The history of the world has been explained from almost every angle imaginable. Through their battles, conquests, technological advances, the evolution of trade and even the way to measure time. Panoramic visions in which flesh and blood people are often distant. At the same time, there are endless biographies of the great people who have written history, very detailed, but often very intimate. Is it possible to find a middle way between aerial vision and vision at ground level? Is there any unexplored agent that serves to explain the thousands of years of human history in its different civilizations throughout the globe and throughout the ages?
Although in recent decades it has not had the best publicity: perhaps the answer could be the family. A story of the world told through their families, especially the powerful ones. The Medici and the Trumps. The Kennedys and the Habsburgs. The Fujiwara and the Muhammad dynasty. Or Genghis Khan, his inveterate alcoholic sons, and his sexual war: the nomads considered their conquests total and included possessing the enemy’s women; today DNA tests show that millions of people are descended from a single ancestor who traveled throughout Asia at that time, probably Genghis Khan himself, literally the father of Asia.
“Mohammed’s family is the most fascinating; still rules in Jordan, almost 1,500 years later”, recalls Sebag Montefiore
Not all families are so large, but from time immemorial monarchs carried out marriage policies. Alexander the Great already did it, as the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore recalls in the monumental essay The world. A history of families (Criticism). “He decided to merge the elites of his new empire – the Macedonian and the Persian – in a massive multicultural wedding. During a three day party she married a hundred couples. Alexander married the daughter of Darius, the young Stateira, and Parysatis, daughter of Artaxerxes III. He was forging a world dynasty.” Except that, after his death, his first wife, the Bactrian Roxana, pregnant and convinced that she would have a boy, and knowing that Stateira was also pregnant, invited the Persian princesses and poisoned them. Later she and her son would be killed.
“Families mean hybridization, connections, intimacy, biology, business. And through them all the great themes of history can be addressed”, sums up Sebag Montefiore, of Sephardic Jewish origin and who in his book devotes ample space to Spain, about which, he acknowledges, in England “the black legend survives: Many people believe that Felipe II is bad and Isabel I is good”. Regarding the Catholic Monarchs, he points out that “faith was really their center; they were very pious, believers in the end of the world, the second coming, the apocalypse, the return of the sleeping king, the reconquest of Jerusalem. They lived in a world that was a combination of today’s Catholicism and messianic myths in which they believed and for which they worked, you have to understand them from there”. If one believes that they were skilled, the portrait of Columbus is terrible, “determined to make a fortune, nicknamed Pharaoh by his subordinates, susceptible and narcissistic tyrant”, a slaveholder who admitted to pedophilia in the colonies.
And he insists that a history from the point of view of families shows that “there are no pure nations, everything is hybridization, the whole world is the result of a mixture.” Even sometimes in families, love is decisive, as in Mark Antony and Cleopatra, “although it did not last long”, and instead the Chinese Empress Cixi, a Manchu, is willing to sacrifice -beheading him and exhibiting him naked-, due to a mistake of protocol indicated by other princes, to the young and sensitive eunuch with whom she has fallen in love, An Dehai.
Although for the historian the family of the Prophet Muhammad is fascinating: “He conquered the entire Arab world and changed the globe more radically than any other man and his family, who ruled through three enormous dynasties, the Umayyads, the Abbasids and the Fatimids, and they still rule Jordan today, 1,500 years later. The Sunni-Shia divide is a family fight for power.” Also, he confesses, he is fascinated by the Herods of Judea who built the temple on the mount, and the Romanovs.
“Putin is fascinated by his empire, and that is very important in the Ukraine war. The Romanovs are one of the most successful families of modern times. They increased the empire 54 square miles a day for 300 years. Lenin and Stalin continued it. Stalin increased it further, took Eastern Europe, part of Germany; he was the most successful Romanov tsar. And partly he looked like one. When the British ambassador congratulated him on taking Berlin, he said, yes, but Alexander I took Paris. Putin could say so, only he hasn’t taken anything so far. He is very obsessed with Ukraine and Crimea, conquered by Catherine and Potemkin. He has taken Potemkin’s body from the Ukraine to Russia.
Today, he points out, “there is a dynastic resurgence, the Philippines, Bangladesh, led by the founder’s sister and where people disappear, albeit with economic success. In those countries, family and dynasties are important, people trust the clan more than the state.” And he concludes that a family today, the Kim of North Korea, “with its atomic bomb, is perhaps more powerful than any other in history, and it is hereditary. They are like the Ptolemies or the Herods, two thousand years ago, killing their family, but also modern. Dynastic instincts with new technology, and one doesn’t necessarily modernize the other.”