The best books to understand the history of the Middle East

Wayne H. Bowen Author Of Undoing Saddam: From Occupation to Sovereignty in Northern Iraq
By Wayne H. Bowen

Who am I?

My primary field in history is Spain, over which I have published six books. However, I became interested in the Middle East when the US Army deployed me to Iraq in 2004. Although I had taught the history of the region, experiencing war and reconstruction for myself, and spending time in Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar made the Middle East come alive to me. I wrote Undoing Saddam, my war diary, during my Iraq tour. I followed up that work with a textbook on Arabia, articles on the Ottoman Empire, and plans for future projects on the region, both on its own and in relation to early modern and modern Spain.  


I wrote...

Undoing Saddam: From Occupation to Sovereignty in Northern Iraq

By Wayne H. Bowen,

Book cover of Undoing Saddam: From Occupation to Sovereignty in Northern Iraq

What is my book about?

Undoing Saddam tells the story of northern Iraq in transition from U.S. occupation to Iraqi sovereignty. During 2004, U.S. and Iraqi government forces faced numerous challenges: insurrection, reconstruction, and forming a government. Wayne H. Bowen was a U.S. Army Reserve civil affairs officer over higher education and antiquities in the provinces of Nineveh, Dohuk, and Erbil, promoting peace and stability. He managed reconstruction projects, served as a key intermediary between Iraqi educational leaders and U.S. forces, and assisted in the search for weapons of mass destruction. This book presents the fight to build a new Iraq despite terrorist attacks, ethnic conflict, and missteps by U.S. forces. Undoing Saddam will be of interest to everyone interested in the Iraqi occupation and reconstruction efforts.

The books I picked & why

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The Concise History of the Crusades

By Thomas F. Madden,

Book cover of The Concise History of the Crusades

Why this book?

As a historian, I pick books outside my area to read for pleasure, so can enjoy them without feeling like I need to take notes for my next academic project. I picked up Madden’s book in an airport bookstore before a long coast-to-coast flight. By the time we landed, I had finished this compelling story. Put aside what you think you know about the Crusades from Hollywood, novels, and school; this is the real story, of religious devotion, climactic battles, kings in conflict, and changing the world. The clash of Christianity and Islam during the Middle Ages made Europe and the Middle East, in ways that Madden helps us understand.

The Concise History of the Crusades

By Thomas F. Madden,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Concise History of the Crusades as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What is the relationship between the medieval crusades and the problems of the modern Middle East? Were the crusades the Christian equivalent of Muslim jihad? In this sweeping yet crisp history, Thomas F. Madden offers a brilliant and compelling narrative of the crusades and their contemporary relevance. Placing all of the major crusades within their medieval social, economic, religious, and intellectual environments, Madden explores the uniquely medieval world that led untold thousands to leave their homes, families, and friends to march in Christ's name to distant lands. From Palestine and Europe's farthest reaches, each crusade is recounted in a clear,…


When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty

By Hugh Kennedy,

Book cover of When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty

Why this book?

Few cities in history have had powerful claims to be at the center of the world: Rome in the ancient world, Constantinople in the early Middle Ages, London in the late 19th century, and Washington during the early Cold War. To this we need to add another city: Baghdad from the 9th to 11th centuries. Not only was it at the center of the most powerful and united Islamic dynasty, it accumulated and created the greatest library and center for learning in world history. With an empire stretching from India to North Africa, the Abbasids were the hub for global trade, intellectual life, and military strength. This book tells the story of the dynasty and their capital, a remarkable city with incredible technology, religious dynamism, and tolerance for diversity. It’s a captivating story, well-told and deserving of more attention. 

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty

By Hugh Kennedy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "remarkable narrative history" (The Times) of the dynasty that ruled from Baghdad during Islam's greatest era The "golden age of Islam" in the eighth and ninth centuries was as significant to world history as the Roman Empire was in the first and second centuries. Islamic culture and enterprise stretched from Tunisia to India; its legacy influenced politics and society for years to come. From the founding of the city of Baghdad in AD 762 to the end of the ninth century, the rule of the Abbasid dynasty was the zenith of Islamic conquest and influence. The caliphs of Baghdad…


A History of the Arab Peoples

By Albert Hourani,

Book cover of A History of the Arab Peoples

Why this book?

The Arabs, as the most widespread and influential ethnic group in the Middle East, challenge historians to tell their stories in a way that is coherent, consistent, and engaging. This book accomplishes this task well, weaving together a disparate history, that reaches from the Atlantic to South Asia, across multiple kingdoms, dynasties, nations, republics, and political movements. At times rulers, and at times subjects of foreign empires, the Arabs nonetheless maintained a consistency of culture and civilization, in the midst of wildly divergent political systems and geographic locations.  Hourani manages to tell a single story, but while still doing justice to this dispersed people. 

A History of the Arab Peoples

By Albert Hourani,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A History of the Arab Peoples as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Upon its publication in 1991, Albert Hourani's masterwork was hailed as the definitive story of Arab civilization, and became both a bestseller and an instant classic. In a panoramic view encompassing twelve centuries of Arab history and culture, Hourani brilliantly illuminated the people and events that have fundamentally shaped the Arab world. Now this seminal book is available in an expanded second edition. Noted Islamic scholar Malise Ruthven brings the story up to date from the mid-1980s, including such events as the Gulf War; civil unrest in Algeria; the change of leadership in Syria, Morocco, and Jordan; and the aftermath…


The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923

By Sean McMeekin,

Book cover of The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923

Why this book?

It may seem odd to recommend a book focused on a fifteen-year period, in the midst of a region that boasts many thousands of years of history. However, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire echoed across the Middle East in ways we are just beginning to understand. Having traveled to Turkey and many nations in this region, I’ve encountered historic sites, political quandaries, border conflicts, and ethnic troubles that can only be understood with the end of the Ottomans in mind. McMeekin does an exemplary job of viewing the Ottoman ending in the context of local challenges, global warfare, rising nationalism, and economic pressures in all directions. I had many “so that’s why that is the way it is” moments, and also enjoyed the gripping read.

The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923

By Sean McMeekin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ottoman Endgame as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An outstanding history ... one of the best writers on the First World War' Simon Sebag Montefiore

Shortlisted for the Duke of Westminster Medal for Military Literature

The Ottoman Endgame is the first, and definitive, single-volume history of the Ottoman empire's agonising war for survival. Beginning with Italy's invasion of Ottoman Tripoli in September 1911, the Empire was in a permanent state of emergency, with hardly a frontier not under direct threat. Assailed by enemies on all sides, the Empire-which had for generations been assumed to be a rotten shell-proved to be strikingly resilient, beating off major attacks at Gallipoli…


Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian

By Bernard Lewis, Buntzie Ellis Churchill,

Book cover of Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian

Why this book?

Bernard Lewis was, in many ways, the founder of modern Middle East studies in the United States. I was fortunate to share a breakfast with him several years ago at a conference, and was so impressed of course by his knowledge, but even more by his graciousness, good humor, and indulgence of younger colleagues, including me. This book is a monumental view not only of the development of Western views of the Middle East, but the development of the academic profession, the relationship of the US to the region, and his progress as a scholar. It’s that rare memoir that diverts attention from the author to broader subjects, while nonetheless allowing readers to identify this historian’s richness of perspective and dramatic lived experiences. 

Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian

By Bernard Lewis, Buntzie Ellis Churchill,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Notes on a Century as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The memoirs of the preeminent historian of the Middle East and bestselling author of What Went Wrong?

Few historians end up as major historical actors in their own right. At the age of 96, Bernard Lewis has both witnessed and participated in some of the key events of the last century, from his time working for MI6 in London and throughout the Middle East during World War II to his sudden transformation into a sought-after interpreter of the Middle East after September 11. When we think of the Middle East, we think of it in terms that he defined and…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Middle East, the Crusades, and the Ottoman Empire?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Middle East, the Crusades, and the Ottoman Empire.

The Middle East Explore 136 books about the Middle East
The Crusades Explore 48 books about the Crusades
The Ottoman Empire Explore 41 books about the Ottoman Empire

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We think you will like Hattin, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and The World of the Crusades if you like this list.