The Mediterranean, the body of water that now divides and buffers Europe from the “over there” of Africa and the Middle East, used (many centuries ago) to unite a region. The “Mare Nostrum” of the Romans was a conduit for internal commercial and cultural communication. And for several centuries prior to becoming a Roman lake, the Mediterranean served to knit together a civilizational way of life, legacies upon which “the West”, broadly-speaking, was based.

“To this day the monument remains nearly unscathed—a meager consolation in the face of such suffering.” The monument in question is the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, erected in about 705 by the young and energetic Umayyad (the dynasty began in 661) caliph al-Walid I (705-15) on the site of a Christian church which he had ordered razed to the ground.

Few families have had as much success shaping history as the Abbasids. Descended from one of the Prophet Muhammad’s four uncles, they used their reputation for probity and piety to take over and rule the Arab Empire for 37 reigns. Deftly managing family feuds, they enjoyed a century of unimaginable splendor, followed by four centuries of highs and lows. They survived by pitting powerful external forces against one another: Arabs versus Persians, Northern Arabs versus the Southerners, Muslims versus non-Muslims, Sunni versus Shi’a. They allied with Charlemagne to put pressure on the Byzantines, with the Tang Dynasty to contain the Turks. They were the ultimate dynasty of fixers.

If you happen to have a few hours to spare and a swash to buckle, here are two rousing epic adventures from Persia and the Middle East to fill in the time. If we think of Persian epics, the two titles which probably come to mind are Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh and Vis and Ramin by Fakhruddin As’ad Gurgani, both available in excellent Penguin translations by Dick Davis. There’s also Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, which is based on an episode in Ferdowsi’s poem. As for Arabic ones, the massive (and anonymous) Thousand and One Nights is the best-known.

The British Eighth Army’s victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in October-November 1942 is commonly considered one of the turning points of the Second World War—Winston Churchill called it “the end of the beginning” of the war. Historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg, however, contends that the true turning point in the North African/Middle East campaign was the First Battle of El Alamein fought in July 1942. And the key to success in that battle was the Allied victory in what Gorenberg calls the “War of Shadows”, a war of codebreakers and spies.

Many years ago a Parisian dance act from Pigalle received an invitation to play at a nightclub on Cairo’s Pyramid Road. Like “costumes” at the Crazy Horse today, the dancers’ body stockings left nothing to the imagination. The audience of worldly Cairiotes, the tarbouche-wearing musicians with their lutes and durabukas, the indefatigable army of busboys, gazed on this spectacle of female nubility with a mix of indifference and condescension.