As the birthplace of three religions as and many civilizations, the Middle East has for centuries been a center of knowledge and ideas, of techniques and commodities, and, at times, of military and political power. With the histoical—and still growing—importance of the Middle East in modern politics, historian Bernard Lewis’s cogent and scholarly writing brings a wider understanding of the cultures of the region to a popular audience.
In this immensely readable and broad history, Lewis charts the successive transformations of the Middle East, beginning with the two great empires, the Roman and the Persian, whose disputes divided the region two thousand years ago; the development of monotheism and the growth of Christianity; the astonishingly rapid rise and spread of Islam over a vast area; the waves of invaders from the East and the Mongol hordes of Jengiz Khan; the rise of the Ottoman Turks in Anatoia, the Mamluks in Egypt and the Safavids in Iran; the peak and decline of the great Ottoman states; and the changing balance of power between the Muslim and Christian worlds.
Within this narrative, Lewis details the myriad forces that have shaped the history of the Middle East: the Islamic relgion and legal system; the traditions of government; the immense variety of trade and the remarkably wide range of crops; the elites—military, commercial, religious, intellectual and artistic—and the commonality, including such socially distinct groups as slaves, women and non-believers.
He finally weaves these threads together by looking at the pervasive impact in modern times of Western ideas and technology, and the responses and reactions they evoked. Rich with vivid detail and the knowledge of a great scholar, this brilliant survey of the history and civilizations of the Middle East reveals the huge Islamic contribution to European life, as well as the European contribution to the islamic world. a.
Drawing on a long career of reading and reflection, the distinguished Middle East historian Bernard Lewis here gathers documents that illuminate more than two millennia of interactions between the Arab and European worlds—encounters laden with misunderstanding and prejudice on both sides. Four major phases mark this long period, Lewis writes: the Hellenization of the Arab world after the conquests of Alexander the Great; the expansion of the Roman empire into the region; the rise of Christianity; and, finally, the supremacy of Islam. These four cataclysmic changes, he writes, served to “obliterate the religions, the cultures, the languages and, to a large extent, even the nations of the ancient Middle East,” replacing them with a faith and a culture that crossed national lines.
The Europeans who encountered the Arab world brought home wildly inaccurate stories of these supposedly savage people. Lewis quotes a Byzantine scribe, for instance, who reported that the Arabs worshiped Aphrodite, and the Anglo-American leader Alexander Hamilton, who wrote disdainfully of “Asiatic despotism and voluptuousness.” Arab observers returned the sentiment, decrying what they perceived to be European indolence and lack of religious conviction, and holding that the farther north one traveled, the greater the “stupidity, grossness, and brutishness” one encountered.
Lewis’s intriguing anthology provides ample evidence that these misapprehensions of long ago linger today, as the descendants of “Franks” and “Saracens” continue to grapple with one another for regional supremacy. Anyone seeking a greater understanding of the Middle Eastern past and present will benefit from reading his pages. —Gregory McNamee