Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and Westby Anthony Pagden
Spanning two and a half millennia, Anthony Pagden’s mesmerizing Worlds at War delves deep into the roots of the “clash of civilizations” between East and West that has always been a battle over ideas, and whose issues have never been more urgent.
Worlds At War begins in the ancient world, where Greece saw its fight against the/i>/i>… See more details below
Spanning two and a half millennia, Anthony Pagden’s mesmerizing Worlds at War delves deep into the roots of the “clash of civilizations” between East and West that has always been a battle over ideas, and whose issues have never been more urgent.
Worlds At War begins in the ancient world, where Greece saw its fight against the Persian Empire as one between freedom and slavery, between monarchy and democracy, between individuality and the worship of men as gods. Here, richly rendered, are the crucial battle of Marathon, considered the turning point of Greek and European history; the heroic attempt by the Greeks to turn the Persians back at Thermopylae; and Salamis, one of the greatest naval battles of all time, which put an end to the Persian threat forever.
From there Pagden’s story sweeps to Rome, which created the modern concepts of citizenship and the rule of law. Rome’s leaders believed those they conquered to be free, while the various peoples of the East persisted in seeing their subjects as property. Pagden dramatizes the birth of Christianity in the East and its use in the West as an instrument of government, setting the stage for what would become, and has remained, a global battle of the secular against the sacred. Then Islam, at first ridiculed in Christian Europe, drives Pope Urban II to launch the Crusades, which transform the relationship between East and West into one of competing religious beliefs.
Modern times bring a first world war, which among its many murky aims seeks to redesign the Muslim world by force. In our own era, Muslims now find themselves in unwelcoming Western societies, while the West seeks to enforce democracy and its own secular values through occupation in the East. Pagden ends on a cautionary note, warning that terrorism and war will continue as long as sacred and secular remain confused in the minds of so many.
Eye-opening and compulsively readable, Worlds at War is a stunning work of history and a triumph of modern scholarship. It is bound to become the definitive work on the reasons behind the age-old and still escalating struggle that, more than any other, has come to define the modern world–a book for anyone seeking to know why “we came to be the way we are.”
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WE LIVE IN an increasingly united world. The boundaries that once existed between peoples are steadily dissolving; ancient divisions between tribes and families, villages and parishes, even between nations, are everywhere disintegrating. The nation-state, with which most of the peoples of the Western world have lived since the seventeenth century, may yet have a long time to live. But it is becoming increasingly hard to see it as the political order of the future. For thousands of years, few people went more than thirty miles from their place of birth. (This, it has been calculated from the places mentioned in the Gospels, is roughly the farthest Jesus Christ ever traveled from his home, and, in this respect, at least, he was not exceptional.) Today places that less than a century ago were remote, inaccessible, and dangerous have become little more than tourist sites. Today most of us in the Western world will travel hundreds, often thousands, of miles in our immensely prolonged lives. And in the process we will, inevitably, bump up against different peoples with different beliefs, wearing different clothes and holding different views. Some three hundred years ago, when the process we now label “globalization” was just beginning, it was hoped that this bumping into others, this forced recognition of all the differences that exist in the world, would smooth away the rough edges most humans acquire early in life, making them, in the process, more “polished” and “polite”–as it was called in the eighteenth century–more familiar with the preferences of others, more tolerant of their beliefs and delusions, and thus better able to live in harmony with one another.
In part this has happened. The slow withering of national boundaries and national sentiments over the past half century has brought substantial changes and some real beneﬁts. The ancient antagonisms that tore Europe apart twice in the twentieth century (and countless other times in the preceding centuries) are no more and, we can only hope, will never be resuscitated. The virulent racism that dominated so many of the ways other peoples were seen in the West during the nineteenth century may not have vanished, but it has certainly withered. The older forms of imperialism are no more, even if many of the wounds they left behind have still not healed. Nationalism is, in most places, something of a dirty word. Anti-Semitism, alas, is still with us, but there are few places where it is as casually accepted as it was less than a century ago. Religion has not quietly died, as many, in Europe at least, hoped and believed until recently that it would. But it is certainly no longer the cause of the bitter confessional battles it once was. (Even in Northern Ireland, the last outpost of the great religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the quarrel is slowly being resolved and has always been more about local politics and national identity than about faith.)
Some of the old fault lines that have divided peoples over the centuries are, however, still very much with us. One of these is the division–and the antagonism–between what was originally thought of as Europe and Asia and then, as these words began to lose their geographical signiﬁcance, between “East” and “West.”
The division, often illusory, always metaphorical, yet still immensely powerful, is an ancient one. The terms “East and West” are, of course, “Western,” but it was probably an Eastern people, the ancient Assyrians, sometime in the second millennium B.C.E., who ﬁrst made a distinction between what they called ereb or irib– “lands of the setting sun”–and Asia, Asu–“lands of the rising sun.” For them, however, there was no natural frontier between the two, and they accorded no particular signiﬁcance to the distinction. The awareness that East and West were not only different regions of the world but also regions ﬁlled with different peoples, with different cultures, worshipping different gods and, most crucially, holding different views on how best to live their lives, we owe not to an Asian but to a Western people: the Greeks. It was a Greek historian, Herodotus, writing in the ﬁfth century B.C.E., who ﬁrst stopped to ask what it was that divided Europe from Asia and why two peoples who were, in many respects, quite similar should have conceived such enduring hatreds for each other.
This East as Herodotus knew it, the lands that lay between the European peninsula and the Ganges, was inhabited by a large number of varied peoples, on whose strange peculiarities he dwelt lovingly and at length. Yet, for all their size and variety, they all seemed to have something in common, something that set them apart from the peoples of Europe, of the West. Their lands were fertile, their cities opulent. They themselves were wealthy–far wealthier than the impoverished Greeks–and they could be immensely reﬁned. They were also ﬁerce and savage, formidable opponents on the battleﬁeld, something all Greeks admired. Yet for all this they were, above all else, slavish and servile. They lived in awe of their rulers, whom they looked upon not as mere men like themselves, but as gods.
For the Greeks, the West was, as it was for the Assyrians, the outer rim of the world, where, in mythology, the daughters of Hesperides lived by the shores of the Ocean, guardians of a tree of golden apples given by the goddess Earth as a wedding present to Hera, the wife of Zeus, father of all the gods. The peoples who inhabited this region were also varied and frequently divided, but they, too, shared something in common: they loved freedom above life, and they lived under the rule of laws, not men, much less gods.
Over time, the peoples of Europe and their settler populations overseas–those, that is, who live in what is now commonly understood by the term “West”–have come to see themselves as possessing some kind of common identity. What that is, and how it is to be understood, has changed radically from antiquity to the present. It is also obvious that, however strong this common heritage and shared history might be, it has not prevented bloody and calamitous conﬂicts among the peoples who beneﬁtted from them. These conﬂicts may have abated since 1945 and, like the most recent dispute over the justice of the American-led invasion of Iraq, are now more often conducted without recourse to violence, but they have not entirely disappeared. If anything, as the ancient antagonisms of Europe have healed, a new rift between a united Europe and the United States has begun to emerge.
The term “East” was, and still often is, used to describe the territories of Asia west of the Himalayas. Obviously no one in Asia before the occupation of much of the continent by the European powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave much thought to the idea that all the nations of the region might share very much, if anything, in common. East and West, like all geographical markers, are obviously relative. If you live in Tehran, your West may be Baghdad. The current, conventional division of all of Asia into Near, Middle, and Far East is a nineteenth-century usage whose focal point was British India. What was Near or Middle lay between Europe and India, what was Far lay beyond.1 For the inhabitants of the region, however, this classiﬁcation clearly had no meaning whatsoever.
In the eighteenth century, a relatively new term, “Orient,” came into use to describe everywhere from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the China Sea. This, too, was given, by many Westerners, a shared if not single identity. When I was studying Persian and Arabic at Oxford in the 1970s, I did so in a building called the Institute of Oriental Studies, where Persian, Sanskrit, Turkish, Hebrew, Korean, and Chinese (not to mention Hindi, Tibetan, Armenian, and Coptic) were all studied under the same roof. Two streets away (to the east), all the languages of Europe were also studied under one roof, in an imposing neoclassical building called the Taylor Institution. They were and are called “modern languages,” which ﬁrmly identiﬁed them as the true successors to the languages of the ancient world, Greek and Latin.
None of the great civilizations of what is now generally called the “Far East” belongs to my story. The Chinese may have been seen by many Westerners as sharing the same lethargic, immobile, backward-looking character as the other peoples of Asia. But there was not, nor had there ever been, any conﬂict between them and the West, at least before the Western powers began their own attempt to seize control of Chinese trade in the later nineteenth century. Far from presenting a challenge to the cultural assumptions of the West, China, and to some degree Japan, were for long believed to share them.
The division between Europe and Asia began as an exclusively cultural one. The Persians and the Parthians–the two great Asian and “barbarian” races of the ancient world, clearly had what would later be called “national characters.” But in their origins they were very much like the Greeks and, with certain reservations, the Romans, who in giving themselves a mythic ancestry in Troy had also made themselves into an originally Asian people. Later, however, when Christianity and with it the search for the sources of human history in the Bible took hold of most of Europe, it became a commonplace to explain the origins of human diversity as the consequence of the repopulation of the world after the Flood. The sons of Noah had come down from Mount Ararat and then traveled to each of the three continents, and by “these were the nations divided in the earth after the Flood.” (The subsequent discovery of two further continents–America and Australia–posed a serious threat to this story. But as with all biblical exegesis, ingenious interpretations were provided to overcome this.) Shem, it was believed, had gone to Asia (hence the subsequent classiﬁcation of Jews and Arabs as “Semitic peoples”), Japhet to Europe, and Ham to Africa.
This account of human prehistory was still being taken seriously in some quarters well into the nineteenth century, largely because of its obvious racial potential. But although it seemed to provide a sound (at least from the Christian point of view) explanation as to why the peoples of Europe were so very different from those of Asia (not to mention Africa), it was always far less significant than the argument that what divided the two continents was to be found not in human origins, much less of race, but in the differences in how the worlds of men and gods were conceived.
In reality, Europe was not even a separate continent but a peninsula of Asia. The great eighteenth-century French poet, playwright, historian, and philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet, better known by his sobriquet, Voltaire, once remarked that if you were to situate yourself imaginatively somewhere near the Sea of Azov, just east of the Crimea, it would be impossible to tell where Europe left off and Asia began. It might, therefore, he concluded, be better to abandon both terms.2 The now-current word “Eurasia”–which is an attempt if not to abandon, then to merge them–captures not only an obvious geographical truth but also a broadly cultural one. In Greek myth the peoples of Europe owed their very origins to an Asian princess. Greek (and subsequently all Western) science, as the Greeks were well aware, had its origins in Asia. Pagan religious beliefs were an amalgam of European–or, as we would now say, Indo-European–and Asian features. This was precisely the source of Herodotus’s bewilderment. He devised, as we shall see, an explanation–one that has had a long and powerful afterlife. But the fact that such terrible wars should have been fought for so long between peoples who, at least until the seventeenth century, were divided by so little may be attributed to Sigmund Freud’s famous observation that the bitterest of all human conﬂicts spring from what he called the “narcissism of small differences”: we hate and fear those whom we most resemble, far more than those from whom we are alien and remote.
The East-West distinction is also geographically unstable. For the Assyrians, the “West” meant little more than simply “the lands over there,” or what the Greeks for good mythological reasons of their own called “Europe”–a word originally applied only to central Greece, then to the Greek mainland, and ﬁnally, by the time Herodotus was writing, to the entire landmass behind it. It, too, however, was a vague region, a small and for a long time relatively insigniﬁcant peninsula of the vast Asian landmass, with no obvious western limits save for Oceanus, the massive ocean-river believed to encircle all three of the continents. The English word “West” was originally an adverb of direction. It meant, in effect, “farther down, farther away.” By the Middle Ages, it was already being used by Europeans to describe Europe, and by the late sixteenth century, it had become associated with forward movement, with youth and vigor, and ultimately, as Europe expanded– westward–with “civilization.”3 Ever since the eighteenth century, the word has been applied not only to Europe but also to Europe’s settlers overseas, to the wider European world.
European geographers have, ever since antiquity, spent a great deal of imagination and ingenuity in trying to establish meaningful frontiers between Europe and Asia. One was the Hellespont–the modern Dardanelles–the narrow stretch of water at the ﬁnal exit of the Black Sea, which was looked upon by the ancient peoples on both sides as a divinity whose purpose was to keep the two continents apart. There it has very largely remained, something on which those who object to the attempts by modern Turkey to deﬁne itself as a European state have frequently insisted. Farther north, however, the frontier grows shadowy and uncertain. At ﬁrst it was drawn at the River Don, which had the effect of placing most of modern Russia squarely in the “East.” By the end of the ﬁfteenth century, however, it had advanced to the banks of the Volga; by the late sixteenth century, it had reached the Ob; by the nineteenth the Ural and the Ural Mountains; until in the twentieth it ﬁnally came to rest on the banks of the Rivers Emba and Kerch.
When today we speak of the West or the East, however, we, like the ancients, mean something larger than mere geography. We mean the cultural peculiarities, the goals and ambitions of widely heterogeneous groups of people–and, of course, those often quoted, rarely discussed “Western values,” a rough checklist of which would now include human rights, democracy, toleration, diversity, individual freedom, respect for the rule of law, and a fundamental secularism. When, in September 2006, following a somewhat undiplomatic remark by Pope Benedict XVI, the terrorist organization al-Qaeda responded by swearing to continue the “holy war,” the jihad, until “the ﬁnal destruction of the West,” it was not so much a place they had in mind, as all those places where these values are more or less respected.4 Their “West,” therefore, now has to include a good part of the traditional East: Japan, India, even Turkey.
The beginnings of the conﬂicts between East and West, of which al-Qaeda’s war with the West is the latest manifestation, are so old that they belong to myth. They began with probably the most famous war in history, fought between the Achaeans, Greeks from the northeast of the Peloponnese, and a quasi-mythical people of Asia Minor called the Trojans, over the slighted honor of the Spartan king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, had been abducted by a foppish Trojan playboy named Paris Alexander.
For the Greeks of Herodotus’s generation the Trojan War, or rather Homer’s account of it in the Iliad, celebrated the birth of Hellas, and later of Europe, and its triumph over Asia. That is not how Homer saw it. His Greeks and Trojans share the same values and apparently speak the same language. They also venerate the same gods, who take sides in the combat according to their own particular whims and even appear on the battleﬁeld. The war was caused by irate and uncontrollable humans; but it came about because Earth complained to Zeus, the father of the gods, that there were too many humans for her to bear.
For later generations, however, who organized their own identities and their cultural longings around Homer’s poem, the fall of Troy became the beginning of the history of a struggle for supremacy between two peoples whose differences grew ever more marked as time went by. When Alexander the Great invaded the mighty Persian Empire in 334 B.C.E., he did so in a precisely dramatized reenactment of the Greek assault upon Troy, with himself in the role of the greatest of the Greek heroes, Achilles. For the ancients and their heirs, the division between the peoples of the two continents became, thereafter, an immutable fact of nature. “All the natural world,” the Roman scholar Varro declared bluntly in the ﬁrst century B.C.E., “is divided into earth and air, as all the earth is divided into Asia and Europe.”5
Troy, Alexander, and Rome were, however, only the beginning. In the centuries following the extinction of the Roman Empire, the cultural, political, and religious geography of Europe and Asia changed as new peoples, bearing new identities, swept through both regions: nomadic Germanic tribes in the West; Mongol, Turkic, and Arab peoples in the East. But each successive wave, as it came to rest, reassumed the ancient struggle between an ever-shifting West and an equally amorphous East. A ﬂame had been lit at Troy that would burn steadily down the centuries, as the Trojans were succeeded by the Persians, the Persians by the Phoenicians, the Phoenicians by the Parthians, the Parthians by the Sassanids, the Sassanids by the Arabs, and the Arabs by Ottoman Turks.
The Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, capital of the Greek Byzantine Empire, in 1453, was very conscious of this history. When in 1462 he paid a visit to the supposed site of the Trojan War, he stood on the shore where the Greek invaders had beached their ships and declared that, through his efforts, the heirs of those same Greeks had been made to pay, “the right penalty, after a long period of years, for their injustice to us Asiatics at that time and so often in subsequent times.” Nearly half a millennium later, in 1918, British and Italian troops entered Istanbul. The Allies stayed for less than ﬁve years; but many at the time hailed the occupation as the culmination of a centuries-long conﬂict, the day on which the West had ﬁnally repossessed the “second Rome” and brought what Herodotus had called the “perpetual enmity” between Europe and Asia to a close.
The struggle between the various civilizations of Europe and Asia has been a long and enduring one. But it has been neither continuous nor uninterrupted. An uneasy peace existed along the frontiers of the Byzantine and Ottoman worlds, even as Greco-Roman culture and the Christian religion steadily vanished from the Middle East. The so-called Moors, Berbers and Arabs from North Africa, who occupied much of the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, lived an unsteadily cooperative existence– famously and imprecisely described as convivencia, or “living together”–for centuries with their Christian subjects, even while a formal state of war existed between many of them. In the late sixteenth century, a fragile cooperation prevailed among the Ottomans, the Spanish, the Venetians, and the Genoese in the eastern Mediterranean, which, on more than one occasion, saw Ottoman ships involved in conﬂicts among Christians. Both the Valois kings of France and the Spanish Hapsburgs sought Ottoman and Safavid assistance in their own seemingly perpetual struggle with each other.
But these arrangements were always uncertain, always temporary. The old antagonisms, the conﬂicting visions of what nature or God had intended for man, and the memories of ancient hostilities, carefully nurtured by generation after generation of historians, poets, and preachers on both sides of the divide, were always there to justify a return to a struggle in which, as the Persian Achaemenid emperor Xerxes toward the end of the ﬁfth century
B.C.E. had seen, “there can be no middle course.”6 The battle lines have shifted over time, and the identities of the antagonists have changed. But both sides’ broader understanding of what it is that separates them has remained, drawing, as do all such perceptions, on accumulated historical memories, some reasonably accurate, some entirely false. This book is an attempt to chart those histories, both true and ﬁctive, and to explain how they came to be the way they are. Although I make no pretense to be merely telling a story, nor have I made any attempt to hide my preference for an enlightened, liberal secular society over any other, nor to disguise the fact that I believe that the myths perpetrated by all monotheistic religions–all religions indeed–have caused more lasting harm to the human race than any other single set of beliefs, this is not yet another history of how the West came to dominate the East and with it most of the known world. If Christianity seems to fare slightly better than Islam in this story, that is only because, as I explain in Chapter 8, Christianity was less well equipped to resist the destructive forces unleashed by its own internal inconsistencies and was thus unable to resist the several forms of secularization that, by the end of the eighteenth century, had all but eliminated its presence in the civil and political life of the West. Many Europeans and, still more Americans, continue, of course, to call themselves–and some evidently are–Christian. Few would also deny that Christianity continues to be one of the shaping cultural moments in the history of the West. But, as successive popes, patriarchs, and bishops have bitterly lamented, no matter what the personal, religious beliefs of their peoples might be, for the past three hundred years or more, the civil and political trajectory of the nations of the West has continued on its way very much as if no religion of any kind had ever existed.
“We need history,” the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “for the sake of life and action. . . . We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life.”7 I hope that in its own way, this book of history will also serve life, by showing, if only ﬂeetingly, that the tragic conﬂicts now arising from the attempts by some of the Western powers to reorder a substantial part of the traditional “East” in their own image belong to a history far older, and potentially far more calamitous, than most of them are even dimly aware.
ALL BOOKS BEGIN by chance. One morning, over breakfast, my wife, the classical scholar Giulia Sissa, was looking at a picture in The New York Times of a group of Iranians prostrate in prayer. “How ironic,” she remarked. “It was the habit of prostration which most puzzled the Greeks about the ancient Persians. Perhaps,” she added, “you should think about writing a book on what Herodotus calls the ‘perpetual enmity’ between Europe and Asia.” So I have. To her it owes its inspiration, its shape, and most of its chapter titles.
All chances, however, have their own prehistories. In the late 1960s, when I was unemployed, waiting to go to university, and making a precarious living as a freelance translator, I went one summer to stay with my sister, whose husband was then attached to the British High Commission in Cyprus. I spent my time, when not working on a translation of a rather dull biography of Paul Cézanne, visiting archaeological sites, trailing behind my sister and brother-in-law to embassy parties, and wandering through the Turkish quarter of Nicosia, fascinated by a culture I had never had any contact with before.
Cyprus–the legendary birthplace of Venus, to which, so myth had it, some of the Greek heroes from the Trojan War had come to settle and which had been Egyptian and Persian, Macedonian and Roman, before becoming the refuge of the Crusader king Guy de Lusignan, and then Venetian and Ottoman, and ﬁnally British– lay squarely across the fault line that, ever since antiquity, has divided Europe from Asia. In 1878, the island was ceded by the Ottoman sultan to the British. In 1960, after a bitter struggle for independence, it became the Republic of Cyprus, with a mixed Greek-Turkish parliament. Three years later, however, the government of President Archbishop Makarios collapsed, the Turkish members of Parliament were effectively driven out of ofﬁce, and the island was divided into Turkish and Greek zones along a line that separated the northern part of the island from the south. The Greek zone was prosperous and European and, in effect, constituted all that the rest of the world recognized as the Republic of Cyprus. The Turkish zone was poor, embattled, and a self-governing enclave unacknowledged then (and now) by any state other than Turkey itself.
When I was there, the frontier between the two enclaves zigzagged arbitrarily across the land, separating villages and towns that, under their previous imperial rulers, British and Ottoman, had lived, or been compelled to live, together in relative harmony. Now on one side of the line were the Greeks, who described themselves as the heirs to the oldest civilization of the West–absurdly, I thought at the time, since these people bore no obvious resemblance to Pericles or Plato (despite often being named after them). On the other were the Turks, who carried the burden of another kind of history. Their imperial past, like that of the British, was a relatively recent memory. For many, their Ottoman ancestry was a source of pride. For others, it was an embarrassment, an obstacle to their wish to become a modern European nation. I must confess that at the time I had more sympathy and liking for the Turks than I had for the Greeks.
The capital, Nicosia, was also split, as Berlin was before 1989, into two sectors separated by a narrow strip of land, known as the “Green Line,” patrolled, at that time, by a largely inactive U.N. peacekeeping force. No one was prevented from crossing this line, and many Turks traveled regularly to the Greek sector to shop, some even to work. The Greeks, however, rarely ventured into the Turkish sector, swearing that they would never return if they did. From time to time I would sit and drink sweet Turkish tea with a man named Kemal Rustam, who owned a small shop that sold books and looted antiquities (a brisk business among the Turks, for whom the island’s Greco-Roman past meant nothing) and who acted as an informal liaison ofﬁcer between the Turkish and Greek governments. From him I learned a great deal, anecdotal and indirect, about what it meant to live on a frontier, and on this frontier in particular. He was one of the Turks who crossed regularly into the Greek zone, and when my niece was christened, he attended the service, a smiling, ironic, unbelieving Muslim among a group of largely unbelieving Christians. On that simple day-today basis, the terrible religious and ethnic forces that had divided the island since independence, and even then had begun to divide the whole of the Middle East, seemed remote, grotesque, and absurd.
Cyprus introduced me to Ottoman history, and to Islam. It also showed me just how enduring the ancient divisions between Europe and Asia could be and left me wanting to know something more about how they had shaped the histories of both.
The following year, I went up to Oxford to study Persian and Arabic, having formed a vague plan to write a dissertation on the relationship between the Safavid rulers of Iran and Portugal in the seventeenth century. In the end this came to nothing, and I turned my attention elsewhere, to Spain and the Spanish Empire in America. But if Persia dropped–at least partially–out of sight, no one who studies any aspect of Spanish history, even that of the farthest westward of all its possessions, can remain for long unaware of the presence of Islam, or of the role it has played in the creation of modern Europe.
The Turks, too, never quite ceased to exercise a hold on my imagination. In the mid-1970s, and largely on a whim, I went to eastern Turkey, to what is loosely labeled “Kurdistan,” the area that lies between Lake Van and the borders with Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Then as now, the Kurds were pressing their distant masters in Istanbul for an independent homeland, and although the region was open to foreigners, it had very recently been under martial law and all the indications were–as indeed turned out to be the case–that it would soon be so again. I had a friend who had served in the British Embassy in Ankara, had useful connections among both Turks and Kurds, had always wanted to visit the East, and needed a traveling companion. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
I did not get very far, after contracting paratyphoid in Van. But I made it to the foot of Mount Ararat, shot vainly at indifferent eagles with a police chief just outside Tatvan, dynamited ﬁsh in a shallow river near Mus, and talked to the straggling remnants of Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish militia as it limped across the border from Iraq. I also slept under the chill Anatolian sky in the company of transhumant shepherds, where I learned something at ﬁrst hand about ancient hospitality, and something, too, of the horrors, in particular for women, of those “traditional” ways of life so mourned by sentimental Westerners who have never had to experience them.
Those images, and that of the unfailing courtesy and generosity with which I, a foreign inﬁdel with no good reason to be there and only the slenderest of connections, was treated have never faded. But the impression that is, perhaps, still most vivid in my mind is of something that occurred toward the very end of my journey. One morning, I found myself standing on a hill outside the modern town of Van, shabby and ramshackle, and looking down on the ruins of a city. It had been built almost entirely of sunbaked mud bricks, which, in the years since the place had been abandoned, had slowly dissolved in the winter rains until all that was left was the ﬁrst two or three feet of the outer walls. It was an unforgettable sight. All that could be seen was street after street of the traces of former houses, shops, squares, and marketplaces with, here and there, a higher, more complete ruin of stone. At ﬁrst glance it looked not unlike the pictures of the German city of Dresden after the bombing raids in February 1945. But it was not bombs but neglect and the weather that had razed this city almost to the ground. The Turk who had driven me there explained that this place was very ancient and had been abandoned for centuries. I asked him who had once lived here. “Ancient peoples,” he answered, which implied that they had been, at least, pre-Islamic, “very ancient peoples.” Did they have a name? No, he replied, their names had been lost. This much, he added, he had been told at school. For the rest, the place was a mystery and, like all other ruins, of interest only to foreigners. He seemed entirely certain and perfectly sincere.
But I knew that the ghostly place we were staring at had been part of the old Armenian capital of Van, and far from being abandoned “long ago,” its population had in fact been slaughtered in the Armenian massacres of June 1915–which just about everyone now, except the Turkish government, refers to as the Armenian Genocide. Between 1894 and 1896, Ottoman troops had systematically destroyed and looted Armenian villages, killing, by most accounts, as many as two hundred thousand people, which The New York Times, in what may be the ﬁrst use of the term, described as “another Armenian Holocaust.” The Armenians had been killed largely because they had been looked upon with suspicion as a Christian ﬁfth column, plotting with the enemies of the Ottoman Empire to create a separate homeland. At the outbreak of the First World War they turned for help to Russia, the empire’s most intractable foe, and in May 1915, with Russian assistance, they created an independent Armenian state. It lasted barely more than a month. In the aftermath, and, it must be said, amid rumors of the slaughter of Turks and Kurds by the victorious Armenian-Russian army, the authorities in Istanbul retaliated by deporting the entire Armenian population of the region to southeast Anatolia. In the process, thousands were massacred or systematically tortured, their homes and their belongings destroyed or seized, their churches desecrated and their ancient capital left empty, and at last, to which my Turkish guide was an eloquent, if unwitting, witness, all memory of their very existence was ﬁnally expunged.8 What I saw that day showed me something about the ferocity of ethnic conﬂict and of the still yawning divide between East and West, which no one who lives a comfortable, secure life in the West could, at least until September 11, 2001, have ever imagined.
When ﬁnally I sat down to write this book, it was these two images I had in mind: the prostrate Persians and the devastated city–two moments in a history that has no obvious beginning and as yet no foreseeable ending.
LOS ANGELES–PARIS–VENICE, 2006
From the Hardcover edition.
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