How Do Great Civilizations Get Lost?

As someone who is fond of reading about ancient history, one finds that a great many civilizations vanish into thin air, leaving only the faintest traces in history, leaving archeological records that are often mis-attributed, and leaving great empires to be thought of as legendary or imaginary. How does this happen? Today I would like to at least provide some ways how, based on some brief historical case studies from antiquity.

Hiding In Plain Sight

The Bible, in 2nd Samuel and 1st Kings, talks about the mini-empire of Israel. This empire is defined very precisely, as including a heartland of Israel and Judah, conquered tributaries in Moab, Edom, Ammon, and Syria, as well as subject-allies in Maacah (connected to Israel through a marriage alliance with Absalom’s mother) and Hamath [1]. There is nothing inherently implausible about the mini-empire in question, given the admission that other mini-empires in the region existed around Tubal, Carchimesh, and Aram-Zobah in the period in question between the Late Bronze Age “Amarna Period” of Middle Eastern diplomatic history and the later empires of Neo-Assyria, Neo-Babylon, Media, Persia, Macedonia (and its successor kingdoms), Parthia, Rome, and so on, that has continued until recent times, when for most of the period the region was either dominated by larger empires or in a state of fragile independence (like the Crusader Kingdoms or the Hasmonean Monarchy).

Since there is nothing inherently implausible about the existence of an Israelite mini-empire, and given the fact that there is at least supporting archeological evidence in cities like Megiddo and Hazor that show a specific and similar style of architecture in the Solomonic peroid (during the height of this mini-empire), why is it so widely disbelived? The problem is that the main text for supporting the Israelite mini-empire happens to be the Bible, and the lack of interest in many people in conceding the historical validity of the biblical history, along with the fact that the other powers in question in the region (like the Assyrians, Syrians, Ammonites, or Moabites) would not be likely to record periods where they were under Israelite domination, even for a short period of time, means that the history of the Israelite empire hides in plain sight.

Lesson One: If you want your empire to be remembered, make sure to put the textual evidence of its existence in a book that historians are likely later on to believe as a credible historical source.

Bomb Them Out The Stone Age

One of my favorite ancient empires was the Pathan Empire. After all, it was an empire with its basis in trade, and it managed to rule for a few hundred years over an area of the world widely thought to be ungovernable, the area now known as Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan. This empire is speculated (evidence is lacking to confirm this speculation, unfortunately) to have invented the game of chess, which I happen to be fond of. It was in all likelihood an empire of fairly tolerant policies, given that it managed to rule successfully over a long-troubled region for so long.

Why is this empire consigned to oblivion? Well, for one they happen to have been long the neighbors (and allies?) of the similarly named and only slightly less obscure Parthian Empire to its west. Additionally, the main artifacts of its period of rule, some stone idols of Buddha, were threatened with annihilation by some particularly fiercely tribesmen known as the Taliban, who like idols even less than I do (and I don’t particularly care for them myself). Of course, having the main part of your empire based in tribal Afghanistan and Pakistan is not the best way for historians and archeologists to remember your civilization, given that such regions are not exactly hospitable to owl-eyed Westerners these days.

Lesson Two: If you want your empire to be remembered, don’t put it in some forsaken place like Afghanistan. Rule over a place where people can dig up your history two thousand years later in peace.

What’s Its Name?

The students at Legacy Instutite that I teach often have several names that they are known by. One of them has four different names: Thon, Wa, Bancha, and Bleauechai, none of which resemble any of the others in any kind of logical (to me) way. The same problem, unfortunately happens in history as well. Even peoples we know the existence of for certain have several different names. Peoples have names that they call themselves (usually positive in nature, or some form of “people”), names that they all their enemies (usually hostile or dismissive in nature, a name like “barbarian,” “enemy” or “beaver”), or names related to their ancestry or area of residence. When a nation has too many names that it is referred to, historians often have a difficult time placing the right archeological names to the historical names that appear in fragmentary surviving text.

There are at least two examples of this among empires that I am fond of. One of these, the Arzawan/Mycenaean Empire of Greece, I have written at some length about (and even written a play about) [2]. In this case we have one empire known to exist through texts deposited elsewhere (namely in some abandoned Egyptian city, Armana, as well as some obscure Hittite ruins where this nation is also known by the same name), and known to exist in the same place at the same time by a different name, given by their descendants(?) hundreds of years later in stories that overlap.

In another example, we have a Chinese Empire known as the Hsia (or Xia, depending on whether you use the Pinyin system between Chinese and English or not), which were said to be ancestors of the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty as well as of the proto-Vietnamese (!) Yue peoples of Southern China, and also apparently the builders of what is known as the Eriltou culture of cities in the Yellow River valley of China [3]. They are known by one name to archeologists and another name to students of very ancient and often-discouted Chinese historical texts, and the identification of one with the other remains controversial.

Lesson Three: If you want your empire to be remembered, remember to call it by one name, and make sure that name is written in your cities so that archeologists can find you and recognize you properly when they visit your capital or provincial towns several thousand years later. It really cuts down on the confusion.

Now, obviously these lessons are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely. Even when the history of ancient empires and civilizations is written or preserved in archeological ruins for posterity (both of which are pretty difficult and gravely uncertain feats), if their history is recorded in texts that later historians dismiss as unreliable or worthless, the truth that is in them will be forgotten or ridiculed. Additionally, an empire that ruled over an area of the world that is remote or conflict prone is likely to have its splendor inaccessible (like Angkor in Cambodia) or damaged/destroyed by warfare, thus making it impossible for later generations to appreciate the wonder that once was. Additionally, if an empire is known by different names in the texts and by archeologists, it may be difficult to match up all of the historical evidence that exists for that people because they will all be filed by different branches of historians (classicists studying texts like the Iliad as opposed to Ancient Near East Historians dealing with Egyptian and Hittite historical archives) under different names. And the never the twain shall meet. It is only if an empire manages to avoid all three pitfalls of having its true histories ridiculed, its historical ruins destroyed by war or too remote to visit, or having its records divided under different names and not recognized as one coherent whole that it will be remembered in its proper context by later generations of students of history. Considering what that requires, it is a miracle we have any true record of history at all.

[1] Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 230-232.



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to How Do Great Civilizations Get Lost?

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