We Are All Syrians

Links between current heavy immigration to Europe and the Middle-Eastern origin of many Europeans have recently been voiced. Boundaries that are held to exist between the East and the West are questioned, when evidence points to a common genealogical heritage.

The scale of flight from Syria is unprecedented: not because people rarely left the area before, but because of commensurately higher death rates. According to estimates by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of Syrians in 2014 alone who were lost at sea or died reached over 3,500. This exodus is prolonged by civil war,

Cambridge Levant scholar, Professor Tim Whitmarsh, explored the background to this movement in an essay for Aeon. Near Gallipoli, Istanbul, ancient Troy and Athens, and bridging the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas, the Dardanelles strait has been considered the frontier between the European and Asian continents since Roman times. In fact, Whitmarsh argued, it links them together. After all, mythic Europa was a Lebanese woman. Emigration was continuous, due to an ever-growing population in this small area. People who left settled far and wide, a trend continuing today.

Here by the so-called Fertile Crescent, cultures mingled: Mesopotamian, Palestinian, Syrian, Ionian and others. The Persian King Xerxes marched over the Dardenelles to wage an unsuccessful attack on Greece in 480 BCE. Approaching from the opposite direction, the army of Alexander The Great crossed the same Hellespont strip in 334 BCE, diminishing the Persian empire and introducing Greek ways to the Middle East. In the 6th century A.D., Cyrus captured Greek cities on the Anatolian coast, and of course, in the 20th century, the strait was a key site of battle during the First World War.

Such events inspired epics by Homer and other writers. The trope of continental difference may have originated with Herodotus’ recorded categories of political powers active during and preceding his fifth-century lifetime. His geophysical model of the world really only took hold when the Latin-speaking West bigged up this paradigm of separate identity for propaganda purposes. As the borders of these territories frequently shifted, however, inhabitants maintained and shared customs regardless. Ordinary Europeans, Arabs and others lived harmoniously on each side, trading and exchanging news and ideas, in the midst of conflict and change. They went over and back as they wished on the crucial marine passageway used by travellers for millennia.

Professor Whitmarsh also explained that the earliest philosophers spoke Greek but gained much of their knowledge from ancient Babylonian and related cultural thought, especially in the field of astrology. Father of intelligent town-planning, Thales, like Anaximander and Anaximenes after him, came from Miletus, a town on the Anatolian coast about 50km north of Bodrum in Turkey. The sea was the towns-folks’ main source of physical and mental sustenance, not an obstacle at all.

From the same town, Milesians purportedly played a founding role in the history of Ireland. When researching part of my family tree, I discovered that a sixteenth-century ancestor, Geoffrey O’ Donoghue, who was a local ruler and lived in a castle, left behind sophisticated poetry with historical references. He mentioned “Cinel Fineen”. Use of Cinel, an alternative Irish word for clan, meaning family, died out centuries ago but can be found in the records of monks from the time of Saint Patrick in the fifth century. Even before Christianity came, King Cormac Mac Airt ordered histories of Ireland to be composed, resulting in the third-century Psalter Of Tara, the ninth-century Psalter Of Cashel, and others.

The most important compilation of such documents posits Eibhear as the father of the Irish. Geoffrey’s poems similarly referred to “ancient Eibhear’s fierce race”. Undertaken by the Franciscan monk scribe, Michael O’ Clery, the Annals of the Four Masters were initially entitled, Annala Rioghacta Eireann, meaning, The Annals of the Kingdoms of Ireland. O’ Clery stated that he assembled the Irish Genealogies “from the ancient and approved chronicles, records, and other books of antiquity”, after combing the country for sixteen years. Trained to memorise hereditary lineages with precision, the filidh, or poets, would have been of immense assistance to him.

Most ambitiously, and in keeping with the comprehensive Biblical style, the monk started with Adam. Before long, at number 36, a descendent of the first man sailed to Ireland. This one was confusingly identified as King Mileseus, an Iberian refugee. It was said that a vision of Ireland as his promised land inspired the expedition. Contemporaneous with Solomon, and married to Scotia, an Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter, this king may have already taken the popular route of immigrants from Syrian regions to Iberia. As mentioned, Middle-Eastern people have been journeying to Mediterranean parts of Europe from time immemorial.

In one version the strange king survived the first landing but his uncle was murdered; in others he himself was killed by the presiding Tuatha De Danann, when Scotia and his sons went back and returned with an army to avenge his death. Outside Tralee today, road-signs point to her grave in Foley’s valley, buried where she fell during the Battle of Slieve Mish. Scotland bears her name, as Ireland did frequently in early maps and Latin reports.

One of the eight royal sons was called Heber, or in Irish, Eibhear. It was he who purportedly overthrew the Irish leadership in 1699 B.C.E. and reigned with his two surviving brothers, Heremon, and Amergin, a druid, until executed after quarrelling with them. From this line sprang hundreds of Irish family names, including my ancestor’s name, O’ Donoghue. Historians have dismissed the veracity of such accounts of events in Ireland prior to the fifth century, but these legends may not be entirely far-fetched, given research carried out by geneticists in Trinity College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast.

Published in December 2015 in the international journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A, the report discusses the sequencing performed on the genomes of Bronze-Age bodies in Ireland four to five thousand years old. The research unequivocally confirms the phenomenon of massive migration in that era. The farmer studied who lived over 5,000 years ago displayed direct Middle-Eastern ancestry. Bodies inspected from about 1,000 years later illustrated that about one third of their genetic inheritance derived from the Pontic Strip???, which is located in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey.

These findings have answered questions about the movement of races that long perplexed academics. While a preponderance of the insular Celtic genome, shared with Welsh and Scottish people, was noted, the research head, Dan Bradley, felt confident enough to state:

“There was a great wave of genome change that swept into Europe from above the Black Sea into Bronze Age Europe and we now know it washed all the way to the shores of its most westerly island, and this degree of genetic change invites the possibility of other associated changes, perhaps even the introduction of language ancestral to western Celtic tongues.”

Using maps, cartography enthusiast Frank Jacobs demonstrated for Big Think the gradual push of people from the Fertile Crescent across Europe. Learning how to subsist around the Nile and Euphrates, in what was then Mesopotamia, meaning ‘land between rivers’, early hunter-gatherers pushed out gradually into new territory and eventually spread through Europe, South Asia and North Africa. The Atlantic fringe of land that remained free from their influence longest, containing Ireland, was finally occupied about 450 generations ago.

Jacobs describes how a similar process started when people in the Fertile Crescent began to practice agriculture. Repeating previous incursion routes, they travelled, bringing farming methods with them, instituting this new way of life wherever they went. Ultimately, the blood of these ancient adventurers flows in large elements of modern-day native populations settled in the vast extent of lands they reached. They eventually moved again, to places like Australia and America, in a continuous trend. Analysis of teeth and bones of medieval workers in London revealed that most were migrants.

Fred Pearce’s 2015 book, Why Invasive Species will be Nature’s Salvation, argues that the standard animosity towards the introduction of new non-endemic species of plants and animals in the natural world is misplaced, as many supposedly local plants and animals actually came from somewhere else. A case in point is a staple crop in Ireland – potatoes, first grown there in the late sixteenth century when Walter Raleigh brought them back from America. What surrounds us are ‘melting pot landscapes’, according to Christian Kull. Such exchanges and the mobility of species have prevailed as the long-term norm, with responses to opportunity and resistance similarly reflected in the movement of human groups.

Human beings share over 90 per cent of genes with other living matter. Our species evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago, and were gradually dispersed over every continent except Antarctica, by about 10,000 B.C. Every modern person is no less than 99.9 per cent genetically identical to anyone else. Rather than creating distinct racial groups, it seems that genetic differences usually vary smoothly simply with distance, as people adapted to new environment.

Genetic testing frequently debunks pseudoscience. It indicates ancestry from archaic humans such as Neonderthal and Denisovan man. It traced the most recent common matrilineal ancestor of all contemporary humans to about 150,000 years ago, much earlier than Biblical theories make out. Syrian, Danish, Australian, Kenyan, Cuban, or Scottish, our overlapping heritage argues for peaceful co-existence in a small world.

Caroline Hurley lives in Ireland.