Minoan civilization

Before Greek civilization developed in the northeastern Mediterranean basin—thus, long before the important Axial Age that happened about twenty-five centuries ago—an island civilization centered in Crete flourished for many generations. They traded products with their neighbors, including the Egyptians and Asians on the Mediterranean coast. They built large cities, complete with palaces and temples. They developed a plumbing system—always an indication of advanced civilization. They produced beautiful artwork. They had a written language, mostly untranslated, although a few inventory lists have been deciphered. Modern historians call this the Minoan civilization, since we have no idea what they called themselves.

Hints of their relationship with early Greeks are revealed in Greek mythology. The story of Theseus tells of a time that young men and women were taken from their home cities in Greece and brought to a foreign capital, where they were imprisoned in a Labyrinth and eventually killed and eaten by a monster—half-bull and half-human—called the Minotaur. Artwork in Crete suggests a slave class of entertainers who were not fed to a monster but who entertained the wealthy and powerful by gymnastic feats. They leapt over a live bull and performed maneuvers on its back, rather like the gymnastic routines involving the vaulting horse and the pommel horse, except that the ancient entertainers used a live animal.

Some Greek records also describe a civilization called Atlantis. Plato says he learned about Atlantis from Egyptian historians. Atlantis was said to be a rich and powerful nation, but the pride of its people led to its downfall—Atlantis was destroyed by natural forces, including earthquakes and floods, and fell into the sea. The legend of Atlantis may reflect the reality of Minoan Crete, although Plato’s Atlantis was larger than Crete. It was located west of Spain and Morocco, in the ocean that now bears its name. Greek historians even insisted that the Atlantic Ocean was not navigable because the wreckage of lost Atlantis made the waterway too shallow for boats.

Much evidence indicates that a massive volcanic eruption—one which caused earthquakes and tsunamis—occurred in the Mediterranean Sea about the time that the Minoan civilization collapsed. Historians cannot agree on the date—even the century—when the volcano erupted, but such an event would have impacted the Minoans on Crete and on nearby islands. Many of them would have died. Some would have tried to rebuild—and, in fact, after its collapse, the Minoan ruins were repaired, but eventually the depleted kingdom was added to the growing Greek civilization. Yet others would have sought a new home, and that also appears to be the case. Once again, though, historians do not agree on the details that appear to follow the destruction of Minoan cities.

Egyptian records describe a group of would-be settlers who tried to make a home for themselves in the Egyptian delta. Egyptian force resisted their settlement, and they moved up the coast until they found a land they could call their own. Archaeological evidence from Canaan indicates that various invaders forced their way into Canaan. Some of those invaders were, of course, the twelve tribes of Israel. But another group became established in southwestern Canaan around the same time. They built five cities, demonstrating skill they brought with them from their earlier home. Although at first the Israelites had some success clearing the land promised to them by the Lord, they later shared the land with Canaanites and other cultures. The five cities of the Philistines remained long after the time of the Judges, dwelling on land that had been assigned to the tribe of Dan (which chose to relocate to the north, according to the Bible) and to Judah and Simeon.

This history does not end in Biblical times. When the British Empire laid claim to the western Asian lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea after the First World War—land that had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before the Great War—they called that land Palestine, a corruption of the earlier name Philistine. The Palestinian natives were of mixed ancestry, including Arab and other ethnic origins; perhaps some of them are descendants of the Philistines from long ago. After the Second World War, the British divided the land between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Israel had to win a war against its neighbors to preserve its independence, and in the process the government of the Palestinians collapsed. Rule of their land was taken by Jordan for almost twenty years, but in the 1967 War Israel captured that land and held it for military security. In all the years since 1967, Israel has not fully incorporated its captured land and its population. Israel is a democracy, and fully incorporating the Palestinian land and people would make the Jews a minority in their own country, apt to be voted out of power. Instead, they have negotiated some autonomy for the Palestinians living in the Gaza strip—that piece of land on the coast of the Mediterranean that once included Gaza and four other Philistine cities. So the tension between Israel and its neighbors that was known under Samuel and David remains a reality down to the present. J.

Ancient Egypt

When Abraham visited Egypt four thousand years ago, the pyramids were already old. When they were included on the original list of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids were the oldest wonder on the list; yet they are the only wonder from that list to survive until the present. Built as tombs and monuments to some of Egypt’s earliest kings, they have inspired awe (and bizarre theories about their history) for most of recorded history.

Like other ancient civilizations (including Sumer, Canaan, and Greece), Egypt began as a collection of city-states, sharing a common culture and language, but existing under several independent governments. Unlike other civilizations, Egypt arose in the middle of a desert. It never rains in northeastern Africa. Seasonal rain falls in east central Africa, washing down the Nile River toward the Mediterranean Sea. It brings not only water but also fertile soil to Egypt before entering the Sea. Seasons of planting and tending crops and harvesting were governed by the flooding of the Nile in Egypt, making the ancient land, in the words of Greek historian Herodotus, “the gift of the Nile.”

Eventually, the city-states of Egypt coalesced into two countries: Lower Egypt, at sea level near the Mediterranean Sea, and Upper Egypt, further south, higher in elevation but still dependent on the Nile River. Their union as one country created the central figure called Pharaoh, who was seen as a god and as a connection between divine and human forces on earth. Some of the earlier Pharaoh were buried in pyramids with all their wealth and riches. Putting that many valuable items in one prominent space was too tempting to grave robbers and thieves; eventually, Pharaohs were buried in places more easily hidden. Even then, grave robbers generally found their way into the tombs and carried away the wealth, reinvigorating the economy of Egypt and its neighbors. The economy of Egypt must have taken a terrible blow when one tomb, that of a relatively minor Pharaoh named Tutankhamen, was hidden successfully, only to be found again in 1922 AD. His treasures have remarkable value, not only for their content of jewels and precious metals, but for the historic information they have revealed about ancient Egypt. In most cases, though, the wealth of the Pharaohs was pillaged and recycled. Even large stone monuments had their original labels chiseled off and rewritten so later rulers could take credit for the boasts of their predecessors.

Egypt was protected by deserts and other natural barriers. However, it did trade with its neighbors in Africa, western Asia, and the Mediterranean Sea. It sometimes exercised political power over portions of Africa and western Asia. At other times, it was conquered by neighbors and ruled for a time by outsiders. The Hyksos came from Arabia and ruled Egypt for a time; it may have been a Hyksos Pharoah who made Joseph the son of Jacob second-of-command in Egypt following Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. Later, rulers from the south invaded and became Pharaoh’s. Egypt was eventually overrun by other world powers: first Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, then the Persian Empire, and then Alexander the Great. When Alexander died, his general Ptolemy began a dynasty of Hellenistic rulers centered in Egypt. The last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, was closely associated with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony before she died and Egypt was added to the Roman Empire.

Egyptian culture and religion developed and changed over the generations. One Pharaoh even attempted to cancel the traditional religion of Egypt, replacing all the gods with a single divine being called the Aten. Most often, though, Egypt was polytheistic. Among its many gods was Osiris, whose death and burial and resurrection was associated with the change of seasons and with the hope of human resurrection into a new world. Some historians have suggested that Christian beliefs about Jesus were shaped by stories about Osiris and similar stories from other cultures and religions. C. S. Lewis demonstrated the counter-belief that the promise of death and resurrection is even older than the myths of Egypt and other ancient civilizations. The cycle of death and resurrection is observed in seasonal changes, in the planting of seeds, tending of crops, and harvesting of mature produce. That cycle itself can be seen as a promise, built into creation, of the sacrifice and resurrection of a Savior who overcomes all enemies (including death and the grave) and grants the gift of eternal life to all who trust in him.

When people move

In the course of human events, migration has resembled an unstoppable force, and bigotry has seemed like an unmovable object. Left alone, either could prevail as the primary cause of events. Combined, the two have challenged each other repeatedly, contributing to the ebb and flow of history.

People move. Even after the Neolithic Revolution established settlements where people built homes and cities, tended flocks and herds, raised crops, and set down roots, groups of people have still sought better homes for themselves and their families. People are constantly looking for better farmland and superior water resources, safer and more defendable homes, nicer weather, kinder neighbors, and opportunities to start over after escaping previous problems. When discussing this fact in the classroom, I often asked the students how many of them had parents still living in the same house where they lived when those students were born. The number who said yes was generally small—at times, I was the only one in the room whose parents had not moved.

So, the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in southern Asia gradually became home to increasing numbers of Indo-Europeans migrating from the north. The blending of Harappan with Indo-European cultures created the Vedic culture of India. Contemporary scholars are unsure which elements of Vedic civilization came from the Harappan strain and which came from the Indo-European strain. Since no one today can read Harappan writing, this question remains unanswered. But the blend of the two cultures definitely produced something new.

The Chinese culture built a wall to keep northern Asians out of their land. The Great Wall of China also prohibited Chinese people from leaving the country without permission, and it provided a great stimulus project that employed many Chinese workers who would otherwise have been unemployed. The Wall was not built at one time, or even in one century. Different segments were built at different times and were connected later; segments were repaired and improved over the centuries, so that the wall that tourists visit today is not the same wall that the Chinese people built long ago. But the Wall remains as a reminder of the extent to which governments will go to prevent unwanted immigration.

Many centuries later, the Romans also struggled to limit migration into their empire from the north. They also built walls. They positioned legions of soldiers on the borders. They even made agreements with some immigrant groups that they would be granted Roman citizenship if they would remain on the border and prevent other groups from entering the empire. Still, so many northern Europeans wanted the advantages of Roman citizenship and of life in the Mediterranean climate that the Romans were unable to prevent their entry. Goths and Vandals and Franks and Burgundians and Saxons and many other groups migrated into the Empire. They adopted some of its institutions (including Christianity) and adapted others, blending them with their own cultures. The results of this migration are called medieval and modern Europe.

Then came the Vikings. They came from Norway and Sweden, settling in Denmark and northern Germany and France. They entered the Mediterranean Sea and became involved with the Christian and Muslim civilizations living there. They sailed up the Dnieper River and established Kiev, the first capital of Russia. (Although Russia is a Slavic nation, its name comes from the label given to the Vikings of Kiev, whose hair and complexion were red.) The Vikings colonized Iceland and Greenland and even found their way to Canada. Hagar the Horrible and the Minnesota football team are far too weak to justly credit the major influence the Vikings had on western civilization.

After 1500, Europeans and Africans poured across the Atlantic Ocean into the Americas. Most Europeans made the trip voluntarily; most Africans were brought as slaves.  Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans were brought to the western hemisphere. After the slave trade was abolished, Europeans continued migrating to the New World, and many east Asians also crossed the Pacific Ocean for life in the Americas.

Yet the story of migration would not be complete without the opposing force of bigotry. Most cultures view the world as divided into “us” and “them.” The books of Genesis and Exodus correctly report the hostility the Egyptians felt toward outsiders, particularly the Semitic people of western Asia. Greeks distinguished between people who spoke Greek and those who spoke other languages—all those other languages sounded like “bar, bar, bar,” to the Greeks, so they called those outsiders “barbarians.” Jews distinguish themselves from Gentiles. The Chinese culture has traditionally seen itself as the only civilization, the center of the world, surrounded by barbarians. Migration is hindered by laws, walls, armed forces, and other deterrents because most groups of people consider themselves better than others. After all, if they didn’t consider themselves better, wouldn’t they seek to improve? Differences of appearance, language, food traditions, religious beliefs, social and political organization, and other cultural differences distinguish one group of people from another. Sometimes a group of people migrates successfully and makes its home in a new place, blending its culture with what they find in that new place. Sometimes (as with the Europeans coming to the Americas) the migrants are so dominant that they gain little from those groups they replace. Rarely does a government succeed in preventing migration into the land it controls. The higher the standard of living in a country, the more likely outsiders will want to move into that country and live there.

The dangers of migration and bigotry, when they face one another, can be reduced with a few simple concepts. One is genuine curiosity and interest, from both groups, about the traditions and practices of the other group. Another is willingness of the older group to teach its ways to the newer group. Legal acceptance of some immigrants and rejection of others can be based upon willingness of the migrants to conform to the values of the native culture. A fundamental requirement for peaceful coexistence is that both groups view the members of the other group as people. People deserve respect. Migrants and other outsiders are included among the neighbors that God’s people are commanded to love. But those strangers also have an obligation to respect their new neighbors, to obey the existing laws of their new homes, and to contribute to the success of the place they now call home. When stubbornness turns to fear and hatred, then the history of migration and of bigotry becomes ugly, often tragic. J.

More history

As people long ago settled into patterns of raising their own food—tending herds and flocks, and planting and harvesting crops—they looked for places with fertile soil, reliable sources of water, and safety from dangerous animals, including other people. Many of these ideal settlements were in the river valleys of Asia and north Africa. In China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, settlements grew until they had become small kingdoms, societies knit together by their common needs and desires.

Plentiful food made specialization possible. Some people focused on the crops and others on the flocks and herds. Still others helped to build houses and enclosures for the animals. Some made tools. Others made clothing from plant fibers and animal skins or fur. Some specialized in the arts, including story-telling; they maintained the histories of their people and also their religious beliefs. Some specialized in leadership; beginning as heads of families and of clans, they became the ruling class of their small nations. Some specialized in hunting and in military protection of their settlements. Some became priests and spiritual leaders, keeping the people in tune with God as they understood God.

Eventually, all these river valley settlements developed written language. Sumer, in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) appears to be the earliest place where humans wrote, although the Harappan civilization in India may have begin writing around the same time. Although the earliest records were probably inventories of food and other items being preserved, soon the same symbols were adapted to record other information that people were determined to preserve. One of the oldest documents found in Sumer is a recipe for brewing beer.

Literacy did not remain an ability of the privileged elite. Egyptian Pharaohs erected public monuments in their cities and at the borders of their land, telling people what they had accomplished. Hammurabi, king of a Sumerian city called Babylon, had the laws of his government carved in stone and placed prominently in his city. These practices indicate that many people living in those places were able to read. Some ancient writings have been preserved, not because of planning, but by fortunate happenstance. Temporary records scratched into clay tablets in western Asia were cooked when the cities caught fire, being hardened for long-term preservation. During the Shang Dynasty in China, people with questions about the future wrote those questions on animal bones. Religious specialists then heated the bones in fire until they cracked; the cracks running through the questions provided answers by means of the specialists. Although we do not know how they determined their answers, we know what questions people were asking in ancient China, which is splendid information for historians.

Many records have been lost over time, because they were written on materials that disintegrated. Others cannot be read because no one today knows those ancient languages. Ancient Egyptian can be read only because of a stone found in Egypt that contains the same message in three languages, including Greek. The Harappan language of ancient India and some of the written languages of the western hemisphere remain mysteries because no similar key has been found to interpret them.

Other civilizations did not bother trying to preserve the written word. In many places, unfavorable climate guaranteed that no written materials would last for generations. Africa, the South Pacific, and parts of the western hemisphere relied largely on oral tradition rather than a written record. For a long time, historians were suspicious of oral tradition. They figured it changed from generation to generation, much as spoken messages are changed from person to person in contemporary cultures. People who never relied on writing improved their memory skills; story-tellers in those cultures were able to maintain reliable versions of ancient narratives because their communities expected that skill from them. Today, historians place far more trust on the oral traditions of such societies; they combine that information with archaeological discoveries and accounts written by visitors to those societies to develop a comprehensive historical record of those nations.

Record-keeping practices constantly change. Electronic storage of information is still new, but the switch from scrolls to codices (the modern form of the book, with a spine and a cover) happened roughly two thousand years ago without bringing history to an end. Record management specialists and archivists continue to refine their skills at preserving digital information. Much will still be lost, as many books and papers are lost, and many ancient documents have disappeared. What is most valuable, though, will be saved. Future generations will study us to learn about our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our perceptions of ourselves. We may seem as strange to them as the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Harappans, and Chinese seem to us today. In the most important ways, though, we will all be the same, because we all are human. J.