A History of the Middle East
By Peter Mansfield
Review by John
We certainly never learned anything about it at school, in fact, I don't think we got past Henry VIII. In fact, I found history, as taught then, very boring. Imagine my surprise then to find this book absolutely fascinating.
Of course, spending time in a country or area increases your interest and curiosity, especially when there is a completely different culture.
Also, as the security of the entire world hinges to a large extent on the politics of this area, it is essential to understand how the whole region and the attitudes and beliefs of its peoples have been shaped by historical events.
This is clearly explained in Peter Mansfield's scholarly work. Written originally two decades ago, the book was revised and updated by Nicolas Pelham in 2003. Both men had studied Arabic and had extensive knowledge of the Middle East. Peter Mansfield died in 1996. Nicholas Pelham lives in Amman and is a journalist.
What do we mean by the "Middle East"? In the first sentence it is pointed out that this is a modern English term for "the most ancient region of human civilisation". It is now commonly used to refer to the whole area from the Mediterranean and the Turkish border in the west to the Arabian Sea and this is the area covered in the book, although it must be said that the great historical events took place in the so-called "fertile crescent" which was able to support sophisticated civilizations, whereas the arid Arabia was largely inhabited by tribal nomads.
Nevertheless, it was in Arabia in AD 570 that the Prophet Muhammad was born, "a man of genius and inspiration who helped to transform the history of mankind - a fact which is acknowledged ..... by the fifth of the human race who subscribe to the faith he formed".
The first chapter is a summary of events from the 18th century BC. to 1800AD, which serves not only to provide the background for the subsequent detailed description of events but shows the mix of races that came to occupy the area. Although of necessity brief, this chapter is still informative and covers great events such as Alexander's campaigns.
The further chapters are then largely arranged in time sequence from 1800 to the modern day with a final conclusion of the "Prospects for the 21st Century". Some chapters are, however dedicated to significant events and regimes, such as "Turks and Arabs" and the "Persian factor".
At times, the overlap in time caused by this arrangement is slightly confusing but generally works well. Personally, I would have liked to see more maps with further detail and perhaps clearer explanation of the exact areas discussed as, although I was familiar with the historical names of most of the civilizations, areas or cities discussed, I was not always sure of their exact location.
These are minor points, however, and the book very effectively shows the formation and development of the current "Middle East" and its problems. Covering the "Golden Age" when "Arabic Islam" was at its height and controlling most of Spain, through the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Anglo-French Interregnum, it shows how Islam came to be "on the defensive" and why some Muslims believe that "if they were to return to the ways of the Prophet........ the triumph of Islam in this world would be assured." The discovery of oil and its impact is also discussed, including how "the wealth of the Arab Gulf States ........ has given them a significance in the affairs of the Middle East and the rest of the world out of all proportion to the size of their populations", although it was only relatively recently that they gained any significant control over the export of their oil.
For anyone living and working in the Middle East, or indeed anyone wanting to understand the development of the present political situation and the culture of the area, this book is essential reading. It is not only informative but thoroughly interesting and enjoyable in a way that I didn't know history could be.
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