Boring histories



David Whitley takes a look at why the history of some countries and cultures is far more fascinating than that of others


On the whole, I like learning about things. History fascinates me; I love discovering how the events of the past tie together. You tend to understand a place a whole lot better when you know something about what’s happened there. A recent trip to Serbia offered a great example of this. Many see the Balkan Wars of the 1990s as a fairly simple case of Serb bad, everyone else good. But it’s far, far more complicated than that. When you start discovering how many times the Balkan Peninsula has been a battleground between east and west and how different areas have been shifted to someone else’s patch, the whole sorry mess strikes home. Centuries of being on different sides and suffering various despicable crimes at the hand of the other party has turned people who are essentially the same against each other.  


Every snippet you learn about World War II, the Ottoman Empire, seemingly irrelevant 16th century battles and various religious schisms adds to a picture of why life is like it is today. The same seems to apply in everything I discover about Australia and the United States. Australia’s twin convict and Aboriginal histories are unbelievably fascinating once you start tucking in, whilst the development of the US since Columbus arrived is brilliant patchwork of joined dots. But some history, I find really rather dull. And I think I’ve worked out why. 


The temples at Angkor in Cambodia are undeniably solid gold spectacular. As works of art and construction, they are utterly magnificent. I could happily wander around them, soaking them in for hours. All the explanations about which king and which dynasty they were built under bored me, however. It was a long list of names and slightly different artistic styles. But I felt bad for not caring. It was history – why didn’t I care? I felt the same thing with the Mayan temples in Guatemala and Mexico; loved looking at them, fascinated by how long they’ve been there; deadened by explanations of which dynasty built it and who they were fighting. So is it simply a case of being more interested in modern history than ancient history? Or European history than Asian or Central American history? Well, not really; the Vikings and Romans grip me, as does the backstory of the Middle East.


I suspect Japan’s history would be hugely interesting if I knew more about it too. But differences between various South African tribes? Not so much. Thinking about this, it’s not really history that I’m interested in at all. It’s the present. I like knowing what makes a place tick, what its foibles are and how everything interlocks with each other. Often, the past is vital to understanding this. And when it is, I find myself with a yearning to learn about that past. But sometimes, the past seems so far detached from the present that it really doesn’t have that much impact. Modern Cambodia’s story really isn’t all that tightly linked to the Angkor era, Ancient Mayan kingdoms don’t seem to make much difference to how Mexico operates. 


It sounds awful to say it, but in many places the present-day story starts when the Europeans arrived. Is that an Anglo-centric viewpoint? Probably. Is it incorrect? Possibly. But I just can’t find the coherent links. And, sadly, that means I’m not as interested in knowing the story.   Do certain types of history interest you more than others? 


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