We are used to thinking about each ancient civilization in isolation - a museum gallery devoted to Egypt, a book about Mesopotamia, a TV series on Greece. But, argues David Wengrow, it was the connections between ancient societies, through trade and culture, that enabled civilization to spread.

A fascinating Egyptian literary text dating to the end of the Bronze Age (around 1100 BC) relates the journey of Wenamun.

An emissary of the Temple of Amon at Thebes on the River Nile, Wenamun travels to the port of Byblos (modern Jbeil) on the coast of Lebanon. His mission: to request a consignment of cedar wood, cut from the Lebanese mountains, for the ceremonial river barge of the god Amon.

He is received by a local prince who refuses to grant him his request. An affronted Wenamun reminds the prince that his royal ancestors had always offered what is due to the supreme god of Thebes: ‘His is the sea, and his is Lebanon, which you claim is yours.’

The prince acknowledges Amon’s dominion over ‘all the lands’, but then goes on to remind Wenamun that ‘technical skill’-the humanly learned skills of ship-building and maritime travel, for which Byblos was famed-has also spread ‘as far as this place where I am’, and with it the power conferred by mastery of the sea. He then proceeds to trade with Wenamun on his own, highly commercial, terms.

Marooned on the shores of Byblos, Wenamun was forced to learn a lesson that modern writers on the ancient world have often seen fit to ignore, namely that the spread of technology and culture, then as now, has a life beyond the boundaries and interests of particular states.

We tend to portray ancient societies as existing rather like Shelley’s famous Ozymandias -- in splendid but desolate isolation. Museums, for example, often appear to be planned on a principle of cultural quarantine, segregating the remains of once-connected civilizations. Like latter-day Wenamuns, we take for granted that isolation and stasis were the natural conditions of past societies. But the history of ancient civilizations can also be written from another point of view, as a history of circulation and exchange.

Back to Lebanon
The slopes of the Syrian and Lebanese mountains above Byblos bear the marks of a time when their lofty stands of cedar and juniper fed the demands of distant gods on the Nile and the Euphrates. Here the political imaginations and economic interests of the world’s first states converged.

Here -- most probably in the Amanus Mountains of northern Syria -- lay the inspiration for the ‘Cedar Forest’ of Mesopotamian literature, where Gilgamesh slew the monstrous guardian of the woods and, together with his bounty of fine timber, made the long return journey down the Euphrates to the city of Uruk, near the head of the Persian Gulf.

Just a short way to the south, along the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges, we find the domain of the goddess Ba’alat Gebal, also recognized as the Egyptian Hathor in her guise of the ‘Lady of the Mountain’. Many centuries before Wenamun, emissaries of the Egyptian court docked at the harbour of Byblos to worship at her sanctuary and obtain a variety of exotic trade goods. Again, timber was the most highly valued: for the resins of coniferous trees were applied to the bodies of the elite dead during their preparation for the tomb.

Like our modern civilizations, those of the ancient Near East were built up through interaction with societies and environments far from their own; and through the flow across cultures of particular commodities that were believed to bring mortals closer to the gods. Therein lay both the strength and the fragility of ancient civilizations, such as Egypt and Mesopotamia, and therein lies their lesson for the civilization-builders of today.

NEAR EAST
Where ancient worlds connect
David Wengrow