Inner Asia: Empires and Silk Roads

By Ostrowski, Donald | Kritika, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Inner Asia: Empires and Silk Roads


Ostrowski, Donald, Kritika


Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. xxviii + 472 pp. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 0691135892. $35.00.

Michal Biran, The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World. xvi + 279 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. ISBN 0521842263. $105.00.

Michel Biran, Chinggis Khan. x + 182 pp. Oxford: Oneworld, 2007. ISBN 1851685028. $40.00.

Stewart Gordon, When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the "Riches of the East." viii + 228 pp. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2008. ISBN 030681739X. $17.00 (paper).

Iurii Vladimirovich Krivosheev, ed., Rossiia i stepnoi mir Evrazii: Ocherki (Russia and the Steppe World of Eurasia: Essays). 432 pp. St. Petersburg: Sankt-Peterburgskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, 2006. ISBN 5288040230.

One of the primary tasks of a reviewer is to tell the reader what the book being reviewed is about. Yet that task cannot always be realized in a clear-cut way. What the author may think the book is about may differ from what the reviewer thinks the author has written, and both may differ from the publicized description of the book by the publisher or on the jacket cover or even the title and subtitle. All the books under review here are ostensibly about an aspect or aspects of Inner Eurasian history. Although not all the authors approach their topics in the same way, collectively they provide a fairly accurate indication of the type of work currently being done in that field.

Christopher I. Beckwith is professor of Central Asian studies at Indiana University and has written extensively on the culture and the history of Tibet, including A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages. (1) His latest book is an example of a case where the external presentation, the author's own perception, and the reviewer's sense of what the book is about differ. The book under review has a dramatic title, Empires of the Silk Road, but it is the subtitle, A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, that is the more accurate descriptor, since the author deals with a number of political entities that are neither empires nor on the Silk Road per se. Beckwith tells us that "the Silk Road was not in essence a commercial transportation network at all; [instead] it was the entire Central Eurasian economy, or socio-economic-political-cultural system" (264).

Similarly he directs the subject of his book away from "empires" to the peoples that embodied the "Central Eurasian Cultural Complex," defined as those societies that adopted the virtual history of the "First Story" (discussed 2-12). (2) But, in Beckwith's conceptualization, "[t]he most crucial element of the early form of the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex was the sociopolitical religious ideal of the heroic lord and his comitatus, a war band of his friends sworn to defend him to the death" (12). Readers may be familiar with the notion of comitatus from the period of the Roman republic, when comites followed a leader into battle. The term was then used by Tacitus to describe the top of the organization of Germanic tribes and subsequently proposed by Montesquieu to be the basis of feudalism in medieval Europe. (3) Although Beckwith acknowledges the adoption of comitatus by Arabs in Central Asia and Spain, by Byzantines, and by Tang Chinese, he chooses not to mention the ancient Roman or medieval European utilizations here. Elsewhere, however, he declares that the Romulus and Remus legend is a "First Story" variant and that the ancestors of the Romans were Central Eurasians. (4)

Beckwith appears to have been developing his goals for the book as he was writing the preface. Initially he states that he kept his "original main goal foremost in . …

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