08 December 2011
In a world without end, spinning endlessly in space, is there such a thing as an East or a West? And if so, where does the one end and the other begin?
Is it between the Euphrates and Tigris, legendary home of the Garden of Eden and so-called Cradle of Civilisation? Well, the word Mesopotamia means “between rivers” and fits, scholars assert, the biblical description of Paradise. However, humans are now believed to have originated in Africa before dispersing, much later, into Eurasia via the Rift Valley corridor. Despite this, the Fertile Crescent remains an accepted home for the birth of our first cities. It is from here, modern Iraq, that civilizations appear to have spread both east- and westwards.
Unlike the narrow Rift Valley gorge, Eurasia’s own plains and open plateaus provided a favourable passage for migrating clans and their herds. So then, was it on the Russian steppe or in the deserts of Iran that sweeping hordes and conquering armies first crossed from East to West? And if so, was it a steppe or a desert that separated the lands of the rising sun from the place where the sun set?
Or did East and West meet on the Bosphorus where different cultures have bumped into each other over the millennia? Here the city of Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul saw Greeks, Romans, Latins and Turks step across the great divide. Or is it in Jerusalem where Jews, Christians and Muslims have rubbed shoulders for several centuries? Jerusalem was, after all, the conceptual centre of the world. Or was it perhaps Berlin where, only decades ago, capitalists and soviets faced each other across the wall? During the Cold War era, c.1946–1991, the wall symbolically divided East from West, separating what had once grown and belonged together.
Is it actually a river, a mountain or a wall, at all? Is it a crossroad, trade route or military frontier? Or a set of borders, like the state lines dividing Eastern America from the American West?
Or could it be out to sea, perhaps, somewhere in the Atlantic? Historically, the Pope divided the earth in two, pole to pole, along an imaginary line in the mid-Atlantic, giving Spain one half of the world and Portugal the rest. Excluding Europe, of course. On that day, 7 June 1494, the Western territories included a still unknown America and the East of Africa—though its full extent still had to be discovered.
That was then, but what about today? Perhaps it is the Greenwich prime meridian that now determines where we are? Well, yes, it is around zero degrees longitude that we orientate ourselves spatially and relativise our time on an East-West basis, isn’t it? But this puts Europe on the East with Africa too?
For now the question is not where but when did East and West meet? It’s a question that always vexes me because, as a westerner, I can’t step outside my own shoes. Questions of relativity require both feet on the ground and, simultaneously, a head above the rest. Nevertheless, the question does force us to rethink our histories.
The East-West line has clearly shifted position over time and, from a Western perspective, reflects the ebb and flow of Europe’s overseas expansion. For instance, during the Age of Exploration c.1400–1600, the southern tip of Africa became the new threshold between an ancient East and a modern West. The Cape of Good Hope was the southernmost Portal to the Indies and one of the most dangerous then known to man. Ironically, it is known as the Fairest Cape today.
Towering above modern Cape Town, Table Mountain was then seen to personify the character of a Stormy Cape. The mountain was a wild and vindictive giant called Adamastor, a tormented figure derived from Greek mythology. Like the Titans, Adamastor dashed all hopes of passing mortals. The Cape was his forbidden portal, a threshold between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, beyond which neither ship nor sail should pass.
The long voyage East, amid raging storms and inner temptations, symbolized a journey of spiritual enlightenment. It was a concept that possessed Prince Henry and the explorers of Atlantic-Africa, a concept that also transformed the ‘Discoveries’ into a quest for individual spiritual enlightenment. Portugal’s exploration from West Africa to East Africa, from the shores of the Atlantic to the Indian seaboard, was thus more than a mere adventure in maritime geography. And so in 1488 a weatherworn Bartolomeu Dias first crossed this great divide, unknowingly, after being driven out to sea by a raging storm.
A decade later, on his historic outbound voyage to India in 1497, Vasco da Gama too clashed with Adamastor off the Cape. Their confrontation came to symbolise the conflict between modern man and the classical gods. For the poet laureate of Portugal, Luís de Camões, the clash symbolised mankind’s inevitable triumph over the gods, a triumph of the Renaissance over the Medieval, of humanism over dogmatism.
Table Mountain has also been likened to the double-headed god Janus of Roman mythology. With one face looking forward and the other back, Janus was the renowned Gatekeeper. He looks ahead and behind, seeing the future while knowing the past. Table Mountain thus became the “Watcher of the South”, guarding the Atlantic and Indian oceans while protecting those travelling between East and West, old and new, warm and cold, good and evil. Or so it was until 1869, when the Suez Canal opened.
Before the Canal, the Cape of Good Hope had offered the most direct sea passage to the Indies. Like the once impassable Pillars of Hercules, Table Mountain helped reproduce a concept of an intermediary Africa. With a northern and southern portal at Gibraltar and the Cape, respectively, Africa mediated between a fabulous East and a robust West. To this end the Portuguese also tried reaching the other side of Africa via the Congo River. But malaria thwarted their efforts (as it did during the building of the Panama Canal in the 1880s and 1900s). Be that as it may, East was not to be found by transversing the continent. A fact White explorers would only discover for themselves centuries later.
Traversing a continent along its East-West axis is not new, of course. Earliest long-distance migrations followed the same pattern, moving within the same climatic zone. Moving laterally allowed caravans and armies to harness the same pack animals, gather the same food and, so far as possible, avoid new diseases. To the North lay ice and bitter cold, to the South sand and scorching heat. For contemporary geographers, the world was elliptical. Their maps show distances between East-West and North-South on a ratio of 5:3. A true Golden Mean?
The main East-West route ran from the Chinese capital of Chang’an, Xian today, via the Himalayan valleys and Afghan passes, and then across the Arabian Desert to the port-cities of the eastern Mediterranean. Exchange along this line of oases, once known as the Khurasan or “Old Silk Road”, prepared the ground for varied beliefs; blending cultures and promoting religious tolerance. All the great conquerors of Eurasia—Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane—used this route while criss-crossing the continent.
The expanding Muslim empires had an East-West axis too and a formidable array of Ottoman, Mamluk and Zamorin fleets that controlled the main trade routes from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Gibraltar. Their oceanic network had evolved as an alternative to the heavily taxed and bandit-ridden land routes across the Eurasian continent.
By 1500 the centre of this vast commercial network was the Middle East and not the Mediterranean. Europe was of limited value, Portugal merely peripheral. The West had no raw materials or manufactured goods to offer India, China or Japan—except imported gold and silver. And without Africa’s gold there would have been no grand sea-trade in the sixteenth century and, subsequently, no modern world economy.
Perched on Europe’s most south-westerly corner, Portugal was ideally positioned for its westward expansion. Pre-empting the discoveries of the 15th century, ancient Phoenicia had faced west too. Likewise, the powers that would succeed Portugal—Holland and England—also faced the Atlantic. But it was not the open sea that gave them the advantage, it was the prevailing Westerlies that blew at their backs. As a result the world opened up toward the West. In short, it was the East that first discovered the West and not the other way around. But this history is best told another day.
Perhaps when or where the two meet is not as important as why we need both to make us feel whole? For now I’m sure of only one thing, we orientate ourselves by facing three directions: the rising sun, the open sea and the way forward. This is the result of ceremonial, conceptual and navigational necessity. Seen from outer space, of course, our planet has neither a top nor a bottom, nor a left half or a right side. And, thankfully, it doesn’t matter what shoes you wear.