Friday, September 14, 2007

Another Thousand Years of Darkness?

Properly examined, history can tell us what we need to know about human behavior to avoid mistakes of the past. It's relevant and fascinating - so why do our textbooks and teachers make it seem so dry and boring? Are they afraid we'll learn too much?

If you were lucky, you had at least one history teacher who taught you to examine history in the context of our lives today - instead of just teaching you a boring succession of dates and names to memorize as you marched through time, class after class.

THE RISE AND FALL OF ALEXANDRIA, Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid is an excellent example of the importance of understanding history - and their work breathes life into this ancient story.

Excerpt from jacket cover -

Most of us assume that two cities - Athens and Rome - dominated the classical world and set Western culture on its present course. But there was a third city that, at its height, dwarfed both of these in scientific and artistic achievement: Alexandria of Egypt. While Athens and Rome spread their influence through trade and war, Alexandria sought to conquer the mind.

This lively, accessible saga explores the birth, death, and legacy of this miraculous city. It was here that humankind first:
· Realized that the earth was not flat
· Invented geometry
· Built the steam engine
· Invented latitude and longitude, drawing the first accurate maps of the world

And when the city was destroyed in the seventh century AD, Western civilization regressed a thousand years.

. . .Here the true foundations of the modern world were laid – not in stone, but in ideas.

Yet it is a terrible irony that here too the seeds of religious extremism were sown, seeds that emerged in the form of early Christian and Muslim militant fanaticism, both of which eventually destroyed first the intellectual then the physical fabric of the city itself.

The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, Birthplace of the Modern Mind by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid

Famed astronomer Carl Sagan understood it.

When speaking of this miraculous city and its great Library he laments, "Imagine how different the world would be if those discoveries had been explained and used for the benefit of everyone". Instead, these discoveries were the guarded possessions of a few powerful men.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came there to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word cosmopolitan realized its true meaning--citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos...

Here clearly were the seeds of the modern world. What prevented them from taking root and flourishing? Why instead did the West slumber through a thousand years of darkness until Columbus and Copernicus and their contemporaries rediscovered the work done in Alexandria? I cannot give you a simple answer. But I do know this: there is no record, in the entire history of the Library, that any of its illustrious scientists and scholars ever seriously challenged the political, economic and religious assumptions of their society. The permanence of the stars was questioned; the justice of slavery was not. Science and learning in general were the preserve of a privileged few. The vast population of the city had not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the Library. New findings were not explained or popularized. The research benefited them little. Discoveries in mechanics and steam technology were applied mainly to the perfection of weapons, the encouragement of superstition, the amusement of kings. The scientists never grasped the potential of machines to free people. The great intellectual achievements of antiquity had few immediate practical implications. Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. There was no counterbalance to stagnation, to pessimism, to the most abject surrenders to mysticism. When, at long last, the mob came to burn the Library down, there was nobody to stop them.

From Carl Sagan’s COSMOS
See Alex Petrov's The Rise and Fall of Alexandria

The population was ignorant of discoveries taking place in the Library-
intellectuals at the great Library were unconcerned with the general population -
and rulers guarded knowledge to advance their own wealth and power-
a perfect atmosphere for religious fanaticism to destroy it all.

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