Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: The Middle East (Bernard Lewis)

A very useful overview of an historically turbulent region


Title: The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years
Author: Bernard Lewis
Genre: Non-Fiction / World History
First published: 1995
Edition: Hardback, published by Scribner Book Company in 1996

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.


I have been reading quite a few novels set in the Middle East, or with a Middle Eastern inspired cultural setting, in the last couple of years. This book had been sitting on my shelf for about three years, but I figured it was time to read it. I love history, but I do tend to find books about history intimidating and I am not quick to pick to them up. I am glad I did finally read this, because I learned a lot.

Yes, the writing is reasonably dry, but to be honest, it’s a history book, a book that condenses 2000 years of turbulent history into less than 400 pages, so there is a lot information cramped in there. I think therein lay both its strength and its weakness. For me personnally it was very useful to have this big overview of what happened and influenced this region over these 2000 years. It helped me see why the region is in such turmoil still and also which bits of its history are the most interesting and fascinating to me.

This book was published in the mid-nineties, and many major events have had huge impact on the region since and turmoil continues to shape that part of the world. Obviously that chunk of history, the last fifteen years, are missing, but that did not make this book any less valid or interesting for me.

The author clearly looks at the region from a European/Western point of view, which I guess is fair as the author is British, but every now and then the viewpoint is overwhelmingly western and made me want to read the same history, but from a viewpoint from within the region. I wonder how different it would be. Obviously many of the facts would be the same, but the slant may well be different.

I do feel like have a better understanding of everything that is and has been going on in the Middle East and I feel much wiser for having read this book. It also made me realise I want to read books about world history. More about the Middle East, but also about other regions of the world that I do not know that much about. That even goes for Europe, to be honest. There is so much to know and so much to learn.

I would recommend this book if you don’t want to zoom in on a particular conflict or aspect of politics or culture, but are looking for an overview of the history of this part of the world. It is definitely worth reading. Just keep in mind that it is not necessarily without bias.

5 out of 7 stars

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