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Simon Sebag Montefiore on Why He Wrote a History of the World Through Families

Posted on 20th July 2023 by Mark Skinner

A staggering tour de force of engrossing, character-led world history, Simon Sebag Montefiore's The World covers nothing less than the entirety of humanity through the fascinating prism of the family. In this exclusive piece, Montefiore explains the thinking behind such a vast endeavour and what fresh insights such an approach can yield. 

The World is a global history, from the stone age to the drone age, told, in one narrative, through the lens of families. I don’t think anyone has ever attempted this before and I can see why: it was very difficult to do. I have written many history books before but this was the most challenging and daunting of all – but also the most ambitious and satisfying.  

I love world history books and have read many of them. But so often world histories chart commodities, trade routes, coal production and technological advances – and the humans are lost and distant. Biographies have the opposite problem: I love their intimacy but often they are so obsessively centred on one individual that the wider world is lost. I wanted to write a world history that combined the span of global humanity and the grit, the juice, the intimacy of biography. As Covid began to close the world down in 2019, I wondered if this wildly ambitious idea could be done? If so, how? Then a simple but challenging idea came to me. I had written a history of Jerusalem though the families that lived there and a history of Russia through one dynasty, the Romanovs. Could I do the same for the entire world? 

The great thing about families is that they encompass continuity and hybridity, two important themes of any world history, and their stories are universal to all humans. Family is the one thing we all have in common. Could one tell the history of the world through families? I nervously unfurled a huge roll of paper on my kitchen table and started to plot the twisting meandering descent of the three mega-families that run through the book. Firstly, a European mega-family – from the Pippinids via Charlemagne to the Habsburgs; then the family of the Prophet Muhammed from the sixth century via the great dynasties of the Ummayads, Abbasids and up to the Hashemites of today; and finally in east and central Asia, the Genghis Khan and Tamerlane families of world conquerors that extended from 1000AD via the Mughals of India to the early 20th century. I realized that this unusual approach would work both narratively and thematically.   

Such a history would have to be truly global and family served that ambition: many families migrated and intermarried with others from different lands. The history of Asia and Africa and of the indigenous Americas has often been neglected by Western historians, but in the book I treat the ruling families of Peru or Benin, Palmares or Kongo exactly as I would treat the Windsors or Habsburgs or Kennedys.  In each case, we start to cover those families long before a Spaniard or Englishman turned up in a galleon with their cannons.  Women have traditionally been neglected in world history but that is changing. My book is filled with fascinating women - some very familiar: Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, Indira Gandhi – and many we should know better – from the Syrian queen Zenobia to the pirate and princess Sayyida al Hurra, and many more. Children have been neglected too: but they are present in a family history. The family approach works just as well with royal families, for example the Hohenzollerns and Incas, as with democratic families such as the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Nehru-Gandhis or Bhuttos. It also works for dictatorial dynasties up to today – the Assads of Syria or the Kims of North Korea. And of course it works too in understanding individuals who are not part of ruling lineages – whether it is Hitler or Margaret Thatcher, Putin or Barack Obama.   

Many of the families in the book are rulers of course, many are royal, but many others are enslaved persons or novelists or doctors or even historians. Some inherit plenty; and then there is a character like Zhu Yuanzhang who began life as a beggar and ended up as the emperor who founded the Ming dynasty. Or there are women like Hurrem or Kosem Sultan who were enslaved but came to help rule the Ottoman empire. In the book, many sections are dominated by artists, poets, musicians and composers – as well as scientists or health campaigners. The whole point of this approach is that it allows me to bring history to life, whether it is through love affairs, marriages and childbirth or food, clothing, work and music. All of these themes ring through the book.  

The World covers the events of my own lifetime and ends on the day of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: in my twenties, I was a war correspondent, covering the wars of the fall of the Soviet empire. There is no greater training for a world historian than to witness the fall of a great empire. I have been lucky enough to meet some of the leaders and innovators who made our times. So I was able to use my own conversations with people like Margaret Thatcher, Timothy Berners-Lee, Eduard Shevardnadze, Henry Kissinger and Shimon Peres and some of my own experiences in the wars of the nineties. This adds a bit of fun and immediacy to the story.

The great thing about world history is that it gives perspective on the troubled times in which we live today. If you want to understand what is happening in Ukraine or Taiwan or Congo, it is told here. History does not provide answers to our problems but it does deliver wisdom and warning about what can happen. It remains an essential tool for understanding the present and predicting the unpredictable of the future. And it is also gripping. 

This book is filled with love and literature, science, technology, poetry and art but it is also sliced through with all the horsemen of the apocalypse - war, famine, plague, torture – because these are the super propellants that, as we have sadly seen in today’s Ukraine, change the world. This book is written to be read by anyone and everyone: enjoy. All of human drama is here.  

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