Malise Ruthven

There Be Vipers

Mecca: The Sacred City


Bloomsbury 408pp £25 order from our bookshop

In the Alte Pinakothek in Munich hangs a quartet of paintings by Jan van Kessel the Elder (1626–79) showing the four continents then known to the West. Asia is represented by an elegant female figure with welcoming, outstretched arms suggestive of the riches awaiting Europe. Her turbaned companion stands guard beside her in an exotic baroque landscape replete with putti, birds and butterflies, all of them depicted in exquisite naturalistic detail. A side panel – entitled ‘Mecca’ – shows a much less seductive landscape cluttered with snakes, scorpions and monsters. Before reading Ziauddin Sardar’s entertaining and richly informative book, I had assumed that van Kessel was giving visual expression to typical Christian prejudices against the ‘abominations’ of Islam. Sardar’s text, however, would suggest that the Flemish master might have been elaborating on anecdotal knowledge filtering into Antwerp from the odd Muslim pilgrim who fetched up there or perhaps from one of those mariners captured by corsairs who found himself performing the Hajj alongside his master.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'It would be nice to think that women will achieve equal pay in my lifetime, rather than to watch gloomily as stati… ,
    • In 1660, two of the signatories of King Charles I's death warrant fled across the Atlantic to New England. But were… ,
    • Howard Jacobson's sixteenth novel is 'a love story of sorts, one characterised not by physical desire or even conta… ,
    • 'The sudden immersion in the new and unfamiliar can lead people to write with a rare lack of self-consciousness' P… ,
    • 'Pools bend the rules. Clothes slip off, skin glistens, consciousness heightens. A dreamlike scenario unfolds' Jam… ,
    • 'Although he surely didn’t know W H Auden’s theory that every high C proclaims human freedom and our capacity to tr… ,
    • RT : With beginning tomorrow, we've uncovered a 1997 article from the archive reviewing 'Golf Dream… ,