Writers did a lot of shouting during the establishment of the Soviet Union. The literary salons being empty, they had to harangue the people, be heard over the crowd, and, as Katerina Clark wryly points out in Eurasia Without Borders, they had to shout because their public could not always understand the language they spoke.
To appreciate Lucy Atkinson as the most intrepid of all Victorian women explorers one only has to read her discreet allusion to giving birth after 150 kms of horseback riding across a waterless steppe: “I was in expectation of a little stranger, whom I thought might arrive about the end of December or the beginning of January; expecting to return to civilisation, I had not thought of preparing anything for him, when, lo and behold, on the 4th November, at twenty minutes past four pm, he made his appearance.” No one ever maintained a stiffer upper lip.
The story of Alexander the Great has inspired conquerors and would-be conquerors throughout history. Alexander’s sweep through the Middle East and Central Asia left behind evidence of his mark on history—namely, in the several cities that he founded, and that sprung up to govern the kingdoms he left behind.
When we think about modern trade, we tend to think about the sea: port cities and large ships carrying goods back and forth. It’s a story that tends to put Europe at the center, as the pinnacle of shipping and maritime technology. Jagjeet Lally’s India and the Silk Roads: The History of a Trading World corrects this narrative.
Most of our understanding of the Mongol Empire begins and ends with Chinggis Khan and his sweep across Asia. His name is now included among conquerors whose efforts burn bright and burn out quick: Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and so on.
In the 11th-century Persian classic Book of Alexander, the great world conqueror goes to the farthest reaches of the world, only to have a wiseman show him what he was looking for, in a mirror—self-awareness. But as Edmund Richardson shows here in his powerful retelling of the life of Charles Masson, we do not live only to know ourselves. We are social animals and we care very much what others think about us. Alexander’s quest led, if not to gnostic knowledge, then to undying fame. Masson’s quest for Alexander’s lost city in the Hindu Kush ended in poverty and obscurity. What did Masson lack that other great explorers and archaeologists had?
The cover of Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present, with its photo of the massive walls of the Ark Fortress in Bukhara, is something of a bait and switch. The book flies through that period implied by picture: the “imperial conquests” of the subtitle are not those of Genghis Khan or Timur, but rather the later ones by China and Russia: conquests of Central Asia, not by.