Historic Labels and Modern Problems

My new hobby is finding countries that cannot claim the names they currently hold. For example, the modern country of Syria derives its name from the ancient empire of Assyria, whose capital was the city of Assur in modern day Iraq. That is, the city after which the country of Syria was named is not currently Syrian. To say that modern Syrians (or Iraqis for that matter) are the same as the people of ancient Assyria is neither correct nor incorrect. In fact, with more than three thousand years separating us from the Assyrian Empire, we can safely say that a majority of people on earth are part Assyrian.

A few more examples, the name India is derived from the Indus River which is currently in modern day Pakistan. The word Persian is used to describe modern day Iran even though Babylon, the capital of ancient Persia, is in modern day Iraq. The ancient kingdom of Mauritania, located in modern day Morocco, has zero intersection with the modern country of Mauritania. The Eastern Roman Empire was a Greek Empire that did not include Rome for a long period of its history. Moreover, its capital of Constantinople is now part of modern day Turkey.

I have a point to all this. Each of these modern countries have a historical claim to their names but so do other countries within the same region. Any name that is a thousand, or even a few hundred years old, is bound to get muddled, stretched, and redefined. To say that modern Chinese people are the only claimants of the ancient Qin Dynasty; or that modern Israelis are the only claimants of the ancient Israelites; or that modern Germans are the only claimants to the Roman’s “let’s just call everything else Germania” would be sticking to a simplistic view of history.

No example is more blatantly obvious than the Macedonian Naming Dispute between Greece and (The former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia. Both countries lay claim of the name “Macedonia” and the symbols and history associated with it, including Alexander the Great (of Macedon) and the Vergina Sun. The two countries are essentially arguing which side of an invisible line Alexander belonged to, both ignoring that descendants of Alexander’s army were scattered over three continents within Alexander’s own lifetime, let alone more than twenty-three centuries later.

We can use history to divide us, to stir up conflicts that were long gone, or we can use it to prove that we are all connected by a shared human history that belongs to all of us. You choose.

If you want to read about other people who learned the wrong lessons from history, check out my article here.

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