Michel N. Laham, M.D.
in the sixties, as a senior in college majoring in history but
having satisfied all the requirements for a pre-medical education,
I found myself writing an undergraduate thesis and taking some
high-powered courses and seminars in history. That senior year
in college was the most stimulating and challenging of my entire
life, and I will forever remember it fondly. One such seminar
was in paleography, the art of deciphering ancient writings
and inscriptions. Another was in historiography, the study of
the theory and methods of historical scholarship. It was in
that particular seminar that I first studied the Arab historian
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 A.D.).
Although the Greek historian Herodotus is universally recognized
as the "father of history", it was Ibn Khaldun who
postulated all the principles on which the writing of history,
as we now understand it, is based. His Muqaddimah is a brilliant
analysis of the methodological and cultural knowledge required
to write scientific history. He believed, for example, that
the basic causes of the rise and fall of civilizations are to
be found in the social and economic structure of society. And
this at a time when the writing of history in the West amounted
to tales of chivalry and epic poetry. It took Europe nearly
three centuries to catch up with Ibn Khaldun!
So it was during a particularly animated discussion in my historiography
seminar concerning the contributions of different cultures to
the course of history and the advancement of mankind that I
was challenged to specify the contributions of Syria and Lebanon.
Greece, I was told, contributed its art and architecture, its
great philosophers, and Euclidean geometry to mankind. Italy
contributed the great painters and sculptors of the Renaissance
and the towering figure of Galileo who introduced the modern
heliocentric view of the universe. England gave us Magna Carta,
Newtonian physics and calculus which explained the laws on which
this universe is based, and the Darwinian theory of evolution.
France gave us Cartesian logic on which all Western scientific
and philosophical thought rests, the great thinkers of the Age
of Enlightenment, and the lofty principles of liberty, equality,
and fraternity of the French Revolution. Germany, etc....the
list goes on.
Along the same lines, I was asked: specify for us the unique
contributions of Syria and Lebanon to the course of history
and to the progress of humanity. I do not recall precisely what
I said, but I remember going into a lengthy exposition of the
disregard of our contributions by Western historians, either
through benign neglect or through systematic suppression of
relevant data. I remember lamenting the paucity of available
information on the subject. Now, looking back on it, I think
that was a poor excuse. The information was there if you took
the time to look for it. And we cannot wait for others to do
the work for us. We have to do it ourselves.
I have often thought about this incident, and I have often
wondered how I could have handled the situation differently.
If I were asked the same question today, how would I rise up
to the challenge? Well, I would single out the four paramount
contributions of Syria and Lebanon to Western Civilization:
First, it was in Syria along the banks of the Euphrates River,
around 6000 B.C., that man first cultivated wheat and barley,
turning from a nomadic way of life to a settled agricultural
society. And it was there also, around 4000 B.C., that man started
using metal implements, first copper, then bronze, effectively
bringing to an end the long period known as the Stone Age.
Second, it was the Phoenicians, those intrepid mariners of
the coastal regions of Syria and Lebanon, who invented the alphabet
that they passed on to the Greeks, and that was subsequently
adopted, in modified form, by the Etruscans and eventually by
the Romans, becoming the basis of all modern alphabets. Had
the peoples of Syria and Lebanon contributed nothing else to
civilization, the invention of the alphabet would have singled
them out as the originators of written history and benefactors
Third, during the first three centuries of the Christian Era,
it was the people of Syria and Lebanon who were largely responsible
for the spread of Christianity to the farthest corners of the
Roman Empire. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in
70 A.D., Antioch in Syria became the capital of Christendom.
This is where Saint Luke, the evangelist, was born. This is
where the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were first called Christians.
This is where the cross was adopted as the symbol of Christianity:
the Maronite cross is still known today as the Antiochene cross.
And it was from Antioch that the Christian tidal wave burst
forth, eventually engulfing the entire Roman Empire, reclaiming
through the force of ideas what the Romans had conquered through
the force of arms.
Fourth, after Europe had sunk into the Dark Ages, it was the
people of Syria and Lebanon who kept the science and philosophy
of Ancient Greece alive, translated the Greek classics into
Syriac and Arabic, and transmitted them back to Europe during
the High Middle Ages, effectively bringing about the Renaissance.
The works of Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates were thus translated
into Syriac by the greatest of the translators, Hunayn Ibn Ishac
(809-873 A.D.), and these translations were then rendered into
Arabic by his son and nephew. Thiyufil Ibn Tuma, a Maronite,
translated Homer and Galen into Arabic. Thabit Ibn Qurrah translated
Euclid, Ptolemy and Archimedes. And it was through these Arabic
translations that the Greek classics were reintroduced into
Europe, long after the Greek originals were lost or destroyed.
Not only were the people of Syria and Lebanon present at the
inception of Western Civilization, they were there again at
its rebirth during the Renaissance! What happened next is a
matter of record. The entire Levant entered its Dark Age under
the repressive and benighted rule of the Ottoman Empire from
which it is only now finally emerging.