Anthony Sattin

How the barbarians of the steppes shaped civilisation

It’s boom time for nomad history. It started some eight years ago, when Bloomsbury published a study of central Asia from an Oxford academic. This might have been a fringe book, but the author’s breadth of knowledge and analysis was exceptional, the narrative was gripping, the cover was beautiful and the publisher had high hopes,

A source of bitter rivalry: Burton and Speke fall out over the Nile

For the 19th-century English adventurer, author, ethnographer, pornographer and all-round maverick Richard Burton, one of life’s happiest moments was ‘the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands’. There would of course be difficulties; but happiness derives from the prospect of overcoming great challenges and in the process achieving fame and perhaps even fortune. By

The empire that sprang from nowhere under the banner of Islam

When the British formed the basis of their empire in the 1600s by acquiring territories in India and North America, they already had many centuries’ experience of foreign involvement. One of the most remarkable aspects of the force that reshaped Eurasia 1,000 years earlier is that there was no prelude: the Arab conquests, and the

Marina Warner becomes her mother’s ‘shabti’

There comes a time after the death of parents when grief subsides, the sense of loss eases, and you, the child, are left wondering who those people were. What were they like? Not as you knew them as parents, but as people? For most of us, as the cliché goes, time is a healer, and

The luxurious lives of Sparta’s women

History is full of ‘ifs’ and the Spartan story fuller than most. If the 300 had not made their famous stand against a vast Persian army at Thermopylae in 480 BC, or if Helen of Troy, originally from Sparta, had not been abducted, we might not remember them today. If their young men had not

Dreaming of the desert: my life in the Sahara, by Sanmao

Travel writing is ‘the red light district of literature’, as Colin Thubron aptly put it, a space where anything goes. Like punters to the other red light districts, we tend to stick to what we know we like, to our own kind. We travel vicariously with voices that are familiar, or at least intelligible, whose

Before the angel came

In his first book, published in 1977, Tim Mackintosh-Smith described mentioning the idea of travelling to Yemen while studying Arabic at Oxford because he had heard that Yemenis spoke the purest form of Arabic. ‘They all say that, you stupid boy,’ his tutor replied, suggesting he go ‘somewhere respectable’ instead. The student went to Yemen

In the realms of gold

A thought kept recurring as I read Toby Green’s fascinating and occasionally frustrating book on the development of West Africa from the 15th to 19th centuries: that the money in my pocket was just a piece of polypropylene. And what is that worth in the greater scheme of things? The thought occured because money and

Before the bling

If you read the first volume of John Romer’s A History of Egypt, which traces events along the Nile from prehistory to the pyramid age, you will understand why he thinks Egyptology is not a science. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to be exact about anything when most of your knowledge is based on deduction

Striking Middle Sea

With summer on its way, thoughts turn south to olive groves and manicured vineyards, to the warm water and hot beaches of the Mediterranean. But this sea that is a place of rest and beauty for some of us is the scene of drama and often despair for many others, among them people trying to

American Smoke, by Iain Sinclair – review

If you have read Iain Sinclair’s books you will know that he is a stylist with a love of language. You will also know that he has opinions to express and projects to promote or destroy: London’s Olympic park was one of his targets. He has lived in Hackney for much of the past 40

The Last Train to Zona Verde, by Paul Theroux – review

Paul Theroux has produced some of the best travel books of the past 50 years, and some of the lamest. His latest work shrieks swansong, from its title — The Last Train — to the acknowledgement that he has reached ‘the end of this sort of travel, marinated in politics and urban wreckage’, to the

‘O My America!’, by Sara Wheeler – review

You might not expect Sara Wheeler, the intrepid literary traveller, to be anxious about passing the half-century point. Surely a person who can survive the mental and physical rigours of Antarctica, as she brilliantly documented in Terra Incognita, can cope with ageing and menopause? Wheeler herself was not so certain. In her restless, creative way,

A duty to protest

A few years ago, in West Africa, a woman came up to me and said, ‘You know what’s wrong with our men? They go crazy once they get power. Crazy and bad.’ Chinua Achebe’s saving has been the fact that he never sought power, at least not of the kind that leads to conflict and

Twists and turns through history

Jeremy Seal is a Turkophile, but don’t look to him for a grand history of the republic or lives of the Ottoman sultans. That is not his way. He prefers to approach things obliquely and, in particular, to come at them from an angle dictated by chance and beginning with a discovery. His first book,

Spirit of place | 21 January 2012

There are two ways of viewing the changes sweeping through the Arab world in general and Cairo in particular. There is the significance of individual events, such as the moment that the Tunisian street trader Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight and lit the fuse on protests that brought down the government of President Ben Ali.

Malice in the Middle East

What does it take to shock a writer? At the beginning of his study on the shaping of the modern Middle East, the academic James Barr describes his eyes bulging at the sight of new evidence relating to the depths to which the French stooped when trying to outdo their British rivals. The document revealed