“East” vs “West”: Where it started

Every now and then I amuse myself by taking some notion that seems so familiar that we take it for granted, and tracing it to its origin. Where did it start?

So, in today’s episode, let’s look at the notion of East versus West.

This gives me a great excuse for a  map. I love playing with maps, in case you haven’t noticed. So let’s look at today’s answer (click to enlarge):


This is a map of the Persian invasions of Greece, ending with the Persians’ utter defeat and expulsion in 479 BC. And this is when it started. Long, long before Kublai Khan and Marco Polo and all that.

Until 500 BC, nobody, as far as I am aware, made any cultural or civilizational distinction between East and West. There had been Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Persia and so forth. But those thought of themselves as in the middle (as did, independently, China, the “middle kingdom”).

The first “Greek” civilization in Crete was mostly a Middle-Eastern culture. Then, when the Greeks came out of their weird and unexplained dark ages between about 1150 BC and 800 BC (Trojan war to the rise of city states), they did not yet think of themselves as “a West”.

But then the Persians started coming. They were mighty, despotic, decadent, effete and rich. We were ascetic, virile, democratic and free. And we kicked their proverbial.

At least that’s how the Greeks saw the matter. Herodotus, the world’s first historian, kicked the tradition off, Aeschylus ingrained it on the stage, and off we ran with it. The idea was born. Now it would develop.

The “West”, over the coming centuries moved further west, then north. To the Romans, the Franks, the Saxons and Normans, the Americans and then the Texans (just kidding). It became a complex mixture of all its ancestors.

The “East” kept moving further east, to Huns, Tartars, Mongols and Chinese.

And thus a “Middle East” opened up.

But the place where the “East” starts is still the same as it was in 479 BCE: the Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles.