Correspondence with István Perczel on History, Hellenism and the idea of ‘Civilization’

May 2, 2013 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



I’ve written about the work of Dr István Perczel, the Hungarian scholar several times on this blog. I posted this before I’d met István, and this shortly after I met him in Goa last year.

István is Professor in the Department of Medieval Studies, Central European University, Budapest. He studies the Christian East from many angles, that of the history of philosophy and theology, of social and political history, and  of Greek and Syriac literacy and of manuscript studies. He has worked extensively on the Pseudo-Dionysian Corpus, on Sergius of Reshayna’s Syriac translation thereof, pagan and Christian Neoplatonism, Byzantine heresy, Symeon the New Theologian and Syriac Christianity in India. He has also worked on archives preservation, both digital and material, in India.

István is editor of The Nomocanon of Metropolitan Abdisho of Nisibis: A Facsimile Edition of MS 64 from the Collection of the Church of the East in Thrissur (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Scriptorium, 2005, 2009) and is just in the process of completing a monograph entitled «Origénistes» ou «théosophes»? Histoire doctrinale et politique d’un mouvement des Ve-VIe siècles (Origenists’ or ‘Theosophers’? Doctrinal and Political History of a Movement of the 5th-6th Centuries).


On April 15 this year István sent me a link to a video in which he and Dr. Vasco La Salvia, a former student of his, present a very interesting paper on the trans-Arabian Sea trade and the cultural connections that grew out of it.

Some of the ideas István expresses in the video are summarized in a note that was appended to one of his messages:


Toward the concept of an Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene

It seems to me that the concept of an “Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene” would be quite an appropriate framework to study the historical religious formations of Eurasia and North Africa. This conceptual tool means a kind of structured trans-area studies to understand religious and cultural history, also relevant for understanding the present-day conflict-ridden situation.

 Apparently, a restrictive concept of Hellenism[i] had distorted our view on the influence of Hellenic civilization and this error goes hand in hand with a restrictive conscience of the Eurasian, even North-African, Aramaic heritage. So, just as the concept of the Jewish-Christian heritage is engraved in the minds of people as a concept linked to “Western civilization”, so also its complementary concept, called the “Greco-Roman heritage”, is conceived of as being only another constituent of the mediaeval and modern West. Yet Hellenism, itself being a blend of Oriental and Western elements, is a far more extensive concept than that of the “Roman heritage”. Due to the early constitution of this blend, Hellenism was already a Eurasian phenomenon with a North African constituent when Alexander the Great united the major part of this cultural space into one empire and it remained present in this vast area spreading from the Western Mediterranean to India, and even beyond, until an astonishingly recent age.

The extension of Hellenism almost precisely coincided with the area inhabited by those peoples that had adopted for their writing systems alphabets based on the early Aramaic alphabet (ranging from Latin in the West, through Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic to Ethiopic in the South and, in the East, the Indian Brahmi script, from which all the local Indian alphabets were derived). So we may speak about an Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene (ca. 500 BCE-to early modern times). This particular role of the Aramaic  is due to the fact that, from ca. 700 BCE it gradually became the lingua franca of the Middle East, including the ancient Persian Achaimenid Empire. Thus, this framework also includes most organically the emerging concepts of a “Persianate Culture”,[ii] or of Central Asia as a central area for the cultural evolution of humanity.[iii]

It was in the cultural space of the Oikumene that Judaism was spreading as a minority diaspora even before the destruction of the Second Temple, and nascent Christianity followed the same paths. Even after the “Constantinian turn” that had transformed the Mediterranean into a Christian Roman Empire, the wider Oikumene persisted with the enduring presence of a strong, active and influential Christian minority, which was instrumental in transmitting not only Christian but also Hellenic lore (including philosophy and science) to its neighbours. In this way, the concept of the Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene also challenges recent visions of linguistically or religiously based “cosmopolises”, those of Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit, or Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc.,[iv] relativizing these as constituting overlapping and entangled parts of one overarching multilingual and multireligious “cosmopolis”, that of the Oikumene, with a hitherto unrecognized mobility of people and ideas. The concept has not only a geographic but also a cross-disciplinary meaning. It is within the complex fabric of a large cultural space, understood as a wide sphere for trade, migration, mission, the transmission of material and cultural goods and for the mobility of persons and communities that we have to set the religious phenomena characteristic of this area and, especially, the one that is now being called the triad of the “Abrahamic religions”.



I found the video fascinating for many reasons (and the fact that István refers to the concept of a ‘Ghosh-ian Utopia’, in relation to In An Antique Land,is by no means the most important of them). After viewing the video I wrote the following response to István.


April 17, 2013


Dear István

Thanks so much for this! The lecture was truly fascinating – and thank you very much for your kind references to me! I was very touched.

In general I am completely in agreement with your perspective, particularly your critique of the ‘civilizational’ view. In the long run, I think it will come to be recognized that the development of the discipline of  ‘history’ in the 19th century European academy profoundly distorted the nature of the relations betweeen Europe and Asia.

However there are a couple of things I’d like to point out.

– You refer to an underlying ‘Hellenistic’ stratum that facilitated Alexander’s advance. I think that this stratum should actually be called ‘Perso-Hellenistic’ because these two culture-areas evolved so closely together. Indeed, it was their mutual interaction/antagonism that constituted the ancient Eurasian world.

– In the same vein, I think Zoroastrianism too is the underlying substratum that ties the Eurasian world together; this too, deserves a larger part in your story – both in terms of culture and religion. I increasingly feel that Zoroastrianism is the key to understanding the cultural exchanges of the ancient world (and of course it very directly underlies the evolution of scripts, which you refer to). In a religious sense too, it contributed so much of what we now think of as the Abrahamic tradition.

– one question: you refer to the word ‘paraya’. I could not quite follow the etymology you suggested. This is a very interesting word in many ways, so I would be grateful if you could tell me a little more about it.

Thanks again for the lecture. I hope all is well with you.




This led to the following correspondence.


April 17, 2013


Dear Amitav,

Thanks so much! I could not agree more with you on all the points that you have raised.

1. Yes, the civilisational theory seems to be a typical nineteenth-century product of the colonial nation states. We are using it “candidly”, without realising how much it distorts reality on the one hand and how harmful this theory had been, and is still, in furnishing  the ideological underpinning for colonialism and neocolonialism. So I think that if we want to go beyond this and want to “decolonialise knowledge”, we have to get rid of the civilisational theories and offer something more relevant and more equitable than this. For this, among others, we have to understand that Europe had never been a self-sufficient entity, it was part of a world economy and of a world culture much before colonialism and globalisation. The Oikumene, in whatever words we are to describe it, is just a saliant structural entity within this world economy and culture, with some specific features. Definitively, In an Antique Land is the programmatic book for understanding this relationship and its ending with the first Gulf War could not be more symbolical than it is.

2. Perso-Hellenism: I am avoiding this expression because it is tautological. Hellenism itself is not separate from Persianate culture but is largely overlapping with it. What is nowadays called Persianate culture, perhaps the central element in this structural unit, is, in principle, comprehended  in the term Aramaeo-Hellenistic. In the attachment I am sending a short note that I recently wrote about this issue, where I have touched – although quite insufficiently – the question of a “Persianate culture”. Still you may be right that this Persian element should be further emphasised and also that even the concept of “Abrahamic religions” is very distorting from the perspective of cultural history. When we speak about the “transformation of the Classical heritage” in the monotheistic traditions and understand under “Classical” only “Greco-Roman”, excluding Zoroastrian and also Indian, we are, once again, operating a great deformation. I am perfectly aware of the fact that there is much to be clarified here and would be most grateful to you for any further suggestion for a good formulation of this nascent idea.

3. As I told in the lecture, I am suspicious of some obvious etymologising possibilities. Yet, the nature of the Malayalam language is so that it incorporates words borrowed from the trading communities that had ever had business at the Malabar Coast. So, in principle, we should not be surprised to find Greek loanwords in Malayalam (and, incidentally, Tamil). Pazhaya reminds me of the Greek palaios, -a, -on, with identical meaning: “old”, “ancient”. The zha is, in fact, a kind of l sound. Yet, there are only two words whose Greek origin seems to me obvious: pagrep, “copy”, from the Greek apographe, and parasyam, “openness”, “publicity”, even “advertisement”, from the Greek parrhesia, “openness”, “publicity”.

Thanks so much for this conversation!

Warmest regards,




April 21, 2013

Dear István

Thanks very much for this. I am particularly struck by this passage: ‘the civilisational theory seems to be a typical nineteenth-century product of the colonial nation states. We are using it “candidly”, without realising how much it distorts reality on the one hand and how harmful this theory had been, and is still, in furnishing  the ideological underpinning for colonialism and neocolonialism. So I think that if we want to go beyond this and want to “decolonialise knowledge”, we have to get rid of the civilisational theories and offer something more relevant and more equitable than this.’

Your note on the Arameo-Hellenistic Oikumene certainly clarifies your position and I am completely in agreement with you where you say: ‘Yet Hellenism, itself being a blend of Oriental and Western elements, is a far more extensive concept than that of the “Roman heritage”.

However, I do think that to use the term ‘Hellenism’ without reference to its Persian/Asian dimensions only reiterates the ‘civilizational’ misconceptions that underlie it. To me Arameo-Hellenism also seems like a limiting term in that it doesn’t reference the wider Asian context. Surely there must be a better term for this Oikumene?

Thank you for this exchange. I think it might be of interest to others, so I wonder if it would be okay with you if I posted it on my blog (along with your note on the Oikumene)? Let me know (and no problem at all if you prefer not to).

Very best




April 23, 2013

Dear Amitav,

Thank you for your prompt reactions! First of all, it is a great honour for me if our conversation becomes public through your blog. There is nothing definitive in my ideas about the Oikumene  – except for the idea that, by all means, we have to think about this subject – so every critical remark is most welcome. Your blog may trigger such remarks, which might be helpful for an eventual reformulation of the idea.

However, please allow me to defend the idea and my formulation thereof as long as it is defendable. Were it to prove undefendable, I would gladly abandon it.

My idea of an Aramaeo-Hellenistic Oikumene is born, as it should be clear, from a revolt against what I would call the nationalism of the West, which loves to recognise itself as the heir of the Greeks and the Romans, so to say, the unique heir to the Greco-Roman civilisation, so-called, which marked the beginning of a development that was going to be superior to all the other “civilisations”, not to speak about the “uncivilised” peoples who were just awaiting to become “civilised” by the West (and allowing themselves to be exploited in exchange). Against this view I claim that:

1. the Roman empire, uniting the Mediterranean, was part of a world economy of material and cultural goods. Without being part of this economy it could not have survived. Changes that affected the Roman empire were global changes, which led to similar effects elsewhere as well in this world economy.

2. It is useful to distinguish, within this world economy, more or less united structural elements but these elements are to be discerned on the basis of longue durée structures, compared to which the existence of the political states, be they long-lasting empires as the Roman or the Chinese empires, is ephemeral. Such an entity is the Oikumene, named by a Greek term meaning “inhabited land”. This is a space uniting almost all Europe and a good part of Asia as well as North- and East-Africa, where there was a strong presence of the “Hellenic heritage”, far beyond the limits of the Roman empire. This is observable in trade relations, the transmission of literature, culture, philosophy, science etc. So in this space we can speak about a Hellenic heritage.

3. However, this Greek culture could exert such a fascination on Asian and African peoples only because it was neither a Western, nor a European phenomenon. Itself was a syncretistic culture from the very outset and such authors as Plato were explicitly claiming that all the Greek lore was coming from the Orient. The Greeks were so successful in inspiring other peoples only because their culture was so receptive and open toward the Orient.

4. Hellenism is a restricted term used in European historiography. It denotes the political and cultural space created by Alexander’s conquests. So the Hellenistic period starts in 323 BC, with the death of Alexander the Great, and ends in 31 BC, when in the battle of Actium Octavius conquered Antonius who was acting as the last Hellenistic ruler of Egypt with his consort Cleopatra, the Ptolemaid queen, who committed suicide in the year 30. However, all this is seen uniquely from the point of view of a linear western periodisation, which uses Hellenism as denoting a politico-historical era, only to prepare the Roman period. It is being claimed that during this period a Hellenistic culture, being a blend of Greek and Oriental cultures was formed. So even what we traditionally call Hellenism is conceived as a blend of Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Syrian, Indian etc. cultures.

5. Contrary to this I would claim that behind the striking success of Alexander’s campaigns there was a structural and cultural unity of the entire space that he occupied. Macedonia was just the strongest military power within this united space. So Alexander’s phalanxes were moving on known land inhabited by peoples with whom they were able to communicate. After his conquest Alexander ordered the intermarriage of his soldiers with Persian women and was keen on establishing a blended ruling elite in the conquered lands, thus recognising an inherent structural and cultural unity. In this sense Hellenism was not a new blend in which hitherto isolated “cultures” merged but had been for long the essence of the cultural space that gained an ephemeral political unity under Alexander. He did not initiate anything radically new, he just gave a pregnant historical expression to something that had been there and that was to remain there even after the collapse of his empire.  So Hellenism is just as Persian and Egyptian, and even Indian, in its origin as it is Greek, it is just as Asian and African as it is European. However, if we have a better term for this than Hellenism, let us use this better term.

6. Much before Alexander’s campaigns, even much before any Greek influence in the Middle East, this space was delineated by the adoption of syllabic/phonetic alphabets, all based on the ancient Aramaic script, Aramaic being used as lingua franca, administrative and diplomatic language, in subsequent empires, including the Babylonian and the Achaimenid Persian empires. This type of script is clearly distinguishable from ideogrammatic scripts used in ancient Egypt, in the Harappa cultures and in the cultures dominated by the Chinese model. I think it is important to observe this fact but I do not know what precisely this means for our studies. We have to think much on the translatability effects such a common use of a scriptic structure is capable to trigger. My feeling is that it was easy to translate trade agreements but also philosophy, historiography, science etc. from one language using this kind of script to another. It would be interesting to compare this work of translation to the one that was going on between cultures of such a script, such as India, and those of the ideogrammatic structure, such as China.

7. However, these are just nascent thoughts and any correction, refutation etc. is most welcome.

Warm regards,



April 26, 2013

Dear Istvan

Thanks very much for spelling out your ideas in this illuminating way. Your arguments are of enormous importance, and deserve to reach a wide audience, not just of specialists but also others.

But I would like to underline this passage: ‘Hellenism is just as Persian and Egyptian, and even Indian, in its origin as it is Greek, it is just as Asian and African as it is European. However, if we have a better term for this than Hellenism, let us use this better term.’

In my view it is really important to think of a ‘better term’ for what you are trying to get at. I hate to keep harping on what is essentially a problem of nomenclature – yet I do think that it matters a great deal, especially where it concerns pedagogy.

I am attaching a draft of the post – do have a look, and please feel free to change and add!

I feel privileged to have participated (a little) in this exchange!

Warmest best



April 26, 2013

Dear Amitav,

How could I object to this text? It is just a faithful rendering of our conversation. As I told you, I am honoured that you are interested in these ideas and all your challenges are well taken.

I also must admit that I see a certain privileged role in what is Hellenic/Hellenistic, while I would like to go beyond the “Greco-Roman heritage”. After all, nobody else than Alexander united much of this space ephemerally and left an indelible trace on the entire area, being remembered by so many peoples in so many languages. It was late antique Greek philosophy (most probably quite extensively influenced by the Upanishads and Buddhist philosophy), which spread through all the cultural milieus. Perhaps it would be good to speak only about an Oikumene. However, this would be distorting. Oikumene means “inhabited land” – this concept is wider than the entity we are speaking about. It has a Syriac equivalent: ‘amarta, meaning the entire inhabited earth and I am sure that its equivalents can be found in all the languages.

If we continue thinking about this, perhaps we would find a better term…

Warm regards,



April 28, 2013

Dear István

I can understand why you see a privileged role for Hellenism in the ecumene given the present state of knowledge. But I think we have to remember that this knowledge was largely produced within the European/Western academy and it systematically privileges certain elements of the past over the other. There is an interesting example of this in your last message, when you say: ‘After all, nobody else than Alexander united much of this space ephemerally and left an indelible trace on the entire area, being remembered by so many peoples in so many languages.’ But the conquests of Cyrus the Great were just as extensive as Alexander’s and he united an even larger swathe of territory. Similarly Darius did succeed in conquering Thrace and Macedonia, and Xerxes did seize most of Greece. Even if these victories were ephemeral, it is still true that the Persians’ sway over Greece lasted longer than Alexander’s hold over Asia. The fact that we privilege Alexander’s role over that of the Persians is in my view a remnant of the way that historical knowledge was constructed at a certain time. Even in terms of philosophical and cultural influence there is a systematic devaluation of the role of the Persians – many of their ideas were eventually absorbed by the Abrahamic religions, which then suppressed, as it were, the genealogy of those ideas.

The Greeks were fortunate in that they had very powerful heirs to celebrate their role in history; the Persians were not equally fortunate in this regard – and this, I think, is what has shaped the world’s view of their relationship with each other.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the history of the writing of history has profoundly skewed our understanding of the past. Now as we move away from the earlier assumptions a very different picture is emerging – your own research is part of this corrective process, which is what makes it so exciting. Where the processes will lead we do not know, but just consider that even a decade ago your idea of a Graeco-Persian ecumene would have been dismissed out of hand (for example E.R. Dodds’ in his ‘Greeks and the Irrational’ assumed that the non-western was by definition ‘irrational’).

In that sense I feel that the very logic of your own argument will eventually push you towards finding some other, broader rubric for this ecumene – this is why I feel you must  leave yourself open to other possibilities.

Thanks again for this exchange.

Very best




April 29, 2013

Dear Amitav,

Thank you for this and I am very happy to continue this discussion. I am sure something important would come out of it.

I would be happy to say “Greco-Persian” if this were to contribute to clarification. However, then, what about the Egyptian, the Nubian, the Ethiopic, the Sogdian, the Indian constituents of this economico-cultural world? Persian is a very important element, which is even more lasting than it seems to be. Under Islam, the Umayyads and the Abbassids represented two very different cultural trends. As the Umayyads were based in Damascus and their great achievement was the conquest of Byzantine territories besides the conquest of Mesopotamia and Iran, they continued – to an astonishing degree – a Roman heritage, while the Abbassids, based in Baghdad and revolting against the Umayyads, continued an eminently Persian tradition. Recently, I had to write an essay for a volume entitled Medieval Narrative Sources, on the Eastern Christian narrative/historiographic literature. While doing the research for this, I noticed with no little surprise that those Syrian and Arabic Christian chroniclers who lived in the former Roman territory are sympathetic to the Umayyads and hostile to the Abbassids. while those who lived in former Persian territory are the opposite: sympathetic – in a discerning way according to personal acts – to the Abbassids but rather hostile in a general manner to the Umayyads.

Be this as it may, we are speaking about a huge area linked together by two major arteries: the Silk Road on the north and the Trans-Arabian Sea-Indian Ocean-Gulf of Bengal sailing route, which could be called the Southern Silk Road and which also links in Africa. It is within this larger ecumene that I am trying to distinguish a non-insulated, non-self relying, non independent structural unit, which I try to call the Hellenistic Oikumene. In the last analysis this might prove futile, too, because China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia are just as parts of this system as is Central Asia or India.

Empires there were. There were also the subsequent nomadic empires, the Huns, the Avars, the Turkic empires preceding the Mongolians. This is also an integral part of the Oikumene. I may be illusioned attributing a symbolic importance to Alexander’s empire and, then, the Diadochus states, which lasted until quite late, something like 300 years in Egypt for example. However, they are vividly remembered. The Syrian Christians dated their manucripts according to the era of “the blessed Greeks” starting in 311 BC. When Alexander Csoma de Körös, the Hungarian traveler who made the first Tibetan-English dictionary (1784-1842) entered Ladakh and was asked who he was, he responded that he was Iskender bey, from the Rum country and the Tibetans understood, because they knew the name Iskender and they knew where Rum was in the West. 

All this is not to say that we could not find a better word than “Hellenistic”, but just to say that Greco-Persian is too restrictive. It reminds me of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, where Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Serbs, Ruthens and other nations felt oppressed while the Hungarians were celebrating their revolution of 1848-49 and their subsequent emancipation. It was to a great extent their refusal of sharing the rights they had obtained, which had finally led to the dismantling of the Monarchy.

That much for now and I am awaiting your reply!

Warm regards,



April 29, 2013

Dear István

Thanks once again for your reply. I am in complete agreement with you – I think both ‘Hellenistic’ and ‘Graeco-Persian’ are too restrictive. Indeed they derive from exactly that ‘civilizational’ perspective that you rightly question. Let us hope that a better terminology will soon be found.

It’s been a great pleasure to have this exchange with you – thank you for so generously sharing your enormous erudition. I am so looking forward to reading more of your work!

With my warmest good wishes



[i] Here we are using the concepts “Hellenism” and “Hellenistic” in a non-standard sense, whose definition is given in the text itself.

[ii] See the advertisement of the Journal of Persianate Studies: “The journal publishes articles on the culture and civilization of the geographical area where Persian has historically been the dominant language or a major cultural force, encompassing Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and parts of the former Ottoman Empire“ (

[iii] See Christopher Beckwith, Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[iv] Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006); Ronit Ricci, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).



2 Responses to “Correspondence with István Perczel on History, Hellenism and the idea of ‘Civilization’”

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  1. Comment by ArunMay 2, 2013 at 11:20 am   Reply

    Hi Mr Ghosh, thanks for an amazing dialogue in a brilliant blog. The discussion between you and Dr Perczel is most interesting for students of history, society and culture like me.

    The whole region from Greece to Mesopotamia to Egypt to Persia to India and China includes some of the oldest citadels of mankind. There is of course evidence for exchange of goods between and amongst these territories from Bronze age onwards. If the Indus valley people traded with the Sumerians there is no reason to believe that such a trade completely vanished or the knowledge of these civilizations was lost on others, once the Sumerians or Indus valley society collapsed or regressed.

    The Persian empire was a secular attempt to bring under one umbrella a large swathe of this territory which is something that (i assume) Alexander was inspired by and sought to re-create. As much as the region was bound by military power in these times, the structure was and could not but be federal leading to breaking up of the empire left behind by Alexander, eventually into multiple local Hellenistic empires. However these adapted to local cultures so much so that we find Greek kings in worshipping local gods. In a sense because this was still predominantly a pre-monotheistic era nascent, it was easier for people to accept others gods as representing their local gods (as happened in the case of Herakles and Krishna in India).

    The Greek were in this sense non-imperialistic unlike the Romans who were. Even here i suspect the eastern Roman empire eventually became a pidgin empire incorporating cultures of their empire while the western Romans were able to maintain some sort of ‘cultural purity’. This was also possible because the western Romans were competing or colonialising societies that were still tribal while the eastern Romans operated in a much more evolved ecosystem filled with ancient societies and peoples with their own gods, beliefs and traditions.

    The European historians adopted the western Roman empire as its forerunner linking it with the Greeks before it in a linear manner, fashioning a history that suited them. This makes sense for them, since the history of their societies essentially begins with the coming of Romans who are supposed to have brought civilisation to Germans or Gauls or Celts. The Europeans therefore in a sense adopted the history of their colonisers and automatically turned all of history into one centered on Graeco-Romans.

    Having said this, i think it is too wide and diverse a region to define using a single term. The local cultures were all too local, except for Syria, Egypt, Anatolia and Greece. It would be interesting to learn more about the influence and role of Aramaic in this broader region. And look forward to reading more of your interactions with Dr Perczel.


    • Comment by Chrestomather — May 3, 2013 at 4:20 pm   Reply

      Thanks very much for this thoughtful response Arun. I wish you the very best with your work.

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