure modern-day people are starting to question the very essence of religion, and choose to believe more in Atheism and scientific proofs, as more and more scientific findings have emerged to seriously challenge the pivotal moments in religious history. Since 1957 we know that above us is not heaven but the outer space with planets, galaxies and mysteries. The findings from archaeology, science and historical investigation reveals that Moses didn’t necessarily perform a miracle when the Red Sea was divided. And Charles Darwin’s Origins of Species theory may provide the biggest challenge to the believe that God create us all.

With all of these external struggles, religious ideologies may face even more daunting task to defend itself with the emerging of internal struggles, with a bunch of people who exploit their respective religion, to poorly justify their unholy conduct. Cases such as the rise of so-called Militant Islamists and the scandals involving the Catholic Priests, among many others, are damaging the image of the real religion as a peaceful and pure teachings of life.

Indeed, like many other sensitive matters, all of these issues have many different angles and a lot of gray areas. Hence, it is understandable that religion becomes a hot topical debate that divide our modern-day society; with religious fanatics at one side, scientific findings on the other side and the pure religious devotees as the moderates that make the silent majority.

The silence says it all

So what’s the future for today’s monotheistic beliefs? Karen Armstrong believes that we are now on the verge of a second Axial Age. And all of these 2012 doomsday prophecy by the ancient societies does not necessarily translated as the end of the world, but instead the possible big cultural or social-political shift from the one we have for thousands of years to a move towards the unknown territory, or towards yet another abyss.

Some speculations about the “doomsday prophecy” have been around for several hundred years in the religious-based textbooks. A doomsday scenario analogically explained in the Christianity bible suggest that the world will come to an end when Palestine and Israel reach a peaceful state and when Europe are united to become one. Or from the Islamic scriptures, the prophet Muhammad once said that in the reckoning day there will be 73 different forms of Islam, but only 1 remains in the right path. This perhaps could explain the numerous “branches” of Islam or Islam-based ideologies such as Sunni, Shi’ite, Sufi, Khomeinism, Ishmaelism, the Kharijites, the Muslim Brothers, Wahhabism, and several smaller ideologies like FPI in my country, to mention a few. Or in the Christianity “branch” this would come down to Catholicism, Protestantism, Greek Orthodox, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Unitarianism, Baptism, Quakerism, Amish, Episcopalianism, Methodism, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormonism and Pentecostalism, among others.

Of course the problem is, every single one of them claims to be the “true and pure form” of their respective religion, and no single human being can determine which one is indeed the pure one. But the big question now is, does it really matter?

At their own respective time Socrates, Confucius, Shiva, Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus Christ, Prophet Muhammad, L Ron Hubbart, Joseph Smith and many more ideological leaders all have 2 things in common. Firstly they are all great leaders, and secondly they all preach the same Golden Rule that tries to put order out of the chaotic human irrationality: treat others the way you want to be treated. And no matter who we are and in which society we live in, we should always practice the good values in whatever faith(s) we truly believe in, and practice it according to the Golden Rule.

Only then we would realize that none of these religious issues matter. Because, the silent majority of religious devotees just live their lives peacefully practicing their own religion, without having to force what they believe to other people. That approach is what makes a small community of Zoroastrian religion still exist in Iran, and thus “survived” the first Axial Age. And that approach is what makes Voodoo religion (the religion, not the demonized Hollywood version) still hugely popular in West Africa and now in Haiti. Because it’s not about the teachings, but about the devotees who practice the teachings. It’s not religion that is violent or peaceful, but people that is violent or peaceful. And so ANY ideology can either be good or bad, depending on the practitioners.

Throughout our 7000 years of civilization, human beings have always try to define the meaning of our existence, of who we are and why are we here, without ever getting any confirmation back. Some rituals and beliefs live on, some evolved and some vanished through time. But no matter how we live our lives, and what belief(s) we subscribe to, in the end we all have the same destination: to reach the mountaintop. Some might feel that the way from the west is the best path, others feel that the south path is better. But it doesn’t really matter where we take the path to climb the mountain from, as long as we get there. And the mountaintop could be anything. It could be God, it could be heaven, or it could be peace and harmony. It could be scientific breakthrough, redemption from suffering, the state of Nirvana. Or it could be the ideology to put order out of our chaos.