The Center of the Earth in Ancient Thought
Walter de Gruyter
Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History
Throughout the annals of history, many societies have imagined that places integral to their religious, political, or cultural life should be considered “centers.” These centers are often represented by symbolic constructions, mythologies, and ideological statements. In many cases, notions of centrality are accompanied by claims that a particular space should be considered the “center” or “middle” of the earth; in the Classical World, such a place may also be referred to as the “navel of the earth,” with the omphalos connected to the oracle at Delphi being the example par excellence. Yet Delphi did not hold a monopoly on Classical notions of centrality. From the archaic period to Late Antiquity, critical responses to Delphi emerged, sparking the appearance of other, competing, centers throughout the Mediterranean. New centers show striking similarities to one another in their associated ideologies, physicality, and mythography, and could be represented through programmatic cartographic, literary, and architectural statements. Regardless of the medium, all avenues of representation are indicators of the myriad ways in which these societies understood their physical and metaphorical place in relation to other civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean. This paper will argue that, through intense cultural contact, societies of the ancient world created imagined centers as a direct—and oftentimes competitive—response to other imagined centers in the Mediterranean, and beyond. All of these reconfigurations and manipulations of fictional and real space can be associated with fundamental shifts in the socio-cultural operations of the society in which the new “center” appears.