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.

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