Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present

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Princeton University Press, Mar 16, 2009 - History - 472 pages
4 Reviews

The first complete history of Central Eurasia from ancient times to the present day, Empires of the Silk Road represents a fundamental rethinking of the origins, history, and significance of this major world region. Christopher Beckwith describes the rise and fall of the great Central Eurasian empires, including those of the Scythians, Attila the Hun, the Turks and Tibetans, and Genghis Khan and the Mongols. In addition, he explains why the heartland of Central Eurasia led the world economically, scientifically, and artistically for many centuries despite invasions by Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Chinese, and others. In retelling the story of the Old World from the perspective of Central Eurasia, Beckwith provides a new understanding of the internal and external dynamics of the Central Eurasian states and shows how their people repeatedly revolutionized Eurasian civilization.

Beckwith recounts the Indo-Europeans' migration out of Central Eurasia, their mixture with local peoples, and the resulting development of the Graeco-Roman, Persian, Indian, and Chinese civilizations; he details the basis for the thriving economy of premodern Central Eurasia, the economy's disintegration following the region's partition by the Chinese and Russians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the damaging of Central Eurasian culture by Modernism; and he discusses the significance for world history of the partial reemergence of Central Eurasian nations after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Empires of the Silk Road places Central Eurasia within a world historical framework and demonstrates why the region is central to understanding the history of civilization.


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I vacillated between 4 and 5 stars. As Beckwith admits, 400 pages is completely inadequate to cover the subject; and, as others have pointed out, the coverage is uneven. But it isn't really a survey work. Think of this as an introduction to current major issues in central Asian history. From that perspective it is an outstanding book. Even the prolonged Burkean rant on modernism has its place as a serious criticism of Asian historiography.
In fact, what I liked best was that the book was not at all an attempt at an even-handed survey. Beckwith is highly opinionated, but he lets the reader know he is; and he extensively footnotes the people who disagree with him. Since he doesn't try to be even-handed, he can take the time to get excited by an idea or an insight he wants to share.
Examples: (1) Central Asians were often the traders and civilizers, while the Chinese and European "peripheral civilizations" were more likely to be xenophobic and violent. (2) There are distinctive cultural themes, technologies, and language elements common to all Central Asian cultures which spread in all directions from Central Asia. (3) The longue durée history of Central Asia reads like the sad history of the enclosure movement in England. (4) The great intellectual flowering of the Moslem Middle Ages was perhaps more Sogdian/Iranian than Arabic.
All good stuff. Not all the ideas are convincing. I thought the treatment of the "comitatus" was unconvincing and not well-reasoned. But the book is relentlessly challenging. Not exactly a light read -- the footnotes have footnotes -- but definitely worth the effort.
Toby White


The Hero and His Friends
The Chariot Warriors
Between Roman and Chinese Legions
The Age of Attila the Hun
The Silk Road Revolution and Collapse
The Vikings and Cathay
Chinggis Khan and the Mongol Conquests
Central Eurasians Ride to a European Sea
The Road Is Closed
Eurasia without a Center
The ProtoIndoEuropeans and Their Diaspora
Ancient Central Eurasian Ethnonyms

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About the author (2009)

Christopher I. Beckwith is professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University. His other books include "The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia" (Princeton).

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