Professor P. M. Holt

Historian of the Middle East
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The Independent Online

Peter Malcolm Holt, historian of the Middle East: born Astley, Lancashire 28 November 1918; staff, Ministry of Education, Sudan Civil Service 1941-53, Government Archivist 1954-55; Staff, School of Oriental and African Studies, London 1955-82, Professor of Arab History 1964-75, Professor of History of the Near and Middle East 1975-82 (Emeritus), Honorary Fellow 1985; FBA 1975; married 1953 Nancy Mawle (died 2006; one son, one daughter); died Oxford 2 November 2006.

P. M. Holt was Emeritus Professor of the History of the Near and Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University. He was a historian of the Middle East, broadly interpreted: his main interests, geographically, were in Sudan, Egypt and Syria.

His chronological range was very wide. He began with a study, for an Oxford BLitt, of the English Arabists of the 17th century. The research field of his Oxford DPhil and his first book was late 19th-century Sudan; then he moved to the modern history of Sudan more generally, and to the Arab Middle East since the Ottoman conquest in the early 16th century. Later in life, he concluded, as so many good historians do, that the Middle Ages were far more interesting than the modern period, and he concentrated on Syria and Egypt during the Crusades and in the Mameluke era which began in 1250.

Born in 1918, Peter Malcolm Holt was a son of the manse. His father was a Unitarian minister, whose tutor had been William Gaskell, husband of the novelist Elizabeth. Holt's father, who was born in 1851, died when Peter was nine, after which the family moved from Lancashire to Ickford, a village in Buckinghamshire ("300 souls, all damned", according to the rector).

Peter went to Lord Williams's Grammar School in Thame, and from there, in 1937, to University College, Oxford, to read History. In 1941 he joined the Sudan Civil Service, and he remained there until 1955, a year before independence came. For most of that time he was a secondary school teacher ("The dimmest boys went into the Army," he once said. "For example, there was a lad called Numayri . . ." - who was, however, a first-class centre-forward on the school team, and from 1971 President of Sudan).

It was in Sudan that Holt acquired his formidable mastery of Arabic. In 1954-55 he was Government Archivist, and became the first scholar to investigate the records of the Mahdist state (1881-98). This became the basis of his doctoral work and of The Mahdist State in the Sudan (1958). In 1955 he moved to a teaching post at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), rising through the ranks to Professor of Arab History, and in 1975 succeeding Bernard Lewis in the established chair of Middle Eastern history. He retired in 1982.

Holt was very prolific. Though far from enamoured of the roads down which the British universities have been forced in recent decades, he would have been a considerable asset in the Research Assessment Exercise. After his study of the Mahdist state, he published The Modern History of the Sudan (1961), Egypt and the Fertile Crescent 1516-1922 (1966) and The Age of the Crusades (1986), as well as volumes of edition and translation such as The Memoirs of a Syrian Prince (1983) and Early Mamluk Diplomacy (1995, texts with commentary of treaties between Mameluke and European rulers). Towards the end of his life he returned to Sudan with The Sudan of the Three Niles (1999). Studies in the History of the Near East, a selection of his many articles, including some on the early English Arabists, was published in 1973.

He was also an active editor of the work of others: with A.K.S. Lambton and Bernard Lewis he edited The Cambridge History of Islam (1970), a work about which he was, perhaps justly, somewhat ambivalent: one of his unfulfilled ambitions, he said, was to publish an anonymous review of it. He also, conscientiously and usefully, translated from German the best biography (by Peter Thorau) of the Mameluke sultan Baybars (The Lion of Egypt, 1992) and from French an important though taxing book by Claude Cahen on Anatolia before the Ottomans (The Formation of Turkey, 2001).

Having been trained, originally, in English and European history, he was not much impressed with the general standard, by comparison, of work on the history of the Middle East. He would somewhat reluctantly concede that it might be approaching, methodologically though hardly stylistically, the stage that European historiography had reached at the time of Gibbon. Hence, he was particularly anxious to foster contacts between historians such as himself and European medievalists. This bore fruit in such areas as an undergraduate course, taught collaboratively with such scholars as Jonathan Riley-Smith, on the Near East in the Crusading period, and in a series of research seminars, some of whose proceedings were published (The Eastern Mediterranean Lands in the Period of the Crusades, 1977).

Holt was a quiet and unassuming man, though in there was lurking a singularly sharp mind which could sometimes surprise those who expected silence from him. He was invariably helpful and constructive, a man of profound integrity. He was something of a pioneer in Mameluke studies, which have now become one of the most flourishing areas of Middle Eastern historiography. His books and articles, invariably clearly and informatively (if not always especially engagingly) written, will continue to be consulted and read for a good many years.

David Morgan