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Author Biography: Peter N. Stearns is provost at George Mason University. He has taught world history for twenty-five years and is the author or coauthor of more than fifty books.
The great river-valley civilizations of the Middle East and Egypt unquestionably spread cultural influences beyond their normal borders. Egyptians, for example, interacted with sub-Saharan African people along the Upper Nile, helping to form the Kush civilization and then its successors. There have been claims that the range of Egyptian and Middle Eastern influence extended to the Iberian Peninsula, southern Russia, and India, but there is little evidence for such claims, beyond occasional trade routes for artifacts and crafts. Greece and the Aegean islands form a different story. Here, contacts began early and were undeniably extensive. Greeks looked to the Middle East and Egypt as cultural ancestors even as they proudly asserted their own identity.
Debate flourishes in this case as well. Not about contact itself, for there is ample evidence that Greece borrowed extensively from its two more advanced neighbors during the second millennium BCE and beyond. The question is: How much was borrowed, and in what spirit? In the 1990s Martin Bernal advanced the idea that most of the main ingredients of Greek culture, including its emphasis on mathematics and philosophical inquiry, were simply imports, and that the Greeks almost deliberately down played their debt. Attacking the many historians who have heaped praise on the Greek legacy, Bernal contends that the Greeks get too much credit for originality and imagination, which really should go to Africans and Middle Easterners. His claims have been vigorously slammed by other scholars, who accept influence but not wholesale importation. The problem is compounded by other evidence. We know that Greeks looked up to the Egyptians but that they also regarded them as strange in many ways, judging by travel accounts by such people as the historian Herodotus. There is no clear attribution of major philosophical notions to Egypt, and no clear connecting evidence. So the debate continues.
What is undeniable, however, is that several exchange points did exist during the heyday of the Middle East and Egypt, and that Greeks borrowed extensively but also combined the influences with local features in novel ways-and all this well in advance of the rise of more characteristic Greek styles and institutions from about 800 BCE onward. Early Greeks traded extensively in Egypt and the Middle East, which is where key contacts took place. A number of centers benefited from these exchanges.
Crete: Minoan civilization. This distinctive civilization took shape about 2000 BCE on an Aegean island that was one of the main routes for Egyptian and Middle Eastern traders headed to Greece. Egyptian styles gained great influence, particularly in art; some scholars have even argued that Cretans were Egyptian immigrants. Even the animals depicted in art, like lions, had to be copied from Egyptian models, for they did not exist on the island. Cretan artifacts spread widely around the Mediterranean as the society gained in prosperity and perfected borrowed art forms.
Crete also blended Middle Eastern influences, even in its language. Cretans used Middle Eastern writing materials-the clay tablet. Their religion may also have contained strong Middle Eastern elements, with similar symbols, such as the bull and the dove. The combination, in sum, was highly syncretic, with Egypt providing components for art and science, the Middle East elements of religion and language. This distinctive fusion also affected the Greek mainland, where Cretan trade was active .
Cyprus. This island, farther east in the Mediterranean than Crete, was strongly influenced, particularly in pottery styles, by Crete. Contact with Assyria after 1450 BCE brought more Middle Eastern influence, but copper trade with Egypt increased at the same time. Again, Egypt's art held strong appeal. A Middle Eastern language (Phoenician) coexisted with Greek.
Mycenaean civilization. On mainland Greece, the level of culture and civilization was far inferior to that achieved in Egypt and the Middle East. In about 1500 BCE, Indo-European invasions created a new society around Mycenae, and after this contacts with Egypt, the Middle East, and Crete intensified. Contacts with Crete yielded many artisans as slaves, leading to a period of essential dominance by Cretan art. But local influences revived, producing a more genuine mixture. Mycenaean men thus wore full body costumes and let their beards grow, in marked contrast to Cretan styles.
Mycenaean Greece sent merchants and envoys to Egyptian and Middle Eastern cities, from which they imported significant influences. Egypt and the Middle East served as sources of technology, including chariots and spears, and architecture was a hybrid of Cretan, Egyptian, and local styles. Here was precedent for later borrowing, in post-Mycenaean Greece.
Renewed invasion, by the Dorians, ended the first exchange period by 1200 BCE, and civilization receded as new Indo-European influences gained ground-though the precise causes of Mycenaean decline remain unclear. By the ninth century, however, trade with the Middle East resumed, leading to additional religious imports, including common representations of gods and goddesses; new forms of magic were also brought in. A key import was the Phoenician alphabet, derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics and then modified into Greek. Artisans from both Egypt and the Middle East were attracted to or imported into this increasingly prosperous center, which in turn helped create for the first time the possibility of building large temples. Middle Eastern mercenary soldiers also brought in new forms of weaponry. Even the shields used by the famous Greek infantry were copies of devices introduced far earlier in the Middle East.
Greek civilization clearly owed much to contacts with predecessors. Borrowing emphasized precisely the items most commonly imitated from superior civilizations: writing, artistic styles, technology (including weaponry), and some religious elements. Less tangible features, like politics, loomed less large-at least according to available evidence. And Greece not only mixed its imports with local components, again a standard pattern, but also benefited by having an unusual number of influences that could be, and were, mixed with one another. Debate continues about how much was borrowed, but the result, in part because of imaginative combination, was no mere imitation. Greeks themselves respected the heritage of Middle Eastern and North African civilizations, but they down played borrowing and became rather disdainful of their contemporaries in these regions-another element that complicates the interpretation of contacts.
Excerpted from Cultures in Motion by Peter N. Stearns Copyright © 2001 by Peter N. Stearns. Excerpted by permission.
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|Pt. I||Early Cultural Contacts Through the Classical Period|
|Ch. 1||Egypt and the Middle East: The Contact with Early Greece||8|
|Ch. 2||The Hellenistic-Indian Encounter||14|
|Ch. 3||Buddhism and New Cultural Contacts in Asia||20|
|Ch. 4||The Jewish Diaspora||28|
|Ch. 5||The Spread of Christianity||36|
|Pt. II||Postclassical and Early Modern Periods, 450-1750 C.E.|
|Ch. 6||The Spread of Islam||46|
|Ch. 7||Christianity and the Americas||56|
|Ch. 8||The Spread of Science||62|
|Ch. 9||The African Diaspora||66|
|Pt. III||The Modern Centuries|
|Ch. 10||The Spread of Nationalism||76|
|Ch. 11||Imperialist Ideas About Women||84|
|Ch. 12||The Development of International Art||92|
|Ch. 13||The Spread of Marxism||98|
|Ch. 14||International Consumer Culture||108|