If I’ve been quiet on the reading front for a while, it’s been because I’ve been working my way through these gorgeously produced volumes. They’re big—almost a foot tall and over 350 pages each—but a lot of that is taken up by colour illustrations. There are beautiful pictures of artworks from dozens of cultures, produced over millennia; landscape photographs of Central Asia’s forbidding scenery; images of archaeological digs (some rather beautifully photographed); and occasional paintings that reconstruct ancient settlements from the archaeological evidence. I.B. Tauris have done the illustrations justice, reproducing them brightly on thick, glossy paper. And they’ve maintained a uniform style over four years and three volumes, resisting the urge to mess with the layout and style, so the three books have the feel of being a single entity.
Christoph Baumer is a Swiss explorer with an interest in the archaeology and history of Central Asia, and over the last decade and a half he has produced a series of books on those topics, both in English and in German.
He has taken on a huge task, trying to distil down such a vast sweep of history. To sort things into manageable chunks, the books are divided into chapters, sections and sub-sections, proceeding in roughly chronological order. The chapters have very broad themes, like “The Iron Age”; the sub-sections deal with specific aspects of specific cultures. This can make things a little repetitive at times—we see the same alliances and battles several times over, as they are discussed from the viewpoint of each culture involved. But that means the books are good reference sources, because each sub-section is largely self-contained.
Overall, he succeeds. But I think the books would definitely have profited from a glossary, for those of us unable to keep our Sogdians, Bactrians, Scythians and Sarmatians straight, or who aren’t entirely sure where Fergana, Gansu, the Hexi Corridor or the Iron Gates might be. And although there are good maps, there needed to be more good maps—as the borders between regions shift, as nomadic groups migrate, there’s a need for outline maps every century or so, or at least at key historical moments. Trying to puzzle out the current borders of Bactria on a summary map that shows only geographical features and major towns is a bit of trial.
Volume One (published in 2012) is subtitled The Age Of The Steppe Warriors, and it takes us from the first wanderings of prehistoric man up to around 200 BC, by which time the fringes of Central Asia were settling into an established pattern of nation-states. There’s a summary of the current knowledge of human arrival in Central Asia during the Palaeolithic—which species of hominins passed through, and to what extent they either supplanted each other or interbred. When the archaeological evidence kicks in, there’s an eye-watering succession of cultures to deal with, and a degree of speculation about who influenced whom, and which languages these people might have spoken.
After that, we begin to encounter cultures known to history, and see how Central Asia would draw in migrants when the climate was favourable, and then pump them back out again when the weather deteriorated. I’ve always been interested in the Tocharians, a little island of Indo-European apparently stranded in the Tarim Basin—Baumer places them in the larger setting of Indo-European migration into, and then out of, Central Asia.
My favourite anecdote from this period describes a legend among the Ossetian people of the Caucasus. It tells of a king who, as a boy, drew a sword from a tree-root, and who, on his death, had his sword thrown into the sea to be claimed by a water-deity. The parallels with the story of King Arthur and Excalibur are obvious. Why do the British and the Ossetians share this story? Baumer points out that the Ossetians are descendants of the nomadic Sarmatian Alans, and that Marcus Aurelius sent 5,500 Sarmatian cavalrymen to Britain in 175 AD, to guard Hadrian’s Wall. So maybe one of Britain’s founding myths originated among the nomads of Central Asia.
Volume One finishes with the incursions of the Greeks into Central Asia—the campaigns of Alexander, and the founding of the exotic and obscure Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.
Volume Two (2014), The Age Of The Silk Roads, takes us up to the end of the first millennium AD. As the subtitle suggests, it deals with the economic and cultural importance of the Silk Roads linking China to Europe and India. The cosmopolitan nature of these trans-continental routes was perfectly illustrated for me by one archaeological find Baumer describes—in the eighth century, in a Buddhist city in the Taklamakan Desert near the southern Silk Road, someone wrote (or perhaps received) a business letter in the Persian language, using the Hebrew alphabet.
My favourite Indo-Europeans, the Tocharians, appear again, under their Chinese name, Yuezhi. Having been driven from the Tarim Basin into a long folk-wandering, they finally turn up in India as the founders of another exotic and obscure kingdom, the Kushan Empire. The book also describes how Buddhism evolved as it spread along the Silk Roads, how the Hunnic and Turkic nomads established kingdoms in Central Asia long before they came to menace Europe and the Near East, and how the Arabs, Tibetans and Chinese had a three-way struggle to control the region.
My favourite story from this volume is of the mysterious “fish-scale battle formation” adopted by the Xiongnu defenders of the fort of Zizhi Chanyu, besieged by the Chinese in 36 BC. This formation had not previously been seen by the Chinese, and the surviving description is oddly reminiscent of a Roman legionary testudo. Now, there were 10,000 Roman legionaries captured by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. The Parthians probably put these soldiers to work on their eastern border, well away from the temptation to escape back towards Rome. Is it possible that some of these men eventually percolated right across Asia to sell their services to a group of steppe warriors on the borders of China? Well, maybe. It’s an old hypothesis, but the modern genetic evidence isn’t supportive.
Volume Three (2016) is subtitled The Age Of Islam And The Mongols, and takes us up to about 1500. It does exactly what it says—describing the Islamic Arabic and Turkic empires that occupied the region at the turn of the millennium, the splintering of Islam into multiple sects, and how all of it was eventually overrun by the Mongols.
I could have done with a little more about the flowering of (mainly Persian) science under the benign (to science!) rule of the Abassid caliphs, but there is of course a lot to get through in a work of this sort. Sometimes too much—Baumer is occasionally forced to produce head-melting passages like the following:
While the 1150s and early 1160s were marked by conflicts with the invading Karluks, who killed Ibrahim III ibn Muhammad Khan, towards the end of the twelfth and in the early thirteenth century the western Karakhanid khans increasingly came under the influence of the religious caste of the Sudur. At the same time they were confronted with the aspiring military power of their western neighbours, the Chorasm-shahs, who were also the vassals of the Qara Khitai. The Qara Khitai for their part were hard pressed by the nomadic equestrian warriors of the Naiman under Prince Küchlüg, who had to flee to the west from Genghis Khan.
Got all that? Me neither.
The narrative settles down in the second half of the book, as Baumer no longer has to deal with so many competing kingdoms, and is able to settle into the overwhelming dominance of Mongol culture in Central Asia. The narrative ends with the disintegration of the pax mongolica, and the brief but devastating ascendancy of the truly ghastly Timur ibn Taraghai Barlas, known to history as Timur-e Lang, Timur the Lame or Tamerlane.
My favourite story from this volume is of how the Buddhist Qara Khitai’s assault on the Seljuk Turks in Central Asia filtered back to Christian Europe. The knowledge that there was a non-Moslem group out there, somewhere, fighting the Moslems, was probably the origin of the legend of Prester John—a powerful and wealthy ruler of a Christian kingdom in Central Asia, who was going to come to the aid of the Crusaders.
A fourth volume, subtitled The Age of Decline and Revival, is planned, bringing the story up to the present day. I’m looking forward to it, but if the current publishing schedule is maintained, it’ll be 2018 before we see it.
Update: And indeed, The Age of Decline and Revival was published in 2018. I review it here.