The City of Light

If one city in the world can make a claim for being the City of Light then it is Leiden. It is not much of a discussion, since what is more fleeting than a photon, that ripples away in waves anyway ? Still, my dinner last evening with J.M. Barroso left me light-headed.

Leiden’s claim is based upon various points.

First, its very name would be Lugdunum. Lug or Loki or Lucifer is the god of light but also the god of lies and trickery, like that wave-particle duality itself. Dunum means dune or hill, a stronghold (ah, a particle!). Willebrord Snellius (1580-1626) discovered there the laws of the breaking of light. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was born there. Spinoza (1632-1677) ground his lenses closeby in Rijnsburg before moving to The Hague. Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) had two years of mathematics there. There are the Leiden astronomers who gave us the Oort cloud. Finally, there is the story of Jan Tinbergen who walked in Leiden, saw the poverty, and decided to do something about it, which was an enlightened thing to do.

These claims are not as strong as they might seem. The discussion on wikipedia suggests that it is rather closeby Katwijk had that very dune, while Leiden rather developed on the borders of a branch of the Rhine, with a different etymology, perhaps the lei stone or slate to create the embankment. It is not such a relevant distinction in terms of the modern urban sprawl. The logo of the University of Leiden has “academia Lugduno Batava” in it, locating it on the oldest maps, and it is merely fitting that this is something of a Loki trick to do.

Wikipedia also shows that an earlier discoverer of Snell’s law was Ibn Sahl at the Baghdad court in 984. We now understand why I was feeling rather light-headed after my dinner with Manny last evening, for my discussion with Manny was about Syria and Iraq, and naturally everything connects to everything.

Finally, there is a vidid debate on a Leiden internet forum whether it is so important that Rembrandt was born there. The memorial plaquette is not on the original house but merely closeby, which after 400 years should not be too surprising. Another point is that Rembrandt left Leiden in 1631 at age 25 for Amsterdam, where his career really took off (while it lasted). The rejoinder is that his name is “Rembrandt van Rijn” and not “Rembrandt van Amstel”. There was a serious painting tradition in Leiden that influenced Rembrandt, with Lucas van Leyden, Jan Steen, Gerard Dou (though this did not last, and the now most famous son is Armin van Buuren, DJ). Overall, Rembrandt would mean for Leiden as much as the Beatles for Liverpool who also left before they were 25.

When we consider the wikipedia list of other places that claim the title of “City of Light” then my bet remains on Leiden even though it hasn’t made that list yet. Paris may be the city of lights (plural) but there is a distinction between many bulbs and the idea what light might be. Huygens presented his theory on the wave property of light at the Academy in Paris, but it was published in Leiden 1690.

Let us finally consider one of Rembrandts first oils, painted in Leiden and perhaps part of his works to prove that he had become a master himself. It depicts the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt after the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem.

The Flight into Egypt, Rembrandt 1627 (Source: wikimedia commons)

The Flight into Egypt, Rembrandt 1627 (Source: wikimedia commons)

I find this image rather striking, since this very story about the flight to Egypt got me to think about the links between ancient Judea and Egypt, and how an elder Jesus might have brought some Egyptian ideas back to Judea. This became my book The simple mathematics of Jesus. (For example, YHWH in the Old Testament doesn’t mingle with people, except in an occasional moment as a burning bush. However Jesus in the New Testament walks the Earth, which is a very Egyptian thing to do, see here.)

For our modern times, when we see all these people fleeing from the massacres in Syria and Iraq, then we grow aware that this is no stable situation. The war will not be quickly resolved. What are Lebanon and Jordan supposed to do with their few resources ? Egypt at least has the Nile and the prospect for agriculture. Let us hope that Egypt grows willing to do more. My earlier weblog entry on bringing water to the desert is farfetched but ideas like that become more urgent with ever more people in the desert, and the burning light of the sun on them.

Addendum October 8 2014

A reader alerted me that Marinus van der Lubbe (1909-1934) was born in Leiden en must have suffered the poverty there. He was accused of causing the 1933 fire of the Reichstag – another Loki thing to do, of course. It is also said that it was a false accusation, and lying is a Loki thing to do too. Again, everything hangs together: earlier in this weblog we discussed the relation between Marinus van der Lubbe and Vladimir Putin.

The Reichstag building on fire in 1933 (Source: wikimedia commons)

The Reichstag building on fire in 1933 (Source: wikimedia commons)


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