Out of Eden

The Ancient Mediterranean World: From the Stone Age to A.D. 600B Mediterranean 2004

Written by:  Robin W. Winks and Susan P. Mattern-Parkes

Published by: Oxford University Press

Copyright:  © 2004

Homo erectus, an upright fellow, showed up during the Pleistocene about 2 million years ago and quickly dispersed throughout Asia and Africa even though his starting point is ambiguous. After mucking about the tropics, the lack of clothes makes it difficult to take skiing vacations in the Alps, decided to take on a bigger brain and chin with less eye brow protuberance, and developed into our mum: Homo sapiens, a couple of hundred thousand years ago.  Some say we came from east Africa, others say east Asia but regardless of our origins we showed up in what is now Israel around 100,000 years ago and our quest for ever larger cell phone screens and civilized table manners had begun.

Agriculture, originating about the 12th century B.C., traces its roots back to the fertile crescent; beginning at the Jordan River progressing north and northeast to the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and then back down south to the rivers’ marshlands, eventually pouring into the Persian Gulf.  By 9500 B.C. man was cultivating wheat, flax, rye, peas, and other crops that brokered the way for cities, government, laws, and taxes; otherwise known as civilization.

The earliest civilizations are conveniently timed to the discovery of bronze around 2500 B.C.  Bronze tools and weapons, an amalgam of copper and tin, galvanized the rise of city-states and empires until the tin ran out in 1200 B.C., then the Dark Ages set in. Virtually every major city in the eastern Mediterranean was sacked and burned during the first 50 years of the advent of these interesting times, many to disappear from the map forever. The technology to smelt carbon steel brought a renewal of civilization during the Iron Age and the cementing of the Assyrian Empire–for awhile.

By the end of the Iron Age the bright lights of civilization have shifted from Mesopotamia to the northern shores of the Mediterranean; first settling into the Aegean peninsula around the 8th century B.C. before migrating to Rome in the 3rd century B.C.  By the 3rd century A.D. Rome was a spent force and the remnants of the empire shifted back to the eastern Mediterranean in Constantinople.

Christianity’s rise followed Rome’s decline through the Mediterranean. The rapid spread of Christianity is somewhat of enigma, as are other philosophies or religions such as Buddhism and Islam, but the prevailing thoughts are that church improved the lives of its followers and promised a way to life every after.

The authors, Drs Winks and Mattern-Parkes, professors of history at Yale and the University of Georgia respectively, have written a short history of the region that engrosses and enlightens without preaching.  If interested in the history of the Mediterranean from the Stone Age to Islam, this is quick read and is eminently readable.

 

A Little Package of our Past

World History: 50 Key Milestones You Really Need to Know B 50 History

Written by:  Ian Crofton

Published by:  Quercus

Copyright:  © 2011

Attempting to describe 12-15,000 years, since the big ice fields melted, of human endeavors in 200 pages and 50 topics would seem presumptuous and futile, and you would be right, but one has to start somewhere and the first steps can and should be small but decisive.  One can quibble about the exact 50 topics, and I will do just that in a bit, but the author, Ian Crofton, performs the task with aplomb, and provides the maximum amount of useful information possible given the limiting format.

This book is a quick and fun read for both those without a broad or deep introduction to human history or those that just want to refresh their memory on once familiar, but long forgotten topics. Even if you are familiar with all the topics in the book there will be a sufficient amount of new informational tidbits to make it worth your time. For myself, as one example, I found the observation that our ancestral hunter-gather cousins versus the first cereal grain farmers, were healthier, due mainly to their higher protein intake from a meat rich diet, was new and interesting.

Each “idea” or event is developed, chronologically, over 4 printed pages that includes a short thesis, an expansion of that thesis, a timeline of notable events, a famous quote(s) and an ending synopsis of the discussion.  The publisher of this book, Quercus, has published at least 27 other books of a similar nature and format that explore the great topics of the human experience including: architecture, art, astronomy, big ideas, biology, chemistry, the digital world, earth, economics, ethics, the future, genetics, the human brain, literature, management, math, philosophy, philosophy of science, physics, politics, psychology, quantum physics, religion, science, universe, war, and world history. I believe they continue to add more topics as the years go by.  I have several of the topics, listed above on my already too fat reading list.

Not to detract from the topics that the author has chosen, his are all defendable, but for myself I probably would have included 5 different topics devoted to: the Iron Age, Israelites of the 12th century BC, 1st century Christianity, Sumerians development of an alphabet in 300 BC coupled with Guttenberg’s first printing press in the 15th century AD, 18th century BC Babylonian Hammurabi’s, and 7th century BC Greek Draco’s legal codifications, and finally the advent of computers in the 20th century and beyond.  Adding 5 topics requires that 5 be removed. I would likely leave out: Empires and Kingdoms of Africa, The Bubonic Plague, the Vietnam War, integral to the late 20th century US, but will likely be a footnote on communism in the future, and lastly, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the post 9-11 topics, at a minimum, combined into a topic on 21st century divisions in civilization and culture, as if that were something new. On further thought, maybe just leave those last two topics out completely, mainly because they are too fresh to decide their seminality to our future development as a species.

That leaves our list one shy of 50. What topic(s) would you add?

Human Nature Yesterday

The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land

Written by:  Thomas Asbridge51c32nyzebl-_sx330_bo1204203200_

Published by:  HarperCollins

Copyright:  © 2010

In 1095 AD, during the high middle ages, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus of Constantinople asked the Latin Pope Urban II for assistance in recovering parts of Asia Minor lost to the Seljuk Turks. The Pope responded, with less than altruistic motives towards his eastern Christian cousins, by embroiling western Europe and the Levant in 200 years of war which eventually became known as the Crusades.

Thomas Asbridge presents a compelling history of Christian struggles to seize control of the holy land from the Muslims, thus reviving the Islamic concept of jihad, while attempting to answer the questions of how these battles of conquest and religion reverberate through western history into our modern times.  Interesting enough Asbridge suggests that the crusades “belong in  the past” and inferences to todays apparent sequels are “misguided”.

This is a excellent and thoroughly researched march through the 11th and 12th centuries of western Europe and the Levant, bringing alive names of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin and others that Sir Walter Scott so richly romanticized in his historical 19th century novels, Ivanhoe and The Talisman.  The Crusades is a fast paced read with sufficient twists and turns in the narrative that you may suspect that this is a movie screenplay rather than a history.  This is a great read. Well worth your time.

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