When encountering what archaeologists now term the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, a commercial zone centered on the Scioto and Paint Creek river valleys in what is today Ohio, some European settlers found the land so fertile they nicknamed it Egypt. This kind of colonial naming occurred regularly across North America, of course, with names such as Babylon, Bethlehem, Memphis, and Utica dotting the landscape of the Western Hemisphere. We might quickly dispense with these as eccentric vestiges of world history, easily explained, or explained away, as it were. But we might also dwell on them for just a moment. They are traces of a long history of European colonialism that conjoined histories of what we today call the Middle East and the Americas.
Hopewell is just one of the many seemingly forgotten places that David Graeber and David Wengrow center in their spectacularly stimulating book. They center and they connect. Indeed, rarely do Egypt and Peru, the Euphrates and the Mississippi sit alongside each other as they do in The Dawn of Everything. Graeber and Wengrow frame their comparative historical approach as “an appeal to ask better questions.” Attempting to meet this call, I ask how Dawn might help us to think of the Americas and the Middle East together. What is to be gained by considering new geographies, by comparing two places rarely compared? What do the similarities and differences reveal?
The first and most powerful empirical connection between the two regions derives from what the authors call the “Iberian invasion of the Americas.” Because Europeans’ first clashes with peoples outside of Europe were in the Middle East and North Africa, these confrontations shaped subsequent European interactions with others, including in the Americas. This does not mean that all European experiences of difference were violent or the same or even that they ran along similar tracks. It does mean that the Middle Eastern dress rehearsal for Europe’s encounters with people outside of Europe is crucial to understand as a precedent, model, and potential indicator. The Mediterranean basin proved the crucible for forging ideas of politics and culture, difference and economics that shaped all of European history, including its colonial history that would then influence so much of the world.
Since the end of the basin’s Roman unity, religion represented the most salient feature for thinking about difference and belonging around and across the Mediterranean. For the majority of Europe’s Christians, leaders and laity alike, Islam and Judaism offered the most pressing challenges to their religious worldview. Both of these religions existed in Europe, of course: Judaism before Christianity, Islam as territorial states. Christians nearly always coded Jews and Muslims as other, as coming from or belonging to elsewhere. This elsewhere was most often the Middle East, and thus for centuries before 1492, Europe shaped its ideas of difference—human, racial, moral—not exclusively but significantly, through its relations with Muslims and Jews in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. The history of these experiences and the knowledge they produced affected how Europe colonized the Americas, and we must understand this history to fully grasp all that 1492 represented for Europe and for Americans.
With this in mind, the power of the indigenous critique at the center of Dawn comes into view. Thanks to centuries of intercultural and interreligious exchanges across the Mediterranean, Europeans adopted and adapted ideas from the Muslim world, and vice versa. As with the concepts taken from the Wendat philosopher-statesman Kandiaronk that Graeber and Wengrow examine so cogently, the origins of some of these ideas from the East were forgotten or erased by Europeans—or claimed as their own. There are many well-known examples of this: Ibn Nafis’s writing on blood circulation several centuries before Harvey, Copernicus leaning on Islamic astronomy, the influence of Islamic architecture in Europe. The point in both cultural contexts is not to argue for the indigenous or Islamic roots of Enlightenment—or capitalism or modernity or what have you—but rather to acknowledge and seek to analyze, as Graeber and Wengrow suggest, a “more subtle and profound” intellectual history “than we usually care to admit.”
Graeber and Wengrow’s notion of the indigenous critique helps us to grasp a next order iteration of how these complex processes of influence across sea and ocean affected the Middle East. If the Middle East shaped European colonialism in the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this history would eventually return in the later entangled colonial histories of Europe in the Middle East. The most obvious—because most formative—example of how the indigenous critique helps us to understand this history is Napoleon’s three-year occupation of Egypt and Palestine. For generations of scholars of the Middle East, this has been the lynchpin of arguments for and against notions of Enlightenment or modernity in the region. Napoleon brought to the East not only an army of soldiers but also savants. Less well known are his many Egyptian, Syrian, and other Arab interlocutors, some of whom went back with him to France. As historian Ian Coller has shown, these individuals had a central role to play in revolutionary ideas about belonging, rights, and other Enlightenment concepts, both in the example of their visible difference and in their own ideas about the world. Mostly forgotten to us, these men are rarely considered in histories of the French Revolution, Republicanism, or in later European history. They are Kandiaronk’s unrecognized Arab brethren.
Alongside such arguments about possible similitudes between the Americas and the Middle East, Dawn likewise points productively to important divergences between the two regions, specifically in how their peoples relate to the ancient past. Painting in broad brushstrokes, what is the difference between how Native Americans view their past and people in the Middle East understand theirs? This is a worthwhile question to ask given that the buried past in both places constantly demands attention in the present (never mind the wider scholarly agendas of Graeber and Wengrow). Most Native Americans see the lineages of what remains of their past as a part of their patrimony, with moral obligations to ancestors, traditions, and places. Stories, cultural objects, foodways, and languages evidence a history of peoples in a land that connects them to those living today. The ancient past proves a history of continuity that Europe could never eradicate, despite every effort. We are still here and must represent. Even as indigenous Americans engage in a robust, proactive cultural politics of remembering certain elements of their history while rejecting others, overall, the past must always be safeguarded—ancestors’ remains rescued, languages revitalized, territories defended.
In a place like Egypt, the situation is vastly different. The line from antiquity to now is neither so straight nor clear. In comparative terms, Egyptians today are far more vexed by their ancient past than Native Americans are by theirs, lacking notions of moral obligation alive and configured within lineages of shared indigenous traditions. Some seek to exploit the past for economic or cultural benefit in the present, primarily through tourism or sometimes kitsch. Others study it—most Egyptian universities have departments of Egyptology, a scholarly field born of colonialism, of course. Various versions of Egyptian nationalism usually embrace the Pharaonic past as evidence of the long expanse of Egyptian grandeur (we were reminded of this recently). For some Islamist elements in Egypt, this past should be eradicated as ignorant idol worship. For other “progress” zealots, destroying the ancient past proves a small price to pay for a new highway or subway line.
By and large for most Egyptians, their ancient history is a curious source of pride, one celebrated if mostly ignored. For Egyptian governments since at least the eighteenth century, the ancient past offered opportunities of various kinds—cultural diplomacy, shows of power, income, preservation, and study—and so they willfully displayed and doled out ancient Egypt to the world (think of the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris or the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to name some of the obvious examples). Egyptians rarely speak about human remains (stolen, gifted, or sold) in European and American museums the way Native Americans do, as kin to be returned to family and land. The difference between Native Americans and Egyptians in the solemnity and trauma around the mortal remains of ancestors and the physical remains of the past is indeed striking. Egypt’s unsure, indifferent, even dismissive relationship to its past made it easier to discard or use for exigent purposes than anything we can imagine in Native America.
How to explain such wholesale differences? In two words, genocide and Islam. Because the Egyptian past was not destroyed by attempted genocide, systematic eradication, and ongoing colonization, Egyptians had less incentive—less need—to find evidence of existence and continuity than Native Americans did. Without this constant assault on their past and present, Egyptians could more easily distance themselves from their ancestors and neglect their past than indigenous Americans. Add to this Islam, which served as a cultural borderline between everything that came before it and everything after. No equivalent systematic discursive and political rupture marks the history of the Americas before colonization (to be clear, I am not drawing any likeness between Islam and the European conquest of the Americas). Within Islam, Egypt’s ancient past, unlike Christianity or Judaism, had no obvious connection to the Muslim present and future. It was not adapted and assimilated to it but rather mostly shunned or denigrated as boorish polytheism. The question of what counts as “our” in “our history” is thus much more contested in a place like Egypt (or for that matter Iraq, Turkey, Tunisia, or Jordan) than it is in Native America where living traditions offer clarity and necessity of purpose.
Dawn did not, I assume, set out to frame a set of comparative questions between the Middle East and the Americas. That it does so, almost in passing, is a testament to just how generative this book is and how fields need the kinds of occasional jolts Graeber and Wengrow offer us, jolts most specialists, as the authors note, generally shy away from making. Scholars will (as they already have) argue with, for, and against this book. That is what good books do.