New College of the Humanities

Rashid al-Din: The First Universal Historian

J.J. Saunders describes how a Persian servant of the Mongol Khans wrote the first truly global history.

Statue of Rashid-al-Din Hamadani in Iran.
Statue of Rashid-al-Din Hamadani in Iran. By Mardetanha. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One of the persistent legends of Western as distinct from histories of particular states and historiography is that Europeans were the nations. Herodotus wrote about Persians and first to conceive of a history of the world Egyptians and Scythians as well as about Greeks; Polybius surveyed the past of the Mediterranean world when it had been unified politically by the arms of Rome; and then, after long centuries, a global view embracing distant China was attained in the age of the Enlightenment by men like Voltaire and Gibbon. Yet however close these writers might come to the idea of world history, what they wrote was Europe- or Mediterranean-centred history, a limitation not surprising in view of the fact that Europe was so long the focus of world power.

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