Thursday, July 14, 2011

Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher I Beckwith

After almost three weeks of near-continuous effort, I have finished this book: Empires of the Silk Road by Christopher I Beckwith. I took notes, I condensed those notes twice, and then I went through each chapter colouring in maps showing the various migrations of the people, and how Central Eurasia changed over the centuries. It is complicated but quite fascinating. I have learnt a lot.

The book is an achievement. It connects famous parts of Western and Chinese history and puts them in context. It does this by making Central Eurasia, an area of the world that has recently been disregarded, as its focus, and thereby giving its inhabitants, generally thought to be 'barbarians', a new appraisal. It concludes that the nomadic hordes of the Eurasian Steppes were just as civilised as everyone else. Most of what they did depended on the aspirations of their folk-lore, something known as the 'First Story'. An essential feature of this was a leader to whom a band of dedicated blood-brothers swore allegiance, sometimes unto death. This 'comitatus' of followers had to be supported by the entire population, and everyone was expected to pay homage with luxurious goods. These were the Proto-IndoEuropeans, and it seems like the majority of people living outside Africa are either their direct descendents or have ancestors who were heavily influenced by their culture.

The requirement to give tributes to the leader ensured that trade became important, and from this developed the Silk Road. This was not just a trading route, but a complicated socio-political network, involving three types of people: the nomads, a band of settled agriculturalists and the urbanites. The nomadic empires (the Scythians, the Tokharians, the Hsiung-nu, the Hun, the Türks, the Mongols, the Tartars, and the Khazars) all had this three-part structure. The nomads depended on trade, and restricting this by building a wall or closing a boundary was a declaration of war. The nations peripheral to the silk road understood this, and so when these 'barbarians' retaliated it was to be expected. The only other time the nomadic nations of Central Eurasia attacked was when a subjugated city rebelled. Then they were merciless and terrifying. One account describes how one nomadic nation used to attack on a moonless night with blackened faces and shields. In fact they were not 'barbaric' at all; they had their own culture, and were no more ferocious and warlike than any other nation. Their leaders, according to witness accounts, were just, civilised and popular.

For several centuries (from sometime in the first millennium BC with the Scythians to late in the seventeenth century AD) one nomadic nation after another reigned supreme, the pinnacle of achievement starting at the end of the eighth century when Arabs, Türks (originally from the Eastern Steppe), Tibetans and Chinese empires met in the Tarim Basin. This mixing of ideas and intellect eventually transferred to the rest of the Muslim empire in the 11th and 12th centuries via the near-East and the Mediterranean and from there into Western Europe. Ideas from the Ancient Greeks were re-examined and interpreted, and eventually caused revolutions in thought and the sciences.

Nothing lasts forever though, and eventually the Arabs retreated leaving the Central Eurasian states to be ruled independently, and people such as the Khazaks, Tartars and Mongols surged in to take their place. One of the most triumphant was Genghis Khan, who established the first world superpower in the thirteenth century. Soon after his death his empire was fragmented by his descendents and then weakened further by the advent of the Black Death - the world's first pandemic - starting around 1331. Another nation of nomads under Tamerlane took advantage of the Mongol's depleted state and, starting out from the Central Eurasian heartland, established the Moghul empire in northern India with its distinctive architecture in 1360; meanwhile in China, another branch of the Mongol empire, the Yuan dynasty of Kublai Khan (Genghis's grandson), was defeated by the Ming (the ethnic Chinese).

From the 15th to the 17th centuries the Eurasian world was divided into new empires: Russia, Mongolians in the Eastern Steppe, and Manchurians (the Ch'ing who came after the Ming) in China, the Mughals in northern India, and the Persians and the Ottoman in modern-day Turkey. It was the expansion and subsequent agreement between two of these empires (the Russians and the Chinese) at the end of the 17th century that the closed the Silk Road, not, as commonly thought, the competition from the 'sea route' (as the nations of Western Europe established trade passages and depots around the world). Without trade, Central Eurasia became rapidly impoverished and technologically backward. In the twentieth century it was completely partitioned between the two great Communist powers, only some of it becoming free after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Despite being partly liberated, the area is still underdeveloped and poor, thanks, in part, to the scourge of Modernism (which the author discusses in thought-provoking detail). However, as a link between two of the fastest growing economies of the world (India and China) the area has a lot of potential. Maybe it is time for a new Silk Road to emerge again.

I found this exceptional book to be a hugely valuable education in many unexpected ways, and an excellent foundation for the rest of my Silk Road studies.


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