A Middle East Mosaic

Fragments of Life, Letters and History
By Bernard Lewis

Modern Library

Copyright © 2001 Bernard Lewis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0375758372


Preface


Toward the middle of the tenth century, an Arab geographer and cosmographer from the great city of Baghdad wrote an account of the known world in which he included a few words about some of the strange, wild people beyond the northwest frontier of civilization-that is to say, the Islamic empire of the caliphs. Of the northernmost of these peoples, he observed, "Their bodies are large, their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull and their tongues heavy. Their color is so excessively white that it passes from white to blue.... Those of them who are farthest to the north are the most subject to stupidity, grossness and brutishness."

In 1798 an Ottoman secretary of state wrote a memorandum to inform the Imperial Council about the recent troubles in Paris. He began his description of the events which, in the West, came to be known as the French Revolution: "The conflagration of sedition and wickedness that broke out a few years ago in France, scattering sparks and shooting flames of mischief and tumult in all directions, had been conceived many years previously in the minds of certain accursed heretics.... The known and famous atheists Voltaire and Rousseau, and other materialists like them, had printed and published various works, consisting ... of the removal and abolition of all religion, and of allusions to the sweetness of equality and republicanism, all expressed in easily intelligible words and phrases, in the form of mockery, in the language of the common people."

During the nine and a half centuries that intervened between these two reports, the level of information about Europe among Middle Eastern visitors and observers had improved considerably. The basic attitudes of contempt and certitude, however, remained substantially unchanged. Much the same may be said about Western attitudes toward the Middle East. Though in general rather better informed, medieval and early modem Western observers of the Middle East, including travelers, show a similar self-satisfied ignorance in their discussions of the places they visited and the peoples they met.

From the end of the nineteenth century a much closer contact between the two cultures brought a radical change, on both sides, in their perceptions of each other and ultimately of themselves.

The rise and spread of Islam brought the Middle East into contact-and sometimes into collision-with other regions and cultures: in the east with India and China, in the south with Africa, in the west and north with Christendom. The last of these, seen by Islam as its only serious rival both as world faith and world power, gave rise to the most sustained and most traumatic of these encounters. It began with the advent of Islam in the seventh century and the irruption of the Muslim Arabs into Palestine, Syria, Egypt and North Africa, all until then part of the Christian world. Three major areas of European Christendom were for a while lost to Islam: the two peninsulas at the southwestern and southeastern comers of Europe, Iberia and Anatolia, and the vast plains of Russia. The first was conquered and ruled by Arabs and Moors, the second by Turks, the third by Islarnized Tatars. The loss of Anatolia proved permanent. The attempt by the Crusaders to reconquer the Holy Land failed. But in both Russia and the Iberian Peninsula, the Christian inhabitants were in time able to defeat and expel their Muslim rulers, and, in the flush of victory, even pursued them whence they had come-from Russia to Asia, from Spain and Portugal to Africa and beyond. The reconquest grew into conquest and began the great expansion of Europe, from both east and west, which in time brought most of Asia and Africa into the European orbit. The relationship between the Middle East and the West has not been limited to war and its consequences-fear and mistrust, resentment and hatred, and a readiness to invent and believe the most absurd of calumnies. As well as fighters and preachers, there were others who looked at the people beyond their religious frontier with sometimes puzzled, sometimes eager curiosity. By turns amused and bewildered, they reflected in their books and letters home a range of envy, respect, hostility and-very rarely-admiration.


With the expansion of commerce during and after the crusades, European diplomats began to establish permanent missions in the coastal cities of the Ottoman Empire. Trained to observe and ready to comment on their hosts, their colleagues, and (with deep mistrust) their interpreters, diplomats traveling in both directions provide some of the best accounts we have of the habits and customs of those with whom they were sent to negotiate. Merchants in the Middle East, as elsewhere, discussed commodities, prices and their competitors. European Christian merchants defied papal and national bans to sell arms to Saladin fighting the Crusaders and, centuries later, to the Turks advancing toward the heart of Europe. Constructive engagement has a long history.

European travelers in the East discovered such delights as coffee and polygamy. An Italian pilgrim in fourteenth-century Alexandria describes his joyous discovery of the banana; an Egyptian sheikh in nineteenth-century Paris describes the French postal system and observes how it is used, among other purposes, for assignations. Inevitably, there are more negative comments—on the position of women, the punishment of crime, the conduct of war.

Much has been written of late about Western misperceptions, through negligence and prejudice, arrogance and insensitivity, and sheer lack of interest. Some have gone so far as to argue that Western views of the Middle East are largely the result of such attitudes and that misperception has frequently been aggravated by willful misrepresentation, serving a Western desire to dominate and exploit. Certainly, there is no lack of ignorance and prejudice in what Westerners, through the centuries, have written about the Middle East. But the same is true about much of what Middle Easterners have written about the West, in the phases of both their advance and retreat.

Among Europeans and, later, Americans there has been a sustained effort extending over centuries to develop techniques and methods to study, understand and eventually explain the dynamics of other civilizations. In part, this was done by deciphering scripts, learning languages and reading texts; in part by travel and direct observation. A considerable body of scholarly literature has resulted.

At the time when Muslims ruled parts of Europe, they found little to interest them in the languages, history and culture of their European subjects. More recently, efforts have been made by scholars and travelers from the Middle East to study not only the weaponry and gadgetry but also the arts and sciences of those who were once seen as barbarous infidels and later, when the tide of battle turned, as imperialist aggressors and oppressors. To the Western tradition of Orientalism there is now developing an Eastern equivalent, which we might call Occidentalism.

The words "Europe" and "West," in common use in Europe and the West, were not in the past used in the Islamic Middle East, where "West" meant their own west, North Africa and for a while Sicily and Spain. The term "Europe" occurs very infrequently, in a few translations of Greek geographical works. These regions and their inhabitants were usually designated either by religious terms-infidels, pagans, Christians—or by ethnic terms-Greeks and Romans in the adjoining Mediterranean lands, Slavs and Franks in eastern and western Europe.

For a long time, the peoples of Europe used similar designations, referring to their southern and eastern neighbors by religious terms, as infidels or Mohammedans, or by ethnic terms, as Moors, Saracens, Turks and Tatars.

The terms "Near East" and "Middle East" came into general use at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Clearly, they reflect a view of the world from a Western vantage point-more specifically, from Western Europe, then rapidly extending its rule, and to an even greater extent its influence, in the rest of the Old World.

In Greco-Roman antiquity and medieval Christendom, the region which we now call the Near and Middle East was simply the East, with no need for more precise identification. It was known by a series of names-the Greek anatolo (whence Anatolia), the Latin otlens, the Italian levante, and their derivatives-all meaning "sunrise." In Greek and later in Latin writings, these names often carried with them a suggestion of something exotic and barbaric, sometimes also effete and luxurious. At most times the East was seen in Europe as hostile and dangerous, the dark hinterland from which came the invading armies of the great kings of Persia and their many successors. The last of these, the Ottoman Turks, confronted Europe with what came to be known as "the Eastern question" in its two phases: first the menace of the Ottoman advance, second the problems posed by the Ottoman retreat.

When a new and more distant Orient was perceived, the old and familiar East-Anatolia, the Levant-seemed much nearer. It was the new awareness of a remote and unknown Far East that led Europeans to rename the countries around the eastern Mediterranean the Near East, and those immediately beyond them the Middle East.

It is easy to understand how these terms came into European usage. It is more difficult to understand why they still remain in common use at the present time, when European domination of the East has decisively ended and Europe itself-apart from the Greenwich meridian-is no longer the principal point from which the world is viewed.

Some territorial definition may be useful. The term Middle East has never been precisely demarcated and extends, for some purposes, as far west as Morocco. Broadly speaking, it applies to the countries of southwest Asia and northeast Africa, with vague and ill-defined extensions at both ends-from Iran into Central Asia and beyond, to the borders of China; from Egypt into Africa, westward to the Atlantic and southward up the Nile as far as the Islamic faith and the Arabic language predominate.

The Middle East, along with China and India, is one of the three most ancient regions of civilizations in the world. Yet it differs significantly from the other two in its pattern of diversity and discontinuity. This diversity goes back to remote antiquity and surely owes much to the geographical configuration and situation of the region. Its division into valleys separated by high mountains and cultivated plains separated by vast and impassable deserts encouraged cultural polycentrism. It was the meeting place of the very different peoples and cultures of Asia, Africa and, in the later stages, of Europe, all of which helped to produce a region of striking contrasts.

From the earliest times we see not one but several centers of civilization: in the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia, on the high plateaus of Iran and Anatolia, in the mountain ranges that go from north to south, from Taurus to Sinai, and on their slopes, facing westward to the coastal plain and the Mediterranean, eastward to the desert and to Asia. These were inhabited by different peoples who spoke different and often unrelated languages, wrote in different scripts, worshiped different gods and created different, sometimes contrasting, societies and polities. Relations between them developed in antiquity from minimal to hostile.

The discontinuity of Middle Eastern history was the result of consecutive phases of conquest and conversion-the one bringing a restructuring of power and authority, the other a reorientation of religion and culture. There were four major phases, beginning with the Hellenization of much of the region after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and continuing with the extension of Roman imperial authority to all of the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Hellenization and Romanization prepared the ground for two great waves of religious conversion, first to Christianity and then to Islam.

All four processes have left their mark on the present-day Middle East. Of the four, the last is undoubtedly the most comprehensive, the most profound and the most enduring, and gave the peoples of the Middle East the only shared perceived identity they have ever known. To this day, the term "Islam" is used as the equivalent of both "Christianity" and "Christendom" to designate both a religion and a civilization. The cumulative effect of these four cataclysmic changes was to obliterate the religions, the cultures, the languages and, to a large extent, even the nations of the ancient Middle East and to replace them with a new faith, a new political system and a new set of languages and loyalties.

Among Europeans and, later, Americans there has been a sustained effort extending over centuries to develop techniques and methods to study, understand and eventually explain the dynamics of other civilizations. In part, this was done by deciphering scripts, learning languages and reading texts; in part by travel and direct observation. A considerable body of scholarly literature has resulted.

At the time when Muslims ruled parts of Europe, they found little to interest them in the languages, history and culture of their European subjects. More recently, efforts have been made by scholars and travelers from the Middle East to study not only the weaponry and gadgetry but also the arts and sciences of those who were once seen as barbarous infidels and later, when the tide of battle turned, as imperialist aggressors and oppressors. To the Western tradition of Orientalism there is now developing an Eastern equivalent, which we might call Occidentalism.

The words "Europe" and "West," in common use in Europe and the West, were not in the past used in the Islamic Middle East, where "West" meant their own west, North Africa and for a while Sicily and Spain. The term "Europe" occurs very infrequently, in a few translations of Greek geographical works. These regions and their inhabitants were usually designated either by religious terms-infidels, pagans, Christians—or by ethnic terms-Greeks and Romans in the adjoining Mediterranean lands, Slavs and Franks in eastern and western Europe.

For a long time, the peoples of Europe used similar designations, referring to their southern and eastern neighbors by religious terms, as infidels or Mohammedans, or by ethnic terms, as Moors, Saracens, Turks and Tatars.

The terms "Near East" and "Middle East" came into general use at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Clearly, they reflect a view of the world from a Western vantage point-more specifically, from Western Europe, then rapidly extending its rule, and to an even greater extent its influence, in the rest of the Old World.

In Greco-Roman antiquity and medieval Christendom, the region which we now call the Near and Middle East was simply the East, with no need for more precise identification. It was known by a series of names-the Greek anatolo (whence Anatolia), the Latin otlens, the Italian levante, and their derivatives-all meaning "sunrise." In Greek and later in Latin writings, these names often carried with them a suggestion of something exotic and barbaric, sometimes also effete and luxurious. At most times the East was seen in Europe as hostile and dangerous, the dark hinterland from which came the invading armies of the great kings of Persia and their many successors. The last of these, the Ottoman Turks, confronted Europe with what came to be known as "the Eastern question" in its two phases: first the menace of the Ottoman advance, second the problems posed by the Ottoman retreat.

When a new and more distant Orient was perceived, the old and familiar East-Anatolia, the Levant-seemed much nearer. It was the new awareness of a remote and unknown Far East that led Europeans to rename the countries around the eastern Mediterranean the Near East, and those immediately beyond them the Middle East.

It is easy to understand how these terms came into European usage. It is more difficult to understand why they still remain in common use at the present time, when European domination of the East has decisively ended and Europe itself-apart from the Greenwich meridian-is no longer the principal point from which the world is viewed.

Some territorial definition may be useful. The term Middle East has never been precisely demarcated and extends, for some purposes, as far west as Morocco. Broadly speaking, it applies to the countries of southwest Asia and northeast Africa, with vague and ill-defined extensions at both ends-from Iran into Central Asia and beyond, to the borders of China; from Egypt into Africa, westward to the Atlantic and southward up the Nile as far as the Islamic faith and the Arabic language predominate.

The Middle East, along with China and India, is one of the three most ancient regions of civilizations in the world. Yet it differs significantly from the other two in its pattern of diversity and discontinuity. This diversity goes back to remote antiquity and surely owes much to the geographical configuration and situation of the region. Its division into valleys separated by high mountains and cultivated plains separated by vast and impassable deserts encouraged cultural polycentrism. It was the meeting place of the very different peoples and cultures of Asia, Africa and, in the later stages, of Europe, all of which helped to produce a region of striking contrasts.

From the earliest times we see not one but several centers of civilization: in the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia, on the high plateaus of Iran and Anatolia, in the mountain ranges that go from north to south, from Taurus to Sinai, and on their slopes, facing westward to the coastal plain and the Mediterranean, eastward to the desert and to Asia. These were inhabited by different peoples who spoke different and often unrelated languages, wrote in different scripts, worshiped different gods and created different, sometimes contrasting, societies and polities. Relations between them developed in antiquity from minimal to hostile.

The discontinuity of Middle Eastern history was the result of consecutive phases of conquest and conversion-the one bringing a restructuring of power and authority, the other a reorientation of religion and culture. There were four major phases, beginning with the Hellenization of much of the region after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and continuing with the extension of Roman imperial authority to all of the lands of the eastern Mediterranean. Hellenization and Romanization prepared the ground for two great waves of religious conversion, first to Christianity and then to Islam.

All four processes have left their mark on the present-day Middle East. Of the four, the last is undoubtedly the most comprehensive, the most profound and the most enduring, and gave the peoples of the Middle East the only shared perceived identity they have ever known. To this day, the term "Islam" is used as the equivalent of both "Christianity" and "Christendom" to designate both a religion and a civilization. The cumulative effect of these four cataclysmic changes was to obliterate the religions, the cultures, the languages and, to a large extent, even the nations of the ancient Middle East and to replace them with a new faith, a new political system and a new set of languages and loyalties.

Interaction between Islam and the West is a major theme, but I have also tried to illustrate, more briefly, relations between the Islamic world and its other neighbors and, more important, relations between the different regions, peoples and social groups within the region. Much of the material is translated from Middle Eastern languages. Where suitable translations exist and were available, I have used them and cited the name of the translator. For the rest, I have made my own translations and cited the originals. Dating the excerpts has at times proved something of a problem, especially with premodern texts. In general, the excerpts are headed with the known or estimated date at which they were written. An exception was made for accounts of major military events, which carry the dates of their occurrence.

At the end of the book I have added three appendixes which I hope may help the reader. The first is an explanation of the structure of Middle Eastern personal names and the transcription of Middle Eastern systems of writing, both markedly different from those customary in the modern West. The second and third consist of a listing of the authors cited, with brief biographical notes, and a bibliography of the works from which the citations are taken. I have not thought it necessary to list well-known Western literary figures such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Milton, etc. I have, however, included a few, such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville and W. M. Thackeray, who traveled in the Middle East and left some written account of their adventures and impressions.

There remains the pleasant task of thanking those who have helped in various ways in the preparation and production of this book: my editor, Joy de Menil, whose combination of a sharp mind and gentle manner, of vision and vigilance, have made this a better book than it would otherwise have been; my daughter, Melanie Carr, who found, chose and arranged the illustrations; my former research assistants, Michael Doran and Michael Reynolds, for help of various kinds in the collection and preparation of the material; Nancy Pressman Levy, of Firestone Library, for invaluable help in tracking down some of my sources; and finally, my assistants Annamarie Cerminaro and Robin Pettinato, for the skill and care with which they handled the many versions of this book, from first draft to final copy.

Continues...


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