In Alexandria, Egypt, there is a Greco-Romanic museum founded by two Frenchman in 1890’s. The striking feature of this museum is its attempt to portray Egypt under the Ptolemy’s as essentially Greek. Alexander founded Alexandria during his conquest and Ptolemy, as one of his generals, was initially its overlord and later its king, much in the same way as Selukas Nikator was the Greek overlord near India. Not only is the essentially Egyptian civilisation under Ptolemy’s portrayed as Greek, the African elements in Egyptian civilisation, so clearly displayed in the pyramids and the Valley of Kings, is consciously downplayed. So much so that the uncomfortable African presence in Alexandria is dismissed by claiming “.. the Negro element with their characteristic thick lips, woolly hair and wide sunken eyes were at the lower rungs of Alexandrian society..”. This racist description of Africans and their consignment to the lowest part of Alexandrian society is a part of a much larger story of racism and its relation to ancient civilisations of Greece, Egypt and Phoenicia.
Central to colonialism and imperialism, has been the myth of white European superiority. Unless the Africans and Asians could be considered as lesser human beings, it was difficult to justify their treatment under colonialism. The Africans suffered even worse, their requirement as slave labour for the “New World” meant that they had to be dehumanised virtually to the level of animals. Otherwise, how can wholesale slaughter and slavery of the African people be justified? The sheer numbers involved are important — it is estimated that over a period of 360 years, 80 million were taken as slaves, of which only 20 million survived the capture and the brutal sea voyage to America. This may be compared to the total population of Africa, which remained stagnant at about 100 million during this period. Such savagery by the so-called civilised Europeans needed a racial justification. Thus Cuvier, the great anthropologist, likened the Africans to the “.. monkey tribes: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism”. Comte Gobineau, the historian and the father of modern racism, considered, “ The black variety (of humans) is the lowest and lies at the bottom of the ladder”. Though, the Asians as browns fared better, being placed in between the black and whites, the idea that the white civilisation with its “manifest superiority” could be beholden to either brown or black was strenuously denied.
European racism had one central problem. Before the European Renaissance, there was little evidence of European superiority. The only ancient civilisation was that of Greece. Therefore, in science, mathematics, philosophy and arts, Europe had to trace its roots to Greece. While this did not prove a problem — the purging of all Arab and Asian influence in the intervening years could be easily done by regarding all such influence as marginal — Greece itself proved a much thornier problem. The ancient Greeks themselves viewed their science and culture to be derived from Egypt. They also regarded their alphabet to be a gift of the Phoenicians and their religion, philosophy and science deeply influenced by the Egyptian priests. Pythagoras learnt his mathematics in Egypt as did Plato his philosophy. Zeno, the famous logician was a Phoenician. While in ancient times, this proved no problem, the butchery of black Africa and the Anti Semitism of the 19th-20th century (culminating in the massacre of the Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers), made the debt to black Africa and the Semitic Phoenicians difficult to accept.
While much of the overt anti racism of the 19th and 20th century is no longer respectable, it is important to realise that the construction of the modern view of ancient history has taken place in this period. Martin Bernal, in his seminal work “Black Athena — The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation” has shown how deeply racist was the formation of this modern view of ancient history. He has shown that the fall of the Greek view of Egypt and Phoenicia, which he calls the Ancient Model, was not due to any new discoveries in either linguistics, or archaeology, but entirely to the new “science” of race which now was regarded as the major explanatory factor in history. In this view, the White races — the Aryans — could not be indebted to lesser races, and the Greek view of their own civilisation had to be destroyed while at the same time asserting Greek supremacy. This, as, Bernal calls it, was the Aryan Model of history. While this view of race may have become illegitimate in the aftermath of Hitler, the dominant paradigm created in the heyday of racism still remains virtually intact. It is also important to note that the Ancient Model was the prevalent view for a very long period — from the writings of Greek historians such as Herodotus to the 16th Century, and was replaced only gradually by the Aryan Model. Only in the 20th Century, in the 20’s and 30’s, the extreme form of this model became the dominant view. While racial underpinnings of history are now difficult to articulate, nevertheless, the inertia of academia, coupled with neo-colonialism, means that this view can still continue for quite some time. Bernal has argued, with a wealth of historical, archaeological and linguistic data, for a return to a revised Ancient Model. In a penetrating analysis of prevailing historiography, he states:
“If I am right in urging the overthrow of the Aryan Model and its replacement by the revised Ancient one, it will be necessary to rethink the fundamental basis of ‘Western Civilisation’ but also recognise the penetration of racism and ‘continental chauvinism’ into all our historiography, the philosophy of writing history. The Ancient Model had no major ‘internal’ deficiencies or weaknesses in explanatory power. It was overthrown for external reasons. For 18th-19th century Romantics and racists, it was simply intolerable for Greece, which was not seen as merely as the epitome of Europe but also its pre childhood, to have been the result of mixture of native Europeans and colonising Africans and Semites. Therefore the Ancient Model had to be overthrown and replaced by something more acceptable”.
The position of Greece is central to the racial myth of European superiority. Ancient Greece is presumed to be the origin of this Western civilisation. Thus all art, philosophy, and science before the European developments in the 16th and 17th century had to be constructed as only Greek; all other civilisations Egyptian, Chinese, Indian and Arabic had to be dismissed as peripheral to modern thought. Thus ancient Greece had to be preserved from any influence of civilisations that preceded it and were in close proximity — primarily Egyptian and Phoenician. Against Egypt, the racial paradigm had to go a step further, it had also to be “whitened” and its African lineage disputed. It did not matter that the ancient Egyptian paintings and sculpture, particularly of the earlier dynasties, clearly identified them as earth coloured. To explain the inexplicable, a new term “brunet white” was even coined.
It is interesting that while racial prejudice was manifest in constructing the “white Egyptian”, a simple test to check for skin colour was not performed during all this debate. Egypt, unlike any other civilisation, preserved their dead — mummies are available for checking the amount of melanin contained in the skin. Strangely enough, such a test was not done till the noted Senegalese nuclear physicist, Cheikh Anta Diop entered the debate. Dr. Diop did this test in 1961 and found that the amount of melanin in the ancient Egyptians made them clearly of African origin. It is symptomatic of academic myopia that even today, there are serious Egyptologists who argue that the colour of Egyptians are not relevant — this despite the continuous extolling of all that is Greek in the Western literature. The second test, again not done for Greece civilisation was to test Phoenician, Egyptian and Greek through comparative linguistics. As Bernal has shown, such a study would have immediately shown the extent of Greek borrowings from their immediate and more civilised neighbours.
The Greeks never really hid their debt — they always acknowledged that their religion, science and philosophy had foreign origins. The astounding historical inversion by which all such influence was exorcised was not any historical evidence, but the new “science” of race. It was based entirely on Aryan nature and Negro/Semitic racial characteristics. Obviously in a climate that gave rise to Nazi Germany and the final “solution”, this was clinching evidence. It should not be forgotten that virulent racism was not only dominant in Germany, but was quite fashionable in America, England and France. Its practitioners, Maspero in France, Robert Knox in England and Niebuhr in Germany, were all united in their belief of the manifest superiority of European civilisation and were quite willing to ask for the extermination or destruction of all others. Thus Robert Knox, the English anatomist, who employed gravediggers and exhorted them to get him fresh corpses, wrote “Race is every thing: literature, science, art — in a world civilisation depended on it”. He went further to exhort genocide “.. what a field of extermination lies before the Saxon/Celtic and the Sarmatan (Slav) races”. It is Hitler and the Second World War that de-legitimised racial theories even though their practitioners have not changed.
While Hitler’s genocide of the Jews have made the Semitic debt more difficult to denounce, the African influence on Greece through Egypt still has no takers. Martin Bernal feels that this is due to the fact that Ancient Egypt has no champion, even modern Egypt identifies not with Ancient Egypt but with the Arabs. I think there are deeper reasons to this resistance. First, in the world of race, Semitic races have become again white. The state of Israel is identified with the West and therefore accepting a Semitic debt is now easier. Accepting an Egyptian and consequently a black debt is even more difficult as it goes against the grain of the prevailing view in the West of Africa as a dark continent, quite appropriate for neo-colonial plunder. The second is that science and rationalism is central to Europe’s claim to superiority. If these are seen as derivative of Egyptian science and philosophy, the basis of regarding Western civilisation as scientific and rational while others are not, will collapse.
A number of Egyptologists and Greek scholars have indignantly rejected that their views have been informed by racism and they are a part of a conspiracy to deny Africans their true heritage. The issue here is not the personal motives of the scholars but the power of ideology. Ideology of race is so deep rooted that the basis of statements taken to be axiomatically true are not examined. Thus that Greece is the fount of all advances in science and mathematics is taken for granted and no attempt is made to examine this critically. This view of science has necessitated a restricted view of science and a partial view of history. Martin Bernal has exposed that academic disciplines have much deeper ideological biases. The fabrication of Ancient Greece, as Bernal calls it, is one such project. Another is the fabrication of the history of modern science in which only Greece and the West have played any part. The tragedy is that a number of radicals have accepted this myth and therefore rejected science and reason per se. The success of imperialist ideology is thus doubly assured — you either accept their myth or reject their science — in either case they are the clear victors. A rejection of imperialist ideology must therefore invert the basis of such claims — how western is western. Martin Bernal has done an enormous service by exposing the racial underpinning of the “sacred” Greek history. However, rescuing science and reason from the West and restoring its universality still remains as a future task.