We all see the world and its history through blinders. As children we care only about our immediate family; as we grow up, our scope broadens, but for the most part we remain in thrall to the preconceptions and perspectives of our country, our class, our religion—take your pick of the many ways we slice the cake of humanity. Perhaps the main intellectual task of the modern period of cultural history is the dismantling of such barriers, the increasing refusal to privilege one version of the world over another, from Einstein’s theory of relativity (the usual resort of those who want a scientific metaphor for these things) to the various attempts to present history from different angles. But it’s a maddeningly slow and incomplete process. Americans still think of history as leading up to the glorious Founding Moment of 1776, and the world since then as focused on the fortunes and interests of the U.S.; the worldview of the Chinese is heavily Sinocentric; every nation and ethnic group has its grudge-filled version of history, with its own moments of glory.

Even when we try to counteract such narrow views, we only go so far. In college I took a mandatory two-year History of Civilization course, which did an admirable job of introducing us young and ignorant Americans to the world at large; we spent entire semesters on non-European regions most of us hadn’t given much thought to. But though we read Sources of Chinese Tradition and Sources of Indian Tradition, what we were getting were simply alternative blinders: the world as focused on China, India, and so on. We could triangulate, so to speak, but there was no really broad view that dispensed with the time-honored borders and categories.

That’s why it was such a thrill to encounter Marshall Hodgson. Hodgson thought both Eurocentrism and the traditional Islamic categorizations were impeding useful thought, and he created his own categories and terminology and did his best to rethink the way we conceived of the world’s past. (It’s a tragedy he died so young, in his mid-forties.) Reading The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam was one of the formative experiences of my intellectual life, giving me not only a continuing interest in what he called the Islamicate world but an appreciation for the interconnections between what we think of as separate civilizations. (In a less academic way, Amin Maalouf does similar things, and I recommend his The Crusades Through Arab Eyes to anyone who wants a lively recounting that will shake up the way they think of the Crusades.)

Over a decade ago I read a book that impressed me in a similar way: The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power Among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese During the Early Middle Ages. I know it sounds like a recondite topic, but at the time the book deals with—roughly the seventh through the mid-ninth centuries—Tibet was a power in the world, capable of defeating any of the surrounding nations and central to the complex web of overland trade and other contacts of the period. Not only was his approach refreshingly new but his command of the relevant languages and materials was awe-inspiring, and in an epilogue called “Tibet and Early Medieval Eurasia Today” he took my breath away with his sweeping but carefully grounded pronouncements on the rise of the Turks, the cities of the Roman Empire (“one must ask if these ancient cities were really centers of commercial life. In fact, most were creations of the Roman government, just like the military camps and the military roads that connected them all to Rome. It would thus appear to be no coincidence that many of them disappeared when the Roman government collapsed and the subsidies ended”), medieval coinage (“the entire civilized world of the Early Middle Ages was in fact on a silver standard. Gold was a valuable commodity, but unimportant as coinage”), and the alleged devastation of Western Europe by the “barbarian invasions” (“The supposedly highly cultured northern regions of the Roman Empire… were almost totally devoid of important literary figures during the classical and late classical periods. From the seventh century onward, however, there were — suddenly, it seems — many writers in those places… In other words, literate civilization expanded into what had been essentially preliterate territory”). The author was Christopher I. Beckwith, and I wanted very much to see what he could do on a broader canvas.

Now he has published Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (kindly sent to me by Princeton University Press), and it is even better than I might have hoped. Essentially, he’s applying the same combination of dogged detail work and sweeping reevaluation to the entire history of Eurasia, focusing on that often neglected portion called Central Asia. You can read the Introduction online, and it will give you an idea of the approach, but it’s the details that make the book. As a minor but telling example, each chapter starts off with an epigraph: the prologue with an excerpt from the Kalmyk national epic, the first chapter with one from the Rig Veda, the epilogue with a bit of Cavafy, and so on. Perfectly normal, but he also includes the originals, in the original script: the first thing you see in the prologue is Эртиин экн цагт һаргсн [Born in a bygone age long ago]. This isn’t just a nod to multiculturalism (and a demonstration of the ease of setting multilingual texts in the computer age), it’s a refusal to privilege the easy-to-read translation over the normally effaced original, an insistence on the fact that the Kalmyks see and express the world through their Mongolic language and we have to bear that constantly in mind even if we don’t actually learn Kalmyk.

This is by no means an easy read. Each page has its full complement of footnotes, there are forty pages of more substantial endnotes at the back, there are two appendices (one on “The Proto-Indo-Europeans and Their Diaspora,” which was of course of particular interest to me and which I will report on next, and one on “Ancient Central Eurasian Ethnonyms”), and there is frequent discussion of minute details of historical reconstruction. But if it has the impact I hope it will, its findings and approaches will have a ripple effect, and before too long more popular histories will appear that treat the world from a similarly all-encompassing point of view, and the average reader will start to become aware that history is a much more multifarious thing than it had seemed, and that there is no such thing as a “barbarian.” In the meantime, anyone with an interest in the crucial but too often ignored part of the world between Europe and Asia owes it to themselves to read this groundbreaking work, on which I will be reporting in future posts [2, 3, 4] as I make my way through it.


  1. If there are any young language hatters wondering what career to choose, Central Asian history is a treasure trove for someone who loves language study. I am able to read approximately 4.3 of the relevant languages (three or four European languages, Chinese, and a bit of Mongol), and that barely puts me on the first rung of the ladder.
    There’s a LOT left to be discovered.
    There are new books out recently about the Sogdians, the Qaraqitai, the Yuezhi / Tokharians (hopefully to be followed by a book on the Kushans), a big empty space where the book on the Bulghars should be, a lot of scattered stuff on the Khazars but no definitive book, a not-so-good new book about the Bactrian Greeks, and a lot of work left to do on the Turkish Empires, the Xi-xia, the Toba / Tabgatch, the Qitans, the Jurchen….

  2. And further west the Rus’, the Lithuanians, the Crimean Goths, the Caucasian Albanians, the Bosporan Greeks, Trebizond, the Kalmyks/Torgut, the Oirats, the Scythians, the Huns, the Alans….

  3. There are new books out recently about the Sogdians, the Qaraqitai, the Yuezhi / Tokharians
    Links, please.
    a big empty space where the book on the Bulghars should be
    Not to get your hopes up, but a friend of mine is working on a dissertation on the subject. Well, for now it’s mostly just climbing that ladder you mentioned…

  4. I’ll put something together forthwith!

  5. he sounds like LNG, the introduction i mean, i’m glad

  6. This is a fantastic post, languagehat–thank you!
    JE, don’t forget the Karaites!

  7. The Karaites are pretty interesting.

  8. SnowLeopard says

    All these recommendations are very helpful. The earlier Beckwith has been sitting on my ever-expanding Amazon wishlist for quite some time. Since we’re on the general topic of medieval history, can anyone recommend good (read: exhaustive) treatments of medieval Islamic intellectual history (especially Al-Andalus), and of the so-called “ink road” of book caravans across the Sahara with medieval Timbuktu as its hub? I wouldn’t turn down a recommendation on the history of Malta, either.

  9. I second Hat’s recommendation of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes and for anyone who might enjoy some lighter folk stories about djinn and bedouins I would add Arab Folktales tr.Inea Bushnaq.

  10. Beckwith’s first book was a revelation. The image of iron-clad men and horses riding out of a prehistoric culture down off the Thibetan Plateau into the Tarim Basin and up again onto the Roof of the World lodged in my memory and left me eager for more Central Asian history. His command of unknown languages also amazed me. If this is a part of the romance of orientalism decried by Edward Said, so be it and so what? It’s a mechanism by which knowledge expands.
    I also applaud Amin Maalouf’s goal of making Islamic culture available to a wider European-plus world.
    Bekwith’s new book is so new that not one library in B. C. has it yet. Being wide awake in the middle of the night, I submitted a suggestion to purchase to my regional library. Surprisingly, they have his first one.

  11. The Rus’ do it,
    The Goths do it,
    Not forgetting Trebizond,
    The Kalmyks and Torgut do it,
    And folks from further beyond….

  12. I have never read any of Beckwith’s books on Central Asian history (a gap in my knowledge which I hope to remedy in the near future), but I have had the pleasure of reading his KOGURYO as well as his essays in MEDIEVAL TIBETO-BURMAN LANGUAGES (I and II), and can assure fellow (hopefully not mad) hatters that he is a very competent as well as a most heterodox historical linguist (he believes there isn’t enough evidence to support the Sino-Tibetan language family).

  13. You think that’s heterodox? He suggests that Chinese may be Indo-European in origin!

  14. Amin Maalouf’s goal of making Islamic culture available
    The Crusades Through Arab Eyes isn’t about culture; it’s straight history, very readable, with some unobtrusive endnotes (about sources for each chapter), and a nice index. The “through Arab eyes” thing sound to me like some marketing strategy. Of course you’re going to get something different if you read something like The First Crusade: the chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and other source materials ed.Edward Peters, that includes more western and religious source documents, although it includes Arab sources as well.
    To me it’s not all that different from histories like Bernard Lewis’ The Arabs in History or Sir John Glubb’s A Short History of the Arab Peoples, but when you read those, you’re certainly aware that the authors are Western. I would consider the Arab authorship to be a plus when reading history. Also in this category is one of my favorites, Kamal Salibi’s the Modern History of Jordan.
    I certainly have enjoyed reading about more contemporary subjects from people like Judith Miller, but eventually you start to wonder how the narrative has been affected by point of view based on the writer’s political and cultural identity.

  15. Hitti, Philip, An Arab-Syrian Gentleman of the Time of the Crusades, Columbia, 2000.
    I haven’t read this book, except excerpts. I just recommend it to people, and keep it on my “to read” list.
    It’s autobiographical and gives you some idea of the Muslim point of view.
    I also have not read Babur’s autobiography (tr. Thackston), and I also recommend it.
    I’ve read Henry Adams’ autbiography, and strongly recommend it as some kind of penance. Uniquely and memorably painful to read; the guy was psycho in an ultra-repressed Puritan way.

  16. Yes, The Crusades through Arab Eyes is about history. I was refering to Malouf’s novels and a remark he made somewhere, perhaps a foreward.

  17. I would also recommend John Man’s Genghis Khan; Life Death and Resurrection, for an inside-Central-Asian look at this remarkable man and his empire.

  18. And for young Americans, impoverished by their limited education system (well known to Canadians; and yes, all education systems undoubtedly are) I would recommend Fernand Braudel’s A History of Civilizations, written at the request of France’s education department. In fact, I would recommend it to B. C.’s education department.

  19. I see in the Introduction that Beckwith calls ‘silk road’ a misleading label. It struck me when I first read the title that it is composed of 2 cliches (’empires’ as well). Do you suppose that Princeton University Press imposed the title to appeal to a wider audience than the academic? ‘Marketing’ rearing its ugly head?

  20. I’m afraid so. University presses have been in the thrall of marketing for quite some time now. The cover is pretty gaudy, too.

  21. As a counteraxample, though, Mark Edward Lewis’s “Sanctioned Violence in Early China” could have been titled (or at least subtitled) “Massacre and Cannibalism in Early China”, but it wasn’t.

  22. marie-lucie says

    A slightly misleading title using well-known words is more likely to attract readers than one with more accurate but less well-known words. I emphasize “slightly”, I wouldn’t want a really misleading title which would make me as the reader feel cheated. Readers know that “the Silk Road” will not be strictly about the width or materials of an actual road but about the regions, culture and commerce along that road.

  23. Wow, this book looks pretty interesting. I have always been a fan of medieval history, but most of what I have read has been the Romanized, Eurocentric type of stuff. Works like this might finally allow me to get a better perspective on what really happened during those “dark ages” and maybe even figure out who the “barbarians” really were.

  24. Snow Leopard,
    Not exhaustive by any means, but have you read Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels? It has some relevance to the ink road and al-Andalus and a lot of interesting bits of intellectual history. Also good, if not an exhaustive intellectual history, is Tarif Khalidi’s Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period. Can’t recommend that one enough actually. You can check out a limited preview of it on Google books.

  25. SnowLeopard says

    Thanks you for these recommendations. They both look good, and I wanted to know more about Leo Africanus anyway. I’ll probably get them at the same time as the Beckwiths. I’d like to see some more, as well, as about scientific developments during this period and also a discussion of the Islamic reaction to classical Greek and Latin writers — I find it interesting, for example, that books 5-7 of Apollonius’ Conics survived the medieval era only in Arabic translation. Maybe these sources as well as Mr. Hat’s suggestions will help me get some clarity on this general time period.

  26. If you’re interested in al-Andalus you’ll want to check out The Legacy of Muslim Spain, a fairly comprehensive two-volume set.

  27. SnowLeopard says

    Excellent, thanks.

  28. Very interesting post — more books on my amazon.com list…

  29. I should say that both this and the next entry on the “Empires on the Silk Road”, as well as the introduction made me want to buy and read the book, which I will probably eventually do. What I read about the book here tells me I will be in for quite a bit of education.
    However, the last sentence of the introduction made me a bit uneasy: “The warriors of Central Eurasia were not barbarians. They were heroes, and the epics of their peoples sing their undying fame.”
    Well, for starters, said warriors could have well been both heroes and barbarians, for any useful definition of both. To throw an incendiary remark in this otherwise quite discussion, epic (e.g. Homeric) heroes of undying fame are usually creatures best observed from within a heavily armoured vehicle…
    And then the whole passage seemed a little bit too romanticizing for my taste; I wouldn’t expect anyone with the author’s erudition to proceed to make heroes of supposed barbarians or vice versa. Somehow a quest for “historical justice” doesn’t seem a productive approach. Do I miss or misinterpret something? Is this passage at all representative of the whole book?

  30. marie-lucie says

    Try substituting “Vikings” for “warriors of Central Eurasia”.
    Of course warriors can be both heroes and barbarians, depending on whether they are on your side or not. Attila the Hun is a big hero in Hungary, and similarly Genghis Khan in Mongolia. A few years ago I read a biography of Napoleon in English and started to realize the terror that he inspired outside of France. National history is like religion: we practically “inhale” it as small children and don’t question it until much later if ever. It is always a shock to discover the other side of the coin.

  31. This discussion made me remember a thread from 10 years ago:
    “He who defends the Mongols” (second header from top)
    Was cross-posted into soc.history.what-if, which is how I had read it at the time… Call it nostalgic.

  32. A trivia[l] note anent Leo Africanus, for those intested: he was born in the Albaicin neighbourhood of Granada, where there is (appropriately) a school of Arabic. Or I should say there was in the early seventies.

  33. “barbarians”
    I think this word was first introduced by a spambot–I think I saw the same name with a more obvious URL somewhere else. Isn’t “barbarians” just some ancient Greek word meaning “those icky people over there who don’t talk like us.”

  34. Well, for starters, said warriors could have well been both heroes and barbarians, for any useful definition of both.
    And then the whole passage seemed a little bit too romanticizing for my taste; I wouldn’t expect anyone with the author’s erudition to proceed to make heroes of supposed barbarians or vice versa. Somehow a quest for “historical justice” doesn’t seem a productive approach. Do I miss or misinterpret something? Is this passage at all representative of the whole book?
    Yes and no. No, in that most of the book consists of detailed discussions of events in the various parts of Eurasia influenced by what he calls Central Eurasia (which turns out to be much of what we consider European and Asian history); yes, in that the main motive force of the book (and the focus of a 40-page Epilogue) is a desire to show that the so-called barbarians are just, as Nijma puts it, “those icky people over there who don’t talk like us,” and the word is worse than useless and should be retired, a point of view I have considerable sympathy with.
    Is a quest for “historical justice” not a productive approach? I guess it depends on your philosophical point of view, but frankly, I prefer my historians to lay their biases out in the open rather than conceal them under a blanket of “objectivity.” I’d say almost all scholarly endeavor starts from emotional attachment or revulsion; in grad school you get it pounded out of you as far as externals go, but it’s still in there, influencing everything you do. History produced by someone with no emotional interest in the subject would be (it seems to me) unreadable and useless, a bunch of facts strung together to no purpose.
    In any event, I look forward to hearing what you think when you’ve had a chance to read it for yourself.

  35. > … yes, in that the main motive force of the book (and the focus of a
    > 40-page Epilogue) is a desire to show that the so-called barbarians
    > are just, as Nijma puts it, “those icky people over there who don’t
    > talk like us,” and the word is worse than useless and should be
    > retired, a point of view I have considerable sympathy with.
    Well, I do agree with that wholeheartedly, my only objection being
    that, if we retire the term “barbarian”, shouldn’t we also drop
    “heroes of undying fame”?
    The two seem to be hardly distinguishable for most means and purposes
    anyway: as has been pointed out here already, every epic hero is
    someone’s barbarian…
    But I should indeed read the book to argue further, of course.

  36. The whole “barabarian” thing is a red herring, I suspect added for marketing reasons. You won’t find this used in academia.

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