1453: Siege of Constantinople: The Roman Empire split in two by the 200s AD, as it had become so large it could not be governed from Rome. The Emperor Constantine moved the capital to Byzantium, originally a small Greek fishing village, and named it after himself, Constantinople. In the 400s, the western half of the Roman empire finally fell, after demographic collapse and repeated invasions by Germanic tribes. The eastern half, still centered at Constantinople remained strong for almost 1000 more years. The Byzantine Empire was the center of Eastern Christianity, was run by Greek emperors, and remained a bastion of wealth and learning. The Ottoman Turks, originating in Central Asia, had their sights set on the West, and sought aggressive expansion of their empire. The Sultan, Mehmed II, at age 21, led a siege of Constantinople beginning on this day in 1453. The siege was successful leading to the final demise of the Eastern Roman empire. The city was renamed Istanbul and became the capital of the Ottomans, and it remains Istanbul today, and is the largest city in Turkey.
1808: Who wants to be a millionaire?: John Jacob Astor was born in what is now Germany in 1763. He emigrated to England and then to the U.S. after the revolutionary war. He shortly began working in the fur trading industry, and on this day in 1808 he founded the American fur company, which would eventually lead him to be the first multimillionaire in the U.S. At the time of his death in 1846, his net worth was around 20 million, equivalent to around 110.1 billion in today’s money, which would make him wealthier than Bill Gates. The Waldorf-Astoria hotel in NYC is named after him.
1896: First modern Olympic games: The Olympic Games were the pinnacle of athleticism in Ancient Greece. Athletes would compete nude for a laurel leaf crown. The Roman Emperor Theodosius I ordered the end of all pagan practices in the 300s, and so the games were on hold for almost 2000 years. Classicists tried to revive it at various times, but the idea did not pick up steam until the 1800s when Greek nationalists proposed the idea. The first Olympic Games as we know them was held on this day in 1896 in Athens. 14 countries participated, all European except Australia, Chile, and the U.S., which won 11 gold medals. The Olympics has grown to be the largest international sporting event, with nations clamoring to host it. The next summer Olympics will be in 2020 in Tokyo, the most recent being this last summer in Rio de Janeiro.
1909: Peary and Henson reach North Pole: The North Pole had long been a mystery. The northern most reaches of the world were inhabited by Inuits, Saami, Siberians, and other tribes, and even they did not venture to the North Pole. Europeans and Americans made several unsuccessful attempts, and in 1909, Naval Engineer Robert Peary and his associate Matthew Henson, along with four Inuit men reached the North Pole. They are now hailed as the first to reach the North Pole, though their claim is now disputed.
1994: Rwandan Genocide: Rwanda in the 1990s was a powder keg. A Belgian Colony, the ruling elites determined that the population was divided between Hutus and Tutsis. Hutus were generally shorter, considered to have more stereotypically “African,” features and were farmers, while Tutsis were taller, considered to have more “European,” looking features, and were generally pastoralists. Tutsis controlled the traditional Rwandan monarchy, and had for centuries, and were considered to occupy a higher place in the social hierarchy. In 1994, Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira were in a plane that was shot down while the two were landing in Kigali. The deaths of the two men, both Hutus, triggered the Rwandan Genocide. Hutu militias killed up to 800,000 people, 70-80% of the Tutsi population. The genocide still has a looming effect on Rwanda, with the demographics being severely altered, and AIDS ravaging much of the population from mass rapes. The current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, is Tutsi.