OLD WORLD ENCOUNTERS follows the travels of five intellectuals and traces their interactions across far-flung civilizations in premodern times. Their texts are landmark works of cultural translation and ethnographic analysis, penned by scholar-travelers from across the Old World ecumene (i.e. the known, inhabited world). In addition to western analyses of the Orient, the course introduces early Chinese and Persian appraisals of India, as well as Islamic encounters with medieval Christendom and Christian encounters with Africa.
Each chosen work shows a self-critical mind at work; each represents a lifetime of empirical research, drawing on first-hand experience of foreign lands as well as careful interrogation of prior accounts; and each went on to become an influential classic in a distinctive intellectual tradition.
The course proceeds chronologically, focusing on five specific historical moments. We begin in ancient Greece with Herodotus of Halicarnassus (420 BCE), whose careful account of the rise of the Persian Empire and its clash with the Greek world has served for over 2000 years as a wellspring of Mediterranean history, geography, and anthropology. We then turn to the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, who, under the patronage of the Great Tang emperor, traveled from Chang'an along the Silk Road to the Indian empire of Harsha, bringing back texts that laid a foundation for Buddhist studies in China (650 CE). The middle of the course is devoted to the eleventh-century Persian polymath, al-Biruni of KhwarIzm, whose Arabic-language writings on India introduced Hindu science to the empire of Mahmud of Ghazni (1000 CE). The fourth set of readings are selected from the journals of Ibn Battuta of Tangiers, a near contemporary of Marco Polo. Taking advantage of Mongol conquests, he travelled virtually the entire extent of the Medieval Islamic World, leaving a priceless record of his adventures in Africa, Arabia, China, India (the Dehli Sultanate), and Anatolia (just as the Ottomans arose and Byzantium declined, ca.1350 CE). The course concludes at the moment of Portuguese expansion into Africa and India, when Francisco Álvares told of a lost Christian kingdom in Africa, ruled by the legendary king Prester John (ca.1500 CE) in what was ancient Axum (modern Ethiopia).
All of these works navigate the literary boundaries between folktale and history, traveller's tale and travelogue. All are associated with large-scale cultural movements that significantly refashioned the human landscapes of the ecumene—the struggle between Greece and Persia recounted by Herodotus anticipated the process of Hellenization that brought Greek ideas and practices as far east as India; Xuanzang contributed to a missionary effort that spread Buddhism throughout East Asia; al-Biruni documented the initial spread of Islam into India, while Ibn Battuta visited nearly every Islamic (and infidel) society across the entire expanse of his known world; and the tales of Prester John marked a significant early moment in the legitimization of Western imperialism, linking Christianity to civilization.
The core goals of the class are—
- to acquire factual and conceptual knowledge of the Old World ecumene, encompassing diverse civilizations, with particular sensitivity to religious and ethnic identity and conflict;
- to appreciate the study of antiquity, the analytical skills that scholars use to research, recover and write about ancient literature and material culture;
- to develop habits of historical thinking in order to appreciate change and continuity over time, in diverse regions, among diverse cultures;
- to become competent and confident in the skills necessary to write about ancient cultures; and
- to become an independent inquirer into the past and a lifelong learner;
This course will treat reading and writing as critical thinking processes; we will remove the mystery and emphasize the mechanics of active reading and persuasive writing. You will learn how—
- to read ancient literature critically
- to refute and/or accommodate opposing viewpoints
- to write with clarity, brevity, and specificity
- to avoid logical fallacies
- to collect, synthesize, and access data systematically, and
- to use this data to reinforce an effective argument