In This Review
The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years

The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years

By Bernard Lewis

Scribner, 1996, 448 pp.

This lucid volume is almost certainly the capstone in the career of a distinguished historian of the Middle East. As such, it is more synthetic than path-breaking, broad in scope rather than sharp in focus. The major themes are of enduring importance: the need to see the region in historical perspective, including the important pre-Islamic period of Persian and Byzantine rule; the interplay of culture, language, and ideas, always a strong theme in Lewis' work; and the extraordinary impact of the West during the last two centuries. Most of this will be familiar to anyone who has read Lewis before, but a few nuances are worth noting. Having been criticized for "essentializing" Islam, or treating it as uniform and unchanging, Lewis is careful to note that there are many strands in the Islamic tradition. He is less categorical than in previous works in doubting the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and he shows surprising interest in signs of debate over the role of Islam in post-revolutionary Iran. Nonetheless, he continues to give the impression that Middle Easterners are caught in historically dictated patterns that will be hard to shake, although he does point out that for the first time in many years the fate of the region is largely in the hands of its own people.

There are some gaps. Nowhere are the remarkable achievements of Muslim Spain discussed, which leaves the impression that the Arab part of the Middle East has been steadily declining since the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century (which, incidentally, Lewis does not credit for much of the decline). But such omissions are inevitable in such a wide-ranging overview and do not significantly detract from its narrative power or overall picture of the rise and fall of civilizations. This is history in the Toynbee tradition -- literate, sweeping, and imaginative -- and Lewis, like Toynbee, can be criticized on methodological, theoretical, and empirical grounds. But this is one of the benchmark books against which others will be compared. As a legacy, and as a memorial in Lewis' 80th year, that is a remarkable achievement.