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A Brief History of Ancient Greece

Few cultures have left as strong a mark on civilization as the Ancient Greeks. From art and architecture to science, philosophy, and politics, the historical significance of the Ancient Greeks is hard to measure. But where, exactly, did the Ancient Greeks come from?

Minoans and Mycenaeans

Various peoples going back to the Stone Age inhabited the geographical area known today as “Greece”. In the first half of the second millennium BCE, a civilization known as the Mycenaean developed in this area. (Mycenae was the name of the most important city during this time period. Its archaeological remains were discovered in the 1800s.)

Minoan Fresco of Three Women
Minoan Fresco of Three Women

The Mycenaeans were highly influenced by the Minoan culture that dominated the large Mediterranean island of Crete. (The archaeological remains of the Minoans were discovered in the early 1900s, and named after Minos, of Greek mythology fame.) The Minoans were an advanced society, with large palaces, beautiful art and pottery, and vast trade networks across the Mediterranean. They exchanged both goods and ideas with the nearby Egyptians, as well as the civilizations of the Near East. They also traded with the Mycenaeans, who adopted much from their culture.

In the middle of the second millennium BCE, the Minoan civilization collapsed (likely due to a severe earthquake and/or volcanic eruption). The Mycenaens stepped up to fill the void, becoming the dominant force in the Mediterranean.

Wars and Collapse

Middle East and Mediterranean c. 1400 BCE
Middle East and Mediterranean c. 1400 BCE (Credit: Alexikoua)

The Mycenaeans did more than just trade in the Mediterranean. They also started to establish colonies along these coasts, particularly along the Aegean Sea. This put them in conflict with the Hittites that inhabited modern-day Turkey. Multiple wars were waged between various Hittite and Mycenaean kings. It is believed that these wars are the basis for the famous Trojan War of Greek myth.

By the end of the second millennium BCE, the Mycenaean civilization had collapsed. Historians are still unclear as to why this occurred. Some say it was because of invasions by the mysterious “Sea People”, who wreaked havoc in the Mediterranean around this time. Others say it was because of natural catastrophes like earthquakes and droughts. Most agree that internal conflicts played a large role. Finally, it is believed that the Mycenaeans were conquered and replaced by a new ethnic group called the Dorians, which hailed form the northwestern regions of Greece.

Whatever the case, at this point Ancient Greece plunged into a time known as the “Greek Dark Ages”.

Greek Dark Ages and the Archaic Period

For about three hundred years (c. 1100-800 BCE), Greece experienced a severe downturn in culture, art, and trade. Cities were falling apart and apparently being abandoned. There was widespread famine, and very little settlement-building. In fact, much of the Mediterranean region experienced a decline during this period. The large Hittite and Egyptian kingdoms were fracturing as well.

Greece during the Archaic Period (Wikimedia Commons)
Greece during the Archaic Period (Credit: Regaliorium)

This period slowly came to an end around the 9th century BCE. City-states such as Athens were rising across Greece, ushering in a new era known as the “Archaic” period.  As cities grew bigger and bigger, they also became overpopulated and politically tense, leading many to seek better lives elsewhere. This led to the formation of new colonies across the Mediterranean, as far as the coasts of Italy, France, and Spain.

Meanwhile, powerful men took control of these city-states (or poleis), amassing large armies and great amounts of wealth. These leaders were known as tyrants (though not necessarily in the modern, evil sense of the word!) and people were soon fed up with them. By the end of the 6th century BCE, the last tyrants were being overthrown, and new forms of government was taking root, democracy most famous among them.

The Classical Period and Hellenism

The next two hundred years saw what many consider the “Golden Age” of Greece. It brought a prosperous time period full of art, philosophy, science, and literature. However, it also came with many conflicts and wars, both among various Greek city-states (in what are known as the Peloponnesian Wars), and the rival Persian Empire.

Empire of Alexander the Great
Empire of Alexander the Great (Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of this period, the northern state of Macedon became the most powerful, particularly during the successful reign of Philip II. His son, Alexander (the Great), went on to conquer the rest of Greece, as well as Egypt, the Middle East, and far beyond, all the way to India. However, Alexander himself died very young, and his massive empire collapsed just as quickly.

Despite this, Alexander brought Greek culture and ideas (known as Hellenism) all across the ancient world. This made Greek language and thought dominant throughout the Mediterranean and Near East for the next several hundred years, even after the Roman Empire absorbed all of the Greek territories, putting Ancient Greece to an end.

 

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How the World’s Continents Got Their Names

In our daily discussions and conversations we often mention the names of many countries and continents, yet seldom do we think about where these terms came from. In truth, each of these names carries with it a rich, ancient – and sometimes surprising – history.

Africa

Africa
Source: CIA World Factbook

It is fitting to begin with Africa, which comes first both alphabetically and historically. As with most ancient names, there are multiple hypotheses for the origins of “Africa”. The vast majority of the possibilities come from either a Biblical origin, or a Latin one. Nearly two millennia ago, the historian Josephus suggested that Africa comes from the Biblical figure named Epher, the grandson of Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 25:4. Josephus wrote that Epher’s family and descendants settled in Africa, hence the name.

More recently, scholars have proposed that it comes from the Hebrew (and/or Phoenician) afar, which means “dust”, referring to the deserts and sands of Northern Africa, while others say it stems from Ophir, mentioned in the Bible (I Kings 9 and 10) as the land beyond the Red Sea from which King Solomon brought gold, ivory, and exotic animals. Interestingly, in 1946 a pottery shard was discovered near Tel-Aviv with an inscription mentioning the “gold of Ophir”. The shard was dated back to what would have roughly been the time of King Solomon. The Portuguese scholar Thomé Lopes, who travelled alongside the great explorer Vasco da Gama, connected Ophir with Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, several Latin origins have been proposed as well. The Romans referred to an indigenous Libyan tribe as Afri, with the suffix “-ca” often used in Latin to refer to a certain landmass. Alternatively, aprica means “sunny” in Latin, while africus is a “southern wind”. It may also come from the Greek aphrike, “without cold”.

America

Although most people believe that Columbus was the first European to reach America, the reality is quite different. Nearly five centuries earlier, the Viking explorer Leif Erikson landed in modern-day Newfoundland (in Canada), and established a colony called “Vinland”. Archaeologists have discovered this settlement, and it is now a Canadian National Historic Site.

Waldseemuller's 1507 Map
Waldseemuller’s 1507 Map

Meanwhile, the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci explored the coasts of South America and is credited with determining that America is a separate continent, and not part of Asia (whereas Columbus insisted to the last days of his life that the new lands must be part of Asia). In 1507 (after Columbus’ death) the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller made a series of maps that, for the first time, named the new continent “America”, after the Latinized name of the explorer, Americus Vespucius.

Interestingly, Amerigo is the Italian form of the name Emeric, which itself comes from the German Heinrich (or Henry, in English). Heinrich literally means “rich house” – a fitting title for the wealthy and resource-rich lands of America.

Credit: allthesky.com
Credit: allthesky.com

Antarctica

This cold continent gets its name from the Greek anti and arktikos, literally meaning “opposite of the Arctic”. Arktikos comes from arktos, meaning “bear”. Some suggest that this is because the Arctic region has polar bears, while Antarctica is devoid of polar bears. Others say that Arktos is the Greek name for the “Great Bear” constellation, Ursa Major, which is only visible in the Northern Hemisphere.

The term “Antarctica” appears as far back as the writings of Aristotle, and is also seen in Roman maps, referring to southern regions (and not present-day Antarctica, which was only discovered in the 1770s). In fact, the French once had a small colony in Brazil called Antarctique.

Asia

There is no clear consensus on the origin of “Asia”. The term was used as far back as the 5th century BCE by Greek historians, usually to refer to the lands of Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and the Persian Empire. Some suggest this Greek term stems from the older Phoenician word asa, which means “east”, and/or the Akkadian asu, “to ascend”, referring to the direction of the rising sun. There are several other proposed etymologies, including the Hittite term Assuwa, referring to the Western coast of Anatolia.

Interestingly, the Greek historian Herodotus writes that many Greeks believed Asia is named after Hesione, referring to either the Trojan princess of that name, or the wife of Prometheus (the Titan who stole fire from Mt. Olympus and brought it to mankind). Amazingly, scholars believe the Prometheus legend comes from a more ancient Vedic (Indian) myth; the term pra math in Vedic Sanskrit means “to steal”, while pramantha was the tool to spark a fire.

Australia/Oceania

Australia gets its name from the Latin australis, meaning “south”. The first place to be called Australia was actually an island of Vanuatu, first discovered by the Spanish. In the early 1800’s, it became more common among the British settlers of what is today Australia. In 1817, one of the land’s governors, Lachlan Macquarie, suggested the name to the British government, who formally adopted it in 1824. The entire continent was known as Australia, and in 1901, the six colonies on the mainland formed a new country, the Commonwealth of Australia.

Source: CIA World Factbook
Source: CIA World Factbook

To avoid confusion between the country and the entire continent, which also includes New Zealand and many other islands in the Pacific, other names have been proposed and used for the continent. Some of these are Sahul (probably a Malay term, first appearing in 17th-century Dutch maps), Australasia, and Meganesia. The most all-inclusive term, however, is Oceania, coined by the Danish-French geographer Conrad Malte-Brun in 1812. This is quite appropriate, since most of the nations of this continent are scattered across the Pacific Ocean among thousands of islands. Australia itself is the world’s largest island, and has an additional 8,222 smaller islands within its borders!

Europe

The etymology of Europe is still up for debate. Some suggest that it is derived from the Semitic root erev, meaning “evening” or “west” (ie. the direction in which the sun sets in the evening). This would be a fitting companion to Asia’s etymology of “rising” and “east”.

More famous is the origin myth of Europa and Zeus. In this ancient story, Zeus seduces the Phoenician princess Europa (whose name may also come from erev, since Phoenicia was the western coast of the Semitic lands). He does this by turning into a white bull, which Europa mounts, and then swimming away to the island of Crete. There, Zeus and Europa live together and have three sons. One of these sons is the legendary Minos (of minotaur fame), the first king of Crete. According to historians, the Greeks are descendants of people who originally came from Crete and settled along the Greek coasts. The Greeks would later call the lands upon which they live “Europe” (including the modern-day Balkan states and western Turkey).

In the Medieval period, it was likely that the continent was more commonly referred to as “Christendom”. However, as Greco-Roman knowledge and art made a big come back during the Renaissance, and as Christianity played less and less of a role following the Enlightenment, “Europe” became the standard term for the entire continent.

Of course, these continents are all based on cultural, historical, and political boundaries. Geographically-speaking, there are actually a dozen or so major continental plates, with Europe and Asia as one Eurasian plate and, among others, separate Arabian, Indian, and Philippine continents.

Source: Learner.org
Source: Learner.org
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The World Today, by Continent, Beliefs, and Language

After some 6000 years of civilized human history, the world today is divided into roughly 200 states. The United Nations officially recognizes 193 member states (with 2 more “observer states” and 6 which are “partially recognized”).

By continent, Europe has 47 states, Africa has 52, and Asia has 48. In the Americas, North and Central America have 26 states, while South America has 13. Oceania (which includes Australia and the Pacific Ocean nations) has 14.

Approximately 70 states have a Christian majority today, of which 14 nations have Christianity as a state religion. Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, with some 2.4 billion followers. However, this number is likely not very accurate, since many in the Western world may have been born Christian, but no longer practice any form of the religion, and may identify as atheists. For example, a 2014 Pew study found that nearly 23% of people in the United States report being religiously unaffiliated, even though the US is still considered the nation with the largest Christian population in the world.Muslim Populations Pew Research

Meanwhile, 49 states are currently Muslim-majority nations, with 1.2 billion Muslims living in these countries, and another half a billion living in other non-Muslim majority states. The Pew Research Center predicts that by 2050, Islam may be the world’s most populous religion, and by then, Nigeria will become the 50th Muslim-majority state.

Non-religious population of the world, by percentage, based on 2006 Dentsu Institute data and 2005 Zuckerman data
Non-religious population of the world, by percentage, based on 2006 Dentsu Institute data and 2005 Zuckerman data

Three countries have Hindu majorities (Nepal, India, and Mauritius), seven have Buddhist majorities (led by Cambodia), and only one has a Jewish majority (Israel). Approximately 10 states have an atheist or agnostic majority, led by Estonia, Japan, and Denmark.

By far, the most-commonly spoken language in the world is Mandarin, with nearly a billion speakers. Spanish is a distant second with roughly 400 million speakers, followed by English, with 360 million speakers. Filling the top ten, by millions of speakers, are: Hindi (310), Arabic (295), Portuguese (205), Bengali (200), Russian (160), Japanese (125), and Punjabi (100).

Despite all of this phenomenal diversity, pretty much everyone agrees that all of us came from the same source: whether it is Adam and Eve, as in the Abrahamic religions, or “Y-chromosomal Adam” and “mitochondrial Eve”, the genetic ancestors of all human beings, estimated by scientists to have lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.

Ultimately, all of the Earth’s inhabitants are part of one, massive, dysfunctional family.

by garofanomarcio
by garofanomarcio

Sources:

2011 Pew Study on Christianity

2014 Pew Study on America’s Changing Religious Landscape

2015 Pew Study on Islam

List of religions by country (Wikipedia)

List of countries by continent (Wikipedia)

Language statistics from the 2010 Nationalencyklopedin

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