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 Remembrance of the Saints: The Rise and Fall of an Inner Asian Sufi Dynasty, Muḥammad Ṣadiq Kashghari, David Brophy (trans), Columbia University Press (January 2021)
In Remembrance of the Saints: The Rise and Fall of an Inner Asian Sufi Dynasty, Muḥammad Ṣadiq Kashghari, David Brophy (trans), Columbia University Press (January 2021)

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. 

The title of Roberto Carmack’s book is a bit misleading, as is the book’s cover, which shows two helmeted and uniformed soldiers in battle. The book is part of the Modern War Studies series, but its focus is on the administrative, institutional and ideological aspects of war in the Kazakh Republic of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It is more sociology than military history.