Ararat’s long shadow: Asia Minor’s major impact on humanity
What happens in Anatolia doesn't stay in Anatolia (culturally and biologically speaking)
Leaf through medieval Christian maps and you find the world then literally revolved around Jerusalem. But such conventions also position another territory near the center of the then known world. North of Syria and Mesopotamia, west of Iran, and bounded by the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas lies an arguably even more enduringly powerful, momentous pinion of human development. That second central territory is Anatolia. Western Anatolia forms the natural bridge between Europe and Asia (the term “Asia” derives from the confederation of Assuwa in the lands just to the east of the Aegean). At the same time, human pathways millions of years old are etched into the terrain of eastern Anatolia. These age-old routes crisscross Anatolia and converge on the Caucasus mountains in the east and the Turkish straits (the Dardanelles and the Bosporus) in the west, linking the Middle East to Central Asia, the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
These geographical niceties and ancient cartographic conventions could be dismissed as trivia, but any basic reading of human history gives away the region’s enduring prominence both culturally and geopolitically. Not only were the seminal wars between the Greeks and Persians triggered by rebellions in western Anatolia’s coastal region of Ionia, many of the greatest scientific philosophers of the ancient world also hailed from its cities. Anaxagoras, a companion of Pericles in Athens and native of the central Anatolian coast facing the Aegean, correctly explained the nature of eclipses, proposed hypotheses for the origins of meteors and originated the concept of nous, or cosmic mind. Anaximander, from the port of Miletus, articulated a theory for the origin of mankind that featured the first fishlike land organisms emerging from the oceans. Finally, the Greek scientific tradition began with Thales of Miletus, whom Aristotle himself regarded as the first philosopher. Thales introduced deduction in geometry and predicted eclipses, demolishing reliance on myth and establishing a precedent for natural explanations of phenomena that we take for granted in the modern world.
The region remains culturally and geopolitically relevant to this day. Anatolia is now Islam’s face to Europe in the form of the Republic of Turkey; for a millennium before the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, it was Europe’s bulwark against the great Iranian, Arab and Turkic empires. We can push back further, long before written texts, deep into prehistory when material artifacts are our only keys to the past. Before the spread of agriculture across the Near East 11,500 years ago, hunter-gatherers coalesced in large numbers to erect monumental structures at sites in the foothills of the Anatolian plateau’s southeastern edge. In addition to being a bridge between civilizations, there is an argument to be made that Anatolia was indeed the birthplace of what we understand to be civilization itself.
The region also plays an outsized role in human population genetics. Since 2010, raw information extracted from ancient DNA and interpreted using paleogenetics methods has found again and again that Anatolian farmers were once dominant all across the European continent, leaving their genetic mark from Sweden to Ireland to Spain. And later migrations out of this small western subcontinent of Asia shaped subsequent chapters of our history, from the Bronze-Age founding of the Minoan civilization of the Aegean down to the 15th-century Turkish expansion out of their Anatolian heartland across the whole of the European Balkans to the gates of Vienna. And if you can take a long enough view to appreciate that the Turkic advance into the peninsula from the east is an isolated exception, the latest ancient DNA research now concludes that Anatolia has been a picture of genetic continuity since the time of the Hittites more than 3,000 years ago.
For much of the vast narrative sweep that defines our species, Anatolia has served as a whirring axis perpetually spinning out momentous events. Its demographic and genetic influence upon whole continents has been out of all proportion to what the “minor” in its alternative name, Asia Minor, might indicate. While the genes of prehistoric Anatolians are universally found from one end of the European continent to the other, this region where the Near East and Europe meet is also essential to understanding the course of European history. The successful Byzantine defense of Constantinople in 718 AD halted the Arab Muslim march into Christendom, while the fall of that same city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD disgorged Muslim armies right into the heart of Central Europe. However, the Islamic-Christian conflict is but one book among many volumes. This easternmost peninsula of the Mediterranean has found itself at the crux of clashes between Asia and Europe spanning three millennia, from the Trojan War from 1194 to 1184 BC to the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 AD. These two seminal dates are but chronological bookends, as the westernmost peninsula of Asia has spent more than three millennia in the eye of world history.
Pick your genre, whether memes or genes, Anatolia owns a central role in either telling of the human story.