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As merchants packed their bags and set foot on the Silk Road – planning to travel greatdistances over much of Asia and Europe – they had only one thing on their mind: trade their products. They weren’t thinking about the mixing of their cultures along the way, or the advantages the trade routes were having for communication between their ancient civilizations.
This exposure to various languages, religions, and ways of life help the Silk Road be deemed by modern historians as one of (if not the) most important systems of trade routes in history. During the time of trading on the Silk Road the civilizations along it expanded and grew stronger as this crossing of cultures occurred. In fact, not just differing cultures, but many types of boundaries were crossed at this time. From the timeless stories of the Bible, to the sweet melodies of the Troubadours, the world in ancient and medieval times was rapidly changing, as both the people and their ideas crossed many physical, social, and literary borders.
In the Biblical story of the prophet Ezekiel, the Babylonians destroy the Jewish temple of Jerusalem. This temple acted as God’s ‘home’ when crossing borders between the divine realm and the human realm. It’s where God would go on Earth, and only where he would go. But as theHouse of God was destroyed and the Israelites captured by the Babylonians, God crosses animportant border. She’s exiled with his people and crosses the border between being strictly inthe temple and existing everywhere, going wherever her people go. Such as in the “fifth year ofthe exile of King Jehoiachin – the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, by theChebar Canal, in the land of the Chaldeans. And the hand of the Lord came upon him there” asmentioned in the story of Ezekiel.
At about the same time as Ezekiel was living and working, in Greece, Homer wascomposing what would later be known as one of the greatest pieces of literature in history: TheOdyssey. What makes this Epic so interesting is that Homer set it in a time period he did not livein. This can be shown through various evidence from the text. For example, through the types of weapons warriors use. Homer lived and wrote The Odyssey in the 8th century BCE, during theIron Age. However, the characters of the Epic use bronze weapons, showing that The Odyssey crosses a border of time and takes place before Homer, in the Bronze Age. The way characters deal with their fallen friends can also help put a date on when the story takes place. In the Bronze Age people would have simply buried the dead. Yet starting in the Iron Age, the process of cremation (burning the bodies) begins to become more popular. It’s interesting though because Odysseus lived in the Bronze Age, but is shown to have cremated his friend Elpenor in Book 12 (after he falls off a roof and dies earlier in the story): “Quickly we chopped the wood and at thefarthest headland we held a funeral for him, and wept profusely, crying out in grief. We burnedhis body and his gear, and built a mound, and dragged a pillar onto it, and fixed his oar ontop – each ritual step in turn”. This action of cremation also helps show a crossing of borders between time periods. The burning of Elpenor’s body is most likely the earliest example of cremation there is, showing the shift between the Bronze Age into Homer’s Iron Age.
Another major example of borders being crossed in the timeless Epic is through theancient Greek practice of hospitality: xenia. The concept of xenia says to welcome in the strangerand present them with kindness regardless of who they are. It’s an ancient Greek version of theGolden Rule: “treat others how you wish to be treated. ” In fact, the Greeks were told to live thisway – by welcoming in anyone – because they never knew who would be a god in disguise (oreven Odysseus in disguise in some cases in the Epic). Like in the beginning of The Odyssey when Telemachus welcomes in Mentor to their dinner, to find out later it was Athena all along. Or when Odysseus returns to Ithaca and Eumaeus the swineherd welcomes him in generously thinking he was an old, poor beggar. While obvious physical borders are crossed when these travelers arrive to new places and are welcomed by locals, xenia can also help show the crossing of borders between cultures: specifically those who practice xenia and those who don’t. In the instance of Odysseus’ journey into the cave of Polyphemus, Odysseus and his men walk in, expecting to be treated well and given hospitality. However, Polyphemus does not live in thesame way and by the same rules, and instead starts to eat the men two at a time in spite of them being there. He’s a perfect example of not performing xenia, as he does everything the complete opposite of what one might expect.
What makes xenia unique is that it’s applied to a large range of interactions within The Odyssey and even in other works of literature: such as Sindbad the Sailor’s encounter with the giant in Arabian Nights. Sindbad and the giant have a very similarinteraction to Odysseus and Polyphemus: Sindbad and his men welcome themselves into thegiant’s home only to be eaten, as they were clearly not welcome there. These very similar interactions between works of literature from ancient Greece and the Islamic Golden Age show a literary crossing of borders between cultures and time periods.
These ancient and medieval crossings of borders remain even today to have incomparable importance in the development of the world: such as the physical and cultural border crossings ofthe merchants on the Silk Road. In fact, these border crossings not only helped shape modern society, but are more relevant than ever. We can look to the past to help us better our lives in thepresent. For example, by practicing xenia and treating others with kindness and respect. If wecan begin to learn from those who came before us, we can begin to work together to better society for everyone.
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