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Israel Studies 7.1 (2002) 222-230



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Efraim and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand:
The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923

Isaiah Friedman


Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh, Empires of the Sand. The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Harvard University Press 1994), 397 pp. and Index.

Professor Karsh, the Director of the Mediterranean Studies Program at King's College, University of London, made his name following the publication of his book, Fabricating Israel; History: The "New Historians" (London, 1997). 1 In that work, Karsh distinguished himself as a competent Middle East scholar who wields a scalpel-like pen, which serves him well as an engaging writer with a rather combative style.

Now Karsh, jointly with his wife, Inari, a scholar of Middle East history and politics in her own right, present a new book Empires of the Sand. The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923. One is immediately struck by their vigorous style, richness of vocabulary, and idiomatic nuances. They argue intelligently and lucidly. The narrative is smooth and reads like a novel, which is yet another example that history books must not be necessarily dull. Indeed, one is at times gripped by a sense of drama interspersed by a touch of irony. They make no secrets of their likes or dislikes and relish any given opportunity to criticize events and people. In spite of massive documentation, they do not lose sight of the broad historical focus. Their characterization of the chief dramatis personae is admirable. Most important is their bold attempt to reinterpret the modern history of the Middle East. It is provocative and is bound to foster debate.

At the center stage of the story is the fate of the Ottoman Empire—the largest empire on Earth in its time—which stretched practically from the gates of Vienna to the Caspian Sea, down to the Persian Gulf and the Hedjaz and along the northern shores of Africa. What, therefore, precipitated the [End Page 222] irreversible decline of such a powerful empire during the nineteenth century until its melancholy end and final dismemberment in the wake of World War I?

There is a body of historians who point an accusing finger at the European Powers, who were eager to gang up on the Turks until the eventual demise of their empire. The Karshes reject this premise unequivocally and point out that preservation of the Ottoman Empire was essential to the stability of Europe and the Middle East.

The imperial bid of Muhammad Ali Pasha was a case in point. Muhammad Ali was an able and ambitious ruler of Egypt, who aspired to nothing less than substitution of his own empire for that of the Ottoman. At the end of October 1831, his son Ibrahim, moved with a strong army northward and defeated the Turks in Palestine and Syria. The Levant was at his feet. Toward the end of 1832, Ibrahim reached the heart of Anatolia, about two hundred miles from the Ottoman capital. Muhammad Ali's imperial dream seemed within reach.

It was at this point that the European Powers intervened. Russia made the first move to save the Ottoman Empire, extracting in the process far-reaching concessions from the Sultan under humiliating conditions; but it was primarily Lord Palmerston, the energetic British Foreign Minister, who became the Sultan's savior. Fearful of Russia's designs, annoyed by French patronage of Muhammad Ali, he was determined to keep the Ottoman Empire intact. Eventually, Ali was forced to withdraw (1841) and was confined to his Egyptian shell. Henceforth, maintenance of the Ottoman Empire became a cornerstone of British policy.

There is nothing new in this thesis. The Karshes highlight primarily the political aspect to the neglect of Turkey's internal problems, for it is here one can find the root causes of Turkey's decline.

The question which inescapably comes to mind is how one squares British occupation of Egypt in 1882 with her standing policy of the preservation of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-201x
Print ISSN
1084-9513
Pages
pp. 222-230
Launched on MUSE
2002-03-01
Open Access
No
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