From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected writings of Rosita Forbes 1919–1937.
Reviewed by Deborah Manley

From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected writings of Rosita Forbes 1919–1937.
Edited and introduced by Margaret Bald. Axios Press, 2010, ISBN 978-60419-030-4, p/b $15. 00

Living women explorer-travellers support this book with great enthusiasm. It brings together a collection of Rosita Forbes’ writings. ‘Once,’ wrote Rosita Forbes (1893– 1967), ‘I couldn’t even wash my hands for seventeen days. Often I have not had a bath for months.’ That is serious travelling!

She was renowned for her travels in the 1920s and 1930s—often in ASTENE areas. She explored the Libyan Desert, sailed to Yemen, trekked in remote Abyssinia, travelled from Turkey to Persia and on other continents on both sides of the Atlantic. She wrote 19 travel books and 11 novels set along the routes of her travels. This book is an anthology from her writings.

Of particular interest to ASTENE are the early chapters: The Secrets of the Sahara with the Egyptian traveller Hassanein Bey—who wrote his own book of the venture (recently reissued by American University In Cairo Press); her interrupted pilgrimage to Mecca (unlike the convert to Islam, Lady Evelyn Cobbold, she did not succeed). The following year Rosita Forbes was off to Yemen, a year later to Morocco. In 1925 she trekked through Abyssinia. Then there was a pause until in 1931 when she crossed from Turkey to Persia and saw much of Kurdistan. The last journey she wrote about was from Kabul to Samarkand in 1937.

With Rosita Forbes’ books long out of print, Margaret Bald has done a great service, to her and to us, in bringing out this book. Many of us will need to take to the second-hand bookshops or our libraries to search out her other books once we have absorbed this excellent starter.

Deborah Manley

Mamluk History through Architecture, Monuments, Culture and Politics in Medieval Egypt and Syria. Reviewed by Jennifer M Scarce

Mamluk History through Architecture, Monuments, Culture and Politics in Medieval Egypt and Syria, by Nasser Rabbat.  London, I.B. Tauris, 2010. 261 pp, 71 b&w illustrations and plans. ISBN 981845119645. £45

The Mamluk Sultans who dominated Egypt and Syria between 1250 and 1517 were remarkable both for the length and organisation of their rule. They were not local but members of a foreign military elite, nominally of slave soldiers—mamluks (meaning ‘one who is owned’)—recruited from Qipchak Turks of South Russia and Circassians from the North Caucasus, Muslims but differing in language and customs from their subjects. The most enduring and visible impact of their often violent and currupt rule is seen in the architecture of Cairo and Damascus, first and second capitals, respectively, of their domains.

Cairo is a city where the most concentrated and varied range of surviving medieval Islamic architecture (456 registered by the 1951 Survey of Islamic Monuments of Cairo), including superb Mamluk buildings, mingles with crowded streets and shops in a remarkably preserved and dynamic historic centre. Here the only comparable rival is Fez, capital at times of Morocco, whose Islamic buildings dating from the 10th century onwards are still part of a densely populated urban environment. Many have attempted to document and interpret Cairo’s Islamic architecture in such diverse publications as medieval Arabic topographical texts and meticulously recorded and classified surveys compiled in the 19th and 20th century by European scholars. Nasser Rabat, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has already published extensively on Mamluk Cairo, is a distinguished contributor to this extensive literature. He has now taken an original approach where he examines and interprets Mamluk social and cultural history through the medium of recorded architecture.

The present book is a collection of fifteen articles written between 1989 and 2005, now conveniently re-published as a single reference work. It is not a standard history of Mamluk architecture but rather the fruits of research combining the parallel disciplines of Islamic and art history—in other words texts and artefacts. Four sections, each of four or three articles, explore the following themes: Unpicking Mamluk sources—mainly Arabic texts; Architecture as history—case studies of specific buildings; Architecture and language—the relationship between text and building; Architecture as cultural index—a discussion broadly of attitudes to Mamluk architecture.

As each article contains intriguing insights, the best approach is to make a personal choice from each section. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Architects and Artists in Mamluk Society: The Perspective of the Sources. This takes the subject beyond dry facts to understand the problems which these craftsmen faced.
  • The Mosaics of the Qubba al-Zahariyya in Damascus: A Classical Syrian Medium acquires a Mamluk Signature. One of the few articles on Syria which discusses and analyses the composition and themes of buildings among luxuriant trees depicted in mosaics of the late 13th century.
  • Al-Azhar Mosque: An Architectural Chronicle of Cairo’s History which examines the changing role of this building in the transformation of Cairo to a centre of the Mamluk military state.
  • Documenting Buildings in the Waqf System. Documents recording a waqf endowment are essential for an understanding of the resources and budget allocated to an ambitious building project.
  • The Formation of the Neo-Mamluk Style in Modern Egypt. Spectacular landmarks such as the Rifai Mosque and the National Library built 1869—1912 and in 1904 respectively are an eloquent testimony to the impact of Mamluk architecture.


The book concludes with a glossary of Arabic terms, comprehensive notes and bibliography, which are a stimulus to further research. Enjoy and note Professor Rabbat’s insights and take them together with a detailed guidebook to explore the Mamluk monuments of Cairo with fresh eyes.

Jennifer M Scarce

Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World.
Reviewed by Robert Morkot

Libyan Sands: Travel in a Dead World, by Ralph A. Bagnold,
Eland Publishing, 2010. 228 pp., four b/w illustrations and 5 maps. ISBN 978-1-906011-33-8. £12.99

A favoured mode of transport: Karl-Richard Lepsius on a donkey during the Prussian Expedition. The Donkey’s narrative is, alas, not preserved.

Eland’s reprint of the 1935 classic of Sahara exploration is very attractively produced, with Ralph Bagnold’s 1987 epilogue and a new additional biographical note by his son.

As Stephen, Ralph Bagnold’s son, reminds us, the author is remarkably modest about the series of detailed and learned papers he eventually wrote on types and properties of sand. The few black and white illustrations are probably sufficient: they give enough atmosphere and sense of period to complement the narrative. The narrative itself, compelling and well told, will be known to many ASTENE readers already.

As is so often the case, the desert expeditions with adapted Model T Fords started by accident: a few people with time and a couple of these relatively new vehicles wondering how they would fare in the desert. Experience and experiment resulted in the long-range expeditions that form the climax of the book.

From a few tentative journeys beyond Cairo, the first major journeys were in the wellknown regions to the east: a circular route across Sinai to Petra, around the Dead Sea, and back via Jerusalem. There were numerous practical and technical problems to overcome, but the utility of automobiles for desert travel was immediately recognised.

The narrative continues with the forays into the Libyan Desert and the first encounters with the dunes of the Great Sand Sea. The culmination is the extended journey to the Gilf Kebir and Uweinat at the border of Libya, Sudan and Egypt. There is much of interest on the developing political situation with the Italian occupation of Libya and forays by Italian soldiers into the same southerly regions of the desert (partly in pursuit of the Sanussi). There are notes on wildlife, archaeology and landscape; and, of course, people. One notable feature is the way in which various groups were living in, and travelling through, the most remote and inhospitable parts of the desert. They were not always seen, but signs of their relatively recent passing were. We are constantly reminded that there have always been ravellers across the desert, their routes dictated by the stunted palm trees, the oases and the brackish wells: these routes aremarked by bones of cattle, camels and people.

The final chapter is about the ‘lost’—perhaps mythical—oasis of Zerzura. Here Bagnold speculates on a time when all the earth has been surveyed and examined: and now we are almost at that time. Remarkably soon after Bagnold’s death (1990) we can sit at our computers and view the entire Libyan Desert using Google Earth. We can peer down onto the Gilf Kebir and Gebel Uweinat. A major road now connects all of the oases from Cairo through Bahriya, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga back to the Nile at Asyut: that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. But despite this, even now it is possible to go out into this vast desert and feel that isolation that Bagnold and his companions felt. One of the most striking details of the book is the map (p.15) that has the outline of the Indian subcontinent superimposed over the Libyan Desert from Tripoli in the west to Sinai, and south to Khartoum. As the caption tells us: ‘In shape the Libyan Desert resembles the Indian peninsula, and, a fact which may be surprising but at the same time helpful, it compares with India in size.’ Yes, it surprised me—but I shall remember it: the same size, the same shape—but not quite so many people!

I do not drive, and have no interest in cars and the contents of their bonnets; I am also slightly ambivalent about the desert—and certainly not one of those whose heart thrills at the thought of desert travel; but Bagnold draws the reader in, and Libyan Sands is certainly a thoroughly enjoyable and informative book for bedtime.

Robert Morkot

The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Volume III.
Reviewed by Mary Henes

The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Volume III: Southern Arabia and Persia, edited by Gerald Brisch.
Oxford, Archaeopress Press, 2010. 429 pp., b/w drawings, illustrations and maps. ISBN 978-1-905739-13-4.

Mabel and her husband Theodore Bent were early members of the Hellenic Society, whose Library now holds Mabel’s many notebooks from her travels. The Archaeopress has undertaken, with Gerald Brisch, to publish her Chronicles, and this is the third in a projected trilogy, Volume I on Greece and the Levantine Littoral having appeared in 2006, and Volume II on Africa and Egypt forthcoming.

Mabel (1846-1929) originally intended her journals to be read by her aunts, sisters and nieces, but this intended small feminine sphere belies the broader appeal of the material contained within them; indeed, Theodore made much use of them when writing up his own published works. Brisch concedes that the Chronicles ‘although of great interest, are far from great travel literature,’ and despite him having ‘smoothed over’ some aspects of the journals, there are passages which might have been culled should Mabel have undertaken a revised version in her lifetime. Instead, following Theodore’s death in 1897, Mabel undertook to publish his notes in Southern Arabia (1900), which may be familiar to ASTENE readers. These Chronicles offer Mabel’s first hand, unedited version of these and other travels. They give us an understanding of the day-to-day tribulations of their travels; the characters whom they met; and moreover a sense of the very real dangers which the couple faced.

The three notebooks which comprise Chronicle 6 describe the Bents’ brief excavations in Bahrain in February 1889, inspired by Durand’s work there in the late 1870s, and their journey home. Seemingly on a whim, they returned overland through Persia, where they gained an audience with the Shah, who was himself undertaking a lengthy journey to Europe. Mabel refers on occasion to Mme. Dieulafoy, whose work also appears in Vita Sackville-West’s Passenger to Teheran (the Tauris Parke edition was reviewed in the Spring ASTENE Bulletin last year). Mabel’s  work also shares some of the preoccupations of Isabella Bird-Bishop’s Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891) including fascination with the anderoun and Persian women’s lifestyles. The Bents also visited Persepolis and Isfahan, which were increasingly foci of British travellers’ routes through Persia and their recollections of the country.

Chronologically, the volume here breaks for four years, during which Theodore undertook excavations at Great Zimbabwe. By late 1893, however, the couple were planning their journey to Southern Arabia, landing at Aden, which was by now a familiar port for them. They undertook a number of short journeys around the Hadramaut during the first half of 1894, and returned again in 1895. Although essentially unsuccessful – they were never to enter the Mahri district – the Bents added greatly to British understanding of the region, particularly in terms of flora and fauna. Descriptions of collecting samples, as well as of Mabel’s photography, enliven much of the text.

The final Chronicle which Brisch has transcribed here comes from the island of Sokotra and east of Aden over the winter of 1896-97. This brief notebook contains details of their excavations, negotiations with the Sultan, Mabel’s photography, and then the illness which was to kill Theodore shortly after their return to London. Each of Mabel’s notebooks offers a sharp insight into travel practices for European travellers in the East.

For all these fascinating facets, there are a number of issues with the book. Brisch has taken the decision to emphasise all dates in Mabel’s diaries in bold, repeatedly adding further clarification of day, date, month or year, which not only disturbs the reader’s eye whilst perusing the chronicles, but also
stresses a greater temporality than journals or diaries, by their very nature, tend to do. Some readers may also find the shifts between endnotes and footnotes, and also fonts, an unnecessary distraction, and Brisch himself concedes that his footnotes on Mabel’s notebooks are subjective; some are elucidating, others merely distracting. Furthermore, as the typeface selected for Brisch’s footnotes cannot produce the diacritics he includes for his transliteration of Ḥaḍhramaut, at one point the word is formatted with two fonts (p. 199). Staying with the Hadramaut (as Mabel transcribes it), Brisch offers in the same footnote a definition of the region drawn from 1947;
one wonders whether a contemporaneous reference could not have been found, even one drawn from Theodore’s lectures or newspaper reports. Minor typographical errors include dating a Freya Stark reference 1983 rather than 1938. Nonetheless, Brisch and Archaeopress should be commended for their attempts to bring Mabel’s work into the public eye. The diaries’ relationship with Theodore’s Southern Arabia sheds light on the monumental work Mabel undertook following his death, to bring their experiences to public attention. Although their journey through Persia was an afterthought, and their attempts to enter the Hadramaut problematic, there is much to relish in these chronicles, not least another glimpse of intrepid women explorers in the late nineteenth century.

Mary Henes

The Poetics and Politics of Place: Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism
Reviewed by Caroline Williams

The Poetics and Politics of Place: Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism, edited by Zeynep Inankur, Reina Lewis and Mary Roberts.
Istanbul, Pera Museum Publication, 2011. 279 pp, 96 illustrations, ISBN: 978-0-295-99110-8.

This book’s subtitle best describes its contents. For the last three months of 2008, The Lure of the East, an exhibition of primarily British Orientalist paintings (1840–1920), was shown in Istanbul. This venue was part of an international tour that also included New Haven, London and Sharjah; a multi-nation showing that was both an occasion to
re-assess Orientalism 30 years after Edward Said coined the term, and to re-evaluate the Ottoman capital as a venue for the Other. The 18 essays in this book, part of a symposium, present the reader with multiple Orientalisms. These crosscultural and trans-national interpretations in multi-directional patterns replace earlier, simpler East–West binary views (Mary Roberts, pp. 127–42) and raise new queries: how does one define the uneasy relationship between Orientalist painting and photography, and/or deal with the challenges to normative Western masculine presumptions by feminist and post-colonial agents?

The first group of essays cluster around the nature, purposes and timing of the exhibit as conceived by London’s Tate Gallery as well as the questions whom does art portray, and to whom do the results belong? Since this was the first survey of British Orientalism after the terrorist attacks in New York of 11 September 2001 and London of 7 July 2005, Christine Riding of the Tate looks openly at ‘the tangled political, social, cultural landscape in which the exhibition developed’ (pp. 33–46). Collecting has also changed. Rodney Searight, the pioneering Orientalist collector in the 1960s to 1980s, sought images made for 19th-century European consumption, which captured the new and unfolding experiences of trade, diplomacy, antiquarianism and tourism (Sarah Searight, pp. 77–88). The present patrons of Orientalist art, however, are the rulers and
businessmen of the Middle East and the Gulf who buy these paintings ‘as acts of repossession’ and as ‘authentic’ documents of a ‘lost’ cultural, architectural landscape (Nicholas Tromans, pp. 65–74). Reina Lewis discusses the impact of Orientalism on popular, material and consumer cultures. Pera, where the Western and Ottoman Orientalist artists once had studios, and which hosts exhibitions such as The Lure and newly formed collections of Orientalist art, has been revivified by emphasizing a local past that appeals to the new, primarily young, and often female patrons of contemporary consumer culture (pp. 49–63).

In 1839 the Tanzimat reforms set the Ottoman Empire on a new course of modernization and Westernization. In the pictorial arts one of the results was the creation in imperial portraiture of a ‘new Sultanic and dynastic image in the contemporary European manner’ (Günsel Renda, pp. 221–32). The role of the dragoman as cultural mediator was eliminated as diplomats and chancellery took on the role of a professional foreign service (Aykut Gürçaglar, pp. 211–20). Other essays stress the nostalgia for the past created by these new changes. For example, Thomas Allom, a British artist, ‘mourns modernization’ in his views of Constantinople (Wendy Shaw, pp. 115–26). So does Mary Adelaide Walker, a pioneer, though little-known female traveler-illustrator who lived in Istanbul and traveled throughout the Empire during the last half of the 19th century. The world she presents is vastly different from the harem image that male Orientalists imagined (Zeynep Inankur, pp. 199–210) These are simple, direct reactions. More complicated were the negative British attitudes towards veiling and the harem, which Teresa Hefferman (pp. 157–68) argues was a reaction against the cosmopolitanism of an Ottoman Empire that challenged British sensibilities.

1839 was also the year in which the daguerreotype introduced photography, and made it another aspect of the Orientalist portrayal. Semra Germaner (pp. 233–42) points out that in 1850, when Ottoman painters first began to depict Istanbul landscapes and buildings, they learnt perspective not from real life but by copying photographs, and Nancy Micklewright (pp. 99–114) writes of photographs collected in personal albums, which reflect individual encounters with the area that are quite different
from the more familiar eroticized canon of Orientalist images.

The Poetics and Politics of Place The most important British and Ottoman Orientalist artists are John Frederick Lewis and Osman Hamdi Bey, each the subject of several articles. John Frederick Lewis began his stay in the Ottoman Empire in 1840: one year in Istanbul and 10 years in Cairo; the Frencheducated Osman Hamdi Bey spent nine years in Paris studying Orientalist art. Both artists had complicated relationships with their own nationalities and with Orientalism. Lewis’s Arab figures represent disguised, retrospective portrayals of himself, revealing his own sympathies with an adopted culture and a desire to dissolve distinctions between East and West
(Briony Llewellyn, pp. 167–82). Osman Hamdi Bey, as one of the earliest non-Western artists to define his creative work in an engagement with European Orientalist tradition, shows that Orientalism is not a monolithic, univocal creation of Europeans. The Tanzimat period brought a profound sense of rupture from Ottoman history, and Ahmet Ersoy points to Hamdi Bey’s persistent use of embedded self-portraiture as part of his ‘romantic sense of the past’ (pp. 145–56). Edhem Eldem argues that Hamdi Bey’s own culturally complex journey in search of Self, from Istanbul to the Empire’s Arab periphery, turns him from an Ottoman Orientalist into a ‘Real’ Orientalist (pp. 183–98).These papers by scholars and specialists cast new lights on Orientalist art as a continuing and expanding field of study, and offer new ways to think about it. ‘In Orientalist painting a clear distinction between the real and the imaginary, between scientific observation and artistic interpretation is increasingly chimerical.’ (Tim Barringer, p. 243).

Caroline Williams

The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History.
Reviewed by Deborah Manley

The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History, by Mary Lovell.
Little Brown, 2011. 624 pp, ISBN 978-0-316-73282-6. £25.

A biography of this family reminds us of the impact it has had—and continues to have—on Britain. ASTENE member Mary Lovell has impressively taken up the challenge in a book that takes us from the 1650 Royalist, Winston Churchill of Ashe House in Devon, through the great John Churchill, whose Queen rewarded him with an estate at Woodstock near Oxford, where his descendants live today. Of particular interest to ASTENE members are the years 1896–99 covering Churchill’s experience of Egypt and the Sudan.

In 1896, young Winston was ‘actively looking for trouble’—some fracas in which an ambitious young subaltern might get noticed and marked for promotion. Instead of a trouble spot, he was posted to India. There he lived well: eight chuckkas of polo each evening, a beautiful girl, first thoughts of a political life and, surprisingly, a lot of reading. But he still longed for a few months in South Africa, which would ‘inevitably lead to a few medals’—for now he had an eye also on a political target. His devoted and life-loving mother, Jennie, went to Egypt to plead his case with Lord Kitchener no less. (The behaviour of grand travellers in grand hotels is an aspect of travel seldom touched by ASTENE.)

The Churchills Winston was by now writing books and had a column in the Daily Telegraph. In 1898 he at last got his posting to fame, arriving in Egypt just in time to participate in ‘the last great cavalry charge at the Battle of Omdurman’ on 2 September 1898. That would be the end of his army days. He resigned his commission and, with Omdurman glory upon him, fought—and lost—a parliamentary seat before taking off to South Africa as a journalist.Churchill’s time in ASTENE-land was brief but gives us an excuse to introduce here this truly fascinating and wonderfully researched book. Readers may already know Mary Lovell’s A Scandalous Life: the biography of Jane Digby and A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton.

Deborah Manley

Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt
Reviewed by Janet Starkey

Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt, by Anthony Sattin.
London, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2011. 320 pp, ISBN 978-1-848857-69-8. £10.99.

This book is a new paperback edition of Anthony Sattin’s Lifting the veil: British Society in Egypt, 1768–1956 (London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1988), and it focuses on this phase of Egyptian history during the rise and fall of British colonialism. The earlier edition has consistently been cited as a useful authority by many ASTENE authors. Although essentially a new edition of the original version, which was described by Roger Bowen as ‘wry and vivid’, it is one of those books you just cannot put down until it is finished. It is immensely readable but, at the same time, obviously the product of much appropriate wide ranging historical research into the adventures of a range of travellers, colonialists and merchants. It has been accurately described by the publisher as portraying ‘the shifting interests, dreams and failures, passions and intrigues of an extraordinary cast of characters. From Napoleon Bonaparte with his schemes to control the overland route to India, to tomb raiders such as Giovanni Belzoni; from scholars such as hieroglyph-decoder Champollion to Thomas Cook and his wide-eyed tourists and Cromer and his bureaucrats, this fast-paced and richly described narrative illuminates a bygone world and charts the end of imperialism and the advent of Egyptian independence.’

The book is arranged in two parts and is full of fascinating detail. The first part concerns the encroachment of the British and other foreign powers into Egypt from the middle of the 18th century to the mid-20th century. The book begins with James Bruce’s impression of Egypt at the start of his journey up the Nile, then explores the impressions of other earlier travellers. The second chapter begins with the arrival of the French in Egypt in 1798 and the subsequent arrival of the British in 1801. Their relationships
with Muhammad Ali, the adventures of explorers such as Burckhardt, Belzoni and Henry Salt are all described. The third chapter is an account of the opening up of lines of communication, while ‘Effendis and Others’ is about those making private collections of Egyptian antiquities;
authorities such as John Gardner Wilkinson, Edward Lane and Lucie Duff-Gordon; the overseas route from the Red Sea; and Orientalist painters such as John Frederick Lewis. ‘Planting a Firm Foot’ begins with slave trading and goes on to explore British interests in Sudan, coastguards, the demise of General Gordon, and Kitchener’s victory at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.

The second part focuses on the sights of most interest to British tourists (Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and the Sudan) and concludes with thoughtful reflections on the departure of British forces from Suez and the subsequent return of British tourists. While this section is delightful, some elements could have been updated in this new edition. For example, the Cecil Hotel in Alexandria is now far from moribund, as it was when Lawrence Durrell last visited in the 1970s, for it has recently benefited from a major renovation. Nevertheless, the chapter on Alexandria is a fine example of Sattin’s vivid writing. It is based on accounts by officials of the Egyptian Service: their social and political routines are introduced, but we soon read of the ‘sinister- rowdiness of the port’, its multi-ethnic community and its drug smugglers, its music halls, pleasure
gardens and poets.

Lifting the Veil The illustrations are appropriate and include many of the main sites visited by tourists, as well as the famous terrace of the Shepheard’s Hotel from the Thomas Cook Archive and that of its rival, Cairo’s Continental Hotel, from the Hulton Picture Library. There are also images of many of the early travellers (James Bruce, Giovanni Belzoni, Henry Salt, Thomas Waghorn and Howard Carter), and several depicting the opening of the Suez Canal. They also reflect British involvement in Egypt: British officials (including Cromer and General Charles Gordon) as well as the British bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 and the eventual withdrawal from Suez.Anthony Sattin has been called ‘our premier Egyptoliterateur’ by Jan Morris, and indeed his wide-ranging knowledge and fascination for
Egypt cannot be faulted. He first visited the country in 1985, when he travelled widely and immersed himself in its culture. The result has been a series of highly-acclaimed, well-written books that are also of considerable interest to ASTENE members. I thoroughly recommend this paperback edition.

Janet Starkey

Jerusalem: The Biography
Reviewed by Malcolm Wagstaff

Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2011. 638 pp, 104 plates, 16 maps and plans, 5 family trees, ISBN 978 0 297 85265 0. £25.

Simon Sebag Montefiore has added a new volume to the growing number of urban biographies, of which Peter Ackroyd’s London (2000) is perhaps the best known. In this case, Jerusalem is the focus of a chronological and largely political history of Palestine told for general readers through the crimes and passions of the city’s rulers. For the most part, these are grouped by dynasties, such as the Maccabees, the Herods, the crusader Baldwins and the Ottomans. Lesser local families such as the rival Husseinis and
Nusseibehs provide an element of continuity, almost from the Islamic conquest to the present. The Sebag Montefiore family makes an occasional appearance, too.

The author states that his purpose is to reveal ‘the organic patterns of life that defy the abrupt incidents and sectarian narratives of conventional history’. These include the episodic persecution of Jews, the endless, frequently bloody disputes about precedence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the developing bitterness between Jew and Arab. The author tends to stress the sensational in what, at times, is a rather racy narrative of events. Interesting but long digressions take the reader away from the main story from time to time. For example, we read about the background to the mad American consul, Warder Cresson, and the life of the popular Syrian Druze singer known as Asmahan. The footnotes add even more incidental information. Set pieces describe the social life of the city at some periods but not others. The major buildings, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, are introduced, their roles in the fabric of the city are described and their fate outlined. However, the reader is left with little sense of the discontinuities in the physical development of the city, particularly between its destruction by the Romans after the Jewish revolt of ad 70 and the emergence of what we know as the Old City of Jerusalem. Careful study of the plans is required.

Jerusalem Travellers familiar to ASTENE members are used as sources (e.g. Egeria, Al-Muquaddasi, Benjamin of Tudela, George Sandys, Evliya Chelebi, Chateaubriand, Robert Curzon, Herman Melville and Moses Montefiore). A few unexpected visitors (e.g. Nikolai Gogol and Rasputin) also appear. The author weaves different sources into a coherent story and uses hitherto neglected sources, notably the diaries of Wasif Jawhariyyeh (available only in Arabic) covering the late Ottoman period and the British Mandate for Palestine. The result is impressive—an instructive, fascinating and highly readable book. Whether it will realize the author’s ‘passionate hope that it might encourage each side [in the present conflict] to recognize and respect the ancient heritage of the other’ remains to be seen.

Malcolm Wagstaff

Dead Sea Level: Science, Exploration and Imperial Interests in the Near East.
Reviewed by Edwin James Aiken

Dead Sea Level: Science, Exploration and Imperial Interests in the Near East, by Haim Goren.
London, I. B. Tauris, 2011 (Vol. 6, Tauris Historical Geography Series), ISBN: 9781848854963. £59.50

It is rare that a book is both an excellent scholarly treatise and a gripping page-turner filled with stories of adventure and exploit. Haim Goren’s Dead Sea Level is one of those rare books. Rare and perhaps unique in that it takes a story of which we know the outlines (though many of us are perhaps sketchy on the details) and skilfully challenges the accepted wisdom on why the enterprises unfolded as they did.

Goren writes masterfully of the 19th-century European involvement in the Near and Middle East, demonstrating that the traditional interpretation of this as one form or another of colonial endeavour is not as accurate as we might think at first glance: the events were both more quotidian and more significant. They were both personal achievements and national projects.

The book is divided into two sections. The first covers the general outlines of European endeavour in the area, notably the expedition of Francis Rawdon Chesney to survey the Euphrates in the 1830s. The second section deals at greater length with investigations concerning the Dead Sea and the broader Jordan Rift Valley area. Goren tellingly depicts these events both within the wider context of Western involvement in the area and also as products of the personalities who were involved.

Dead Sea Level: Science As an Irishman myself, I must also draw attention to the ways in which Goren has revealed how distinctly ‘Irish’ an enterprise travelling to the East has been, and Goren’s analysis not only promotes this Irish involvement, but brings a new theoretical perspective: after all, the Irish were, at different times, both promoters of British interests and colonial subjects themselves. For that reason alone this is a significant book.

Edwin James Aiken

Voices of Arabia: A Collection of Poetry of Place.
Reviewed by George Hutcheson

Voices of Arabia: A Collection of Poetry of Place, selected, introduced and translated by T. J. Gorton.
London, Eland Books, 2010. Pb, 128 pp, ISBN 978 906011 20 8. £6.99.

Eland Press, highly regarded for their extensive list of travel books, produces an attractive series of small volumes under the label Poetry of Place, providing selections of verse relating to geographical or cultural areas—several of which, happily, are concerned with regions of particular interest to ASTENE members. These include Andalus (dealing with Moorish Spain), Berber Odes, Istanbul, Desert Air (a compendium of poetry from Coleridge to Cavafy, Goethe to James Elroy Flecker) and Voices of Arabia, the selection under consideration.

Classical Arabic poetry emerged from an earlier oral tradition in the period from about ad 600–1000, and is comprehensively recorded. An early anthology of translations into English, which is still available, dates from 1881 (W. A.Clouston), but most recent compilers appear to prefer to use their own translations. The conversion of Arabic into English is generally considered to be difficult, and the creation of ‘poetry’ from these interpretations even more so. The possibility of replicating metre and rhyme is not readily attempted.

T. J. Gorton, a scholar of Arabic for many years, makes it clear at the outset of Voices of Arabia that he has made no attempt to mould his translations into what we would consider ‘poetry’—his aim has been to convey ‘… most of the main literal meaning of the original’. Some of his translations use modern English/American colloquial speech—for example, in some lines by Abu Nuwas, Gorton’s interpretation reads:

But when she played hard to get, I said: ‘Give in!’ She said: ‘With a face like that, how could I love you?’

The esteemed scholar Bernard Lewis’s rendering of the same lines is

When she persisted in coldness I said to her, Grant me your love, and she replied: With such a face do you expect love from me?

Gorton’s approach clearly allows for pacey, vibrant readings of the translations; that of Lewis is a more subtle decipherment.

After a brief reference to pre-Islamic verse—which is generally regarded as the recorded, oral poetry concerned with desert travel and tribal affairs —the predominant concern of the collection is with the Ritha or elegiac poetry. A ‘court’ society was emerging, with religion, affairs of the heart and the grape providing rich source material for the poet. The poet’s influence could be considerable, with possible exile or elimination as the result of any inappropriate references—either overt or allusive. The possibility of ambiguity has to be borne in mind by both the translator and the reader. The resulting writings can be bawdy, erotic or ethereal as well as tender, inspiring and elemental. Gorton’s selection and translations are extensive and contain examples reflecting all of these characteristics from the widely available known poets including Abu Nuwas, Al Mutanabbi, Ash Shanfara, Farazdaq and Jarir. His preference is to depict human life and passions.

Voices of Arabia In terms of creating a mind-picture of the milieu in which the works are set, the interpretations do suffer, it seems to me, from the use of idiomatic English. This is largely and usefully offset by the compiler’s miniature pen-portraits of the poets, which go a long way to ease the reader into the necessary atmosphere that does not emerge from the translations. A surprising amount is known about the writers and their world, and readers will surely be encouraged to further explorations in this fascinating world of literature—although not, perhaps, necessarily following Gorton’s exhortation (in the case of one poet) to learn the language for the pleasure of reading the poetry in its original Arabic. Would that we had the time and ability to undertake such a challenge!
A small quotation may be used, perhaps, to hint at the sensibility of the collection:

By my life, a Bedu girl around whose tent The wind blows freely front and back, Is dearer to me than your over slender maid, Who breaks into a sweat if she puts down her fan.

George Hutcheson