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It’s Time for a Reappraisal of Central Eurasia in History

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Camel, Northern Wei

Camel, Northern Wei

Lately I’ve been studying up on the history and culture of Central Eurasia, which has been home for millennia to important settled and nomadic people, including the speakers of proto-Indo-Europeans, the Parthians, Scythians, Huns, Xiongnu, Turks, and Mongols, to name a few.

The story about these peoples has long been told from the perspective of the high centers of civilization. To the Greeks, Romans, ‘Abbasid caliphs, and Chinese alike, these are barbarian invader-folk who periodically amass in sufficient numbers to cause serious problems by raiding and invading past their steppe hinterlands, toppling empires and bringing ruin. Such is the legacy of the Huns and Mongols in particular, who, according to popular conception, surged out of the steppes on horseback to leave smoldering ruins and piles of skulls in their wake.

While this model isn’t without a grain of truth, as usual the truth is more complicated than that. There is a widespread and traditional antipathy between settled peoples and mobile populations, and wherever these two forms of society are found we see similar stories told by the latter about the former. They are thieves, primitive warriors, and bellicose brutes – this is said not only of the Huns by the Romans, but of the Apache by the neighboring Pueblo peoples in pre-modern times.

In the last generation in particular we’ve started to see an important revision to that prevailing conception, which examines history in the light of the Central Eurasians, not as a usually-unimportant people dwelling at the perimeter of history, but as a worthwhile subject in its own right, and that shift in emphasis is challenging a lot of the conventional wisdom. What is regarded by imperial powers as infringement on their rightful borders, for example, often dissolves into complex disputes regarding encroachment into new territory and violation of trade rights by some of the societies in question. And far from the brutish horsemen of their adversaries’ histories, we’re gradually coming to appreciate the complex societies, economies, and cultures of the peoples of Central Eurasia, which has been a key nexus of cultural interchange and transmission for at least six thousand years.

In the 19th century when historians started looking closely at the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the general understanding was that classical civilization and urban culture began in Greece and Rome. It took a couple of generations of looking at overwhelming evidence to the contrary before we collectively revised that understanding and appreciated the degree to which complex urban societies existed in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt for millennia before the Greek iron age. I think we’re in the midst of a similar revision now with respect to Central Asia, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that these societies cannot be understood simply as a footnote to Roman and Chinese history. They are themselves key drivers of history, and the closer I look at them, the more I see that the history of Europe and Asia simply cannot be understood without a thorough understanding of these cultures.

There is a lot of great information out there on Central Eurasia; one source I recommend to interested readers is Christopher Beckwith’s outstanding study Empires of the Silk Road.


In other news, a great recent discover of mine is the wonderful BBC Radio series In Our Times. Our lively host Melvyn Bragg guides animated discussions of fascinating topics in history, art, science, and culture, typically with three university professor guests. I’ve listened to spellbinding episodes on the Samurai, Sappho, the Venerable Bede, and the An-Lushan Rebellion, and look forward to streaming many more. Episodes are 45 minutes in length.

In Our Times Archive.


Written by Mesocosm

May 9, 2015 at 2:29 pm

Posted in History

4 Responses

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  1. You might be interested in Peter Kingsley’s “A Story Waiting to Pierce You”, which also looks at the enormous contribution of Central Eurasia to human development. Kingsley is a very odd and difficult person, but he’s got some interesting things to say as well. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts once you take a look at it.


    May 10, 2015 at 5:28 am

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I admit that when I looked at it, my first impression was that it looked highly speculative – until I read Walter Burkert praise it for its “rich and dense scholarship.” That’s like a blessing from the pope.

    By the same token, with your interest in Tibet, you may like Beckwith’s “The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia,” which forces us to revise our opinion of the importance of Tibet in its imperial period. It’s quite fascinating.


    May 10, 2015 at 6:19 am

    • Thanks, will check it out.


      May 10, 2015 at 10:45 am

      • I’m about half way done with it, and you’re right – he is an odd and difficult person. I’ve rarely felt such a visceral dislike of a book and have many strong criticisms of it, which is a shame, because I think he has an interesting conjecture in there, buried beneath his pretentious sermonizing and tendency to argue by bibliography.

        In general I find the idea of “west versus east” pretty not-useful for a variety of reasons, especially when it’s presented in the pure/wise/primordial east versus the messy/hyper-rationalist/spiritually-depraved west. That’s a fatuous simplification and smacks of orientalism.


        May 15, 2015 at 11:41 am

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