Crossroads Of War: A Historical Atlas Of The Middle East, by Ian Barnes with Malise Ruthven
In many ways, this is an excellent historical atlas, coming from someone who enjoys reading them . The scope of the book is broad, it manages to cover its subject well, it includes a lot of information on military and biblical history, it has thoughtful text to support the maps, and it manages to do a good job at capturing the complexities of Middle Eastern history. Yet as much as I wanted this book, and as much as this book had many good components, in the end the book is less than the sum of its parts, and that is a real shame. While there is much to enjoy in individual maps and their supporting texts, as a whole the book appears to be put together in a slapdash fashion, and that is unfortunately very disappointing. It is unfortunate to want to like a book but simply to be unable to like it because of the way that the book is put together. Sometimes a random feel can improve a book, or at least make it interesting, but this book is random and as a result loses appeal.
In terms of its contents, this book has a lot of text, a lot more than usual. It is divided somewhat thematically into ancient times, a biblical interlude, clash of faiths, European intervention, and technology and society, and is a little over 200 pages with about a half of those pages or so being maps. To be sure, some of the divisions are a bit arbitrary, since it’s hard to place the Hasmonean period as biblical given that there aren’t any books of the Bible from that period (and no, Daniel does not count). Likewise, it is hard to consider the Aliyah as representing technology (although it does represent society and also the clash of religions). The arbitrariness of the sections and their contents is a bit annoying, and it is certainly one of the elements that breaks up the flow of the book. This book is probably most to be enjoyed as a reference book that one might read rarely for specific maps and their supporting text, or as a source for disconnected maps and texts in another media, like a geography website or Wikipedia.
Ultimately, though, as a book there are two elements that keep me from fully enjoying this book as much as I expected to. For one, the book attempts to have it both ways, giving a ritual sort of disclaimer about the trustworthiness of the Bible even as it appears to follow the Bible relatively closely in its own maps as a trustworthy historical source. While it is lamentable that it is necessary to speak badly about the Bible for one’s academic credibility, it is especially upsetting to see someone try to curry favor with the biblical crowd even while insulting them. I take that sort of double-dealing a bit personally. The other serious problem with this book is the fact that it lacks any kind of cohesion and flow in its contents. Although the book is roughly chronological in its order, there are times where it jumps all over the place, for example, moving from the rise of the Saudi state in the 1920’s to the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in the late 1700’s, and from the battle of Yarmuk in 636 to the attack of the Seljuk Turks 400 years later. That sort of skipping back and forth in time and large jumps is a bit jarring and it gives the book a certain absence of clear progress and flow in its approach. This is a book that, unfortunately, does not deliver on its promise or put its content in the best sort of structure and organization.
 See, for example: