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AND EXPLORERS 1000 - 1600






















People and Events Included in this Page


First Crusade 1096

Genghis Khan  (1160 - 1227 (67))

Ilkhan Helegu  (c1217 - 1265 (48)) (sacked Baghdad in 1258)

Prester John  (fictional - mid 12 hundreds)

John of Plano Carpini  (mid 12 hundreds)

William of Rubruck  (mid 12 hundreds)

Marco Polo  (1254 - 1324 (70))

Friar Odoric  (c1275 - 1331 (56))

Jacob d'Ancona  (late twelve hundreds)

Ibn Battuta  (1304 - 1368 (64))

  Sir John Mandeville  (fraudster - mid 13 thirteen hundreds)


Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli  (1397 - 1482 (85))

John Cabot  (c1450 - c1499 (49))

Christopher Columbus  (1451 - 1506 (55))

Amerigo Vespucci  (1454 - 1512 (58))

Vasco da Gama  (1460 - 1524 (64))

Ferdinand Magellan  (1480 - 1521 (41))

Giovanni da Verrazzano  (1485 - 1528 (43))

Sir Francis Drake (1545 - 1596 (51))



Links to Paradoxplace book pages:


"Books by and about Travellers in the Middle Ages"

"Books about Exploration and Mapmaking"






In the mid-centuries of the first millennium BC, the dominant trade routes  between Europe and Asia linked Greece and India.  Items brought from India included ivory, gems, and spices, with some silk on-shipped from Chinese sources (silk worms were unknown outside China).



In the final centuries of the millennium, silk started arriving in Europe from China by overland routes that became known as "The Silk Road".  By 100 BC silk laden caravans with one hundred people or more were travelling the Silk Road to Europe at the rate of one or more a month.




These routes prospered  through the aftermath of the of the Roman Empire, with the search for spices carrying some seafarers to Asian ports further east still, and Constantinople taking over from Rome as the biggest market.  Along with the emergence of Constantinople, came the seafaring control of the Mediterranean by Italian Maritime Republics like Amalfi, Genoa and, the most successful of all, Venice.


Trade with the East continued during the rapid expansion of Muslim controlled territory in the six and seven hundreds, but costs blew out as more and more middle men started demanding money for tolls and protection en route.  Another blow to the prosperity of the Silk Road as a trade route came in 553, when  two European monks smuggled some silk worm eggs out of China and a fledgling silk industry was hatched in Europe.


The Crusades, covering a period of just under 200 years from 1096 to 1291, coupled with the establishment of the Crusader controlled kingdoms in the Levant, introduced many more Northern Europeans to exotic goods and spices for the first time, and added hugely to the demand for them in Europe. 


The explosive growth of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan (1160 - 1227) and his successors reached Hungary after his death, but that was as far as they got, losing the decisive Battle of Sajo River on 27 April 1241.  Later, and  further South, Ilkhan Hulagu (a grandson of Ghengis, as was Kublai who established the 90 year Yuan Dynasty in China in 1279) destroyed Baghdad in 1258 with a grisly ferocity - sewing up the last Abbasid Caliph in a rug and having him trampled to death by horses.    Once again, however, the Mongols advanced no further, to the disappointment of the Crusader Kingdoms, who had invented a fictional character called Prester John, who was said to be a Christian King in ultimate control of the Mongols (though many thought he ruled from African Abyssinia!), who were thus seen to be potentially natural allies of Pope and Crusaders.


In Egypt, the Mamelukes took over the Caliphate, and stopped and decisively beat the Mongols at Ain Jalut in 1260.  Thereafter a period of relative stability ensued in Asia Minor and Asia (the "Pax Mongolia" period) and Popes, Kings and Entrepreneurs in the Euro-boomtimes  of the 12 hundreds started funding emissaries to the new lands to find out what was happening, make converts and set up hopefully lucrative trade arrangements.






The best known of the early Arab invented navigational instruments was the Astrolabe.


Astrolabes were functionally effective (not to mention beautiful) instruments which enabled the user to "perform such diverse tasks as timekeeping at day and night, surveying, determining latitude, and casting horoscopes."  (British Museum).


The astrolabe on the left below is thought to have originated in the Baghdad court of the Abbasid Caliphs in the early 900s.  The cast brass instrument on the right has a much more certain provenance, bearing a maker's stamp and date - Nastulus (Iraq) - 315 (which corresponds to 927CE).  Below right is an astrolabe exhibited in the  the little visited Archaeological Museum in Granada, Southern Spain, and on the left one from the also little visited Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.


Gerbert of Aurillac (later to become Pope Sylvester II 999 - 1003) spent the last half of the 900s studying in various cities in the Umayyad caliphate of Cordoba, and later wrote "The Book of the Astrolabe" which was the first Latin explanation of the astrolabe, which became the cult instrument for anyone claiming an up to date knowledge of science.  The word was even used as a name - the son of the brief union between Abelard and Heloise was christened Astrolabe. 


Many more books on this beautiful instrument followed.  400 years after Aurillac's book, the English writer Geoffrey Chaucer (c1342 - 1400) gave his son Lewis an astrolabe for his 13th birthday and wrote (in English) a set of instructions to go with it.  This is the first known scientific text in English. 


Amongst other achievements the Muslim cultures also produced geographers and mapmakers, one of the most famous of whom was the Cordoban (Spanish) Arab Botanist and Geographer Al-Idrisi (1099 - 1166 (67)) who worked at the Palermo Court of the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II.


Astrolabe Earliest Asrrolabe, Treasures from Kuwait


An astrolabe photo obtained in the earlier days of Paradoxplace, and we cannot presently trace the source.


Bronze astrolabe made in Iraq in 927-28 - the earliest known example of a dated astrolabe.  Illustration from "Islamic Art and Patronage - Treasures from Kuwait" exhibition catalogue.



Astrolabe, l'Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris



Astrolabe - Granada Archaelogical Museum



Astrolabe from Turkey c1703, exhibited in the otherwise disappointing L'Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris - though they have produced some interesting special exhibitions.  The Louvre is unveiling its huge Islamic collection in a rebuilt exhibition area in 2010.



This beautiful Astrolabe can be seen in the little visited Archaeological Museum in Granada.





We discovered this fascinating book, appropriately, in a book sale in the ho-very-hum buildings which occupy the Ponta de Sagres, where the famous Portuguese School of Navigation founded by Prince Henry - Navigator and Knight Templar - used to be before Francis Drake flamed it. 


The book is published as a numbered collectors' edition (including a set of stamps) by the Portuguese Post Office Collectors' Club.    It is a tour de force of the development of navigational instruments, written in parallel Portuguese and English texts and accompanied by (you guessed) beautiful photographs and illustrations.  It is 24.5 cm square and it has 160 pages.  Its ISBN is 972-9127-40-9 if you want to try and track one down !




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MARCO POLO (1254 - 1324 (70)) ET AL JOIN IN


Early starters on the trip to the Mongol capital of Karakorum were two Franciscan Friars - John of Plano Carpini in 1245 at the request of the Pope, and William of Rubruck in 1253 at the request of the King of France (who at that time only controlled a small area of land around Paris and probably had a need to get out more). 



Many more followed, the most famous being  Marco Polo  (1254 - 1324 (70)),  Friar Odoric  (c1275 - 1331 (56)),  Jacob d'Ancona (late twelve hundreds), Ibn Battuta (1304 - 1368 (64)) and the fraudster Sir John Mandeville (mid thirteen hundreds) who, if he existed at all, was more skilful at plagiarization than travel.  Accounts of these journeys are in books which can be bought today - see the Paradoxplace Book page:


"Books by and about travellers in the middle ages"


The Venetian Marco Polo  (1254 - 1324 (70)) first went east to China (Cathay) at the age of six with his father and uncle. Their second trip in 1271 resulted in a 17 year stay and (according to him but not any Chinese records) Marco becoming a member of Kublai Khan's Privy Council. His later book ("The Travels") dictated to a romance writer called Rustichello di Pisa whilst a war prisoner in Genoa, was a best seller (and is still available in Penguin Books).  Nicknamed "il Millione" (the million lies) by a fascinated but sceptical Italian public, it raised questions as to whether he had gone to China at all - still a subject of academic debate (see "Did Marco Polo Go to China?" by Frances Wood and "Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World" by John Larner). 


Wherever he was during those 17 years is really of secondary importance to the impact his book had as a catalyst for firing up the imaginations of future generations of would be travellers.  He was buried in the Venetian church of San Lorenzo, but his remains and tomb mysteriously disappeared without trace during some later renovations.


Ibn Battuta (1304 - 1369 (65)) was born in Tangier, Morocco.  In 1325, at the age of 21, he went travelling for 30 years.  He is the only medieval traveller who is known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. He also travelled in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), China and Byzantium and South Russia. The extent of his travels has been estimated at no less than 75,000 miles, a figure which is not likely to have been surpassed before the age of steam.  He died in Fez in Morocco.




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Meantime if you want to learn a lot more about the stories behind this page, and look at more maps (some of which came from this book), this is the book for you.



Had they but known, the Chinese had already done it all in the early fourteen hundreds, but selfishly did not tell anyone.  That's Gavin Menzies' story anyway .......






In 1348 Europe (in the wake of Asia) slammed into the brick wall of the Black Death, which knocked off well over half its population and stopped what remained of the good times of the 1200s dead in its tracks.  The next generation of Central and Northern Italians were to emerge from the flames as the drivers of the Italian Renaissance, which gathered pace swiftly as the dreadful thirteen hundreds faded into history. 


Greater wealth than ever before regenerated demand for goodies from the East.  Middle men and "toll collectors" along the overland routes became better armed and greedier as did the traders like the banks who in those times were general emporiums for all sorts of stuff in addition to money (Want a camel? Go and talk to your friendly Medici bank manager).


The only way to avoid the toll collectors was to use the sea, but you also had to be strong enough to protect yourself from pirates, and for powerful maritime nation states such as Spain and Portugal this option also had the possibility of achieving trade monopolies by blowing competitors out of the water.


A lot was already known about the Indian Ocean ports and sea routes from the activities of seaborne traders from there, who landed their goods in Arabia for overland transport to Constantinople, Venice and Europe.  So the most obvious option was to find a way of linking Europe by sea with the Indian Ocean ports, by finding out if it was possible to sail around the bottom of Africa.


The high risk / high return option was to head west into the unknown.  The Florentine mathematician, astronomer and map maker Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397 - 1482) had calculated that the westerly distance to China would be much shorter than the easterly option although this assertion was based, unknowingly, on a very underestimated measure for the earth's diameter.  And of course no-one knew there was another double continent (the Americas) in the way.   In fact Columbus was said to have copied Toscanelli's thesis onto the flyleaf of one of his log books, and there were probably other ancient "secret" sea charts passed from captain to captain which said something similar.
















Christopher Columbus 1451 - 1506 (55)

Amerigo Vespucci 1454 - 1512 (58)

Giovanni da Verrazzano 1485 - 1528 (43)



Christopher Columbus 1451 - 1506 (55)


reached the New World (thinking it to be Asia)

on 12 October 1492*


Link to Portraits and more background on Christopher Columbus


Link to the Convent of Rábida in Spain (Colombus' expedition base), replicas of Colombus' three boats and the wooden cross he left in Baracoa, Cuba


Born a wool merchant's son in Genoa, swam into Portugal in 1476 after his ship was sunk in battle.  Conceived of "The Enterprise of the Indies" in 1484 as a result of his own voyages from Iceland to Guinea and encouraged by Toscanelli's calculations and the economic attractiveness of the "go west to China" school of thought. 


After failing to get financial support from the Portuguese King John, Columbus finally negotiated the "Contract of Santa Fe" with Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who were on a roll after evicting the Moors (and Jews) from their last Spanish stronghold in Grenada earlier in 1492*.  Columbus was supported in these extended negotiations by two Franciscan Friars from the beautiful little convent of  Rábida near Huelva in SW Spain.


His first expedition departed Spain on 2 August 1492 and the "New World" (= Bahamas) was sighted at 2am on 12 October 1492*.  There is an unusual gastronomic insight into the first voyage from Castello Banfi in Montalcino.


In accordance with his contract, Columbus was made Admiral of the Ocean Sea, viceroy of his discoveries and owner of 10% of any new wealth.  But it never really worked out as he (possessor of advanced nouveau riche values) wanted.  Three other expeditions followed with mixed results (in a class of his own as an intuitive navigator, there was nothing intuitive or classy about his leadership or organization skills!) and he died in obscurity in Spain in 1506, still convinced that he had reached Asia.  Worse still for his posterity, his discovery was named after someone else, the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci.


In 1502 he had all the agreements he had made with the Spanish Crown, along with an associated Papal Bull, bound together into a book "The Book of Privileges", and all three vellum copies of this still exist.  What do not exist any more are the logs and charts from the 1492 voyage.  On his triumphant return Queen Isabella souvenired them and had a copy made for him.  Both documents have since disappeared.


After his death, his bones kept travelling for 400 years until they ended up in a ghastly tomb in Seville Cathedral.


* 1492 was also the year in which Lorenzo de'Medici ("Il Magnifico") died in Florence, and the last Moorish Kingdom (Granada) was defeated by the forces of Ferdinand and Isobella in Andalucia (Spain).  It has a good claim to being the marker of the End of the European Middle Ages.




Link to Wikipedia entry for Christopher Columbus



Columbus' Boats - Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, at Rabida Convent, Spain


Replicas of Columbus' three little boats moored below the Convent of Rábida in Andalucia



Columbus' Cross - Baracoa, Cuba


Sole survivor of Columbus' first expedition - a wooden cross ("Cruz de la Parra") erected on Saturday 1 December 1492 by Columbus in what in 1512 became the harbour of the first Spanish settlement in Cuba - Baracoa (Photo: John McNamara)



Amerigo Vespucci 1454 - 1512 (58)



Amerigo Vespucci 1454 - 1512 (58) was a member of a prominent Florentine family (who, as a matter of interest, worshipped at Ognissanti, Botticelli and Ghirlandao's church on the north bank of the River Arno near the centre of Florence).  He worked for the Medici Bank, though was not one of their high fliers and was obviously more interested in cartography and exploration that banking.


By the 1490s he was living in Seville (Spain) working for one of the merchants who supplied Columbus (1451 - 1506 (55)),  and in the process became a lifelong friend of the great explorer.  No doubt fired up by this, Vespucci gave away merchanting and in 1597 took off as the navigator of a westerly voyage of his own also under the flag of Spain.  He claimed to have been involved in at least one more voyage supported by Spain (which discovered the mouth of the River Amazon), and two for Portugal before he returned to Spain as "Pilot Major of Spain". 


All these expeditions were to the continent that became known as South America, and all have been called into question, partly because there are no ships' logs to corroborate Amerigo's accounts.  However, It is now widely accepted that our man did what he had claimed, and in particular became the first person to understand and do the hard yards to show that this was actually a new continent and not India or China, as most had hitherto thought.


Amerigo by Felipe Fernandez Armesto

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 Amerigo Vespucci painted by Ghirlandaio


A young Amerigo Vespucci is on the right (face immediately to the left of the Madonna) of this Vespucci family group in a fresco by Ghirlandaio in the church of  Ognissanti, Florence (look up to the lunette over the Ghirlandaio fresco immediately to the right inside the main entrance)



Two descriptive and entertaining letters from Amerigo to his mates at the Medici bank back in Florence got published in 1503-04 and achieved wide circulation in Italy and then Europe (shades of the other Italian Marco Polo born exactly 200 years before Amerigo - did the Italians think that this was another Millione lies?).  


In 1507 an otherwise obscure German clergyman and amateur geographer called Waldseemuller, and a small medieval think tank he ran, published an "Introduction to Cosmography" in which they included a massive blob of a new continent south of the Equator which they named "America" after Amerigo.  At this time the stuff above the Equator was still just shown as a collection of small islands, the third Italian Verrazano was still to do his bit in mapping the coast of the northern continent in the 1520s.  As this was filled in, the name America slipped into usage for both north and south landmasses in maps produced from the 1520s.


Despite the fact that there was no evidence that Amerigo had lied or cheated, and certainly none that he had conspired to have his name adorn the new continents, it became fashionable to question his achievements and criticize him for "usurping" his friend Columbus as namee.  An extreme example of this was the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who four hundred years later grossly and without any evidence described Vespucci as "the pickle dealer of Seville - who managed ..... to suppress Columbus and baptize half the world in his own dishonest name". 



Giovanni da Verrazzano 1485 - 1528 (43)



Giovanni da Verrazzano, Greve-in-Chianti, Tuscany


Early 1900s statue of Giovanni da Verrazzano in the Piazza of Greve in Chianti


Giovanni da Verrazzano (from Greve in Chianti where his statue stands in the Piazza) was the one who did the early hard yards in the discovery of the East Coast of North America.  Giovanni set out in 1524 with four ships, promoted by the French King Francis I, and paid for by Italian Bankers and Merchants from Lyons (Kings did not pay for things).  Two of the ships sank early on and a third got no further than the coast of Spain before having to return home as it was fully laden with booty taken from other less well armed travellers - an interesting commentary on the times! 


Our lad made it across the Atlantic in ship 4 and amongst other things discovered New York Harbour (hence the bridge there bearing his name - the longest suspension bridge in the World) and lots of different tribes of native Americans. 


He also erroneously identified a sea passing through the middle of the continent to China. 


He made two more expeditions before being captured and eaten by natives in Guadeloupe in 1528.  Well that's the Italian culinary version of his end.  Spanish records say that he was captured off the coast of Cadiz and executed on the orders of Charles V, who was probably still smarting about the loss of a treasure ship loaded with priceless loot sent to him from Mexico by Cortés, and captured by Verrazzano in 1522.









Novelists, journalists and several historians who should know better, have made a play out of the supposition that the common belief in the middle ages in Europe - pushed by the church -  was that the world was flat, and even sometimes that the trial of Galileo was about whether the earth was flat (it was actually about whether the earth revolved around the sun or vice-versa).


The explorers of the 1400s had plenty of things to be seriously worried about (like most of them never came back), but falling off the edge of the world in the middle of the night was not one of them.  Pythagoras had shown in around 500 BC that the earth was spherical, a notion picked up later by Aristotle.  The early fathers of the church did not dispute this by then pervasive belief, despite some ambiguous statements in the bible (what's new?!).  The Northumbrian Venerable Bede went much further in terms of positive written affirmation in  the early 700s AD, and was widely quoted on the subject.  On the other (flat earth) side was no authoritative voice - in fact hardly any voices at all.


Columbus' challenge was that no one knew the diameter of the earth, and thus how far he had to sail to reach the East Indies (his objective).  The diameter estimates he worked on (for example by Toscanelli) were seriously under the real figure (24,900 miles if you are interested), but luckily for him the continents later to be known as the Americas were in the way, otherwise he pretty certainly would have disappeared from history without trace.


Then much later, in 1896, an obscure writer called Andrew Dickson White wrote a weighty tome called "The Warfare of Science with Theology" in which amongst other things he claimed that the church of the middle ages worked assiduously and successfully to propagate the flat earth theory.  Problem was that he had next to no evidence to support this.  No matter, it was a catchy "conspiracy theory" with the church as the bad boy (shades of the da Vinci Code) and achieved much more currency than it deserved, being as how it was wrong.




And as a quirky postscript a much earlier measurer, Eratosthenes, Librarian of Alexandria, wrote a treatise "On the Measurement of the Earth" (now lost) in which he gave a figure for the Earth's circumference of the equivalent of about 23,000 miles.  His method involved pacing out the distance between two points 500 miles apart, and was obviously subject to significant error limits.  Although it turned out to be 2,000 miles short of the truth, most people at the time thought that his figure was a significant overestimate.





Vasco da Gama 1460 - 1524 (64)

John Cabot c1450 - c1499 (49)



Vasco da Gama 1460 - 1524 (64)


Link to Portraits of Vasco da Gama


Portuguese navigator who in 1497, five years after Columbus' first voyage, sailed to India via the Cape of Good Hope.  On the way he named his southern African landfall "Natal" (which is the province surrounding Durban) after making it ashore there on Christmas Day 1497. 


The Cape of Good Hope, and thus the existence of a sea route to India, had been discovered by the Portuguese navigator Bartolomé Dias in 1488 in the wake of several earlier Portuguese expeditions which pushed gradually further down the west coast of Africa, and it is odd that almost another decade elapsed before an expedition was mounted to exploit this knowledge.





John Cabot c1450 - c1499 (49)


John Cabot, the least remembered of the 1490s explorers was, would you believe, actually another Italian - born Zuan Cabato, probably in Genoa.  After a long spell in Venice and then Spain, and probably after failing to get support for a Columbus style westerly voyage from the monarchs of Spain or Portugal,  he settled in Bristol, one of the great medieval ports of England with a history which included trading people (slaves) as well as stuff.  There he obtained a patent from King Henry VII (1457-1485-1509 (52) - the English King who invented the Tudor Dynasty - to mount an expedition "to Asia" via the north Atlantic.


The expedition sailed west in May 1497 and discovered Newfoundland (though like Columbus, Cabot thought it was part of Asia).  A second voyage further explored the north east American coast, but got nowhere with a possible northwest passage (his objective), which was to frustrate generations of explorers before it was accepted that it did not exist!  A third voyage did not return (except for one boat), but there is tenuous evidence that it might have reached Canada and then got as far as South America.



The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494)


was an agreement between Spain and Portugal, brokered by the Spanish Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) and ignored by other European nations, which drew an imaginary line in the Atlantic and allocated everything to the West to Spain, and to the East to Portugal.  As the line went through Brazil, the Portuguese had that as their only American colony, which is why Brazil, alone in the Americas, speaks Portuguese.





Ferdinand Magellan 1480 - 1521 (41)


Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan


Portuguese courtier turned navigator who transferred his services to Spain.  In 1519 he set sail from Seville across the Atlantic with five ships and over 270 men in search of the Spice Islands.  They sailed past the interestingly named "Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins" but did not stop off and sailed on through what was to become known as the Magellan Strait at the southerly tip of South America,  crossed an ocean he named "the Pacific" because it was, and landed in the Philippines, where our man was killed in a scuffle with the natives.  One ship and 18 men made it back to Spain in 1522.  One of those who returned was the Italian nobleman Antonio Pigafetta whose detailed day by day account of the entire voyage survived and is available as a book.


Magellan is credited with circumnavigating the world because he had earlier (1501-12) made it to the Spice Islands via the Cape of Good Hope.






Sir Francis Drake 1545 - 1596 (51)


There was a gap of nearly 60 years before the circumnavigation by the English pirate and navigator Sir Francis Drake.


In Elizabethan times (1558 - 1603) England was the rogue state of Europe, a thorn in the side of the 'orderly' running of the New World agreed by Spain and Portugal.  Nobody exemplifies this role better than Francis Drake.  His first serious brush with the Spanish in Mexico came in a slave trading expedition organized with a relative, John Hawkins, in 1567.  In 1572 came a more deliberately aggressive expedition to the Gulf of Mexico and the capture of much Spanish loot (or 'treasure' as they liked to call it).    


In November 1577 five ships headed by the "Golden Hind" and including 164 select troops, set out from Plymouth under Drake's command.  The fleet rounded Cape Horn and proceeded up the west coast of South America, plundering and destroying on the way, until it reached the then Miwok Indian run Bay of San Francisco, which Drake claimed for England.  Off then to Timor where he actually bought a lot of spices with previously stolen gold, and hence back to England in 1580 via a bit more (slaving ?) business in Sierra Leone.


By 1585 the scale of operations had stepped up to 25 ships privateering in the Caribbean, now with overt support from the Queen, and in 1587 he managed to sink 33 Spanish ships at Cadiz - seriously delaying their program to invade England.  Whilst in the area he also laid waste to the famous Navigational School of Henry the Navigator near Cape Saint Vincent in Portugal.  A decade later Drake, the career pirate, destroyer and national hero of England, died of dysentery whilst commanding an even larger full scale attack on the West Indies, and the Spanish could breathe a sigh of relief.  He never got round to building anything.








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