Walls and bridges

There is probably no prejudice which is as widely shared as the prejudices which sedentary people express towards people who are on the move. And, one might add, for good reason. The nomadic peoples that periodically swept into China, India, and Europe, looted, killed and destroyed. One thing they destroyed were the fences that farmers had built around their plots. Fences, to pastoralists, are offensive since they prevent grazing animals from moving around. The nomads besieged cities too and destroyed city walls. Moreover, they were notorious destroyers of culture. When Genghis Khan entered Bukhara in 1220, he rounded up all the inhabitants in the city’s main mosque, informed them that he was a punishment sent by God, and proceeded to kill them all. Likewise when they sacked Baghdad in 1258, the Mongols destroyed libraries, killed scholars, poets, and artists, and put an end to the era which came to be remembered as “the Arab Golden Age.”

Yet to call Mongols and other nomadic tribes “barbarian” might be unfair. Better perhaps to say that they have a different outlook on life. Compare the close connection between culture and agriculture. “Culture” refers to cultivation, to the “tilling of the land.” To cultivate a plant is to care for it and to make it grow. In order to protect what we grow, we drive stakes into the ground and build fences that separate what is ours from that which belongs to others. Private property requires walls and good walls make for good neighbors. Walls are also needed if we are to create a home for ourselves. On this side of the wall, we are safe, and we are together with people like ourselves; on the other side of the wall, we are away from home, and we interact mainly with strangers. Cultures, we believe, must be nurtured and protected in the same fashion. A culture is always our culture, it belongs to people like us and to the places where we live. The walls that surround us protect our way of life and allow us to continue to be who we are.

Some international systems have been surrounded by walls, actual as well as metaphorical. As a result, interaction with the rest of the world has been limited; the international system is isolated from external influences, but it is also independent and self-sufficient. Much as a biological species which is confined to a specific ecological niche, the international system evolves in its own fashion. The most striking example is the international systems of the Americas which had some connections with each other, but which developed entirely without connections to the rest of the world. Yet for extensive periods in its history, also the leaders of the Chinese empire sought to isolate themselves from the outside world, foreign trade was limited, and they built walls to keep foreigners out. Likewise, Japan was officially closed to foreigners from the years 1600 to 1868. In fact, before the year 1500, Europe too showed only limited interest in the world beyond its borders.

But there are also international systems that display the opposite logic. These international systems are outward-looking and expansive and seek to connect different parts of the world with each other. The Mongol khanates in the thirteenth century are a striking example, but there are others. In the seventh century, the Arabs expanded rapidly from the Arabian peninsula, conquering the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula. In 732, a hundred years after the death of Muhammad, the Arab armies had reached as far as central France. But an international system can be outward-looking and expansive without being violent. This is the case with the international systems that have existed around the Indian Ocean. Here people have interacted with each other from the earliest times. This is why we find shards of Chinese pottery in archaeological sites in southern Africa and why people throughout Southeast Asia to this day are Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims — all three religions originally brought here from India.

This is consequently how civilization spreads. If culture finds its metaphorical basis in agriculture, civilization finds it in exchange. When our society is connected to other societies, and we are connected to other people, we can suddenly compare things and judge them in relation to each other. As a result, we have a choice between better and cheaper options; we can pick the new and the never-before-tried. Such choices broaden our horizons and improve our lives. This is why civilization depends on the unencumbered circulation of goods, people, ideas, faiths, and ways of life. The consequences of such interaction may be unsettling to be sure, but they can also be liberating. We no longer have to be confined to, and carry the burden of, our culture; we no longer have to be who we are. Civilization provides us with a means of escape. Or, differently put, exchange is the enemy of culture. When presented with alternatives, we give up our old ways. We no longer do the things we used to do, and we are no longer quite the same people as before. This is how civilization undermines and destroys culture.

Take the example of the Muslims in al-Andalus. The Arabs civilized Spain in the ninth century by connecting its cities to the great centers of learning in the Middle East. As a result, the previous, Visigoth, culture was destroyed. As a result, the people of al-Andalus came to eat lemons, play the lute and compose far better poetry; they used better plows and irrigation techniques too, put on deodorants and brushed their teeth with toothpaste. The great library in Córdoba was far larger than any library in Christian Europe and it contained the entire canon of classical Greek texts, saved for posterity by the caliphs of Baghdad. In the thirteenth century, these books were translated and became available in Latin for the first time. The Europeans were later to refer to this as “the Renaissance.” The Renaissance destroyed the culture of the Middle Ages, but it civilized Europe.

Or, and more controversially, compare the impact which the European expansion has had on the rest of the world. For much of their history the Europeans were not that interested in other continents, we said, but around the year 1500 — at the time of the rise of the sovereign state — this changed. The Europeans began looking for ways to trade, above all with India and China, and little by little they came to acquire colonies overseas. For a while, at the time of the First World War, the Europeans controlled much of the rest of the world. This expansion had a profound, destructive impact on the cultures of the societies with which they came into contact. When all parts of the world suddenly were connected to the same global network of trade, and politically dominated by Europe, it was no longer possible for people in the rest of the world to live as before and to be what they previously had been. And yet, the benefits are undeniable. Today, in the wake of the cultural devastation brought by the European expansion, people around the world are far better educated, in a better state of health and with more opportunities open to them. Cultural devastation is a tragedy, but civilization is a blessing. It is not obvious how to assess these contradictory effects and this is why the history of European expansion still is a controversial topic.