The venerable Charles Allen left perhaps his most contentious subject for his last (and posthumously-published) book. The Aryans: The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth is a wide-ranging discourse on history, science, archaeology, linguistics, the history of all four, interleaved with commentary on some two centuries of highly-objectionable politics and political discourse: he opens with a chapter titled: “The Rise and Fall of Superman: Aryanism and the Swastika”.
The history of the Kushan Empire long remained shrouded in mystery. In the 19th century, Orientalist scholars in Calcutta deciphered the ancient Brahmi and Kharosthi scripts and used numismatic evidence to shed a first ray of light on the dynastic succession of the Kushans. Previously obscure and semi-legendary figures such as Vima Kadphises, Kanishka and Huvishka entered the annals of world history as rulers of an empire that stretched, in the first centuries CE, from Central Asia deep into the Indian subcontinent.
In the late 19th century, a group of Mennonites leave Russia for what is now Uzbekistan. Driven out by Russian demands that the pacifist group make themselves available for conscription, and pushed forward by prophecies of the imminent return of Christ, over a hundred families travel in a grueling journey, eventually building a settlement and church that locals still remember fondly today.
Many of us—who maybe aren’t historians—have an image of the Silk Road: merchants who carried silk from China to as far as ancient Rome, in one of the first global trading networks. Historians have since challenged the idea that there really was such an organized network, instead seeing it as a 19th-century metaphor that obscures as much as it explains.
At this point it is almost a truism that travel memoirs are more about the author’s internal journey than the physical one. “It is the journey, not the destination,” we are frequently told. Never was this point more clearly made than in The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar. Billed somewhat humbly as merely a “Silk Road memoir”, the author provides a personal account of her trip following the passage of a group of Mennonites who relocated from Czarist Russia to Central Asia in the late 19th century.
It’s perhaps best to start by noting that the title of Xin Wen’s new study, The King’s Road: Diplomacy and the Remaking of the Silk Road, is considerably more expansive than the book itself, which restricts itself to the late first millennium (ca 850-1000 CE) and is centered on Dunhuang; Khotan is as far as west as it goes. The book’s tight focus is however fortuitous, for it allows Xin Wen to go into illuminating—and very readable—detail.
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.