There is an aphorism, reported to have been spoken by minister Yelu Chucai to Ogodei Khan, Chinggis Khan’s first successor: “You can conquer an empire on horseback, but you cannot govern it on horseback.” Writers on the Mongols are fond of this line, usually inserted when Mongols begin to set up administrations in the settled lands they have acquired control over. The line’s wisdom is rarely questioned: historians, after all, tend to be sedentary themselves, and invested in a written culture that presumes paperwork must be the basis of office. It is accepted as a truism that steppe nomads had to get down off their horses in order to learn from settled states how to run an empire.
The gold of the Scythians exploded into the world of museum goers when Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum sent these treasures touring to London and New York in 1975. An equally noteworthy exhibition, Masters of the Steppe, took place in 2017 at the British Museum. This copiously-illustrated volume enables readers to revisit that exhibition, and to ponder essays produced by 30 scholars from 12 countries. These essays appear, confusingly, in alphabetical order by author. It is best to start by reading the magistral concluding essay, and then return to the essays in the order they are discussed in the conclusion.
Among the most colorful and characteristic participants in the caravan trade between India and Central Asia were the Afghan horse dealers, pictured here in the Fraser Album at the V&A. They brought horses from Bukhara across the Hindu Kush to livestock fairs in the Punjab. Their caravans carried Indian cloths for the return trip. Jagjeet Lally’s India and the Silk Roads describes the sophistication and persistence of this trade, which has frequently been underestimated by both historians of India and of the early modern commerce.
Biographies have much to offer as a way into the past. Lives are messy, and avoid neat conclusions about history—frustrating things, they refuse to fit a preconception. Human lives have a complexity that can keep history-writing honest. To navigate subjectivities keeps us alive to the truth that the work of history, too, is subjective.
In the first half of the 18th century, rival dynasties of Naqshbandi Sufi shaykhs vied for influence in the Tarim Basin, part of present-day Xinjiang. In the 1750s, the collapse of the Junghar Mongol state gave one branch of this family an opportunity to assert their independence in the oasis cities of Kashgar and Yarkand. Others sided with the armies of the Qing dynasty, which were massing on the frontiers to invade. The ensuing conflict saw the region incorporated into the expanding Qing imperium.
Throughout history, expansionist powers have attempted to integrate newly conquered territories through the imposition of their own language, laws, and moral codes. These “civilizing missions” have been a defining feature of most imperial projects, whether motivated by religious fervor, to facilitate trade or simply an honest belief in the cultural superiority of one’s own culture.
“How did Ibn Battuta support himself on his travels?”, asked a student once. It’s hard to imagine a world where erudition and charm enable a man to travel the world as the honored guests of kings and scholars as well as humble folk, but that is how things worked in those days. It also helped to be able to sleep as soundly in silk sheets as on a crofter’s mat. A world like that, a man like that, does not belong to a remote past, but it may belong to a past that is fading fast. Tales from the Life is an outpouring of praise and sadness on the occasion of the death earlier this year of Bruce Wannell, the last great English traveler in the Orient.