Common Errors (33): Cradle of Civilization

23 May 2010

Bronze Age city Ebla

One of the things that made me smile in Damascus was the use of slogans. Tourists are attracted with the sincerely brilliant “Come to Damascus. Get a vision”. (The place where Paul of Tarsus saw the light is along the main road to Bosra.) Less felicitous was a series of posters that showed the president, apparently modeled on Harvey Dent and even including a paraphrasis of his slogan (“I believe in Syria”).

Another slogan states that Syria was the “cradle of religions” – which indeed attracts visitors. Western Christians come to Damascus to see the place where Paul escaped across the city wall. I once flew from Tehran to Damascus in the company of a group of pilgrims who wanted to visit the tomb of Huseyn, the third imam.

Most relics are of rather doubtful authenticity – the window from which Paul was lowered is medieval – but there is a more serious problem with this religious tourism. To understand it, we must go back a while, two centuries, to Berlin. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the government of Prussia was reorganizing its educational system, and founded a new university that was not based on a medieval model, but on the needs of science and scholarship. Generally speaking, this reform was a great success, and many modern universities are based on the Berlin model.

However, for ancient historians, the new model was disastrous, because it became part of two faculties. People studying ancient Greece and Rome had to learn Greek and Latin first, and had to visit the subfaculty of classical languages; those who wanted to study the ancient Near East, had to attend courses at the subfaculty of Semitic languages. What had always been a unity, now became divided – and unfortunately, this division became popular in other countries.

In those days, the Greeks and Romans were a source of inspiration to the civilized, liberal bourgeoisie, which believed that the ancients had been free people who thought rationally. Classical Athens and Rome were, therefore, studied from a humanist point of view. On the other hand, scholars interested in the Near East studied the past to better understand the Bible. This was considered to be so important that, once the cuneiform script had been deciphered, priority was given to the publication of those tablets that helped to illuminate the rise of Judaism. Administrative documents, for example, were neglected.

So, in the nineteenth century, one part of Antiquity was explored from a humanist point of view, and the other from a religious perspective. Texts were selected accordingly, and it was inevitable that the difference was projected on the past itself. People started to think that the ancient Near East was the cradle of our religions and that Greece marked the rise of rationalism.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, all this started to change. Cuneiform tablets have shown beyond reasonable doubt how much the ancient Babylonians had achieved as scientists, echos from Semitic poetry have been found in the oldest Greek literature, and books like Eric Dodds’ famous The Greeks and the Irrational have made it clear that it is silly to think of the ancient Greeks as Enlightenment philosophers avant la lettre. No professionally trained historian can accept the previously mentioned dichotomy.

Unfortunately, they are still employed in the mass media – think only of Frank Miller’s 300 (review) and a book like Tom Holland’s Persian Fire (review). Occasionally, a serious scholar succumbs to the charms of simplicity, like classicist Paul Cartledge and political scientist Anthony Pagden, who are apparently serious when they write that East and West are involved in an eternal struggle between freedom and despotism, rationalism and mysticism.

The truth is that there is not so much difference between on the one hand Greece and Rome, and on the other hand the ancient Near East. It is quite ironical that the Syrians have accepted the western prejudices about the “cradle of religion”. Syria has a lot more to offer than that.

<Overview of Common Errors>

The Middle East and Its Pasts

5 November 2008

A Magian. Relief from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

A Magian. Relief from the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.

As it happens, I was able to visit some of the most beautiful museums of the Middle East in just over one year. About a year ago, I visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara; in January, I was in the National Museum in Cairo; and right now, I am in Syria, where I have been to the two national archaeological museums at Damascus and Aleppo.

The Egyptian museum, which offers objects from everywhere in Egypt, was a bit of a disappointment. Oh yes, the objects were beautiful, but I felt dissatisfied, and it took some time until I realized why: because there had been hundreds of objects illuminating the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, but the Late Period had been treated – well, to be honest, it had hardly been treated. Two centuries of Persian domination received one room – not very much, compared to the many rooms devoted to, say, Tutanchamun.

It is the same here in Aleppo. Ther museum has an extremely interesting collection of finds from the Bronze Age: Ebla, Mari, Ugarit, and Tell Halaf are represented with dozens of fine objects, all shown in nice displays with good explanatory signs. Especially the recently redesigned Tell Halaf rooms are splendid. But after the Early Iron Age, it stops. I saw 1 (one) Achaemenid cup from Tell Ahmar, and – except for some coins – no Seleucid finds whatsoever (although Aleppo is a Hellenistic town, once known as Beroea). There is indeed a department of Roman and Byzantine art, but it is comparatively small; and still, this is close to the ‘Dead Cities’ and one of the thirty or so main military settlements of the Roman Empire, the legionary base of Cyrrhus.

This is not to say that Aleppo is a bad museum – on the contrary. We could spend a full day taking photographs, even though we had forgotten to ask for a permit. The director personally arranged that we could do our job, for which I am very grateful – where on earth is a museum director so concerned with the visitors’ well-being?

The point is that the museums of Aleppo and Cairo, or the ministers of education in Syria and Egypt, have chosen to highlight the ‘national’ part of the past, when their countries ruled themselves. There is also a difference: that Egypt’s national past is absolutely monocultural, whereas Syria’s national past is pluriform: the sites I mentioned above were open to influences from Babylonia, Anatolia, and Egypt. The same can be said about the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations: Turkey is a palimpsest of older cultures.

What these national archaeological museums have in common, is that they ignore that part of the past in which the countries had lost their independence. You will find few Assyrian or Persian objects in those museums, although the Greek and Roman periods are not completely forgotten. We may regret this, but at least it is a choice: it is better than displaying everything without any thought at all – any museum must make a selection, always.

Still, I regret that the periods in which these countries were ruled by foreign masters, are so poorly covered. The Achaemenid period – two century – is too important to ignore. Besides, interaction between civilizations is interesting, and it gains significance when it is not just cultural cross-fertilization within a region (so well-illustrated in Ankara and Aleppo), but when a political dimension is added. This is not to say that these museums have not made me enthusiastic, but a different – more relevant – approach is possible.


27 October 2008
Inscription mentioning Apollodorus from Damascus; originally in the Umayyad Mosque, now in the Archaeological Museum

Inscription mentioning Apollodorus from Damascus; originally in the Umayyad Mosque, now in the Archaeological Museum

It’s a problem any blogger encounters: sometimes, you have no time to write, and will disappoint those who make a habit of checking your blog. I do not believe there are many who visit this website on a daily base (only my mum and dad, probably), but for those who are interested in the reason of my recent silence: I am now in Damascus, Syria, and even if I had the time to improve my website and write about that, I could not possibly post it. I am pretty busy and can not often visit an internet cafe.

Over the past two weeks, I have been travelling about 4,000 km and I have made photos of nearly forty sites. In due time, they will be put online (although the Arab calligraphy part is a bit off-topic). I expect to remain here for another two weeks, finishing a book on the Near Eastern (Babylonian, Arabic) legacy to Ancient Medieval Europe. It’s called Vergeten erfenis (‘forgotten legacy‘) and that’s indeed a cliche – anyone who knows a better title is invited to write me. In spite of the title, I like to write the book, although I fear that in the present climate in Dutch politics, where Islam-bashing is common, nobody is waiting for it.

And for those who are worried that I am working too hard: I take sufficient time to relax. I just finished drinking a good coffee and will now be going for a stroll through the Damascene markets, enjoying the noise and the smell of oriental herbs.