First Lecture of

These lectures are based mainly on the books of Bernard Lewis, particularly on "What Went Wrong?" [WWW]. Lewis joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1974 after a long academic career in Gt. Britain (1938-74). He retired from Princeton in 1986 but he continues to be very active lecturing and writing. You can get a better idea about Lewis's spirit from an interview at Princeton in August, 2002. A review of "What Went Wrong?" plus pointers to other writings of Lewis on the web can be found at

Some Observations:

  • The Arab world faces severe internal problems. According to Lewis [WWW] " The economies of the region are now in serious trouble. The World Bank estimates "that the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants."
  • From the United Nations Arab Human Development Report (July 2002): "The report shows that Arab countries have made significant strides in more than one area of human development in the last three decades. ... Nevertheless, the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings in the Arab institutional structure - freedom, empowerment of women, and knowledge. ... The report was prepared by a team of Arab scholars, and as such, is a look in the mirror ... "
  • Many Arabs attribute these problems to their supposed victimization by Western colonialism and/or imperialism and, during the last 50 years, Zionism. Is this explanation correct?

Some Facts

Fact: The Arabs came close to eliminating Christianity. A map of Europe and the Middle East around 700CE shows only four Christian states: England (but not UK: Ireland, Wales, and Scotland were still pagan), France, Italy, and the Byzantine Empire (the area of the Balkans and Asia Minor). The following passage is from Gibbon's [DFRE], vol. 5, pp. 398-399.

"A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; ... Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed. From such calamities was Christendom delivered by the genius and fortune of one man."

Gibbon goes on to describe how this man, Charles (illegitimate son of the king), defeated the Saracens in the battle of Poitiers (170 miles SW of Paris) in 732CE. For his victory Charles earned the epithet of Martel (the hammer). (And eventually gave his name to the Charles Martel cognac.)

In the East the Arabs failed in their sieges of Constantinople. They tried six summers in a row, starting in 677CE and, according to Gibbon (ibid) their troops were animated by a saying of Mohamed that "to the first army which besieged the city of the Caesars, their sins were forgiven." (Does this sound familiar?) Anyway, about 30,000 of them met martyrdom during these operations. They tried again without success in 716-718CE. In all these cases the Byzantine victories were helped by the liquid fire used to destroy the Arab fleet.

After that the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees (in the West) and Taurus (in the East) formed the barriers to Moslem expansion. (See map of the Caliphate in 750). However the eastern barrier was breached 300 years later.

Fact: The Moslem threat to Europe persisted for another thousand years, this time from the East. The last siege of Vienna by the Turks was in 1683. A map of the Ottoman Empire of that time shows that not only the Balkans and the Middle East were under Moslem rule, but also Hungary, parts of Ukraine, and the Caucasus. While the Ottomans suffered several defeats in the 18th century, it was only after 1800 that the West had clearly the upper hand in military matters over the Moslem world and only after 1900 that large parts of Moslem lands fell under Western control (Libya, 1911; Syria, Iraq, etc, 1918).

The BIG Question: What was the cause of Moslem military decline?

Some Facts about Technology in the Ottoman Empire

The Printing Press: The printing press was invented in Germany by Gutenberg around 1450. In the Ottoman Empire a Jewish printing press was established around 1493-94 (by the refugees from Spain), an Armenian press in 1567, and a Greek press in 1627. All these presses were allowed to operate under the condition that they did not print in Turkish or in Arabic characters. The first Turkish printing press in the Ottoman Empire was not established until 1729. It was set up by a Hungarian convert to Islam and produced 17 books before it closed in 1742. (Its skilled work force was mainly Jewish.) Finally, it "reopened in 1784 and since then printing in Turkey proceeded rapidly." (Lewis EMT, p. 51). Clearly, the Ottoman Empire was over 300 years behind Western Europe in the use of this technology. Printing had been opposed by religious leaders because religious books were scriptures, therefore should not be printed.

An aside on freedom of the press: That took even longer. Censorship was quite strict well into the 20th century. Assassinations of kings and other prominent figures were never reported but their deaths were attributed to fictitious illnesses. Thus the death of U.S. president McKinley was attributed to anthrax (Lewis, ibid, p. 188).

Time Keeping: Wrist- or pocket- watches did not become widely affordable until the 20th century, so that public clocks in towers were particularly important for time keeping. However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the first public clocks (in towers) made their appearance in the Ottoman Empire. They had been opposed by the Muezzins (whose call to prayer marked time) because they would compete with them. The lack of clocks left a lasting imprint in the cultures of the Middle East where promptness is not considered important. For example, appointed times were often expressed in such terms as "early afternoon" or "late afternoon."

Printed Sources

[WWW]Bernard Lewis What Went Wrong?, Oxford Univ. Press, 2002 (180 pp).
[A]Bernard Lewis The Assassins, 3rd edition, Basic Books, 2003 (166 pp). First published in 1967.
[EMT]Bernard Lewis The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 3rd edition, Oxford Univ. Press, 2002 (524 pp) First published in 1961.
[ME]Bernard Lewis The Middle East, A brief History of the last 2000 years, Touchtone, 1995 (430 pp)
[DFRE]Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) Decline and fall of the Roman Empire, EveryMan's Library edition in six volumes.
[SDW]Michael B. Oren Six Days of War, Oxford Univ. Press, 2002 (446 pp.)

Posted 3/26/03.

Back to Jewish Topics Page Site Map