At the National Arcaelogical Museum in Athens, my friend Atthanasios Bobos described the transition in Greek art and civilization resulting from the uprisings of the poor throughout the Mediterranean in 1200 BC. The demos destroyed the caste system. They created unified tribes out of which the notion of beautiful Greek freedom, as Hegel called it, and democracy could emerge. The art changed, too, from the Egyptian rigidity of Royal figures with tight mouths, strict expressions to a smiling Kouros (boy). But for three centuries, aside from the revolt, not much happened aside; Greek historians conventionally refer to this period as a “dark age.”
Yet the caste system which haunts India to this day had been exploded in Hellas. It was not a “dark age,” but the emergence of freedom, of the forthcoming debates at the Pnyx of at least some free citizens over peace and war instead of royal command sheathed in the words of a God. The sunlight of human possibility burst on the dark scene of “divine” tyranny.
In later Europe, other “Dark Ages” supposedly precede the Renaissance. But the Arab conquest brought the number 0, Arabic numerals, algebra, astronomy, romantic poetry, paper, fountains, tiles and the astrolabe with which Columbus navigated the “ocean blue” into backward Europe. Progress came from China in the first century AD – paper – though the Middle East – to Cordoba in the 10th century. In the library at Cordoba, the 400,000 volumes included the works of the philosophers preserved in Greek as well as Arabic translations, along with long and brilliant commentaries by philosophers like Ibn-Rusd (Averroes) and Al-Farabi. Toleration of other “peoples of the book” – Jews and Catholics – was the secret of Arab political rule. A conquering minority could not rule a majority decently without toleration. Arab rule led to a flowering of poetry, medicine and civilization. The first Christian kings, Alfonso the Wise and Pedro the Cruel emulated Arab toleration toward Muslims and Jews. But the reconquista was marked by the Pope who instead created the Inquisition, burning Jewish teenagers at the stake. With Fernando and Isabella, the reconquista sent Columbus from the Alhambra to murder all the indigenous people on Hispaniola (in 1492 there were many in this Eden as Columbus spoke of it; by 1523, there were no more). Still, the suppressed Arab civilization brought the First Renaissance to Europe. The myth of the “dark ages” suppresses the international influence characteristic of all civilizations (the fantasy of some autochthonic purity is merely a myth). The reactionary idea of “dark ages” is a motive-force today in Orientalism or anti-Arab racism in Europe and the United States.