Part 1 - Reading History Backwards

EducationErnest ClementComment
Artwork by Michael Provard, Asheville, NC

Artwork by Michael Provard, Asheville, NC

“Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Baalbek, Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul, Emesa, Tus, Nishapur, and many other cities boasted colleges; Baghdad alone had thirty in 1064.
— THe Age of Faith, by Will Durant, p. 319

Nearly 40 years ago, as an enticement for joining the Book of the Month Club, I received the magisterial history series, The Story of Civilization, in eleven volumes, by Will and Ariel Durant. As a young man I read volume eleven, The Age of Napoleon (1975), and reread the same years later. Now, retired from my public career and with leisure to spare, I am reading the entire series backwards, starting with volume ten. And then I propose to reread the whole series forwards, maybe then to gain a firm sense of the sweep of history, albeit with a decided emphasis on the civilization of the West that has deposited me here in the South of our United States. The quote above is from the fourth volume, which covers the medieval civilizations – Christian, Islamic, and Judaic  - from A.D. 325 to 1300. The whole series is an incomparable gift of labor and love to humanity that I cannot imagine will ever be repeated.

I am reading the series backwards because the expanse on the bookshelf was so intimidating I was not certain of having the stamina to complete it starting from the beginning. We are obliged to share what has given substance and meaning to our lives, and it would help me now to reach out to you with this tidbit from my reading of history, and more besides. I am gaining a sense of my larger purpose here.

What struck me from the quote above was that almost a thousand years ago Baghdad had thirty colleges! Furthermore, in 1234, the Caliph founded still another, surpassing all the rest, in “the most beautiful building in the city,” a college that had four different laws schools where students who qualified received free tuition, food, medical care and an allowance for expenses. What a graphic contrast to our debt-ridden endeavors! Our young people have little hope of prospering without an extensive higher education, but here in this country many are expected to endure decades of debt servitude to our money masters for the opportunity.

In a footnote to this history, in 1258 the Mongol hordes descended on Baghdad and in forty days massacred 800,000 of the inhabitants. In this indiscriminate slaughter the treasure of centuries was plundered and destroyed.

In our own time we are the barbarians who have reduced a proud and ancient civilization to ruin. We are so smug in our delusion and so ignorant of history! The only antidote to fear is love, and our challenge is to honor the light within and see no enemy at all.

Ernest Clement
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