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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century

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Christianity and Islam

This remnant of ancient historical knowledge lost importance when religious identity shaped the encounters between West and East, that is, when parties to the encounters were not conceived as Europe and Asia, but as Christendom and Islam. Works of Greco-Roman literature and scholarship were preserved and transmitted both in medieval Christian Europe and in the medieval Islamic world. The rulers of the Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe and of the Byzantine Empire in the lands of the eastern Mediterranean identified themselves as successors to the Caesars of Rome, but not to the pharaohs of Egypt or emperors of Babylon. In times when religious learning dominated almost all kinds of scholarship and art, perception of the ancient Near East was shaped by the interpretation and explanation of the Old Testament scripture. The rulers of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, and Persia, whether remembered as cruel tyrants who oppressed the chosen people (for example, the Ramesses of Exodus, the Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar of Kings and Chronicles and Daniel) or as benefactors who liberated them (for example, the Cyrus of Isaiah, the Ahasuerus of Esther), were memorialized as aliens, not as antecedents. The landscapes and societies of the ancient Near East were the setting in which the Old Testament narratives took place; the narratives were Foundations of the Christian history of salvation, but Christendom itself occupied different landscapes and formed different societies, mostly far away from the monuments and ruin-mounds of the Near East.

The series of Crusades launched from Europe between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries took the theaters of conflict first to the Holy Lands of Syria and Palestine, and later to Egypt and North Africa. Among the results, with effects that lasted long after the military cataclysms and political upheavals, was a greatly increased commerce between western Europe and the Islamic societies of the eastern and southern Mediterranean. This included intellectual commerce that brought much new theoretical knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and alchemy from east to west, as well as much new practical knowledge of metallurgy, glass making, architecture, engineering, and explosives. This intellectual commerce also began to introduce to European scholars the Islamic world’s preservation and development of Greco-Roman learning.

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