Sea of Faith by Stephen O'Shea

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Sea of Faith by Stephen O'Shea

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Fascinating chronicle of encounters between Muslim & Christian worlds in the Middle Ages round the Mediterranean, from the birth of Islam to the siege of Malta, interweaving the battles with the periods of the coexistence; flamboyant, erudite and illuminating.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861975812

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The Sea of Faith presents the common history of Islam and Christianity focusing on the Mediterranean, and the period roughly equivalent to what is referred to as the Middle Ages, from the foundation of Islam in the 7th century to the siege of Malta in 1565.

O'Shea introduces his subject with two striking architectural palimpsests: Cordoba's Mezquita, built as a mosque, to incorporate a fully-fledged and currently active Christian church and Istanbul's Ayasofya, built as a greatest temple of Christendom to become a Mosque and now a secularised museum. They exemplify and illustrate the complex history of encounters between Christianity and Islam whose fates have intertwined pretty much since the establishment of the latter. Arguably, the emergence of Islam as a religion and more earthly powers of dar-Islam, defined Europe as it is now, and still - perhaps more now than for a long time - informs our understanding of current conflicts and exerts a powerful influence even on those who have the temerity to see themselves as children of the Enlightenment, who confined the chaos of holy wars in the comfortingly and comfortably distant history.

The narration alternates between conflict, shown in seven selected battles, and periods of more or less peaceful coexistence ( convivencia). The locations vary from Syria to France, Turkey to Spain and the actors include Arabs, Turks and Greeks, Franks and Mongols, Italians and Jews. Such intertwining of the battle tales and the pictures of convivencia helps to evoke a clear picture of the complex relations between the two cultures, without the need to produce a comprehensive account which would be unbearable for anybody who is not professionally interested. Nevertheless, the amount of historical data, from names and dynasties to dates of events and background cultural info that is packed into The Sea of Faith is very high. Especially for the earlier period, commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, and often very superficially known even to historically literate Europeans, O'Shea gives us a fascinating picture not just of instances of fighting and co-existence of Muslims and Christians but also tells a lot about the Byzantine Empire, which I always thought was one of the most scandalously underrepresented subjects in the "commonly shared" European history. His account of the siege of Constantinople by Mehmet II, which marked the final fall of the Eastern Empire but at the same time, the beginning of flourishing of the city as the Ottoman capital is spellbinding.

The Sea of Faith occasionally reads like one of these travel-book-cum-historical-essay books as O'Shea visits his locations and brings them to the reader with an excellent sense of place: the reporting is vivid and immediate, and recreates the far-away past and the far-away (and somewhat closer) spaces in an admirable extension of "seeing is believing". But more admirable is O'Shea's sense of time, his judgements never anachronistic, although often including a wry authorial comment or an illuminating general insight.

I have to say that I liked the general-history build-up and the sections devoted to periods of convivencia much more than the descriptions of battles (apart from the Constantinople one): but then, I don't have very dynamic imagination and tend to think in ideas or static pictures and my minds eye has trouble depicting a one-on-one combat scene, never mind complex movements of forces. For those who like such a thing, there are quite a few battle narratives, while those who don't can comfortably skim those pages without affecting the character of the whole.

I particularly liked the concise description of the foundation and the astonishingly fast rise of Islam, the potent religious belief that became a handmaid of power and the chapters devoted to the amazing -and often forgotten - oases of civilisation created under conditions of convivencia in Cordoba, Sicily and Toledo. The tale of the Outermer of Crusades' times is also fascinating.

O'Shea writes glittering, flamboyant prose: it's enough to read few pages to experience the power of his narrative. The elaborate metaphors stumble once or twice, but The Sea of Faith is a pleasure to read: never patronising, occasionally demanding, but a satisfying text, full of life and intellectual excitement and imagination. It's one of those books approached with an almost tense expectation of great things to emerge - illuminations, ideas and insights - and which largely fulfil their promise.

O'Shea avoids allusions and references to the currently active conflicts, leaving it to his afterword, but the whole book is full of enthusiastic but honest descriptions of places and periods when people of different creeds lived together and when the cross-fertilisation of cultures led to the flourishing of civilisation. The Sea of Faith finishes on the note of hope, recalling children leaping lightly over the cannons of Istanbul, in a vivid demonstration of the past chaos rendered innocuous through time, while fully aware that we live in times when the language of jihad - even crusade - no longer seems so comfortingly archaic.

Recommended for anybody interested in history of Europe, Islam or Christianity.

Thanks go to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

A History of Warfare devotes quite a large part to the conflicts of Asia Minor and the Levant, while Barbarian in the Garden has several essays of the historical travel musings variety.

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