Central Asia, from the middle ages, through Timur
December 25, 2009 10:01 PM   Subscribe

Rediscovering Central Asia is an article by historian and archaeologist S. Frederick Starr, about the Islamic Central Asian intellectual flowering between 800 and 1100, when scientists like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Biruni debated such questions as the existence of other solar systems and whether god created the animals. Starr then traces Central Asia's slide in influence and power. The last great Central Asian empire was that of Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane the Great, who ruled from 1370-1405. One of the great early works of Spanish literature was the travel account of Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, ambassador of Spain to Timur's court, which can be read in full on Google Books or downloaded as a pdf.
posted by Kattullus (15 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
If you've got JSTOR access you can read more on al-Biruni's thoughts about biology here.
posted by Kattullus at 10:03 PM on December 25, 2009

oooh great post. thank you :)
posted by supermedusa at 10:21 PM on December 25, 2009

Oh, yes! Great post
posted by KokuRyu at 11:01 PM on December 25, 2009

Well, it certainly didn't do them any good to be conquered by the Mongols.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:42 PM on December 25, 2009

Bit of a career shift for Freddie Starr there. Still not forgiven him for eating the hamster.
posted by Abiezer at 12:00 AM on December 26, 2009

Well, it certainly didn't do them any good to be conquered by the Mongols.

And it wasn't only the Mongols. It was (looking at only the major movements) the Persians, Alexander's Greeks, the Arabic Islamists, the Mongols (whose pax mongolica brought over a century of stability and recovery), the Timurids, and then the Soviets. Most of which, admittedly at a huge price in blood, brought a cross-pollination of art, architecture, philosophy, law, religion, astronomy, agriculture, trade -- and genes. Look at the (newly restored) Ibn Sina birthplace museum at Qishlak Afshona, just outside Bukhara, or what's left of Uleg Beg's stellar observatory on the outskirts of Samarkand, to see how far advanced they were five centuries before the European Restoration.

In the long run, it actually did them quite a lot of good.
posted by aqsakal at 2:23 AM on December 26, 2009

It is such a great thing when we can feed ourselves well enough to have time to think. Humans are awesome sometimes.
I can't help but think though that when dominant modern cultures fail to celebrate the contributions of past dominant cultures and instead spend their energy producing such base and visceral and fun things like Baywatch that it contributes to a feeling in older cultures that they are being excused as not pertinent or relevant. As much as I like watching a bikini-clad Nicole Eggert running in slo-mo it turns out that Central Asian thinking has had a much greater effect on my life. My sense is that there would be less nonsense in the world if that was understood. It seems that nations and cultures are sort of like teenagers, easily hurt in a world that is all fingernails on a blackboard and united against them. That said, blowing shit up and failing to evolve isn't the answer. Anyone know how to fix this?

Great post, thanks
posted by vapidave at 5:15 AM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mod note: comments removed - do not EVER bring someone's personal profile information over to MeFi, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:45 AM on December 26, 2009

Thanks for this, Kattullus, I'm hoping to have a read through the Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo book later: I'm wondering if it could be the origin of this striking sentiment quoted by Sir Thomas Urquhart: ‘Tamerlain […] believed God was best pleased with diversity of religions, variety of worship, dissentaneousness of faith, and multiformity of devotion.’
posted by misteraitch at 8:25 AM on December 26, 2009

Nice post. Anyone who wants to get a learned and opinionated take on the history of the region (and of all of Eurasia, as focused on the region) should read Christopher I. Beckwith's Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton University Press, 2009). I reviewed it in four posts, starting here (links to the other posts at the bottom of that one).
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on December 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Starr is sort of a controversial figure in post-Soviet studies... nothing more to say than that.
posted by k8t at 8:36 AM on December 26, 2009

Clavijo's account is amazing. Holy fuck was that a rough trip. The summary: on the way out, Clavijo's party have to get through volcanic eruptions, wars, shipwreck, robbery, deadly illness, and all kinds of other problems. Somewhere in the middle of Iran, after they've already been travelling for about a year, they run into a messenger for Tamurlane, who tells them that he wants to see them now and they'd better get there fast, or he'll have their heads. So they spend the next six weeks riding night and day across deserts and barren plains towards Samarkand, killing all kinds of horses to get there. Several of Clavijo's companions die on the way.

Finally, finally, they get to Timur and does he give a shit? No he does not. While Timur is more than happy to accept the expensive presents that Clavijo has brought on behalf of the King of Castile, he is too busy getting drunk, staging public executions, and playing with his elephants to answer the King's letter. Two months after Clavijo arrives, he's ordered to leave -- without any answer at all. So, Clavijo goes back the way he came -- except that, a few months into the return voyage, Timur dies and the countryside breaks into turmoil, with every minor warlord in the empire fighting for position. Clavijo and his party spend the next few months trying to avoid getting killed in the crossfire. Finally, three years after he started, Clavijo gets home again. Seriously, that is one smart and/or tough and/or lucky dude.

I love reading these kinds of stories -- thanks, Kattullus. Now I'm off to reread Ibn Batutta, who was in Samarkand 30 years before the rise of Timur. Three cheers for adventuresome travelers!
posted by ourobouros at 12:16 PM on December 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

This was good. Although I do think Timur and Avicenna are in different categories of greatness -- that is, to say Central Asia was once a hotspot of learning is fine but then to say, also in later years it spawned conquering hordes is not quite as admirable. Nevertheless the overall point Starr is making is that Soft Power is the way to go. Very interesting article and unique, so far as I can tell, among historico-interpreters of the current situation.
posted by CCBC at 4:18 AM on December 27, 2009

I am glad to see Fred Starr writing about Central Asia's past, because his opinions of Central Asia today are much less reliable, or at least controversial his willingness to accept generous direct and indirect funding from the authoritarian regimes in the region and provide them with reports that document completely illusory "progress towards democracy."

Harper's Ken Silverstein has done the best reporting on Starr, and calls him "The Professor of Repression." Also.

Form your own opinion of Starr as a historian, but his connections to Nazarbayev, Karimov, the Turkmenbashi and others make it hard to accept him as a neutral observer of the region's present and future.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 12:47 AM on December 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

> Form your own opinion of Starr as a historian, but his connections to Nazarbayev, Karimov, the Turkmenbashi and others make it hard to accept him as a neutral observer of the region's present and future.

Damn, that's too bad. His book Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union is wonderful. Why can't good scholars be good people, dammit?
posted by languagehat at 7:20 AM on December 29, 2009

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