Lost Star of Myth and Time: The Rise and Fall of Civilizations
The idea of a worldwide Dark Age or universal decline in man’s knowledge may be difficult to accept because the broad deterioration of ancient civilizations didn’t happen at an even pace in all geographic regions, and records are very sketchy. The Arab and Chinese civilizations, for example, are believed to have held up relatively well while many European cities succumbed to the worst of the Dark Ages. Some of the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge that was lost after the burning of the Alexandria Library and in the subsequent Dark Ages did survive under Arab protection, and when combined with their own knowledge, helped these people move ahead of Europe in the early phase of the recovery or Renaissance period. One of the more advanced Emirates, Al-Andalus in Spain, was an oasis of religious tolerance at this time, credited by some with keeping civilization alive during the later Dark Ages.
A Cultural High Age?
But was this a cultural high age? Compared to much of the West, yes. Many parts of the Islamic world (as well as China and India) did seem to fare better than Europe. But the trend, compared to their own ancient ancestors, was the same: a very long period of decline. Starting with Sumer, Akkad, and Babylon, virtually all the cities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers experienced a long, devastating cycle of lower and lower cultures. So too did the region of ancient Egypt and Northern Africa and the surrounding lands (the Arab world). It went from an almost fabled civilization of pyramids, huge ziggurats, hanging gardens, vast canal systems, art, agriculture, and towers and observatories for watching the stars – to one with crumbling ruins and an almost nomadic way of life.
We have mentioned some of Babylon’s rich cultural achievements, but few realize that literature too was once at a high state in this region, the birthplace of the world’s first known epic, Gilgamesh. Yet many of the advancements and refinements of these earlier civilizations were already lost to the world thousands of years before the Arab culture supposedly flowered. It was nothing less than a long-term decline on a mass scale. And while this descent may have been punctuated by short periods of growth and civility, especially when compared to Europe after the fall of Rome, Medieval Arabia could not compare in scale to the richness of art and architecture of its elder civilizations, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt.
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Manuscript with depiction by Yahya ibn Vaseti found in the Maqama of Hariri located at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Image depicts a library with pupils in it. ( Public Domain )
Preserving Not Inventing Cultural Achievements
But some might ask, what about the fact that Arab mathematicians invented the number zero and their engineers built geared devices well before the Europeans? Aren’t those hallmarks of an evolved society? I agree that these technologies were an important contribution to the broad cultural awakening that took hold after the depths of the Dark Ages, and they seemingly came from this region. But new evidence suggests that the Arab world may have played more of a preservation role rather than an inventive one.
We now know that the number zero was in use by the ancient Mayan culture (long before Arabic numerals) and possibly by the Vedic Indians too. And the astrolabe type of geared device used by the Arabs to plot movements of the sun and moon was actually a less refined version of the recently discovered Antikythera mechanism – which simultaneously tracks many more celestial objects, and traces its origins to the Greeks in the Mediterranean 1000 years earlier (around 50 BC).
Antikythera mechanism fragment A. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Following the Rise and Fall of Civilizations
None of this is meant to slight the medieval Arabs or Moors in any way; indeed they should be lauded and remembered for their many scientific and artistic contributions, and for saving much of the knowledge that the rest of the world lost during the Dark Ages. For a multitude of reasons, the Arab world may not have suffered as severe a Dark Age as Western civilization during the same period, but the long-term historical pattern is the same.
All of which is to say, that what is often described as a flowering when we look back to the thousand years since our Dark Ages, could instead be seen as a recovery or rebirth from a far longer and deeper decline over a period of 5000 years. Observed within this larger context, it looks a whole lot more like a cycle, a high period of enlightenment, a fall and period of decline (a descending age) and a recovery or renaissance (an ascending age), which continues to this day.
The same is true for western Asia and especially China. Some say it was more advanced in many ways than Greece or Rome when those Western empires fell. The Han Dynasty (202 BC to AD 9) which flourished about the same time as early Rome, was likely more civil than its European counterpart – at least they didn’t crucify people in the streets. Though the Han have been compared favorably with Western cultures of the same time period, they appear to have been a less accomplished culture than the preceding dynasty of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (best known for unifying China and for the 7000 life-sized terracotta statues found near his mausoleum – a huge archaeological discovery made in 1974).
Basket from Lo-lang, a region of the Han Dynasty. Paragons of filial piety, Chinese painted artwork on a lacquered basketwork box. It was excavated from an Eastern Han tomb of what was the Chinese Lelang Commandery in what is now North Korea. Each of the figures are about 5 cm tall. It is now located at the National Museum of Seoul. ( Public Domain )
Let’s go further back in Chinese history. Long before the first emperor of the Han Dynasty we find some very remarkable knowledge. According to the preface of the Atlas of the Chinese geographer Phei Hsui, the Chinese were making maps with grid lines ( Fen Lu) back in the Hsia and Shang Dynasties, c. 2205-1050 BC. These rectangular grids are akin to longitude and latitude, itself not used in the West until the later Renaissance, and highly valuable if one wants to make accurate maps or voyage long distances. However, over time these rather sophisticated maps fell into disuse and the grid system was replaced by a cruder system during China’s relative Dark Age.
Lost Knowledge of the Stars
Before 1000 BC we find a highly prosperous and advanced society with tremendous knowledge of astronomy producing an astounding amount of accurate astronomical records. In Qinghai Province, ancient pieces of pottery have been found etched with pictures of stars, the sun or the moon in various phases. One piece of bone dating to 1500 BC contains writing showing that the Chinese knew the length of the tropical year to within a fraction of the Earth’s daily rotation, yet this knowledge was later lost for many centuries.
In the early 1900’s, thousands of these bone records were excavated from a field near An-yang, outside Beijing. Over the last 80 years at least 135,000 more pieces have come to light, forming a treasury of information going back to Shang times. According to Dick Teresi in his book Lost Discoveries : The Ancient Roots of Modern Science – from the Babylonians to the Maya, “This vast library recorded on the bone texts has enabled modern historians of astronomy to backtrack regularly occurring celestial events with computers to match sky phenomena inscribed millennia ago.”
Pit of oracle bones ( 甲骨) at Anyang Yinxu. (Chez Cåsver/ CC BY 2.0 )
He even tells us that “NASA astronomers used 14th century BC oracle bones to help determine how much the earth’s rotation is slowing down…”and that the “Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL] at Pasadena reported they had fixed the exact date and path of a solar eclipse seen in China in 1302 BC…based on analysis of tortoise shell inscriptions.” This, in turn, helped JPL to “calculate that the length of each day was 47 thousandths of a second shorter in 1302 BC than it is today.”
But as in other parts of the world, much of this knowledge fell by the wayside. Astronomical records in particular were lost for long periods of time and with them much of the knowledge for accurately predicting recurring phenomena such as comets and eclipses. There is even a story about a medieval observatory, a type of armillary sphere called a torquetum, located in Nanjing, that was moved from its original site in Linfen during the Ming Dynasty. By being moved, the device became useless because it was latitude dependent. Apparently, this important bit of knowledge, critical to its function, had been lost.
Finding More Ancient Achievements
Today, China is a land of increasingly frequent archaeological discoveries, which more and more are pointing to an ancient culture far older and more advanced than Western textbooks describe (the textbooks just can’t keep up with all the revelations). Based on a study of ancient jewelry, some dating back to 5000 BC, it now appears that the Chinese had knowledge of metallurgy far earlier than anyone had previously thought.
`Xin' Shape Jewelry from Ming Dynasty Tombs, (1368–1644). (Mlogic/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Several pairs of ancient earrings indicate the ability to precisely balance the weight of precious metals in matching sets, and some jade objects display a finish smoother than diamond-polished jewelry of today. And China even has a number of ancient pyramid-type structures which local folklore dates to the time of the pyramids in Egypt (about 2000 – 3000 BC by most accounts).
Frustratingly, the Chinese pyramids are off-limits to scientists at the moment because they are apparently situated near a rocket testing site. In another example of ancient Chinese science, this time in medicine, a new treatment for malaria (Artemisinin, derived from the herb Qing Hao, or “sweet wormwood”) was recently found in a recipe in a Chinese tomb from 168 BC. (Information on these and other recent discoveries can be easily accessed on the internet.)
Artemisia annua. ( Public Domain )
With the ongoing archaeological discoveries, I believe that China is showing us the same trend that we find in other regions of the world: At some point in the distant past the civilization was highly advanced, then subtly or not so subtly it declined into a relatively dark age or less sophisticated period, only to begin ascending again in more recent times.
More Signs of the Pattern of Rising and Falling Civilizations
As we will learn later in this book, one sign of a culture from a higher age is knowledge, not just of technology, building or medical devices, but of finer forces (electricity, magnetism, etc.), subtle energies that transcend purely material objects. So, when we see a country like China, with evidence that they studied the cosmos and embraced the concept of Ch’i, the Sun’s energy, and created philosophies embodying the principles of Zen ( Ch’an), and practiced medicine based on energy meridians within the physical body (such as acupuncture), we can guess that a once very high culture graced this great and ancient land.
A Chinese acupuncture chart. ( Public Domain )
Once again, these observations about ancient world cultures are not intended to denigrate any of the modern inhabitants of these lands. Indeed, it is clear that China, the Arab world, and parts of India managed to weather the Dark Ages better in some ways than most of the civilizations of Europe and the Americas. But what is also clear is the obvious declining trend seen prior to the dark age period of man’s history.
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No matter where you look, every ancient civilization of greatness fell to one degree or another, only to be succeeded by a lower culture (prior to about 500 AD), or in some cases, not succeeded at all (like the ancient Indus Valley cities of Harappa or Mohenjo Daro). And subsequently, most have risen to one degree or another, not exactly at the same rate, but usually showing a similar pattern.
While the notion of a great cycle of civilization was well accepted in the ancient world, it is a lot more challenging for modern scholars to accept because the pre-Dark Age archaeological record is riddled with holes, leaving it open to opposing interpretations.
Petrarch, who conceived the idea of a European "Dark Age". From Cycle of Famous Men and Women, Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla, c. 1450. ( Public Domain )
Furthermore, mythology, which constantly hints at cycles and higher ages, doesn’t rise to the level of provability – at least not yet. Compound this with the fact that anyone not up to speed on recent discoveries, or overly inculcated in the Darwinist paradigm (which includes most of us who went to school in the 20th and 21st century), and you can see why the current mindset persists: Anything that came before us must be more primitive. But slowly, and quite surely, history is showing us a new picture of itself.
Top Image: Four paintings from ‘The Course of Empire’ by Thomas Cole – ‘The Arcadian or Pastoral State’ ( Public Domain ), ‘The Consummation of Empire’ ( Public Domain ), ‘Destruction’ ( Public Domain ) and ‘Desolation’ ( Public Domain ).
This article is an excerpt from the book ‘ Lost Star of Myth and Time’ by Walter Cruttenden and has been republished with permission.