The centrality of Central Asian nomads to world history has, after decades of neglect, more recently become something of a truism. If you’re not up on your Scythians, Saka, kurgans, Xiongnu, deer stones, Pazyryks and the like, there are better places to start than Petya Andreeva’s Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea, an analysis of the (mostly) iron-age objets-d’art of the peoples of the Eurasian steppe, which is detailed, granular and assumes more than a little familiarity with the peoples and history.

Our journey toward having a true understanding of world history passes through Central Asia, the lands in-between the great civilizations of India, China and Iran. William H McNeil’s classic Rise of the West (1963) vividly illustrated the role of Central Asia as a gearbox whose spinning connected these civilizations and propelled history forward. One had to imagine these gears as some kind of Buddhist chakras. But history cannot be based only through metaphors. Someone has to do the spade work to ground the chakras in hard facts: the shards, fragments, bones and rags that archaeologists uncover.

Empires are one of the most common forms of political structure in history—yet no empire is alike. We have our “standard” view of empire: perhaps the Romans, or the China of the Qin and Han Dynasties—vast polities that cover numerous different people, knit together by strong institutions from a political center. But where do, say, the empires of the steppe, like the Xiongnu or the Mongols, fit into our understanding of empire? Or the Portuguese empire, which got its start as an array of ports and forts in South and Southeast Asia? Or the Manchus, who waltzed into a collapsing Ming China and rapidly re-established its governing structures—with themselves at the head?

As current events in Palestine, Iraq, and the Red Sea attest, the Middle East is a region with much unrest, instability and conflict. However, the region is undergoing a new era of turmoil and transition, headlined by Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf States. As a journalist and author with decades of experience in covering geopolitics around the world, Robert D Kaplan sheds some light on this transition in a sweeping and insightful overview of the Muslim world from Egypt to Iran to Central Asia, which he terms the Greater Middle East. 

Anthropologist Tom Barfield’s field work in the steppes of northern Afghanistan in the 1980s inspired a lifelong curiosity for the ancient empires that once arose in this frontier region. In an earlier work, The Perilous Frontier (Wiley Blackwell, 1992), he examined the relationship between the steppe pastoralists and sedentary states, concluding that the emergence of first the Qin and then the Han empires enabled the first great steppe empire, that of the Xiongnu. In the book under review here, Barfield explores how the Xiongnu/Han dynamic more generally explains different imperial trajectories.