Many years ago, in 1991 when I left my post in Cairo and moved on to the Consulate General in Chicago, the staff at the Embassy gave me a book on Muslim Dynasties and the lavish Courts surrounding them in period 1869-1952. Most of the ruling houses were brushed aside by British, French and other colonial powers. If you visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, there are countless treasures from that world on display, from precious carpets, jewels, embroidered precious cloth with precious stones, gold thrones and many other priceless artifacts all of which ended up in Museums as spoils of Imperialism. Such museums exist in England, France, Austria, Germany, Russia, etc…
What was lost was not only the Kingdoms and Princely States and their rulers, but language and culture, old ways of living and countless traditional and ancient ways societies functioned and also political stability in many regions of the world, which explains the problems of today. The book in French is titled; Splendeur des sultans, Les Dynasties musulmanes by author Philip Mansel. Beautifully illustrated with photos of rulers, their families and their troubled and complicated relationship with the colonial powers.
Presented in this book are royal dynasties of Turkey (Ottoman Empire), Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Persia (Iran), Afghanistan. All these Royal Courts had an Oriental flavour and with the 20th century became more and more influenced by their colonial rulers which led to their downfall.
Philip Mansel has written many well researched books on Royal Courts and their habits, history and intricacies, much of which is often misunderstood.
Another Author whose books I have read with delight is Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize of Literature for his work on Egyptian life. He is the first to win the Nobel for his writing in his native language Arabic. In his lifetime he published many celebrated novels on Old Cairo, where he was born, a world that has unfortunately vanished, though the buildings and the streets are still there to see if you care to walk and look.
I read quite a few of Mahfouz’s books while living in Cairo between 1989-1991, he was still alive then, an old man almost blind and he could be seen having coffee at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek. His book Children of the Alley, was banned by the authorities, Midaq Alley and the trilogy Palace Walk, where fascinating to read, among others. Mahfouz was a brilliant story teller, today it would be difficult to imagine his world in Cairo.
Mahfouz, produced a rich and complex body of work, including more than 30 novels and 350 short stories, many of which were adapted for film. For many years, he also wrote a weekly column for Egypt’s leading newspaper, Al-Ahram.
The Nobel citation said that, “through works rich in nuance — now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous” — Mahfouz had created “an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind.” You can still find his books on Amazon, truly timeless.
Another author I read whose books is Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archeologist. She was closely connected with Churchill to the creation by the British Government of several Arab Kingdom, Iraq was the one Kingdom she was the most associated with, Syria and Jordan with Saudi Arabia were more closely associated with Colonel T.E. Lawrence. She was a spy and an agent of British Imperialism in the Middle East a very active player in setting policy. Her books describe her journeys in and around what would becomeSyria, Iraq and Iran. Others are letters giving a glimpse in her thinking. They are very interesting and again it is a world which 100 years later has disappeared, though it is helpful in understanding the evolution of that part of the world and the divisions between the Kurds, the Sunni Muslims and the Shia Muslims in Iraq and how those divisions would be exploited by the likes of Saddam Hussein.
There are other authors more connected with the time of the old dynasties, Abbasid, Fatimid and Umayyad. Absolutely beautiful to read, Abu Nuwas (756-814) and also modern Arab women writers and they are prolific, their writings are a breath of fresh air and show a very different picture of what many imagine Muslim societies to be like.
I always believed that reading about a region and its people helps give you a better understanding and knowledge in dealing with people.