Eight Books To Better Understand Central Asia
A compilation of 8 books that spans genres, from history and economics to travelogues and fiction and fantasy, to better understand Central Asia
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing visit to the five ‘stans’– Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – has turned the focus of attention on Central Asia. These former Soviet republics are resource-rich as well as strategically important, hence much of the analyses have focussed on the possibility of India getting a share of the hydrocarbon wealth as well playing an enhanced role in a region overshadowed by Russian, Chinese and American power play.
Central Asia is not new to a struggle for strategic dominance. All through the nineteenth century, it served as the theatre for the Great Game, a competitive power struggle between Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain, with the latter constantly on the edge about Russia’s territorial ambitions and both countries ready to go to war, which in the end, never took place. (‘The Great Game’ was a phrase supposed to have been first used by Arthur Conolly, a British intelligence officer but it entered the popular imagination when Rudyard Kipling used it in Kim, his novel about a poor British boy who gets involved with the clandestine intelligence networks operating along British India’s frontiers)
Central Asia and ancient India shared extensive contacts – political, cultural and socioeconomic – and a reference to its people and places can be found in ancient texts like Samaveda and Atharvaveda, Brahmanas, Puranas, Ramayana and Mahabharat, among others. But for a more contemporary appreciation and introduction to the complexity of Central Asia, we have compiled this list; it’s not exhaustive but spans genres, from history and economics to travelogues and fiction and fantasy.
1) The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia by Peter Hopkirk
Peter Hopkirk’s seminal account of the rivalry between Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain for supremacy in Central Asia is detailed and thorough. Hopkirk had travelled widely across Central Asia and his book, published in 1992, narrates the experiences of young officers, both British and Russian, who were instrumental in forging alliances with local chieftains, who mapped unchartered territories and gathered intelligence, frequently meeting violent ends on forbidding mountain passes and desolate badlands. Russian academic Gregory Bondarevsky’s book, The Great Game: A Russian Perspective (2002), is a chapter by chapter review of Hopkirk’s work, providing an account of the same incidents when seen from the Russian point of view.
2) Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization by Richard Foltz
First published in 2000, Foltz’s work discusses the many religious traditions that have, over millennia, contributed to the complex mosaic that is Central Asia, and the role played by trade in facilitating these cultural exchanges. It discusses Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism and its adaptation by the Kushans and the Parthians, Nestorian Christianity and its influence on Sogdians and Turks, Manicheism that was adopted by the Uighurs and the growth and gradual spread of Islam as it replaced the earlier religious traditions.
3) The Lotus and the Wind by John Masters
Published in 1953, The Lotus and the Wind is a spy novel set against the backdrop of the Great Game, with its protagonist Lieutenant Robin Savage serving the British army during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Savage is accused of cowardice and it is while awaiting a military court of inquiry that he is recruited to the secret service and sent to Central Asia, accompanied by a Gorkha soldier, to investigate a murder and probe what the Russians might be up to.
4) Inside Central Asia: A Political and Cultural History of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Iran by Dilip Hiro
Dilip Hiro’s analysis of the politics and culture of the five Central Asian Republics (and Turkey and Iran) is mainly concerned with their post-Soviet fates, though he also gives an overview of their early history. Hiro delineates the challenges faced by the new nations, as after decades of being shaped by Communist thought and rule, they find themselves free to forge their own identity while tackling economic challenges, ethnic tensions and growing Islamist influence in the region.
5) The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
Published in 1937, this is an account of the travels undertaken by Robert Byron (20th century British writer and art historian) from 1933 onwards, through Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. His main concern is the Islamic architecture of Central Asia: the writing is witty, precise and brilliant, albeit burdened with the sort of colonial prejudice a modern reader might find disturbing. The following is his description of first encountering the steppe:
“Suddenly, as a ship leaves an estuary, we came out on to the steppe: a dazzling open sea of green. I never saw that colour before. In other greens, of emerald, jade, or malachite, the harsh deep green of the Bengal jungle, the sad cool green of Ireland, the salad green of Mediterranean vineyards, the heavy full-blown green of English summer beeches, some element of blue or yellow predominates over the others. This was the pure essence of green, insoluble, the colour of life itself.”
6) Flashman at the Charge by George Macdonald Fraser
Sir Harry Flashman is a fictional character created by Fraser, based on the character of the bully Flashman who appears in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Fraser’s Flashman is an antihero, a Victorian soldier who participates and comes out with flying colours in many illustrious British military campaigns of the 19th century, though he is nothing but a lying, lecherous scoundrel at heart and a coward to boot. In Flashman at the Charge (1973), Flashman finds himself posted in Crimea during 1854-55, overhears a Russian conspiracy to invade India to end the British Raj, and predictably, gets embroiled in the thick of the Great Game.
7) The Oil and the Glory by Steve Le Vine
Journalist Steve LeVine’s book is a dramatic account of the greed, intrigue and geo-political one-upmanship played out in resource-rich Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Politics and business jostle for control over the Caspian Sea oil reserves as fixers, wheeler-dealers and traders gather from all across the world for a share of the pie.
Aurel Stein was a Hungarian-British archaeologist, known for his expeditions to Central Asia and the manuscripts and relics he discovered there. An active participant in the Great Game and always a step ahead of his rivals when it came to discovering priceless artifacts and shipping them to Britain, Stein’s adventures form the focus of Morgan and Walters’ work, especially his discovery of the Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest surviving printed text, in a cave in Dunhuang, China.
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