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The History of Central Asia: The Age of the Silk Roads by Christoph Baumer

In the second volume of his projected four-book series on Central Asia, Christoph Baumer comes to the more familiar territory of the Silk Road. The first—The Age of the Steppe Warriorsdealt with the mysterious period of the bronze age, in which we can trace the misty beginnings of much of our own modern cultures, from the domestication of the horse to the development of chariot, but also see a great deal that is evocative and strange.

The History of Central Asia: The Age of the Silk Roads by Christoph Baumer
History of Central Asia; The Age of the Silk Roads, Christoph Baumer (I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, July 2014)

But The Age of the Silk Roads, a period Baumer gives as the millennium from Xiongnu steppe empires (from the mid-third century BC) through that of the Uyghurs (the mid-ninth century), is more familiar: there is a China recognizable as such, international trade and Buddhism. There are also written records, coins and historical figures with names. It was overall a period

 

marked by the extraordinarily dynamic and multifaceted relationships between the peoples of Central Asia and the states of sedentary cultures at the peripheries, such as those of China, north India and Iran, and the Roman and Byzantine empires.

 

 

China has begun using the Silk Road as a political metaphor and proposed a “Silk Road Economic Belt” as a paradigm to coordinate its relations with the countries to the West. The reasons why China would wish to appropriate the concept are clear, but for Baumer, the Silk Roads—he uses the plural—were very much a Central Asian phenomenon:

 

The peoples and empires of Central Asia formed the hubs of the trade networks which we call the Silk Roads, which connected the sedentary empires by land and sea... The steppe people and oasis cities of Central Asia not only lay at geographical centre of the trade routes, but they controlled the flow of trade itself...

 

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The history in The Age of the Silk Roads is too complicated to summarize. In the first chapter alone, Baumer covers the Xiongnu, Wusun, Parthians, Indo-Greeks, Indo-Saka, Indo-Parthians, Yuezhi and Kushan. This includes the political relations and competition with China, the possible existence of a detachment of Roman legionaries, the very real Hellenistic and Roman cultural and religious influences, the role of horses, silk and much more, all in 50 (admittedly large, but also illustration-filled) pages.

Baumer has filled the book with fascinating anecdotes, again too many to mention, but here’s one:

 

... in importing ‘gold-thread embroidery’ from Rome, the Chinese were unknowingly buying back the silk they had sold the Kushans! Roman customers, and Roman ladies especially, did not like the tightly woven, rather heavy silk fabrics. So, as Pliny records, the silks were unravelled ... and the threads rewoven into much lighter and almost transparent fabrics with new patterns. In the process, gold thread was also incorporated, giving the material a golden sheen.

 

The account is bookended by the Xiongnu, China’s major rival for several centuries and who may well have been the same people as those known later in the West as the Huns, and the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs, of course, are still very much extant, but those in The Age of the Silk Roads don’t sound particular recognizable. They came, as did so many peoples, out of the North and

 

instead of extorting tribute from China through raids, they turned China into their protectorate, which they skillfully exploited through trade conducted under their own terms that they forced on China...

 

They also adopted Manichaeism—a religion from the Middle East on which Baumer includes a fascinating three-page sidebar—as their state religion. And then later, they adopted Buddhism.

Between the Xiongnu and Uyghurs, Baumer has sections on the Sogdians (the Central Asian trading powerhouse, whose physical presence extended from the Chinese capital Xi’an to the Black Sea), Avars, Bulgars, various Turks, Khazars (a people who converted to Judaism), Tibetans (warlike, they were for a while a power rivalling China with an extensive empire in the region) as well as the religions (animism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity), arts and material culture of the period.

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This second volume is as magnificent—and as hefty—as the first. Both combine marvelous photography and images of artifacts and artworks from museums around the world, encyclopedic coverage, scholarly erudition and fluent, if sometimes slightly European-tinted, prose.

History, it is often said, is written by victors. And the victors have, in the past millennium, been the Chinese and the West, portrayed somewhat self-servingly as the two poles of the world civilization and development. Central Asia, as a result, has largely been relegated to a place that Marco Polo had travel through to get from the Mediterranean to China.

Baumer however makes a good case for the centrality of Central Asia in the history of this period. He admittedly also takes an expansive view of what constitutes Central Asia or at least Central Asian peoples: these extend from Manchuria to Crimea. But he makes the case that rather than the East being East and the West being West and the never the twain having had met, there was in fact a continuum between East and West and that the peoples who occupied this middle ground were among the primary movers of commercial, religious and cultural development.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.