The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years

by Bernard Lewis

Paper Book, 1995




New York, N.Y. : Scribner, 2003, c1995.


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

Media reviews

The distinguished scholar Bernard Lewis has written a gem of a book, eminently readable and full of wonderful insights and brilliant aperçus. It combines narrative and analysis in just the right proportions and embraces the whole sweep of the history of the Near and Middle East, starting as far
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back as late antiquity. The study then moves forward, step by step, through the far-flung empires of the caliphs and sultans to the more recent emergence of the Arab world, after a long period of subjection and passivity, to independence and self-assertion. Professor Lewis concludes his book with some parting thoughts, elegantly and persuasively presented, on the reasons for the Middle East’s present uneasy confrontation with the challenges posed by European (and more recently American) modernity.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member solla
The Middle East goes up to 1995 and is a good start, I think, for reading about the middle east. Since it covers a large area and many years it doesn't go into much detail about specific areas, but gives the overall view of what was happening.

On thing that he does well is to express an earlier
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world view that formed as Islam advanced from the Middle East to Africa and part of Spain, feeling that they were the culmination of religion - Mohammed being the last of the prophets in thier view, and their success in conquest being attributed to the rightness of their cause. Though they studied their own history, the history of the western world was not seen as being of value. In the 1800 and 1900 hundreds, then, when they met with military reversals, it was a shock that led to a deeper questioning of their own purpose. The earlier view is easy to empathize with in the U.S., because, whatever we think of the uses made now of U.S. power, it is very much ingrained in us that the U.S. is one of, if not the most powerful, at the moment. U.S. power may be declining, and, if it becomes clear, that it is, I think that will be a shock. Bernard talks about the response to that, from attempts to establish democracy, to rejection of the west and turning to Islamic fundamentalism.

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.
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LibraryThing member Iacobus
Bernard Lewis takes on the task of explaining from history how the Middle East got to where it is today. To this end he reaches far back into history, beginning with the pagan Hellenistic world, successor to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Iran, which became divided into a
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Christian and Roman west and Iranian and Zoroastrian east. While necessary background, this is remote history and is concluded by page 55.

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.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
Too much for my taste on the twentieth century, and not enough on the pre-Ottoman world, but that can be forgiven. The slightly oily feeling I got reading the last few chapters, however, cannot: Lewis seems to know an awful lot about the middle east, but, as with many biographers, all that
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knowledge seems to have made him less, rather than more, keen. The take-away of the last half of the book seems to be "if only they'd act more like Americans!" One day, we can wistfully hope, Arabs, Turks and Persians will embrace the system that has laid waste to their world over the last two centuries. Only then will they be able to re-take their rightful place at the bottom of the world's food chain. That weirdness aside, the first half is very readable and interesting, the second half intermittently interesting and very repetitive. But this book really tries to cover far too much, too quickly. There's no need for chapters about generic processes of modernization ("And then we gave the Arabs newspapers! And then we gave them coffee! And then we gave them...").

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.
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LibraryThing member tburghart
This book is fairly dense, but if your goal is to absorb lots of information about how the middle east got where it is (circa mid-1990s), this is a decent start.

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
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previous pages *too* much. The writing style is succinct but not devoid of a few pleasant flourishes, overall quite readable.
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LibraryThing member gmicksmith
This is an excellent survey of a large topic written according to relevant themes.
LibraryThing member fothpaul
A really interesting book about a subject I knew very little about. The first 100 or so pages were a bit of a struggle as they seemed to be a list of names and dates which I struggled to remember. It also rushed through the more modern history of the region, choosing instead to focus mainly on the
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rise of Islam and how this played out in the middle-east. All in all though I feel that I learned things from this book and I'm glad I read it.
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LibraryThing member danoomistmatiste
A very nice narration of the happenings in the Middle East for the past nearly 2 millenia. Anyone wanting to know about this most misunderstood region should read this book first.
LibraryThing member neddludd
Bernard Lewis is one of the most knowledgeable and aware historians I have ever encountered. This work is encyclopedic, akin to taking a course. He is one of the few authors who frequently uses vocabulary with which I am not familiar, but he writes well, as if this were an extended New York Review
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or New Yorker essay. As an introduction to Islam--it's history, politics, social relations, and evolution--the book has no comparison. My only quibble is that the section on modern times seems truncated; this work is more focused on early historical aspects of this region and the middle ages. Another drawback is its 1995 copyright: it seems almost a bizarre omission not to have updated the introduction or not to have provided an epilogue which would encompass the jihadists and their activities. The world changed on 9/11 and to omit such an essential historical development, given the level of scholarship the book demonstrates, is perverse.
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LibraryThing member RickK
With the recent escalation of conflict in the Middle East I felt compelled to become more knowledgeable regarding the conflict and the history of the Middle East. Bernard Lewis is said to have been one of the foremost world experts on this complex part of the world so I thought this would be a good
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place to start. Spoiler alert - I gave up after 280 pages. Professor Lewis was clearly exceptionally learned and I am sure that those in academia would have found this book extraordinary. For my part I thought it was dense, very hard to follow and written in a manner that was far too academic for my taste. There is no question that the Middle East is steeped in a complex history however this book takes something complex and amplifies the complexity rather than distilling or interpreting it in a way that is accessible for those who are not as scholarly.
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National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — General Nonfiction — 1996)



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