Origins matter. When we pose the question, “Where do you come from?” what we are really asking is often, “Who are you?” This is true for individuals, families, even countries. It’s also true of an entity as large and complex as the West.
The term “the West” can mean different things at different times to different people. Today, it usually refers to a set of modern nation‐states that are geopolitically aligned and share cultural features and political and economic principles, including representative democracy, market capitalism and a secular state overlying a Judeo‐Christian moral tradition. Of course, nothing on this list is exclusive to the West or universal across it. The same can be said of many symbols of Westernization—Coca‐Cola, opera houses, shopping malls. But one defining feature of the West is the notion of a common origin resulting in a shared history, a shared heritage and a shared identity.
This story imagines Western history as unfurling backward in time through the Enlightenment, the brightness of the Renaissance and the darkness of the Middle Ages, all the way to its origin in the classical worlds of Greece and Rome—“from Plato to NATO,” as a popular 1998 history book put it. This has become the standard version of Western history, both canonical and clichéd. But it is wrong. Today, all serious historians and archaeologists acknowledge that the cross-fertilization of “Western” and “non‐Western” cultures happened throughout human history, and that the modern West owes much of its cultural DNA to a wide range of non‐European and non‐white forebears. Yet the nuances of these cultural interactions have yet to be fully untangled, and traditional narratives about Western history remain stubbornly ubiquitous.
What would Western history look like if we abandoned the myth of “Western civilization” and dug deeper to uncover the historical realities beneath it? We could start at the supposed birthplace of the West, in the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. Recent research shows that the ancient Greeks didn’t think of themselves as predominantly European. Indeed, the famous historian Herodotus derided the very concept of separate continents, arguing instead that they all belonged to the same connected world. Similarly, the Romans ruled an empire that spanned three continents and claimed they were descended from the Trojans of Asia. Celebrating their mixed heritage, they would not have considered themselves to be white, and certainly not Western.
The misunderstandings accumulate after that. After the Roman Empire split in the late third century—the western half eventually splintering into independent kingdoms, the eastern half developing into the Byzantine Empire—some elements of classical culture were lost, some preserved and others transformed for a radical new world: the early Middle Ages.
Traditional narratives cast this period as a dark age of backwardness and barbarism, before the “rebirth” of classical tradition during the European Renaissance. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the Byzantine Empire dazzled with splendor and sophistication. The Islamic world stretched from Seville to Samarkand and from Mosul to Mali, enjoying a period of unrivaled prosperity in addition to artistic and scientific advancement. In East Asia, the Tang dynasty transformed China, and the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire ushered in a golden age for the Southeast Asian archipelago.
Back in Europe, the familiar story goes, people hung on to the inheritance of Western civilization “by the skin of our teeth,” as historian Kenneth Clark put it in a 1969 documentary series, thanks to the efforts of solitary monks and nuns laboring in obscure libraries and scriptoria across Europe, squirreling away the cultural legacy of antiquity for future generations. While many Latin texts were indeed kept and copied in monasteries, recent scholarship has largely dispelled the myth of a European medieval dark age, bringing to light a wealth of scientific, literary and artistic achievements, from the treatises of the philosophical friar Roger Bacon to the medical texts of the nun Hildegard of Bingen.
Moreover, while some clergy drew on scientific and especially theological thinking from antiquity, they were certainly not the only people to do so. The bloodline that we think of as Western did not flow in a single channel from Greece to Rome and from there to Western Europe. Instead, it sprayed rather chaotically in all directions, carrying the cultural inheritance of Greek and Roman antiquity to all four points of the compass.
Take the Byzantine Empire itself. At its zenith in the sixth century, the Byzantines controlled the entire Eastern Mediterranean, as well as parts of Italy and Tunisia. Its core, however, was Anatolia and the Aegean, with the great city of Constantinople straddling the Bosporus. Politically, the Byzantine Empire was a straightforward continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, occupying the same territories and using the same structures of governance, law and administration. Crucially, its people never called themselves “Byzantines” but referred to themselves as Romaioi, or Romans.
Culturally, the Byzantines drew from Greek as well as Roman traditions. They spoke Greek, and ancient Greek texts remained a standard part of elite education. Indeed, it was common practice for Byzantine scholars to demonstrate their erudition by imitating the ancient dialect of authors such as Herodotus, Sophocles and Plato in flamboyant displays of literary anachronism. Byzantine scholars also mined ancient texts, collating useful information about everything from cavalry tactics to advice on beekeeping in encyclopedic reference works such as the tenth‐century Constantinian Excerpts.
Farther to the east were yet more heirs of Greek and Roman culture. Many people do not think of the Indian subcontinent as part of the Greek world, but it was. The conquests of Alexander the Great brought him as far as the Punjab Valley in what is now India and Pakistan. When he left, some Macedonian soldiers stayed behind, permanently settling in Bactria (in modern‐day Afghanistan), and culturally hybrid Indo‐Greek kingdoms emerged in Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of northern India. This Hellenistic Far East was unequivocally part of the ancient Greek world, becoming especially influential in the development of later Greek philosophy.
In southwestern India and in Sri Lanka, excavations have yielded thousands of Roman coins and amphorae. This trade route is described vividly in a Roman text called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, which is full of lively local knowledge. Apparently, the wealthy townsfolk of Barigaza (in modern Gujarat, India) were especially fond of Italian wines, and Muziris (on the Malabar Coast in India’s Kerala State) was the best place to buy pearls. Gandharan art from the first to fifth centuries often depicts episodes from Greek mythology. One famous relief carving from the Peshawar District of Pakistan, now on display at the British Museum, depicts the wooden horse being wheeled toward the gates of Troy and the prophetess Cassandra wailing in grief for the fate of her city.
Ancient Greek heritage was also felt in language and administration. Greek was used as an official language of the Kushan Empire, whose kings minted Greek‐style coins and adapted the Greek alphabet to write the Kushan language into the fifth century. The Bactrian language, which uses the Greek alphabet, remained in use until the eighth century. In South Asia, Heracles was assimilated with Vajrapani, one of the Buddha’s most faithful attendants. Figurines and tomb paintings of a suspiciously Heracles‐like figure wearing a lion headdress have been found as far east as China, dating from the seventh to tenth centuries.
Sub‐Saharan Africa is another region not often considered as having a classical heritage, yet classical culture left its imprint here, too. As in South Asia, Greek rather than Roman culture was most readily apparent, but these Greek elements were often linked to Christianity. For example, when monks at the Abba Garima Monastery in Ethiopia translated the gospels from Greek into Ge’ez between the fourth and seventh centuries, they decorated their illuminated manuscripts in typical Byzantine style, with toga‐wearing figures of the evangelists. In Sudan, Greek was used as late as the 14th century, employed not only in formal and religious contexts, such as liturgy and gravestone inscriptions, but also for keeping track of grain shipments and scrawling graffiti.
But perhaps the medieval city where traditions of classical scholarship and science were the strongest was medieval Baghdad.
Founded in 762 as Madinat al-Salam, or the City of Peace, Baghdad was the largest city in the world by the mid-ninth century, with an estimated population of more than one million. The urban core was built in concentric rings around the caliph’s palace, with its high green dome symbolizing heavenly and temporal authority. The avenues were wide and shady, lined with well‐watered gardens and mansions built of marble. On both sides of the Tigris, marble steps led down to quays jostling with gondolas, Chinese junks, passenger ferries and merchant barges stocked with goods for the city’s shops and bazaars. Outside the city walls, luxurious suburbs, industrial quarters and urban slums sprung up, creating a sprawling metropolis that spanned both sides of the river.
The medieval Islamic world stretched from al‐Andalus in the west, occupying much of what is now Spain and Portugal, to Kashgar in the east, located in what is now the Xinjiang Province of China, and as far south as the Mali Empire in western Africa. The most powerful medieval Islamic state was the Abbasid Caliphate, which controlled an empire reaching from Sicily to Samarkand in Central Asia, dominating the trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Its capital, Baghdad, was a cultural and political center that drew goods and people from three continents, and its greatest and most hallowed institution was the Bayt al-Hikma—the House of Wisdom.
This great library was established by the caliph al‐Mamun in the early ninth century, with the express aim of gathering the world’s knowledge, to be studied by the empire’s greatest scholars, translators and scientists. Among those scholars were Iraqi Arab mathematicians and engineers, Persian theologians and astrologers and physicians, and cartographers from Central and South Asia and East Africa. Alongside these Muslim scholars worked Christians like Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Nestorian who was personally responsible for preserving many ancient texts, and Jews like the pioneering astronomer Sanad ibn Ali.
In the House of Wisdom, one could read the Greek mathematical works of Euclid, the Sanskrit medical treatises of Sushruta, the astronomical texts of Brahmagupta and archaeological discussions on the pyramids of Giza—all written on paper, the latest revolution in information technology, imported from China. Al‐Mamun’s vision for acquiring knowledge was nothing short of global; when he defeated foreign kings in battle, he reportedly demanded tribute from them not in treasure or enslaved people but rather in books from their royal libraries.
This vibrant intellectual environment fostered enquiry and creativity, and it led to many advances and discoveries. Pythagorean and Euclidean geometry were combined with Indian concepts of zero, decimal numeration and the place value system, leading to major innovations in mathematics, including the invention of algebra. Developments in physics ranged from an improved understanding of optics, including the behavior of light and the functioning of lenses, to the mechanics of movement, including the calculation of velocity and acceleration. All of these contributed to breakthroughs in astronomy, and even today, we use Arabic names for certain celestial bodies, including the stars of the Ursa Major constellation. In medicine, insights from Hippocratic and Vedic medical traditions were combined with a new interest in chemistry and pharmaceutical experimentation. From psychiatry to gastric bugs, gynecology to ophthalmic surgery, new encyclopedic handbooks of medicine were produced, categorizing complaints and recommending treatments.
The House of Wisdom is particularly associated with the translation movement, in which philosophical and scientific texts written in ancient Greek (and to a lesser extent in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic) were collected and translated into Arabic. Indeed, it was the Arabic copyists and translators working there who preserved many ancient Greek texts that survive today, especially scientific works such as those by Aristotle, philosophical writings such as those by Plato and medical texts such as those attributed to Galen. At a time when ancient Greek was all but lost from Western Europe, and when scientific and philosophical works were viewed as dangerous pagan influences by the devout Christian Byzantines, it was in Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate, that the flame of ancient Greek scholarship was kept alive.
One of the most important scholars working on Greek texts in medieval Baghdad was Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al‐Kindi, whose family roots lay in the Arabian Peninsula. A noble scion of an Iraqi emir, Kindi arrived in Baghdad as a boy to continue his education, and by his late 20s or early 30s, he had entered the caliph’s immediate scholarly circle. Indeed, he dedicated his earliest philosophical treatise, A Letter on Cause and Effect, to al‐Mamun before the bibliophile caliph’s death in 833.
Kindi’s output was prodigious. Unlike other members of his circle, he was not directly involved in translating ancient Greek texts into Arabic. Instead, he devoted his energies to analysis and commentary, building on the philosophical foundations laid by Greek thinkers. His role, as he saw it, was “to supply completely what the ancients said about this, according to the most direct methods and the procedures easiest for those engaged in this pursuit, and to complete what they did not discuss comprehensively.”
Not everything Kindi wrote was part of the highbrow philosophical tradition. Among his nearly 300 known works are pamphlets on perfumes and treatises on tides, leaflets on lenses and guides to geology. One work addressed the crucial issue of how best to remove stains from dirty clothes. Outside scholarly circles, he was also well known as a physician. But while he may have been variously a doctor, a natural scientist and an experimental physicist, Kindi will always be best known for his theological and philosophical works. In these, he reflected on the workings of the universe, the nature of divinity and the place of humanity within the cosmic order.
Kindi was not alone in his admiration of Greek texts, and even the caliph al‐Mamun is said to have dreamed about Aristotle. Yet this did not stop attacks from conservative religious thinkers who disapproved of Kindi’s unconventional views and objected to his radical fusion of theology and philosophy. But he remained steadfast. “We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, from wherever it comes,” he wrote in his most important treatise, On First Philosophy. “Even if it should come from far‐flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth.”
Indeed, Kindi argued that true knowledge was not bounded by cultural, linguistic, ethnic or religious limits. If humans want to comprehend the single underlying truth of the universe, they must build on the cumulative knowledge of centuries. “It has only been possible to collect this knowledge over the course of previous ages, century after century until our own time,” he reasoned. This knowledge, then, could not belong to the Greeks alone, nor to Muslims alone. It was a heritage that belonged to all humanity.
It’s ironic that Kindi and his contemporaries were themselves not immune to the lure of a shared mythic origin story. Indeed, reimagining history has been going on as long as history itself has been written, and probably longer; in Athens in the sixth century B.C.E., lines were added to the Iliad to imply that Athens had controlled the island of Salamis during the earlier Age of Heroes. Unsurprisingly, the lines were added at precisely the time that Athens was trying to control Salamis.
Kindi, who may have been hoping to persuade a popular audience of his unorthodox beliefs, invented a mythic genealogy in which he named the ancestor of the Greeks as a certain Yunan, equivalent to the Greek term Ionian. Yunan, Kindi wrote, was a brother of Qahtan, the legendary ancestor of the Arabs. After a fraternal spat, Yunan left the family home in Yemen and established a settlement in the Maghreb, in North Africa. From there, his descendants multiplied and spread, and when, generations later, Alexander the Great campaigned on the fringes of Arabia, this was a homecoming of sorts—a return to the motherland of an errant branch of the family. As a result, Kindi concluded, ancient Greek culture was not foreign to the Arabs at all. Quite the opposite. It was their birthright.
Excerpted from The West: A New History in Fourteen Lives by Naoíse Mac Sweeney, to be published on May 23 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Naoíse Mac Sweeney. All rights reserved.
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