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Ancient Greece, the Middle East and an ancient cultural internet

Ancient Greece, the Middle East and an ancient cultural internet

Here, alongside each other, lie an Iraqi ceramic model of a river boat from around 2900 BC; a model of a covered wagon from Syria from about 2300 BC, collected by Lawrence of Arabia; Cretan jars wreathed with sinuous, octopus designs from about a millennium later; and a sixth-century BC Attic vase from Sicily, decorated with an image of a chariot. The display is designed to illustrate ancient trade routes; but what if it told a deeper story, too?

As Tim Whitmarsh, professor of ancient literatures at the University of Oxford says: “What if what we think of as the classical world has been falsely invented as European, for reasons serving the cause of 19th-century imperialism? Should the Greek and Roman worlds, albeit in different ways, be seen rather as part of the Iraqi-Syrian-Palestinian-Egyptian complex? If so, what would that mean for ideas about European identity today?”

It’s not new to think in terms of Greece borrowing from the east and south in the period before its fifth-century BC efflorescence: Greek statuary and temple-building have long been known to have had their origins in Egypt, for example, and it is well-rehearsed that there is, say, a relationship between Homer’s Iliad and the much earlier payday loans open sunday in Sharon Tennessee Babylonian epic Gilgamesh.

In a controversial three-volume book, Black Athena (1989), the late author Martin Bernal also sought to place the origins of Greece in Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, which in turn was a riposte to the 19th century racist view – what Whitmarsh calls the “massive cultural deception” – that the Greeks owed their brilliance to Aryan origins in central Europe.

But there is a fresh urgency, according to Whitmarsh and like-minded scholars, to the study of the classical world’s relationships with what is now the Middle East, and the new approaches are significantly different from those offered in the past. Access to newly discovered or newly available texts is allowing classicists to reframe the terms of engagement between cultures: less a one-way importation, followed by transformation and “perfection” of the original influences, and more a dialogue, or an “intertwining” as Johannes Haubold, professor of Greek at Durham University, puts it.

So, instead of the study of ancient Greece being predicated on its uniqueness – its isolated, exceptional and untouchable brilliance – some scholars are recasting the Greek world (and, in different ways, the Roman world) as part of a series of networked cultures in multivoiced conversation with the lands lying east and south of the Mediterranean.

If you walk through the entrance hall of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, you come to a large display case devoted to the ancient world

This is not a universally applauded approach to the study of classics. On the right, Bruce Thornton, professor of classics and humanities at California State University, Fresno, has written slightingly about “multiculturalist attempts to denigrate the Greeks’ achievements” (he has also described their victory against Persian conquest in the 480s BC as a liberation “from the shadows of superstition and bondage to the irrational”).

From a less political perspective, other scholars suggest caution, too: Greg Woolf, professor of ancient history at the University of St Andrews, warns against taking the notion of a happy ancient multiculturalism too far. The ancient Greeks, he says, “were in the business of creating an autonomous civilisation. There were cultural conflicts, and separateness, and limits to transferability. We don’t have a Greek version of Gilgamesh, or Babylonian versions of Homer”.

That was, he argues, an official fusing of Greek, Egyptian and Macedonian elements as a practical and locally contingent act (though the cult later spread widely through the Roman world, even as far as York)

Woolf talks in terms of deliberate moments of hybridisation – such as the creation of the cult of Isis in Egypt after Alexander the Great’s conquest. “Someone has to think of a chicken tikka pizza,” he says. “It doesn’t just happen.”

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