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Robert Irwin

  • The Middle East: 2000 Years of History from the Birth of Christianity to the Present Day by Bernard Lewis
    Weidenfeld, 433 pp, £20.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 297 81345 5

The dust-jacket of this handsome book reproduces a medieval manuscript miniature of mounted Arabs beating drums and blowing what are probably mizmars (woodwind instruments). According to the caption, this is a ‘Celebration of Ramadan, from “The Meetings” illustrated by al-Hariri, 13th century’. Oh no it isn’t. Al-Hariri, author of the Maqamat (literally ‘Standings’, but more usually translated as ‘Sessions’) died in 1122. The painting is actually by the 13th-century artist Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti. Turning to the back of the book, one finds an elegant painting of a seated Arab. According to the caption, this is a portrait of Saladin c.l180. Wrong again. There is no evidence that Saladin ever sat for his portrait. If he had done so, he would have been unique among medieval Muslim rulers. What we are actually looking at is the picture of a little mechanical man designed to sit on top of an elephant-shaped water-clock. It was copied in Egypt in 1354 from an early 13th-century treatise on automata written and illustrated in Diyarbakr, in what is today Turkey, by al-Jazari. The little mechanical man was supposed to pick up a ball every hour and drop it into a dragon’s mouth. Saladin (who died in 1193) would hardly have been the right model for this rather menial job. (Incidentally, this ‘portrait of Saladin’ has done the rounds and features in quite a number of popular illustrated books. In Anthony Bridge’s The Crusades the accompanying caption says: ‘This is thought to be a portrait of Saladin by an Egyptian artist of the Fatimid school, perhaps because the man portrayed appears to be blind in one eye, as was Saladin.’ Nice try, but there is no evidence at all that Saladin was blind in one eye.) To return to the Maqamat miniature, al-Hariri and al-Wasiti were major figures in their respective fields. If the dust-jacket of a book about Western culture featured one of Botticelli’s illustrations to the Divine Comedy, but claimed that Dante drew it, there would be an outcry. Do publishers think that dead Arab painters don’t really matter?

Fortunately, the text of The Middle East has not been written by the author of the captions. Bernard Lewis, Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, is a fluent, lively, erudite and lucid writer. He also has an eye for the pointillist anecdote and pithy maxim culled from the primary sources. His book appears in a ‘History of Civilisation’ series, in which it joins such works as Charles Burney and David Marshall Lang’s The People of the Hills: Ancient Ararat and Caucasus (1971) and George Lichtheim’s Europe in the 20th Century (1972). Indeed, the back of Lichtheim’s book announced Lewis’s work as forthcoming, though it then bore the title The Empires of Islam. This suggests that The Middle East is the product of a lengthy gestation.

How then have Lewis’s ideas (and those of his peers) changed over the years? It is instructive to compare this latest book with one of his earliest, which covered much of the same ground: The Arabs in History, first published in 1950. In 1950 Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Yemen were still monarchies; Britain had a military presence in the Gulf and Algeria was part of France; Egypt, Syria and Lebanon had signed armistices (but not treaties) with Israel the previous year.

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