5 History myths you probably believe

Parisa Hashempour 21 September 2021

There are a lot of historical myths which are widely accepted, so read on to see them get busted

There’s a lot you can get wrong about history, because, frankly, there’s a lot of ground to cover. In order to find out the biggest myths Britain’s historians would most like to bust, we asked the experts about the largest misconceptions they face when it comes to unpacking the past. Here is what they had to say:

The longest ancient wall is the Great Wall of China (—it’s not Hadrian’s Wall either)

Great Wall of China

Dr Eve MacDonald, Cardiff University lecturer:

'Most people don't know that the longest ancient frontier wall was built by the Sasanians. It was called The Great Wall of Gorgan and it was longer than Hadrian's Wall. Many also don’t realise that The Great Wall of China is a later, medieval, construction.

The Sasanians built what was known as ‘The Red Snake’ across the plains from the Caspian Sea to the mountains in Turkmenistan to keep out the Huns—it was a pretty epic wall!

In fact, most people have never even heard of the Sasanian Empire. The last of the pre-Islamic empires of Iran, it was a massive geopolitical entity that spanned from the Euphrates River in the west to the Indus in the east, from the Caucasus Mountains in the north and the Arabian Peninsula in the south.

In total, it lasted from the third century AD to the seventh century AD. Sasanian glass was prized all across the old 'silk routes' and remnants of it can be found in China, Japan and even in Scotland.”

The crusades brought only a clash of civilisations

Crusades

Professor Iftikhar Malik, Bath Spa University professor:

“The media forms many of our stereotypes and when we think of the Islamic world, many think of the conflicts in Palestine or Afghanistan. But historically, Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities have often come together and learned from one another.

The crusades went on for centuries and when talking about it, we only talk about conflict. However, first-hand accounts from Adelard, a philosopher from Bath who underwent extensive travel throughout the Muslim world at that time, describes how friendly and openly accessible the people were.

"Historically, Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities have often come together and learned from one another"

He was the first philosopher to study in Syria around 1000 years ago and even brought the numeral zero back with him, taking it from Arabic. The arch we see in the churches and Gothic buildings in Europe were also techniques that were introduced from the Middle East.

So even architecture we hold as strictly European, medieval, Gothic architecture such as Salisbury Cathedral or Wells Cathedral may have connections with architectural traditions of the Middle East, and that happened because of the Crusades.”

British history is the history of white people

Holly White, history teacher in Manchester:

Britain is an island which people of all ethnicities have flowed through for thousands of years. During the Roman times, there was an influx of North African migration to the UK (this has been proven through excavations such as ‘ivory bangle lady’); there were black Tudors who were not necessarily subservient to their white contemporaries, many having more rights than the villein class of the times.

Even the Chartists had a prominent black member, William Cuffay, a free man who lost his life in a Tasmanian workhouse to fight for the rights of free men. Ignorance towards these histories alienates people from the subject. History in high schools is especially criticised for its lack of diversity. Focusing on old, white men does little to engage a diverse student body. When history is relatable, it instantly becomes more accessible.”

History can’t harm people living in the present

Rianna Price, PhD candidate and University of Lancaster lecturer:

“Many believe that the past is not connected to the present, or that perhaps there is some sort of cut-off date where the past becomes history and no longer impacts our lives. But as I see in my work, the impact of colonialism was—and still is—significant, both in the UK and India.

People like to think that because India gained independence in 1947 that somehow the connection was severed. In fact, it is crucial to understand the role imperialism played in the creation of laws, medical institutions and attitudes, as some of them still stand today.

People often misrepresent queer history in India, saying that same-sex behaviour was never part of the ‘Indian’ tradition, culture or religion. But there are diverse cultures, traditions, and religions in India, and there is a large body of evidence directly refuting these claims. In misunderstanding Indian history, deliberately or not, a culture where queerness is denied legitimacy is created. When you combine that with repressive laws, it can cause actual harm to the contemporary LGBTQIA+ community in India.”

Nationalism is a feeling

Dr Arun Kumar, Assistant Professor at Nottingham University:

“Unlike many emotions that inhabit us such as, love, jealousy or sadness, the feeling of nationalism is a social and historical construct and a recent addition to the list of feelings.

Nationalism was invented by states and political apparatus in the 18th and 19th centuries with the help of maps, newspapers and magazines, allowing people to read the same news, and technologies such as railways and the telegraph which facilitated easy travel beyond one’s village.

"To turn an abstract idea of the geographical space of a nation into a feeling, it also needed enemies, both internal and external"

To turn an abstract idea of the geographical space of a nation into a feeling, it also needed enemies, both internal and external.

Thus, it has not been uncommon for countries to have their enemies—the enemy nation or the internal enemy (always to be defeated, suppressed, or crushed) exists in the imagination of the national people. It could be the imagination of India—Pakistan, North Korea—South Korea, Aryan race—Jews, Hindu—Muslims and so on. The feeling of nationalism feeds on these binaries and, when celebrated without scrutiny, could turn negative and produce violence.”

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