I attended English boarding-schools from 1919 to 1928, aged eight to 18. I there learned that, despite the slaughterhouse of the 1914-1918 War, European civilisation was without any question the greatest that had ever existed. It derived from the Glory that was Greece and the Grandeur that was Rome, but it was not to be thought of as, in any significant sense, a Mediterranean civilisation: it had been the creation of fair-skinned Europeans who spoke a variety of Indo-European languages akin to Persian and Sanskrit. It was recognised that there had been earlier 'archaic' civilisations based in Egypt and the Levant and Mesopotamia, but that was something quite other. A sort of Mason-Dixon line was believed to run from Tunis (Carthage) in the west to Rhodes in the east, skirting round to the south of Crete. Everything to the north was European and White; everything to the south was Black or Semitic. Since the first millennium BC everything that had ever come out of Egypt or Palestine or Arabia was utterly contemptible. That was what we learned on weekdays: on Sundays Palestine became the Holy Land and St Paul's misadventures in Asia Minor and Italy were given great prominence. But the fact that Jesus Christ was a Jew or that St Augustine might well have looked like Colonel Gadaffi was carefully concealed.
LRB 2 April 1987 | PDF Download