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Religious Clash in Middle East before Christianity
The region which we now call the Middle East was disputed, geographically speaking; it was not defined by European colonists based on the Eurocentric assumption until Napoleon’s invasion into Egypt. But even before the western design, this region was filled already with political and martial entanglements, for, at the beginning of its thousands years of recorded history, there were two might imperial powers solidly established their supremacy on this area, both of which left everlasting influence on this land. The western half of the region, which consisted of the countries round the eastern Mediterranean from the Bosphorus to the Nile delta, was under the Roman Empire’s control. Being assimilated, its ancient civilizations had fallen into decline. The eastern half of the region belonged to another vast empire, called “Persia” by Greeks and Romans, and which its own inhabitants call “Iran”, the name derived from ancient Persian that means the land of the Aryans.
Egypt is one of the few cultures that survived until the beginning of the Christian era. Looking at the map of southwest Asia and northeast Africa, in the era of Perso-Roman domination, people may find the area very different from that of the more ancient Middle Eastern countries, most of which had been conquered and assimilated by stronger neighbors long before the Macedonian phalanx, the Roman legion, or the Persian Empire. The name of the country, largely known as “Egypt”, was a Greek adaption. Also, its Arabic name was related to the Semitic names for Egypt found in Hebrew Bible, Misr. Enjoying the gifted geographical vantage, Egypt, despite its successive conquests by the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans, had preserved much of its distinctive quality. Such quality can be demonstrated on its highly sophisticated language and writing, which shows a remarkable continuity and flexibility. Having undergone several changes, the ancient Egyptian language, the last form of which is called Coptic, adapted alphabet from the Greek and adopted the Arabic language after the Islamic Arab conquest. Language itself entitled Egypt a new identity that is imperishable.
The other early river valley civilization of the Middle East, that of the Tigris and the Euphrates, was considered even older than that of the Egypt, and it showed neither unity nor continuity of Egyptian state and society. In a geographic sense, this civilization included the southern, the centric, and the northern seats of different peoples speaking different languages. There were mainly four names for these people, Sumer, and Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia. By reading Bernard Lewis’ The Middle East, I was given the understanding that the characteristic of this region was largely shaped by the two rivers that brought the natives fertility and flourish, for the name of the region, in Hebrew Bible, is Aram Naharayim, Aram of the Two Rivers. And in the Graeco-Roman world, which influenced people’s understanding of the world, it was called Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia is a territory of disputation ruled by Rome, Persia, or sometimes local dynasties. Sometimes even considered to be part of Syria, a loosely defined term. Syria is also a place of uncertain origin. In the Arab, the Muslim world, the region formerly called Syria was known as Sham, a name also given to its major city, Damascus. It was officially adopted as the name of a province- the vilayet of Damascus, which is under the administration of Ottoman in 1865. Likewise, in Hebrew, the meaning of the name of the region is “Aram of Damascus” in north and “Aram of Zoba” in west. The western arm of the Fertile Crescent was also dotted with countries that were ruled by various peoples, documented in the earlier books of the Hebrew Bible and ancient writings as Canaan. Described as “land of the children of Israel”, the southern lands were conquered by the Israelite. And after the break-up of the kingdom of David and Solomon in the tenth century BCE, the southern part, with Jerusalem as its capital, was called Judah, while the north was called Israel.
Languages were developed in a fairly complicated way. Although subdivided into several different families, the dominant languages, in both Mesopotamia and Syria, were Semitic, the oldest Akkadian family and another Canaanite family. These two left numerous literal records, in Hebrew, Phoenician, Assyrian, and Babylonian. Both were replaced later by another family called Aramaic. At the beginning of the Christian era, Arabic was in the main confined to the central and northern parts of the Arabian peninsula. But the South Arabian, different from the concept of Arabic, was spoken in the present-day Yemen, a more advanced city. In the Fertile Crescent, Aramaic was replaced by Arabic. Nowadays, it survives in the rituals of some of the Eastern Churches and is still spoken in a few remote villages.
The religious map of the Middle East was even more complex than the ethnic and linguistic map. The long record of conquest and migration and the huge impact of Hellenistic culture and Roman rule gave rise to new and syncretistic forms of belief and worship. But all these worship and belief were abandoned and replaced by two new monotheistic world religions, Christianity and Islam. Both have common in the three traditions: Jews, Persians, and Greeks. Monotheism was not entirely new, first made by Jews as reflected in the Hebrew Bible. This book also reflected the awareness of how this belief isolated them among their idol. The Jews were, however, not alone in recognizing and worshipping one universal ethical God. The Medes, eminent for its leader Cyrus the Mede, and the Persians engaged in constant struggle with the forces of evil. This emergence of religion is associated with the name of the prophet Zoroaster. The Zoroastrian scriptures preserved the teachings, written in a very early form of the Persian language. For centuries, it would seem that these two peoples went their separate ways, unknown to each other until the course of a series of wars of conquest, in which King of Babylon captured Jerusalem. The kingdom of Judah and the Jewish Temple were destroyed. People in Jerusalem remained slaves until Cyrus the Mede defeated the Babylonians. Cyrus authorized the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity to the land of Israel and led to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem. At that time, a importance of an idea of a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil came to prominence.
This was the time of Confucius and Lao-Tse, of Buddha, of Zoroaster, of the philosophers in Greece, yet unknown to each other.
The Greek traders a first explored the various regions of the Middle East, who brought information about the land. With the new opportunities offered by the Persian Empire, a new age began with the eastern conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedon. Before this age, the Greeks had already known something of Persia; they then established a political supremacy that eventually gave way to the Romans. After the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, The Macedonian were obliged to submit to Roman domination. Only two people dared to resist the Roman domination and the Hellenistic cultural system, the Persians and the Jews. During the conflicts between these two resistors and the Roman domination, formed a long yet influential period of history in the Middle East which shaped its destiny. The Zoroastrian priestly establishment perished with the Persian Empire.
In one important respect, Jews, Romans and Greeks resembled each other and differed from the other peoples of antiquity. The language and culture of the Greeks, the religion and laws of the Jews, and the compassion for an enemy removed the barriers of ethical diversity.
Before the Christianity, a missionary religion, a way to spread its influence was paved by the Hellenistic culture, Jewish religion system, and Roman polity. But to define a group is by no mean easy, and this is probably the best I could do as a beginner of studying the Middle East history.