The Coming Of The West

The Western world had for centuries been gradually penetrating most of the areas that had once been part of the Muslim empire, and in the latter part of the nineteenth century, in the vacuum left by the long decay and decline of the Ottoman Empire, European powers came to dominate the Middle East. Among the first Europeans to gain a foothold in the Middle East were the Venetians who, as early as the thirteenth century, had established trading posts in what are now Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, and who controlled much of the shipping between Arab and European ports. Then, in 1497, five years after Ferdinand and Isabella ended Islamic rule in Spain, Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four Portuguese ships around Africa and in 1498 found a new sea route to India from Europe. Dutch, British, and French frigates and merchantmen followed and began establishing trading outposts along the shores of the Indian Ocean, eventually undercutting both Venetian shipping and the Mediterranean trade on which the Middle East had thrived for millennia. The process of European penetration was gradual and complex; but there were, nevertheless, clearly identifiable turning points. In the sixteenth century, for example, the Ottoman Empire voluntarily granted a series of concessions called the “Capitulations” to European powers – concessions which gave the Europeans decided advantages in foreign trade in the empire. Another turning point was the invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte. Hoping to cut Britain’s lines to India and cripple its maritime and economic power, Napoleon crushed the Mamluks (who governed Egypt under Ottoman suzerainty) and briefly occupied the country. By defeating Egypt, then still part of the Ottoman Empire, Napoleon exposed the inner weaknesses, both military and administrative, of the sultans, shattered the myth of Ottoman power, and inaugurated more than 150 years of direct political intervention by the West. Europe’s worldwide nineteenth-century search for raw materials, markets, military bases, and colonies eventually touched most of what had been the Arab empire. In 1820 Great Britain imposed a pact on Arab tribes on the coast of the Arabian Gulf; in the 1830s France occupied Algeria; in 1839 Britain occupied Aden, at the strategic entrance to the Red Sea; and in 1869 Ferdinand de Lesseps, with the backing of the French emperor, completed what would become, and still is, one of the key shipping arteries of the world, the Suez Canal. Western culture spread with Western economic and political control. In Lebanon missionaries from several countries founded a network of schools and universities. By introducing modern Western ideas these fostered the growth of Arab nationalism, contributed to the revival of Arabic literature, and provided a powerful impulse toward modernization. In...