Historical concreteness

January 4, 2009

In graduate school we were carefully taught that history is the study of texts — the word inscribed by human hands — and that we need not concern ourselves with actual stuff. But now that I’ve travelled far afield for the first time in many years, I’m amazed at what is obvious in situ but not at all apparent on the page.

For instance, I had no idea that so much of what we think of as Greek culture actually happened in what is now Turkey. Troy is in Turkey. Ephesus, with its now-vanished Temple of Artemis, is in Turkey. Herodotus was born in Turkey, and much of his history took place there — unsurprisingly, since Turkey lies smack in the middle of Greece and Persia. Ionia is in Turkey, while Rhodes, Lesbos, and Samothrace hug its shore. Paul of Tarsus — St. Paul to Christians, who wrote and probably spoke in Greek — was from Turkey, and a bunch of his missionary work was in Turkey.

I’m sort of amazed that all of this had escaped my notice, because I’ve always been most interested in the historical construction of identity — how the branches of history are pruned or grafted to tell a particular backward-looking story. Obviously they whole Greek-Turkish thing became a touchy subject as time went on — I can’t say that either the Turks or the Greeks seemed all that thrilled about discussing the subject, and the Turkish ministry of tourism in particular seems to be a hive of total incompetence — but I can’t believe that I studied Greek Thought and Lit for a whole year without even bothering to ask where “Greece” was.

Another inescapable conclusion I reached on my Mediterranean cruise is that concrete — that stuff in between bricks and chunks of stone — is clearly one invention that was necessary for civilization to develop. Without concrete that would set underwater, no aqueducts. Without aqueducts, no plumbing. Without plumbing, it’s awfully hard for cities to grow beyond a certain point. In photos, it’s not all that apparent that the Parthenon is made out of solid chunks of marble but the Pantheon is made of brick with marble facings and Pompeii was largely constructed of brick with plaster on top — but when you walk around the various historical sites, it’s glaringly obvious.

The trip was a salutary reminder to get my head out of the books and the Internet once in a while, and just see the outside world. “Stuff” may not be history per se, but without it you’re left with a very thin and deceptive picture of the past.

2 Responses to “Historical concreteness”


  1. This kind of thing surprises us because in our generation, national borders don’t change that often. But “Turkey” is a very modern invention; the modern Turkish state was founded in 1923 (and the notion of the modern nation-state is a nineteenth-century construct at any rate). Residents of that area at that time would have considered themselves to be Greek based mostly on cultural, religious and linguistic factors.

  2. Chris N. Says:

    If you have bits of spare time here & there, you might want to invest $10-$60 in a decent historical atlas. It gives one the opportunity to look at interesting maps, pretty pictures, and explanatory texts, which turn out to be very educational, and quickly so.

    I think there was something wrong with the class you took if you weren’t provided with some maps and other general background information like this. But the historical atlas should help. It might also be the most effective speedy way to compensate for an inadequate education in history, should you feel that you have such..

    BTW, when Greece was separated from the Ottoman Empire, there was a lot of land that had been jointly occupied by intermixed Greeks and Turks, and massive forced expulsions of members of one ethnicity from land that became part of the other ethnicity’s official state. So, yes, a lot of people are still very sensitive about this. (You might have seen indirect reference to this in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.)

    But at least you didn’t ask lots of questions about what happened to the Armenians! :-/


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