All posts filed under: The Orient

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire (Roger Crowley)

Without specific intention, I seem to have turned into a Roger Crowley fanboy, as shown by that I have now read every one of his books. Crowley is a British maritime historian, all of whose books are tied to the Mediterranean in the pre-modern portion of the second millennium, many centering around the interaction of Christianity and Islam. Conquerors is somewhat of a departure—still a maritime history, even more so than most of his books, but focused not on the Mediterranean, instead on the nearly unbelievable accomplishments of the Portuguese in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans between 1490 and 1520. Crowley makes the colorful, dramatic, and heroic deeds of the Portuguese leap off the page.

The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (G. W. Bowersock)

When we think of Late Antiquity, we usually think of Rome, either its decline in the West or its continuation in the East. When we are feeling particularly adventurous, we may think of the Sassanid Persians, or ponder the stirrings of the Franks in the dark forests of Gaul. We usually don’t think of the farther reaches of the Red Sea—Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa, and what are today the oil- and blood-soaked sands of Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But in the several centuries after Christ, all these were very much part of the known world, if somewhat peripheral. The Throne of Adulis reconstructs, from fragmentary evidence, those centuries, through the prism of wars conducted across the Red Sea.

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Graham Allison)

For Americans who think that so-called liberal democracy is neither, and in any case is a dead end, successful modern societies with a different political model always intrigue. In the West, notable such are Hungary and Poland, who have effectively executed a mild and tentative turn away from the most extreme vices of liberal democracy, though there is a long way to go. Singapore, which has apparently successfully blended economic success, certain virtues, and limited democracy, offers another possible model, one with a longer track record. Unfortunately, Singapore’s example is of very limited use to a future well-run America, and this book of the thoughts of Lee Kuan Yew, who built modern Singapore, helps show why.

The Accursed Tower: The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades (Roger Crowley)

I often say that the Crusades were a high point of Western civilization. And they were, but they were also an example of flawed glory. Certainly, the goal of the Crusades was peerlessly laudable, and the virtues shown by Crusaders admirable. At the same time, the Holy Land Crusades illustrated key weaknesses of the West, and, after all, if nothing succeeds likes success, nothing fails like failure. In Roger Crowley’s The Accursed Tower all of this is on display, though Christian valor is probably the dominant theme, as it should be. In a sane society, the events of this book would be used for a blockbuster movie featuring the Christians as doomed heroes. Not in today’s society, to be sure, but maybe in tomorrow’s.

Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death (Anthony Everitt)

Different eras view Alexander III of Macedon differently. Though always honored as a hugely successful military leader and conqueror, in the ancient world, he got mixed press, seen as a blend of virtues and faults. In the Middle Ages, and really until the twentieth century, he was usually regarded as among the greatest men of history, and surrounded by myths exaggerating his accomplishments. More recently, without detracting from his military abilities, he has been classed as a killer mad for power. Anthony Everitt, British writer of slick popular histories, tries to move the needle back toward a favorable view of Alexander. But revisionist popular history is a difficult genre to pull off well, and Everitt does not succeed.

The Samurai (Shūsaku Endō)

The Japanese author Shūsaku Endō is known primarily for his 1966 masterwork, Silence, about the persecution of Christians in mid-seventeenth-century Japan. The backdrop of Silence is the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion, a peasant rebellion crushed in 1638, which erupted in reaction to the vicious suppression of Christianity under the Tokugawa Shogunate, part of the turn of Japan inward. The Samurai focuses on events two decades prior, when Christianity was only partially suppressed, and the Shogunate still somewhat open to contacts with Europe. As with many of Endō’s works, The Samurai focuses on the internal struggles of its protagonists to live a Christian life in circumstances of extreme external and internal pressure and conflict.

Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (Robert Irwin)

I generally liked this book, by the erudite Orientalist Robert Irwin, but I am not sure why it exists. It is too academic to be popular, and too popular to be academic. I learned something about the famous medieval Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, but I would have been lost if I did not already know much about Ibn Khaldun and medieval Islam generally. So this is not a reference work, or even a normal biography. Really, it’s a seminar in print, discussing a grab-bag of topics about Ibn Khaldun, valuable mostly as an add-on if you are particularly interested in medieval Islam or the history of North Africa.

The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi)

This book, a massive study by two Israeli historians, aspires to answer why and how Turkey exterminated its Christian population in the thirty years between 1894 and 1924. Usually this extermination, or part of it, is referred to as the Armenian Genocide, except by the Turks, who to this day deny their crimes, and so don’t refer to it at all. That usual term is misleading, however. As Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi document exhaustively, the primary target was all Christians, and the primary goal religious cleansing of the Turkish nation. Proving this is the object of The Thirty-Year Genocide.

Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain (Brian A. Catlos)

I read this book, about the history of Spain under Muslim rule, hoping it would be less biased than Darío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, which I found to be too polemical in its criticism of Islamic domination. This book was closer to neutral, on the other side of neutral, but the author, Brian Catlos, has taken a fascinating period of history and made it boring. It’s not that the writing is bad, it’s that he takes a kitchen sink approach that loses the reader in minutiae, with so many dramatis personae that there is no drama. Still, Kingdoms of Faith is useful as a reference work, and in addition, I think that the history recounted here has much to say about conversion of Muslims in lands reconquered by Christendom, past and future.

The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Martin Mosebach)

This book is, brought to the temporal sphere, Revelation 20:4. “I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Martin Mosebach’s The 21 is an exploration and explanation of the twenty-one Coptic Christian migrant workers killed by Muslims in 2015 for refusing to apostatize from their Christian belief, a martyrdom made famous by the slickly produced video through which the killers broadcast their bloody work.