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, To a Mountain in Tibet.

 (April 2016)


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.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011)

Patrick Leigh Fermor in Greece
When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ’44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sidney.

The Last Shaman

The Chukchi people hunting walruses and whales; ivory tusk engraving from the village museum in Uelen, the easternmost settlement in Russia and Eurasia

The Chukchi Bible

by Yuri Rytkheu, translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse
Even among the dwindling populace of today’s Siberia, the numbers of the Chukchi people barely signify: a mere 15,000, of whom many still follow a threatened life as reindeer herders and maritime hunters. Several thousand years before Russia’s expansion in the seventeenth century, their Mongoloid ancestors spread into Siberia’s remote …


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.