Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

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

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

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

Article excerpt

Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923, by Efraim Karsh and Inari Karsh. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. 409 pages. $29.95.

"At the time of the Muslim occupation of Palestine in the seventh century, Jews in Jerusalem alone numbered some 200,000; by the 1880s the Jewish community in the whole of Palestine had been reduced to about 24,000" (p.161). So say Efraim and Inari Karsh. But how little they make of this astounding information. Not only does the figure cited imply that the dispersal of the Jews by the Romans after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D, totally failed; not only does it imply that the new Arab Muslim rulers somehow compassed the destruction, conversion, or expulsion of an enormous Palestinian Jewish community; but it further implies that 7th century Jerusalem, perched high in the rocky Judaean hills, was the second largest city in the world outside of China, and the largest in the world not on navigable water.

The inquiring reader obviously wants more, and follows the Karshs' footnote instructions: "For the Jewish population in Palestine in earlier times, see...." These instructions refer the reader to just two books, only one of which-Moshe Gil's A History of Palestine, 634-1099 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)-is written by a professional medievalist. This massively documented scholarly work devotes seven pages to the subject. "The Karaite commentators confirm what we know from the Christian sources, that it was forbidden for Jews to enter Jerusalem, and they point out that the Muslims changed this situation when they captured the city.... A Jewish chronicle...also confirms that it was `Umar [the second Caliph] who gave permission for Jewish families to settle in Jerusalem" (p. 70).

So the correct figure, according to the more scholarly of the two sources the Karshs cite, is not 200,000, but zero. How does a mistake of this magnitude get made on such a sensitive issue? If you guess tendentious manipulation of sources, you will not go far wrong. On pages 148-49, to give another example, the Karshs give a grisly quotation describing massacred Armenians. "As so often in the past," they add, "the price of Ottoman imperialism was paid for by its national minorities." But the scene described is in Baku, some 500 miles beyond the Ottoman frontier. To the degree Armenians in Baku were a national minority, surely they were a national minority in the Russian, rather than in the Ottoman, empire. …

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