Look up Kosovo, 1389;Subject of the week;Reference books

30th April 1999 at 01:00
The Cassell Atlas of the Ancient World. The Cassell Atlas of the Classical World. The Cassell Atlas of the Medieval World. The Cassell Atlas of the Early Modern World. The Cassell Atlas of the 19th Century World. The Cassell Atlas of the Modern World. By John Haywood. Cassell pound;14.99 each.

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair could learn a thing or two about the Balkan crisis from this excellent series of historical atlases, writes Michael Duffy

History has ended," said the historian Francis Fukuyama, and there are echoes of that naivety in the engaging belief of Tony Blair that whatever is not "modern" can safely be dispensed with. Nightly, our television screens show evidence that it can't, but, in the barrage of painful detail, we lose the overview, the perspectives, the sense of the global pressures of historical change. For that, we need a good general historical atlas, and few can be better than this splendid set from Cassell.

Look up "Kosovo", for instance - and here it is, the victory of the Ottoman Turks in 1389, so deeply engraved on Serbian national consciousness that it has been held ever since to justify the "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims, "with murderous consequences for Muslims and Kosovans during the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s". And here, on later maps, are the origins of Yugoslavia - and the forces that caused its disintegration and that explain Western ambivalence towards it.

True, these pages span three volumes of this six-volume series, so explanation and overview, at pound;14.99 a volume, do not come cheaply. In terms of their accuracy, though, their global coverage and their superb design, these atlases are excellent value.

Their objective, after all, is to chart the main episodes and developments of human existence since the emergence of Australopithecus four million years ago. With the support of an internationally eminent editorial and advisory board, excellently clear cartography and a crisp text, they come remarkably close to achieving it.

In each volume there are 29 full-page spreads containing full colour maps, a short explanatory commentary, time-lines subdivided as appropriate by period, region or topic, and a section of keys and annotation. Where there is room (an important consideration), there are well-chosen pictures of artefacts or places. After the map section there is a 30-page mini-encyclopedia glossing topics or issues referred to (see "Kosovo", for example), a list of sources consulted, and a full index to that volume.

All the volumes are attractive to handle and use - the earliest (dealing with the ancient and the classical worlds) particularly so, because it is in these that the compilers most easily convey, even to a non-academic readership, both the broad sweep of interpretation and debate and the accumulation of research data over ever-widening areas of knowledge. The pages dealing with the spread of writing, or the early complex societies of South America, or the Austronesian migrations in the Pacific and South-East Asia are all excellent examples.

The later volumes are irresistible as well. In each of them, a section of world maps broadly charts the great themes of history as the centuries pass - migration, discovery, conquest, trade. Then, a series of regional or topical maps supply the detail. Among them, there is, at last, comprehensive coverage of areas that previous atlases have neglected, so that Central and South America, Africa, Australasia, China and Japan all get scholarly attention. It's difficult to find fault. Those traditional bugbears of A-level European history, for instance - the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, the rise of nationalism in Europe - are clearly and accurately mapped and described. So, as we have seen, are the compelling legacies of the Balkans.

In many ways, it is the final volume, covering the world between 1914 and the present day, that is the most impressive. It must certainly have been the most difficult to compile, and at times (in the maps that describe the war in Europe and the Pacific between 1942 and 1945, for instance) the sheer weight of detail is oppressive. The overall quality, though, is stunning, and the post-1945 spreads on the Middle East, India and South-East Asia, to take only three examples, combine information with elucidation in a conspicuously clear and balanced way.

My only criticism is that it would have been helpful, given the quality of the thumbnail entries in the encyclopedic sections, to have provided cross-references to these entries on the text and maps pages. A simple asterisk (one of the few conventional symbols not used on these pages) would have served. But that is a quibble. These atlases are invaluable, and they are always a pleasure to use. They should certainly be in the secondary school library. Students of all ages, I guess, will want to use them - including, quite possibly, Mr Clinton and Mr Blair.

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