In This Review

Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923
Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923
By Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh
Harvard University Press, 1999, 409 pp

The years from the late eighteenth century to the post-World War I settlement that dismembered the Ottoman Empire are rightfully a classic topic in diplomatic history. From this age emerged both the new states and the new ideologies -- ethnic, cultural, and religious nationalisms -- of today's Middle East. Focusing mostly on the years between 1914 and 1923, Empires of the Sand makes three major points. First, the Middle Eastern political actors were not mere pawns but active participants in deciding the "Eastern Question" (i.e., the Ottoman Empire's fate); second, the European powers were reluctant to break up the Ottoman Empire; and third, Ataturk's Turkey absorbed the logic of the nation-state while others remained caught up in impossible imperial dreams. An aura of musty old disputes about the Hashemites and the Arab Revolt suffuses the last chapters, debates that other scholars have by now transcended. Well-researched and forcefully presented, Empires in the Sand is a serious effort that nonetheless seems somewhat off-target. Middle Easterners had their role, but the decisive players were the Europeans -- who, after all, dismantled the Ottoman Empire. David Fromkin's A Peace to End all Peace still offers a better account.