A lesson in ancient geography

Last Sunday, the Christian church celebrated Pentecost.  It was my turn to read from the Bible. Of course it was Acts 2.

This is the account of one of the most important events for us Christians, celebrated as the birth of the Church. However, not for the first time, I was also interested in it as an ancient geography lesson.

Here’s the bit I mean:

[The people who heard the disciples speaking in tongues] asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

There are a number of points which stand out for me in this passage. It is in effect a list of most of the countries of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean at the time.

Our maps of that part of the world in that period look something like this:

(c) TimeMaps 2016: Map of Middle East in c. 30 BC. For a map sequence of the Middle East starting at 3500 BC go here.

This obviously shows a region divided between two great empires, the Roman and the Parthian. For contemporaries, their mental maps of the region were quite different. They thought of the historic lands which had been around for centuries, if not millennia, and which still figured in their minds as the real countries into which this part of the world was divided.

In fact, you can see many of these countries (and more) in a map of the region of 200 BC:

Map of Middle East in 200 BC

Most of the list is made up of lands about which we have completely forgotten. They simply don’t figure in our memories or imaginations. What does still capture our imagination, as Westerners at least, is the Roman Empire; and given that the Parthian Empire was its most powerful opponent for more than two hundred years, that also figures to a lesser extent.

But for people of the time it was the smaller lands that were more real than the great empires of Rome and Parthia, ruling from their distant capitals via officials with whom most of the population never came in contact (unless you were someone like St Paul, constantly getting himself into trouble).

Imperial frontiers no barriers

Another thing that strikes me about this list is that the people in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost were from lands on both sides of the imperial frontier. Parthians, Medes, Elamites and  Mesopotamians came from lands within the Parthian Empire, the rest came from within the Roman Empire.

Though we may think of the two empires as implacably opposed to one another, in fact, for most of the time they were at peace, and the main form of connection between them was in trade. Much of this commerce was conducted by Jews, and Jewish communities were to be found in all major towns and cities on both sides of the border. Indeed this is why they were such an important element in the trade networks.

A common culture

There were not only strong commercial links between the peoples of the different empires; there were pervasive cultural ones too. Since the time of Alexander the Great the Hellenistic culture had spread throughout the Middle East, and the political divisions had not altered that fact. Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire, at least in the towns and cities; and exactly the same was true of the Parthian Empire. The language and culture of the Parthian court was Greek.

There is the famous story of the Roman general, Licinius Crassus, who was defeated and killed by a Parthian army at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC; his head was taken to the Parthian king, who, when the messenger arrived at the royal court with his grisly gift, was watching a Greek tragedy, Euripedes’ Bacchae.

Pervasive Christianity

Some of this would later change, as the Iranian nobility aggressively sponsored a revival of Persian culture, but for now there was much more that united the peoples of the two empires than divided them. And in fact, the events of that first Pentecost, and what came from it, would, in one aspect at least, strengthen those links.

For what is not so well known amongst us Westerners is that the Christian faith spread as widely in the Parthian as it did within the Roman empire, maybe more so. Some scholars think that by end of the 3rd century Christianity was the majority religion in the towns of Mesopotamia and Iran.

And here’s a modern echo: on Sunday our vicar said that she had heard that, today, Christianity is spreading faster in Iran than in any other country in the world. If true, that would be astonishing.

By Peter Britton