Hailed as "the doyen of Middle Eastern studies" in The New York Times Book Review, Bernard Lewis stands at the height of his field. "To read Mr. Lewis," wrote Fouad Ajami in The Wall Street Journal, "is to be taken through a treacherous terrain by the coolest and most reassuring of guides. You are in the hands of the Islamic world's foremost living historian." Now this sure-handed guide takes us through treacherous terrain indeedthe events of 1492, a year laden with epic events and riven by political debate.
With elegance and erudition, Lewis explores that climactic year as a clash of civilizationsa clash not only of the New World and the Old, but also of Christendom and Islam, of Europe and the rest. In the same year that Columbus set sail across the Atlantic, he reminds us, the Spanish monarchy captured Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the peninsula, and also expelled the Jews. Lewis uses these three epochal events to explore the nature of the European- Islamic conflict, placing the voyages of discovery in a striking new context. He traces Christian Europe's path from being a primitive backwater on the edges of the vast, cosmopolitan Caliphate, through the heightening rivalry of the two religions, to the triumph of the West over Islam, examining the factors behind their changing fortunes. That contest long remained more important in many Christians' minds than the New World: as late as the 1683, Vienna almost fell to the Ottoman armies. Lewis also reflects on changing qualities in European and Islamic cultures. The Jews who fled Spain found a receptive environment in Turkey; but the balance of tolerance and openness to innovation steadily shifted west. The voyages of discovery were themselves a part of the Christian-Muslim conflict, he writes, an attempt to outflank the Islamic world. The European explorers sailed into a world they scarcely understood; and yet they imposed their own perceptions of geography on the lands they conquered. Africa, Asia, the Middle and Far East, the Old and New Worldsas intellectual concepts, all are European creations, Lewis observes; ironically, these same definitions have been accepted by the most anti-Western activists.
Bernard Lewis's balanced, insightful account of this pivotal era transcends the recent polemics about 1492, providing us with a striking portrait of an age often obscured by the anger and complacency of today. This far-reaching discussion of the encounters between Islam, the West, and the globe provides a new understanding of the distant events that gave shape to the modern world.