A recent exchange with a slightly disgruntled reader of Mankind: The Story of All of Us * led me to pull a book off the shelf that I hadn’t looked at for several years: the first volume of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena .
Sub-titled The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Bernal’s book was a smack up the side of the head when I first read it at the suggestion of my dissertation adviser. (I was stuck in a section on nineteenth century representations of ancient Egypt.**) Bernal’s book was no help with my chapter, but it fundamentally changed how I look at the ancient past.
Briefly, Bernal argues that Europeans*** from the Renaissance to the eve of Romanticism****, as well as the ancient Greeks themselves, found the roots of classical Greek culture in ancient Egypt. In the early nineteenth century, a creative and occasionally toxic blend of Romantic Hellenism, imperialism, racism, and the new sciences of linguistics and archaeology relocated the cradle of western civilization from Egypt to Greece. In the new formulation, Greeks had created civilization as we know it but they couldn’t be trusted to write their own history.
Black Athena was controversial at best when it first came out in 1987. Even though elements of Bernal’s arguments have been incorporated into our model of western civilization, they remain controversial. Personally, primed by Edward Said’s Orientalism***** and a post-modern intellectual stew of Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and company, I found Bernal’s arguments compelling and believable.
I still do.
* Inevitably, any passionate history nerd is going to be slightly disgruntled about some part of Mankind, including me. One of the harsh realities of writing a book that covers history from the Big Bang to yesterday is that things have to be left out. Even really important things.
**Part of a chapter that I wrote many, many times before I realized it didn’t belong in the book.
***Or at least Europeans who had both the luxury and inclination to think about such things. My guess is the butcher, the baker, and the average wealthy merchant didn’t care. Some things don’t change.
****As you doubtless remember, Europeans before the Renaissance didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about classical Greece.
*****Another paradigm buster, which deserves its own blog post.