Sunday, 6 February 2011

A Brief History of the Middle East by Christopher Catherwood

Once upon a time, before I started this blog, I used to read more non-fiction than fiction.  My favourite non-fiction genres were science, history, politics and linguistics and I read some amazing books.  But ever since I started this blog, I read about so many good fiction books that I usually now go from one fiction book to another without much non-fiction slotted inbetween.  I picked this non-fiction book up from the library to try to redress the balance and because I've always found the Middle East interesting.

Synopsis: Catherwood gives a brief overview of the Middle East from the time of the pharoahs, through the birth of the three monotheistic religions, the Ottoman Empire and finally the conflicts of today.  He shows how the roots of the present day conflicts can be traced back through history, especially to the fall of the Ottomans.

Score: 3.5out of 5

This was a well written non-fiction book that was genuniely engaging.  It wasn't overly academic (although some theories were discussed) and Catherwood didn't assume prior knowledge of the history or the area. He focused on themes  rather than dates/names/individual countries, which made it much easier for the reader to absorb and keep up with all of the information.

I did have a slight problem with the balance of the book. There was lots on the birth of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and whilst I understand that this is crucial to understanding the Middle East, I wanted a bit more politics and less religion.  The sections on the modern day situation had a balance that worked better for me personally. I also felt that the inclusion of so much religious stuff squeezed out the Ottomans. The Ottoman Empire is one of my favourite parts of history and I wanted to read more about their battles, conquests and society. Instead they only got a few pages, presumably as they don't fit so well with the religious theme.

It was nice to read a book about this area that was fully up to date (this edition was published in 2011, my library must have got a hold of it quickly!).  I haven't read the 2006 edition but the extra chapters on Iran on terrorism were very interesting.  It did feel like the revision was just a few chapters tacked on the end though, because at other points in the book Catherwood had statements like "the current situation now in 2006", which could easily have been picked up on and changed by a good editor.

To sum up, well worth a read if you're interesting in Middle Eastern history/politics, especially if you want to learn a bit more about religion too.


  1. Great review.
    While the problems in the middle east are political, they do stem from religion.

    The problem with that is that in religion, unlike politics, there is very little gray area. You are right and everyone else is wrong. That why Mr. Catherwood might have concentrated more on religion than politics.

    There is also the issue of those who make a profit from the mess in the Middle East, those are the people that keep everyone fighting and they are very few but very powerful.

  2. I see you're reading "Half a Yellow Sun". What a coincidence! I have just booked it for my African Literature course. Can't wait for your review.

  3. Man of la Books - I think you're right as why religion was concentrated on and it may have been too much for a brief history to introduce lots of politicians and conflicts.