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.
The World of the Ancient Silk Road describes what once represented the epicenter of civilization, before being swallowed up and forgotten, like the Library of Dunhuang, by invading sands. In the last thirty years or so, researchers have increasingly brought this world back to light. The operative word in the title is “world”, for it is really on an expansive scale that editor Liu Xinru has structured this volume. 32 different academic papers cover topics as varied as the merchandise of an ancient caravan. Fittingly, many of these papers use the dispersed manuscripts of Dunhuang as their sources.
Many of us have likely seen photos of the Aral Sea, and the rusted Soviet-era ships, sitting in the desert with no water in sight. The Aral Sea is now just 10% of its former volume, shrinking down from what was once the fourth-largest body of inland water in the world, after what writer Jeff Fernside calls “one of the worst human-caused environmental catastrophes”.
Christopher Beckwith likes to shake up the staid world of archeologists, philologists and historians with big claims. In his Empires of the Silk Road, he argued the debt of world civilization to unfamiliar peoples from inner Asia, changing a Euro-centric or Sino-Centric approach to history into steppe-centricity. The Scythian Empire takes this one step forward by attributing many of the contributions from the steppe to a single people, the Scythians. In Beckwith’s telling, the Wusun, the Xiongnu, the Yuezhi, the Tokharians and the Soghdians are all Scythians, as are the Medes.
The world would likely be a better place if there were more people like Jeff Fearnside in it. Ships in the Desert is a collection of essays based on and informed by four years that Fearnside spent in, mostly Kazakhstan early in the century, first as a teacher for the Peace Corps and later managing a fellowship programme. He comes across as concerned, thoughtful and, above all, tolerant.
Ships in the Desert is a collection of linked essays that seamlessly incorporates elements of memoir, travel writing, and literary journalism in a series of vivid vignettes that are both intimate and wide-ranging.
The Silk Road has long caught the imagination of travelers and has hence been the subject of interest by many writers, the majority of whom at least in English have hailed from the West. Iftikhar Malik, a professor of modern history at Bath Spa University, in his 2020 book, The Silk Road and Beyond, offers a personal perspective on contemporary travels as a Muslim scholar to Central Asia and beyond. Malik draws on four decades of travel and writes from the lived experiences of a curious academic.