How Have Muslims Traditionally Understood the Ancient Remains of the Middle East?
The ancient times gave birth to one of the most powerful and mysterious civilizations that for centuries and millennia attracted people’s attention. When Europe and America was still witnessing the era of the Stone Age characterized by primitive hunters, the ancient Middle East engineers (especially, in Egypt) erected magnificent buildings along the river Nile. In addition to this, the ancient Egyptian mathematicians calculated a square base and an angle of inclination of the Great Pyramids. The ancient Egyptian architects used to build magnificent for that time temples, whose greatness is not possible to be fully perceived even nowadays.
The Middle East has a history of more than 6000 years. Currently, the preserved unique monuments of ancient culture annually attract many tourists from all around the world. Pyramids and the Sphinx, the majestic temples in Upper Egypt, and many other historical and architectural masterpieces are still amazing. Nonetheless, it is vital in this case to understand the internal relations between the peoples who inhabited the region and the way Muslims understood the ancient remains of the Middle East. This aim is determined by the close connection between Islamic countries and their vision of the advancements that used to be proper during the ancient times.
Muslims’ Understanding of the Ancient Remains of the Middle East
In order to see how the Muslims understood the ancient remains of the Middle East, it is important to be aware of the way of life, traditions and beliefs that people of the ancient East had. A decisive role in the formation of the Middle East culture played the religious and mythological ideas of the ancient Egyptians: mortuary cult of the Pharaoh and the deification of power. The culture of art and their development were an integral part of worship and rituals; it was closely associated with religion, which deified forces of nature and earthly power. Therefore, religion and mythology served as the key to understanding the entire culture of ancient Egypt. The Muslims’ outlooks were not as keen on the mythology as Egyptians’, for instance. The representatives of Islam were more likely to believe that “Individuals may pass this ability through their patrilineage, or it may survive them after their death and benefit those who worship at their tomb”.
The most important feature of people’s attitude of the ancient East was a total and absolute rejection of the death. It was generally regarded as unnatural for a human and for the whole of nature. This outlook was based on the belief in the regular renewal of nature and life in general. After all, nature was thought to renew annually, and the Nile’s overflow seemed to increase the mud in the surrounding lands, giving birth to the lives and promoting well-being. Nonetheless, when the river was going back to its banks, the drought was coming. This was not regarded as death as people knew that the following year the Nile would flood again. Due to these beliefs, a doctrine appeared. In accordance with it, death did not mean the end of human existence; it was seen as a waiting for the resurrection. In order to undergo the resurrection, the immortal soul needed to re-connect with the body. Therefore, the living used embalming to make sure that the body of the deceased person is preserved. Daly believes that “the substances used for mummification were also used for medicinal purposes”. The Muslims could not believe these assumptions and did not follow this procedure. The attitudes toward the death (of both people and nature) were not perceived in the manner peculiar to people living in the Middle East. The medical practices the Muslims used to exercise were not connected with mummification and the substances used for it.
By the end of the ancient times, different types of crafts had been created on the territory of the Middle East. The tombs and pyramids left a large number of fine vessels from the various types of stone, art furniture made of a variety of wood, bone ornate, gold, and silver. Each piece was given a special meaning. Muslims, oppositely, believed that all these things had nothing to do with the religion of Islam, which appeared to undergo a development. The understanding of the Middle East’s ancient remains was put under a number of doubts from the point of view of their spiritual value. For example, the legs of chairs were made in the form of bovine legs or winged lions, which were to protect a sitting person, as it was believed. The ancient representatives of the Middle East created numerous statues depicting people engaged in everyday activities, as well as images of Egyptian gods in the form of animals and birds. These findings were obtained due to the numerous archaeological investigations, which helped then compare the understanding of the objects by Egyptians, on the one hand, and Muslims, on the other hand.
Nevertheless, by the end of the ancient period of the Middle East, the culture had come to a crisis. Fratricidal war, the disintegration of the state, hunger and deprivation, the strengthening role of local centers and their rulers, increasingly usurped power, the increasing role of the middle class and many other factors led to the decline of Middle East ancient culture.
Individualism, which was proper to Egyptians, manifested primarily in the fact that everyone cared about their own immortality. In the course of time, even mortals began to claim the privilege of the afterlife. Hence, the idea of equality of the death was immediately reflected in the cult of the dead. Muslims' understanding of this fact merely influenced their own culture and vision of the life after death concept.
Later on, the ancient Middle East culture became woven into the culture of Islam. Its legacy functioned in terms of individual life and beliefs of Egyptian Muslims.
The development of Egyptian culture did not stop during the Greek-Macedonian rule, for instance. This fact had an incredible influence over the development of Islam and its understanding of the cultural and spiritual approaches, which were ordinary for the ancient period of the Middle East. Legacy of Egyptian culture seemed rather attractive to the most prominent Greek scientists, philosophers, and statesmen, who visited Egypt to discover it and make their own culture. Thus, this process stimulated the spread of the cultural particularities of the Middle East. The Muslims had a tendency to be less doubtful about this manifestation of the culture. The Greeks embraced the Egyptian idea of the sacred concepts and used it to build the temples to Egyptian gods, competing with its monumental buildings from the era of the pyramids. This fact, what is necessary to mention, did not find any understanding in Muslims.
For every ancient society, the most painful social and economic issue consisted in the balance of private and public sector. The fact that any operation can be socially useful (i.e. it helps manufacture products) is then used to invest in trade, industry, political, and cultural maintenance of society. This consequence of the Middle East’s vision of the life’s order found reflection in Islamic culture. Thus, for the undeveloped industrial societies of antiquity, any private activity was of a great importance. Therefore, the life of many societies of the ancient East ranged from devastating to strengthening private ownership and private operation (since it led to enslavement of the vast mass of people). The Muslim understanding of this order led to the severity of the religion and the social functions distribution.
Comparing the periods of prosperity and decline of the art history, traditions and development of outlooks in the East, it is possible to see a direct linkage between them. Every nation is original and unique; hence, they create art that bears features of identity. In other words, art, traditions and beliefs are necessarily viewed as the distinguishing attributes of any nation. Thus, they characterize the opportunities, spiritual horizons and historical stage of its development. The lives of the people who inhabited the large areas from the ancient Sahara and Egypt in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east can be traced on the basis of numerous documentary sources and artifacts. The general laws of development of ancient peoples as emerging tradition of art were strengthened, so they lasted longer than the life of the people. The understanding of one nation by another is determined by the similarities, even if they are not numerous, in the outlooks and the lifestyle.
The development of primitive agriculture, such as the one in Egypt and Mesopotamia, accelerated the general development of these regions, while agriculture elsewhere in Asia resulted in the rapid increase in population, which led to the environmental crisis. The same can be said about the Muslims, who appeared to have the similar tendencies.
Finally, with the growth of similarities between Muslims and countries of the Middle East, the conflicts happened more often. These conflicts served as the end of the Ancient Egypt and stimulated the appearance of the country, which was consequently named Egypt, as it is now known.
Then, however, in the valley of the river Nile, a powerful united state headed by the ruler known as Pharaoh emerged. It had lasted for three millennia. The history of Egypt is divided into three main periods: Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. For three thousand years, the country repeatedly stood on the verge of collapse, experienced repeated invasions of their land by conquerors. In the end, the invasion by Muslim Arabs completely destroyed the ancient Egypt.
On the territory of Mesopotamia, for instance, one civilization was replaced by another. The cradle of the ancient Sumerian culture was conquered by Akkad Semitic tribes. One by one, the great empires replaced each other: Babylonian, Assyrian, and Persian. However, the core of the culture of the Sumerians passed from one millennium to millennium.
One of the oldest civilizations is the Egyptian one. This civilization created a number of outstanding cultural monuments, many of which have remained till now. Sculptures of Middle East (mostly represented by the Egyptian one) were also closely associated with the funeral cult. Human bodies were regarded as the location of one of the souls, and were placed in the temples and tombs. Pharaoh was always portrayed in the prime of life with an impassive and majestic expression and posture. In the genre of sculpture, there were certain canonical requirements. The Muslims did not follow these traditions and believed that they did not have any sacral value.
In general, Muslim's understanding of the ancient remains of the Middle East was a slow process, which appeared mainly at the end of the ancient period. The key concepts that were peculiar to the period were not properly perceived by the representatives of Islam. They did not believe in the gods the Egyptians used to worship; they did not follow the medication procedures. The turning point of understanding process itself was influenced by political and economic lifestyle of the Egyptians (and other nations). In any case, the relations between Muslims and the representatives of the Middle East finished with the decline of Ancient Egypt due to the conflicts that used to take place at that time.
The Eastern culture was characterized by such traits such obedience to the gods and fate, and unquestioning fulfillment of the will of the priests, officials of Pharaoh kings. In the East, it was believed that a person was nothing in the world of gods and nature, and a man was like a sand, almost immaterial and invisible. Middle Eastern type of culture is called by scientists as a conservative one. Features of the development of the Middle East impacted the Islamic outlooks. Nonetheless, this influence became obvious only at the end of the ancient period of the Middle East.