This was the last book from the stash I accumulated at Powell’s last September after my Willamette Valley bike ride adventure. Browsing through Powell’s history and world culture sections I had snagged a memoir that focused on current events in China, a massive tome on Europe’s colonization of Africa, along with Bernard Lewis’s The Middle East. Of the three books Lewis’s covers the longest period of history and is the least in depth. At only 387 pages, it is difficult to dive deeply into the rich complexity of 2,000 years of middle eastern history, but this book doesn’t proclaim itself as the ultimate historical compendium.
Lewis is honest in his intentions and is forthright in acknowledging that this is a brief history. The success found within these pages is the author’s ability to weave the 2,000 year succession of culture, economy, religion, and governance with a fluid and overarching perspective that illuminates the debt owed by both western and eastern culture owe due to the prominence and innovations of the middle east during the middle ages, while concurrently revealing the multifaceted reasons why the middle east has so recently and persistently been a hotbed of political strife with a skewed and imbalanced range of poverty and wealth coupled alongside religious revivalism and fanaticism. In other words, this is a good “big-picture” summary of the middle east through the date of publication.
Prior to my reading I had a limited understanding of the Ottoman and Persian empires and even less understanding of the more ancient Byzantine Empire and I had absolutely no prior knowledge of Persia’s precursor, the Sasanid Empire. My current event knowledge of nations such as Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and others was ignorant that these nation-state borders were drawn by European colonial powers during the tumultuous years between the first and second world war after the Ottoman empire had collapsed when Turkey subsequently made revolutionary changes towards secularism and modernization that let go its empiric historical standing. Nor did I have an appreciation for the dichotomous influence of Soviet Russia in opposition to capitalistic American interventions in the latter part of the 20th century. Nor did I fully appreciate the rich and prolonged cultural identify that defines Iran, which once was the seat of the Sasanid and then the Persian Empires. Lewis’s book provides a satisfying summary of the region’s power and influence as a crossroad of trade between Europe and Asia while concurrently revealing the reasons for the decline in power as Europe’s growing nautical prowess limited the middle eastern region’s importance as a center of trade.
The news of current events speaks of the countries in this region with matter of fact certitude and I have been ignorantly naive to the cultural influence that the region has upon current day events. The Middle East is a complicated place, a region that was the fertile crescent and birthplace of civilization that struggles in a modern world. Although the wealth tied to the resource found in Middle Easter oil is linked to modernity, the cultural and religious ideals of Islam struggle to accept modern consumerism and beliefs. The rise of Islam in the 7th century catapulted the region with fervor in ideals of unification and universalism that created a region that rivaled middle age Europe’s disunity, superstition, and stagnation. Of course Islam has had its internal disunity from the outset with rival perspectives about the faith as demonstrated by Sunni and Shia perspective about the lineage of leadership, however there is no denying the achievements that the region obtained following the introduction of Islam as a common system of belief, philosophy, and identity.
Interestingly, I found Lewis’s discussion about ideas of nationalism to be truly enlightening towards the ongoing problems of the region; as Lewis describes it, the middle eastern peoples have not historically identify themselves according to national identity, but more easily identify themselves according to religious identity. Prior to the fall of the Ottoman empire, it was perfectly acceptable for Christians, Hebrews, and non-believers to live alongside each other with the Islamic believers, however it was accepted that the there was a caste system that put followers of Islam above all others with regards to matters of property, justice, and economy. Also, intriguing is the revelation that the current hatred towards Jews only developed after German Nazi colonial intervention in the region and then the subsequent creation of the nation of Israel created a new animosity towards the peoples of the Hebrew faith that had not existed prior to the twentieth century.
Of course, this book is limited in that it was published in 1995 and an astounding number of influential events have occurred since that date of publication; consider only the influence of the Taliban, the September 11th attack on America, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the Arab spring of 2009, and the tumult currently ongoing with ISIS. However, since this is a brief history of the middle east, I did not feel that it was necessary to purchase the revised version. What this book brings to light is an appreciation for the the depth of cultural complexity that influences the outcomes of those most recent events that I had referenced.
In his epilogue Lewis had hinted that there was both opportunity and risk in the region for the years that would come following his publication date of 1995. Although he could not imagine the Taliban’s actions and influence, Lewis does foretell the Arab Spring fourteen years prior to its occurrence, as he catalogs the people’s dissatisfaction with despotic rulers as misaligned with the ideals and cultural identity of the region:
“The history of the Islamic Middle East, like that of other societies, offers many examples of the overthrow of governments by rebellion or conspiracy. There is also an old Islamic tradition of challenge to the social duty to dethrone tyranny and install justice in its place. Islamic law and tradition lay down the limits of the obedience which is owed to the ruler and discuss – albeit with considerable caution – the circumstances in which a ruler forfeits his claim to the allegiance of his subjects and may or rather must lawfully be deposes and replaced.” (376)
What will come of the Middle East in the years to come is still unknown, but with a better appreciation of its past I find myself more at ease with the cycles of history. There may be many years of struggle ignited by the fires of fanaticism ahead of us, but through ongoing education within the region and without, humanity can only hope for a renewed perspective that accepts the limitations of our mutual misunderstandings.