The Influence of Empires

After spending time in Lebanon and Syria, I was expecting big things from Saudi Arabia.  Lebanon and Syria had their histories painted across their landscapes and melded into the communal souls of the people.  You could go to museums that celebrated the countries historical diversity or simply walk around to see the remnants of the Romans, Turks or Crusaders; in Damascus you can see the tomb of both Saladin and John the Baptist.  Of course, each time the countries were taken over by a new master, a new, interesting level was added to the ever-evolving definition of Syrian or Lebanese.

How did empires influence the evolution of today's nation-states?

In Saudi Arabia, there are not the historical layers of culture.  Of course, Saudi culture has evolved over the years, but the country was only part of the Caliphate (small parts of the country were included in the Ottoman, Saladin and Seljuk Empires, but never the entire area).  The majority of Saudi Arabia escaped the constant colonization and empire building that marked the rest of the Middle East.

[tweetmeme] Of course, Saudi Arabia has some very interesting holy sites that remain important to Muslims as well as important sites from the Caliphate, but, as a non-Muslim, I am not allowed to visit most of the sites.  Thus, without access to the physical manifestations of the history of the Caliphate, I am left – seemingly – in a Saudi Arabia without a history.  Be sure that this is not to insult Saudi Arabian history or culture, but rather to celebrate the evolution of culture and to mark the influences that power transfers have on the modern landscape and society.

My father recently sent me an very interesting interactive map that shows the various empires that had power in the Middle East.  It is impossible to say how much the cultures of the current nation-states were influenced by the empires that once controlled them.  Yet that the histories of Lebanon and Syria are littered with the skeletons of many different empires is evident in each country.

When you look at the map, pay attention to the number of empires that controlled the Levant.  On my count, there were 16 empires that at one time – some at the same time – controlled all or most of the Levant.  It is hardly surprising, then, that Lebanon and Syria have, comparatively, a more prevalent and varied physical history than Saudi Arabia.

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2 thoughts on “The Influence of Empires

  1. Cool map! It really does give a nice visual for explaining the relative lack of history that Saudi Arabia has compared with the countries around it. Even the coastal areas of Saudi didn’t appear to get much action overall. I wonder if this is due to a general perception that there wasn’t much to conquer in the midst of all that sand and rock (at least before motor cars came along).

    But I wonder if one of the reasons Jeddah itself seems at least somewhat culturally different from the rest of the country has to do in part with the greater influence of conquerors like the Ottomans on the Hejaz area. Interestingly, I was once driven to the dilapidated ruins of what used to be an old European church (apparently a remnant of something built by early English visitors to the Hejazi port) here in Jeddah. It seems the locals went as far as to remove any distinguishing marks or signs from the building, but never went as far as to tear it down. I wonder if the rest of what few examples of foreign influence there were have just been swept under the rug (or nearest sand dune) by early Islamic fundamentalists…

    You might like to visit Al Tayebat International Museum in Jeddah (sort of near the Faisaliya Women’s branch of King Abul Aziz U). It used to be the palace King Abdul Aziz used in Jeddah before becoming essentially a storehouse for various leftovers from Saudi’s past. The architecture is really picturesque and there are pawn/antique shops embedded in the walls of the palace. For 50SR (which could’ve just been the foreigner price they gave me), you will get a nice guided tour through the museum. It’s interesting and worth a trip out there overall.

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