What Did the Persians Do For Us?
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What Did the Persians Do For Us?

Younger me would have been even more excited, his David Macaulay books are coming to life! Repairing the piers of the foot bridge downstream from the Hofgarten on the river Inn, Austria in summer 2019.

The Centre for Ancient Cultures in Innsbruck is a glass and steel building full of carefully catalogued books next to a grain field and a car dealership. A block away on one street is a church, a block away along another is a Chinese buffet. Our building and its neighbourhood embody the heritage of the ancient Near East

Most of the crops and animals which fed and clothed Eurasia until the Columbian Exchange were domesticated in the Near East. Many of the trees in our orchards come from the mountains of central Asia through gardens in Iran. Writing has been independently invented at least four times, but it was Near Eastern Semitic-speakers who turned hieroglyphics into the aleph bet gimmel which became our alphabet. And it was people in the fertile crescent in the first centuries CE who turned Near Eastern texts and customs into the largest single family of religions today, and their descendants who kept the Fertile Crescent a place of great religious diversity until the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

Iron smelting was probably invented in several places too, but it spread to Europe from Syria. Iron technology was never a strength of the Greeks or the Latins, but it was of some of the peoples forced into the Roman empire, so we tend to talk about “Roman technology” when we mean the technology of people who happened to pay taxes in sestertii.

Glass comes from Egypt, and for most of history most glass was made at a few sites in or near the Nile Valley and just formed in local workshops. But it was somewhere in the neighbourhood around the first century BCE that workers figured out how to blow it. And that was the way most glass was shaped until the 20th century.

As far as we can tell, it was Iron Age sailors from the Levant who first settled in Iberia and connected the whole breadth of the Upper Sea into a single trade network. Until the exciting excavations in southern Spain, we just knew this through the writings of their Greek and Roman rivals for trade and hegemony. Jewish, Christian, and Moslem scribes chose to copy pagan Greek and Latin texts but not Aramaic or Punic. But ever since then, people and goods have been sailing between Gibraltar and the Nile and the Hellespont.

Beginning about 200 BCE, the near east was also the junction between China and the rest of Eurasia. The routes north of the Caspian and Black Sea were still too dangerous, so caravans crossed the Takalamakan and headed west for Ecbatana or south for the Indian ports and the monsoon cycle to Chaldea and the Red Sea ports. Most of the things which were just invented once in China and spread across the world came through Iran.

If this were a book not a post, I could talk about other things. We talk about Roman hydraulic engineering, about the aqueducts of Gaul and the harbour at Caesarea Maretime, but the first stone aqueducts were built by the Assyrians. The amazing network of pipelines, dams, and overflow ponds which watered Petra is easily the equal of Li Bing’s works at Dujiangyan in China, even if we can’t name its Nabatean engineers. Seeder plows that drop seeds into the furrow before the share turns the ground over appear in a Sumerian text. Qanats spread across the Achaemenid empire. Mosaics were invented in ancient Anatolia, Babylonians had the best mathematical astronomy in their day. And the first kingdom the size of today’s mega-states like Canada and Brazil was the Achaemenid empire, and human beings have never since forgotten how to build one for very long.

There are a shelf full of books like How the Scots Invented the Modern World or surveys of the Islamic Golden Age in Iran, Baghdad, and al-Andalus. People have lovingly described the history and mystery of European swords from La Tène to Sheffield and Solingen. There is a whole library trying to show that “Europe” or “the west” started a triumphant march to world power at ever-earlier dates. But I don’t know of a similar book which looks at the heritage of the world from Gaza to the Indus. The archaeology is not as well developed, and we often label what we find “Greek” or “Roman” without asking why so many famous engineers are from the cities of Asia or whether a man from Arad with a Greek name was “Greek” and only Greek.

Further Reading:

  • Moorey, Peter Roger Stuart (1999) Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence (Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, IN)
  • Chapman, Graham et al. (1979) The Life of Brian {video link}
  • and a more academic version of this post would have something on “catalogues” and “colophons”

Edit 2023-10-04:

R.A. Tomlinson, “Emplekton masonry and ‘Greek structura,'” Journal of Hellenic Studies 81 (1961) 133-140, at 138-139, attractively suggests that building-techniques involving mortar, previously unknown (or at least unattested) in Greece and the Aegean, became known precisely after and because of what Alexander’s engineers learned after the siege of Tyre (see imprimis Arr. Anab. 2.18-24 with A.B. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander (Oxford 1980-1995) 1.239-256) but remained rare outside the realm of architectural and poliorcetic theory. JSTOR https://doi.org/10.2307/628083

David Whitehead, Philo Mechanicus, p. 137

Edit 2024-02-23: an expanded book should talk about embroidery, which was alien to the Greek, Roman, and Bronze Age Egyptian traditions of textiles but well known in Mesopotamia, Phrygia, Scythia, etc. For a recent overview see:

Kerstin Droß-Krüpe and Annette Paetz gen. Schieck, “Unravelling the Tangled Threads of Ancient Embroidery: a compilation of written sources and archaeologically preserved textiles,” in Mary Harlow and Marie-Louise Nosch, eds., Greek and Roman Textiles and Dress: an Interdisciplinary Anthology (Oxbow Books: Oxford and Philadelphia, 2014) p. 207-235

And don’t forget textile words like tabby and taffeta and buckram and camoca!

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Edit 2024-02-22: updated link to paypal

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