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The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Saqi Essentials)
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 18 November 2008
As the title clearly indicates, this book is an attempt to depict the experience of the crusades through Arab eyes; in my opinion, it succeeded.

Until I read this title, my two favourite works concerning the crusades were 'The first crusade' by Thomas Asbridge and 'The sword and the scimitar' by Ernle Bradford. This book joins that short list.

One of the many bonuses to this title was that it filled a lot of the gaps in the aftermath of July 1099, such as the attempts by the Fatimids to reconquer Jerusalem, how the crusaders conquered Tripoli, Acre, the impact of the Mongols and the Mamluks on Arab civilisation. You come across interesting characters including Saladin, Zangi, Nur-Al-Din, Baybars, Qutuz, to name a few.

If I have any criticism, it is that some bits of information should not be taken at face value. For instance, the author asserts that Richard the Lionheart had Conrad of Montferrat killed by the Assassins - this is speculation at best.

I really enjoyed reading this and have certainly developed a more informed view of the crusades.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 20 October 2008
Amin Maalouf is a good French-Lebanese writer, and this, a translation from the original French, reads very well.

The occasional reviewer who says that it is one-sided is a bit unfair. It is a history of the Crusades from one point of view, as Maalouf says, and as the title makes clear. In writing the book, he says in the introduction, he has deliberately relied almost exclusively on contemporary Arabic sources. Even so, his account is fairly even-handed in that respect. Sometimes he does write as if he is cheering and jeering at the appropriate places in the story, but all even-handed historians, such as Runciman, make it clear that the Crusaders were on the whole a pretty barbaric bunch. Also although Maalouf describes Crusader-Muslim alliances as "bizarre", he makes it clear that as the Crusader kingdoms become stable, they played a role that often cut across religious lines, and few leaders on either side were consistent allies to their co-religionists, nor consistent enemies to those of another faith.

Also, at the end, after detailing the huge amount that the Europeans learnt in science, technology, art, culture, medicine and so on from the Muslim world, he then considers a few things that the Muslim world even at the time could have learnt from the otherwise less advanced west, if they had wished to.

However, the strength of the book doesn't come from its even-handedness. A good history book can be as biased as the writer wants it to be in tone, so long as it is factually accurate. Maalouf's account substantially agrees with (for example) Runciman's history, but fills it out by explaining the debates, the conflicts and the plans that the Muslims had in response to the invasion.

The single perspective of the narrative would be a weakness if someone were to take this as the last word, or the most complete account of the Crusades. At times it reads almost like Hamlet without the prince, as the driving force of the narrative, necessarily, is the Crusaders themselves. Maalouf's account of them is very thin, especially when it comes to explaining their motivations, the plea for help of the Byzantine emperor, the preaching of Peter the Hermit, the mass hysteria, the hopes and the fantasies and so on. This is not really a weakness of the book, but just something you should bear in mind. Whatever the grounds for your interest in the Crusades, you would need to read an account of how it all came about. Runciman's history is the standard work, and still well regarded. Maalouf however, will add much vital information that Runciman doesn't cover, however limited Maalouf's book would be considered in itself.

The great strengths of Maalouf's book come when he is explaining the political and social context of the Muslim world at the time. His explanation of the divisions between Turkish military commander and Arab civilian, burgher and villager, qadi and officer, Sunni and Shia gives you a deeper understanding of the Crusades than you would have if you only read other sources. He also explains the Assassins in a way that treats them not as an exotic curiosity, but an important social movement.

This book will enrich whatever else you have read about the Crusades. Although many of the original Arabic texts have now been translated, his overview and narrative is based on a wide variety of Arabic sources, and gives a broad understanding of what the Muslims thought of the event, and how they reacted to it.
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46 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on 28 May 2003
Having read the traditional, Latin focussed, accounts of Runciman and others this book revealed a range of new aspects on the history of the crusader states. Rather than neccessarily contradicting these works it grants an extra depth of understanding, both of the Muslim forces of the period and, indeed, of their Latin opponents.
The book explains the twists and turns of politics with the Muslim states, allowing someone to who has read the Christian focussed histories to build the complete story. The work is written in an engaging and easy style, complete with juicy quotes from the Arab sources.
A selected translated collection of these sources would be a welcome companion to this book but as yet there does not seem to be one in print. Likewise this work stresses again the need for an account of the crusades from the viewpoint of Syrian Christians (Orthodox, Jacobite, Maronite etc.).
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 7 October 2009
As someone new to the events of the Crusades, I had a general impression that was left from western tv and movies.
This book gives an open and believably fair account of the Crusades. While it does not go into much detail as to where the Crusaders came from, it very clearly shows the various alliances that were created between various arab groups, as well as their own internal squabbling and betrayals.

This is a very balance book, and the author writes with a clear narrative style making it all the more accessible.

I recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in where the West's relationship with the Arab world has come from.
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42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on 6 December 1999
This book, apart from being incredibly entertaining, is historically very accurate. It shows the crusades inscribed in the proccess of economic and material expansion (as well as religious) that Medieval Europe was going through. Although I don't agree with what another reviewer said about the crusades being more about money than about religion. Relgion was just as important as material expansion... they went hand in hand. In the same way, the division of the oriental and occidental church in 1054 was about reaffirming Europe's spiritual independance, which, nonetheless, was a cause of the new technology and increase in population. The book also shows the division in the tukish rule of Islam which is an important factor in the medieval expansion of Europe. Not only Islam was divided (in Spain a similar situation occured), but the Byzantine Empire. The book ends dramatically by describing the invasion of Mongols.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on 1 December 1997
This book, while a novel, gives invaluable insights into what really might have happened during the Crusades. Malouf presents us with the fact that the Crusades were more about money than they were about God. In what is sometimes a gruesome account, he reveals that the crusaders killed not only Muslims but Jews and Christians of the Oriental denominations. Equally interesting is his unwillingness to let Muslims off the hook. He depicts them as fighting amongst themselves, unable to unite and facing the twilight of their great civilization just as the western star began to rise. In sum, for those who think that the Crusades were about a civilized Christian army beating back a barbarian horde, reading this book will offer you the notion that it was a civilized Muslim world sinking into decay whose contact with the Franks unified them to fight against an unprovoked attempt to colonize in the name of God but in reality for gold.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 21 February 2003
This book is an essential read for students studying medieval history, or just a keen reader of historical fact. It is written more as a novel than a text book, making it easy to read.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
...To use Blasé Pascal's phrase, a short-hand way of referring to the individuals one's leaders designate to be your enemy. In addition to the voluminous books from the American side in the Vietnam War, there are now several solid accounts from the Vietnamese side, for example: The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam and Novel Without a Name. Concerning the current so-called War on Terror, there are no real accounts from the "terrorist's side," but there are some thoughtful works that put forth a Muslim perspective, for example, Ahmed Rashid's Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia Amin Maalouf's book is all the more valuable since it was written in 1984, long before 9/11, or the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric. The premise is straightforward: let's present the viewpoint of those who experienced the invasion, which is what the Crusades actually were: A Western, mainly French invasion of the Middle East. And for many Westerners, especially those of a "certain age," what we were taught in school about the Crusades might be a bit fuzzy, but the "reality check" as to their relevance is: Isn't Osama bin Laden's favorite epithet for Westerners "the Crusaders"? It may be hazy in our own memory, but such rhetoric in the Islamic world still resonates. This book explains why.

The Crusades spanned essentially two centuries, from 1096 to 1291. Maalouf's account commences with the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusader forces in 1099. The victors killed every remaining inhabitant: men, women, and children. What man, and it is usually men, will do in the name of God! Over the next quarter century, the Crusaders consolidated their hold over the "Holy Land," as the castles and forts throughout the area fell, with similar losses in lives. The initial Muslim response was a numb fatalism to events that seems to be beyond their control. It took almost 50 years until Zengi, leading a Muslim army, was able to successfully seize Edessa, in what is now Turkey. This was the beginning of the turning of the tide, which achieved final success, from the Muslim point of view, when the last Crusader stronghold, at Acre, fell to a Muslim army in 1291.

Maalouf's account is true to the title. In general, the leadership of the Crusaders is nameless. It truly is an Arab account, and almost all the names are unfamiliar to most Western readers. The one name that most Westerners would recognize is Salah al-Din, or, as it is more commonly spelled in the West, Saladin. Turns out, he was really a Kurd, and not an Arab. Many of the other leaders who fought the Crusaders were not ethnically Arab, and these included other Kurds, Armenians, and Turks. Salah al-Din got his start due to his father, who had saved the life of the aforementioned Zengi. Al-Din was a brilliant general and leader, who routed the Crusaders in several battles. Maalouf defends his title however, since all these leaders lived in a culture that had been "Arabized."

The author conducted two years of research for this book; the Bibliography only highlights some of his key references, in English and French. His narrative is cogent, balanced, and temperate; a perspective much appreciated for such a volatile subject that reverberates today, particularly in the Muslim world. In terms of an "epilogue," within another two centuries, the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Empire would be at the gates of Vienna. Maaloof's overall assessment of the impact though seems to have favored the "losers," and not the "winners." He says: "Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism. Assaulted from all quarters"... (Note: Baghdad fell to the Mongols in the 1200's)... "the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile..."

A quarter century after the original publication, this book is even much more important today for those seeking the perspective on the ones "living on the other side of the river." Definitely 5-stars.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 28, 2011)
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on 2 May 2015
Really good read. Great perspective to see how this period mapped out through the eyes of the islamic inhabitants from squabbling petty rulers to the religious groups and the ordinary people. Seen through their eyes no one expected the invasions to be successful and so bloody and how the people despaired of their leaders to mount a defense and drive the crusaders back into the sea. As the story progresses we see how champions eventually emerged and were able to focus and turn the tide. We also see how the invaders eventually succumbed to the same intrigues and power struggles as their rival Islamic enemies.
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on 16 January 2015
This is the feast of PC that you might fear. Instead it's a fascinating look at the political conditions in the Muslim world that made the Crusades possible and how these changed during the Crusades. The First Crusade arrived at a time when Muslim states were dis-united, unstable and in bitter competition - to the extent that local Muslim rulers were willing to ally with Crusaders against each other. Without understanding these conditions it is impossible to understand the initial successes of the Crusaders especially.
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