Thoughts from Linda:
The Middle East
A Brief History
Of the Last 2,000 Years
Bernard Lewis, 1995
This book was written by a well-known Middle Eastern scholar, Bernard Lewis. He was quite a controversial figure as an author and expert in this area of the world. We selected this book because it does not deal with the region's politics (to the degree that any historical approach can avoid that) but focuses more on the social, economic, and cultural changes of this most significant area of our world.
In the Preface to the book, he noted that he has two main purposes in writing this book: “the first is to rescue the two great empires of Persia and Byzantium from the modest place usually assigned to them along with pre-Islamic Arabia. The second purpose is to establish some link between the Middle East that we know today and the ancient civilizations of the region we know from ancient texts and monuments.” He goes on to note that in the 600 years from Jesus to Mohammad, the regions west of the Persian Empire were transformed by three consecutive processes of Hellenization, Romanization, and then Christianization. In modern times, archaeologists and scholars have found and interpreted many of the documents and relics, which help to understand this timeframe that has not received so much attention previously. The book focuses on this timeframe but is not contained to just this period. It provides context for the big themes of the concept of the state, workings of the economy, and lives of the elites. It educates on religion, law, and culture throughout. In so doing, it covers, as the title indicates, 2000 years.
Of course, the book is filled with detail and interpretation, and it should be noted that much of Bernard Lewis’s long life of scholarly work is controversial. That being said, this book does provide a terrific overview at a thematic level that is helpful to a reader trying to make sense of the complex interrelationships among tribes and countries of this region. For instance, in his explanations of what is meant by “the state” in Chapter 8, he describes quite clearly the entire concept of “the state” as it relates to rulership and religion, noting the different world views of Christianity and Islam.
He spends a most interesting chapter discussing the origins of the world’s great religions in his very first chapter, entitled “Before Christianity.” And as he notes, a German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, has called this period between 600 BCE and 300 BCE as the “axial age” of human history. He notes that this is the timeframe when “people in remote and apparently unrelated lands achieved major spiritual and intellectual breakthroughs.” These movements were basically unknown to each other and include the thinking of Confucius and Lao-Tse in China, Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Iran, the philosophers in Greece, and the prophets in Israel. Lewis is a significant expert in the Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism, and his explanation of it is illuminating.
The book is organized into five Parts: An Introduction, Antecedents, The Dawn and Noon of Islam, Cross-Sections, and The Challenge of Modernity.
Bernard Lewis died in 2018, just short of his 102nd birthday. He was born in England and subsequently became an American citizen. Lewis served as a soldier in the British Army during WW II before being seconded to the Foreign Office. After the war, he returned to the School of Oriental and African Studies and the University of London and was appointed to the new chair in Near and Middle Eastern History.
He was known as a public intellectual and political commentator. Lewis was the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, where his expertise was in the history of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West. He is the author of over 20 books in this field and received many honors throughout his lengthy career.
He often served as one of the many experts in Middle Eastern history to US administrations and has received much criticism over the years for different specific views he has articulated, which have conflicted with political thought at the time. Regardless, he has been a force in the field and most prolific in his writing and research. In 2007 Lewis was called "the West's leading interpreter of the Middle East."
For a deeper understanding of our current situation in this most complex of areas, this book will provide you many insights and is a worthy read.