Book Review: Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane

For most other Asians, Central Asia – the ‘Stans – conjure up a blurred image of steppes and deserts, harsh climates, oppressive, autocratic post-Soviet regimes, quarreling ethnic groups and Muslim fundamentalists. This imprecise region, which extends roughly from northeast Iran and the Caspian sea to the eastern border of Xinjiang, from the Hindu Kush and the valley of the Amu Darya (Oxus) river to the foothills of the Urals has scant association with progress or tourist attractions.

The region, however, saw one of the great flowerings of early civilization despite the fact that today for Indians, Chinese and Westerners alike the region is largely ignored as one which played no particular significant role in their own intellectual or artistic development. At best this was the region of the Silk Road, providing passage between east and west but contributing little.

So S. Frederick Starr, an American academic has done the region, and global knowledge, a huge service by bringing to life and to the light for a general audience the age when central Asia was the intellectual capital of the world, generating ideas which were to prove seminal for others, particularly in the west.

The region’s population may have been relatively small and scattered but ideas travelled fast along the silk and other roads which connected its centers and linked it to an Arab world stretching from Baghdad to Cordoba, now in southern Spain. For half a millennium, from around 750 to 1250, this region was a fount of scientific and cultural progress, of free thinking and ethnic tolerance whether under rule by Arab, Persian or Turk. Its greatness was undermined by Genghis Khan and obliterated by Timur (Tamerlane).

The book begins with reference to a remarkable correspondence between two individuals living respectively in today’s Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, speculating on the existence of worlds beyond our own and whether the universe was created whole or was in the process of evolution. Although the correspondents were Muslims, their thinking was at heart heretical, anticipating evolutionary geology and even Darwinian theory.

One was Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, who lived near the Aral sea and the other Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina from Bukhara. The latter, whose interests covered medicine and pharmacology as well as philosophy, went on to write the Canon of Medicine. This great work by a man known in the west as Avicenna, was translated into Latin and became the basis for the scientific study of medicine in the west and also had huge influence in India.

Starr sees this Enlightenment as stemming from the interactions which followed the overthrow in 750 of the Damascus-based Ummayad caliphate by the Abbasids, who came to power through the help of Khorasan, the state encompassing northeast Iran and northern Afghanistan. The Abbasids established their capital at Baghdad but much of the flowering of civilization under them came from a central Asia which retained much of earlier Persian culture and of Greek influence dating back to Alexander the Great’s establishment of a Greek kingdom based on Balkh in northern Afghanistan.

Buddhist, Manichean and Zoroastrian ideas were both part of older traditions, as was the Nestorian Christianity which flourished in Persia before Islam, and in Sogdiana, whose territory stretched well into what is now China, whose merchants dominated the silk route from China and whose Persian-related language was long the trade language of the region.

The writings of Aristotle were a starting point for the debates between intellectuals of who al-Biruni and ibn Sina were just two of many, most of whose writings have been lost or not been translated from old Arabic and Persian into other languages. But among those that survived was the work of mathematicians and astronomer al-Khwarazmi who gave his name to the algorithm and his method to algebra, and Farghani from the now much troubled Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan.

Farghani wrote the definitive work on the astrolabe – precursor of the sextant –and source for Geoffrey Chaucer’s English work Treatise on an Astrolabe written almost 500 years later. Farghani quite accurately calculated the circumference of the earth. This was used by Christopher Columbus when he set sail from Europe to reach China but ended up in the Americas – he used Roman miles not Arab miles in his calculations based on Farghani.

These intellectuals travelled widely as well as corresponding. But now they tend to be seen as representing Muslim Arab civilization at its peak of progress and are often assumed to have been Arabs from the Middle East or North Africa. But in reality most during the flowering f ideas under the Ummayads were originally from central Asia and wrote as much in Persian as Arabic.

Their heartland was the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Merv, with economies built both on trade and irrigated agriculture using the Amu Darya River, which rises in the Pamirs, and Syr Darya which flows from the Tien Shan Mountains on the border of China and Kyrgyzstan. Their world extended not just westwards to Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba but eastward across the mountains to Kashgar and to the Turkic lands now mostly part of China’s troubled Xinjiang region.

Starr recounts both the stupendous intellectual and artistic achievements of the peoples of the region, the sometimes turbulent political history of wise men and cultured marauders and the varying roles of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Turkic groups and Mongols. In short it is a fine book on a subject which deserves to be far better known and the peoples of Central Asia acknowledged for their contribution to human development.