Martin Bernal
Martin Bernal; drawing by David Levine

Professor Martin Bernal’s first volume of Black Athena, published in 1987, brought him instant fame as a defender of Semitic peoples and cultures against German Aryan-propagandists and other anti-Semites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the same time Bernal became, as he apparently hoped, the chief intellectual antagonist of those who have over the centuries refused to acknowledge the contributions that black Africa has made to the development of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and therefore to European civilization and to the Eurocentric education of Americans. Egypt, as a geographical mediator between Africa and the Mediterranean, was said by Bernal to be both black and Semitic.

That first volume of Black Athena contained some excellent, if brief, nineteenth-century historiography, especially of anti-Semitic German and French scholarship, and sketched the intellectual climate of the several generations between about 1780 and 1940. Professor Bernal was able to select a number of striking quotations from scholars of classical antiquity which might now seem prejudiced, tasteless, laughable, or simply misinformed.

Yet even for eager readers of Black Athena I it was not always easy to understand the nature of the anti-Semitism that so angered Bernal. Friedrich August Wolf, in his Prolegomena to Homer, was charged with representing the Iliad and Odyssey as oral poetry, a “Romantic” sin in Bernal’s view. George Grote influenced the teaching of history unfairly by beginning with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC and thereby excluding the Egyptian and Phoenician contributions to Greek culture in the Bronze Age—though the Bronze Age was not known yet in 1846. Thomas and Matthew Arnold were wrong to admire the classics, and German education, and ought not to have promoted “Victorian Hellenism.” J.B. Bury was at fault when he described the Spartans as refusing to intermarry with their helots, thus keeping their blood “pure.” Carl Blegen was wrong to suggest that Greece and Asia Minor may have shared common place names like Parnassus; he should have looked first to Egypt and Phoenicia. Rhys Carpenter was wrong—and had “sinister” motives—when he suggested that the Greeks did not adopt the Phoenician alphabet before the eighth century BC.

Still, even when they were puzzled, many scholars were attracted to the apparently evenhanded and refreshing survey in Black Athena I, with its often justifiable condemnation of the narrow-minded teaching of the classics that assumed the cultural superiority of the Greeks without reference to Egypt and the East. They waited with anticipation for the second volume, which was to offer the archaeological documentation for the belief that Egypt and the Levant inspired the culture of the Greeks.

Greek culture has often been perceived as “special,” and this has caused resentment in regions of the world whose art and literature and philosophy have not been so acclaimed. Black Athena I was a thoughtful exposé of how eminent German scholars like Wilhelm von Humboldt felt that “the Greeks” were superior: “Knowledge of the Greeks is not merely pleasant, useful or necessary to us—no, in the Greeks alone we find the ideal of that which we should like to be and produce.” The “special relationship” between Germany and Greece led some scholars to hope—and to believe—that the Aryan ancestors of the Greeks had arrived there from the northwest (“somewhere in Germany”), and some to feel that Greek history should be purged of those “darker elements” which might be traced back to the “Orient,” the Phoenicians or Egyptians, and so might stain the purity of the Aryan or Indo-European heritage. That process of historical revision was also matched in the treatment of historic sites. On the Acropolis of Athens, for example, buildings from periods of Slavic, Arabic, Crusader, Venetian, and Ottoman rule, or influence, intervening between the ancient Greeks and the modern Germans, were systematically eradicated—so that contact between the intellectual present and the fifth-century Greek past should find no barrier.1

The archaeological and philological scholars who specialize in ancient Greece made Bernal welcome among them, and debated his theories openly. It is with a slight sense of surprise, then, that we learn in Black Athena II that the entire profession of Bronze Age Aegea and Classical archaeologists is condemned as ignorant, prejudiced, and racist.

Modern archaeologists have been led astray for reasons that can be relatively easily explained in terms of the sociology of knowledge…the desire of the new professionals to appear sober and responsible and not indulge in the spectacular theories to which amateurs are so attracted.

All of us before Bernal have failed to understand the true course of ancient history. At the end of his very long book, he declares, without noticeable modesty, “If a significant quantity of what I claim in this volume is correct, much of contemporary work on the archaeology and ancient history of the East Mediterranean will have to be rethought.”


But is it correct? Or is it, as with Milton’s Lucifer,

But all was false and hollow, though his tongue
Dropp’d manna, and could make the worse appear
The better reason, to perplex and dash
Maturest counsels…
(Paradise Lost II.112)

A great deal is perplexing about this second volume, which claims to offer “the archaeological evidence.” Bernal has done an enormous amount of reading—there are eighty pages of bibliography—but he in fact includes very little standard archaeology, in the sense of reference to excavated evidence, stratification of different civilizations, social organization, or cultural artifacts. There is far more about legends, and linguistics, and revised chronologies. Unfortunately, Bernal handles most of his archaeological discussion by simple assertion.

Bernal, professor of modern Chinese government and politics at Cornell, here claims his own authoritative dominance of the Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Aegean world. That world consists, in archaeological or modern territorial terms, of Egypt, Nubia, the Sudan, the coasts of the Red Sea, Cyrenaica (in modern Libya) and other parts of coastal North Africa, Palestine (Israel and Jordan), Lebanon, Syria, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Cyprus, Crete, Greece, southern Italy, Sicily, and at times also of Malta, Sardinia, and coastal Spain. The period covered is broadly from the Late Stone Age, about 8000 BC (or BCE, or 10,000 BP—before present—if we want to be more politically correct), to the decline of the ancient Bronze Age empires of Egypt, Hittite Anatolia, and Mycenaean Greece between 1200 and 1100 BC.

One might well ask, and many have, what a modern Chinese specialist of great repute is doing in these old Mediterranean civilizations. An answer might be that none of us can afford in these international times to be ignorant or restricted specialists working in such limited cultural spheres as Bronze Age Greece and Crete, or Greece, or Rome. Another, more personal, reason might be that the author’s grandfather was Sir Alan Gardiner, the renowned specialist in the Egyptian scripts and languages, whose dictionary is still in current use.

Bernal, in order to explore the relationships of cultures in the Mediterranean Bronze Age, has concentrated on a largely artificial “conflict” between East and West, and has claimed that those who believed in some kind of natural intellectual and artistic superiority of the Greeks did so because they were racist, probably anti-Semitic. Yet it was the Greeks themselves who first drew a sharp contrast between Asia and Europe, between “Us” in the democratic West and the “Barbarians” in the royal, imperial East. This distinction is clear both in the case of the national poetic myth of the Trojan War, and in the exhilarating climate of the unexpected Greek victories over the invading Persian armies and navies at the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, from 490 to 479 BC.

At first the Greeks—or the southern cities, as opposed to the northern tribes—were simply relieved that they were not to be a part of the Persian Empire after all; then the Athenians began to dream of an empire for themselves, and to act imperially by using their fleet and exacting tribute from others. Then, when that dream turned into a nightmare, by the end of the fifth century, at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars, and Persian gold became a constant “corrupting” element in Greek politics, a new attitude began to coalesce around the theme, perhaps first voiced by Aeschylus in his Persians, that Greeks were naturally superior to Persians because they were intelligent and free and subject only to law, while Persians were enslaved to the Great King who was unaccountable for his actions and could kill or mutilate by whim. It should be noted that this familiar conflict between East and West had nothing at all to do with Semites or Blacks; Greeks and Persians were both Indo-European in their speech, like the Greeks and Trojans who were their original poetic and mythic models.

Professor Bernal began his quest for a “new” interpretation of history by claiming that the East was largely “Semite” and Egypt largely Black, while Greece was the land colonized by both. Scholars who did not accept the important contributions made by Egypt and the East to Greek culture were to be castigated. But scholars have at least two reasons to be indignant about Bernal’s claims. First, no one has ever doubted the Greek debt to Egypt and the East. Schliemann thought he had found a Chinese pot at Troy, and was delighted; Sir Arthur Evans was equally pleased to see “the Libyan codpiece” turn up in Crete, and confidently derived Cretan tholos tombs from stone circles found in modern Libya. (That Libyans build overnight stone circles to restrain their horses even now, and that one of Evans’s Libyan circles is in fact an Italian gun emplacement of World War I, does not erase the open-mindedness of the intellect behind the idea.) Why on earth does Bernal claim that he is the first ever to look to Egypt and the East, when virtually all contemporary scholars have welcomed every new sign of contact, and tried to trace, in the words of the late Egyptologist William Stevenson Smith, “interconnections in the Ancient Near East”?2 The other reason for indignation is the constant perversion of facts in this book, a sad matter from a serious historian.


Professor Bernal believes, or seems to believe, that there is no essential difference between Egyptian culture and language, written in hieroglyphs, and the languages of the ancient Near East, written in cuneiform. Large sections of his book consist of claims that words from one language derive from another. When it is convenient for him, he will also include the language of the Hurrian people in this linguistic melting pot. In the wake of Bernal’s imagined Egyptian conquest of central Greece in the third millennium BC, Thisbe in Greek Boeotia is named for Teshub, the Hurrian storm god. It is not clear how the Hurrian storm god is connected to the invading Egyptians, but there is a great deal that is not clear in Bernal’s second volume; confusion is the cost of reading it.

Bernal adds Berber as an influential ancient language too; he claims a Berber linguistic root for “Atlas, Atlantic”—the word adrar, mountain, which was not attested before the nineteenth century AD, “but there is no reason to suppose that it is not an ancient word.” (By the way, Bernal adds, the Atlantic was also named from the Egyptian itrw, Nile, perhaps used for any large body of water:

Atlantis as a sea could well be the setting of Thera in the Mediterranean, though it is possible that this combined with a vague sense of America beyond the Atlantic Ocean.

“I see no reason why educated Egyptians should not have known of America at the time of Plato in the early 4th century.” The stressed, repeated use of “I” is characteristic of many sentences in this book.)

This indiscriminate use of ancient languages offers to Bernal multiple sources for the etymology of words we used to think of as being Greek. So the psyche, the Greek “breath” or “spirit,” is said to come from the Egyptian sw, a parasol or shelter. The magical winged horse Pegasus is derived from the Egyptian pgw, a jug for washing. This is a sad reduction for those of us who imagined Pegasus pawing in the spring Hippocrene; could he fit his hoof into a washing jug? The Greek god Pan is named for a Nile fish, pa in. It must be said that many of Bernal’s linguistic claims are no more than assertive guesses.

In much the same way, Bernal believes there is no essential difference between Egypt and the kingdoms and city-states of the Near East. This premise would have astonished those Egyptian pharaohs who used to lead their armies against the “wicked Asiatics” across the eastern border. Bernal also believes that Egypt was essentially African, and therefore black. But he does not say what we are to make of the historical accounts of Egyptian pharaohs campaigning against black neighbors to the south, in the Land of Kush, as when Tuthmosis I of Egypt, around 1510 BC, annihilated a black Kushite army at the Third Cataract and came home with the body of a black Kushite prince hanging upside down from the prow of his ship. Perhaps Bernal thinks of this as African tribal warfare.3

Of course there were always Nubians, Sudanese, Kushites traveling in and out of Egypt, serving in the army, occasionally taking power as ruling dynasties; but these men of the upper Nile were normally held to be quite distinct in ethnic background from the Egyptians themselves. Bernal bypasses these facts because he wants Egyptian culture to be an undifferentiated part of African culture. He is well aware—but does not adequately recognize—that the Egyptians regarded their land as being bordered by four neighboring regions: Kush or Nubia to the south, Libya to the west, the Asiatic kingdoms on the east, and the peoples of the isles of the great green, Cretans, other islanders and people of the Greek mainland, as their northern neighbors. These peoples are all painted in Egyptian tombs as being anthropologically distinct and as occupying lands with different natural resources.

As Bernal also knows, the different neighbors are often contrasted with one another in the tombs of the fifteenth century BC, to give a sense of how the peoples on the distant edges of the known world loved to bring different kinds of gifts to a dominant Egypt. The best known pictures are in the tomb of Rekhmire, where the men of Kush from the south, wearing animal-skin loincloths, with short woolly hair, bring as tribute longhorned cattle, hunting dogs, a hobbled giraffe, a leashed baboon and green monkeys or vervets on leading reins, logs of ebony, a cheetah, ostrich eggs in a basket, tusks of elephant ivory, cheetah hides, and gold rings. These men are balanced against the Keftiu men of Crete in the north, in their brilliantly patterned kilts and high boots, long black wavy hair combed in three long strands over each shoulder, who bring gold and silver vases of special ceremonial Cretan shapes, textiles, a sword in its scabbard, and an ingot of copper. The Kushites and the Keftiu represent the south and north poles of the Egyptian world, and are distinguished physically both from each other and from the Egyptians.

Sometimes the men of the upper Nile beyond Egypt’s borders are paired with Asiatics, as on the famous finials of King Tutankhamun’s footstool, or in the tomb of Sobkhote where Semitic envoys bring gold, silver, and blue vases, the gold ones with fantastic wrought flowers above the rims, an eagle’s head rhyton, even a girl-child. These men are a yellow color, and wear long white linen or flax robes with diagonal hems. They are bearded, alternately bald or with long dark hair tied back and pressed down by fillets. They are set off against the men of black Africa who are painted alternately black and brown, since Egyptian painters like to alternate patches of color. They wear giraffe-skin loin-cloths, have short black wiry hair, and bring gold rings, ebony logs, a bunch of giraffe tails to use as fly whisks, a basket of fruit, a leopard skin, a green monkey, and a baboon. In this case the polar contrasts are between the lands to the south and east, not to the south and north.

Professor Bernal conceals such polar pairings; and when he does mention the Keftiu scenes in Egypt he omits the Nubians or men of Kush. He would like the Cretans to be “Syro-Palestinians.” At the same time he leaves out other contacts among the Aegean, Egypt, and black Africa. What about ostrich eggs and ivory, whether African or Syrian, so beloved in the Aegean world? What about the black-painted tribute bearers on the walls of the Mycenaean palace at Pylos or the “Libyan”-faced warrior on the Silver War Krater from the Shaft Graves at Mycenae? What about the lion, borrowed from the Egyptian word for a lion-statue, rw (as opposed to a living lion, ma), vocalized as rewo, already attested as a man’s name in the Linear B tablets of Knossos in Crete, our first “European” Leon? Bernal dismisses the lion in passing. Since he devotes so much space to deriving Greek words from the Egyptian language, how can he largely ignore the role of the heroic lion who fills the Homeric epics, as though Homeric poetry might itself be contaminating to the pure vision of Egyptian influence? I cannot even find a passage of interpretation about the constant visits of the Homeric Greek gods to banquet with the Ethiopians.

The archaeological points that are stressed in his book are hard to assess as pure archaeology. Bernal believes for example that Egyptians conquered the Greek region of Boeotia in the third millennium BC. Is this claim based on the appearance of Egyptian cultural objects in Greek soil? Apparently not; but who needs objects? Instead Bernal mentions the coincidence of names between Egyptian and Boeotian Thebes and cites a flat-topped tumulus at Boeotian Thebes that he believes to derive from stepped pyramids in Egypt, in the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, so that the conquest of central Greece must date to that period. It also reminds him of Silbury Hill near Avebury in England: “The builders of Silbury were aware of the contemporary Egyptian pyramids.” The clinching fact is that Lake Copais in Boeotia was drained in the Bronze Age, and the Egyptians knew all about drainage and irrigation. The complete lack of archaeological evidence for Egyptians having been in Boeotia does not disturb Bernal, because he is dealing only in “competitive plausibilities” and is not deterred by the absence of archaeological artifacts.

The same approach is apparent in his sections on Crete. Once Greece is safely Egyptian, Crete must be Egyptian, too, in Bernal’s view, because Crete had palaces and Egypt had palaces as well. The two sets of palaces are hard to link archaeologically or architecturally (and the Malkata and Amarna Egyptian palaces are not even in Bernal’s index), so it would seem that the Platonic idea of a palace is enough to prove Egyptian conquest. But why is Egypt the model for Crete, and not the Near East, which also had multiple palaces? Because Crete and Egypt shared a special reverence for the sun, for bull cults and bull fights, and King Minos of Crete must be named for the first Egyptian Pharaoh, Mn or Menes. Or perhaps he is named for the lecherous Egyptian bull Min. This creation of fact by assertion will, I hope, be treated skeptically by students.

I am truly sorry that Black Athena II got into print before the news this summer that the Austrian excavators of Avaris in the Nile Delta, the capital town established by the Hyksos invaders of Egypt, found a thousand fragments of Minoan Cretan painted frescoes there.4 And last year the archaeologist W. Niemeier reported the discovery of a painted Minoan floor with flowers, from the sixteenth century BC, at Tell Kabri in Israel. What if the influence should, from Bernal’s point of view, be flowing the wrong way, out of the Aegean world into Egypt? What if Cretan painters were so renowned that Egyptian princes invited them to show them new aspects of palace decoration? It would not be surprising, considering the respect the east and south had for the craftsmen of Crete in a continually interconnected world.

After Crete, the volcanic island of Thera, the southernmost island of the Cyclades, must be drawn into the Egyptian sphere too. Bernal apparently continues to believe that the Bronze Age eruption of Thera—whenever that was, between 1628 and 1500 BC—was a “gigantic event” with repercussions around the world. The eruption of Thera caused dry fog, dimmed sun, cold weather, and failed harvests in China and so, in Bernal’s opinion, precipitated the change from the Xia to the Shang Dynasty.

Perhaps the memory of Exodus was connected too. Bernal writes that scholars disbelieved Leon Pomerance’s idea that this was so only because he was a Jew. Bernal wants to revive the vivid association between the Thera eruption and the biblical “pillar of cloud…by night a pillar of fire” (Exodus 13:21). Now that Bernal has become a high priest of chronology, and can raise dates at will, he reasserts that the link exists and that the eruption must have taken place, in 1628. Still, the biblical account “must have been written many centuries after the event, as it refers to Philistia…at the end of the thirteenth century BC.” Once one starts mingling events in this fashion, in the sphere of oral poetry, why try to claim that one is using archaeological documentation at all? Bernal has indeed blurred the borders of many hard-won distinctions.

Bernal’s argument in Black Athena II reminds one of a gigantic chess game without an opponent; the author places his pieces on the world board where he wishes, not constrained by any rules. Would you like an Egyptian conquest of Anatolia around 1900 BC, and especially of the epic town of Troy? “An Egyptian army, many of whom were Black and led by a prince who was Black—the Deep Southern origin of the 12th-Dynasty pharaohs has been noted—had marched through Anatolia from east to west.” Would you like the Scythians and South Russians to be black? Colchis in the modern Russian Caucasus is the same as Kush south of Egypt, and “there is the tantalizing possibility that the long-standing Black population in the area arose, in part, from [Sesostris’s] army.”

Black Athena II is a whirling confusion of half-digested reading, bold linguistic supposition, and preconceived dogma. Did you ever wonder why there is so much gold and silver in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae? The reason is that the royal persons buried in the Shaft Graves are the refugee “foreign princes” whom the Egyptians called the Hyksos, after the Egyptians threw them out of their foothold in the Nile Delta, from their capital town of Avaris. Evidently they failed to bring a single Egyptian thing with them north to Greece, or at least they dropped their possessions overboard—all but a single scarab in a later tomb—before they got to Greece. As they came, they shifted from being Egyptian Hyksos (“foreign princes”) to being Greek hiketai, “suppliants” (although that word has a well-attested Greek root, hikneomai, hiko, “I arrive as a suppliant after exile or murder”).

How do we know that the royal skeletons in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae are the same as the Hyksos? Bernal denies that archaeological, forensic, or osteological findings would supply the answer; archaeologists are not to get in the way either of legend or of imperial fantasy-chess.

The royalty buried in the Shaft Graves and the other early Mycenaean tombs were Hyksos invaders from Syria, who probably spoke Hurrian and possibly even Indo-Iranian. However, the majority of the ruling class were Levantine Semitic-speakers together with significant numbers of Egyptians and Cretans, most of whom probably spoke a Semitic language themselves…. There were foreign conquerors from Egypt and the Levant ruling parts or all of Greece up to the arrival of the Pelopids from Anatolia…in the case of Thebes the original Phoenician Dynasty survived until the fall of that city in the 13th century.

We are left to conclude that if there are no demonstrably Hyksos objects in the Shaft Grave burials, there should have been. Bernal writes that some of the pieces seem to share the same international language of art that Hyksos art would have had if we knew more about it. How strange it is that these eastern rulers quite forgot their cuneiform or hieroglyphic scripts when they arrived in Greece, and so could no longer communicate with their original lands. Well, almost certainly they used the written alphabet instead, between 1800 and 1400 BC, although no examples of its use would be found for another thousand years. For Bernal to need examples, or physical objects, to support a hypothesis is to commit the archaeological sin known as “positivism”; it must be resisted.

It seems to me to be a shame that a friend of mine so intelligent, sophisticated, cultured, and widely read as Martin Bernal should have been driven, for personal or political reasons, to blame the entire world of classical archaeology for having failed to see that Greek culture was in debt to the older civilizations of Egypt and the East. According to him, “the great Bronze Age cultures of Asia and Africa, upon which not only the techniques but the spirit and reason of Classical civilization depended, were, and had to be, denied.” No serious scholars of antiquity I know of have ever doubted the debt, or the fascination, the Greeks always felt for Egypt and the East. Minoan and Mycenaean painters used Egypt’s palm trees and papyrus plants as a kind of shorthand expression for “exotic paradise overseas.” Classical Greek mercenary soldiers working in Egypt literally belittled what they saw in order to feel more at home with the monumental scale of the land and its buildings; so those huge stone pointed pillars became “obelisks”—“little spits for roasting”—and large angry crocodiles became “scared yellow lizards,” and the ostrich became a sparrow, strouthos.

Back in the Bronze Age there were no national borders, no passports, no strange currencies, no obstacles to unlimited travel and the acquisition of new cultural and artistic experiences, except what lack of language skills or local wars might pose. It was natural for Greeks, like Canaanites, Anatolians, Syrians, Egyptians, Nubians, and Libyans to sail around one another’s shores, exchanging goods and learning new things, marrying one another, telling tales of “multicultural diversity” to the children. The wonderful Kas-Ulu Burun shipwreck recently found off the Lycian shore of Turkey, with the luxuries and medicines and metals from seven cultures aboard only confirms what we have been teaching for years about the kinds of exchange that took place among Bronze Age peoples. (Bernal treats George Bass’s discovery of the wreck patronizingly, as coming from “an unimpeachably gentile source,” which seems to mean that Bass is not Jewish; is racist language making an unfortunate comeback through such expressions?)

Bernal has expended enormous energy on Black Athena, but he is absolutely wrong to say in conclusion, as he does, that he has rewritten the history of the eastern Mediterranean. His blurring of true distinctions, his claims to superior interpretation,5 his painfully jumbled exposition of ideas, his naive belief that every person inside a defined space belonged to a single race or ethnic group, his endearingly childlike faith in the absolute historical value of Greek myths (when the Greeks routinely and sometimes with ironic wit liked to refer to the Egyptians as being older, wiser, more scientific, more medical, more cultivated than themselves and therefore as being “our ancestors, our teacher”) come as a disappointment from such a quick-minded scholar whose “evidence” was so eagerly awaited.

This Issue

March 26, 1992