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Friday, May 06, 2011

Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present

BOOK REVIEW
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present
by Chirstopher I. Beckwith
p. 2009
Princeton University Press


   In a certain sense, you could state that the entire pre-History and History of humanity can be described by depicting the fall in prominence of Central Asia from its position of shaper of all that was to come in pre-History, through the great Empires of the Classic and Medieval Periods down to Central Asia's present status as an economically depressed, under-educated, war-torn back water.

  So far has the geographic area described in this book fallen that it does not even register on the radar of most contemporary West European/Americans as a location at all.  Instead, Central Asia is known more for some of the nations that are located there- Afghanistan, for one, Tibet, for another then for its identity as a region.  That's a pity, because considering the amount of money we are shoveling into Central Asia, you would think, we, as a nation, would have a vested interest in knowing the history of the place.

  Beckwith starts with an abiding interest in the Indo European diaspora and does an excellent job describing the common characteristics of the daughter cultures.  Chief among the ideas is the "Comitatus."  The Comitatus is a group of armed, mounted warriors whose loyalty lay with the chief of the tribe (as supposed to with a specific people, empire or nation.)  The Comitatus was tied to their leader by blood and honor- the idea of a "blood brother" is specifically derived from Indo-European roots.  Although likely originated in the proto-Indo European morass, the Comitatus was not limited to PIE speakers- the Mongols as well as other non PIE descended speakers adopted it to great impact throughout history.  In the Arab world, the Turks brought Comitatus to the Middle East via the Mamaluk tradition.

  The primary pre-Historical dynamic that Beckwith illuminates is the role that agriculture played in pre-Historic times. The so-called "Nomadic" peoples of pre-Historic times farmed as well as herded, and Beckwith repeatedly makes the strong point that viewing Indo European and later expansion and diffusion through the filter of the desire to control trade makes just as much sense as any previous explanation.   He notes that the Scythians, a northern Iranian speaking barbarian people known to the Greeks for their wild ways and red hair, were setting up wheat farms specifically to export to the Greek colonies of the Black Sea and the main land in the period 300-200 BC.

    The historical diffusion of the Indo European speakers lasted from 2000 BC all the way to the edge of the Christian era, in three successive waves, after which remaining Indo Europeans in Central Asia (mostly the Iranians and their descendants) duked it out with peoples from the East: Tibetans, Chinese, Turks and Mongols, in a process that ended up with them being displaced out of Central Asia and taking their present day locations and merging with the peoples already in residence.

   Under the Turks and Mongols, Central Asia reached the height of prominence in the early Middle Ages, a time when other World Areas were struggling- Western Europe comes to mind.  Central Asians, particularly the little-known Sogdian people, influenced the rising Arab Caliphate as well as the Chinese Dynasties, and the intellectual achievements between about 300 and 800 AD were first class.  Under the Mongols, the Silk Road had a "pax-Mongolia" where trade and wealth rose to unmatched heights.  Mongol rule was disrupted by the plague, and after that Central Eurasia suffered a long term decline that was persisted up to today.

  The Silk Road was displaced by the "Maritime Littoral" otherwise known to Western Europeans and their progeny as the "Age of Discovery," starting in the 16th century.  That displacement was solidified by the 19th century partition of Central Asia between Russia and China.  Since then it has been "all downhill" as they say. It's almost impossible to imagine a return to global prominence for Central Asia.  Perhaps there is some grand world-historical lesson there, but I'm inclined to think not.

  Regardless of the present situation, the incredible success of the Indo European daughter languages makes those ancestor cultures of interest to anyone who's trying to "show how we are all one people,"  promote peace, global understanding, cross cultural communication etc.  Particularly when it comes to places like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan this history bears directly on our experiences there and the lessons should be heeded.

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