In Matthew Teller’s new travelogue, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, he explains that while Jerusalem’s Old City is known for its four quarters—Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish—this is a simplification that doesn’t recognize the many other ethnic and religious groups that make this city so unique. As the title suggests, Teller actually identifies nine quarters in the Old City, around which he structures his book.
Visitors from the Arab world flock to Istanbul today, enjoying the city’s cosmopolitan vibe alongside its comfortingly familiar culinary and architectural riches. Turkey’s accelerating pivot towards the Arab world has renewed old connections. Ottoman Sultan Selim the “Grim” conquered Syria and Egypt in 1517. For the next 400 years, Arabs frequented Istanbul as loyal Ottoman subjects. Helen Pfeifer’s Empire of Salons examines the first century of encounter between the Arabs and their rulers. It addresses the question of how the Ottomans managed to integrate the proud, ancient centers of Arabic civilization that were Damascus and Cairo.
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.
The Second Battle of El-Alamein, alongside Stalingrad and Midway, is taught in schools the world over as one of the turning points of the Second World War—or, depending on who you talk to, the turning point.
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.