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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Religions of the Silk Road

Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange From Antiquity To The Fifteenth Century
by Richard C. Foltz
p. 1999
St. Martins Press

   Central Asian history runs like an hour glass, with Genghis Khan at the center.  Under Khan, the Silk Road reached it's world-historical pinnacle, and thereafter went into decline.  The "centrality" of Central Asia in world history is a subject poorly understood in the West for a variety of reasons: inaccessibility of locations, lack of written texts and general lack of interest among the public.  I tell you, it shows- just trying to locate reasonably priced books about the history of Central Asia, let alone specialized subjects like archeology or linguistics, is near impossible.

   This book, on the other hand, was reasonably priced, though my hopes of finding a reservoir of reasonably priced tomes on the subject was dashed by bibliographical sources like the Bulletin of the Asia Institute.

  A big part of Central Asian history BEFORE Genghis Khan is the subject of this book, "religions of the silk road."  Central Asia was poly-ethnic, religious and linguistic from Ancient times.  The two main ethnic/linguistic groupings of Central Asia are Iranian and Turkic, with the Iranian speakers being more likely to be farmers, and the Turks more likely to be herders/nomads.  

  At the beginning of the historic period- i.e. the Persian Empire, you can imagine a game board with two rows of three space each, different types of Iranians fill in the bottom spaces, and then a mix of Iranian speaking nomads and Turkic speaking nomads fill the top spaces- the northern part of Central Asia- modern Kazakhstan more or less.

  The Persians pushed their state sponsored version of Zoroastrianism out to the non Persian Iranian speaking people with some success, then Alexander came along, conquered the Persian Empire and wound up leaving Indo-Greek successor states among areas occupied by Iranian-speaking, non-Persian pastoralists.  Around the same time, Buddhist missionaries made a concerted effort to convert the people of Central Asia, and they met with great success in the Oasis of the Tarim Basin.

   After Alexander's Empire dissipated, Zorastrianism reasserted itself in the new Persian Empire.  This was a fertile land for the spread of Christianity, as well as the spawning ground for the weird faith of Manicheanism ("Mani-ism") of which most Authors of Central Asia find fascinating.   All this interesting  history sets the stage for the Muslim/Islamic conquering of Persia/Iran and the Central Asian littoral.  The Muslim invasion of Persian in the 8th century is a topic that is not discussed enough.  Talk about a traumatic defeat!  After Islam established it's control in the heart of the Persian Empire, the non-Muslim people pushed out along the silk road to the East, so that pockets of pre-Muslim religions maintained their existence as far East as China into the modern period.

   My sense is that the author has some inclination to say something important about the transmission of culture across time and distance, but he stops short on the threshold, and the entire book is barely 150 pages long.

   The Islamizing Process did not end with Genghis Khan, indeed, the Khanate was a tolerant place, but the remaining non converted tribes, mostly Turkic speaking people, either adopted Islam as a conquerers religion (Tamerlane) or because they were late to the party and "everyone else was doing it." (the Khazaks and Kyrgyz in the 16th and 17th centuries.)

   Central Asia becomes less interesting as history moves past the 14th-15th century.  It's significantly less interesting in the 16th century, and actually in relative and actual decline by the 17th, all the way up to today, where the situation shows little hope of improvement.

   One interesting note is that Central Asia was in ferment in the 7th, 8th and 9th century- a time of absolute darkness in Europe- and there were traders who went all the way from Gaul to Central Asia in pursuit of Slaves for European markets.  Even after the Muslim conquest of Persia, Central Asia served as a sort of repository for people "on the run" and it's not hard to imagine some of them heading west, like the barbarian tribesmen who had come west five centuries earlier as part of the Hunnic Horde. Europe in the Ninth century might have been pretty sedate for a Nestorian Christian monk from Mesopotamia.  It's hard to imagine that there WASN'T a whole lot of cultural transmission going on between one place and the other.

1 comment:

east route said...

silk road central asia

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