The third volume in Christoph Baumer’s history of Central Asia is as accomplished as its predecessors The Age of the Steppe Warriors and The Age of the Silk Roads. The Age of Islam and the Mongols picks up, as they say, where we left off: it runs basically from the 8th-century Abbassids through the 15th-century’s Tamerlane.
Large parts of this later story—the Abbasid Caliphate, Islamic science, rise of the Mongols, even Tamerlane—are reasonably well-known and well-written about elsewhere. Baumer’s treatment however has two related strengths. First, he includes everything and everyone else that aren’t as well-known: the Pechenegs, Kipchaks, the Khitans, Onguts, Seljuks, the Tanguts and a myriad of others.
Second, he ties them all into a coherent narrative. Europe- or China-centric histories have tended to see these peoples as one-at-a-time, more or less barbarian nomadic invaders of stable civilized societies who had to be fought, co-opted or appeased. One after another they come from outside: Avars, Bulgars, Turks, Mongols, Magyars. But viewed from Central Asia, the intrusions are seen for what they are: ripples, to a large extent random, emanating from disturbances in the steppe and lapping on distant shores.
Islam, coming from Central Asia’s west, might be seen as aberration in the pattern, but Baumer shows that once the initial lightning Arab advance petered out on the frontiers of China—covered in the previous volume—Central Asian peoples made Islam, as they had made Buddhism before it, their own. The resulting societal cohesion let to urbanization while the expanded international contacts led to “a brilliant effervescence of science, art and architecture”. The Turkic horse warriors were soon subsumed by this Muslim-Persian culture and way of life.
The Mongols turned much of this on its head for at least a time. They “epitomised,” writes Baumer, “the absolute dominance of steppe warriors over towns, cities and states.” Settled, agrarian areas were turned back to pastureland. Yet in both Iran and China, “the Mongols contributed significantly to the development of unified nation states.”
Baumer’s treatment makes clear the complexity and fluidity of the Central Asian situation. China remains China throughout; Iran reasserts a Persian identity. But between these two, peoples and polities continually come and go, assembling and reassembling in new combinations. Europe was complex as well, but Central Asia—with the possible exception of Iran—had little that corresponded to Germany, France or England.
Baumer seems to have a soft spot for Christians, or perhaps realizes where the sympathies and interests of much of his readership probably lie. Georgia gets extensive treatment, in spite of being at the far periphery of the region. Nestorian Christian travelers to the West, such as Rabban Bar Sauma who traveled from what is now Beijing all the way to Paris, and Western travelers to Central Asia—including William of Rubruck and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine as well as course the Polo family—receive lengthy, multi-page sidebars. These, as well as the various Nestorian Christian monuments and inscriptions, are fascinating, so one can hardly dispute their inclusion, but their significance to the overall flow of history seems less clear.
Baumer, on the other hand, has little time for Tamerlane, whom he relegates to little more than an extended appendix. Unlike the Mongols, who “aimed to create an empire”, and worked on administration and economic development,
Timur remained an opportunistic warlord who pursued little more than fame and booty.
It is not to disparage Baumer’s scholarship and prose to say that this book’s strength, as was the case with the others, is in the photos. To call the volume “lavishly illustrated” is to miss the point: it is an act of curation. The illustrations are diverse, well-chosen, relevant and illuminating. From gravestones and military citadels to landscapes, churches, mosques, manuscripts and reconstructions, the illustrations and striking, beautiful and endlessly fascinating.