Modern civilisation, born in Europe though no longer European, is an immature, upstart civilisation with severed roots. Its success in penetrating the world arose particularly from its cheeky forcefulness and its timing. Many civilisations preceded it, ceding to us their assets and ideas. There is much to learn from them which is of future value.
The West traces its roots back to Greece and Rome. Yet the collapse of Rome (around +400) was so enormous and final that modern Western ways and values arguably derive more from Celtic-Germanic origins than Greek-Roman sources. Nevertheless, Greece and Rome set precedents, establishing new historic patterns by giving businessfolk, generals and lay-people enhanced power.
They incubated new levels of permissiveness, self-interest, violence and materialism, divorcing daily life from traditional, rural ethics. It all went a bit far though: Greece fell to Rome in the -140s and, 500 years later, Rome fell in on itself. In this light, 20th Century civilisation does resemble the latter days of Romanitas.
In China, there has been greater historical continuity than in the West. Dynasties came and went, yet culture and administration were ongoingly controlled by social mores and mandarins, guided by enduring principles - or innate conservatism. This restrained the raucous commercial, military and aristocratic influences so characteristic of the West. At times this imperial central control stifled change and innovation, yet, at other times, its stability favoured cultural growth. China has been the richest, greatest and most advanced of all cultures for much of history.
In India, things were more changeable, due to invasions, localised cultural diversity and India’s natural fluidity. Successions of kingdoms and empires rose and fell, though some, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim, have been rich and exemplary, influencing all of Eurasia. As imperial traditions go, the Guptas were exemplary. India gave Buddhism to China, Hindu traditions to Indonesia and decimals and the number Zero to the West. India, colourful, populous and periodically turbulent, has been a microcosm of the world in itself, and still is. Perhaps it isn't just Mother to Indians.
Persia had alternating bouts of greatness, disintegration and foreign occupation, yet it has also been a great world culture. It was often overshadowed by neighbouring Mesopotamia – Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, Seleucia and, eventually, the Baghdad Caliphate. Mesopotamia stood at Eurasia’s crossroads, ongoingly one of the world’s main centres of civilisation. Babylon was one of the greater cities of history. If anything happened across Eurasia, Mesopotamia knew about it.
Egypt was protected by relative isolation and self-sufficiency in the Nile valley. Neither very imperialistic nor outward facing like Mesopotamia, it nevertheless greatly influenced Greece and Rome and, through them, Europe. There's cause to believe that prehistoric Europe influenced pharaonic Egypt too. Successive Egyptian dynasties spanned three whole millennia, from -3200 onwards.
In very ancient times, the Sahara supported an advanced culture, the possible seed-point of both Egypt and Megalithic Europe. Shorter-lived, later African civilisations have thrived in Eritrea (Axum), Ghana (Ashanti), Mali (Songhai), Nigeria and Zimbabwe – the 1500s arrival of Europeans put an end to all that. Egypt and North Africa, meanwhile, the busiest part of Africa, have nevertheless faced in other directions - north and east.
In the Americas, five areas saw advanced civilisation: Mexico-Guatemala (Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mayans and Aztecs), Colombia (Tairona), the Andes (Chavin, Tiahuanacu, Nazca and the Incas), Colorado (Pueblo, Anasazi) and Ohio-Illinois (Hopewell). The Amazon basin might yield another one. Yet Mexico was the meeting-place of American civilisation. These civilisations, annihilated by Europeans, never reached any proper conclusion.
Civilisations are by nature centred on towns and cities – otherwise, we would call them cultures or traditions. Many civilisations have soared to great heights. In architecture and thought, the medieval Islamic world was one of the most advanced. The temple complexes of Borobadur (Java), Khmer (Cambodia), Vijayanagar (South India), Chang-an (China), Teotihuacán (Mexico) and Brittany put our modern bulldozer-and-crane efforts to shame.
However, throughout history, the world's majority have been tribespeople, villagers and peasants who had little to do with cities, armies, temples and chanceries – except perhaps by paying taxes and tithes to them and by being periodically ravaged.
There was a surprising amount of worldwide contact across history: Alexander the Great conquered from Greece to India, and Indians settled in Bali and Arabs in Zanzibar long ago. The biggest empire of all time was carved out by the shepherd Mongols, stretching from China to Hungary. The Chinese visited Australia, Africa, the Americas and Antarctica and the Vietnamese sailed to California. The Phoenicians sailed round Africa, even perhaps over the Atlantic. The mysterious Olmec heads in Mexico look strangely negroid and caucasoid. Transcontinental and transoceanic travel is not just a modern invention.
Today, European-born global values, dominant in the 20th Century, are thrown into question in the light of Confucian and Islamic social and political traditions. The calendars of the Mayans and the astronomy and mathematics of Samarkand and Egypt are worthy of re-examination now.
Many nations have ancient heritages, even if forgotten or broken, bearing strongly on our current situation. Civilisation isn’t new. Our next civilisation could draw precedents from all of them, from all times. This would be wise.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
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The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.