Colin Thubron is the President of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of The Lost Heart of Asia, Shadow of the Silk Road, and, most recently, Night of Fire, a novel. (June 2017)


Where Globalization Began?

Young Cubans crossing the Malecón as tourists drive by in antique American convertibles, Havana, May 2016

Island People: The Caribbean and the World

by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
In his travel book The Middle Passage (1962), V.S. Naipaul notoriously claimed that “history is built around achievement and creation, and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Ironically the provocation in this statement was a display of typically Trinidadian picong, or goading insult; but the dyspeptic Nobel laureate was …

A Different Vision of History

‘The Dutch delegation of Johan Josua Ketelaar to the Maharana Sangram Singh in Udaipur’; detail of a tempera painting on cotton, 1711

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

by Peter Frankopan
More than a century ago an obsessive Englishman tried to calculate the geographical heart of Asia, and erected a now-vanished monument where the Greater and Lesser Yenisei rivers meet in southern Siberia. The concept that the world, or its hugest continent, possesses a heart (or a womb or a memory) …

Pamuk: Under the Spell of Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk

A Strangeness in My Mind

by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap
Uniquely among cities, Istanbul bridges two continents. It lies on the southeast frontier of Europe, while its suburbs expand across the Bosphorus straits into Asiatic Turkey. From a European viewpoint, the city may be the site where Asia begins; from the Turkish hinterland, it is the start of Europe. For …

Mesmerized by Germany

An East German soldier looking through the Berlin Wall, 1990

Roads to Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Germany

by Cees Nooteboom, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson, with photographs by Simone Sassen
There has been no more potent symbol of division than the Berlin Wall. It not only divided ideologies, but seemed to separate two incompatible eras of history. To pass through Checkpoint Charlie or Friedrichstrasse station into East Berlin was to travel back half a century, and when the Wall began …

Apocalypse City

The Wailing Wall at the Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock in the background at right, Jerusalem, 1993

Jerusalem: The Biography

by Simon Sebag Montefiore
No city is harder to chronicle than Jerusalem. Its symbolic reach so far exceeds the limits of its temporal power in any age that the city demands a particular understanding and knowledge. The sensitivities that surround its formidable tangle of archaeology, faith, and history can tempt the scholar into either partisanship or pallid tact. Above all, the author’s attitude toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict tingles like an electric current through every account. Even the most emollient history will cause offense to somebody.


Lost in Arabia

The 1761-1767 doomed Danish expedition to the Middle East was little known for many years. In Felix Arabia, an account of the expedition recently published in a new edition, Thorkild Hansen sometimes doubts the expedition’s influence. But since, its reputation has burgeoned. Despite the losses and decay suffered by its findings, the maps, studies in zoology and botany, and other discoveries were a gift to the future. In 2011, the 250th anniversary of the expedition’s departure was celebrated with pride.

When the Ruins Were New

Francis Bedford: The Colossi on the Plains of Thebes, March 17, 1862

In February 1862 the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, embarked on a four-and-a-half month journey through the Middle East. Among the party was the photographer Francis Bedford, who in over 190 prints produced one of the earliest photographic records of the region. The torpor of the declining Ottoman empire is palpable in his rare group photographs—unreliable Ottoman mercenaries or ragged Albanian water-carriers—as it is in the empty-looking villages of Hebron or Bethany. Even the streets of Cairo appear deserted. And there are no Jews.