|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 June 2001
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An affection for monarchySultans in Splendour: Monarchs of the Middle East 1869-1945, Philip Mansel, London: Parkway Publishing, 2000. pp192
What at first glance looks like only an attractive coffee-table book turns out to be more than that. Dealing with a vital period in the history of the Middle East, the photographs themselves tell a tale of great splendour, with some fascinating portraits of the main players on the political stage of the time. But Philip Mansel's text -- vivid, witty and well-informed -- produces in addition a condensed analysis of European infiltration in the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, resulting, directly or indirectly, in the overthrow of the dynasties that had previously ruled there.
King Faisal of Iraq, 1942
The introductory essay deals with the opening of the Suez Canal in the autumn of 1869. No expense was spared by the Egyptian Khedive to entertain the many thousand guests who had been invited, the climax occurring in Ismailia, the city he had founded, at a ball held on 18 November. The object of all this lavish entertainment was not merely to inaugurate the Canal but also to display the Khedive's progressiveness and Egypt's modernisation. But the Canal proved a triumph not only for western technology but also for Europe's financiers. Thus Egypt's loss of financial independence was in time to affect its political independence, all this taking place at a time when European imperialism was making headway in the area. The traditions of absolute monarchy provided some of the assumptions governing the lives of the Middle Eastern monarchs, but some of these assumptions, as the writer points out, were themselves no longer valid and were being threatened.
The nineteenth-century monarchs had looked towards Istanbul for inspiration, from which cosmopolitan city the Ottoman sultan ruled over an empire that stretched from the Danube to the Gulf. By 1945, however, the Ottoman sultans were no longer in power. The power and wealth of the Ottoman Empire can be seen in the several photographs of the Dolmabace Palace contained in this book. Over 900 feet long and with 285 rooms, its magnificent throne-room contained one of the largest chandeliers ever made, a present from Britain's Queen Victoria. The Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph described the palace as "magically beautiful and senselessly luxurious," and the words "extravagance" and "luxury" are repeated throughout the book in relation to the region's then rulers, contributing in no small part to the West's ability to undermine them.
In his chapter on Egypt, the writer is particularly critical of the British who occupied the country and were "detested for their bad manners as well as for their good jobs." Of Lord Cromer, the powerful British high commissioner at the beginning of the last century, we are told that he never bothered to learn more Arabic than was required to shout at the ball- boys on the tennis courts at the Gezirah Club. Yet in his final chapter, the author is also critical of the Egyptian monarchy. Of King Fouad, it is remarked that, having been in debt when he ascended the throne, he died a millionaire, owning some of the finest land in Egypt. However, he is also described as being one of the most cultivated kings of his day, and that he devoted himself to raising the educational level of Egypt -- indeed Egypt's first modern university, which King Fouad helped to found, was named after him. Nevertheless, he seems to have behaved haughtily to most of his subjects, and his bad Arabic, it is pointed out, cannot have helped in his relations with them.
King Farouk, on the other hand, ascended the Egyptian throne with everything in his favour: he had youth, good looks and fluency in Arabic. Many of those who met him at the time also pronounced him intelligent, including the Frenchman General de Gaulle who called him "prudent, well informed and quick-witted." The writer sums up his general view of King Farouk with the words: "Torn between East and West, the mosque and the nightclub, he was a monarch in search of an identity." Farouk ended his days in exile, "one of the fattest kings in history."
A chapter on Afghanistan would seem to be stretching geography a little, but nevertheless in his chapter on this country at the turn of the twentieth century the writer states that the country was saved from absorption by a European empire because of its "mountains and the quality of its soldiers and Emir." It is said of Emir Abdul-Rahman that petitioners went pale with fear in his presence, and some of his judgements were, to say the least, harshly inventive. Thus a rapist was condemned to being put into a hole in the middle of winter, water then being poured into it such that he was frozen alive. The Emir commented sardonically that this particular man "would never be too hot again." Like his contemporary, the Shah of Persia, he found his country's mullahs to be a problem, and one of his favourite sayings was that "more wars and murders have been caused in this world by ignorant priests than by any other class of people." His son and successor, Habibullah (who is alleged to have had his father poisoned) seems to have inherited much of his father's ability, though he was more influenced by the Ottoman Empire and the West. "Unless you acquire Western knowledge," he once pronounced, "you will remain without bread."
In Iraq, the British set Emir Faisal on the throne. Despite being initially unpopular he nevertheless managed to create a strong Hashemite monarchy in Iraq. On his death he was succeeded by his son Ghazi, who is described here as liking drink, fast cars and American films, and Ghazi did in fact die in a car crash when, the worse for drink, he had gone to get a film to show to his friends. He, in turn, was succeeded by his son Faisal, who is the subject of one of the most affecting photographs in the book: a young boy occupying half of the seat of his throne. In fact, of course, the king was under the control of his unpopular uncle Abdulilah, both uncle and nephew being murdered in the 1958 Iraqi revolution.
Of the Saudi King Abdul-Aziz Al Sa'ud, certainly the most outstanding personality of all, there is little photographic documentation, nor is there any for those men, Arab and foreign, who were associated with him, such as Abdullah Philby. There is little here either on the rulers of the Arabian Gulf or the Sultans of Muscat.
Throughout the book one is aware of the writer's affection for royalty in general -- he is the author of several books about European monarchies -- and in his final chapter entitled "New Monarchs" he ends by expressing the thought that some of the republics set up since 1945 in the Middle East are only "parodies" of the monarchies they set out to replace. Many of the subjects of these modern republics miss their former masters, he says. However, the author's own portrayal, in both words and pictures, of these, in the main, arrogant and inept rulers did not altogether persuade this reader of the justice of his point of view.
Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies
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