This is an exceptional review not necessarily about the exhibition but some of the current thinking emerging about the role of the Silk Road on Western History. I suggest reading it. Here’s the clincher:
[T]he critical intellectual shortcoming of the exhibition is that with Baghdad, the Silk Road seems to come to a prematurely celebratory end. Why, instead of dealing with the development of Arab shipping in a final gallery, didn’t the show follow a narrative, visible on one of its maps, leading past Baghdad and to the port of Venice? By extending the history another few centuries, we would have seen how the Silk Road led to a fertilization of Western thinking, not just with the discoveries of Islamic scientists but also with a variety of philosophical and religious perspectives that proved influential over the course of centuries. We know how deeply affected Marco Polo was by the Silk Road in the 13th century: he passed that enthusiasm on.
This would have helped the exhibition make a more cogent contribution to Western cultural self-understanding. It would have also helped explain why, once European shipping and exploration took off in the late Renaissance, the overland Silk Road route became more and more a commercial backwater, leading to centuries of cultural and political decline, whose effects are still being felt.
After my first trip across the Silk Road in 2003 I began to devour, wholesale, as much scholarship on it as I possibly could. And one thing that became very clear early on was that the official narrative of the Silk Road wasn’t anything close to the reality. Sadly, it has been extremely slow going. (I now have an extensive library–at least two hundred books and countless scholarly articles relating to the subject. And growing.) Most of the scholarship is either at least a century old, or in Russian, German and French–of which I only speak one. (The Russian scholarship suffers from the Marxist dialectic, as well.) And yet I found a lot of truth in the old saw, ‘read an old book and learn something new.’ Even before I read Beckwith’s book my ideas had shifted drastically towards his own. His book was a much appreciated validation of my own.
More after the jump.
However, Christopher Beckwith’s book, which I reviewed in brief a few weeks ago, goes a long way toward rectifying this. The pollination between East and West is much more tremendous than we think. The sheer amount of ideas and innovations which moved from East to West are enough to give one pause: paper, the divine right of kings from China via Persia, Islamic motifs in Western sacred architecture, religious iconography including halos, paper currency, the stirrup–this one alone had a massive impact on Europe. The list is long. But the most profound idea that emerged from the littoral states of the West’s contact with the great Asian hinterland is the millenia-old dialogue between ‘the other’ and the settled states. And then their is the troublesome problem of those pesky Indo-Europeans, who migrated from the Pontic Steppe sometime around 3,000BC and took with them a cultural complex that would literally change the world: the domestication of the horse, the wheel and the chariot. And the concomitant spread of the linguistics that forms the basis of existing languages from the Indian sub-continent, to Iran to Western Europe. And dead languages whose sounds can still be heard in the Tarim Basin.
While I don’t have much truck with ‘world systems’ theorists the sheer amount of evidence behind the idea that the West could not have arisen without pollination from the East is inescapable. But it’s a very complicated story and sadly one that doesn’t fit into a snap narrative. Too much energy is spent on Central Asian studies now that focus on only the last hundred or so years. It simply has to go much, much further back in time than that. It’s also a subject that is endless fascinating. For me, the conquest of Central Asia by the Russians is much less interesting that the role of trade between China and the Steppe Nomads hundreds of years before Christ. The Chinese, who adopted much of the cultural complex of the Indo-Europeans needed horses. What did they do? They slowly encroached on the lands of the Steppe Nomads to feed their war machine. (One Chinese emperor nearly lost everything, surrounded by a horde of horseman in the dead of a Chinese winter, as he was. By the way, our word for horde comes from a region of China called the Ordos Loop. Google it.) When the nomads fought back the decided to trade. The Chinese traded silk and the nomads horses. A revolution began. (And no, I am not oversimplifying.) The old world, although tenuously linked, was linked forever after this. Silk soon began appearing in great amounts in Western markets–and with it so much more.
The genius of Beckwith’s book isn’t the reinterpretation of Central Asian history, although it is quite an achievement. The genius is in the questions he raises. One question he brought up was this: how is it that between the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD the great states of the world at the time underwent wholesale and violent religious revolutions? What, for lack of a better turn of phrase, was in the wind? Big, and new> meta-questions such as this one pepper his book.
Regardless, if you are in New York City and have a chance to see the exhibit please do. I would love to hear more.