New look at ancient history

2008-02-01 00:00

This book looks deceptively like a coffee table book: glamorous dust-cover, a wealth of illustrations (one to three black-and-white photographs per page, many fine colour photographs), but it is hard, hard work. To be properly reviewed, let alone assimilated, it needs a professional historian of ancient Greece, an Egyptologist, an Anatolian and Mesopotamian expert, a trained archaeologist, an expert in Greek and other mythologies and an Old Testament scholar. The reader, lured by the seductive promise of the subtitle, plunges into what proves to be a dizzying welter of undoubted facts and unprovable theories, diagrams, time charts, names personal, tribal and national, until one no longer knows one's Amorites from one's Hittites, Pharaoh X the Third from his mummified sister.

Some places and peoples have up to three different names (from different languages and periods). Legendary characters who we thought were Greek turn out to be Egyptian and vice versa. And it is only around page 149 that something resembling “Western Civilisation” makes its appearance.

In the end, the book does fulfil the promise of its subtitle - mainly by revealing a labyrinthine pattern of migrations, conquests and shifting power struggles prevailing throughout the central and eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, the Levant, Anatolia and Mesopotamia for the last 5 000 years. The very concept of “Western” begins to look flimsy - as perhaps it should. Hardly any people on Earth are aboriginally unmixed. But Rohl's historical kaleidoscope is difficult for the reader to comprehend.

Rohl has over the years produced challenging, controversial and thoroughly researched theories about the ancient world (in Legend, for example, pinpointing the Garden of Eden in Armenia). His major assumption, generally, is that much of what we call myths are actually quite accurate reflections of historical people and events. He mostly regards famous figures from, for example, Greek mythology, such as Io, Minos, Tantalus and Agamemnon, as having been real historical people involved in historical events. Of course this is totally possible (allowing for exaggerations). It is also totally uncertain. Another Rohl position is his “New Chronology”, which shifts ancient events downwards by 200 to 300 years (thus putting the Trojan War around 890 BCE rather than its traditional 1190 or so). This has interesting results: it helps to integrate much Egyptian history with that of other peoples, including the Greeks, and, with its late Troy dates, it virtually eradicates the so-called Dark Age of Greece.

Every conclusion is based on archaeological material which can be variously interpreted, and on earlier theories which, if invalid, could collapse the whole structure.

Much, however, is fascinating material, dealing with engrossing matters such as the giant eruptions on Santorini, the journeys and wars of the Old Testament, and the great stories of Greek (and Roman) legend. It is almost impossible to judge the historical validity of most of Rohl's conclusions, but no one could accuse him of superficiality or lack of rigour. This 500-page hardback is heavy in all senses.

And “Avaris”? The ancient name for Tell Ed-Daba in the Nile delta, once occupied by non-Egyptians. So now you know.

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