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Greek Presence in the Ancient Near East- Lost History

posted on: Dec 13, 2021

Greek mercenary at Abu Simbel, photo by Eduardo Guillen Tello

     By: Lyric Ludwig/Arab America Contributing Writer

It is well known that the ancient Near East is and has been a cultural crossroads for many thousands of years, facilitating trade between the far east and west, from the Phoenician traders of antiquity to the famous silk road trade. It is well known that one such civilization that began to colonize and trade in the Near East was the ancient Greeks. Starting around the 8th to 6th centuries BC, the Greek civilization slowly began to spread across the Mediterranean world, famously establishing colonies in Libya and Anatolia. This article will cover some of the little known facts about the Greek presence in the ancient Near East that some of you reading this may find new and interesting

Archaeological Site of Cyrene - UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Ruins of Cyrene, a Greek colony in Libya
Graffiti left by a Greek mercenary at Abu Simbel

     It is interesting to know that some of the earliest interactions with ancient Greece and the greater semitic world goes all the way back to the reign of New Kingdom Egypt’s 19th dynasty, famous for King Seti I, Ramses II and Ramses III. The latter two kings battled a mysterious confederation of peoples known simply as the “sea peoples”, such as the Ekwesh, Lukka, Denyen etc. These seafaring marauders are widely believed to be the Achaeans of the Greek cities, famous for their portrayal in Homer’s Iliad. On several occasions, the Pharaohs of Egypt battled and subdued these Greek raiders, hiring them as mercenaries or settling them in Egyptian territory.

Greek warrior of the “Sea People” by koryvantes

     Later on during further Greek involvement in Egypt, Greek hoplites were employed by Egyptian Pharaohs Psamtik I and Necho II during their respective campaigns against the Nubians and Assyrians. These heavily armored Greeks were instrumental in Egypt reasserting years of foreign rule from it’s southern and northern rivals. They would have brought with them Greek culture as well, trading famous Greek goods such as pottery, olive oil and honeyed wine. All of which would have been well received by Egyptian society, famous for it’s love of alcohol. Greek mercenaries even left their mark physically, stating in Abu Simbel graffiti that they accompanied the Pharaoh on campaign to Nubia. Greek helmets have also been found in modern day Palestine. Overall, in the classical period, interaction between Greeks and Egyptians and other Semitic people were more common than we may think. In Egypt, Greeks were well known to be integrated into the Empire, living in cities such as Memphis or Peluseum, where Greeks worked as traders and religious officials, beside their more infamous occupation as adventuring mercenaries.

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Greek women in Egyptian art
The lovers Achilles (right) and Patroclus (left) equipped as Greek hoplite infantry

     Some Greek colonies in the Near East and North Africa became civilizations in their own right, such as the Cyrenaica or Cyrene, the Greek coastal colony on Libya. This city, rich with trade, was famous for its philosophers and other intellectuals. Arete of Cyrene is one example, a woman philosopher who taught a school of Greek hedonism, emphasizing pleasure. Arete was a well rounded scholar, writing about a myriad of topics, although none of these writings remain. More famously, the Greek mathematician and “father of geography” Eratosthenes, another accomplished mind who authored poetry and even calculated the size of Earth. The great accomplishments from the minds of this city can in no way be understated, as Cyrene continued to be an important city well into the Roman era.

     These are just a few examples of Hellenic interaction with the Near East and North Africa, a few stories among many hundreds of years of Greek and Near Eastern interaction. These various historical events help shape the image of a region that is truly cosmopolitan, a region that has a millennia of important historical, societal and intellectual achievements. The beginnings of  Hellenic interaction with the Near East serves as the foundation for later interactions with Europeans as well as the great intellectual achievements of the Abbasid Islamic renaissance of the middle ages, as many Arab scholars of the time would reference Greek texts on philosophy and medicine. Though to many this history is an unknown factor, interactions between east and west have origins going back thousands of years.

Eratosthenes calculating the size of Earth