The tradition of great oral epics survived on the Inner Asian steppe perhaps as long as any other place on earth. At the dawn of the 20th century scholars managed to record bards singing stories that might have been five centuries or more in the retelling, embellishment and polishing. Jangar is one such epic, belonging to the Kalmyk people, once the left wing of Genghis Khan’s armies, now a minority people in the Russian Federation. Russian-educated Kalmyks collected these tales, and their work somehow survived the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s ferocious persecution of the Kalmyks and their literature. Translated into English for the first time by Saglar Bougdaeva, non-Russian, non-Kalmyk readers can now appreciate these tales.

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.

Humanism, secularism, pluralism: these were the spirit of the age in the exchange system known as the Mongol Empire. So Roxann Prazniak finds in Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art. Prazniak’s starting place is art history, but her study of artistic exchange opens out into a wide view of the intellectual and cultural world under Mongol globalization in the 13th century.