Monday, February 15, 2010

The end of empires (and even the United States - utterly inconceivable only to those poor souls who don't listen to Radio Four)

There is a very good, not to say quite fascinating, series running on Radio Four at the moment called A History Of The World In 100 Objects. The presenter, who, I think also wrote the series, chooses one of the many artefacts in the British museum and expands on it and thereby brings the history of the world to life. And it is series such as this which can demonstrate, as it is demonstrating to me, how essentially ignorant one is. For example, I had previously heard mention of the Indus civilisation but knew little else. And although, tantalisingly, we know remarkably little to this day, I now know a lot more. Most fascinating was that the Indus cities were exceptionally well-built with a sanitation system and that to this day archaelogists have found no evidence that the people of that civilisation went to war or even had a standing army. Another equally fascinating programme detailed (and this I did already know) that people throughout the Middle East had a flood legend quite apart from the Henrews and that they predate the mention of Noah in the Old Testament by many years.
Today the chap chose something or other from the Assyrian empire (I don’t now what as I missed the first five minutes but I think it was an account, or rather two accounts, one from each side, of the conquest of the Assyrians of Judea). After hearing it, I looked up the Assyrian empire on the net and was astounded to learn that it lasted almost 1,500 years (from the 2,000BC until around 600BC, although its existence straddled two distinct phases with at one point the Assyrians being vassals of the Babylonians. Those 1,500 years rather knock into a cocked hat our own British empire, which at its peak was effective for a mere 120 or thereabouts - if you agree with me that the empire’s slow decline began after the end of the Great War - but also rather put in context what might be referred to as the American empire. Granted that the U.S. doesn’t behave as empires of the past have done, but I think a good argument could be made to suggest that there is a de facto American empire. That has lasted - what? - 60 years. At present it seems inconceivable that the United States could ever ‘break up’ and even less conceivable that it might be ‘broken up’, but then an end to the Assyrian, Roman and Byzantine empires would also have seemed inconceivable to those who lived in them when each was at the height of its powers. Ashes to ashes . . .

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