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A late-nineteenth-century Ottoman map of the eastern Mediterranean

The Peaceful Middle East

A historian takes the long view of the seemingly turbulent region

Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Syria. As social upheaval roils one Middle Eastern country after another, it’s easy to imagine the region as a perpetually boiling cauldron, a place of eternal conflict. Not so, according to Molly Greene, J81, professor of history and Hellenic studies at Princeton University. “This part of the world was mostly stable and peaceful for centuries—even if the creation of Israel, in 1948, and the resulting conflict sometimes make it seem that the Middle East is perpetually at war,” she says.

Recently honored with the Anglo-Hellenic League’s Runciman Award, Greene has frequently earned praise as a historian who challenges myths about a region that’s ever in the headlines. Her first book, A Shared World: Christians and Muslims in the Early Modern Mediterranean (2000), challenged the notion that Christians and Muslims have been at each other’s throats in the Near East ever since the Crusades. Most of the time, she maintains, the two cultures managed to live in harmony, even though they were divided by their religious beliefs.

Greene’s latest book, Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants, attacks historical clichés about “merciless Ottoman pirates” by showing that Catholic corsairs and their papal sponsors were often a far greater threat to Mediterranean shipping than their “heathen” counterparts.

Greene says her heterodox tendencies may have gotten their start during her undergraduate days, when she learned that the most passionately held assumptions can be shattered by careful observation. A Russophile who learned Russian and dreamed of a career as a Kremlinologist, she remembers helping to host a crew of Siberian balalaika players during her junior year at Tufts. But the musicians turned out to be tedious ideologues, issuing such endless, one-dimensional rants on the wonders of Soviet life that Greene was bored stiff. (She was also put off by the pickled herring and beets.)

She wound up working in Greece, learning to speak the language and taking a liking to Greek history. She was so intrigued that she decided to enroll in a doctoral program at Princeton. She joined the history faculty in 1993.

For the past eighteen years, Greene has produced a steady stream of scholarly publications on topics that range from the problems faced by seventeenth-century Greek shipping execs to the kinds of fruits and vegetables typically sold in Ottoman wholesale markets around the eastern Mediterranean three hundred years ago.

In refuting the myths that cloud Western perceptions of the region, Greene points out that Ottoman Muslims often sided with Eastern Orthodox Christians against the western Catholics ruled by the Pope of Rome. Much of the time all three factions negotiated their differences, she says. Most Middle Eastern Muslims of three hundred years ago, Greene says, would have “turned up their noses at the radical beliefs and violent tactics of Al Qaeda.”

Even the struggle between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs—often viewed as if predestined by the region’s DNA—are mainly a recent aberration. “When conflict did break out in Jerusalem, which was nothing more than a sleepy backwater in recent centuries, it was usually between Muslims and Christians, and not Muslims and Jews,” Greene says. “For the most part, the latter two groups have gotten on well together.” So however dim the prospects for peace may appear at the moment, at least they have history on their side.

A freelance journalist, TOM NUGENT has written for the Washington Post, The Nation, and Mother Jones. He lives in Hastings, Michigan.

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