Lee P. Ruddin: Review of T.C.F. Hopkins's Empires, Wars and Battles: The Middle East from Antiquity to the Rise of the New World (Forge Books, 2007)
A grandiose project if ever there was one: cataloguing Middle Eastern history, from ancient to early modern, in just over two hundred and fifty pages. So, does T.C.F. Hopkins, a pseudonym for a popular fantasy/horror writer Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, fit the billing? In a word: no. For we have Alexander and Co., but no Brits, with the author concluding hastily in the late 17th century.
Events post-September 11 have taken on a Middle Eastern dimension—underscoring the urgency to comprehend the history of this cradle of civilization. Hence we need only reference President Bush, whom on April 10, 2003, in a television address, acknowledged that the Iraqi people are “the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity.” For all the opinions voiced concerning the horrors of Hussein or the annihilation Ahmadinejad intends for the West, commentators, more often than not, are an historical ignoramus when it comes to your Suleiman and Mehmed II. This is not the book to fill that vacuum.
Those readers searching for an instant informational download need only reference one of Hopkins’ “blocks”: “The Ancient World,” “The Roman Period,” “Byzantine and Islam,” “The Rise of the Ottoman Empire,” and “The Ottoman Century and Beyond.” Conversely, this is not the most reader-friendly text; the chapters would have been best divided into parts with chapters contained therein. No longer would the reader feel overwhelmed after such realignment. The downside of this laudable fast-paced narrative—omissions aside—is an endless stream of historical occurrences which reads rather like a laundry list. All this makes for a slow, and at times, tortuous read. The less said about the maps the better.
The opening “block” reads rather like a poor imitation—and needless to say, less authoritative—Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation, by William R. Polk. Yet we must remember that Hopkins is not catering to the same scholarly audience as is Polk (for she is simply not of a comparable academic standing). Still, the book is not wasted on those movie-cum-medieval buff’s that have recently taken in screenings of Gladiator, Troy, Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven, not to mention the small-screen docudrama, Rome.
The third “block” apportions too little ink to the Crusades: being simultaneously rich, yet restrained. For those interested in further reading, David Nicolle’s recently-released double-volume: Crusader Warfare: Byzantium, Western Europe and the Battle of the Holy Land (v.1) and Crusader Warfare Volume II: Muslims, Mongols and the Struggle Against the Crusades (v.2) is obligatory. British historian, Jonathan Riley-Smith—arguably the world’s most influential crusades historian—is always worth a read.
Despite Hopkins's claim that Empires, Wars and Battles serves as a companion to Confrontation at Lepanto, the dust-jacket, revealing the book’s sub-sub-title: “The Ancient Roots of Modern Conflicts in the Middle East,” reads as if the author endeavours to link historical events with the present, thus subscribing to History Today’s masthead: “What Happened Then Matters Now.” Lamentably, there is only one sentence or two here and there which duly fits the bill (and not as exclusive to the Middle East as to the rest of the globe).
Nonetheless, two stand out for comment. Events in Afghanistan and Iraq indubitably shape the author’s hand. Hopkins's analysis is so crisp that all the reader need substitute is Jalal al Din for Osama Bin Laden and the Mongols for U.S. and Coalition forces to contemporize early-13th-century events. Attention policymakers and commentators in favour of a precipitative withdrawal from Iraq (up to and including the Greater Middle East): read your Roman history! For such a strategy is doomed to fail, leading not only to a deterioration of the hegemon’s authority but an array of client governments without fundamental support, creating a hot-bed of fundamentalism and insurrection.
In short, do not be fooled by the title. Those with a hunger for blood ‘n’ guts wishing to add to their collection of sword-and-shield epics look elsewhere; for Hopkins's hardback reads more like booty ‘n’ goods than blood ‘n’ guts. An unnoteworthy title if ever there was one. This is most definitely not a must.
The Romans, French and British—notwithstanding the Mongols and Ottomans—all reported their victories in the region pithily (to quote Julius Caesar): “Veni, Vedi, Vici”—I came, I saw, I conquered. In this instance, however, T.C.F. Hopkins came, scribbled, and crashed.
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