A Steward of History

As some of you may know, I am gearing up for my new life as a History Graduate Student in the field of Middle Eastern Studies. In an effort to get a head start on some of the reading, I have been immersed in some historiography of the early modern Middle East. For those of you who aren’t history nerds, the term historiography means “the study of history.” Think of it this way: History is the discovery and study of the past, and historiography is the examination of how we study history. Make sense? Anyways, the bottom line is that I have been learning about these amazing historians and chroniclers from the 8th, 9th, and 10th century who, while chilling in their baller apartments in ‘Abbasid Baghdad, attempted to make a scientific study of the life of Muhammad, his early successors, and all of the exciting historical events that happened before them. These historians, like others, are the sole reason why we know anything about the past. And the coolest part is that history is like a snowball. Muhammed does something in 624 AD. Someone witnesses the action, and writes an account of it. A century later, a Persian historian living in Baghdad collects that narrative and tries to make sense of it. 1250 years later, a scholar named Hugh Kennedy can write a book on Muhammad and the early Caliphs, because he read the works of the Persian historian and others like him. And now I get to read Kennedy’s book.

This is quite the effective chain of communication. As we all know from playing the game of telephone, it is possible for information to get jumbled or lost along the way. But that is why historians are trained to take into consideration their source’s motives, background, and expertise. It’s true that you may not be getting the full picture, but you are at least learning something about a former era. Think of all of the precious manuscripts that have unlocked the secrets of former civilization. Think of all of the irreplaceable artifacts that have taught us about the innovative spirit and precocious skills of our predecessors. Sometimes these items don’t stand the test of time, and they only live on through references in contemporary literature or histories. To a historian, such destruction is particularly painful. “Not only am I not going to ever know about this, but my children, and their children, will also never know.” A library burns, an archive is flooded, and a door into history is slammed shut.

In this way, history can be frighteningly delicate. It is incredible to think that the only reason we know anything about what the hell happened more than 2 generations ago is because someone took the time to write it down. But if one measly manuscript can shed light into history, just think of the power of an actual artifact. Or, say 2 million artifacts stacked in the shape of a pyramid? It is estimated that the Great Pyramid of Giza has been around for 3,800 years. And here we are, hoping to live until we are 85. The presence of such wonders is truly a gift that we should cherish. The deliberate destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan hammers home how precious even the mightiest of historical landmarks can be. It makes my blood boil to think of some puny, measly, mortal person daring to blow up a work of art–a piece of history–that has lasted centuries. Made in the 6th century, destroyed in the 21st. Gone. Sounds like the work of insecure, arrogant, and ignorant individuals on a power trip (ah yes, we are talking about the Taliban). Such buildings and statutes–which are a testament both to the genius and temporal nature of human life, should inspire a sense of humility and pride in all of us. It is our responsibility to protect these pieces of living history, not only so that we may enjoy them, but also so that the future generations may be able to experience history first hand.

Today was the first day I fully realized the importance of being a steward of history. Let it be known that I fully accept such responsibilities. Let the games begin.

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