Europe and the People without History
In the introduction to his book «Europe and the People without History,» Eric Wolf wrote:
…. where Francis Fukuyama was the prophet.
What history did we learn at school?
At school, our history books focused on Europe, on the pre-Roman tribes; the Romanisation that brought us roads, bridges, and dams and took away gold, silver, and copper; the fall of the Roman Empire that threw Europe into chaos with the arrival of the various «barbarian» peoples such as the Huns, the Suevi, the Alans and Vandals (I can never remember the right order of arrival). If that wasn’t enough, in the 8th century, the Muslims arrived and conquered the whole peninsula «with blood and fire.»
Later, I found out that there was no such bloodshed in the 8th Century conquest and that Muslims got agreements with the dozens of local chiefs -each one looking for its interest – respecting the Christian and Jewish religion and leaving their citizens alone in exchange for paying taxes to the Muslim army (It looks probable in the 21st Century China will do something similar with the EU where every country looks for its interest).
Later came the Catholic Kings who unified the peninsula,
Later came the Catholic Kings who unified the peninsula, rudely expelled Spanish Jews and Muslims from their own country and they encouraged Christopher Columbus to look for alternative routes to reach the longed-for spice islands – today’s Southeast Asia – unexpectedly finding a new continent they did not know about: America.
After several centuries of European wars – in which we changed from the Austro-Hungarian dynasty to the Bourbon dynasty -, the European courage in Africa and Asia (colonialism), two briefs failed republics, the two “world” wars, , the arrival and stay for 40 years of the dictator Franco, democracy and our integration into the European Union arrived.
What were we told about the eastern world?
That Africans, the Indians in India (and America), all the Chinese in China were very impoverished and that we had to give money to the Catholic Church in an annual campaign to help them.
I still remember the huchas that imitated people from different continents that we had to help and that they gave us to go around the streets asking for money for the Church (in our case the Catholic one).
But as Peter Frankopan writes in his remarkable «The Heart of the World: A New World History» in that account, however,
But, where was The centre of the world
Neither China nor India, now so relevant, was the centre where the planet turned
It was not the East or the West but the geographical area between them, connecting Europe with the Pacific Ocean. And that area was the one that today is home to countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and the Caucasus countries.
This region has been and remains the gateway between East and West, the very crossroads of civilisations that, as have done since the beginning of History, far from being on the margins of world affairs, now occupy a central place. Civilisation arose there, and many consider that humankind -as we understand it today- was created. The Garden of Eden was situated amongst the fertile fields between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here were founded the great metropolises of antiquity, wonders of the ancient world, which had complex sewerage systems unknown to Europe for thousands of years.
It was the birthplace of the world’s great religions. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism developed in close contact with each other – and provided examples of coexistence that we miss in the century of technology and identity. Language groups competed, where Indo-European, Semitic, and Sino-Tibetan languages were spoken alongside Altaic, Turkic, and Caucasian.
The geographer al-Idrisi [1099 -1166? AD], also called Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Abdallah Ibn Idris al-Qurtubi al-Hasani was born in Ceuta, Spain, in 1099 AD and was educated in Cordoba. He made several journeys in connection with his studies until he settled in Sicily at the court of the Norman King Roger II in Palermo.
Written in Arabic, it describes the entire Eurasian continent and the northern part of the African continent. As was customary in the Arab world, the world map is oriented with north downwards and was considered the most accurate for the next three centuries.
In Central Asia was created the Silk Road
Ultimately, great empires rose and fell, where the consequences between rival groups were felt thousands of miles away and traveled through a network that stretched in all directions. There were routes used by pilgrims, warriors, and warlike pilgrims, nomads, and traders, where goods and crops were traded, where ideas were exchanged, adapted, and refined. This incredible network came to be called the «Silk Road» many centuries later.
Despite its tremendous importance, however, conventional European History has neglected this part of the world. This fact was probably due to existing “Orientalism”, whose greatest exponent was Edward W. Said. Orientalism considered the East to be an underdeveloped place, generally inferior to the West, and therefore not worthy of study.
Sadly, the present had taken away the days when Kabul evoked the image of gardens planted and tended by Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire in India. Modern impressions of Iran had similarly obscured the glories of its History when the Persians exemplified good taste in everything from the delicacy and variety of the food to the miniature portraits created by great artists to the paper on which scholars wrote.
In this region, urban centres competed to see who had the most splendid architecture, who had the most important libraries and the most valuable books, who had the most spectacular temples, and ideas were rapidly linking Constantinople with Damascus, Isfahan, Samarkand, Kabul, and Kashgar. As Peter Frankopan underlines, world intellectual centres of excellence today – Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge – were not in Europe or the West but Baghdad and Balkh, in Bukhara and Samarkand.
The centre changed due to two maritime expeditions
However, the tide of progress turned in the early modern era due to two great maritime expeditions launched from what is now the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century. From Spain, with Christopher Columbus at the helm, one crossed the Atlantic, paving the way for connecting Europe with two immense landmasses hitherto unknown to Europe. Another, from Portugal, commanded by Vasco de Gama, made his way across the southern tip of Africa, sailing to India and in the process inaugurating a new sea route.
These discoveries changed trade entirely and shifted the world’s political and economic centre of gravity. Western Europe was no longer the end of the earth (as the westernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula is called), no longer a backward region, but the centre of a rapidly growing economy. Suddenly it became the centre of East and West.
And we again… were not taught in schools that the centre of the world had been somewhere else, that Europe was temporary the centre, and that it would probably cease to be so in the future. We stopped learning that the real melting pot of humanity and civilisation was not in the Mediterranean but the centre of Asia.
But History always come back...
But History returns. It is no coincidence that the President of the People’s Republic of China presented his new Silk Road project in Astana (Kazakhstan) where he called on China and Kazakhstan to build together a modern belt, i.e., transport and economic corridors connecting China with Europe and all other major Eurasian sub-regions.
Geographically, the Belt will focus on bringing together China, Central Asia, Russia, and Europe (the Baltic countries) – The Silk Road – and linking China to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea via Central Asia and West Asia, and connecting China to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean –The Spice Route-. This project focuses on the construction of a new Eurasian land bridge connecting Europe and Asia. In this way, as History would have it, the centre of the world will return to Central Asia.
I will check the current history books in my country’s school to see if we are still learning the same things…
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