Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
© 2015 S. Frederick Starr
Lost Enlightenment takes readers back to a time when Central Asia was the crossroads of the world, a hub of both commercial and activity. Here are celebrated the lives of cities which, in this time, were hosts to capitals, universities, and more. Now they are dust, at best eroded columns in a desolate landscape. In Lost Enlightenment, readers follow Starr east to Baghdad, Merv, and a few other jewels. Though he touches on the political highlights of the region between the Arab conquest and the death of Tamerlane, they are important here only as far as their role in fostering the arts and sciences. Although diminished slightly by the complete lack of maps — and in Central Asia, surrounded by the great mass of Eurasia, there are precious few borders to define the area — Lost Enlightenment is a weighty accomplishment.
Most readers have heard of the ‘silk road’, though much more than silk traveled its routes. The sheer bounty of thinkers and creators here, many of them polymaths and ‘renaissance men’ — though with no need for the renaissance bit. Starr marks the beginning of this enlightened period with the Arabic invasion, but not because the Arabs came bestowing wisdom among the poor benighted natives. The area was already culturally rich and commercially sophisticated, and its geography frustrated any attempt at sustained conquests. Thus the Islamic Arabs and Central Asians of diverse ethnicities and religions — Buddhists, Christians ,and Zoroastrians just for starters — lived with and engaged with one another, iron sharpening iron. There, philosophies and religions from across Eurasia came together, drawn to the trade cities of Central Asia like a savanna water hole. (They were, literally, water holes — most were near oases). Long used to weighing opposing ideas against one another, Central Asia even tolerated (at times) freethinkers who spoke out against virtually everyone. Here, in this intellectual marketplace of ideas, this constant mental competition, the arts and science flourished — for a time.
What caused their end? Something as complex as a society doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, and there’s no shortage of little things going wrong for the area of central Asia. The most obvious agent of downfall were the Mongols, who didn’t merely raid civilization: they often destroyed it utterly. Some regions lost an estimated 90% of their population, and those who were not murdered were driven away in fear. Genghis Khan should be condemned by all mankind if only for his destruction of Baghdad, then a shining city upon the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, but he cut a bloody path jut getting there, leaving behind him ashes and blood-soaked dust. Khan emptied Central Asia, but even before that the arteries were hardening, people receptive to arguments made by theologian-intellectuals like al-Ghazali, who rebuked philosophical materialism in his Incoherence of the Philosophers. This hardening meant that even when the leaders stumbled upon something revolutionary, like the printing press, it never flared into potency as it did in Europe.
Lost Enlightenment is a considerable survey, mostly intellectual and cultural with a pinch of politics. I certainly welcomed it, knowing virtually nothing about this area. It is astonishing to hear of places like Afghanistan being hubs of civilized thought, but such is the way of history. Civilizations rise and fall, flower and perish.
* “Central Asians” seems as clumsily artificial as “Yugoslavians” , but the author uses it in lieu of anything better. I suppose it’s easier than “Iranian-Turkic peoples”.