Andrew Rosner's Reviews > The Middle East

The Middle East by Bernard Lewis
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Aug 07, 2011


This is a somewhat condensed examination of the last two thousand years of history in the Middle East. If you’re looking for detailed biographies of every major historical figure during that time, or elaborate accounts of military conquest, this probably isn’t the volume for you. On the other hand, if you’re curious about the broader cultural, technological and linguistic currents that have shaped the region, you’ve found a home. At the book’s centre is Islam, and the book occasionally feels like a history of Islam rather than the Middle East as a whole. Still, as Lewis argues, it has been the defining force for the region since its emergence from the Arabian deserts over fourteen centuries ago. And if there’s a historian in the West who understands the theological underpinnings of Islam and its relationship with the other great faiths of the region (Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, even the contributions of the Greeks), I haven’t read him. If nothing else, this book and Lewis’ work as a whole disproves Edward Said’s rather offensive thesis concerning Western outlooks on the Middle East.



Lewis does a very good job of describing the forces shaping daily life in the Middle East; the bureacratic administration of the Ottoman empire, land tenure, agriculture, languages, literature, even music. If there’s one minor failing, I think he could have developed a more explicit thesis on why the West was able to catch up and eventually surpass the Islamic world in virtually every field of human endeavour (to be fair, though, he has addressed this subject in other books). And one does get a sense of a once great civilization that has lost its way and is still struggling to cope with the changes wrought by modernity.
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