“The History of Central Asia (vol 4): The Age of Decline and Revival” by Christoph Baumer

The fortress at Ghazna, Afghanistan, James Atkinson 1842 The fortress at Ghazna, Afghanistan, James Atkinson 1842

It’s pretty hard to compete with the invention of the chariot, the Silk Road, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, so Christoph Baumer’s fourth and presumably final volume in his magisterial history of Central Asia is something of a mopping up operation.

Baumer leaves no stone unturned and in the process uncovers many lesser-known stories.

Courtyard of the Kalyan Mosque, Bukhara, completed in 1514
Courtyard of the Kalyan Mosque, Bukhara, completed in 1514

The “Decline” part of the book’s title takes up at least nine-tenths of the book.

 

Beginning in the sixteenth century, [Central Asia] found itself more and more on the periphery of world political and economic events.

 

The large empires of the previous period increasingly fractured. Baumer gamely leads us, from about 1500 on, through the Uzbek Khanate (which despite everything was nevertheless responsible for much of the architecture now admired in Samarkand and Bukhara), the Khanates of Chorasmia and Moghulistan and, farther north, the remnants of the Golden Horde: the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan and Sibir; the Crimean Tatars. Mongolia also declined with the withdrawal of the late Yuan emperor back to the steppe. The last great hurrah of the steppe warrior emperors arguably took place outside the region when Babur found the going too hard in Central Asia and turned his attention to India instead.

Central Asia increasingly found itself the subject, rather than the instigator, of political and military pressure. The Portuguese sea trade out-competed the caravans, so much so that when a British agent of the Muscovy company arrived in Bukhara in the mid-16th century, he found nothing of commercial interest. Russia pressed south to the Black Sea, southeast to Afghanistan and east through Siberia, while China’s spread its control north and west. By 1800, the British, having bottled up Babur’s successors, were forcing their way into the region from India. The Dzunghars, a confederation of Oirat Mongol tribes whose 17-18th century Khanate was the last to pose any sort of a threat to China, were exterminated by Qianlong.

The 19th century saw the rise of Russia and Britain, and the decline of other other regional powers, from China in the East to Persia and the Ottoman Empire in the West, resulting in Central Asia being a region of great power contention. Baumer says that much of Russia’s interest in the region was to bait Britain, so as to keep their eyes off Russia’s main target of Constantinople, while Britain’s interest waxed and waned dependening of the perceived level of threat to India. “The region then ‘disappeared’,” writes Baumer, “behind the Iron Curtain and degenerated into a kind of ‘backyard’ of the Soviet Union.”

Volume 4 is, like its predecessors, wide-ranging and characterized by an extraordinary collection of maps and, especially, photographs.

The History of Central Asia (Volume 4): The Age of Decline and Revival, Christoph Baumer (IB Tauris, May 2018)
The History of Central Asia (Volume 4): The Age of Decline and Revival, Christoph Baumer (IB Tauris, May 2018)

Baumer nevertheless leaves no stone unturned and in the process uncovers many lesser-known stories. The machinations of Britain and Russia in Bukhara, Kashgar and Lhasa, as well as brutality of the last of Uzbek Khans, has been well-documented elsewhere, but other bits and pieces still surprise. One is the commercial and political intervention of the Kokand Khanate in Xinjiang in from the late 18th until the mid 19th century.

 

In 1785, China declared a trade boycott on Russia and closed the Kyakhta border market. Kokand, which bordered on Kashgaria, filled the void by buying and selling Chinese good to Russia.

 

Plus ça change! From the first part of the 19th century, Kokand had “access to the Indian opium marker and operated a lucrative opium trade with West China.” Kokand also mounted some not very successful military expeditions but China found military defense too costly and so in 1832, China conceded the trade taxes would be paid directly to Kokand agents in Xinjiang.

 

The khanate in Kashgaria thus received tariff autonomy and extraterritorial jurisdiction within China, which anticipated the later concessions of the colonial powers.

 

Another fascinating historical corner is that of the Kalmyks. The migration ethnically Oirat Kalmyks to the Volga in the 17th century “was the last great migration of Central Asian nomadic horsemen to the West.” But finding their way of life increasingly restricted by an expansionist Russia, in 1771 some 190,000 Kalmys decided to return! Unsuccessfully pursued by the Russians, but attacked along the way by the Kazakhs, more 85,000 perished en route back to China. The Kalmyks that remained behind now form the only Buddhist-majority polity in Europe.

 

The book concludes with a fairly rapid romp through the region as it stands since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is long and extensive enough—even mentioning how different rail gauges remain an impediment to economic integration under “One Belt, One Road”—to serve as a stand-alone primer, but here it functions more like an appendix to the four-volume compendium of past glories.

Safavid tile showing an archer, early 17th century
Safavid tile showing an archer, early 17th century

Volume 4 is, like its predecessors, wide-ranging, extending well beyond the borders of what would normally be considered “Central” Asia, or even “Asia” at all, roping in Tibet, India and Crimea. It is also, like its predecessors, characterized by an extraordinary collection of maps and, especially, photographs, from arts and architecture to geography and contemporary ethnography.

Volume 4 is best read in conjunction with at least Volume 3, but the first two volumes, The Age of the Steppe Warriors and The Age of the Silk Roads, are if anything, even better, if only because the periods they deal with are less well-documented elsewhere.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.