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The History of Central Asia: The Age of the Steppe Warriors by Christoph Baumer

Central Asia today rarely seems central to much of anything aside from geography. Its vast steppes, deserts and mountains are places usually passed over, often from 10,000 meters up.

The History of Central Asia: The Age of the Steppe Warriors by Christoph Baumer
History of Central Asia; The Age of the Steppe Warriors; 1, Christoph Baumer (I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, October 2012)

But it was not always so as Christoph Baumer makes clear in the extravagantly-produced The Age of the Steppe Warriors, the first volume of a planned four-volume series on The History of Central Asia.

The evidence points to Central Asia being the source of much of what we might consider the earliest foundations of our modern world: not agriculture—that developed elsewhere—but rather "technology", i.e. the casting of metals (bronze and later iron), the domestication of the horse and the development of wheeled transportation.

Central Asia also seems to be the source of the Indo-European languages—the family that includes English, Greek, Farsi and Hindi, and spoken by almost three billion people. We know this in part because these are the languages in which the words for these technologies first appear; the linguistic evidence corresponds with the archaeology. They also form the basis of much shared philosophy: the Rig Veda and other epics apparently date from that period of early Indo-European Bronze Age people on the steppe.

Indo-Europeans settled in what is now Xinjiang and the Taklamakan Desert and brought these technologies—metalworking, the horse, the chariot—to China. Largely lost to history until only a century ago and now known as Tocharians: the famous Xinjiang mummies are theirs. The more Western Indo-European Central Asians became the Persians and the Greeks, Germans, Celts and other peoples of Europe. Some of those that stayed in Central Asian figure in Western histories—those of Herodotus and Pliny, for example—as Scythians.

 

How could a book on the The History of Central Asia fail, therefore, to be fascinating? But The Age of the Steppe Warriors is as magnificent as it is magisterial. This is a coffee-table format book both in its size and its wealth of photographs, with some magnificent double-page spreads. And what photographs! From landscapes and ancient stelae to artifacts of gold, bronze, wood and even textile, the book is filled with images that are in turn fascinating, mysterious and dazzling. For the most part, the photos are of places that are inaccessible to most of us or of artifacts from museums in Russia and Central Asia that few readers will have ever visited.

The most evocative of these are the various stylized anthropomorphic statues, some of which look like they belong in a museum of modern art, rather than dating from the mists of prehistory. The most evocative of all are the wooden grave statues—preserved for millennia—staring eyelessly out over the desert in Ayala Mazar in the Taklamakan. Others are of “deer stones”—carved stone stelae featuring a stylized deer motif—which appear throughout the region, polychromatic textiles (carpets and wall hangings) and articles of gold and other materials that show the people and animals of the steppe.

The images reach out across the centuries—no, millennia, for they are thousands of years old—like old family photographs of forgotten great-aunts and uncles, except many times more removed, dusty, strange, yet somehow recognizable.

 

The text—which amounts to no more than 50% of the book by area—is erudite if not always easy going. This period is pre-history; insofar as there are written records, they came late in the period, and generally from the neighbours rather than the Central Asians themselves. The story is one of cultures with unfamiliar names, often with a surfeit of umlauts and other diacritical marks, long distances and long periods of time, with a great deal of inference and technical detail. It takes some work. Speculation would leaven the narrative, but Baumer (wisely) restrains himself. It is only toward the end of volume, when the story gets to Alexander, that it begins to resemble a history with named people and exact dates.

The relative dryness of the prose is compensated for not just by the marvelous illustrations but also by an array of fascinating tidbits. These include such nuggets as the apparent independent development of silk by the Indus Valley civilization, so that the presence of silk cannot be taken, as it once was, as an indication of contact with China; the similarities between the Rig Veda of the Hindus and the Avesta of the Zoroastrians, both of which “present a rural world of primarily stockbreeders and secondarily farmers, not an urban world” and the discoveries that bear out many passages in Herodotus.

While the book’s photographs are astounding, it could have benefited from some additional diagrams to illustrate the technical archaeological points, several of more salient of which overlap those in The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Herders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony; readers interested in this subject—and who needs the fantasy worlds of Tolkein when one has the real thing?—would do well to read both books.

The Age of the Steppe Warriors is a beautiful, evocative and thought-provoking book. The other volumes have much to live up to.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.