As I suggested in my last post, the sense of history being alive and kicking has never been so palpable as in recent months. The images of thousands of migrants reaching European soil and then trying to make their way to Germany, Scandinavia, Britain and other desirable destinations has had an almost Biblical quality to it.
This current episode has reminded me of the great migrations of world history. The one that has come most insistently to my mind has been the eruption of the “Peoples of the Sea” into history at the end of the second millennium BC. This was a migration of peoples from the European coasts of the Mediterranean, who, taking to their boats, sailed along the coasts of the Aegean, Asia Minor, Syria, Canaan and Egypt – in many respects it was exactly the reverse of today’s migration. The Sea Peoples attacked villages, towns and cities as they went: the Hittites civilization simply vanished before their onslaught. They inspired widespread terror before fading away, not before many of them had settled along the Canaan coast where they became known to history as the Philistines (from whom the name of the area, Palestine, is derived).
Today there are other major migrations going on: peoples fleeing from persecution in Myanmar to other locations in South East Asia; from poverty and violence in Mexico to the prosperity and stability of the United States; and many otjer lesser known movements of people. It was exactly the same at the time of the Sea Peoples. In Greece the Mycenaean civilization fell before the onslaught of the Dorians from the north; the kingdom of Assyria was reduced to a fraction of its former size by Aramaean tribes from the Syrian desert; in southern Mesopotamia the millennia-old civilization of Babylon fell to a migrant people called the Chaldeans. Most famously there was the take-over of inland Canaan by those pesky Israelites.
Other periods of history have witnessed similar upheavals – major migrations usually have losers as well as winners. The most famous example of course is the period of “great migration” when the German tribes dismembered the Roman Empire (or at least its western parts). At the same time there was a dramatic eruption of “barbarian” tribes into northern China. The Indo-Europeans from central Asia may well have had something to do with the fall of the great cities of the Indus Valley in the mid-second millennium BC.
All of which doesn’t mean that I think that the ordered society of Europe is going to fail because of this current migration from the Middle East. In fact, many countries in Europe are in urgent need of enterprising and energetic new workers. But the governments of Europe do certainly have to find a way to react constructively to this situation, which takes into account the needs of both the migrants and their new host societies.
All this, by the way, should stimulate fruitful discussion in AP World History classes, where migration is studied as one of the major ways in which different societies and regions interact with one another.
By Peter Britton