Book Review

A History of Inner Asia

Svat Soucek
Cambridge University Press, 2000 (369 pages)


Central Asia has a fascinating history that is little understood by most Americans. Although it is now a backwater, in the past it dominated the critical Silk Road trade routes between Europe and China. The invasions by the Muslims, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane had a profound influence on the Ottoman Empire and India. The fact that the history of Central Asia is dominated by Genghis Khan explains the natural division into pre- and post-Genghis Khan periods.

A History of Inner Asia describes the empires of the Kök Turks, Qocho Uighurs, Samanids, Qarakhanids, Seljukids, Mongols, Chaghatayids, Timur, and Shaybanids, as well as the early history of Russia during its expansion into the Crimean and across Siberia (similar to the American expansion across North America), the Golden Horde, and Sinkiang (Chinese Turkestan or Xinjiang). The modern post-Soviet histories of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan as well as Xinjiang and Mongolia are also briefly described.

The book also provides a good understanding of the geography of the region. It has an appendix of the rulers of each dynasty, and one of country data. It would benefit from a glossary and more maps.

However, the author's writing style is somewhat disorganized, particularly in the first few chapters. The excessively convoluted sentences in this book are not warranted by any complexity of the subject matter; rather, they reflect an unwillingness of the author to make the effort of deciding what really happened, in what sequence, why it was important, and to state it clearly. Here is a typical sentence:

Sharik gained to his side even some segments of the Arab establishment in Bukhara and Khwarazm, as well as the urban population of Bukhara, whereas the local nobility, led by the Bukhar Khudat Qutayba (this Sogdian nobleman was no relation to Qutayba ibn Muslim but a son of the aforementioned Bukhar Khudat Tughshada; the latter, a convert to Islam, named his son Qutayba in honor of the Arab commander), stayed on the side of the new masters.
The disorganized exposition is also reflected in the chaotic sequence in which chronologically related events are presented. For example, the chapter of the latter Mongols after their conversion to Buddhism first describes the extermination of the Oirats in Jungaria by the Chinese generals Panti and Chao-Hui, which led to the annexation of Xinjiang in 1758. Then, according to the book, Kashgar declared independence in 1753. The Kazakh leader Baatur then defeated the khan Ishim in 1653. Finally in 1616, the Torghut under Khu-Urluq abandoned Jungaria and migrated further west. Either the author's index cards got mixed up, or some rather serious temporal anomalies were occurring in the region.

Another problem is that the book is full of euphemisms, such as various ethnic groups "moving" or "expanding" into the territory occupied by another. This phraseology makes it sound as if they piled into the backs of Toyota pickup trucks and drove across the steppe; whereas in reality, they probably hacked their way across the region with machetes and walked across the dismembered body parts of the original inhabitants of the region. There is little mention of death, plagues, starvation, or suffering of any kind.

These euphemistic expressions, designed to protect the fragile ears of historians from the unpleasant reality of the butchery and murderous nature of their beloved subjects, hint at more of an unwillingness to probe too deeply than any underlying intellectual dishonesty. Still, the book is generally well written, and is full of information that fills an important gap in our understanding of an often-ignored place.

November 11, 2001 Back