Friday, June 30, 2006

One of those myths about early history

I am currently rereading Vernon O. Egger's A History of the Muslim World to 1405, which is one of the assigned texts for my upcoming class on the History of Islamic Civilization. Once again I am impressed. At least half the book is devoted to things that even most historians haven't heard of, like the Oghuz Turks. Yet Egger manages to keep the material under control and put across why this stuff matters.

This has led me to reflect on one of the great myths of early history, especially prevelant among people who don't study it, but one that sucks in people who do, too: the idea that before the train, the steamship, or the airplane, people were a lot more immobile than they are today. This idea is in a literal sense true, but incredibly deceptive in the image it gives us of the real past. Because even if presidents couldn't fly to Baghdad and back in the course of a day or so to make a political appearance, and even if ordinary people couldn't drive from North Bay to Toronto in half a day, both personal and public business stretched over large areas, and politics and war moved far and fast across the map, about as often as not.

Of course many know of the huge movements of the Mongols and the empires they created, but these are treated as tremendous exceptions when in fact they happen all the time, if maybe not quite on that scale. For instance, the migrations and campaigns of the obscure-to-most-of-us Oghuz Turks all across central and southwestern Asia, from the Aral Sea to the Aegean in the course of the late 11th century look phenomenal. It was one of the factors that turned Anatolia, known as the heartland of the Roman Empire in 1000, into what we call Turkey today. Impressive and exotic, yes? But at the same time a rather obscure group known as "the Normans" were conquering England, southern Italy, Sicily, parts of North Africa, and preparing to take part in further infiltration into Ireland and Scotland. Oh, yes and don't forget their key role in the First Crusade, a successful conquest of Palestine.

Indeed, the movers and shakers of the world routinely are aware of things that take place far away, and have political and economic interests in remote locations. And often travel there to promote their interests, often with an army or navy behind them.

Think about Richard Lionheart, French-speaking, Norman-descended, Poitevin-at-heart King of England and his willingness to drop everything in the west and run off to Jerusalem, intervening in Sicily and conquering Cyprus on the way. Pretty exotic -- except that it happens all the time.

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