International Relations in the Ancient and Modern Worlds

The Dialogue of Civilizations conference sets out to examine the origins, developments, interactions, and declines of five great ancient civilizations and see what lessons can be drawn for civilizations today.

The inaugural event was held in 2013 in Guatemala with this year’s taking place in Turkey. Not only did it provide a second opportunity to examine the cultures of the past, but it gave a first opportunity to compare those of the present (read all related posts).

While modern reconstruction has given more definition to parts of this temple at Tikal, Guatemala, the monumental structure itself has stood for more than a millennium. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)
The 2013 Dialogue of Civilizations culminated in a site visit to and academic discussion at the ruins of Tikal. (Photo by Andrew Howley/NGS)

The World Today

In addition to the archaeologists (many of whom have received research and exploration grants from the National Geographic Society), each year other scholars and thinkers from the host country also participate and give presentations from their perspective.

In Guatemala the takeaway message seemed to be a desire for the descendants of a great ancient civilization to enter more actively into the world dialogue today. In Turkey, still not far from the days of the Ottoman Empire, it was for the civilizations already on the world stage to make that dialogue more active.

Prof. Li Liu describes the similarities between ancient and modern symbols in Chinese writing. (Photo by Chris Thornton)
Prof. Li Liu describes the similarities between ancient and modern symbols in Chinese writing. (Photo by Chris Thornton)

The World Long Ago

For the ancient civilizations, in each of the presentation sessions, certain points rose to the fore and seemed to illustrate key points and questions about them.

In the session on the Neolithic Revolution and the rise of farming, two key points were made. Willeke Wendrich of UCLA focuses on Egypt. She has found that the rise of farming there coincided with a climatic warm period that made agriculture easy. By the time the climate cooled again, people were hooked on the convenience and other benefits of agriculture, and thus began the more labor intensive dedication to farming. The example and question here was, in what ways is our current civilization adapted to conditions that could change dramatically and uncontrollably, leaving us reeling as we deal with being committed (or addicted) to the way things are now?

Rakesh Tewari, former director of State Archaeology Department of Government of Uttar Pradesh, India, pointed out that rice agriculture has now been shown to have developed in the Ganges Plain at the same time as rice cultivation in China. People in the past assumed it must have happened once and spread everywhere. He replies that the use of different strains of wild rice, and of different levels of cultivation in the lands between China and India argue convincingly that the great innovation occurred multiple times in multiple places. In the context of the dialogue of civilizations, this raises the point that similarities between cultures don’t always indicate a shared heritage or a single starting point.

Write and Wrongs

There was also a session on the invention of written language. Here, Oswaldo Chinchilla of Yale University pointed out how remarkable it is that we know what we do of the Maya language. Ancient monuments are today the greatest record, but most of what had been written was in books, not on walls, and those books were almost all destroyed during and after the Spanish conquest of the 1500s.

The Dresden Codex was copied as seen here by Alexander von Humboldt and published in 1810. (Photo credit Creative Commons)
The Dresden Codex was copied as seen here by Alexander von Humboldt and published in 1810. (Photo credit Creative Commons)

Today, one of the best surviving examples of this ancient writing is housed in Germany and known as the Dresden Codex. Chinchilla noted that when it was loaned to Guatemala, it represented an unexpected benefit of dialogue between civilizations. While Europeans had burned most of the record, maintaining dialogue despite historic conflicts and wrongs allowed for the future recovery of precious cultural knowledge.

Neolithic, Not Monolithic

Recent discoveries about the origin of writing in both the ancient Maya and Chinese civilizations point to the diversity of symbol making at the earliest stages. There are early Maya style characters seen throughout Mesoamerica dating from 900 BC to about 200 AD which show general similarities in form, but are not recognizable as the same system entirely.

Li Liu from Stanford University described how turtle bones used for oracle reading and bronze ceremonial vessels from 1000 BC contain symbols recognizable to readers of modern Chinese. While this is relatively late for the development of writing, it is notable for being the only major writing form still in common use today.

Still, while there are a few recognizable symbols in artifacts dating from the Shang dynasty, there are other symbols from the Jiangsu and Nandang cultures (1900-1800 BC) which are very different from the oracle bones and modern characters. There are other distinct and unrecognizable symbols from other sites throughout China.

And then again, there is pottery from Taosi, a walled settlement in Shanxi from 2500-2000 BC with an inscription almost identical to that on a later oracle bone meaning “writing, script, character.”

All this shows that in the earliest times in writing as in plant domestication, there were many experiments and innovations going on. Some continued through the modern era, some were absorbed into the developments of other civilizations, and some simply died out.

“So to summarize,” Chinchilla had said about the Maya, “we have several regions participating from very early times.” In other words the Dialogue of Civilizations is nothing new, and even during the origins of ancient civilizations, diversity and interaction played key roles in the development of all cultural outputs.

Turkey as a Crossroads

The conference this year was put on with the support and contribution of the Alliance of Civilizations under the auspices of Prof. Bekir Karlığa, a group started by Turkey and supported by Spain and other nations to establish a new context for international dialogue. It was inspired by the region’s history of being at a major crossroads of civilizations, whether Neolithic and Hunter-Gatherer, Greek and Persian, or pagan, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish.

The Dialogue of Civilizations 2014 banner featured images from across Turkey and around the world. (Photo courtesy Civilization Studies Center, Bahçeşehir University)
The Dialogue of Civilizations 2014 banner featured images from across Turkey and around the world. (Photo courtesy Civilization Studies Center, Bahçeşehir University)

Archaeologist Kutalmış Görkay had spoken about the city of Zeugma, founded by Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus, then expanded during the Roman era, but always maintaining healthy communities of various cultures, Latin, Greek, and Syrian, as evidenced in the integrated style of mosaics in burials in the area.

This city was part of the Commogene kingdom, whose great king Antiochos had built a pantheon of giant statues of the gods (and himself) atop Mount Nemrut. With inscriptions identifying each statue as a god by many names used across East and West, he also stationed them on two sides of the mountain, facing towards both East and which his family traced their origins through mother and father respectively.

While all cultures have their periods of greater and lesser inclusiveness and peaceful coexistence, it appeared that the scholars here prided themselves on Turkey at its most diverse and inclusive, and that that is the attitude they are focusing on developing though the Alliance of Civilizations.

Unfinished sculptures from the Hittite empire c. 1300 B.C. still stand on the grassy hill of Yesemek, Turkey. As cultures today straddle worlds and must work together, these two ancient gods stand between craft and nature, past and present. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Continuing the Dialogue

The goal of the Dialogue of Civilizations is to bring together scholars of different civilizations of the past to see what lessons they can draw and offer for civilizations today. Engaging the public through attendance at the live events and online through these posts and the conversation on Twitter using #5civilizations, it aspires to also bring the past more into people’s everyday lives.

Hearing presenters speak about actively considering their role in international relationships showed just how timeless and universal the experiences and concerns of civilizations are.

Read All Dialogue of Civilizations Posts

Changing Planet


Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.