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The Middle East as Seen Through Foreign Eyes

Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century

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Examining Stereotypes

History Began With the Greeks

“When [the Persian king] Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 B.C., the world was old,” wrote the historian Albert T. Olmstead. “More significant, the world knew its antiquity.”

In Mesopotamia and Egypt, the written record of the deeds of rulers, the thoughts of learned men, the elaboration of culture and the arts, and the fears and ambitions of ordinary people reached back almost two and a half thousand years before the time of Cyrus. People lived amid the physical remains of this antiquity—ruin-mounds and standing monuments—and in the hundred years before Cyrus, consciousness of antiquity was widespread. Around 640 BCE, the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, had compiled a library at Nineveh that aimed to include all the work of Mesopotamian scribal tradition; around 520 BCE, the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, sought, found, and reported the foundation inscriptions of ancient Babylonian kings; in the 600s and 500s BCE, Saite art in Egypt echoed millennia-old forms and styles with loving precision; in Judea, the Deuteronomic laws presented a vision of society as a dispensation of the founder, Moses.

Some ancient scholars ordered time present and past with compilations of chronological and dynastic information, and with carefully managed calendars. Some edited chronicles for significant periods of their peoples’ histories. But efforts to account for the past to contemporary members of the societies—one idea of historical consciousness—were rarely, if ever, systematic until these societies came to be ruled by people whose cultural roots and identity lay outside the Near East, in Greece and Rome, people to whom the ways of life, cultural traditions, and antiquities of Near Eastern societies were unfamiliar.

Supporting Links:

Ashurbanipal Library Phase 1. British Museum. Link to resourcenew window (accessed June 24, 2010).

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