Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

May 30, 2017

Ancient Egyptians: black or white?

Filed under: Egypt,Genetics,Historical Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 9:20 pm

One of the most fascinating things about ancient Egypt is its continuity, and our granular and detailed knowledge of that continuity. We can thank in part the dry climate, as well as the Egyptian penchant for putting their hieroglyphs on walls and monuments (as well as graffiti!). And we can also thank the fact that both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, Athens and Jerusalem so to speak, were deeply connected to and perceived themselves to be indebted to Egyptian civilization. Even before the translation of the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of ancient Egyptian writing the Hebrews’ interactions with Egyptians, in particular in Exodus, mean that their memory would echo down through the millennia (the newly Christianized Irish interpolated Egyptian ancestry into their own genealogy).

The Greek relationship with Egypt was less fraught and at greater remove than the Hebrews. But the Classical period philosophers correctly perceived that Egyptian civilization was ancient, and preceded their own. Aegean-Egyptian connections were actually more longstanding than the Classical scholars knew, in Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East, the correspondence in state archives which have been retrieved are rather clear that Minoan civilization was part of the orbit of Egypt early on. Though Egyptians never conquered the Aegean polities, mercantile and diplomatic connections were extremely old and persistent. The late Bronze Age eruption of barbarian Sea Peoples who attacked the whole civilized Near East may have been facilitated in part by the broad familiarity engendered by widespread trade networks.

The most recent book devoted to ancient Egypt I have read was Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. Synthesizing extensive written material with archaeology, perhaps the most impactful argument in Wikinson’s narrative was the persistence of the temple based institutions from the Old Kingdom down to the Ptolemaic era. Religious institutions carried on even with the shocks of Nubian and Libyan conquest in the post-New Kingdom period, down to Late Antiquity. The temple at Philae in southern Egypt was an active center of the traditional religion, and therefore the culture which dates to the Old Kingdom in continuous form, down to the 6th century A.D. (when it was closed by Justinian in his kulturkampf against ancient heterodoxies).

For various ideological reasons though many people are very curious about the racial characteristics of the ancient Egyptians. There are two basic extreme positions, Afrocentrists and Eurocentrists. Though I have not done a deep dive of the literature of either group, I’ve read a few books from either camp over my lifetime. In fact I believe the last time I read the “primary literature” of Afrocentrist and Eurocentrism was when I was an early teen, and it was rather strange because both groups seem to be recapitulating racial disagreements and viewpoints relevant to the American context, and projecting them back to the ancient world.

In college I stumbled upon Mary Lefkowitz’s Not Out Of Africa, a book length argument against the more sophisticated Afrocentrist views articulated in the wake of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. Lefkowitz was a classicist, so many of her objections were exceedingly scholarly. The reality is that the best refutation of an Afrocentrist view of of ancient Egypt, which reduces to the idea that ancient Egyptians would be recognizably black African today, are the Fayum portraits. It is notable to me how similar these portraits are to modern Copts. In fact the actor Rami Malek, of Coptic background, looks strikingly like someone who stepped out of the Fayum portraits.

I have read no book length refutation of the Eurocentrist, usually Nordicist, perspective. Mostly because this is a view associated with white supremacism, and that ideology is generally attacked on normative, not positive, grounds. But the visible evidence of the Fayum portraits is a strong refutation of the Nordic model. Of course, there is the reality that we now know that the Nordic phenotype, and the genetic components which congealed into that typical of Northern Europe today, was only coming into existence when the Old Kingdom of Egypt was already a mature civilization.

Of course both Afrocentrists and Eurocentrists will reject the evidence of the Fayum portraits became they came from the Roman era, and they would argue that the demographic nature of Egyptians changed quite a bit between that period and the end of the New Kingdom. And they are not incorrect that the period between the arrival of the Romans and the fall of the New Kingdom was characterized by a great deal of change. There were Libyan dynasties, Nubian dynasties, and periods of rule by Assyrians, Persians, and Macedonians. Large colonies of Greeks, Macedonians, and Hebrews-becoming-Jews were also resident in Egypt. Especially, but not limited to, the urban areas.

But now we have ancient DNA! Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods:

Egypt, located on the isthmus of Africa, is an ideal region to study historical population dynamics due to its geographic location and documented interactions with ancient civilizations in Africa, Asia and Europe. Particularly, in the first millennium BCE Egypt endured foreign domination leading to growing numbers of foreigners living within its borders possibly contributing genetically to the local population. Here we present 90 mitochondrial genomes as well as genome-wide data sets from three individuals obtained from Egyptian mummies. The samples recovered from Middle Egypt span around 1,300 years of ancient Egyptian history from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period. Our analyses reveal that ancient Egyptians shared more ancestry with Near Easterners than present-day Egyptians, who received additional sub-Saharan admixture in more recent times. This analysis establishes ancient Egyptian mummies as a genetic source to study ancient human history and offers the perspective of deciphering Egypt’s past at a genome-wide level.

Because modern people care about the Afrocentrist question, the extent of Sub-Saharan African ancestry is highlighted in this paper. I do not think this is actually the most interesting aspect. But I’ll get to that. Since this post will be read by a fair number of people I’ll talk about the relationship of ancient and modern Egyptians to (Northern) Europeans and Sub-Saharan Africans.

The figure to the left is looking at 90 ancient Egyptian mitochondrial genomes (and some modern ones in the two rightmost columns). Since mtDNA is copious it was relatively easy to extract and analyze.  Haplogroup L, the red to orange shades in the bar plots, are associated without dispute with Sub-Saharan Africa. Haplogroup U6, M1 and a few others may be “back to Africa” variants of different periods (they are generally found in Afro-Asiatic groups).

What you can see is that somewhat more than half of Ethiopia’s mtDNA lineages are L, in keeping with the whole genome estimate of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in most Cushitic populations. In Egypt there is a difference over time; haplogroup L goes from low frequencies to much higher frequencies in modern periods. The ~20% fraction in the modern samples is in line with the population wide admixture one sees in modern Egyptians of Sub-Saharan admixture.

I actually recomputed the haplogroups to a finer granularity from the supplements for readers who know this stuff well. Here they are:


Haplogroup Count
H 2
H13c1 2
H5 2
H6b 2
HV 3
HV1a’b’c 4
HV1a2a 3
HV1b2 2
HV21 2
I 5
J1d 2
J2a1a1 2
J2a2b 2
J2a2c 4
J2a2e 3
K 16T 2
K1a 2
K1a4 2
L3 2
M1a1 4
M1a1e 2
M1a1i 2
M1a2a 2
N 2
N1’5 2
N1a1a2 2
R 3
R0 2
R0a 2
R0a1 2
R0a1a 3
R0a2 3
R0a2f 2
R2’JT 2
T 3
T1a 3
T1a2 2
T1a5 4
T1a7 7
T1a8a 2
T2 3
T2c1 2
T2c1c 2
T2e 2
U 2
U1a1 2
U1a1a3 2
U3b 3
U5a 2
U6a 2
U6a2 2
U6a3 2
U7 4
U8b1a1 3
U8b1b1 2
W3a1 2
W6 2
W8 2
X 2
X1 2
X1c 2

A quick inspection of mtDNA haplogroup frequencies shows that ancient Egyptians are not typical of modern Europeans. Not that much H, and lots of T, J and K. What that does remind me of are Early European Farmers. These people, who brought agriculture to Europe from Anatolia contributed a large fraction of the ancestry of modern Southern Europeans, and a lesser component to Northern Europeans.

But ultimately what’s great about this paper is that they have ancient autosomal DNA. That is, genome-wide results.

They got three samples of reasonably high quality. More precisely: “Two samples from the Pre-Ptolemaic Periods (New Kingdom to Late Period) had 5.3 and 0.5% nuclear contamination and yielded 132,084 and 508,360 SNPs, respectively, and one sample from the Ptolemaic Period had 7.3% contamination and yielded 201,967 SNPs.”

You can see the three samples on this bar plot. What is interesting is that they’re all pretty similar.

What you can see here is that to a great extent ancient Egyptians were descended from a population closely related to Natufians, or Natufians themselves. This easily explains the mtDNA affinity to Neolithic farmers: Natufians and Anatolian Neolithic populations were sister populations. The f3 statistic which looks at shared drift shows an affinity of ancient Egyptians with ancient farmer populations with Near Eastern provenance, but also with modern Sardinians. This is a common pattern, as ancient groups do not have later migration waves, with the Sardinians the modern population closest to this.

You see in the bar plot that northern Levantine populations are placed between Anatolian Neolithics and Natufians, as one might expect based on their geographical position and gene flow between these two regions. Additionally, the cyan color is associated with eastern farmers from the Zagros. I’ve already talked about gene flow from this area to the Levant recently. If you compare the Bronze Age Sidon samples I think you’ll see broad affinities with these Late Period Egyptians.

The PCA gives us results consonant with the model-based clustering. If you plot the genetic variation of ancient Egyptians they’re closest to Neolithic eastern Mediterranean populations. No great surprise.

Not the modern Egyptians. Why? It’s pretty clearly because modern Egyptians are shifted toward Sub-Saharan Africans. But there is also another component: modern Egyptians have more of the cyan eastern farmer component. What could this be?

An immediate thought comes to mind. We focus a great deal on Sub-Saharan African slavery. One reason is that it is visible. Black Africans are physically distinct from most Middle Eastern populations. But Egypt was long the center of another slave trade: “white slaves” from the Caucasus. Circassians. For hundreds of years Mamluks were recruited from the Caucasus as military slaves. They eventually became the ruling class of Egypt, until their decimation in the 19th century under Muhammad Ali (who himself was an Albanian Ottoman who never learned to speak Arabic well).

As noted in the paper earlier work looking at patterns in ancestry tracts and LD decay had made it obvious that much of the admixture of Sub-Saharan ancestry in Egypt, as in much of the Middle East, is relatively recent. In particular, it dates to the Islamic period, when trade and conquest took on new dimensions in Africa and north into Central Asia. One way ethnic minorities like Assyrians and Lebanese Christians differ from their Muslim neighbors is that they have much lower fractions of Sub-Saharan African ancestry, and no East Asian component. The latter might surprise, but remember that Central Asian Turkic slaves have been prominent in Muslim armies since at least the 9th century.

But some of the Sub-Saharan ancestry in Egyptians is old. The ancient Egyptian samples have it. To have none of it would seem strange, considering the history of contact between Nubia and Egypt, dating back to the Old Kingdom. Second, there is evidence of low levels of Sub-Saharan African gene flow into Southern Europeans. How did that happen? The highest fractions are in Spain, and can there be attributed to the Moorish period. But that explanation does not hold in much of Italy, where there are a few percent of haplogroup L. This probably is due to south-to-north gene flow across the Mediterranean during the Classical period. Some of the peoples on the south shore of the Mediterranean almost certainly already had some Sub-Saharan African admixture.

Not getting into the details of it, there are ways to explicitly model gene flow into a target population from donors defined by a phylogeny. In this case the authors tested various models of gene flow from Sub-Saharan Africans and Eurasians (non-Africans) to generate allele frequency patterns we see in modern Egyptians and ancient Egyptians.

What they consistently found is that modern Egyptians are about twice as much Sub-Saharan African as ancient Egyptians. The proportions for modern Egyptians ranged from ~10 to ~20 percent Sub-Saharan African against a Eurasian background, with a bias toward the higher values (depending on which populations you put into the phylogeny for non-Africans), and ~0 to ~10 percent for the ancient Egyptians, again with a bias toward the higher values. The pattern is consistent in these tests.

An issue here is that we’re going off three samples. That being said, the authors observe that despite differences in contamination/quality and time period they’re very concordant with each other. If I had to bet I think Old Kingdom samples would have somewhat less Sub-Saharan and eastern farmer ancestry. But the basic pattern persisted down to the Roman period, and was only shifted by admixture due to slavery.

And not to belabor the point, but a paper from a few years ago which had some Copt samples looks familiar in its broad outlines. You see that the Copts have very little Sub-Saharan African ancestry, though it does seem to be evident (the marker set is in the hundreds of thousands of SNPs). Additionally, they are quite distinct from the Qatari Arab sample.

Unfortunately the data for this paper just published is not on the European Nucleotide Archive. I really want to dig a little deeper into it.

What are the takeaways here? Egypt has been the sink for a lot of migration and gene flow over the past several thousand years, and probably earlier. Not surprising considering that it was relatively wealthy in the aggregate. The Natufian population that the Late Period Egyptians resemble the most did not have Sub-Saharan African ancestry according to earlier research. These Late Period Egyptians do have some. This is reasonable in light of the long interaction with Nubia which is historically attested. Similarly, there was clearly gene flow from Southwest Asia. This is again historically attested, especially in the Nile Delta (though foreign garrisons of mercenaries are recorded in Upper Egypt as well).

The Roman period probably did introduce some gene flow from Southeast Europe and Southwest Asia. But these populations are not that distinct from Egyptians.

Similarly, the Islamic period also brought in different peoples from Arabia and the Caucasus. But the most salient dynamic during the Islamic period was a massive trans-Saharan slave trade (though the Caucasus impact may have been comparable, and I think these results support the proposition that it was).

It seems entirely likely that the Copts are descended from a mix of Roman era Egyptians. Not only do they resemble the people in the Fayum portraits, but the circumstantial genetic data is that they have fewer “exotic” components which increased in frequency during the Islamic era. This would be exactly parallel to ethno-religious minorities in the Levant and Iraq.

One curious element to me is the suggestion gene flow before ~5,000 BCE between Sub-Saharan Africa and the lower Nile valley was low. If it hadn’t been low, it seems unlikely that the fraction of Sub-Saharan ancestry (or shift in that direction in relation to other Eurasians) in Copts would be so small.

So what explains the lack of earlier gene flow? I think the answer is going to be the fact that the human demographic landscape is characterized by lots of local population extinctions. As ancient DNA sampling coverage gets better and better meta-population dynamics are coming into focus, and we see gene flow, and die offs, in several areas. It is fashionable to say that human population variation is characterized by clines. But much of this clinal aspect is an outcome of the period after massive admixture over the last ~10,000 years.

And yet it may not be that the period before the Holocene was not clinal. Rather, it may be that large depopulations of areas of human occupation fragmented clinal ranges, and resulted in new range expansions from “core” zones.

About ~8,000 years ago there was a major desertification period in the Sahara desert. Many trans-Saharan populations may have gone extinct during this time due to rapid climate change. Eventually repopulation may have occurred from outside of the Sahara, so that post-Natufian Levantines and Sub-Saharan Africans from what today call the Sahel pushed up and down the Nile drainage basic respectively, meeting in the zone of Nubia on the boundary of history and prehistory.

Unlike many other areas of the world we have a long attested record of Egyptian history. As we get more mummy samples it seems likely that we’re get a crisper, clearer, picture. And the time transects will not be narrative blind; we already know the general arc of Egyptian history. If, for example, we see a new ancestral component around ~1500 B.C., in Egypt it’s not mysterious what this might be: the Hyksos.

This is just the prologue to a fascinating book that will be written over the next decade.

Related: Blog post analyzing one Copt’s results suggests that Sub-Saharan admixture is more like Dinka than Yoruba (in contrast, Muslim Egyptians have a mix of both, the latter probably coming during the Islamic slave trade, while the former is probably ancient admixture).

Citation: Schuenemann, V. J. et al. Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods. Nat. Commun. 8, 15694 doi: 10.1038/ncomms15694 (2017).

December 28, 2011

The poverty of multiculturalist discourse

As I’ve noted in this space before many of my “web friends” and readers are confused why I call myself “conservative.” This is actually an issue in “real life” as well, though I’m not going to get into that because I’m a believer in semi-separation of the worlds. I’ll be giving a full account of my political beliefs at the Moving Secularism Forward conference. A quick answer is that I’m very open to voting for Republicans, and have done so in the recent past. And, my lean toward Mitt Romney* in the current cycle is probably obvious to “close readers.” But I’m not a very “political person” in the final accounting when it comes to any given election. I didn’t have a very strong reaction to the “wave” elections of 2006, 2008, and 2010, except that I was hopeful but skeptical that Democrats would actually follow through on their anti-war rhetoric (I’m an isolationist on foreign policy).

Rather, my conservatism, or perhaps more accurately anti-Left-liberal stance, plays out on a broader philosophical and historical canvas. I reject the very terms of much of Left-liberal discourse in the United States. I use the term “discourse” because for some reason the academic term has replaced the more informal “discussion” in non-scholarly forums. And that’s part of the problem. I am thinking of this because of a post by Nandalal Rasiah at Brown Pundits commenting on a piece over at Slate, Responding to Egregious Attack on Female Protester, Egyptian Women Fight Back. Whether conventional or counter-intuitive Slate is a good gauge of “smart” Left-liberal non-academic public thought. Nandalal highlights this section:


While it’s always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture, I think it is safe to say that in this case, a kind of social contract has been irreparably broken. Based on the statements reported in the Times and in other media accounts, the women of all ages and political/religious orientations who took to the streets yesterday felt that the violation against this poor woman was a violation against them all. A repressive, virulently patriarchical society like the one the Egyptian military apparently wishes to foment in its country can only function with the tacit (whether coerced or freely given) consent of the women it oppresses. But when those same men who demand chastity, modesty, and all the rest prove themselves to be hypocrites by violently demeaning women in the streets, the silence is bound to be broken.

There are lots of implicit assumptions lurking in this one paragraph. Before, excuse the word, deconstructing it, I highly recommend D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t to get where I’m coming from. It has one of the most concise and well written critiques of the “Post Modern”** obfuscation which has crept into many disciplines purporting to describe, analyze, and comment upon the human condition. Slone’s short academic book is obviously about religion, from a cognitivist perspective, but his prefatory section is a survey of the diseases which ail cultural anthropology today (for a longer take see Dan Sperber’s Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach).

First, the very idea that the Egyptian military is fomenting patriarchy seems descriptively false. I thought perhaps I didn’t understand what foment connoted, so I looked it up. The reality is that Egyptian society was, and is, virulently patriarchal. I’ve talked about this in detail before. 54 percent of Egyptians support the enforcement of gender segregation in the workplace by law (there is no sex difference on this by the way). The Egyptian military may be a authoritarian force in the country which does foment religious conflict and patriarchy, but the key is to observe that this leverages the pre-existent tendencies of the society. Over its history the Egyptian military, and the political and economic elite, have been forces for Westernization, on the whole. This is obvious when you observe that in a democratic election Egyptians are giving 2/3 of their vote to Islamist parties, and 25 percent of the vote to Salafist parties who wish to impose a theocratic regime immediately!

Second, we need to reconsider whether it was, and is, the repeated sexual assaults upon women which are the necessary root of the anger. Sexual harassment of women on the street has long been common in Egypt. 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women report it, it seems unlikely that this is a phenomenon of a small minority of men who are violating a social contract (on this specific issue anger at the military combined with the power of media are probably the necessary causes at the outrage to this action). Mona Eltahawy has spoken at length about her assault at the hands of the authorities, but in interviews she also occasionally mentions that prior to the central incident there were instances of sexual harassment which she experienced from fellow protesters! One reason that many women in the Muslim world give for supporting Islamist parties is that these parties promise to enforce protections of women against the predatory behavior of men in societies where female honor is simply a consumption good when that female is not a relative.

So the inferences made from the contemporary events in Egypt in this case are faulty. But they’re interesting because the problem is so common. Why? You can’t make sense of this unless you examine the broader theoretical framework that people are operating within to generate inferences. A nod is given to this when the author states that it is “always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture.” I think this has a positive descriptive dimension, and a normative. The positive descriptive dimension is that in scholarship one has to be careful to not allow one’s own subjective perspective to cloud objective judgments. Else, one may generate a false model of the world. This means setting aside one’s own values framework for the purpose of further analysis. Such a stance has not been the norm throughout human history. The didactic tone of Tacitus is much more typical than the cooler detachment of Thucydides. The use and abuse of scholarship for the aims of social and political ends are well known.

The problem occurs when these common sense guidelines in academics transform themselves into ever expanding relativistic bounds of discourse, incoherently in contrast with the strong normative orientations of the expositors of these same theoretical frameworks. In turning away from the bias of the past, there is now a bias which has inverted itself. There is a tendency to be careful about analyzing or criticizing other cultures, because that is “dangerous.” Why? Well, would you want to be an “Orientalist”? But you are also careful to demarcate other cultures in a way suitable to your preferences for the purposes of rooting out “injustice.” Would the author of the Slate piece be wary of critiquing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? This endogamous sect is certainly apart from the rest of American culture. In fact, with its extreme patriarchy and polygamy it resembles the ideals of some non-Western societies. How about the culture of the American South? There’s no denying this is a distinctive region in folkways. Would one think it is dangerous to analyze or critique the distinctive attitudes toward relations between the races in his region, whose divergence from the North dates back to colonial times?

Some of this is clearly just a matter of race. Though people speak of “culture,” what they often act out is the idea that non-white races have different cultures by nature in an essential sense, and so must be critiqued with a softer touch, or greater sensitivity, than whites with a distinctive culture. Conservative white Southerners and Fundamentalist Mormons are clearly distinctive in culture from the typical Northern Left-liberal, but that does not shield them from a critique derived from a difference in perspective. The implicit idea lurking beneath the surface is that the white race is subject to a particular standard of cultural expectation, and criticism meted out serves to elevate dissenters to that higher standard, which diminishes “oppression” and “injustice” (quotes in this case because I feel that the terms are used many to further very narrow political projects, to the point where they’re heavily debased and almost without content as ends as opposed to means). In contrast, the situation is different with non-whites, who must be left to find their own direction, or more obliquely critiqued.

To a great extent this is a caricature, but the underlying dynamic is real. For example, a few years back a Harvard Muslim chaplain was caught contextualizing, and defending, laws enforcing the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. Upon further inspection from an intellectual perspective I can see where he was coming from. In scholarly or academic settings I think one can have a real discussion about this issue, even if one disagrees with the presuppositions. I say this as someone who is technically a Muslim apostate (my father is Muslim, by which definition some Muslims would define me as such). Here is the section which I found amusing though:

I would finally note that there is great wisdom (hikma) associated with the established and preserved position (capital punishment) and so, even if it makes some uncomfortable in the face of the hegemonic modern human rights discourse, one should not dismiss it out of hand. The formal consideration of excuses for the accused and the absence of Muslim governmental authority in our case here in the North/West is for dealing with the issue practically.

This individual is a Harvard graduate, so of course he would understand what “hegemonic modern human rights discourse” is alluding to, and the use of therm “discourse” suggests his familiarity with the academic style dominant today, despite his defense of capital punishment of apostates from Islam under Islamic governments. Despite the trotting out of appropriate terminology, obviously the individual in question believes in a hegemonic discourse. He accepts that Islam is the way, the truth, and that under ad Islamic regime those who are Muslim who turn from the truth may be put to death by the authorities. If a conservative Protestant chaplain at Harvard was caught privately defending the death penalty for apostasy (which was enforced by Protestants in Scotland as late as 1700) there wouldn’t be a discussion or contextualization; they’d be universally condemned and fired (in large part because killing apostates from religion is no longer part of the wider Christian set of norms, as opposed to the world of Islam where the concept is widely accepted).

The problem with the bleeding over of academic “discourse” into the public forum is that it obfuscates real discussion, and often has had a chilling effect upon attempts at moral or ethical clarity. Unlike the individual above I am skeptical of moral or ethical truth in a deep ontological sense. But I have opinions on the proper order of things on a more human scale of existence. You don’t have to reject the wrongness of a thing if you reject the idea that that thing is wrong is some deep Platonic sense. I can, in some cases will, make the argument for why some form of the Western liberal democratic order is superior to most other forms of arranging human affairs, despite being a skeptic of what I perceive to be its egalitarian excesses. I can, and in some cases will, make the argument for why legal sexual equality is also the preferred state of human affairs. But to have this discussion I have to be forthright about my norms and presuppositions, and not apologize for them. They are what they are, and the views of those who disagree are what they are.

An academic discourse tends to totally muddy a clear and crisp discussion. The reality is that most Egyptians have barbaric attitudes on a whole host of questions (e.g., ~80 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty or apostasy from Islam). It was not surprising at all that the majority of the Egyptian electorate supported parties with reactionary cultural political planks; because the classification of these views as “reactionary” only makes sense if you use as your point of reference the Westernized social and economic elite. The majority of Egyptians have never been part of this world, and for them upward mobility has been accompanied by a greater self-consciousness of their Islamic identity.

This reality is not comforting to many, and so there has been an evasion of this. If we accept, for example, in the hegemonic superiority of sexual equality, should we not impose the right arrangement upon those who oppress women? This is a serious question, but the fear of engaging in “dangerous” analysis in the “discourse” allows us to sidestep with this question. Rather, by minimizing the concrete realities of cultural difference and the depths of their origin, Egyptians are easily transformed into Czechs in 1989 with browner skins and a Muslim affiliation. This is a totally false equivalence. As Eastern Europeans go the Czech population is atypical in its secularism and historical commitment to liberal democracy (one could argue the weakness of the Catholic church goes as far back as the Hussite rebellion and the later suppression of Protestantism by the Habsburgs). While other post-World War I polities switched toward authoritarianism in the inter-war period, the Czechs retained a liberal democratic orientation until the Nazi German invasion. After the collapse of Communism they reverted back to this state. Notably, extreme nationalist parties with anti-democratic tendencies have come to the fore in most post-Communist states, but not so in the Czech Republic.

The irony here is that an academic position which espouses the deep incommensurability of different societies and cultures in terms of their values, rendering inter-cultural analysis or critique suspect, has resulted in the domain of practical discussion a tendency to recast inter-cultural differences of deep import into deviations or artificialities imposed from the outside. In this particular case that artificiality is the Egyptian military, but in most cases it is Western colonialism, which has an almost demonic power to reshape and disfigure postcolonial societies, which lack all internal agency or direction. This is simply not the true state of affairs. The paradoxical fact is that there is commensurability across very different cultures. You can understand, analyze, and critique other societies, if imperfectly. For example, I can understand, and even agree with, some of the criticisms of Western society by Salafist radicals for its materialism and excessive focus on proximate hedonism. The Salafists are not aliens, but rather one comprehensible expression of human cultural types. But that does not deny that I find their vision of human flourishing abhorrent. I understand it, therefore I reject it.

As I state above my views on foreign policy tend toward isolation. Despite the fact that I find the actions of many governments and value of many societies barbaric, and believe that the way of life expressed by Western liberal democratic societies furthers human flourishing more optimally, I do not believe it is practical or productive to force other societies to align their values with ours in most cases.*** In other words, I accept that the world is currently going to operate with a multicultural order. This does not mean that I accept multiculturalism, where all cultures have “equal value.” That idea is incoherent when it is not trivial. Such a framing is useful and coherent in a scholarly context, where Epoché is essential. A historian of Nazi Germany constantly consumed by their disgust and aversion to the regime which is the subject of their study would be a sub-optimal historian. Such disgust and aversion is right and proper, but for scholarship there must be a sense that one must moves that to the side for the purposes of analysis and description.

But most people are not scholars. They are not engaging in discourse, but having a discussion. Scholarly theories of modes of inquiry are often totally inappropriate for proximate political policy discussions. Normative biases and methodological commitments undergo peculiar transformations, and inevitably one has to confront the fact that much of what is meant or intended becomes opaque, embedded in abstruse phraseology and intelligible only to initiates in the esoteric knowledge. The hybrid of the Post Modern inflected scholar and public intellectual is ultimately a gnostic sophist of the highest order, transmuting plain if unpalatable truths about the world into a murky cultic potion.

Addendum: Many people claim that the Roman or Ottoman Empires, to name a few, were multicultural. They were in a plain reading of the term, but not in a way that people who espouse multiculturalism would recognize. In both these polities there was a hegemonic social and political order, and difference was tolerated only on its terms. For example, the Romans destroyed the Druids in Gaul and Britain. Why? One reason given, which we would probably view favorably, was that the Druids were practicing human sacrifice, which the Romans found objectionable. But another more material reason is that the Druids were natural loci for political and cultural resistance against the Roman hegemony. Similarly, the Ottomans had an elaborate system of millets which organized the different religious groups of the polity, but there was never any doubt that all were subordinate to Ottoman Muslims. Those social-religious groups which were classed as outside the pale for various reason, such as the Druze, were persecuted and not tolerated. Those which were tolerated, such as the Orthodox Christians, needed to be respectful of their subordinate position in the system. These tendencies can be generalized to all multiculturalist polities, which inevitably had a herrenkultur.

* No, I don’t think Ron Paul has a chance even if he wins Iowa. Though I do think he’s affected the whole political landscape, and that’s probably what he was looking for in any case.

** The quotations because the term is more one of aspersion than a real pointer to a specific and discrete movement at this point.

*** I make a distinction between barbarism, which is a different way of being, and savagery, which is an unacceptable way of being. The modern world has accepted that slavery is savage, and not tolerable in any polity. In contrast, the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are effectively rendered property of their male relatives is barbaric, but not objectionable enough that it must be eliminated through force.

February 15, 2011

Egypt, Turkey, world affairs

Filed under: Culture,Egypt,Politics,Turkey — Razib Khan @ 2:20 pm

A long post at Gene Expression, Culture differences matter (even within Islam). I conclude:

Where does this leave us? Democratic nations have different characteristics. For much of Japan’s modern history it has been dominated by one political party. It has been a de facto one party state. In contrast, Italy has been subject to fractious shifts between multitudinous coalitions. After the fall of Communism the Czech Republic has transformed itself into a conventional liberal democracy, as it was before World War II, while Russia has morphed into a hybrid authoritarian-democratic state (similar to Iran or Venezuela). We can expect a democratic Egypt to be different from a democratic Tunisia, at least over the short term, because of broad socio-cultural differences. And the gap between Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim nation with a foot in Europe, and Egypt, is even greater. Because of the general ignorance of the American public commentators have been leaning on analogies to communicate the potential arc of possibilities. I believe that many of the analogies are misleading, and entail a deeper understanding of the terms and relations embedded within those analogies than actually exists. Additionally, I also believe that some commentators have been caught up in the democratic fever, and consciously have skewed their analogies in a particular direction. I can not believe that Roger Cohen is not aware of the difficult situation of religious minorities in Turkey. But the American audience caught between a bipolar perception of secular liberal democrats and the totalitarian Taliban may not be able to comprehend the nuance within the Turkish case, and so Cohen elided essential features.

Culture differences matter (even within Islam)

Filed under: Democracy,Egypt,International Affairs,Islam,Politics,Religion,Turkey — Razib Khan @ 12:27 pm

I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.

Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at mostfew percent, with ~1% often given as ...

February 4, 2011

A republic of Muslims, not of Islam

Filed under: Culture,Egypt,Politics — Razib Khan @ 12:09 pm

Officially Egypt is an Arab republic, the “Arab Republic of Egypt.” In contrast, Pakistan is an Islamic republic, the ” Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” Finally, in keeping with the socialist orientation of its founding party, Bangladesh remains the “People’s Republic of Bangladesh.” All three are overwhelmingly Muslim nations, 90-95%, demographically. But only Pakistan has an explicit tie to Islam in the form of government, even though in practice the three converge much more than names would warrant (the Constitutions of Egypt and Bangladesh both acknowledge Islam).

The point is that there is a difference between a republic of Muslims, and a republic founded upon Islam. The United States of America was not founded a Christian nation. This is clear insofar as some states in the union did have established churches at the founding, while others did not. The federal government opted for the latter option, and the framers even rebuffed the attempt of compromisers who wished a non-sectarian endorsement of the Christian religion. But, the United States has been a republic of Christians since the founding, and that has shaped our government and society.

It will not surprise readers that I am rather skeptical of some of the excessive revolutionary solidarity expressed around the world with the people of Egypt. We’ve seen this sort of thing for centuries, and quite often the popular wave takes a turn which its fellow travelers do not anticipate. All that being said, I would accede that it is preferable that the people of Egypt have more input into the form, nature, and execution, of government under which they are ruled. But we should not confuse ourselves in the delusion that the people of Egypt will shape a government which defends the same values and dispositions as our own, or, our fellow Western nations. There is a real chasm in values which can not be papered over.

All this is written in part because I tire of the paranoia about the Muslim Brotherhood. I understand they are arguably the more powerful non-governmental force in Egyptian society. But the fact is the vast majority of Egyptians are Muslims with very illiberal views on issues such as freedom of religion, Muslim Brotherhood or not. The highest probability outcome seems to be that the Muslim Brotherhood will play a more prominent, but not determinative, role in Egyptian society in the near future. But this should not deceive us into the false belief that this will mean that the waxing of liberalism will continue apace. Egyptians who are not sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood have a set of values grounded in a particular interpretation of Islam which many in the West would find objectionable.

We do not traverse between disaster and victory. There are many points in between, and after the revolution we will have to take in all that texture.

February 2, 2011

Egypt vs. Indonesia in attitudes

Filed under: Culture,Egypt,Indonesia,Pew Global Attitudes — Razib Khan @ 2:35 pm

TNR has a post up, Egypt and Indonesia. In it, the author argues that:

At times of unexpected but momentous political change in distant countries, we grasp onto political analogies to help get our bearings. Even if we know they are imperfect, we can’t resist their tempting suggestiveness. But, if we cannot resist them, we can at least choose them thoughtfully. Invoking Iran after the Shah is scary indeed, but dangerously misleading. A different analogy that provides more useful grist for our unsettled analytic mill concerning Egypt is Indonesia and Suharto in the late 1990s.

We can gauge the force of this analogy by looking at a Pew Gobal Attitudes report on Muslim public opinion from December 2010. Egypt and Indonesia are in their set of countries surveyed. Below are a selection of results, with Turkey and Pakistan included in for comparisons. I ignored most of the stuff on Muslim radical movements. Additionally, one has to be cautious about interpreting survey data, as people will interpret questions in relation to their local situation. For example, below you will see that 89 and 46 percent of Indonesians and Pakistanis think that the role of religion in politics is “large.” I think ...

January 31, 2011

What do the people think?

With all the geopolitical tumult and news I was a bit curious to see what The World Values Survey could tell us about public opinion in Egypt and Tunisia. Unfortunately, Tunisia hasn’t been in any of their surveys, though Egypt has. So I thought it might be interesting to compare the USA, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, for wave 5, which occurred in the mid-2000s. The main thing I took away from the exercise is to reflect that Americans are a more equivocal people than I had expected. Many of the questions have a 1 to 10 scale, and I’m providing the most extreme answers. So the low fractions for Americans for some questions point to a relative moderation on some topics…which is kind of weird when you are asking whether “People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy.” Since that’s the definition of democracy broadly construed anything below a 10 out of 10 seems strange to me.

(Control + should increase font-size if it is too small)

USA Sweden Turkey Egypt Iraq Religion “very important” 47 9 75 95 96 Politics “very important” 11 16 13 9 37 Family life “very important” 95 92 99 98 96 Most people can be trusted 39 68 5 19 41 Satisfied with life (10 out of 10) 7 12 21 11 3 Great deal of control of life (10 out of 10) 17 16 24 14 9 Men have more ...

July 6, 2010

Diplomacy among the aliens

Filed under: Ancient Near East,Assyriology,Culture,Diplomacy,Egypt,History — Razib Khan @ 11:53 am

brotherhoodOne of the structural difficulties with any systematic study of civilizations is that the sample size of the category is rather small, as is clear in the few attempts to examine their progression (see Arnold Toynbee). Additionally, there’s always the problem with how one generates a typology for something as fluid as civilization. Where does antiquity end, and the medieval period begin? One can get a rough sense of the discontinuities impressionistically. Consider the appearance of the Column of Phocas, erected in 608 AD. It may be correct that chronologically the Byzantine state and society on the eve of the expansion of Islam in the early 7th century was closer to the era of Charlemagne than Constantine, but many would argue that it was basically a Late Antique society more than an Early Medieval one. Certainly the Byzantines of that age would have agreed with that assessment (though one has to be careful about taking people at their word, the last Byzantines before the Ottoman conquest in 1453 famously still referred to themselves as Romans).

But such typologies remain a matter of art, and are subject to great dispute. Any inferences one generates or generalities one perceives will be subject to the reality that the individuals engaging in the act have a strong impact on the size and distribution of the sample (this is obviously true in ecology or empirical social sciences, but the methods here are generally more explicit and easy to critique). With all that said I think at the boundary condition we can agree upon some civilizational distinctions if such typologies have any meaning or utility. The world of the ancient Near East was on a deep level culturally alien to our own, and the period between 1200 and 800 spans a extremely sharp rupture between what came before, and what came after.

448px-Mesopotamia_male_worshiper_2750-2600_B.CIts alien aspect is one reason that I am fascinated by the ancient Near East. Egypt as a civilization and society exhibited intelligible continuity within itself for nearly 2,000 years between the Old Kingdom and the first centuries of the first millennium before Christ, up to the conquest by the Assyrians (I suspect intelligible continuity precedes the Old Kingdom, but written sources become rather sparse before that). Obviously aspects of ancient Egypt persisted for centuries after its operational demise, as made clear by artifacts such as the Rosetta Stone which date to the kingdom of the Ptolemies. The pagan Egyptian temple of Philae was active down to the 6th century A.D., but with its closing by Justinian the last deep cultural connection to the world of the Pharaohs was lost (the Coptic language is derived from ancient Egyptian, but the Copts were unable to tell Europeans how to read the hieroglyphs because they did not know). The world of the ancient Fertile Crescent is in many ways even more distant in memory from ours than that of Egypt. Egypt in its declining phase was a stronger active influence on the Greeks. Rather, it is through the Hebrew Bible that we can glean fragments of the shape of the ancient Bronze Age societies of Mesopotamia and Syria, in particular in Genesis. And just as a shadow of Egypt persisted down to the Roman conquest and beyond, so the civilization of Babylon and Assyria was absorbed in part by their Persian conquerors. But note that the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has within it a variant of the famous Biblical flood story, was not rediscovered until the 19th century, despite its enduring fame over the 2,000 years of Mesopotamian civilization between Sumer and the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Without the translation efforts of modern archaeologists and philologists Mesopotamian culture would be an empire of artifacts, rather one which illuminates our minds with the imaginings of the past.

Knossos_fresco_womenThe ancient Near Eastern cultural complex extended beyond Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. It encompassed Anatolia, and even the Aegean, into what we today call Greece. But I contend that despite the differences of language a modern person might have more in common with a citizen of 4th century Athens, than a citizen of 4th century Athens would have with a subject of the wanax of 12th century Athens. Some of this is a function of the reality that the modern mentality is to a large extent an outgrowth of that of the Ionian Greeks and their intellectuals heirs. Similarly, the Chinese civilization also took its present shape during this period. Hindu civilization in a non-mythic dimension goes back no further than the first millennium. In the Greek and Indian cases there is a great deal of archaeological evidence for complex literate societies during the Bronze Age. In the Aegean case the script of the last of the successive societies, the Mycenaean, has been deciphered. They spoke Greek and worshiped the same gods as the Classical Greeks. Much of the background material in the Iliad and the Odyssey clearly references the Mycenaean period (though the narrative core is perhaps reflective of the Dark Ages before the rise of Classical Greece). But Classical Greece was built anew, on a different cultural foundation from that the Mycenaeans. The kings of Bronze Age Greece were part of the “brotherhood of kings.” The city-states of Classical Greece were distinct from the despotisms of Asia. The Classical Greeks had forgotten their history aside from legends. The Bronze Age walls of cities such as Tyrins were presumed to have been constructed by giants (“cyclopean”)!

I have alluded to the fact that the enormous proportion of ancient Classical works we have today can be attributed to intense phases of translation and transcription during the Carolingian Renaissance, the Abbassid House of Wisdom, and the efforts of Byzantine men of letters such as Constantine Porphyrogennetos. The reason for these efforts was that in part these ancient literary works were the products of natural predecessor civilizations, to whom the medieval West, Byzantium, and Islam, owed a great deal. The memory of Plato and Aristotle, Caesar and Darius, persisted down to their day. The classical education of early modern Europeans built upon the toil of the medieval period. The Renaissance would not have been able to revive anything if no works of the ancients were copied down and transmitted down to future generations.

In sharp contrast the details of our knowledge of the Bronze Age world are due to the work of modern archaeologists and philologists. Aside from a few references in the Bible to an offshoot kingdom, the Hittite Empire had been totally forgotten! Dead cuneiform, once deciphered, brought back a world which had lain dormant for thousands of years. There are many elements of these lost civilizations which we comprehend only in spare fragments. For example in the fourth millennium BC it seems from the archaeological record that Mesopotamian merchants had colonies which replicated their culture in toto in Anatolia, while Mesopotamian influences through diffusion are indisputable in pre-Dynastic Egypt. In the 3rd millennium this cultural hegemony waned, and Egypt seems to have sealed itself off from outside influence until the 2nd millennium, while the Mesopotamian stamp on Anatolian society diminishes. But without full-blown writing we can only conjecture as to the dynamics of this period of the expansion of Mesopotamian civilization. By the time the light of text illuminates the world Mesopotamian culture had retreated in its complete form to Sumer and Akkad.

But there is still much we know now. The robusticity of baked cuneiform means that the destruction of ancient palace complexes is a boon to modern archaeologists and historians. Though Egyptians used papyrus, they also stamped their monuments with hieroglyphs, and critically the correspondence with foreign nations was generally done in Akkadian cuneiform. This last is critical for the narrative in Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East. From the introduction:

The diplomatic system developed in the ancient Near East was forgotten for millennia; there’s no collection of marble busts of ancient kings in the entrance hall to the United Nations in honor of their contribution to the history of humanking, no requirement that children study the ancient peace treaties as founding documents, the way they might study the Magna Carta or the United States Constitution. There’s a good reason for this: We can find no direct link between the ancient practice of diplomacy and that used today.

But it is edifying, even inspiring, to know that right from the earliest centuries of civilization, ancient kings and statesmen of distinct and different lands were oftne willing, even eager, to find alternatives to war and see one another as brothers rather than enemies.

Economists might term this a separate “natural experiment,” distinct from the Westphalian model. More colloquially one might consider the Near Eastern diplomatic system as a “first draft.” Because of the sharp differences between that world, and our epoch, similarities are particularly telling as to the deep cognitive biases which drive our cultural forms. In Brotherhood of Kings the author traces the evolution of the art of ancient diplomacy from the cities of third millennium Mesopotamia and Syria, down to the climax of the tradition during period of the Amarna letters, in the 14th century BC.

First, kinship matters. This is almost a trivial assertion, but the ubiquity of kin terminology in political orders despite the lack of blood ties reinforces the importance of abstracting the genealogical relationship to a grander scale. The Chinese Emperor was the Son of Heaven, and the father to his people. Similarly, the President of the United States of America was the “Great White Father” to Native tribes in the 19th century. Sometimes the kinship was not fictive, but literal. In the 19th century continental Europe was generally at peace, at least in relation to previous eras. Some attribute this to the fact that European states were generally monarchies, and the monarchs were all members of an extended family. Similarly, by the 14th century relations between Egypt, Mitanni (Syria and northern Mesopotamia) and Babylonia were generally peaceful, and cemented by exchanges of royal women as brides in the polygynous households of the monarchs. The existence of a Minoan palace in northern Egypt is evidence in the author’s eye to princesses from the island of Crete in the household of the Pharaoh. A wedding was a marker of a cultural exchange.

Sometimes the analogies to later epochs are striking. After the famous king Tutankhamen died, his young wife wrote a letter to the king of the Hittites:

“My husband has died and I have no son. They say about you that you have many sons. You might give me one of your sons to become my husband. I would not wish to take one of my subjects as a husband… I am afraid.”

The king, a powerful warlord by the name of Suppiluliuma, eventually sent his son Zannanza, who seems to have died. There is a strong suspicion by the nature of Suppiluliuma’s angry subsequent correspondence that foul play was involved, and that Zannanza was undone by a reaction in the court of Egypt to the arrival of a foreign prince. The outcome of this personal and political tragedy was war, as Suppiluliuma used this event as a casus belli for an invasion which rolled back Egypt’s dominion in the Levant and expanded the Hittite Empire. The connection between the personal and political, and the necessity for noble women to seek outside aid, reminds me greatly of the period before the Gothic Wars, with Tutankhamen’s wife being in a similar position as Amalasuntha.

But this episode was peculiar in another way: the Pharaohs of Egypt never gave their daughters out to foreign powers, rather, they received the daughters of the other kings. This is explained in Brotherhood of Kings in two ways. The more prosaic one is that while the non-Egyptian kings generally viewed the potentate receiving the daughter as inferior, because now he would be the son-in-law (extending the kinship analogy), the Pharaohs perceived that they were superior because they were receiving gifts from non-Egyptian kings. This is a classic “win-win” scenario. Even if the monarchs in question understood the cultural disjunction, these movement of women from the Fertile Crescent to Egypt was in part motivated by signalling status to their own circle of nobles, who may not have been as conscious of these cross-cultural distinctions.

More importantly I suspect, Egypt was richer and more powerful than any of the other kingdoms during this period. It is indicative to me that the instance where the Egyptian widow seeks a foreign prince it is from the Hittites, as this nation was waxing, and was arguably as resource rich as Egypt in many ways, not to mention militarily successful. The correspondence in the Egyptian archives show that the kings of Mitanni and Babylonia persistently bleat for gold, gold, gold. Egypt was rich in gold, and they were not. These kings frankly state that so long as they receive gold they will return to Egypt whatever the Pharaoh would like to maintain the balance of payments. The supply of gold was inelastic to the demand because of its scarcity. In contrast the monarchs of Mitanni or Babylonia could increase the production or procurement of textiles and other fine manufactures and imports. One of the most bizarre facts about the reign of Akhenaten is that he apparently promised the king of the Mitanni a set of gold statues, which he never delivered. Nearly every piece of correspondence from the Mitanni king during Akhenaten’s two decades of power includes a reference to the missing gold statues!

It seems clear that one of the goals of the ancient diplomatic system was to substitute gift giving for war. Plunder and piracy were a major revenue source for elites, especially in an age where commerce and trade did not exhibit the efficiencies we take for granted later (recall that there was no standard coinage). But this was risky, and entailed expending resources and time. Part of the rationale for conquest was clearly to secure resources which were scarce or nonexistent in one’s own domains. The giving of gifts between monarchs, whether equals (”Great Kings”) or between a hegemon and his vassals, was a way in which scarce goods could flow between territories. If gold and other luxury goods were to travel between states there would obviously be a necessary premium on security. Certain fixed costs would be entailed, and one would probably want a reasonable economy of scale to maximize efficiency. The despots of this ancient world were in the best position to provide these services. The luxury goods would eventually “trickle down” to the sub-elites after the initial exchange in subsequent gift giving.

But these abstractions, the aggregate flow of goods and services (in the latter case, specialists such as doctors and diviners), had to be made concrete in the concepts that these people understood. Contracts and treaties were witnessed by the gods, and the gods served as guarantors of the fidelity of the parties involved to their oaths. Oath-breaking was serious enough that Suppiluliuma’s own son attributed some of his father’s misfortunes to oath-breaking early in his tenure during his usurpation of the throne. These gods were classical polytheistic entities, but the various nations operated in the same supernatural framework, as these were henotheistic societies. Religious concepts had not become so elaborated or philosophical that the oaths would have encountered difficulty because of incommensurability of terminology. And these contracts and treaties were made between fictive, and sometimes real, kin. On occasion the blood ties mattered, as when an Assyrian monarch intervened to kill the usurper who had killed his own grandson, the king of Babylon. Just as these blood bonds could motivate violence and intervention, so no doubt they engendered more amity than would otherwise have been the case. The royal women who moved between capitals served as the critical glue, and it seems that they brought entourages on the order of hundreds. Young princes of mixed parentage would then have grown up in a relatively cosmopolitan world, and been less conditioned to view outsiders as aliens.

488px-Map_of_fertile_cresentSo there is much that is familiar in this ancient world, even down to a transnational elite which may share more in common in values and culture with each other than with the populations which they rule. But there are differences. I alluded above to an analogy with 19th century Europe. Despite the differences in national history and religion, the Christian kings of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars forged a common sense of purpose and mutual understanding. This was made concrete by an acceleration of the pattern of intermarriage, or the placement of branches of the European ruling caste as heads of state of new nations (e.g., Greece). This stability was shattered with the maturity of mass populist nationalism in the 19th century, and basically killed during World War I. But it was constrained to Europe and European descended societies. The Ottoman state and the Empire of Japan were on the fringes, in large part because of deep civilizational differences. In enlightened circles works such as Clash of Civilizations are in bad odor. Though most would balk at accepting an argument with the punch of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, a milder variant was common in the 1990s.

As we enter the teens of the 21st century I think the idea of a world civilization, with a common cultural currency which might serve as a means of exchange for deep diplomatic understandings, is fading somewhat. The world of the ancient Near East did not include Shang China, and during its more antique phase it did not include the society of the Indus Valley (which was integrated in terms of trade and commerce, but not politics, with Mesopotamia). It was a small world where ties bound through fictive kinship made sense, as kinship terms in their atoms are human universals. The rhetoric of universal brotherhood persists down to this day, glossed up with a scientific patina through reflexive references to Lewontin’s Fallacy. But the rise of China and Russia should give us pause in assuming a deep common cultural foundation which can serve as a universal glue. Russia is a petro-state in demographic decline, so it is less interesting. Rather, China is reasserting its traditional position as the preeminent civilization in the world, and it is doing so without being Westernized in a way we would recognize. The political liberalization of the world’s most dynamic capitalist Communist state is always over the horizon. Just as the roots of the modern West go back to the eastern Mediterranean in the early first millennium BC, so China’s cultural roots extend back to the same period. China is obviously a synthesis of its own indigenous traditions, and modern Western culture, in particular science & technology. But I am not convinced that there is a true “brotherhood” between the president of China, and Western powers, and that is not a cheery prospect.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

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