What Makes History?

The Bull-Headed Lyre from a tomb in southern Iraq dates to 2,550 BCE and sports a beard in lapis lazuli which probably came from northern Afghanistan. Contrary to popular belief, ancient Mesopotamian culture was not a singular civilization but thrived on a global trade network in which exchange rather than isolation was the order of the day.

My last posting discussed the education of a historian (with a nod to my first historian-mentors; there would be many more to come). I ended with one of the most important– and least appreciated– reasons for studying history: to challenge assumptions and bust myths. The most important myths to bust are those that trap us into believing that our political systems, our economic and social positions, and our beliefs were somehow ordained from on-high and are, by extension, impervious to change, to challenge, and to transformation. The beautiful secret is that most of what we take for granted was created, fought for, or– itself– transformed (for better or for worse) by our human predecessors. What was created by humans can be changed by humans. Imagine: History as liberation!

A good example of myth-busting is David Wengrow’s recent What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010). The title was doubtless part of a marketing strategy for no scholar with Wengrow’s training, specialization, and academic output would presume to answer such a question, not to mention weaving together the ancient past and the future of the West. Only political theorists like Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, and Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, have the temerity to dispense with History so brazenly.

Huntington’s thesis– that global conflict is animated by civilizational (read religious) difference– continues to carry significant weight among policy makers and consumers of the mass media. Thus, Wengrow begins his dismantling of powerful myths about the ancient past by explaining their significance for the world we live in. He takes on Huntington briefly and then turns to the real work of history-writing: careful reconstruction of an alternative explanation fortified with evidence and mellowed with nuance.

To facilitate a quick appreciation of Wengrow’s achievement, I’ve identified three important myths that he dispenses with using the latest archeological evidence. (He does not organize his book this way, but I find it useful to analyze a book like this “sideways”.)

First, a few points of clarification. The focus of What Makes Civilization? is the region the British once called the Near East stretching from the Indus (and the ancient city of Harappa in today’s Pakistan) in the east to the Aegean (encompassing ancient Greece) in the west. Though he takes the long view and goes back more than 10,000 years in human history, Wengrow is interested interpreting the Bronze Age (roughly 3,000-2,300 BCE).

Myth #1: The Near Eastern “cradle of civilization” includes two ancient urbanized cultures, that of the Tigris/Euphrates Valley in modern-day Iraq and that of the Nile in Egypt, which developed separately and independently of one another. Wrong! In fact, the evidence indicates that there was a thriving trade which dates back to hunter-gatherer times (more than 10,000 years ago) that knit this entire region together. Wengrow devotes particular attention to lapis lazuli, the most sought after gem of the time. The only source of genuine lapis lazuli was in northern Afghanistan. Evidence of the blue stone and parallel styles in its use can be found in the entire Near East region stretching back long before the advent of citied civilizations in the river valleys. There are a multiplicity of other examples of trade in commodities, in styles, in beliefs, and ideas among these societies going back long before the Bronze Age. This careful analysis matched with an eye for the “big picture” leads to this conclusion: civilization is”the historical outcome of exchange and borrowings between societies, rather than… attributes that set one society apart from another.” (xviii)

These megaliths at the site of Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey are about 11,000 years old, 6,000 years older than Stonehenge.

Myth #2: The civilizations of the Near East developed over a relatively short period, bursting onto the historical stage fully mature, urbanized, centralized, and overflowing with material surplus. Wrong again! The developments that culminated with the emergence of what historians call “complex societies” took place over millenia stretching back into the Neolithic and even hunter-gatherer stages of social history. Hunter-gatherers pioneered the development of sailing technology in the Mediterranean but also along the Persian Gulf coast and the along the Arabian Sea, regions which take on a new significance in Wengrow’s wide-angle view of civilization. (43) The oldest examples of monumental architecture– often heralded as a hallmark of urbanization– date back to the 10th millennium, at the dawn of agriculture itself. At Göbekli Tepe in southern Turkey, archeologists have uncovered massive stone columns and relief works that may have been part of a spiritual center for nomadic peoples. (43-44). This kind of evidence proposes a much more nuanced view of the transition from the Neolithic period of that of complex, urbanized civilizations. And it suggests that hunter-gatherers, nomads, farmers, traders, and artisans were as much a part of the process than the much more familiar figures of kings and priests.

Myth # 3: The Near Eastern propensity for despotism and excessive hierarchy made the achievements of city dwellers on the Nile and the Euphrates possible. Given what we have already learned, you guessed it: wrong again! One of the Wengrow’s most important insights is that civilization is the cumulative product of “common folk” and of what he calls the “micro-practices of everyday life”. (74) Wengrow argues that most of the discoveries and innovations that led to urbanization and the accumulation of surplus had to do with qualities all humans are familiar with: trust, personal health, and hygiene. (69) Questions like “can I be sure this imported beer is safe and tasty?” led to “branding” and all the managerial skills and tools that accompany it. (84-87) (How 2oth-century!) Wengrow’s explanations for the advent of cities, writing, and centralized institutions may not be as “sexy” as foundation myths would have it, but they do have the  advantage of making common sense. By the 5th millennium, many of the technological developments that would lead to establishment of cities had already been fine-tuned.

Wengrow busts some other myths, but these three are paramount. Civilization is not an independent cultural achievement, it is a function of exchange and borrowing. The processes that led to the establishment of urban communities in Bronze-era Egypt and Iraq were inexorably tied to the work and experimentation of their hunter-gatherer, farmer, merchant, and artisan predecessors. In the end, kings were cogs in the religio-political system that managed these societies, not the oriental despots of the Enlightenment imagination. (Wengrow’s chapter on this topic is titled “The Labours of Kingship”).

It may sound like Wengrow rides rough-shod over much of what we take for granted about this history. Far from it. He is at pains to demonstrate that in the face of exchange and borrowing comes distinction and difference as well. The role of kings in Egypt and Iraq is a case in point. He acknowledges the very different roles they play in these societies. Wengrow is also not a crude materialist and gives ample attention to the role of belief and ritual in motivating commercial pursuits and technological innovation. How else to explain the tremendous withdrawal of wealth from circulation in tombs? “It was through contact with their gods that the societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia expressed their sense of belonging, their particular modes of attachment to land, locality, and place.” (123).

Wengrow’s book is divided in two. The second part addresses the connection between the ancient Near East and the modern West. Here, Wengrow raises an important conundrum. How is it that the ancient near East functions as both “cradle of civilization” and as “birthplace of despotism”? How can it be both a fount of progress and the antithesis of democracy, the essence of modernity? He traces the latter sentiment to the revolutionary, anti-dynastic fervor that swept through Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. This distinctly Western and modern inclination finds its most important expression in Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the army of Orientalist scholars that created the monumental Description de l’Égypte (1809-28).

East meets West in Chicago. The entrance to the Orient Institute, captures the conflicted American myth about the ancient Middle East as both the fount of civilization and the antithesis of Western modernity.

This modern appraisal of the ancient Near East maintains itself well into the 20th century and, dare I say, into the 21st. It also touches on the American sense of “civilizational” identity, wrapped up as it is in many of the myths debunked in Wengrow’s book. A concrete Midwestern illustration of this phenomenon is the decoration that adorns the main entrance to the Orient Institute at the University of Chicago, built in 1931. Here, East meets West with images that amplify “civilizational” differences. Behind the Egyptian scribe stand structures from ancient Egypt (the pyramids) and Iran (Persepolis) and kings and lawgivers like Hammurabi, markers of Oriental despotism. Behind “Western Man” one finds the Greek, Roman, and Christian inheritance. The lion and the buffalo in the foreground suggest that these civilizations are species apart.

In 2003, US general Jay Montgomery Garner became the first American pro-consul to rule over Iraq. Overlooking the ruins of Ur, he announced the beginning of a “free Iraq” in the “birthplace of civilization”. (161) The parallels with Napoleon just over 200 years earlier could not be more striking.

What more compelling reason could there be for challenging myths about History? These myths may have seemingly innocuous origins in the spade of an archaeologist, in the design of an architect, or in the pages of Foreign Affairs (where Huntington’s idea got wide circulation). But, as Edward Said argued in Orientalism (1978), images and ideas with this much currency propelled European colonization in the modern era. They remain standard fare for the maintenance of the American Empire today.

Wengrow doesn’t state this explicity, but his book implies that the idea of Western Civilization is, itself, an invention of the early modern period. It is based on creating difference and division where exchange and borrowing were, according to the evidence, the rule.

About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
This entry was posted in East and West, History and Historians, What is Modern?. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Makes History?

  1. Mark Chmiel says:

    “The most important myths to bust are those that trap us into believing that our political systems, our economic and social positions, and our beliefs were somehow ordained from on-high and are, by extension, impervious to change, to challenge, and to transformation.”

    Likewise, Edward Said wrote in an essay in his book, Reflections on Exile, the following: “Indeed, the intellectual vocation essentially is somehow to alleviate human suffering and not to celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating, whether that’s the state or the patria or any of these basically triumphalist agents in our society.” Any triumphalism guarantees major distortions, which must be cut through.

    • Steve Tamari says:

      Mark, thanks for the comment. Isn’t it curious that while most Americans are skeptical about the ability of the state to do good, much of what our mainstream media, high school textbooks, and even civic organizations praise are economic, technological, and military triumphs orchestrated by the state.

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