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

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9780674251526: Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923

Empires of the Sand offers a bold and comprehensive reinterpretation of the struggle for mastery in the Middle East during the long nineteenth century (1789-1923). This book denies primacy to Western imperialism in the restructuring of the region and attributes equal responsibility to regional powers. Rejecting the view of modern Middle Eastern history as an offshoot of global power politics, the authors argue that the main impetus for the developments of this momentous period came from the local actors.

Ottoman and Western imperial powers alike are implicated in a delicate balancing act of manipulation and intrigue in which they sought to exploit regional and world affairs to their greatest advantage. Backed by a wealth of archival sources, the authors refute the standard belief that Europe was responsible for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the region's political unity. Instead, they show how the Hashemites played a decisive role in shaping present Middle Eastern boundaries and in hastening the collapse of Ottoman rule. Similarly, local states and regimes had few qualms about seeking support and protection from the "infidel" powers they had vilified whenever their interests so required.

Karsh and Karsh see a pattern of pragmatic cooperation and conflict between the Middle East and the West during the past two centuries, rather than a "clash of civilizations." Such a vision affords daringly new ways of viewing the Middle East's past as well as its volatile present.

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Review:

Empires of the Sand presents the diplomatic and military history of the Middle East, beginning with France's Egyptian campaigns during which Napoleon startled Europe by claiming to have converted to Islam. The conventional wisdom has been that during the 19th century, the Great Powers of Europe actively sought the dismemberment of the region's preeminent power, the Ottoman Empire, finally using its alliance with Germany during the First World War as an excuse to carve it up into artificial entities and thus sow the seeds for the Middle East's problems today. This is not how London-based historians Efraim and Inari Karsh approach their subject. They see a constant interplay of interests and intrigue, with pressures from regional forces, such as the Hashemites, as the main impetus for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. When they needed support and protection, local states and rulers didn't hesitate to call on infidels they had previously vilified. The West played similar diplomatic games, for example, preventing Bulgaria from taking Istanbul in 1912 for fear of upsetting the overall European balance of power. In the Crimean War of 1854, France and Britain actually went to war with Russia to defend Turkish interests. Though it is fashionable for relations between the Christian West and Islamic Middle East to be presented in terms of a "clash of civilizations," the well-researched analysis of Empires of the Sand convincingly reinterprets the turbulent diplomacy of this endlessly fascinating region. --John Stevenson

About the Author:

Efraim Karsh is Professor and Director of the Mediterranean Studies Program at King's College, London.

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Efraim Karsh; Inari Karsh
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