The Ancient Near East in Brazil and Argentina From the Origins of Research to the Present

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By: Josué Berlesi

Brazil and Argentina are not the first places you think of for ancient Near Eastern studies. But the story of ancient Near Eastern studies in these places is both interesting in its own right and says important things about education and culture in these countries.

There are similarities between the discipline in these two countries but their differences are tremendous and are related to the larger history of academic institutions. Argentina’s academic tradition is far longer and more solid than Brazil’s. The first Brazilian university (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) was created only in 1920, while the oldest in Argentina, the University of Cordoba, was founded in 1613.

Berlesi_Cordoba-derecho

Former Rectory, University of Cordoba (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cordoba-derecho1.JPG)

Unfortunately, there are few sources to investigate the development of ancient Near Eastern studies in these two countries. But this also says something about the important differences between the two. In Brazil there are useful articles about the development and the present situation of the discipline of ancient history, but these are rarely found in Argentina. Why? In my opinion the abundance of sources in Brazil is an attempt to bring visibility to an area that has been given little space in most Brazilian universities. In contrast, ancient history has been more successful in Argentina, where it has been solidly represented since the second half of the twentieth century. The need for acknowledgement is therefore lower.

But both countries are indeed similar in another respect: most historic and archeological research carried out is concerned with the national past. Scholars from both countries are often asked: Why study the ancient Near East? Such questions are posed as if knowledge were not universal, as if Latin Americans should only study aspects of their own countries, or even as if there a hierarchy of knowledge where the regional past is more important than foreign history.

The study of ancient history appeared almost simultaneously in the 1950s in both countries. Yet, in Brazil, since the beginning there has been emphasis on classical Greece and Rome while in Argentina studies of the ancient Near East have prevailed. Indeed, interest in ancient Near Eastern societies existed even outside of academia in Argentina.

One of the first books on the ‘Argentinean orientalism’ was written by the Catholic priest Julian Toscano, who went to Palestine in 1908 with a group of Argentinean pilgrims to visit biblical sites. In the early twentieth century two European Egyptologists visited Argentina, Alexandre Moret of France and Jean Capart from Belgium, who sponsored conferences and analyzed Egyptian museum pieces. In 1941, as a result of an initiative by Argentinean ambassador Jorge Gaston Blanco Villalta, the Instituto Argentino de Estudios Orientales was founded. By the end of the 1950s, the Instituto de Egiptología de la Argentina was created to promote the study of Ancient Egypt.

In academia, ancient Near Eastern research took an important step in the early 1960s with the creation of the Centro de Estudios de Historia Antigua Oriental in the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras of the University of Buenos Aires. In 1972, the Centro de Estudios was converted into Instituto de Historia Antigua Oriental and published the Revista del Instituto de Historia Antigua Oriental, the first academic journal devoted to ancient Near Eastern studies in the country. The first Argentinean journal of Egyptology, Aegyptus Antiqua, was launched in 1974. These and other organizations promoted interest and study and contributed to the creation of research libraries.

Study of the ancient Near East in Argentina was introduced by Professor Abraham Rosenvasser, who started teaching ancient history at the University of Buenos Aires in 1956. Other institutes were created during the 1960s, such as the Escuela de Estudios Orientales at the Universidad del Salvador and more recently the Centro de Estudios de Historia del Antiguo Oriente at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina. As we can see, themes related to the ancient Near East have been studied both inside and outside the academy for decades. This historical basis has favored an important updating of contents and has consolidated a group of remarkable professionals that have studied the subject in several regions over the country. At present, doctoral studies in these fields can be taken in several Argentinean universities.

The Brazilian situation is quite different. Classical research was introduced by Professor Euripedes Simoes de Paula at Universidade de São Paulo during the 1950s. Research was characterized by great erudition, but the field acquired the image of elitism. Beyond that, research did not address theoretical issues and had a distinct positivist bias. Some Brazilians left the country during the 1960s and 1970s, notably Professors Milton Schwantes and Emanuel Bouzon. After returning to Brazil, they helped develop biblical and Mesopotamian studies, respectively.

Military rule from 1964 to 1985 created a delicate situation for the study of ancient history in Brazil. At the peak of the political radicalization that characterized the university movement against the dictatorship, the collaboration of some professors with the government contributed to the association of the study of ancient societies with right-wing political thought. This strengthened prejudice against the field. Historians were expected to become involved with themes related to the national political situation, and those who opted for ancient history were mislabeled as reactionary.

An important change has occurred since the 1980s with regard to studies of the ancient Near East. Ancient history has begun to move away from a positivist bias and theoretical issues have been discussed, sometimes following the international debate about specific themes. One of the main sponsors was Professor Ciro Cardoso, who returned to Brazil after being exiled and began teaching at the Universidade Federal Fluminense. The rehabilitation of the field is remarkable, and researchers at outstanding universities have enabled a new stage of expansion at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Teaching of ancient Near Eastern history, more in Argentina than in Brazil, is mainly concentrated in undergraduate disciplines in history and archeology courses. Archeology still awaits advancement in both countries and has yet to challenge the regionalist logic found in that discipline. Archeologists working on the ancient Near East are rare in both countries. There are some historians involved with archeological research but they do not have formal training.

Gradually, research into ancient Israelite society has also appeared; it is still the focus of professionals in the field of theology. Here, another important difference between the South American academic tradition and the European and North American traditions can be noticed. Both in Brazil and in Argentina, theology is still seen in academia as a pariah; for instance, it has not been included either in public universities or in any of the most important universities. The reason for theology’s marginalization is not clear.

Finally, it is worth noting that Egypt and Mesopotamia have been the main study topics when it comes to the ancient Near East. Both in Brazil and in Argentina, there are specialists in these areas, but Argentina is in a better position, since at least three universities have consistently carried out studies of these societies, with collective research projects being supported by resources provided by national sponsoring agencies. There are two dedicated academic organizations that produce specialized publications while there are no publications of this kind in Brazil. In Brazil, the first steps have been taken towards formation of professional organizations devoted exclusively to ancient Near Eastern studies.

In Argentina, researchers have enjoyed better international visibility. This is reflected, for instance, in the presence of foreign experts who often visit Argentina to participate in academic events and share their research. In Brazil, until recently, the ancient Near East was almost an orphan; it was difficult to obtain specialized literature in Portuguese and until 2009 Professor Ciro Cardoso was the only professional able to guide this kind of research. Now, two other faculty members are able to guide research, and larger number of students have become interested. The future for ancient Near Eastern Studies in both Argentina and Brazil is brighter than ever.

Josue Berlesi is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Buenos Aires and Professor of Ancient History at the Federal University of Para – Campus Cameta.


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