The Levantine Legacy

The Greater Levant (known to many as the Fertile Crescent) includes both a Western Part (the Nile region), an Eastern Part (the Tigris & Euphrates river regions), & the maritime bridge uniting the two, Phoenicia & the Eastern Mediterranean, including the key island of Cyprus. (Map credit Norman Einstein/Wikimedia Commons.)

While decidedly not Eurocentric, many postings on this blog are written from the regional perspective of Europe.

Eurocentric, European perspective – is there really any difference?

I believe so. To be Eurocentric is to claim that Europe or Western culture is the mother of almost everything good in the world, & that other cultures are either less impressive or less interesting. The longer your perspective on history, not to mention social or natural science, the less obvious this claim appears. While at any given time power may seem to cluster in definite spots on the globe, in the long run empires have popped up, & popped out again, all over the place.

To take a European perspective, however, is merely to think & communicate with special attention paid to European matters. Not from the notion that Europe is really better & I’ll-tell-you-why, but from a more deliberately subjective view: “Europe is where I, Niels Peter Q from Denmark, happen to have been born. It is therefore particularly interesting to me – & perhaps to others with similar origin or interests.”

Does this distinction from Eurocentrism still seem abstract?

If so, let me support it with a wider excursion.

The earliest advances in large-scale human organization – agriculture, writing, specialization, a centralizing state bureaucracy, organized military, advanced & coordinated visual art – these early developments of humanity did not take place in Europe. Neither did they unfold in Africa proper, or in Asia proper.

To be sure, in the Eastern part of Asia, as in the Americas & part of Oceania, several important building blocks of organization on a large-scale also made independent appearance. But nowhere on the entire globe were these building blocks so many, so prominent, & so concentrated as in one single, small geographical area. This area, largely congruent with the modern Middle East, is somewhat impoverished & ill-recognized today. But during the many millennia of its apogee it united the 3 continents Europe, Africa, & Asia. Physically, economically, & to some extent mentally.

I call this area the Greater Levant. Others (see map above) may talk about The Fertile Crescent, Mesopotamia, the Eastern Mediterranean, or simply the Levant, literally “where the Sun rises”. But Greater Levant seems the most exact & inclusive, covering, the way I understand it, precisely both great river cultures Egypt & Mesopotamia – but also placing & emphasizing, at the very middle, a third culture that made its living by connecting its 2 powerful neighbours. I’m referring to the rich network of maritime trade cities many of which became known as Phoenicia, & later as the Levant proper. So Greater Levant = Phoenicia/Levant + Mesopotamia + Egypt.

This catalytic Phoenician culture was neither strictly Western nor strictly anything else. But to put it briefly in Western context: it was a late offspring of the same Phoenicia, the city Carthage, that was so feared & hated by the Romans that these felt forced – “Carthage must be destroyed” – to annihilate it stone for stone, ship for ship, man, woman, & child. That event (149-146 BCE) was the third & last of the Punic Wars with which so many schoolchildren used to be force-fed. The obscure word “Punic” is simply a Latin derivation for “Phoenician”.

But all this is a much later story. Sure, Greeks & Romans are exactly what every Westerner, plus some who aren’t, are taught to remember. But the relevant fact here is that neither Greece nor Rome is responsible for any of the attributes of advanced human organization described above. Nor again is most of Africa & Asia, as such, responsible. Agriculture, alphabet, cities & structured trade, all this arose much earlier, in the Greater Levant. “Much earlier” may mean, with very good will & depending on the innovation in question, any period between 10000 BCE & 1000 BCE. Thus for (very, very roughly) 9000 years the center & spearhead of world civilization lay in an area which neither Europe, nor Asia, nor Africa, & certainly not the Americas or Oceania, may claim as wholly their own. This is almost too good for a coincidence.

So deeply rooted was the predominance of this Greater Levant region, that remains of its glory leaves traces as late as the European Renaissance. Almost up to the moment (1498 CE) when the first of Vasco da Gama’s vessels reached Calicut in India, the Levantine ports had for aeons remained dominant portals for Western trade with Far Eastern luxury goods. Venice, then the proudest power in the Mediterranean, famously rested its own importance on its fine relations with the Levant. But that moment when Vasco da Gama sighted the last Indian link of the spice route – going via the southern tip of Africa & not the Mediterranean – that very event initiated the swan song of the Greater Levant, & of every commonwealth, such as Venice, with excessive dependence on it.

This brings us back to Eurocentrism. Having realized that almost all the root elements of human culture & technology started in one place, & that this place, almost by miracle, “belongs” to neither of the world continents – how can any culture-centric (Euro- or otherwise) historiography make the least sense?

Assume for instance that in a later posting I give attention or even praise to the European Enlightenment (a guiding obsession). Or to the Renaissance. Or to Heian Japan. Or to the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the medieval Arabs…

Any such praise is hedged by the knowledge that there was a “before”. Before the Renaissance, the Arabs or the Romans, even before Pharaoh’s Egypt, there was a rich & now near-forgotten land. The Greater Levant. Belonging then & now to no culture in isolation. The fittest candidate, all told, for the hopeless label of “Humanity’s Cradle”.

But. Having firmly established the above, it’s equally important to acknowledge & name what’s happened since those glory days of the Greater Levant.

What happened since, of course, is that each culture influenced by that region conquered the freedom to steward this legacy in its own, individually styled way. And this can never be trivial knowledge either. That’s exactly why, given where I happen to come from, I’m paying particular attention to how well, how badly, or merely in what distinctive way my own culture has administered its ancient heritage. As well at to how in the future it may continuously improve, & contribute to the world.

Reinventing along the way both its core legacies: the regional European & the universal Levantine.


Diamond, Jared. Guns Germs & Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. London: Vintage, 2005 (1997). ISBN 978-0099302780. Overbranded & overconfident, but still impossible to ignore. Weighted toward the very earliest days of the Fertile Crescent.

For a few further & more specific references (on this website) click here.

Categories: History of Science & Tech, History Unplugged

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