In this immensely readable and wide-ranging book, Bernard Lewis charts the successive transformations of the Middle East, beginning with the two great empires, the Roman and the Persian, and covering the growth of Christianity, the rise and spread of Islam, the waves of invaders from the east, the Mongol hordes of Jengiz Khan, the rise of the Ottoman Turks, and the changing balance of power between the Muslim and Christian worlds. 'This book is a masterpiece' Sir Anthony Parsons, Daily Telegraph
Finally, it's downright surreal to read a book about the Middle East written not only pre-Arab-Spring, but pre-9/11. To put it mildly, Lewis was *not* a good prognosticator, and his repeated references to (unnamed) democratic governments in the area seems laughable this side of the winter of 2010/11.
On thing that he does well is to express an earlier
There is a section towards the end where he talks about the question of whether the middle east was better off for its contact with western imperialism. He concludes that general life conditions are better, although he says the positive effects were more where the colonial power was actively involved in administration such as in India. This is a statement that I simply don't know enough to evaluate, though I have doubts, certainly, as a general statement about colonialism.
There is very little about the position or role of women, although the former is covered generally, as earlier being restrictive though with some legal rights not available to European women at the time, to some loosening with modernization, and increasing restriction with the turn to Islamic fundamentalism in some places. This is a topic, though, where the specifics would be helpful, with more on areas with different prior cultures, or among various social classes, or branches of Islam.
For the next 330 pages or so Lewis charts the Islamic history of the Middle East, from its origins with Mohammed, through the Arab, Seljuk and Mongol periods, giving the lion’s share of the treatment to the Ottoman era. Again, this is probably right, since the Ottoman Empire has had the most profound effect on the Middle East today.
The political and military history is summary, and much of the treatment is thematic. There are also chapters given over to social, religious and economic factors. The last section of the book deals with the reaction of the Middle East to the increasing influence of Western Europe, beginning with the Ottoman defeat at Vienna in 1689, and culminating with the post-1918 partition between Britain and France. It will be interesting if his observations of the current scene, penned before 9/11, are vindicated in the long run.
I found many of the thematic elements in this book helpful, especially for an understanding of the Islamic mindset. Thus, the solidarity between Muslims, the origins of the main Islamic sects, the purely utilitarian attitudes towards non-Muslim cultures and societies (until the modern era), and the tension between participation in the often ephemeral Muslim states and the duties of a pious Muslim. Lewis effectively highlights continuities (eg. between Helleno-Roman and Persian society on one hand, and Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates on the other) as well as major discontinuities (eg. the impact of the Seljuks and the Mongols).
Lewis also demonstrates a sympathy and historical understanding towards the Middle East that challenge many preconceptions held by Westerners today. One cannot understand the Middle East as a contemporary region, nor the Muslim outlook, without ingesting Lewis’ lessons.
However, I found the lack of a sufficiently detailed narrative annoying. If I had not had some basic reading in Middle Eastern history, I would have struggled to make sense of the historical sections of the book. A blow-by-blow “kings and battles” treatment is obviously inappropriate for a book that appeals to the general reader, but the general reader needs some help through the bewildering kaleidoscope of Muslim dynasties (at least before the rise of the Ottomans).
Lewis is important reading for anyone wanting to understand the Middle East, either in its history or where it is today. I would not recommend him, however, as the definitive treatment or introduction.
It's somewhat slow going just because of the density of information, but I was able to follow the progression without having to refer to