I’ve been thinking about a short little article by BBC “History of the World” presenter Andrew Marr about the five most historical places in world history quite a bit since I came across it a few days ago. I love lists, I love history, understanding and developing a strong sense of place has always been important to me (it’s one of the major themes of this blog), and I teach world history: Marr has my rapt attention!
His choices are based on a world history perspective, but I think one of his historical places betrays his British bias, or maybe not: I’ll discuss below. Here are his picks:
1. The Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa: where human civilization first emerged. A pretty predictable choice, and certainly one that is difficult to contest!
2. The Yellow River: China’s “mother river”, where its first civilization emerged. I’m not sure why Marr is privileging China above other world civilizations: he does not have Mesopotamia, the western “cradle of civilization” on his list.
3. Athens, Greece: symbol of the Classical Age. I suppose this is Marr’s concession to ancient western civilization, and I think he feels sorry for present-day Greece. But it’s another obvious choice: rational philosophy, democracy, theater, architecture, the Olympics–I could go on.
Ok, now we take a huge chronological jump: from the 5th century BC to the eighteenth century. There is no amazingly significant place which has medieval (or as the world historians say, post-classical) relevance? This seems like a very Renaissance view.
4. Berkeley, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom: the birthplace of Dr. Edward Jenner (1749-1823), who discovered the vaccination for smallpox. This is the only British place on the list (not London!) and Marr is a presenter for the BBC, so I thought it was a rather biased choice, but now I’m not so sure. Smallpox was a terrible disease, which killed millions of people in the New World and remained an endemic plague in the Old, and Jenner’s vaccination was an amazing empirical breakthrough. I think smallpox is the only disease in world history which has been completely eradicated, and that makes Jenner a towering figure both in the history of medicine and the history of civilization. Nevertheless, I think one of the five most important places in world history has to be more than the birthplace of just one person, however great he or she was.
5. Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States of America: birthplace of the atomic bomb and the Atomic Age. A great choice: it’s sad that this is the American contribution to the list, but there you are. If you only have five places to choose of relevance in world history, you’ve got to go with the most consequential.
This is a great list but I think there are a few places I would change. It’s so difficult to choose, because the list is short and the history is long–and complex. Obviously there are countless historical places; in fact, every place is historical. Choosing just five places is an exercise in frustration, but also one in prioritization, which is always useful. On my list, the Yellow River would be replaced by a city along the Silk Road that connected China and the Middle East and disseminated so many Chinese innovations, for better or for worse: textiles, gunpowder, printing, the compass. Maybe Samarkand or Bukhara, both currently in Uzbekistan, but symbolizing the West’s desire to obtain the knowledge and goods of the East.
Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Silk Road “Port”.
I considered Istanbul, Venice, and Rome, ports along the western African “slave coast”, and New York, but dismissed them all on relative criteria–basically my western bias. But I cannot dismiss Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world and a holy place for three world religions. In my mind, there is no doubt that Jerusalem is one of the most important places in world history, so at least one of Marr’s places has got to go. What do you think?