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reading_6_3 - READING 3 Richard Smith What Happened to the...

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Used by permission for Bridging World History , 1 The Annenberg Foundation copyright © 2004 R EADING 3 Richard Smith, “What Happened to the Ancient Libyans? Chasing Sources across the Sahara from Herodotus to Ibn Khaldun,” Journal of World History 14, no. 4 (December 2003): 459–500. Abstract: Determining group identity in the ancient world, especially when peoples were lumped under the constructs of tribe and ethnicity, was based on point of view, and labeling was a haphazard process. A case in point is the fate of those North African ancient writers called Libyans. Did their descendants become the people Arab writers referred to as Sanhaja and Zanata? Despite a significant degree of cultural discontinuity, the answer seems to be yes. A principal issue is the reliability of sources, which are markedly better for the era of Arab domination than for the ancient period. Piecing together the ethnic history of the ancient world in a systematic way is an impossible mission. One particularly perplexing problem is the fate of groups that lived beyond the bounds of city and empire: hundreds of them come and go in the historical record. We think we know what happened to a few, such as the Franks and the Angles and Saxons. Many others, however, simply disappear from the historical record, presumably the victims of larger or more martial groups, although the disappearance of an entity was more likely to have meant absorption or fragmentation than complete annihilation. 1 Even prominent or notorious peoples came to mysterious ends: the Scythians fade away while the Huns lose their storied warlord and make a precipitous exit. What about the people the Greeks called “Libyans,” and, in particular, those who lived in the Sahara? 2 Were [End Page 459] the Libyans, described by Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E. , the same people Ibn Khaldun wrote about under the name “Sanhaja” almost two thousand years later? Ethnic history rarely provides straight yes and no answers. The indigenous peoples of North Africa appear to go for long intervals with little discernable change. Periodically a metamorphosis occurs, usually accompanying some larger cataclysmic event: the Sahara becomes drier and drier still; the Egyptian Empire to the east, or a millennium later the Roman Empire to the north, or another millennium later the Songhay Empire to the south collapses, reverberating deep into the interior; Islam enters North Africa and makes its way through war and trade to beyond the southern fringe of the desert; the Hilalian Arabs, a new ethnic strain, appear, affecting politics, language, and culture. But is this metamorphosis model illusionary, less the result of some drastic change than of the perspective from which we must observe our subject? We are, after all, viewing this history through portals in time rather than along a continuous pane of glass.
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Used by permission for Bridging World History , 2 The Annenberg Foundation copyright © 2004 Four portals appear over the past four thousand years, each a look at the peoples of North Africa from the outside. The first comes from the Egyptians
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