Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

2
Some English Travelers
in the East

Travelers who describe the countries and peoples of the Middle East have always attracted a wide readership. For the general reader they supply, so he believes, the superior knowledge and consequent superior wisdom of the man (or woman) who has Been There and Met Them and Knows. This belief even now miraculously survives the daily and weekly fatuities of special correspondents. For “experts” of various kinds, who wish to specialize on the Middle East without actually having to learn a Middle Eastern language, they offer the comforting appearance of inside information—a primary source for the historian, a field report for the social scientist, a first-hand informant for the political analyst.

There has been a long series of travelers from Europe to the East; pilgrims and crusaders in the Middle Ages, followed, with the growing sophistication of Christendom, by diplomats and spies, tourists and traders, renegades and missionaries, soldiers and politicians, artists, scholars and litterateurs, and some, in modern times, who manage to combine several or even all of these functions.

In our own day the traveler is enjoying a new popularity, in a new role. Some of the earlier functions of travel literature are now variously discharged by the monograph, the guide-book, the hand-out, and other works of reference; some by the cinema and television. The travel writer has however retained some of these functions; in addition he has found a new purpose, in part usurping the roles previously played by the novelist, the essayist, even the publicist and the historian. In turn discursive, reflective, and informative, he brings comfort to a wide circle of readers, including, as in the past, those who fear the cost and hardship of travel, reinforced by those who shun the rigors of scholarship.

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