Part of the crater on the island of Nea Kameni, in the Santorin lagoon. The first of the Kameni islands (Palaea Kameni) was formed by volcanic activity in the second century B.C. and subsequent activity has created Nea Kameni. These islands, on which the volcano is still active today, represent the aftermath of the great eruption of the fifteenth century B.C.

The Eruption of Santorin – (1450 B.C.)

By 2000 B.C. Crete, and its out post the island of Santorin, was the home of a remarkable, flourishing civilization. Known as Minoan, after the legendary King Minos, this civilization ranks with Mesopotamia and Egypt as one of the great centres of human development and progress. The Cretans were great seafarers and traders, they soon carried their civilization to other islands of the Aegean and to the Greek mainland. Archaeology has shown us that round about 1700 palaces in Knossos and Phaistos, the two chief towns of Crete, were destroyed by fire. They were rebuilt, however, and a bright new chapter seemed to open up for Crete. Then suddenly an even greater disaster overtook Cretan civilization, on a scale unknown since. The whole of Santorin exploded, with devastating effects for the surrounding area. From that day Crete never recovered. The legend of Atlantis a tale, first told by Plato, of a great centre of civilization suddenly and violently destroyed by the sea has inspired generations of scholars to speculate on the possible historical reality of a lost continent. Some have subscribed to the theory that Atlantis may have been the Aegean island of Santorin, a flourishing outpost of Europe’s earliest civilization, the one that took root in Crete during the third millennium B.C. For early in the fifteenth century B.C., Santorin and Crete were hit by a series of natural disasters on a scale that has never been repeated in the civilized world. Archaeological exploration will no doubt continue to reveal more about this cataclysmic series of events; meanwhile, we know enough to show how remarkable was the civilization these islanders had created. Patterns of Spirals are found on many Cretan artifacts of the Bronze Age and may have been the origin of the spiral patterns that became popular in Egypt …

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Boundary stone from Khafajan.

Hittites – A New Power Arises (1750 – 1450 B.C.)

Hittites, a new power, arises in the Near East and Babylon is eclipsed. The Babylonian kings who followed Hammurabi were unable to hold the wide territories that he had won. New enemies challenged the supremacy of Babylon in Mesopotamia; the south broke away and a new kingdom came into being, the dynasty of the Sea Land, with its centre in the marshy region around the head of the Persian Gulf. The Babylonian army was more than once defeated by the Cassites, a mountain people from the region now known as Kurdistan. In the northwest, the Mari region regained independence. From the encircling highlands, barbarian newcomers were pouring into the semicircle of river valleys and urban settlements known as the Fertile Crescent. The ethnic map of the Near East was undergoing the first of a series of violent changes, perhaps the most far-reaching of all in its effects on the history of man. Map off Babylon c. 600 B.C. Cosmic Order A motif that recurs in the mythology of many ancient peoples is that of the emergence of order from disorder, of cosmos out of chaos. This is the theme of the creation legends of Mesopotamia and of Egypt. The concept of cosmic order, which the gods bring about and which mankind is concerned to maintain, is present in many ancient literatures. It implied the taming of the forces of nature, storm, fire and flood; and the defense of civilization against dangers from without. These dangers were ever-present, for throughout the whole of the ancient period and for many centuries afterwards, the areas of civilization were islands in a vast ocean of barbarism. To appreciate society and to understand its history, we must know something of this great hinterland of barbarian peoples, for their periodic incursions often constituted milestones of deep …

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Relief on the stele of Hammurabi. The king is standing before divinity, who is probably Shamash, the sun god, regarded as the law-giver.

Hammurabi – The First Law Code (1750 B. C.)

As the political state evolved, the problem of its administration evolved too. The territory ruled over by Hammurabi of Babylon was composed not simply of two adjacent areas with similar characteristics — as in Narmer’s Egypt — but of former independent states with very different traditions. Hammurabi had extended his territory by conquest, but as overlord he proved a conscientious ruler, dedicated to reform, and possibly the greatest tribute paid to him by his subjects was the comment, preserved in the chronicles of the country: “He established justice in the land.” Inscribed on a stone, the memorial of his justice was providentially preserved for all time, despite its being carried of to Susa by an Elamite king early in the twelfth century B.C. Regardless of the fact that Hammurabi’s immediate successors were unable to hold on to the territory he had won, his legacy to mankind constitutes a momentous milestone in the progress of human achievement. Sometime toward the end of his reign, the great Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1792 – 1750 BC) inscribed a code of “laws” on a tall stele of hard stone. It was neither the first nor the last document of its type in Mesopotamia: at least half a dozen similar codes are known, of which the oldest dates from the end of the third millennium, but none of them so deserves to be considered the classic of its kind; no other is so broad in its scope and of such intellectual and literary perfection. The Code of Hammurabi, in fact, provides both a brief history of and a triumphant monument to, his reign. It is only toward the end of his life that a monarch feels the need to draw up an honours list of his successes and to give a summary of his experience …

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early culture

Early Culture Existed for Centuries

Early culture, between 3000 to 1750 BC, in Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers, another civilization is already far advanced. The ancient Egyptians can be said to have been the first ancient people to create a national state. Another ancient people, however, can claim priority over the Egyptians in the invention of some of the arts of civilization and in the development of urban life. These were the inhabitants of the early culture of ancient Mesopotamia, now called Iraq, the land through which the Tigris and Euphrates, the Twin Rivers, flow. In the southern part of this land the inhabitants were of the early culture of Sumer. Excavations have shown that at a time when the Egyptians were still simple fishermen living in wattle and daub huts, using flint tools and storing their grain in baskets, there were people living in the valley of the Euphrates who already lived a life of some sophistication, in walled towns which (since this is a relative term only) we may call cities. They had built imposing towers and temples of mudbrick, ornamented with mosaic and fresco; and had achieved considerable technological mastery in stone-cutting, metallurgy and the potter’s craft. The most remarkable evidence of this urban early culture comes from Warka, about two hundred miles from the present head of the Persian Gulf, which was the site of ancient Uruk — the Biblical Erech. Similar remains of early culture, dating to the middle of the fourth millennium B. C., have been found at Ur, Nippur, Eridu, Lagash and many other sites in Sumer; also farther north at Mari, on the Euphrates near its junction with the Khabur and at Tell Brak on its headwaters. Urnanshe of Lagash with his family. Life in Sumer Agriculture and dairy farming were the bases of life in …

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3000 B.C.

3000 BC – Gift of the Nile

On the long road to civilization, the emergence of the national state –particularly in the context of the world in which we live — is of paramount importance in 3000 BC. Although other countries, in particular Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, developed some of the arts of civilization earlier, Egypt was the first country to draw itself together with a national identity. The documents that survive from the period 3000 BC are few and therefore it is all the more remarkable that we know as much as we do about the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. The invention of writing occurred in Egypt shortly before the event, but there is no written history on which to rely. However, the significance of the event is plain for all to see. Under successive dynasties of pharaohs the country prospered and its civilization flourished. The brilliance of the Egyptian achievement and its continuity have inspired and influenced mankind profoundly. The Unification of Egypt in 3000 BC If you travel south from Cairo, along the west bank of the Nile, you will see on your left a narrow strip of bright green vegetation, sometimes shadowed by palm groves and ending suddenly in the broad, slow-moving, mud-brown river. On your right the vegetation ends abruptly, and beyond it the Western Desert begins, a ridge of golden, wind-blown sand, sprinkled with eroded rocks that look as if they had been baked and split by the fierce sun. The road swings to the right, climbs the desert ridge and suddenly you see before you a mighty pyramid built in steps, surrounded by a high wall enclosing a large courtyard; and not only this but many other pyramids rising out of a plateau of billowing sand that stretches endlessly to the west, as sterile and hostile as it …

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what is history?

What is History?

Many answers have been given to this question. To most people it is undoubtedly the record of past events, but a moment’s reflection will show that it is not a record of everything that has happened, whether the subject be the history of mankind as a whole, or of a nation, a city, a religion or institution. History, as it is recorded by chroniclers or presented by historians, inevitably involves the selection of certain events as being especially significant among all that happened within a specific area of the past. Selection also implies criteria of interpretation by which events are considered significant. In other words, out of the complex of past happenings certain events are chosen as being “historical.” This process of selection and interpretation is a very complicated one and it has been going on ever since man first began to record his past — about the beginning of the third millennium B.C. Selecting an “historical” event also involves a process of abstraction and concretion that is fundamentally artificial, yet instinctive to man and a basic factor of his rationality. It presupposes that the passage of time is made up of a series of “events,” each distinct and identifiable, but, on analysis, this presupposition is very difficult to justify. What we call “Time” is essentially mysterious; it is one of the main categories of our consciousness and we cannot get outside it and assess it objectively. Time presents itself to us primarily in the ever-changing pattern of our experience; if we were not conscious of such change, it is difficult to see how we should be aware of Time. Although our apprehension of temporal change is continuous when we are conscious, some phenomena affect us more than others and we naturally endow them with especial significance; we abstract from …

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Hellenistic Age – Alexandria and Byzantium

Hellenistic Age is the period after Alexander’s death. Alexander drank too much on an autumn night in the year 323, or because medical science was not yet far enough advanced to cure the fever which his excesses brought on, another experiment in philosopher kingship, or at least in philosopher-guided kingship, ended prematurely. Not that Aristotle had accompanied Alexander, but they had corresponded and if Alexander had thought of settling down and concentrating on administration, Aristotle, who studied the constitutions of 158 Greek states, would have been the man to advise him. On the other hand Alexander also corresponded with his mother, Olympias, a vile woman who had probably been concerned in the murder of his father, Philip. Whether her influence or Aristotle’s would have prevailed over the years is anybody’s guess. Alexander’s empire broke up after his death, but part of it (roughly, the countries west of the Euphrates) remained united by Greek language and customs; they had been “hellenized”. Historians therefore called the period after Alexander’s death the “Hellenistic Age” and the centre of “Hellenism” was Alexandria. The lighthouse there was among the seven wonders of the ancient world and Alexandrine learning shone as brightly. The Pharos of Alexandria was a lighthouse built in the third century BC. Nothing of it now remains, but it is thought to have looked like this. It was over 350 ft. high (St. Paul’s is 366 ft). The light was provided by a huge brazier and mirrors were somehow used to increase its brilliance. The Elements of Geometry by Euclid (323-283) was still a textbook in the 19th century; Eratosthenes (276-196) measured the circumference of the earth by a method not very different from that used to-day; dissection was allowed and medical knowledge therefore increased; the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek …

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Alexander of Macedon

Alexander of Macedon

Unity, for a time and a philosopher king, of sorts, finally came to Greece from Macedon in the north. In the year 356 Alexander was born. Macedon under King Philip, Alexander’s father, was already recognised as a rising power. At Athens the aged teacher of oratory Isocrates (b. 436) hoped that Philip would unite the Greeks in a new crusade against Persia. The orator Demosthenes (not to be confused with the general who died in the Sicilian expedition) was for resisting Philip. He flayed the King of Macedon in a series of orations which have given us the word philippic (= a furiously hostile speech, a tirade). Meanwhile Alexander of Macedon was growing up and needed the best teachers. Plato had died in 347 but his distinguished pupil Aristotle (b. 384), a native of Macedonia, was available and was appointed tutor to the young prince. Thus at the age of sixteen, Alexander was in the enviable position of being in daily contact with one of the most brilliant intellects the world has ever known, of ruling Macedonia while his father was away and of possessing an incomparable horse, Bucephalus. Two years later (338) he fought by his father’s side at Chaeronea, where the assembled states of Greece were beaten and lost their independence. (Demosthenes ran away with the rest of the Athenian contingent. He had done his best. Isocrates committed suicide). In 336 Philip was murdered, so at the age of twenty Alexander of macedon found himself king and commander of the superb army which his father had created. Using and improving this army Alexander conquered the Persian Empire. Three great battles (Granicus 334, Issus 333 and Arbela 331) and the sieges of Tyre and Gaza achieved this (332). Darius III fled. Unlike his ancestor, Darius the Great, he had …

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Plato

Plato

Dionysius enjoyed culture as well as cruelty. He wrote poems, which were recited at the Olympic Games and one of many tragedies which he entered in the Athenian competitions took first prize. He invited famous authors and philosophers to his court, among them Plato (429-347), the writer from whose Dialogues much of our knowledge of Socrates comes. Plato had been away from Athens since the death of his beloved master and had come to Sicily in the course of travels which had included a visit to Egypt. He soon quarrelled with the tyrant Dionysius and left his court, but he paid two further visits to Syracuse after Dionysius the Younger had succeeded his father (367). By this time Plato had settled in Athens again and his Academy had become famous. (The word ‘Academy’ in English means a school, but its Greek original was more nearly the equivalent of a university.) He had written his greatest work, the Republic, which consists of a long discussion on what is the best way to educate a people and govern them. His solution was anything but democratic. He favoured rule by a group of immensely well-educated despots — ‘philosopher kings’ — and it was hoped that Dionysius the Younger might become a practical example. The son, however, proved not to be a better pupil than the father. Plato went back to the Academy and Syracuse, though now the most glorious city of the Greek world, never became the model of good government of which the philosophers had dreamed. The problem of how best to educate people and govern them remains with us still. The importance of Plato is that he was the first writer to discuss it thoroughly. The fact that it is easy to pick out from the Republic ideas which now sound …

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damocles' sword

Damocles’ Sword – The Fourth Century

Damocles’ sword. Twice in Greek history the Spartans appear as heroes — when they fought under Leonidas in the pass of Thermopylae and when they marched under Xenophon from Babylon to the Black Sea. The rest of the time we are continually hearing of their Victories but never of their achievements. As the fifth century gives place to the fourth it is still the same story. Sparta has beaten Athens at last. Sparta is supreme, but nothing spectacular happens. She does not succeed in uniting Greece. In 371, as a result of the battle of Leuctra, Thebes began a brief period of supremacy, which lasted until 362, when her leader Epaminondas was killed. Unity was as far away as ever in mainland Greece and the Aegean, but in the west Dionysius of Syracuse (b. 430 – d. 367 — not to be confused with Dionysus, God of Wine) had stopped the advance of the Carthaginians and imposed his will on the Greek cities of Sicily and southern Italy. Most would have preferred disunity to the cruel discipline of Dionysius. According to one story he arranged a banquet for his courtier Damocles, but had a sword suspended above him by a single horse-hair. This was intended to impress upon Damocles, who had flattered Dionysius, the truth that the happiness of a wealthy and powerful ruler was not unmixed with anxiety. The hair held and the sword did not fall; but Damocles found himself unable to enjoy his dinner. He had learned his lesson.

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