Only a few authors have works that can be found on both floors of the Oman Library at The Middle East Institute, and fewer still that have a personal connection to both the institute and the history of the region. The late Ambassador Richard B. Parker can claim this status, having served 31 years in the Foreign Service and as the third editor of The Middle East Journal. He was also a longtime MEI scholar-in-residence.
Parker fought in World War II and was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge. He could also claim to have held a front-row seat to subsequent twentieth-century historical developments. He served as a political officer in the American Embassy in Cairo when the 1967 war broke out, and in 1974 he became the first ambassador to Algeria since seven years prior, when the United States severed formal diplomatic relations with the country.
Parker was also a scholar and historian who brought an eye for detail to every topic he approached, from colloquial Lebanese proverbs to maritime warfare. The full collection of his seven works can be explored in the Oman Library and contains something for any reader interested in the region’s history, politics, culture, art, or architecture, as well as U.S. diplomacy.
Both of his guides, Islamic Monuments in Cairo and A Practical Guide to Islamic Monuments in Morocco, serve as tangible artifacts of Parker’s tenure in the countries. The former, which includes introductory chapters on the history of Cairo and Islamic architecture, provides suggested itineraries, meticulously sketched maps and directions, and systems of asterisks to denote which monuments are of prime importance and which deserve detours. The descriptions of the monuments are full of history, and Qur’anic verses explain their religious significance. Parker offers the story of the monuments in its own context, without constant reference to the West, even supplying dates based on the Islamic calendar.
Parker did not mince words or conceal his convictions throughout his writings. For example, he dedicated The Six-Day War, about the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1967, to “all those who lost their lives in this foolish war.” At the same time, his words are supported by thorough research and context. The Six-Day War, as well as The October War: A Retrospective, emerged from conferences organized by Parker, who then edited the volumes to reflect a wide array of perspectives and resolve unanswered questions. However, Parker concludes the earlier volume by decreeing that its success derives from the fact that the dialogue “raised more questions than it…answered,” and he calls for further study regarding the root causes of conflicts and decision-making in foreign policy.
Parker proved his deep understanding of U.S.-Maghrebi history through his book, Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. The book even details America’s first hostage crisis at the hands of North African pirates in 1785—an incident that encouraged the formation of the U.S. Navy. His attention to the historical record and his ability to “painstakingly reconstruct the activities and personalities of the earliest U.S. diplomats,” as Foreign Affairs noted in its review, render his work of value for students of history and diplomacy—as well as for those looking to learn from its high-quality writing and analysis—as indeed, it won the American Academy of Diplomacy's Douglas Dillon Award in 2004 for distinguished writing.
Students of diplomacy would do well to study Parker’s work as a representation of a traditional and admirable approach to diplomacy, that is, one in which diplomats often cultivated a deep appreciation of the language, art, architecture, and culture of a region. Amidst calls in the field for “quietly putting the resident ambassador out of his misery” and articulations of “new diplomacy,” Parker’s accumulated lifetime of expertise is proof of the continuing value of career investment in the service of country and scholarship.
Though the two guides to Islamic monuments have been replaced by current versions for practical use, Parker’s guides remain of great import for scholars, especially historians, to account for the history of the monuments themselves, especially those now felled or damaged by conflict.
Primary Research Applications
Islamic Art and Architecture
Diplomats and Diplomacy
North Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon
Historical Monuments and Sites
International History – Cold War
A Practical Guide to Islamic Monuments in Morocco (Charlottesville, VA: Baraka Press, 1981)
Islamic Monuments in Cairo: A Practical Guide (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1985)
North Africa Regional Tensions and Strategic Concerns (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 1987)
The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993)
The Six-Day War: A Retrospective (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996)
The October War: A Retrospective (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004)
- 1- G. R. Berridge, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 2002.
Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004)
Obituaries of Ambassador Parker: ,
Parker’s at the Freer & Sackler Galleries