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Book Review


Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009 (2011). Pp. vii + 472. $16.95 (paper).


     Although Empires of the Silk Road has all of the appearance of a survey text it is much more. Empires is a big book in every sense of the word. It is big in size (over 400 pages), big in coverage (all of Eurasia from the beginning of the Indo-European Diaspora to the end of the twentieth century), big in concept, big in scholarship (the text has a preface, introduction, prologue, twelve chapters, epilogue, two appendices, endnotes, bibliography, index and maps), and big in ideas. In fact it is so big that I only recommend it for upper level college courses, graduate students, and teachers and scholars, but highly recommend it I do.

     Empires is one of several recently published books on the subject of the Silk Road that indicate a resurgence of interest in this important topic.1 My field is religion—more specifically Christianity and Judaism. I am quite interested in the spread of early religions and the exchange of philosophical and theological ideas. Therefore I am drawn to the study of the Silk Road. I was first introduced to the subject through my reading of the late Jerry H. Bentley's important study Old World Encounters.2 Bentley's insightful presentation of the spread of universal-salvific religions through three patterns of what he refers to as "social conversions" along the Silk Road opened my eyes to this significant element of cross-cultural exchange and the importance of the Silk Road itself.

     Beckwith's book is chronological and follows the rise and fall of various empires of Eurasia beginning in Chapter One with "The Indo-European Diaspora" and concluding with the rebirth of Central Eurasia at the end of the twentieth century with the return to world power of Russia, India, China, and the European Union. There are a total of twelve chapters.

     As noted Chapter One explores the spread of the Indo-European peoples and the development by them of what Beckwith names the Central Eurasian Culture Complex. These chariot warriors assimilated by marrying into the existing cultures. Chapter Two provides insight into the Scythians as both warriors and the developers of a trade system that linked much of the known world—from Greece to the East by way of the Silk Road. This period—fifth and forth centuries BCE—was also a time of great intellectual and theological development. In fact this era is often referred to as the Axial Age, a phrase coined by Karl Jaspers. Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and the writers of the Upanishads were developing similar ideas about humankind in diverse regions at this time.

     Chapter Three provides a comparison of the Roman and Chinese empires that were physically linked by the Silk Road if not culturally. Both groups approached Central Eurasia in the same way by employing a policy of "divide, invade, and destroy" (92). The policy while extremely successful in the beginning for both empires proved to be short-lived. Their harsh policies led to incessant war and decreased trade. War and violence are the topic of Chapter Four—"The Age of Attila the Hun." This chapter follows the breakup of the Chinese and Roman Empires and the resulting incursion of Central Asian peoples into the lands in the South and the East they formerly ruled. The rise of the Turk Empire in the mid-sixth century is the subject of Chapter Five. The Turk conquest of the Eastern Steppe connected the peripheral civilizations of Eurasia and led to a period of prosperity along the Silk Road.

     The eighth century proved to be a bad time for empires in Central Asia. Beckwith evinces that within little more than a decade every society of note underwent violent upheaval. These changes had positive results at least for the Arab Empire centered in Baghdad. With the relocation of the capital many Central Asian peoples joined the move south and became part of a "brilliant fusion of intellectual-scientific culture . . ." (141).

     Chapters Seven and Eight highlight the contributions of two so-called barbarian groups—Vikings and Mongols. With the decline of the early medieval period many new smaller societies developed. For example the Viking Rus dominated the Western Steppe which became an agrarian-urban society. Beckwith also notes that this was a period in which religion became pervasive in dominating high culture. It is important to point out that it is during the ninth century that the rising Islamic world comes "under attack by the fundamentalists, who rejected philosophy in favor of mysticism and succeeded in replacing reason with doctrine across the Islamic world" (164). The implications for this change in Islam are evident today. Among many the major contribution of the Mongols was the unification of much of Eurasia into one commercial zone. However, Pax Mongolica was short-lived.

     By the mid-fifteenth century many large Central Eurasian empires were forming: Ottoman Turks, Mughals, and the Portuguese among others. Chapter Nine explores the division of the pre-modern world into "continental" empires—ones of Central Eurasian origin and "coastal" European empires that resulted from knowledge of sea and ocean trade routes. Beckwith emphasizes the importance of the division. "The European discovery and conquest of the open-sea routes to the Orient and the Americas began Western European political, military, and cultural domination of the world" (205). Understandably we move from this to Chapter Ten which is a eulogy of sorts for the Silk Road. Beckwith reports that by the nineteenth century, Russia in the West and China in the East had conquered most of what remained of Central Asia, while the British controlled India. The coastal regions, controlled by Western Europeans, drew people and their ideas away from the central regions of Eurasia. The results of this shift for the Silk Road and Central Eurasia were devastating. Beckwith claims Central Eurasia disappeared as "it became culturally isolated and ceased to keep up with the technological and other changes that were affecting the rest of the world . . ." (262).

     For Beckwith Modernism and the Cold War destroyed Central Eurasia. Chapter Eleven is a discussion of the impact of what Beckwith describes as the world-view of political radical Modernism that came to dominate Central Asia in the form of communism. This totalitarian system and the struggle between it and Western capitalism brought on the Cold War that ended in poverty and isolation for Central Eurasia. Chapter Twelve brings us full circle as Beckwith demonstrates how "Central Eurasia (is) Reborn". This chapter is of course less history and more current events. As we know the fall of communism in the Soviet Union ultimately gave independence to many Central Asian nations. Capitalism has begun to alter the economies and societies of China and India if not their politics. Yet with these changes the influence and domination of foreign powers and fundamental religions have held much of Central Asia in the grip of poverty and disorganization. Most of all Beckwith is seemingly haunted by the power of the Modernist Movement to destroy the culture and art of Central Asia. For as he states, "Central Eurasians . . . are our ancestors. Central Asia is our homeland, the place where our civilization started" (319).

     Empires' twelve chapters are book-ended with a prologue and an epilogue—two of the most interesting sections of the text. The prologue—"The Hero and His Friends"—is a fascinating exploration of the myth of the Hero as found in Central Eurasian societies. As Beckwith notes, this myth detailed the establishment of various Central Eurasian groups. Moreover, the Central Eurasian Culture Complex, as he refers to it, was the "sociopolitical-religious ideal of the heroic lord and his comitatus, a war band of his friends sworn to defend him to the death (12).

     In his epilogue, entitled "The Barbarians," Beckwith dismisses many of the myths surrounding the peoples of Central Eurasia who have been historically incorrectly labeled 'Barbarians'. Beckwith argues convincingly that although Attila the Hun and other so called barbarians were violent in war they also introduced inventions and innovations. Most of these innovations were centered on the horse, which they grew up around. The horse was not only useful in war but also proved quite important in the pastoral-nomadic culture of the steppes.

     Beckwith's study of the Silk Road region contains new interpretations as well as confirmations of old debated issues of the land and the peoples. The Silk Road and the many empires that surrounded it are placed within a world context. The text is multi-layered like any good historical work. There are linguistic, political, cultural, geographic, thematic, ethnic, and economic layers to name but a few. Beckwith is able to manipulate the multiple stratums into a dynamic story of war and struggle between competing empires from earliest recorded times into our own century.

Terry D. Goddard is professor of History at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. He teaches World History, US History, and World Cultures (Religion as Culture).



1 See Valerie Hansen, The Silk Road: A New History, Oxford University Press, NY, 2012; Xinru Liu, The Silk Road in World History, University of Oxford Press, 2010; Susan Whitfield, Life along the Silk Road, University of California Press, Berkley, 2001; Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road, HarperCollins, NY, 2007.

2 Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times, Oxford University Press, NY, 1993.



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